Philosophy Was Once Alive

Pranay Sanklecha at Aeon: ‘Why did you decide to study philosophy?’ asked the Harvard professor, sitting in the park in his cream linen suit.

‘Because I want to find out how to live,’ I said. ‘I want to find out what matters and I want to live my life accordingly.’

He smiled affectionately, leaning forward in his deck chair.

‘If you want to find meaning, Pranay, don’t study philosophy. Go fish, become a carpenter, do anything. But don’t expect to find it by studying philosophy.’

If by ‘philosophy’ we refer to the played-out game of academic analytic philosophy, he was right. But if by philosophy we refer to the mysterious human activity of searching for truth, to processes of thought and perception, to communal seeking, to genuine dialogue and true encounter, to the moment when our minds open and something true rushes in – if we refer to any of these things, then the professor from Harvard was about as wrong as one could be.

A few years later, I finished my doctorate at the University of Graz in Austria and embarked on life as a post-doc. Someone in that position usually has to churn out paper after paper on arcane aspects of philosophy for journals that no one reads. She has to attend conferences on subtle disputes, esoteric matters, where even the people attending look bored. She has to waste the best years of her life involving herself in intricate disputes that make no difference to her or anyone else’s life.

I had to do some of these things myself, but less than average, because I had lucked into a tenure-track position at Graz. Relative to the usual post-doc, I was free. And, as with so many kinds of freedom, to have it was also to be confronted by a question: how should I use it?

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