Jonathan Iwry | What is the human condition?

It doesn't take an academic to find a response to philosophical questions

T o the linguistics graduate student I met at Tap House several weeks ago:

I couldn’t help but bristle at how disappointed you were with my answer - with my one-minute summary of what I find most fascinating about the human condition. Sorry to disappoint you. It was an “uncreative” answer to an uncreative question, even “for a philosophy major.” The human condition is a topic both incredibly broad and incredibly simple.

If you’ve travelled - if you’ve lived an interesting and well-informed life - you don’t need to go to school to understand the human condition. The things that fascinate me about the human condition, its most essential aspects, are so obvious and universal that you don’t need a class to discover them; you observe them just by living and seeing how others live. Those aren’t the kinds of things you learn in school. Good professors might come along who inspire you as people (as has definitely been the case for me), but the institution on its own usually has little to do with it. In fact, because of the myopic emphasis on specialization in academia, those kinds of interests are things I’ve discovered specifically outside of school.

That’s an entirely different question, however, from what I think the solutions are. Now those I learned in school. Not by absorption of facts or rote memorization, but by being privileged to have spent countless hours practicing clear and directed thought under experienced mentors. Thanks to a liberal arts education, I have been able to draw from psychology, biology, history, philosophy, sociology, anthropology and literature to begin a comprehensive and ever-changing set of views on where we stand. Philosophy has given me a format for making sense of all that data and assembling it into structures and attitudes toward the world that are meaningful (and, hopefully, useful).

I believe firmly in education - or, rather, in intellectual self-improvement. It doesn’t need to be learned in school, though that definitely helps. Being in an academic setting has taught me plenty, but most of all, it’s taught me to treat my own mind as an instrument to be handled with deliberateness and precision. That’s not to say that I always succeed.

From how it sounds, my goals and studies differ significantly from yours. That’s not to say that mine are superior or yours inferior - only that it might be difficult for you or your classmates to judge objectively, by your own standards, the “usefulness” or “creativity” of my intellectual attitudes toward the world when the natures of our inquiries differ so thoroughly.

It doesn’t take an academic to have views on the human condition, and academics often spend (or, perhaps, waste) much of their time focusing on intellectual hobbies and puzzles that the general will considers irrelevant. At best, academics apply the things they study back to society - even then, I suspect it rarely took their time in the ivory tower to figure out what “fascinates” them about the human condition. Chances are it’s pretty straightforward stuff.

If the human condition is really as universal as you assume it to be - given how readily you expected a cogent answer from someone with a completely different background - then the answer to what is most “objectively” interesting probably won’t come from either of our particular fields. Something like the nature of communication, perhaps, or the tragedy of how easily clear thought gets lost in translation. That could possibly make for a good answer.

But, with all due respect, what were you expecting? “The pursuit of truth”? “The way we beat on, boats against the current, borne ceaselessly into the past”? I’m no Diogenes or Fitzgerald. I doubt you would have answered by talking about morphemes, and the relationship between epiphenomenalism and reductive physicalism wouldn’t qualify on my part, either.

You seemed surprised that my answer was uncreative. It wasn’t my job to impress you - when talking about something as dense and far-reaching as the human condition, it’s one’s job not to be creative, but to be honest.

Perhaps you misconceive what philosophy majors do, which is entirely understandable. People seem to think we spend our days dressed in togas, pondering the meaning of life. They don’t really know what we study, and they expect us to have answers that are as wishy-washy as the questions they formulate for us. I don’t study philosophy to ponder the meaning of life (though I do that plenty on my own time). I do it to sharpen my analytical skills.

Incidentally, I would like to think that my two majors and general Penn education have given me a few poignant insights into the meaning of life. And they have led me to conclude that questions like yours are often less fruitful than their askers believe them to be.

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