What is the Point of Being an Average Philosopher?

Many of us hold up influential people as exemplars of human excellence. We look to the scientist, the doctor, the activist, and think to ourselves, “Now that person is doing something with her life!” Such acknowledgments of greatness are almost immediately followed by the depressing thought of the mediocrity of our own lives, which raises the question about the value of being average.

I just finished reading A Mathematician’s Apology, a book written by G. H. Hardy about the intrinsic worth of what he calls pure mathematics. In essence, he thinks pure mathematics is valuable because it is a kind of knowledge, and because it can be beautiful. More importantly, he draws on the value of knowledge to defend the value of his life. Hardy (1967) says,

The case for my life, then, or for that of any one else who has been a mathematician in the same sense which I have been one, is this: that I have added something to knowledge, and helped others to add more; and that these somethings have a value which differs in degree only, and not in kind, from that of the creations of the great mathematicians, or of any of the other artists, great or small, who have left some kind of memorial behind them. (p. 151) 

This sounds like a good answer to me, given that he was an excellent mathematician. But what does this mean for a person who is only average at what he does? What does this say about the value of my life as a philosopher? Though I have published and probably will publish again, I question how much this contribution is worth. How valuable is it to write a paper that only five people will read? In contrast to Hardy, I will not be known after I die. I will not leave behind a legacy.

Exploring the pointlessness of our lives is an emotionally difficult endeavor, because it reminds us not only of our mortality but also of our limited capacities. The fact is that not everyone can be excellent at what they do, no matter how hard they try. I am an average philosopher not because I do not desire to be great, but because I am simply not smart enough. This is unfortunate, but true, and I have accepted it for a long time.

Luckily, there is another aspect of a being professional philosopher where I can make a larger difference, and that is teaching. Even according to conservative estimates, I will teach around 5,500 students in my lifetime. To be clear, I do not claim that I will change the lives of every student under my instruction, but I hope to have some positive effect on at least 1/3 of them.

If I were to make a case for my life, then, it would be that I will help thousands of students throughout my career think in a more rigorous and intellectually-honest way, about fundamental questions of moral and political significance.

References

Hardy, G. H. (1967). A Mathematician’s Apology. London: Cambridge University Press.

My 31st Birthday

I think the most important thing that has happened in the past year has been my change of attitude toward publishing. Before turning 30, I saw it both as a test of my abilities and as an end in itself. Two factors are responsible for changing my attitude. The first was getting a couple of revise and resubmits—once that happened, I was convinced I had the ability to publish. And the second was the deeper acceptance that no one is going to read what I write. Accordingly, I now treat publishing only as a means to succeed professionally.

With that in mind, I should mention that I was recently notified that one of my papers was accepted for publication. More importantly, perhaps, is that though I’m happy about it, I’m not ecstatic. I take this as evidence of my attitude truly changing.

Another event that is worth mentioning is that I spent 10 days over the summer in Mexico with my family. We rented a house in Sayulita, which is a small village about 45 minutes away from Puerto Vallarta. Overall, the trip was just okay. I didn’t like the humidity and the mosquitoes, but I did like spending time with my family.

What this trip taught me is that I tend to complain too much any time I’m slightly uncomfortable. It’s to the point where I get annoyed at myself. I’ve also noticed that I complain even more when I spend time with my parents, and I think it’s because they do things differently than I do in such a way that inconveniences me. For example, my mom always brings a lot of stuff when she travels, which means that I always have to help her. When we went to Mexico, she brought an entire suitcase of food. And I knew before we left for the trip that I had to carry it.

My sister Angeline is really good at pointing out when I complain too much. She immediately attributes it to the fact that I was spoiled as a child. And I think she’s right. I never had to endure any hardships. I never had to help around the house, for example, because my grandma and my great grandma did everything.

Speaking of my grandma, the two-year anniversary of her death is coming up. I honestly still can’t believe she’s gone. It’s crazy to think that when she died, she took a generation with her. I grew up in a house with a family of 4 generations. My great grandma was born in 1905 and died in 2006. So 10 years ago my family was reduced to 3 generations, and 2 years ago it was reduced to 2. When Angeline had Bodhi, my family was once again 3 generations.

Thinking about my grandma makes me think about death and how I don’t want to die. I can’t articulate it well, but the idea of nothingness just scares me. I tell my religious friends that I wish God exists, because then there would be an afterlife. But I just don’t think the arguments for God’s existence are good enough. I know that some atheists aren’t bothered by death because they think it’ll be exactly how it was before they were born, but that thought doesn’t comfort me. I think I don’t want to die because I want to continue experiencing the goods things in life. I want to be able to laugh, hang out with my friends, eat a good meal, be in love, and, of course, do philosophy. And thinking about death in terms of pre-birth still means that I won’t experience those good things.