There is much more to philosophy than the image of an old, bearded man pondering about life. Lienkie, a UCT Philosophy student sheds led on how this field of study can can change your entire way of seeing the world – and importantly, how it makes you ask questions.
I used to be that kid in school. The one that annoyed both the teachers and other learners with my insistent and persistent questions about just almost everything. The kid that always wanted to know why.
One clear memory of this was when I was in first grade. Out of the blue, one of my teachers told me to close my legs when playing and sitting because everyone could see my panties. I replied,
“Well, why must I wear a dress? Why do the boys get to wear pants and sit with open legs?”
Of course, I didn’t get the answer I wanted, and it turns out that during the entire course of my school career, I hardly ever would.
But I never stopped asking questions.
Torn Between Possibilities
I matriculated at the all girls Eunice High School in the Free State. I was very happy to leave school, because I didn’t have a good time putting up with mediocre teenage politics. My high school subjects were
- English (HL)
- Afrikaans (FAL)
- Life Sciences
The diversity of my subject choices might reflect a problem that still haunts me today: my keen interest in a broad range of topics. From the age of 9 I’ve consistently devoured a book on a weekly basis. I especially enjoyed (and still do) reading Science Fiction and plays (later, I would realise this was my informal introduction to philosophy).
From Theatre & Performance to a General BA
In 2011 I got accepted into UCT’s Theatre and Performance programme (T&P). Although I was excited and thought that I knew myself and what I wanted, I was 18 and terribly ignorant and uninformed I was naïve because I hadn’t heard about many of the career options out there.
Apart from the adjustment of living on my own (in a new city), I also faced a lot of challenges with my degree. I was disappointed that I couldn’t take subjects like Philosophy and Linguistics along with my T&P degree, and soon I felt frustrated at the lack of intellectual stimulation. At the time, I didn’t realise it’s possible to both enjoy practical and creative work alongside more intellectual pursuits.
After a lot of thought, I ended up changing my degree after the first semester, and continued studying towards a General BA. My courses were
This was the first ‘choice for change’ that has, without fail, led to an unexpected life filled with adventures. For example, since changing my degree, I’ve been to China twice (once performing Chinese Opera at the most prestigious theatre school in China).
Philosophy – A Space for Questions
When I stepped into the first year Philosophy course at UCT, I only had a vague idea of what Philosophy actually was. I knew it dealt with ‘important questions,’ and this brought on a rush of excitement. I thought,
“Maybe this means I will get some answers?”
It turns out that Philosophy is not so much a subject that one studies. Rather, it’s an activity, or a way of thinking about certain questions.
What is Philosophy for?
The type of Philosophy taught at UCT is called Analytic Philosophy, and one of its important features is that it uses logical argument. Analytic Philosophy also shares a few features with Mathematics. Both, for instance, use a type of argument or ‘proof” that doesn’t rely on evidence from the outside world. So, Philosophy differs importantly from Science and the Social Sciences, in that the sciences have a specific method of finding out things, and they have to look at how the world works directly.
Here are a few examples of philosophical questions:
- How do we determine whether an artwork is good or beautiful?
- What does it mean to say, “That person is evil?”
- Do numbers exist (in the same way that, say, thoughts or apples exist)?
- What do words like ‘identity,’ ‘race,’ and ‘gender’ really mean?
Why Would You Want to Study Philosophy?
A good question indeed.
Well, firstly, one of the cool and important things we study in Philosophy is the meaning of our existence. In other words, why is it worth living at all? Or, is it worth living at all? These questions are definitely not easy to answer, and they relate to many other, sometimes just as difficult questions.
Personally, the most important reason for doing Philosophy is that it’s one of the most intense and effective ways of questioning my own assumptions and judgments. If you never question your own assumptions, it’s like walking through a colourful and loud life without sight and hearing.
Let’s consider an assumption that many people have: ‘humans are divided into different races.’ Did you know that this is not a straight-forward fact?
One of the most well-known philosophers, Sokrates, famousy claimed,
“An unexamined life is not worth living.”
That is, if you never question important things in your life, your life loses a lot of value.
Another thing that makes studying Philosophy worthwhile is that it teaches you how to think. Philosophy is hard; it’s like playing chess against yourself. For every brilliant move you make, you have to come up with an even better move to beat the previous one. In this sense, Philosophy teaches you just how limited and unspecial you are. This was and still is one of the hardest lessons for me.
Currently, I am completing an Honours degree in Philosophy at UCT. I would definitely recommend taking at least one or two courses in Philosophy, as this will not only enhance the quality of the questions you ask in your every day life, but it’ll also enhance the quality of your studies in other fields. But, and this is the BIG BUT, I would be careful to recommend taking Philosophy as your major, or pursuing it further than undergraduate level. This is because doing Philosophy full-time is neither a lucrative, nor a secure career option.
Before going to university I was hopeful that the brilliant people who hang out there would have the answers. It turns out that they don’t, and I believe that despite a life-time of thinking and struggling, neither will I.
Does this mean that that I should give up, and stop asking questions? Of course not. Living would be so much poorer for not asking and trying to answer. Also, it would be far too boring.
It’s good to know you have limits, because this means that pushing them and even shifting them is within your grasp.
I have other abilities that I believe are complimented by and enhanced by my philosophical studies. Most importantly, I don’t want to be doing the same thing for an extended period of time. I like change, I like uncertainty and I need freedom to move. This is something that academia, and specifically Philosophy, can give me. It is an incredibly versatile and even prestigious (postgraduate) degree to have within the Humanities faculty. It also opens the doors to many other diverse fields of study, including
- English Literature
- Computer Programming
- Art Curatorship
My point is that Philosophy is an advantageous study choice for me, but this is because I have a very specific character and set of skills. It’s super important that you think critically about what skills you have, but also what it is that you want in life most. In order to get closer to knowing what this is, I often refer to my mom’s handy question.
“What motivates you to get out of bed in the morning?”
To end off, Philosophy can’t give me a specific career, but it can, and has, given me a collection of projects that (over my entire lifetime) will form a worthwhile and unusual life story.
I might never be wealthy, but I will always have a project or job that is interesting enough, that will allow me to travel and, perhaps most importantly, encourage me to ask as many difficult and annoying questions I want.
If you are studying towards a General BA degree, see if you can do a Philosophy elective. Apart from being introduced to thought-provoking topics and new ways of seeing the world, you will also learn how to think critically – and that is something very useful for any other course of studies you do.