Sunday, May 01, 2022

On Being a Philosopher in Western Jamaica

“In order to live, man must act; in order to act, he must make choices; in order to make choices, he must define a code of values; in order to define a code of values, he must know what he is and where he is—i.e., he must know his own nature (including his means of knowledge) and the nature of the universe in which he acts—i.e., he needs metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, which means: philosophy. He cannot escape from this need; his only alternative is whether the philosophy guiding him is to be chosen by his mind or by chance.”
~Ayn Rand
Unlock your mind

In an age of M.B.A.'s and computer scientists, still thousands of university and college students graduate each year with a bachelor's degree in the ancient discipline known as Philosophy. Sometimes their parents and friends wonder what will happen to them... I am one such student, a UWI, Mona graduate with a degree in philosophy. I live in Montego Bay, Jamaica and this is my tale and journey in the 21st century making my way in the world. This article is a record of my experience as a philosopher in western Jamaica and not so much a defense of philosophy, though I suspect some of that will emerge in the writing eventually.

The advancements of science and technology, the progress and achievements of some disciplines within the fields of humanities all tend to engender relative indifference to Philosophy which is sometimes considered abstract, speculative and as a career, non-professional and less lucrative. Lots and lots of people say why philosophy? What of other philosophy majors? What do they do when confronted with the real world, where there are groceries to buy and mortgages to pay? How do they compete for jobs with all those sensible accounting and engineering majors? Sigh... The quest for the utility of or the question of the futility of Philosophy is a real concern to parents and the public especially in a world that currently progresses on the provisions of post-modernity... I don't propose to answer that question at all. And for those of you out there who measure standing, status and merit based on material gain and financial success well, I suspect this discourse isn't for you.

What I can tell you though...  is that philosophy has caused me to think about thinking. I was always and old soul, filled with nostalgia and redolence, so thinking was never ever merely a shallow thing or ever done less than consciously for me. Yes, philosophy helped me question myself even more deeply. To question my reasoning and to identify flaws and errors in thought. Oh and it gave me more tools with which to analyze art, literature and culture. It made me appreciate the philosophical discourse taking place in The Matrix, Star Trek TNG, WandaVision, Comics like Asterix and Obelix as well as Calvin and Hobbes, Lord of the Rings and so much more. Yeah... it has armed me with tools to dissect pop culture and mainstream media.I keep up with philosophy not only because I find it incredibly interesting; I have also found it to be remarkably useful. Yep I read Cornel West and watch him on Youtube, I actively follow Noam Chomsky, Arundhati Roy, Slavoj Žižek, Thomas Sowell, Russel Brand, Jimmy Dore, Joe Rogan and so many more.

Long before I had ever studied Philosophy academically, Mr. Spock made me a utilitarian when I imbibed and embedded the mantra "the good of the many, outweighs the good of the few!" The Vulcans and Data on a whole made me employ the stoicism they eschewed. These ideas fermented in a child in a left leaning household who believed in Michael Manley's democratic socialism, a socialism reflected in my mother's life as a social worker, my grand mother's political activism and the general Christian sense of charity, infected with a world where even Jesus seemed socialist... when I became obsessed with Spider-Man as a hero and again bludgeoned with the philosophical mantra of "with great power, comes great responsibility... phew I was chock full of Philosophy. My parents even wanted my middle name to be Nestor, god of wisdom, it ended up being Nesta after our own musical philosopher. My stars seemed headed on this path with me.

So you see Philosophy has undoubtedly helped me become more effective at clearly communicating my own ideas to others. It has also made it easier for me to understand and critically engage with others’ views. More generally, studying philosophy has made me a better, more analytical thinker – and this is a reward that I have found to be immensely valuable in nearly all aspects of my life, particularly in both an age globally and locally where "dumbing down" is a thing and "critical thinking skills" is a buzz term. So from pondering the 'big questions' in life to overcoming the minutia and small stuff, the skills that I learned through studying philosophy have helped me every step of the way. I try more than ever not to sweat the small stuff.

Now on to... What do we believe and why do we believe it? Who are we and why are we here? What ought we do and why should we do it? Well it is these types of questions Philosophy encourages. It's about critical and systematic inquiry into fundamental questions of right and wrong, truth and falsehood, the meaning of life, and the nature of reality, knowledge and society. More than any other discipline, philosophy explores the core issues of the Western intellectual tradition. Philosophy leads persons to formulate questions and follow arguments.

Of course, philosophy is much more than critical reasoning. We are persons who live in a world that exceeds our ability fully understand. We are bound by time and subject to changes. We laugh. We cry. And in the deepest moments we recognize an urge to find meaning in all of this.

Being a product of a society that is struggling through post-modern thinking as well as colonial and post-colonial ideas, philosophy has been relegated to the shelf. Truth has been deemed impossible to know. Reality is now subjective and morals have become relative. I have not been able to accept this age of absurdity and nihilism. However, philosophy opens up 3000 years of human genius. It gives us a means to methodically apply our ability to reason to interpret the cosmos and propel the very meaning of life itself. It provides an means of understanding and communicating truth.

Did you know there was an idea floating around that continuously following the first link of any Wikipedia article will eventually lead to “Philosophy”? On reading the article it sounded like a reasonable assertion, one that makes a certain amount of sense in retrospect: any description of something will typically use more general terms. Following that idea will eventually lead… somewhere.  So here’s an easy experiment you can do: Pick a Wikipedia page at random. Then, click on the very first hyperlink you see, and repeat. Eventually, you will reach the philosophy page.

In the field of Law, Jurisprudence (the philosophy of law) is essential for formulation of legal theories. In the field of Education, Philosophy is crucial in the areas of pedagogy, educational foundations, management and policies. Ethics is relevant to all facets of life. Within its own academic field, there is philosophy of virtually all disciplines which questions fundamental assumptions of such disciplines. Thus, Philosophy’s relevance remains ineluctable, inescapable and inevitable.

The study of philosophy provides answers to some of the world’s most existential questions revolving around right and wrong, truth and falsehood, the meaning of life, and the nature of human beings and the reality in which they live. Philosophy encourages critical and systematic thinking, explores core issues of intellectual tradition, and offers great preparation for life. Doesn't this sound like something Jamaican society could use?

Philosophy drives me to spend a lot of time doing research that involves reading, writing, experimental work, and data analysis. The reading material can include academic and scholarly journals, articles, and books while in terms of writing philosophy comes out in blogging, publishing articles, op-eds, and much more. Despite the common perception, philosophy majors appear to do remarkably well. That, at least, is the conclusion one can draw from an unscientific survey, 20 years after graduation, of the class of 1977 at four schools: Princeton University, the University of Virginia, the University of Nebraska and Texas A & M University.

Those 40-somethings fell in love with philosophy almost by accident and went on to careers in other fields. But for the most part they are convinced that their studies, which covered logic and ethics among other topics, helped them in their jobs and their lives. Their professional success may stem from the fact that philosophy students seem more likely than those with other degrees to attend graduate or professional school. Of 20 philosophy majors interviewed from the four universities, only four had not added a graduate or professional degree.

I graduated from Cornwall College in the Spring of 1999 after finishing GCSE "A" levels, then I did a certificate course in Journalism which prompted me to apply to Carimac at the UWI Mona in 2000. I got accept the August of 2000 and made my way to Kingston after a lifetime in Montego Bay. I entered my Freshman year with the intention to major in media and a minor in cultural studies, but after taking an Introduction to Philosophy lecture in my first semester, I was so excited by Philosophy that I decided to change majors. Studying Philosophy taught me new ways of thinking, reading, and writing that were challenging and stimulating. I genuinely enjoyed all of my classes which was a first in a long time.

Studying philosophy is not a requirement for writing jokes but it allowed me to realize how to quickly get to the point or what is commonly called the butt of a joke. This can be a handy skill when doing public speaking and being an entertaining raconteur. I also came to realized paradoxes are funny ways to make jokes, also reductio ad absurdum, which mean reduce to absurdity, essential this cued me to try and decipher the logic to jokes. Granted I am not a comic or comedian I am of the belief that stand-up comics are the modern day philosophers, characters like Jimmy Dore, Russel Brand, Bill Maher, Chris Rock, Dave Chappelle, Richard Pryor, Bill Cosby and so many more. Telling jokes is actually very hard and sometimes comes with a depression caused by the existential rigors that come with pulling the strings of our social fabric, upsetting status quo and poking fun at power. At worst dark humor can sometimes be like looking into a mirror darkly I suppose.

Undoubtedly philosophy informs and influences the way I go about doing things,  it's given me a sense of the complications that we face as human beings. While at the same time it also gives me a sense of the beauty and wonder of life. It helps me understand people in dire circumstances. However of all the gifts that this philosophy degree has given me is- creativity! It is probably the most important. I have always been an artist and drawing all my life, but philosophy infused my art and design with meaning and new concepts. It brought me to the Fibonacci sequence and golden ratio and applying them to design, and so much more.

When I told my parents that I was going to major in philosophy, they were concerned about what I would do after graduation. The most common question I got when I told people of my philosophy major was “What are you going to do with that degree?”, as if the only reason to go to college is to get a job. I certainly understand that sentiment, but philosophy prepared me for a job the way a major should while also providing the benefits of studying arts and humanities that make you a well-rounded and adjusted person outside of your job—in what is also known as your life.  Majoring in Philosophy was, without a doubt, the right choice for me. Philosophy has been so helpful to me in figuring out what news sources are best to digest, assigning meaning to relationships and life's path, navigating faith from Christian to Atheist to Rastafari, evolving from Pan-African to Afrofuturist, it has made me master of trivia like my father, playing video games and solving villains riddles to get to the next level, and my personal favorites: defending Spider-man as the greatest superhero, Christian Renaldo as the greatest footballer of this generational crop, defending Marvel Comics vs DC fanatics, defending Linux in a debate of Windows vs Mac, defending Ujamaa, Ubuntu and the leftist ideologies. Those things  make up my world of urban street philosophy.

My philosophy classes with Earl McKenzie, Dr. Bewaji and Bamikole, Ms. Roxanne Burton,  engaged, challenged, and even impassioned me in ways other classes did not. Years later it would be that academic motivation that would drive me to do well and helped me get into law school, granted I have had to defer due to the rigors of a freelance life, economic pursuits and child-rearing. What I learned was invaluable both during law school and my career path as entrepreneur, journalist, writer, graphic designer and artist. Philosophy differs from other degrees because it changes how you think, as opposed to requiring you to regurgitate information onto a test. My philosophical studies and relationship with media directly impacted my choice to pursue career in Law where I still hope to specialize in Intellectual property. If real property is finite and so lucrative, as someone who generates content it seems to me intellectual property, ideas, intangible things are infinite and hence so much more lucrative than the finite real property.

Philosophy has also informed my other spheres of endeavor; as an independent author, blogger and newspaper columnist, I strive to inject provocative thought into everything I write. Good stories entertain, while great stories both entertain and make their readers consider and think about profound questions.

The Major Lessons I've Learned from Philosophy

  1. Certainty and Ambiguity: There is very little I am absolutely certain of in life. I hold all beliefs with a certain degree of doubt and some skepticism. However I am not without conviction and whenever there is a need to act, I do in spite of and despite my skepticism. I am no longer off put by uncertainty and doubt is my constant companion.

  2. Opinion: I hold strong opinions but they are subject to constant rigor tests always being measured and weighed against new information. I have always found it necessary to validate my ideas constantly. I believe that I should have the ability to “see” and “hear” evidence that may be contrary to the opinions that I have held.

  3. The Balancing Act: As far as I have seen, the balanced life has proven to a myth; a concoction. I try to live a life of counterbalance as I constantly adjust priorities to achieve what might appear as a balance. I just focus on what’s most important at the moment and remain undistributed as much as possible.

  4. Mindfulness: I have perpetual To-do lists, a scheduler but I am not beholden to them. For me to know and believe that tasks that I do are aligned with my purpose is paramount. Purpose is my foundation and priority decides the action. Productivity only helps me to be efficient. Those 3 P's are my mental keys to mindfulness... Purpose, priority and productivity!

That's it for now, Selah!