Thus spake the philosophy major

This is a response to an opinion written by Adam Babson ’05 which appeared in the Jan. 15 issue of the Record. Mr. Babson complains that life at Williams is superficial, non-intellectual and “ridiculous.” He marvels at the “perpetuated high school foolishness” students engage in, such as the “excessive and irresponsible consumption of alcohol,” and the “attempts of students to ‘hook up.’” He insists that our time would be better spent following his heroic lead, that is, sitting at home on Saturday nights reading Aquinas and Kant while sipping a dry Chianti. And that is because forfeiture of social activity in the name of academics is something that takes “extraordinary discipline” and “courage.”

If Mr. Babson finds reading philosophy on a Saturday night fun, relaxing and enjoyable, then by all means he should do it. What others choose to do for fun is their business. I fully support anyone who chooses to stay in on the weekends; to each his own when it comes to relaxation in the intense Williams environment. But if Mr. Babson thinks he is being courageous and standing morally and intellectually above the rest of us who choose other pastimes, then I am forced to dismiss him as comically arrogant, philosophically ignorant and ludicrously hostile towards those who do him no wrong. Not once in my life have I ever walked into a party and complained about (or written an editorial criticizing) the people who were not there because they were at home reading Aquinas or Kant in their rooms.

Like I have said, I support Mr. Babson in his choice to stay home on the weekends reading philosophy. In fact, it might do him some good, for judging by his superficial analysis of Nietzsche, it appears that he needs to spend a bit more time studying his favorite texts. If he had read Nietzsche a little more carefully, he would have realized that his beloved philosopher deals quite extensively with the view that non-rational forces are at the heart of all creativity and reality itself. Nietzsche identifies in humans a strongly instinctual, wild, amoral, “Dionysian” energy and often laments that the “Apollonian” forces of logical order and stiff sobriety have overshadowed these forces.

Nietzsche is absolutely scathing towards those who deny the body: “there is from the first something unhealthy in such priestly aristocracies [those who insist on denying bodily pleasure] and in the habits ruling in them which turn them away from action and alternate between brooding and emotional explosion” (On the Genealogy of Morals, edited by Walter Kaufmann ’41: p. 32), or which lead them to write editorials that reveal their tendencies towards both.

Furthermore, G.W.F. Hegel insists that humans are not purely intellectual beings. To complement their thinking nature they also have physical and emotional sides. To have those different aspects is what it means to be human. To ignore or neglect a facet of human nature would be one-sided thinking, and, ironically, anti-philosophical. It would be a failure to recognize a key component of human nature — humans need to appeal to their sensual and emotional sides, to have some non-intellectual fun now and then, whether it be through partying, gossiping or “hugging every goddamn acquaintance.” Contrary to Mr. Babson’s pulling lament, these activities really can be seen as “necessities of life.” Refusing to admit that possibility would be practicing immature and ignorant philosophy.

Indeed, I would like to point out to Mr. Babson that Hegel himself, one of the greatest scholars in western intellectual history, loved to spend his free time drinking, playing cards and, my guess is, occasionally “hooking up” with the famous female opera singers, the celebrities of the day, who enjoyed his company. It doesn’t take courage or extreme discipline to deny yourself the pleasures of social activity, and then to quote philosophers to rationalize your decision. It takes an overly pompous, holier-than-thou attitude, the unfortunate freshman belief that one is wiser and more well read than those who have been in college for more than one semester. Most importantly, it takes a misunderstanding of philosophy, and a cursory reading of famous texts.

Mr. Babson should stop complaining about students “continually speaking before marshalling their thoughts” if he is going to appeal to a misreading of philosophy to write an editorial. He should also be reminded that it is precisely engagement in the social activities he despises that arguably makes us better thinkers, and, ultimately, better people. Remember, Mr. Babson, it was David Hume who admitted that at his desk he could be a philosopher, but that as soon as he set foot on the street, he needed to be a human being.

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