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A Letter to a Young Philosopher

Dear Friend,

Thank you for your thoughts. You are persuasive, inspiring, and you make a really good case not only for philosophy but for yourself as well. It is easy to perceive that our previous "conversations" have struck a chord with you, if only because it created discord within you, especially at a sensitive time as now when you are in the thick of research and writing, on the brink of academic success, which you, I think, will easily accomplish. When we are near the peaks of the mountains we have for a long time been scaling--always with difficulty, never without sacrifices--anything that will plant seeds of doubt in us (Can I make it? Will it be worth it?) are to be quickly done away with, lest the idea of surrendering to the heights begins to assume a form you cannot deny seeing, and carry a weight you may not be able to any longer suffer. In the same way that I admit that what I call my "personal life" at the moment, whatever that means anyway, may without my knowing seep into my supposedly objective thoughts and reflections, I wish that you would not mind if I be more reflexive in understanding and answering what you have said, and if I with some reservation (apologies already?) go down (or up) to the level of the personal. You, anyway, entered the personal terrain first by addressing me personally, and by reading from what I said who I am or who I was or what I could be--this writer without a name.

When I was reading your response a few days ago, I could not help but see myself in your words. You spoke of that "something more" which philosophy aspires for, that which transcends the workaday world and breaks the prescribed forms of life that many of us assume. You spoke of the beauty of words and the power of art, the spells of stories and how all of these cannot but spark my desires. Yes, much like you, I still am captivated by the secrets that the world reveals to and hides from us. I come across a beautiful word and I am astounded by what it really means in life (I don't have much care for verbal definitions). I read a philosopher and I will try to write like him. I discover something new--a line, a thought, an insight--and I hurry to write it down so I can share it with my students. Yes, I am also all these things. Now that I think about it, I jump out of bed on most mornings because of something having to do with philosophy--may it be for teaching or writing. Such is my enthusiasm for whatever that is I am enthusiastic about in philosophy (I no longer know what name I shall give it: I cannot say I am enthusiastic about only philosophy itself). If there were one class which I think would fit me perfectly, that would be an Introduction to Philosophy class.

But what I have quietly learned through the few years (taking from you, I have qualified how long my venture  has been) I have entrusted my life to "philosophy" is this: that it's all too little. Do not take philosophy's word; while you may not regret taking the leap for something you really believed in and loved, you might regret being unable to recover your heart and not being able to walk again. The promises of philosophy are many. If you really think about it, philosophy is itself a promise: a promise for a better if not happier life, a promise for a more meaningful if not easier life. (Let's not bother denying this. You and I are essentially here, or should be here, for that reason.) And, of course, it will deliver the necessary proofs that you need to keep going in philosophy; you will experience awe and wonder and happiness in being able to see truths that perhaps other people do not see (I hastened to say that because of its pretentiousness, but for the sake of the moment I'll simplify). You will every now and then celebrate a perfect sentence that you wrote, feel immense power after giving a lecture which brought tears to students' eyes, and continue to be enchanted by the idea that you took the road less traveled because less understood. These joys are real and are enough to make me stay here, and perhaps hope for more. And, I hope I do not assume wrongly, these are joys that you too already enjoy, and foresee to enjoy in the future, given that you have already planned on being an academic. But while I wish you well, and while I know with certainty that you will be greater than most including myself in philosophy, do let me say this untimely and unsolicited advice or warning or cautionary word (I don't know what to call it): that, again, it may all be too  little.

True, philosophy is, or can also be, a profession. You become a teacher, research, publish, present papers in conferences and engage other scholars--live the life of the academic. I have nothing against academics, and maybe I am on paper one, but I am suspicious of the whole idea of "academic philosophy." I admit that I am also a teacher, and I have done some of these scholarly things that are prescribed to academicians and required in graduate studies. It may still be early but I have no dreams of being a professional "academic" in the sense of being a scholar, etc. It's an idiosyncrasy, I know, but I never did get that idea.  I still have this old view, one that was held by most ancient and medieval thinkers, and also some contemporary thinkers I admire (Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard), that philosophy was a guide to living one's own life and not an academic endeavor. (A footnote. That philosophers are academics formally began only with Kant. While it is true, I admit, that the first academic institution was Plato's child, even he or Aristotle with his Lyceum, I believe, thought of philosophy less as a scholarly endeavor than as an exercise for living, and exploring the limits of life in order find its meaning.) This may sound like I'm excusing myself rather conveniently, yet I think being a good teacher is all that I aspire for. I believe that is enough, or even much more than what I can ever ask from myself for a whole lifetime, as teaching philosophy is already an impossible task in itself because philosophy cannot be taught but only initiated in others. And for me, teaching philosophy has never been and will never be a profession; it's a vocation, a leisure, a way of learning all over again, or, simply put, a love. If I wanted a profession, I can grab one of those opportunities which manage to tempt me every now and then. And maybe I will, in the future or when the time comes. When I feel that it's time to leave philosophy behind. Because philosophy can, or should, be left behind. Because it can all be too little.

Lastly, I will admit sharing with you that dream of living the life of the philosopher, but sans being a "real" philosopher. I take pleasure in reading their biographies. I indulge in their own real experiences, reflect on their sadness and heartbreaks and failures, imagine their everyday lives, and delight in knowing miscellanea about them. I am as interested in their lives as I am in their thoughts. Because thoughts, taken by themselves cannot but be abstract; they're neat and clean and really profound. But I want the embodied person, the relationships, the sudden decisions, the anger and the tears. Even if I will never become a "philosopher," at least I share with them having walked on this earth and all the happiness and sadness that come with it. But again, it's more of sadness. And that is more than enough.

The only difference between us is that I am older. Please do not take this in any way as an offense. (Actually, I envy you. I was also like that, and I hope I will again be like that in the future. It seems to me that you will go places, achieve your plans, and become what you want to be, owing to your talents, determination, and passion. I wish you the best.) It's a plain statement of fact, not a judgment. I'm not taking the position of the old man telling old tales, thinking he's seen the world, as if he knows better. I am not in any way like that, as it seems to me that you are not the typical young academic. So there, perhaps there's really no difference. In the view of others, perhaps like in your view now, I'm just the man who gave up. I haven't, really. But unlike before--when I was still like you--now I can.

All the best. Cheers.


  1. Outstanding post! Truly. I feel like you wrote down so much of how I feel.

    I just now found your blog, but rest assured I'll return.


  2. Thanks, Michael. And thanks for joining as well.


  3. Anonymous11/17/2010

    Thank you for crafting this letter. Mine lies in my space, and I've emailed you a message separately too.

    Have a good night.


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