Tag Archives: existentialism

Conversations with Yang, Part I: How we accept/reject our unchosen existence

It’s funny how any extended conversation with my friend Yang gets me thinking about everything a little harder.

We got to talking about free will and birth.  Our birth is not our choice.  Or so it seems.  This is an issue of great importance to me, because it problematizes human existence itself.  It threatens to annul all notion of free will:  If even our birth wasn’t our choice, do we have any choice at all? As you can see, it makes for a rather bleak human condition.

Her:  What’s the point of thinking about it if that’s just the way it is and nothing can be done to change it?

Me:  Well, for one, i enjoy thinking about it, and trying to understand this unsolvable problem can help to fuel other philosophical projects which could contribute something real and practical to society.

Even more importantly, the way in which we decide to accept or reject this truth could have great implications on our actions.  In other words, this is a question of moral responsibility.

In my post on Peter Singer’s contribution to The Stone, i couldn’t decide whether having children is ethical, since i couldn’t reconcile birth with free will, while at the same time, my tendency to innately believe that nature is usually “right” restrained me from jumping to the conclusion that it is flat-out wrong to procreate.

But here’s another question to consider:  Our birth aside, on what grounds do we accept or reject our unchosen existence, and if we accept it, how do we cope with it?

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Indignant

[update 04/13/10:  My TA more than redeemed himself today.  He started out recitation by saying that in grading our papers, he was forced to reconsider the criteria that he’d laid out for us for writing our papers, one of which was that we should write in simple prose.  He still believed that we should do this, but he wondered what the value of that might be.  So we spent the entire class debating the value and lack of value in simplifying the language of these philosophers, which evolved into a wholesome discussion of relevant topics both explicitly and implicitly at hand:  the difference between analytic and continental philosophy; the purpose of writing these papers; the question of audience; the difference between explaining and expressing, and how we necessarily do both while writing these papers; the cognitive process of reading and writing; motives for writing the way we do; language as a tool for contextualization; and the way certain philosophers subvert language to re-contextualize concepts.  The TA was very open to our varying opinions and arguments, and it was clear that he cared about how his criteria were affecting our writing and learning.  And that’s all i needed to know.]

I was deeply offended, insulted, and hurt today.  I’m not sure if i should write about this publicly, but i’m so flustered and have been upset like this for the past twelve hours that i need to vent, or else i won’t be able to sleep tonight.

I wrote my first paper for Existentialism & Phenomenology class several weeks ago.  I was transfixed by Heidegger’s account of death and knew that I needed to write my paper on it.  One of the suggested topics involved it anyway, so i set out to write on that topic, but as i wrote the paper and re-engaged with the text, i became more interested in a different issue within Heidegger’s account of death:  his characterization of death as possibility, not actuality, and the implications this might have for his entire argument.  And this shift in interest—and consequently, in my argument—occurred sometime in the morning of the day it was due.  In short, i procrastinated quite extensively, stayed up all night and just wrote and re-wrote like my life depended on it, panicked for fear of not even finishing on time, and then really did run out of time and was forced to cut the paper short and slap on a concluding sentence.  Not surprisingly, the paper ended up being quite disorganized, and ultimately, my claims were not backed up with strong enough arguments.  Had i given myself ample time, i would’ve done what i knew i had to do when i decided to change my topic:  start fresh and build up my argument.  But since i was irresponsible and left myself too little time, i was forced to rework what i had already written, which culminated in patching and re-patching chunks here and there, re-ordering paragraphs, removing some and adding new ones, and all of this in vain.  In my effort to work with what i already had, i neglected to fully develop my argument and work out a strong line of reasoning for it.  I didn’t even know if my argument was valid.  I decided to just write and see if i could come up with an argument in the process.  Bad, bad mistake, obviously.  I always outline my argument and make sure i have it down pat before i even start writing, but i didn’t think i could do that with the time i had remaining.  I probably could have if i had stopped panicking and had steadily thought things through, but there’s no use in crying over spilled milk.

After i handed in the paper, i wanted to spend the next few days revisiting my argument and trying to see if what i wrote really made sense.  Of course, other classes and obligations got in the way, and soon, i forgot all about the shoddy argument.

Earlier this week, i got the paper back, graded and commented on.  I got a higher grade than i expected, but it was clear from the TA’s comments that he didn’t get the point of my paper.  This was seriously worrisome for me, and i couldn’t just let my argument go misunderstood, or even not understood at all, so i went back to my dorm and started tearing the paper apart.  Initially, i was just writing responses to the TA’s comments, but i soon realized that there were too many missing links in my argument.  Responding to these comments wasn’t gonna get me anywhere.

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Mapping out your life is overrated

A wise friend of mine recently said to me, “Knowing what you want to do is not quite the same as knowing exactly where you can go.”  School and society put so much emphasis on the where that i lost sight of the what as i came closer to where i am now:  my last semester of college.

This academic year has changed me in strange ways.  I struggled a lot last semester with insecurities i never knew i had, most of which got in the way of my learning.  For the first time in my life, i found my classes to be an inconvenience and a drone (this partly had to do with the kinds of classes i was taking that semester, but it was also my attitude towards the learning that got in the way).  Needless to say, it was a highly disappointing semester, resulting not only in dropped grades but also a further drop in self-esteem.  (Just to be fair, one class and the professor that taught it encouraged me to express myself, which positively changed my approach to writing, but this didn’t change the fact that i felt oppressed by my other classes and professors.)

This semester has been interesting in that the four classes i’m taking are so different from each other and yet still overlap in various ways, in ways that motivate me to synthesize the thought products of each class with each other, which in turn makes me strive hard in all of them.  One class, Tactical Media, is a graduate course cross-listed as an offering to undergraduate upperclassmen, but the class is mostly graduate students.  I was intimidated at first by their professional accomplishments and general outspokenness, but i’m starting to find it easier to talk to these people than my fellow undergraduates.  There is a higher degree of respect for each other and not just a willingness but a desire to get to know one another.  I think it might have to do with the lack of competition.  They’ve already accomplished a great deal in their respective fields, and they’re all here for different reasons (the course belongs in the Arts and Public Policy department, but students come from all different departments, backgrounds, and careers).  They’re here to further their own individual projects, whether it be producing a social activist movement or sparking a debate about urban etiquette, but while doing so, they work together and share their individual interests and skills.  At the undergraduate level, most students are in the same boat of graduating and moving on to their respective fields.  Whether they admit it or not, undergrads are out to outdo one another in order to get a job or make it into grad school.  But going back to why i started talking about this class in the first place, it’s a key element in my learning this semester in that it is helping me become more outspoken in all of my classes; to put it simply, it’s encouraging me to step out of my comfort zone, but in a welcoming environment.  There is no competing—only sharing.  We don’t even compete for grades, because we grade ourselves at the end of the semester.  Discussion in this class is therefore as democratic and open as it can get; besides the individual projects (which are always collaborative), we are all in the unified project of progressing as a class.

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My annual soundtracks

This is a personal tradition i started in 2007.  I decided to make a soundtrack for every year of my life with a song for each month.  Here is my 2007 soundtrack:

2007: My year in music

Pre. Zero 7 – “In the Waiting Line”
Jan. Radiohead – “Up On the Ladder”
Feb. Republika – “Poranna Wiadomość”
Mar. Mackenzie Phillips – “Another World”
Apr. Tori Amos & Ani DiFranco – “Silent All These Years”
May. Duncan Sheik – “Half-Life”
Jun. Imogen Heap – “Hide and Seek”
Jul. Joe Purdy – “Isn’t Love”
Aug. Cat Power – “Evolution”
Sep. KT Tunstall – “Universe & U”
Oct.
week 1. The Doors – “The End”
week 2. Neil Young – “After the Gold Rush”
week 3. Aqualung – “Garden of Love”
week 4. The Poems – “Ballad of a Bitter End”
week 5. Ingrid Michaelson – “Keep Breathing”
Nov. Brandi Carlile – “That Year” (live in Birmingham)
Dec. Nick Drake – “Time Has Told Me”
Fin. Simon & Garfunkel – “The Only Living Boy in New York”

I know, there’s a prelude and finale, and October has five(!) songs.  I’ve got a lot of explaining to do.

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