Why Did You Go Into Philosophy?

Why Did You Go Into Philosophy?


[This post is from 2014. I’m reposting it in honor of World Philosophy Day. New comments welcome.]

It’s World Philosophy Day, but for some reason my school is not giving me the day off.  What’s up with that?

Anyway, let’s do something to mark the day. The profession has had its share of bad news and controversy lately, and much of that has filled the pages of Daily Nous. Let’s take a break from that for a moment, right here, and recall what it is that’s so attractive about philosophy. Temporarily leave the problems aside and take a moment to focus on what initially moved you to take up this work, and share it here in a sentence or two. Why did you go into philosophy?

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David
David
6 years ago

During a rough period in high school, I happened to find Nicomachean Ethics and The Groundwork on my father’s bookshelf. Looking for answers and being totally unable to comprehend Kant, Aristotle taught me that the moral world was far larger and more interesting than pulpit chatter.Report

Maureen Eckert
Maureen Eckert
6 years ago

I blame Frank Kirkland (Hunter College). Yes, I’m naming names! We’re talking some serious corruption of the youth here. Well, maybe –maybe– I was already semi-corrupted and primed by the time I got to Hunter. Like many visual artists, I got into Nietzsche in art-school, and had what I thought were “deep conversations,” peppered with “profound realizations”with my peers, well into the night about the nature of all things, etc. etc. All that hot a brick wall once I walked into Kirkland’s course to study The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity. Nothing pleased this professor! Nothing! Nothing was clear enough, concise enough. Nothing! I didn’t know enough philosophy to support the points I was trying to make. Well, I had to show him, now didn’t I?Report

Rachel McKinnon
Rachel McKinnon
6 years ago

As a 3rd-year undergrad, I was doing a co-op work term in chemistry. I loved the classroom study of it, but hated the working reality of it: the daily monotony of a lab, working on a project we were pretty sure couldn’t possibly work, but we had to keep trying to get a product to pass an impossible regulatory standard. I was reading some classic philosophy in my spare time and philosophy was asking (and trying to answer) some of the questions I was most interested in. Philosophy of science was my gateway topic, but I eventually found my way to epistemology and philosophy of language.Report

Jonathan Neufeld
6 years ago

For the money.Report

Eva Dadlez
Eva Dadlez
6 years ago

Boyfriend was holding forth about his aesthetics class. I was a freelance illustrator, shocked to discover that people who couldn’t even draw were maundering at length about art. Signed up for graduate class, filled with righteous they-can’t-know-what-they’re-talking-about indignation. Never looked back.Report

Avery
Avery
6 years ago

I was majoring in International Relations focusing on peace and conflict resolution in the Middle East. I soon decided that much more interesting than the diplomatic back-and-forth were the underlying normative questions that the diplomatic stuff, to my mind, either ignored or smuggled in or distorted.Report

Tim O'Keefe
6 years ago

Philosophy was required for all students in my undergrad school. In the first semester of my freshman year I took a small introduction to philosophy class that featured a lot of discussion, and I was hooked. Plato’s Republic, Descartes’ Meditations (plus Ryle), Kant’s Groundwork, Mill’s Utilitarianism, and Nietzsche’s Genealogy.Report

Eddy Nahmias
6 years ago

I was an English major but found myself liking the philosophical questions raised in literature. Then I minored in philosophy, had a great class on human nature, where we read Aristotle and Hume but also EO Wilson, and I started reading Dawkins and then Dennett, and next thing you know I wanted to figure out how to answer questions about the human mind and free will.Report

David Boonin
David Boonin
6 years ago

I was a double major: history and philosophy. I decided that I wanted to become a professor before I decided whether I wanted to be a history professor or a philosophy professor. What was appealing was simply the idea of teaching college students for a living, and remaining a part of the college world. I would say that I enjoyed both subjects equally and could see myself being equally happy teaching either of them, so the subject didn’t really matter to me. But I came to feel that I was better at doing philosophy than at doing history and so thought that I would have a better chance of actually getting a job teaching if I went into philosophy rather than history. For some philosophers, teaching is what they do just so that they can get paid to do philosophy. For me, doing philosophy was something I decided to do just so that I could paid to teach. It ended up being an unanticipated bonus that I turned out to really enjoy doing the research, too.Report

Colin Farrelly
6 years ago

24 years ago I was an undergraduate in a first year introduction to philosophy class. The course textbook described philosophy as the pursuit of “intellectual freedom”. This meant subjecting even our most basic and fundamental assumptions and beliefs to critical analysis and reflection. 24 years later and the goal of intellectual freedom is still the prime motivation behind my teaching, reading and writing.Report

Krista
Krista
6 years ago

I went to college intending to be a theatre major, but I soon realized that I hated the classes and all the people in my program. I took a philosophy course completely on a whim. We read the Republic and I was smitten—here was a whole field devoted to asking questions I had been curious about all along! I remember after one class meeting I was so lost in thought about the material that I walked right past my car in the parking lot. I changed my major and never looked back.Report

Thomas Brouwer
6 years ago

I had some philosophy classes in high school, but the subject didn’t really grab me at the time. What did grab me then was literature. So I decided I wanted to go and do literary studies. As it turned out, at my university of choice one had to do a first year in some other humanities discipline before you could more into literary studies; I considered a few things and then picked philosophy. I think the generality of it appealed to me: you could do philosophy with regard to pretty much any topic. Anyway, after a few months of philosophy I abandoned any thought of literary studies – philosophy seemed much more the real deal to me. Pretty happy with that outcome. Nevertheless, I can easily imagine myself having ended up in some entirely different field and being perfectly happy there as well.Report

Carol
Carol
6 years ago

In my first year at a tiny community college, intro philosophy was the only course that fit my schedule. I had no idea what philosophy was going in. But it was one of the first times I was ever in a classroom without my (smarter) twin sister, the prof was wonderful (if, I’ve now realized, somewhat idiosyncratic in his take on the canon), and I ended up having a knack for it.Report

Ben Hale
6 years ago

My first year in college I declared a chemistry major with a Russian minor. I had studied at a high school with a heavy emphasis on science and technology, so as far as I was concerned, the scientific fields were the only fields with any value. The humanities were fields of meaningless pablum. I had, however, always found Russia fascinating, so I began a study of Russian language during my high school education, which I viewed as a tool to understanding the Soviet Union.

My first semester in college I read Sartre’s Existentialism is a Humanism, and it blew my mind. I didn’t process what was happening then, but I definitely thought that I should take another philosophy class. Gradually, over semesters, the philosophy classes I took whittled away at everything I thought I knew. I didn’t feel confident enough to major in philosophy by my sophomore year, so I dropped the chemistry and migrated to an art major (?) and kept the Russian minor. Somehow that seemed a safer bet, as I could always go into advertising. Again, majors were just tools. I then moved to NY to work in the advertising industry, which sucked, and by junior year moved to St. Petersburg, Russia to study Russian there.

Only then, during this Russia experience, did I realize that the questions that interested me were the philosophical ones. It wasn’t Russia that interested me per se, but rather political theory. So too with the other stuff I liked: the philosophy of science laid bare some of the concerns that I’d had percolating since high school. Ethics raised questions that I’d always troubled over but never had a language to address. I wanted to debate about these issues, not to become a chemist or an artist.

Long story short, I was terrified to tell my mother that I wanted to major in philosophy. I planned out my strategy carefully and approached her at 2:00 in the morning, while she was sleeping. She took it well. The rest is history.Report

Daniel Levine
Daniel Levine
6 years ago

Hume woke me from my dogmatic slumber.

I was originally a physics major with a religious studies minor – the minor in part because I’d gotten the bug from Mr. Straw’s philosophy class in HS. Physics was pretty grueling and wasn’t scratching “big questions” itch I’d had going in, and the religious studies classes were either crushingly dry or fun in a superficial way – a lot of the early ones were big “world religion” survey classes where you learned neat stuff about a dozen traditions, but didn’t meaningfully engage with them. The $1 (Canadian!) rack at The Word was a treasure trove of paperback philosophy classics, though, so I found myself escaping from class work I didn’t find that interesting with Hume’s Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals under a tree near my dorm room. Then I realized I could make that my work instead of stealing time for it – my original plan was to do a dual-major in Physics and Philosophy, but the Physics profs were very dismissive of my interest in that, and basically treated me like an idiot, and Philosophy was welcoming… so there I was. I have my friend Lauren Fleming’s copy of the Enquiry on my shelf, and it’s one of my prized possessions.Report

Colin
Colin
6 years ago

I wanted to join my school’s track team when I was in sixth grade, but my dad would only allow me to join if I listened to a series of lectures on metaphysics and epistemology and then passed a quiz. I still can’t believe I accepted his conditions.Report

James
James
6 years ago

Maureen – Thank you for naming names! As a grad student I was a TA for Frank for several semesters. He is amazing in the classroom. Nearly everything I know about teaching I learned from him.Report

grad
grad
6 years ago

I had doubts about Christianity late in high school, but not yet to the point of abandoning it. Someone suggested Kierkegaard to me.Report

Alan White
Alan White
6 years ago

Went to Northwest Nazarene to major in religion and become a minister. Took a freshman course in Ethics taught by a very dynamic professor in a single-person department (JW Jones–who goes to show that you need not be at all renown to be a great classroom professor) and simply fell in love with the love of wisdom (along with classmates and current philosophers Rick McCarty and Marv Belzer). By the next year I had a double-major, and though I finished both programs, I completely abandoned the religious life (SK’s F&T did that for me) and knew I had to try to teach and write this wonderful stuff. In short I got very lucky and after 3 decades still feel that same excitement in the classroom from the other side of the desk that I felt as a wide-eyed neophyte student. And NNU is very fortunate to continue the strong tradition of philosophy with a lone philosopher–Kevin Timpe.Report

Michael P. Wolf
6 years ago

When I was in 9th grade, my school had a particularly baffling way of scheduling classes – different subjects at different times on different days in different rooms. It seemed to be an experiment developed by a team of psychologists. Or possibly the Stasi. Running late one day, I burst into what I thought was the room for my next class, only to find it empty. The board was full of terminology for a senior English class, and had ‘existentialism’ ‘Sartre’ and ‘Kierkegaard’ among the words there. (And honestly, the story so far sounds a bit like Kafka, doesn’t it?) I just wondered what all those words meant, went home, looked them up, and found myself arguing out loud with books. My mom later got me a copy of _The Stranger_. So I guess it’s all my mom’s fault.

Existentialism didn’t end up being my AOS, as a chain of similar exposures to other material kept sparking my interest. Philosophy was the one thing that I did and did well that captured my imagination outside of an institutional setting, though. I probably could have done a lot of other things, but there was never really a point past the age of 19 or so that I thought about devoting my time to anything else.Report

Jessica Davis
Jessica Davis
6 years ago

I was upset by all of the contradictions and the hypocrisy I saw in the world.Report

Nate
Nate
6 years ago

I always wanted to go into some sort of scientific research for the sake of advancing human knowledge itself. I wanted to be a physicist and loved the cutting edge, deep questions. I burned out my first year of college, and when I returned to school, I wanted a fun class. I took intro to philosophy, and then took more philosophy classes. And I never stopped, because I found philosophers asking the foundational questions that drew me to science.Report

Amy
Amy
6 years ago

I took philosophy as a GE my first year of college. We read “Famine, Affluence, and Morality.” I thought it was just the coolest thing that these boringly obvious premises plus a little bit of logic got you this wild conclusion that nobody believes…so then what do you do? Now I start my classes with it whenever I can. (Still not an act utilitarian, though.)Report

Brandon
Brandon
6 years ago

It was, quite honestly, Monty Python’s “Bruce’s Philosophers Song.” I was a high school senior, a Python obsessive, and couldn’t figure out what one of the names mentioned in the song was. It sounded like “Nature,” but clearly wasn’t. I looked up the lyrics online (via dial-up modem) and found that it was Nietzsche. A bit of further digging turned up that this Nietzsche character was just the sort of person a budding atheist should read. I thus read BGE and The Antichrist over the summer before I started college. (Who didn’t during the heady days of the late 90’s?!) I had no idea what this guy was saying, but I wanted to figure it out. So, I took some philosophy courses my first year in college, which didn’t really help. I then took Philosophy of Art my sophomore year and that’s what hooked me and eventually led to my becoming a professional philosopher. Nietzsche’s status as an idol for me was eclipsed long ago, I’m happy to report. But I think it’s fitting that it was Eric Idle who instigated that idolization in the first place.Report

Matt Drabek
Matt Drabek
6 years ago

It was a combination of things. I read The Republic the summer before I started college (understanding little, of course), and I’ve had interest in socialist/anarchist/leftist causes that go back much further. But I had the “philosophy isn’t practical” worry and entered college a Cognitive Science major. Oddly enough, two non-philosophy courses pushed me into philosophy. A great political philosophy course in a political science department and a great Cognitive Science course at Indiana ended up convincing me that philosophy would be a better area (more time for attention to theoretical issues, less hassle of everyday laboratory life, etc.).Report

Anca Gheaus
Anca Gheaus
6 years ago

During my school years I got curious, sometimes passionate, about different subjects but eventually got bored/tired with them. Except for philosophy, which I could not even imagine making me bored. I’m still living up to the limits of my imagination.Report

Helena de Bres
Helena de Bres
6 years ago

I started university wanting to be a French major and took some philosophy classes to fill out the schedule. French felt like a continuation of high school; philosophy felt like some radically other thing. I saw in my philosophy lecturers what I then took to be an entirely new level of intelligence (though I now recognize it as just a new type). I fell in love with it, or them, or both – who cares? They set me off on this track, which is a pretty amazing way to spend a life. Happy Philosophy Day, philosophers!Report

Eric Wiland
Eric Wiland
6 years ago

I took an ethics course my first semester in college, but it didn’t grab me. It was, in fact, the only course I took from the Philosophy Department during college. But I took some political theory courses that mildly interested me. In one such course on Plato and Aristotle, I ran across Kierkegaard’s The Concept of Irony with the Continual Reference to Socrates. Whoa! My professor (George Klosko) said I really should read Nietzsche. Yep. Then I took a course from the Religious Studies course on existentialism. This seemed to matter more than what I was mostly studying (economics). I then started perusing the philosophy areas of reputable bookstores. I read Russell’s Problems of Philosophy after I graduated college. I then wanted to study philosophy full time.Report

Jean
Jean
6 years ago

Started college as a pre-med and read Sartre’s “Existentialism is a Humanism” in an English class. Loved it and the rest is history, as they say.Report

John Protevi
John Protevi
6 years ago

Pull quote: “Like many other middle-class kids from suburban Philadelphia, I went to Penn State. I ended up doing a few majors before spending a few years in the late 70s studying Physical Education. I love sports, so the part about learning how to be a coach or gym teacher wasn’t painful, but I was aiming at a PhD in what they were just beginning to call “Kinesiology,” so what really turned me on was Anatomy, Physiology, Exercise Physiology, Biomechanics and so on. So when the PSU Phys Ed department wouldn’t let me arrange an internship in Cardiac Rehabilitation, but instead wanted to force me into an internship as a high school gym teacher, I took a leave of absence to think things over. And during that time, I picked up Plato’s Republic, which I remembered from an Intro to Philosophy course. I was hooked, especially by the treatment of the body: the erotic component of philosophical training; the training of the guardians; the discussion of desire, appetite, spirit, all of it. ”

Long version: http://proteviblog.typepad.com/protevi/2007/05/analytic_and_co.htmlReport

Jeff Sebo
6 years ago

I wanted to be a cartoonist, and I thought that studying philosophy would make my comics more interesting. (I figured that if it was good enough for Bill Watterson, then it was good enough for me.) Then I actually took my first philosophy class and everything changed. My professors threw as many problems at us as they could – the mind-body problem, the problem of evil, the Euthyphro problem, etc. It shook me up a lot, and I decided that I had to keep at it until I figured it all out. Of course, that never happened. But I did make progress, and I also discovered how much I enjoy teaching and writing along the way (as well as how valuable that can be in some cases). So, I stuck with it. At least at the moment, I feel very glad that I did.Report

Jan Dowell
Jan Dowell
6 years ago

I majored in philosophy, loved my classes, always assumed I would become a public interest lawyer. My senior year, I became pretty depressed, realizing that law school meant I would likely never study philosophy again. So, I applied to grad school, in addition to law school, thinking I wouldn’t get in, and then went to grad school, because someone paying me to study philosophy seemed more immediately enticing than paying to go to law school. I went thinking I would drop out and go to law school after a bit. Here I am, philosophy professor and a weak-willed, public interest law failure.Report

David
David
6 years ago

I got into debate in High School, but I was most interested in Lincoln-Douglas debate. The school was small and our coach didn’t know anything, so I had to teach myself about it. Since LD debate is values oriented, philosophical ethical theories are appealed to in the debates. In researching I became exposed to Mill and Kant. I read Kant’s Groundwork and developed an interest in philosophy. The second year I was on the debate team, I became responsible for coaching anyone new who was interested in LD debate. That was where I discovered that I really enjoyed teaching (and the learning you get as a teacher as well)! After that, I started considering becoming a teacher, and given my interest in philosophy, become a professor of philosophy seemed like an obvious choice.

In college, I took an Intro class and a religious studies class on existentialism and after that I was set on the idea.Report

Elizabeth Anderson
6 years ago

I started off as an economics major in college, interested in big questions about the organization of economic life. I found that systematic conceptual and normative questions I had about economic theory were largely neglected by economists but taken seriously by philosophy. This made my move to philosophy compelling. I retained my interests in many other subjects, and found philosophy to be a great place to pursue those diverse intellectual interests, because for nearly any x, where x is some discipline or mode of inquiry, there is a philosophy of x.Report

Peter Singer
6 years ago

First, why did I study philosophy at all? When I was choosing what to study at the University of Melbourne, my older sister was going out with someone (now her husband) who was doing an MA in philosophy. We talked about it, and it sounded interesting, and I always enjoyed a good argument, so I gave it a try. Yes, it was interesting. But then, why did I go on with it? It helped, of course, that I was awarded a scholarship to do graduate work. Otherwise I would probably have become a lawyer. But I could have used the scholarship to study history, which interested me too. Perhaps what swung the decision towards philosophy was that the philosophy department’s faculty and students used to get into lots of interesting debates in the local pub on important issues like morality, God, free will… the historians didn’t, they were all specialized in their own narrow areas of original research. I wanted to think about the Big Questions.Report

Carolyn Dicey Jennings
Carolyn Dicey Jennings
6 years ago

I really liked physics in high school and I read some thoughts by Stephen Hawking in the Brief History of Time that I took to be a call for those interested in physics to do more philosophy. I looked for undergraduate programs that would let me do both, and the University of St Andrews had a program called The Logic and Philosophy of Science with Physics, so I signed up. After my first class on quantum I asked a lot of questions in tutorial and found the answers frustrating (e.g. “no one knows what that variable represents”). When my philosophy and physics classes conflicted and I could only attend half of my physics labs my grade started to suffer, so I made the full switch. The other person in my cohort, another woman, dropped philosophy for physics. I think that no one completed this program, in the end, due to the schedule conflicts.Report

Daniel Harris
6 years ago

I became bookish in high school after dating someone whose parents had gone to college and I started reading whatever fiction I could get my hands on at the local public library. I became interested in some of the theory behind what I was reading, and one day I added a book about satire to the stack I was checking out. When I got home, I realized that its title was actually ‘Sartre’. I think it only took me a couple of months of working my way through the library’s tiny philosophy section before I made up my mind.Report

Simon Blackburn
6 years ago

I intended to go up to Cambridge to read a humanities subject, and had more or less settled on English Literature. But the rather gruff admissions tutor (himself a historian) took one look at me and my background as a natural scientist, and just said “You can’t read English, sloppy subject, you won’t like it, moral sciences is the thing for you” I said “fine, what’s that?” and he said they would send me a reading list, which they did. The rest was just an ordinary love affair, but it has lasted fifty-three years now, and is still going strong.Report

michaela
michaela
6 years ago

I was waffling between pursuing an Africana studies degree, a Spanish literature degree, and a Women’s and Gender studies degree at a really incredibly wonderful urban state university, UMass-Boston, when I took two philosophy courses that fulfilled requirements for my major. I didn’t know what philosophy was. I’m still not sure what it is, but in a different kind of way. Anyway , it was in those two courses, and the introductory logic course I took the following semester, that for the first time I found people whose thinking seemed to be structured in the same sort of way that mine was. The closest thing I had found before that was mathematics, but I got quickly frustrated and bored with the unfortunate rote way in which the beginning of an undergraduate degree in math is taught. So it is really due to those first three philosophy professors I have ever encountered–who are also three of the greatest teachers and people I have ever encountered–that I started doing philosophy. So I’m really just commenting here to give a shout out to Lynne Tirrell, Lisa Rivera, and Nelson Lande –especially now that I sort of understand how much work it is to be an academic and a good teacher and fulfill all one’s other responsibilities (and joys) in life, I’m astounded by how good they are at their jobs!Report

Simon Cabulea May
Simon Cabulea May
6 years ago

I grew up in Pretoria in the 1980s. At school, we were taught a very particular conception of South African society. I liked reading about history a lot and began to discover various inconvenient facts that were not talked about much in class. I eventually won a national history competition in 1989; when I received the gold medal at my matric valedictory/graduation, I was much too intimidated by the occasion to remark how curious it was that those who studied South African history were rewarded with medals, whilst those who sought to transform it were rewarded with imprisonment, exile, or assassination. When I arrived at university in 1990, I joined the student movement and spent most of my time thinking/eating/sleeping/talking about politics. There was a very strong emphasis in the student movement on exploring the theory of the national democratic revolution, and this required thinking in a way that did not rely on the conventional opinions of white middle class society. So we already had to adopt something like the method of philosophical scepticism on a daily basis; the thought that we had been massively deceived by an evil demon was not all that strange a supposition. I was also very impressed by the courage of other activists who had experienced detention and torture, and did not hesitate to speak truth to power. They knew they were on the right side of the issue, and so could not be daunted by bullying from the administration or the police, etc. That became something of a lesson in the importance of taking great care to get things right. Since it was the people in the Philosophy Department who were asking the hardest questions about how to articulate and defend my political positions correctly, I ended up doing postgraduate work in philosophy rather than history. In a nutshell, then, I got hooked on philosophy because I was a political activist who was angry about ever being so naive and diffident.Report

Fritz Allhoff
Fritz Allhoff
6 years ago

I was a physics and math major at a liberal arts school (William & Mary). We had to take four classes in a humanities department–and the humanists had to take four classes in a science department. I picked philosophy because three of the classes in philosophy counted toward my math degree: beginning, intermediate, and advanced symbolic logic. Still had to pick one more, though, which turned out to be ethics because I was a varsity tennis player and it was the only one I could fit in with my practice schedule. And there you go, now I’m an ethicist… 😉Report

Travis N. Rieder
Travis N. Rieder
6 years ago

The hook was an undergraduate professor who clearly had the best job in the world. On my first day of college, I went to my Intro Ethics course, where I listened to a 50 year old hippy who kicked his feet onto his desk in class, swore a lot, and made me think hard about important questions. I simply had to do what he did for a living. Turns out, I’m a bit more into research than he was, and I don’t actually teach the same way he did; but I was right — this is a pretty amazing job.Report

Frank Jackson
Frank Jackson
6 years ago

My parents were philosophers. Many philosophers visited our house. I was fascinated by the discussions, which is not to say that I always understood them. This led to my enrolling in Philosophy 1 as part of my Science degree majoring in mathematics, at Melbourne University. I enjoyed the philosophy course more than the mathematics courses (David Armstrong’s lectures played a big role here), and did better in it–matters that were no doubt connected. I then enrolled in an Arts degree majoring in philosophy and found myself exposed to a whole range of challenging questions: what is the connection between mind and body, is ethics objective, what does physics teach us about time, is there an important distinction between primary and secondary qualities, and so on. I was hooked.Report

Samantha
6 years ago

I started in journalism but then decided I needed to know more about politics before I wrote about it. Took some political science classes at a university where there weren’t any political theorists and they kept telling me I belonged in philosophy, that the questions I kept raising in class and in my papers were philosophical questions. So off I went! Loved it from Day 1 and haven’t looked back.Report

Clement Loo
Clement Loo
6 years ago

I would blame three people for my initial decision to become a philosopher. Brian Grant, Bob Ware, and Charlie Martin. I was initially a psych major intending eventually to be a neuroscientist. I ended up taking an intro philosophy course with Brian Grant because I figured it would be an interesting but easy class that I could half-ass my way through while I focused on all the stats, anatomy, and biochem courses that would actually require my attention. As it turned out, I enjoyed that intro course that much that — not only did it become the course that I focused most on that semester — I ended up deciding to minor in philosophy. The next course I took was a political philosophy course with Bob Ware, which I actually bombed. However, that course introduced me to a number of questions that I had no idea how to answer and that continue to nag at me. For example, questions about how a fair society would look and about how a society could be structured such that everyone could fairly participate in governance. Encountering questions that I couldn’t readily answer and that I couldn’t even initially figure out how to think about made it clear to me that philosophy was important and that it addressed topics that deserved attention. In retrospect it was after this point that philosophy went from being something that I studied in class to something that was actually personally important to me. This set me up for being hooked for life, which happened after I took the last class that Charlie Martin taught before his retirement. Given that it was his final course, it seemed that he was less interested in actually teaching the class content (with the exception of some musing about John Locke) but, rather, was more interested in teaching the class the history of philosophy through the 20th century as he saw it (which really was just a collection of colorful stories of people he knew including John Wisdom, G.E. Moore, Wittgenstein, Bertrand Russell, and David Lewis) and the process of philosophy (looking for ideas that sing to you in the shower). After taking that class philosophy seemed to me to be a crazy adventure into a land of eccentric figures swashbuckling their way across a sea of fundamentally important questions.Report

Lee Braver
Lee Braver
6 years ago

First semester in college, Intro to Philosophy, Fear and Trembling. Still haven’t gotten over the shock. This semester, teaching Intro to Ethics, last book: Fear and Trembling.Report

James Camien McGuiggan
James Camien McGuiggan
6 years ago

I went to university to study music with the notion of becoming a professional composer. I had to double-major, so I took philosophy; partly because of universal-scepticism worries, but also because I was so uncertain about what I was doing as a composer – why am I writing hours of music, forcing poor musicians to practice unidiomatic runs for hours and poor concertgoers to listen to dissonances they can’t stand, when we have Bach and Beethoven? Ought I not go to medical school instead? These are questions I approached through philosophy; the plan was to find whether I was justified in writing music, and then go do so (or not). Ten years later I’ve not gone back to music (though I’ve never fully admitted I’ve left, and still play and write now and then) – but frankly not a day goes by that I don’t wonder whether I ought to go back, much as I love my the unmatched insight and banter you find in philosophy.Report

Ian Rumfitt
Ian Rumfitt
6 years ago

I was a mathematician in the sixth form. My school had just hired (to teach English) a young man who had lately completed the Moral Sciences (alias Philosophy) Tripos at Cambridge, where his main supervisor had been Timothy Smiley. He insisted that I should read a book called *The Foundations of Arithmetic*, by someone whose name I was not then sure how to pronounce. I was captivated.

About ten years later, while visiting MIT, I told this story to the still much-missed George Boolos. He smiled wryly and said ‘Nothing like starting at the top’.Report

Becko Copenhaver
Becko Copenhaver
6 years ago

I took a bit of philosophy in high school, though I wasn’t really aware that this was what I was doing–we read parts of Hofstadter and Dennett’s The Mind’s I, and I wanted more that, so I asked my dad and I think he gave me Plato. Cue teenaged eye-roll. Then my parents moved to Riverside and I met a bunch of the philosophers there and really liked them. I planned on majoring in East Asian Studies at UC Santa Cruz, but then I read Kant in an ethics course. It seemed vitally important that I understand Kant. So I begged David Hoy to let me into his upper-level Kant course even though I would just be a sophomore. After that, I blame David Hoy, who is a gifted, patient, wonderful teacher. I chose to apply to graduate school because of all the things I thought I could do (scientific illustration, poetry, printmaking, non-fiction writing) I knew that no matter how good I got at philosophy it wouldn’t be enough. I would never be satisfied. That sounded like a life-plan to me. No regrets, lots of gratitude.Report

Matthew Smith
Matthew Smith
6 years ago

Most generally, I was enchanted by the way in which studying philosophy taught me to view the world constantly anew.

More specifically, it was probably some combination of (i) being the youngest of three in a jewish family in which there were constant arguments/discussions about politics, news, and ethics at the dinner table, (ii) my step-father’s copy of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, which captivated me, (iii) an admired high school English teacher (Mr. Holmes) telling me to philosophy classes in college, (iv) enjoying physics but discovering that it did not come naturally to me, (v) absolutely loving my classes with Jaegwon Kim, Victor Caston, and Martha Nussbaum in college, and finally, and perhaps the genuine efficient cause, (vi) Jaegwon Kim telling me in college, “Matt, yeah. Uh, I think a few years of graduate study could be a good thing. It, uh, at least can’t hurt.” I think I missed the implicature but oh well.Report

Ruth Millikan
6 years ago

The questions were ones I wanted to know the answers to. It was as simple as that,Report

Josip Ciric
6 years ago

It was a temporary solution. At least that’s how it started.
When the war in Croatia started in the late summer of 1991. I just turned 18 and was a graduate student at local informatics high school. My wish was to study mathematics in Zagreb, but due to circumstances, I enrolled to sociology and philosophy at Zadar, my hometown. It was to be a temporary solution, untill the next year when shooting will surely stop; so I thought. Conflicts lasted until summer 1995. and in meantime I discovered to my pleasure there was a lot of math in philosophy. As well as psychology. So I enrolled it as my second major. Now I’m assistant professor in philosophy spreading a good word of logic.
You never know how is philosophy going to find you 😉Report

Kris McDaniel
Kris McDaniel
6 years ago

My girlfriend at the time thought it would be fun if we had the same schedule one semester. So we took all the same classes. One of them was Hud Hudson’s Introduction to Ethics. It blew my mind. I had no idea that people could use logic to argue about ethical issues. I was hooked. Prior to discovering philosophy, I was academically aimless and in general kind of drifting. I had vague ideas about playing in bands at night while doing manual labor jobs during the day. Philosophy became a calling. In a lot of ways, it saved me. I owe Hud Hudson, and all my other teachers at Western Washing University (Frances Howard-Snyder, Neil Feit, Tom Downing, Phil Montague, Ned Markosian, and many others) a tremendous debt, one that I will never be able to fully repay.Report

Thom Brooks
Thom Brooks
6 years ago

I discovered Hegel and became fascinated by his work. After degrees in music and political science, I left the US for Ireland where I spent a transformational year studying for a MA in Philosophy at UCD – and it was while I was there I decided this (philosophy) was what I wanted to do. An amazing department that inspires me still.Report

Michael Smith
6 years ago

The dumb answer is that I needed a fourth subject when I enrolled in the BA at Monash. I had had a high school English teacher, Mrs Hunter, who used to say to me “You really should do philosophy!”, so I chose philosophy to be that subject. I started university planning to be a French and mathematics major, but I very quickly switched to philosophy. Like many who make that switch, I found that philosophy was the only subject I really loved – I just took to it immediately. Looking back, it now seems obvious that what I’d really enjoyed when I was studying French were the plays written by the existentialists, and that I had always been interested in the sorts of questions that those plays dealt with – questions about freedom and choice, and more generally questions about the meaning of life – though I hadn’t really thought of myself as someone who could spend his time thinking hard about those sorts of questions. My mum used to classify people as shallow or deep, where the deep people were the ones who were really troubled by questions about what it all means. From what I could tell, given the people that she classified in the one way rather than the other, if you were deep, this meant that you were moody and inarticulate, from which it seemed to follow that I was shallow! It wasn’t until I did philosophy that I realized that there was something going on in those existentialist plays – something specifically about freedom and choice – that you could articulate in reasonably clear terms. I found the clarity of the answers that you could give to these incredibly difficult questions completely exhilarating.Report

Alan White
Alan White
6 years ago

Great story Kris. I really get your attitude about the debt I also owe to so many who helped get me here both as an undergrad and in graduate school in Knoxville. Every time I’ve seen Rich Aquila at APAs the beers are on me, for example. Despite a lot of bad going down in the discipline, we should celebrate the helping hands of genuine good will that explain why some of us are here rather than a probably worse elsewhere.Report

Shamik Dasgupta
6 years ago

Great thread! I recently wrote something about this here: http://rr.proquest.com/2014/07/shamik-dasgupta-philosophy/Report

Rob Lawlor
Rob Lawlor
6 years ago

I didn’t really do much work at school – and didn’t read much, for school or pleasure. Mostly played football (soccer). Left school and drove a van for a few years. For some reason, I read William Burroughs Naked Lunch and decided I liked reading after all. I read Herman Hesse, Sartre’s Nausea and Existentialism and Humanism, Brave New World, and Oscar Wilde, and then started writing myself. I went to university in my mid 20s, to study English Literature – wanting to learn to write. In the first year I had to study 3 subjects. I wanted going to do history of art and economics, but economics clashed with English. So I did philosophy instead. I wasn’t very good at English Literature or History of Art, but seemed to be quite good at philosophy. I think I decided I wanted to carry on with it from the 2nd year. (Even before I did philosophy though, people would tell me that none of my stories really had plots. Just people arguing about stuff most the time.)Report

Rob Lawlor
Rob Lawlor
6 years ago

Reading my own post, it seems I never did learn to write. Oh well, it is late!Report

Dave Estlund
6 years ago

I realized I wanted to know more about philosophy one day in high school (around 1975) when the music teacher, Jim Machan (whom I recently had a chance to thank), triggered an hour of Socratic discussion among the 6 of us about aesthetics. At the end, I woke up as from a trance (having been actively participating), and filed away the word “philosophy,” the name for this thing I recognized from my own private wonderings about whether I could be sure I wasn’t dreaming, or whether there were any standards except people’s preference. The first course I signed up for in college was Intro to Philosophy (Andy Levine) and it gradually overtook my art major. In grad school I started with…aesthetics.Report

Thomas Hall
6 years ago

Like Kris, my passion originated at Western Washington University. I remember my first philosophy class there, and in particular, the few weeks that we spent on the problem of free will and determinism. None of my classes had ever made me genuinely worried about something I took to be such an obvious truth – and moreover, one that had such a central place in my daily social life. More, the rigor of the argumentation was so refreshing compared to what you would get in an English class; there were numbered premises, clear lines of attack, rebuttal, reformulation-in-light-of-counterexamples, etc. So not only was the subject matter immediately significant to me intellectually, but the methodology gave me hope that progress was achievable and answers somewhere to be found. After that class, I wondered if I should be worried about other things, so I took a bunch of other philosophy classes. I was soon worried about lots of things. And despite all the worrying it caused, what had me hooked on philosophy was this growing feeling it gave me – that reality is such a fundamentally weird, mysterious place.Report

Lisa Shapiro
Lisa Shapiro
6 years ago

I read a fair bit of existentialist fiction, in part thanks to 10th grade French. By 12th grade, I had moved from Camus and Sartre to Walker Percy and John Barth. Also, that year, a friend introduced me to the word ‘causal’, which I initially read as ‘casual’, and we also saw a production of a Tom Stoppard play, ‘Enter a Free Man’, which I did not much understand. In college, while I majored in physics, I still took a philosophy course here and there. It was in Chris Gauker’s Philosophy of Language course that somehow a switch flipped, and I started to understand a bit better what philosophy involved. I realized that I was more interested in how physics afforded us knowledge of the world than in learning the physics, so I added philosophy as a second major. I learned even more about what philosophy involved from Joe Rouse, and got really interested in general philosophy of science. In grad school, to my continuing amazement, I found myself gravitating to the history of philosophy, but I think that’s because Descartes’s right, that reading these works is like having conversations with some of the most amazing minds. I would only add that those conversations are satisfyingly wide ranging and not so narrow.Report

Josh Parsons
6 years ago

I went to university in my home town wanting to double major in the two subjects I was most passionate about and which I’d been unable to study in school: computer science and theatre and film. In hindsight, this combination is probably a very good predictor for an interest in philosophy. The theatre and film department didn’t offer any first year papers – their programme started in second year and the only pre-requisite was two arts papers, so I enrolled for two philosophy papers and got hooked. At that time the first year philosophy papers at VUW were a smorgasbord team-taught by exciting young lecturers (notably Ken Perszyk and Kim Sterelny), and they had a very positive reputation for being fun papers. Ken, in particular, was a very effective lecturer, and I still emulate some of his teaching techniques. He once walked out of a class in protest at the students’ unpreparedness (I haven’t tried that one, but it is nice to know you have the nuclear option if you need it). Actually, if I was to list all the great teachers I had in that department I would just list the whole department. I didn’t realize until much later that I had learned a lot from Ismay Barwell and Max Cresswell. Max was a family friend, but I was lazy in my logic classes with him and towards the end of my time there I rattled out an essay for him that ignorantly savaged the role of formal semantics in philosophy of language. He gave me a B+, but I felt bad about it. Several years later I tentatively sent him a draft of a paper on the imperative mood that was my own first serious work in formal logic. He gave me very positive comments and afterwards made a point of greeting me and talking to me about some of his own research at an AAP conference; I knew I had been forgiven.Report

Travis Timmerman
Travis Timmerman
6 years ago

We once discussed the nature of art in my high school English class. What was art? What makes art good or bad? Although I didn’t really know what aesthetics was (or even philosophy for that matter), I remember being fascinated by the discussion. Those questions were in the forefront of my mind for weeks. I was intrigued by how much work could be done from the armchair and drawn to the difficulty of providing justified and correct answers to those questions.

I was actually exposed to very little philosophy in high school. We read some Locke and Hobbes in our government course and some friends introduced me to Peter Singer’s work on animal welfare. Singer’s work had a profound effect on me, but not immediately.

It wasn’t until college that I realized I wanted to major in philosophy and then pursue it as a career. I had originally planned to become a lawyer. My academic advisor suggested that I take a logic course to hone my analytical reasoning skills for the LSAT, which I did. I enjoyed the course and found it easy. Remembering that I enjoyed the work of the philosophers I read in high school, I decided to take another philosophy course and then another and then I eventually added philosophy as a second major. I enjoyed all of my courses quite a bit, but I still saw them as a means to becoming a lawyer. Then, in my junior year, I took an upper level ethics course with Doug Portmore and was hooked. I came to the conclusion that the work I would do in philosophy was going to be more important, and significantly more enjoyable, than the work I would have done as a lawyer. (I don’t know if it is actually true that I do more important work than I would have done as a lawyer since I don’t know what type of law I would have ended up practicing. However, I do know that I enjoy being a philosopher significantly more than I would have enjoyed being a lawyer.)Report

Gregory
Gregory
6 years ago

My first taste of philosophy was learning formal logic in school when I was 15. I decided that I didn’t care how, but I wanted to study logic, after that I realised that logic was a part of philosophy and I have been engaged in philosophy every day since, not just in logic, but also metaphysics, epistemology, existentialism, phenomenology, ethics etc. Indeed, I consider myself a philosopher, not because of my work in philosophy, but because of my love for it, and I hold true the the belief that philosophy cannot be taught, but it can be learned. One must learn to love wisdom, one cannot be taught to though.Report

Elmar Unnsteinsson
6 years ago

When I was 15 I knew nothing at all about philosophy, but was reading Malcolm X’s autobiography. I read there that, at the beginning of his eight-year prison sentence, he of course read lots of philosophers. He mentioned Socrates, but also that he didn’t respect Schopenhauer, Kant, Nietzsche. But I thought something like: If this is what you ought to read at the start of eight years of isolation, I should read it. So I read the Meno, wishing it would never end, and very soon I had gone through most of the dialogues. When I realized this was something I could actually do for a living there was no turning back.Report

Tom Hurka
Tom Hurka
6 years ago

One reason was bad, one good. I was kind of pretentious at high school, thought philosophy fit the intellectual bill, and was interested in it for that reason. I read Camus, Sartre, and things like that. (I also had the project one year of reading 100 books, which I did. Not all of them were short and it meant I had no social life.) But I was also interested in English and history and when I got to university I took two courses in each of the three subjects in my first year. The philosophy courses clicked best — the combination of more interest and more aptitude, I guess — and that’s what I went on to major in. The greatest influence that first year was an early-modern course taught in a very traditional way, where Descartes’s theory has problems that are solved by Spinoza’s, which has problems that are solved by Leibniz’s, and so on, so there’s a kind of linear progress from philosopher to philosopher. I don’t now find that a helpful way to think about the history of philosophy but it was great for a beginning student, because each thinker was presented sympathetically and as making a necessary positive contribution.Report

Gideon Rosen
Gideon Rosen
6 years ago

It was the 80s and I was taking mostly ‘theory’ in the French department. While I was taking Intermediate Semiotics (or something like that), my girlfriend was taking Theory of Meaning in the philosophy department (Frege, Russell, Davidson, Dummett). It didn’t take long for me to realize that she was making sense and I wasn’t.Report

Jen Baker
Jen Baker
6 years ago

I was studying in Ireland for a semester. Perusing the book shelves in the library, I pulled out Love’s Knowledge. It kept me there for hours longer than I meant to be (in a time before you could warn people about that with a cellphone); I was unable to stop reading. I just kept thinking, “This is the best book I’ve ever read.” It was so exciting. I mean, no joke, I think I remember my heart pounding! I had no idea work like that was even out there, that scholars could write with that kind of clarity of voice and with that kind of freedom. Before leaving the library, I saw that the author actually taught at Brown. Pre-internet, I was just left to wonder: was she still there? Would she be there when I got back? Could I possibly have gotten this lucky, that the best book I’ve ever read had been written by a professor at my school? When I got back I took as many philosophy courses as I could (regrettably enrolling in an offering for grads in philosophy of physics). One of them was Nussbaum’s class, which was so interesting that I’d sometimes bring friends along to show them what I’d found.Report

Charles W. Mills
6 years ago

Unlike most philosophers, my undergrad degree is not even in the humanities, but the natural sciences (physics). I’m Jamaican, and old enough that at the time I went to high school it was still modeled on the British system, where (at the time anyway) you specialized in three or four subjects in your last two years in school (“sixth form”) for “A-levels.” My favorite subjects were the humanities, but unfortunately the humanities teachers had left. So I did maths, physics, and chemistry at A-levels, which, given the lesser degree of flexibility of the University of the West Indies (British-modeled, again), meant that I then had to do a science degree. I was pretty alienated from the course material, but felt that having started the degree, I might as well finish it, which I did. But it had no relevance to the exciting things that were happening in the country at the time–the radical social justice movement of the 1970s (anti-colonial, anti-imperialist, anti-racist) for which the 1972 election of the social-democratic government of Michael Manley’s People’s National Party was a key factor. So I decided to go back to school (I was then teaching science in a polytechnic) and do a different graduate degree that would connect intellectually with the exciting cultural and political ferment of the time. I considered a range of options–English, history, political science–but eventually chose philosophy (despite having done only a single course in it) because of my naive young person’s conception of it as the subject that gave you the “Big Picture.” Through a Commonwealth Fellowship, I was able to do an MA at the University of Toronto, and then go on to do a PhD. There were no black professors in the department at the time (nor are there any now, decades later), but Marxism seemed to provide a suitably radical framework to conceptualize these issues (imperialism, exploitation, Third World underdevelopment, etc.). So I did a dissertation on Marxist theory, which would eventually lead me to other varieties of radical political theory. And so here I am, decades later, trying to contribute to the development of a black radical perspective in the discipline, and thus its eventual “unwhitening,” both demographic and conceptual/theoretical.Report

Julia
Julia
6 years ago

When I was in middle school, I read Sophie’s World. It is a novel that has a history of philosophy component, where a teacher writes letters about philosophy to a student. I thought the plot was kind of lame, but I wrote up meticulous excerpts of the philosophy bits. My high school offered philosophy as a concentration subject, so I did that. I liked that, in philosophy, I was allowed to think creatively, and that no one asked me to just regurgitate what was in the textbook. No questions were off limits.
I didn’t initially major in philosophy in college, because I was worried it would not be useful for having a career. But after half a boring semester of studying communication and advertising at an art school, I decided I just had to give it a try, so I enrolled for studying German and philosophy. I was in Germany, so I had the option of adding a teaching degree. That made me feel safer, because I knew I could always become a high school teacher if academia didn’t work out. But turns out, no plan B was needed!Report

Errol Lord
6 years ago

I went to college planning to be a journalist. I realized quickly in my first term that the lower level journalism classes were dreadfully dull. Meanwhile my large state university’s honors college required all freshman to take a year long great books class. I can’t say I was hooked that first term by this class as most of my thinking about it consisted in worrying about whether I’d get a decent grade (let’s just say my high school didn’t prepare me well to write in college). It did pique my interest enough to motivate me to sign up for two classes given by the philosophy department. One of these classes intrigued me (history of modern with Stephen Reynolds); the other class completely bowled me over and forever hooked me. This was the late, great, Greg Fitch’s metaphysics survey class. Greg was completely brilliant and a captivating teacher. Within two weeks of the start of the spring term I had switched to philosophy. Unfortunately I never got to thank Greg properly. Thanks, Greg. You’re missed.Report

David Sobel
David Sobel
6 years ago

I had read Heilbroner’s The Worldly Philosophers, which talks about the views of the great philosophers/economists, in high school and was captivated by it. So I thought I wanted to go into economics. But for some reason I thought of philosophy as one of the intro courses that of course one must take. Very quickly on I found that my economics classes frustrated me and my philosophy classes fit the way I thought better than any other subject I had found. The questions I wanted to ask about the reading were the questions that the prof was talking about. And the way the author’s argued made sense to me and the challenges to their position were the sort of challenges that would occur to me or, after I read them, wish that they had occurred to me. I had found the people who argued the way I aspired to argue and who were concerned with topics that felt gripping to me.Report

Eliana Rabinowitz
Eliana Rabinowitz
6 years ago

I started my undergrad as a math/biology double major, but got frustrated with the imprecision of the statistics used in biology. Since the computer science lab I was supposed to take my first semester wouldn’t fit into my schedule, I was placed by complete chance into an intro to moral philosophy class. I enjoyed the class, so signed up for symbolic logic the next semester since it counted towards the math major. I was completely hooked by a field that offers entire classes on how to argue well, so now I’m in grad school.Report

Barry Maguire
Barry Maguire
6 years ago

I got into philosophy to make a better case for certain socialistic principles that I grew up with in Glasgow. Departing from the theme of this thread only slightly, I thought it might be nice to share some words from the late great Jerry Cohen, in response to an undergraduate’s anxiety about whether philosophy is any good at this sort of thing:

“I think general recipes for what sort of work matters from a socialist point of view are, apart from obvious cases, not accessible to us. It’s all guesswork. Always remember what Humphrey Lyttelton said when he was asked “Where is jazz going?” He said: “If I knew, I’d be there already”.

And always remember time scales. Mill laid out the case for non-interference in self-regarding behaviour in On L in 1859. Roy Jenkins implemented pretty well that principle, at least for homosexuality, in the late 1960’s. For an exaggerated version of the point, recall Chou en-Lai’s reply to “What was the significance of the French Revolution?” He said, sometime in the fifties or
sixties:”It’s too early to tell.”

Abstract work reaches the ground through a thousand capillaries, if you will permit the cardiogeographical metaphor. Journalists, cabinet ministers, NGO leeaders learn abstract stuff at university that affects what they think and do.”Report

Scu
Scu
6 years ago

Sometime in middle school I got really interested in radical political philosophy (anti-capitalist anarchism, in particular). Also, I always had a talent for public speaking, had been winning school contests doing that since elementary school, and so in high school I naturally joined the debate team. At the time there were some new-fangled arguments called “kritiks” (yes, spelled like they were German), and because of my interest in radical political philosophy, I was interested in these philosophical arguments in debate, as opposed to merely policy and political arguments. Because of kritiks I started reading Michel Foucault, bell hooks, Judith Butler, Bakunin, Richard Delgado, etc. in my time in high school. But I knew that philosophy departments were dominated by analytic philosophy, so I assumed going to college I would try to study political theory, or if that didn’t work out maybe cultural anthropology or communication theory. Weirdly, the college I ended up going to didn’t have much comm theory, no cultural anthropology, only conservative political theory. What it did have was a continental and non-Eurocentric philosophy department.Report

Jon Kvanvig
6 years ago

I got interested in philosophy in a philosophy of religion class, prompted by a strongly negative emotional reaction to the quality of arguments in what we were reading as well as the joy of working to say exactly what was wrong with the arguments. But it was a professor–Don Baldwin–who recommended that I go to grad school, something I had never considered. (In fact, I started as an undergrad having no idea what grad school was!) And he said they’d pay me enough to survive to get to keep doing philosophy! I never thought about being a professor or teaching or anything like that: I just loved getting to think and talk about the stuff.Report

Laura Grams
Laura Grams
6 years ago

When I was in high school I was able to take a Symbolic Logic course at the local university (with Prof. Charles Sayward) and it was like getting free credit for doing fun puzzles! I also had a positive experience in Lincoln-Douglas debate much like David mentions above, which introduced me to Locke and Mill. I knew I might want to take philosophy courses in college but when I began we first had to read Plato’s Republic. It was the worst and stupidest book I had ever encountered; I was outraged by every part of it and particularly the proposed anonymous herd-rearing of children. Now I’m a Plato scholar. I can’t believe how lucky I am to actually be paid for this work! Unfortunately, to be entirely honest I still regret being a doctor. The more I study philosophy the more I love it, but the more I realize my time in the world might have been better spent being a doctor.Report

Mark Schroeder
6 years ago

I started college with the intention of majoring in math, physics, and chemistry, but due to advanced placement credit, there weren’t any physics or chemistry courses I could take my first term. So I enrolled in a comparative politics course and a philosophy course, to take care of some of the social science and humanity credits I would need. The comparative politics course was mind-numbingly boring, but I spent all of my free time emailing high school friends about what I was learning in Jennifer Manion’s “The Roots of Obligation” course. I signed up for three more philosophy courses in my freshman year – two of them taught by Manion. I also discovered a love for economics along the way – mostly because it seemed like an exciting application for both math and philosophy – and I still majored in math, but I never got around to taking a course in either physics or chemistry. I don’t know when I decided to go to graduate school in philosophy, but I remember telling someone so just after my freshman year ended. Eighteen years after that first course, I’m still trying to understand the roots of obligation.Report

Graham Priest
6 years ago

Philosophy deals with many things, and so there are many routes into it. Mine was through mathematics. I was trained as a mathematician, and during this I came across logic and the foundations of mathematics, which I found the most interesting part. It raised all sorts of issues, both technical and philosophical, in the philosophy of mathematics; and I found the interaction fascinating. When I obtained by first academic position (in a philosophy department), my eyes were opened to the rest of philosophy. I discovered that I had always been a philosopher at heart – though I had no idea that that was what it was. When I was a kid, I was brought up as a Christian (a view that I rejected when I was an undergraduate). I was puzzled by various theological issues – especially the problem of evil. Also, a central Christian moral teaching is that one should “love one’s neighbour as oneself”. I was puzzled as to how this related to many of the social mores of the time, such as the death penalty, gay rights (not called that in those days), the necessity of marriage.

So that’s how I got into philosophy. What keeps me there? Philosophy deals with so many issues. Nearly every domain of thought has philosophical aspects. So there has never ceased to be a fascinating array of things to think about. Some of these are technical, and can seem arcane. I still enjoy such issues. But many philosophical issues are ones where everyone has a view (not always held very thoughtfully): about religion, morality, politics. These are really important questions. And I love the fact that one can talk to anyone about them, even—perhaps especially—if they are not professional philosophers. So it’s not just the abstract problem-solving side of philosophy that appeals to me. It is the fact that it engages in a fundamental way with everyone’s life.Report

Philip Pettit
Philip Pettit
6 years ago

Raised in a religious background, I remember being giddy with excitement on discovering that by doing philosophy I would have the time and the right to think about the traditional big questions as to whether there is a god, whether we have free will, whether questions of right and wrong are resoluble, and so on; and not just to think about those questions but to read the best things that the best minds ever wrote about them. It seemed like heady stuff. It still does.Report

Jason
Jason
6 years ago

When I was a freshman in high school, I started reading philosophical novels with a guy who was in my Spanish class. We would even read them during class, because it was so easy and boring. We read 1984, Brave New World, Neuromancer, A Clockwork Orange, Crime and Punishment, and The Stranger. I found the ideas in these books very exciting, and I was eager to talk about them. I found a few people at my high school like me. One friend lent me her copies of The Fountainhead and The Handmaid’s Tale; another pointed me to Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, and Bach and The Mind’s Eye (co-written with Dennett). I soon ran across a popularization of Darwinian theory. These books opened up a whole new world of intellectual excitement, one that was far-removed from the conservative, mindless Midwestern city where I grew up. By this point, I was aware that there was a subject, philosophy, that dealt more directly with ideas, but the books that I tried to read about it were too difficult for me and seemed very dull. But in my senior government class, we read about the ideas of Hobbes, Locke, and the “Classical Republicans” of Ancient Rome, and their influence on the Founders. I looked at the original texts, and I was able to make some sense of them. I thought, “Maybe I can understand real philosophy, after all.” At that point, I thought I might be a journalist or lawyer, but after three years of studying philosophy as an undergraduate, I decided that being a philosophy professor would be better. One day, I thought, I’d really be able to understand some of the issues that fascinated me. Plus, I’d have more free time. Not sure I was right about either of these things, but it’s worked out okay.Report

Chris Menzel
Chris Menzel
6 years ago

I had been a musician playing in taverns and nightclubs in the Pacific Northwest but when my daughter was born that didn’t seem like much of a career for raising children. My dad was the head of a community outreach program at a small liberal arts college (Pacific Lutheran University) in Tacoma, Washington that gave faculty/staff kids a big break on tuition (which dad paid for, god bless him), so I went back to college to continue studying music with a career as a music teacher in mind. (I’d spent a year as a music major a few years before at Central Washington University but don’t remember much about my time there…) I started at PLU in the summer semester and took a course on early Near Eastern religions from a wonderful scholar and was completely taken with it (and with the whole scholarship thing), so much so that I decided I would major in religion. In my first full semester, however, I took an intro philosophy course and realized that the underlying issues that had excited me in my religion class — the existence of God, common values across cultures, the search for meaning — were more properly philosophical ones. I also loved my courses in physics and mathematics, but there too what excited me was the sense that they were windows into Very Deep Truths. I quickly realized that being a philosopher would enable me to weave these various interests together and study what I found most exciting in all of them.Report

Mary Gwin
Mary Gwin
6 years ago

After my father died and my mother was diagnosed with dementia, I took time off from undergraduate studies to take care of business. I eventually went back to undergraduate studies while working full-time. During the final phase of my undergraduate work, I read my first piece of philosophy, Plato’s Apology. I remember thinking that Socrates was courageous and admiring his clever argumentation. My mother died shortly after I finished my undergraduate degree. At that time I decided that I was going to study what I was interested in, not what I thought I should be interested in. I enrolled in a graduate level ancient philosophy survey course as a part-time non-degree seeking student, and then after that a graduate level philosophy of biology course in which we read Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. In both courses, I was in awe of the power of argumentation. Aristotle and Darwin were my hooks into a Masters program, which eventually lead to a PhD with AOSs in epistemology, logic, and philosophy of science.Report

Lucky Crumpler
Lucky Crumpler
6 years ago

I had no intention of going into philosophy. The idea was to spend a few years studying and move on. But then I met Art Danto, and everything changed. It was either late 1977 or early 1978. He was presenting some lectures, and somehow those of us in the department had the luxury of, essentially, hanging out with him for a few days. It was truly wonderful. He was already a hero of mine. My copy of “Nietzsche as Philosopher” was tattered. He was brilliant and funny, and everything he told us had that ring of eternal wisdom.
There were some very casual times, too. One of the guys asked him how we could make a living. He grew silent for a long time, and shook his head. He told us, with obvious regret, about the two forces that were working against us at that time. Philosophy departments around the country simply weren’t expanding. At the same time, no philosophy professors were retiring. Guys were working into their 80s and 90s. As a result, too many young people with doctorates were delivering pizzas, waiting for a position to open up (not that there is anything wrong with delivering pizza).
As for me, I’ve been working my day job for the last 35+ years, first as a lawyer, then as a judge, still waiting for a position to open up.Report

Nick Riggle
6 years ago

I dropped out of high school to be a professional skater, which involved a lot of traveling for demos, X-Games, advertising shoots, etc. In the downtime (waiting for airplanes and trains, driving through various countries), I discovered that I had a lot of intellectual energy. A combination of seeing different parts of the world, early career success, and being left to my own devices resulted in a need to find answers to questions I didn’t yet recognize as ethical, existential, philosophical. I began reading and studying a lot—way more than I ever did in high school. I read novels, studied music theory and the world’s religions. Before long I realized I loved philosophy. I was 20-21 when I felt like doing something other than professional skating with my life. It was obvious to me at that point that I should try to study philosophy in college. In California, where I grew up, there is a great community college system. I spent a couple years going to community college, and eventually I was able to transfer to UC Berkeley as a Junior. I was there only five semesters, and it wasn’t enough. So, I applied to graduate school. I was in graduate school for six years, and it wasn’t enough. Not sure it will ever be enough.Report

Austin Duggan
Austin Duggan
6 years ago

I spent my twenties scrounging for happiness in North Brooklyn during the decade of its notorious cultural shift. I made music. I toured. I wrote fiction and poetry. For money, I worked as a professional sound engineer. I worked with a lot of artists and “artists”; some famous, some not, some talented, most not. The lifestyle satisfied my creative urges. And it bestowed a sort of bohemian prestige. But it was stifling intellectually. To compensate, I began reading a good deal of literature in neuroscience and political science, two disciplines that had always interested me. Both led me to philosophy. The stuggle to solve philosophical problems (particularly those concerning political obligation, just war, mind/body, and mental causation) energized me. An addiction took hold. For years I studied philosophy so intently that even the darkness and noise of NYC’s loudest venues couldn’t distract me. Sometime in 2008, I was running the link for Sheryl Crow at Irving Plaza, characteristically huddled near my Midas console reading Kant’s Prolegomena by flashlight. The urge to change career paths overwhelmed me. Not long after, I enrolled in a CUNY philosophy program. Now I’m ABD at Cornell. It’s been a strange but worthwhile journey. Hopefully it’ll result in a job.Report

Tyler Hamrick
Tyler Hamrick
6 years ago

I have yet to get into undergrad philosophy at University of Delaware because I thought they required calculus for it (they don’t). I should get in there sometime during the summer semester. I probably won’t have to continue going to this community college after this semester!

Anyway, my answer is pretty simple. Philosophy is pretty much the only thing I’m interested in that would allow me to earn a living wage. I could go into dance, as an alternative–I’m naturally good at dancing (unlike philosophy, hehe), but it doesn’t carry the appeal that philosophy does.

Before I had decided on philosophy, I thought of being a social studies teacher; today, I realize I wouldn’t have the tolerance for high schoolers.

I’ve also thought of being a sociologist. But no, I’m going with philosophy!Report

Renee
Renee
6 years ago

In HS, a student teacher for my English class asked for volunteers to convince the class that the sky was yellow. My hand shot up! I gave the inverted spectrum argument, though I didn’t know it then. 20 years later I defended my dissertation on the the nature of qualitative mental states. We also read Camus, Sartre, and Dostoevsky. If I had known that logic was a subject, I would have been ecstatic!

I always liked to argue, raise objections, define terms, and consider thought experiments (and annoy my parents). I was on mock trial, student debate, and academic decathlon. I wrote well enough; I read a lot. I thought I wanted to go into international relations or law. I was not serious about school for a long time, and I did not come from an academic family. I took a couple of philosophy classes, which I loved, here and there at the first three undergrad institutions I attended; but I was also drawn to sociology, anthropology, and psychology.

I didn’t decide to major in philosophy until I was forced to choose a major. I read the entire catalog, looking for something that might keep my interest until graduation since my only goal was to graduate. The only major where *every* class looked interesting and important was philosophy. And that was that. As my senior year began, my adviser asked if I had considered going to to grad school because she thought I was good at it. I didn’t even know what grad school was, but it sounded good, though I was worried about student loans. She told me I would get stipends and tuition waivers. I eventually did, but I still owe more in student loans than I do on my house. In grad school I had classes with some amazing philosophers, and I was with the best cohort of grad students imaginable. I was very fortunate to have landed a TT job and to have earned tenure and promotions at good school doing what I want to do–teach philosophy. I only wish that other talented philosophers and philosophy teachers could say the same.Report

Jennifer Frey
Jennifer Frey
6 years ago

I went into philosophy because I didn’t find my other classes challenging. I had planned to major in History or English, but both were incredibly disappointing. My philosophy classes, by contrast, were kicking my butt. Plus, I thought my first philosophy professor, Paul Franks, was clearly the smartest person I had ever encountered (I don’t think I’ve ever been shaken of this impression).Report

Nick C. Sagos
6 years ago

A couple of years before graduating high school, I realized I knew nothing significant. Given my educational environment at the time, that was unlikely to change. Consequently, I started reading philosophy on my own. I was already reading fiction, which often addressed philosophical themes. Thinking back, the themes all related to ethical dilemmas in some way. Sometimes they did this obliquely. At other times, the themes related more directly. Years later in university, I studied both Literature and Philosophy. I recall my English advisor mentioning a switch to Philosophy for graduate work. He noted that I was always writing about what a text implied, rather than about the text itself. He reasoned that that tendency might be an advantage in Philosophy and a potential hindrance in English Lit. Of that, I remain unsure. What I am certain of is my gratitude. I am grateful for the instruction I received in Philosophy and for my colleagues who keep philosophy’s influence alive.Report

Sophie
Sophie
6 years ago

I started in the paralegal program at Mercer County Community College because, I don’t know, that seemed like a reasonable thing to do at the time. In the first semester we learned about the duties and salaries of paralegals relative to those of lawyers, and that just did not seem like a fair deal to me all. So I decided to become a lawyer instead. But I needed a BA for that, so I transferred to State U- which in my case, happened to be Rutgers. I majored in philosophy because my overachieving lawyer cousin told me that it was a good major for law school. My first semester at Rutgers was terrible. I took a giant religion oriented lecture course, which made absolutely zero sense to me. But my second semester was different story -mostly because of Theory of Knowledge with Peter Klein. I remember that He would start a lot of the classes with a puzzle or a paradox, and I guess I was pretty okay at those, and wrote pretty okay papers because he just assumed that I was applying to grad school for some reason… But once that bug was in my ear, it just started to sound better and better. The next semester I took Philosophy of Mind and Philosophy of Language. Naming and Necessity is what locked it down for me…. Growing up in Princeton, I never for one second assumed that academia would be anything but wack- and so far, it has been *pretty* silly. But honestly, I could do 100 hours of writing, reading, and talking philosophy for $350/week for the foreseeable future and not get remotely disgruntled. It’s that much fun.Report

David O. Brink
David O. Brink
6 years ago

As a kid, I spent a lot of time wondering if solipsism was true. Then I saw the confirmation process at my church as a chance to discuss the problem of evil, to the point where I doubted that the church should confirm an agnostic/atheist like me. But this being the early 70s and my church being Congregationalist, nobody else saw this as a reason for me not to be confirmed. I didn’t realize that these were philosophical issues or that philosophy was a vocation, rather than a pathology. When I got to college, I had no idea what to study. But my oldest sister was the smartest young person I knew, and she studied philosophy at Barnard and then, as a graduate student, at MIT. So I took philosophy courses at college. The first two didn’t stick. But when I transferred back to the University of Minnesota I ended up in Allen Buchanan’s history of political philosophy course, which was a revelation. Seeing Hobbes as employing a geometric method to derive morality and political obligation from self-interest was so cool. But, more generally, I loved the way he was able to recover logical structure from fascinating but confusing texts of Locke, Rousseau, Marx, and Mill. I had four very different but equally wonderful philosophy mentors at MN — Allen, Gene Mason, Rolf Sartorius, and Norman Dahl (and Mulford Q. Sibley and Terence Ball in political science). I would never have continued in philosophy if it wasn’t for their inspiration and kind attention.Report

Hilary Bok
Hilary Bok
6 years ago

What’s odd is that even though my mom is a philosopher, I really didn’t have any idea what philosophy was before I got to college. (Our minds work in different ways, and I think I felt: oh, thats her thing. Once I decided it was also mine, our phone bills skyrocketed.) In any case: I took an ethics course (taught by Tim Scanlon; thanks!) in my sophomore year, because it sounded more interesting than any of the other courses that met at 11am or later. By the second week, I realized that this was a course in which I got to think about the very questions that I was arguing with my friends about until late at night, which was why I needed courses that met late in the morning. And if I made decent arguments, I could get credit for them! Who knew? I had no idea that this was possible!

It took a while before I move from total love of ethics to the idea of grad school, but it was during that ethics course in my sophomore year that I fell down the rabbit hole. Thanks also to Stephanie Lewis, my TA.Report

Justin Snedegar
Justin Snedegar
6 years ago

All of these stories about precocious young philosophers reading Plato and Sartre at 15 are great. I did well in school but didn’t have many intellectual interests outside of that. I don’t think I read a single book that wasn’t required for school between the ages of 13 and 18 — definitely not more than a couple.

I went to college as a math major because I felt like I was pretty good at it and thought it was more interesting than the other things I’d done in school. Once I got to college, I thought my professors had the best jobs in the world. Like David Boonin, I decided pretty quickly that I wanted to go into academia — something that I didn’t even realize was a possibility in high school — but didn’t decide to be a philosopher until two or three years in. I started taking philosophy classes early on, mostly because I hadn’t heard of it before and I needed humanities credits. But soon I realized that what I liked about math — basically, puzzle solving — was present in philosophy, too. Eventually I realized I was better at philosophy than I was at math. But what cemented it was the really fun and active department at West Virginia University at the time. Sharon Ryan and Andrew Cullison, especially, spent many hours talking philosophy with a group of us and made me feel like I could do what they do.Report

Elly Vintiadis
Elly Vintiadis
6 years ago

I was studying psychology in college and was ok with it in general, thought it bothered me that so many fundamental questions went unasked. Then a kid in my class asked me to check out a book from the library for him and come registration time for the ext semester I found out he had left for Canada without returning the book. By the time I tracked down the book I had to register late and all the classes I was planning to take were closed. All I could take was an intro to philosophy course. I wasn’t particularly excited about it because, having grown up in Greece I had no idea what philosophy was- I thought it was just reciting what the ancients had said- a sort glorified classics, if you like. But when classes started a whole new world was opened up to me- not only I could ask the questions I wanted and was not dismissed, but I actually felt I was getting educated. What ultimately sealed the matter for me though was reading Hume on Induction. I was sold from that moment on.Report

Jon Trerise
Jon Trerise
6 years ago

When I was 17 I observed my much older brother teach a literature course. I thought I could do what he was doing (being a great teacher), but I had no sense about what, exactly. I loved literature, but somehow knew that wasn’t quite right for me.
I took a Sociology class in my freshman year and thought this was pretty interesting, but it wasn’t quite right just yet. The following semester I had intro to Phil, and that sealed it. I was excited to see that people talked about these fascinating issues in this wonderful way. I decided within the first couple of weeks that I must go to graduate school in Philosophy, and I became a good student from there on. (Also naming names: credit to Michael Holden (in Fullerton, CA) for convincing me each and every day that _this_ philosopher is the one who had it right. Until the next day, when he showed me the problems with the ideas the previous day.)Report

Jeff McMahan
6 years ago

I studied literature in college and even now I read more literature than philosophy. I found myself drawn to the writers (Swift, Johnson, Shelley, Ruskin, Eliot, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Huxley, Orwell, Styron…) who discussed issues that I thought really matter: how best to live, whether there is a god, whether we have free will, how to respond to evil and injustice, and so on. While I relished the beautiful and powerful language in which these writers expressed their ideas, I resisted being convinced by rhetoric and needed to see the arguments. I also had a friend who was clever and skeptical and seemed to win all the arguments we had. I was the analogue in philosophical argument of the 90-pound weakling in the old comic book ads for body-building. To avoid having sand kicked in my face by the philosophical bully, I needed some training. Graduate work in philosophy seemed to answer both needs.Report

Bradley
Bradley
6 years ago

I started my senior year of college not knowing what I was going to do with my life, having the spent the past 6 months doing an internship in my major that convinced me I didn’t want to make a career out of it. The natural thing to do in that situation is to keep going to school, as I had done for the past 17 years; it was comfortable. But in what? I decided on theology, and scheduled visits to a number of graduate schools. During the first visit, I had a free period where no theology class was scheduled, and I figured I should make the most of being there by going to some other class. Philosophy seemed close to theology (my undergrad had only one philosophy course — Intro — which I didn’t take), so I decided to sit in on Philosophy of Mind. They were discussing Jaegwon Kim’s “Mind in a Physical World”. By the end of the class I knew that how they were thinking about the issues — starting with what seemed true and giving valid arguments — is how I wanted to think about them. I didn’t submit any of the theology applications I’d started, and solely applied to do philosophy.Report

Ami Bar On
6 years ago

I am not sure yet that I “went into philosophy” and tell different stories about becoming an academic practitioner in a philosophy department. For one version of the story see my 2002 “An Apprentice’s Anecdotal Field Notes.” In Philosophy and Biography: At the Intersections. Ed. George Yancy. Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield. This version centers philosophy itself as a pull factor. But, there are two push factors hes well. One is that I was impatient about data collection (I would have probably “go into” sociology and more likely history, otherwise). The other, and in a way the more important one is that I was too poor to rationally choose to be an artist.Report

Ann Cudd
Ann Cudd
6 years ago

When I went to college I thought I would study civil engineering and sociology, but I soon found that I liked the physics class much better than the engineering class. So I kept going in physics and math, and soon learned that I liked the math better than the physics, and I was no good at setting up the labs with the electronic thingies anyway. Studying math led me to logic (initially through the book Goedel, Escher, Bach by Douglas Hofstadter) before it was too late to also declare a philosophy major, and by the time I was done with college I was hooked on philosophy, and I was better at it than I was at math, so I went to graduate school in philosophy.Report

Andrew
Andrew
6 years ago

A course on Adorno in the Music Department piqued my interest in philosophy, and I started to take some classes in the Philosophy Department. The sort of philosophy I then got on to studying was very different, but I found the questions intriguing and found I had a knack for the way of thinking and writing the subject involved. But music, art, and literature were really more at the center of my intellectual concerns, and I wanted to think about questions in aesthetics and about the sort of existential questions that the works of art I cared about most were raising. When I was studying abroad my junior year, I had as a supervisor a retired Cambridge don, and he and I would spend hour after after, well beyond the appointed period for the supervision, talking about many things, but virtually nothing from the syllabus (I don’t think we even had one, really)—instead talking about Wagner, Mann, Rilke, Nietzsche, among others, about heady questions and ideas that seemed to me to matter so deeply, but most of which didn’t fit neatly into the academic discipline of philosophy, or to admit of anything like an argument that could be set out in a rigorous fashion. It was on one of these long afternoons—one, I distinctly remember, when we were listening to the transcendent Act III of Knappertsbusch’s 1962 Parsifal—that I decided I wanted to think about these kinds of things as a career, if I possibly could. For various reasons, I thought at the time that graduate work in Music or German or Comparative Literature wouldn’t be feasible or fitting. I decided, to some degree faute de mieux as academic disciplines went, that I would study philosophy. So although I had some facility with and deep interest in philosophy, I didn’t feel an overwhelming initial pull toward the *discipline* of philosophy specifically. Though my interests have shifted and broadened, it’s taken a while to feel fully at home in the world of academic philosophy, and, if I am honest, I still don’t feel *entirely* at home here, even when I find so much of my subject very intellectually stimulating to think about, to write about, and to teach. I think it’s because the form of thinking I still love reading most of all is the kind my younger self was captivated by too, the sort in various ways at the academic margins, because it is less about neat arguments that could be published in a respectable journal and more about glimpses of edifying essayistic insight—the kind that we can also get from the great art, literature, film, and music that is trying to say something profound and illuminating about the human condition, without being able to mount an argument to back up what it says.Report

Meghan Sullivan
6 years ago

I came into college single-mindedly pre-law and pre-business. I’d also been very involved with debate in high school and college. My first semester, I had a gap in my schedule and decided to take a philosophy course on current and moral social issues. I loved it far more than any of my other classes—in particular, I loved that you could write papers with no “fluff”, just attacking and defending arguments. It was everything I loved about debate, but applied to problems that really mattered and that I chose (in some sense). I started taking more philosophy courses, then declared a second major. Between my second and thirds of college I did a pre-law study abroad program, which I absolutely hated and which caused me to finally give some real thought to whether my heart was in my career plans. Faculty at UVa—especially Trenton Merricks—encouraged me to think about philosophy graduate school. By then I’d also become hooked on metaphysics. I was fortunate to have great mentors in grad school (at Oxford and then Rutgers), and I love the close friends I made while in those departments. I’ve had the chance to work on some important and difficult problems, many of which have meant a great deal to me personally. I’ve never looked back.Report

Jerry dworkin
Jerry dworkin
6 years ago

I became a moral philosopher because my mother was a communist. I grew up in Manhattan as a “red-diaper” baby. This is a term for people whose parents were members of the Communist Party. In my case it was one parent. My father was a-political but my mother was a dedicated member of the party and remained so until her death.
One consequence of this was that at an early age I began reading Marxist classics on dialectical and historical materialism. As a high school student I attended classes in these subjects at the Jefferson School of Social Sciences which was a Marxist adult education institute in New York City associated with the Communist Party, USA. Among the faculty were a number of leftist academics dismissed from the City University of New York, including the school’s director, Howard Selsam. It had as many as 5000 students enrolled per term, but the Subversive Activities Control Board forced its closing in 1956.
Selsam was a serious philosopher who had his Ph.D from Columbia.
Although I abandoned belief in the philosophical system, as well as its political consequences, soon after I entered the City College of New York in 1955 the interest in philosophical ideas, and in particular normative notions,was the lasting legacy of mychildhood upbringing.
Although I was greatly interested in philosophy I decided not to major in it as it seemed very unlikely that one could make a living as a philosopher. Instead—after a one disastrous semester as an engineering student—I became a mathematics major. I did, however, take an honors minor in philosophy writing a thesis on the role of theory in science.
Still hedging my bets I decided to enroll in the fledgling logic and the methodology of science program at Berkeley rather than the philosophy program. But after two years I realized my heart was in ethics not mathematics and transferred into the philosophy department. I did get a masters degree in mathematics as a consolation prize with an oral exam by a committee including Addison and Chang. Its most amusing feature was after answering a number of answers correctly being asked what the fundamental theorem of the calculus was—to which my answer was “I have no idea.” Since this answer was true, I passed!
I was fortunate at Berkeley to be there for the three years that Tom Nagel was an Assistant Professor. He supervised my thesis—mostly long distance – since I spent one year as a Woodrow Wilson Fellow in London and then finished the thesis while I was an instructor at Harvard. The thesis was on the nature and justification of coercion and it contained the first draft of my article on paternalism— the most frequently reprinted article of mine. The general topic of coercion, particularly the question of what conduct may be legitimately criminalized, has remained a constant theme in my work.Report

Ruth Chang
6 years ago

I found Plato as a teenager, and, through a summer school class taught by Charles Martin, arguments against the existence of God. I was hooked.

As an undergraduate, I was told by a distinguished philosopher that I shouldn’t be a philosopher – someone ‘like me’ should be a lawyer. In the end, I just didn’t listen.Report

Roger Crisp
Roger Crisp
6 years ago

I tried not to go into philosophy. Luckily, my undergraduate tutor wasn’t in her room when I called to say that Locke’s *Essay* had made me want to give up the subject. So I persevered, got a little further with Locke, and then next term studied Mill’s *Liberty*. Since then, I’ve seen no overriding reason to give up.Report

Stephen Darwall
6 years ago

As a child of the Sputnik era, my high school education was focused mostly on math and science, though I did actually discover literature in my senior year. I went to college expecting to major in math and physics and without any idea of what philosophy is. In my sophomore year I took a course in Real Analysis taught by Shizuo Kakutani (of the Kakutani Fixed Point Theorem, and father of the wonderful Michiko Kakutani, book reviewer for the New York Times). It convinced me that I didn’t have the interest or talent for serious mathematics. Among other things, I never thought about math outside of the need to for my courses. Happily, I was taking my first philosophy course at the time and encountered there the possibility of using similar rigorous methods to think about things I really cared about. I’ve been doing philosophy ever since.Report

Matt Lister
Matt Lister
6 years ago

In high-school I had an AP European History class that had a lot of philosophical content, though I didn’t really know it at the time. We started out reading Machiavelli, and used his thought to think about various historical developments. We also used a fairly simplistic Hegelian approach to history to provide structure to our thought – in what ways were latter events a repetition of Henri IV’s “grand design” and things like that. That got me thinking philosophically with any rigor at all for the first time, though I mostly approached it via history. When I went to college, I at first thought I’d be a chemical engineer (I had several AP Chem credits, among other things) but got bored with the idea quickly. In my sophomore year, two important things happened: I was interested in relativity, and more or less by accident I bought Hans Reichenbach’s _The Philosophy of Space and Time_ at a book store, having no idea who he was or what logical positivism was, and became a sort of tiny logical positivist, spouting out about operative definitions and the like. I also took, at the advice of a friend of mine, a philosophy of religion class. It was taught by a professor from near-by Northwest Nazarene University who was teaching the class on the side. (A shout-out to Alan White above for this.) I’m ashamed to say I can’t remember the professor’s name now, as it was a sort of life-changing thing for me. I was in the process of growing increasingly skeptical of the religious views I’d been brought up in, and this class let me know that there were rational ways to think about the issues. For a while more I wasn’t sure if I should be a historian or a philosopher, but I eventually decided that while I really liked to read history, I didn’t think I’d like being a historian, while I would like to be a philosopher. The philosophy faculty at Boise State University at the time wasn’t the most advanced or up to date (though they had produced Hud Hudson, mentioned by Kris McDaniel above, a few years before me) but they supported me, taught me a lot about the history of philosophy, and gave me a good start. (I should also mention the support and influence of Joe Keim-Campbell, now at Washington State, who spend a lot of un-compensated time doing independent studies on all sorts of topics with me and other philosophy students, and Randell Holmes, a set theorist in the math department at Boise State who spent a lot of time teaching me about logic and talking with me about Spinoza and also the philosophy of mathematics, despite my having no special skill in it.)Report

Raphael Krut-Landau
6 years ago

Sophie’s World.Report

Alan White
Alan White
6 years ago

Matt–thanks so much for this. Your post was a sort of Baconish (Francis empirically as well as Kevin) six-degrees of separation from my own obscure teacher Jones to Hudson to Campbell to McDaniel–all of whom I’ve had some truck with. And all to whom I owe some debt of becoming a better (I hope) philosopher.Report

Corey Maley
Corey Maley
6 years ago

One of my high school math teacher, Emil Biga, made us write papers to answer questions like “Why can’t you divide by zero?” and “What is Euler’s number?” He would make us rewrite these papers until they made sense. It was frustrating–but ultimately fascinating–to try to precisely describe these abstract ideas (plus, why in the world weren’t we just solving problems in math class?).

In college, I was interested in Artificial Intelligence and cognitive science, and discovered that a lot of the books I found on these subjects were by philosophers. It seemed that they were doing something like what Mr. Biga asked us to do: precisely describe some tough, abstract concepts. I added a philosophy major, and later, when I discovered that I don’t have the temperament to do science, philosophy was the obvious choice.Report

Jack Woods
6 years ago

I started studying philosophy because I hated working as a programmer. I continued studying philosophy because it frustrated the hell out of me (it still does, of course). I ended up in graduate school because my coworkers at the Newton Department of Public Works weren`t interested in talking about the idiotic history of the Catholic doctrine of clerical celibacy.Report

Plato
Plato
6 years ago

My first plan was to become a politician as soon as I reached the age when I might be master of myself. But political upheaval in my city and the deeply unjust treatment of Socrates by the Athenian citizens made me see that it is only through philosophy that we can come to understand the ideal of justice in both public and private life. So I dedicated my life to learning. At first, it was mostly just hanging out at symposia and asking people to define things, but then I started my school and started working with students. The rest is history.Report

p
p
6 years ago

I didn’t think long enough about it.Report

Carrie Figdor
Carrie Figdor
6 years ago

I’m one of those who zigzagged into philosophy by trial and error. I went to a lousy public high school and somehow ended up at an elite liberal arts college. I signed up for political science and stayed there, highly intimidated by everything around me, and swore I’d never return to academia after I’d graduated. I became a journalist because I wanted to write, travel, and exercise my curiosity, and needed to earn money to do these things. (I think I wrote the most detailed analysis of the Venezuelan aluminum industry ever.) But I also had a nagging suspicion that I hadn’t ever really used my mind. I remembered from grade school reading Waiting For Godot and loving it, and so on a trip to Alaska bought a used copy of Beckett’s first trilogy of novels to read on the ferry. Intellectual crack cocaine! This led to a rather bizarre path of reading for a few years until the label “philosophy” finally popped into my head and bingo! I knew I wanted a Ph.D. in it. I applied to CUNY Graduate Center after considering (a) I could afford it and (b) if it’s in New York, how bad could it be? I recall the then-chair of the department calling me to ask if I knew what I was getting into. (Try to imagine my unfiltered application essay.) Somehow I had enough presence of mind to respond by asking, “Does this mean I’m accepted?” He said yes, and I kind of screamed (holding the phone away from my mouth). And so I began. It’s kind of sad, by the way, that this sort of trajectory is hardly possible anymore.Report

MA-Student
MA-Student
6 years ago

Only think I like to do.Report

Joseph Hwang
6 years ago

I took an introduction to philosophy class. We first covered existentialism. I read on the idea that life is meaningless apart from our actions in creating it, and that anxiety is related in some way to a recognition of one’s own freedom. I thought “Damn, this sounds totally right on – some French dude wrote hundreds of pages on this stuff? Awesome.” Then we got to philosophy of mind. I read about eliminative materialism. I thought “Damn, this sounds totally wrong – someone near my ‘hood actually believes this stuff? Crazy.”

Needless to say, I was hooked.Report

Brian Weatherson
6 years ago

My path into philosophy turns out to have been a cross between Frank Jackson’s and Michael Smith’s, which seems fitting given how much they’ve influenced me.

I went to Monash intended to do maths and (the Australian equivalent of) pre-law. I took philosophy almost on a whim because I needed a fourth subject in first year. But I soon decided that I’d learn much more about the formal stuff I was interested in by studying logic with Lloyd Humberstone than I would doing yet another turgid integration by parts in intermediate calculus. And this was right; I learned a ton from Lloyd.

I had ridiculously good philosophy professors. I got to hear Frank Jackson lecture on philosophy of mind in my first year, took philosophy of science with John Bigelow, and should have (if I hadn’t been so fussy about scheduling) taken Indian philosophy with Rae Langton. But the undergrad course that probably influenced me most of all wasn’t even in the Philosophy department. It was Michael Janover’s year long history of political theory course in the Politics department. Michael Janover didn’t have the scholarly reputation of the superstars in the philosophy department, but he might have been the best undergrad teacher I’ve ever encountered. I was fascinated by Euclid’s influence on Hobbes, and soon I was citing Rousseau in my law school papers. This turned out not to actually improve one’s law school grades as much as learning the file details of how to file complaints, and so I decided to go somewhere I could do theory-related work all the time. Twenty years later, I’m still doing it.Report

Rebecca
Rebecca
6 years ago

I got into philosophy because I was annoyed. I was in a high school English class aged about 15 when another student mentioned “reading Nietzsche” in a short story he’d written. I’d never heard of Nietzsche, and was annoyed someone else knew something about Germany and its intellectual history that I didn’t know. I found the Penguin copy of Twilight of the Idols in the local library after that class. It was the first book I had ever read that I couldn’t easily understand, yet the world looked different after I opened it up. I found myself coming back to it again and again, trying to understand it, and eventually bought my own copy. I laboriously looked up words and wrote notes in the margins. While bits became clearer, it remained baffling overall. I initially studied German at university, assuming we’d get to a course explaining Nietzsche as he was such a key German intellectual. After getting into trouble in German classes for arguing about word choices and reasons behind them, my instructor told me to consider studying in the Philosophy department. I read Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy over the weekend before I met with the Philosophy admissions tutor, thinking I should probably find out what Philosophy was. I was fascinated by Russell, and the mere fact that he discussed Nietzsche convinced me that I was on the right track with Philosophy. The admissions tutor raised a skeptical eyebrow when I mentioned Nietzsche (“Oh, him,”), and told me I’d find out about a lot more than that. He was right; I never did take a class on Nietzsche – but I did find out a lot about metaphysics, ethics, and the history of philosophy, and then did an MA focused on aesthetics. I stayed to do a PhD on Nietzsche for the sake of finally getting to study him; I finished the PhD, but am still trying to understand Nietzsche. And Philosophy, for that matter.Report

Nada Gligorov
Nada Gligorov
6 years ago

I was a psychology major and then I read the Meno.Report

BLS Nelson
6 years ago

I read “Sophie’s World”, and was delighted by the philosophy bits and horrified at the atrocious plot. I decided I would write a better philosophy primer, reasoning that my effort couldn’t be much worse than that one. Trouble is that I didn’t know enough philosophy to do it. So I sat cross legged in the philosophy section at Chapters, absorbing everything I could find. Russell, James, Sartre, Lyotard, even Ayn Rand.

Gradually I developed a sense of taste for the ideas. I found Mill’s “Utilitarianism” to be almost religiously compelling. I spend much of my research time trying to recapture that lost feeling of delight.Report

Patrick Lin
6 years ago

I did it for the lulz.Report

Elisabeth Camp
Elisabeth Camp
6 years ago

I got into philosophy to avoid literature, not fully successfully: I ended up as a double major. After college, while working in adult education, I realized I could now pretty much read novels and poems, but still got frustrated reading philosophy on my own. Then I convinced myself first, that if I was going to continue teaching basic literacy skills, I really needed to understand how language worked. Second, I decided I might want to teach community college. The best way to get students talking about Things that Matter was clearly through literature — philosophy was way too abstruse to occupy anyone who wasn’t already weird. But since I couldn’t stomach the idea of a graduate degree in critical theory, I formulated the dubious plan of attending grad school in philosophy for my own intellectual satisfaction, while somehow making myself appear as if I could teach literature. Thanks in large part to TAing classes on figures like Heidegger and Nietzsche at Berkeley, I discovered that philosophy can indeed get lots of not-obviously-already-weird people excited about Things that Matter. Since I was having enough fun, and making enough of a difference, to make it seem worthwhile, I slowly decided I might stick with it, at least for the time being.Report

Douglas W. Portmore
6 years ago

My college required that I have two areas of concentration outside of my major (biology). For me, that meant I had to minor in some area in the humanities. But nothing on the list of possibilities appealed to me. Yet there was one subject listed that I didn’t know anything about: philosophy. So I asked my mom what philosophy was. She said that you get to argue a lot, and so I would like it. Having no better ideas, I declared a minor in philosophy. My first two course in philosophy were an intro course taught by Dick Arneson in which we read Plato’s _Republic_, Ayer’s _Language, Truth, and Logic_, and Kuhn’s _The Structure of Scientific Revolutions_ and a practical ethics course taught by some graduate student in which we read Singer’s _Practical Ethics_. Between the fact that I couldn’t put Singer’s book down and the fact that Kuhn’s book convinced me that if I was really interested in getting to the most fundamental truths that science wasn’t the place to look, I switched to philosophy as a major.Report

John
John
6 years ago

My mum wouldn’t let me be a footballerReport

David Kretz
David Kretz
6 years ago

People here seem to take the question for the “why” mainly as a question for the “how”. Isn’t the former more interesting, though?

I study philosophy because it gives me the freedom to engage with a wide range of subjects – problems that don’t fit neatly into any one discipline, or tie several of them together: the biggest and ‘strangest’ questions.

Moreover, I found that when study philosophy, if done the right way, being smart is not enough. Understanding complex arguments and patterns is only one aspect. Really great philosophy forces you to face question of the highest importance – and in taking that challenge we begin a great journey on a personal level, too.

That, to me, has always been one of the most rewarding aspects of studying philosophy.Report

MK
MK
6 years ago

Philosophy first captured my attention as it was a place where I could try to make sense of the world. What is justice? What is fairness? Why don’t the rules of the world make any sense? Who makes the rules? Why doesn’t society or the social, legal or political systems work in some way that seems logical? I was raised in a very strict religious home and family group that was dominated by physical, sexual and emotional violence yet everything was justified by reference to God’s Will. If I broke the arbitrary rules that were set by others then there was a good chance I was going to die. I knew that I was going to be injured. Being able to think for myself or reason was all I had but it is difficult to survive when every part of your existence or being is possessed or directed or influenced by others. All of my choices were stolen or restricted or limited and taste preferences or wants fulfilment were beyond my reach. Where else can you engage with others and discuss concepts of personhood and citizenship, the ability to exercise free will and autonomous choices let alone rational choices when you are unable to physically or mentally possess your own body or thoughts, let alone enjoy some forms of freedom of expression? Questions about economic, religious and physical autonomy, free will or self ownership and individual responsibility, capabilities, capacities and and choices are all considerations and reflections that drive many philosophers. Philosophy has been a place of refuge for me to seek these answers in a manner where other theorists contributions and arguments should be reflected upon and considered with some dignity and respect towards their contributions yet it’s a place where my own story is brought to the heart of my own expression in my work. I know this is the same incentive and drive that has motivated other theorists and their work so philosophy must also be viewed as a place of refuge that lifts wounded spirits and aids them to soar… or maybe it is just that the pain and confusion drives the real determined quest for answers?Report

Christian Iannone
6 years ago

I am not a philosophy major but taking this ethics class has been really interesting because you get to learn a lot of what certain people can think and also why they have that point of view. The one thing that attracts me to philosophy is that it doesn’t leave any reasoning to a certain situation out of the picture. As far as ethics goes, I’ve always been one to think deeply about beliefs of certain topics, at least when they come to my mind through a discussion for example. One topic that I can think of where everyone’s viewpoints can be taken into account is a popular topic about Abortion. I have heard the two stand points of pro-life and pro-choice but there are some people that think somewhere in between that tend to have some interesting thoughts. This is simply an example of how philosophy attracted me is because all viewpoints are taken into consideration. The endless amount of possibilities for viewpoints on topics is fascinating because it’s almost a guarantee you can find out new standpoints on topics you’re interested in.
By taking this ethics class, I have only skimmed the surface of philosophy and the knowledge it brings to the world. If I was able to take more philosophy classes I probably would because of the reasons I listed above. To think that there are more standpoints on topics or events as well as a different perspective that I can look through interests me. Getting into ethical discussions (sometimes arguments) is something I tend to learn a lot from about people and their standpoints. Philosophy is a very interesting topic and I am glad I was able to take this ethics class to see some things that philosophy is about.Report

Gary Bartlett
6 years ago

Went to university intending to major in Law (this was in New Zealand), and so I enrolled in the big, year-long first-year Law course. I also took a couple of Phil classes, thinking that logic & ethics would be good support for law. I also took a couple of Psych classes, thinking that some knowledge of the mind might be useful and interesting. But as it turned out, I really didn’t like the Law course at all (and my grade reflected that). Whereas I loved both the Phil and the Psych classes (and my grades reflected that). Never took another Law course. Ended up double-majoring in Philosophy & Psychology. By the end of my undergrad years, I was still hugely enjoying both subjects, but Philosophy had the edge over Psychology, so I applied to grad school in the former.Report

A
A
6 years ago

The crazy-yet-somehow-undermining thought experiments. Frankfurt-style cases anyone?Report

Devora
Devora
6 years ago

Me (on paperwork for entering college freshman): Intended Major: Philosophy and Chemistry
My Dad: You only picked chemistry because I do physics, and you don’t even know what philosophy is!
Me: Dad, it turns out there are more sciences than just physics and chemistry, my major choice isn’t actually about you, and sure, I have no idea what “philosophy” is, but I’m pretty sure I’d be good at it.
True story. By second semester freshman year I was taking Kant’s first critique with the grad students.
It is true that this is a “how” story, but I fail to see how that is necessarily distinct from the “why”. So many assumptions about intentionality….Report

Anonymous
Anonymous
6 years ago

I began my educational career as a musician, but I didn’t want to teach a room full of cranky primary school kids how to play rhythm instruments and sing. So I quit school, became a performer and conductor, wife and mother, and had a semi-successful career in liturgical and folk music. But lacking a college degree, I was always underpaid and on the brink (or over the cliff) of financial disaster.
Fast forward 20 years – I re-entered school, this time as an English major, to learn to write better. My second semester, I encountered philosophy as a GE requirement. I had absolutely no plan to get involved with philosophy which was as unfamiliar and dangerous to me as alchemy. But that first class was taught by a very gifted teacher who walked us through a survey of Plato (Republic), Descartes (Method of Reason), Rousseau (First and Second Discourses) and Nietzsche (Beyond Good and Evil). Eventually, I was struck by all the intersections of philosophy with my Literature and Theology studies, as well as my musical background. I fought the draw hard. Philosophy is not a field of stud for those who wish to escape poverty. Then I saw how it informed politics, mathematics, and science. It became clear to me that Philosophy was the root of all other learning. Besides that, it was fascinating. I was hooked. I would wake in the middle of the night with huge questions on my mind. I felt like I was thinking for the very first time and really living my life. That first semester made me take a good hard look at who I was and what I was doing with my life. I experienced what could only be called a conversion. I will never be the same.Report

Bob Mosby
Bob Mosby
6 years ago

For two reasons initially: (1) I was moved by the first paragraph of Bertrand Russell’s Autobiography as well as fascinated by the rest of Volume One and (2) a fellow Infantry officer, who had majored in philosophy, was not only clever in discussion but routinely delved more deeply than I was practiced at doing into matters I thought important. We were in Vietnam and perhaps that concentrated the mind.Report

Thor
Thor
6 years ago

I was an English Honours student. We were spoon fed a lot of highly dubious French-influenced theory. I took philosophy courses, thinking to myself: “philosophy can’t all be as poorly argued, tendentious and fashion-dominated.” It wasn’t and isn’t.Report

Mike
Mike
6 years ago

Mark Edmundson’s 5000-word essay in Harper’s Magazine (Dec. 1989) entitled “Prophet of a New Postmodernism: The Greater Challenge of Salman Rushdie” not only explained why “The Satanic Verses” was so subversive, it also introduced me to the equally subversive ideas of Richard Rorty.

I never looked back.Report

Bob Nelson
Bob Nelson
6 years ago

By chance, I read Hume’s argument on necessary connection early freshman year. I wanted to know if it could be refuted. Majored in philosophy in college and history in graduate school. Then gave up the whole scholarly project and had a 36 year career in a large corporation becoming a vice-president. Now I have switched to collecting first editions of Hume’s works (have almost all of them). No regrets – I am comfortable as an optimistic skeptic.Report

DocRitus
DocRitus
Reply to  Bob Nelson
4 years ago

Cool story.Report

Komal
Komal
6 years ago

I was interested in some philosophical questions as a child, but I didn’t know such a field as Philosophy existed. I thought the questions I was interested were scientific, but realized over time that the sciences were trying to answer different questions, and I wasn’t satisfied just studying them. When I was 14 someone gave me Sophie’s World, which was how I discovered that there is a field called Philosophy where people try to answer questions I had been thinking about by myself in my room*. One day I actually ran around my tiny school several times because I could not contain my excitement, and when I encountered a classmate I waved the book and shouted “I’ve found my home!” It’s all very silly in retrospect, but I’m still glad I went through that to get to where I am now.

As soon as I got a chance to study it formally, I did, and I knew I wanted to major in it. As for why I went into it: I can’t think of a particularly exciting answer; I was just interested in those questions, and in being in that highly rational and clear headspace. I now think that the usual methods of philosophy are not enough to answer those questions, but are nevertheless important tools.

* If this is surprising, please keep in mind that this story unfolded in the late 90s in Peshawar, and the early 00s in Islamabad. And yes I realize that Sophie’s World is a pop-philosophy book for teenagers, but it’s the spark I needed at that time.Report

Antonio Pignataro
Antonio Pignataro
4 years ago

It was like a magnet for me. This word: philosophy.
Like a charming and mysterious woman, she captured me.
Like a mom she fed my curiosity and my doubts.
She broke all evidencies and this is the part that I love more.
Report

Sara L. Uckelman
4 years ago

Because I read Lewis Carroll’s “What the tortoise said to Achilles,” and thought “That’s what I want to do.”Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
4 years ago

Theoretical physics started to seem a bit too practical.

(Seriously, I got very interested in conceptual foundations of physics during my PhD – in part due to the wonderful faculty and grad students in the philosophy of physics group at Oxford – and for relatively contingent reasons it’s easier to pursue that sort of career in philosophy than in physics at the postdoc stage, so I retrained.)Report

Tom Hurka
Tom Hurka
4 years ago

In high school it was one of the things that seemed cool and intellectual.
In first year university my philosophy courses, especially Descartes to Kant taught in a Hegelian way, were what I liked best and seemed best suited to intellectually. (Going further in English would have been a disaster.) So …Report

Jason Brennan
4 years ago

From my 3 am interview:

3:AM: You’re a new political philosopher on the scene. What made you become a philosopher? Is it politics or philosophy that drives you?

Jason Brennan: At the end of my junior year, I was broke. I realised I would have to take a semester off to work full-time in a factory, pay off my debts, and make enough money to transfer to and pay for my state university. I can tell you the exact date I realised I wanted to be a philosopher: May 2, 2000. On that day, I was packing my dorm room, sweating with worry that I would never finish college, that I would disappoint my grandmother, who’d hoped I’d be the first person in the family to get a college degree. I was wondering what I’d do even if I did go back. As I was packing my bookshelves, I realised that — despite having taken only two philosophy classes at that point — my shelf was packed with philosophy texts. On a whim, I decided to investigate what it took to become a philosophy professor. When I read on the internet that graduate school was not only free, but that they paid you to go, I realized I actually had a chance. Four days later, I was working full-time, making semi-conductors at Analog Devices. But I had already crafted a life-plan — I was going to be a philosopher. Back in 9th grade, a world civilisation teacher convinced me that ideas drove history. I wanted to know what the drivers thought. I bought Locke’s Second Treatise and an anthology of Marx’s works, since Locke had influenced the American founding, while Marx had influenced the Soviets. I originally went to a college with an understaffed philosophy department. Thus, I ended up studying economics, chemistry, and history instead. After I took a semester off to work full-time in a factory, I made enough money to transfer to my state university. Luckily for me, that new school had a much better philosophy department. I enjoy political philosophy, political psychology, and the economics of public decision-making. But I’m not interested in politics per se. I don’t watch conventions. I don’t campaign. If there’s a theme in my recent work, it’s that we have too much reverence for political power and government. We have a romantic view that through government, we can come together and make decisions together in way that expresses our status as equals. On the contrary, I think a good society is one in which politics doesn’t matter very much.Report

Alfred MacDonald
Alfred MacDonald
4 years ago

at age 15 or so, I used to start arguments with virtually everyone I could, because when you’re ADHD and unmedicated and get off to conflict this is incredibly stimulating. arguing and playing video games was at one point all I did. I was extremely competitive and broke a few world records on some video games; you can probably still find them, my gamer name is/was ‘arch0wl’ and I joke that I was raised by Asian gamers on the internet, as parents and teachers were virtually absent from my life between the ages of 12-17. I did not go to middle school and the only accomplishments I valued were those that were self-evidently difficult to get, such as world records or records many people tried to do and could not. I am still this way to a large degree — the only way to get me to care about accomplishments in a visceral way is to have some form of leaderboard for them.

when I started reading the Socratic dialogues at 16, the sense of competition and love for arguments converged and I was obsessed and didn’t do anything else for a few month. it was like a person who gets into fights all the time finding MMA or boxing — I actually had some sense of order for something that seemed otherwise lawless, and could have an external 3rd party decide who was ‘winning’ the argument in a way that wasn’t personal. I now reject the idea of ‘winning’ an argument entirely, but to a hypercompetitive high-testosterone sixteen year old this was like a pardon from the president or something.

I went to school with crips and baby mamas at the time. it was a charter school for kids who had been suspended from their high school for some reason or another, or who had fallen off the academic ladder. most of the girls there were pregnant. the high school I went to was so bad that people at the inner city high school here in San Antonio can hear what high school I went to and say “oh shit.” within one month a student there had already killed someone. I was one of maybe five white guys out of 250 people, and to this day I’m still not used to being in majority-white locations. we cycled through 5 math teachers and 3 principals in a semester. at some point I thought “if I don’t do something, I will be an anecdote like everyone else here.”

for some reason, someone thought it would be a good idea to make this charter school self-paced, aka you learn directly out of a textbook with minimal assistance from teachers. this was horrible for 80-90% of students there, as they would just show up to school to deal drugs or smoke between classes or whatever. (the bathrooms were such a clusterfuck that they had pee not only all over the toilets but on the walls and even the ceiling. I don’t know how that happens.) for me, though, this meant actively taking ownership of what I learned and having some sense that I earned my knowledge as opposed to just having it absorbed by way of a teacher lecturing me for an hour.

this was incredibly freeing, and combined with my recent discovery of philosophy I had a renewed reason to stay in school as I felt like there were important things I had yet to learn. were it not for philosophy and that charter school, I’d probably be a high school dropout.

nowadays, I do philosophy because I care about truth/truthseeking on a visceral level. it matters a lot to me, and this is especially true if I care about minimizing how wrong I am / maximizing how right I am, which I obviously do.

however, after introspecting on this quite a bit I think it’s truer to say that I do philosophy to avoid the anxiety that happens if I don’t do philosophy. in other words, doing philosophy is like taking a huge shit:

* I don’t actually find philosophy that much fun, or that enjoyable

* however, if I don’t do it, I am increasingly bothered until I’m pretty much forced to do it, and the longer I wait the more troublesome it is

* every time I do it I end up reading vastly more content than I had anticipated, and wonder how most of it got there

* afterward, I feel an immense sense of relief and satisfaction having gotten it all out

btw: every time I post here, I get like 20-30 academia.edu searches. guys, I am not part of academia, nor will I be, because the speech limitations are suffocating. yes I have an account, but that’s just to stalk philosophers whose papers I want to read later. chill.Report

Dale Miller
4 years ago

Reading the old comments I’m not surprised to see that I’m not the only person who was first exposed to philosophy through debate, and Lincoln-Douglas debate in particular. The die was probably cast then, although I started college as an econ major, changed to political science, and only added philosophy as a second major later.Report

patrick
patrick
4 years ago

all the wrong reasons

i.e. everything except likely having health insurance and food on the table post-grad school, says myself and especially those from underprivileged backgrounds that unfortunately entered this field and find themselves unemployable now Report

Henri Perron
Henri Perron
4 years ago

I read Ishmael by Daniel Quinn. It made me realize just how much thinking there is to do and just how little thinking occurs.

It also serves as a reminder to me now: most philosophers start with the big “The world is fucked. What do?” questions in mind, but end up falling down a more specific rabbit hole. A friend of mine got into philosophy because of the very same book, and the two of us ended up working on very different sets of questions (she works in philosophy of language, I in phenomenology). I like to think that, in light of having started at the same place, we’re both working on the same big question — just through different smaller questions and methodologies.Report

wkdawson
wkdawson
4 years ago

It was the first subject that made sense in high school. If even one teacher in some other subject had shown the courage to say “I don’t know”, maybe I would have taken a different route. Then again, maybe it is simply because that confession “I don’t know” is so central to the heart of good philosophy.

It is also a center, allowing one to search in all other directions. I became deeply side-tracked and involved in science as a result of philosophy, because I really wanted to understand this _part_ of epistemology. However, to really understand science takes many many years of practice and experience. I gradually see how science fits in the picture and complements other tools in the epistemology bag, but I still haven’t found a way to articulate this clearly and concisely. So the journey continues.

I once heard that, in the UK, people would earn a philosophy degree quite late in life. If that is true, it basically makes sense to me, because it is difficult to understand life, oneself, and what our limitations in understanding or knowing are until we have really had time to live out and test that understanding. It takes a life time to even begin to understand. We must learn (and then relearn again and again) before we can finally “see”. I don’t know if I will ever finish this stage; it seems I am more like a philosopher in training and the journey has only just begun.
Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
4 years ago

I went into philosophy because I wanted to know fundamental truths about the universe. That’s still my main reason for being involved, although I now recognize the good philosophy can do for society too.Report

jack browne
2 years ago

Just a deep thrill when I had the sense of “that’s a true thing!” when I first read philosophy. I couldn’t believe that other people thought like that, and couldn’t believe there were college courses in thinking about things. Love, really.Report

Attila Csordas
2 years ago

I decided at 14 to contribute to the scientific understanding of biological aging and the technological development of tools counteracting it in order to provide opportunity for everyone to live healthier and longer lives. With this narrative constructed, am living under the tautological principle of the meaning of my life being …my life, with ‘meaning’ as an identity function. 🙂 But, at the time of getting my biology degree I had a ‘slight’ intellectual problem of understanding the concept of time underlying the processes of aging. What do we measure here really? Other, deeper conceptual problems followed. Eventually my philosophy MS degree was dedicated to the moral and political problems of systemic regenerative medicine leading to open-ended lifespan. Then I went back to science, mitochondria, stem cells, bioinformatics, whatnot. Now am writing a book (blog) about these problems, called Open Lifespan, informed by deep insights into a so far neglected domain by philosophers and found the particular angle to explore it, using thought experimentation and being a philosophical chameleon offering a new filter for well established concepts and arguments.Report

Shane Stroup
8 months ago

I started out in the sciences, but all the interesting questions seemed to be “tabled” or simply dismissed as “philosophical”. So I decided to explore philosophy a bit further. I now have my PhD and have been teaching Philosophy for over ten years. Best choice I ever made!Report

Wes McMichael
Wes McMichael
8 months ago

I was extremely religious. I graduated from a fundamentalist Christian college with a biblical studies degree and went on to complete to masters’ degrees at Evangelical seminaries. When I began questioning and ultimately gave up my faith (as a pastor at a Baptist church), I was reading a lot of atheist “philosophy” (scare quotes, because it was mostly bad philosophy from the New Atheists). That drove me to my philosophy PhD.

I was an arrogant prick atheist and I started my PhD studies to write about how stupid theists were. What I actually learned as a philosophy student was how stupid and ill-informed I was … about almost everything. It was a truly humbling experience.

I teach philosophy to teach humility and respect for rigorous thinking and questioning. I love showing my students that extremely intelligent and good people can disagree fundamentally about things like the existence of God, abortion, political philosophy, etc. but do so with respect for one another. I challenge them to draw their own conclusions and argue for them passionately but to always listen charitably and be humble enough to recognize the intelligence and sincerity of others with whom they disagree. I teach them to hold their positions tentatively and be willing to change their minds when being presented with better arguments.

I think philosophy made me a better person. It taught me humility. It taught me not to demonize people and positions with whom/which I disagree. It allowed me to admit that many who disagree with me are better read, as sincere, and often much smarter than I. The guy who started philosophical studies would have never recognized the great and brilliant theist, libertarian, pro-choice, etc. philosophers out there. While I still think “my side” (i.e liberal atheist) is correct, studying philosophy helped me be a better and more humble listener. I hope my students come away with the same. Report

Daniel Swaim
Daniel Swaim
8 months ago

At age 21 or so I enrolled in a junior college. Of the three courses I enrolled in, the first one I sat down in was a philosophy class (intro to ethics, I think). It was the first time in my life that I enjoyed being in a classroom. So, I kept taking as many courses as I could, all the way up to getting a PhD.Report

Ken A
Ken A
8 months ago

As a freshman, I was assigned to an interdisciplinary course called “Mythos and Logos”. During one class, questions about the nature of mathematical truth came up. After class, walking down the hall with one of the teachers, I struggled to express my naive, formalist thoughts on the matter: “Math has axioms that are like nozzles that spin and swirl around and through which you pour various colors of paints, resulting in beautiful but meaningless pictures.” The teacher, Evelyn Fox Keller, knew what I meant. She said, “Georges Rey is giving a lecture on Godel’s proof tomorrow. You should go. It will blow your mind.” I went, and it did.Report

Perry Hendricks
8 months ago

I got into philosophy for the fame and fortune that comes with it.Report

Ben Serber
Ben Serber
8 months ago

It was the only subject in college that I could get A’s in without working harder than I wanted to. It turns out this is a bad criterion for choosing a career.Report

anon
anon
8 months ago

Seems like it might be worth doing a survey of this that can be aggregated. (could this be included in the phil papers survey mentioned a while back?). That said there is value in the nuances of the individual answers. Report

Vojko Strahovnik
8 months ago

Primarily because of two things that occurred while I was in high school. The first was that the philosophy teacher stated the semester with Aristotle’s syllogistic logic which seemed particularly fun (compared to other classes). The second thing was reading the collection of Pre-Socratic philosophy and being impressed by several authors, in particular with Gorgias and his pieces on non-existence.Report

Bill
Bill
8 months ago

Complete happenstance. I was in a Ph.D. program studying X (not philosophy) when I met my wife. I followed her out of the state and eventually dropped out. A few years later I decided to try the Ph.D. again. Unfortunately, the X program at the Ph.D.-granting school closest to us looked dull, and we couldn’t move. I flipped through the catalog and found philosophy. There was a note on a department handout about philosophy of X, but it turned out that those people had left or retired by the time I arrived. But I took an ethics class and one on Plato anyway and I liked them. As an undergrad I had had only two philosophy classes (Intro and Logic). I’m now tenured at a comprehensive university.Report

AMM
AMM
8 months ago

I was a much better philosopher than I was a dancer, and the odds of securing stable employment in philosophy were way higher than in dance. Report

Bruce P Blackshaw
Bruce P Blackshaw
8 months ago

I studied mathematics and computer science, became a software developer and eventually co-founded a successful software company. I had always been interested in Christian apologetics, and over the years realised that if I really was interested in arguments about the existence of God, I needed to study philosophy to get a better grasp on epistemology and so on. I finished my BA in philosophy, and by that time was interested in bioethics. Now nearing the end of a part-time PhD in bioethics. Later than most people, but still plenty of time to make a contribution.Report

Neil Levy
Neil Levy
8 months ago

My brother and sister, a few years older than me, both did first-year philosophy and both hated it. They both advised me not to take it myself. My sister, who I was close to, told me I’d hate it too. Uncharacteristically, I followed their advice and enrolled in English. But these were the days of High Theory and I drifted toward that. High Theory was continental philosophy plus cultural studies: a weird mix of Deleuze, Adorno and Star Wars. I ended up writing a PhD that was more or less philosophical, on Foucault, Sartre and Heidegger (sadly, no Star Wars). For entirely pragmatic reasons, I then decided to learn about this weird thing called analytic philosophy, and ended up doing a second PhD on free will. I never found out what I would have made of coursework in philosophy: I still haven’t taken a single class (for the sake of those cruel people who might want to say it shows: I know).Report

Josh Dever
Josh Dever
8 months ago

I wasn’t good enough at math.Report

Paul Hamilton
Paul Hamilton
8 months ago

Luck, an unwillingness to take on debt, and great professors.
In 10th grade, a teacher recommended I read Plato because I was interested in questions of justice. I bought a book of dialogues and found it inscrutable. I thought “oh well, maybe actual philosophy isn’t for me.” When I graduated high school, I didn’t have the funds to leave home and go to the schools with good biology programs that I wanted to attend. I would have studied biology or economics at UAHuntsville, but (among other things) the textbooks were really expensive.
As someone interested in everything, I took a philosophy course with Dr. Wilkerson (who only assigned incredibly cheap primary texts), and he couldn’t get rid of me. (I think I took six classes with him) Still not knowing what I wanted to do, I considered law school, but 1) am debt averse, 2) kept reading stories of how the market is flooded with lawyers looking for jobs, and 3) was in an accident on my way to my LSAT testing center (I did eventually take it, but maybe it was a sign). During my second year of applying to graduate programs, late on April 15th, I was lucky enough to move up Mizzou’s waitlist and receive an offer with funding. Not only would I not have to take on debt, I’d get paid to study! It was too good to pass up, and despite some bumps, I’m glad I finished my degree there. Sure, there is the difficult question of what to do now given the state of the job market, but I have been lucky enough to mentor some incredible students, meet incredible scholars, and learn to enjoy performing in the classroom. I’m going to miss it enough that I don’t regret trying (and failing) to make a career of it. Report

ajkreider
ajkreider
8 months ago

I went to college as a devout conservative Christian. Majored in physics. I took philosophy first term to meet a liberal arts requirement. The professor started the first class by asking each student their religious beliefs, and after the last student, she then pronounced, “Well, I’m an atheist”.

That pissed me off, as it seemed the point of the exercise was simply to make students uncomfortable. So I decided that for the rest of the term, I would defend the opposite of whatever position she took. And in the process, got hooked ( and so much the worse for my religious beliefs). Report

Christian Munthe
8 months ago

My grades from senior high was too crappy for me to get into any of the programs I mostly desired in my teens (teaching, journalism). I therefore applied to a bunch of different liberal arts/social science courses at university, and happened to be accepted into a 1 year philosophy course. I had little idea of what it implied, as the philosophy I had been exposed to up till then was Camus, novels by Sartre and Nietzsche and some high school history of ideas and religion under the false flag of philosophy. When I was exposed to the real thing, it was an immediate love and success. I was quite surprised, but very happy. However, it took me a couple of years to work up the courage to go for it for real.Report

Wes
Wes
8 months ago

I experienced some things in childhood that caused me to ask some fairly fundamental questions. Unfortunately, nobody told me these questions were canonized within an entire field and nobody really fostered my curiosity with any sincerity. After a rather remarkably awful first try at college studying remarkably banal subjects, I decided to not continue wasting my money and began traveling instead. After a number of years of that, I looked back at everything I’d written and everything I’d read and noticed a trend — everything was philosophy and I was finally able to recognize it as such. So the bright idea struck and I went back to school to study this endlessly fascinating subject. I wouldn’t trade in this most “impractical” of degrees for anything in the world. Report

Paul Musso
Paul Musso
7 months ago

I chose philosophy because I find too many things interesting, and it allowed me to think about all of them.Report