I Can, Therefore I Am

I Can, Therefore I Am

Philosophy is smarter than you think

by Chris Hayes

Philosophy might be the deepest word in the English language. Philosophy defined pertains to the study of problems, general and fundamental, that make life matter. Just about anything associated with life has problems, lots and lots of problems. Philosophy finds its depth by going anywhere to find and confront these sticking points, including such places as existence, knowledge, values, reason, horror, time travel and even punctuation.

“I can, therefore I am.” — Simone Weil | 1909–1943 | French philosopher, Christian mystic and social activist

Philosophers depend on critical, systematic methods in their professional contemplations. They focus on rational arguments when rumbling with problems. Oddly enough, mass perception imagines philosophers with their coconuts in the cloud cover. Just the opposite is true. Philosophers are down in the trenches with the toughest problems, butting heads and getting their brains dirty. They have calluses on their gray matter.

Philosophical titans and tots typically list at least 10 (and oftentimes more) philosophers on all-time top 10 lists. The Greeks—Aristotle, Plato and Socrates—make the cut almost every time even though they worked overtime to give philosophy a popular image caked in fossilized boredom. Locke, Kant, Nietzsche, Descartes, Confucius, Sartre, Spinoza and Wittgenstein  are all celebrity mononyms in philosophical spheres, just like P!nk or Elvis or Oprah or, uh, Confucius.

“You need chaos in your soul to give birth to a dancing star.” — Friedrich Nietzsche | 1844–1900 | German philosopher, poet, composer and cultural critic

Alas, women typically miss the cut when major polls come out listing humankind’s greatest philosophers. Some observers suggest androcentric obtuseness at a cultural level robbed females of the time, outlook and education they needed to explore their higher mindscapes. Others feel women are too practical and earthy to be attracted to the austerity often associated with analytical hunting grounds.

Whatever the reason, female philosophers are not absent from a more thoughtful account. Think Enheduanna and her Moon God, Nanna. Think Hypatia and her pagan hero, Plotinus. Think Ayn Rand and her happiness child, Objectivism. Think Héloïse and her secret husband, Abélard. Think Simone de Beauvoir and her one goal, freedom. Think Iris Murdoch and her terrible comedy, life. Think Hannah Arendt and her global focus, power.

“Reserve your right to think, for even to think wrongly is better than not to think at all.” — Hypatia | ca. AD 350–415 | Greek philosopher in Roman Egypt

Gender aside, the top qualification for a top philosopher usually pans out as a misplaced heartbeat. But hold on. Several living philosophers are making a splash beyond the bone yard. John Searle, a professor at UC Berkeley, is a wizard in the uncanny cosmos of artificial intelligence. His major philosophies center on the mind, language and social behavior. He’s hitting his stride at 80.

Alvin Toffler, a board member of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, penned Future Shock and The Third Wave, and became the world’s foremost futurologist, which is a kind of philosopher, especially when the People’s Daily, a Communist organ newspaper with 2.4 million readers, names you one of the 50 most influential foreigners who shaped modern China. Toffler’s a baby at 84.

“The future always comes too fast and in the wrong order.” — Alvin Toffler | 1928–present | American writer and futurist

Saul Kripke, a professor emeritus at Princeton, is a kingpin in the realms of mathematical logic, philosophy of mathematics, metaphysics and epistemology. The winner of the 2001 Schock Prize in Logic and Philosophy, Kripke is regarded by his fellow philosophers as one of the top 10 most important philosophers of the past 200 years. And he’s skipping along in his early 70s.

Tamar Szabó Gendler is a philosophy professor at Yale University. Gendler also chairs Yale’s Department of Philosophy. She received her Ph.D. in philosophy from Harvard. Her current interests include philosophical methodology and learning more about the mysterious relationship between imagination and belief. Her earlier philosophical work took on metaphysics and epistemology, including perceptual experience and personal identity. Gendler is 47 going on wow!

At first glance, philosophy might seem overbearing, maybe even opaque. But eggheads by the carton might say philosophical thought is a like a river—it just keeps flowing no matter what anyone thinks. And wouldn’t you know a philosopher said it best. His name was Heraclitus of Ephesus, aka, the Weeping Philosopher and Heraclitus the Obscure—and yes, he’s dead. What did Heraclitus say?

“You cannot step in the same river twice.”

College Philosophy Rocks and Rules

Now you know more about philosophy than Homer Simpson or even Kim Kardashian. (Believe it or not, a Twitter account exists called KimKierkegaardashian, a mashup of celebrity Kardashianisms and the musings of Danish brainhead, Søren Kierkegaard.) But what’s all this deep thinking got to do with the student in the street, that wary soul who spots Intro to Philosophy on the general education horizon?

Wes Jorde | Philosophy InstructorWes Jorde teaches philosophy and English courses as part of the general ed curriculum at Dakota County Technical College. Jorde holds an M.A. in philosophy from the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee and an M.A. in teaching from the University of St. Thomas. He completed his B.A. at Luther College with majors in philosophy and English and spent a year studying Scandinavian languages and culture at the University of Bergen in Bergen, Norway. Jorde is interested in the philosophy of language, Continental philosophy, poetry, theater and Scandinavian culture. He taught his first class at DCTC in 2005.

Jorde’s philosophy regarding the teaching of philosophy centers on practical skills and knowledge. He designs his courses so students build skill sets in analysis and writing they can put to work in the real world.

Jorde has been drawn to philosophical concepts ever since Claire Van Zant, his high school humanities teacher, gave him the heads-up on headwork. Van Zant’s lectures on the importance of ideas expressed through Shakespeare’s play, King Lear, made a lasting impression on Jorde’s way of thinking.

“Who is it that can tell me who I am?” — William Shakespeare | 1564–1616 | Playwright | King Lear, Act 1, Scene 4

“In my classes, students take philosophy seriously,” Jorde said. “I see the media as often encouraging biased and incomplete thinking. I work against this. I encourage patience and thoughtfulness.”

Jorde emphasizes composition in his classes so that his students develop the habit of giving their thinking structure. They learn how to support their ideas with evidence while thoroughly explaining the connections they see.

“We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark; the real tragedy of life is when men are afraid of the light.” — Plato | 423–347 BCE | Classical Greek philosopher

“Analyzing the original writings of influential philosophers is important for students. It’s one thing to consider a philosophical idea; it’s another to formally criticize Plato’s writing,” Jorde said.  “Philosophy can help students begin thinking outside the box.”

To draw student interest to his Introduction to Philosophy course, Jorde often introduces traditional topics through contemporary issues, including:

  • Mind/body problem (Introductory topic: Apple’s Siri)
  • Employment and freewill
  • Political elections and truth
  • War strategy and ethics
  • Film and aesthetics, and themes of good and evil

Jorde noted that DCTC’s diverse student body provides a rich background for philosophical discussions. Below are four students who benefited from Jorde’s philosophy coursework and teaching style.

Philosophers in Action
Julie Rixe | Course: Medical EthicsIn Medical Ethics, students learn that decision making in health care can involve considering a variety of points of view as well as ethical theory, religious ethics, federal and state law, institutional policy, and professional codes.

A Practical Nursing major scheduled to graduate in winter 2013, Julie Rixe, 45, has worked as a freelance court reporter for more than two decades. Her new career goal is focused on becoming an LPN on the RN track. Rixe noted that her Medical Ethics coursework reinforced her conviction that she needs to remain open to the different ways people understand the issues in their lives. Feelings can play a major role when people work to comprehend their environment, often adjusting facts and distorting judgment.

“So many facets go into making a decision or forming an opinion,” Rixe said. “Few things are black and white.”

As part of her coursework, Rixe composed an outline for a research-supported presentation that approached a medical dilemma from the viewpoint of an ethics committee. The dilemma regarded a premature infant named Charlotte Wyatt and how her parents fought a Do Not Resuscitate order requested by the infant’s physicians. Charlotte had already been resuscitated three times and was in dire health. Rixe concluded that the committee should recommend a court-ordered DNR. Reviving Charlotte would do more harm than good because her life would be dominated by pain and suffering. Rixe quoted medical ethicist, George Pozgar, in her paper: “The consequential theory of ethics emphasizes that the morally right action is whatever action leads to the maximum balance of good over evil.”

Rixe’s favorite aspect of her Medical Ethics course was listening to her classmates during discussion periods. “By studying ethical ideas and sharing our points of view, we can learn to be more respectful and tolerant of each other. The class showed me how much I’ve grown and matured as a person.”

Medical Ethics is required in the following programs:

Rob Otteson | Course: Introduction to PhilosophyIn Introduction to Philosophy, students discuss and criticize texts written by philosophers from a variety of periods and cultures with an emphasis on the practical value of the ideas.

When Rob Otteson took Wes Jorde’s Intro to Philosophy course, the first thing he realized was that he has observed the world with a philosophical overview for his entire life—he had just never put a word to his perspective. A Lakeville, Minn., resident and heavy duty truck and trailer technician with Xcel Energy, Otteson majored in Management for Technical Professionals at DCTC, earning an A.A.S. degree with plans to take on a management position at Xcel. Otteson is currently working on his Bachelor of Applied Science in business at Southwest Minnesota State University.

Reading about and contemplating the ideas of legendary philosophers stood out as Otteson’s favorite part of the Intro to Philosophy course. He also enjoys talking philosophy with his 12-year-old daughter, Emily, who once remarked,”If it wasn’t for you, Dad, I wouldn’t be getting any of this stuff.”

Immanuel KantApplying philosophical thinking to his role in the workplace as well as to popular culture, including reality-bending movies like Donnie Darko and The Matrix, are other ways Otteson makes philosophy a pivotal element of his everyday life. “Philosophy allows me to think beyond my own limited world,” he said. “The more I study the works of the great philosophers, the more I realize I have more to offer than just turning wrenches. I want more challenges for my mind so I can discover my full potential.”

Otteson wrote a formal essay on the value of philosophy based on the thinking of British philosopher and Nobel laureate, Bertrand Russell. He continues to read the works of Immanuel Kant in his spare time. Kant is the all-time great who wrote the crystalline line: “Science is organized knowledge. Wisdom is organized life.” Kant is also widely regarded as one of the most grueling philosophers to comprehend.

As Otteson’s instructor, Wes Jorde observed: “Rob reads Kant for fun? That’s amazing!”

Introduction to Philosophy can serve as a general education requirement and fulfills goal areas 6 (the Humanities and Fine Arts) and 9 (Ethical and Civic Responsibility) of the Minnesota Transfer Curriculum.

Cierra Baumgartner | Course: EthicsIn Ethics, students learn to explain connections among values, ethical theory and the real world.

A native of Olivia, Minn., Cierra Baumgartner, 20, is a triple threat, majoring in Graphic Design Technology, Multimedia and Web Design, and Entrepreneurship/Small Business. In January 2013, Baumgartner started her own graphic design business called Cierra Rose Design. Her first foray into Jorde’s Ethics course opened her eyes to the incredible number of different ideas people can have about a single issue.

“People come from different backgrounds and that can really shape how they view the world,” Baumgartner said. “We can’t stop at first impressions. We need to take the time to learn more about each other and why we think what we think. That is a best first step to helping solve the world’s problems.”

Baumgartner’s early encounters with feminist philosophers took her by surprise. Andrea Dworkin’s writings in particular struck her as boisterous and propped by anger. Even so, she saw Dworkin as another opportunity to step back and view another person’s ideas from a more understanding perspective. For Baumgartner, ethics means finding common ground by taking the time to listen.

ConfuciusAs it turns out, her favorite philosopher is Confucius, the Chinese thinker who built a system of morality, sincerity and justice for both individuals and governments. Confucius is famous for numerous sayings, including: “I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.”

Baumgartner wrote a paper for her Ethics course about how Immanuel Kant’s theory of good will cannot be realized through his own standards of behavior. One of her arguments targets Kant’s beliefs regarding dehumanization, which cautions that we should never use another person only as a means to an end. Baumgartner argues that people do that very thing on a daily basis as a matter of course. Far from dehumanizing, that need to depend on each other makes us all the more human.

She has already applied her new conception of ethics to her work as a graphic designer. “We have many different types of clients,” she said. “Some are relaxed and easygoing. Some are intense and want to control everything. Ethics helps me keep a level head because it reminds me to take the time to put myself in their shoes. We need to stop and think about what we think and feel. Why should we automatically assume that what we believe is right?”

Ethics is required in the Legal Administrative Assistant program and fulfills goal area 9 (Ethical and Civic Responsibility) of the Minnesota Transfer Curriculum.

Adam Krick | Course: Critical ThinkingIn Critical Thinking, students develop skills that can be used in their approach to their work and to navigate the World Wide Web.

Santa ClausWhile pursuing an Individualized Studies A.S. degree at DCTC, Adam Krick, 28, of Apple Valley, Minn., had the good fortune to wander into Wes Jorde’s Critical Thinking class, an occasion that has transformed his take on his day-to-day routine.

“Critical thinking has caused me to slow down and really start to notice the fallacies that are all around us in politics and in the media,” Krick said. “This course has changed the way I think. I critique my own thoughts and that has altered the way I speak in general conversation.”

As part of his coursework, Krick completed an in-class essay that applied Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” to the global Santa Claus myth. Krick supports Plato’s line of reasoning, noting how critical analysis at a personal level is essential to dispelling ignorance. People must learn how to think for themselves. Poor Santa could not stand up to the light of all that critical thinking.

SocratesSo far, Socrates has emerged as Krick’s favorite philosopher. Along with a crew of Buddhist brainiacs, Socrates basically invented critical thinking, which can be defined as reflective reasoning aimed at nailing down the veracity of beliefs and actions. Socrates is the ancient genius who said, “Give me hemlock or give me death.” No, wait, that’s not it. What he actually said was this: “Wisdom begins in wonder.” He later added, “The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.”

Krick is looking ahead to earning a four-year degree and launching a career as a biologist. “I would like to work as a field biologist in the outdoors, possibly with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service,” he said. “Dan Stinnett, an environmental science instructor at DCTC, inspired me in that direction.”

In the world of biology, Krick knows he will continually build on his critical thinking skills. “Biologists are faced with major problems in terms of resource conservation,” he said. “As a biologist, I will need to step back and grasp the big picture.”

Critical Thinking is required in the following programs:

Philosophy in the Future
Dancing Bears by Kim HunterAs early as 1956, Ivan Sviták, a notable Marxist humanist philosopher who escaped Communist Czechoslovakia, was asking this question: What will be the role of future philosophy in society? Here’s Sviták’s answer: “Whatever the synthesis will be, it is still very probable that it will be the infinitive universe of man’s personality, into which the thinker will send out his anthroponautic research satellites.” Okay…what?

Wes Jorde and his students can probably make sense of that statement, but for now we must rely on Jorde’s own perception of a field that dates back to the 6th century BCE and the ultimate Taoist sage, Lao Tzu (that’s him at the top of the page), who once said, “To the mind that is still, the whole universe surrenders.”

Naturally enough, Jorde views the study of philosophy as a crucial step on any academic path no matter what the century. “Philosophy at DCTC is important,” he said, “because philosophy prepares students for employment by helping them prepare for life.”

For more information about Philosophy at DCTC, contact:
  • Wes Jorde
    Philosophy Instructor
Study of Philosophy by Bohdan Hostinak