War and Philosophy – Mahmoud Rasmi
I. Awareness of death, and the Search for Meaning
I grew up in Lebanon, a war-torn country, with fifteen years of civil war under its arm (1975–1990). Growing up, I was exposed to all kinds of war sounds, jet-fighter missiles hitting targets and razing buildings to the ground, whistling of shells, bullets sprayed in all directions, RPGs shot from one balcony to another. In short, the circumstances dictated that I become aware of death at an early age. You see, when you don’t have anywhere else to seek refuge in during wartimes, the only thing you have left is to live in the moment, despite the fact that you are stuck at home not able to go anywhere beyond extremely narrow parameters.
I can still smell the whiff of natural gas leaking from the nearby station which was attacked by jet missiles, making its way through my bedroom window. I cannot recall what was the cue that tipped me off into realizing that something wrong had happened. Was it the concatenated explosion noise, or the smell of the gas? But that is not really important. In the split of a second, our neighbors (of the very few who had not left the building until then) rushed downstairs, two kids and their parents, got into their car and cruised to a safer place. My cousins were visiting us from Egypt, and on their third day, they woke up to a completely different world, one they had only heard about from their parents, and seen in Hollywood movies.
The anecdote above is not meant to elicit the sympathy of the reader, though. I thought I would start with this story because it really captures the moment the philosophy seed was planted in my head. The summer of that year (2006) was a transitory one from high school to college. I was excited, and enthusiastic about finally making it to the ‘independent’ league, where I would freely choose my schedule, and would be able to showcase my rapper swag. Little did I know that university was not going to be a walk in the park.
Although I had many encounters with death, and lived through several episodes of interminable clashes and offensives between 1989 (effectively 1996 is the first incident I am actually aware of) and 2006, the mark each predicament imprints on the memory varies as a function of age. In my imagination, what were weird noises of an aircraft going supersonic did not translate into the same incomprehensible set of outcomes as those of the summer of 2006.
All these vague memories end up shaping who we are, and the way we perceive the world around us. Perhaps the majors we end up choosing are also partly influenced by the kinds of lives we lived until it was time to submit applications for college admissions. Despite this, you still have many counselors and educational consultants who claim that they know what’s good for you based on the recent market trends, and a few written or oral questionnaires you answer.
Kick-starting university life was not easy. In addition to the trauma soup I was trying to deal with, I had other baggages and issues of my own to sort out. I was struggling with a deeply reaching crisis of faith at the same time as I was trying to decide on a major that would guarantee me a job by the time I graduated.
As you can guess by now, the first year of college was a minefield. By the end of the first year, the existential crisis I was facing had gotten the best out of me. It was not a state of depression that had won me over, though. I was leading a normal life that was beginning to make almost no sense at all, in a way similar to South Park’s episode 7 of season 15, You’re Getting Old. In the episode, Stan Marsh slowly starts to see and hear bullshit everywhere, until he eventually becomes a pessimist and is told that it was a normal consequence of growing old.
I was not seeing shit everywhere, though. I was simply seeking meaning to understand the noise that surrounded me. I switched majors, opting for a degree in finance because I wanted to understand the underpinnings of the stock market. A few months later, one of the major market crashes struck hard, triggering one of the worst economic crises in the past 200 years. Great, I thought to myself, it seems that those who claim expertise in finance and economics do not understand shit about the inner workings of their field!
In the spring of that year, I decided to take an Existentialism in Literature course. To say that this class changed my life would genuinely be an understatement. I came across it at the ideal time of my life, and the professor exceeded my expectations. The reading assignments included Anton Chekhov’s Ward №6, Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea, Nikos Kazantzakis’ Zorba the Greek, and Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. The readings, lectures, and class discussions sufficed to give me a sense of direction to explore in depth and maybe even to find answers to the questions I had.
Though disappointed with my finance courses, I still decided to finish my degree, and opted for a minor in philosophy instead (there was no official minor program, but I went on to register for enough courses so as to be able to secure admission in a graduate philosophy program). A new worldview was beginning to crystalize for me, and things were starting to make sense at a deeper level, whatever that actually meant. The dots just seemed to connect: in an outburst of artistic and cultural activities, I soon thereafter saw myself exploring areas I was either not aware of or not interested in before.
I was devouring books, watching movies from all genres, listening to music (mainly rap, for which I developed a passion since I was 14 years old). My life was taking new directions, new concrete experiences gave me novel insights, and everything seemed to be pleasantly unfolding. But not for too long.
II. The Struggle to Find Meaning in Academia
Convinced that I found remedy in philosophy books, I ended up deciding I wanted to take this one step further because I was blinded by the ‘expert’ complex. I wanted to know more about philosophy, and the only way I would be taken seriously was if I went ahead and earned a PhD in the subject, I thought. I was wrong. Pursuing a graduate degree in philosophy messed me up big time, and this is why in part I decided to finally do something about it.
I wrote this article as a way to start uncoiling myself from the trappings of academia, particularly the field of humanities. It has been a long and tedious journey rife with positive and negative moments. I cannot say I have positively benefited from my experience as a philosophy graduate student. If anything, by studying philosophy I learned the hard way what NOT to do if I wanted to make the most out of the opportunities that I came across.
Please do not take those as general assertions about how things ARE, rather they are based on my personal experience. I am not particularly interested in making any argument, nor presenting a thesis statement, nor being coherent. I am merely expounding on my experience.
For starters, I don’t hold grudges towards the academic establishment, alas, I am very much disappointed at how things turned out to be like in reality. So much so that the best aspect of my venture as a graduate student was the part where I got to discover new cities, and meet new people from all walks of life, whether on a plane, at a bar, or a conference. All in all, college years were not that bad really, and what came afterwards was even better: I was able to do what I had always dreamed of doing, that is, teach philosophy at a college level.
I came into philosophy searching for meaning, and all I came across in academia was professors and students alike more concerned with winning an argument than actually making sense of the world around them. The writings of philosophers I deeply related to were quickly abstracted and sometimes simplified to be scrutinized from a merely rational perspective. I think that such bastardization is problematic because it renders texts ripe with human experience empty, and dissociates them from any connection with the real world.
What is even more problematic is that many of those who engage in philosophy at an academic level have transformed the field into a game of winners and losers depending on whose argument is ‘stronger’ than the other. Philosophical sparring is as such reduced to a duel that focuses more on the rules of the game than what is actually being said.
What catalyzed such shift could as well be the enrollment crisis that knocked at the doors of humanities departments. In an attempt to salvage their programs, they sugarcoated many of the problems and risks of pursuing a humanities degree and tucked them underneath their marketing rugs. Much like the subprime loans that caused the financial bubble to burst between 2007 and 2008, humanities departments have been promoting highly inflated programs under the pretense that these would set you up for life. I am afraid that this is not really the case.
Philosophy is a continuous search for truth, certainty, and meaning. It is about personal growth, ridding oneself from prejudice and dogmatism. One can only properly engage in it individually, all the while participating in constructive dialogue with others. Given its subjective underpinning, it is very difficult to understand a particular ‘argument’ without being able to relate it to one’s experience, no matter how rational the proposed argument is. Philosophy, as a result, is a practical endeavor before it becomes a rational/abstract activity.
Philosophy programs disregard the first part, and focus instead on the skills that students gain from studying philosophy, and the endless opportunities that these skills will provide them with. However, in a world where demand on technical skills is constantly increasing, there is only so much philosophy can convey.
This is why I think that majoring in pure philosophy is almost a waste of time and money for several reasons. First, simply because philosophy programs are not interested in the quest for the meaning of life. So if this is what initially drove you to philosophy, you would be doing yourself a favor if you stayed away from philosophy departments. Second, a philosophy degree in and of itself will not get you anywhere without accompanying it with a technical skill: coding, math, physics, chemistry, finance, etc.
III. Philosophy in the Marketplace
My experience with academic philosophy has taught me that the place where philosophy really belongs is in the marketplace. Because it is there where the real dialogue is established, and new ideas are born. Our modern day marketplace is the internet, and I have come to learn a lot on social media platforms like Medium, Twitter, and YouTube, and realized that many podcasts, for example The Joe Rogan Experience, are doing a much better job at creating a space for the discussion of important subjects than many an academic philosopher.
Through Twitter, I have come to connect with very interesting people, from whom I learned quite a lot. Not only this, but I’ve gotten the chance to meet with some of them (Lebanese, expats, and foreigners) when they visited Lebanon. On the other hand, I now know that there are plenty of Twitter friends with whom I can have thoughtful exchanges over dinner when I visit the countries they are based in. Same applies to articles published on Medium, and elsewhere (and I’m only focusing on non-troll-like content, because I understand that there’s much anger and trolling everywhere). There’s an abundance of meaningful and thoughtful content out there that is more philosophical than the obscure peer-reviewed journal papers.
All these connections and interactions over the course of a little over a year now have completely changed my worldview. This has also translated into different aspects of my private and ‘public’ life. One such example can be gauged in how my approach to teaching has changed: I try to make the material more relatable to students, and the result has been quite stunning. Discussions in class have become more interesting, and students find it easier to talk about problems that concern them, so much so that many of them end up relating the material to their concrete life experience, and they seek to resolve some of their personal problems through philosophy.
The search for meaning which was triggered with my encounter with death during wartime has taken a rocky route from amateur, to academic philosophy. However, soon thereafter I learned the hard way that what I was looking for was to be found elsewhere. Doing so has helped me to enrich my experience, as I slowly healed scars that my previous encounter with war had left. By finally opening up and joining the marketplace of ideas, I have learned about personal experiences, writing, startups, culture, history, complexity science, probability, and much more than I would have behind the closed doors of academia. It is this realization that helped me learn how to unlearn what I had learned in college.