Some Humean Advice
“Indulge your passion for science…but let your science be human, and such as may have a direct reference to action and society. Be a philosopher; but amidst all your philosophy, be still a man.” These are the words of David Hume, an important figure in early modern thought. I came upon them at a very critical time—just after I had finally decided to become a philosophy concentrator, surprising myself, my friends, and my advisers in the department of molecular and cellular biology.
Upon an initial reading of these words in Hume’s “Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding,” I recall feeling justified in my decision to become a newly minted “philosopher.” Hume, after all, explicitly tells us all to be philosophers. What great news for me! I mean, I had clearly made the right decision and was well on my way to that proverbial armchair to philosophize until my head hurt. And how very much in the spirit of a liberal arts education to make such a move, in abandoning what most would consider a highly practical course of study for one of questionable applicability to the so-called “real world”—and all because of a pure interest in the subject.
But after a more careful interpretation of Hume’s words and reflection on what I had done, I realized that I had not really become any more of a philosopher by changing my concentration than I had previously been as a student of biology—or, just a student, more generally, regardless of the concentration listed on my transcript. Hume had in mind thinkers of all disciplines—bachelors, masters and doctors of all arts and all sciences. He was not lauding his own field of study in calling all men to lives of philosophy, but rather encouraging us all to be true thinkers, not recreational intellectuals but lifelong scholars in whichever subjects strike our fancy.
Yet the most important part of Hume’s message is that, amidst our questioning, contemplating, and investigating, we are called, still, to humanness. My personal realization with regard to this was that, just because the content of my studies as a new philosophy student was now perhaps more esoteric, I had not somehow escaped an expectation of practicality. Even as I was about to embark on studies which certainly were not going to cure cancer or fix the economy, I nonetheless had and still have a duty to contribute meaningfully to society, to humanize my knowledge or, at the very least, to dare to leave the clouds of the intellect in order to help a world in desperate need of altruism. As members of the human race, we have a practical responsibility to our neighbors and to society as a whole. We must not allow ourselves to become passive in this global community. We must continue to help each other, and we must keep the development of human understanding as an important common goal.
It’s easy for thinkers like us to get so lost in the realm of inquiry that we tend to lose sight of our humanity. Ironically, those of us in the humanities are often guilty of this, with our intense theorizing and, admittedly, at times obscure jargon. Yet science has also been guilty, when the grind of running experiments shrouds a human disease at hand, or when protocol threatens to obfuscate the very human hopes motivating our research.
So, in the spirit of Hume, let me present to you this Humean challenge: Now that you have indulged your passion for academics, ask yourself who you are behind that Harvard diploma, and become reacquainted with your own personal humanity. Continue to learn, question, investigate, and provide answers. You should indulge in intellectual pursuits. But don’t forget about your humanity, and be an active participant in this human society. Do not let your studies interfere with the relationships you cherish; hold on to the people you love, and always put them first. Do not be afraid to sometimes think less and do more, to leave that comfortable intellectual bubble with which we have all become acquainted and simply do the good deeds the world needs most in these hard times. So yes, be a philosopher, but be, first, human.
Jason C. Sarte ’12 is a philosophy concentrator in Currier House.