Undergraduate Student Blog, Speaking of Princeton

Undergraduate Student Blog

Author: Kevin Wong ’16

Toronto • Philosophy View Profile

On Studying Philosophy

A year and a half ago, I entered Princeton with illusions of concentrating in the Woodrow Wilson School, where I envisioned spending my days reading white papers, sitting on task forces, and learning how to carefully assess and apply public policy. As I enter my fourth semester, however, I instead find myself preparing to concentrate in the rather more abstruse field of philosophy.

This kind of shift might seem shocking, but it’s far from atypical. Indeed, the experience of changing concentrations at Princeton is a remarkably common one: Students frequently joke that your anticipated major will have almost no real bearing on what you will ultimately end up studying. In fact, about 70 percent of students end up majoring in a discipline different from what they indicated on their application as an area of interest. This is because the liberal arts style of education is unimaginably rich. The diversity of perspectives I encountered in just my first year here had me quickly re-focusing the entire course of my academic career.

I first met the world of philosophy in high school, where a wonderful teacher carefully guided my class through two years of Nietzsche, Plato and the Enlightenment. This experience granted me a thorough and compelling grounding in the subject, and as I entered Princeton, I was deeply interested in continuing my education in philosophy, though only as a pursuit subsidiary to the study of public policy. I was convinced that while theoretically interesting, philosophy remained an exclusively intellectual endeavor, fascinating in itself, but of little use outside the ivory towers of academia.

As I took more classes here, though, this perspective changed. Indeed, I soon came to understand that across seemingly every discipline, many of the most fundamental academic issues ultimately came to bear on questions of philosophy.

This became immediately apparent in my first class at Princeton, a freshman seminar entitled "Philanthropy." In this class, 15 students were given one semester to disburse $25,000 in real money to charities across the country. Unsurprisingly, this proved to be a formidable task, fraught with ideological tensions and disagreements about the ‘goodness’ of certain ends and the value of different causes. Our efforts to seek out worthy beneficiaries took the form of weekly meetings that would inevitably center on theoretical debates, wherein we were faced with the initially intractable challenge of achieving some sort of consensus. Somewhat to my surprise, the core arguments grounding almost all of our discussions turned out to be distinctly philosophical in nature, and by appealing to theories of ethics, duty, and justice, we were eventually able to come to a common agreement.

That very same semester, I had the privilege of taking Peter Singer’s course on "Practical Ethics." The subsequent months were a whirlwind tour of how best to approach the ethical challenges posed by contemporary society, and as the class progressed, it became increasingly clear that philosophy was not merely the domain of the secluded thinker. I quickly discovered that philosophical theory, judiciously applied, has deep practical significance. In adjudicating between right and wrong, underpinning our most fundamental beliefs about reality, and showing us what is just, the ramifications of philosophical thought span quietly (though importantly) across every facet of our lives.

It was this realization that converted me. While the intricacies of policy are doubtless significant, I preferred to get to the heart of the issues—an enterprise that seemed uniquely accessible through philosophy. Seven courses later, I’m glad that things turned out the way they did.

In many subjects, the goal is to eventually come to a single correct answer. Philosophy is sometimes said to be distinguished by the fact that these simple answers don’t exist. Though some find this proposition disorienting, it is what I so love about the subject, and it’s why I’m eager to spend another two years asking the hard questions.