One of the Philosophy classes I’m taking this semester is PHIL3203: Aristotle. I did not have a particular interest in studying Aristotle, but I wanted to take a higher level Philosophy class and the professor teaching this class has great reviews. So I signed up for it. For almost three quarters of the semester, we just studied Aristotle’s texts. We started with his categories, rules of logic and proof, theory of knowledge, and went on to study his books on physics, biology and metaphysics.
I found two things difficult about studying Aristotle –
1) Reading Aristotle.
The text we use is an English translation of the Greek sources. Although Aristotle is a far better writer than most other philosophers (I was almost in tears when I had to read Kant last year) and has a great style of writing his essays, the English is not very straightforward. The style of writing was unfamiliar to me because of how old the text is and several words were misleading because Aristotle used them in contexts that they are no longer used in. Just when I became comfortable reading Aristotle, I ran into roadblock two.
2) What a strange worldview!
When we began reading Aristotle’s books on Physics, I encountered the evolution of scientific knowledge very drastically. Many of the fundamental assumptions Aristotle holds about the physical world and the laws of nature are very different from what we accept to be true now. Aristotle’s conception of the physical world was entirely foreign to me. It was difficult to set aside the model of the physical world I’ve been taught for years throughout school and college and fairly evaluate Aristotle’s arguments in light of his own assumptions. Following his explanations of some physical phenomena was a task that took great mental strength simply because they sound so absurd today.
In the last few weeks, the nature of our study has changed. We don’t just read Aristotle’s texts and try to understand them now. In class, our professor sometimes presents us with puzzles. Our class of about 15 students tries to come up various Aristotelian explanations for the puzzle and then we try to judge which one Aristotle would most likely agree with. Basically, now that we have some understanding of Aristotle’s texts, we put on the Aristotle cap and try to think like Aristotle would.
How is this like CS3110 (Functional Programming and Advanced Data Structures) at all? CS3110 class is the third programming class a CS major might take at Cornell. The first two are taught using Java and Python, which are both imperative programming languages. A lot of students find CS3110 challenging because it introduces functional programming, a vastly different paradigm. It’s not that functional programming itself is difficult. But for students who have gotten used to the thinking imperatively, setting aside the imperative thought process and embracing a new model of problem solving can be challenging. In this way, it’s exactly like studying Aristotle. First you have to learn a new language, OCaml in CS3110 and Aristotelian-English in PHIL3203. Then, you must set aside your current model of the world and learn to think fluently in a strange, new model of the world. Both classes teach you to think using differing models and to be comfortable switching between the old and the new. Computer Science and Philosophy aren’t so disparate after all!
Before college, I had always been able to find time to read for pleasure. I would read several genres, very different from each other and unrelated to school work. For someone who likes to read, Cornell should be heavenly. The libraries are incredible . There are some 8 million physical books which can be borrowed from Cornell. Even more can be accessed online and if you can’t find a book in Cornell’s catalog, you can order it from other universities’ libraries through a system called Borrow Direct. I haven’t yet failed to find any book, even really obscure ones.
Despite access to endless resources here, I haven’t been reading even as much as I used to. Being a Computer Science major doesn’t help with that. Due to the technical nature of the major, there is never any reading to do for academic purposes. And in my first two years as a CS major, there were always enough projects due at any time that there was barely any time to read for fun. Now that I’m almost done with the CS major and I’m taking a fair number of Philosophy classes, I do read more. Most of the reading is assigned and supplementary reading in Philosophy, but that is still an improvement.
I’m making a conscious effort to read more even during the academic semester, and to read widely. I found myself at the “New and Noteworthy Books” section of Olin Library. The collection is very diverse and is updated every week.
After poring over the titles and reviews for an hour, I picked these two books to borrow: Mei Fond’s “One Child”, on China’s recently discontinued one-child policy and its impacts; David Bell’s “Shadows of Revolution”, a collection of his essays on French History, focusing on periods of political revolution. Now I just need to make some time to read them.
I went back home to Delhi for Spring Break last week. It was a short, hectic break, a good chunk of which I spent traveling. This break in the middle of the semester was a more abrupt change of lifestyle and culture than end-of-the-semester breaks tend to be. As I was packing to come back to college at the end of break, I had a silly epiphany.
When I was a kid, anyone who was going abroad had to bring back a standard gift – chocolates. I remember getting boxes full of Toblerone, Twix, Snickers and other foreign brands of chocolate. Now since the same products are available in India too, chocolate isn’t the standard foreign-gift anymore. At least nobody in India asks me to bring back chocolate. Funnily, the reverse phenomenon seems to be true. I brought back bars of Cadbury’s Bournville and Temptations, products I have not yet found in the U.S. (at least so far). Most of my Indian friends in college also bring back their own stashes of various Dairy Milk chocolates. And when we run out of these, we buy American chocolates and complain about them. I guess nothing can replace Dairy Milk.
The go-to chocolate basket
When I was applying to college, I knew I wanted a liberal arts education. I applied to be a Computer Science (CS) major, but in colleges with curricula that would allow me to study the humanities as well. Cornell offers the CS major in both its College of Arts and Sciences and in the College of Engineering. I applied to Arts and Sciences. Because I hadn’t studied any non-STEM subjects in 11th and 12th grade, I was quite lost on what exactly I wanted to study in the “humanities”. So I took courses in English, Philosophy, History, Spanish and Urban Studies to get a sense of the social sciences/arts.
Now that I’m nearly done with the CS major, I’ve decided to delve deep into one of those humanities subjects – Philosophy. Last year, I took my first two Philosophy classes at Cornell- “Foundations of Mathematics” and “Introduction to Modern Philosophy”. The first one was really a class on axiomatic set theory, and the second one was a survey of important works from the 17th and 18th centuries. I was drawn to logic, social, political and moral philosophy. Higher level logic was closely related to Computer Science; Some of the foundations of Computer Science can be traced to logic. Social and political philosophy entail critical thinking about the larger human-systems we live and participate in but often take for granted. And ethics, which seeks to explore/resolve conflicts in human morality, is probably something that is on everyone’s minds at some point or the other.
So last semester, I affiliated with Philosophy as my second major. Right now, I’m taking two classes in Philosophy. Phil 3203 – Aristotle and Phil 2621 – Minds and Machines. My assignments now include dense readings and writing 1500 word essays focusing on just two pages of Aristotle’s works. It’s a welcome change. However, I’m slightly disappointed that the study of Philosophy doesn’t allow for as much creativity as History* does. Maybe this will change as I take higher level classes in Philosophy.
P.S.: Part of the inspiration for this combination of majors comes from a degree program at Oxford.
* I absolutely loved the History class I took last semester.