Ian graduated with BA Philosophy from the University of London. He is currently one of the co-founders of enlg, a lifestyle brand dedicated to exploring meaningful and sustainable living with multifunctional, clinically-effective skincare. In this interview, he talks about the value of philosophy, taking the unconventional path and daring to be different.
1. Getting into Philosophy as a Combination of Accident and Choice
There was a point in my life where things got really dark. You could call it an existential crisis but at that time I didn’t know there was such a thing. I was actually studying biomedical science in Melbourne back then. After a series of family incidents, I decided to withdraw from the course and fly back immediately. Credit transfer wasn’t an option at that time and I didn’t want to repeat those Chemistry 101 modules again. So I wondered, what if I could start everything anew?
After searching stuff on Google and months of reading, I came across several overarching ideas like existence, virtues, utilitarianism and many others. All of them seem to link to this field called philosophy. This made me realise that there is more to life than just medicine, engineering and law. All my life I thought I was destined to become a doctor and specialise in something. I thought that it would allow me to live a life with meaning and purpose.
But philosophy has shown me that there are in fact many ways to do that. Since then, I’ve never stopped asking.
2. Philosophy’s Values in Daily Lives
I wouldn’t say that philosophy helped me in the sense that it’s some kind of solution to every single problem in life. It doesn’t work that way. Rather, it’s the process of inquiry that happens when studying philosophy that is somewhat helpful. The process of asking questions, leading to more questions and not answers.
And that can sometimes make life worse for some, especially if you like quick answers and don’t like being perplexed. But it enables you to grasp the complexity of life and the world as we know it. It can help you develop an open mind towards things and at the same time question them deeply.
For me, it feels like being on the red pill. You’ll feel worse in the beginning, like everything’s wrong with the world. But gradually, you become more aware, conscious and curious. And that has helped me a lot.
3. Philosophy is Not the Ticket to Perfection
Studying philosophy doesn’t automatically make you a rational or ethical person. You can still do the rationally or ethically inappropriate thing even when you entirely know it is so. That’s why you have philosophers who are embroiled in scandals or support Trump’s policies.
And that’s normal. After all, we’re just human; emotional beings who can make mistakes.
4. The Underwhelming Support of Philosophy in Malaysia
Because it doesn’t teach you how to make money (laughs).
There are so many reasons for this question. But I guess with regards to why very few Malaysians study philosophy as their major, it’s fair to say that a significant number of people have never come across this “subject” in the first place. Not to mention the misconceptions that could arise when with such an unfamiliar subject. In Malaysia, there’s no full-fledged degree in philosophy available at local universities. Thus, it is often the case that Malaysians come across philosophy whilst studying abroad as electives/courses are most likely encountered in foreign universities.
Also, the way philosophy is taught at universities is also very unappealing. I mean, who wants to listen to dull professors droning on dry theoretical stuff? Or even read long, sometimes messy and complex arguments written by dead people? Not everyone can handle that for three, four years.
However, I’m sure there are ways to make philosophy engaging. It’s just that there aren’t many people who are exploring ways to make philosophy interactive and accessible to the general public. Although we have great popularisers like Mark Manson, Alain de Botton, Ryan Holiday and others, we definitely need more marketers to promote philosophy. Like how course advisors promote accounting degrees perhaps. Seems to work well with parents.
But our society placing more importance on business and marketing degrees and having less appreciation for the humanities— that says a lot about our current state of the world.
5. Philosophy and Employment – Can They Go Together?
See, that’s the problem with employment and the world of work nowadays. On the one hand, you have job-seekers who are aiming to study specific majors and universities that employers like in hopes of getting a “good career”. On the other hand, you have employers who only assess applicants based on degree certificates and assume that Harvard grads would automatically solve their problems, instead of investing more into their talent selection process to understand more about their potential employees.
Now, I’m not blaming the job-seekers for acting this way. They are just doing based on the advice given by the Gen-Xers, usually suggestions relevant to their time when they were working. In fact, I used to be like them too, believing in the fairy-tales told by some family members that “you should take this course”, “you’ll have a bright future ahead of you”. Even the prerequisites of the job description says so:
“Minimum Bachelor’s Degree in Business Administration or equivalent”.
Although they mean well, you still end up at your desk with your boss wondering why you can’t do the job and you wondering what on earth went wrong. There is just a huge mismatch between what you study and what is expected from the job.
Because of technological developments, what you learn at university simply becomes outdated by the time you graduate.
Therefore, you’re asking the wrong question. If you’re looking to gain value so that employers are willing to hire you quickly, then you should invest in acquiring the “hard” technical skills that would enable you to solve the problems employers face. There are many ways to do this like taking an internship, enrolling in a coding bootcamp or a Google certification. Otherwise, why would they want to hire you?
Since they can be transferable in any career setting, such skills are useful in a world where industries are constantly disrupted and changing.
And so by having such skills, it enables them to be adaptable to the changes that occur within their career.
I appreciate the reasoning from these sources but I would also further add that other majors like Math, Psychology or even History can be as equally as valuable. Therefore, I’d recommend others to study based on the topics that you are interested in or passionate about. Rather than overthinking too much on what skill set degree X can offer you. Because skills, whether they’re “hard” or “soft”, often need a lot of practice for one to gain mastery. In most cases, they don’t stop at graduation and often continue into working life.
In the case of philosophy, you should study it because you love wisdom. You want to understand yourself, the things around you and what all of this means. If you’re thinking whether to study philosophy in terms of return-on-investment (ROI), then don’t bother because you simply can’t attach it with a price tag.
6. Resources to Get Started with Philosophy
After studying philosophy as an undergraduate, one thing I realised is that you don’t actually need a degree in order to be a philosopher or do philosophy. There’s a bonus for going through the academic route though as it gives you the discipline to study in the form of schedules and curated readings. But it’s not like you cannot build one yourself.
Unless you are considering to pursue academia (which I previously wanted to but not now), then getting a philosophy degree is not necessary. For starters, I’d highly recommend to begin understanding the process of philosophy, i.e. how it’s done e.g. logic, learning how to learn, critical thinking and reasoning. Regardless whether you’re interested in Chinese, Continental or any other school of thought, the process of coming up with these concepts and ideas remains pretty much the same.
If you do not have the means to get a degree but still want to pursue the academic path as close as possible, you can even stalk for reading lists in university course handbooks online. Cold-email professors, course coordinators or existing students if you need to. Don’t be afraid to ask.
Also, there are many active communities in Malaysia who are passionate about philosophy today like the Malaysian Philosophy Society, PPFPM and Socrates Cafe. It’s always good to reach out to these groups and exchange ideas. These are great opportunities to not only learn new stuff but also develop an open mind to examine life itself.
However, if you’re shy, you can start by writing your thoughts on paper. As you write, ask yourself philosophical questions such as what is your meaning of life, do humans have free will, what makes an action good, etc. Don’t be afraid to question our beliefs, even if it means thinking differently from people you know. You may not realise it but you are already doing philosophy.