Reflecting on Reflections

Weekly Debates

Riggs Library

September 8, 2016

The Philodemic kicked off its first debate of the Fall 2016 semester with a debate full of philosophy, as we gathered in Riggs Library to debate Resolved: The unexamined life is not worth living. Delivering the first speech of the year on the affirmation was Ms. Ann Ludtke (MSB ’18) of Connecticut, and rising to her formidable challenge on the negation was Mr. Thomas Shuman (COL ’17) of Massachusetts. President Thanki, in introducing the debate, made a particular comparison between living an “examined life” and the Jesuit value of cura personalis.

Kicking off the semester, Ms. Ludtke began by describing Socrates’ historical decision to choose death over a life without philosophy. Framing the debate, she explained that an unexamined life is one without reflection, which can occur through religion, therapy, exercise, or so on. To make her case, Ms. Ludtke adopted a three-tiered “onion” approach, the core of which is that personal reflection allows us to gain inner truth and growth, as expressed by the example of an individual in therapy who looks inward to find their problems and improve their life. The onion’s second layer, that personal reflection can improve communities, has been exemplified by the Philodemic’s recent changes over the past three years: from male-dominated to broadly inclusive, willing now to debate such heavy issues as abortion and the legacy of Malcolm X. Finally, Ms. Ludtke argued that “society only progresses when we reflect on the wrongdoing of our ancestors.” Serious reflection on its past, present, and future has prompted Georgetown to offer preferential admissions to the descendants of the 272 slaves it sold in 1838, and its decision to extend the tenure of the Working Group on Slavery, Memory, and Reconciliation reflects the importance of continuous reflection.

Rising to his formidable foe, Mr. Shuman began by stating that “the unexamined life is not not worth living,” and by explaining that the negation does not need to present alternatives to a life of reflection — only to demonstrate that reflection is not necessary to make a life worthwhile. In the first place, the affirmation’s position establishes a hierarchy of lives that is inherently dangerous and demeaning. Furthermore, many people live fulfilled lives without constant reflection: Jiro the sushi chef’s life is consumed by an all-consuming commitment to perfect his work; religious disciples define themselves according to an unquestioned acceptance of dogma and in doing so find deep spiritual peace. Moreover, for some people, notably those in abject poverty, reflection may simply mean hopelessness and pain. Finally, invoking The Republic, Mr. Shuman argued that when society is structured according to “noble lies,” reflection alone cannot allow us to gain ultimate truth.

In the first floor speech of the evening, Ms. Weissman argued that congressmen not questioning dogma has resulted in Donald Trump, and that “sometimes, it is okay to be condescending” — when, for instance, we judge students at Georgetown who never seriously reflect on their studies. Mr. McCarthy raised concerns about ableism, pointing out that the seriously mentally challenged may be unable to engage in serious reflection. In response, Ms. Spira stated that all reflection, whether on day-to-day life or on epistemology, is equal, and that the importance of reflection on life is tantamount in Erik Eriksson’s final stage of psychological development. Ms. Cuppari pointed out that a deeply sacrificial father, whether or not he reflects on his own life, leaves behind an important legacy; for this reason, it would be foolish to say that his life was “not worth living.” Mr. Grocki illustrated that interacting with others is a way to find meaning within oneself self, and that it is all too easy to avoid asking questions of oneself. Mr. Marrow, stating that Teresa of Calcutta’s personal doubts are irrelevant to the fact that she lived a good life, argued that truth, morality, and faith in good works are necessary for the good life and that reflection at best augments these qualities. Citing the Stanford Prison Experiment, Ms. Haag counter-argued that without reflection, we descend to the level of animals, and thus do not lead lives that could be considered worth living. Mr. Fletcher used the example of Dostoevsky’s character Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov, whose secluded reflection lead him to commit ax-murder, to argue that reflection can produce monsters as easily as virtuous citizens. Mr. Hinck, delivering his speech in part from the balcony, argued that science is a form of reflection that can contribute to the flourishing of humanity. Mr. Harden responded that interacting with others leads to greater growth than careful self-examination, and prompted both sides to more carefully define what counts as reflection. Mr. Gonzalez, ending the first hour of the night, stated that “it’s a fundamental truth that we have to think about things.” 

At the outset of non-member speaking time, Mr. Itua Uduebo (SFS ’17) argued that the affirmation has conflated reflection with understanding and has created a hierarchy lives. Ms. Sarah Baron (SFS ’20) responded to Mr. Fletcher’s use of Rodion Romanovich by pointing out that his “reflection” prior to his murder occurred during a period of starvation, and that his true reflection came later in his life whilst in prison. After a moment of self-reflection, Ms. Madison Pravacek (SFS ’19) pointed out that the debate is not whether or not reflection is valuable, but whether or not it makes life worthwhile. Ms. Sarah Castiglia (COL ’18) held that reflection leads to concern for others, and that as Georgetown students, we should seek to cultivate a desire to improve the world. Mr. Ali Shahbaz, contrasting abstract meditation with interpersonal engagement, stated that “life is worth living no matter how it is lived.” Mr. Peter Hamilton (COL ’20) responded that reflection is not defined by introspection, but can be expressed as works of charity, labor, or adherence to tradition.

Resuming member speeches, Mr. Perez-Reyes compared the Society to Tantalus, always grasping for meaning, whereas the best life is the totally unexamined one which is not deluded into searching for meaning. Taking her prerogative, President Thanki stated that the Society had created a false dichotomy between thinkers and doers, and that meaning is good when it does good things. Mr. Ernst, referencing Diogenes’ belief that the best life is one without reflection, pointed out that having a thought is not equivalent to truly reflecting. Mr. Eisen responded that reflection engenders a universal good, and that all members of the Abrahamic religions follow reflective men. Mr. Ma, commenting that Mr. Eisen had ignored the Eastern Hemisphere, stated that reflection is not a process of linear self-improvement; rather, it can lead to depression or the awareness that one’s own life has been wasted. Mr. Bies, drawing inspiration from his job as ESCAPE coordinator, encouraged the members of the Philodemic to go scuba diving, not jet-skiing. Ms. Logan, noting that it can be dangerous to go scuba diving too deeply, argued that people only reflect if they’ve gone off-course in life. Ms. Oster responded that reflection can be painful, but that it is absolutely worth it. Ms. Scoratow channeled her inner Camus to state that “one must imagine Sisyphus happy” precisely because of his unending suffering. To close out floor speeches, Mr. Rinaldo implored the members to vote based upon whether they reflected on our debate itself and deemed it “worth it.”

Delivering his closing keynote, Mr. Shuman underscored the fact that “reflect” and “think about” are not synonymous. He further argued that people receiving soup from a soup kitchen do not care whether or not the volunteers have been appropriately reflective in their work. Finally, he posited a question to the religious members of the Society — if direct revelation from God which contradicted the convictions they had arrived at through reflection could cause them to abandon their convictions, then their reflection had served no purpose. And if it is possible to yearn for an unexamined life, then an examined life is not wholly necessary to make a life worth living.

Ms. Ludtke, noting that Mr. Shuman as an actor should understand that acting is reflecting, pointed out that reflection had been painted as elitist and unattainable throughout the debate. Reflection is not done in isolation: it is the how? and the why? of every action; it is the acknowledgement of past mistakes that causes us to improve ourselves; it is human interaction as simple as asking someone how they are doing. In short, those who do not try to find truth are missing a fundamental part of life.

After a wonderful first debate of the semester, the Society, with a vote of 28 affirming, 2 abstaining, and 31 negating, negated this resolution!

Huzzah and a hearty welcome back to the Hilltop to everyone!


Micah Musser


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