Oxford Student Interview w/ Matthew Hurst | Part 1: Studying Philosophy in College: Be Prepared.
Updated: Jul 19, 2022
Matthew Hurst (Oxford '21, Manchester '15) completed his MSc in Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Oxford. His professional background is in operations roles with a focus on UK-China projects. He has been a member of delegations between the UK and China, spoken at conferences, and published articles about UK-China. Matthew earned a First Class BA in Philosophy from the University of Manchester, receiving the Dean's Award and three other awards.
This is the final part in a 4-part series featuring Matthew's advice and experience.
Important things Matthew shares:
"Confidence is not about getting other people to tell you you are always right."
"I stopped being so scared of getting things wrong and saw mistakes as part of development."
"There is always another challenge to meet."
Q: Brave New World is a 1931 dystopian social science fiction novel by English author Aldous Huxley. This highly influential book has landed itself in the top 100 banned and challenged books of the decade by the American Library Association. What drew you to focus your research project on this novel?
A: Both my fascination with the novel Brave New World and my motivation for pursuing Philosophy at university grew from basically the same origin: a belief that the world and the human societies that inhabit it could be so much better than they are today. Broadly speaking, ancient philosophy sought to describe the best form of society and the ideal life. Similarly, modern dystopian fiction explores ideas about society and life by presenting worlds that readers are meant to find antithetical to their intuitions about what is good. Both the academic study of philosophy and the comparably more leisurely reading of dystopian fiction allow us to explore different worlds from the safety of our own imaginations.
Why, then, have I focused on Brave New World in particular, rather than any other dystopia? Firstly, it was the first dystopia I ever read: my grandparents gave me a copy when I was very young, so it occupies a special place in my memory and my heart. Secondly, Brave New World is extremely wide-ranging in scope: it touches on class, gender, drugs, sex, employment, government, even public transport. Lastly, it is a fairly short and easy-to-read novel, which makes it simple to return to over and over again across time.
Q: While participating in the Philosophy in the City (PinC) program, how did reading the ideas of philosophers like Wittgenstein help you expand your thinking skills?
A: The Philosophy in the City program run by the University of Sheffield was a pivotal experience for me and I am ever grateful to the University for the opportunity. Studying Wittgenstein and other philosophers who were not on the A Level Philosophy curriculum taught me several valuable lessons that have stayed with me throughout my academic progression.
The first and most basic thing I learned was (obviously) about Wittengestein, and his views on language and logic. Wittgenstein and Bertrand Russell, who supervised Wittgenstein at Cambridge, are two of the most influential figures in modern philosophy. Their writings, particularly those on logic, led to an epochal shift in philosophy and continue to shape the subject today.
Secondly, through taking on extra-curricular readings, I learned that no one person can ever read everything in their subject and that there will always be something that one does not know. One can never totally master a body of literature within a given subject, but nor does one ever have to be without something to read. It is both frustrating and delightful that there is always something else to read. I think this helped me before I launched into undergraduate studies: figuring out early on that I did not have to - nor was I expected to - read every single paper and book ever published in philosophy was a relief!
A related point: I learned that education is not simply about learning a thing and then retaining that thing in your mind. Instead, it is a continuous and never-ending process of expanding your horizons (such as by reading philosophers outside of the curriculum), reinterpreting what you thought you knew (for instance, by seeing a topic through from the perspective of some other philosopher), and pushing beyond the bounds of what you have to do for your qualifications by pursuing other topics, interests and authors of interest. Do you know the saying “Give someone a fish and they will eat for a day; teach them to fish and they will eat for a lifetime”? Similarly, the PinC programme and many of my inspirational A Level and undergraduate teachers instilled in me not only a love for the subject and the specific curriculum, but moreover a broader love for learning.
Lastly, I grew in terms of a critical, emotional aspect of myself: confidence. Confidence is not about getting other people to tell you you are always right. In fact, it can be quite the opposite: it is valuable to have people around you who can tell you you are wrong and help you to develop your reply to their criticism. But by accepting criticism and developing past it, you grow as a thinker because you have not only stated your opinion, you have also taken on a criticism and thought your way around it. Being in an environment where you have one tutor to one student is ideal for this: nobody wants to get things wrong in front of a crowd, but having a mentor who can help you through your mistakes and blind spots is extremely beneficial. With my mentor’s patient and non-condescending corrections of my mistakes, I stopped being so scared of getting things wrong and saw mistakes as part of development.
Q: Studying philosophy with your mentor at Philosophy in the City, how did you apply this experience to parts of your life, such as school?
A: Firstly, I was and continue to be extremely grateful to the University of Sheffield for setting up the PinC program in the first place. I have sought to continue working with my A Level college in the years since leaving in order to provide opportunities for students there and share my experiences and knowledge with them. I hope that at least some of the students who benefit from my engagement will, likewise, create opportunities for others in the future.
Secondly, I took the confidence in my academic abilities and the broadened horizons that I gained through being a mentee, and applied them to my undergraduate studies at the University of Manchester. I also came to expect more of myself in terms of continually developing my own abilities. The experience made me confident that, even if I could not at the time achieve or comprehend something, I would nonetheless be able to surmount the challenge over time. When I started my Masters at Oxford, for instance, I was initially overwhelmed with the sheer quantity of required readings. As I wrote about for this website, I found speed reading tools that helped. But moreover, I trusted in my own ability to reach the levels required of me. I had learned from PinC that rather than having confidence in one’s capacity to do X, it is much more valuable to have confidence in one’s ability to learn anything (X, Y or Z) over a sufficient period of time.
Thirdly, I see every experience now - whether academic, professional or personal - as part of a wider, evolving web of experiences that, frankly, will only end when I die. There is always something more to learn, somewhere new to explore, another challenge to surmount, a different dish to sample. We must never allow ourselves to think that acquiring a degree or getting a certain job or any similar, conventional metric of having ‘succeeded’ is enough. There is always another challenge to meet.
Q: What was it like being a philosophy student at Manchester?
A: Manchester was a great university and city to live in, and the academics at the Philosophy Department there were wonderful.
Q: What were the pros and cons of studying philosophy?
A: I think that the biggest pro is that there is no more pure of an intellectual pursuit than philosophy. This is not to say that philosophy is more intellectual than any other subject, but rather that philosophy is almost entirely about arguments and conclusions that take place in the head (and which are communicated through writing and discussion) whereas all other subjects I can think of have some sort of a practical element - more of a relationship with the world outside.
Philosophy is also great for getting its students to look past the appeals to emotion that tend to be implicit in many everyday communications (such as political speeches, advertisements, etc.) and to see the logical (or illogical) underpinnings. Similarly, studying philosophy is also certain to broaden your mind and make you more appreciative of other viewpoints.
One of the cons was that I became so good at seeing others’ perspectives that I grew reluctant to firmly adopt a particular position myself. Another con I would mention is that there is no clear professional path after achieving a degree in philosophy. You could see this as a positive, too: friends of mine have gone on to do a wide range of jobs. But I think it is more up to you to forge a path for yourself after studying a subject so academic as philosophy.
Q: What do people typically misunderstand about studying philosophy?
A: Contemporary philosophy (at least, that which is published in the English language) is no longer so much about imagining whole new frameworks for living or governing the world from the comfort of one’s armchair: this is more similar to ancient philosophy, which, I think, is wat the general public thinks of when they think of philosophy. Most philosophy nowadays is analytic and rigorously grounded in formal logic. By formal logic, I mean systems that look sort of like algebra but which are used for formalising arguments. By analytic, I mean that we focus on precisely defining and understanding the topics we are talking about, driving unabashedly deep rather than ranging wide. To give you an illustration, I shall never forget that during my degree we spent three whole weeks reading papers on and discussing the question of whether pulling a bucket out of a well is a single act, several acts or something else. This, you will appreciate, is vastly different to the wide-ranging type of philosophy practiced before the modern era!
Q: What type of person do you think would benefit from studying philosophy?
A: One of the brilliant things about philosophy is that it is all about understanding and communicating vastly different perspectives on really any topic so welcomes anyone, and the analytical and logical skills you gain from engaging in philosophy stand to benefit anyone who participates.
Q: What career paths are open to those that study philosophy?
A: Apart from continuing in education, I am not sure that there are any clear career paths that follow on from studying philosophy. There is a negative side to this reality - i.e. it can be difficult to convince potential employers that they should hire you when many of them do not even know what philosophy involves - but there is also a positive side: it leaves the future open to you to forge your own path.
Q: What are some books that you recommend all high school students read and why?
A: If you are a high school student with an idea about what you want to study as your college major, my advice would be to start reading broad and deep in that subject as soon as possible. You will never read every book in your subject, but the more you read, the more you will understand the wider picture in your subject, the contemporary trends, the big questions, the epochal shifts over time and your own specific research interests. You can never read enough, you can never start reading too soon and it is never too late to start reading.
However, make sure you are reading academic texts, rather than popular texts. Try to get hold of a reading list from a university (many of them accidentally publish their reading lists online - you can simply Google and find them) and avoid anything ‘introductory’.
When reading, have a highlighter and a pencil at hand for making annotations. Once you have finished reading the paper or book, make your own notes about it in your own words; this practice will get you used to being able to summarize someone else’s position. Next, ask yourself whether you can think of any criticisms of the text or whether there was something in particular that you would like to learn more about; this will get you into the habit of reading critically. Finally, discuss the text with someone. They do not need to have read the text (in fact, it might be better if they haven’t!), but by making yourself verbalize what you understood from the text, what you found interesting and how you would criticize the text, you are exercising your mind.
In terms of specific books, I would recommend Brave New World by Aldous Huxley for the reasons described above, Henry Kissinger’s World Order which describes how the world developed into what it is today through the lens of international relations, The Motivation Hacker by Nick Winter which provides dozens of practical tips for motivating yourself and Les Misérables by Victor Hugo because it is simply a beautiful work of fiction. (I would also shamefully plug my own, recent article about UK-China relations in the prelude to the negotiations over Hong Kong’s future, published in The International History Review!)
Thanks for reading!
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