Monday, March 26, 2012

Where does it come from . . .

Preamble: I've begun writing this piece on March 26, 2012. I don't know when I will finish it. I also don't know whether I will ever have time to edit it as a piece of writing. So, you need to forgive me for various kinds of stylistic errors you may find there. Feel free to leave comments.

My name is Masood. It is also spelt as Masud or Mas'ud or Masoud or one of many other ways.

I was born and raised in Tehran, which I recently visited, but now live near San Francisco working for an Information Technology firm.

My brush with philosophy began a long time ago, perhaps in pre-kindergarten years. Children always wonder about things.

My more formal study of philosophy began in high-school when I first purchased Al-Ghazzali's Alchemy of Happiness in Persian. This was not required reading but I was so mesmerized by the brief two-page extract in our high-school Persian reading book that I felt I needed to read the rest of the book. In the years before the revolution, I also dabbled into Ali Shari'ati's work and the works of some French philosophers. The latter studies' credit goes to a classmate who wanted to introduce me to what he called dialectic materialism. It all "made sense" for a while, which is why I ended up also looking into the writings of "revolutionaries" like Marx, Engels, Lenin, and later into the writings of Mao. At least the latter had some easier flavor to it. All-in-all, these later, Marxian writings were rigid and did well to kill my desire to learn more philosophy.

At this point in my life, and in the midst of war and savagery that the Western world had helped unleash on my country of birth, I turned within and focused on my studies as a scientist and technologist, going through engineering graduate school, with a focus on scientific computing. Family life and responsibilities made it impossible to pursue intellectual interests for pure, "non-practical" reasons.

While working on PhD research and then dissertations, which was focused on computational dynamics, I ran into Chomsky's work on linguistics and politics and also came into contact with some friends who were more committed to philosophy than I had ever been. This drew me back in. I took an advanced course in linguistics and another one in political philosophy. I cannot truthfully say I had no remnants of philosophical interest in me prior to this rebirth. Early in my graduate engineering work, I had taken a course in sociology of knowledge, and my interest in science and engineering always did have a philosophical bent to it. The undertone was there. So, when my interest was rekindled, I had built an intuitive and multi-faceted understanding of reality. However, something was missing, and this was unlocked when I began working as a journalist (writing for one of the university papers), taking art and meeting the person who later became a close friend and my wife. She had great influence on me given her youth and enthusiasm but also her sensitivity and tendency to reflect on emotional issues. I owe much to her patience and her matter-of-fact simple method of looking at things and discovering them.

One thing led to another. In the year I was busy writing my PhD dissertation, I also enrolled in the Graduate School of Journalism at UC Berkeley. It is hard to explain, at this point, how it came that I applied for this program but it is also not relevant to the story here. From the start at Berkeley, I also began taking philosophy course. During the first year, I had gone through a fantastic course on Plato taught by one of the outgoing classical philosophy professors there. It was a busy academic year. In the second semester, I was completing my dissertation, taking journalism and philosophy courses at Berkeley, teaching a course on programming at San Francisco city college and applying for jobs in China.

Once the academic year completed, I took a year off, and we headed to China. It was summer of 1990. We arrived in Anda and Daqing, in Heilongjiang province of PRC, in August. We had travelled through Shanghai and Harbin. They settled us in a guest house. I was teaching some courses on plant design but had an amazing amount of time to study and reflect, particularly during the late fall, winter and early spring, and during Manchurian deep freeze. We had a chance to become more familiar with Chinese culture -- I had taken courses on China's modern history as an undergraduate -- and I devoted my remaining time on devouring books on philosophy, going over multiple original writers -- including Hume, Kant, Russell and others -- as well as a sweeping two-volume work on the history of philosophy by my Plato professor at Berkeley. I also read much in philosophical logic (from W.V. Quine), and devoured a course book on computational linguistics. In Manchuria, life was simple but the time it afforded was incredibly invaluable. All this was preparing me to delve into philosophy, even more deeply, on my return.

While in Heilongjiang, I remained in communications with my Plato professor. He sent me a packet of his own writings to read. (I still have to finish this packet.) I also wrote to some computational linguists who had authored the book I was reading, and had a chance to go to Indiana the next year to study computational linguistics but decided against it and returned to Berkeley. The year in China had given me intellectual direction.

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