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Two Sides of the Coin

A Personal and Philosophical Approach

When Matthew McNairy introduces himself primarily by his favorite books (Elantris by Brandon Sanderson, Delights by Ross Gay, Nightwatch by Terry Pratchett), it it comes as no surprise that he’s minoring in creative writing. The philosophy major, on the other hand, might be unexpected.

“I originally didn't know what major I wanted to be in,” Matthew said—a common pickle for students. He liked philosophy, but he wasn’t sure about career options aside from law. After sampling lots of disciplines, though, Matthew knew that philosophy was the place for him.

“I really enjoy the rigor and the academic weight of philosophy,” he said. “[It] often deals with ideas that are very important, very practical for us in day-to-day life. But [philosophers] approach them in a very deep way that kind of goes beyond just what your average person would think about.”

One such deep dive likely inspired Matthew’s Great Questions Essay. In his essay, Matthew grappled with things that cannot be known—from trust in friendships to a career after college. He summarized his question: “How do I deal with that uncertainty and that doubt? I don't know if I'm going get the things I want out of life. How am I going to be okay with that?”

Matthew described his essay as a “stretch” for him, forcing him to push outside his normal discipline to find answers in areas like quantum mechanics. But he loves the essay genre. “I didn't even know that nonfiction personal writing existed outside of biographies. But by taking those classes, I have learned that the personal essay is almost like a letter written to a reader that I will never meet, and it creates a really interesting space to reflect.”

In fact, Matthew’s creative writing minor didn’t end up being about writing fictional novels like he anticipated. Instead, he has become engrossed in writing personal creative nonfiction essays. Matthew said essays allow him to “[blend] my love of narrative and love of academia—and the rigorous scientific approach to questions.”

Matthew’s thesis picked up where his 320 essay left off, exploring the meaning of uncertainty and change. “With my thesis, I was able to lean more on philosophy and a bit deeper on the personal side,” he said. His thesis explores the meaning of uncertainty and change.

What’s the problem with change in philosophy? A classic example is that of a seed. The seed gradually grows into a tree, which creates more seeds. Did it ever stop being the seed, though? The implication is that the new seeds aren’t really new at all—just additional parts of the same being. “If that’s true, then ethics get complicated,” Matthew said. “If I'm a different person than I was five years ago, am I responsible for things that I did five years ago? Thinking about who am I as a person, can I accept myself?”

The thesis is written in a mashup of philosophy/personal narrative style. This ”very nontraditional philosophy project” met with some pushback from concerned mentors, Matthew shared. “I had to convince some of the people on my committee that I would be able to bring the two of these things together—and it was a struggle.”

The challenge was that most personal essays lean on personal connection to be persuasive, while philosophy relies on logic and reason. Philosophy has “a standard of being academically rigorous, [so] I've had to work to really integrate the [two],” Matthew said. “But I feel like trying to do that is what made this such an enriching experience for me, because the philosophical rigor forces me to reflect on a deeper level…about myself.”

Ultimately, Matthew’s thesis taught him two things, split into the two sections of his paper: acceptance of self and empathy for others. We are always changing and often making choices that we regret. However, self-rejection doesn’t solve the problem. Instead, acceptance of self leads to the ability to empathize with others wherever they’re at—allowing us to cope with the uncertainty of their behavior.

“There's a lot of depth to really grappling with these issues,” Matthew shared. “They're not just academic exercises. I really tried to put my soul into the pages.” His thesis is a continuing growth process, just like the seed and the tree.

Matthew graduates in just a few weeks, and he shared some departing advice for Honors students: “A thesis is an opportunity for a personal project. I didn’t do the cookie-cutter thing that would have guaranteed me a thesis, but it’s been so personally rewarding.”

“Follow your passion…this is something I will cherish for the rest of my life.”