How I Came to Philosophy:

I grew up on the prairie, in the freedom and loneliness of a small, rural town.

The edges of the town tumbled over into wheatfields. One gravel road led north/south, another ran east/west. Muddy water trickled through the gutters of the streets in springtime, riffled by gusts that lifted smells of wet loam and thawing sod to our faces, suggesting seedtime.

Small things catch one’s attention on the prairie (wildflowers in a ditch), for there are no jutting mountains. Cyclists say the prairie’s moral equivalent of mountains is the wind--unseen, but felt in force, and wildly consequential.

The horizon too is intensely and insistently felt. It is the source of orientation, seen or unseen. East is where day breaks. North is where my body turns (day or night) to go, from town, toward our family’s home farm.

Easily the act of turning the body brings three hundred sixty degrees of horizon into view. Beguiling, threatening, or indifferent, that horizon is a constant presence. It displays indisputably that many approaches can be made to any site or situation; and it keeps us humbly mindful that possibilities undreamed of may lie beyond our current vision.

Attend to what is small and to detail, but orient yourself always in terms of the whole; respect what is felt, as well as what is seen; understand to the bone that unless you plant and cultivate you will not harvest--and that any individual’s crop can fail despite all diligence. This was philosophy offered by the prairie.

How I entered the profession of philosophy is another story.

In college, I took no classes in philosophy. I studied math and French, primarily. But I could not choose between them. I was fascinated by the relation between what mathematical symbols do and how words work in ordinary languages. One night, beset with customary insomnia, I rose from bed and wrote the essay that I sent as application to grad school at the University of Chicago--an essay on the concepts of symbol, and structure, and system. A year and a half later I moved to Chicago, having deferred admission for an interim year in Cambridge, England, where I studied the Cahiers (notebooks) of the French symbolist poet, Paul Valery.

The shift from the short arches of Cambridge to tall Chicago Gothic was whimsically bizarre. Yet, soon I felt at home, as never before. Robie House stood on a street corner near the edge of campus, marking the down-to-earth structure of everyday life that intersected here with high intellectual tradition. Classical music, blues, and jazz mingled, as Lake Michigan tossed or slumbered.

Marcia Moen, June 2002