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Alex Bolton '98, Journalist


Why I chose philosophy

As someone who likes the process of thinking, I was attracted to the idea of deriving knowledge from contemplation and logical thought, also known as the practice of philosophy. There is an element of self-reliance about it, like being able to fix your own car or bike. Philosophy allows you to not rely solely on outside data for new knowledge, but also to build new knowledge from collected pieces of experience.

I was very interested in normative ethical questions, just as I think most young men and women are. I wanted to know the best way to live my life, a question for which philosophy is well suited. I chose to concentrate on moral philosophy, and I wrote my thesis on Robert George's theory of pluralistic perfectionism.

I was drawn to the idea of studying in a small department where I would have the opportunity to forge relationships with my professors and get to know my fellow concentrators. Also, I value following the less-trodden path as a means of expressing and creating individuality. Studying philosophy was a way to be a little more unusual.

Finding my focus

After graduating in 1998, I moved to California and worked on two political campaigns. This experience laid the foundation for an editorial internship with Roll Call, a newspaper that covers Congress. That led to a short stint assisting the Washington editor of The Nation magazine, which led in turn to being hired as an editorial assistant at The Hill newspaper, Roll Call's rival in covering the politics of Capitol Hill.

Four and a half years later I am a staff writer at The Hill covering money in politics, a beat primarily focused on political fundraising and campaign finance law. However, I frequently branch out to write about diverse subjects such as the House and Senate Intelligence Committees, the perpetual fight over President Bush's judicial nominations, attempts to rewrite Senate rules, small and not-so-small political rebellions, and the sharp-elbowed tactics that make politics constantly engaging.

Value to my career

I didn't intend to work as a political journalist when I decided to major in philosophy, but I know my study of the subject has prepared me well for what I do now. I believe all majors instill lessons that bear future fruit in unexpected ways.

Since working at The Hill, I've learned that many of the most interesting stories in journalism are born out of an ability to look at a subject, problem, or issue differently from one's fellow reporters. In addition, my study of philosophy has honed my ability to read closely and analyze confusing information.

It is imperative as a reporter to stick firmly to what you know to be true and only extrapolate on the basis of well-constructed deductions. That is also what philosophy is all about, building understanding out of sturdy deductions based on solid premises. A background in philosophy equips a reporter to evaluate an argument and determine whether its conclusions are supported by the premises and the deductions.

My study of philosophy has helped me to carefully parse sentences and words. So much of politics lies in how one phrases things. The presence or absence of a few seemingly inconsequential words can make all the difference in the explicit or implicit message. Politicians are masters of saying something that is factually correct but misleading by carefully omitting or adding seemingly innocuous words. Philosophy teaches one to read closely and understand how subtle changes to a phrase can impact the meaning of a sentence, upon which a larger argument may rest.

Among other things, philosophy is the art of argument. Crafting an argument is an exercise in strategy. Politics, too, is an exercise in strategy. Philosophical study fosters strategic thinking, and an ability to think strategically is of great value to understanding and anticipating the actions of political players.

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