A Plea to Fellow Philosophy Majors

Oh, dear readers, you should never believe me when I put a timeline on my next piece. Writer’s block is a cruel, cruel mistress who I am always fighting against.

Anyways, this post is about school.

As most of you know, I am a philosophy major, which I am studying at DePaul University in Chicago, in addition to majoring in history of art and architecture. However, much as I enjoy studying here, in this environment, and the fact that I have instructors here who have well and truly changed my life and how I think for the better, I really, truly, honestly worry for my fellow students. Not in art history, but in philosophy.

Allow me to explain.

The most common thing I hear from people when I tell them that I am a philosophy major is that my major is irrelevant, that no one studies that old shit anymore, that it has no meaning for a modern world. Now, anyone with an ounce of sense knows this is ridiculous; despite that fact, the sad thing is that I can  understand really well where the people who say such things are coming from, and it’s because I know other philosophy majors, or at least have interacted with them.

Invariably, when I get to talking with another philosophy major, or overhear a conversation involving one, the wannabe philosopher will drop a reference to whoever their biggest philosophical beau is. They’ll say something like, “well, have you read Heidegger on that?” knowing damn well said non-major has never read, much less heard about, Being and Time. And this is what they want. Because inevitably, this philosophy major, who is almost always a white male, gets to word-vomit about ontology or teleology and reveal to the other conversant how good at reading they are, how bloody intelligent they are.

What this results in is not more people who know more about or are interested in doing philosophy. What this results in is more people who want to avoid it at all costs, because they see it as a bastion of privilege and arrogance and not a place where outsiders would be welcome, especially those interested only in casual readings of philosophers.

This is not how philosophy is supposed to be done. The field should not be a playground for only a privileged few who can pay university tuition or make it to the tenure track get to hold forth on what matters. This, coupled with the rise of corporatized universities and the decline of educational standards, means that the teaching of philosophy hasn’t moved forwards in any meaningful way in decades. Rather than try to expand student’s understandings on a truly global scale, departments insist on rehashing the Heideggers, Kants, Hegels, Ayers, Derridas, et al, all white academics of privilege, instead of teaching lesser-known but just as important thinkers who are women or people of color; at my university, a professor got fired for not being Western enough in her pedagogy.

Philosophy needs to be for everyone, accessible to everyone, in order to hold any sway in the world. This is not a call to decrease rigor; indeed, far from it. What I want is for philosophy to become culturally relevant in a way so that it can affect people’s lives for the better on a massive scale. The first step is to drop the pretension, take our theory, and make it applicable for the greater good.

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One thought on “A Plea to Fellow Philosophy Majors

  1. I have a feeling you misunderstand Philosophy majors. I don’t know what the situation is in Chicago but interactions with Phil majors have gone much differently here at CU, Boulder. Now perhaps I have some bias being a double major in phil and psych, but here are a few things that may help explain the situations you observe:
    1. Name Dropping happens in every major, it is a sign of immaturity in arguments when one has to rely on citing other. I see this happen in sociology, art history, psychology, poly sci, etc. Most people at the university level are not capable of forming their own arguments so they rely on bits of other people’s arguments. They will grow out of this if they are any sort of self-respecting academic.

    2. Philosophy requires you to think. This is to say that the unpopularity of the philosophy major is due to the nature of the science. Abstract thought does not sit well with many people and they take some intro phil courses and are unable to fathom arguments where the case is made we are living in a simulation. They drop out because the course is too difficult and traditional study techniques do not help in phil.

    3. By itself the major is useless. This is true about most other majors, but philosophy gets the bad rap for it. What can you do with a BA in English, psych, socy, anth, etc? You can get a job faster than if you didn’t go to college but chances are the job won’t relate to your major, and all the job wanted was to see a diploma.

    3a. Phil is an entry into graduate school. Traditionally phil majors have scored highest on the LSAT, and the MCAT, many people going into phil see grad school as the next step and phil majors can be described to be on 3 tracks. 1. Law School. 2. Medical School (and bio-ethics). 3. Academia.

    4. Philosophy is a great double major. But when you complain not enough people are in philosophy and it should be for everyone you have to look at the audience you’re appealing to. If you don’t want to be a lawyer, go into med school or philosophy academia, you’re left with double majoring. Not many people do this because most people are not able to do so either their schedules are too packed, they work too much, or it’s too difficult.

    5. Citing old philosophers and teaching the old ways. When someone asks me if I believe in free will, that discussion could go on for hours. Why? Because I must look at the shoulders of the giants my discipline stands on. Most questions in philosophy have been asked for ages, and without understanding the progression of the answers people have given, it is impossible to fully comprehend modern answers.

    Sure, you could read Sam Harris’s Free Will, but you would not gain the same appreciation for his determinism if you hadn’t previously looked at Malebranche.

    6. Philosophy should not be for everyone. Yes it is elitist, yes it is inaccessible, but unfortunately the problem lies in the students not the discipline. Like I said previously, most people don’t like to think, most people can’t think in the way philosophy demands.

    As educators we would owe it to the willing to teach them, but until you get a classroom full of people who are there to learn and not to get a degree and move on, philosophy will remain inaccessible and serve as brain candy for those who appreciate it.

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