Given that I should have graduated maybe two years ago, but haven’t due to various reasons, I can say that I am an expert at sitting in class and noticing the same patterns which re-appear every semester regarding my fellow classmates’ usual discourses.
Every major must have its stereotypical characters: Computer Science people have to live up to their geek status, Business people are also expected to be in sororities and fraternities, and I was assuming that for us Philosophy majors, it was the stigma of being a stoner hippie. Until I declared an English minor that is, and realized that this stereotype was more adequate for students in the English department, poets specially. What might be the stereotype of the Philosophy major then? I guess most would say that it’s the typical guy who talks about Sartre at parties with the ulterior motive of picking up chicks. But I decided to be more charitable and explore further stereotypical options within the Philosophy department, so these are some:
1) The Nihilist
This is the most common stereotype given to the Philosophy major and usually it corresponds to the anguished, black eye-liner, black leather wearing student who holds the “God is Dead” claim and thinks that whoever believes in any sort of religion is a moron. Also, alcoholism helps them get through life and they are usually musicians too. I am against this stereotype given that I love Camus and believe that Sartre’s ethics was humanistic to the point that it puts responsibility back into the hands of human beings. But I have to say, I have seen this stereotype embodied plenty of times, especially at hipster parties, and those who advertise Nietzsche too much and too loudly have to bear the burden of getting laughed the most.
2) The Pragmatist
Common in the United States, students who have read any James Dewey, William James or Richard Rorty, tend to ignore whatever any Ancient, Medieval or Modern philosopher has to say to us about substance, essence, universals and grand narratives in general. Instead they argue that the quest for certainty has led us in the wrong path, and that whatever we think is essentially stable might always change, thus, Truth is only a social construction.
This is how they tend to argue:
I am sitting in my Modern Philosophy class and my professor is explaining Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. We get to the categories of the mind and one of my fellow classmates, also a Dewey fan raises his hand.
“I think that you can still have experience WITHOUT those categories. WHY ARE THERE CATEGORIES I DON’T BUY KANT’S CATEGORIES.”
Pragmatism has always interested me for applied Ethics, but the fact that its metaphysics becomes frail and fallible scares a lot of thinkers. Because metaphysics would only be sustained either by “the pragmatic rule” which is what James defended, or based on its usefulness which was Dewey’s approach, it becomes unimportant and this brings consequences to philosophy in general, duh.
3) The Feminist
Female usually, who took plenty of women’s studies classes and tends to submit every western white male in the history of philosophy through the looking glass of feminist theory. This is not always an easy task, but once learnt, it has proved effective in achieving good grades specially when the teacher is a white male and has to respond well to the minority and diversity policies of the college. Example: I have done this a few times when pressed with deadlines. Instead of writing my paper on the different degrees of reality or substance posed by rationalists and empiricists thinkers in Modern Philosophy, I did a feminist reading of Kantian Ethics. Instead of writing a paper on Habermmas’ Universality Principle for my Contemporary Philosophy class, I switched it, asking: “Does Habermmas’ Universality Principle Coincide with Feminist Thought?” This, although interesting can become monotonous when abused, and has kept me from investigating other issues in the history of Philosophy that might have been useful too.
Also, out of experience and following the stereotype, students tend to assume that the feminist is also a lesbian, especially if she dresses somewhat conservative.
4) The Analytic Philosophy student against the Continental Philosophy student
To portray another stereotypical from of arguing between two stereotypes of students I will beforehand explain a few things.
Most of us know about the contemporary Heidegger/ Carnap controversy over here but I’ll still tell you about it. While one was a Continental philosopher, the other was an Analytic. Carnap’s analytic method of verification intended to eliminate metaphysics through the logical analysis of language. He took plenty of shots at Heidegger who supported a unique metaphysics, by stating that Heidegger’s system was convoluted with pseudo-statements, so it meant nothing mainly because it couldn’t be verified in the world etc. At the same time, Heidegger responded back by explaining how metaphysical terms such as his idea of Dasein reveal themselves to us only when we cease to think rationally and when we cease to impose out thinking on the world. This was obviously something Carnap instantly rejected, and none of them managed to find even a common ground to argue given that the method of logical analysis which Carnap defended was as unworthy to Heidegger as his metaphysics was meaningless to Carnap.
This is to say that although plenty of times I have heard how both the Continental and Analytic branches of Philosophy tend to coincide and meet at certain points (Pragmatism.) I haven’t seen it happen yet in class. The few times we students even know what side it is that we are taking, this is what happens:
When one classmate argues for something, the other will find a logical fallacy in their argument. When one makes a claim, the other makes sure this claim has a correspondence in reality. If it doesn’t then it is meaningless and the other argument is fallacious and wrong, etc.
Contemporary philosophers in my experience tend to be more interested in literature, aesthetics and ethics, while Analytic philosophers are amazing logicians, good at math, music etc. I am not taking sides, but being aware that there is something called poetry which is what Heidegger used to explain Dasein when he exceeded the limits of rationality, and that there is something called “metaphor” which is not supposed to be taken literally, might be good advice for analytic philosophers. Then again, if you cannot even tell a modus ponens from a modus tollens, or what a double negation is, then what are you doing in a philosophy program and, yes, how are you even planning to support your claim? (I am asking this to myself.)
5) The Stoner
Not as bad as English majors, but we have them too. I am not planning to describe this obvious stereotype except with a brief example:
I am sitting in my Modern Philosophy class as my professor finishes explaining Hume’s empiricism. He asks us what we think about it and stoner guy raises his hand.
“It’s cool. I think Hume was on grass when he wrote it. Huh. Ha.”
“Spinoza must have been on LSD. Huh. Haaaa”
6) The Marxist
To the Marxist, everything becomes part of the history of class struggles. Every thinker can be judged from a Marxist perspective and who ever isn’t a Marxist is an Imperialistic capitalistic jerk, basically. I am a Marxist, so I am probably a good example of the stereotype. The problem with the Marxist is that at some point they might have to find a job in an Insurance office or work as secretaries in corporate America, and they might need medical insurance which is not socialist at all in this country, so they might have to sell out a little only for these reasons while keeping up with the Marxist analysis in other areas of their life.
7) The English major who takes a Philosophy class
Here we have the student who reads philosophy as if it were literature. I still do this when I give up trying to understand Heidegger’s arguments and decide to read him like he were Proust. But certain essays by Quine, Davidson or Carnap to state a few are not meant to be read as literary masterpieces nor are they meant to be deconstructed or critiqued using literary approaches. Here, the English major who takes a philosophy class for the first time falls victim of the stereotype. Common responses to philosophy by English majors tend to go like this:
“This is really WELL written. But I don’t understand Rorty’s claim at all, but he does good comparisons between philosophers, and he’s a good writer, so he must be good.”
“I think Dewey’s style is very clear. It was easy to read. He is a good writer”