Saturday, 4 February 2012

Undergraduate Philosophy Students: A Simplified Evolutionary Outline

As all of you know, this is the second in my very short series about undergraduate philosophy students. Last week, I explored the reasons why undergrads typically choose to specialize in philosophy (found here), and this week we will talk about what they become once they join philosophy programs.

Non-philosopher parents of new undergrad philosophers, I hope that you will find this especially helpful.

[As a note: When I refer to “young” philosophers, I do not mean “young by years,” but I do mean “young, as in new.” This is an important distinction].

Stage One: Starry-eyed wonder/Deer in the headlights

Depending on why an undergrad person became a philosophy major, they have different reactions at Stage One. The young philosopher who already loves philosophy or knows something about it is generally enraptured—it’s like being in a new dating relationship. This young philosopher wants to read everything they can find about philosophy, talks to everyone about philosophy, and often becomes obsessed with a particular professor (they see this professor as being a wise sage who can guide them on the one true path to philosophical wisdom). They also have a seemingly unlimited tolerance for boredom. My philosopher can remember reading huge history of philosophy volumes late into the night—thirsting to read everything he could—in a way that he doesn’t now.

The danger with a young philosopher of this type in Stage One is that they often end up wielding philosophy like a too-heavy sword, hacking down relationships and destroying connections with friends in an attempt to try and use a weapon they aren’t ready for yet. This doesn’t always happen (probably with analytic more often than continental philosophers), but I have seen it happen many times. The people most often found in the unintentional path of destruction are a young philosopher’s family members—some relationships with parents never recover from the beating they take in Stage One.

Parents: it is really important to realize that this stage will not last forever, and your young philosopher does not mean to hurt you. Eventually, most philosophers move on and become thoughtful, careful individuals. If you can just make it through this stage, you will find that your young philosopher is much easier to spend time with.

The other type of young philosopher at Stage One is the kind that didn’t really know much about philosophy, and once they open their eyes and realize what they committed to by joining a philosophy program, this philosopher is rather overwhelmed and stunned (hence, “Deer in the headlights”). This young philosopher will withdraw at first and try to process this new world. They don’t have the confidence to speak up in class, and they may find themselves overwhelmed by the hard readings.

This type of young philosopher is much less dangerous to other people, but if they aren’t offered help or made to talk about their ideas, this philosopher may get way too overwhelmed and either leave the program or do poorly in classes. Philosophers at this stage need more confidence. While the starry-eyed philosopher might be able to keep things going on their own, the deer in the headlights philosophers needs some social support to continue in philosophy. Having just one friend or philosophical mentor to tentatively talk about ideas can be a big help to them.

Stage Two: Hipster Philosophers

After a young philosopher passes Stage One, most of them end up in Stage Two as a hipster philosopher. For those of you unfamiliar with the term “hipster,” a quick look at Wikipedia (the source of all sources!) will give you a quick history of the term. It originated in the 1940s/50s to descript a counter-culture movement—particularly in music, but also in clothes and attitude—and is now used to describe a class of people (usually young) who are also into counter-cultural “authentic” stuff. For those of us who like to make fun of hipsters, we often tease them for saying things like, “I was into Indie rock/suspenders/bowties/mustaches/TOMS shoes before it/they was/were popular.” [As a note: There is a group on facebook called “Hipsters who hate other hipsters for being hipsters].

So, when young philosophers reach this stage, they know just enough about philosophy to impress their peers with “sexy” philosophy, and they often pretend a bit like they are a unique and incredibly intelligent person (very counter-cultural). Now, of course they are unique and intelligent persons, but any grad student or professor can see that the hipster philosopher really knows very little about philosophy.

Some young philosophers discover at this stage that they either don’t really like philosophy or aren’t very good at it, but they are so used to the prestige or “sexiness” (in some groups) that comes with being a philosophy major that they stay in philosophy but never get out of the hipster stage.

Stage Two is not a dangerous stage, but it is rather annoying. Most philosophers, after they have learned more about philosophy, look back at themselves when they were at this stage with embarrassment.

There are a few philosophers who never leave Stage One or Two (or they develop a certain degree of arrogance or unkindness in or beyond graduate school).  I have seen some former undergraduate philosophy students who don’t pursue further education and get stuck in Stage Two, and then they develop into internet “trolls” or that person who shows up at university philosophy colloquia events and asks those embarrassingly-bad- questions-that-they –have-no-idea-are-embarrassing-questions.

Stage Three: Sober and Thoughtful

After our young philosophers make it through the first and second stages, they reach my favorite stage, Stage Three. Philosophers at this stage have made a lot of mistakes, perhaps alienated some friends or family members, and learned more about themselves and their philosophical minds. They have developed a certain type of maturity that comes from thinking and reasoning about the world.

Philosophers in Stage Three are ready to take on the world beyond—either in “real” jobs, in law school, or in academia as a graduate student. They know better how to talk to non-philosophers, and are often excellent conversational partners. Parents: This is what you can look forward to with your young and unwieldy swordswoman/man.

So whatever stage your young philosopher is in, remember that with time and patience, your philosopher will (probably) develop into a thoughtful and engaging person.

~The Philosiologist

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  1. I'm so thankful I met my philosopher as he was reaching stage 3. But I can see our son having to go through these stages, and that will take a great deal of grace to deal with, I'm sure.

    Katie -- I love your posts and they always speak so loudly to my experiences!

  2. ".. they are so used to the prestige or “sexiness” (in some groups) that comes with being a philosophy major that they stay in philosophy."

    I'm pretty sure this applies not only to philosophy but also to other fields. I was in this stage myself with my astronomy major.

  3. Brilliant is all I can describe this blog. In fact it has inspired me to blog again.