Practicing Philosophy

The Unofficial Guide to Getting the Most of Undergraduate Philosophy at Rutgers University

A warning. Philosophy will keep you up at night. Your consciousness might be an illusion. Skepticism looms over everything you thought you knew. Our understanding of time may be fundamentally flawed. You could be incapable of expressing yourself to others, doomed to loneliness forever. It’s possible you’re part of a sociopolitical machine which deals systematic injustice. Or maybe there isn’t such a thing as morality.

But, like many things that are worth losing sleep over, philosophy has been neatly regimented into professional academia for hundreds of years. I’d like to offer this guide as an invitation to the major. I’ll share what I’ve learned about why and how to study philosophy as an undergraduate at Rutgers.

First, an introduction: Rutgers University houses one of the top three philosophy departments in the world. Not only that, but the department just received a $3 million donation from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and an anonymous donor to fund the department’s first endowed chair. This will be sure to bring another of the world’s top philosophers to Rutgers. Here and now is the best time and place to start a philosophy major or minor, and here’s how …

The first step: The Philosophy Club

If you’ve made it this far, then you’ve probably always considered yourself philosophically minded, but are unsure if you’re really interested in the major. Or alternatively, you’re in the major and you’re looking to broaden your philosophical thinking. The Rutgers Undergraduate Philosophy Club is perfect for this.

Picture Greek philosophers, and you see togas and beards. But, when you picture Rutgers philosophy, you should see a conference table flanked on every side by sharp students led by a distinguished member of faculty, or a rising star in Rutgers’ graduate program. Since its creation in its present form last year, the Rutgers Philosophy Club has been the best place for undergraduates to connect with a broad array of philosophical topics. The meetings are held on Friday’s at 5:00PM. While they officially end at 6:30PM, it is often buzzing long after that. The meetings are open to all.

While every speaker is free to choose his or her own format, the most frequent is a presentation, followed by a question-and-answer session. Every meeting is entirely independent from all of the others, and often the presentations assume nothing about the audience’s philosophical background. Likewise, the curious-minded are free to wander in to whatever meeting they choose. This is because the Rutgers Philosophy Club practices “analytic philosophy,” which strives to be straightforwardly clear about both the question being asked and the answer given.

So, who are professional philosophers and what types of questions do they ask? Modern philosophy is practiced by all sorts of folks, and investigates issues like: What is real? How do we know? What is good? What is beautiful? What is just? What is the mind? What is language? What is science? And even, perhaps a bit vainly, what is philosophy?

The Philosophy Club has been honored to host Rutgers faculty members Prof. Peter Klein, Prof. Douglas Husak, and Prof. Alvin Goldman to talk on these topics. Of graduate students, the Philosophy Club has also formerly hosted Lisa Mirrachi, David Black, Rodrigo Borges, Marilie Coetsee, and Michael Smith, who came to share their philosophical insight.

Regardless of what classes you’ve taken or what your background is, the answers to these philosophical questions are ones you have views on! Do you jump off of cliffs contemplating the meaninglessness of everything and how you cannot know about gravity? Do you see how that would be a badthing for you to do? That it would causeyou as person to cease to exist? That it would be unfairon your family? Philosophy Club is a setting where you can learn about yourself, and develop your views on these fundamental issues.

The next step: Making Philosophy

Students are not restricted to being on the audience’s side of the conference table, however. An important part of the student philosopher’s philosophical progress is expressing their ideas to others, seeing exactly where it is that others may disagree, and considering whose arguments are stronger.

If you have gone to philosophy club and want to take the next step, there are at least three ways to move forward: (1) write a thesis, (2) participate in the undergraduate conference, and (3) work with an undergraduate journal.


The first step you should take to “make philosophy” is to write a paper that attempts to contribute to philosophical progress. Although you can look up all the logistics of thesis writing on the Rutgers Philosophy Department website, I’ll share some of the harder aspects of it. Namely, (1) picking a topic and (2) securing an advisor.

As a prerequisite to finding the issue that shakes you to your very core, take a well-balanced set of courses. I’d recommend every philosophy major take at leastan epistemology, a metaphysics, and an ethics course. While in those classes, consider which of the debates you enjoy the most: perhaps you like the back-and-forthedness of the Gettier counterexample literature, the fundamentality of metaphysics, or a particular moral issue.

When you think you have a candidate for something you could write deeply about, jump up to the 400-level course with a tenured faculty member in that field, and go to office hours to talk over your papers for the course. Rutgers faculty are encouraging and exciting to work with, but you will need to reach out first.

Should you do well on a paper, ask the professor if they would consider working with you to develop your writing into an honors thesis. This would also be a great time to start discussing graduate school and letters of recommendation, should you be interested.


One place to take your completed thesis is to an undergraduate philosophy conference, where you will present it to a national audience. A Google search will yield calls for papers all across the country, as more universities begin hosting such conferences. Should your work be accepted, you’ll take on the job of the visitors to the Philosophy Club: you’ll start by presenting your research, which will be followed by a question-and-answer session. This is an amazing opportunity to hone the skills you’ll need to be a professional philosopher. Namely, articulating your views to an audience of your peers.

Rutgers and Princeton are among the universities hosting undergraduate conferences, as the first annual jointly-held philosophy conference was organized by Rutgers’ own Jimmy Goodrich and Princeton’s Max Siegal. Students from NYU, McGill University, Brown University, and many more came to Princeton to give their selected paper in the form of a presentation. The keynote presentation was given by Rutgers’ Prof. Stephen Stich and Princeton’s Prof. Michael Smith on the role of intuitions in philosophy. It was a stimulating two-day event that will happen again in the Spring of 2015.


Another avenue you can take your thesis to is that of undergraduate journals. The role of a journal is to select and edit philosophical work for publication, to be read by a peer-group. Just like conferences, journals submit a “call for papers”, which you’ll receive via email, or can find with a Google search. If selected, you’ll likely undergo a couple round of edits and eventually receive a published copy of your work!

At Rutgers, the undergraduate journal is called Arête. I recommend that you submit your paper to other university’s journals, and opt to join Arête as an editor. I recommend this for two reasons: (1) you cannot join another university’s journal, and (2) it raises editorial concerns to both edit and publish your own work. To join Arête, you’ll need a special permission number from the Editor-in-Chief, which you can get from a couple of emails. The undergraduate journal at Rutgers will give you another set of skills you’ll need to go on in philosophy: to read, interpret, and constructively criticize the work of your peers.

The roadmap, completed

To begin practicing philosophy at Rutgers, attend a few sessions of the Philosophy Club. If the issues at stake excite you, take a few classes and find your favorite topic. After that, the philosophy major at Rutgers is the most rewarding experience I’ve had: thinking deeply with the help of the world’s best philosophers, submitting and participating in conferences of like-minded peers, and in turn considering their work. With hard work, these steps will turn you into an aspiring philosopher.

Philosophy's Not Dead

The Wave Function, Breakfast Cereal, and Philosophy of X

Philosophy is the oldest study in the world, arguably beginning when Plato established the Academy in 428 BCE. Simultaneously, it is arguably now the most disparaged, where every few months a leading scientist will claim philosophy is dead or metaphysics is fairy-laden. There are at least two ways to respond to this: (1) to defend philosophy on the scientist’s own stomping ground, citing examples of progress within the scope, and (2) to justify philosophy on its own merit, to defend the goals of philosophy.

The purpose of this article is to appeal to the scientifically-minded to embrace philosophy because of both its contribution within scientific domains and inquiry and on its own merit.

What is Philosophy?

What is the scope of philosophy? It’s very clear that psychologists study people, biologists study life, physicists study energy, etc. So what on earth does the world’s oldest study actually study? A popular answer is that philosophy studies philosophers, but this just pushes the bump in the carpet. Another popular method of working this out is to look at the word “philosophy” and to see its meaning, which is “love of wisdom.” Unfortunately, this is too cryptic and still just pushes the bump in the carpet. Perhaps a look into the hard-and-fast divisions of the subfields of analytic philosophy will help. They are:

  1. Logic, “What is truth and how does it work?”;
  2. Metaphysics, “What is real?”;
  3. Epistemology, “What is knowledge?”;
  4. Ethics, “What is good to do?”;
  5. Politics, “What is justice?”;
  6. Aesthetics, “What is beauty?”

But this answer won’t do either, for two reasons. First, I don’t think this is going to impress the scientifically-minded skeptic that philosophy is worthwhile or rigorous. Second, and thankfully, this taxonomy fails to capture where most of the progress has been in philosophy: the “philosophy of Xs.” There is a “philosophy of …” for practically every field, with some of the most prominent being the philosophy of science, thephilosophy of language, and the philosophy of mind.

In this article I’ll map out one such Òphilosophy of XÓ study and appeal to the scientifically-minded skeptic that it is both properly a field of philosophy and is as rigorous and as worthwhile as empirical science. Specifically, I think that there are two intellectual activities at play: (1) the “first-order” observation and hypothesizing about physical phenomena, and (2) the “second-order” interpretation and synthesis of these hypotheses into the broader corpus. In (2) is where I see the scientifically-minded skeptic embracing the practice of philosophy.

Philosophy of Physics: An Open Question

Hypothetically consider an omniscient, but somewhat limited, god at the very beginning of space and time. This god only knows everything about the present moment, but it is indeed everything, including the position and velocity of all particles and the laws which govern them. Whatever laws are is a question for another article.  All we need to think about is what is logically consistent with such an imaginary being.

Is this enough information to determine how the universe will end? If it is not possible to determine the course of the universe like this, are there probabilities? Perhaps there’s a certain probability of a heat death and a certain probability of a big crunch death of the universe. Could this hypothetical being determine these? Are the probabilities somehow “in the world” and observable, or merely just a instrumental frequency count we assign to sufficiently complex phenomena? If this omniscient being can neither determine the course of our universe nor work out with certain probabilities, what is it that binds together frames in space and time? Is it entirely random? Whether or not these are these problems interest you, these are the sorts of questions where I think philosophy can help physics, in the interpretation of these physical observation and hypotheses.

Questions of determinism and indeterminism are of clear philosophical interest, and hinge on the findings of our fundamental physics. If our universe were purely Newtonian  “clockwork universe,” then with enough investigation we could come to predict the end of our universe and our choice of breakfast cereal tomorrow morning. On the other hand, if our best physics has probability or indeterminacy built-in, then the end of our universe and our choice of breakfast cereal may very well be unknowable. This is consequential to our understandings of ourselves and our ability to choose, of what it is to make the good choice, and of what it is that we can in principle come to understand.

We have two questions here: (1) What is? (2) What does that mean? Philosophers are interested, just like physicists, in determining what is. In addition, I hold that philosophy is uniquely the study of how to “glue” what is with our everyday lives. This is where I think philosophy parts ways from pure observation.

Science & Philosophy Side-by-Side

This taxonomy is not at all divisive, it’s just the case that some eager minds wish to carefully observe the world and hypothesize about it (what “is”), while others want to take those hypotheses and make them cohere with the rest of the corpus of human understanding (what does “it” mean?), and those categories are not at all mutually exclusive. This distinction is between a straightforward hypothesis of the physical world and a picture, understanding, or conception of experienced world. The question of what the world is actually like will overlap with the study of metaphysics, specifically, it is exactly the study of ontology, which asks, “What is being?” The question of how and whether we can come to know what the world is like is an epistemological question. Whether or not there is a pre-determined end to our actions should inform our intuitions about ethics, like can you blame someone for an action they were pre-determined to perform? As such, the question trickles into how to organize our society in the fairest way. Furthermore, I take this to be how the hardcore physicists’ own domain of inquiry will contribute to the classic questions of philosophy.

The determinism/indeterminism debate above is directly observed in quantum phenomena, where our best hypotheses use a wave function to describe the state of particles. However, I claim that nothing in the fundamental physics of our world could in principle answer questions like (2).  That’s one of the domains of philosophy, to reconcile the latest and greatest discoveries with other, more ordinary observations and ourstrongest intuitions. Nothing about the way the world is is going to tell about how we should act, for instance. No fact that’s come to be known will tell us whether we can know that fact. Some of our best theories of physics hold we should abandon our everyday notions of space and time, of simultaneity, of color, of mind. My use of philosophy is to reconcile this objective study of the world with what it’s like to be human.

Presentation on "Humean Supervenience Debugged"

This is a video of a presentation of David Lewis’ 1994 “Humean Supervenience Debugged”, where he deals with the “big bad bug” of chance while holding a Humean Supervenience thesis along with a best-systems account of laws. I made this to practice giving the presentation, which was for Professor Barry Loewer’s metaphysics class.