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.