One Semester in Graduate School, Two Types of Graduate Students

This was originally posted on Yum Yum Union.

“The fox knows many things but the hedgehog knows one great thing.”
– Archilochus.

“Direct marketing? I thought of that. It turned out it already existed, but I arrived at it independently.”
– Pete Campbell, “New Amsterdam,” Season 1 of Madmen.

“Superficiality is as hard to avoid in philosophy as it is anywhere else. It is too easy to reach solutions that fail to do justice to the difficulty of the problems. All one can do is try to maintain a desire for answers, a tolerance for long periods without any, an unwillingness to brush aside unexplained intuitions, and an adherence to reasonable standards of clear explanations of clear expression and cogent argument.”
– Preface to Mortal Questions, Thomas Nagel.

“Doubt is an uneasy and dissatisfied state from which we struggle to free ourselves and pass into the state of belief; while the latter is a calm and satisfactory state which we do not wish to avoid, or to change to a belief in anything else. On the contrary, we cling tenaciously, not merely to believing, but to believing just what we do believe.”
– “The Fixation of Belief,” Charles Sanders Peirce.

“They’re in flux!”
– a student demonstrating a point by (literal) hand-waving


Apparently, Isaiah Berlin has already thought of, and elegantly laid out through animal epithets, what I am about to discuss: that there are two categories of student one might find in terminal masters program of Philosophy; two caricatures of student-tendencies in excess. Let me boldly say what has been said before.

There are blockheads, and there are chowderheads.

Blockheads have a picture of the world reckoned out to science-fictional detail. Chowderheads, meanwhile, are semi-literally stewing: every philosophical position they’ve ever encountered (and can recall) is still up in the air, existing in a soup of largely unevaluated and contradictory positions. Perhaps the easiest litmus test for which -head is at hand is to ask after a claim, with sufficient earnestness, “Do you truly believe X?” The chowderhead will hem, will haw, will confess some of what’s afloat in the chowder and why they may believe X but concurrently may not believe X. The blockhead will either answer yes, baldly, then wheel out their story in full, or define their actual claim, usually also by wheeling out their story and its stock of distinctions. In either case, you’re in for a bit of listening.

Classic blockheads: Sheldon Cooper of The Big Bang Theory; most donkeys; the incorrigible Hugh Grant.

Classic chowderheads: Hamlet during the first act of Hamlet; David Bowie; Hilary Putnam.

Typically, in the course of a semester, you’ll hear a blockhead’s spiel several times over, if from differing angles, an answer to a seemingly flat question of intuition requiring a whole theoretical dollop. Chowderheads either decline to answer, or give varying answers over the course of the semester which have a suspicious link to their current coursework, so that their answers tend to be peeks into recent syllabi rather than proof of mulling-over. Perhaps contrary to what one might think, there seems to be a link between blockheads and the Socratic method, because they’ve done the legwork, they’ve figured out their story, they’ve committed and culled-out and bit the fucking bullet. That degree of pre-work can mean an investment in the problem at hand; it can also allow them to immure you in distinctions. Chowderheads can fluster under those same conditions, having no ready set of answers – or they can lip-sync their latest reading. At their worst, having steamed through the same amount of literature, both parties can end up with nothing: the chowderhead tugged in ten different directions, only able to produce a paper with an ambivalent fart for a conclusion; the blockhead having only restated their position, effectively no different than when they began, mowing through the literature without being touched by it, filtering every idea encountered through their own theoretical block so that they sort roughly into correct but unexciting ideas and grave errors.

The error, in either caricature, regards the decision to commit, to lay out what you believe in clean lines. The chowderhead never really commits; the blockhead does so once. And that’s the ugly crux of the matter. If the blockhead is never uprooted, can never feel the gravity of other systems of thought, the chowderhead never puts her feet on the fucking ground. “Why commit?” you might demand. Surely it’s fine to be chowder, able to sort through positions in terms of how they hang together as systems and not according to some internal philosophy grocery list, or something of the sort. I think it gets pernicious if we think that how we figure the world, philosophically, has something to do with how we act – but then perhaps this is a would-be ethicist’s bias. If what I think is philosophically true is how I truly do conceive of the world, if world-conceptions are philosophies, and how I conceive of the world has great impact on how I act, then there’s a secret lump in the chowderhead: if she is actually making decisions, she’s acting to a certain conception of the world, and if world conceptions are sorts of philosophies, then her stew isn’t really just a stew, a courageous ambiguity before she sieves off rejected world-conceptions, but goddamn laziness.

Those are tub-thumping italics, I know, but even so I think that if we admit that a great part of what we’re doing in philosophy is figuring out what the world is like, and what we think the world is like frames how we make decisions in that world, then the chowerhead’s got a secret block at the bottom, she ain’t really neutrally up in the air, she’s just trying on hats without buying. The blockhead seems virtuous in this respect – they own up to their worldview, and they’ll put it through any philosophical dogfight, and they’ll frame their decisions this way. Perhaps this is just rationalization on their part. Perhaps our mereological commitments, for instance, do not really reflect the circuitry that underwrites our decisions. Let’s say they do. Then the chowderhead is saying that she doesn’t really have a philosophy, but what she means is that she’s got one but hasn’t rolled up her sleeves and figured out how it’s arranged. The blockhead has gotten that far – but then their sin is never re-arranging, just sticking to their guns once they’ve got them. The trick is to somehow manage both. Get your story on the table, make the damn decision – and remake it over and over, approach each text with your heat in your mouth because the world really might be some othe way.

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