Lessons from Philosophy Grad School

My undergraduate degree was in Psychology and Education with minors in Biology and German.  Most of that was at a Christian College (Wheaton College).  But as I became disillusioned with Christianity, I still had all the big questions and started reading in many areas outside of my Christian echo chamber.  I suppose that is what eventually drove me to consider formally studying philosophy or maybe it is my philosophical inclinations that led me to explore Christianity in the first place.

So after graduating from Wheaton College in Illinois I moved up to Madison, Wisconsin where, while working as a hospital orderly, I took two introductory courses in philosophy at the University of Wisconsin.  Then fate took me to Minneapolis, Minnesota where I decided to apply for graduate school in Philosophy.  To start my application, I arranged a meeting with the Department Chair of Philosophy at the U of M.

The Chairmen politely chuckled at my ambition to apply to graduate school in a field I had not studied as an undergraduate.  But somehow he liked me and  told me to enroll as a “special student” and take three foundational graduate-level philosophy courses.  He said that if I aced the courses and could get good recommendations from the professors, they would consider my unusual application.

Lesson One: Easy to Criticize, Difficult to Build


Hippasus - A Pythagorean Heretic

In my course on Greek Philosophers, I was perplexed as to what to choose as the subject of my final paper.  In consulting my professor, he said, “If you choose one of these Greek philosophers and criticize his arguments, you will probably get a good grade.  If instead, you create your own position about these philosophers it will be much harder to get a good grade.  But I would much rather enjoy reading the later.”

I did the later, got a B+ but fortunately the other graded items in the class pulled by final grade up to the required “A”.  I learned from that choice.  This blog attempts to avoid mere criticism, but also to build — which is much more difficult but infinitely more fulfilling.

Lesson Two: Stubborn Over-Confident Perseverance can actually Pay Off

They let me into graduate school by the skin of my teeth. (a Biblical idiom!)

Lesson Three: Going Against the Grain can be Therapeutic

During my application interview, one of the three interviewing professors asked me, “What would you like to study with us?”  So I said, “Philosophy of Religion — and in particular Buddhist philosophy.”  They all chuckled.  After all, the University of Minnesota was known as one of the major schools for the philosophy of science.  Looking at my undergraduate major in Psychology (a “soft” science) and Education (fuzziness incarnate) they said, “Look, before we let you explore that realm, you have to prove to us that you actually have brain.  We will require that the first year you study the History of Philosophy sequence and that you do the entire three course sequence in Symbolic Logic.  Quietly disappointed I, of course replied, “Yes, thank you.”

The History of Philosophy courses were tough and painful for me.  But logic was different — I was good in math.  My university career had begun at Cornell University in Engineering and I had taught myself computer programming in High School when computers had first hit the schools.  Symbolic Logic was easy for me while other students struggled.  But our third quarter final class in the sequence was entirely dedicated to Gödel’s “Incompleteness Theorem“.   That changed me.  Gödel was tough but the prior courses helped as I finally understood why they required them.

My training in one year of symbolic logic shifted my mind into a different perspective and colored my training and thinking in years to come.  I was surprised at how being forced to make choices against the grain of my inclinations could change me in ways I valued.  And since then, because of this surprisingly pleasant experience I have often intentionally sought out and read material which offers intelligent counter influences to my own intellectual inclinations.  I do this for reasons similar to why I brush my teeth – – to maintain healthy hygiene (here, mental hygiene).

Miscellaneous Other Lessons:

A few other lessons I can remember learning during those years include:

  • Lots of people are way smarter than me
  • With enough immersion, one can become surprisingly comfortable reading very poorly written, boring material
  • People color their philosophy with their dispositions
  • People creatively, brilliantly and self-deceptively select amongst philosophical notions to support their preferences
  • It is easy to loose the forest for the trees
  • Even as we forget what we put much effort into learning, we remain deceptively convinced we understand it better than we actually do.  This is probably because the learning, though lost, has rearranged the relationships of other beliefs, feelings and practices though only a ghost of the original knowledge may remain.


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

9 responses to “Lessons from Philosophy Grad School

  1. “I was surprised at how being forced to make choices against the grain of my inclinations could change me in ways I valued. And since then, because of this surprisingly pleasant experience I have often intentionally sought out and read material which offers intelligent counter influences to my own intellectual inclinations.”

    I have been trying to practice this as well. I left Christianity many years ago and I am an Atheist today. But I’ve made a point to listen to a select few Christian podcasts (along with the usual Atheist/Humanist staples) because I wanted to keep exposing myself to ideas and thoughts that might make me uncomfortable. The goal being to test/refine my current understanding and maybe even keep myself a little humble when considering disagreements with others and how I was once in their position too.

    For instance, while listening to podcasts from William Lane Craig, or the Unbelievable podcast, I keep hearing arguements from the Christian side that I would have whole-heartedly supported way back when I was a Christian. But now that I am an Atheist, they just dont make sense anymore. All of these suposedly great refutations of Atheism and evolution are so much crap. But now, I can see that I simply wanted to believe whatever would support my Christianity.

    It scares me to think that my acceptance of truth depends so much on what I *already* believe.


  2. “With enough immersion, one can become surprisingly comfortable reading very poorly written, boring material”

    Maybe that’s how I got through the Book of Mormon. 🙂

    I really like your last point, about how learning something can rearrange our other beliefs, and therefore is worthwhile even if we don’t retain much of the specifics of what we learned.

    Been wanting to take a few philosophy classes myself.

  3. @Sheldrake:
    I have had the same experiences. Christian doctrine (doxy) leaves me baffled that I ever fell for it. But, the practices (praxis) of many Christians, still impress me. So the trick is to see how Christians use (what you view as) false doxy to support valuable praxi.

    A second trick, for supporting a healthy mind, is to recognize that even your present beliefs which you feel are free of the foolishness of the past self-deceptions, are frequently reinforced with the same bias techniques as your previous naive views. Alas !

    @ Leah:
    Thank you — I would imagine that you understand very clearly. What I said was not brilliant — alas, such is the nature of my deepest insights. 🙂

  4. @Saibo
    Yes! Agreed on both points. I hear Christians talk about their faith and I want to gag but then I remember that I used to speak like that and believe the same things too..! 😦 and then I take that as an opportunity to work on my humility.


  5. Jen

    Love this one. Guilty as charged in coloring philosophy with my disposition. I’m trying to quit, but it’s a bit like smoking or a sugar addiction. : )

  6. Hey Jen
    Thanks. It is so important to comfortably admit our addictions, eh?

  7. I appreciate these lessons, and think they are valuable. But I worry about lesson #2.

    I do agree that “Stubborn Over-Confident Perseverance can actually Pay Off”. Dogged stubbornness does get rewarded, for sure, and in some cases that’s good. But can it at least come with a word of caution? I mean, this attitude sounds very close to the ‘unshakable faith’ of certain debaters.

    Someone can win in the end, after all, but that doesn’t make them right (or wrong, I guess).

  8. Andrew G
    Yep, that is the problem which aphorisms — so short, tons of bugs can find their way in.

    I was told that I could never get into Philosophy grad school by lots of people.
    For example, when someone says, “Be realistic!” that could be translated, “Lower your expectations.” So dogged stubborn perseverance in face of such negative dream smashers can pay off.

    But you are right, it is a delicate balance. But the aphorism was not truth but a tool for me then and now and for anyone else for whom it works! I am sure you’ll understand.

  9. Shawn Wamsley

    “With enough immersion, one can become surprisingly comfortable reading very poorly written, boring material”

    wow, guilty – this made me smile, though.

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