Q: What are you doing now?
A: I'm a philosophy undergrad.
Q: Who is your favourite philosopher? What are your views on the death penalty, abortion, stem cell research, gay rights etc etc etc?
I can speak for no one except myself. However, I often find myself in such a situation and I do have mixed feelings about it. But one question often lingers in my mind: what is the purpose of all these questions?
On one hand, I am somewhat flattered that well meaning people assume that I may have unique perspectives since my major involves exploring the world of ideas.
On the other, I cannot help but feel a sense of trepidation. It is as if I am navigating a minefield and it will all blow up in my face if I wasn't careful. It is not that I am afraid I may not know the answer or lose a debate to a non-philosophy graduate. Why should I? I have only taken three modules so far. This sense of apprehension is the kind one feels that one should avoid the other person because he is just looking for a brawl. Yes, I've said it, some people who ask such questions are looking for an intellectual tavern brawl.
These brawlers come in many forms and intensity. There are those that just take pleasure in questioning you in the hopes that you will falter and there are others who just want to beat you in an argument. Do not get me wrong, as a philosophy student, I do appreciate the rigours of questioning one's own beliefs or the process one has constructed in order to adopt these beliefs. What I am against is the intent and perhaps the manner in which one poses the questions. There is certainly a difference between sincere questions and ones that are cloaked daggers used in the form of an interrogation. At this juncture, it is important to think about what is meant by, as I put it, 'sincere questions.'
To my mind, there are two forms of questioning that one employs without malice in daily life. One questions either to consult (as in a student asking a teacher) or to explore possibilities. The former is straightforward enough, one is not in the know and would like to find out new information. The latter happens in two ways: Firstly, you may want to ensure that the other party's point of view is founded on strong reasons (similar to what Socrates does). Secondly, questioning the other party helps to explore all possibilities of a particular matter which will hopefully help strengthen your own views or cause you to reformulate them.
But how is the second form of questioning any different from what the brawlers do? The main difference as mentioned before, lies in the intent. These intellectual brutes are merely looking to win an argument and are not concerned with the furtherance of knowledge or even taking what others say as an opportunity to reflect on the validity of their own views. These people often engage in foot stomping when it comes to difficult issues and how you define the boundaries matter. They will just declare the definitions of the other party invalid and will not accept that there are some issues that cannot be solved for the time being.
Having established all that, how do we proceed from here? I guess the most important thing for the brawlers to do is to sober up from their illusions of grandeur and note that the person you are talking to is a human being and not your punching bag. Basic civilities apply. Also, while we philosophy students adore its rigours, we do need to tune out once in a while. So if you just met us at a social gathering and would like to discuss philosophical issues, do not put us in the witness stand but ease us into it. A couple of drinks (non-alcoholic for me please) would certainly help.