Friday, July 07, 2006

The Philosophy of Hair

When I was a graduate student at Berkeley in the 1990s, the philosophy graduate student lounge had a billboard on which we posted philosophical humor. (Leo Van Munching, bless him, kept it organized; there never was, by the way, a more beautiful unpublished philosophical prose stylist.) Among the items that lived a span upon that board was a newspaper clipping in which a French coiffeur claims not to be a barber but rather "a philosopher of hair". Part of the humor in this, presumably, derives from the strange idea of a philosophy of hair. (Another part of the humor comes from its playing upon the different perceptions of philosophy in France and the U.S.)

But why not a philosophy of hair? It seems to me the following are recognizably philosophical questions:

(1.) What distinguishes a haircut from other events in which one's hair ends up shorter (e.g., fire, lawnmower accident)?

(2.) Is a good haircut timelessly good, or does the quality of a haircut depend in part on the tides of fashion?

(3.) Must a haircut please its bearer to be good? Are there, perhaps, several different dimensions of "goodness" to be pulled apart here?

(4.) To what extent should a haircut be judged by the intent of the hairdresser?

Now maybe these aren't earthshakingly important philosophical questions; but they do bear a certain resemblance to philosophical questions in other branches of philosophy (especially aesthetics). Yet they aren't merely derivative of those other questions: One's answers probably need to involve factors particular to hair. They can't simply and straightforwardly be derived from one's general stances about authorial intent, the quality of works of art, etc. And I don't doubt that our French coiffeur would have opinions on all of them!

Why do I care whether there is a philosophy of hair? Here's why. If there is, it suggests that philosophy is not a subject area. It is an approach, a style of thinking, a willingness to plunge in and consider the deepest onotological, normative, conceptual, and broadly theoretical questions regarding anything. Any topic -- the mind, language, physics, ethics, hair, Barbie dolls, carpentry, auto racing -- can be approached philosophically. For all X, there is a philosophy of X. Ain't that grand?

Consequently, when people say "this is my philosophy of X", I think they are generally using the word "philosophy" quite correctly. We should not cringe. John Madden is a philosopher of football!


Jonathan Jenkins Ichikawa said...

Eric, most of this sounds right, but I don't understand why this implies the last sentence of your post. Is John Madden engaging with football using philosophical methodology? I'm very happy to concede that one could study the philosophy of football, but it's much less clear to me that that's what Madden is doing.

Anibal Monasterio Astobiza said...

Carrie Jenkies, a cantabrigian analytic philosopher is pushing forward what she call "philosophy of flirting", in which you could allocate the sub-area of "philosophy of hair", all for the glory of a philosophical analysis of human comunication and its respective signals in relation to sex, courtship, deception, self-deception, pretence, status signalling...etc.

Brad C said...

I smiled when I read this, but I have to say that when people tell me about their philosophy of x, I think they rarely talk about the kinds of questions you instance.

Instead, they tend to have one of two things in mind: some rules of thumb for going about doing the thing in question or some intuitions or pithy claims about why they think the thing is question is worthwhile/of value.

For example, when people ask me "So you're a philosopher hunh? What's YOUR philosophy?" I assume they want me to express some rules of thumb for living life well, e.g. "embrace your fate!" Or maybe they want my take on something that might raise doubts about whether life is a good thing: "My philosophy is that suffering is good for the soul"

In any case, they are not looking for a discourse on the theoretical virtues of an objective theory of well-being, let alone the many more heady philosophic topics I might impose on them.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

A philosophy of flirting! Perfect!

Thanks Jonathan, Anibal, and Brad for your comments. Always a delight! A few more thoughts:

On John Madden: Some of his football philosophy is: Beef up the linemen. Run first. Don’t worry to much about your players’ off-field behavior. If you google football “defensive philosophy” , you’ll find 14,300 entries. It looks to me like they’re basically using the term “philosophy” correctly.

On “What’s your philosophy?”: The answers you cite, Brad, seem perfectly appropriate. What could be more philosophical than one’s basic take on how one ought to live?

Now maybe what Madden says when asked more about his philosophy of football, or what the person next to you on the plane says when queried further about her philosophy of life, don’t look much like the kinds of things analytic philosophers typically say; and they don't use quite the same styles of reasoning. But I don’t see this as a criterion of the philosophical. Confucius, Lao Tzu, the pre-Socratics, even Nietzsche and Wittgenstein (in certain moods), offer visions of how to live, or visions of their particular topic area, without much argumentation -- and of course we recognize them as philosophers.

Anonymous said...

Hi Eric,

Re: the history of the Phil of Hair must surely include mention of sorites and bald heads.

On a more serious note, I think your metaphilosophical proposal that for all x there is a philosophy of x is quite interesting.

I wonder what other disciplines are likewise universal. Biology is most certainly not universal. Much discussion of physicalism may be cast as whether it is universal. Arguably mathematics is: for all x, there is a mathematics of x. If universality applies to these later disciplines, would we be forced to say that they are not subject areas either?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

That's a good point, Pete! It doesn't follow from from the fact that for all X there's a phi of X that phi is not a subject area. (I take it for granted that mathematics is a subject area.)

Let me buttress the point a bit, then.

One possibility is this: Although the philosophy of hair is a genuine part of philosophy, the mathematics of hair is not a genuine part of mathematics. Perhaps, that is, it is a mere application or use of mathematics. Questions about, for example, a mathematical equation for hair growth are not questions of *mathematical* interest, but questions merely about hair. The parallel may not hold: Questions about whether a haircut needs to please its bearer to be good are genuine philosophical questions -- even if their interest isn't as broad as some other philosophical questions.

Or here's another tack: Mathematics is a method that can be applied to any number of phenomena. It's a subject area insofar as the details of that method can be studied. Philosophy is not a method in the same way (for reasons I discussed in my reply to Jonathan and Brad, above). The study of how we come (or should come) to opinions on philosophical questions is either only a small part of philosophy or a part of psychology.

I'm not entirely satisfied with either of these responses, though. Although I think philosophy is not a subject area in the same way psychology or math is a subject area, and although I think that has *something* to do with the fact that for all X, there's a philosophy of X, there obviously are subtle issues to explore regarding exactly how the one follows from the other.

antropoplace beta version said...


Anthropologists often engage with people's (and peoples') beliefs and actions regarding a variety of apparently mundane topics as if they constituted a 'philosophy.' You might be interested in Robert McKinley's observations on the 'philosophy of kinship', for example. (Damn, this used to be available free online from the UI Press, but apparently not anymore. Anyway, here is the link:

Anonymous said...

Good stuff

AKA - "The non-philosopher"

Anonymous said...

I couldn't even imagine such hair philosophy! But I like it. I also noticed that hair cut can be evaluated differently from different points of view.

Anonymous said...

Yes, this is funny, but why it will be different in France and USA? I understand there is a different, but so big?