The New Philosophers

By Andy Faught Photos by Kevin Burke

Building on an academic legacy as old as the College itself, Occidental’s Philosophy Department has evolved to include a mix of voices far beyond the traditional canon

Queenie Ngo ’24 developed an interest in philosophy as a member of the Human Rights Club at Kamiak High School in Mukilteo, Wash., where students gathered each Monday to discuss current events. “In this horrible, treacherous, beautiful, cruel, amazing thing called life, I was looking for an instruction manual,” she says.

Philosophy major Queenie Ngo '24
“Philosophy helps me deal with the mess and chaos, and find a way to thrive within it,” says Queenie Ngo ’24, a philosophy and theater major from Mukilteo, Wash.

“You’re born into this world that you’ve never been to before. You know nothing. There are a lot of people telling you what to do, but no one’s right. No one knows what they’re doing because I don’t think that humans live long enough to become wise. So, I started thinking to myself, ‘How do I do this? Someone’s got to know something.’”

A double major in philosophy and theater, Ngo directed her first play, A Madness Upon Us, in April 2022 at Keck Theater. She hasn’t decided what she wants to do after graduation, but it will involve “telling stories” in a complicated world, and her philosophical grounding will be central to that: “Philosophy helps me deal with the mess and chaos, and find a way to thrive within it.” 

To those who might question Ngo’s choice of majors—namely, her parents—look no further than 17th-century French philosopher René Descartes, whose “I think, therefore I am” maxim often serves as the first and last words on the matter.

“It’s not my job to put them at ease,” she says. “Obviously, there are things you have to do for money and survive somehow. But I don’t think the purpose of life is to labor.”

Philosophy has always had an air of inscrutability, and every philosopher likely has a slightly different definition of the field. “My preferred one is that philosophy is the systematic study of which beliefs are worth believing,” says Professor Clair Morrissey, recipient of Occidental’s Linda and Tod White Teaching Prize in 2017 and the Donald R. Loftsgordon ’50 Award for Outstanding Teaching in 2023.

The study of philosophy at Occidental is as old as the College itself; in those early years, it was referred to as “mental science” in the curriculum. (It was changed to “philosophy” under the presidency of John Willis Baer around 1910.) In an academic discipline that has long been dominated by the hidebound teachings of marble busts such as Plato, Aristotle, and Descartes, philosophy is changing—and Occidental has reimagined its curriculum to reflect a greater diversity of global perspectives.

“The profession is very different than it was when I got my Ph.D. in 2007,” says Associate Professor Ryan Preston-Roedder, who joined the College in 2017 and has chaired the department since 2019. (He also is faculty adviser to the Barack Obama Scholars Program.) “We keep an eye on national job searches, and you see more and more searching in non-Western philosophy or non-canonical philosophy.”

Following the retirements of two of Oxy’s most beloved professors—Marcia Homiak in 2019 and Saul Traiger in 2021—“Everybody in the department weighed in on what they saw as the appropriate vision for a philosophy curriculum,” says Professor Caro Brighouse, who joined the faculty in 1993. “We ended up with something very distinctive and different from other philosophy departments.”

Chief among the changes is a new requirement for philosophy majors to take classes outside the Western canon. Students now can take courses in Mexican, Chinese, and African philosophical traditions. The department now requires that students take an experiential learning course as a way to “do philosophy in the world,” Brighouse says.

For example, philosophy majors work with high school students in underserved communities, teaching them logic and reason designed to help them do well on standardized tests and successfully navigate the college application process. The efforts align with moral philosophy, in which students consider how to live a good life, and how to build a better society.

While the number of philosophy majors (11 in the graduating Class of 2023) will never measure up to the number of economics majors, Brighouse—who also serves as the College’s associate dean for student academic affairs—is unconcerned. “Parents have forever worried whether their students are going to take something that will help them get a job in life, and I think students are worried about that, too,” she says. “But 10 years out of college, philosophy majors earn a lot of money with respect to other professions.”

Indeed, philosophy majors are well represented among doctors and physician assistants and in law, politics, computer science, and community organizing, among a “huge range of fields” that demand big answers to big questions, Brighouse notes. “Philosophers are very good at clarifying messy problems, and then finding concrete solutions to those messy problems.”

Both in terms of its curriculum and its faculty, Oxy boasts one of the most diverse philosophy departments in the country. “Our department really is a leader in this respect,” says Preston-Roedder, one of seven full-time faculty in philosophy. “We investigated what other departments were doing, and then did some reflection on how we thought it best to proceed.”

Preston-Roedder teaches classes on Africana philosophy, moral and political philosophy, moral psychology, and the philosophy of religion. His wife, Resident Assistant Professor Erica Preston-Roedder, specializes in applied ethics and the application of philosophical thought, race and gender, public philosophy, and social morality. (Her current research examines the dynamics of multiracial families.)

Dylan Sabo, a resident associate professor since 2010, teaches classes on philosophy of mind, philosophy of psychology, and philosophy of language. The department’s newest member, Assistant Professor Season Blake, specializes in early Chinese philosophy, while Associate Professor Robert Sanchez specializes in Mexican/Latinx/Latin American philosophy as well as existentialism, and co-hosts a blog on Mexican philosophy.

When Sanchez arrived at Occidental in 2020, he was one of the nation’s lone promulgators of Mexican philosophical traditions. In both his undergraduate and doctoral studies, he was dissuaded from exploring philosophers that diverged from European traditions. “There’s this general suspicion about the existence and the value of Mexican philosophy as a tradition, but more broadly about these other non-Western traditions,” Sanchez says.

Part of the challenge is that there have been few writings that have been translated into English. Sanchez is working to change that. He published Mexican Philosophy in the 20th Century (Oxford University Press) in 2017. With the support of a National Endowment for the Humanities grant, he’s working on a translation and commentary of Samuel Ramos’ Toward a New Humanism (1940) for Routledge. One of Sanchez’s courses is Mexican Philosophy: Thought and Culture, which studies the work of 20th-century Mexican philosophers Samuel Ramos, José Vasconcelos, and Emilio Uranga, as well as their 17th-century progenitor, Juana Inés de la Cruz.

In one lesson, Sanchez challenges Western concepts of beauty dating back to the days of Plato. Western philosophy holds that beauty is about symmetry, ratio, and proportion. Sanchez considers Aztec statues that by Western standards were considered “hideous” and “scary-looking.” “These statues ride rough­shod over the classical theory of beauty,” he says. “It makes us wonder whether the idea of perfection, mathematical precision, and the idea that we can make sense out of the universe isn’t misguided. Maybe life is fundamentally ambiguous.”

No matter the changing look of the field, some constants remain. Philosophy majors are taught to be discerning readers: Is a statement clear or ambiguous? They bring equal precision to writing, offering solutions only after “pursuing relentlessly” all relevant information, Brighouse says. “We are looking very closely at what different philosophers have said about something. It’s not to endorse someone or to necessarily mimic their methodology but to find the strengths and weaknesses of an argument, and how to make better arguments.”

“We have beliefs about how to live a good life, what’s right and wrong, but we also have beliefs about the nature of the universe, how we’re connected to it, what it means to be conscious, this huge set of different kinds of things that we have beliefs about,” Morrissey says. “And we can step back from those beliefs and then ask, which ones are mine, which do I have good reason to believe?”

Before graduation, the department asks its senior philosophy majors a pointed question: What did you get out of the major? “One of the things that they say most frequently and vehemently is that they’re far more open-minded than when they started, that they are able to see multiple sides of issues,” Morrissey says. (A former chair of the department, she is currently director of Occidental's Undergraduate Research Center.)

“They’re open to the idea that they might be wrong, and being wrong doesn’t scare them. That’s one of the biggest things that philosophy can help with: letting go of that need to always be right. It’s humbling.”

Philosophy major Idris Smith '24
“I’m inspired to be the best person I can be and the most educated person I can be, and philosophy has always helped me do that,” says Idris Smith ’24, a philosophy major from Pasadena.

One of Morrissey’s current students, Idris Smith ’24 of Pasadena, readily attests to the phenomenon: “Philosophy helps me get into other people’s head space. I have the ability to basically understand and respect others’ arguments, and not necessarily see my own as the most valid.”

Smith started at Occidental as a computer science major, but got to thinking of the reading he did in high school on Plato’s Cave, an allegory in which characters emerge from intellectual darkness by bravely experimenting with new ideas. The writing deeply affected him. “I’m inspired to be the best person I can be and the most educated person I can be, and philosophy has always helped me do that,” says Smith, who hopes to teach philosophy at the secondary or college level.

Growing up in a bilingual household in San Francisco, Cléo Charpantier ’19 always wondered how her languages—French and English—helped to shape her understanding of the world, and how words simultaneously contributed to “meaning-making.” She took her first philosophy course as a high school senior, wrestling with what she calls “the big questions of life”: Do we have free will? Are faith and reason contradictory?

She enrolled at Oxy intent on majoring in economics with a minor in philosophy. That changed during her sophomore year, when she took Philosophy of Language with Sabo. “That class confirmed that this was the right major for me,” Charpantier says.

Her philosophical interests broadened to gender and the writings of Sally Haslanger, Ford Professor of Philosophy at MIT, who spoke on “Ideology and Moral Knowledge” at Oxy in October 2017. (Following the talk, Charpantier got to talk to Haslanger over dinner with her professors.)

“Studying philosophy gives us the tools and the time to better understand our world, ourselves, and our lives,” says Charpantier, who is currently working toward a master’s in creative writing at Sarah Lawrence College in New York. “When looking for work after college, I was driven to do work that felt impactful, and that made a difference.”

Eliza Kirk ’24 planned to major in biology, which would satisfy premed requirements. It was while enrolled in the Oxy Immersive Semester in 2020—in which students enroll in a cluster of coursework and community-based/internship components—that she fell in love with philosophy. The classes, which were being taught remotely during the pandemic, were centered on medical ethics. The program is an innovative introduction to Oxy, providing three interrelated courses, and giving an interdisciplinary focus on the liberal arts.

Ironically, one of the courses was a philosophy class titled Being With People, taught by Morrissey. “I was doing it alone in my basement on Zoom,” says Kirk (who first met her high school and Oxy classmate, Queenie Ngo, in Kamiak’s Human Rights Club). “The course was about the power dynamics between patients and their healthcare providers and the racial and gendered things that shape those interactions. I immediately knew after taking that class that I wanted to be a philosophy major.”

Kirk plans to become a pediatrician. Having a philosophy background will allow her to bring “a lot of care and a lot of thought” to her patients, many of whom struggle for access to healthcare. “It’s not that I’ll be pulling out Descartes all the time, but it will have a big impact on my approach to medicine,” she says. “It will make me a more thoughtful doctor.”

For Sela Moretti-Hitchcock ’23, philosophy gave her a map to understand her place in the world. “I started to think very critically about what it means to be a good person,” she says. “Philosophy wasn’t a subject that I had ever considered before, but I found that it studied everything I was interested in. We study philosophy to learn more about ourselves, what we know—or think we know—and why we believe the things we do.”

After taking a class titled Contemporary Moral Issues as a first-year student at UC Riverside, Moretti-Hitchcock transferred to Oxy and declared philosophy as her major soon after. The subject fed her love of debate, while sharpening her ability to consider issues from all sides.

Moretti-Hitchcock graduated summa cum laude from Occidental with a B.A. in philosophy and a minor in cognitive science and was awarded the Philosophy Department’s Lauter Prize for best senior comprehensive project. (The award is named for Professor Emeritus Hal Lauter, who taught at Oxy from 1963 to 1991 and died on September 27.)

She’s particularly drawn to the writings of Aristotle, who nearly 2,400 years ago advanced the idea that ethics require practice. Moretti-Hitchcock, who is studying for the LSAT and teaching music lessons in Burbank, has heeded the call. “We become virtuous by practicing virtuous activities, even if we don’t have it all figured out yet,” she says. “I’ve taken this attitude into my career search as well. I may not have it all figured out yet, but all I can do is keep taking steps forward.”

Philosophy major Sera Chang '25
“The ‘big picture’ is that I can use philosophy to go into a field that will help people and benefit the ‘greater good,’” says philosophy major Sera Chang ’25.

Asked if she identifies with a particular philosopher, Sera Chang ’25 replies, “It used to be Immanuel Kant”—the 18th-century German philosopher and advocate of human autonomy—“but, after learning more viewpoints, I am not so sure anymore.”

As Chang tells it, “I have always innately asked the BPQs—the Big Philosophical Questions—and tried to live a ‘good life’ accordingly. Apparently, I was practicing philosophy before I had ever taken my first class without any knowledge that it was something I could seriously study!”

The Alhambra native, who transferred to Oxy as a sophomore, says she was pushed into philosophy by “a really amazing and polarizing professor, Justus Richards,” from whom she took an applied modern ethics class as a first-year student at Pasadena City College.

As a philosophy major, Chang says, “I have enjoyed all of my classes thus far. Right now, I am really loving my Happiness, Meaning, and the Good Life class with Professor Ryan Preston-Roedder.”

Chang hopes to use her Oxy degree “to go into a field that will help people and benefit the ‘greater good,’” she adds. “I hope to contribute to society in some meaningful way, though I am still figuring out what that is.”

Even if they choose another major, she says, “I encourage anybody with any interest in learning more about their relation to themselves and the world at large to at least take a few classes in philosophy. Although many questions will not have straightforward answers, they are out there somewhere waiting to be found.” 

Andy Faught is a freelance writer in Fresno. He profiled Associate Professor Bhavna Shamasunder in the Spring 2023 magazine.

Top photo: Seated, l-r, Resident Associate Professor Dylan Sabo (appointed in 2010), Professor Clair Morrissey (2010), Associate Professor Robert Sanchez (2020), and Professor Caro Brighouse (1993). Standing: Associate Professor Ryan Preston-Roedder (2017) and Assistant Professor Season Blake (2023).