Berlusconi ruled the country like a post-modern fascist. Paolo Flores d'Arcais

The Philosopher’s Beard

How did the beard become an essential feature of philosophers?

Whenever I attend conferences and symposia, male philosophers, who unfortunately still represent a vast majority of members in the profession, are very easy to spot. Usually, they consume exorbitant amounts of caffeine and sport beards of various shapes and sizes. Even colleagues I recall having a clean-shaven look fairly recently, give free reign to this particular secondary sexual characteristic. It is in such moments that I wonder: Do philosophers ever consider their beards philosophically?

To be sure, it is fashionable among men in the general population to feature some hair growth on their faces. But in my purely subjective experience, the trend is greatly exaggerated among male philosophers. Do they resort to the beard out of some repressed anxiety, using it as a physical marker of sexual difference at a time when more women enter the discipline? Do they simply perpetuate the stereotypical view of a philosopher, going all the way back to Socrates and Plato and now engrained in popular culture? Or, is something else going on here?

Are women more human than men?

Take, for instance, Hegel. For the German thinker, human beings are physically distinct from animals, such that our flesh is almost entirely spiritualized. Instead of thick scales and fur covering our bodies, our skin is largely exposed to sight and touch, supplying concrete evidence for the increased sensitivity of our bodies. Fur and hair are, themselves, remnants of plant nature, archived in us and, to a greater extent, in animal corporeality. They are reminiscent of vegetal growth, just as, from Antiquity to Michelangelo’s Renaissance, the forest symbolized the hairy cover of the living organism that was our planet.

If we treat this half-forgotten analogy seriously, then the act of shaving becomes imbued with strong philosophical connotations. “Clearing” the actual vegetation—an age-old practice that has led to the current disastrous rates of deforestation—has been conventionally represented as a struggle for civilization and the Enlightenment, which is also a fight against the stubborn and dense growth that obscures the surface of the planet. And, not surprisingly, shaving has been historically linked to the same philosophical-political cause. Suffice it to mention tsar Peter I of Russia, who, on the cusp of the eighteenth century, imposed a “beard tax” on the male part of the population in an attempt to modernize the country. His effort to integrate Russia with the rest of Europe and to spread the values of the Enlightenment across his domain was, to his mind, consistent with making popular the clean-shaven look of the Continent’s “civilized” portion.

Curiously, the civilizing and humanizing endeavor, expressed in part in the elimination of beards, brings men a tad closer to women whose secondary sexual characteristics do not include the growth of facial hair. According to the unarticulated logic of the Enlightenment, women, with their skin more exposed and bearing fewer traces of animal and vegetal nature, will have been more fully human than men, who—should they chose to shave—face a daily struggle against the plant or the animal in (or on) them. As a result, Hegel’s own association of women with passive plants, as opposed to the active core of men pictured as animals, becomes internally contradictory and collapses under the weight of physiological, hormonal evidence. Sexual difference is transformed into a differential in the degree of civilization that perverts the established hierarchy—or, better, subverts it from within.

Beards as dividing line

I doubt that any of the above passes through the heads of my colleagues when they shelve their razors and other shaving implements. But, assuming that anything other than one’s image and public persona were at play here, attachment to facial hair would have indicated physical resistance to the staple Enlightenment values of absolute visibility and transparency. It would have, perhaps, been a way to embrace the animal and even vegetal heritage, which, when left untamed, proliferates on the surface of our bodies.

At the same time, at the level of appearance, the beard continues to set male philosophers apart from their female colleagues. Symbolically linked to an exclusionary and chauvinistic tradition, this aspect of physical appearance may unconsciously signal the obduracy of old dividing lines between philosophers and non-philosophers. This, too, needs to be thought through at a time when women face additional challenges on their path to gaining admission within an academic field traditionally dominated by men.


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