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August 3rd, 2005

Silly Talk about Philosophy

Shieva Kleinschmidt pointed me to Cosmic Variance’s discussion of silly talk about science. The thread contains lots of stories fromo scientists consisting of the silliest things people have said to them about science. So, what about a thread on the silliest things people have said to you about philosophy, or silliest philosophical claims you’ve heard made?

This could be a slightly more interesting thread than the science thread. After all, it’s unlikely that the silliest claim about science a scientist will have heard will have come from another scientist. On the other hand, making silly philosophical claims is an occupational hazard of real live hard-working philosophers. (Unless, as Austin would have added, it is their occupation.) Certainly some of my metaphysical views are pretty odd – though at least I don’t deny the existence of tables chairs and beer mugs.

Posted by Brian Weatherson in Uncategorized

115 Comments »

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115 Responses to “Silly Talk about Philosophy”

  1. Mark Trodden says:

    I had a blast with this over at Cosmic Variance. I’ll be keeping an eye on your thread to see if I find anything particularly incriminating with which to taunt my philosophy colleagues and friends. Good luck.

  2. Neil says:

    Not quite what you’re after, but certainly stupid…

    Tim Bayne and I have an article in the J. Applied Phil. examining a (supposed) disorder called body integrity identity disorder. Sufferers experience their body as having a limb too many: they have an intense desire for a specific limb to be amputated. The desire seems to be very persistent – decades – and causes a great deal of suffering. They sometimes amputate the limb themselves; there have been deaths. We argue that if, as it seems, they are not delusional or irrational, and there is no other way of treating them, then amputation might be permissible.

    No, that’s not the dumb part.

    I was interviewed about the article by various media outlets, including a commercial radio station (3AW). The interviewer asked me whether I thought that sufferers had this desire “because maybe they lost their leg in a past life”.

  3. Brendan says:

    This is not a story about me, nor do I know the exact details about what was said. But one of my profs told me about the following:

    In his first couple of years at my school a man came to his office. With him he brought a piece of paper that had a bunch of writing on it that was supposed to show some kind of proof: presumably about life, the universe, and everything. From what he gathered, the man first went to the physics department, who, after hearing what he had to say, sent him to math, who (big surprise), sent him to philosophy.
    My prof listened to what he said, and, sympathetically, tried to engage him in debate. He listened to what the man’s ideas, and would try various objections. Unfortunatly, the man was very much convinced that he had figured out something quite important and clever; constantly he referred back to the scribbles on the page. Things got a little frustrating for both, until the man suggested that perhaps such and such, because of blah blah. To which my prof replied “or maybe it is because you are a nut job!”, or something to that effect. Needless to say, the man did not appriecate this, and left. Several other profs have told me similar stories.

  4. enwe says:

    Two days ago I had to go to an orthopaedic surgeon.

    O: What do you do?
    Enwe: Well, I’m writing a dissertation in philosophy.
    O: O? Philosophy? Great! I LOVE Philosophy! Did you read ‘Sophie’s World’, too? You should read it!

  5. Carrie Jenkins says:

    One thing I worry about is how best to deal with nutters who send unsolicited emails with their latest proof of whatever. I usually just ignore them, but a mathematician friend of mine had a nice way of replying:

    “Thank you for your correspondence concerning blah. I will give your proof the consideration it deserves.”

    They’re happy because they think it deserves a lot of consideration so that must be what you’re offering; you’re happy because you can throw it in the bin without having told a lie.

  6. Josh Dever says:

    I’m suppressing the name of the person involved here, because it’s an actual philosopher, and that would make it just too embarrassing for him/her.

    I was browsing through logic textbooks recently, and came across, in a recent book by Name Suppressed, a long explanation of the evils of “the New Logic” (that would be propositional logic; NS seems to be a bit behind the times). One telling point: the New Logic promotes utilitarianism. You see, the central utilitarian tenet is that an act is good IF it causes the greatest overall sum of welfare. And “IF” is a propositional connective, one of the things studied by the New Logic.

  7. Alex Guerrero says:

    This is really Don Garrett’s story, but it’s worth sharing…

    The setting: Prof. Garrett, on the plane, sitting next to a middle-aged woman.

    She asks, “So, what do you do?”

    Prof. Garrett, “I’m a philosopher.”

    “Oh! What are some of your sayings?”

    Ba-dum ching.

  8. Aidan says:

    I have had several people (and I mean several) say something along the lines of ‘Philosophy, right. So that’s old bones and stuff?’

    However, my favourite example of people not having a clue what we do came at a birthday party a couple of years ago. A friend introduced me to a girl as ‘Aidan the philosopher’ (for reasons that weren’t transparent). The rest of the conversation went as follows:

    Her: Can I ask you a question?
    Me: Sure.
    Her: It’s a philosophy question, is that ok?
    Me: Of course.
    Her: There’s this guy I like. Should I phone him or text him?

    Do you think AHRC would give me a research grant to work it out?

  9. Peter says:

    AJ Ayer once spent a confused evening talking with a woman who’d misheard his answer of “logician” to her question about his occupation as “magician”.

    —-

    A philosopher I know once received a phone call in his office, which went:

    Caller: “Are you a philosopher?”
    Philosopher: “Yes”
    Caller: “Well, I have a philosophy. Let me tell it you!”

    After some minutes, my acquaintance hung up on the caller. Subsequently, the caller, clearly angered by this, wrote to the University President to complain that the staff of the Philosophy Department were not willing to consider philosophies from the tax-paying public who paid their salaries.

    -

  10. Brad says:

    At dessert with three people, two of them friends. The friends reveal to the new guy (what I had tried to hide) that I study philosophy. His eyes light up. He leans across the table at me, and says: “Really? So, do you believe in true love?”

  11. lenhart says:

    The comment was said pretty much in jest, but it’s funny enough to recount.

    I ran into one of my friends shortly after getting into grad school. He asked how the applications were going. “Great. I’m in.” He responds: “Dude, that’s awesome. You’re going to have a PhD in philosophy. You’re going to be like, qualified to think about anything.”

  12. matt says:

    A woman called the philosophy dept. at Penn, wanting to talk to someone about “realism and idealism”. I happened to be sitting in the dept. lounge so the secretary asked me to speak to her. She was very concerned that she needed to know more about realism since she’d been too involved with idealism her whole life and now needed to be more realistic. So, she thought that since philosophers know about both realism and idealism that we could help her, and so could I please suggest a book that would help her be more realistic and less idealistic? I suggested that she should buy Hilary Putnam’s The Many Faces of Realism and read it, that it was sure to help her with her realism/idealism problems. Unfortunatly she called back about 15 minutes later complaining that it was out of print and so she needed a different suggestion. I told the secretary to tell her she should then try Realism with a Human Face. We didn’t hear back from her, so maybe it helped!

  13. Gillian Russell says:

    Guy at party: so what do you do?

    Me: I’m a philosopher.

    Guy at party: oh, cool, so can you, like, tell what I’m thinking right now?

  14. Brendan says:

    I noticed a lot of the comments come from people asking something similar to the question, philosophy, what are you going to do with a degree in THAT?”. Though I imagine being asked what you do as a professional philosopher is equally annoying. See this link for an funny little piece on the question:
    http://home.cc.umanitoba.ca/~schroed0/ForMajors.html
    When I have to tell people that I am a philosophy student, I always throw in something else: “I study philosophy and cog sci”, or “I am a philosophy student, and I mostly work on brain stuff”. The idea is to try and tie philosophy that you do to something that an ignorant common folk might more readily understand. Though, if you do straight M&E, this might be more difficult. I have been able to avoid many silly conversations by using this strategy.

  15. Allan says:

    This is second hand. There was a public lecture at Brown given by a famous philosopher (I think Ted Honderich), and a member of the audience presented a challenge to the speaker’s thesis. He replied that his thesis could be better understood if a certain ambiguity was cleared up. “We need to draw the distinction between – “ he began, be he was interrupted by the member of the audience: “I don’t care much for distinctions.”

  16. V. Alan White says:

    A vauguely familiar 30ish man approached me: “You’re professor White, right?” “Yes” I replied, with an actual glimmer of recognition of a former student. “Wow, you were the best psychology professor I ever had!!” Smarting from the back-handest of compliments, I suppressed my laugh, smiled, and said “Thanks!”

  17. Brock Sides says:

    When I was an undergrad, I was one of the philosophy department reps during prospective student weekend.

    Needless to say, we didn’t get very many inquiries, but one of the prospective students who did speak to us told us his philosophy: “Ain’t nothin’ to it but to do it.”

    I guess it’s a little catchier than “To be is to be the value of a variable.”

  18. Dan Korman says:

    When I try to explain to people what I do as a philosopher, I figure they’re thinking “my tax dollars at work?” but are just too polite to mention it. Not everyone is though. I once attended a dissertation defense where the outside reader from the biology department asked the degree candidate to pretend that he was “Mary the tax-payer” and to explain to her why she should be paying for this.

  19. John says:

    Neighbor: So, what do you do for a living?
    Me: I’m a philosopher.
    Neighbor: Really? I didn’t know there were any of those still around. I thought David Hume was the last philosopher.

  20. Gillian Russell says:

    (Don’t forget it’s dangerous to get in an argument at an immigration desk)

    Immigration official: what do you do at university X?

    Me: I’m a philosopher.

    Immigration official: do we really need anymore philosophers?

    Me: Er…well…

    Immigration official: I suppose we do, philosophers keep dying, right?

    Me:….well,…(FIRMLY)…YES.

    (I’ll never know whether this was small talk or the official interview questioning for philosophers.)

  21. Barry says:

    Five or so years ago I was on a panel of prospective jurors being questioned by an attorney for the defendant:

    Attorney: What is your profession?

    Me: I am a philosopher

    Attorney: Philosophy? Is that a “helping profession”

    Me: Its more like a helpless profession

    Judge (laughing): This is no place for jokes..your out.

  22. Steve says:

    Not quite a misunderstanding, but quite terrifying… I was once at a very old fashioned barbers in Cambridge. The barber was shaving the back of my neck with a cut-throat razor. As I sat head bowed down with the blade on my neck he asked what I was studying. I said philosophy. He replied: “philosophy, young man? I saw a TV programme once about one of them philsophers, man called Nietzsche…”, me: “oh yes, he’s a philosopher”. Suddenly he stopped shaving and just held the razor at the back of my neck, “said on that programme that Nietzsche was one of them anti-God fellows. You’re not one of them anti-God fellows are you, sir?” At that moment I realised just how easily a cold blade can turn you into a slave moralist…

  23. George K. says:

    “Janet, can you please call Prof. Woodruff at the philosophy department to ask for a confirmation of our committee meeting this aftrenoon?” “I can try, but I don’t think that Prof. Woodruff can make a confirmation, can he? He is a philosopher.”

  24. Juhani says:

    I notice a lot of these comments are about how people react when they learn that you’re a philosopher. I have a confession to make. I couple of years ago I grew so tired of those cocktail party conversations that I decided I would never, ever tell anyone, unless I knew that he or she was familiar with academic philosophy, that I’m studying philosophy. Nowadays when people ask me what I’m in grad school for, I say I’m a mathematical logician. It’s a bald-faced lie — I’m not particularly good at logic, and I will certainly never publish a logic paper. But it sure gets them to shut up. No one has ever asked me about the meaning of life after I’ve told them that I work in mathematical logic.

  25. Juhani says:

    Gillian’s post reminded me of the first conversation I had with an American the first time I arrived in the US as a student visa holder:

    INS guy: So what’s your major?
    Me: Philosophy.
    INS guy: What are you going to do after you graduate?
    Me: Go to grad school and become a philosopher.
    INS guy: A philosopher? Wasn’t that, like, 2,000 years ago?
    Me: No, no, philosophers still exist!
    INS guy: What do they do?
    Me: Uh, well, they teach … in universities … and they publish papers … in journals!
    INS guy: What do they teach in universities?
    Me: Well, uh, they, uh …

    And it went on from there — for another 10 minutes. The INS guy was clearly incredulous. They’re supposed to make sure you’re actually entering the country for the purpose that your visa was issued for. And there’s a presumption of guilt: the visa holder has to prove to the INS officer that he or she did not lie on his or her visa application. “I plan to become a philosopher” was probably one of the worst answers you could give in this kind of situation.

  26. ken says:

    Dad: So what are you going to do in the fall, Ken?

    Me: I’m going to graduate school in philosophy, dad.

    Dad: (incredulous): You’re going to do what???

    Me: Go to grad school in Philosophy.

    Dad: I thought you we going to be an electrical engineer.

    Me: Don’t you remember. I switched out of eginneering during my junior year.

    Dad: I remember that. But when you quit engineering, you told me that you were going become a lawyer. What happened to that plan?

    Me: I don’t want to be a lawyer. I want to do philosophy.

    Dad: What am I going to say to my friends?? “My son, the Philosopher?” “My son! — the philosopher!” How the hell am I going to tell them that?

  27. SeanD says:

    So what are you studying now?
    -Oh, philosophy

    Oh yeah, what kind?
    -Political philosophy, actually

    Isn’t that an oxymoron?
    -Ummm….well… we’d like to think its not, I guess

  28. praymont says:

    When I applied for a NAFTA permit to teach in the U.S., I presented documentation to prove that I had a Ph.D. The INS official asked what the doctorate was in. I answered, “Philosophy.” Then a nearby, older INS offical chided the first one, saying, “All Ph.D.‘s are in philosophy — it makes you a Doctor of Philosophy.”

  29. Samuel! says:

    An english major once told me that another english major told her, “hello!? we’re not morons, if we wanted to just read and summarize what the person said we’d be philosophy majors.”

    The english major (the first one) also thinks feminist philosophy is not real.

    (Disclaimer: The comical values of the above are subject-sensitive.)

  30. Samuel! says:

    Found in the Bad Science column in The Guardian (which inspired the linked thread that inspired this thread in the first place):

    ‘And it would seem that the great British sport of moron-baiting is more popular than ever. Lots of you encountered philosophers. Guy Davidson was told that “science doesn’t tell you about the real world, only an ideal version of it”.’

    ——

    Also, I think it’s funny when people argue vehemently that intelligent design should not be taught in biology classrooms, and that they should teach that in philosophy instead.

  31. Adam says:

    Many of these stories are funny, and I’ve certainly got my share of mistaken-identity tales (e.g. an uncle who is still convinced that my degree in philosophy will enable me to practice psychotherapy).

    But I’m worried. The prevailing tone here seems to be bemusement, exasperation, or even annoyance, but I take Mary Q. Taxpayer’s perspective seriously, and I’d like to know just how us philosophers are supposed to justify what we do, especially those of us being paid by the public. What do we say to the INS agent who asks if we really need more philosophers? That it’s crucial to work out the kinks in our latest theory of reference, and so we need every brain we can possibly get working on the job?

    I suppose this is a common worry amongst Ph.D. students, but I haven’t got a great answer at the moment, and I often find myself confessing to family, friends, and strangers that contemporary academic philosophy has little to offer anyone who isn’t a contemporary academic philosopher. It doesn’t seem as if the profession is troubled by this – shouldn’t it be?

  32. Chris Bertram says:

    Re the chap above who describes himself as a mathematical logician to get out of “philosopher” conversations.

    A very good friend of mine who is a set theorist attended a Hollywood opening night with a friend of his, a minor actress. The photographer on the way in asked him what he did and he replied “I’m a logician”.

    The newspaper the following day had their photo with the caption “Actress Holly X with her friend Mr John Y, a magician.”

  33. K Valters says:

    Further to Gillian Russell, pretty much the only response I’ve ever had is “Philosophy, eh? Oooooh, gonna read my mind are ya?”

  34. paul says:

    Setting: Me with student in office hours

    Student: What do utilitarians do?

    Me: They believe that the total amount of “goodness” should always be maximized.

    Student: Do utilitarians really exist?

    Me: Sure.

    Student: And so they just walk around all day measuring the goodness of stuff? Who hires them for this?

  35. paul says:

    Setting: Me with student in office hours

    Student: What do utilitarians do?

    Me: They believe that the total amount of “goodness” should always be maximized.

    Student: Do utilitarians really exist?

    Me: Sure.

    Student: And so they just walk around all day measuring the goodness of stuff? Who hires them for this?

  36. Robert says:

    This I heard from a friend of mine. He was in the chair when his dentist asked him what he did. He said “I’m a philosopher”. The dentist retorted “Well, I guess we all think about things, so we’re all sort of philosophers” to which he immediately replied “I guess we’re all sort of dentists too, since we all brush our teeth”.

  37. Simon Prosser says:

    This might be apocryphal, but I think I remember reading that Bertrand Russell once received a letter from someone saying how much she’d enjoyed his writings on solipsism and saying what a good thing solipsism was and how she wished everyone was a solipsist…

    —-

    My favourite unanswerable question after I’d given a talk went roughly as follows:

    “When you drew that space-time diagram you drew time as a line. Why not represent time as a circle or maybe a SQUARE???”

    —-

    My favourite email from an ‘enthusiastic member of the general public’ began with:

    “Thank you for taking the time to answer the untutored question of a layman, and so help us both improve our understanding”

    And finished with:

    “My purpose in contacting you is to attempt to convert philosophy from a useless to a useful tool. The current failure of philosophy is that it has no accepted axioms, so it does not allow the employment of reason, which is the manipulation of axioms.”

  38. Kranti says:

    I’m standing in line for my US visa in New Delhi. Almost everyone is applying for a student visa – medicine, MBA, engineering, computer science, sure tickets to moolah. An INS official decides to send you to one of two booths, one of which rejects every application. This man can destroy my dreams of graduate study. I hand him my I-20. He says, “Philosophy?! When your father asked you what you wanted to become, what did you say?! Poor?!”. I got my visa!

  39. Dan Boisvert says:

    This is a story from Chris Lubbers at the University of Florida:

    Prosecuting attorney during voir dire: It says here that you are a graduate student in philosophy, Mr. Lubbers. What does a graduate student in philosophy do?

    Chris Lubbers: We analyze the strengths and weaknesses of arguments.

    He was immediately rejected as a juror.

  40. Mike Z says:

    lady at cable company: So what are you going to school for?

    me: Philosophy.

    lacc: Oh! So, do you think the glass is half empty or half full?

    me: I think the glass is at 50% capacity.

  41. Branden Fitelson says:

    I get all kinds of wacky emails and letters from people (I think Berkeley is notorious for this sort of thing). My favorites tend to be the ones who claim to have solved all the mysteries (not just some special ones) of the universe, and who seek an appointment with me to give me the opportunity to see “the truth”, and/or to help “spread the word”. I recently got one such email (a rather long one) to which I politely replied that I was on sabbatical and would not be able to meet. This prompted an email to the entire department. Here is a snippet:

    It is understood that professors deserve their time off, uninterrupted. There are also matters which deserve immediate attention for a multitude of reasons. I am trying to stay busy with refining the editing of the 17-year book, upon which the continuation of the human species and the ecosystem depend. It would be universally beneficial if some necessary points could be made with the department, so that he next level of systemic function can be attained.

    The author also distributed a DVD-ROM to the department. I’ll leave the (multi-media) contents of that DVD to your imagination.

  42. jerry dworkin says:

    I was once taking a cab from LaGuardia to Columbia and when the taxi driver asked me what I did, and I told him, he replied “ That’s kind of like dermatology. It doesn’t do much good, but you can’t do much harm either.”

  43. Spencer says:

    Question: Should philosophers be able to converse with non-philosophers about philosophy?

    Answer: Yes.

    Question: Does the burden of this responsibility rest with the philosopher or non-philosopher?

    Answer: Philosopher.

    We have some work to do outside our little university offices. No one knows what philosophers do? No one can understand what we research? We lie and squirm to escape the attention of everyone we meet in public places for fear that they might express an interest in us and discover the deep, dark professional secret? Pathetic.

    Say it loud: I am a philosopher, I am proud, this is what I think.

    Here’s a saying for you: Backbone is in short supply.

  44. Robert H. says:

    Breakfast Dialogue, Early in Graduate Tenure

    My Mother: So are you still studying philosophy over there at Oxford?

    Moi: Yes, philosophy and mathematics.

    MM: But what’s the value in studying philosophy?

    M: Well, take this book title, for example — “Our Bodies, Ourselves” — it turns out that there is good reason to doubt the equation implicit in that title. Such is the manner of concern that I have learned to entertain, articulate and address as a student of philosophy. The mathematics part is even more interesting: Now I can tell you how a solid of revolution with infinite surface area and finite volume can be “real”. I couldn’t tell you that when I was an undergraduate.

    MM: [Face registers disgust:] See?! I knew you shouldn’t have accepted that scholarship.

    Rhodes Dinner Dialogue, Late in Graduate Tenure

    Sir [Lordship]: And what have you been studying whilst here at Oxford?

    Moi: Philosophy and Mathematics.

    SL: Mmm, right, I’ve never really understood what that is … so just what is philosophy, actually?

    M: Hmm, how shall I answer you with a single short sentence? … Philosophy is … the systematic justification of everything you already knew.

    SL: [Face registers happy surprise:] Ho! I like that!

  45. Gillian Russell says:

    I’ve been reading Geoff Pullam’s The Great Eskimo Hoax (partly on Brian’s recommendation in an old post) and I think I have a new answer to the “what does a philosopher of language do?” question. Here’s my inspiration:

    The movie Robocop has a scene – described by reviewers as hilarious – in which a robotics company executive is machine-gunned to death in the boardroom by a massive security-maintenance robot with semantic pragmatic problems…

    Come now, man drinking a martini, surely you can see that issues in the philosophy of language are of life-or-death importance now? No? Well let me tell you the story about the zombies who can be deactivated using the correct solution to the Liar paradox. (You don’t think there is any such thing? But surely you admit that their could be? Shouldn’t the Taxpayers of Your Grand Country be protected against this possibility?)

    But to take Adam’s question a bit more seriously, how about this: one of the good things about developments in technology in sufficiently stable climates is that they can be passed on to future generations. X’s hard work on such and such a chip won’t just mean that she gets a smaller cell phone/bigger salary, it will also mean that her grandchildren get even smaller phones. But it’s good to pass on more theoretical, less practical achievements as well, for two reasons. First, it’s wrong to think of future generations as legions of materialistic simpletons. Humans appreciate small cell phones, and good food, and money, but they also want to know things and understand things. Not just so they can get more cell phones and food, but just because they like knowing and understanding, and hate being confused and ignorant. That’s the first reason it’s good to develop and distribute answers to difficult theoretical questions, even though the applications aren’t obvious. The second is that the future is a very uncertain thing and we don’t know what problems future generations are going to face. We probably can’t give them everything they need in advance. But if we can give them something that might help, it’s a better understanding of how the world works. And that’s what I think I’m trying for when I’m trying to solve a paradox, or confront scepticism and yes, even when I’m trying to iron out kinks in a theory of reference.

    What do you reckon, Adam?

  46. Duane says:

    Both of my children are employed, professional philosophers, teaching and doing research at good Universities. Occasionally people ask me how this came about. What I’ve noticed is that about half those that ask seem genuinely interested about how my wife and I raised two philosophers. The other half seems more interested in learning how to avoid this happening to their family.

  47. matt says:

    from ‘Samuel!’: “Also, I think it’s funny when people argue vehemently that intelligent design should not be taught in biology classrooms, and that they should teach that in philosophy instead.”

    Why is this funny? Clearly the problem of demarcation is a philosophical one, not a scientific one. And the problem of demarcation is one I tell my students has ‘real-world’ value. Ever heard of the inquisition? Stalinist purges? Of course philosophy of science is just one sub discipline.

    But also, in response to all the posts that are concerned with philosophy being useless to tax payers etc., have you ever become familiar with ‘higher level’ science? I mean NOT technology, agriculture etc. If you poke your head into any ecology or evolution lab and ask what’s going on, they’ll be hard pressed to make a case that it’s good for the general public or some such thing. Wow. Look at that. This ESS model predicts the same thing that pop gen model does. Wow. It was confirmed by experiments with Tribolium beetles. Looks like population size really does have an effect on the evolution of altruistic traits in this system. You got a $300,000 NSF grant to figure that out?

    I’m more hesitant to say the same for a physics lab simply because I don’t know much about physics, but I imagine it would be a similar experience.

  48. matt says:

    from ‘Samuel!’: “Also, I think it’s funny when people argue vehemently that intelligent design should not be taught in biology classrooms, and that they should teach that in philosophy instead.”

    Why is this funny? Clearly the problem of demarcation is a philosophical one, not a scientific one. And the problem of demarcation is one I tell my students has ‘real-world’ value. Ever heard of the inquisition? Stalinist purges? Of course philosophy of science is just one sub discipline.

    But also, in response to all the posts that are concerned with philosophy being useless to tax payers etc., have you ever become familiar with ‘higher level’ science? I mean NOT technology, agriculture etc. If you poke your head into any ecology or evolution lab and ask what’s going on, they’ll be hard pressed to make a case that it’s good for the general public or some such thing. Wow. Look at that. This ESS model predicts the same thing that pop gen model does. Wow. It was confirmed by experiments with Tribolium beetles. Looks like population size really does have an effect on the evolution of altruistic traits in this system. You got a $300,000 NSF grant to figure that out?

    I’m more hesitant to say the same for a physics lab simply because I don’t know much about physics, but I imagine it would be a similar experience.

  49. eef says:

    I was talking to this very kind lady on the train. She seemed very sensible and quite interested in philosophy. The conversation then touched on Darwinism. (Bad idea, I know) She had her own views on evolution (uh-oh).

    Her theory refuting evolution was: Mass = energy (E = MC2). Energy is eternal. So the energy that makes up the mass of a contemporary animal, is the same energy that formed the mass of his evolutionary predecessor: so both the contemporary animal and its predecessor exist(-ed) at the same time. Evolution therefore did not take place. QED

  50. LarryL says:

    Robert recounted the following story above:

    This I heard from a friend of mine. He was in the chair when his dentist asked him what he did. He said “I’m a philosopher”. The dentist retorted “Well, I guess we all think about things, so we’re all sort of philosophers” to which he immediately replied “I guess we’re all sort of dentists too, since we all brush our teeth”.

    Now, this is pretty clever, and even amusing. But it’s sad, too, if it indicates that philosophers are so insecure about the status of what they do that they want to discourage the view that the practice of philosophy is accessible to the layperson who lacks a specialized technical education. I would hope that most philosophers would, instead, seize the opportunity to encourage the dentist, to explore his ideas, to help him develop those ideas a little bit more rigorously, and to display for him the value and fascination of our practice. (None of this being easy to do with a dentist’s hands in your mouth, no doubt.)

  51. Matt Weiner says:

    Once—once—a new acquaintance asked me, in those words, “So, you’re a philosopher?” to which I had to respond, “Yes. I think very deeply.” Unfortunately I couldn’t do the scratching noise.

    (Opening to Boogie Down Production’s “My Philosophy.” It didn’t particularly matter that the new acquaintance was going to think I’m a goofball.)

    That said I like what Gillian and Matt said about our purpose. I’m somewhat lucky in that it’s reasonably easy to give a cocktail-party version of the epistemology and norms of testimony to interested civilians.

  52. cb says:

    I think the way to avoid this kind of ridicule in the future is to study something so trivial as to be beneath ridicule.

  53. Ofra says:

    I was once in Bangkok with some free time and nothing to read. I went to a large English bookstore, in hope of finding some philosophy books. After passing a psychology section, a history section, etc., but finding no philosophy section I asked the store manager if they had any philosophy books. He said: ‘Philosophy, Oh yes! Hang on’. He disappeared for a long time but eventually returned with a book in his hand.

    I looked at the book. It was ‘Harry Potter and the philosopher’s stone’.

  54. Matt says:

    When I was in my second year of university I changed majors to philosophy. I was telling my dad about during a long car drive. He recalled how he had taken a philosophy class in college, and how he could remember very little. He did remember that the professor drank much in the way of alcohol, and he stroked his chin during class all the time. He also said, “And he kept talking about King Henry the VIII—I don’t know, some damned king—and how kept getting holes in his socks and how they were darned all the time and how no one knew if he was wearing the socks he started out with.” My father found this really amusing—that people would think about these sorts of things.

    A couple years ago my dad asked me what I was working on in philosophy. “Dad, remember that king with the holes in his socks? Um, I’m working on problems like that.” I think the next question was, “So, you get any rain there lately?”

    Matt

  55. Rich Davis says:

    A conversation between my brother-in-law (BIL, for short) and I.

    BIL: What do you do?

    Me: I’m a philosopher.

    [long pause]

    BIL: Cool…I went to a philosopher once — after my first marriage broke up.

  56. meg says:

    To my mom, who was asking about a philosopher I was dating at the time.

    Mom: So he’s a philosopher too, huh?
    Me: Yep.
    Mom: So, um, what does he work on?
    Me: Philosophy of language.

    [Pause]

    Me: He just published an article on the word “the”.

    [Another pause]

    Mom: Does he plan on working on any other words?

    Me: Oh, sure. He’s thinking about writing his disertation on the word “all”.

    [Long pause]

    Mom: And you’re still working on whether this beer bottle [she indicates hers] and that beer bottle [she indicates mine] are one thing or two?

    Me: Yep.

    [Longer pause]

    Mom: We should get more beer. Where’s your father?

    At a bar.

    Drunk Guy 1: So what do you do?
    Me: I’m a graduate student in philosophy.
    Drunk Guy 1: Oh.

    [Drunk Guy 1 turns quickly away; talks to the tipsy sorority girl on his other side.]

    Drunk Guy 2: So what do you do?
    Me: I’m a graduate student in philosophy.
    Drunk Guy 2: Philosophy, huh? Wow. You must think a LOT. Oh, wow. Wait! Say something philosophical!
    Me: Um, well, I’m not sure I really know what you mean…
    Drunk Guy 2: Oh, wow. That’s really deep. I mean, does anybody ever really know what they mean? Wow. Say something else!

    [I turn quickly away, pretending to see some friends at the other end of the bar.]

    Drunk Guy 3: So what do you do?
    Me: Wait tables.
    Drunk Guy 3: Cool.

    [Pause]

    Drunk Guy 3: Can I buy you a drink?
    Me: PLEASE.

  57. praymont says:

    I think Jay Leno had a joke years ago to the effect that a relative (his sister?) had just completed her doctorate — “She’ll be unemployed, but at least she’ll know why.” ok, not funny, but definitely silly.

  58. praymont says:

    Sorry, part of the joke was that it was a doctorate in philosophy.

  59. Alan Nelson says:

    In olden times when I was an undergrad I attended a colloquium given by Tom Nagel. In the question period, some trouble-maker began a long rant, then:

    trouble-maker: ….. Wait, have you read Kant’s (pronounced can’ts) Critique?

    Nagel (without missing a beat): No, but I saw the movie.

  60. Robert Allen says:

    I struck up a conversation with two sisters in a bar. One of them asked me the all-American question, what do you do? I’m a graduate student in philosophy, I said. “Philosophy is a bunch of bullshit,” she tartly responded. I then patiently expounded my fledgling meta-philosophy. Nothing doing: same denunciation; same caustic tone. I let it go and turned my attention to the more urgent matter of picking up her sister- who is now my wife of fifteen years.

  61. adam says:

    I very much like Spencer’s attitude – get some backbone, philosophers, and let people know what you think – but I’m not exactly sure what the suggestion is. Do we hold barroom discussions (I think this is being done in Australia)? Sign on to the pop-culture-and-philosophy publishing phenomenon? Or merely give some straight answers at keggers and cocktail parties, sans embarrassment?

    Matt’s response – that the sciences can get just as arcane, uninteresting, and inaccessible to the layperson as philosophy – is true, but I find it unsatisfying, for it shows only that many scientists face the same problems we do.

    And I like Gillian’s answers, but I’m still not quite at ease. Perhaps it’s just not as satisfying to think of oneself as part of a General Quest for Answers than it is to have a palpable purpose, or perhaps it stretches credulity to think that philosophy will sate anyone’s curiosity, rather than leading to deeper, harder puzzles. Or perhaps I’m just a pessimist; I don’t know.

  62. N. Dugal says:

    ‘This might be apocryphal, but I think I remember reading that Bertrand Russell once received a letter from someone saying how much she’d enjoyed his writings on solipsism and saying what a good thing solipsism was and how she wished everyone was a solipsist…’

    It is true:
    “As against solipsism it is to be said, in the first place, that it is psychologically impossible to believe, and is rejected in fact even by those who mean to accept it. I once received a letter from an eminent logician, Mrs. Christine Ladd Franklin, saying that she was a solipsist, and was surprised that there were no others.”

  63. El says:

    From a lay person’s perspective, anyone can be a philosopher, or come up with a theory that explains what you experience. For instance, I have a theory of time- the more you hurry, the faster time goes. Also, if an idea is good enough, someone else is bound to have it.
    What does make a philosopher “real”?

  64. Luke says:

    I think the border guards are onto something when they stare incredulously at those who call themselves philosophers.

    Myself, I don’t see why everyone with a PhD in philosophy or even with tenure at a major department should call themselves a philosopher. There seem to me to be two senses of the term. The one designates a vocation — like butcher, electrician, or waiter. The other is a certain kind of title — like explorer, conqueror or luminary. For a bunch of folk who pride themselves on making distinctions, ‘philosophers’ sure seem to get a lot of mileage out of fudging that one.

    It might be safer and more modest to say that one has a doctorate in philosophy or that one teaches philosophy and to avoid the potentially confusing claim that one is ‘a philosopher’. Partly, I think that it’s a matter of humility and common sense. Partly, it’s a question of not bringing a venerable profession into disrepute. I mean, really: who is arrogant enough to pat themselves on the back and say they are cut from the same cloth as David Hume?

  65. Dabido says:

    A few years ago, I ran into a Philosophy major. We got to talking and I pointed out that I had been contemplating doing Philosophy, but the University I was considering attending cancelled the Philosophy course.
    After a bit more conversation, I went to ask him, ‘What University do you go to?’
    Before I could complete the question, he replied in an annoyed fashion,‘Philosophy! I’m studying Philosophy!’
    I thought it was a bit strange that he presumed he knew the question I was asking before I was able to get it out. I wonder if he eventually passed his course.

    On another occassion, I was discussing philosophy with some friends. One of the guys said that no philosophy works, as they don’t take into account that everything changes so the situation is never 100% the same. I asked for his opinion on Heraclitus. He couldn’t answer.

  66. Yan says:

    I’ve always thought there was something to Deleuze’s response to the “what’s it good for” question:

    “It is useful for harming stupidity, for turning stupidity into something shameful. Its only use is the exposure of all forms of baseness of thought.”

  67. Matthew Pugsley says:

    Luke: “Myself, I don’t see why everyone with a PhD in philosophy or even with tenure at a major department should call themselves a philosopher. There seem to me to be two senses of the term. The one designates a vocation — like butcher, electrician, or waiter. The other is a certain kind of title — like explorer, conqueror or luminary. For a bunch of folk who pride themselves on making distinctions, ‘philosophers’ sure seem to get a lot of mileage out of fudging that one.”

    Perhaps my study of philosophy has deafened me to the second sense, but I only hear the first sense (i.e. the vocation sense). Surely there can be bad philosophers, just as there are bad butchers. I don’t think of “philosopher” as synonmous with “excellent philosopher” or even “good philsopher”. I don’t think a person needs to be ‘cut from the same cloth’ as Hume in order to be a philosopher anymore than a person needs to be ‘cut from the same cloth’ as Einstein or Newton in order to be a physicist. If non-philosophers hear the term “philosopher” differently, then they are simply misusing the term. Why should we defer to their usage of the term?

    Note that I’m not saying that their misunderstanding of the term is any kind of character flaw. I’m not placing philosophers on higher ‘moral’ ground for having a better understanding of the term “philosopher” (i.e. the vocation sense). I’m simply saying non-philosophers are ignorant of the practice and history of philosophy. They are ignorant of how the term has been used by philosophers to denote their profession because they don’t know what that profession is. I don’t have an account of what one needs to know in order to know what philosophy is, but doing some certainly helps a lot and may be necessary.

  68. John Gardner says:

    I have two incidents. One at Newark Airport immigration …

    INS official: A philosopher, huh? Do you think the world needs more philosophers?
    Me: It’s a sad world that only has what it needs.
    INS official: You’re either a philosopher or a wise guy. I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt.

    And one in my local branch of Sainsbury’s supermarket …

    Checkout assistant: You teach? What’s your subject?
    Me: Philosophy of law.
    Checkout assistant: Philosophy is what I always wanted to know about. Things and the reasons for them, innit?

    I thought this one of the best summaries of the subject I had ever heard.

  69. Doug says:

    At a Christmas party:
    Drunk Guy: So, what do you do?
    Me: Do?
    (A friend of mine overheard this and cracked up laughing. I’m glad someone got it.)

    ——

    I confess to being a little confused about the worries some people are expressing. If you honestly think that what we study is meaningless, then study something else. Isn’t that exactly what we would say to any of the 80’s-era literature folks who went on and on about how literature is meaningless? What philosophers … er … “do” is try to think of something interesting and true to say about the world. What (good) students of literature do is try to say something interesting and true about literature (literature is another way of looking at the world). And so on. Maybe it’s useless, but it’s not meaningless. I agree it’s hard to see how nailing-down the reference relation is going to build anyone a better mousetrap, but, darn it all! the reference relation is both really confusing and really important.

    Besides, studying philosophy enables you to explain exactly WHY Tom Cruise is an idiot.

  70. Jim Sias says:

    I recently spent some time with my wife’s family and the following conversation took place between her uncle and me.

    Him: So what is it that you’re studying?

    Me: Philosophy.

    Him: [An approving nod of the head] So … what’s … umm … give me … a philosophy.

    Me: I’m sorry?

    Him: I mean, tell me … something … that interests you.

    Me: Well, I’m particularly interested in what’s called metaethics.

    Him: [Immediately] Like abortion?

    Me: Well, not really. That’s more of an applied ethics issue. So, for instance, rather than wonder whether or not abortion is wrong, I’d rather wonder what it means for anything to be wrong. You know, what is it that makes wrong things wrong?

    Him: [Excited, all of the sudden] Yeah! I think about stuff like that all the time. Like just a few minutes ago, I walked into the bathroom to gather dirty laundry while my [8-year-old] son was in the shower and he was all, “Dad! Get oughtta here!” And I just thought to myself, “Why is that wrong?” You know?

    Me: [Trying to nod] Hmm… . Okay. [My wife leaves the room laughing under her breath]

  71. Daniel says:

    I was once at a birthday party when a woman mentioned that she’d seen a professional philosopher on TV, discussing some ethics issue that was big at the time. She exclaimed that “I didn’t know that philosophers talked about ethics. I thought all they did was ponder the meaning of life all day long. Isn’t ethics something for religious scholars?”

    This woman, it happens, graduated from a very well-regarded liberal arts college. This made me wonder how many of the people who say silly things about philosophy ever took a philosophy class. Millions of Americans go to colleges with distribution requirements, and I’m sure quite a few try to meet the Humanities/Critical thinking/What have you requirement by taking philosophy. And it strikes me that any well-taught philosophy class should, at the very least, convey that the subject is about carefully reasoned arguments—not fuzzy pronouncements about the meaning of life.

    It may be that most of the cluelessness about philosophy comes from people who never took and passed a college-level philosophy classes. But I’m a little worried that sharing stories of cocktail-party idiocy might be self-fulfilling: most adults who aren’t professional philosophers are hopelessly ignorant about the subject, so most of the freshman in Intro Philosophy are hopelessly ignorant, too. As we all know, that’s a bad argument. And while a philosopher can’t be expected to clear up all the silly thinking in the world, she can ensure that any one who takes and passes her classes doesn’t think that the relative merits of text-messaging and calling is a philosophical question.

  72. G says:

    In my years in graduate school, I’ve developed a quick bit of humor to avoid all the questions about what I do or what I intend to do with my Ph.D. in philosophy. Whenever the subject of my studies is introduced, I always add the following phrase: “I’m just in it for the money and the fame.” I get snorts of derision, wry chuckles, and occasional outright laughter – but I never get anyone turning around to tell me what they think about my chosen profession, nor does anyone offer their completely uninformed corrections to my views on matters I’ve studied for more than a decade. I count that as a winning strategy.

  73. Adam says:

    This thead of conversation seems to me to capture nicely how incomplete and question-begging a strictly utilitarian view of philosophy (or any theoretically minded endeavor) can be. This is so, first of all, because utility often (and perhaps always) entails a perspective on the questions “Useful for what? Useful to whom?.” But, second, I take philosophy, as well as many other intellectual endeavors, to be in part an effort to articulate a coherant and rational understanding of oneself and the world in which one lives. Does it really make sense to say that striving is a “useless” endeavor? Of course philosophy looks useless when compared to engineering! Their goals aren’t (usually) the same: one transforms the world with new or improved gagets, the other to transform the way a person understands herself and the world of which she is a part.

    I see no harm in giving a hint of this to lay people. Granted that most of the problems and theories that are hot in philosophy today are often couched in a technical vocabulary utterly obscure to them. But isn’t it at least possible to articulate, in plain language, what is at stake in finding solutions to those problems? (Example: the opening pages of chapter 1 of Robert Brandom’s “Making It Explicit” is a masterful display of locating highly technical and (to the lay person) abstruse issues in a broad but significant context that anyone can understand). As a philosophy grad. student, the question often occurs to me when I try to explain my intellectual pursuits to lay people: Could a philosophy professor unable to state concisely and clearly what is generally at stake in a philosophical issue really be that effect in engaging undergraduate students, especially those of the 101 variety?

    Those who fear the damage wrought by oversimplifiocation need only remind themselves that the lay person is in all likelihood unaware of it. Most people not heavily involved in theoretical work have never seen first-hand how complex problems can be related to scores of others, nor do they understand that technical vocabulary often must be deployed to manage that complexity with precision and clarity. We (“philosophers” or “philosophical laborers,” take your pick) take such things for granted, which is why I think we can get offended by the demands from lay people to explain, in the 5 minute span of a cocktail party, technical issues that required years of study to master. But the lay person doesn’t know that, nor would it be useful even to try an initiate them in 5 minutes. Generality seems to me the most polite and ‘useful’ course to take.

  74. Ed Darrell says:

    So, who was the nuclear physicist who, appearing before a panel of Congress, was asked whether his work contributed to the defense of the nation?

    He responded, after a moment’s thought, “No – but it makes the nation worth defending.”

    Philosophers could claim that, no?

  75. Brian Weatherson says:

    And while a philosopher can’t be expected to clear up all the silly thinking in the world, she can ensure that any one who takes and passes her classes doesn’t think that the relative merits of text-messaging and calling is a philosophical question.

    I hope we don’t convince them of that. I think that the differences in Gricean implicatures between written and spoken communication are philosophically significant, and that might be a big part of the relative merits of the two modes.

  76. Luke says:

    Matthew: You raise some good points. Let me take a second stab. Forgive the analogies, but I think they are illuminating rather than obfuscating in this instance.

    Consider: if all of the departments of fine art were suddenly to vanish off the face of the Earth, the human urge to create art would, I think, persist. Talented artists would continue to be born (as would mediocrities). The same, I suspect, is true of departments of music composition and of mathematics. Those human passions seem to run pretty deep. Of course the departments are useful since they save us having to reinvent the wheel with each generation, but that’s a different matter.

    Now, I think that the human urge to philosophise runs every bit as deep as do those others. (I take it that this is what the person who wrote that everyone is, in some respect, a philosopher, was pointing to. In some respect everyone is an artist too, I guess. The trouble with everyone being an X is that X loses its content though.) Departments of philosophy are custodians of the achievements of a deep human drive to question and to understand; importantly though, they are not its source. It would be laughable for departments of fine art to presume to call ‘artist’ only their own graduates. And it would be naive of them to call everone they graduated ‘an artist’. Compare: ‘composer.’ What I wanted to suggest is that philosophy is in something like the same boat. It would be helpful if we reserved the well-entrenched honorific title ‘philosopher’ for those who have contributed something of genuine and lasting value to our shared intellectual landscape in the domains of metaphysics, epistemology, or ethics (regardless, incidentally, of their formal training). We can still admit that there have been subtle philosophers (Kant?) and muddled ones (Meinong?), as you rightly insist. The rest of us however — the students, teachers and custodians of the heritage — could present ourselves as … um… students and teachers of philosophy. In this way, I think we might head off a lot of stupid questions about our Koans and ridicule about our (presumed) bloated egos.

  77. Davis says:

    I’m currently working on an bachelors in philosophy, eventually planning to get a PhD. I’m also paying my way through school by working at a consulting company, doing entry-level data analysis.

    One day, a coworker made a crack that I probably smoke a lot of pot because, as he said ‘I know all you philosophy types do drugs.’

    I didn’t immediatly answer. Instead I pulled up a 30 page peer reviewed journal entry of a paper on philosophy of mind off the internet, one that featured a lot of bayenesian calculations. I walked towards his desk and laid my laptop in front of him. “Yea, this guy (the author of the journal article) must have been real high when he wrote this.”

    Needless to say, no one’s made fun of me at work for my course of study since then.

  78. random_name says:

    I’m confused about why you people call yourselves philosophers. Aren’t most of you actually historians of philosophy? Wouldn’t saying that solve most of your problems?

  79. Chas S. Clifton says:

    John Gierach, better known as a flyfishing writer, got a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from the U. of Colorado. When he informed a coworker on his day job that he was graduating, the guy replied, “So I guess you’ll be quitting here and hanging out your shingle.”

    In a way, you could say that he did.

    But seriously, what many of these naive questions reveal is a hope that philosophers will tell people how to live their lives better, that’s all.

  80. Robert Allen says:

    “It would be helpful if we reserved the well-entrenched honorific title ‘philosopher’ for those who have contributed something of genuine and lasting value to our shared intellectual landscape in the domains of metaphysics, epistemology, or ethics (regardless, incidentally, of their formal training).” Luke

    By this standard, the title may only be bestowed posthomously; in fact, well after someone’s death. That can’t be right. It is not immodest to refer to oneself as a philosopher provided that one is currently making contributions to the field in the form of books, articles, correspondence, teaching or conference presentations.

  81. Robert Allen says:

    Sorry, that should be ‘posthumously’.

  82. J.Y. says:

    random_name: “I’m confused about why you people call yourselves philosophers. Aren’t most of you actually historians of philosophy? Wouldn’t saying that solve most of your problems?”

    Actually, only a minority of people working at philosophy departments in English-speaking countries work on the history of philosophy. Most of us do “philosophy” in the same, proper sense as Kant or Descartes: we try to come up with new ideas, new theories, new solutions to old problems, new solutions to new problems, new problems … you get the idea!

    To go back to the comment by Luke, who suggested that for many people “philosopher” sounds like “luminary” or “genius” or something like that, that’s undoubtedly true, and explains some of the confused reactions. However, I don’t think the reactions are any less confused when I say that I’m “studying philosophy” (which is what I always say, since I’m in grad school; I don’t call myself a “philosopher”). I think that the latter way of describing what I do engenders a whole other family of misconceptions — concerning what it is that philosophy students study. The prevailing view appears to be to be that graduate students in philosophy study what the “real” philosophers (those long-dead people like Plato, Descartes, etc.) wrote, and at most develop original views about what they meant by their writings, not about substantial philosophical issues. Only the “real” philosophers, all of whom are dead, can have original things to say about those. Cf. random_name’s comment above, which I think is a very representative example what nonphilosophers think we do.

    No matter what you call it, most people aren’t going to know what it is. Is this really that bad? I know this is the case for every academic discipline I know anything about (for example, most people think economists do the sort of weather forecasting you read in the business pages, “up-and-down” journalism, as Paul Krugman calls it). I suspect it’s the case for all disciplines. Every academic I know, in any field, has told me stories similar to the ones recounted on this page, often accompanied by similar expressions of frustration. That’s just part of the territory if you’re an academic.

    Re the idea of describing our work as “mathematical logic” — that’s probably the description that would be least likely to lead to misconceptions about what many analytic philosophers do. Another good one, mentioned by someone above, was that philosophers “analyze the strenths and weaknesses of arguments”.

  83. Viv says:

    Not quite in the same vein of the above comments, but I was at an applied ethics conference (including professional philosophers and individuals in the vocation we were discussing) a few years back when a gentleman approached me in the convention lounge. I must have caught his eye during a q&a, and he was obviously trying to impress me with his sensitivity to my philosophical talents because he began an extensive conversation on what a tragedy it is that more people have not read the writings of Tom Locke.

  84. Shieva says:

    We might also try listing witty things people have said about Philosophy (and a few people’s comments have been in this direction). My contribution:
    A few months ago I told a non-philosopher friend of mine that I’d been learning about vagueness. Her prompt response was: “Vagueness!! I KNEW you we’re taking lessons when I couldn’t understand a thing you we’re saying!”

  85. Mike says:

    Back to silly (or funny, or scary – depending on your point of view) talk about philosophy.

    Disclaimer: This is third-hand.

    An administrator in a European university was complaining about the huge budgets required by scientists to set up their research labs. “I don’t understand why the scientists need so much money,” he said. “All the mathematicians need are pencils and wastepaper baskets. And the philosophers don’t even need wastepaper baskets!”

  86. Peter McB. says:

    I wonder if part of the reason non-philosophers appear to have strange views about what philosophers do is because they have in mind another sense of the word “philosophical” than that commonly used by philosophers: in common parlance the word “philosophical” is also used to mean “stoical”.

    With this meaning, people who do philosophy might perhaps be thought to provide consolation, rather than analyzing arguments or up-turning established orders.

  87. M says:

    J.Y. wrote: “Actually, only a minority of people working at philosophy departments in English-speaking countries work on the history of philosophy. Most of us do “philosophy” in the same, proper sense as Kant or Descartes: we try to come up with new ideas, new theories, new solutions to old problems, new solutions to new problems, new problems … you get the idea!”

    Ahem. Some of us who work on the history of philosophy also think of ourselves as doing philosophy in the “same, proper sense as Kant or Descartes.”

    …back to your regularly scheduled funnies…

  88. me says:

    I’m not a philosopher myself, but my dad is and I’ve considered following in his footsteps. I’ve gotten some hilarious reactions when I tell people what my dad does, though:

    “Your dad is a philosopher? Cool. I didn’t know you were Greek.”

    “So…wait. If your dad is a philosopher, then doesn’t he think that I don’t really exist and everything is an illusion?”

    “That must be annoying…he probably tries to philosophize you all the time.”

    “Hm…philosophers are the people who ask obscure questions then spend ages arguing about them, right?”

    Person: Your dad is a philosopher?
    me: yes
    person: ah, that explains it.
    me: what does it explain?
    person: the fact that you aren’t a normal high school student.

  89. A says:

    I agree with Luke; saying “I’m a philosopher”, full stop, will be heard by civilians as if you’ve said “I’m a prophet.” What follow-up question can they ask? What must they imagine about how you spend your days?

    Say “I’m (or, I’m studying to be) a philosophy professor.” Then you can talk about teaching, and why philosophy is something valuable for students to study as part of a university education. That’s much better cocktail party talk — your conversant will be able to play along, ask reasonable questions, etc. It’s awkward for everyone to have small-talk where one party is an expert and the other is totally at sea, so don’t let it come to this; mention the aspect of your job that other people have some clue about.

    If people know enough to ask about my research, which is in metaphysics, I face a dilemma. I’m embarrassed by the abstractness of the question I’m working on, and I don’t have a good coherent two-sentence version of it… so my exposition becomes inappropriately long-winded. Ugh. So, if it’s a stranger-at-a-party scenario, I now just lie and describe some applied ethical question. This usually fits the needs of the conversation very well.

    (I like the various thoughtful approaches described here, and I agree with the commenters who say the question “what good is philosophy?” is a serious one that merits thought. Here I’m only thinking of the practical situation of a cocktail party.)

  90. Carrie Jenkins says:

    During my undergrad days a long late-night conversation between a bunch of philosophers and mathematicians resulted in one of the latter offering the opinion that “the point of philosophy is to think about something obvious and get confused”.

  91. Stephen says:

    I’m completely confused by Jim Sias’ story above, and worried that it might reveal something strange about philosophers’ reaction to non-philosophers. A reminder, Sias’ story goes:

    Me: Well, not really. That’s more of an applied ethics issue. So, for instance, rather than wonder whether or not abortion is wrong, I’d rather wonder what it means for anything to be wrong. You know, what is it that makes wrong things wrong?

    Him: [Excited, all of the sudden] Yeah! I think about stuff like that all the time. Like just a few minutes ago, I walked into the bathroom to gather dirty laundry while my [8-year-old] son was in the shower and he was all, “Dad! Get oughtta here!” And I just thought to myself, “Why is that wrong?” You know?

    Me: [Trying to nod] Hmm… . Okay. [My wife leaves the room laughing under her breath]

    Even if it seems plausible that uncle misunderstood the difference between ethics and meta-ethics, I don’t quite see why his response should seem laughable. So, the uncle is told that Jim is interested in questions like what makes a wriong thing wrong (in response to the question about abortion). Surely, for someone who doesn’t know much about philosophy that might sound like, “finding out the general rule which makes any particular wrong act an example of a wrong act”. So, in the case of his son in the bathroom, uncle could easily have thought that the question “what makes wrong things wrong?” as applied to this case must mean something like, “if walking in on your son in the bathroom is wrong, what makes it wrong?” and thought the answer might be a broader ethical principle such as “everyone has a right to privacy”, but then might worry that the principle doesn’t apply in this case. Now, that seems to me like a perfectly normal understanding of the claim that philosophers are interested in “what makes wrong things wrong”. Maybe Jim’s own research is on some meta-ethical topic far removed from the question about the relationship between broad ethical principles and particular moral claims. However, it’s not obvious that uncle’s response shows a complete lack of philosophical understanding. Furthermore, if we interpret uncle’s statement in this more charitable light, there’s no reason to suppose he might not “get” meta-ethics (at least a sense of meta-ethics) on some prodding. “Even if you think that it’s true that your son has a right to privacy what makes that true? Is it the same sort of claim as the claim that your son is a human being?” is a response which might get Uncle to understand, roughly, what drives meta-ethics. Of course, uncle is unlikely to find the distinction between quasi-realism and fictionalism, or whatever Jim actualy works on, particularly interesting or intuitive, but it’s far from clear that he will, simply in virtue of understanding Jim’s description of his work in a straightforward way, compeltely misunderstand the interest and motivation of related meta-ethical questions. Indeed, he may even think that meta-ethics has some impotant link to the normative issues involving walking into bathrooms (“but if there are no facts, then why not just do anything?”)

    Basically, it’s completely unclear to me what was meant to make this story so funny. I really, really hope it wasn’t meant to be the uncle’s humorous misunderstanding. Maybe the point is meant to be how far removed Jim’s own work – or, at least, his wife’s understanding of Jim’s work – is from particular moral questions or problems. If that’s the case, though. I’d be more worried about the state of research in meta-ethics than I would be about Jim’s uncle-in-law. Sorry, I know this sounds a bit rude, but

  92. Stephen says:

    I’m completely confused by Jim Sias’ story above, and worried that it might reveal something strange about philosophers’ reaction to non-philosophers. A reminder, Sias’ story goes:

    Me: Well, not really. That’s more of an applied ethics issue. So, for instance, rather than wonder whether or not abortion is wrong, I’d rather wonder what it means for anything to be wrong. You know, what is it that makes wrong things wrong?

    Him: [Excited, all of the sudden] Yeah! I think about stuff like that all the time. Like just a few minutes ago, I walked into the bathroom to gather dirty laundry while my [8-year-old] son was in the shower and he was all, “Dad! Get oughtta here!” And I just thought to myself, “Why is that wrong?” You know?

    Me: [Trying to nod] Hmm… . Okay. [My wife leaves the room laughing under her breath]

    Even if it seems plausible that uncle misunderstood the difference between ethics and meta-ethics, I don’t quite see why his response should seem laughable. So, the uncle is told that Jim is interested in questions like what makes a wriong thing wrong (in response to the question about abortion). Surely, for someone who doesn’t know much about philosophy that might sound like, “finding out the general rule which makes any particular wrong act an example of a wrong act”. So, in the case of his son in the bathroom, uncle could easily have thought that the question “what makes wrong things wrong?” as applied to this case must mean something like, “if walking in on your son in the bathroom is wrong, what makes it wrong?” and thought the answer might be a broader ethical principle such as “everyone has a right to privacy”, but then might worry that the principle doesn’t apply in this case. Now, that seems to me like a perfectly normal understanding of the claim that philosophers are interested in “what makes wrong things wrong”. Maybe Jim’s own research is on some meta-ethical topic far removed from the question about the relationship between broad ethical principles and particular moral claims. However, it’s not obvious that uncle’s response shows a complete lack of philosophical understanding. Furthermore, if we interpret uncle’s statement in this more charitable light, there’s no reason to suppose he might not “get” meta-ethics (at least a sense of meta-ethics) on some prodding. “Even if you think that it’s true that your son has a right to privacy what makes that true? Is it the same sort of claim as the claim that your son is a human being?” is a response which might get Uncle to understand, roughly, what drives meta-ethics. Of course, uncle is unlikely to find the distinction between quasi-realism and fictionalism, or whatever Jim actualy works on, particularly interesting or intuitive, but it’s far from clear that he will, simply in virtue of understanding Jim’s description of his work in a straightforward way, compeltely misunderstand the interest and motivation of related meta-ethical questions. Indeed, he may even think that meta-ethics has some impotant link to the normative issues involving walking into bathrooms (“but if there are no facts, then why not just do anything?”)

    Basically, it’s completely unclear to me what was meant to make this story so funny. I really, really hope it wasn’t meant to be the uncle’s humorous misunderstanding. Maybe the point is meant to be how far removed Jim’s own work – or, at least, his wife’s understanding of Jim’s work – is from particular moral questions or problems. If that’s the case, though. I’d be more worried about the state of research in meta-ethics than I would be about Jim’s uncle-in-law. Sorry, I know this runs the risk of sounding like a very rude response to Jim’s post, but I do think we ought to be very careful when we suggest that civilians don’t get philosophy. We run the risk of deigrating interesting philosophical questions that might arise “naturally” to people, as it were, and, therefore, we run the risk of forgetting why philosophy seemed such an intersting way to sepnd our time in the first place.

  93. Aidan says:

    Brian, I think it’s time for a meta-board, where we post all the comments from this board that we think are silly. A tenured job in the department of your choice to the person who posts me first…….

    Anyway, another quick story going back to when I didn’t have my own computer. I was sitting in a computer lab late one night, when the guy beside me said very urgently ‘do you know anything about philosophy?’. Me – ‘Yup’. ‘Quick, tell me what Plato thought’

    Turns out he was on a chat-room trying to impress a girl studying philosophy, and he’d told her he did too. Having had an exchange with her about Plato, based on my sketchy teachings, he turned back to me and said ‘Quick, tell me about Neoplato’……………………….

    It’s all very GRE: _______ is to Neoplatonism as Plato is to Platonism.

    Incidently, if people hear something like ‘great philosopher’ or ‘genius’ or ‘luminary’ when someone says they’re a philosopher, why would saying ‘I’m studying philosophy’ or ‘I have a doctorate in philosophy’ or ‘I teach philosophy’ ease their confusion?

  94. Craig says:

    I was at a Church event once, and recognized that in attendance was a high-ranking judge in the state of New York. I sought out a conversation with him, and told him what I did by way of profession, thinking that it might be a nice inroad to a good conversation. Judges ought to know their fair share of philosophy, I thought, and especially him. After I told him that I was a philosopher, though, the conversation turned icy. The conversation ended, and at the end of the night I happened to pass by him as I left. He looked truly astonished that I was still in attendance. He then looked around the church, and in a sincere whisper said: “You know, when you told me you were a philosopher, I thought you were a spy.”

    True story.

  95. Bess says:

    I was having lunch with my aggressively Christian cousin and his wife, and told them I was going to enter graduate school to study philosophy. My cousin’s eyes immediately brightened, sensing an “in” to try to discuss my unsaved state. He reached across the table to me with open hands and a big smile, and said “So tell me… what /is/ your philosophy?”

    Stephen, I assume the point of the story is that the uncle was thinking of the social taboo on looking at naked relatives, and asking the more anthropological question “where do social taboos come from?” And maybe what’s funny is that many of us have had conversations like this, with well-meaning misunderstandings that would take too long to correct. So the wife is smirking because she knows that Sias has to choose between saying “yup, that’s right” and trying to correct the uncle’s idea of metaethics, where both are losing propositions.

    Aidan, I agree with the commenters above…I think saying you’re a teacher or professor does clarify, to the average listener, what kind of things you spend your day doing and where your paycheck comes from. They may not have any better idea of what the real object of study is, but if they’re interested they can just ask — and if they’re not, or if your explanation disappoints, then they can just say, “so how are your students?”

  96. John says:

    Most of these posts have offered silly views of philosophy held by “people off the street” so to speak. To whatever extent we should worry about the views of those people, I am much more worried about the confused conceptions of philosophy that university administrators sometimes have.

    For example, during an event with prospective philosophy graduate students several years ago, the dean of graduate studies for my university (who was a member of a social science department) stopped by to introduce himself and said something to the effect, “So, these are the students who plan to search for the meaning of life?” (I admit that I can’t recall his exact line)

    This specific case worried (and still worries) me, for this is the dean who is ultimately in charge of funding requests, travel grants, dissertation fellowships, etc. for all graduate students. If his comment was really indicative of his understanding of philosophy, I feel very uneasy about how our department fares in comparison to social science departments with respect to funding decisions. E.g., Does he treat our students’ dissertation projects as fairly as those of graduate students in other departments?

    Along somewhat similar lines, I attended a small banquet with a number of my university’s administrators several years ago, and by chance ended up seated next to the university provost (who was a member of a science department). During our discussion he commented, “Yes, for a university our size, we’ve got a fairly small philosophy department, don’t we? What, are there around thirty (30) faculty members?” (and I’m sure that I heard him correctly) The actual size of the philosophy department faculty is around fourteen (14). This isn’t an example of someone having a misunderstanding of what philosophers do, but it is an example of how little some administrators might know about philosophy departments.

  97. David says:

    Years ago, when I was a beginning philosophy professor, my wife asked our 5-year-old daughter if she wanted to be a philosopher when she grew up.

    Her response: “No, I’m all right.”

  98. Neil says:

    I share John’s worry about the lack of knowledge of other academics about what philosophers do: academics become administrators (here in Oz, anyway), and make important decisions. I do a lot of interdisciplinary work, and I hear these two comments over and over again:

    Philosophy is the search for the meaning of life

    Philosophers will never reach a conclusion about anything: they just set out the positions and say ‘you decide’.

    The last one is especially bizarre. Maybe it’s based on hazy memories of first-year classes.

  99. Peter says:

    Neil, in my case, the second position (philosophers set out positions and “you decide”) are based on very accurate memories of first-year philosophy at a leading Australian University. I was so frustrated by this repeated injunction from my famous philosophy lecturer, that I dropped Philosophy mid-way through the first term, and enrolled in English Literature instead.

    I was pleased to learn, years later, that I was not alone in this frustration. Isaac Berlin said that he decided as a new graduate not to pursue philosophy as a career because he believed that at the end of a long and productive life he would know nothing more than he did at the beginning.

  100. Peter says:

    Neil, in my case, the second position (philosophers set out positions and “you decide”) are based on very accurate memories of first-year philosophy at a leading Australian University. I was so frustrated by this repeated injunction from my famous philosophy lecturer, that I dropped Philosophy mid-way through the first term, and enrolled in English Literature instead.

    I was pleased to learn, years later, that I was not alone in this frustration. Isaac Berlin said that he decided as a new graduate not to pursue philosophy as a career because he believed that at the end of a long and productive life he would know nothing more than he did at the beginning.

  101. J.Y. says:

    Uh, so once I was spending some time with my wife’s family, and her uncle, who never went to college, asked me about what kind of philosophy I do, and we had this conversation:

    Me: Oh, I’m just trying to work out the kinks in the causal-historical theory of reference.

    Him: So you mean like Kripke’s theory?

    Me: Uh, Kripke doesn’t actually HAVE a theory of reference. [My wife leaves the room laughing under her breath]

    Can you believe that? What an ignoramus that uncle was!

    **

    Lighten up, people. I don’t know what people in a lot of other departments at my school do either. I don’t expect them to know what I do. Let alone people don’t work in academia.

  102. Neil says:

    Peter,

    There is a big difference between the way any subject is taught in first-year and the way it is carried out by professionals. I don’t think academics generally confuse the two. And I certainly can’t think of a philosopher, an article or a book – aimed at fellow professionals – which does not argue for a definite view.

  103. Peter says:

    I agree with you Neil. I am just using my own personal experience as a non-Philosopher to explain why non-Philosophers may have what Philosophers consider to be an incorrect view of the discipline. My own experience shows that it is not entirely the fault of the non-Philosophers, since Philosophy teachers, even famous ones, can state in introductory classes what the rest of you believe are incorrect views of the subject. It is not simply (or only) that we non-Philosophers have poor memories of those classes.

  104. Richard says:

    I went speed-dating the other week, and spent a lot of time trying to disabuse my dates’ misconceptions about philosophy. A typical conversation ran:

    Me: I’m writing a Ph.D. in philosophy.
    Her: Really? But there are no right and wrong answers there, are there?
    Me: Well, yes, there are actually.
    Her (matter of factly): No, but really there aren’t. You can never say that one philosophy is right and another one is wrong.
    Me: And why is that?
    Her: It’s all just what you think about stuff, isn’t it.
    Me: So, for example, you think that whether or not an action is good or bad is just a matter of what I think about it?
    Her: It’s just your opinion really, isn’t it?
    Me: So if you got raped and I said that was bad, would that just be my opinion?
    Her: Silence

    Needless to say, she didn’t want to see me again.

  105. Luis says:

    Wow, Richard, you must really be a hit with the ladies. (I would suggest trying a different example next time.)

  106. J.Y. says:

    That should have said, “let alone people WHO don’t work in academia”.

  107. Alejandro Rivero says:

    It is amusing that some of your stories still include border guards. I mean, check old guard Yin Hsi at the western-most gate.

  108. Embarassed Philosopher says:

    Most of these stories are about lay-people looking silly due to their ignorance of philosophy. And very amusing they are too. True to form, my story is about me looking silly due to my ignorance of philosophy.
    I was at Immigration, of all places, and the official saw I was studying philosophy. He proceeded to ask me about some claim of Plato that he had never understood. He mentioned the book it was in, but as it wasn’t ‘The Republic’, I had never even heard of the book, let alone the claim. I had to sheepishly admit I had no idea what he was talking about. Never before had I wished I’d taken an Ancient Philosophy course. I was sure he’d put me straight back on the plane as a fraud. But he didn’t seem to mind at all, and waived me through, on the promise that I’d find out for next term. Obviously by the time I collected my luggage I couldn’t remember any of the details of what he’d said.
    I guess we now know what becomes of our philosophy undergrads.

  109. Simon Keller says:

    A friend of mine told me the following story.

    She was teaching philosophy at a business-oriented college, where the students all think of themselves as bright young entrepreneurs. One of the students put his hand up in lecture and said that he had some suggestions for changes to the syllabus. In particular, he felt that there was no point in reading Plato. “But Plato is one of the greatest philosophers in history”, said my friend. The student replied, “Well, that’s just, like, your opinion, and I don’t see why we should have to listen to what Plato thinks, just because he has a PhD”.

  110. Mathieu says:

    I used to feel that it was silly for ‘teachers of philosophy’ to call themselves ‘philosophers’, but I’ve since changed my mind. As others have pointed out, it seems silly to hold ourselves to a different standard than historians, physicists, economists, and the like. Once, I was pointing this out to some of my first-year students who were laughing (kindly, I think) at my use of ‘philosopher’ (to describe senior faculty, not myself). It occured to me that one can call oneself a ‘poet’ if one writes a few poems, or an ‘artist’ if one paints a few canvases. Now, I don’t begrudge my artist friends their label (if I have any poet friends, they keep it to themselves), but by the time I will have finished my PhD, I will have put in at least 10 years of philosophical training (but no more, I hope). I think that will entitle me to a job title. Once I put it like that, my students seemed to agree.

  111. Robert says:

    Two years ago I was arriving at LAX airport on an exchange visa, and being interviewed by the immigration officer:

    Officer: what are you going to be doing in America?

    Me: I’m an exchange student

    Officer: And what are you studying?

    Me: Philosophy

    Officer (no reaction): Where will you be?

    Me: Down in San Diego, at the University of California

    Officer (after a pause): Are the Churchlands still there?

    Me (surprised): Yes, they are

    Officer: I’m a big fan of their work

    … maybe the reach of philosophy is wider than we realise!

  112. Ant says:

    This true story is the reverse of your others. The exchange took place in the typing-pool of a London office in 1981.

    Elderly lady supervisor: What are you reading?
    Me: A philosophy book, about truth.
    Lady (smugly): I’m a philosopher.
    Me (incredulously): Really?
    Lady: Yes. I’m going to Atlantis for my holidays.

    (It turned out she was a Rosicrucian, and had signed up for a package-tour which involved flying over a part of the Californian coast from which the remains of Atlantis were allegedly visible.)

  113. Roy says:

    As I learned a few years ago, you need to be careful in how you deal with the man-on-the-street’s ignorance of philosophy. At the pub late one night the following conversation occurred between myself and another rather drunk patron:

    Him: So, what do you do?
    Me: I’m a philosopher.
    Him: Really? I have a philosophy….
    Me (cutting him off): No, actually you don’t.

    This very nearly resulted in a brawl. Since this conversationoccurred (and having to attempt to answer the “which came first – chicken or egg?” question at least half a dozen times in bars), I have resorted to calling myself a logician (unlike one of the earlier posts, I can claim this status in good conscience). Fortunately, I have never encountered the logician/magician confusion (although my grandmothe does think I am a physicist for some reason – perversely, I find this one kind of flattering)

    Regarding defending the utility of philosophy: As has already been noted, if you actually look at reasearch in most university departments, little of it has any immediate practical applications (some, but not all, of the sciences are exceptions of course). The important question to ask when thinking about whether Mary taxpayer is getting her money’s worth, I think, is not whether this stuff IS applicable, but whether it WILL BE. And the answer would seem to be: we just don’t know (but then, neither do a lot of the scientists).

    A nice anecdote illustrating this is provided by the lovely little book “A Mathematician’s Apology”, by Hardy. A number theorist, Hardy defends the (and, in particular, his) pursuit of pure mathematics in terms of the aesthetic pleasures of such pursuits and the joys of knowledge for knowledge’s sake, etc., etc. In the book, he states that he is quite proud of the fact that not a single one of his (rather important) mathematical results has any applications to any aspect of the actual world – all of it was just math for math’s sake, according to him. The great irony, of course, is that his work, a few decades later, turned out to be of central importance for modern cryptography.

    Along similar lines, as our world becomes increasingly electronic, and thus information oriented, it does not seem impossible that philosophical research will become increasingly important (especially phil’s of langauge and logic).

    Do I think it highly likely that the as-of-yet undiscovered solution to Yablo’s paradox (to just take a random example) will be the cornerstone of some crucial future technology? Of course not. It does not seem impossible, however, and that is enough to justify funding reasearch into it.

    As a final strategy, you can always point out that many of the luminaries in the history of ‘science’ were not, according to the job titles of their era, scientists at all (since the term did not exist). Rather, they were philosophers and/or mathematicians (this is the reason that Newton’s most well-known work is titled Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy – or its latin equivalent, and not Mathematical Principles of Physics). And most academic disciplines (arguably all but mathematics) began as subdisciplines of philosophy, and only branched off on their own once they became sufficiently developed.

  114. Peter H. Desmond says:

    So a philosopher walks into a bar… ouch

  115. Jim Sias says:

    Just noticed that someone responded to my comments.

    Stephen,

    You said: “I’m completely confused by Jim Sias’ story above, and worried that it might reveal something strange about philosophers’ reaction to non-philosophers… . Maybe Jim’s own research is on some meta-ethical topic far removed from the question about the relationship between broad ethical principles and particular moral claims. However, it’s not obvious that uncle’s response shows a complete lack of philosophical understanding. Furthermore, if we interpret uncle’s statement in this more charitable light, there’s no reason to suppose he might not “get” meta-ethics (at least a sense of meta-ethics) on some prodding… .”

    And then J.Y. had this sarcastic interpretation of my story to share:

    “Uh, so once I was spending some time with my wife’s family, and her uncle, who never went to college, asked me about what kind of philosophy I do, and we had this conversation:

    Me: Oh, I’m just trying to work out the kinks in the causal-historical theory of reference.

    Him: So you mean like Kripke’s theory?

    Me: Uh, Kripke doesn’t actually HAVE a theory of reference. [My wife leaves the room laughing under her breath]

    Can you believe that? What an ignoramus that uncle was!”

    I must say, I’m a bit surprised that two people (let alone ANYONE) would react this way to that story. It seems pretty obvious to me (and to the others with whom I’ve shared the story) that the point was not that my wife’s uncle is “an ignoramus,” but rather that I was NOT prepared to talk to my uncle-in-law about the ethical implications of his son being naked in the same room with him and feeling uncomfortable.

    J.Y., you went on to say: “Lighten up, people. I don’t know what people in a lot of other departments at my school do either. I don’t expect them to know what I do. Let alone people don’t work in academia.”

    Others were posting accounts of humorous encounters they’ve had when the subject of their studies came up in conversation. I did the same.

    Gosh, I guess it’s true what they say: For those to whom you have to explain the punchline, all humor is lost. Oh well. Win some, lose some, I guess.