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Friday, September 13, 2013


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I've encountered much of what you mention as well. I've settled on a few stock responses to common questions.

To those who ask what I do, I respond, "I am a conceptual engineer." If queried further, I give, without mentioning the term "philosophy," examples of classic questions in epistemology and metaphysics, such as what counts as knowledge, whether numbers exist, the correct theory of time, etc. It usually has the effect of impressing them greatly, and at the same time completely circumvents misconceptions about philosophy.

To those who ask "What do you plan on doing with a philosophy degree?" I respond "Open a philosophy shop" as if it were obvious. I then get a polite smile with a look of feigned understanding intended to mask their ignorance. I can't take the credit for this response, but I've forgotten who apprised me of it.

I once told an old church lady I'm pursuing a career in philosophy, and with a look of dismay and disgust she replied "Isn't that, like,... secular?"

Excellent strategy, Chad. The trick is to avoid using the word 'philosophy.' It's like handing someone a blank check.

As an undergraduate, non-philosophy students often asked what I am majoring in and I could always tell if I was about to be ridiculed. Either their eyebrows would go up and they'd say "Really?" or some would just laugh and think I was joking (how can you major in *that*?).

Two distinct replies come into mind:
1) We were introducing ourselves to a small group and we had to say what we were studying. After class, one quiet and (seemingly) nice girl, who I had never seen say a word all year, said to me with visible contempt, "That's so stupid. Philosophy is so pointless, they argue in circles about pointless things and they try to make themselves look smart".

2) Even before I was a philosophy major I suggested to a professor in economics that I might like to study philosophy (bad idea). All he said was: "Philosophers can think deep thoughts about being unemployed."

Good topic, Bill. When asked what I do, I usually just say I’m a teacher. If asked what I teach, I usually say philosophy or the humanities (another term of confusion). At this point, most change the subject. But misconceptions sometimes arise. Here are some:

-- Philosophy is Rhetoric.

-- Philosophy is Psychology.

-- Philosophy is the history of ideas (e.g., knowing what Plato, Descartes, or Kant thought). The history of ideas is a wonderful subject, related to but not identical with philosophy.

-- Philosophy is “too much questioning and reflecting, and not enough doing.” (As if questioning and reflecting were not actions)

-- Philosophy is “random thoughts about random issues.”

-- To do philosophy is to express one’s feelings about life. (Think about how often people say “I feel that x is the case” instead of “I think or believe x is the case.” And consider how often people assume that all ideas are equal, and that the goal of philosophical discussion is to celebrate diversity of opinion rather than to discover truth.)

-- Bonus misconception: arguments are the same as quarrels.

-- Bonus exercise: visit library or bookstore and observe the books in the Philosophy section. Should any be relocated to another section? If so, why?

When I let my dad - for whom all knowledge is instrumental - know that I intended to study philosophy, he became irritated, but eventually settled into a sort of perpetual smugness.

I mistakenly left a copy of Difference and Repetition (of all books) at his house during a winter break, which he, in a rare moment of curiosity, picked up and flipped through. This of course cemented his anti-philosophical sentiment even more, bolstering his already invincible ignorance.

A great dad nonetheless.

I tell people that my job is to pester people with annoying questions.

My medical doctor once said to me: "What are you going to do after graduation? Live in a barrel like Socrates?"

As Elliot mentioned, a lot of people seem to confuse philosophy with psychology. I don't get it.

Brian's comment also touches on an interesting topic--how one's family receives the idea of one going into philosophy. I must have at least once told my family what I study, what I have my degree in, what I'm getting a Ph.D in, etc. but it never comes up. I'm convinced that no one in my family has a clue about what the hell I do or study. What I have been occupying myself with for the past six years must be an utter mystery to them. I could come back for the holidays and tell them my degree in gastroeconomics is almost in hand and I'd probably get a "Oh, great, congratulations!"

That may be because higher education is totally foreign to my family, which is solid blue collar. I'm the first in my entire immediate and extended family to get a B.A., and "Ph.D" to them is probably synonymous with "impractical intellectual blowhard."


You might point out to your medical doctor that he is confusing Socrates with Diogenes.

My father noticed my copy of Heidegger's Intro to Metaphysics and asked whether it was about psychology.

As Chad indicates, one's social class has a lot to do with one's attitude toward philosophy. The USA may be the first society in history in which working class types in large numbers can become philosophers. (Or am I wrong?) These philosophers from the working class will not be well understood by their parents and relatives. Their own self-understanding is likely to be ambivalent: I've met many philosophy profs from the lower orders who doubt whether they are doing something worth doing. They have the sense that it is 'not real work.' They express a sort of envy of truck drivers and carpenters, but not so much envy that they would actually take up trucking and nail pounding. Hence they have a bifurcated self-concept: they have left the working class and its values behind, but are ill at ease in the middle class.

Maybe their problem can be summed up like this. Thy are not capable of "leisure with a good conscience" to borrow a phrase from Nietzsche. I am using 'leisure' in the classical sense of OTIUM as we find it in Aristotle and Thomas and their expositors such as Maritain and Pieper. In this sense, leisure is not idleness or passive enjoyment of spectator sports, etc., but active and indeed strenuous pursuit of non-utilitarian ends.

The working stiff can't bring himself believe in this sort of thing. It's all a lot of bull, gas, hot air. It's not REAL. Wrestling with the recalcitrance of matter in the manner of an iron worker -- that's real. And what's real is important. Being sunk into his physical existence, the working stiff cannot see that his job would not exist at all if it weren't for the pure theoreticians who worked out the mathematics and the physics the implementation of which led to the technology that allows him to have a job.

Having a foot in both the working class and academic worlds, I sometimes encounter attitudes of the former which look down on the latter for not doing "real work," and attitudes of the latter which look down on the former for not being "educated." Both are wrong, of course, because both do real work (manual and OTIUM leisure, respectively) and both are educated (techne and episteme, respectively), though each in their own way.

What both attitudes really expresses is contempt for not doing my kind of work or having my kind of education, as if the mere existence of one is an affront to the legitimacy of the other.

A similar attitude, by the way, can be found among analytic and continental philosophers, where both look with contempt on the other for not doing my kind of work, as if the mere existence of one is an affront to the legitimacy of the other.

On more than one occasion simply declaring my interest in analytic philosophy has incited a defensive attitude, as if I owe some kind of justification for not doing continental before my interests can be accepted as legitimate.

Hey Bill,

Interesting post, I have unsurprisingly heard most of these misconceptions myself and I don't even have my BA in philosophy yet! I have a question though. I like you believe in the classical conception of philosophy as an end in and of itself, as something that is useless. I have been thinking though, couldn't someone say that philosophy isn't an end in and of itself because the only reason for studying it is to find truth, wisdom, goodness etc. and the only reason to have those things is to live a good life? So actually a good life is truly intrinsically good and philosophy is used to help us attain it. Perhaps I'm just missing something, but I've had a hard time coming up with an answer to this charge. I also wanted to thank you. Your work and that of many others like Ed Feser and David Oderberg has had will continue to have an invaluable impact on my development as a philosopher. You all have provided me with ideas and resources that are hard if not impossible to come by in the average university classroom. Thank you.


The classic conception, I think, is that truth is an end in itself, not just any old truth, but the ultimate truth about the ultimate matters, a truth the knowledge of which would transform us. Such a truth would be a salvific truth. Philosophy, on a classical conception, seeks that truth and so is a means to the truth as end. We don't study philosophy to study philosophy, but to get at the truth, or at least such truth is accessible by discursive means.

So I agree with you the activity of philosophizing is not an end in itself; what is an end in itself is the insight that one hopes to attain by philosophical means.

After all, God is not a philosopher. Nor does he have a religion: he doesn't need one.


And thank you very much for the kind words. They are much appreciated.


What would you say is the difference between analytic and Continental philosophy?

I don't have a happy criterion with which to distinguish analytic from continental philosophy, and doubt there is one. Assuming there is a real distinction, "analytic philosophy" and "continental philosophy" might be partially overlapping family resemblance terms.

My MO has always been to follow lines of inquiry wherever they may go regardless of who claims sovereignty over the terrain. It just happens that the questions I ask and the topics I study are more often in the analytic family.

"I am a philologist whose specialization is ancient philosophy." At the hotel where I work part-time, this statement often generates a profound moment of aporia signaled by an expression of self-activated boredom like, "Oh, that's different."

Here in Boulder, when I say I am studying philosophy the response sometimes is "Oh cool, let me show you this great crystal I use to focus my meditation!" and I respond, "No, you are talking about spirituality, I'm studying philosophy."

Thanks for the post Bill; I linked it to my blog.


Three examples from my own life spring to mind:

  1. A chap from Macedonia was visiting a mutual friend of ours, with whom I was in a houseshare as a student. One evening, he asked what I was studying. When he heard the answer, he looked at me with a genuine smile. He told me he thought that was wonderful and that his own personal philosophy was that "the answer is love".
  2. I was catching up with an old friend and his parents in my hometown at a local curryhouse. Over the family naan, his Mum asked what I was studying. She went into hysterics when I told her, apparently unable to stop laughing throughout the meal. "So you mean you sit around and think all day?"
  3. Another friend has been virtually prejudiced against me because of my degree. Most times, it simply manifests as harmless jabs about a "great philosophical mind" whenever I make any sort of aside.

    However, it's become a real source of irritation whenever we discuss anything serious. He's a fairly ardent atheist (an admirer of Dawkins) and whenever I try to discuss this with him at any length or depth, I'm inevitably told that I'm being too philosophical and that philosophy is the pastime of pedants. Apparently, a certain depth of discussion is okay but if I start to ask him what he means by certain terms, or point out an inconsistency in their usage, or even his supposed views and his actual life (which dissonance I imagine is annoying)--then, I am accused of being a philosopher. We're still good friends but I've become so irritated by this perceived prejudice and he so irritated by my line of argument that it's an area we both now avoid discussing.

Add to these the countless times I have been told that I have a background in "psychology" and that that should come in useful for some such task (as if it really finally were useful for something, whatever it was I wasted my three years at university on). I don't know if it's the phonetic similarity or the superficial perceptions of the contents of these subjects that means some people confuse them so easily.

(PS. Partly in response to Chad's first comment above:)

A couple of years ago I started studying Systems Engineering part-time. Despite the focus on instrumental knowledge, many questions come up, particularly in the areas of artificial intelligence and knowledge representation, that I believe require a philosophical approach. There are also, in my view, very important ethical implications. And if one thinks of programming as a simplified "conceptual engineering", albeit one in which one the aim is to make a machine perform certain actions, then Philosophy and this new area of mine are something like estranged cousins. I have good colleagues who I believe would share this view. What surprises me is that people outside this area are so impressed when I tell them I am studying in it, even when they seem to have as little idea of what it involves as they do Philosophy.

But then, they have heard of Philosophy (or perhaps, philosophy?) and think they know what it is. This other thing I study sounds more specialised and technical and, to their minds, may have results that can be seen more immediately.

Yet throughout this more recent course of study and my research, the mathematical and philosophical aspects of the course have been by far the most challenging, and still not nearly as challenging as the questions that were asked in the Philosophy degree that I took. Furthermore, people seem more impressed by the reasons for which they perceive I would take this later course--apparently, furthering my career and maybe even knowledge in some very restricted, self-contained field is more valuable than any reason one would have for taking Philosophy, which is after all little more than a few years' mere reclination.

For what it's worth, I've come from a working class background too and moved gradually into the academic world; I also occasionally struggle to justify to myself the "strenuous pursuit of non-utilitarian ends" and am well-acquainted with the romanticisation of hard graft, despite having done some. Nonetheless, my reasons for pursuing either course of study were almost identical, except in one respect: I studied Philosophy because I hoped to learn how to live a better life. Unfortunately, many people assume that this is the reason I'm taking the engineering course, perhaps not considering any better life beyond (to co-opt a phrase) the making or baking of yet more bread.


Thanks for the link! Do you know Spencer Case? A good guy to talk to.


Thanks for the detailed comments. You might try explaining to your friend that, whether he likes the word 'philosophy' or not, what he is doing when he talks about Dawkins-related themes is talking philosophy. And then say that he ought to pursue the questions thoroughly and in depth or leave them alone. No half-way stuff. No having it both ways at once: no philosophical opining and then dismissing a serious examination of his opinions by calling it 'philosophy.'


It is interesting that on this side of the pond 'graft' is never used (to the best of my knowledge) in your British sense to refer to work. Here it means bribery and corruption.

What is the good life? For the crude, prosaic, 'practical' types, the good life is the life of material well-being. They think in those terms almost exclusively. Since philosophy 'bakes no bread' it is not a means to the good life as the vulgar understand it; hence philosophy is a waste of time.

There is not much one can do with such people. If I am told by a vulgarian that philosophy bakes no bread, then my stock response is that "man does not live by bread alone." But this riposte will only elicit an indulgent, uncomprehending smile or sneer from the vulgarian. It is just words, like philosophy is to them. Just a lot of empty talk. High-falutin' posturing. Putting on airs.

Or suppose you try to get the rube to understand that he is thoughtlessly presupposing a philosophical answer to a philosophical question, namely, the question What is the good life? That will leave him cold too. The rube, being a rube, lacks the intellectual/spiritual capacity to see that he himself is occupying a philosophical position, one that he is incapable of defending. Of course, he doesn't think it needs defense since, to him, it is just obviously true. Which is why you can't do anything with him. But he might be good to have along if your car breaks down in the desert.

But in fairness to the vulgarian, he understands that we are all animals who need to fill our bellies. In this regard, he has his head screwed on right. This fact of our material indigence swamps his meager critical faculties. That to him is the Main Fact, a fact perhaps driven home to him by having been stung by poverty.

Thus 'education' can mean to him only job-training that leads to money and social advancement. But money is the main thing.

I should add that I am not writing from a privileged social position inasmuch as I am from the working class myself.

Dr. Vallicella, I'm curious, would you say is the difference between analytic and continental philosophy? I can't remember if you have old posts on this topic.


No, I don't...but I'm sure I've seen him around.

When I see him, do you want me to tell him "Bill V. said Hi!"


Yeah, tell him I said 'Hi.'

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