Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Buying Gifts for Philosophers: Dos and Don'ts

If you are close enough to a philosopher, you will probably, at some time, either have the occasion or desire to give them a gift.

Non-philosophers usually have one of two common misconceptions about philosopher-gifting: either (1) philosophers are extremely easy to buy for or (2) philosophers are extremely difficult to buy for.

Both of these are false.  Philosophers are easy to buy gifts for if you know what to get, but they are not so easy to buy for that you can just get them anything.

First, we must iron out what exactly you should NEVER get your philosopher.

Do not get your philosopher:

Giving your philosopher one of these books not only proves to them that you know absolutely nothing about philosophy (and you do know something now if you’ve been reading this blog!), but it also suggests to them that you think what they do is silly and worthless. Getting them a book like this is like getting Queen Elizabeth’s gardener a Gardening for Dummies book. You may think these books are cute, but they are really insulting to most philosophers.

2. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (another book).
Faux-philosophers sometimes read books like this and think they are really philosophers. Real philosophers may use this book when they teach an Introduction to Philosophy course, merely for making their students excited about philosophy, but real philosophers do not consider this real philosophy. In fact, they are usually annoyed by faux-philosophers who read this book and then try to talk to real philosophers about philosophy. Summary: Getting your philosopher a book like this is insulting.

3. Any books.
Let’s just simplify: Unless you are willing to follow your philosopher around a bookstore or ask them to send you links online to books they want, purchasing a book for your philosopher is a very bad idea. By the time your philosopher reaches grad school, she/he will be into such hard stuff.

4. Items with “philosophy” quotes on them.
The only person who is really amused by these is you. Your philosopher will not really care. Also, most “philosophy” quotes are from Greek philosophers (Socrates, Plato, Aristotle), and are usually taken out of context and popularized.

Now, do not despair over these do-nots. Even if you have already given your philosopher something like this in the past, she/he will forgive you readily if you stick to the following list of acceptable gifts the next time you give something to your philosopher.

Do get your philosopher:

1. Money.
Philosophers are poor, unless they are in a prestigious position at a top-50 university. Philosophy grad students are especially poor. Giving them money could be giving them grocery money for the month, or giving them a chance to purchase that obscure book they’ve been lusting over on

2. Gift cards.
Ask your philosopher where they like to spend money and then purchase them a gift card. This will be greatly appreciated.

3. Pens.
Ok, philosophers love pens, for some reason. They all have their particular favorites, though, so ask then first about which type they like. You could buy them pens at every special occasion and they will be extremely satisfied.

Some of you may be thinking, “This list of acceptable gifts is so impersonal. I want to give my philosopher something that they will treasure for a lifetime and always remember me by.”

I’m sorry. Get them a gift card to buy a book. Philosophers are not like normal people. If you want to give your philosopher something they will treasure, then give them the resources to buy some books or fund their education. This is what your philosopher will treasure for a lifetime, and they will remember how thoughtful and understanding you are. 

~The Philosiologist~


  1. The list of acceptable gifts perpetuates the stereotype that philosophers are boring. And why didnt Chia Pets make the list?

  2. "Philosophers are not like normal people." Priceless!

  3. I completely disagree with "pens." My inlaws have bought me a nice fancy pen two times in the last six years, while giving other relatives things like Ipod nanos and tickets to a Giants Patriots game. I hate those goddamn pens. I'd much rather get Sophie's World or The Fountainhead or Zen and the Art of whatever before getting another pen. I don't use pens. I don't write with pens. I write on a computer. Pens are worthless for me. God forbid my inlaws see this post and think 'oh yeah, Tamler's probably run that last pen into the ground, it's probably out ink, time to get him a new fancier pen.' Seriously, you need to retract the pen suggestion.

    1. I also find this a waste of my time. If you discard the pen idea which I have, my choices are money or money you can spend in 1 store, or worse the multi store gift card. What a pointless endeavour. I don't need to know the philosopher that is happy to receive a gift card.

  4. Books you like? Books about their other interests? The newest book by author X the rest of whose books they already own?

  5. I'd rather say it perpetuates the stereotype of non-philosophers as thinking philosophers are boring. It really points to this awkward existential chasm that exists between people who really love philosophy and those who try to fake it for the sake of friendship/love/drinking buddies or whatever. If a philosopher likes you, it's not because you're like him/her, it's likely rather precisely because you're not. Going un-philosophy is the way to go for gifting to philosophers. Chia-pets welcome. And great blog Philosiologist!

  6. Tamler, I'm sorry you want the pen comment retracted, but in my experience, almost every philosopher I have met has a thing about pens. As this was meant to be a post of generalizations, I would rather leave the pen suggestion on the list. Make sure you tell your non-philosopher family members/friends/partners that you do not like pens.

    Jon, the chia pet suggestion is very well-meaning, but I think that most philosophers would probably not appreciate one. I would get you a chia pet, though :-)

    Mvr, while this is a good idea, in theory, most non-philosophers are just not that aware of what kinds of books our philosophers would like. For example, my philosopher wrote his MA thesis on McIntyre, so if I looked at our bookshelf I would see quite a few books by McIntyre. But now that he is working on his Ph.D., he's interested in Mill. Even though I know that he is now interested in Mill, getting him any book about Mill that I see somewhere might not be the best gift. It would be better, in fact, for me to ask him for an ISBN and order the exact book that he has been wanting to read for a long time.

    Also, most non-philosophers have very few ideas of what their philosopher is actually reading or studying. It's just best for all parties if we ask our philosophers first :-)

    Anonymous#2, philosophers are not boring, they just like different things than us non-philosophers. :-) I am thankful that they do like us non-philosophers, as I think philosophers are very interesting and enlightening. Perhaps I should write a post about how philosophers are not really boring . . .

    Everyone, This is just a general list for those with no clue about what to get their philosopher. As you have pointed out, each philosopher is different and will enjoy receiving gifts not on this list, but I hope that the message within this post that most people learn is: ask first; don't just buy them a Bath & Body Works gift set and be offended if they aren't excited.

    Thanks, all for the comments! Please tell me when you think I am mis-characterizing philosophers!

  7. Oops, I misspelled MacIntyre. Forgive me, philosophy gods.

  8. Anyone who doesn't want their fountain pens: I'll take 'em. The remark about philosophers and pens hit a bit close to home, seeing as I have a standing "pen stuff" budget that may or may not be larger than my food budget some months . . .
    Then again, my students do comment on my awesome pens, so I can't complain too loudly, can I?

  9. I like pens and am a philosopher. I think that you may want to add 'shiny electrical items' to the list, though. Most philosophers I know have a love of the shiny.

  10. I'm a philosopher and love pens. I find that philosophers tend to like (i) extra-fine Lamy fountain pens (his allows more detail for any diagrams or formal notation), and (ii) Pilot G-Tec-C4 pens.

  11. Don't forget alcohol! Most philosophers I know are heavy drinkers. They normally appreciate a top shelf whiskey, or a micro-brewed beer...

  12. Oooh I love my pens, but they are Mont Blanc Meisterstucks, not really in the price range of your average present :P
    You can always make me happy with fancy notebooks and ink, both seem to run out all the time. Oh, and single malt whisky, of course.

  13. I have a bit of a thing about *not* caring about pens or fancy notebooks and paper. Though I've always been suspicious of the phrase, I'm guessing that this is what people mean by, "the exception that proves the rule." The very fact that I'm so insistent about not caring about pens and notebooks is evidence that I come from a realm in which people generally do.

  14. Back in the day it seemed philosophers were all about the pipes, nowadays with the dark spectre of lung cancer it seems we have graduated to the much healthier obsession to pens. I may have to pick up on this trend and obsession. This may be what makes philosophers truly happy.....on the other hand maybe they are just pens.

  15. SPOT ON! So right it makes me feel that I must be a real philosopher. Although no one actually gives me pens, so I have to borrow them without asking. It still makes me extraordinarily grateful to the donor though. I literally feel strong waves of love to the original owner of the pen I use everytime I use it. Only if it is a functioning pen though. Crap pens that don't work don't inspire quite so much love.

  16. I was going to say that alcohol is also a gift that most, if not all, philosophers enjoy. Now, it cannot be cheap beer or liquor. Most philosophers have a favorite. Once you find your philosophers favorite is, you are set for life on gifts. Obviously this does not pertain to the teetotaler philosopher, but in the almost 15 years I've been married to a philosopher, I've never met one who didn't drink.

  17. I might make the pen suggestion as conditional. First see if they ever actually use pens! If they carry around a laptop and always type on a computer, I'd avoid pens as a gift (maybe one is fine, but there's a bunch of us tech-y types who just don't use pens that often).

  18. Don't bother buying a philosopher a gift. It will never occur to them to reciprocate, that applies to a variety of things.

  19. Anonymous, I am sorry you've had a negative experience with a philosopher, but I've found quite a few philosophers are very generous with their time and resources. Perhaps you should have a discussion with your philosopher(s) and let them know that gifts are important to you. This sounds very silly, but think about it: how can one expect someone else to know what they want if they do not tell them?

    I know I've had to have talks with my philosopher about things like this, and he has been more than willing to listen and make changes.

  20. Manuel has already received the four greatest gifts any individual could ever hope for, whether or not that individual is a philosopher. These precious gifts are Stephanie, Athena, Satya and Nike. Comment posted by anonymous.

  21. hippocampa got on the right track: suitable gifts -- which will likely get used and appreciated -- also include beer, wine, liquor.

  22. You are so right. Asking what book we want and then ordering it would be lovely. My mom once asked me what I wanted for my birthday and when I told her the book I wanted she said "No, I want to get something for YOU." Yet it was exactly what I wanted, for me. Thanks for making us intelligible to loved ones!

  23. Look on their bookshelf for the books they have out of the library for years at a time, written by the philosophers they most often work on or regularly mention in an approbatory manner.

    Or whiskey. Whiskey helps.

  24. The next time a blockhead I know gives me a pen, I'll buy him/her a screwdriver and see how they like it. *grumble*

    Every other suggestion, however, I'm game for. I especially love gift cards (yay! books!). Or mead.

  25. Amazing! I'm a philosopher and this article is so accurate! Please, never buy books to us, because probably we have them or we feel repulse for them. i agree and this blog is great.

  26. I am a philosopher, and I actually don't like books. I do like pens, my new favorites are these cool liquid pencils. Also, alcohol is always a good idea.
    Something that has not been mentioned: massages. Most philosophers I know are either crazy into exercise, or not into it at all and thus stiff and achy. It seems to me that either kind would appreciate a gift certificate for a nice massage. Unless they have issues with being touched, personal space, or they object to the act of performing a massage for money.
    Many philosophers also like music and movies. A gift certificate to go see a movie, or concert tickets for the music they like are good gifts in my opinion.
    Also: I would appreciate a post about why philosophers are not boring.

  27. Lol - what about a novelty Descartes mug?

  28. Great post! I do have something with pens, I love them and most of my colleagues too. And for me, a gift card from a book store is not impersonal is perfect: they just do not buy you a present but also a great moment: search for THE book.

  29. I just want to let you know, that as a philosopher at the grad student level, I fucking love money and pens. May it never change :)

  30. I love your blog and have passed it on to my non-philosopher for an instruction manual.

    Frankly, I personally would get a huge kick out of receiving one of those "X and philosophy" books if the pop culture topic was one I thoroughly enjoyed. I wouldn't take it as "philosophy for dummies" but as an opportunity to see what my colleagues found philosophically interesting about a topic I also find philosophically interesting. I've also been given cartoon philosophy books on topics I already know a lot about. It gave me helpful ideas for teaching that topic to undergrads.

    There are many different kinds of philosophers out there, and from what I can tell from your blog, your exposure to philosophers seems to be primarily a large research university with a grad program. Depending on where your philosopher winds up post-PhD, you may find yourself expanding your conception of our odd but multifarious species.

  31. In my experience, philosophers love rare recordings by The Cramps.

  32. Tamler's comment +1

    Dont buy philosophers fancy pens, they are superficial and needlessly expensive.

    If anyone ever buys me a pen, it will pains me to refrain from rolling my eye and ask "why?

  33. I'm a philosopher. Any time someone says "Do you have a pen?" I pull one out of my pocket saying, "A scholar is never without one." One time, a friend asked to borrow a pen, I gave him one, quoting the line, and he said "But now I have your pen, you are without one, even if only for a moment" (my friend studied philosophy for a year, before switching to English). I replied, "No, I have two more pens in my pocket. You don't think I'd lend you my favourite pen just like that do you?"

  34. Hee, this article is pretty spot on in my experience - I made the mistake of buying one of those pop culture philosophy books for my philosopher early in our relationship (I think it was called "Philosophy of Love" or something). While he did his best to be gracious about it at the time, I certainly didn't make THAT mistake again! Oh well, you live, you learn...

    Love your blog by the way!

  35. This is a hilarious (and accurate!) blog. I just had a 10 minute conversation with my husband (a philosopher) yesterday about the new pens that he bought. Awesome.

  36. A bag of fancy coffee or tea is good to help fuel late night reading. Candy too.

  37. All philosophers I know (incl. myself) would roll over and present our tummies if we were given whisky/red wine, nice pens (spot on!!), book vouchers, big bags of coffee, and either cigarettes or tobacco (either for pipes or for hubbly). Blank notebooks also hit the spot - as in BLANK, without daily quotes or pictures of babies in teacups... nothing more than lines. :)

  38. "Frankly, I personally would get a huge kick out of receiving one of those "X and philosophy" books if the pop culture topic was one I thoroughly enjoyed."

    I totally agree with that commenter. In fact, I've bought those books for myself. Though they're usually not as in-depth as I'd like, I love how they connect 2 things I like, such as Watchmen and Philosohpy. Of course, the fact that I'm not a grad student or professor yet (I'm still debating it) might have a lot to do with that, but then not everyone's philosopher is.

  39. I gave my mother a list of books I wanted (with ISBN, of course), so she could choose one to buy for me. The list had a lot of books, so I would like the gift, but I couldnt know what she would buy for me. I wanted to keep the surprise. What book would be my gift?
    And she bought all the books...
    I love my mother.

  40. another philosopher29 April 2011 at 09:06

    I like these suggestions! But I'm not sure they're specific to philosophers. If you know someone's interested in something but don't know anything about that thing, buying gifts that you think relate to that thing is usually a recipe for disaster. Some examples:

    If you know someone likes reading novels but don't have a good idea about their tastes, buying them random books you find on the shelf is risky. The same goes for listening to music and albums, watching movies and dvds, etc.

    If you know someone is a musician but don't know anything about their instrument or musical interests, buying them accessories (or, even worse, instruments) without consultation is almost guaranteed to end in a polite "thank you" at best. The same thing goes for cooks, bicyclists, runners, etc.

    I can't actually think of any exceptions here, though there might be some. If someone's just beginning to be interested in something, there's still room to buy whatever the person at the store suggests or something. But once you're dealing with well-established interests, buying gifts without first knowing those interests pretty intimately is a big gamble, whether those interests are philosophical or otherwise.

    Or, at an even more general level: Don't buy gifts for people just because they like music, or are an engineer, or have some other generic, high-level property.

  41. Interesting blog. This is one of my favorite blog also I want you to update more post like this. Thanks for sharing this article.
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  42. Wow! I've already found your blog and this post has helped me a lot! My sister is a graduated philosopher and tomorrow is her birthday, and of course, I have no ideas for a gift (that's the reason why I've came into your blog). Now I see clear that buying a book is not a good idea at all. What I've found interesting is that money is a common issue with philosophers around the world! Maybe a gift card would be the best gift for her... Anyway, I will investigate if she's in love with pens...
    Thanks for your post and greetings from Spain! (sorry for the grammar errors! Third language and more used to scientific articles)