Wednesday, 27 April 2011

How Philosophers are Like Secret Agents . . . Kind of

[Note: My philosopher says that academics in some other fields may do this, too].

I bet you didn’t know that your sometimes-extremely-oblivious philosopher had secret agent capabilities. This is one of the most surprising things about philosophers.

The particular secret agent quality that almost every academic philosopher possesses is that of memorization. Philosophers are exceptionally good at knowing exactly where every other philosopher went to school, with whom other philosophers are working with/are planning to work with/worked with, what other philosophers’ philosophical areas of specialty are, and tracking which schools philosophers have worked at.  I like to refer to this as philosopher-knowledge (as in, knowledge about other philosophers).

Every once and while (rarely) you might hear your philosopher say about another philosopher—say, for example—a visiting speaker—is “Hmm, I’ve never heard of this person before.”  Translation: “I have to know about this person now because I am obsessed with philosopher-knowledge, so I’m going to go stalk their university profile and memorize their CV so I can place them in philosophy.”

Philosopher-knowledge is important, as it is both a survival technique and a reference point. Just imagine being at a large conference, like the APA Eastern, and not being able to connect people to schools and programs and other philosophers. This would be harmful to your academic philosopher, as knowing where other philosophers are located usually determines how much prestige a philosopher has and what they are interested in determines what kinds of projects they are working on (philosophers who study the same sorts of things might share papers and write articles together).

Philosopher-knowledge can be very fun for you, too. Here’s an example. When my philosopher first started in his Ph.D. program, I asked him one day to name all of the other philosophers (professors and grad students) in his department, where they went to school, and what they studied. It was fun for me to see this philosopher—who sometimes can’t remember to wash his hair in the shower—rattle off all of this information that looked superfluous to me. What can be even more fun is to attend a philosophy lecture or conference where there will be many other philosophers and ask your philosopher to spill out philosopher-knowledge about some of them.

I find this is also very useful for parties. When I am going into a situation where I will have to be around several strange philosophers (as in philosophers who are strangers to me, not just strange, because they’re all rather strange), I will often either get a debriefing before the party so I know what kinds of questions to ask which philosophers, or I will point out people at the party and ask my philosopher for information about them so I can talk to these strange philosophers. It makes parties much more fun to have some knowledge about the people you will be talking with.

So remember, next time your philosopher forgets to go to call you on your birthday or forgets to pick up bread at the grocery store on the way home, that your philosopher has these crazy capabilities. They may not be exactly directly useful to you all the time, but they will help your philosopher in her/his field. Also, this doesn’t mean that your philosopher should be able to remember things that are not philosophy-knowledge, because it’s a completely different category in their brains.

You can follow me on twitter (@philosiologist) or friend me on facebook (Philosiologist Qed). I haven't posted too much lately beyond links to new posts, but it's paper-writing season for my philosopher, so he has dibs on the computer. Maybe I'll be more interesting in the summer. Anyway, you can also send me an email if you have a suggestion for a blog post, question, or just want to chat with someone else who lives with a philosopher.

~The Philosiologist~


  1. Deadly accurate, as usual.

  2. spot on. my wife read this, and then noticed exactly how much I do this :-)

  3. Perchance, do you write these entries after being annoyed by your philosopher?

  4. Anonymous 01:49: No, I rarely am annoyed with my philosopher. He's probably annoyed with me much more often.

  5. For most pack animals, knowing their place in the hierarchy, and knowing who is where in the hierarchy, is essential to survival. Eg

    Philosophers are no different...


  6. I am a philosopher and until reading this, I had no idea I even had this information in my head. But then I started thinking about all my professors from graduate school and I realized I do know all that information!

    Not only do you help other people understand us, you help us understand ourselves!

  7. I'm a philosopher, and so far every entry on this blog (and I did go back and read them all after discovering it) has been pretty spot on. This entry, too, is a good description of probably 99% of my philosophical colleagues. I have to admit, though, that I neither have this skill nor desire it. I feel like the "knowing where everyone studied" thing is an artifact of the pedigree problem in philosophy. It is always assumed that where you studied is an indicator of philosophical ability, to such an extent that the top Leiter-ific schools pretty much inbreed exclusively and rarely hire outside of their incestuous circle. I find this practice, and its attendant attitudes to be quite pernicious and harmful to the field of philosophy in general.

  8. I don't know that it's just a question of snootiness about other people's degrees. At least in some cases, knowing where people did their graduate work (and, more specifically, under whom they did that work) can serve as a heuristic for the sorts of positions they might take and arguments they might make. For example, in my (limited) experience, Pitt people tend to say different sorts of things about metaphysics than, say, UCLA people. It's a fairly rough heuristic, but I think it can be useful.