Sunday, 24 April 2011

Questions/Topics to Avoid with Philosophers

There are a few phrases that get said to or questions that get asked of philosophers that absolutely drive them crazy—in a really bad way.

Keep in mind that you can use these if and only if [my philosopher protests to my incorrect usage of iff in this case, but I’m leaving it in] you want philosophers to avoid you and think badly about you. They are incredibly useful if there is a particular philosopher you know whom you would like to stop talking to you forever. Also, these could be useful if you would like to embarrass your philosopher terribly at a party (especially if you introduce yourself to the department head and then ask one of these questions). I do not recommend using these EVER, but I am also super-sensitive about my reputation with philosophers.

For the philosopher out there who is going to disagree with me and say that one or several of these questions/statements is not so bad, you are probably not a graduate student or a professor. Just you wait. These questions/statements even annoy me, and I am definitely not a philosopher.

[As a note: my philosopher has been asked, these questions at one time or another].

I’m going to be a bit harsh with my evaluations here (these make me angry because people can be so insensitive to philosophers), so if you’ve said or done one of these things in the past, don’t be offended, just prepare yourself to reform (“Go and sin no more”).

1. “Oh, you study philosophy? What are you going to do with that?”

This seems like an innocent question, right? I mean, it is common practice for most non-philosophers to ask questions about employment situations after an introduction. For philosophers, the reactions that non-philosophers have to their answer to this question are similar to the reaction they might have to a person who answers that they are unemployed. Sometimes non-philosophers react with glassy eyes; sometimes they get out of the conversation as fast as possible and move on to someone else; and sometimes they ask the hated follow-up question, “Oh, you’re going to be a professor. So you’re going to teach?”

Where do they even begin to answer this question to a non-academic? I recommend that you philosophers start referring all questions like this to my blog entry.

2. “Ok, so I’ve got this philosophical problem for you: If a tree falls in a forest and there’s no one around to hear it, did it make a sound?”

This is committing several grievous problems. First, you are reciting a silly “problem” that everyone and their mother has heard before, which implies (1) that you think your thoughts are original and (2) you think that philosophers are only interested in silly “problems.” Imagine how insulting this is to a philosopher. It’s like a person walking up to their car mechanic and telling them about an article they read in Highlights magazine (a magazine for young children) about spark plugs and how useful these are in cars.

As a note, almost anything that begins with “I’ve got a philosophical problem for you . . .” is bound to be trouble.

3. “I have some of my own philosophical ideas that I’ve wanted to talk to someone about.”

Please don’t do this, unless you are really a philosophy student (in which case, you will probably not say this to another philosopher). Don’t do this, even if you were a philosophy student in years past. The philosophy-world changes pretty quickly, so if you have stepped out of it for a while and have not kept up with all of these changes, you do not know what is going on and your ideas might be considered irrelevant. It is insulting to say this to a philosopher because they have been working so hard in their field and are deep in the literature, and then you just figure you can roll in with your “ideas” and impress them without doing all of the work it takes to really understand philosophy. Philosophy is hard work. End of story.

Now, it is okay to ask a philosopher some questions about a certain philosophical idea that you have been thinking about for a while, but be kind to both them and yourself and figure out first whether this particular philosopher studies the kind of philosophy you are interested in. Then, perhaps have some questions relating to your subject prepared that you can ask them in a non-arrogant (perhaps, “I don’t know much about this and I know this is your area but could you explain to me….”), curious way. Philosophers love curiosity (especially when it’s also humble) the way that my cat loves treats (he would eat them until he explodes, if given the chance).

4. “So in philosophy you just basically talk about your opinions.”

Philosophers take issue with two words in this sentence: ‘basically’ and ‘opinions’. Philosophers do not have straight-out opinions in philosophy; they have views and positions that can be supported by arguments. Even continental philosophers have arguments.

They dislike the word ‘basically’ because it implies that something can be summed up quickly and effortlessly, which just can’t be done in philosophy (believe me!).

5. Any mention of Ayn Rand.

People like Rand are not philosophers, they are posers (and she is a terrible writer, too). Do not mention Ayn Rand in conversation with a philosopher, as it is insulting. The only case in which it is okay to talk about Rand is when you are making fun them or asking a philosopher why Rand is ever considered a philosopher (which is also dangerous; tread lightly). I recommend just avoiding the subject all together.

6. “You’re a logician? I love Sudoku and other logic puzzles!”

Logic is not about logic puzzles. Logic is a series of incredibly difficult stuff that relates to mathematics. By saying something like this, you are implying that logic is fun and—as someone who has taken a formal, baby-logic course or two, involving both predicate and propositional logic—I can promise you that logic is not fun at all (okay, so I lied—propositional baby-logic is actually fun in a geeky kind of way).

7. Connecting philosophy to theology.

Most philosophers do not study anything relating to theology. You could be on very dangerous ground if you starting talking about theology with a philosopher and think you are going to get far. For your own safety, assume that they do not study theology. My policy is to talk theology with seminary students or graduates and talk philosophy with philosophy students or graduates.

Ok, confession time: I rarely talk either philosophy or theology with anyone. I usually ask philosophers about other things because I know just a little bit about philosophy; enough to be annoying but not insightful.

If you’re nervous about asking philosophers anything about philosophy now, that’s ok. Philosophers like lots of other things, too. You can ask them questions about:

1. The local music scene.
2. University politics/recent policy decisions within their specific university/Department gossip.
3. Good bars/restaurants
4. What kind of books [outside of school] they have been reading lately.
-Only ask this at the beginning or early part of the semesters since this tends to drop off for many philosophers during paper writing season [see previous post] and asking them about it only inspires guilt and makes them irritable.
5. Movies [Note: Don’t ask about the Matrix!].

Philosophers, any other things that people say that super-annoy you?

Non-philosophers, are there any other questions you’ve found work well when talking to philosophers?


I wanted to add this note because I realized that the way I phrased the sentence "Even continental philosophers have arguments" was taken to be a barb rather than a helpful explanation. I said it this way because I have overheard some very misguided analytic undergrad philosophers say things like, "Continental philosophers don't use arguments; they base everything on feelings." I am sorry if you were offended. Perhaps a post about something strictly within continental philosophy will make it up to you? I would make you some cookies, but you are all so far away.


Note: You can follow me on twitter (@philosiologist) or friend me on facebook (Philosiologist Qed). I will probably accept your requests and/or follow you, too, but I won't read your twitter updates (I might stalk on your facebook profile, though, especially if there are pictures of your pets). I will post all of my blog updates on these profiles.  You can also email me (email address on the left-hand sidebar) if you have questions or post suggestions (or if you are willing to donate a small cottage in Europe--I have a great rental history).

 ~The Philosiologist~


  1. Although neither a topic nor question, I dislike hearing "The Philosopher Song" (I guess it's some Monty Python thing?) recited by someone after mentioning I'm a philosophy student, albeit an undergrad. (Sadly this abuse is not unique to graduate students!) It's never followed up either... it's just that song....

  2. I was in a Sunday School class with your sister, Ruth, and I found your blog through her (I'm also a philosopher).
    Anyway, I just wanted to say that I award 15 points for your line "even Continental philosophers have arguments." (And I have to agree with you on the "basically talk about opinions" question--that has to be my least favorite (loaded) question that I get!

  3. You missed one. "Oh, you're a philosopher? What's your philosophy?"

    Great blog!

  4. Hello! hey, it apparently seems that it is impossible to talk about philosophy with a philosopher :/. What if my philosopher has a PhD in Ethics but I am really interested in skepticism and responses to skepticism? Can I ask about this topic?

  5. very nice. Particularly, that dig at continental philosophy!

  6. This is dumb.

  7. I recently had a doctor "pose" a question he thought I couldn't answer (in fact it was so incoherent I can't even remember it). He then sat there looking smug. I spent about three minutes trying to deal with the most charitable reading of it before he glazed over. I hate that.

  8. OMG - someone gets us. This is such as hilarious as accurate. I would rather talk to a humble person than someone who thinks that knows a lot about philosophy and don't even listens, don't make an effort to understand, just show-off. on that cases, I pretend I'm just stupid

  9. Any attempt to talk about subjectivity and how, like, you just can't get out of your own subjective experience, man. Aaarrgh

  10. Thank you for this. I'm married to a PhD track philosopher, and I just spent more time than I'd like to admit reading back through your archives. I agree with and appreciate all that you have commented on. I don't think I've made many mis-steps but will be putting several bullet points on flash cards for studying... I can't wait to attend the next talk. My philosopher says your question-asking-types are spot on.

  11. Something I hear quite often, which is similar to number '4' in your list, is: 'philosophers complicate things too much,' or 'philosophers make too much of a thing out of everything.'

    Great post :).

  12. Also, don't ask "You're a professor, what do you do all summer? It must be great not having to work for three months every year." Also bad is "You teach only on Tuesdays and Thursdays? Wow, I wish I worked only two days a week!" Many, many people, including university graduates, are under the mistaken impression that the main thing professors do is teach, and when we're not in the classroom, we have nothing to do. They're always surprised to find out teaching is only a small part of the job.

    What you're welcome to ask, if you want to try, is "What are you working on?" or "What do you teach?" and "How might that relate to something I know about?" These could lead to a fun conversation. An important part of the socialization process for budding philosophers is to learn to respond appropriately to these sorts of friendly questions.

  13. This is so spot-on it’s scary! Thanks for your insight and your tolerance of our tribe.

    I say tolerance because these reactions to outsiders don’t show us in our best light. In fact, they betray some of what I wish I hadn’t discovered about the philosophical culture these days. I hang around many academics, from many other fields, too, and in my own experience, (we) philosophers are easily the most hostile to outsiders, and the least informed in their hostility. They love to discover why Question X or topic Y is not, in fact, really philosophy, and then – this really kills me -- to dismiss these as “uninteresting.” Theology, to take your example, used to be unpersuasive to philosophers but somewhat relevant; today, it’s “uninteresting,” an epithet they bandy about like it’s a term of art, instead of a spasm of snootiness.

    They also love to not know. A common philo refrain is, “I must confess, I really have no idea what [something that many people talk about] means at all.” This pompous, faux-ignorant remark is doubly offensive because (a) it suggests the burden is on the presenter for failing to enlighten, rather than the philosopher for failing to understand; and (b) it feigns humility (“must confess”) when it is in fact stated with pride.

    And then there's the hatred of people who think they're interested in philosophy without knowing what it is.

    Find me another guild that is lavishly uninterested; proud of its ignorance; and impatient with non-experts who profess genuine interest in their profession but – gasp! – for uninformed reasons.

    I need to find some way to keep the philosophical ideas and questions we love, while somehow transplanting the personality-type of other fields. Or else I just need a drink.

    (Sorry to rant. We do that sometimes. Great post!)

  14. This post will probably get the author a lot of positive "OMG I KNOW, RIGHT???" responses from fellow undergrad/grad philosophy students who feel that they do not command proper respect from people to whom they believe they're intellectually superior.

    This righteous indignation is great for building in-group cohesion amongst self-identifying philosophy students nursing wounded egos. Anyone else (non-philosophers; philosophers mature enough not to let others' lack of relative enlightenment affect their own sense of self-worth) would find it snotty and divisive. This sort of thing is ultimately a hindrance to everyone practicing philosophy or with a related degree. The overall message is "If you don't understand philosophy, fuck you, and don't ask us about it," which would only discourage anyone from learning about philosophy from those who've study it. This sort of thing is exactly why people think philosophy students (or Pitchfork type indie rock snobs) are pricks.

    1. Second that. Most people love talking to others who show an interest in their personal interests or line of work. What I love about philosophy is that it leads to living a better life and seeking to live virtuously, but this article paints philosophers as arrogant snobs. Definitely lacking the humility I would hope a practitioner of philosophy would gain from their close examination of it.

  15. Of the many programs I've considered for graduate work, Philosophy has always ranked high with me, hence my interest in this blog. I have a BFA in graphic design, a field which fell apart after 9/11, a trickle-down effect of the economic crash on the advertising and related industries; hence, securing employment in my field has been a challenge. The solution seems to be graduate school and a career change.

    I made the mistake of mentioning to my sister the possibility of pursuing a Masters and PhD in Philosophy and she responded, "Oh, great, talk about being even MORE unemployable! Why on Earth would you want to do THAT?!?" Hrmph.

  16. Glad to see someone else already noted the awful question, "What's your philosophy?" But here are two more:

    "What's the meaning of life?"

    "So what am I thinking right now?"

    (I have heard the latter surprisingly often. I suspect that the questioner is confusing one profession whose name starts with 'P' and has an 's' in it, with another profession whose name also starts with 'P' and has an 's' in it. They are probably also confused about some other things too, of course.)

  17. philosopher with diverse interests24 April 2011 at 20:42

    Most philosophers I know hate it when one of their areas of interest is dismissed as nonsense/uninteresting/not-real-philosophy by someone who clearly knows little about that area.

    Sadly, philosophers are often guilty of this.

    Most philosophers I know who work in feminism, philosophy of race, the history of philosophy, philosophy of religion, aesthetics, pragmatism; as well as phenomenology, hermeneutics, and other areas of continental philosophy, have had their work trivialized by a philosopher of another field at least once. This is particularly hurtful when (as it often happens) the bashed philosopher finds merit in the offender's work (e.g. when an analytic philosopher of language dismisses another who works in the field of hermeneutics, or vice-versa).

    Your blog, by the way, seems to trivialize continental philosophy. As a philosopher who is greatly interested in hermeneutics and aesthetics, I find the small stabs at continental philosophy very annoying.

    Other than the needless continental-bashing, I like your blog quite a bit. I hope my comment is well received. To quote from your post above: "Go and sin no more!"

  18. I find if you want to annoy a continental philosopher, you lead with in with a "what are you working on?" and as they proceed to explain, you pepper your responses with the occasional "oh, I don't quite understand what you're getting at... can you try that again on me?" and "oh, what do you mean by ?" (and when they reply to either of these tangential questions, you offer an oversimplified ordinary language version back at them.)

  19. I like this blog a lot, but I have a sad fact to share: continental philosophy is real philosophy.

    As a matter of fact, this could be one topic to avoid with philosophers: most people (philosophers included) typically think that continental philosophy is not real philosophy for rather trivial reasons (they've not read much, but someone they admire doesn't like it). As a matter of fact, in academic circles, "x is worthy of ridicule" typically translates to "I'm too lazy to read x." With the notable exception of Ayn Rand, of course.

    Joking aside, if I understand the purpose of this blog correctly, this is supposed to provide a way to bridge gaps between philosophers and others, and I've come to view it as a welcoming site for philosophers of all stripes to be collectively understood. In other words, I find the things you say just as relevant to my life as the analytics also seem to. Which suggests, if only on the basis of personality, we are not so different after all. Let's not ruin the friendliness and inclusiveness that this blog aims to create.

  20. I hate to say this (because the book means a lot to my non-philosopher partner) but Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance deserves a mention here.

    Not only is talking about it likely to annoy philosophers (much like Ayn Rand), but the actual content of the book is an exemplary case of talking about philosophy in a way that philosophers are liable to find ultra-annoying. In a nutshell "Based on the three philosophy classes I took in college, I am prepared to offer a knock-down refutation of everything in this field all the way back to Plato, (whose actual writing I don't remember very well...)"

    Maybe a good book in other respects, but absolutely not a successful example of a non-philosopher engaging with philosophy!

  21. Apologies if this comes through more than once. I tried to post something along these lines a few hours ago but something went awry with Blogger.

    I don't find any of the questions you list annoying. I'm actually a bit dismayed at the thin-skinned and overly-dismissive attitude of some of my fellow philosophers in this regard.

    Most non-philosophers have no idea what philosophers really do. Philosophy is not regularly taught in U.S. high schools, and at least when the questions you list are asked in good faith, they provide plenty of material for decent (albeit introductory) conversations about philosophy. Let me illustrate:

    Q. If a tree falls ...?

    Terrible Answer: Ugh! What a silly question to ask! No one cares about trees.

    This kind of answer makes us philosophers look like jerks who can't be bothered to explain what
    we do and can't make our discipline interesting to outsiders.

    Better Answer: Hey, that's an interesting question with a long history. It makes me think of Bishop Berkeley, who thought there was no such thing as matter but that the world consists of minds and their ideas. So, for Berkeley, if no one is around to hear the sound, not only is there no sound, there isn't even any tree! Pretty wild, huh? What do you think about your question?

    In my opinion, a stilted, introductory-level conversation about philosophy is better than a conversation about local restaurants or university politics.

  22. This might be my favorite blog!

    Another one: "What are some of your sayings?"

  23. Your posts are always fun and fair!
    I confess, I use your notes in some of my lectures and speeches, including my blog.
    Many thanks for your excellent work!
    Vadim Baluta
    Berdyansk University of Management and Business
    Director, Center Cultural Studies
    Berdyansk, Ukraine

  24. This is a great post (just like all of the others). One question that I simply hate to be asked is: "So, what's your favorite philosopher?" Initially, I was kind, and tried to answer something like: this is not really a good question, it's not about having favorites, blah, blah, blah... Now I just stare blankly at the person asking the question, and put it back to them, relating it to their profession: "So, who's your favorite nurse?", or "Who's your favorite apple grower?" etc.

  25. I can get behind all of these, except number 5. I don't know precisely why people think it's obvious that Ayn Rand was wrong about anything. I do avoid broaching the subject with other serious philosophers, and I think it's very sad that this is the case: to not even get to discuss someone's ideas, because they are apparently just *obviously* ridiculous. If things which sounded "obviously ridiculous" were not spoken about and actually examined for what they really are, many philosophers would never have the respected following they have today.
    I don't care if you disagree with her, but it is a really anti-intellectual attitude to decide before you even begin that her ideas are not a worthy topic of conversation, especially given the increasing body of academic work that is being produced which directly focuses on her ideas. I know many who admire her philosophy and believe it to be true, who can engage in all kinds of sophisticated argument about it, but who actually have to hide that fact, precisely because of this sort of attitude.

    I'm just trying to appeal to you, one (future) academic to another, to not so easily dismiss her. Again, I don't care if you disagree with her, or don't even want to talk about her: at least it means you either have the respect to actually deal with her ideas, or the respect to not talk about something you do not have interest in. But please, do not help proliferate this attitude of contempt and ridicule which is all too rife: it makes life very hard for a lot of people, and I'm sure you would not appreciate it if the kinds of thinkers you admire were considered ridiculous by everyone else, and your opinions were rejected as soon as you announced any debt to such thinkers.

  26. Actually, when I get questions or comments like this, I don't have much a problem with it and politely explain how things really stand. But then again I don't think having a Ph.D. in a very poorly publicly known discipline and working on really hard things means I should be a jerk.
    #1 Philosophers (and others in the humanities) do pretty well in the non-academic job market.
    #2 This is a very hackeneyed question, but not at all distant from what goes on in discussions of the status of color (is color *just* the wavelength of the light, etc. or is it a subject qualia or is it a response-dependent property of light reflecting objects...)
    #3 You say: "It is insulting to say this to a philosopher because they have been working so hard in their field and are deep in the literature, and then you just figure you can roll in with your “ideas” and impress them without doing all of the work it takes to really understand philosophy." It's not insulting, any more than telling a carpenter about your plans to build a deck. Well, then I just do a bit (5 mins) of philosophy with them, show them the complications, etc. If they aren't receptive, their loss.
    #4 I'm an analytic type, who's read carefully a lot of Hegel, Heidegger, Foucault, Habermas. Your ridiculous caricatures of "Contintental" philosophy (and by implication "analytic" philosophy") are insulting and you should just stop embarrassing yourself. Really. Stop.
    #5 Deflect: recommend Nozick, for instance.
    #6 Logic is fun and thinking about it is fun too. The "tonk" article by Prior is a good way to talk about philosophy of logic with someone interested in logic puzzles.
    #7 Most philosophers do not know anything about the relations of philosophy and theology because their knowledge of the history of philosophy is rather thin. If someone comes at you with some weird New Age theology, then pick on some term or concept and say something intelligible about it and then ask if there's more beer or if there's a dish they would recommend.

    Note to my fellow professional philosophers: nobody cares about how hard and esoteric your work is--so is accounting and plumbing. Get over yourselves and talk with people like adults.

  27. Rory, I am sorry that you think that Ayn Rand is great. I don't think it's an elitist attitude to disagree and say that one thinks that she is not great. Remember that the point of this blog is to characterize philosophers and what they commonly think/do. If most philosophers think that Rand is not a philosopher and hate to be asked about her by a public that does not understand even the basics about philosophy but thinks that this is real philosophy, then I am going to characterize this attitude here.

  28. "Even continental philosophers have arguments" deflates those who think they do not (i.e., a certain kind of analytic philosopher). It is not a statement that our blogger thinks continental philosophers do not have arguments. That said, I have attended many continental presentations in which the existence of arguments can only be retrieved through charitable reading between the very dense lines, so let's not get too self-righteous here... there are good and bad philosophers of all kinds.

  29. Continental philosophers, I have added an addendum at the end of the post just for you :-)

  30. Yonina, I need to go soon so if someone has already responded to you I appologize. You CAN talk to philosophers about philosophy! As the author writes, the main thing is to be respectful when you do. (Most of the questions listed above are examples of people trying to act like they know more about philosophy than they really do)

    If you're interested in a topic, there's no reason not to ask your philosopher about it. Just frame your questions appropriately. If you want to talk about your philosopher about philosophy and don't have a particular topic in mind, I find that simply asking what they're working on/writing about/studying in class will give you plenty. Philosophers will explain technical things to you if you don't understand, and they wouldn't be philosophers if they didn't love philosophy. If you bring it up in a way that isn't obnoxious (and this really isn't hard, it's just a lot of people are clueless), they're usually excited that you're interested.

  31. Some more:
    --"You must be so smart!" This is supposed to be a compliment, but it just doesn't work. First, no, you don't have to be smart to be a philosopher -- you just need a really specific skill set. Second, there's no good response to it. Third, it's othering. It's a way of saying, "You are different (albeit in a complimentary way). I am not like you." Better way to phrase the compliment: "Oh, you're a philosopher? I respect that."

    --"I couldn't do philosophy. I'm too ____." Again, this is othering. Furthermore, it's usually based on bad stereotypes about philosophy. The worst one I ever heard: "I'm too logical for philosophy." Last, there's no real response to it. Either one has to argue about whether philosophy actually has that quality, or one just shrugs and says, "Oh." Better way to phrase the comment: "Isn't philosophy pretty not-___?" There, you're bringing up the same topic, but doing so in a way that allows for some sort of response and conversation to follow.

    --"So who's your favorite philosopher?" If you're not yourself a philosopher, there's a good chance the answer will be someone you haven't heard of. Furthermore, it's really hard to answer this question. Better: "So what philosophers influenced you most?" (Ask this if you have a good understanding of major philosophers these days.) Alternative: "So what philosophers do you teach in your intro classes?" (Ask this if you don't know much about philosophy but just want some way to start the topic.)

  32. To the Anonymous 4:47: Really?

  33. philosopher with diverse interests25 April 2011 at 09:48


    Thank you for adding the note above. I, for one, do not think that a post exclusive to continental philosophy is necessary to make amends. Your philosopher seems to work in an analytic field, and your blog deals with your experiences, so you should not feel obligated to cater to those in other areas. It is enough that you avoid offensive characterization of other areas (and it is nice to see that any insult has been accidental).

    Keep up the good work!

  34. Thank you Anon 4:47! Thank you, thank you! It all needed to be said. Non-philosophers: there really are more of us like Anon 4:47. Don't believe the put-downs or the eye-rolls. Keep asking.

  35. I'd like to chime Anon 20/08.18 above: I dislike those because they tend to put down my interlocutor from the outset. I'm also sympathetic to "philosopher with diverse intersts"'s complaint about other philosophers: my fellow grad students are especially guilty of this (they pigeonhole themselves, and it's so much the worse for them).

    On PWDI's post, however, I should note that an interest in "aesthetics" doesn't necessarily (or even obviously) imply an interest in continental philosophy--much of the best work on the philosophy of art today stems from 'analytic' circles, after all. The great thing about the philosophy of art (my specialization), however, is that it can be pretty much whatever you want it to be, and can reflect any number of your interests, both primary and secondary. The downside is that other philosophers are worse than laypeople when it comes to questions: they just assume that either you do nothing of interest, or that you're stuck doing something extremely narrow, or that they know more than you do because they can teach or took one introductory course on Kant and company's aesthetics (or they they think that the 'X's aesthetics' model is all there is to it, or even that this model is what's most important). THAT is truly infuriating.

    I do hate the "what will you do with that" question, largely because it's the one I get the most often, and the one for which I have no good answer. On the other hand, as some other posters have pointed out, it's usually a genuine question prompted by ignorance of what an academic philosopher is supposed to do, so I try to be nice. Really, I just dread that question (and 'Who's your favourite philosopher?' because I know that's where the conversation will end, and then I'll be stuck for a while nodding along to something that interests my interlocutor but that I find boring or asinine. Doubtless that's why my interlocutor abandons the philosophy angle too.).

    Do ask me:

    *About provincial or federal or international politics.
    *About dinosaurs, paleontology, crypto-zoology, cool and weird and scary animals, etc.
    *About history (especially Scandinavian or general military history--but that's an interest specific to me, I know).
    *About trivia. I have a vast store of factoids to share.
    *About films (quality films, unless you want a rant).
    *About books. Novels, that is.

  36. another philosopher with diverse interests25 April 2011 at 19:20

    Why do continental philosophers take so seriously what is said about them? it's just a bunch of caricatures. Besides, when you write unintelligible stuff and claim that it's beyond logical argumentation, you should at least be willing to be mocked at.... (relax! I'm just kidding) I'm very interested in continental philosophy and I think that those who say that it's not real philosophy haven't made an effort to read carefully. Anyway, I find this blog hilarious with insults and everything (again, I'm just kidding, there was no insult). What makes it so great is Katie's awareness of all sorts of funny stereotypes.. and let's face it, there's always some true to them. I think that the way in which philosophers are portrayed here is quite accurate... so we should just enjoy those things that we're proud of and if there's something that bugs you, just think about it and do something to change it (sorry for my "see the bright side-ish" advice, I couldn't help it)
    ps. Sorry for stealing Philosopher with diverse interests' name

  37. I have heard many of these asked to my philosopher or friends who are philosophers. However, I (generally) think the problem lies with the askee more than the asker. As a non-academic who works as a software engineer, I too am often asked questions that run afoul in a way similar to these questions. It's a general problem that happens when the asker hasn't a clue about the askee's realm of knowledge. However, the burden is on the askee to respond politely and graciously given that they're the expert here. I'm happy to report that my philosopher generally responds well to such questions, however I've certainly seen my share of eye rolling from philosophers.

    1. “Oh, you study philosophy? What are you going to do with that?”

    I think this is really a problem more with the tone of the question than anything. I admit, I rarely get a question with this tone as a software engineer - however I am often asked what it is I work on, and I, as a college-educated adult am able to articulate the basic idea of my day-to-day work using language people who have not studied computer science can understand. I don't think it's too much to ask for someone with or aspiring to become a professor to be able to do the same.

    2. “Ok, so I’ve got this philosophical problem for you: If a tree falls in a forest and there’s no one around to hear it, did it make a sound?”

    As a software engineer this one comes in many flavors. "So which is better, windows or mac?" or "I.E. or Firefox", among numerous other generic questions.

    As the expert, we have to handle these types of questions with grace, not belittling. I also think you'd be surprised the type of questions a mechanic might get from a person who knows nothing about cars should they be put together in a social situation that demands some sort of conversation.

    3. “I have some of my own philosophical ideas that I’ve wanted to talk to someone about.”
    6. “You’re a logician? I love Sudoku and other logic puzzles!”

    I get questions like: "I'm having a problem with my computer..." and then they proceed to explain a detailed question about some particular piece of software I've never even heard about.

    However, the correct response is to listen to the question and provide helpful insight, or to simply explain that I don't have knowledge in the area they're asking. In the second case I can respond similarly to #1 by providing a simple explanation of what I do.

    4. “So in philosophy you just basically talk about your opinions.”

    I agree with your assessment on this one, this is just a poor question. I can't think of a good analogy to my world.

    5. Any mention of Ayn Rand.
    7. Connecting philosophy to theology.

    Relating Software Engineers to IT. Software engineers are not the same as IT. Some IT people try to pose as software engineers by writing "scripts".

    This is likely an attempt by the asker to reach some common ground or to fill a few seconds that would otherwise be awkward silence.

  38. philosopher with diverse interests26 April 2011 at 11:45

    Just a brief reply to maxhgns' post:

    I agree that aesthetics should not be reduced to continental philosophy, and I apologize for (unintentionally) implying that it should. As you noted, a lot, if not most, of current work in the area is done outside the continental tradition.

  39. A great blog, though a lot of those making comments don't seem to relate to such things as humour so I'm not sure why they come here.

    I'm a sculptor so I have similar problems like "What's a sculptor?", or generally being aggressively questioned about my being an artist as they assume I'm on some kind of Government grant!

    Keep up the great work.

  40. Thank you, thank you, thank you for the Ayn Rand point. It makes me so sad to see her books on the philosophy shelf at Borders!

    This blog, by the way, is such a god-send for my loved ones.

  41. PWDI: No need for apologies!

  42. I just want to make a remark about all the commentators who say that philosophers should just get over themselves and be nice to the people who ask them these questions. This implicates that philosophers who are asked these sorts of things just can't be bothered to give a decent answer and not roll their eyes.
    I don't think that that is the point. I am a philosopher, and I get asked these questions all the time. I usually try to give a helpful answer and be a cooperative conversation partner. However, most of these questions just happen to be terrible conversation starters, so I usually don't enjoy trying to be gracious and interesting in my response. So, it's not that you can't ask us philosophers these questions, you certainly can, and most of us will make an effort. However, if you want to have a conversation with a philosopher that the philosopher will genuinely enjoy, you should pick a different way of starting the conversation.

    Also, one good reason to talk to a philosopher about non-philosophy (e.g. movies, novels, food, or whatever) is that most often, you will encounter philosophers during their leisure time. Philosophy is hard work, and just like in most other jobs, philosophers need a little time off sometimes. Explaining difficult philosophical concepts to someone who might have no background in philosophy is not most philosophers' idea of socializing with non-philosophers. Just like software engineers probably don't want to explain to a layperson how to solve a certain programming problem while they are at a summer barbecue.
    So, when you find out that you are dealing with a philosopher, why not begin the conversation with "So what do you do when you take a break from philosophy?"

  43. Anon 22:39, the point isn't that it's hard to talk to some philosophers. What bothers some of us about the eye-rolling is the annoyance these philosophers feel, regardless of whether they show it or act on it. The post says these questions “drive them crazy.”

    But, speaking as an analytic philosopher, they shouldn't (and often don’t). These aren't undergard essays or quiz answers. They're just clumsy natural attempts by outsiders to bond with us by making some, albeit awkward, connection to what we claim is our passion. Many of my colleagues and I don't mind this at all. It would never even cross our minds that these are "terrible conversation starters," just as we wouldn't evaluate the athletic grace of a handshake or hug. Or the originality of the question, "Where are you from?" We're just not that snotty or snarky. And it bothers us that philosophy has begun to attract the kind of person who reacts that way.

    I suspect I know how this happened. Philosophy draws two very different sorts of people. Some of us used to be the goofy awe-struck wonderers who couldn't resist talking about the deep, big questions philosophy raised. Others are drawn either to the rigor of the analytic method -- how it separates the wheat from the chaff -- or to a special area within philosophy, to the exclusion of many others (especially metaphysics or philosophy of religion, say). I have no mass evidence, but I bet the former group isn't bothered by these questions because we sympathize, sometimes seeing versions of our earlier selves in the asker. The latter... well, I can guess.

    (By the way, the computer science analogy feels off: many of us don't view idle philosophical chatter as work. That's another reason we went into the bizz in the first place.)

  44. I am a Religion and Philosophy double major. So you can ask me about theology! :)

  45. I don't think it's the topics themselves that are annoying, but more the way in which some ask them. With Rand for example, some non-philosophers I have encountered actually become dismissive of me if I don't take her to be man's gift to philosophy. That's what is frustrating. (yes, I've actually had someone say that I couldn't be serious about philosophy because I didn't care to study Rand in depth) Or regarding trees, what is bothersome is that most of the time, when such a question is asked, it's not because the asker of the question has a genuine interest in the answer. Rather, they say in a way that is patronizing and sometimes offensive to the philiosopher. It's similar to talking to an ASL interpreter and saying, "Oh, I know some sign language," followed by the middle finger. (this frequently happens to those who study asl) It expresses that the non-philosopher thinks he already knows all he needs to know about philosophy, namely nothing.

    And by far the worst topic to bring up with a philosopher: how much you hated your intro to phil class as an undergrad. Obviously, we can't really relate.

    Really, I think most philosophers would be happy to talk to you about these questions/topics. However, when they are brought up in a way that is offensive, patronizing, or dismissive the philosopher is likely to be frustrated. You wouldn't like someone talking about your profession/passion in a condescending way, and neither do philosophers.

    By the way, I love this blog. I laughed so hard when I read this post! Keep up the good work :)

  46. 'A great blog, though a lot of those making comments don't seem to relate to such things as humour so I'm not sure why they come here.'

    Hah! That needed to be said huh. This kind of adds to a certain hint of depressing lameness in the atmosphere here, without which I'd be all for the place.

  47. The first question is one I usually get in the form of: "Oh you're studying philosophy? Where will that get you?" To which I've found the best reply is "Everywhere."

    Like others have said, I think the problem with this question lies not with the question itself, but with the tone of it. There's often an unspoken implication that philosophy has no practical application, which for whatever reason is an idea that has embedded itself in popular opinion. If it's asked in this spirit I'm going to get offended, more because of the ignorance of the question than because my pride is damaged.

  48. To Katie re: 25 April 2011 04:47


  49. Question: "What's the meaning of life?"
    Answer: Shut up.

  50. Question for philosophers (from a fellow graduate student in philosophy, dissertating). I often interact with non-philosophers who are unacquainted with philosophy as a subject matter and as an academic discipline. A subset of such people includes graduate students and PhDs from other disciplines. When I explain to individuals within this subset that I am a philosopher working on a philosophy dissertation I struggle to deal with their follow-up questions about my research because everyone assumes that my argument or analysis must be based on empirical work (e.g., stats). So here's my question (thanks for the patience): How do you explain that your work and "research" mostly consists of a priori work? Hence, that it doesn't involve questionnaires, interviews, stats, and so on? I would like to explain this in a helpful way. I don't want to evade such questions altogether, because I think it's important that people outside philosophy be educated about philosophical practice, but, also, I would just like for people to appreciate the importance of a priori conceptual work (e.g., categorial and framework issues). So, how do you explain this fairly quickly or in a reasonably short conversation? Is this even possible?

    1. I'm going to encourage you to ask this over your own social media sites, as people do not visit this page very often anymore (I leave the blog live but I don't publish new posts). If you are looking for a conversation, you need to engage with people on an active site (even something like Reddit)..