I can remember very clearly my first sighting of a philosopher-attack. I was in college and rooming with my sister. My philosopher and I were in the first few months of our young romance, a time when he was far away getting his M.A. and I was finishing up my B.A, so we talked on the phone every night. One night, my philosopher made a comment over the phone that I was supposed to share with my sister, and then she had a comeback for him that I was supposed to pass back. This little back and forth game went on for a while until I got tired of being the middle-woman and passed my phone off to my sister, who proceeded to have an hour-long debate with my philosopher over something.
Meanwhile, I left the room and innocently did some laundry, caught up with some friends in the dorm, and finished some homework. By the time an hour had passed, I was getting antsy, so I came back into the room. My sister nearly threw the phone at me, in tears, and left the room. My philosopher, on the other hand, was in an absolutely superb mood.
What just happened? My sister was the unfortunate survivor of a philosopher-attack.
[Note: It took her awhile to recover from this attack. There had to be several years of me enforcing a no-debating zone around my sister for her to trust him again—and I bet she still doesn’t completely trust him].
Philosophers do these sorts of things with each other all the time. I don’t know how many times we’ve been at a philosophy party when I wander back to my philosopher after making the rounds of conversation with other non-philosophers, I discover that he is in heated and angry-sounding discussion with other philosophers. When it’s all over, though, everyone is happy and joking and full of philosophy intoxication. In the first case, he didn’t try to make my sister upset, and your philosopher in the midst of a philosopher-attack does not try to hurt you, either.
Philosopher-attacks are very dangerous to non-philosophers, though, and sometimes deadly (they can kill any desire a non-philosopher might have to ever talk to one again), but you can survive them.
[Note: One interesting thing that I’ve noticed about philosophers is that analytic ones are more likely to initiate attacks than continental philosophers. All of my experiences with continental philosophers—when talking philosophy—have been positive and non-damaging (any bad experiences I’ve had have been due to a philosopher’s arrogance, but all philosophers have to fight against some sort of arrogance, not just continental philosophers). You will probably never experience a philosopher-attack from a continental philosopher, but continental philosophers might often encounter philosopher-attacks from analytic philosophers. These sorts of attacks can been incredibly harmful to your continental philosopher's perception of analytic philosophers. End note.]
At the beginning of your philosopher’s philosophical awakening, they can be rather quick to attack but very unwieldy. Young philosophers can be smart-alecky and quick to pull out the cheap moves (“Aha, but we can make a distinction between those two claims such that….therefore your argument is invalid!”). These sorts of attacks can be annoying, but they aren’t really too harmful yet.
The time when they really become dangerous is in grad school. I don’t know how many times I’ve been chattering along about something and accidentally make some careless, general statement about something, when whamo! I see that gleam in my philosopher’s eyes and I know the next thing out of his mouth is going to be something along the lines of, “So you think in all cases . . .” or “Do you really want to commit yourself to that?”
The danger comes when a philosopher drives you into a corner and makes you feel like you’re stupid. I’ve said before that philosophers do this with each other as part of their jobs, but when they unleash their philosophy-powers on one of us non-philosophers, the act of driving a non-philosopher into a corner can cause a lot of bad feelings and resentment.
So, non-philosophers, how can you get yourself out of a philosopher-attack alive?
1. Change the subject abruptly.
You may think this is rude, and it is, but it can be more harmful for both of you if you allow your philosopher to corner you in an argument.
2. Refuse to continue the discussion.
This can be incredibly difficult for those among us (*ahem*myself*ahem*) who want to be right all the time. After all, it is very tempting sometimes to keep arguing because you think that maybe you could actually win this one. Philosophers are tricky. Don’t fall into this trap; sometimes you just have to throw in the towel and walk away.
3. If your philosopher is of the understanding, sensitive sort, stop them and say that the conversation is making you feel attacked and you would rather stop.
This only works if you have a sensitive philosopher. There are more than a few of these out there (like mine!), but some philosophers are just not that understanding or not that perceptive (sorry, philosophers, but some of you just don’t play nicely), and saying something like this might have no effect on them.
4. Turn the conversation around on them and say something like, “I don’t really understand this problem well. Why don’t you explain to me what you think the best answer is?”
This may not work on some philosophers, but can work marvelously on arrogant (or unaware) ones. After all, it is very hard for almost every philosopher to resist the sirens’ call of “Please tell me what you think is correct in this philosophical argument,” so the more arrogant among the philosophers, who already love to talk about philosophy, will be more than happy to indulge to you what they think. Some philosophers do not fall for this trick, though.
If you end up falling into or willingly entering a philosopher-attack, be aware that a really painful one could fracture your relationship with your philosopher. Sometimes diverting conversation to a thought experiment or to one of your philosopher’s favorite philosophical ideas is really the best thing you can do for everyone.
It is also worth noting that as you get better about redirecting philosopher-attacks, you might be able to train your philosopher to not be so thirsty for blood when she/he enters into philosophical discussion with you. Philosophers, like other humans, can be trained effectively, if you are patient.
I must also note that this is not an excuse to avoid talking about philosophy with your philosopher all together, and it is also not an excuse to always shut your philosopher down. There is a very clear difference between regular philosophical discussion and philosopher-attacks: when you start to feel threatened or hurt or super-annoyed, it is time to stop the conversation so you won’t be perpetually annoyed with philosophy. Philosophers, setting up boundaries like this will help you in the future.
Be aware. Divert conversation. Save yourself.
P.S. You can follow me on twitter (@philosiologist) or friend me on facebook (Philosiologist Qed). You can also send me an email, too. I am much too sleepy now to come up with something witty to say.