Monday, 2 May 2011

Philosophy Conference Diagram

Because I am still amassing notes from the philosophy conference I've been watching philosophers at working at, I decided that this would be a good time for a conference diagram.

This is what a philosophy conference looks like to a non-philosopher.

Yellow patch: Wealth-o-knowledge; all philosophers are hoping to get as close to this as possible, and they think that the big-shots have it

Light purple circle: The place to be; an aurora that seems to hover around the bog shots and established tenured professors; sometimes grad students try to skip straight into this circle, but they usually don't quite make it

Medium purple circle: the "safe zone;" here everyone knows everyone else; they are established in the university; sometimes a grad student gets into this circle by establishing themselves early in the field

Dark purple circle: relative obscurity; especially for non-tenured faculty and little knots of scared grad students trying to pretend they are faculty members; the crazies also live here

Big Shots: mildly aloof; talking with each other; telling lots of inside jokes

Tenured faculty: chatting with each other like old friends; sometimes trying to impress the big-shots; usually ignoring the grad students

Grad students: clinging together; sometimes one of the haughtier ones tries to impress the big shots; lots of suspicion about other grad students they don't know

Non-Tenured: really want to get into the inner circle; desperate sometimes; more often, just looking for people to share ideas and network with

Crazies: The people outside philosophy who read a book about Nietzsche last year; they don't really know much about academic philosophy and just kind of lurk around.

These are my impressions so far. Perhaps most academic conferences are like this.

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~The Philosiologist~


  1. Wha.... Wh... Whaow!
    It seems to be true! ... Damn! Gee... I've learned many things today, I take this as an useable knowledge. I take it as knowledge, without even criticise its source.

    With my poor English grammar, I summarize what little I know that I can say that means something . . . To you.


    Have never ever thought like this before! I'll take this with me as a souvenir, a souvenir of inexhaustible wisdom!

    Greetings from Sweden.
    // Pontus "Mr:Pea" Andersson

  2. Thanks for doing a very interesting blog! First time, but I enjoyed some of your postings. Frankly, I am not sure your philosopher and his colleagues deserve your 'Freudian' blog on them.

    One question: Why do you call 'your philosopher' (or his colleagues) 'philosopher'? I am assuming you prefer a single word, but in my preferred world of language use, a philosophy professor does not automatically makes a philosopher. They are certainly faculty members of a philosophy department or scholars in the areas of philosophy. But are they all philosophers in the sense that they are great, original thinkers? I've noticed that philosophy professors nowadays call themselves 'philosopher' when they introduce themselves - especially on the Internet. I don't think such "arrogant" practice was in fashion when I was studying philosophy(OK, a while ago).

    The widespread usage of 'philosopher' for everyone who has a teaching job in the philosophy department somehow irritates me, and it even feels like an insult to all the great thinkers most of whom were not philosophy professors.

  3. i've been reading for awhile as i am married to a recently accepted grad phd student. i also work in higher ed in a math department, and a lot of your descriptions are right on for the math peeps too :)

  4. Anyone who conducts original research in philosophy deserves the appellation "philosopher." That's what they are. They do philosophy for a living. It doesn't matter if the person in question is a freshly-minted assistant professor or Saul Kripke himself. Being a philosophy professor means that one has made, or is in the process of making, original contributions to the discipline of philosophy. That seems to be a reasonable criterion for being called a philosopher. It's a job title, just like "biologist" or "physicist." Nobody thinks that a garden-variety assistant professor of physics at a given school has somehow become too big for his britches because he calls himself a physicist. Why should it be any different for philosophers? Anyway, in your "perfect world of language use," what would be the criterion for being a "philosopher" as opposed to a mere "philosophy professor"? Would it involve the abandonment of subject-verb agreement?

  5. "But are they all philosophers in the sense that they are great, original thinkers?"

    I wasn't aware that a "Philosopher" was a "great, original thinker." I thought a "Philosopher" was a "lover/friend of wisdom." Surely one need not be a a great thinker to do so.

    Really, I think it's just meant to designate someone who philosophizes and studies philosophy for a living, just like the word "author" does not solely designate great writers (the same goes for "scientist" etc...)

  6. Stuart: I know right. And all those arrogant economics professors who think they are real economists. And all those people who sell paint on canvases and shamelessly call themselves artists. They are clearly telling the world that they think they're the next Picasso by calling themselves artists. Don't they know that it takes more than making money practicing an art form to really call yourself a practitioner of that art form?

  7. You've got a crazy head in the inner circle! And at least two of the grad students should be drinking/smoking/having sex.
    Also, it's not just philosophy. Practically all academic conferences fit this pattern.

  8. "Perhaps most academic conferences are like this".
    They are.

  9. Stuart:
    You're looking at this the wrong way. "Philosopher" as used in this blog seems to be an affectionate term rather than (as you suggest) one of status or arrogance. As a simple example: "my philosopher" could be understood as analogous with "my sweetheart" - however, the former is more appropriate in this case.

    Get it?

    That said, you also mention an apparent tendency of students of philosophy or philosophy professors to refer to themselves as "philosophers" as an addendum to the way the term is used here. A "philosopher" is simply someone who studies philosophy: an individual holding a philosophy doctorate may be a 'better' (re: more knowledgeable or experienced) philosopher than, say, an undergraduate student, but both could technically be termed philosophers in a loose sense of the term.

    Of course, that definition doesn't fit with the general attitude - even I don't like it! The term is popularly reserved for those people who have been influential in philosophy. However, you need to learn to be more forgiving of such uses and misuses. In my experience, there are (at least these) two kinds of philosophy students (because at any level, we're all still students). (1) Those students who think they know a lot about philosophy and seem to be completely clueless as to all of the things they don't know; (2) those students who are humble about their position in the philosophy-world and realize that, while they hold certain positions and can provide supporting arguments, they are nonetheless not the be-all-and-end-all of philosophy.

    Both (1) and (2) may refer to themselves as philosophers, but it is important to note the way in which the term is used. In the first case it is used as a form of [bad] elitism: I'm a philosopher, which makes me better than you. The second, on the other hand, is used humbly: I'm interested in philosophy, and consider it a defining feature in my life.

    At times, members from these two camps can seem indistinguishable; however, you should be able to figure out what version of philosopher you're talking to fairly quickly.

    In short: just lighten up! An architect who has done no amazing or influential work still calls themselves an architect; why can't a non-influential philosopher do the same?

  10. I have just discovered this blog and hungrily read the whole thing! I'm a graduate student in philosophy and have recommended this to my parents and partner.

    *PLEASE* keep up the good work!

  11. Wonderful blog, thanks for writing it!

  12. Peter - it is absolutely right that there is a crazy in the Inner Circle. The Crazies are the only people who don't recognize the Big Shots, and so will go up to them to recommend that they read Sophie's World.

  13. Thanks for those who commented on my earlier comments - all good critiques! I felt only compelled to write a reply not to debate but as a gesture of my growing affection for this blog community.

    I deplore 'philosopher' in a casual sense much less than a reflection of American academic philosophy having degenerated into a narrow, jargon-driven, credential-seeking (just another) university curriculum. Most American academic philosophers are not 'professionally' concerned with a real world I see full of human suffering and conflicting (metaphysical) worldviews. That is OK for the sake of pure academic freedom, in my view, so long as such self-indulging detachment is not being systematically "taught" to the next generation of philosophers as another dogma.

    Call me old-fashioned. I believe in philosophy as a humanistic discipline, as envisioned by Bernard Williams. Ask yourself why one needs Ph.D. in philosophy. You don't need it if all you want is doing real philosophy (which has to be done on your own). Most of great philosophers rarely had one either. You need it only because you want a philosophy teaching job at university. Graduate philosophy education however is - in reality - an increasingly absurd job-screening (not -training) process since the jobs themselves are fast disappearing all around. Do philosophy professors ever wonder why their students will not have the jobs that they have? I am sure the tenured ones are the last ones who'd worry about.

    Like this (very charmingly creative) blogger mentioned somewhere else, one of the forces behind it is Ayn Rand, a dead prophet of the extreme libertarianism, who got resurrected recently (e.g., Alan Greenspan, Tea Party?). Academic philosophers just cannot stand her being even mentioned as philosopher. Why? Because she was not an academic like them with a flashy Ph.D.? Or are they jealous of her far greater influences? Did they ever think of writing against her instead of ignoring?

    Even theoretical physicists cannot ignore what the larger society thinks in order to keep research funding flow. When real people suffer from the perils of ideologies such as scientism and extreme economic liberalism, who stand up and write against such dogmas when those who studied all the great philosophers never speak up? I agree with Robert Pirsig in this sense: Forget it, if philosophy does not help real people with their real lives! (I am sure they dismiss him as a non-philosopher too, but they forget that all the great philosophers wrote to change the world, not to entertain themselves or seek tenure.)

    p.s. - Polynices, You will make a good philosopher, if not already being one. I acknowledge that I missed the "endearment" connotation (I did not know 'your philosopher' here is mostly students; yes, it is cute). OK, I also admit that I probably need to lighten up. Next time, when my wife introduces me as 'philosopher' at cocktail party, I will try to blush less.

  14. Dear Stuart,

    Plato is a great philosopher, right?

    Let's suppose that he is. I take it that whether or not he wrote with the intention to "help real people with real lives" or "change the world" is irrelevant to his status as a great philosopher.

    So I'm not sure that you have a good grip on the nature of philosophy, or what philosophers are trying to do when then they do philosophy.

  15. @Stuart:

    Your notion of philosophy seems to be very much akin to a kind of spirituality. This is true in several respects: A) Primarily centered on the human condition (esp. suffering) B) Interested in real, pragmatic change C) Defined by a relatively small number of 'greats' who dispense their wisdom to the masses.

    Philosophy should be about the search for truth. If it helps people in the process, great, but if you make helping people the primary concern you put the cart before the horse and everything gets mixed up. Perhaps the truth might even hurt people or do nothing at all to them. That should also be acceptable to the philosopher. Why? Because it's about truth, it's about a commitment to the value of the real and its comprehension, not a commitment to charity.

    I'm not going to say that academic institutions don't muddle up this quite a bit, nor that all academic philosophers have perfect integrity in this regard, but I merely want to point out that the way you are structuring the value system of philosophy is pretty different from most of the people who practice it or practiced it, even the greats.

    I also think you underestimate the extent to which philosophy taught at academic institutions does help real people with their real lives. Despite the fact that the number of philosophy majors at most institutions is somewhat low, class attendance usually isn't. Plenty of non-majors take philosophy courses. This is about the only vector through which they are likely to be exposed to philosophy of any depth. It is also beneficial for them to be exposed to it within the context of the class-room, which provides a much richer environment for learning than a private reading of Descartes. If philosophy provides any benefit at all, it is primarily disseminated through the college classroom.

  16. Stuart,

    Unlike the two anon(ymous) posters, I agree with your criterion. Important philosophy should be concerned with a humanist practicality. I do not, however, agree with your description of philosophy as directly delimited by humanism. Even if a philosophical problem is not directly applicable to practical cases, that does not make it practically irrelevant. In my view, pragmatism is not a good philosophical position; however, good philosophy should be informed by pragmatism to some extent. Apparent fringe issues in philosophy may not be obviously applicable to real scenarios, but they can play a real role in non-standard issues. E.g., whether or not there is a "mind" outside of the physical brain does not seem to play a role in how we live our everyday lives; but such explorations can play a significant role when we consider legal responsibility and the balance between action and intention therein. Philosophy is significant and important whether or not it is obviously or immediately practical.

    A higher degree in philosophy is legitimate because there is a clear difference between rigorous and non-rigorous philosophy. There are certain skills involved in doing philosophy well that are extremely difficult to procure without instruction. Any higher level of learning will necessarily lead to specialization and therefore to jargon; this also necessarily leads to problems of antipathy to both interdisciplinary interests and also non-professional comments. Such difficulties pose a real problem when philosophers stick too close to jargon or completely ignore rigorous comments from outside their specialization. In addition, these problems are not exclusive to philosophy, but to academia generally understood. However, without specialized professionals, all we could hope for in any given discipline is a cursory understanding of it. Human experience has such a wide variety that any attempt to deal with it as a whole will necessarily be too simplistic or vague. The real difficulty for any serious academic is to ensure that they see their contributions to their field within the larger context of human experience as a whole and not restricted to their discipline.

    This also, in short way, answers your concern about Rand. Rand is not rigorous by any stretch of the imagination. It is wrong to ignore Rand because she does not have flashy degree. It is not wrong to ignore Rand. (This conversation is way too long to be appropriate here.)

    As for your postscript: thank-you! I had a kerfuffle with a good friend yesterday because she thinks I should pursue my interests professionally, but I have ambitions outside of grad school. As for lightening up, you should still try to take philosophy seriously, just try to be a bit less hard-headed about your positions. Humility is the key to philosophy: it's one thing to argue for your position and quite another to do so while ignoring all contrary evidence. Rigorous philosophy means being critical, which includes being self-critical.

  17. Anonymous, (8:59 above)

    I think Stuart's point is that philosophy should have some impact on the real lives of real people regardless whether that was the initial intention. It doesn't really matter whether or not Plato meant to have an impact on real life (although even the most cursory reading of him, I think, shows that he did mean to) but that he does impact the real lives of real people.

    I would reflect your criticism back at you. That said, you seem to presume that there is only one legitimate answer to the questions, "what is the nature of philosophy?" and, "what are philosophers, in doing philosophy, trying to do/accomplish?" That seems to be an immature stance on the matter. The topics of philosophy are incredibly varied, and it would make sense to assume that both the particular nature and intentions behind philosophical investigations are equally varied. Even saying that philosophy should be concerned in some way with humanism leaves the criteria for "proper" philosophy completely open to all human experience. The only direct answers to your questions are necessarily vague and wide-ranging.

    Anon, (7:46 above)

    You seem to be defining philosophy in terms of a science as being opposed to a kind of spirituality. This seems to me to be a false dichotomy when it comes to the liberal arts. Philosophy is not science, and it cannot be properly practiced or understood on purely scientific grounds. That's not to say there is no overlap, or that philosophy can ignore science, but they are not two of a kind.

    There is certainly enough controversy in philosophy (even strictly analytic) about the nature and importance of truth to throw a different light on your characterization. I would sooner say that philosophy is about developing a critical understanding than truth: and a critical understanding can easily fit in with humanism. If a good philosophical aim is understanding (to whatever degree), it necessarily connects with human experience. It sounds like I'm saying, "you're wrong and I'm right" but what I want to get across is, "it's not that simple."

    Speaking as a philosophy student, I can tell you that the majority of non-majors in philosophy classes are fulfilling degree requirements. Likewise, the philosophy classes they generally take are introductory in nature. I can only speak from my experience, but of the people I've spoken to, most non-majors choose philosophy courses because they see them as bird courses - and the intro ones usually are. Likewise, many philosophy majors (a significant majority where I am) are not interested in philosophy as much as a fast track to law school. Although I am more skeptical about the value people are open to from philosophy classes, I agree with you that philosophy class is really the only place you can develop the critical skills necessary for serious philosophy. I wish that there could be more classes with smaller groups that could really focus on what makes philosophy (historical as well as current) important, but there aren't the prerequisite resources.

  18. Watch a recent conference video: "Does Philosophy Still Matter?"

    The title should have been "Does 'Academic Philosophy' Still Matter"?