Thursday, 31 March 2011

How to get Your Philosopher Talking without much Effort on Your Part AND Let Them Know that You Care About Them

By the time your philosopher reaches graduate school, she/he will have a false idea that absolutely no one cares about what they are studying. Usually, this attitude comes about after repeated shut-downs from people they care about and/or members of the community who ask them the dreaded question, “So what do you do?” (glazed-over eyes and subject changes—very uncomfortable).

Perhaps you were the instigator of a shut-down philosopher without even realizing you were doing so. Remember, philosophers are extremely sensitive in this area.

Working against this attitude can sometimes be tricky, because philosophers have their defenses up. Once you can get your philosopher to move past this attitude, they will (1) share (very excitedly) all of the interesting philosophy stuff they are working on or reading with you and (2) they will feel like you care about them and think that philosophy is important.

How can you get your philosopher to open up?

One of the easiest ways to do this is to ask your philosopher questions.

Now, I know you’re thinking that these questions will have to be super-sophisticated questions about this philosophy-stuff, but they really don’t. Philosophers LOVE to talk about philosophy. Really.  They also understand that you know nothing about philosophy and will be so surprised and excited if you even ask them a very simple question about their work. They do not have the same expectations for you that they do for their philosophy peers.

Here are some questions that I’ve found work pretty well on my philosopher:

1.       1. What are some of the more interesting things you are learning about and/or teaching in your philosophy classes?
2.       2. Who do you think is the most influential philosopher of all time? Why?
3.       3. What does [philosophical term you’ve heard them mention] mean?
4.       4. Do you have any current research projects? What are they?
5.       5. [Go to your philosopher’s library. Pick up one of their books]. What is this book about? Do you agree with her/him?

When your philosopher is answering these questions, she/he will be inspecting you very closely for signs of boredom, glazed-over eyes, and disinterest. Either pay attention when they answer or really try hard to pretend (only try this in darkness). Any sign of glazed-over eyes will just shut them down again.

If you listen carefully to your philosopher when she/he shares things with you, then you can begin to ask them more specific questions about their work, which will make them even happier.

~The Philosiologist~


  1. Great post. Philosophers also shut down from "everyone thinks they are a philosopher"-fatigue. Ours is one of the only professions where this occurs. Non-philosopher interlocutors who give quick, trite answers to difficult questions are not to be dealt with seriously. Philosophers hate being baited into a philosophical discussion, only to have it end abruptly because one's interlocutor has solved the problem (e.g. push the fat man because he's fat!) or is offended by being challenged. If you want to do philosophy with a philosopher, stay humble and open.

  2. Anonymous, this is a great addition! I completely agree.

  3. My boyfriend, who is an analytic philosopher, shared this blog with me, and I must say that it is spot on in so many ways. I can tell through your writing that you are a legitimate authority on relating to a philosopher. I've found myself laughing quite a bit at how much many of these situations (i.e. thought experiments) are what I encounter on a daily basis. So far, this post is my favorite. I had to coax my philosopher out of his shell by showing genuine interest in what he does. It was and sometimes still is quite difficult.

  4. I did a graduate degree in philosophy but then moved on partly because of the alienation that occurs when noone cares what you have to say. Worst part of being a philosopher if you ask me.

    But this is a hilarious blog, I particularly enjoyed the colloquia entry. After the first talk I attended in graduate school (pre- question period) I told a fellow new student that I had no idea what that was just about. And he was like, "you didn't!?"... lol

  5. ""everyone thinks they are a philosopher"-fatigue."

    Everyone-thinks-they-are-a-psychologist fatigue is also quite common.

  6. Good advice. Also you should write some advice for philosophers and other academics to talk about real things that actually impact the world and people around them. It's not really fair to create an exclusive language and then expect everybody else to learn it. Rather educated people should make an effort to be accessible and understood. Often it's hard to pay attention to philosophy grads because they are really boring and irrelevant.
    Here's a few tips to start with:
    1. Spend a few years working a low wage labour job without any financial help. A moving company or construction job will do nicely. If you're going to dedicate your life to subjects that many find tedious, you should know a thing or two about the tedious lives most people live.
    2. Time spent in a psych ward or a sincere effort at suicide (be it indirect such as a drug addiction) are licenses to study metaphysics. Otherwise you run the risk of talking a lot of garbage.
    3. If you are going to study aesthetics you should love art, in which case you probably don't want to study aesthetics.
    and so on...

  7. Beware, non-philosopher reader!!! Question #2 is a big no-no and one of the worst questions you can ask a philosopher (at least an analytic philosopher). Please don't ask that question--it's going to make for an awkward moment! (I used to try to explain how analytic philosophy is not about the great philosophers but the glazed eye used to appear on the face of my interlocutor way before I could end that sentence. So, now I usually give the answer my interlocutor expects something along the lines of 'Hands down Plato!' or 'Kant is definitely in my Top 5' and then abruptly change topic.)

  8. wow, Aaron has opened my eyes. If only I'd've known many years ago that the secret of good philosophy could be summed up with such quick and, quite surprisingly, simple, answers.

    I've been living my life all wrong. I'm going tomorrow to become a suicidal day-labourer (though maybe Schopenhauer is something of a forerunner to Aaron's thought).

    ... and I'm going to start calling metaphysics, 'big-think' so me and my blue collar buddies can chat about it and its practical benefits like showing that 9/11 was an inside job.

  9. The first Anonymous said: "Philosophers also shut down from "everyone thinks they are a philosopher"-fatigue. Ours is one of the only professions where this occurs."

    I would add that this also occurs in international politics, humanitarian affairs, peacebuilding, international development & that whole arena of professions.

  10. Aaron, I've lived through your 1) and your 2) (came through fine, thankfully) and both like Art and do Aesthetic, your 3). While currently being an analytic philosopher I find myself happy, well rounded and kind to those who don't share my interests. In my teaching I make it a priority to make accessible difficult ideas, sans jargon, in a way that bears their relevance to ordinary folk. I also take the time to master the technical language needed to make finer distinctions which are of interest to specialists. There is no real conflict here. Don't take a few assholes as justification for being an asshole.

  11. Anonymous 19 April 17:13: Good points. I was just cracking jokes on the obvious argument that many philosophers become dissociated from basic hard truths, are elitist and scorn the working class (see Anonymous 18 April 22:05). Unfortunately comedy often goes hand in hand with insensitivity. Certainly there are hard working, passionate philosophers who've been to the margins, or not, and have myriads of experiences they bring to the table and enrich the lives of others. Please forgive my dismissal and accept my honest hats off.

  12. Here's my problem (and maybe there's a post I haven't yet seen about this): I ask these questions and I get embroiled in a debate. I think my s.o. does this because I know just enough about philosophy to get myself in trouble and because the s.o. feels just enough threatened by that that the s.o. (avoiding gender here; apologies) wants to prove who wears the smarty pants. The s.o. does this to family, too. Not so much friends. It must come from a large dose of defensiveness. But that's why I don't ask questions -- I don't like to fight because it's not a fair fight and the s.o. is never satisfied with my answers anyway. What to do about that?

  13. Fights, this is an interesting problem. From what my philosopher said about his younger days in philosophy, he was like this for a while. I'm not sure what exactly is the best thing to do with a philosopher who also has an ego problem and has to always be in the right. Perhaps I can offer some suggestions, though, which might help.

    It might be best to have a talk with her/him and tell them that you are not going to talk philosophy, nor is she/he allowed to talk philosophy with family for a while.

    I don't know if you have the kind of relationship with your philosopher where you can tell her/him that this behavior is very upsetting to you and makes you not want to discuss philosophy at all with them, but if you do have a close relationship, it would probably be best to hash this out now before your philosopher develops an "I'm always the victim" attitude and before you build up a lot of resentment.

  14. You are frighteningly insightful! Will share your (great) blog with my wife ASAP.

  15. Suggestion for a post: reasons to marry a philosopher.