Sunday, 17 April 2011

Living with Your Philosopher: Incessant Questioning

One of the most common tales of aggravation that I’ve heard from non-philosophers about their philosopher is the tale of incessant questioning. Incessant questioning can take several forms, but the form I would like to discuss here we will refer to as philosopher-questioning.

Philosopher questioning can be so darn annoying to a non-philosopher. We non-philosophers might say something innocent like, “I wish I could just go back in time and tell my younger self to have more fun.” Now to us, this statement is merely a thought or a wish, I mean, being an adult sucks sometimes, right?

Next thing we know, our philosopher’s eyes light up and the philosopher-questioning begins: “If you went back in time, would you really still be your 26-year-old self, or would you, in fact, be your 13-year-old self?” And then, before we know it, we’re getting a, “So what you’re saying is . . .” and a, “What you’re committing yourself to when you say that is . . .” (etc, etc, etc).

Next thing we know, we are deep in some discussion about time and the brain states, teletransporters, and time slices, and we are very, very frustrated.

Now, there are two things you must remember about philosophers and philosopher-questioning. They do not do this intentionally, and they are not trying to annoy you.

In academia, philosophers question everything for their living. Remember, analytic philosophers love to look for inconsistencies in arguments and continental philosophers love to relate everything historically. When philosophers take someone seriously (aka they think you are great), they will question you; in fact, they will fire questions at you until you go crazy.

This is a good thing! This means that you have impressed your philosopher enough that they want to engage you. Remembering this will help you when the questioning gets aggravating.

But what do you do when they start doing this at the wrong time, because there will be wrong times.

The exactly wrong thing you could do is to snap at your philosopher and shut them down. If you remember back to the post I wrote about getting your philosopher to talk are very sensitive to being shut down. If you do this often enough, they may get hurt and not question you at all.

I’ve found that the only way to alert my philosopher that this is not the time for philosopher-questioning is to set up a “safe sentence” ahead of time. For example, my philosopher knows that when I say, “I really don’t feel like getting into a long discussion about this right now,” now is not a good time and he should cease.

The important thing about this process, as in most things, is to talk with your philosopher about philosopher-questioning. Explain to them that this type of questioning annoys you sometimes, but you really appreciate that they take you seriously enough to question you. Perhaps it might even be beneficial to set up alternate times to talk about something else in philosophy to help them feel better (I often make promises to do this on our date night). I’m sure your philosopher would be more than willing to wait for a better time if you promise to ask them about their current project.

~The Philosiologist~

P.S. Thanks to Brian Leiter for mentioning me on his blog(!!!!!!). And Michael Deem (my recommender and friend), thanks for being confident enough in my posts to recommend me in the first place.

P.P.S. I have a twitter account, but I still haven’t done anything really interesting on it yet (right now I just sound like a weirdo). I do link to new blog posts, though. I’ll probably follow you if you follow me at philosiologist.


  1. What a great blog! I've only just found my way here via Leiter, but have just finished reading all of your posts and have shared your link with family members who I think would benefit from the lessons you're teaching. Great stuff!

  2. Amazing! Um, this is the story of my life and I am so glad not to be alone in it. You now have a devoted follower forever. A couple of weeks ago I had a long conversation with my philosopher (and set up a "safe sentence," actually) about how his philosopher-questions make me feel when they poke mean holes in my field while when I'm just trying to tell him about my day. It didn't occur to me to take his questions as compliments though...Thank you!

  3. I am glad these posts are valuable to both of you! I know when I first moved in with my philosopher, I felt very alone, too, as philosophers are such strange (but wonderful) creatures and are very different from other academics (most of my friends are in other parts of academia).

  4. This is brilliant: I'm a philosopher and so is my fiancee. We are fortunate in that we sling the incessant questions at one another, thus alienating those around us rather than each other!

    I have, however, sent this to friends and family -- especially parents -- so they begin to understand that we're not just aggressive unpleasantnesses.

    Oh, and we also have an Analytic - Continental divide. I just make a lot of sarcy comments about 'Being,' long sentences, and hyphens. Guess which one I am... (It's actually quite nice because we can talk about the other's (not Other's) area when we're sick of our own but still want to do some philosophy).

    I don't know if your philosopher marks undergrad essays but conversations during/following that can be amusing.

  5. Oh my goodness, you/this blog are brilliant.

    But I think teh questioning is one those foibles that one must pretend to love, because it will only get worse with time and age...

  6. What a humorous look at philosophy! I truly enjoyed every post and though I don't get into too many of these talks with my philosopher brother, maybe now I'll try more! I've tried getting him to explain to me what he's studying like he would to my 6 year old daughter... then I had him try again like he would to my 2 year old. I got a little more of what he was talking to then, although I'm sure now that my 2 year old has no idea what Uncle Joe is saying to him most of the time! Thanks for your brilliantly humorous writing!

  7. hi katie,

    Thanks for the blog. It's funny and very sweet (it's moving to see how much understanding you have for your philosopher's condition). But, really, you should know (and let your philosopher know) that real philosophers don't use pens. They write even their grocery list in LaTeX.

    PS your philosopher will be very proud of you for making it on Leiter.

  8. From what I've read of this blog, your philosopher is ungrateful, oversensitive, and difficult. While it's true that philosophers (particularly the male ones) can be socially inept and inconsiderate, by blogging about their bad manners and offensive behaviour as if they were cute quirky foibles that go with the job, you're just encouraging it.

    If your partner behaves like a pain in the ass, it's not because he's a philosopher: it's because his girlfriend puts up with it.

  9. This is a really insightful blog. I've recommended it to the person living with me.


  10. This is a great service! I recently posted similar advice on my blog which is aimed more at business people:

  11. Zoe, I am sorry you are getting this impression from my blog, but actually my philosopher is very sensitive and kind. I started this blog because philosophers just approach things differently than non-philosophers, which I've seen create a lot of heartache and hurt for them, without anyone really understanding what happened. If you know that philosophers generally ask incessant questions about things, then you know how to tell them kindly that there are times when you don't feel like playing along. It's just part of their lifestyle.

    Honestly, I would be extremely bored with being married to a "normal," non-philosopher. Philosophers are excited about ideas and theories and books. This makes them worth living with.

  12. Anon 22:34: you're wrong! Philosophers, even of the most hard-headed analytic kind, love PENS! You should see my fountain pen collection.

  13. It's important to note that you can't _always_ use your safe sentence. If your philosopher likes you and thinks you're smart, she or he will really want to incessantly question you; most philosophers recognize that our intuitions have been broken by reading papers telling us what everyone's intuitions are, and it really is helpful and enjoyable to hear what non-philosophers have to say about philosophical topics.

    It's nice to have a safe sentence, but you should recognize that repeatedly using it will serve the same purpose as snapping at your philosopher--it will shut your philosopher down.

  14. This is fantastic! I have forwarded this to several family members, and the guy who I just started dating. I recently caused some aggravation with him by tearing into his field with the “So what you’re saying is . . .” and “What you’re committing yourself to when you say that is . . .”, whereas he just thought he was entering into an innocent discussion about environmental science. Not good date etiquette AT ALL!

    We cleared it up afterwards, and I explained that I don't mean to be aggressive, it's just a habit I slip into sometimes. What I like about your spin though is that letting loose like that actually indicated that I was becoming comfortable with him, and enjoying the conversation!

    While I don't agree with the overly negative response that Zoe gave, I do think we philosophers need to remember though that to an outside observer, standard philosophy discussion *is* often deemed aggressive and confrontational. It's just a basic self-awareness issue to realise that when we're not in philosophy world, we'd do well to modify our behaviour. I mean, if an epidemiologist went round parties only ever talking about alcohol and disease, that would be considered fairly socially inept (despite being a valid point!). Same principle applies I think..

    Anyway, I look forward to reading more!

  15. Hahaha Great blog. Funny concept!

  16. Nicely summed up. I'm married to a philosopher and... It's a good thing he's cute. :)

  17. This blog is great!!

    I was wondering about something: there's something on Facebook being posted lately about how easy most academic jobs are. Some of my philosopher friends are complaining about it, saying they work "so hard" as a philosophy teacher, BLAH BLAH BLAH.

    My question is this: if you are someone who observes philosophy teachers (say because your spouse, lover, whatever is one..), does it seem like their jobs are pretty darn easy, compared to the jobs that most of us have??

    I ask because I am one and my job seems pretty darn easy, compared to almost everyone else's job!

  18. Does anyone else think that Zoe perfectly demonstrates the lack of social awareness and overly rigorous treatment of lighthearted statements common in philosophers that this blog so hilariously depicts?

  19. My (analytic) philosopher’s engagement style isn’t limited to incessant questioning. There’s also a fair bit of “Impressive-exercise-in-common-folk-rhetoric-my-love-but-allow-me-to-restructure-this-conversation-and-adopt-a-propositional-format-to-throw-you-off-your-game” permeating our interactions. At that point, each sentence is carefully scrutinised for its logical properties and I note a truly gleeful expression from my interlocutor at the many fallacies plaguing my argument – even if it still makes perfect sense to any non-philosopher.
    We don’t have a safe word or sentence. I’ve long opted for a long sigh, a smile, and a kiss on his forehead.

  20. Anonymous 12:46, I think this is deserving of a blog post, as philosophers really do have super-hard jobs. They do look easy-peasy to us non-philosophers, but I think that philosophers (and other academics) are under a much larger weight of stress than us.

  21. @Katie: This is a terrific post! I'm sending it to my partner, whom I routinely accident annoy with questions.

    @Joana: I do that to my partner as well. And, I must admit I'm fully aware that I do this but I just can't help myself. I think it's some sort of compulsive disorder that philosophers all have. Indeed, I don't know why any non-philosophers marry/date us. You folks really should organize a support group or something; like an Al-Anon for partners of philosophers - sort of a Phil-Anon.

  22. Anon 13:09 re Zoe: NAILED IT

  23. Anon 8:29,

    Anon 22:34 here. I don't think that there is any interpretation of 'should' under which it is true that '[I] *should* see [your] fountain pen collection' (emphasis mine).

    (Before someone takes this seriously--I'm just joking here :-)).

  24. Hubby, who is a philosopher, just forwarded a link to your blog. I love it! I'm going to spend some time going through the older posts. I have some slight inclination towards philosophy, and its good for me to also understand that I do this, too.

    Thank you for your insight!

  25. I know I get very frustrated when I talk to "folk" about philosophy if it's something I'm thinking about/researching. For any spouses or friends out there, just know this is more the state of philosophy then it is you. If one spends hours thinking about a paradox, it's bound to get on your nerves.
    Sometimes I just want to get someone as frustrated with the problem as I am. Obviously this is not a healthy way to deal with frustration, but I have seen many philosophers bring up their own work at parties just to get everyone listening frustrated with the problem as well.
    I don't think this is a sadistic tendency with philosophers. It does seem that because many are so passionate about their own personal section of philosophy, they want others to see the 'serious' problems with which they are grappling.
    I'm sad to report that almost all the situations I have seen like this ended in some sort of nihilism.
    When I interrogate your belief systems with reference to my section of philosophy, it's like using a crowbar to open your mind rather than leading them by the hand. This doesn't lead to any revelations, but makes the philosopher feel like he is not alone in his (lack of) understanding of the world. Sorry on behalf of all of us.

    I recently finished all your blog posts. I have recommended every single one so far to the readers of my blog. here:

    Thanks again for all your great humor, I look forward to seeing more quality work come out of this blog.

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  27. I tried to post this before but couldn't. Here goes again. I am a philosopher myself, but I have to say that I hope due to some proper sense of etiquette, I do not pursue my husband's offhand comments. Thank god for him. But I have dated philosophers myself. This is not recommended, since it leads to the following kinds of fights:

    Me: So where do you see this going? Do you want a committed relationship or what?

    Him: Well, that depends, do you mean that I should stay with you even if you become some monstrous bitch, or that if you are indefinitely committed to an insane asylum that I should never date anyone else?

    Me: That's not the right way to think about the question! That's not what I meant! So you don't want a committed relationship then?

    Him: Well, not if that's what it means to be committed.

    Me: Incoherent swearing.

    Him: Well, it could happen!

    Me: Those aren't the right counter-factual scenarios to consider in answering the damned question! That you would even think about those scenarios just proves you don't love me!

    Him: Well, which are?

    Me: Well at least those that are closer to the actual fucking world than that!

    Him: Well, how do I know which are the closest?

    Me: More incoherent swearing.

    Him: OK OK. I'll try to figure that out and get back to you.

  28. This is very true! This honestly one of the most useful and astute things I've ever read about philosophers.

  29. Lol. Great post. You very aptly describe the way philosophers act. Yet, it's a sight to see them question one with such zeal! :P

  30. I only recently found your blog. my boyfriend seem tormented and overwhelmed by his own questions. it's very hard for me (a non-philosopher) to understand why he can't just accept that there are no answers to life's great questions, just be satisfied and happy! I do feel helpless at times. It is nice to know there are other people out there that get this.Hopefully I can figure out how to deal with it and he can find some sort of peace.