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Phallosopher

How do you all defend your scholarly path to the public?

13 posts in this topic

Posted (edited)

I thought it would be interesting to post this here and see how others respond to the 9-5 materialistic public's reaction to the idea of philosophy as a profession. Perhaps I've just spent an unfortunate amount of time around the wrong people, but I often hear pointed questions/statements like...

1. "What's the point of philosophy? It's not practical."

2. "What are you going to do with that?"

3. "How is philosophy applicable in the real world?"

I may have upped the eloquence on some of those questions/statements, and I'm sure I left out a few variations, but the gist of it is that people often try to suggest that philosophy is pointless, doesn't produce anything, is just an intellectual circle jerk or an infinite feedback loop of learn/teach.

What I usually explain to them in response to their said or sometimes unsaid premise, is...

The idea of what is "useful" is often biased by the need for instant gratification or tangibility. There is also often an elitism at different stages of the process of human endeavor. Theorists (philosophers are an example) frequently look down on those who apply the knowledge or those who carry out the process designated in application of the knowledge, e.g. mathematicians > physicists > engineers > factory workers who operate machines. But then, businessmen look down at professors: "what are they producing? where's the market for that? how many people care about it?"

So in summary, I tell them it's an issue of timing and tangibility, not an independent evaluation of what is useful or not.

Apologies for the long post; I wanted to give some clear examples. But yeah, back to the specific point... I'm sure many of you have heard the idea that philosophy has no real world application, but I doubt any of you believe it. How do you respond to the pointed questions/statements?

Edited by Phallosopher

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I don't go into it--just say I'm going to teach in higher ed and that I need a PhD in order to do that. If they ask why at my age (I am older), I say because I can. That usually stops the nonsensical questions. Most people do not see the need or feel the call for advanced education. I give simple answers that invite no further questions.

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I am in Education, so most people don't ask. But my man is a history grad student and when people say, "what are you going to do with that?" he just shrugs... even though he wants to be a professor down the line. 

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I'm in a city where sometimes everyone seems on their way to or from some kind of post-graduate degree.  Some days, and in some places, it seems as though discussing your plans for a doctorate at a top-10 university (US, world, whatever) isn't much different from chatting about where your kids might go to summer camp.

 

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Given the current state of the world and our discourse, I actually think there's a lot of value in philosophy for the public AND that philosophers do a terrible job of explaining this to people in general. @Phallosopher, while your answer isn't wrong, I don't think it gets at the heart of people's inquiry. Rather than deferring to timing and tangibility, why not give people actual examples of ways in which philosophy is at work in their everyday lives, decision-making processes, etc. Northern Arizona University has developed a program called Philosophy in the Public Interest that gets at what I'm talking about. 

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Posted (edited)

Questions aimed at the establishment of social status (e.g. "What do you do?" or "What are you going to do with that?") are, in my view, some of the most powerful assertions of cultural assumptions, used to construct an evaluative rubric and constrain the individual to fit it. @Phallosopher –– as you noted, "usefulness" is an empty term filled by whatever the culture deems good. In the mass-consumeristic United States, of course, our idea of usefulness is particularly etiolated. As an anti-representationalist, I would argue that study for study's sake, considered beyond the arbitrary preferences of a specific time and place, is no more or less useful than any other activity. 

One can answer any question in one of two broad ways: either by challenging or accepting its assumptions. In talking about my academic aspirations – if I do – I approach this dilemma as a contextual and somewhat personal decision. Suppose someone begins interrogating me on the usefulness of my choices. My response depends on how much energy I wish to expend demystifying the questioner and whether she is a friend or merely a dinner-party acquaintance. To begin challenging assumptions in casual conversation is always a risky choice. If I were to begin doing so, I might ask, why is anything useful? What is the point of activity? We are, after all, on an express train to the grave. Etc. etc.

If I don't wish to embark on this somewhat impolite conversational sea, then I might merely accept the assumptions implied in the question: 

"What are you going to do with philosophy?"

"The same thing I do with it now. Make no money at all, and yet still feel superior to you."

Edited by kretschmar

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3 hours ago, kretschmar said:

"What are you going to do with philosophy?"

"The same thing I do with it now. Make no money at all, and yet still feel superior to you."

What an excellent response. When I'm in a dismissive mood or especially when that's elicited by a particularly negative disposition from the questioner... I sometimes say something like that.

Or something sarcastically basic and uninformative like, "philosophize, of course."

Great answers in general though from everyone. @rising_star this is true, there are a lot of examples of the immediate real world relevancy of philosophical ideas, but that still fails to please the business types who don't like intangibles. I'm mostly talking about wholly unreasonable people who have a predetermined negative disposition.

Of course, if someone asks me about my purpose in an open, actually inquisitive way, I'd give an answer like you mentioned. People removed from academia especially tend to like examples. Even questions that aren't pointed though, tend to come from the disposition "how does your field of study serve my hopes and dreams for my near future." Answer: Chances are it doesn't directly, but it does serve mine.

As much as it's not false to look at the dissenters and realize they just don't get it and may never, and it's not our responsibility to explain it to them... I do think as academicians we need to spend some time showing the relevance of our field and its interconnectedness with other aims, otherwise it could get swallowed up in some other longstanding pervasive human need and thus done poorly (e.g. think about the swarms of IT people talking about how the internet is going to render formal classroom education obsolete).

I'm not saying we should be defensive, there's no need for that. It's more offense, connecting our work to contemporary aims even if includes a lot of musings about the past or of potential wider application in the future. That's why I brought up timing as well.

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Most of the time, people are just asking to be friendly and because they don't really understand (through no fault of their own!) what philosophy is, what the academic world is like, or how graduate school differs from other kinds of schooling. So when that happens, and as long as I'm not feeling especially snarky, I give them a genuine answer of the sort that I'd like to get, if I were the one posing the question (e.g. "I'm working to be a professor at a university"). And if they ask about real-world applicability, I point to some concrete things that came out of philosophy (the special sciences, linguistics, computers, the fuzzy (and other) logic that governs AI behaviour in video games, etc.), and then talk a little about the kinds of questions that philosophers (especially of science--note that I'm not a philosopher of science!) like to tackle. There's no real sense being adversarial or condescending when someone's just trying to make small talk.

When I detect hostility or am feeling particularly snarky or antisocial, I just tell them either (1) I do logic, which (if pressed) I explain as being pure math (yes, I know it's not!--also note that I'm not actually a logician), or (2) that I'll do whatever the fuck I want to do with it, as people do.

Finally, and FWIW: If someone answered me by telling me about timing and tangibility, or "usefulness" and social status, my eyes would glaze over and I'd get irritated. Hell, I have the PhD now, and my eyes still glaze over those parts of the posts and leave me with a vague sense of irritation. :) I imagine that it'd just be even more acute for someone who didn't have my background.

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most people who really question the value of what I do usually work in really shitty corporate jobs that slowly destroy their souls day by day. I usually say that I do what I love and get paid well for it (stipends in Australia are tax free, so it ends up being super decent). They tend to get quiet after that. 

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Thanks @maxhgns, for a sensible reply for the OP's initial three statements. We need not be defensive when they simply don't understand the profession, let alone for those who simply frame things only in personal or public utility and practical benefit. (Small talk + ignorance) = opportunity for you to share some information about your life and what you value. This is what they are actually going for when they ask these questions.

[edit]
You may be the only philosopher they ever meet outside of a silly TV show or movie trope. By getting defensive to an inquiry only solidifies that you yourself likely have nothing to offer the public and little to offer relationally. Condescension or dismissiveness only shows that you can't handle such a basic question that most of their peers can.

Edited by Duns Eith

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3 hours ago, Duns Eith said:

This is what they are actually going for when they ask these questions.

So all people ask a particular question for exactly the same reason? That's quite the generalization. I'd love for you to share your reasoning.

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3 hours ago, Duns Eith said:

[edit]
You may be the only philosopher they ever meet outside of a silly TV show or movie trope. By getting defensive to an inquiry only solidifies that you yourself likely have nothing to offer the public and little to offer relationally. Condescension or dismissiveness only shows that you can't handle such a basic question that most of their peers can.

Now this part, I agree with. Should you have a neutral or noticeably receptive audience, I think it is our responsibility of academicians to show people how our discipline can enrich their lives even if they do not choose to go as far beneath its surface or spend as long there in their exploration as we do.

As for gleaning the other person's intentions, I rely more on intuition than generalization / political correctness there. Some people are dicks. Some aren't. Over a lifetime so far exceeding two or three decades for most of us on this forum... I think we all have developed the ability to reliably distinguish one from the other and respond in accordance with our own moral codes.

Humor is another occasionally useful response for which I have a recent anecdote. I'm currently dating the daughter of a medical doctor. When he started that conversation in a receptive way but also in the context of the "meet the parents" and get judged situation... I told him, "I'm studying to become a doctor as well actually, of philosophy. I'm hoping to help cure people of feeling ignorant, illogical, immoral, and a few rarer ailments." He laughed his ass off, patted me on the shoulder, and told her... "I like this guy, I like him."

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18 hours ago, Phallosopher said:

So all people ask a particular question for exactly the same reason? That's quite the generalization. I'd love for you to share your reasoning.

Don't be silly. This isn't some regimented conversation that we have to conduct in logical notation to avoid ambiguity. That's clearly not what Duns Eith was saying.

Besides which, the reality is that many of our social interactions--especially the early steps of a social interaction--are largely governed by convention, and as members of the same culture we're governed by roughly the same conventions. So there is a fairly uniform reason why grocery clerks greet you in the checkout line by asking how you're doing today, to say nothing of why the rest of us  non-clerks start conversations that way. Asking a student what their post-degree plans are--and asking by saying "what are you gonna do with that?"--is just another way of initiating chit-chat. I personally think it's about as silly as asking a child what she wants to "be" when she grows up, but it doesn't take a towering intellect to see that it's a conventional move in a chit-chat context. No big deal.

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