Phallosopher

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

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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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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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I don't think I'm being silly, and I didn't suggest conducting a conversation in logical notation. Do you think that could actually be done?

Perhaps asking about post-degree plans is initiating chit chat. Perhaps it serves another function. Do you really define "convention" as universal, context independent meaning of a particular question or other speech act? I don't. The topic is conventional, but a lot of other factors go into the meanings of words and phrases, and the evolving intentions of conversation participants. Generalizing about it is a bit silly, don't you think?

My original question in this thread, was aimed at addressing misunderstandings and negative interpretations of academic career paths. So that excludes the many people whose questions or statements are honest curiosity or mere chit chat. Suggesting that those exist, and going on about it in multiple posts, seems to me to be an example of the adherence to political correctness that is so prevalent these days.

And as for political correctness, the formula for that is almost always a pattern of deliberate misinterpretation, generalization, or change of scope... intended to impugn the other person's motives and suggest they said something with negative intention. So sad that we have become a society where people make themselves feel better by doing that to others.

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Such questions betray a lot of naivete on the part of the questioner and can easily be turned around. Why is something practical superior unless it's also intrinsically worthwhile and interesting. What does it mean for something to be "practical" anyhow? Philosophy is practical since the process skills learned are quite useful in all fields. Why does that not count? The discourse of practicality is a way of asking you why you haven't decided to limit yourself to a specific technical field because of its purported economic relevance. Those bets often don't turn out well since the economy is not easy to predict. Going into something practical because it's practical is quite impractical unless there is also intrinsic interest. So the best answer is that you study philosophy because you want to and doing what you want is the most practical thing in the world because those are the things you can sustain for the long haul. The rest of the questions are essentially variations on this theme.

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On 7/25/2017 at 2:55 PM, Phallosopher said:

I don't think I'm being silly, and I didn't suggest conducting a conversation in logical notation. Do you think that could actually be done?

Your narrow interpretation of Duns Eith's post is what was silly. S/he clearly wasn't suggesting that all people ask particular questions for exactly the same reasons. All that was being communicated was an interpretation of the behaviour in question. As for conversing in logical notation... of course it could be done. It's just not particularly expedient for most conversational aims.

 

On 7/25/2017 at 2:55 PM, Phallosopher said:

Do you really define "convention" as universal, context independent meaning of a particular question or other speech act? I don't. The topic is conventional, but a lot of other factors go into the meanings of words and phrases, and the evolving intentions of conversation participants. Generalizing about it is a bit silly, don't you think?

Of course I don't. I obviously didn't offer you a definition of convention. To the extent that I care to define conventions for the purpose of this conversation, I'd go the Millikanian route and identify them as patterns of behaviour that reproduce due largely to the weight of precedent. 

Generalization isn't silly, it's an important linguistic and logical tool. Especially when it's adequately signposted, such as when I began my initial response to your post by saying "Most of the time...". Notice also that I did provide a response for what I take to be the few corner cases when someone really is trying to be obnoxious by asking. If you don't want to deal with generalization at all, then there's no point asking your question on an internet forum; you should be asking each and every one of your conversational participants exactly what they meant in that particular instance.

 

On 7/25/2017 at 2:55 PM, Phallosopher said:

My original question in this thread, was aimed at addressing misunderstandings and negative interpretations of academic career paths. So that excludes the many people whose questions or statements are honest curiosity or mere chit chat. Suggesting that those exist, and going on about it in multiple posts, seems to me to be an example of the adherence to political correctness that is so prevalent these days.

A few things here:

(1) Your original post did not distinguish between honest curiosity, chitchat, and pointed put-downs. Instead, it presented all of the relevant questions--and the misunderstandings they betray--as the product of nefarious intentions.While such people exist, the vast majority of the time that's not why those questions are being asked. And, speaking frankly, in the few cases where it is the case, it's probably more productive to tell them to fuck off than it is to lecture them a long-winded humanities 101 lecture based on dubious 19th-century ideas.

(2) For the record, I went on about it in a single post. The fact that others read your post in the same way I did speaks more to the way you presented your post than it does to "political correctness" or our own deeply ingrained materialistic need for tangible gratification.

(3) What do you even mean by "political correctness", and how exactly is it "prevalent" "these days"? The phrase had its origins among 1930s Communists, who would use it as a playful reminder or critique of the overriding importance of the Party's goals. It was largely satirical until the 1980s, when American conservatives started using it to refer to "left-wing" ideas. As far as I can tell, that's all it means in most contexts today; it's a thinly-veiled slur lobbed by righties at anything they think is to their political left, regardless of whether it's actually a leftist idea. If you think that charitability is just "political correctness", then you're in for a rude graduate school awakening.

 

On 7/25/2017 at 2:55 PM, Phallosopher said:

And as for political correctness, the formula for that is almost always a pattern of deliberate misinterpretation, generalization, or change of scope... intended to impugn the other person's motives and suggest they said something with negative intention. So sad that we have become a society where people make themselves feel better by doing that to others.

Good job channeling the voice of your president, there. But isn't it ironic that you're doing the very same thing you're accusing the rest of us of doing? To wit, you're ascribing dastardly "politically correct" motives to me (us? someone, anyway) for daring to think that the questions in your OP were usually innocuous. you're using the phrase "politically correct" to "impugn [my] motives and suggest I said something with negative intention," presumably so that you can feel better about the way in which you overreact to those kinds of questions. So sad! Fake views!

Frankly, what's sad is that this is still a field where some people are so insecure that they feel compelled to respond to any misunderstanding or perceived slight on the general public's part with rank elitism and obscurantist twaddle. The trouble is, that kind of reaction does us all a lot more harm than good. Remember: the people who are really in control don't go around telling everyone how good they are at controlling everything. Similarly, the really scary bad guys in fiction aren't the ones who go around telling everyone how evil they are.

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4 hours ago, maxhgns said:

Frankly, what's sad is that this is still a field where some people are so insecure that they feel compelled to respond to any misunderstanding or perceived slight on the general public's part with rank elitism and obscurantist twaddle. The trouble is, that kind of reaction does us all a lot more harm than good. Remember: the people who are really in control don't go around telling everyone how good they are at controlling everything. Similarly, the really scary bad guys in fiction aren't the ones who go around telling everyone how evil they are.

There's the valuable part of your post, the rest is a bit too defensive for my taste. Although what you're saying here is somewhat committing the act it labels as sad, I do agree with parts of it. Doing the things that intimidate people about philosophers is not going to make friends or sway a dissenter. And telling is generally inferior to showing when advocating for a particular identity. Philosophy would progress faster if we spent more time doing it than defending it. That's the case as long as it's not at risk for dying at the hands of those who can't/don't understand, and who dislike and try to squash what they can't/don't understand. At most if you're talking to a dissenter, you turn him into a philosopher. At least, you get out without being talked into a new cubicle by his/her side at some boring office building.

Edited by Phallosopher

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16 minutes ago, Phallosopher said:

There's the valuable part of your post, the rest is a bit too defensive for my taste. Although what you're saying here is somewhat committing the act it labels as sad, I do agree with parts of it. 

You're the one who was concerned to label something as 'sad'. It's your label, not mine. I don't accept it, I merely pointed out that it had a wider range of applicability than you seemed to notice.

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1 hour ago, maxhgns said:

You're the one who was concerned to label something as 'sad'. It's your label, not mine. I don't accept it, I merely pointed out that it had a wider range of applicability than you seemed to notice.

Thanks, but I don't claim ownership of that adjective. If you reject my particular use of the label "sad", then you can't widen its applicability. You're applying it differently. You see, widening happens relative to a particular point.

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23 minutes ago, Phallosopher said:

Thanks, but I don't claim ownership of that adjective. If you reject my particular use of the label "sad", then you can't widen its applicability. You're applying it differently. You see, widening happens relative to a particular point.

Whatever, dude. It doesn't change the fact that your attributions of "political correctness" (which is what you characterized as "sad") commit the same sin you accuse me of committing by being politically correct. In pointing that out, I should have thought my use was obviously sarcastic. (Not that your use of "political correctness" makes much sense to me in the first place.) But I digress. I'm happy to return to the topic, if there's anything more to be said about it.

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2 hours ago, maxhgns said:

Whatever, dude. It doesn't change the fact that your attributions of "political correctness" (which is what you characterized as "sad") commit the same sin you accuse me of committing by being politically correct. In pointing that out, I should have thought my use was obviously sarcastic. (Not that your use of "political correctness" makes much sense to me in the first place.) But I digress. I'm happy to return to the topic, if there's anything more to be said about it.

I don't acknowledge sarcasm. Yes, anyone else on the matter of... "how do you all defend your scholarly path to the public?"?

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I don't. I just say I'm thinking of obtaining a doctorate to become a professor. Those that ask, non doctorate or advanced degree holders, don't necessarily respond in a negative or condescending way. They usually respond "Oh, that's cool." I have a few PhD holders on my father's side and a family friend is currently pursuing a doctorate in chemistry. Pursuing doctorates may sound like the norm in my family but it's not. It helps that my family sees higher education as something to invest in, so anything beyond a bachelor's degree is seen as fine as long as it serves a purpose for a career goal, and so far every advanced degree sought out in my family was for career advancement.

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"I'm getting paid to do this really fun stuff. Suckers, I would've paid them!"

And then try to drive the discussion to one of the many, many interesting options of topics within philosophy. This achieves two things:

1. It demonstrates how awesome philosophy is.

2. It lets me talk with people about philosophy. Which is totally better than some other topic.

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On 7/21/2017 at 10:26 PM, majorshake said:

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. 

I think it's better to help them understand the value that your degree might possibly bring to the world and your goals than fall on  passive-aggressive actions demeaning their day job (oh noes you work corporate how soul crushing!).

Edited by UrbanMidwest

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On 7/29/2017 at 6:15 PM, UrbanMidwest said:

I think it's better to help them understand the value that your degree might possibly bring to the world and your goals than fall on  passive-aggressive actions demeaning their day job (oh noes you work corporate how soul crushing!).

I agree with this. When possible, it's great to take the opportunity to explain the value of something your conversation partner isn't as familiar with... you know, enrich both lives. Passive-aggressiveness is no fun. If I need to be aggressive I'm well practiced at turning my nose up at just the right angle.

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