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by Nick Byrd
“You’re a philosopher, eh? What do philosophers do?” I’ve had trouble responding to this kind of question recently. In what follows, I’ll mention a few stories and then pose some questions about how to answer this kind of question.
During office hours, one of my students asked, “So what do philosophers actually do?”
I said something like, “They read stuff. They write stuff. They talk about the stuff they read and write.”
The student gave me a blank stare. I don’t blame them. I was as disappointed with my response as they were.
After an awkward silence, the student asked, “But what do philosophers do for work?”
Apparently philosophy isn’t more than a hobby.
2. Other Academics
Last week I was at a campus event where people from various departments were mingling. I was talking with an electrical engineer. After he told me about his work, he asked me about mine. I told him that I do philosophy. He looked confused.
“What?” I asked.
The engineer responded with a lengthy string of vaguely dismissive rhetoric. It was clear that he was not a fan of philosophy, but beyond that, I was having trouble following his thought process. So I asked for clarification. “Do you mean to say that philosophy is useless?”
“Yeah. I think that is what I am saying.”
This is when I should have said something like, “Interesting. That sounds like a philosophical claim.” Then I could have walked him through the way philosophy could show how his rant lacked philosophical rigor.
Here’s what I actually said: “I’ve been getting that a lot lately.”
Even my own mother isn’t sure about this philosophy stuff. If anyone gets me and supports me, it’s my mom. When I wanted to spend a stupid amount of money on an old muscle car that barely worked, she went with it. When I started pursuing a career in acting, she went with it. But when I tell her about philosophy, she’s got questions.
I was recently talking to my mom about a workshop. She wanted to know about the process of workshops. I hadn’t even finished explaining the review process and she was confused.
“Wait—these people ask you to travel somewhere to talk about a paper that they’ve already read?”
I explained that most of the time only some people will have read the paper before the presentation. And then I explained that the most valuable part of the conference is usually the discussion that follows the presentation.
“Hmm. All right.”
That’s my mom’s way of saying, “I love you, honey, but I’m not buyin’ it.”
4. The Philosophy Pitch
Let me be the first to admit that I’m doing it wrong. My philosophy pitch is…well, boring. And my delivery is awful. When someone asks me about what I do, my first (and now-automatic) response is a sigh.
What can I say? When people so reliably respond to philosophy with confusion or condescension, I become a little insecure. Unfortunately, insecurity doesn’t help. It just makes my next philosophy pitch even worse. I need to break the negative cycle.
And in order to do that, I need a better philosophy pitch. I need a quick and interesting way to describe what I do. I don’t need to to convince everyone that philosophy is important. I just need to give philosophy a fair chance.
5. Three Kinds of Response
It would be handy to prepare at least three kinds of response. A one-liner would be nice for those moments when you’ve got to introduce your work in a jiffy. An elevator pitch would be handy for those times when you have a moment to explain a nuance about your work. And a cache of Socratic questions would be great for those times when there’s no telling how long you’ll be talking about your work.
6. What Do You Do?
I have a few ideas for each kind of response, but I imagine the hive mind of philosophers can jointly come up with better ideas. This is where you come in.
- What do you say when people ask about what you do?
- What responses are well received?
- Has anyone convinced their mom that philosophy was a good career move?
Nick Byrd is a philosophy Ph.D. student and a member of the Moral and Social Processing Lab at Florida State University. He studies reasoning, willpower, and well-being. He blogs about these and his other musings on his website here.
The aim of this series is to provide APA members with some insights into professional philosophy from a variety of sources and perspectives. If you have an opinion, we encourage you to share it in the comment section of this post. If you would like to submit a contribution, we’d love to hear from you. Please contact us via the submission form here.