The Fighting Mongoose

Philosophy, n. A route of many roads leading from nowhere to nothing. -Ambrose Bierce
A group weblog by the graduate philosophy students at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

Thursday, October 19, 2006

When I worked at my parents' store last summer, I'd bring along something to read to pass the time. I'd read stuff with "metaphysics," or "epistemology" in the title. Customers would come in and ask me what I'm studying in school. I'd tell them that I'm studying philosophy. There'd be a five second silence before they would inevitably ask, "What do you study in philosophy?"

I realized that this question is extraordinarily difficult to answer when the person who's asking barely finished high school, and the vast majority of my parents' customers fell into that category. Most anything that one would study, no matter how abstruse, can always be generalized into something familiar. Quantum mechanics can be restated as "physics," Hellenistic archaeology could be translated as "history," and Victorian literature can be described as "English." However, "philosophy" is about as general as you can get, and even there people are in the dark about what that is. It seems that very few public primary and secondary schools would have a class that would even remotely resemble a philosophy class. So people really have no way of even formulating an adequate concept of philosophy, much less finding any value in the subject.

The situation improves somewhat for people with a college education, but not by much. At this point, individuals have something of an idea of what philosophy is. They may have even taken a few courses. But for the most part, people still find no value in the study of philosophy. The number one question I get from these folks is, "What are you going to do with a philosophy degree?" Some may ask this question with the sincere intention of finding out what philosophers do in the real world, but most ask in that tone of voice implying that philosophy is about at useful for life as a call to Miss Cleo is.

However, others may be pleased to find out that I study philosophy, and, thinking themselves to be conversant in philosophy will then ask me some question like who my favorite philosophers are. They're expecting to hear names like Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Descartes, Locke, Hume, Kant, Hegel, Nietzche, etc. I proceed to drop names like Saul Kripke, Alvin Plantinga, David Lewis, Brian Leftow, Ted Sider, John Hawthorne, Dean Zimmerman, Rod Chisholm, Willard Quine, Peter van Inwagen, Trenton Merricks, Lynne Rudder Baker, etc. Of course after I say this we again find ourselves in those five seconds of silence.

It's not like these names are obscure, either. Imagine someone (we'll name him Bob) who's only contact with basketball is some book about the history of basketball. You, as a basketball fan, happen to find yourself in a casual, dinner party conversation wth Bob. Bob asks you who your favorite basketball players are. He's expecting to hear names like George Mikan, Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, etc. You give him names like Lebron James, Steve Nash, Dwayne Wade, Tim Duncan, Dirk Nowitzski, Shaquile O'Neal, etc. The situation is analogous in philosophy. Grad students follow philosophers like professional athletes. We should make philosopher trading cards.

Of course the interested individual mentioned above may, instead of asking about my favorite philosophers, ask about the kind of philosophy I study. Again, what this person may be expecting to hear will likely be very different from what I am about to tell him/her. Most people don't realize that the type of philosophy that I study is closer to physics, math and linguistics than it is to guys wearing togas and shooting the shit around the agora.

The point of all this is to reveal the prominent gap between the layperson and the professional when it comes to familiarity about what philosophy is and what it is supposed to do. I attribute this gap to the fact that philosophy is nowhere to be seen in elementary, middle, or high schools. Why is this? Why don't they teach philosophy in schools? It's not like biology, american history, shakespeare, or trigonometry will be "practical" to those who will find careers in middle management or customer service. So why not teach kids to think independently at an early age?

22 Comments:

At 11:14 AM, Blogger Chad Van Schoelandt said...

Critical theory has trading cards: http://www.altamirapress.com/Catalog/SingleBook.shtml?command=Search&db=%5EDB/CATALOG.db&eqSKUdata=0759103836

I will suggest that other people don't really have it much easier than we do. The quantum physicist is not really telling people what he does by saying "physicist," as he is probably misleading the questioner into a false impression. Also, the quantum physicist doesn't study "quantum phyics," but really studies some more specific field within that and thus has no way of telling someone what he studies.

If we ask him who is favorite physicist is, there are about three people he could name. If he were a biologist, I'm thinking one name. Thus philosophers have it easy as you could pick someone who they have heard of who you know enough about and kinda like. Maybe it isn't your favorite, but close enough.

Similarly, "Victorian literature can be described as 'English'" but this is very miss leading to the common person. They may get a reply like: "So you do grammer? What is your favorite grammer rule?" Even if they say "literature" the common person will likely not really know what this means really.

In conclussion, we don't realy know what the hell most people are doing. Philosophy may have some slight degree more misunderstanding, but even if so this is an insignificant difference. The biologists and land scape designers are just as lost in conversation.

 
At 12:58 AM, Blogger Jeremy David Fix said...

Besides the fact this type of gap in understanding and immersion is likely present in every field in which there are professionals/specialists/enthusiasts, I think it humorous you bemoan this gap and yet describe Greek philosophy as 'guys wearing togas and shooting the shit around the agora'. This statement belies an ignorance of, or perhaps a prejudice against, (at least some part of) philosophy as severe as any confused, innocent, or malicious statement of a lay person, unless of course you mean 'shooting the shit' in a positive light and not as derision of their philosophical pursuits.

 
At 1:35 PM, Blogger James Lee said...

Chad: I would agree with what you're saying, but I think that those individuals at least have some throwaway comment available. Quantum mechanics is still 'physics' in a broadly construed sense.

Jeremy: My comment about the guys wearing togas was more of a stereotype of the impression that most individuals with a minimal exposure to philosophy might have. Plato, Socrates and Aristotle are probably the most recognizable names for most people, and for most of these people, the only exposure they have of these guys is probably from Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure. The statement does not represent my own personal views about ancient philosophy.

The main point of the post is still unaddressed. Should philosophy be taught at a primary or secondary level? Why or why not? Why isn't it taught now? Is it merely because of some rigid traditionalism in education?

 
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At 7:45 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

They're expecting to hear names like Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Descartes, Locke, Hume, Kant, Hegel, Nietzche, etc. I proceed to drop names like Saul Kripke, Alvin Plantinga, David Lewis, Brian Leftow, Ted Sider, John Hawthorne, Dean Zimmerman, Rod Chisholm, Willard Quine, Peter van Inwagen, Trenton Merricks, Lynne Rudder Baker, etc.

Why not humor them and list some philosophers they might know of who deal very loosely with the sorts of issues you are interested in? I don't know why one would expect laypeople to know the names you "drop" -- you certainly didn't before you took it upon yourself to spend years pursuing the subject. I guess I don't see why you seem to think it isn't possible to have a perfectly pleasant conversation about what you do in philosophy with laypeople, as long as you are willing to talk on a level which they will be able to engage with.

 
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