I cringe, I wince, when I hear someone refer to me as a ‘philosopher.’ I never use that description for myself. Instead, I prefer locutions like, “I teach philosophy at the City University of New York”, or “I am a professor of philosophy.” This is especially the case if someone asks me, “Are you a philosopher?”. In that case, my reply begins, “Well, I am a professor of philosophy…”. Once, one of my undergraduate students asked me, “Professor, what made you become a philosopher?” And I replied, “Well, I don’t know if I would go so far as to call myself a philosopher, though I did get a Ph.D in it, and…”. You get the picture.
I’m not sure why this is the case. I think folks that have Ph.Ds in mathematics or physics or economics and who teach those subjects and produce academic works in those domains have no hesitation in calling themselves mathematicians or physicists or economists.
Part of the problem, of course, is that in our day and age, in our culture, ‘philosopher’ has come to stand for some kind of willful pedant, a non-productive member of society, content to not contribute to the Gross Domestic Product but to merely stand on the sidelines and take potshots at those who actually produce value. The hair-splitter, the boringly didactic drone. (Once, shortly after a friend and I had finished watching Once Were Warriors, we began a discussion of its merits. As I began pointing out that the director’s explicit depiction of violence toward women might have been necessary to drive home a broader point about the degradation of Maori culture, my friend interrupted, “There you go, being philosophical again! Can’t you just keep things simple?”).
But this modern disdain for the ‘philosopher’, this assessment of her uselessness, her unemployability, is not the only reason that I shrink from being termed one. There is another pole of opinion that I tend toward: ‘philosopher’ sounds a little too exalted, a little too lofty; it sounds insufferably pompous. It comes packaged with too many pretensions, too many claims to intellectual rectitude and hygiene. Far too often, that title has served as cover for too many sorts of intellectual prejudice. To describe myself thus or allow someone else to do would be to permit a placement on a pedestal of sorts, one I’m not comfortable occupying. (This situation has not been helped by the fact that when someone has described me thus in company, others have giggled and said “Oh, you’re a philosopher now?” – as if I had rather grandiosely allowed such a title to be assigned to me.)
This discomfort arises in part from my self-assessment of intellectual worth, of course. I do not think I am sufficiently well-read in the philosophical literature; there are huge, gaping, gaps in my education. I remain blithely unaware of the contours of many philosophical debates and traditions; the number of classics that I keep reminding myself I have to stop merely quoting and citing and actually read just keeps on growing. I do not write clearly or prolifically enough. And so on. (Some of these feelings should be familiar to many of my colleagues in the academic world.)
For the time being, I’m happy enough to make do with the opportunity that I’ve been offered to be able to read, write, and teach philosophy. The titles can wait.
11 thoughts on “‘Don’t Call Me A Philosopher’”
A great post with equally important points, and I share many of your reservations. Anecdotally, I’ve had the privilege of teaching philosophy to underprivileged community members and youth. And I have to say, the only times that I’ve been called a “philosopher” where it doesn’t sound like some sort of curse has been by those outside of academia. Still, there it has the slight air of veneration you point toward (though they sincerely meant nothing of the sort). But it was in the very least used as a term layered with respect rather than contempt, and I think that’s a rare disposition toward the term.
Agree – my experiences correspond quite closely to yours.
As someone who contemplating to start a MA in Philosophy after some years of professional practice, your main points make sense but bring a feeling of surrender. If a professor of Philosophy shies away in the face of stereotypes from defending the liberating role Philosophy can play in everyone’s life, who will be left to preserve, nurture and expand the discipline for the whoever might need it (everyone, I tend to answer myself in my newcomer’s eagerness).
It makes me wonder -and I ask you- if there should be a commitment towards the discipline one teaches and lives of.
Thanks for your comment.
My writings here will show that I do not shrink from employing my philosophical education and ‘skills’ in mounting critiques of existing systems and power relations. And I also mount many sustained critiques of the profession and the discipline. My self-titling does not affect any of that.
Thanks for your answer, Samir.
You are right, I was somehow demanding a zealot-like commitment to “preaching” Philosophy, maybe due to me having faced the same comments when even uttering my interest in the discipline. It is unreasonable to demand that from anyone, I assume.
Yet there’s something that doesn’t feel right when we are ashamed of fully identifying ourselves with our profession. I am a journalist and have had to face funny comments sometimes about “paparazzi” and “press vultures” from time to time. I like to think that smiling and just doing my job might have given a direct contact to some people with the absolute normalcy of a profession too many have mythified. In any case, it’s a personal choice. I guess the tone you use to say “I’m a philosopher” matters too, but I understand your reluctance to say it at all.
In any case, as you well say, in the end titles are titles and it is actions what count, and I’m sure you’ve got plenty to put forward on that.
I look forward to reading more of your blog from now on.
To some extent I share your reservations on the pomposity of calling myself a “philosopher,” that it sounds too exalted; whether I say “I’m a philosopher” or “I teach philosophy” will depend partly on whether I think it’ll sound pompous to the audience.
On the other hand, once in my life someone has said to me the exact words “So, you’re a philosopher?” setting me up to reply Yes, I think very deeply. That made it all worth it. (I mean, I didn’t fail to come across as a pompous ass, but sometimes you have to pay that price.)
Ha! Awesome reply. And I think you are right about the audience too – that does make a difference in what you think will count as an appropriate response.
In my mind, a philosopher produces original work as opposed to analysis or criticism, so your discomfort seems natural and uncomplicated. A professor of poetry wouldn’t describe herself as poet unless she also wrote poetry.
Peter, indeed. I don’t think I’ve produced enough original work. In my two academic books, there is some, but I’ve got a way to go. Now, with my next book….
you are tracing philosophy.