I Think, Therefore I Am Misunderstood

I mean, what do you do ?" it's the question every professional philosopher dreads. Most of us first face it as undergraduate philosophy majors, when it's put this way: "I mean, what are you going to do with that?" I wonder if the question will transform itself once more when I lie on my deathbed, posed by a curious nurse or doctor: "I mean, what have you done ?"

On this occasion the question is asked by Carol, who runs the sandwich shop on the edge of campus. The semester ended a few days ago, and she has noticed that my daily routine has not changed. She is trying to imagine what on earth I do all day with no classes to teach or grading to do. As always, the question terrifies me, but I can hardly blame her. When most people try to picture in their minds a professional philosopher at work, I suspect they simply draw a blank--much like the fogginess that floods my mind's eye when someone tells me he is a consultant.

It isn't just strangers who are curious and, frankly, more than a little suspicious about my chosen profession. I swear I can often detect a note of annoyance in my own wife's voice when, upon returning home from a grueling day of prac-ticing law and finding me on the couch engrossed in a book, she asks the not-so-innocent question: "So, what did you do today?"

What I do, in a nutshell, is this: I find a question or puzzle that interests me. I try to figure out a solution, usually reading what others have had to say about it along the way. If I come up with anything good, I write it down and see if anyone is interested in publishing it.

This answer rarely satisfies those who want to know what I do. I suspect that what they really want to know is whether I accomplish anything worthwhile during the day. The essence of their question is something like: "Where do you get off?!" Telling someone that you spent the day trying to figure out whether God could make a stone that even he couldn't lift (a subject on which I've published) is simply not going to cut it. Most people find it ridiculous for a grown-up to spend his time doing this, and outrageous that he's paid for it.

Such people shouldn't be too outraged. Philosophy doesn't pay particularly well. In college I assumed that just about everyone would major in philosophy if not for worries about getting a job; wasn't it obvious that all the really interesting questions were philosophical ones? I quickly learned that this point of view was not widely shared, but it was too late for me. I was hooked. During this time I also learned that the words "What are you going to do with that?" are most terrifying on the lips of the parents of a young woman one is attempting to woo.

The most common stereotype of the professional philosopher is probably that of the hairsplitter, puzzling away over obscure questions, drawing distinction after distinction but getting nowhere. This stereotype is not entirely groundless. But it is important to understand the origins of this contemporary army of hairsplitters that marches through the Western academy, leaving a trail of oft-neglected books and articles in its wake.

We can trace our lineage back to a man who, while on trial for his life, informed his judges that an unexamined life is not worth living and that he would not stop practicing philosophy as long as he could draw breath. What got him into trouble was speaking truth to power, and he later drank poison rather than betray the principles to which his reasoning had led him.

In the long run, he was victorious: today every educated person knows the name of Socrates, while few know much about the government that executed him. We philosophers can also point out that whatever your most cherished institution or ideal--representative democracy, the free-market economy, even Christianity--it would not exist if no one engaged in the mysterious work of philosophy. I once overheard a student remark that philosophy professors are the "renegades of society."

Philosophy is an inefficient activity; much of it is useless. Yet its products have shaped our world, and millions know the name of its greatest hero. Hairsplitter, truth seeker, renegade: I try to be all these things. And if I manage to pass on something of the legacy of philosophy, I'll have a good answer to the dreaded question if they ask it of me on my deathbed.

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