December 21, 2014

A Dialogue

Having submitted this prospectus a few weeks ago to his dissertation advisor Krishna Rama Rao, Bharath is seated in his advisor's office. They are meeting to talk about the prospectus.

Krishna: This is a very interesting piece of writing. Clearly you put a lot of thought and effort into it, and it seems to mean a lot to you. I respect that. There is much in it to talk about, content wise, and I would like to do that another time. But today let's talk about if this can be a thesis. I don't think this can be accepted as a prospectus. I don't say this easily, but we can talk about the reasons why.

Bharath: Is it that what I wrote isn't good enough? That I am not as good a philosopher as Wittgenstein?

Krishna: No, that's not it. I don't know how one can make such a claim about someone who is still a student. Or even later for that matter. Your talent as a philosopher isn't the relevant issue. We can set it aside.

Bharath: So, Krishna, what is it then? Why can't I write like this if it was good enough for Wittgenstein?

Krishna: Well, let's also set aside the issue of what was good enough for Wittgenstein. Frankly, the academia he was a part of is no more. And that is a good thing. If any one benefited from the old-boys-club framework, it was Wittgenstein. This is not a claim on his character, or Russell's, or any one else. But they didn't have to deal with the issues of academia opening up to most people in society the way we in the 21st century have to. Let's focus instead on the question: Assuming that the Investigations is good philosophy, and it is so in part because of its form of writing, why can't you write like that for your thesis? Ok?

Bharath: Ok.

Krishna: Let me start by asking you a question: are you getting this PhD in order to become a philosophy professor? Or are you doing it just as a way to do philosophy without thinking about your career or your future?

Bharath: I am not sure. I haven't decided about that.

Krishna: If you are in this graduate program just to do philosophy for five to seven years without thinking about your future career, then in principle you can write your thesis in the Wittgensteinian way. Because then, as I see it, you are sacrificing thinking about your career in order to write however you want right now. But, let me say, I don't recommend this, unless you happen to be independently wealthy. A few years from now, you will need a job, something that can give you stability so that you can take other risks in your life. No point taking such a big risk right now without a safety net, just because Wittgenstein did it. He did have a safety net, both in terms of his family wealth and the prestige he had as a thinker. Without either, it would be fool hardy to emulate Wittgenstein.

Bharath: Ok, yes, let's say I do want to be a philosophy professor. So I am not sure I want to burn all my bridges right now just to write however I want to. But if I want to be a professor, why can't I write like Wittgenstein? After all, you are a professor, and you teach the Investigations, and you say how important it is to take the manner of writing of that text seriously. If you can teach the text as a professor, why can't I write in that manner in order to become a professor?

Krishna: Good question. In order to answer that, let's start a few steps back. You want to be a philosophy professor. So let me ask you, how do you think the philosophy profession should be structured? In particular, do you think that the profession should value being inclusive to a diversity of ways of doing philosophy, say bringing together different traditions, histories, texts and so on?

Bharath: Yes, certainly. I think the profession right now is pretty insular. It needs to open up more, and be more inclusive.

Krishna: Do you think professors writing like Wittgenstein will help the profession be more pluralistic and inclusive?

Bharath: Definitely. Why should everyone have to write in the journal format, in the same cookie cutter way? That is not diversity. That is one-dimensional thinking. The more ways of writing we can foster, the better.

Krishna: But notice how the Wittgensteinian way of writing actually makes it harder to be pluralistic. For instance, I personally think your prospectus is great. Really good stuff. But in order for me to read it, I had to spend a lot of time on it. I had to let myself get into your head, your space of philosophical processing. The very personalness which makes it appealing to you - and to me, as a reader - also makes it demanding. Much more than if I were reading a normal prospectus. When I read a normal prospectus I know how it fits into my job and my schedule, I know roughly how much time I have to spend on it, I know the framework of debates it is fitting into, and so on. I am on the thesis committee for six other people. Imagine if they all wrote like this. Then just engaging with my graduate students' writing will take up most of my time. This is not feasible as a form of professional life.

Bharath: Your objection is that it takes too much time? Maybe the profession should change and go at a slower pace. Why can't you spend most of your time talking to 10 people, and getting deep into conversation with each person. That might actually be much more productive than churning out PhD students and everyone producing essays like they work in a factory.

Krishna: Time is only the surface issue. The deeper issue is how to reconcile making the profession more open while doing philosophy in a way which keeps it focused on deep personal interactions between small groups. Think of it this way: after you write your Wittgensteinian thesis, you go on the job market. What criteria can one use to evaluate your work? You might say: "They can read it, and see for themselves if it is good." But, no, they can't. The more personal your philosophical work is, the more people need to know you as a person, or know your advisors, in order to evaluate your work. That means they need, in some sense, to belong to the same philosophical circles you belong to. This cuts against their being open to people from circles they are completely unfamiliar with. But here is what does help to be open to people from circles different from your own: writing in a simple essay style so that the commonality of the form enables there to be a openness to the plurality of philosophical topics and concerns. This kind of essay writing is not mindless one dimensional thinking. You have to hold something constant, such as the form of writing, so that you can become pluralistic in other ways. Being pluralistic in every way imaginable is not possible while one is also trying to keep an institutional framework together.

Bharath: So you are saying the very move towards openness in the profession means that certain kinds of writing will be downplayed in the profession?

Krishna: Yes, that's what I am saying. Take Wittgenstein's Investigations, Plato's Dialogues, Marcus Aurelius' Meditations, Augustine's Confessions, etc. In each of these cases, we are able to appreciate the work because the thinkers were part of structures which were deeply undemocratic. We have to distinguish the platform they had to be heard, and the manner in which they wrote. They were able to write in a very personal way because, due to their position in society, they already had a platform to be heard which they could take for granted. But if we want to have millions of people not simply reading the great philosophers, but themselves doing philosophy, and to be themselves read, then we can't assume that everyone can write in the personal way which presupposes one already has some social privileges.

Bharath: But then isn't it strange that philosophy professors will teach Plato's Dialogues, but then say that for the greater good they themselves won't write in that way? That too given that Plato's Dialogues will resonate more with most undergraduates than anything the professors themselves are writing?

Krishna: You are right that Plato's Dialogues are more exciting than most contemporary books or journal articles. But that is also because Plato didn't have to worry about the institutional requirements for a philosophy profession in a democratic society. Say whatever you will about journal articles (most are boring, read by no more than a dozen people, etc.), but in a way that is all besides the point. For the main use of journal articles is institutional: the profession needs ways of determining jobs and promotions, and journal articles are mainly how that is determined. Not that that is all journal articles are about, as if they don't transmit any content or knowledge. Of course, they do. If I thought otherwise, I wouldn't be a professor. But it is to say that a journal article is two things at once: a move in an intellectual conversation, and a move in an administrative context. The two don't come apart. Hence journal articles are different from Plato's Dialogues or most other great texts, because, lacking any sense of being a move in an administrative context, the pure ideas in the latter shine brightly and are easier to see. 

Bharath: If philosophy professors themselves don't write in the way Plato, Rousseau, Kierkegaard or Nietzsche did, and if they write in a way which is always partly about the constraints of keeping academic philosophy going, then what is the future of philosophy? Where are the great texts going to come from?

Krishna: The very idea of a great text is what is changing. The old great texts stand out so much because most people in those times could not do philosophy, as in they were not given the opportunity to do so. But the more people are able to do philosophy, they won't have to engage with Plato or Descartes or Spinoza as if they were gods and we are mere mortals. Instead, the more we are able to do what they did, what will be relevant is not merely trying to understand those old texts, but continuing them ourselves, and even engaging with new philosophical problems those texts didn't address.

Bharath: But how can we do this if we, as professors, cannot write that way, if writing that way is lost to us because we have to be part of structures which are democratic and inclusive?

Krishna: Well, it is as you say. We as professors cannot write that way. But nothing is to stop us as people from writing that way, as long as we are not using such writing in being evaluated in our jobs. In fact, nothing is to stop all the people who are not professors from writing that way. As I see it, being a philosophy professor is mainly a social service. Many people go to college. When they do, it would be good if they can take one or two philosophy classes, and be introduced to the subject. That is the service. We as professors plant seeds in academia, which will mostly take shape outside academia. I have no problem with that. Why should I? Why think that only professors can make the next great move in philosophy? Sure, for some particular subjects, like philosophy of physics or math, or certain areas of philosophy of language, etc. which are closely tied to other academic departments, that might be true. But I don't think for the perennial philosophical problems, the next moves have to come from within academia. This is why I think it is ok for me teach Plato's Dialogues even though I don't as a professor write dialogues. Because the students might write amazing dialogues in the future when they are out of academia, and that is something worth fostering.

Bharath: Do you think as a professor you can never write dialogues, or autobiographical essays, as part of your job?

Krishna: Not quite. In fact, I am all for creating new academic journals which publish dialogues, poems, autobiographical essays, etc. But when an academic writes, say, a dialogue as part of her job, that will be different from when a non-academic writes one, or when an academic writes one as not part of her job. Because once there are journals for publishing dialogues, they become part of the administrative moves for keeping the profession going. And that will make them different from Plato's Dialogues or Hume's Dialogues, which are not part of any such administrative moves. It is not really the essay form of the journal article that makes them boring; it is ultimately the administrative role the articles play. So even if there are journals for academics publishing dialogues, the administrative role of such journals, the need to fit into the system of determining how what one is writing enables one to get a job or a promotion or recognition in the profession, will render them mostly not that interesting to the general public. Nothing comes for free. This is part of the cost of doing philosophy as a profession: that some forms of philosophical expression are lost from within the identity of being a professional as such.

Bharath: You say non-academics can push the boundaries of philosophy and can make the next great move in philosophy. And they can do this in part by making use of a wider array of writing styles than are available to the academic. But how can a non-academic make any such progress? Isn't that like saying that someone who is not a doctor or a scientist might find the cure for cancer? In order to create knowledge, expertise is needed. How can non-academics create knowledge when they lack the expertise?

Krishna: This is one way in which philosophy is different from science. And a little more like literature. No one thinks that in order to write a great novel one has to be a literature professor. Why not? After all, the literature professor has all this knowledge about what makes novels great. But, it is because the academic's theoretical knowledge of novels doesn't necessarily translate into the practical skill of writing a novel. I would say the same thing about certain kinds of philosophical texts. Knowing a lot as an academic about Kierkegaard doesn't necessarily give one the skill to write like Kierkegaard. Writing that way partly involves being willing to transgress precisely the kinds of boundaries that a professional identity fosters. Actually, to see this point one doesn't need to contrast philosophy from science. Because one can make a similar distinction between an academic scientist and an inventor. The point is that in being an academic one is part of the society's attempts to catalog knowledge, or codify the process of acquiring knowledge. It is to render coherent and structured the activity of knowledge creation. A noble goal. Necessary. Important. But as the song goes about Maria in The Sound of Music, "how do you catch a cloud and pin it down?" You can't. We can structure and control some forms of knowledge production. But some forms of knowledge production can't be so controlled, precisely because they will come from the neglected, ignored spaces overlooked by the established structures. Maybe a cure for cancer won't be like this. Or maybe it will. That's the thing: there is no way to know in advance. A society should keep open as many different ways of creating knowledge as possible, rather than drawing limits in advance on where knowledge can come from.

Bharath: Do you then think that the government should randomly give money to non-academics to foster intellectual pursuits the way it gives money to academics?

Krishna: Not a bad idea, actually. But I am not committed to that. Perhaps it is good that the government only gives money to already established modes of knowledge production. After all, the tried and true methods have earned that by being productive in the past. But I do think that as citizens and general thinkers we should be more open to all the diverse ways in which knowledge can be created. And in particular how our theoretical understanding of knowledge production can itself fail to grasp the practical complexities of how and where such production can happen.

Bharath: What structures of non-academic knowledge production are you talking about? If I leave this graduate program now, where I can go in society to do philosophy, let alone to create new knowledge? You seem to be speaking idealistically about the situation of the non-academic, as if every non-academic is like an Einstein working in the patent office. But surely this is not the case. Often spaces outside academia seem like deserts, barren intellectual waste lands. Where there can be create knowledge?

Krishna: Exactly right. You are providing the answer yourself. The very sense of a barren desert is what provides the opportunity for knowledge production. For if one can create new structures for intellectual exchange outside academia, where one can tap into the unrealized potential of the masses of people who have been written off, and who have written themselves off, as non-intellectual, then precisely that potential is what will create new knowledge. Right now academia gives the impression that only people who have jobs as knowledge producers can produce knowledge. This is a bit like saying that only bishops can commune with God. Imagine a society where most people don't spend all their time watching TV or getting drunk or spending all their leisure time in shopping malls. Not that any of that is bad. But imagine that in addition to doing those things, non-academics also had the opportunity in their leisure time to engage in intellectual conversations with each other. What would be the result of such conversations? Would they only rediscover, dimly, what the academics already knew? To some extent, sure. But can we tell in advance that that is all they will discover? No, we can't. Because we don't know what can be discovered when billions of people start to see themselves not just as consumers of knowledge, but as knowledge producers.

Bharath: I don't know, Krishna. That seems so risky. I am not sure there is anything there. Why should I leave academia in order to help create new structures which I am not even sure will produce any knowledge? Why should I leave what is certain for what is unknown?

Krishna: You don't have to. You can be an academic. There is nothing wrong with that. After all, I am an academic, and you and I are having this conversation as academics. But notice that you are already taking such a risk by trying to write your dissertation in the Wittgensteinian way. By writing that way you are leaving what is certain for what is unknown. That is the choice you face right now. Where do you want to be? Inside academia or outside? The prospectus you handed in is showing your ambivalence, and you are trying to have it both ways. And if we as the department say "yes" to your prospectus, I don't think we are doing you any favors. Because it is not clear what your future as an academic will look like with such a prospectus. If there were already journals where academic philosophers can write in different formats, that would be different. You can say your prospectus is like that, and that is what you will be like as an academic. But given that there aren't journals like that which are prominent, if we say you can write your dissertation like this, we are basically treating it like you will be leaving academia after you get your PhD. Better to face up to your choice on your own terms, rather than reacting to whether you get a job or not.

Bharath: You are saying that if I write my dissertation in this Wittgensteinian way, then I am implictly choosing to become a non-academic?

Krishna: Yes. You can write in whichever way you want as a non-academic, and if you write your thesis in the Wittgensteinian way, then I think you are implicitly choosing to use your couple of years in grad school as a way to get practice for that kind of non-academic writing. Which is fine, as long as you can afford that financially, without mortgaging your future. But I don't think it can be a PhD in the sense of something that will enable you to be a professor. Not right now. Not yet. Academia has to change more, go through more growing pains, before it can be a space which can accept something like your Wittgensteinian thesis. I don't think you should hold your breath for it. Instead of spending all your energy fighting a battle before your intellectual life has even really started, you should do what is best for you. What will enable the most growth for you. If that is in academia, you have work a little more in the system. If that is out of academia, you can write your dissertation in the Wittgensteinian way, or you might think about leaving grad school. It's a hard decision. But it's ok either way.

Bharath: I don't know. It's so hard. Especially given that I don't know what I would do outside academia. It feels like more than wanting to be in academia, it is the fact that I don't know how I would do philosophy out of academia that is keeping me in it.

Krishna. Yes, I understand. It's not easy. But let me say this. And I say this as an academic, who is happy to be an academic. Don't choose based on what you think is impossible. Choose based on what you think is possible. If you are going to be in academia, choose that because you think grand things are possible in academia. Choose that because you think academia can change, and you want to contribute to that change. Choose that because you are willing to face up squarely to all the limitations academia has, and are willing to nonetheless make it as great as it can be. And if you are going to be a non-academic, choose that the very same way. Because you think grand things are possible outside academia. Choose that because you think what feels like an intellectual desert can become an oasis of ideas and dialogue, and because you want to contribute to that. Choose that because you are willing to face up squarely to all the difficulties you might face and all the sacrifices you might have to make to create what so far you only see in your mind's eye, which you carry in your thoughts with the care and love with which you might carry a baby, which you feel moved and compelled to act towards. Don't choose from a space of being defensive, or reactive, or feeling trapped. Choose knowing that you can lead a thriving, flourishing, intellectually fulfilling life whether you are inside or outside academia, and the direction you choose is what works for you. Others might rightfully choose otherwise, even as yet others will choose as you choose. There is no right and wrong. No only one path towards being an intellectual or living a meaningful life of contributing to knowledge. Give yourself, your unconscious and your conscious selves, the freedom and the peace of knowing it is ok either way. Really knowing that. And do what you are then moved to do. The potential in you will grow and shine either way. In some ways the non-academic path will be lonelier, in some ways the academic path will be lonelier. Sometimes the non-academic path will be financially harder, sometimes the academic path will be financially harder. You can meet intellectual peers in academia, and you can meet them outside of academia. If you choose this path some doors will open and some will become closed, and if you choose that path some other doors will open and some other doors will close. But no matter where you are, no matter which path you choose, knowledge, truth, justice, love and beauty will be with you. Because they are everywhere and they are within you as well.


  1. Very good, if a mite long winded. I chose the non-academic path 40 odd years ago and spent a lifetime mostly outside the travails of philosophical thought, only returning, again, in a non-academic way, in retirement. The downside has largely been the loss of sophisticated philosophical interlocutors and the discourse that makes possible. Also the loss, I suppose, of needed stimulus. The upside, however, has been living a real life of making my way in the world. I've noticed the same thing you allude to in this clever dialogue, that academic philosophy exists in a kind of straitjacket which seems to hamper freshness, originality and access to the ideas it ostensibly is there to foster and promote. I doubt , however, that this is a new phenomenon. It's likely been like this for as long as there has been institutional philosophy. Nowadays institutions of this sort are just larger and more ubiquitous than ever. Let's face it, whether inside or outside such institutions, most of us will never be Wittgensteins or any of the other greats. Sometimes though being ourselves, whatever milieu we're in may be enough.

  2. Great point about being ourselves may be enough. I agree. It seems to me there is no point trying to be "great", since whether a thinker is seen as great depends on so many conditions beyond what the thinker herself controls, and conditions which wax and wane. But if a person is honest and true to herself, there is an intrinsic beauty to that, even if one isn't, and isn't seen as, Plato or Confucius.

  3. Academia institutionalizes philosophy and that probably can't be helped. Still philosophy goes on, no?

  4. Definitely, philosophy goes on. Much has been made of how bad it is for basic public services to be privatized, such as health care and education. Not much attention has been given, I think, to the fact that the professionalization of philosophy in the last century or so fits into this trend. Not that the professionalization is ill-intentioned or wrong; it is the inevitable result of larger social forces. But I think it does bring out that a conscious effort has to be made to keep philosophy going as a public activity, and to foster public spaces where it can be shared by all people, irrespective of their situation in society.

  5. Yes, philosophy is not like other disciplines in academia, it's kind of sui generis. I've often wondered, in fact, how best to explain it, especially to non-philosophers when they ask me what I'm into these days or what kind of book I've been working on. Those glazed over looks I get just become even more glazed when I offer pithy accounts. They just don't compute. I've kind of settled on this, though: Philosophy is about understanding while science is about collecting knowledge. But that's not exactly true either because in science we collect knowledge to gain understanding of how stuff works and some of that stuff is ourselves. So it seems that philosophy is already covered and yet, I tell them, it's not because there are different kinds of understanding. While science wants to understand how the world and everything in it works through acquisition of knowledge about things, philosophy wants to understand how our knowledge about things and the uses we put it to work. And that's just to say that it's about understanding our understandings. This account never seems to work though -- or to dispense with the glazed looks I'm afraid!

    But I suspect that it's this difficulty in saying what philosophy is in a terse, easy to get way, that is the source of the problem of philosophy in academia. The academy wants it to be a discipline on a par with the sciences, a matter of research and cumulative progress in something we can know. But if it's just about understanding our understandings it can't really be that because it's finally a matter of personal exploration. We each of us come afresh to philosophy and try to build our understanding of all the things and ways we understand the universe anew each time. Philosophy is personal, like poetry or literature even if it's not supposed to be a matter of spinning tales but of growing insights in ourselves and others. How can university departments deal with that? They must have, as you say, a structure and it must be the sort that enables a stream of new entrants into the system and provides a road for those already in to differentiate themselves and advance. So we get the format that consists of philosophical papers structured for publication and peer review. And we get a focus on the small stuff where each entrant can try his or her hand at adding a little something more to the grand opus that is philosophy.

    But those who came before us, in looser times, had more room, more flexibility in format and methodologies. It's hard to even conceive of Wittgenstein making it today. He'd probably end up being treated like another Eric Hoffer.

  6. I agree with much of what you say. One thing I would add is: the reason there is no one answer to the question, "what is philosophy?", is because there is no one thing philosophy is. The idea that philosophy is some one thing is itself something which fostered by the institutionalization of the subject. Once there is an institution, there has to be something that distinguishes that institution from other institutions: professional philosophy from professional science, from professional art, etc.

    I would say inquiry in general has the following form: some insights B are brought about by moving beyond institutional structures A*, then B are codified and harnessed through institutional structures B*, then insights C are brought about by moving beyond structures B*, which are then codified in structures C*, which are moved beyond by insights D, etc. When an institutional structure seems unshakable and permanent, as if it ought to exist forever, then we have the feeling that the insights of those structures are eternal truths, as if we are latching onto some essential reality. But once that structure starts to break, a need for new insights comes up, and so there is a kind of wandering in the wilderness feeling while new insights so far unharnessed by any institutional structures are developed. From within established institutional structures, what is outside those structures will seem like just the past. But that is partly an illusion created by the structures themselves. For not just the past, but the future, as well is outside the institutional structures.

    Given this form of inquiry, I think the main question isn't, "what is philosophy?", because outside of institutional worries of demarcation, that question doesn't pick out anything in particular. Rather, a more pertinent, fun question is: what are our needs which are not being met by the old institutions, and what can we create anew to meet those needs? That is a way of embracing the future , and not reacting to just being outside of the old institutional structures. The grip of thinking of everything in terms of the existing institutional structures is so strong. Everyday I find myself having to remind myself to think afresh, rather than in just a reactive way to the institutions that already exist. Still a work in progress.

  7. Your formulation would be much harder to convey to a lay questioner by way of answer than even mine is!

    I tend to like pithiness when I can get it because anything more, especially when deployed in ordinary conversation, suggests artifice and unclarity. But, of course, not everything can be pithily explained and I guess philosophy, as you say, is like that! I can't even imagining giving someone without familiarity with philosophy the kind of answer you outline above.

    Not that it's wrong, just that it doesn't meet the need of a quick, concise report of what I mean when I tell someone, in answer to their query about what I'm working on that "well, you know, my next book's a work of philosophy"!

    I get a perplexed look and sometimes "so what's philosophy?" That's when I find myself banging up against a wall of incomprehension and my own inability to explain it in a simple, direct way.

    I think part of the problem with my formulation (Philosophy is about understanding our understandings) is that "understanding," like so many other words, has many meanings, many ways of being understood as it were. So if I say philosophy's about understanding understanding (aside from the peculiarity of THIS formulation), it turns out that my understanding of "understanding" often differs from theirs. Scientific understandings aren't conceptual, though concepts must be rightly understood for science to make progress. And there is certainly a possibility of scientific inquiry concerning how we form and deploy our concepts and how we understand them. Can a machine be built with the right programming so it can understand in a way somewhat like the way we do it?

    Of course I don't have to tell anybody what "philosophy" means or what I mean by the term and so forth. I could just shrug, or smile enigmatically to such questions, or change the subject. But then I feel like I've missed some opportunity and, more, that if I can't tell anyone what it is, how can I suppose that I know what it is myself?

    Perhaps it's best not to talk about any of this, I suppose, but then that seems to be contrary of the whole point of philosophy, doesn't it? A pregnant mysticism, in the Zen sense, just seems to me to miss the point. The point, I think, being able to say what we mean in clear and direct terms. Your reference to the iterative institutional structure of this makes sense but it would leave my lay interlocutors even more befuddled. Perhaps the right solution is just to maintain a fire wall of sorts between philosophy and the other parts of our lives?

  8. Great response. I totally sympathize, as I hit a similar wall myself. And I am not happy either to do the Zen mystical smile/shrug thing. And I agree that explaining philosophy in other terms only raises the questions about the other terms ("understanding", "conceptual clarification", "thinking abstractly", etc.).

    I think the simplest response to "what is philosophy?" might not a descriptive statement at all. It might be to enact philosophy as you practice it in a simple way. Say, by giving an example of the kind of question you are interested in, or the kind of curiosity that is moving you. Or sometimes even better: to ask the other person a question such that it evokes in them the need to do a certain kind of thinking and reflection. Then they would understand what philosophy is not because they know what this X is such that it is different from Y and Z, but what it is such that they might do it as well. It's like if someone asks, "What is pop music?", what is the pithy response one can give, which will demarcate it from rock, jazz, blues, etc.? Pretty hard. Easier to say: Michael Jackson, or Madonna. Of course, this resonates partly because most people know Michael Jackson. Will people have a similar sense if one says re philosophy: Aristotle or Kant or Wittgenstein? In my experience, no. Easier to try to evoke philosophical thinking in the other person, and have them see that it is the kind of thing they themselves might be interested in.

  9. Yes, I think your point is right. In an important sense it's no easier to say what pop music is, as opposed to jazz or classical or folk, say, than to say what philosophy is as opposed to science or any of the particular sciences. There's a continuum at work and people get the meanings of our terms in reference to these things to the extent they have familiarity with those terms already. "Philosophy" conjures up images of Socrates and Plato (to the extent our interlocutors have a picture of them of some sort) though perhaps not so much of Wittgenstein who is certainly less well known. (I was once at a wedding and sitting across the table from me was a psychologist, to my left a physicist. The physicist and I got to talking about the universe and things and the psychologist jumped in. Knowing I was interested in philosophy, he asked me what sort and I said Wittgenstein and he said, ah, I know him, he formulated the uncertainty principle! I didn't know quite how to answer that one, especially with the band blaring nearby.)

    For someone to get what one means in referring to philosophy, one must have an adequate picture to start and pithy explanations stand on such pictures. If they don't have them then the explanation just sort of hangs there in the air and you have to give more information to build the pictures they need for them. But that takes time and, where philosophy is concerned, a lot of work. It wouldn't be enough to just list philosophers of the past or perhaps to throw some philosophical concerns at them because the latter demand not just reference but discussion. Maybe there just isn't any useful way to do this with brevity, huh?

  10. True. A brief response can evoke, or point to, further conversations that are needed, but it can't do pithily do all that work by itself.

  11. I believe there will be many people who share my views when they read this article from you!

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