What Are Some of Your Sayings?


If I’m remembering correctly, T.M. Scanlon recounts a story in which a person sitting next to him on a plane asks him what he does for a living. Scanlon admits he is a philosopher, and the fellow passenger asks, “What are some of your sayings?” Jonathan Wolff has an old column that mentions this story (he has apparently heard a few different versions, so perhaps he did not have Scanlon in mind), and he takes the point of telling it to be to “illustrate the deplorable ignorance of the sort of person” who would ask such a question. But I don’t think the story was initially intended that way. I recall a certain kind of ruefulness to it. A sense that, at least in part, it’s a pity that we don’t have something pithy and practical and memorable and wise to say to nonexperts that could convey some of our ideas, that we don’t live up to the popularly imagined ideal of the philosopher.

I think philosophers should have sayings and be untroubled to share them with the public. They are good PR for philosophy, I think, and at the very least they are helpful mnemonic devices. Hilary Putnam cautions: “any philosophy that can be put in a nutshell belongs in one.” Fine. Don’t put the whole philosophy in the nutshell. There may be specifications and qualifications and exceptions and justifications left out. Your fellow philosophers will tacitly understand that. If you see your sayings as prompts for further reflection, rather than as comprehensive summarizations, you will be able to give people an idea to take with them and think about, without feeling as if you are being philosophically careless.

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Justin Weinberg
6 years ago

We have to be realistic about how realistic we can be.Report

Matt Matravers
6 years ago

The quotation (to “illustrate the deplorable ignorance…) is from Jo Wolff’s column, but as the rest of the column makes clear, he doesn’t repeat the story to make that point.
I think a slightly different take on the story is that it illustrates how little the public knows about what philosophy is about. I have got used to finding the philosophy section in bookshops (which is usually quite small) by looking out for the “self-help” section (which is usually quite big), but my heart sinks a little each and every time… (my father – an applied mathematician and cosmologist – usually finds the “astronomy” section of bookshops by looking out for “astrology” and records much the same reaction.)
Having “sayings” of the kind you suggest won’t help much with that.Report

Justin Weinberg
Reply to  Matt Matravers
6 years ago

“Philosophical sayings will not fix bookstore shelvings.”Report

Matt Matravers
Reply to  Justin Weinberg
6 years ago

That made me laugh.
I enjoy the blog, thanks.Report

colinfarrelly
colinfarrelly
6 years ago

“The unlived life is not worth examining”. Something I think many of us workaholic academics forget! 🙂Report

Luke Ford (@lukejf01)
6 years ago

I can relate to this post in general, but it also made me think of this specific quote: “…and whatever a man knows, whatever is not mere rumbling and roaring that he
has heard, can be said in three words.” – Ferdinand Kurnberger.Report

Kris McDaniel
Kris McDaniel
6 years ago

Real objects have real boundaries.Report

Simon Evnine
Simon Evnine
6 years ago

The statue and the clay – one, and yet not one.Report

Matt Burstein
Matt Burstein
6 years ago

Don’t start none, won’t be none.Report

Douglas W. Portmore
6 years ago

Act so as to make the world the way you ought to want it to be.Report

Matt McAdam
Matt McAdam
Reply to  Douglas W. Portmore
6 years ago

Yikes! You’ll never get out of that normative rabbit hole.Report

JPL
JPL
Reply to  Matt McAdam
6 years ago

Act so as to make the world the way we all ought to want it to be.Report

Thom Brooks
6 years ago

“Philosophy never sleeps” (and also my motto).Report

Jonathan Weisberg
6 years ago
David O. Brink
David O. Brink
6 years ago

Know your limitations (h/t Socrates, Clint Eastwood).Report

Adrienne Martin
Adrienne Martin
6 years ago

The essence of enframing is that setting-upon, gathered into itself, which entraps the truth of its own coming-to-presence with oblivion.Report

Daniel Groll
Daniel Groll
Reply to  Adrienne Martin
6 years ago

Hah! You should embark on a project of saying this when people ask you to summarize your philosophy and then report back with the findings.Report

Dale Miller
Dale Miller
6 years ago

Those who can do, those who can’t teach. I teach ethics.Report

justinrweinberg
Reply to  Dale Miller
6 years ago

That is very similar to Eric Schwitzgebel’s saying, I think. (Replace the “I” with “some”.)Report

Rob Lawlor
6 years ago

I have some sympathy for this one – and you can get it on a T-shirt
http://www.zazzle.co.uk/coercive_paternalism_it_s_not_as_bad_as_it_sounds_tshirt-235633612808722619Report

Mark Anderson
Mark Anderson
6 years ago

One rarely has time to be a philosopher: one is so busy as a professor of philosophy.Report

Mark Anderson
Mark Anderson
6 years ago

Sophia as agôn: Sometimes a Platonist. Sometimes a Nietzschean. Always both.Report

David Boonin
David Boonin
6 years ago

It’s complicated.Report

Noah Greenstein
6 years ago

Everyone who is more dogmatic than you is an idiot and everyone who is less dogmatic than you is a lunatic.Report

Alan White
6 years ago

Much of the misery of the world can be traced to mistaking certitude for certainty.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
6 years ago

The physical world is constantly branching into countless parallel universes.

(Does that count as philosophy?)Report

Jerry Dworkin
Jerry Dworkin
6 years ago

There was once a very wise old man, a sage, who lived at the top of a tall mountain. One day a novice sought him out to ask a question.
“What holds up the earth?”
“The earth rests in the hands of a giant.”
“But, then what holds up the giant?”
“The giant rests on the back of an elephant”
“What holds up the elephant?”
“The elephant rests on the back of a turtle”
“But, what holds up the turtle?”
“My son, from there on down, it’s turtles all the wayReport

Jerry Dworkin
Jerry Dworkin
6 years ago

A Philosopher is someone who worries that what works in practice will not work in theory.Report

PV
PV
6 years ago

The meaning of life is….cardboard!Report

mlr
mlr
6 years ago

This could easily become a post-graduate version of lolmythesis.com

Maybe lolmyresearch?Report

Adam
6 years ago

“It’s a sad state of affairs.”Report

Rachel McKinnon
Rachel McKinnon
6 years ago

“Certainty is knowledge with sprinkles.”

…uttered in an upper level/grad seminar on epistemology this year.Report

RK
RK
6 years ago

“The falsest of all false paths, philosophy”Report

Dhananjay
Dhananjay
6 years ago

1. The enemy of genuine self-understanding is taking either the historian’s attitude to one’s past or the curator’s attitude to one’s present.

2. In all fairness, it’s only Whiggish history and priggish curation that pose the problem.Report

Matthew
Matthew
6 years ago

This reminds me of when my microbiology/immunology lecturer asked me whether I wanted to major in microbiology or immunology. I told him that I was thinking of studying philosophy and asked him if he had any thoughts on philosophy. He laughed and responded by saying something along the lines of “I have my own philosophy”.Report

JPL
JPL
6 years ago

Now if we can only get these people to ask us, “What questions are you pursuing?”Report

SCM
SCM
6 years ago

Don’t drive with your Strawsonian reactive attitudes switched on.Report