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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