What Are Some of Your Sayings? (for World Philosophy Day)


[The following was originally published on August 1, 2014. I thought that revisiting the question could be a fitting and fun activity for World Philosophy Day, which is today.]

[Tom Wesselmann, “Study for Mouth, 8”]

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
9 years ago

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

Matt Matravers
9 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.

Justin Weinberg
Reply to  Matt Matravers
9 years ago

“Philosophical sayings will not fix bookstore shelvings.”

Matt Matravers
Reply to  Justin Weinberg
9 years ago

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

colinfarrelly
colinfarrelly
9 years ago

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

Luke Ford (@lukejf01)
9 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.

Kris McDaniel
Kris McDaniel
9 years ago

Real objects have real boundaries.

Simon Evnine
Simon Evnine
9 years ago

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

Matt Burstein
Matt Burstein
9 years ago

Don’t start none, won’t be none.

Douglas W. Portmore
9 years ago

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

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

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

JPL
JPL
Reply to  Matt McAdam
9 years ago

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

Thom Brooks
9 years ago

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

Thom Brooks
Reply to  Thom Brooks
3 months ago

Still my motto

Jonathan Weisberg
Jonathan Weisberg
9 years ago

Think indifferent.

David O. Brink
David O. Brink
9 years ago

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

Adrienne Martin
Adrienne Martin
9 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.

Daniel Groll
Daniel Groll
Reply to  Adrienne Martin
9 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.

cecil burrow
cecil burrow
Reply to  Daniel Groll
3 months ago

Sadly, I don’t think it would be much different from the reactions to most of the suggestions.

Dale Miller
9 years ago

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

justinrweinberg
Reply to  Dale Miller
9 years ago

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

Rob Lawlor
9 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-235633612808722619

Mark Anderson
Mark Anderson
9 years ago

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

Mark Anderson
Mark Anderson
9 years ago

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

David Boonin
David Boonin
9 years ago

It’s complicated.

Noah Greenstein
9 years ago

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

Alan White
Alan White
9 years ago

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

David Wallace
David Wallace
9 years ago

The physical world is constantly branching into countless parallel universes.

(Does that count as philosophy?)

Jerry Dworkin
Jerry Dworkin
9 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 way

Jerry Dworkin
Jerry Dworkin
9 years ago

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

PV
PV
9 years ago

The meaning of life is….cardboard!

mlr
mlr
9 years ago

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

Maybe lolmyresearch?

Adam
9 years ago

“It’s a sad state of affairs.”

Rachel McKinnon
Rachel McKinnon
9 years ago

“Certainty is knowledge with sprinkles.”

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

RK
RK
9 years ago

“The falsest of all false paths, philosophy”

Dhananjay
Dhananjay
9 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.

Matthew
Matthew
9 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”.

JPL
JPL
9 years ago

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

SCM
SCM
9 years ago

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

cecil burrow
cecil burrow
3 months ago

To be is to be the value of a variable.

cecil burrow
cecil burrow
Reply to  Justin Weinberg
3 months ago

Quine thinks that to be is to be the value of a *bound* variable. My saying makes the unbelievably radical and bold claim that we should extend this to *free*variables.

Kevin Carnahan
Kevin Carnahan
3 months ago

Heraclitus Has entered the chat.

Carolyn Dicey Jennings
Carolyn Dicey Jennings
3 months ago

Your mind is alive!

Sophie Horowitz
3 months ago

This was Steve Yablo, I think!

Stephen Main
Stephen Main
3 months ago

“The Nothing that is, and the Nothing that isn’t.” (Emerson)

Marcelo Fischborn
3 months ago

Sure, you will hold and be held responsible. But you can and should try to do both better.

Eric M Campbell
Eric M Campbell
Reply to  Marcelo Fischborn
3 months ago

You can and should try to do better than hold responsible.

Animal Symbolicum
3 months ago

The bumper-sticker version of my dissertation:

In mathematics, writing systems can show us things written natural languages merely tell us about.

Matt Dean
Matt Dean
3 months ago

What makes someone’s life go best? (Parfit, but the question mark is mine).

Eric M Campbell
Eric M Campbell
3 months ago

First my own, then a related one from Mary Oliver.

“You are never angry or suffering for just the reason you think.”

“Everyone knows the great energies running amok cast terrible shadows, that each of the so-called senseless acts has its thread looping back through the world and into a human heart.”
 
 

Sam Duncan
3 months ago

No one making less than $75,000 a year will ever tell you money doesn’t matter.

Talk of “late capitalism” is to folks with humanities PhDs what talk of the “end times” was to my grandmother who dropped out of school in the eighth grade.

Logan Mitchell
Logan Mitchell
3 months ago

My two favorite Zen sayings (with big philosophical implications!):

“Before enlightenment, chop wood and carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood and carry water.”

And from Thich Nhat Hanh, “No mud, no lotus.”

Fritz Allhoff
3 months ago

“The obstacle is the way” Now that I think of it, not too far from Nietzsche: “What does not kill me makes me stronger.” Or “ignus aurum probat, miseria fortes viros.” All same ballpark.

Curtis Franks
Reply to  Fritz Allhoff
3 months ago

Classically equivalent to Nietzsche’s line, but somehow more resonant to me: “What doesn’t make you stronger will kill you.”

Devora Shapiro
Devora Shapiro
3 months ago

With great power, comes great responsibility.

Andrea Reynolds
3 months ago

A few I’ve heard myself say: “Nothing is what it seems.” “Things can always get worse.” “An argument must start with an agreement.” “That’s a technical problem not a logical one.” “Prove it.”

Hermias
Hermias
3 months ago

“Try being human first”

(For when I get carried away with seeking the unconditioned)

Avram Hiller
3 months ago

If nothing matters, then that doesn’t matter either, and we can approach our lives with joy and good humor instead of despair. (Adapted from the last line of Nagel’s “The Absurd”.)

Reading that my freshman year of college was a big part of why I wanted to do philosophy, and has since rescued me on a number of occasions.

Last edited 3 months ago by Avram Hiller
Kenny Easwaran
3 months ago

Everything that matters comes in degrees.

John Glenn
3 months ago

Live every day as if it might not be your last.

Steve
3 months ago

Not mine, but one I say often:

“If a lot of people love each other, the world would be a better place to live.”

  • Tommy Wiseau
Sam Duncan
3 months ago

Two more I can’t claim, but which ought to be better known:

“Whatever may be wrong with the world, at least is has some good things to eat.” – Cowboy Jack Clement

“Books are mirrors. If an ape peers in, you can’t expect an apostle to look out.” Georg Christoph Lichtenberg

Lichtenberg’s fantastic and his aphorisms really ought to be better known in English. He’s got an excellent philosophical mind and more than a few of his criticisms of Kant are so perceptive they ought to be standard classroom fare. Honestly, while I’m being self-indulgent here I think someone should point out that there’s a real case to be made for aphorisms as a very respectable genre of philosophy. Nietzsche, Adorno, and Confucius all wrote them as did, arguably, Wittgenstein.

Nick Davila
Nick Davila
Reply to  Sam Duncan
3 months ago

Not to mention Heraclitus, Seneca, Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard, Kafka, Weil, and Cioran, to name but a few other examples from mainland Europe alone. Philosophical examples from the rest of the world (Buddhist, Egyptian, Islamic, Mesopotamian, Taoist, etc.) are too numerous to list, as are examples from other fields of human endeavor (Sun Tzu, Michelangelo, Karl Kraus, etc.).

Max Cherem
Max Cherem
3 months ago

I’ve always liked the aphorism:
“don’t let the perfect be an enemy of the good”.
Slight variants of this can be found in Voltaire, Montesquieu, and Shakespeare (in King Lear).

Bill W
Bill W
3 months ago

The taller the tree, the longer the fruit.

Dennis Arjo
Dennis Arjo
3 months ago

If you’re going to paint a tree you should probably go look at one. (Heard in a beginning painting class).

Christopher Gauker
3 months ago

I remember Don Garrett telling this story about being on an airplane. But maybe my memory is leaving something out and he was attributing it to someone else. Can we get to the bottom of who actually told this story first?

Kaila Draper
3 months ago

1/3

Kris McDaniel
Kris McDaniel
3 months ago

I was asked this question once on an airplane a decade ago. I said, “Real objects have sharp boundaries.”

Stephan Torre
Stephan Torre
Reply to  Kris McDaniel
3 months ago

Does this mark a change in your philosophy stated in the comment below that real objects have *real* boundaries? Also, I thought your philosophy was “another day, another dolor”.

Kris McDaniel
Kris McDaniel
Reply to  Stephan Torre
3 months ago

Heh, I might have been misremembering what I said on the airplane. Though probably I thought then that a real boundary is a sharp boundary.

“Another day, another dolor” is one of my sayings, no doubt. 🙂

Dutch grad student
Dutch grad student
3 months ago

“The world isn’t what it seems, but it isn’t anything else, either.”

A quick search led me to questionably reliable at best websites saying that this is a quote by Raymond Queneau, but I don’t know if that’s correct.

Steve
3 months ago

I am the arbitor of truth, as are you. Where our truths align we can build

Clive Anderson
Clive Anderson
3 months ago

The God of the Bible exists.

Nick Davila
Nick Davila
Reply to  Clive Anderson
3 months ago

The God of the Bible exists in the same way that Pegasus and the present king of France ‘exist’.

Shane Epting
Shane Epting
3 months ago

So, there is that.

Ted Parent
3 months ago

May’s Maxim: “There is nothing so dangerous as a maxim.”
(Obviously not my saying, but still relevant here.)

Last edited 3 months ago by Ted Parent
Hallelujah Daisy
Hallelujah Daisy
3 months ago

your body knows how many cigarettes it needs

Bill Kennedy IV
Bill Kennedy IV
3 months ago

There’s no such thing as a professional philosopher.

Samuel Vincenzo Jonathan
Samuel Vincenzo Jonathan
3 months ago

suspense your judgement!

Moti Gorin
Moti Gorin
3 months ago

You smelt it you dealt it.

David Smith
3 months ago

This is a problem that can’t be solved by the dictionary.

David Smith
3 months ago

Philosophy is in the options business, not the truth business.

Peter Alward
Peter Alward
3 months ago

You can do lots of things with lots of things.

Happy Monad
Happy Monad
3 months ago

“I don’t know why we are here, but I am pretty sure it is not in order to enjoy ourselves”
– Wittgenstein

Charles Pigden
Charles Pigden
3 months ago

Truisms acquire importance by being denied.

Charles Pigden
Charles Pigden
3 months ago

‘Know thyself? Not quite! Rather acquire a rough working knowledge of thyself and then move on!

Charles Pigden
Charles Pigden
3 months ago

A variation on Oscar Wilde and Lady Gaga:

To love oneself is to begin a lifelong bad romance.

Charles Pigden
Charles Pigden
3 months ago

No-Ought-From-Is is trivial – but its triviality is quite important!

I actually believe this and have said so in various places. I suspect that there are quite a number of of theses X that could be truthfully and interestingly substituted for ‘No-Ought-From-Is’. Parlour game?

Charles Pigden
Charles Pigden
3 months ago

Many conspiracy theories are crazy or unbelievable, but they are crazy or unbelievable because there are crazy or unbelievable, not because they are conspiracy theories.

Again I actually believe this and have said so repeatedly in print.

Charles Pigden
Charles Pigden
3 months ago

‘Know thyself’ – this is often said by people who wouldn’t recognise themselves if they met themselves coming in the opposite direction on a fine summer’s day.

Charles Pigden
Charles Pigden
3 months ago

If conspiracy theories *as such* were intellectually suspect, history would be bunk. History is not bunk. Ergo conspiracy theories *as such* are not intellectually suspect.

Charles Pigden
Charles Pigden
3 months ago

Are good break-up ballads worth their weight in bad romances?

(Variant on ‘Does Art justify Life?’)

Charles Pigden
Charles Pigden
3 months ago

Morality is a fiction, sometimes useful, sometimes not.

or

Morality is a fiction, sometimes pernicious, sometimes not.

Again, I subscribe to both these propositions

Charles Pigden
Charles Pigden
3 months ago

Power is often like Tinkerbell – if enough people ceased to believe in it, it would cease to be.