APA Member Perspective: “You’re a philosopher, eh? What do philosophers do?”

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by Nick Byrd

“You’re a philosopher, eh? What do philosophers do?” I’ve had trouble responding to this kind of question recently. In what follows, I’ll mention a few stories and then pose some questions about how to answer this kind of question.

1. Students

During office hours, one of my students asked, “So what do philosophers actually do?”

I said something like, “They read stuff. They write stuff. They talk about the stuff they read and write.”

The student gave me a blank stare. I don’t blame them. I was as disappointed with my response as they were.

After an awkward silence, the student asked, “But what do philosophers do for work?”

Apparently philosophy isn’t more than a hobby.

2. Other Academics

Last week I was at a campus event where people from various departments were mingling. I was talking with an electrical engineer. After he told me about his work, he asked me about mine. I told him that I do philosophy. He looked confused.

“What?” I asked.

The engineer responded with a lengthy string of vaguely dismissive rhetoric. It was clear that he was not a fan of philosophy, but beyond that, I was having trouble following his thought process. So I asked for clarification. “Do you mean to say that philosophy is useless?”

“Yeah. I think that is what I am saying.”

This is when I should have said something like, “Interesting. That sounds like a philosophical claim.” Then I could have walked him through the way philosophy could show how his rant lacked philosophical rigor.

Here’s what I actually said: “I’ve been getting that a lot lately.”

3. Family

Even my own mother isn’t sure about this philosophy stuff. If anyone gets me and supports me, it’s my mom. When I wanted to spend a stupid amount of money on an old muscle car that barely worked, she went with it. When I started pursuing a career in acting, she went with it. But when I tell her about philosophy, she’s got questions.

I was recently talking to my mom about a workshop. She wanted to know about the process of workshops. I hadn’t even finished explaining the review process and she was confused.

“Wait—these people ask you to travel somewhere to talk about a paper that they’ve already read?”

I explained that most of the time only some people will have read the paper before the presentation. And then I explained that the most valuable part of the conference is usually the discussion that follows the presentation.

“Hmm. All right.”

That’s my mom’s way of saying, “I love you, honey, but I’m not buyin’ it.”

4. The Philosophy Pitch

Let me be the first to admit that I’m doing it wrong. My philosophy pitch is…well, boring. And my delivery is awful. When someone asks me about what I do, my first (and now-automatic) response is a sigh.

What can I say? When people so reliably respond to philosophy with confusion or condescension, I become a little insecure. Unfortunately, insecurity doesn’t help. It just makes my next philosophy pitch even worse. I need to break the negative cycle.

And in order to do that, I need a better philosophy pitch. I need a quick and interesting way to describe what I do. I don’t need to to convince everyone that philosophy is important. I just need to give philosophy a fair chance.

5. Three Kinds of Response

It would be handy to prepare at least three kinds of response. A one-liner would be nice for those moments when you’ve got to introduce your work in a jiffy. An elevator pitch would be handy for those times when you have a moment to explain a nuance about your work. And a cache of Socratic questions would be great for those times when there’s no telling how long you’ll be talking about your work.

6. What Do You Do?

I have a few ideas for each kind of response, but I imagine the hive mind of philosophers can jointly come up with better ideas. This is where you come in.

  • What do you say when people ask about what you do?
  • What responses are well received?
  • Has anyone convinced their mom that philosophy was a good career move?

Nick Byrd is a philosophy Ph.D. student and a member of the Moral and Social Processing Lab at Florida State University. He studies reasoning, willpower, and well-being. He blogs about these and his other musings on his website here


The aim of this series is to provide APA members with some insights into professional philosophy from a variety of sources and perspectives. If you have an opinion, we encourage you to share it in the comment section of this post. If you would like to submit a contribution, we’d love to hear from you. Please contact us via the submission form here.

12 thoughts on “APA Member Perspective: “You’re a philosopher, eh? What do philosophers do?”

  1. I’m not a professional, but even as a hobbyist I get those reactions and challenges.

    Here’s roughly what has worked for me before:

    “While other fields deal with the What and the How of the world, philosophy deals in the Why… plus it’s responsible for all the mindblowing in the world.”
    Mostly, people react well to humor. Humor has always been the most effective method of ensuring that your explanation has an impact. Take a page from satirists and jesters: good ones are master philosophy communicators.
    When I told my mom that I was going to switch majors from computer science to Philosophy and Psychology, she reacted like yours: raised eye brow, concerned questions, and the eventual “Well alright then, I hope you know what you’re doing.”


  2. I tell people that I teach philosophy. When pressed further, I tell them that I draw on a wide range of disciplines to address issues that make a difference to the quality of life on the planet–issues like racism, genocide, dehumanization, and self-deception. I tell them that I see my role in large measure as helping others — students and the general public — to think clearly, honestly, and courageously about questions that really matter.

    This response never elicits perplexity or a dismissive attitude.

  3. Here’s an all-purpose answer that you might consider: “We solve problems that other researchers can’t solve, because they lack the proper tools and training.” You might then want to elaborate with an example.

    My current favorite is the question of whether autonomous cars should be programmed to kill the driver in order to save five pedestrians (standard Trolley problem). I often ask my interlocutors – especially STEM academics – something like, “Do you really want computer programmers, engineers, or corporate executives making these kinds of decisions? Or would you rather consult a community of researchers whose job it is to understand what ought to be done in exactly these kinds of situations?”

    Just don’t stick around long enough to say anything about what should be done.

  4. Some one-liners from social media outlets:

    @GordPennycook: we get paid to think. (https://twitter.com/GordPennycook/status/702542328511250432)

    @TomStafford: we consider the coherence and implications of ideas (https://twitter.com/tomstafford/status/702541596185772032)

    @AdamVS1: (https://twitter.com/adamvs1/status/702480370013495298)

    @ArtirKel: Engineering is just a tool to make our lifes easier so that we can devote more time to philosophy (https://twitter.com/ArtirKel/status/702546997681786880)

  5. Here is how to deal with the question, “What do philosophers do?”

    First ask, “Do you know who Kary Mullis is?” Few do. Then say, “He is a famous scientist. He even won a Nobel Prize for doing the research that made Jurassic Park necessary. He often gets asked, “What is the Nobel Prize good for?” He invariably responds with some variation of, “The Nobel gets you the babes. The babes dig the Nobel.” [At this point it is important to stress that you are merely reporting – you are not endorsing – Dr Mullis’s views. Otherwise you will be sent to consciousness raising summer camp. That covered, you go on:] “So, summing up, Dr Mullis clearly engaged in scientific research of the very highest order. But – evidently – he did the science to win the Nobel Prize, and he wanted the Nobel because “the Nobel gets you the babes,” as he puts it.

    “‘What do philosophers do?’, you ask? We try to explain what, if anything, is wrong with having a motivational structure like that.” Then you start talking about Republic 4, etc.

  6. With all caveats that I know we don’t all do all the same stuff, my one-liner most recently was to someone who suggested work should make something, and then said, “What do philosophers make?” I replied, “Questions, and often to people who don’t want to answer.” He actually didn’t reject that right away, which in this particular case, was progress.

    My elevator-length pitch, since he did at least pause, was, “We even offer possible answers to the person we’re questioning, because some of the most important questions have been carefully thought through in the past, so people today don’t have to re-invent the wheel, but should probably think about what sorts of answers and assumptions they are leaning on.”

    More succinct may be the recent Facebook picture-post going around, of a dialogue that went like this:

    S: “Why is Philosophy important?”
    P: “I don’t know. Why is Science important?”
    S: “Well, because Science –”
    P: “Aaaand you’re doing Philosophy.”

  7. Best to give examples, IMO. My efforts to explain what philosophy is to scientist fans, inspired the below two responses.

    Most examples are negative, for example why Laurence Krauss’s book title is misleading ‘A Universe from Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather than Nothing’ as the title pretends challenge the idea of God, yet leaves quantum mechanics and general relativity unexplained.

    Positively, theory-creation such as how Einstein’s use of thought-experiment is a fundamentally philosophical enterprise, is another.

    You could even point people to (abstracts of) classic philosophical works, I suppose. They would then have a hard time arguing that philosophy does nothing. If they want something useful, you could point then toward J.S. Mill’s ‘Utilitarianism’, or some other foundational political classic.

    However, I think that you might find that even this kind of answer doesn’t satisfy.

    I took a maths degree years ago, before computers were as huge a thing as they are now, and I had answers for the social utility of mathematics, but what people wanted was an answer to a different question: how will you contribute within the same social compact that I contribute?

    This question is at one level one of fairness, and at another level relates to perceived self-worth through engaging in a common social enterprise. ‘Employers hire philosophers’ doesn’t quite satisfy, for employers don’t hire philosophers to do philosophy but rather for their better rationality. A quasi-religious response will satisfy Maslow’s hierarchy type concern, but not why they should pay taxes for you to do it.

    You can probably satisfy such a query if you can first demonstrate the value of philosophy to them, and then the value of having some individuals such as yourself ‘pushing the boundaries’ and refining knowledge in a detailed way.

  8. What do you do?

    I teach why all the other disciplines in the university attempt to do what they do. Providing the biggest picture is what my job is. Give me a study X, I examine why it is that we do X.

    X-discipline? We do uber-X. We are uber-thinkers.

  9. Most often when I’m asked what I do, it’s coming through UK immigration, and I say “I’m a lecturer at Durham university”. Then they ask what field, and I say “philosophy” and that’s it.

    I’ve managed to escape most awkward conversations with, e.g., people sitting next to me on planes by dint of either reading material that they clearly have no clue about (I’ve caught businessmen checking out the book MS on trinitarian syllogising that I was refereeing…) or by having my kid with me. And my social circles in person involve either philosophers, people who know philosophers, or people who share one of my hobbies, a hobby which is even weirder than professional philosophy. But when someone does ask, I usually say “I’m a logician”, following that up with “no, I’m not in logistics” or “no, I’m not a magician”, depending on how they misheard/interpreted what I said. If they ask what that is, I can then talk about patterns of good and bad reasoning, etc.

    So, my advice? Rather than saying “I’m a philosopher”, say what it is you do. “I am interested in how we know things about the world”. “I study the fundamental nature of being”. “I teach and do research on ethics”.

  10. I build supercomputers at various universities and teach postgraduate researchers on how to use them.

    Whilst that may seem a long way from a philosophy degree, my eagle-eyed assistant is also a philosophy graduate!

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