My sayings

Thu 03 May 2007 10:06 AM

Brian Leiter links to a cheeky column by Jonathan Wolff that begins in this way:

Several philosophers claim to have had the following conversation on long-haul flights: "And what line of work are you in?" "Me? I'm a philosopher." "Oh, really? And what are some of your sayings?"
Wolff notes that many philosophers are reluctant to talk about the profession with the hoi polloi. He thinks this is because self identifying as a philosopher is necessarily presumptuous, as if you were to tell the person in the seat next to you that you were a wise man or a guru.

I don't remember ever having been asked for some of my sayings, but it is a softball question. It invites a glib, goofy answer.

I was recently asked a question, my response to which undercuts Wolff's modesty hypotheses. My wife and I are buying our first house. At the home inspection I am distracted by a thousand things, none of them philosophical. I mention my profession to the inspector as we entered. As he is finishing up, he makes small talk by asking who I think is the best contemporary philosopher.

This is a tough question. I have no ready answer for it. Moreover, it is not clear whether he means to be asking about the philosopher who is most exalted in the profession, the one whose work I find to be the most advanced, or the one he should seek out were he to go looking for some philosophical reading. It is not even clear that he is determinately asking about any of these.

At that moment, however, my mind is filled with house thoughts. None of those distinctions come clearly or quickly enough to mind that I can ask him to clarify. I parry the question by asking, "Am I allowed to count my own work?" Fortunately, he laughs. Was this a successful jest, or did it just make me sound like a jerk?

Maybe I should have a stock reply to that question, because I have been asked it before. And maybe I should have a few sayings ready for the long-haul flights.