When Professional Philosophers Talk to Non-Professionals

After writing a post on “The Hazards of Online Philosophizing,” I now offer some additional tips for fellow professionals when talking to non-professional intellectuals. I hesitate to post this, because … it opens me to the charge of elitism and arrogance. I hope that people who know me well realize that I’m well-intentioned even if a bit foolish at times.

professionalized conversationnel étiquette

1. Fellows, we might have career hazards, or it might just be me. No, seriously, it might just be me. I run into a lot of “friends of philosophers” who love intellectual conversation, but do not have the argumentative social graces that professional philosophers develop. Since we argue for a living, either now or in the past, we have come to accept disagreement and requests for justification in stride. However, interested but non-professionalized interlocutors may not have this, and thus can be provoked very easily. Or maybe it is just me, but I suspect that enough of my fellows have had this happen to them: routine and banal arguments in professional circles become grenades in amateur contexts. Honestly, I try to avoid serious conversation with interested strangers–hard to do online–since neither professional training nor prior social relations will hold them back should they feel provoked.

professional vs. amateur levels of conversation

2. Fellows, we face another problem related to the one of professionalized etiquette. How many of you have started a professional-level or just specialist conversation with a colleague or friend, when an amateur or non-specialist arrives on the scene, enters the conversation, and then flounders in the previously high-level or esoteric talk? It happens often to me, and leaves me with a dilemma that I propose to you. Obviously, the conversation is going to change presuming that all participants will engage, but the noted dilemma occurs when the amateur or non-specialist asks about the prior conversation. I have lost count of the demands to translate or bridge conversations: do so and it kills your prior conversation while also opening you up to much misinterpretation. Do not do so and the person might be upset or resentful–since I’m omitting the non-problematic outcomes.

unfair cultural demands

3. Fellows, we face a problem that few other professionals feel so keenly. If you are an American in America, you know that intellectuals and education are often not respected, and few have it worse than philosophers. Unlike medical doctors, who have about the same duration and intensity of training as philosophers or sometimes even less, everyone on the street thinks that they have the right to challenge you on your specialty. No average Joe questions a doctor’s medical decision casually, but many if not most will try to go toe-to-toe with a philosopher. I do not know how my fellows handle it, but I try to avoid conversations amateurs who are strangers at all costs. Once I embraced such conversations as being in line with being a public intellectual, but it requires the emotional constitution of an Abrams tank: impervious. I applaud those who can do it, because you need that armor since most everyone feels a right to take potshots and offer arguments without the slightest bit of forethought. As anyone with teaching experience well knows, most Americans think that everything is a matter of personal belief (until they change their mind), yet the cultural distaste for intellectuals emboldens people in ways that medical doctors do not face. (If your reaction is to note that “but doctors are useful,” then you just quietly took a shot.)


3 Replies to “When Professional Philosophers Talk to Non-Professionals”

  1. “Unlike medical doctors, who have about the same duration and intensity of training as philosophers or sometimes even less, everyone on the street thinks that they have the right to challenge you on your specialty.”

    I’m sorry, but that’s not even remotely true. To become a doctor you need ‘at least’ 4 years in pre-med (though it’s certainly not uncommon to take 5), 4 medical and 3 residency. To acquire a doctorate in philosophy, assuming it takes about the same time as other ‘knowledge producing’ terminal degrees, a student is looking at eight–perhaps even nine? Without going into a fruitless argument about whether doctors ‘work more’ at their residency, or at medical school, isn’t there a strong argument that since medical students take two to three more years of studying they have a longer duration and, perhaps, even a longer ‘intensity?’

  2. Amy,

    A PhD in philosophy requires a bachelors degree (4 years), a master’s degree which should take no less than 2 years, and a PhD that takes not less than another 4. This is common for most humanities PhDs. Of course, few complete their degrees on schedule, and the average is approximately 8 years, but I am setting that aside. Hence, the whole process takes 10 years with 6 years of post-graduate education. That is approximately how long it takes to complete an M.D. in general practice even *if* we include residency. However, an M.D. requires 4 years and does not require residency unless one specializes. On the other hand, without some residency an M.D. is not easily employable, so it is a debatable point of whether one counts residency or not, which can go tfrom 1-3 years. Regardless, your figures are misleading. I suspect you are equating an M.D. with a PhD, but they are not directly comparable. Aside, I would note that I have a PhD, medical doctors among family and friends, and have discussed this point with them for hours.

    Hence, your argument is refuted, and I can only assume that you are unfamiliar with the profession since this was not a debatable point. Only the surgical specialities obviously require more time than a PhD., but those are extra certifications … which makes since because an M.D. is not a “terminal degree” in the way that a PhD is.

  3. p.s. Please see point #1, and if you’re tempted to argue further, remember #3. You’ll have to blind-side me with something to avoid the conclusion, and I would welcome the correction if so.

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