What is philosophy and why should I care?

It happened again. This time in a public place. I was walking with the crowd into Central Station when I stopped to talk to one of the charity workers who hover like butterflies about the station entrance. These guys usually freak me out a bit – with their friendly handshake that holds you in place and their sales patter cloaked as bonhomie – but I was feeling playful on the day, and so I went along with it, waiting for my chance to explain how I was already donating to a handful of charities and would rather keep my credit card details to myself, thank you very much.

The spruiker must have picked me for a tough sell because he played the long game. Instead of diving straight into an account of his employer’s good works, he decided to inquire into mine.

‘That’s an interesting set of sideburns you’re sporting, mate’, he said. ‘I bet you have an interesting job. What do you do?’

Did I groan aloud? I’m pretty sure I swallowed it. But I knew what was coming.

‘Well, I write’, I said. My interlocutor beamed expectantly. ‘Philosophy’, I added, after a pause. ‘I am a philosopher’.

That killed it. It always does. I’ve never had a hostile reaction from anyone. But the response is rarely what I’d consider positive. Usually, you see a glazed look appear in the other’s eyes. I imagine cogs and wheels turning in their brain as they try to slot you into some recognizable social role. Philosophers don’t fit – that’s the problem. A philosophy academic passes muster because he or she has an office, working hours, a salary and tax bracket – all the things that go to comprise a recognizable social function. But philosophers per se have no function. It confuses people.

‘Philosophy’, the spuiker replied, recovering himself. ‘That’s great! So … what is your philosophy?’ [Read more…]