Philosophers are different from the rest of us, even "the rest of us" when they're mostly graduate students and non-philosopher intellectuals. Or, anyway, a lot of the philosophers and "philosophically inflected" people I've encountered have been, well, different.
I got the first inkling of this factoid in the very late 1960s when an
instructor I knew and liked from my time in the University of Illinois
Microbiology Department told me about preparing to teach a
"science-and-society" type honors seminar for advanced students in
Micro. His premise was that the life sciences moving into the 1970s was
like physics moving into the 1930s: workers in the life science were
about to run into some major ethical quandaries, and he thought it
important to get budding biologists to start discussing the sort of
questions scientists of earlier generations hadn't resolved until too
late (if at all): questions about the social, political, and ethical
implications of their work.
So the Micro. man called the U of I Philosophy Department and asked to
be put in touch with a philosopher who could talk to his class. The Head
of the department said, more or less, "Well, we could send over Harry
Tiebout. You know Harry?" And the Micro. prof responded that of course
he knew Harry; everyone knew Harry; Harry Tiebout taught a highly popular course in comparative religions and was chairman of the Champaign County Democratic Central Committee. Harry would be fine for one session, but, he asked, how about an ethicist?
I only got the microbiologist's side of the story, and I'm
reconstructing it from memory — but what I remember is that the
microbiologist said the Head of Philo. said, "We don't study those
aspects of the field; we're an analytic department" — which I'd write as
movie dialog as, «We don't do ethics, sir; we, sir, are a philosophy department!»
My real introduction to the issue, though, came shortly after that when
I went to conferences of Danforth Graduate Fellows, or just Danforth
Fellows, as we were called at the time.
(I received mail from the Danforth Foundation at my department office
addressed to "Richard D. Erlich, DF," which got me kidded by colleagues
since at the time "DF" meant "dumb fuck," and my colleagues complimented
me for using that designation with my name, or the Danforth
Foundation's knowing me that well. I passed that story on to the
Foundation staff because I thought it was funny — and they changed the
initials. But I digress.)
If you own a pet or a herd of mammals or run a lab, you've contributed to the Danforth family fortune — they're the Ralston-Purina people and make "NAME OF TYPE OF ANIMAL Chow," including, if Futurama got its prediction right, "Bachelor Chow" in the 31st
century. And Danforth folk used to give really nice fellowships that
would support graduate Fellows in all manner of fields through the Ph.D.
And in the late 1960s and early 1970s they'd have conferences, bringing
us DF's together.
So I got to meet bright young people from across a broad spectrum of
disciplines: usually guys at the time, but a few gals, fairly
consistently not jockish enough or quite top-drawer enough to get a
Rhodes Fellowship or a Marshall, and/but with a good record, good
potential, strong interest in teaching — beyond its keeping a guy out of
the Army — and at least some interest in religion (William H. Danforth,
our Founder, was big on Christianity).
At the conferences we'd break into groups and do little projects
requiring cooperation and compromise, and, for the most part, we did
this efficiently and pretty easily. A LitCrit type such as I could
communicate and work with an engineer or a zoologist or whatever … or
After one particularly frustrating session, someone suggested, "Look,
why don't we divide up into just two groups: those who've taken more
then thirty hours of philosophy, and those who haven't." It was a good
For whatever reasons, these young philosophers just seemed to think
differently from the rest of us. More exactly, they undoubtedly thought
human thoughts of the mid-20th-century, educated-American
variety, but with enough differences that they had trouble communicating
and cooperating with the rest of us, and vice-versa; and those
philosophy students seemed convinced that the rest of us just had
Moving into the late 20th century and early 21st,
the LitCrit field got far more philosophically respectable, and I got
increasingly uncomfortable as literary criticism — criticism in the arts
generally — decreased in status, and scholarship along with it; for a
book or article to earn prestige, it had to have capital "T" Theoretical
significance. One had to think Theory.
Even with Theory that denied certainty and insisted on ambiguities and
celebrated fuzziness — even then one needed firm definition of terms and
explicit statement of method and self-conscious examination of one's
process(es) and, in general, rigor in dealing with ideas. And one needed
to deal with ideas.
What one mostly didn't need was what most of us peasants in other
fields thought of as data: evidence from either nature observed or
experimented with, from examination of a text or other work of art.
Indeed, one of my colleagues only half joked that he rather resented
getting to the portion of an article in a literature journal where he
was expected to say a word or two about a story or poem, or a play,
film, or whatever: "Texts get in the way of my Theorizing." And in one
case, I pointed out a place in an excellent feminist discussion of Paul
Verhoeven's RoboCop (1987)
where the author could cite a shot in the movie that would cinch her
point. She thanked me politely and ignored the suggestion: she did what
she wanted to do — what I saw as a philosophical disquisition — without
needing much about what audiences would see and hear in a theater.
(She was talking about masculinity in RoboCop.
There's a shot in that film where a criminal kicks Robo in the crotch,
and the criminal goes down in pain. "Hey, what a man that Robo is! He's
got balls of …. Oh …." Indeed. RoboCop only has a crotch: no testicles,
no penis. What you see is what he's got: Robo has the biggest, baddest
gun on the firing range, and, the ultimate macho body, but he's a
eunuch: a fighter only, not a lover. The same point is made in Jim
Cameron and Gale Anne Hurd's The Terminator ,
except more so: there the ultimate Schwarzeneggerian fighting-machine,
macho-man isn't a man at all, just the literal ultimate fighting-machine
of a Terminator hunter/killer-robot.)
The times have probably changed already; intellectual fashions move
more slowly than fashions in, say, clothes or hair styles, but, by
definition, all fashions change — and Theory had had a long run by the
time I retired in 2006. Plus, I only encountered a small sample of
philosophers, and, more important, the "philosophically-inflected" in my
fields were subject to some degree of disdain from a fair number of
their philosophy-department colleagues.
Still, most of us most of the time when we're trying to think seriously
are still pretty vulgar empiricists: we like to check our ideas against
the world as it can be directly perceived or at least encountered
through lab instruments. For most of my professional career, there were
robust and influential schools of thought that were pretty solidly sure
facts were a myth — and that relying overmuch on evidence was no way to
You may find yourself dealing with students brought up in those schools
and now out in the world. For several recent academic generations, the
Philosophy Department may've been very small, but Philosophy reigned in
many of the big humanities departments. And for good and for ill, such
semi-pro philosophers can be really, really different.
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