Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Philosophers' Spouses

Between the new daughter and two and a half weeks (so far) of raging sinusitis, it's been hard for me to keep up with the blog. Thankfully, Hagop and Bryan have done some interesting guest posts in the meantime!

But I can't let things go entirely, not without at least tossing out a little food for thought. Here's the food: In my experience, philosophers' spouses (unless they are themselves philosophers) are almost universally disdainful of the value of philosophy -- much more so than the average comparably-educated non-philosopher, it seems to me, and much more so than the spouses of professors in other fields are of the value of those other fields.

Here's a tiny bit of empirical data: Eleven people with no academic affiliation, mostly philosophers' spouses, responded to Josh Rust's and my survey of people's opinion of the moral behavior of ethicists. None of them thought ethicists behaved better on average than non-academics, six thought they behaved the same, and five thought they behaved worse (two-tailed binomial, p = .06). Although the sample size is obviously very small, of all respondents, philosophers' spouses appeared to have the darkest view of ethicists' behavior. (I wonder what ethicists' spouses in particular would say.)

Suppose I'm right about the disdain philosophers' spouses generally have for philosophy. What might explain that? Do they have a clearer view of philosophy than we? Bryan complains that (American) philosophers don't get no respect. Maybe we don't deserve respect, and our spouses are just the ones who know this best?

Update, May 14: Here's one possibility: Philosophy is about confronting questions that resist straightforward resolution and many of which are pretty much timeless. When faced with such a daunting task, most of what we mere mortals can provide is only bunk, even if the bunk-providing philosophers themselves don't realize it. (It doesn't follow that philosophy isn't worth doing.)


Jonathan Jenkins Ichikawa said...

I'm not seeing the step between 'thinks ethicists are no more likely than other people to behave ethically' and 'disdains the value of philosophy'.

I wouldn't guess that that astronauts, shortstops, or master chefs (or ethicists!) are more likely than the average person to behave ethically -- but I have tremendous respect for the value of all of these fields (including ethics).

The Uncredible Hallq said...

In my experience, philosophers are more likely to spend time worrying about the value of philosophy than anyone else. At the very least, they worry about what other people think of them, not realizing in most cases the answer is "they don't." This may or may not be indicative of something ;)

Vitae Scrutator said...

My wife, who is also an academic, always stuffs her fingers in her ears and starts chanting "I can't heeeear you" whenever I start talking about a philosophical subject. The terrible irony in her case is that she is a classicist of all things.

The world will simply never understand Aristotle's point: if it weren't useless it wouldn't be worth doing!

Anonymous said...

I almost burst out laughing because of how well this describes my partner and I. His disdain for philosophy is actually one of the features that attracts me to him. As a philosopher, of course I'm going to want someone who's willing to challenge my most cherished ideas and assumptions.

Anonymous said...

I think it would be interesting to compare how many partners of attorneys, businesspeople and medical doctors also think that those respective fields are just b***sh**.

I'm the child of a businessman, and I learned from his stories about work that many people in that field get paid tons of money for doing absolutely nothing.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for all the comments, folks! I agree with you, Hallq, and if you're describing yourself accurately, anon, I admire that! That's a clever quip, Scott, but I wonder how it plays out if you try to unpack it....

Jonathan: I know you know that I think it's an interesting and problematic issue, exactly what the relationship is, or should be, between philosophical moral reflection and actual moral behavior. But I do think the most straightforward view favors such a connection. I imagine the spouse saying, "Humph! My partner a renowned expert in ethics? Let me tell you a few stories."

Bryan: It would be interesting to do such a comparison. It's an empirical question, and my impression could be mistaken. My claim, of course, is only about averages.

Michael Hoffman said...

Here's my personal data point, as a philosophy grad student who's getting married in the fall:

My non-academic fiancée is not at all disdainful of the study of philosophy. However she is disdainful of philosophers, and of academics generally.

If one were going to investigate this matter further, one would do well to keep this distinction in mind.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Good point!