Once upon a time, there was a graduate student at UC Riverside whom I will call Student X. (If you are associated with UCR and think you can guess who Student X is, I think you will probably guess wrong.) There seemed to be a general sense among the faculty that Student X was particularly promising. For example, after a colloquium at which the student had asked a question, one faculty member expressed to me how impressive the student was. I was struck by that remark because I had thought the student's question had actually been pretty poor. But it occurred to me that the question had seemed, superficially, to be smart. That is, if you didn't think too much about the content but rather just about the tone and delivery, you probably would get a strong impression of smartness. In fact, my overall view of this student was that he was about average -- neither particularly good nor particularly bad -- but that he was a master of seeming smart: He had the confidence, the delivery, the style, all the paraphernalia of smartness, without an especially large dose of the actual thing.
Since then, I have been collecting anecdotal data on seeming smart. One thing I've noticed is what sort of person tends spontaneously to be described, in my presence, as "seeming smart". A very striking pattern emerges: In every case I have noted the smart-seeming person has been a young white male. Now my sample size is small and philosophy is about 75% white male anyway, so I want to be cautious in this inference. Women and minorities must sometimes "seem smart". And older people maybe have already proven or failed to prove their brilliance so that remarks about their apparent intelligence aren't as natural. (Maybe also it is less our place to evaluate them.) But still I would guess that there is something real behind that pattern, to wit:
Seeming smart is probably to a large extent about activating people's associations with intelligence. This is probably especially true when one is overhearing a comment about a complex subject that isn't exactly in one's expertise, so that the quality of the comment is hard to evaluate. And what do people associate with intelligence? Some things that are good: Poise, confidence (but not defensiveness), giving a moderate amount of detail but not too much, providing some frame and jargon, etc. But also, unfortunately, I suspect: whiteness, maleness, a certain physical bearing, a certain dialect (one American type, one British type), certain patterns of prosody -- all of which favor, I suspect, upper- to upper-middle class white men. If you look and sound like Lisa Kudrow and end every sentence with a rising intonation, it is going to be much harder to seem smart than if you look and sound like Matt Damon. But Lisa might actually be the smarter one. (I don't think there is a single trait of smartness, or even of being a smart philosopher, but let's bracket that for now.)
Here's the twist: Student X actually ended up doing very well in the program and writing an excellent dissertation. I suspect that's not because he started out with better tools but rather because he rose to his teachers' expectations. There is ample evidence in educational psychology that student performance tends to shift toward teacher expectations. Tell girls that girls on average do less well on math tests than do boys and the girls will in fact do less well. Tell a teacher that a particular student will do well and the change in the teacher's expectations will cause that student to actually do better (the Pygmalion effect). Life's not fair.
I hereby resolve to view skeptically all judgments of "seeming smart".