Email inquiry: What does a philosopher do?

A ten year-old blog reader writes with this question:

Could you explain to me what a philosopher does? I like to write small theories about life, I want to know other people who do that. In the process I found this blog. So please tell me how this works! Thank you.

Hi! There is no single answer to your question, because philosophers can do many things. Some of them teach, some of them write, and some of them apply philosophy in other ways too. Most of them do some combination of these things.

It’s great that you like writing small theories about life, which is an excellent start on doing philosophy. Philosophy scholars who work in universities, colleges and other schools have a few different ways of doing philosophy: teaching, writing, and helping other people think through hard questions about life and the world. How should we live, work, eat, play and treat one another? What is the world like? What is it to have reasonable beliefs about things?

These questions can get complicated really quickly. They also lead into other questions about those questions, and about how we try to answer them. For example, suppose there are different answers to questions of how we should live. Should we try to decide which of the answers are better? How could we do that? What would make better answers better?

A lot of this philosophical discussion ends up being aimed at other philosophers. There is such a thing as philosophical expertise, and this expertise gets developed through some pretty specialized writing and speaking. But philosophers also work with non-philosophers, through their teaching, and through other kinds of jobs. For example, a philosopher might help the people who work at a hospital to make more thoughtful and ethical decisions about their patients’ health. That’s a specific job that many people have, and it often involves people with philosophical training. Philosophers do many kinds of public philosophizing — including blogging on Feminist Philosophers!

People who have been trained in philosophy do all kinds of jobs. Philosophy doesn’t have to be the job you do. Actually that’s pretty rare. It’s a lot more common for people to use philosophical ways of thinking and communicating in doing lots of other things. That is, philosophy can be the way you do things. I’d say a philosophical way of doing things is: reflectively, being open to new ways of thinking, with a particular sensitivity to hidden assumptions that are built into our lives and actions – and whether those assumptions are reasonable when you look at them carefully.

Having a practiced philosophical ability to just pay attention to stuff, in the broadest sense of the term, is a great way to find more transparent, more accurate, more effective, and more ethical ways of living and acting. I hope you keep writing and thinking, and finding value in philosophy!

You are very welcome to reply to this message by posting a comment. As you can see, I took your name out of your email. If you comment, you can make up a name to use, or you can just do it anonymously.


Like many, I was up most of the night last night, patently unable to believe what was happening. I had a lot of time to think, albeit not thinking very clearly. Lots of people with actual expertise will be weighing in on what happened but here’s something I want to say. In laying out who They are, those who voted for Trump, I think a lot is missing. We see most often those “white working class” sorts who are willing to wear t-shirts calling Clinton a cunt or bitch, eager to call for her imprisonment, people in thrall to rightwing or alt-right news sources. Apart from the fact that wealthy white folk had a substantial, ugly share in this result, I don’t recognize the “white working class” or, more accurately, “rural whites” as I know them in these portrayals. I have no interest here in trying to rehabilitate the choice to vote for Trump as other than a catastrophic choice, but I’m struggling to find my way through my reactions, the most distressing of which is running up against the reality that many of these voters are “my people” in a deep sense. I come from them, I am them, and I love many of them.


When I’m not doing philosophy, I farm. I am the fourth generation in my family entrusted with a beautiful few hundred acres resting in the hills of the Ozarks, hillbilly country. Philosophy, I often tell myself, is just my town job: If you’re going to own a farm, you need town job since making a living at farming makes academia look like easy money. But because I do farm and come from rural white people, I live half my life with them.


My extended family and farm neighbors include many farmers, some schoolteachers, veterans, waitresses, folks living on government assistance, and some who make their money in mysterious ways best not closely examined. In my generation, my kin all did finish high school – I am, perversely, the lone high school drop out. Some have more than others but none are financially comfortable; some live on a financial knife’s edge and see collecting walnuts in fall at $15/hundredweight income they can’t decline, though gathering walnuts at this price entails getting far below minimum wage for pretty miserable work. Still, those walnuts are like money just laying there on the ground.

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Put that pantsuit back on

Feminists, the results of the 2016 elections in the U.S.A. are as bad as you think they are. I appreciate the observations of my friends and colleagues that the effects of the elections will be bad — for too many, dangerous — and have long-term consequences for decades. Many are disappointed, heart-broken, afraid. Those feelings make sense and can lay one low.

When you’re ready, though, remember that this is not our first rodeo, that we didn’t really believe racism and sexism were ever actually gone, and that we are still here. We still gave more of the popular vote to a feminist woman than the President-Elect received, and the single best hope of reducing the amount of harm before us is to start the race for seats in the House of Representatives in two years.

You might have worn a pantsuit yesterday or all-white clothing in honor of the suffragettes, a t-shirt saying you’re with her or that today, pussy grabs back. You probably need a break from even looking at that sticker, pin, or yard sign that you sported with hope. But when you’re ready, we’re going to need you to, metaphorically speaking, put that pantsuit right back on.

I heard a bit of the victory speech by Trump today, the portion in which he said that running for President was the hardest thing he’s ever done. Get ready to make it harder — after you catch up on that lost sleep, of course. Before you fight the patriarchy, you must have something to eat.