“So what do you do for a living?” Now there’s a question that irks many in my field, perhaps as much as the question “what are you studying?” nauseates my students. I can’t speak for my students, but my response is usually the innocuous, “I’m a professor”. Imagine the response at barside. My hope is that the conversation stops there and I can continue to sip my wine or scotch unharrowed by a flurry of questions regarding specifics. But no such luck, as you probably guessed.
One look at me, and my interlocutor can’t help himself: “He’s obviously not an engineer or an accountant!” he thinks to himself. You don’t say! “A professor! How interesting!” surfaces the retort—as does my trepidation. “A professor in what?” That, my friends, is the dreaded question! It’s not that I don’t like what I do or that I’m ashamed of it. On the contrary, I love my vocation. It’s the (mis)understanding and effort involved in explaining myself that inspires reluctance.
“Uh … er … philosophy”, I blurt out somewhat bashful at what I expect next. “I knew it! You’re Greek; it stands to reason!” And then another. “What kind of philosophy?” I swash down a larger quantity of wine or scotch—or, quite frankly, whatever’s nearby. “Philosophy of religion.” An uncomfortable pause. “Wow!” I smile. “That’s amazing!” I smile again. It’s not enough that philosophy is seen by society as a dubious profession, but I also have to suffer further by tacking on religion. “Do you want to be a priest?” I choke. And thus begins my diatribe. “Philosophy of religion is a subdiscipline of academic philosophy that addresses technical questions as … and …. Moreover, ….” I finally stop myself as I try to lower my heart rate. The interest of my interlocutor has noticeably waned. A cloud of incomprehension overtakes his posture. “Well, that sounds interesting. Can I get you another drink?” “No,” I giggle. “I think I owe you one!”
Philosophy, of religion, of history, of life, or whatever, inspires all sorts of reactions that are justified on either side of the academic divide. The disconnect becomes palpable as philosophers (all academic types really) spiral into arcane thoughts to which their initial, innocent questions unwittingly led. And yet both they and non-academic types are always led by an innate sense of wonder that’s either stifled in youth or over-nurtured in adolescence. We wander in life with that propensity either muffled or valued, literally losing ourselves in a business or trade where the “bottom line” guides all our decision making or in an academic discipline where patronage often dictates what’s valuable.
I’ve only recently started to realize that “the dreaded question” occupies an important interstice. What’s really dreadful, in other words, isn’t the question of my interlocutor or even my wary response, but the stalemate reached in our conversation controlled by disconnected worlds. We are no longer the prattlers of youth, to be sure. We’ve gained in experience—should we be so lucky!—and discovered a path in life—should we be so lucky, again! But in our bar-side conversation is a wonderful opportunity to reconnect as humans and to rediscover what the ancient Greek philosophers understood all along: that the love of wisdom (‘philosophy’) is a way of life, an art of living, and not simply an academic discipline. Here is an opportunity to ferret out that other part of our existence interested in the world, invested in our cohabitation in it. “Bartender, I’ll take that drink now, for me and my friend!”