Mark Balawender, PLATO’s communication coordinator and grad student at Michigan State recently interviewed Elena Spitzer, a graduate student at Wisconsin about her project, the tumblr website, A Philosopher at Work:

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1) Mark: This project is really interesting, and it looks like you’re getting lots of participation. Can you tell me a little about it?

Elena: I recently started this Tumblr blog with pictures of philosophers drawn by non-philosophers – The idea came from thinking about the relatively low proportion of women who major in philosophy and wondering what people think of philosophers and philosophy before they’ve had much formal exposure to it.

I would love to get more submissions! I think drawing a picture of “a philosopher at work” is a really great way to start a discussion with non-philosophers about what philosophers do and what it’s like to be a philosopher. This is a good activity for groups of all sizes and ages. It might be especially useful in an intro philosophy class. I’ve done it with groups ranging from 3rd graders to undergraduates to working adults. I got connected with an after school program and went in and did some philosophy with them — they drew before and after pictures. It was a lot of fun!

People can submit their pictures on this page – or by emailing

2) What gave you the idea for the site, and why did you think it was important to solicit all these opinions about what a working philosopher looks like?

tumblr_muppmtSfxM1shdvldo1_1280I’ve done a fair amount of thinking about the under-representation of women and minorities in philosophy (see for graphs!). This is a problem that starts at the undergraduate level and then gets worse as you move up the academic ladder (see, for example, “Quantifying the Gender Gap“). I was working on a presentation related to undergraduate retention in philosophy. After reading a draft of Thompson et al.’s “Women and Philosophy: Why is it ‘Goodbye’ at ‘Hello’?“, I got to thinking about what undergrads think of philosophy before they are exposed to it in school.

Thompson et al. found that “Female students and black students seemed to feel out of place in the philosophy classroom… These feelings likely contribute to these students’ being less likely to pursue philosophy.” If it’s the case that women and minorities don’t come to mind when you think of a philosopher, then if you are a woman or minority student, then it might be easier to conclude that philosophy probably isn’t for you.

The inspiration for using pictures to get at this question came from a the “Who’s the Scientist” project done by the Science Education Office at Fermilab.

3.) The submissions you’ve received so far: were they what you expected when you started the project?

I didn’t know exactly what to expect when I started the project. I figured that there would be a lot of men and beards and glasses, since I think that’s what even professional philosophers often think of when they think about philosophers.

4.) Are there any elements or tropes that reappear frequently? What do you make of them? From my browsing I see a lot philosophizing being done at tables/desks.

tumblr_msrjjgJupX1shdvldo1_1280There are definitely some tropes in the pictures. Most of the pictures are of men — presumably white men, though it’s not always easy to tell. As expected, there are a lot of beards and glasses.

Many of the pictures have a very strong historical aspect — e.g. Newton, Hume, Buddha, Einstein, Einstein playing tic-tac-toe, Benjamin Franklin, A Doaist Priest.

We’ve also seen two depictions of philosophers people-watching at parks (here and here), which was surprising to me. I don’t know many philosophers who work this way.

One thing that surprised me was the amount of math and science that shows up in the pictures — for example, physics/biology/geometry, chemistry, calculus, lots of equations, algebra & trigonometry.

One thing that sticks out for me about most of the pictures is that they’re almost always of just one person thinking alone (often at a desk). There’s very little dialogue or interpersonal engagement depicted in most of the pictures. It seems like philosophy is largely understood as a solitary activity. A philosopher at work often seems to be at work alone. I think this perception is often shared by professional philosophers, though, personally, I think it is problematic.

5) Are there any lessons we philosophers should take from these representations of public perception about us?

I think one lesson for philosophers is that our students do come in with some preconceived notions about who philosophers are and what philosophy is like. We don’t usually think of philosophy classes as a place to influence students’ ideas about what philosophers do, but this may be an important aspect in a student’s thinking about whether or not he or she fits into philosophy as a discipline — whether philosophy is for “someone like me.”

I think these insights into public perception of philosophers should remind us to emphasize to our students the wide variety of subjects philosophers think about and the wide variety of people who can be good philosophers. I would love to see more pictures like this one and this one — anyone can be a philosopher!




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