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Jack Weinstein

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What is Philosophy?


I just got back from a long vacation. It was my first real non-working vacation in maybe two decades and since I’ve returned I’ve been thinking about writing the blog, but my mind has been a blank. I was out of the country for Anthony’s wiener (thank God), and I will admit that I had never heard of, nor know anything about Casey Anderson Anthony. Frankly, I haven’t been compelled to write about anything lately and it feels like the philosophical part of my brain has been shut off.

I am a professional philosopher and, not surprisingly, I see the world in a certain way. I watch movies, read books, and engage in conversations with frequent and automatic mental references to people, theories, controversies, and phrases. But even so, that kind of stuff is a background conversation and most of the time I can engage with family, friends, the folks I meet on the street, and various mail carriers, cashiers, and baristas without any hint of philosophizing. Putting the philosophy “up front” takes effort and while it feels natural, it does so in the way that using a stick-shift does, not in the way that chewing should. In other words, it seems like an artifact of a habit rather than a natural way of being. This made me wonder whether philosophical thinking ought to be considered as a form of “work” or not.

As a total aside, I feel really weird every time I use the term ‘barista’, as if it’s a made up word. (Firefox thinks it’s misspelled, adding support to my attitude.) I know it’s originally Italian, but it feels both fake and pretentious. I looked it up in the Oxford English Dictionary and it’s first use was in 1982 when I was 13. This explains it. In my brain, it is grouped with other fake words, like “tweeting” and “muffin top.” Here, for all you word lovers, is the OED entry:

barista, n.
Pronunciation:  Brit. /baˈriːstə/ , /bəˈrɪstə/ , U.S. /bɑˈristə/ , /bəˈrɪstə/
Inflections:  Plural baristas, (rare) bariste, (irreg.) baristes.
Etymology:  < Italian barìsta (plural barìste; 1939–40) < bar (see bar n.1 28a) + -ista-ist suffix.(Show Less)

  A bartender in an Italian or Italian-style bar. Also spec. (orig. U.S.): a person who makes and serves coffee in a coffee bar (the more frequent sense in English).

1982    P. Hofman Rome, Sweet Tempestuous Life 24   A good barista can simultaneously keep an eye on the coffee oozing from the espresso machine into a battery of cups, pour vermouth and bitters‥and discuss the miserable showing of the Lazio soccer team.

1988    Boston Globe (Nexis) 13 Dec. 61   A feisty but cordial competitor to the larger caffeine chains the [Boston Coffee] Exchange has unfurled a help-wanted poster titled ‘Learn to be a coffee barista’.

1990    Atlantic Nov. 157/2   This ritual unites all the baristas in Italy. But not everyone accomplishes the layer of light-colored crema, or foam, that is the pride of an expert espresso-maker.


When I use the term ‘work,’ I mean more than effort but less than employment. I probably mean something close to what Marx meant by labour (or labor, for my English speaking, barista-loving readers): the willful doing/creating/altering of things; a combination of mental and physical activities that only become real when someone actually exercises it. Philosophy is this, for me, and, as Marx would happily point out, since it is my profession, it is also something that I can buy and sell, and whose product gets taken away from me.

But if philosophy is simply work in this sense then it is in the same category as making cars or filling out TPS reports. It would be in the same realm as building a dam or painting my house, but it doesn’t seem right to lump them all together because I know that when my philosophical brain is engaged, I see the world differently than I do otherwise. (Not that a carpenter doesn’t see a house differently than I do.) For example, Shaun of the Dead is great fun when I’m zoning out on the couch (if anyone knows Simon Pegg, please introduce us), but it is a brilliant vehicle for cultural examination when I am thinking about it philosophically. Interacting with my daughter is automatic in many respects if, but if I think about her perspective, her needs, and her future philosophically, the entire experience is changed. It becomes much richer. It adds – pardon the Marx again – distinct value to the experience. It also takes much more conscious effort. It is harder. (Speaking of my daughter, don’t forget to listen to the next episode of WHY?. It’s about teaching philosophy to children.)

Obviously, writing this blog is work. It is also a labor of love (or a labour of love for the non-American English speakers and UB-40 fans), but the philosophical thinking behind it is more ambiguous. So, I wonder if any of you have thoughts about this. Does my brain’s ability to turn philosophy off and on make philosophical thought more like work than other forms of automatic thinking? How about the fact that philosophical thinking is significantly more difficult and more tiring than non-philosophical thought? If these do turn it into work, what does this say about creativity, since the two kinds of thinking are certainly related? And, if we become habituated to something, does it remain work even if it doesn’t feel like it, or does it stop being work because it’s automatic? Finally, if philosophical thinking is indeed a kind of work, what does this mean for reading this blog? Am I imposing added work upon you and does this become less or more problematic if you (or I) get pleasure from the process? Philosophy is immensely enjoyable for me. How does that change the whole equation?

Do help me answer these questions. They are too much work for me to address on my own.

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