Are Philosophers Scruffy?

by Harry on October 14, 2007

I’d never noticed. Larry Solum has a long passage explaining why they are. Worth reading in full. Me, I’m never scruffy any more, because I always wear a tie to work (because of something James Tooley once said, and Geoff Whitty donating the first tie). And, as everyone knows, its impossible to be scruffy wearing a tie.



des von bladet 10.14.07 at 3:55 pm

I’m never scruffy any more, because I always wear a tie to work

For this causal relationshipt to be sound, we must presumably accept one of the following

You are never not at work; or
“Scruffiness” is a property only applicable to work situations.

Neither seems entirely satisfactory; in the interests of clarity and, especially, rigour, could you elaborate?


harry b 10.14.07 at 3:59 pm

I think its more that I only think of myself as a philosopher when I’m at work, so that is the only occasion when scruffiness of philosophers is at issue. Bloody hell you lot are nitpicky these days.


MR. Bill 10.14.07 at 4:17 pm

Well, Diogenes would have been highly scruffy.
Kant, or Descartes, not so much.
And Philosophers are notoriously drunken:

Immanuel Kant was a real pissant
Who was very rarely stable.
Heidegger, Heidegger was a boozy beggar
Who could think you under the table.
David Hume could out-consume
Wilhelm Freidrich Hegel,
And Wittgenstein was a beery swine
Who was just as schloshed as Schlegel.

There’s nothing Nietzche couldn’t teach ya
‘Bout the raising of the wrist.
Socrates, himself, was permanently pissed.

John Stuart Mill, of his own free will,
On half a pint of shandy was particularly ill.
Plato, they say, could stick it away–
Half a crate of whiskey every day.
Aristotle, Aristotle was a bugger for the bottle.
Hobbes was fond of his dram,
And Rene Descartes was a drunken fart.
‘I drink, therefore I am.’

Yes, Socrates, himself, is particularly missed,
A lovely little thinker,
But a bugger when he’s pissed.-Monty Python, the Bruce Philosopher’s Song


Matt 10.14.07 at 4:18 pm

Harry- I’ve seen that tie and think that it might very well _help_ qualify one as scruffy. I was more than a bit sure that it was being worn as an ironic fashion piece, designed to mock the idea of wearing a tie by wearing one that was in style 15 or 20 years ago.

(I say this, of course, as one who must, quite literally, make a serious effort to not dress in rags on any given day. I’m in no position to criticize anyone for their fashion sense or style. But really, it’s a pretty funny tie.)


tom s. 10.14.07 at 4:20 pm

“because of something James Tooley once said”.

and what was that?


Chris Brooke 10.14.07 at 4:29 pm

It’s an old, old theme in the history of philosophy. Marcus Varro calculated that there were 288 logically possible sects of philosophers, 144 of which would be scruffy (“following the fashions and the habits of the Cynics”) and 144 of which wouldn’t be scruffy.

Augustine of Hippo discusses all of this at the start of Book XIX of City of God, though he judges that he needn’t take this particular distinction especially seriously as he sets about trying to refute all logically possible sects of philosophers in one go.

Over a thousand years later, Francis Bacon also had something to say about philosophers’ scruffiness, but I don’t have the particular remark to hand. (Maybe I’ll post it here later. Or someone else can remind us what it was.)


John Emerson 10.14.07 at 4:33 pm

Scruffiness is a contemporary philosophical trait which, for once, I fully affirm.


Nabakov 10.14.07 at 4:54 pm

As long as your intellect is freshly starched and folded just so, you have nothing to fear from those unassisted by valets each morning to preapare for the day.

No? Fuck it then. Fling on a cravat. T’will make the three day growth look like a considered statement of high Bohemianism instead of the half-arsed ennui of someone hiding hungover razor burn.


Gene O'Grady 10.14.07 at 5:20 pm

I think one can exclude physicians from the generalization that ties exclude scruffiness.


ejh 10.14.07 at 5:32 pm

a ragtag group, sweaty, gloomy, badly dressed, gulping down fast food, defeated in some fundamental way

Though that’s not actually philosophers….


airth10 10.14.07 at 5:54 pm

Scruffiness is a characteristic that covers all disciplines, not just philosophers, like absentmindedness.


djw 10.14.07 at 6:01 pm

Matt @ 4 dangerously conflates scruffiness and being unstylish. I distrust anyone who can speak with authority and confidence on whether this or that tie is currently “in style,” let alone precisely how long ago it was.


Matt 10.14.07 at 6:12 pm

It was a pretty scruffy tie, djw- the sort that a scruffy hipster from the 80’s might have worn. I know what sorts of ties are in-style with the real tie-wearing crowds because when I’m playing lawyer I spend a lot of time around them. Thankfully I’m able to get away with my one 12 year old suit most of the time since I’m not the sort of lawyer who dresses up very well.


Drake 10.14.07 at 9:01 pm

Scruffy is the new well turned-out.


Kieran Healy 10.14.07 at 9:45 pm

Philosophers, pfft. On the scruffiniess front, I have heard the conjecture made that — even though it seems like this should be a self-defeating statement — it is impossible to be the worst dressed person at the annual meetings of the British Sociological Association, even if you try.


djw 10.14.07 at 11:54 pm

Fair enough. I’m from Seattle, where ties are banned outside of about eight square blocks downtown where the suit-wearing specimens dwell.


vivian 10.15.07 at 12:58 am

When I first went to grad school, there were three intimidatingly brilliant political theory professors. I took comfort in the knowledge that they all had very messy hair, usually because while teaching, they would all run fingers through and tug on it. I figured between the messy hair and the absentmindedness, I was practically guaranteed tenure somewhere.



a cornellian 10.15.07 at 1:04 am

But do you herd nerfs?


Tom Hurka 10.15.07 at 1:37 am

Isn’t it a fact that male professors who wear ties get better student evaluations? I’m sure Harry gets great ones.


Aaron Krill 10.15.07 at 6:18 am

Of course we’re scruffy. Scruffy is the essence of free thought. ;-)


Chris Bertram 10.15.07 at 7:18 am

Re Kieran at 15, the full passage is quoted by Chris Brooke at

bq. … but you have to hand it to US academics: they sure know how to organize a conference that feels like a serious business convention. There were actually men and women there in suits, especially those silver-sheeny ones in a mottled semi-reflective material that looks as if they descend from a job-lot of curtain lengths delivered by UFO somewhere over Colorado circa 1955… By dressing below this level, it was possible to regard oneself as a marginally dangerous intellectual presence, or at any rate a marginal one. (In the UK, by contrast, it is physically impossible to dress so low as to be the worst-dressed person present at the Annual Conference of the British Sociological Association).

Alan Carling, “Rational Choice Marxism and Postmodern Feminism: Towards a More Meaningful Incomprehension” in Rational Choice Marxism, ed. Terrell Carver and Paul Thomas, Pennsylvania University Press, 1995, p.301.


ben saunders 10.15.07 at 9:20 am

I’m surprised no one here has yet picked up on the claim that Dutch academics trangress the limits of decency by wearing white socks:


Katherine 10.15.07 at 9:58 am

I reckon IT nerds can out-scruff-whilst-wearing-ties nearly anyone on the planet. My other half actually had, and wore, a 10 year old South Park tie. No really.


Thom Brooks 10.15.07 at 10:25 am

I don’t buy the view that philosophers are any more scruffy than other groups. I blame Plato’s Symposium and its introductory note of what a rare treat is was to find Socrates bathed abd wearing new sandals for the picture of philosophers as scruffy.


Chris Bertram 10.15.07 at 12:02 pm

Did Socrates wear socks with his sandals?


John Protevi 10.15.07 at 1:34 pm

There’s also a code at the APA meetings such that scruffiness denotes high status. Only desperate job-seekers wear suits; those who already have jobs don’t.

But regarding the continentals as PIBs (People In Black): a revolt is forming, led by Rosi Braidotti. Pastels have been seen!


rea 10.15.07 at 2:27 pm

[G]reat confusion ensued, and every one was compelled to drink large quantities of wine. Aristodemus said that Eryximachus, Phaedrus, and others went away-he himself fell asleep, and as the nights were long took a good rest: he was awakened towards daybreak by a crowing of cocks, and when he awoke, the others were either asleep, or had gone away; there remained only Socrates, Aristophanes, and Agathon, who were drinking out of a large goblet which they passed round, and Socrates was discoursing to them. Aristodemus was only half awake, and he did not hear the beginning of the discourse; the chief thing which he remembered was Socrates compelling the other two to acknowledge that the genius of comedy was the same with that of tragedy, and that the true artist in tragedy was an artist in comedy also. To this they were constrained to assent, being drowsy, and not quite following the argument. And first of all Aristophanes dropped off, then, when the day was already dawning, Agathon. Socrates, having laid them to sleep, rose to depart; Aristodemus, as his manner was, following him. At the Lyceum he took a bath, and passed the day as usual. In the evening he retired to rest at his own home.–Plato, Symposium


thag 10.15.07 at 2:31 pm

I was delighted to see the stripes/checks theorem, because that was one I had actually constructed myself, though more by way of generalization from cases than by deduction from first principles.

But what the complaint about the finite undecideability of G really reveals is a deeper fact at issue:
people who have a sense of style don’t *need* algorithms, and people who need algorithms are *never* going to get a clue.

What we’re dealing with here is something entirely non-algorithmic in nature: it’s closer to a secondary quality in things.

Imagine a color-blind person trying to come up with an algorithm for “green”–it would be hard to do, of course, but more to the point, it would be completely unrelated to how color-sighted people keep track of greenness.

That’s why, if you ask someone (your girlfriend, e.g.) for a complete and exhaust set of rules for what counts as “clashing”, she will say “it’s not a bunch of rules, you moron, you just *look* at it, and you can see it clashes!”. And then you realize that you were born fashion-blind, and there’s not much you can do. Someone can try to tell you phenylthiocarbamide tastes like, but if you cannot taste it, no algorithm can function as a substitute.

So the very fact of *looking* for an algorithm shows you that the person looking for it does not yet realize how deeply clueless they are.


lindsey 10.15.07 at 3:50 pm

I’m happy to say this post coincides with my observation of the philosophy teacher at Lycee Littre. It makes me feel at home, really. I would have felt a bit strange if he was well put together. And ps, I think you may qualify as scruffy. Tweed jackets and cutesy ties aren’t a cure all :)


harry b 10.15.07 at 7:44 pm

Tom — lindsey thinks I’d get better evaluations if I wore some UW Madison paraphenalia, but it isn’t going to happen. My distrust of the evaluations system is extreme, and I do get great evaluations, but I think it has more to do with my jovial manner and english accent than the ties…

Honest, matt and lindsey, I know I’m scruffy, and regard myself as the second best bit of evidence that one can be scruffy while wearing a tie (my dad is the best bit). I was kidding.

Tom S — Here’s the story. I was a guest at a large “Question Time” – type event in London with Tooley and a couple of people connected with the government. Whitty was the moderator. Tooley dresses impeccably, and when I walked into the blue room he said, with genuine disappointment, “Oh, Harry, you could at least have worn a tie”. SO, a few months later when I letf, Whitty gave me a U of London tie as a parting gift (and a sort of joke). When I got back to Madison I started wearing it to work, my wife thinking the habit would last about 3 weeks. But I still do it 5 years later, and feel wierd without it now. But, scruffy I remain.


rea 10.15.07 at 8:19 pm

Whitty gave me a U of London tie as a parting gift (and a sort of joke). When I got back to Madison I started wearing it to work, my wife thinking the habit would last about 3 weeks. But I still do it 5 years later, and feel wierd without it now. But, scruffy I remain.

Man, if you have one tie, which you’ve been wearing every working day for five years, you definitely qualify as scruffy.


lindsey 10.16.07 at 7:10 am

I stand by the Badger gear advice. Val and I can help you pick something out! It would definitly make you look smart (as the English keep saying over here).


o 10.16.07 at 5:04 pm

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