August 4, 2013

Why do philosophy professors call themselves "philosophers" when law professors don't call themselves "lawyers"?

I think the answer is that "philosopher" sounds loftier than "philosophy professor," but "law professor" sounds loftier than "lawyer." But it could also be that "lawyer" is a specific job that the law professor needs to signal is not what he's doing, but "philosopher" is not a job.

I'm thinking of this question because I see Instapundit linked to my post from yesterday about the philosophy professor accused of sexual harassment, and I was rereading the beginning of the post: "'There was no propositioning,' said the philosopher. 'Remember that I am a philosopher trying to teach a budding philosopher important logical distinctions.'" Boldface added. It's striking. To insiders maybe it's ordinary, but to my ear, it's either beautiful and romantic and somewhat pretentious or romantic.

The word "philosopher" was originally very broad, referring, according to the (unlinkable) OED to "an expert in or student of any branch of knowledge, including the physical and natural sciences, alchemy, prophecy, the occult, etc., but in later use applied chiefly to those versed in the metaphysical and moral sciences." Over time, it became restricted to those in the academic discipline we call philosophy. There's no one left to claim the title "philosopher" but the professors, though you do see the word applied in to nonacademics who express themselves in a philosophical manner. This seems to happen mostly sarcastically: Oh, a philosopher!

I see that in the 16th century the word "lawyer" — spelled "lawar" or "lawer" — was used to mean "A professor of law." That's obsolete, obviously.

You may be interesting to know that the word "lawyer" is used in dialect to refer to "A long bramble" and in New Zealand "to certain creeping plants."
1863   C. Kingsley Water-babies i. 34   The lawyers tripped him up, and tore his shins as if they had sharks' teeth.
1875   Sussex Gloss.,  Lawyer, a long bramble full of thorns, so called because ‘when once they gets a holt an ye, ye doant easy get shut of 'em’.

And in the United States, "lawyer" is used in some locales to refer to the black-necked Stilt (Himantopus nigricollis), the Burbot ( Lota maculosa), and the Bowfin or Mudfish (Amia calva):
c1850   S. H. Hammond Wild Northern Scenes 45   ‘What on earth is that?’ said I to the fisherman. ‘That’, said he, ‘is a species of ling; which we call in these parts a lawyer’.
1859   J. R. Bartlett Dict. Americanisms (ed. 2) ,   Lawyer..the black-necked Stilt... On the New Jersey coast it is some~times called lawyer on account of its ‘long bill.'