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The Contributions of Jeopardy! to Western Philosophy

Ronald Lindsay on a novel, if slightly desperate, way of funding philosophical research.

Many people are not aware that the American game show Jeopardy! provided the funding for the completion of one of the seminal works in contemporary bioethics, namely Self-Determination, Suicide and Euthanasia. Never heard of it? Well, I am disappointed. This is the title of my dissertation and I assure you it makes for an enlightening and engrossing read.

In any event, here is the story of how my efforts to satisfy the two distinct ambitions of appearing on Jeopardy! and obtaining my Ph.D. turned out, quite unexpectedly, to be mutually supporting.

Obscure Objects of Desire

I did graduate work in philosophy at Georgetown University from 1974-77, completing my course work and comprehensives, but not my dissertation. Along with numerous others who have traveled this path, I enjoyed the status of an ‘ABD’ (all but dissertation). At this time, I decided to take a break from philosophy to go to law school. It is not entirely clear what my motivations were, but the prospect of paying for my rent out of my own funds may have had something to do with it.

After graduating from law school in 1980, I went into civil practice, but I never abandoned my interest in philosophy. I kept up my contacts with some of the faculty at Georgetown, who encouraged me to complete my graduate studies. They indicated they would work with me to devise a schedule that would allow me to write my dissertation, while continuing to work as a lawyer. (And I thought they were my friends!) Accordingly, in 1990 I re-enrolled as a graduate student, and was given five years in which to complete my work.

At the same time, I was trying to secure an invitation to appear on Jeopardy!, the long-running quiz show that perversely demands its contestants provide the correct response in the form of a question. The source of this particular desire was the same as it is for many who have watched the show: an indefinite number of occasions in which I shouted at the contestants on my TV screen, “How did you get on the program when you don’t even know (fill in the blank)!”

And the Answer Is ...

As Aristotle can attest, achieving many of one’s goals in life requires both some skill and some luck. Becoming a contestant on Jeopardy! is no exception. Being a genius is neither necessary nor sufficient. In fact, it may be a disadvantage, as geniuses tend to specialize in their area of expertise, and specialization will definitely not assist you on the long, tortuous path to an appearance on the show. For those interested in becoming a contestant on Jeopardy!, here are a few daunting statistics to bear in mind: From 15,000 to 20,000 persons take the qualifying test annually. About 1,500 pass the exam, and of these about one-third actually make it on the show. (This information is as of 1995; I would think the numbers have not changed much in the meantime.)

As indicated, the first hurdle is the qualifying test. This is, without a doubt, the most difficult exam I have ever taken in my life. The principal reason for its difficulty is the breadth of knowledge required. The test consists of 50 questions, each of which must be answered within ten seconds, from 50 different categories. Granted, there is some overlap among the categories because many of the categories, such as British Monarchs, Famous Firsts, Presidents, etc., draw on knowledge of history. Similarly, there are several categories that touch on literature and geography. However, there are many other distinct categories, including categories which draw on supposed ‘general’ knowledge (such as Cooking or Potent Potables) or, worse, knowledge about various forms of entertainment (such as TV Sitcoms or Record Albums). For someone who is a bit of a bookworm and has a troubled relationship with popular culture (meaning me), these categories can spell trouble. Officially, there is no set score one has to achieve to pass, but it is an open secret that one must answer correctly a minimum of 35 of the 50 questions.

Those passing the qualifying exam are then invited to participate in a mock version of the game, which is played immediately after the results of the test are announced. Following the mock game, the show’s contestant coordinators conduct one-on-one interviews, presumably to determine whether you fit their idea of a ‘good’ contestant. After all this, prospective contestants are then informed that they will be contacted if and when the show determines there is a need for them. Applications are kept on file for a year; if you do not hear within that year, you have the privilege and opportunity of taking the qualifying test again.

I took and passed the qualifying exam in June, 1993. I did not receive a call from Hollywood during the next twelve months. Was it the crack I made about Alex Trebek’s wardrobe during the interview?

Meanwhile ...

Back at my dissertation, I was making some progress, if one calls abandoning a substantial portion of my proposed topic progress. (I was planning to discuss the problem of personal identity and the relationship of this issue to the morality of assisted suicide and euthanasia. You see the connection, I’m sure.) Actually, I was about halfway through, but time was running out. Georgetown had granted me an extension until the summer of 1996, but I realized that unless I was able to take about three months off from my legal practice in 1995, the dissertation would never be completed. My firm indicated its willingness to provide me the time off, but it was unpaid leave. Given the irrational demands of my children that they be fed and housed, it did not appear the dissertation would get done.

Fortune Smiles

Then in late December, 1994, eighteen months after passing the test, I unexpectedly received the call. I was invited to Hollywood, at my own expense of course, for a chance to appear on the show. No reason was offered for the delay in contacting me, and I did not press for an explanation. Given my cash flow situation, I admit I did hesitate for about two seconds, but I decided to take the gamble. In fact, I decided to fly out two days early and room at a good hotel (name not disclosed for reasons to become obvious below) because I wanted to be rested and alert for the show.

On game day, I was ready. Unfortunately, I had to sit cooling my heels most of the day. Jeopardy! tapes five shows, or one week’s worth of programming, in one day. Other than the returning champion, the order of appearance of contestants is determined by random drawing. Through the first four shows, my name was not drawn from the hat, and I was beginning to despair about ever getting on the show when I was informed that I had been selected for the last taping that day: against a three-time champion!

The game went well, and I’m not saying that simply because I ultimately emerged victorious. It was a tight, wellplayed game with all three contestants retaining a chance to win until the end, and with me and the returning champion exchanging leads a few times. One oddity: all three of us had beards. Anyone tuning in might have thought we were time travelers from the Victorian Era. And speaking of Victoria, she figured prominently in the final clue, although, in true Jeopardy! fashion, one first had to make that inference before responding successfully. The final clue was: “The two Canadian provincial capitals named after the spouse of Prince Albert.” All three of us came up with the correct question (“What are Victoria and Regina?”), but as I was in the lead before the final clue, I won, to the tune of $19,300. (For those watching the show currently, that is equivalent to $38,600; they doubled the dollar value of the categories within the last couple of years.) Payday!

Fortune Frowns

I went out to celebrate after the show with my wife, who had accompanied me to California. Probably not the most prudent idea, as I had to return the next day to defend my title, but we did not get back that late. It was about midnight when we went to bed, and we did not have to be at the studio until 9. Unfortunately, at approximately 3:30 a.m. the fire alarm went off in the hotel. It was a false alarm, subsequently attributed to an undisclosed renovation project underway in one of the floors above us, which had generated something the sensors detected as smoke. The whole episode was over in ten minutes, but fearing I would never get back to sleep, I never got back to sleep.

My memory was still functioning at game time, but my reflexes and response time were not at their best, a critical shortcoming for playing the game. You may not realize this when you’re screaming out your response to the TV, but it is not the fastest contestant who gets to respond first, but the fastest contestant after Alex finishes reading the clue. In other words, a contestant must have a fine sense of timing: if a contestant tries to ring in before Alex finishes, she is frozen out for 2/10 of a second, which is an eternity on the show. But, of course, if she waits too long, the other contestants will have the opportunity to respond first.

During the first game of day two, I looked as though I were sleepwalking, which, in a sense, I was. Fully ten clues had gone by before I was able to ring in successfully. However, I did make up some lost ground and the three of us were essentially tied when we went into the second round.

The Double-Edged Sword of Philosophy

As luck would have it, a rare category appeared in the second round: Philosophers. I am ashamed to say that I did not sweep the category, because a couple of the clues were ridiculously easy and were snagged by my competitors and one was, for me, too obscure. The obscure clue was: “Ernst Haeckel’s work popularized this British naturalist’s ideas to German speakers.” The correct response was “Who is Charles Darwin?” Since when is Darwin a philosopher? I’m not sure Darwin himself would have welcomed this label.

But I scored one that asked about Nietzsche, and the next clue up was the ‘Daily Double.’ For those not familiar with Jeopardy!, hitting the Daily Double allowed me to wager up to the amount of whatever winnings I had accumulated by that point in the game. Of course, the decision on how much to wager must be made before the actual clue is revealed. I wagered $1600, and the clue turned out to be: “In 1911 Ludwig Wittgenstein went to Cambridge to study with this philosopher-mathematician.” Talk about a gimme! With this gift, I was eventually able to eke out a narrow victory, and another $9,300.

Then, during the interval between games, my beloved spouse, who was in the studio audience, struck up a conversation with Alex Trebek. As my wife and I both knew, Alex graduated from the University of Ottawa with a major in philosophy. Curious, my wife asked Alex which philosopher he admired most. Alex responded, “Thomas Aquinas.” My wife, who shares my secularism but not always my discretion, replied, “Aquinas? He’s no philosopher!” Alex turned to me and asked whether I agreed with my wife. I provided a completely candid answer: “Wife? I don’t even know that woman.” However, he may not have believed me. In any event, although I’m sure it was simply the result of my poor reflexes, my buzzer appeared to be malfunctioning most of the next game. I got clobbered.

Happy Ending

But I had still bagged over $28,000, which was enough to allow me to take time off to complete my masterwork. I passed my dissertation defense with distinction in the summer of 1996, and obtained my long-sought doctorate. Moreover, my dissertation is so popular, they cannot keep it on the shelves at Georgetown. I know, because every day I go by the library to pull it off the shelves and take a look at it.

It is true that except for the occasional adjunct position, I have not been able to make much use of my credentials as a philosopher. But I’m working on changing that. I figure if I can just get that million bucks from Survivor, I can endow my own chair.


When not scheming on how to make money from game shows, Ronald Lindsay practices law and dabbles in philosophy in Washington, D.C. (Or is it the other way around?) His most recent publication, ‘Sensible and Desperate Knaves in The Way of the Gun,’ in Film and Philosophy, should not be interpreted as autobiographical.

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