Ought Experiment

Ought Experiment

Welcome to Ought Experiment!  For our first advice column, an ABD grad student writes:

Over the last several years, I have repeatedly noticed a trend among professional philosophers in the blogosphere: they speak frequently of a deep, passionate love of philosophy and believe that their love of the discipline justifies the choice to pursue graduate study despite knowing the disastrous job prospects that lurk on the horizon. This outlook has both perplexed and worried me.

I am not sure what this deep love for philosophy is supposed to consist in. Is it some generic love of ideas? Or a love of philosophical puzzles? Is it a love of good reasoning? Is it simply a more specific instance of loving to teach undergraduates a subject that captures one’s interest? My confusion originates from the fact that I don’t think I have this deep passion for philosophy that others refer to. So here’s my question: what are philosophers generally referring to when they speak of their “love” of philosophy? It’s become clear to me that some of my colleagues really do enjoy doing philosophy more than I do. That doesn’t mean that I dislike philosophy: I like certain aspects of the profession and dislike others.

Dear Liker of Wisdom,

First of all, never listen to “professional philosophers in the blogosphere”. Geez.

Second, and more importantly, don’t try to figure out whether you belong by asking yourself how other people feel. It’s an entirely understandable mistake: early-stage academics often learn through calibration, comparing themselves to what others purportedly think and do. But in this case it’s still a mistake. There’s no right answer about what or how much people should love, and no definitive experience that marks out the true philosophers from those not long for this world. When I was in graduate school, a fellow grad once remarked that I must not like philosophy as much as they do, because while they were always happy to have a rigorous philosophical discussion, there were times when I just wanted to turn off my brain and talk about something else. We’re both professors now. So don’t try to quantify your ardor to see if it crosses an institutionally-significant threshold. What matters is that you’re happy by your own lights, and that you’re finding success.

A few factors could explain why we so often hear that sentiment expressed to such lofty extents:

  • Perhaps the data are distorted. People who stick around long enough to give advice and wax poetic might have a higher tolerance for the post-infatuation phase of philosophy, or they might have had better overall experiences in the discipline. Or maybe enough people talk about loving philosophy that nobody wants to be the lone dissenting voice. Being publically ‘bitter’ can sometimes get read as unprofessional and cost one certain opportunities. Or maybe some doth protest too much, worried that others won’t think they’re as good, or that others will insist they quit and free up a spot for someone that will “actually appreciate it”.
  • They could be trying to capture the idea that philosophy is something one should only do if one is really passionate about it, in the sense that there’s usually so many other things that people with our skill set could be getting paid to do instead. (Such as writing on a totally different philosophical topic.) But it seems to me that that’s true of a lot of career paths.
  • Given the challenging job market, they could be trying to scare away all but the most committed of undergrads and coursework-stage grads. Of course, this strategy assumes that love at first sight is a good predictor of longevity and success, and that blooming early is the only way to thrive. Neither are great assumptions, but they’re impersonally expedient if you want to weed people out.
  • It could be a rationalization or an adaptive preference. The reasoning might go something like this: “We all do dumb things when we’re in love. But being in love is grand precisely because it’s such a leap of faith. So embrace the dumbness – just go for it! Put your life on hold for nearly a decade because dreeeeams!” This is an example of the modus facepalmens inference rule.

That said, there is indeed a lot to love about this line of work. Some people might experience that love as an all-consuming devotion. Others might feel periodic flares of awe at getting to spend their days this way. Others might appreciate what an academic life has to offer, and find their career genuinely fulfilling, but shy away from all that zealous-sounding love business. Still others might enjoy their work tremendously, but have serious misgivings about everything else that comes with a career in professional philosophy. It’s not clear that any of these reactions are wrong or particularly portentous. In fact, I’ll wager that a lot of academics have felt more than one of these ways at different times.

And what it is that you’re loving or appreciating or tolerating can also vary. For some it’s the puzzle-solving, or the raw creativity of staring at a computer screen or dry erase board and genuinely wondering what answers will emerge. Some love shaping young minds, and seeing them wrestle with new ideas and what those ideas might mean to them. Some love collaboration, and some need to work alone. Some love conferences and exposure, and some find them in-crowdy or exhausting. Some love doing public philosophy, and some dismiss it as diluted philosophy. Some might just love the miasmic vortex of anti-fashion that is the philosopher’s dress code. And what, specifically, you love or appreciate or tolerate about philosophy might change as you move through your career. The point, again, is that there’s no right answer here. Unless what you love is faculty meetings. If you love faculty meetings, then you’re wrong.

When I was first hired, I was overcome by the marvels of my day-to-day life, something that I had only felt in brief spurts before. And that feeling stayed with me for a long and wonderful time. In some ways though, it also led me astray. You can care too much, and stress yourself out. You can crowd out other things of value. Sometimes, for some people, it can be okay to set their feelings of love aside, and remember that this is just a job. An incredible and maybe incomparable job, yes, but still just a job. It won’t, for all people, be a ticket to unending and perfect happiness. It may not even be the most important part of your life. And I don’t think you should be concerned if you feel that way.

Of course, this all assumes that philosophy loves you back. There is more than one Young Werther roaming through the halls of the ivory tower. But that’s a topic for another day.

So don’t worry about what others feel, and what it says about you if you feel differently. Except for the faculty meetings thing. Geez.

— Louie Generis

Do you want Louie Generis to tell you what to do? Send your questions to [email protected]! And in the meantime, continue the discussion in the comments below.

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