On Not Being Able To Imagine Being Satisfied Doing Anything Else


The rhetoric that describes philosophy as a kind of special calling has always struck me as smuggling in much overdetermined sociology. The most irritating version of this to me is the claim that one ought not pursue philosophy unless “one cannot imagine any other satisfying or worthwhile life for oneself.”

For people with some experience of real and actual poverty, this idea of having but one idea of how you might well earn your keep in life and count yourself satisfied is likely strange and strangely appalling. To me, this bit of advice makes it sound as if graduate school is only for the well-heeled, those who enjoy the luxury of conceiving their lives as exercising choices and fulfilling preferences driven only by what pleases and ignites one’s passions. Not all lives are like this. The idea that one might mentally canvass a rich buffet of possible lives for oneself and decide that only one will suit seems to presuppose an abundance of possibility I’m not convinced generalizes outside upper and upper-middle class lives. To be sure, any poorer student going into philosophy is also taking a big risk and chance. My point is simply that the pattern of thinking here seems alien to me, the sort of thinking people like mine have rarely engaged… 

Put another way, if your life doesn’t typically pattern on doing what one wants instead of what one must, this sort of talk just sounds, well, a bit weird and maybe precious, as if happiness, meaning, and satisfaction are a special preserve of those materially empowered with wider choices. I mostly don’t like this talk because my suspicion is that it might keep students from the “lower orders” out of the discipline. My bet is that life has trained them to a greater imaginative flexibility about possible lives they could lead, so implying that philosophy needs to be the one and only inadvertently advertises class expectations they won’t as easily meet.

— Further thoughts from Miss Manners on “The Work,” that is, the seriousness with which philosophers take philosophy. The whole thing is here.

Wayne Thiebaud, “Salads, Sandwiches and Desserts”

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