Triumphantly Breaking Free from Academic Philosophy, But Still…


In 2015 I received the National Humanities Medal at a ceremony at the White House. President Obama himself put the medal around my neck, and the rumor was that he made the final choice. In the speech he gave before awarding all the medals, in addition to citing my work on Gödel and Spinoza and Plato, he spoke of me as the philosopher who sometimes chooses to write novels. Again, the suggestion that I wasn’t any less of a philosopher for writing novels is what made me the happiest.

That’s Rebecca Goldstein, in an interview with Clifford Sosis at What Is It Like To Be A Philosopher? The interview is fascinating throughout. One of its themes is the intensity of the pull of academic philosophy for those within its gravity.

Kyouei Design, “Magnetic Field Record”

Goldstein was a philosophy professor at Barnard when her first novel, The Mind-Body Problem, was published, to critical acclaim. She says:

I did something completely insane for someone who had her heart set on an academic career in philosophy, especially as a woman, meaning someone who really had to do everything right to have any chance of being taken seriously. I published a novel, called The Mind-Body Problem… Shelly [Goldstein’s husband then] was horrified, warning me that I’d ruin my nascent career in philosophy, and obviously he was right, but I didn’t have the ears to hear what he was saying…

The book received attention out in the world. It was a bestseller. And if being a novelist had been something I’d set my heart on then what happened would have been beyond wonderful. It’s hard to feel sorry for that younger me, having a successful novel on her hands. Poor kid, what a problem. But frankly, I didn’t know what to do with that success. Frankly, it embarrassed me.

Goldstein has gone on to have a successful career as a novelist and writer. Yet she was ambivalent about her early success; it left her unsure of the quality of her philosophical thinking, or what academic philosophers thought of the quality of her philosophical thinking, and this ambivalence seems to have stayed with her throughout her remarkable career.

When she won a MacArthur Fellowship, she says, “the award made me feel as if what I was doing, though it fell outside of academic philosophy, was nevertheless philosophically worthwhile.”

In reflecting upon receiving the National Humanities Medal, the ambivalence again comes through:

It’s blindingly obvious that had I remained where I’d always longed to be, safe and accepted within the circle of academic philosophers, there’s no chance that I would have found myself in such company.

“Where I’d always longed to be.” Why?

What is it about academic philosophy that makes it such that this internationally renowned author—who writes wonderfully rich and intellectually rewarding novels that probably have been read by more people than the works of any living academic philosopher—cites as one of her career highlights being “interviewed… as if I were still a member of the tribe [of academic philosophers], with not a trace of condescension” for a philosophy show?

Goldstein herself offers a possible explanation: the appeal of being recognized as smart. She puts them as two “theorems” and applies it to her own case:

There’s a Ranking Theorem that counts for a lot, not only in philosophy but throughout academia. It’s organized by how much brilliance is seen as necessary for success in a given discipline. Its longer name could be ‘Just-How-Smart-Do-You-Have-To-Be-To-Get-Through-The-Door Ranking Theorem’. Mathematics and physics are ranked higher than philosophers—I think this is agreed upon throughout academia—and, at least according to philosophers, all other disciplines rank below philosophy. Producing novels, even if philosophical, ranks way lower than philosophy proper. It’s also generally assumed within academia that a person will engage in the highest ranked activity for which her intelligence equips her. Call this the Smartness Theorem, though its longer name could be ‘Why-Would-You-Devote-Yourself-To-Anything-Else-Than-What-Would-Most-Show-Off-How-Smart-You-Are Theorem’. Together, the Ranking Theorem and the Smartness Theorem entail that a person who sinks to writing novels doesn’t have what it takes to do philosophy.

Of course that is just one explanation. Perhaps you have another? Note that in asking about the pull of academic philosophy I don’t necessarily intend to suggest there is anything problematic about it. Maybe there is, maybe it’s perfectly ordinary, maybe it’s, on balance, salutary. But it can be remarkably intense, as Goldstein shows us. You can read the whole interview with her here.

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