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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Anon
Anon
6 years ago

I do not love philosophy. I am however passionate about the pursuit of one or two narrow issues. That these issues fall within the remit of ‘philosophy’ is neither here nor there to me. So I guess the question is: are there any issues that constantly play on your thoughts and you want to explore. If so, great. The rest if noise.Report

recent grad
recent grad
6 years ago

Thanks for the post. I think about this question a lot (more so as as grad student). I often wonder whether I love philosophy *enough* to stay in it. Yes, I like a fair amount of it and find many of the topics both interesting and important (at least before I reach the epicycle phase of literature). But if I won the lottery tomorrow, I would barely read or do philosophy anymore. I definitely wouldn’t produce papers or anything. This used to worry me, but I think it’s because I set the love-bar much too high. Yes, most of us went into philosophy because we enjoy it. But it’s also a job. By treating it merely as a job I like rather than as a passion, it saves me a lot of stress, e.g. I don’t have much guilt when I’m not working.Report

Anon
Anon
6 years ago

I don’t think I “love” philosophy either. The only reason I’m even doing it, is because when I finished my degree, it was the only thing I was actually good at (well, I worked in a shop, and I was very good at that too, but I didn’t want to work in a shop the rest of my life. So I guess I love philosophy a little more than working in a shop). If I wasn’t severely mathematically challenged, I’d be doing astrophysics like some of my friends, or I’d be a pilot. However, while I fell into philosophy kind of by accident (I was made to do an Intro to Political Philosophy and an Intro to Philosophy of Science course as part of my core curriculum), and I still really want to be a pilot or an astronaut, like the Anon above me, I’ve found a small bunch of niches which I enjoy, and feel like I can contribute something to (on good days), and so I think I’ll stick around.Report

Anonymous
Anonymous
6 years ago

I truly love philosophy. I wouldn’t stop doing it professionally if I won the lottery.Report

Professor Plum
Professor Plum
6 years ago

I don’t love philosophy. Sometimes I actively hate it and sometimes I enjoy it; I think most philosophy published in journals is pointless and depressing. I do like teaching undergraduates, however, and I probably did love phosophy as a high school student and undergraduate.

The thing I like most about being a philosophy professor is the intellectual freedom and the flexible hours. I do regularly take long periods of time off in the summer.

I do think you need to love philosophy for graduate school to make sense; for most people the love will fade and corrode over time, especially if you are a woman or minority, so you better start with a surplus of love at the beginning to get through the middle and end.Report

anon female grad student
anon female grad student
Reply to  Professor Plum
6 years ago

Huh (@5, Prof Plum) … I don’t feel my “love” for philosophy has declined. Like most things I’ve loved over a long period of time, I’m more aware of its shortcomings. And certainly, my respect for *philosophers* has declined. (Contemporary professional philosophers, that is. My respect for Plato grows ever greater …) But that’s different, right?

Why do you think women and minorities more susceptible to disenchantment? That’s not been my experience.Report

Latino philosopher
Latino philosopher
Reply to  anon female grad student
6 years ago

I’ve had the opposite experience: nearly every minority philosopher I’ve ever met has discussed their feeling of isolation with me. I feel isolated. When you combine isolation with the brutal nature of professional philosophy in general, it’s easy to feel as if maybe the job isn’t for you after all. I have so little in common with your peers in terms of family background, socioeconomic status, and life experience. I often feel like I just don’t belong.

I didn’t fall out of love with philosophy. It broke my heart.Report

Professor Plum
Professor Plum
Reply to  anon female grad student
6 years ago

When I was a graduate student, I still had some love for philosophy. I didn’t mind being the odd person out in rooms of white men, but over years, that can wear you down. I have also learned more about how the profession works. I have become increasingly tired of agressively “lefty” philosophers who publicly proclaim their commitments to diversity but who are found, behind the scenes, relishing their roles as gatekeepers and working hard to keep philosophy white and male and dull and derivative. It is exhausting to keep confronting philosophers who claim that one of the biggest problems we face are the “feminists” and affirmative action even in a period where we can’t read the Chronicle without encountering another story of sexual harassment and philosophy remains the overwhelmingly male and white. Over time, it is dispiriting to be in a profession that is obsessed with ranking programs, journals, papers, and people.

When you combine this with the tedious and boring work being published in most journals (which people have to write in order to satisfy the increasingly stringent requirements for getting a job, let alone tenure), I’m surprised that anyone who has worked as a professor for more than a few years could claim to love philosophy. I don’t see how you can separate “Philosophy” from the material conditions that characterize the profession today.

I could never encourage anyone to enter the field, and I think undergraduates should go out and experience life before signing up for graduate school. But if you are going to jump in, you will need some love at the begining to get you through your career; I honestly can’t imagine how you could navigate around all the bullshit without it, but keep in mind that your puppylove will probably increase your antipathy for philosophy later.

In short: babygirl, let’s check in again in 10 years, and we can compare notes.Report

anon female grad student
anon female grad student
Reply to  Professor Plum
6 years ago

I doubt we are (or will be) concerned about the same things just because we are (I’m assuming) both women. And I hope that in 10 years I’m not calling younger colleagues “babygirl” and insinuating that they are too young or inexperienced to contribute to discussions like this.

The experiences of minorities and the experiences of white women in the profession are likely quite different.Report

Professor Plum
Professor Plum
Reply to  anon female grad student
6 years ago

*Another* reason I hate philosophy is that stiff, boring philosophers can’t recognize obvious references to the brilliant Ms. Hill:

Baby girl, respect is just a minimum/Philosophers fucked up and you still defending ’em/Now, Professor Plum is only human/Don’t think I haven’t been through the same predicament.

Next time I’ll try footnotes.Report

babygirl
babygirl
Reply to  anon female grad student
6 years ago

Ha! Alright. Oddly enough, I loved that album and listened to that song in particular (on my discman!) over and over again. I still don’t think the reference makes sense (nor do I think it’s one that even the most ardent Hill fan would catch).Report

JCM
JCM
6 years ago

The ‘like/dislike’ and ‘love/hate’ binaries come apart from each other in huge and important ways, and neither is really the question one should ask of oneself in asking whether one should do philosophy, or whether one will flourish by doing philosophy. This is pretty obvious, I think, and it’s telling that this point has not been made before. It’s the first thing that popped into my head! What it indicates, I think, is the sort of hedonic mindset it is demanded we have by consumerist ideology, which dictates that we should do things we like, and to an even greater extent do things we love, because to love something is just to really like something.

I neither like nor love philosophy. To be sure, I like parts of it – the lie-ins for one, the calibre of one’s banter partners for another, the egotistical rush of being right, etc. – and dislike other parts of it – the sense of deep inadequacy I get every time I stick my neck out in front of relatively senior philosophers, the political impotence of philosophy as I practice it, etc. – but I don’t do philosophy because of some balance of pleasure here. Nor is that why I love it, to the extent I love it. I love it because it is a way for me to fully be a person, to self-govern, to spiritually grow. (These things are not personal, of course: for me to grow is to allow and encourage others to grow too.) And this is partly why I do philosophy, but this love is attendant on the reasons I’ve just given, and those reasons have force independent of my love. I do philosophy because being a person is intrinsically important. (I exaggerate here: I don’t know if I would do philosophy if it was deeply painful or hateful to me, were I to have the ability to do something *else* important (like medicine), so my like and love for it is not nothing. But it is important to separate and to logically and normatively prioritise these things!)Report

Avi Z.
Avi Z.
6 years ago

I love philosophy and I consider it similar in some ways to pursuing a life as an artist. To the question “why would you pursue philosophy if you had any other decent opportunity to make something of your life?” my answer is that I could not see myself doing anything else. With that understanding of what I’m doing, I feel extremely fortunate to have a teaching job. What is it about philosophy that I love? I love the expectation (often fulfilled) that if I carefully follow the arguments of the best philosophers (current and historical), I will gain insight into matters that most people prematurely dismiss as being unknowable. I want to know the truth about things at least tangentially pertinent to the meaning of life that are very difficult to understand and that most ordinary people immaturely or prematurely relegate to skepticism or religious faith. Most academic philosophers are more connossieurs than creators of powerful arguments, but our capacity to respond to sound reasoning offers some manner of participation in the enterprise for everyone who is passionate about it.Report

Another Anon Junior Person
Another Anon Junior Person
6 years ago

There were days when I started my real first job that I felt paralyzed by the worry that I invested a huge chunk of my adult life into something that I occasionally deeply loathe. I didn’t loathe *philosophy*, per se, but rather the way that philosophy is actually practiced that, I was naively surprised to learn, is often antithetical to what I take to be the spirit of philosophy. Take the publishing aspect of philosophy, for instance — the pressure to publish half-baked articles that make one or two small nit-picky points; the dishonest posturing that occurs in too many articles (“Let’s call the view I’ve just described [a straw-man of maybe one or two obscure views that exist in the vast expanse of the literature] the ‘Standard View’. I’m here to heroically save us from the Standard View.”); publishing what is effectively the *same* damn article, year after year (I’ve noticed this mostly among philosophers in the UK, perhaps due to the REF?).

But maybe if we all (myself included) just started treating the profession as an actual job (one with “intellectual freedom and flexible hours”), rather than a special spiritual calling or some uniquely virtuous lifestyle, we’d feel less profoundly troubled by the gross careerist aspects of it.

In any case, original questioner, there isn’t this one thing that all professional philosophers have zeroed in on when they talk about loving philosophy. We’re not all keyed into some secret. We’re just a bunch of people who like and dislike various aspects of this job, and who have varying degrees of tolerance for the different costs of getting the job. (I shouldn’t say it’s all about ‘tolerance’; some people are in positions of privilege to accept without much reflection what, to others, are seriously burdensome costs that require more careful deliberation.) As a general rule, don’t pursue a career that you roundly despise. But other than that, I’m not sure there is a uniquely rational calculus that will help you determine whether you have enough of the “right kind” of love of something to pursue it professionally.Report

recent grad
recent grad
Reply to  Another Anon Junior Person
6 years ago

“publishing what is effectively the *same* damn article, year after year”

One of my biggest pet-peeves in academic philosophy.Report

Repetitive philosopher
Repetitive philosopher
Reply to  recent grad
6 years ago

Can you give an example? I’m worried that I might turn out to be doing this. If so, it’s because saying the same thing, in one way or another, is the only way I can get published. I don’t need to explain about the pressure to publish.Report

recent grad
recent grad
Reply to  Repetitive philosopher
6 years ago

I won’t name names, but here are two tests you can use in your own case. Each is defeasible.

First test. Suppose you got a paper published in journal x. Would you submit a second paper to journal x? If yes, would you still submit it if you knew that you’d get the same editor and the same referees and you knew that they would remember the first paper? If not, then other things being equal I think it’s because you know you’re just repackaging old stuff.

Second test. If someone asks you to explain the difference between two of your papers and you find yourself mentioning things like “paper 1 considers x from this perspective, whereas 2 considers it from that perspective,” then my guess is that you’re just repackaging old stuff. Most people don’t want to read the same argument from different perspectives.Report

Professor Plum
Professor Plum
6 years ago

I agree with #8 above: much of my current disappointment and occasional antipathy for philosophy probably stems from some unrealistically high expectations I had for it as a younger person (the love turned sour). Perhaps without those expectations I would be more content. But if it is just a job, we are all rather poorly compensated, especially since the entry costs are so high. And thinking of it as just a job is likely to encourage even more pointless journal articles and posturing.Report

NthGradStudent
NthGradStudent
6 years ago

Is anyone else into philosophy just because of the (loveless, hateless) flow one spirals into when hearing people say stupid things? I rarely feel the kind of ecstasy doing philosophy that I might, say, listening to great music after two pots of coffee. But if I hear someone misinterpret Wittgenstein, my whole day will lost to trying to pick back up the pieces. This kind of obsessive-compulsive response to bad arguments and arrogant YouTube comments is what keeps me up at night.

I definitely would not consider is “love”, “like”, or “passion”—just compulsion. I’d be interested to know if anyone else is the same way.Report

TTanon
TTanon
6 years ago

Echoing #8 above, a relevant danger here is that treating a job as a calling or (emotional investment) makes it all too easy to allow yourself to be exploited and overworked in the name of that calling.Report

JCM
JCM
Reply to  TTanon
6 years ago

I know you mean well, and the financial pressure universities are under to exploit academics’ goodwill does mean that we have to be vigilant against oppression, I agree with you there; but is the implicit assumption that we give up the concept of a vocation or a calling? That seems to me exactly as reasonable as a suggestion that we give up love because it can be a vehicle of oppression.Report

TTanon
TTanon
6 years ago

JCM – nah, I simply think we should be aware of the lengths to which such a mindset may push us (speaking mostly in terms of faculty relationships to universities). But you’re right that my earlier comment sounded much more intense.Report

JCM
JCM
Reply to  TTanon
6 years ago

Phew!Report

Dan Dennis
Dan Dennis
6 years ago

I love my fellow man and through deepening my understanding of ethics, and philosophy more widely, I can improve how I interact with them (including what I say to them about how best to interact with others), and thereby help them improve how they interact with each other, to the benefit of all.

I suspect that a lot of the dull pointless nitpicky repetitive articles are churned out by those for whom philosophy is merely a job. Those talented enough to get TT teaching jobs could doubtless get other better paying jobs and/or jobs where they are more explicitly and obviously helping people. Why then do they do take philosophy jobs? It might be because they like the holidays, the prospect of job security once they have tenure, the banter, or because they suspect that they will not enjoy the alternative career as much as the activity of teaching and writing philosophy. Often it may appear easier to stay on the treadmill once on it. Looking around for other jobs is difficult and worrying, and initially they might have to take a pay cut whilst getting experience in another field. However they should have confidence in their abilities and take the jump, to the benefit of all….Report

AdviceParadox
AdviceParadox
6 years ago

I hate the social politics of academia. But I love philosophy enough to grin and bear it- even when it’s soul-crushing. And getting in the classroom, yucking it up with students, watching them get excited about topics, or master things they thought they couldn’t, that’s why I’m still doing it after everything I’ve been through in this piece.

Also, am I really the first person to point out that you’re a professional philosopher in the blogosphere who just advised someone to ignore the the advice of professional philosophers in the blogosphere?Report

Alan White
6 years ago

@17 on the last comment: toneless and conversationally uncontextual blog posts, whether OP or followup, should be universally judged by what constitutes humor on FOX news by any rational criteria. It may be intentional, or stupidly not, or satire. One should await further deliberation on which option is applicable.

As to the OP. I know the joy of getting a nice piece of writing accepted by a good journal. That’s cool, but pretty transient and sinks deep down into the strata of worthwhile memories. But the satisfaction of a teaching job well done, reinforced by dedication to making that job better the next time, reducing oneself to shudders and tears afterwards in exceptional instances of effort, dragging yourself into class to do the best job you can while your personal life explodes in pain, having someone say to you in the produce section of a supermarket that you saved her son–that is my best professional moment–is a life of the love of the classroom, and of the subject that one is privileged to teach.

My lucky privilege. I love what I do, unapologetically. The praxis and teoria are what I love, body and soul.Report

SAM
SAM
6 years ago

I am an undergraduate strongly considering applying for graduate school in philosophy, and I wanted to thank you for asking this question. I often wonder the same thing and how exactly I’m supposed to “love” it. As someone who isn’t (yet) a professional, what drives me is the euphoria I get when I see a new connection or think of something in a way I haven’t before. I like explaining complicated philosophical problems to other people and watching them “get” it almost as much. I love the lucidity of writing about an idea I’m excited about. I like that I can apply philosophy to almost everything (my commitment issues like it, too). I don’t love the combativeness, the emphasis on brilliance over hard work, the close-mindedness to “non-traditional” philosophy, and countless other things. I also have the ability to turn the philosophy part of my brain”on” and “off” which is what has made me think I don’t really love it enough.

At the end of the day, though, I have to go with a lot of other people here in saying that I don’t know what else I would possibly be good and that I would enjoy. I think that’s at least part of the thought process for a lot of people who have jobs they love who don’t love philosophy–if that’s good enough for other jobs, why not for jobs in philosophy? My guess is that Louie is right where we can justify going into a terrible job market with terrible TT prospects only if we really love it.Report

Algol
Algol
6 years ago

Do I love philosophy?

The job market is crap. The pay is bad. Publishing is a lottery of rejection and incompetence. The long waits are the worst. Teaching is only satisfying sometimes, when you get a good student or two.

Philosophy itself though does sometimes allow me to stop doing philosophy, and for that I suppose I do love it.Report

AdviceParadox
AdviceParadox
6 years ago

@#7, one of the only people who was nice to me in my grad program was a Latino philosopher. She was way smarter and harder-working than the regular (white, whiny, and extraordinarily mean) kids in the program. If you’re her, omg are you kidding me? Please don’t stop! You love it and you’re very talented. I’m going to email her on the off-chance you’re her.Report

Charles Pigden
Charles Pigden
6 years ago

Some time in my first term as an undergraduate when I was about to turn twenty (I took a year off between school and university) I decided that I loved philosophy and that if I possibly could I wanted to spend the rest of my life doing it. That was thirty-eight years ago and I haven’t regretted my decision for a single day. There were times when I was young when things were tense and I used to experience anxiety attacks. But that wasn’t because I did not love philosophy but because I loved it so much and was worried (the job market being what it was) that I would not be able to achieve my heart’s desire, namely a job as a professional philosopher. (This, I suspect, is the tragedy of many young VAPs – it’s desire that binds us to the wheel of professional suffering.) There were times when I worried that I did not have the talent to do good work. But that wasn’t because I did not love philosophizing but because if you love an activity you naturally want to excel. (I used to console myself with the thought that however dumb I might be I could not be dumber than famous philosophers X, Y and Z who had managed to a make it as philosophers despite being obviously bears of very little brain.) What did I love exactly? Reading about, talking about, writing about and thinking about philosophical problems, solving them (hopefully) and selling my solutions to others. (I should add incidentally that one of the delights of doing philosophy is that it is possible to combine it with ones other intellectual interests such as science, literature, maths, or, in my case, history,) I also like giving papers being something of a showman, and enjoy the process of philosophical debate. I even like going to other people’s papers so long as they are reasonably good. These then are the things that I really love about philosophy. I also enjoy teaching though I would not say that I loved it. If I won Lotto tomorrow I certainly would not give up reading about, writing about and thinking about philosophical problems but I would probably *reduce* (though not eliminate) my teaching load, going for half-time or a one-third position, rather than a full-time job. Teaching for me is a good thing of which one can have too much (especially when it comes to marking).

Thus far I may have sounded absurdly starry-eyed. Now comes the cynical part. For me philosophy is less like a *vocation* than an *addiction*. Suppose I achieve my highest ambition and overthrow the reign of error with respect to one of the topics that interests me. Suppose, that is, that I manage to convince a tiny but like-minded section of the elite of some interesting set of truths that I have worked out, solving a set of problems that hardly anyone can understand and most people don’t care about. Is that likely to benefit humanity in any larger sense? Almost certainly not. I have some philosophical theses that might do a bit of good if they were widely accepted but generally this is not the case. It’s not *necessarily* true or even *always* true that philosophical research does not do any good. But it is *usually* true, at least 95% of the time. Thus it seems to me that most of those who confuse their addiction with a vocation, justifying their work as fulfilling some progressive social purpose, are telling themselves obvious lies. That’s why I have spent a lot of time and effort on non-philosophical projects of a largely political nature, designed to make the world better place or at least to stop it getting worse. I did those things so I could indulge my addiction with a relatively clean conscience. (I stress the ‘relatively’ since I am painfully aware that there are plenty of other people with a similar level of talent who have led far more useful lives than I.) I should also add that I think *teaching* philosophy serves a useful purpose, though as I have already admitted that’s what I would reduce if I had the financial wherewithal to do so. But despite my queasy awareness that mine has been a rather self-indulgent life, I do love philosophy passionately and the bits of my job that I don’t like are the bits that prevent me from doing the stuff that I love, namely reading and thinking about good philosophy and working on my own intellectual projects. It is only when I am prevented from doing these things that I feel frustrated. But I don’t regret my decision to become a philosopher. I only regret the moral and financial necessity of doing things which prevent me from concentrating on those parts of philosophy that I truly love.Report

(Almost) first year MA student
(Almost) first year MA student
6 years ago

This is my first post on Daily Nous. I hope it isn’t too long (it probably is). As a beginning grad student, I think about this stuff a lot and hope that I have something to add.

I would first like to defend the view of the young, naive idealists (I clearly qualify as one) by arguing that there is something uniquely spiritual about philosophy that makes many of us love it. Then, I would like to show that I’m (hopefully) not so naive — just as I doubt ‘anon female grad student’ is naive, even if ‘Professor Plum’ thinks she is just a “baby girl”. By the way, I doubt Professor Plum would have referred to me as “baby boy”. And we wonder why there are so few female philosophers… — by showing that this idealistic view is perfectly compatible with the cynicism of the world-weary realists.

The idealist view is onto something. Philosophy in its “pure” form is, very roughly, the attempt to rationally address the set of most foundational questions possible. This includes questions of what we are, how we should live, what our lives mean, what the fundamental nature of reality is, how this rationality even works, etc. Pursuing answers to these questions is almost by definition (at least a very central part of) spirituality. There are a host of caveats and objections here (e.g. Aren’t other fields of study spiritual? Don’t some (many) philosophers simply not have a spiritual outlook on philosophy?) that I am prepared and willing to address but won’t here for the sake of space. The main point is simply that philosophy is — roughly by definition — the rational investigation of all the questions central to spirituality in all of its breadth. Thus it is in principle spiritual like few other pursuits (e.g. the only other equally spiritual pursuit would be the “irrational” or “less rational” pursuit of spirituality).

Now let’s be realists. The above view of “philosophy” may be correct in principle (it is), but it completely abstracts from the fact that “philosophy” is a real world institutionalized field of study constituted by a concrete set of rules and practices. I can’t do much more here than repeat the critiques stated above. As we all know, the basic core problem seems to be that real world institutionalized fields of study need funding from society, and here the very fact that philosophy addresses foundational, abstract questions makes it very bad at getting funding from a society which has many more concrete problems (especially the problem of how to make more money). This leads to few philosophy jobs, which leads to intense competition between many many intelligent people who fell in love with such a beautiful field, which leads to extremely pedantic, highly-specialized journal articles that in most cases make marginal progress at best, etc. Of course there are many other dimensions to the problem as well. I believe though that I have sufficiently motivated the realist point, which is simply that the nature of actual professional philosophy is highly dependent upon many real world institutional and historical facts, which, in this particular historical institutional setting, make it … well, really really suck at times.

Clearly, both sides are right in their claims. I think the key disagreement is over the term “philosophy” – the idealists are referring to the transhistorical investigation of a particular realm of questions whereas the realists are referring to a particular historical institutional field of study characterized by a particular set of rules and practices. So there are good reasons to really love philosophy as a uniquely spiritual pursuit (of course, there are other reasons to love it too), but there are also good reasons to not want to carry out that pursuit in this day and age (at least in the English speaking world). For what it is worth, I completely agree with Charles Pigden’s above worry that there is an extra dimension to the question of what we should do here: there are clearly more pressing real world problems that we all (seemingly, especially those of us who love philosophy for spiritual reasons) probably should address rather just do what we love. While doing activism on the side like Charles does is a very commendable course of action, whether it is a sufficient solution to the problem (especially for a beginning/prospective grad who does not yet have an established career) is an open ethical question.Report

anon female grad student
anon female grad student
Reply to  (Almost) first year MA student
6 years ago

Ah, thanks. These are helpful distinctions. I do believe we can (and do) keep these things separate. It’s also possible to find like-minded people who also like philosophy for philosophy’s sake. So I avoid the people who talk about journal rankings and problems in the profession (there’s a time and a place, of course, but it gets exhausting) and we invite the people over for dinner who love to talk about Augustine or Montaigne or whatever. Yes, life as a philosopher does not consist entirely of conversations of this sort, of course. But to call the enjoyment of these sorts of things “puppylove” is overly cynical. And to condescendingly call a woman who disagrees with you “babygirl” primarily because sexism hasn’t made her cynical is … ironic.Report

anon female grad student
anon female grad student
Reply to  anon female grad student
6 years ago

Now that I have a job and a PhD, maybe I should change my handle to ‘babygirl’ … it’s kinda growing on me.Report

Postgrad Anonymous
Postgrad Anonymous
6 years ago

My own involvement with philosophy is one of love and hate. There’s much I am very much drawn to, that I deeply like, that I need (in the sense that I keep doing it even if I don’t have to for external reasons). And there’s stuff I absolutely hate. Mostly, I’m afraid, I hate other philosophers. That might be because I hate to feel being evaluated all the time. Evaluation in academia tends to be negative. (“Tends” as in “pretty much always is”.) And I hate the way that stiff and boring people set the agenda. (In my experience “stiff and boring” describes the group much better than any other criterion, because “stiff and boring” seems to sit well with any age, gender, sexual orientation, ancestry, or what have you). Many people seem to contribute to some agenda that no one has ever told me about and that I do not care for much. Like some of the commentators here I feel both bored and pressured by the more or less subtle streamlining in the profession.
On a more positive note, I do not only like to think philosophically (whatever that is exactly), but I absolutely love teaching students to do so. I am always disappointed if the students do not engage with a topic or a debate. And “engaging with a topic” can also mean telling me that it’s absolutely dull and irrelevant, because such a response at least shows some zest. There is a time for quiet and dispassionate analysis. But if there isn’t some sort of bang occasionally, I would be terribly disappointed. I like passion.Report

oso
oso
Reply to  Postgrad Anonymous
6 years ago

Correct me if I’m wrong, but perhaps your feelings of constant negative evaluation are disproportionate to the reality, reflecting the fact that you seem to be negatively evaluating all other philosophers (a pretty varied group of individuals)? Just a thought.Report

oso
oso
Reply to  oso
6 years ago

I say this because I’ve noticed that in talks, even friendly-ish comments will be interpreted as confrontational when the speaker is expecting them to be such.Report

Postgrad Anonymous
Postgrad Anonymous
Reply to  oso
6 years ago

Well, technically I did not say that I hate all of them. I don’t. I just can’t stand the stiff and boring lot anymore, and I feel they are quite a dominant group.
I did not mean this to be about me personally. I believe, correction: I know that my view at least is shared by others. There is, I think, a culture of devaluation in academia generally, and in philosophy particularly.
On a more positive note, what I wanted to say is: Let’s do it differently.Report

jaded postdoc
jaded postdoc
Reply to  Postgrad Anonymous
6 years ago

I feel the same way Postgrad Anonymous. There is constant judgement and evaluation in philosophy. I hate it when people talk of article quality, as if there is any objective standard to begin with. It’s all very stressful, and not very pleasant at all. And I agree that the profession is filled with boring people. I think the hyper-compeditiveness of the field demands boring. Like you said, ‘stiff and boring seems to sit well with any age, gender […]’ It also sits well with hiring committees, tenure boards, deans, and etc.

I too hate other philosophers, for the most part, and really just can’t stand the entire discipline. I do like writing philosophy sometimes, and find it fun to publish papers. I’ve got a few in top journals and I’m proud of them. I’d kinda like to write a philosophy paper every now and then. But I can’t stand the profession! ICK!!!Report

Postgrad Anonymous
Postgrad Anonymous
Reply to  jaded postdoc
6 years ago

I wonder what we can do about this. On an individual level, I found it quite helpful to get to know people who I thought were part of the stiff and boring group better. I had many pleasant surprises. But I agree with you that the problem is that stiff and boring is adaptive in the academic job market. So, what can we do about it? Write more papers with a bang? Try to support people that show some zest? Get emotional? The thing that worries me most is that so many academics find the expression of emotions somehow inhibiting. (No, I am not saying that it is not inhibiting for some people. And it is something to watch, especially in teaching. But rational debate is also inhibiting. And feeling inhibited is also an emotion.)Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
6 years ago

I love philosophy passionately. I get to learn interesting and important things and to teach other people interesting and important things. Working with students is a delight. Even when I teach required courses to students who don’t want to be there, I have the opportunity to do them so much good, and judging by my evaluations, they generally feel that the class did them good too. I do hate the competitiveness, the status chasing, the petty politics, self-righteousness, and cynicism one finds in the profession. But how could we expect philosophy not to be plagued by these things, human beings being what they are? For all our flaws, I generally love to spend time with philosophers. I do get frustrated with what seems to me a tendency for philosophers to be hidebound in the way they do things, and not to consider the potential value of non-traditional approaches to philosophy. That said, the market is horrible. I don’t know that I would advise anyone to go into philosophy if they can help it. Being a tenured philosopher is the greatest job on Earth, but such jobs are increasingly rare. I feel enormously privileged by being allowed to do this for a living.Report

Louie Generis
Louie Generis
6 years ago

Are you enjoying this ongoing discussion? Would you like to see more advice columns like it? Then I need to hear from you – send your questions to me, Louie Generis, at [email protected]. (Also, if we get 15 questions by Friday, Justin said that I could have Daily Nous.)Report

jaded postdoc
jaded postdoc
6 years ago

I think that one of the things that turns people off the most about philosophy is the profession itself. I’d be curious what people think of this article. http://www.oneplusonemagazine.com/you-are-not-a-commodity-on-how-academics-and-other-labourers-should-stand-up-to-capitalist-abuses/

The author complains about fake jobs, publishing without pay, and the adjunct disaster.Report