Undergrad at Philosophical Crossroads

Undergrad at Philosophical Crossroads


An undergraduate student in philosophy writes in with a question that I suspect many philosophers confronted at some point in their studies. Perhaps we can provide some assistance:

I am a philosophy student in my last year of undergrad studies in need of some advice. I am about to apply to graduate studies in philosophy but not sure what I should choose to focus and research on. On the one hand, what I find most fun is “puzzles” in metaphysics and philosophy of language (such as the puzzle of constitution, Kirpke’s puzzle about belief, etc.), but I am often gripped by a feeling that what I’m actually doing when I’m working on such things has no real impact or value. I know few people generally tend to read academic philosophy, and even less likely to pick up a paper on, say, mereological universalism. On the other hand, I do have some interest in fields such as political philosophy and ethics, and I do feel that work in those fields have a better chance of actually having an impact (and are also easier to formulate in terms that make them more likely to get published in “popular” magazines that many more people tend to read).

So I’m caught at a crossroads. Should I go for what I find most amusing now (the metaphysics-y stuff) and risk ending up as a philosopher whose work none except my students and colleagues are interested it or can appreciate; or should I follow the more practical philosophy route and aim to have a broader impact and take up more current issues (something a-la Peter Singer who is about the only philosopher any of my non-philosophy friends have heard about).

Would the experienced readers of Daily Nous have any suggestions?

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John W. Loftus
John W. Loftus
5 years ago

Marx wrote, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.” So go change it.Report

Juan G.
Juan G.
Reply to  John W. Loftus
5 years ago

Well, the tricky part is what he meant by ‘change it.’ After all, Marx did spend most of his life doing academic research, albeit outside of academia; yes, he did political organizing (1st international) and political writings, but what changed the world the most (for better or worse) of all his endeavors were his writings. So go figure.Report

recent grad
recent grad
5 years ago

“Should I go for what I find most amusing now (the metaphysics-y stuff) and risk ending up as a philosopher whose work none except my students and colleagues are interested it or can appreciate.”

Don’t forget the greater risk–I assume–of unemployment if your AOS is metaphysics. If you peruse the jobs sites, you may notice that there is a relative dearth of such jobs. And with the way higher education is going, I can imagine there will only be fewer such jobs in the future relative to “applied” areas.Report

Patrick Mayer
Patrick Mayer
5 years ago

I think you should let your experiences during the coursework stage of the PhD help you make up your mind. Your interests are probably going to be somewhat sensitive to the interests of your fellow graduate students and the faculty at the institution you end up at for graduate school. In general most people do better work in areas they are passionate about, so there is a risk in picking a research interest that is not in the area you are most interested in. Its not clear to me that having a great dissertation and writing sample in Language, Metaphysics or Epistemology is worse on the job market than having a mediocre dissertation and writing sample in political philosophy or applied ethics. As long as you keep in mind that the majority of schools you will apply to for jobs are more interested in what classes you can teach than what your research is in, and develop teaching competencies in areas like history, logic and applied ethics because of that, you will probably make a good decision if you stick to what you care about but also allow yourself to be open to having your interests change once you get to grad school.Report

Adam Omelianchuk
Adam Omelianchuk
5 years ago

Going the M&E route, while obscure to many, can give you some good tools for making a transition into ethics and more applied philosophy. Going from say applied ethics to metaphysics is much harder, in my opinion. Some of the most insightful stuff I’ve read on justice and art has been written by someone who was originally trained in formal M&E (Nicholas Wolterstorff).Report

Felix
5 years ago

You don’t need to do a PhD in ethics or political philosophy to contribute in the popular press to public conversations about ethics and politics. You need to be well-read, and a thoughtful, persuasive, and all-round excellent writer. You would also be well-advised to hang out with other writers and editors and be part of the community of people who write the kinds of things you want to write.

You might also be interested to read some philosophers who consider metaphysics and philosophy of language to have an inescapable ethical/political dimension.Report

Midwestern Grad Student
Midwestern Grad Student
5 years ago

Your interests will change over the course of your time in grad school. Let me repeat that, because it’s important: your interests will change.
No one is going to hold you five years from now to what you wrote in your statement of purpose this year. From what I understand, admissions committees use those to assess that elusive criterion of “fit” more than to evaluate your research plan. If you’re interested in multiple areas of philosophy, your best bet is to find a program that is strong in those/multiple areas. But don’t expect to be doing the same thing in five years that you thought you’d be doing… (almost) everyone sees their interests change.Report

John
John
5 years ago

I have nothing to say that will help you, only that I am facing the exact same decision in the coming months!Report

Anon.
5 years ago

Very briefly, I’ll say that you should probably want more than “fun,” or “amusement,” out of what you study. Fun and amusement is of course important, but is that going to sustain you at the very difficult points of your graduate career? At the very least, do something you think is valuable or worthy of time and attention, even if it’s unlikely to have a broad impact.Report

AnotherGradstudent
AnotherGradstudent
5 years ago

Honest advice? I am in a postdoc and feel exactly like you (and I have since a long time) but I am too scared of real world jobs too give up academia. The difference in terms of wider impact between metaphysics and political philosophy, unless you become the next Big Name (a Peter Singer, a Martha Nussbaum) is negligible. Will you have any impact when your best-read piece appears on some minor website dealing with contemporary culture (if even there) rather than some special issue on Mereology in second-tier philosophy joirnal? If you want to feel like what you do has either immediate or lasting consequence, and if you are young enough to have a good shot at something else, leave philosophy.Report

anonymous
anonymous
Reply to  AnotherGradstudent
5 years ago

I just want to second this. I think if you are at *all* worried about this kind of thing, it’s a sign that you should reevaluate your options. I also (I’m biased, because I’m a metaphysician) think most analytic ethics/political philosophy suffers from methodological problems in the same way that metaphysics/language does, and I wouldn’t assume that you won’t end up deciding that *it* is just a bunch of people doing puzzles too…

-A pot-committed grad student.Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
5 years ago

If you want to write philosophy that has impact outside academia, it doesn’t necessarily matter what your AOS is, because you aren’t writing for specialists. What you want for that is a good general education and to learn to write non-academic English well. As for the impact of metaphysics, it is potentially enormous. What we say about ethics, politics and what it is for a human being to live well often depends on our metaphysical assumptions.Report

Lauren Swayne Barthold
Lauren Swayne Barthold
5 years ago

Without wanting to dismiss the importance of asking and struggling with this question, let me suggest that you not place too much weight on trying to predict your future. Whatever your area of focus, it will not necessarily rule out you becoming the next Singer. At the same time, and if that possibility seems unlikely, it could also come about that some arcane M&E paper of yours is read by a young student who is so inspired that she decides to study philosophy and goes on to become the next Nussbaum! Most important, though, as a mid-career philosopher, let me express a perhaps unpopular consideration (in grad schools and post grad at least in my experience): perhaps the greatest practical difference you’ll make in the world will be the impact you have in the classroom. So (as long as you get a job) it might not matter which specialty you choose. Good Luck and keep us posted!Report

John
John
5 years ago

Choose what interests you most, and what you can do your best. At the end of the day, the quality of your works says it all. Starting at metaphysics and phil of language is good even for transition to more practical areas of philosophy. For job market, applied ethics looks better, but to get in at a decent graduate program, metaphysics or phil of language seems to be a safe choice.Report

JCM
JCM
5 years ago

Not now, nor with regard to any other choice you make, should you choose what amuses you most, or what you enjoy the most. Is life supposed to be some sort of amusement ride? Do what is good.

(I suppose I could concede that when it comes to ice-cream or sexual positions it can be acceptable to choose what you like best. But I’ll have to have the concession pulled out of me.)Report

Sara L. Uckelman
5 years ago

I might be biased, but I’d say: Stick with the metaphysicy/languagy stuff, but head towards logic. Logic touches on so many fields that it opens up possibilities rather than closes them off. (In fact, I’d even go so far to say consider the University of Amsterdam’s Master of Logic programme: http://www.illc.uva.nl/MScLogic/ because of the diversity of careers and PhD programmes that its graduates go into. Full disclosure, I did my PhD there. 🙂 )Report

Ryan Cook
Ryan Cook
5 years ago

I graduated very recently with a Bachelor’s in Philosophy. I do plan on going back to school for a PhD in philosophy later down the road, but for now I am taking some time off to get at least a vague idea of philosophical topics really grab my attention. I’ve always had a passion for political philosophy, but I’m currently exploring ethics; metaphysics and epistemology and (some of) the other miscellaneous topics are later down the road. I’m fairly certain that I’ll focus on ethics and/or political philosophy, but that’s only because they resonate with me. By way of advice and input, I leave you with a quote from Soren Kierkegaard.

“Of what use would it be to me for truth to stand before me, cold and naked, not caring whether or not I acknowledged it, making me uneasy rather than trustingly receptive. I certainly do not deny that I still accept an imperative of knowledge and that through it men may be influenced, but then it must come alive in me, and this is what I now recognize as the most important of all.”Report

Derek Bowman
Derek Bowman
Reply to  Ryan Cook
5 years ago

Given the dismal job prospects for philosophy PhDs, and given that you are able to explore philosophical topics on your own, why do you sound so sure you want to go for the PhD.

What are you taking time off from? School? Clearly. Philosophy? It doesn’t sound like it. So what are you missing that more school would give you? And is that worth all the sacrifices and risks that pursuing the PhD will bring?

Similarly, I would encourage the original letter writer to remember that they don’t need a PhD either to continue pondering metaphysical and linguistic puzzles, or to begin contemplating ways to make the world a better place.Report

AnotherGradstudent
AnotherGradstudent
5 years ago

A follow up to my comment above. I’ll risk sounding arrogant, but I am honestly astounded by most of the other comments to this query. Do you really feel no moral obligation whatsoever towards this particular student when it comes to warn him or her of the dismal, *dismal* emplyability prospects he or she faces? *Especially when* he or she is less than 100% committed and enamoured of what he/she does now? The “future will tell” or “you’ll find your way” “go ahead grad school will change your mind” kind of comments seem oblivious to the fact that there is a very good statistical chance that this particular individual, after long and stressful years of grad school–perhaps studying something he/she finds personally unsatisfactory, perhaps incurring into anxiety or depression disorders that afflict a vast percentage of graduate students–will enter a job market where he/she will not (possibly ever) find a permanent academic employment.

Keep reading what you love on the side, but my honest (perhaps biased!) advice, again, for your own good, is that unless you can pour 100% of your life, time and energies into your education in the next 4 to 7 years, the choice of going on–carrying forward with you the issues you already are experincing–is an emotional and professional suicide.Report

Paul Hammond
Paul Hammond
Reply to  AnotherGradstudent
5 years ago

The student didn’t ask for advice about whether to pursue further study in philosophy, so that’s why people didn’t offer it. Hopefully if they read Daily Nous regularly, they understand that there’s a very large chance that they will not succeed in achieving a career as a professional philosopher. But if that’s the career you want, you certainly won’t have it without getting a PhD.

Regarding the question of specialization, I would encourage the poster to think about the impact of this choice on employability, perhaps more so than on the idea of “having an impact.” There are proportionally more job openings in applied ethics than in metaphysics in language, at least compared to the number of people who are qualified for them. So keep that in mind, but you also have to consider what field you think you can do the best work in, and you’ll probably be in a much better position to answer that after a year or two in grad school. And like other responders said, once you’re in, no one is going to hold you to what you wrote in your personal statement, so you don’t really have to decide now.Report

MA Student
MA Student
5 years ago

I had similar worries. As an undergrad, I was mainly interested in metaphysics, philosophy of religion, and mathematical logic. Not really “high impact” areas, so far as social substance goes. But In my senior year i took an analytic philosophy of science course, and through it I found a way to channel my other interests. Science (both natural and social) is the epistemological juggernaut of our age, without question. In the philosophy of science I found a place where I can evaluate how metaphysics, religion, and logic interface with issues that most would agree are socially important.Report

Jason
Jason
5 years ago

Regardless of what you write about, and even if you published frequently, your chances of having impact on the world, positive or negative, are vanishingly small. So do what you like. If you really care about making impact, become a surgeon instead.Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
Reply to  Jason
5 years ago

The public is very open to reading philosophy. I fail to see why we can’t have an impact. At the very least, we should have a serious try before giving up.Report

Jason
Jason
Reply to  Hey Nonny Mouse
5 years ago

The public reads a bit of philosophy, sure. But that doesn’t mean it makes much difference. How many philosophers have made a significant difference in the world? Maybe 10?Report

Anonymous Undergrad
Anonymous Undergrad
5 years ago

How are we explicating the difference between what one likes to do and what one cares about?

What I mean by that is: I think we are assuming that the student doesn’t like ethics and political philosophy, but simply finds them to be more practical fields. Let’s not forget the element of care involved; if one cares about something (e.g. making an impact on people outside of a small subgroup of academia) is that not sufficient to motivate, or at least NOT something that will be painstaking or dreaded?

Sure, puzzles are fun (and beneficial, sometimes), but I think the more important question is what does the student care about, in a fulfilling sense? I think (and this is just my humble opinion, and perhaps it is only that because it is my subjective perspective) that caring about something in a profound way (i.e. making a project out of it with the intended end of making a REAL difference) is more powerful motivation (read: more fulfilling) than keeping oneself entertained with puzzles. Having to make work out of one’s hobby can sometimes take the fun out of it.

I will agree with an above comment concerning the notion that the biggest impact one has is often in the classroom. Even professors of classes I have no interest in (ironically, precisely the interests of the OP) have had a wonderful impact on me.

Not enough of an impact though to completely stop me from wearing my biases on my sleeve, however, so take this advice with a grain of salt if you so choose.

Speaking of choosing, perhaps Sartre’s advice can be of use here, “Choose, that is invent.”Report

Alex
Alex
5 years ago

I am an undergraduate too, and my advice is to stop being concerned with changing the world and to instead contribute to whichever fields you have something interesting to say with regards to them.

these notions are all wound up in validation and if you’re seeking validation i would say academia isn’t the place for you.

i don’t know any academics who are validated by others. the happy ones are working in the fields of which they have interesting things to say.Report

Charles Pigden
Charles Pigden
5 years ago

I would like to suggest that it is is a bad idea to switch from metaphysics to ethics or political philosophy because you want your future work research work to have ‘real impact or value’. This is not because it is an ignoble ambition but because it is an ambition that is unlikely to be realized. Many philosophers like to think that their research work serves some practical purpose other than the discovery of truths of interest to a sub-section of the elite. But this is usually a delusion and a delusion, to which ethicists and political philosophers are peculiarly prone. Consider what is required if your research work is to have ‘impact and value’ in the sort of sense that you seem to have in mind. To do this you need to develop a set of ideas which, if put in practice or brought to bear on public debates, would somehow make the world better a place. This is, of course conceivable and sometimes it actually happens. But it is not enough to develop these ideas. Nor it is enough to get them widely accepted within the philosophical community (which is in itself a major task requiring luck as well as talent). If they are ACTUALLY to be put into practice or brought to bear on public debates, they must be widely disseminated and widely accepted amongst the non-philosophical elites and preferably by the wider public. They must become the common currency of the punditocracy. They must inform the ruminations of opinionators and direct the decisions of politicians. All this is possible and sometimes it actually happens. A few, a talented and lucky few, manage to develop the kind of beneficial ideas that have this kind of public impact. (Singer, Sen, Rawls and Nussbaum, perhaps Philip Pettit and in an earlier generation I would suggest Bertrand Russell and Karl Popper.) But there are probably no more than fifty philosophers living at one time who manage to hit the jackpot by coming up with ideas that are BOTH beneficial AND publicly influential (perhaps a couple of hundred more if we lower the bar a bit and allow for small-scale and local benefits). If you are a young academic beginning your career, then you have to realize that the chances are that you won’t be one of them. For myself I am inclined to think that when I am doing philosophical research I am probably not doing anything of real impact or value and when I am doing something of impact or value I am probably not doing philosophical research (though I hope I may get lucky with my research on conspiracy theories which would, I think, be beneficial if widely believed and which is beginning to get some traction in the public sphere). Show me the philosopher who is deeply convinced that his or her research work plays a positive social role, and the chances are that I can show you someone suffering from delusions of utility, or to put the point less politely, somebody who is telling themselves ridiculous lies. It isn’t always so, and it certainly isn’t necessarily so, but usually – sadly – that’s the way it is.Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
Reply to  Charles Pigden
5 years ago

There are many excellent ideas already thought up that philosophers can help to spread. Professionally, we tend to reward philosophers for having new ideas but not for spreading ideas, which has lead to the present system in which we generate lots of ideas which rarely leave the academy. However, there is no reason why this must be so. Yes, just coming up with ideas in academia is unlikely to change the world. Talking to the public about ideas just might have a positive effect.Report

Charles Pigden
Charles Pigden
Reply to  Hey Nonny Mouse
5 years ago

No argument from me on this score. In my days as an activist and amateur politician I was generally pushing other people’s ideas not trying to develop my own. But this simply underlines my point. There was not much connection between my activities as researcher and my activities as an activist. And this would probably have remained the case even if I had focused my research energies onto ‘relevant’ topics.Report

Alan White
Alan White
5 years ago

Undergrad, it’s something of a crapshoot ultimately, and if you wish academic employment, then I suppose you know the uphill battle. But what none of us (and maybe not even you) can assess is what your talents are, what you might experience in a particular grad school, what you might write/teach of (in)significance, and so on. You might come from Einstein’s direction, imagining you’re surfing on a light-wave with static waves about you, and realize with math precision that doesn’t comport with any observation. And the result of that is ultimately (through SR and then GR) atomic weapons and GPS. Quite an impact, you must admit, whether positive or negative. Or you might like Anscombe with one article reinvigorate an ethical view discarded for eons and in the process develop a term (“consequentialism”) that is not merely definitive of that view, but in logical opposition all others, setting the tone for a Smart Singer with grist for their Mill. Contribution can come from anywhere and probably is more a function of luck combined with sufficient ability–which, with your honest self-reflection, says much for you. Should you place bets with applied ethics against metaphysics? There’s too much variability of relevant data to give you good advice. Maybe better to reflect on how your grad school commitment is a good judgment about funds and personal relationships in the future; the good academic life is a best (or good enough) fit of personal, financial, and studious passions. And lots–lots–of luck to make it happen. Go ahead with all that in mind. And–good luck.Report

ck
ck
5 years ago

Nobody can answer this for you & I won’t pretend to either… I only wish to point out that the very question you ask is posed (by you) as an ethical question (in both the broad and narrow senses). Good luck.Report

philosopotamous
philosopotamous
5 years ago

Focusing on the primary concern of our undergrad friend, which is to have an impact on the world, I just want to add that to pursue philosophy as a career is to do more than just write things. It is also about teaching and encouraging students of all ages and backgrounds to do good thinking. My job as a philosophy teacher is not a lucrative one, it is not filled with accolades or publications in well-recognized circles. But my goal is to have an impact every day on the students I come in contact with, and when I do it is incredibly satisfying to me. I believe in the tenets of hooks “engaged pedagogy.” I teach courses in ethics, in legal theory, and on the philosophy of race and gender. My aim is to make people see themselves as thinkers, to welcome and not fear the deep questions, and to have the courage to reconsider their basic assumptions and how their actions arise from them in this complicated world.

I am certainly not claiming to have reached every student; if there are big epiphanies they are often hard won and may prove fleeting. But not to long ago, a former student asked me to write a letter of recommendation for him for graduate school, and when I asked him why he wanted to take his career in this direction he said something that will remain with me forever. He said, “because I want to be like you, changing the world one mind at a time.”
That’s how I see my job in philosophy.Report

Professor Plum
Professor Plum
5 years ago

Dear Undergraduate,
First, do not go to graduate school in philosophy. Just don’t.

Second, you are right that spending your days on fun “puzzles” is going to have no impact on the world. But the lack of impact really isn’t the primary problem, and turning to ethics or political philosophy isn’t going to help. I suspect you are starting to see just how pointless and dreary most contemporary philosophy is, and with that realization comes despair. Yes, this despair can coexist with momentary feelings of amusement and fun. The pointlessness of contemporary philosophy cannot be fully understood in terms of its lack of impact; the narrowness of its scope and insularity also contribute. Trust me, much contemporary work in ethics and political philosophy is just as depressing (and without impact ).

Third, whatever you do, never ever ever focus on one topic rather than another due to strategic considerations. That is a sure route to (even greater) alienation and despair.Report

Sen Lannama
5 years ago

Let me second a couple of things that were said above–

1. You should care a lot about job prospects. Are you likely to get into a highly-ranked PhD? You need to answer that question honestly–because most grad students at most universities face job market existential terror at least weekly, if not almost every day. Those feelings make it difficult to do good work, so a lot of philosophy graduate school becomes a psychological battle to overcome yourself and actually get something done. And every grad student, regardless of area, regularly faces the fear that their work is meaningless (and most are right). So job market prospects should be an extremely high priority.

2. Even if you do ethics or political philosophy, your impact on the real world is likely to be negligible. The grad-level metaphysics courses I’ve been in are all games of intellectual badminton, trading hypothetical cases back and forth to draw out intuitions that somehow, by magic, are supposed to mean something. And ethics courses are exactly the same; the work they produce is fairly otiose across the board, as far as actual ethical problems are concerned.

A philosophy career has little impact on the world. So you have two options–one is to do philosophy and also get involved in other organizations, like church or community service organizations, that actually make a difference. The other is to choose a different career.Report

newprof
newprof
5 years ago

Professor Emeritus Plum suspects that the undergraduate is “starting to see how pointless and dreary most contemporary philosophy is.” The student gave no signs at all of thinking philosophy dreary.
The ‘puzzles’ part of philosophy isn’t pointless at all; but its point is interior to it. Pursuing much of contemporary philosophy means forsaking ulterior motives, in the broadest sense.
Sen Lannama says “most grad students at most universities face job market existential terror at least weekly, if not almost every day.” I have not found that to be true at either of the graduate programs I’ve been associated with. (The ones on the job market are indeed up to the nose in anxiety.)
I believe a lot of commenters are overgeneralizing from their own experiences, or just plain projecting.Report

ck
ck
5 years ago

re this bit of advice: “Are you likely to get into a highly-ranked PhD?” This seems to me the wrong question for you to ask unless your goal is vanity. The question you should ask is “Are you likely to get into a PhD program with a good placement record?” This seems to be what the poster is interested in with their post anyway, but they are confusing the two. They should not be confused. “Placement record” is much more objective than “highly-ranked.” And even if “highly-ranked” were objective, it is not clear what it would be an objective measure of such that somebody should want to pursue the thing being measured (for reasons other than vanity).

See relevant comparative data from Carolyn Dicey Jennings here: http://www.newappsblog.com/2014/07/job-placement-2011-2014-comparing-placement-rank-to-pgr-rank.htmlReport

AnonGradStudent76
AnonGradStudent76
5 years ago

My thoughts are this: get out of Philosophy. Being on the other side of a top twenty PhD program, the realization that has hit me, is that there are no jobs in Philosophy. Period. We philosophers have a almost fundamentalist belief, based upon no experience or evidence, that everyone who gets a good PhD will get a job. There are many PhDs from top ten programs who do not have a job in the profession. Furthermore they will never make what a mid level manager will make after ten years. Do your self a favor, get out of Philosophy, go get an MBA, and move on with your life.Report

Sen Lannama
Reply to  AnonGradStudent76
5 years ago

I mostly agree with this. Many people thinking about graduate study in philosophy would do better to just do something else.Report

Professor Plum
Professor Plum
5 years ago

@newprof: I don’t think I’m overgeneralizing or projecting; I’m offering advice based on my experience.

The undergraduate expressed a general sense of dissatisfaction with working through the puzzles generated by contemporary M&E and wondered if she should focus on ethics and political philosophy in grad school since those fields are more likely to have a greater impact on the world. My main point (other than: “for the love of all that is good, don’t go to grad school in philosophy!”) is that concerns about “impact” here strike me as a bit of a red herring. The general sense of dissatisfaction the student feels could very well have another source. “Impact” is something of a buzzword with millennials, and given that the student expresses concerns about both the “impact” and the “value” of puzzle-focused M&E, it seems worthwhile to make some distinctions about different ways in which contemporary philosophy can be disvaluable. My concerns about contemporary philosophy are not rooted in anything distinctive about my biography, and in recent years many philosophers have raised similar concerns.

While I suppose it is good for you that you see a point to contemporary puzzle-focused philosophy, I’m not sure how simply stipulating that the point is “interior” to it answers the concerns raised by the OP or provides some sort of take down of my comment.Report

newprof
newprof
5 years ago

Prof Emeritus Plum,
When someone says she finds an activity fun, and then says she finds it amusing, and you take this as a sign that she is starting to realize how dreary it is, that must be projection. We do not in general think someone’s finding fun and amusement is a harbinger of dreariness. If someone said she found light opera fun and amusing, I doubt you would say she was beginning to realize how dreary light opera is… unless you yourself found it to be dreary. Thus, projection.
I don’t know what you mean by a “take down” of your comment. I was saying only that some activities need an ulterior point, and some do not because they have their point in the activities themselves. Doing metaphysics is in the latter camp. I don’t expect you to agree with this – I think probably almost everyone who does metaphysics, and few who do not, would agree. But I do expect you to see the general idea, that some activities have their point interior to them and some have ulterior points only.
If you really don’t see how this is relevant to the OP, I don’t think I’ll be able to help you out. Sorry.Report

Professor Plum
Professor Plum
5 years ago

Hey Newprof,
I’m not quite sure how your “interior/ ulterior” distinction maps on to the more familiar “intrinsic/ extrinsic” or “final/instrumental” distinctions, but thanks so much for trying to help me!

As I said, it doesn’t seem like much of an answer to the OP (who has expressed her doubts about the value of puzzle-focused philosophy), to simply declare that its point is “interior” to it; presumably she would like some *account* of its point or value.Report

Patrick Mayer
Patrick Mayer
5 years ago

Undergrad,
Since you are thinking of going to grad school, I assume you are legally speaking an adult. Since you seem both intellectually curious and morally earnest, I assume you are a mature adult. As such I am both a) not going to subject you to dreary sad-sack answers to a question you didn’t ask (should I go to grad school?) and b) encourage you, if you are interested in talking about whether to go to grad school to only take seriously the opinions of people who you know for sure have the adequate background to offer advice (not embittered anonymous commenters) and who know something about your abilities and record in philosophy in particular.Report

Newprof
Newprof
5 years ago

Hi Prof Emeritus Plum,
I’m not quite sure how your “interior/ ulterior” distinction maps on to the more familiar “intrinsic/ extrinsic” or “final/instrumental” distinctions, but thanks so much for trying to help me!

Nor am I. They are similar, but “ulterior” and “interior” apply to points, and “extrinsic” and “intrinsic” apply to values.

As I said, it doesn’t seem like much of an answer to the OP (who has expressed her doubts about the value of puzzle-focused philosophy), to simply declare that its point is “interior” to it; presumably she would like some *account* of its point or value.

The point is just understanding the fundamental nature of ourselves and of the world and our place in it. But this is obvious, so I assume you mean something else by an “account”.
I don’t think that’s what the student wanted, though. I think the student wanted to know about the ulterior point, instrumental value, etc.Report

anon'
anon'
Reply to  Newprof
5 years ago

“The point is just understanding the fundamental nature of ourselves and of the world and our place in it. But this is obvious….”

This can be had via M&E’s “puzzle-focused philosophy”? Sounds like a cool story — but not at all “obvious” how it’s supposed to go.Report

Former Philosopher
Former Philosopher
5 years ago

It works well to do something akin to “double-majoring” – study philosophy while simultaneously pursuing professional experience in another field. It’s some extra work but not at all impossible. It takes some of the anxiety out of placing all your eggs in one basket and if you end up doing the other thing full time, the way you do it will be infused with and elevated by your philosophical training.Report

felonius screwtape
felonius screwtape
5 years ago

there is absolutely nothing wrong with majoring in philosophy at the undergraduate level, but do take some “skills”-based classes as well (like coding) so that you can earn money. of course, philosophy is also a skill, or skill-set, an excellent one that prepares you well for all sorts of often unexpected possibilities and opportunities when you graduate, so take some time to explore them. only one of those possibilities is graduate school in philosophy, and unless you phenomenally lucky, totally committed, and remarkably resilient, getting into, surviving, and getting out of graduate school and on a successful career track is extremely, extremely, extremely difficult (did i mention how hard it is?) And did you notice i emphasized luck first? you don’t have to be exceptionally brilliant or talented or hard-working to get a phd or especially to get a job in philosophy; it fact, the odds are 80% in favor of you living a life of an adjunct if you finish the degree. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Here’s some concrete advice : Knowing that you do have translatable skills, and that the employment deck is stacked against you, pursue a terminal MA (if you can do it at low to no cost). Write a substantial masters thesis on whatever you want; such a project is an excellent training exercise. By the time you’re done with a typical two-year program, you’ll hopefully know whether or not you want to continue (if your rationale is “why not, i’ve got nothing better to do,” then that’s probably not a compelling reason). But while you’re pursuing the MA, think about other options, and remember that having an MA will open even more possibilities for you.Report

Dien Ho
Dien Ho
5 years ago

My apologies if what I am about to say has already been said above.
My graduate education was primarily in philosophy of science and philosophy of language (at GC-CUNY) but I was also interested in healthcare ethics. It has been 12 years since I received my PhD and my present research is mostly in healthcare ethics. I love philosophy of language but one thing you might want to consider is how much good you can do in healthcare ethics. I helped start the ethics committee at the University of Kentucky Medical Center. I did everything from clinical consultations to policy-reviews. There were plenty of occasions when my contribution as a philosopher made substantial difference in improving patients’ well-being. Unlike bad metaphysics, bad healthcare ethics can really hurt people. If you want to have an impact, there is no doubt that healthcare ethics is where you should be. Indeed, I think there might be a moral duty for good philosophers to do healthcare ethics. Moreover, there are some fascinating metaphysical and epistemic issues in healthcare ethics; e.g., personal identity and dementia (consent), the epistemic value of RCT, demarcation criteria and the denial of coverage for pseudo-scientific treatments, the nature of values, etc. It is, in my mind, as fun as traditional analytic fields. One final point: try to gain some clinical experience while you are studying healthcare ethics and philosophy of medicine.Report

Sen Lannama
Reply to  Dien Ho
5 years ago

Great points. I should have been more specific before–normative ethics is worthless to the real world, but applied and medical ethics are not worthless at all, and are actually very important. There are also many different non-academic jobs available in those fields which philosophers with other specializations will not able to compete for.Report

Watson
Watson
5 years ago

Might I suggest checking out Topoi Volume 25, Issue 1-2, September 2006. Broad range of perspectives on “Philosophy: What is to be done?”Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
5 years ago

Might I similarly suggest checking out Essays in Philosophy Vol 15, Issue 1, January 2014. A variety of perspectives on the issue of philosophers having public impact.Report

Professor Plum
Professor Plum
5 years ago

For an inspiring story of a philosopher who made quite an “impact”, albeit largely outside the academy, people might want to consider the life of civil rights activist (and amazing person), Grace Lee Boggs who died on Monday.Report