A “Tragic Question” of Academic Life (guest post by John Schwenkler)


The following is a guest post* by John Schwenkler, assistant professor of philosophy at Florida State University.


A “Tragic Question” of Academic Life
by John Schwenkler

In her splendid essay “The Costs of Tragedy”, Martha Nussbaum relates a story from her days as a young professor at Harvard:

When I began teaching as an assistant professor at Harvard, philosophy department colloquia always began at 5 P.M., exactly when child care centers closed. Those of us who had child care obligations, consequently, faced many difficult choices. One problem we had was deciding what to do on each occasion. But I felt that we had another problem as well: for, often, neither of the alternatives looked morally acceptable. Either we would be deserting our duty to our colleagues or we would be deserting our duty to and love of our young children. …

Obviously enough, this string of minitragedies was the result of obtuseness. The arrangements my colleagues had made about colloquia were no more sensible than the arrangements made by the Pandava brothers about visiting the king. Because it had never dawned on most men of that generation to think that a person ought to be able to be both a good primary caretaking parent and a good colleague, they had never bothered to think what very simple changes in the daily arrangements might be made to remove the problem. Nobody could talk about this; nobody could draw attention to it.

This situation changed, Nussbaum recalls, when one day during a lecture that had by then run until after 6 P.M. Robert Nozick stood up (“with the carefree subversiveness of which only the tenured are capable”, Nussbaum adds), to say that it was time for him to go and pick up his son from hockey practice.

Today I was mindful of this anecdote, partly because I’m teaching Nussbaum’s paper in my Intro to Philosophy class this week, but also thanks to reading Josh Parsons’s guest post on his decision to give up his faculty position and seek to do his teaching and research under more flexible and family-friendly conditions. Reading that post it struck me that while Josh’s decision seems clearly wise, and his choice to make it public in this way unquestionably courageous, the circumstances behind that choice are really sad—indeed, the situation Josh describes is tragic in just the same way as those that Nussbaum recalls from her early years at Harvard.

Talk of tragedy might seem overwrought in these cases, but in fact they share the same structure as classic cases of tragic choice like that of Sophocles’ Antigone. As Nussbaum writes, what makes these circumstances tragic is the way they force upon us, usually not out of necessity but rather from sheer insensitivity and an unthinking adherence to “habit and tradition, treated as natural and inevitable”, a tension between two genuine spheres of value—in Parsons’s and Nussbaum’s cases those of the family and the university, in that of Antigone those of civic duty and familial obligation—that in themselves don’t have to compete for our allegiance. A proper understanding of how we should approach these tragic situations will also require an accounting of how they came to be, and how we can keep this from happening again in the future.

This means that while it’s important to ask, as many have in the comments to Josh’s post, about the wisdom of his choice and whether it would be wise for others to choose the same, it’s no less important to ask about his case what Nussbaum calls the “tragic question”: What are the circumstances that make philosophers feel that they have to choose between their academic careers and their personal and family lives? And how can these circumstances be changed, so that the choice between these spheres of value isn’t so often forced upon us?

In the simple case that Nussbaum describes, the answer to these questions was relatively straightforward: The source of the problem was having colloquia and visiting lectures always starting at 5 P.M. (and Burton Dreben’s faculty seminar from 6 P.M. to 10 P.M., she says!); and the solution was some combination of rescheduling those events, holding them less often, offering better support for childcare, and genuinely excusing faculty who needed to skip or leave early sometimes in order to tend to their personal lives. In Josh’s case the situation is more difficult, since part of the problem is the sheer cost of raising a family in Oxford—but still there is no good reason for an academic job to be, as Josh puts it, “high-pressure”, or for young academics in his position to have to work long hours. Perhaps it’s true that the behavior that gave rise to this circumstance wasn’t scandalous or unfair, but at the very least it was worrying and its outcome non-ideal, and there clearly room to make things better.

This may seem dreamy or unreasonable, but my own experience as an academic suggests that it’s not. I myself have four young children and a research agenda that’s understatedly described as hyperactive, but a main factor in my balancing this without a lot of stress or pressure is that I work in a department where the official policy and operating culture keep interference with faculty’s lives to a minimum. We have a few colloquium talks per semester and meet as a department once or twice a year. When we do meet, we keep it short and collegial, rejecting any demand to find total consensus or make the “perfect” decision (it’s in scare quotes because usually there isn’t one) each time. This allows us to apportion our time between research, teaching, and personal and family life in a way we simply couldn’t if we also had to navigate the gauntlet of regular meetings, talks, and so on that so many academics complain about.

Is something lost in this? Surely. And it doesn’t fit the image of the monkish scholar or the high-pressure, high-prestige researcher. But we’re professional philosophers, not monks or bankers or lawyers. And whatever we lose in prestige or productivity by taking this approach is nothing in comparison to the benefits of having a department full of happy and healthy people, each able to pursue his or her respective vision of the good life—a vision that includes, but is not limited to, being a good professional philosopher.

In her essay, Nussbaum writes admiringly of the way that Nozick’s speaking up “drew attention to the predicament of others who were more vulnerable and who had similar family obligations”. It is important, she explains, to use moments like this as a way to imagine alternatives to the ones that force these tragic choices on us—if not to make those alternatives real, then at least “to inform ourselves about the real structure of our situation”, revealing what is often the “stupidity, or selfishness, or laziness, or malice” that’s behind the clashes of value that we frequently take to be natural or inescapable. This seems like another good case for such a reckoning.

clock face walk away

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SF
SF
5 years ago

I remember my first year, my husband was in another state and it was just my kids and me. I remember department meetings & colloquiums running past school closing time, the overwhelming daycare costs on a meager salary, and the keynote speakers scheduled after daycare closed… The anxiety of seeming uncommitted on a new job and the guilt of being a terrible parent …Report

Matt McAdam
Matt McAdam
5 years ago

“there is no good reason for an academic job to be, as Josh puts it, “high-pressure”, or for young academics in his position to have to work long hours”

I don’t understand this. Is the claim here that an academic job shouldn’t be like this because no job should be? If the claim isn’t that, then why think that an academic job should be free from high pressure and long hours?Report

John Schwenkler
John Schwenkler
Reply to  Matt McAdam
5 years ago

“… why think that an academic job should be free from high pressure and long hours?” — For the same reason that airline pilots shouldn’t work 24-hour shifts. That is, because such an arrangement impedes the very sort of work in question. At least I think this is true in the discipline of philosophy.Report

Andrew
Andrew
Reply to  John Schwenkler
5 years ago

Isn’t it true of almost any job that high pressure and long hours impede the very sort of work in question?Report

recent grad
recent grad
Reply to  Andrew
5 years ago

Probably, but the degree of impact will no doubt differ. Don’t you think?Report

Andrew
Andrew
Reply to  recent grad
5 years ago

Sure. Is there a good reason to think that the impact is particularly severe where philosophers are concerned, as opposed to lawyers, accountants, engineers, grade school teachers, police officers, nurses, and so on? I can get behind a world in which work, in general, does not involve long hours or high pressure and I can sort of get myself to hear as true the claim that “every job should be free from high pressure and long hours,” but is there something special about academics that justifies them in demanding that academic jobs in particular should be?Report

John Schwenkler
John Schwenkler
Reply to  Andrew
5 years ago

Well for my part I was confining myself about to speaking just about *philosophical* jobs. And there I believe there is a specific sort of incompatibility with high pressure and long hours, etc., simply because I don’t believe it’s possible to do philosophy really well outside the context of a good life. Of course this view is controversial, and may be self-indulgent. And I don’t rule out the same being true for other academic disciplines or professions outside the academy — in which case, if those disciplines and professions are important, I’d be happy to make the same argument about them.Report

recent grad
recent grad
Reply to  Andrew
5 years ago

Yes, I think. Much of what is good about philosophy involves a rumination on things other than philosophy, e.g., love, politics, art, science, and so on. The more people have to do philosophy, the less they’ll be able to say anything important or interest about what is often the subject matter of philosophy. I don’t want to read an article on the value of art from someone who has no time to go to a museum, or an article on cosmopolitanism from someone who has no time to travel, or an article on love from someone who spends little time with his or her partner. Many jobs involve diminishing returns the more you work, but this is often due “just” to things like fatigue. Philosophers arguably need time to live if they’re going to have anything important to say about life.

Here McNaughton makes a similar case: https://www.google.com/search?q=why+is+so+much+of+philosophy+so+tedious&ie=utf-8&oe=utf-8Report

Andrew
Andrew
Reply to  Andrew
5 years ago

Thanks. I see the point. I’m not sure I buy it, but I’ll have to think about it.
Even if it’s right that a philosopher who thinks a lot about love should be given the time to get out there and do a lot of lovin’, I’m not sure how to generalize to get something like the conclusion that philosophers shouldn’t work long hours or be under high pressure. Josh Parsons (the philosopher whose long-hour, high-pressure job we were originally bemoaning) does a lot of really cool work in the philosophy of time, mereology, location, modality, etc. Does he need to be given the time to go out and get some first-hand experience with the extended simples or possible worlds?
Epistemologists need to have the time to go out and get first-hand experience with the evidential support relation?Report

Charles Pigden
Charles Pigden
Reply to  John Schwenkler
5 years ago

Can’t click reply to the right comment, but surely John Shwenkler’s belief that it isn’t possible to do philosophy really well outside the context of a good life is utterly absurd. In philosophy as in the arts, the sciences and in many other areas the best work is often produced by driven obsessives whose lives are only ‘good’ in the sense that they are a success at the thing they care about the most. I don’t want to claim, of course, that the best work is ONLY produced by such people as that would involve succumbing to a romantic myth. But I do want to insist that it often is. Furthermore it seems to me that for some people there really is a ‘tragic’ trade-off which is to some degree independent of institutional arrangements (though these can of course make things worse). Being the best philosopher you can be may mean being a worse all-round human being and vice versa. And it is not unreasonable to prefer philosophy.Report

JT
JT
Reply to  Charles Pigden
5 years ago

I’m tempted to ask you for examples, but that’s probably beside the point. The real issue here, for me anyway, is what is meant by ‘the good life’ and ‘best work’. Depending on how we understand these terms, the claim may be more plausible than you suggest. If we follow recent grad in thinking that saying something of genuine philosophical importance and interest about a subject requires intimate familiarity with the matter of that subject, then outside of the context of a life that involves substantive engagement with the matters of philosophical subjects it would not be possible to do philosophy well. And if we think that philosophy is in the first instance concerned with a Socratic examination of human life, then living well turns out to be a precondition for good philosophical work. (I suppose that one could gain familiarity with the matters of human life through living badly, but it seems unlikely that such a vicious life could be a source of philosophical insight.Report

John Schwenkler
John Schwenkler
Reply to  Charles Pigden
5 years ago

Charles (if I may), I’m going to try not to respond in kind to your over-the-top aggression, but I feel comfortable finding it less than utterly absurd to endorse a thesis about the nature of philosophical inquiry that was held by almost every great philosopher from Plato to Aquinas, and countless others since then.

Of course I don’t deny that *in some cases* there will have to be trade-offs between personal and philosophical excellence, and that sometimes it’s sensible to prefer the latter. Indeed, the first of these claims is one of the main points of my post.

PS. It’s “Schwenkler”.Report

John Schwenkler
John Schwenkler
Reply to  John Schwenkler
5 years ago

PPS. One more thought, which is that the thesis in question seems like an instance of an even more obvious one, namely that successful theorizing about the nature of some X (in this case things like truth, goodness, beauty, knowledge, love, friendship, happiness, etc.) will usually be benefited by a good degree of direct acquaintance with X itself. Of course this principle may admit of counterexamples. But that doesn’t mean it won’t hold true in general, which I think is enough for my argument.Report

recent grad
recent grad
Reply to  John Schwenkler
5 years ago

This is a reply to Andrew above. His comment is too embedded to reply directly to it.

I agree that my point about needing time to live to do philosophy well isn’t as plausible in the case of certain kinds of epistemology or metaphysics.

Justin: is there a way to adjust the comments settings so that we can reply directly to a comment no matter how deep it is in a subcomment?Report

Arthur Greeves
Arthur Greeves
Reply to  John Schwenkler
5 years ago

There was no “over-the-top aggression” in his post.Report

John Schwenkler
John Schwenkler
Reply to  Arthur Greeves
5 years ago

If that’s right, sorry then to have misattributed it.Report

Nick Byrd
5 years ago

I wonder if John and others could weigh in on the demands of SLAC settings. John does well to point out the opportunities to adjust practices and expectations in ways that improve department life and the work life balance of various people. But I imagine that there are at least as many opportunities at SLACs. After all, SLAC faculty usually teach more classes than faculty at research institutions and they do so with less assistance (e.g., from graduate students). One might think that faculty at SLACs are just substituting teaching time for research time, but I’m not so sure that applies to all SLAC faculty. I regularly see faculty from SLACs who teach at least a 3-3 (without assistance) giving papers at conferences, publishing, etc. I wonder how these faculty devote so much time to research AND teaching without working around the clock. Or maybe they do…. That’s what I want to know.

Thanks for this, John!Report

John Schwenkler
John Schwenkler
Reply to  Nick Byrd
5 years ago

I taught 4/3 without assistance when I was at Mount St Mary’s. In my experience the burden imposed by constant meetings and other “service” (oh how glad I was to learn that the Brits call this “admin”) was much more of a problem than the work of teaching.Report

Daniel Groll
Reply to  Nick Byrd
5 years ago

Hi Nick. One thing worth noting about being at a SLAC is that no graduate students means no graduate admissions, no placement, and no dissertation supervision. I suppose that’s obvious, but it is perhaps less obvious how much time that opens up, not only during the year but also over the summer for research. Once our academic year is over, most of us have no responsibilities to students until the following academic year.

Of course, we are expected during the year to spend more time teaching than many people at research schools, not only in terms of the number of classes we teach but also how available we make ourselves to students. It’s also true that we don’t have TAs. However, at least two things are worth mentioning here. First, if we’re talking about small liberal arts colleges (or selective), you probably won’t ever have more than 30 students in a class, and often you’ll have less. Second, the demands of being at a school with a grad program don’t lessen as the years go by. But the same isn’t true with respect to teaching. The number of students and the amount of grading doesn’t change, but the amount of time required for prep diminishes significantly after the first few times teaching a course. So even if it were true (and I’m not sure it is) that increased teaching demands initially fill in for decreased admin demands, I doubt that remains true after the first few years. Everything I’ve said here is all the more true if you’re able to teach the same class more than once over the course of a year.

I don’t know to what extent this is idiosyncratic to my slac, but one thing that I think really helps achieve a decent life-work balance at a place like Carleton is that not very many people have a hankering to be at the center, or even even really near the center, of their field in terms of stature. We all do research (some more than others), and we all are proud of the work we do. But it’s striking to me the number of faculty at Carleton that have substantial, non-academic interests that they devote a lot of time to. We celebrate each other’s research and the institution certainly incentivizes doing research. But there’s not at all a feeling that one must always being doing more. Many of us are happy to do less research than we otherwise would so that we can pursue other, non-academic interests. I think the institution’s culture allows for that. But perhaps I underestimate the extent to which people at research schools have serious non-academic interests as well! In fact, I suspect I probably do. So maybe the lesson is just that we’re generally less driven than the uber-productive and that that’s Ok at a place like Carleton.Report

Nick Byrd
Reply to  Daniel Groll
5 years ago

Thanks Daniel (and John)! This is helpful perspective.Report

Joe
Joe
5 years ago

The analogy to Greek tragedy, I believe, does not unproblematically secure the result Nussbaum wants, but can actually motivate a more pessimistic response. As I understand the sociology and history of these poems, they were usually meant to reconcile their audiences to inevitable tragedy, not teach them ways around it. The story of Agamemnon, for example, was not told in order to convince its audience to push for a kinder, gentler model of his role-related duties as a King, or to figure out “how we can keep this from happening again in the future”. He is choosing between the destruction of his army and the life of his daughter. There is no coherent model of Kinghood that includes permission to allow the destruction of one’s army. He cannot be a king and a parent, yet he is both, and declining to be one is just another way of failing in his role. This kind of story reconciles people to inevitable tragedy and hardship, promoted by capricious gods and other shadowy forces (see the Trachiniae for a particularly brutal example). If the academic situation really is analogous, then the corresponding message is: life is hard, work-life balance is hard, that will never change, so put on Aeschylus’ “yoke of necessity” (or, “suck it up”, as the younger generation says). I don’t believe any of that for a minute, but contrary to what Nussbaum claims it’s what many of the tragedies tell us.Report

John Schwenkler
John Schwenkler
Reply to  Joe
5 years ago

This may be right about the proper interpretation of the Greeks — but still Nussbaum could be right that they were *mistaken* in taking these things to be inevitable.

For what it’s worthy I don’t agree at all with Nussbaum’s further argument that facing up to the tragic question requires seeing these situations as involving inescapable wrongdoing. I think just the opposite.Report

Charles Pigden
Charles Pigden
Reply to  Joe
5 years ago

I thought that this was Nussbaum’s point: that although we can sometimes fix things, there really are tragic dilemmas in life from which it is impossible to escape without doing wrong. That, is surely one of the morals of her Fragility of Goodness.
This does not mean, of course that some tragic dilemmas can’t avoided either by better institutional design or by subscribing to more sensible moralities.Report

John Schwenkler
John Schwenkler
Reply to  Charles Pigden
5 years ago

That is one of Nussbaum’s points, yes, though not the one that was essential to my argument here. But I think this further point is mistaken. And I think she’s wrong to claim that we can’t take the “tragic question” fully seriously in any case where we deny that this holds.Report

Win-win
Win-win
5 years ago

I wonder whether it would be possible to offer the option of part-time tenure-track (or tenure) positions. This would have at least three benefits. First, it would offer tenured and tenure-track faculty the option, say, of a reduced teaching, ‘service,’ and research duties (at a correspondingly reduced salary). Second, as a form of job-sharing it would allow an increase in the number of tenured and tenure-track positions in the profession, which would be welcome news to junior scholars and those in ‘two-body’ situations. Third, it would allow an increase of philosophers at schools that offered such part-time positions, which might benefit students and faculty by increasing the quality of the philosophical community.

Am I wrong to think that there would be such benefits? Are there good reasons against offering such options?Report

Barry Lam
Barry Lam
Reply to  Win-win
5 years ago

Win-win….this country is not big on work-sharing, even though it does wonders for other economies, like Germany, and solves lots of social problems.Report

grad student
grad student
Reply to  Barry Lam
5 years ago

Which country? I genuinely thought this site was about philosophy internationally, not in any one single country. Am I wrong? I think many people in Germany read this blog. Not only philosophy as such, but also research groups, conferences and journals, the job market, the world of PhD applications, all of it is surely international, is it not?Report

Masters student
Masters student
5 years ago

While I am certainly sympathetic for those who have to choose between work functions and their families, as a master’s student at a university that seriously lacks a proper colloquium series, I think it is worth emphasizing the importance of these events. I spent my undergrad at a university that held a colloquium every Friday that was well attended by faculty, retired faculty, grads, ungrads, and even members of of other departments. After moving to a grad program where talks only happen once or twice an semester and are attended by mostly students (rarely professors) I have really come to realize how important these events are for building an academic community as well as furthering the education and support of students. I’m finishing up my second year here and I still haven’t met all the full time faculty (and there is less than 10 of them) and I didn’t even meet all of my fellow incoming grad students until almost a year into the program. This is makes networking (a very important component of grad school whether academics want to admit it or not) extemely difficult but also makes for an extremely isolating experience for grad students who are moving to a new city and institution, who are then given few means to reach out to their fellow students and professors. While some of these effects might have other causes (a lack of social functions in the department, a disengaged and unhelpful faculty, a deep analytic/continental split among professors limiting academic communication among them), our grad student association has been running our own speaker’s series to fill in what we see as a serious lack in the department’s culture and we seem to be having quite a bit of success through this initiative in building an actual academic community within the department. So, once again, while I can understand the need to balance work and life, and the demands of family, I think the importance of speaker’s events in fostering an academic community cannot be understated. In choosing where to apply for PhD programs, a regular speakers series has been an important requirement for me.Report

John Schwenkler
John Schwenkler
Reply to  Masters student
5 years ago

Thanks for this. What you say is absolutely right — the imbalance of work and life, or public and personal, can tend in either direction.Report

Derek Bowman
5 years ago

I think it’s admirable to aim at making your experience possible for more academics, but I wonder how feasible it really is. I don’t want to pry into the details of your family life, but I can’t help but notice that you don’t mention ways in which your department or university or surrounding community make child daycare available. If that means someone else is staying home to take care of the children, that’s an important condition that can’t be assume to be available to all philosophers, and it’s a condition that is likely to be more available for men in heterosexual marriages than it is to others.

I also wonder whether, given both the competitiveness of the job market and the frequent need (which your cv suggests you managed to avoid) to move from one temporary appointment to another before finding a permanent job. I know of at least one other hire at your current university that was a similar ‘lateral’ hire of someone who was already in a tenure-track position. If newly minted PhDs can’t be competitive for tenure-track positions, then they’re going to have to travel and compete on the market again and again for a number of years. And because of the unpredictability of that market, and the need to be an appealing candidate for whatever positions may become available, it can be hard for any amount of work or accomplish to count as ‘enough,’ especially for someone trying to secure the financial stability to start or maintain a family.

Finally, and not unrelated to the last point, there is a question of how viable a department or discipline can continue to be in modern universities if the department can’t prove it’s working (and “producing”) on the model of lawyers, or the economists or natural scientists across campus. I admire (and share) your willingness to sacrifice prestige for living a better life. But surely as a faculty member at a public university you are aware of the threat that comes from a public perception that faculty teaching a 4-4 load are only working 12 hours per week, with summers off. I also wonder how many meetings faculty members in Wisconsin have to attend if they want to protect their jobs and departments in light of weakened tenure protections.

All of this is to say that I hope you’re right, that your experience can be generalized and made more available to others in the profession of academic philosophy; but I’m not optimistic about those prospects.Report

John Schwenkler
John Schwenkler
Reply to  Derek Bowman
5 years ago

Thanks for all this. On the first point: my wife works part-time, and in the hours she works I usually care for our daughters for a couple of hours, then have a sitter for an hour or two more. So to some extent the “someone else” staying home with the kids is — me!

I won’t deny, though, that my career is benefited greatly by my having a spouse who takes on so many of these responsibilities, and that this is a privilege not everyone has. You’re right to point this out, as you are in your other two observations. I don’t mean to suggest that the particular compromise I’ve reached (which really isn’t much of a compromise at all) is available to just anyone. It’s not. My life is thoroughly charmed, well beyond anything I could deserve. But accepting this doesn’t mean holding that the painful status quo is good enough for everyone else.Report

Wendy Donner
Wendy Donner
5 years ago

Although this is not the main point of Nussbaum’s discussion, I would like to relate another anecdote about Bob Nozick’s carefree and breezy generosity. Bob and I were good friends for many years. This was during a time when he was the Chair of the Philosophy Department at Harvard and I was a young academic moving around from one short term position to another. I was through Boston a few times a year, and every time we would have dinner, or see a movie, and have a good talk about things. We were on the opposite poles of the spectrum of political philosophy, since I do my writing on Mill’s liberalism. Yet Bob was always kind and generous in our discussions. One summer in the mid 1980s we were sitting eating ice cream in a Cambridge spot. I had just had a paper accepted for the main program of the Eastern APA. Sitting in the ice cream parlour, Bob asked me how I would feel if he were to attend my session. He wanted to hear my paper, yet he was concerned about whether it would make me too nervous. He was also worried that his presence would tend to put the focus on him, not me. We agreed that he would come to the session. And so he did. He came in at the last minute, sat on the end seat in front of me, and listened attentively to my paper (which I believe he had already read). He did not ask a question, again out of concern to keep the session focus on me. Then he quietly left and congratulated me later. I am a bit wary about relating this private story. But it saddens me that he is no longer with us, and that people may not realize just how kind and generous he was.Report

Chris Surprenant
5 years ago

To add a data point, I have been very pleasantly surprised by how good both my department and the University of New Orleans has been when it comes to providing me with flexibility for my own family situation. My wife and I had our first daughter a year and a half ago and it’s very important to me that she spends as much time as possible with us during these first few years. So, no daycare. With the exception of one day a week when I’m teaching classes on campus, I’m the primary care-giver for our daughter. She comes with me to my office, she has come to curriculum committee meetings, and I have brought her to meetings with my department and dean. Perhaps people have been thinking, “Why is his daughter here?” but no one has said anything negative to me–everyone has been exceptionally positive and encouraging of what I’m doing.

While there is no question that I have had to sacrifice some degree of scholarship productivity during this period, it is a decision that I am happy to make. But I also understand people that make alternative decisions–they choose to sacrifice spending time with, or evening having, their family to spend more time in thought and advancing their careers. That’s not a “tragic decision”–that’s life. And I can’t be surprised (or upset) if I’m passed over for a raise or a job opportunity in favor of someone who has devoted his or or her entire energies to scholarship (and has done more and better work as a result).Report

John Schwenkler
John Schwenkler
Reply to  Chris Surprenant
5 years ago

“That’s not a ‘tragic decision’–that’s life.” <– And *that's* a false dichotomy!Report

Charles Pigden
Charles Pigden
5 years ago

John Schwenkler thinks that you can’t do really good work in philosophy outside the context of a good life, with the conversational implicature that this involves (at least usually) a well-rounded existence in which you don’t neglect your family and in which you take a bit of time off from philosophy. I replied that this view was absurd, pointing out that the best work in philosophy (as elsewhere) is often done by driven obsessives whose lives are only good in the sense that they are a success at the thing they care about the most (in this case, philosophy). Professor Schwenkler took offense at this, accusing me of ‘over-the top aggression’. I did not think that my comment was particularly aggressive, since I took myself to be making a rather banal point. But banal as it may be, Professor Schwenkler continues to insist that it is wrong and supports his thesis with the aid of two arguments:

1) The first is that his view of the nature of philosophical enquiry was ‘held by almost every great philosopher from Plato to Aquinas, and countless others since then’

2) The second is the claim that ‘successful theorizing about the nature of some X (in this case things like truth, goodness, beauty, knowledge, love, friendship, happiness, etc.) will usually be benefited by a good degree of direct acquaintance with X itself’.

There are two problems with the first argument. The first is that it is an argument from authority of a rather implausible kind. Schwenkler’s conception of philosophical enquiry was ‘held by almost every great philosopher from Plato to Aquinas’ from which it is supposed to follow that it isn’t absurd. But the great philosophers of the past believed all sorts of things that are now known to be false (such as the thesis that the earth is at the centre of the universe). So the fact that something was widely believed by great dead philosophers does not mean that it is true or even that it is a thesis that we ought to take seriously. The second problem is that the argument presupposes the falsity of the thesis it is designed to establish. Schwenkler thinks, (and I agree) that Aquinas was a great, philosopher, and thus that he did good work in philosophy. But it is abundantly clear that he was the very paradigm of a driven, workaholic obsessive who spent nearly every waking moment reading about, talking about or writing about philosophy and theology, or dictating to his secretaries who seem to have worked in relays. Perhaps in consequence of this unhealthy lifestyle, he seems to have had a significant weight problem. He was habitually in a state of such mental abstraction that he had to have other friars about him to prevent him from eating the wrong food or otherwise doing himself a damage. Even his prayers seem to have been work-related as they often consisted of requests to God to help him solve some intellectual difficulty. (See the biographical sections in either Shield and Pasnau’s book *The Philosophy of Thomas Aquinas* or Stump’s book *Aquinas*.) Now, being a celibate, Aquinas did not have a family to neglect, but he certainly did not take much time out to smell the roses. Indeed, his punishing work schedule may have contributed to his peculiar mental breakdown and his comparatively early death at the age of forty-nine. So the dilemma for Schwenkler is this. Either Aquinas was a great philosopher, in which case it is possible to do great work in philosophy whilst being a driven, workaholic obsessive with a significant obesity problem, or he was not, in which case the fact that he supposedly shared Schwenkler’s conception of philosophy is of no intellectual consequence, even if we were to accept this kind of argument from authority.

Schwenkler’s second argument faces a similar difficulty. It is no doubt true on the whole that it is good idea to have some acquaintance with a topic X if you are going to philosophize about it. Where acquaintance with X is possible (not obviously true with respect to truth, knowledge and goodness) then *other things being equal* you are likely to do better when philosophizing about X if you are acquainted with X than if you are not. But it certainly does not follow that a gifted thinker whose acquaintance with X is relatively slight can’t do better when theorizing about X than a less gifted intellect whose knowledge of X is a much more intimate affair. Again, Aquinas provides a case in point. He philosophized about quite a lot of topics from sexuality to politics with which his personal acquaintance was minimal to non-existent. Either this stuff is of intellectual interest or it is not. If it is of intellectual interest, then it is possible to produce good philosophy about subjects with which you are relatively unacquainted. If it is not, then Aquinas’s claims to greatness are severely diminished, and Schwenkler’s argument from authority looks even weaker.

What Schwenkler really wants to say, I think, is that you can’t philosophize competently about goodness (which is what we ought to be philosophizing about) unless you yourself are good. And by ‘good’ I think he means *really* good and not just ‘a respectable citizen, according to the canons of a possibly corrupt society’. But if that is what he thinks, then again he is is condemned out of his own mouth. He regards Plato, Aquinas and (presumably) Aristotle as great philosophers. (He does not mention Aristotle explicitly but you can hardly be a fan of Aquinas without being a fan of Aristotle.) And he regards them as great in their capacity as *moralists*not just in their capacities as logicians, epistemologists or metaphysicians. In other words what he thinks is that when writing about goodness or the good life they are all of them pretty successful. But if that is what he thinks then he must admit that it is possible to write well about goodness without being all that good. Plato, Aristotle and Aquinas may have been great philosophers, but the first was the proponent of a proto-fascist society, the second defended slavery with some transparently dreadful and dishonest arguments, and the third defended the judicial murder of heretics and the expropriation of the Jews. In my book (and I hope in Schwenkler’s) this puts them all at a considerable distance from the pinnacle of human perfection. Let me be clear about this. I am not claiming that any of them were moral monsters or that they don’t deserve to be read. Many of their moral deficiencies were characteristic of their times and not many people manage to transcend the ideologies of their age. But to say that you are no worse than many other slave-owners in a slave-owning society, or that you are no more intolerant than the majority of members of a persecuting church, is to say that you are not conspicuously bad. It is *not* to say that you measure up to the standards of moral goodness that I trust that Schwenkler would endorse. Thus by the standards that I hope Schwenkler would accept, Plato, Aristotle and Aquinas were not particularly good. From which it follows, if their moral writings continue to be worth reading, that you can write well about goodness whilst remaining something of an also–ran in the personal goodness stakes.

I am tempted to conclude with a QED, but that would not be right. There are two ways for Schwenkler evade the argument. He could adopt a more relaxed conception of human goodness or he could denounce the moral writings of his intellectual heroes, Plato, Aristotle and Aquinas. The first strategy undermines his argument from authority. The second saves his thesis in words but destroys it in substance. If you can write successfully about goodness whilst being no better than the common run of your contemporaries (and, in particular, if you can write successfully about goodness whilst being a proponent of a proto-fascist state, a propagandist for slavery or an advocate of murderous persecution) then you can presumably write about goodness successfully without living the kind of good life of which Professor Schwenkler is the champion.Report

John Gardner
John Gardner
5 years ago

It’s embarrassing to witness the self-indulgent conceits of my fellow academics, who already have such a massively featherbedded lifestyle as compared with other professionals. Take Professor Schwenkler himself, for example: “in the hours [my wife] works I usually care for our daughters for a couple of hours”. Me too. But in what other professional line of work is that degree of day-to-day flexibility even imaginable? My own wife is a barrister – a self-employed courtroom advocate – and by the standards of lawyers her diary is fairly humane. But nothing like mine. If she were to miss a hearing at a few hours’ notice (childcare crisis, non-life-threatening illness, transportation failure) she would be a pariah with her fellow-counsel, lose all future work from those instructing her, and have a judge considering a personal wasted-costs order against her (i.e. she pays for the other lawyers and the court). Whereas, if I or my colleagues cancel the odd class, or miss the odd deadline, or send our apologies to the occasional meeting … nothing much happens, even when the excuse is feeble. And yet we complain all the more about the imposition that we take these highly discretionary diary entries, largely concentrated in just half of the year (minus sabbatical leaves), to constitute. (By the way, my wife isn’t highly paid. Barristers generally aren’t. Her average hourly rate is similar to that of hourly-paid adjunct Faculty.)

And don’t go telling me that I am the lucky guy with the secure senior position in a relatively rich University so what do I know etc. Every junior person I know in the profession, including my own recent students, has a vast degree of freedom at work. What takes them away from their family, their yoga, their guitar, or whatever is not some oppressive sweatshop regime monitoring their keystrokes or their billable hours. Nor is it their mere 6-10 hours a week in the classroom, 24-28 weeks a year. It is their own dedication to doing serious philosophical work, which is by its nature difficult, painful, and time-consuming. Is the idea that their philosophical work would be better if they applied themselves less zealously to it? My own experience across thirty years in the business, like Charles PIdgen’s, suggests the very opposite. As in the creative arts, brutal dedication is the road to high quality. And philosophical work on the ‘art of life’ is no exception. I very much doubt whether the best way to appreciate what it takes to live well is to have easy access to living well. Better to have one’s ability to live well constantly threatened and challenged. As Pindar says: ‘this is the greatest grief: to stand outside the right and the beautiful that one knows, [driven away] by necessity.’ How does Prof Schwenkler think that Martha Nussbaum, notorious for her long working hours, came to write so excellently about tragedy?Report