The “Self-Valorizing Vanity” of Philosophers


Philosophy professors, is your job (A) just a way to pay the bills, (B), a “fun and challenging” career but certainly not the only thing worth doing, as “there is more to living,” or (C) the best career, and so, properly the overwhelmingly dominant focus of most of your life?

That’s a question Eric Schleisser (Amsterdam) asks at Digressions & Impressions and that Professor Manners takes up in a post at Feminist Philosophers. She is more of a B-type, and has some reservations about C’s and the profession’s apparent preference for  those with a C-mentality:

We implicitly treat philosophy as if it is an importunate, jealous lover demanding all our love and love without remainder or reservation. We overstate the distance it has from all manner of other human endeavors, too often treating it as the sine qua non of critical engagement with the world. We overrate its significance with respect to other academic disciplines, treating it as Grundwissenschaft in an academic world populated by (alas, regrettably) duller and more intellectually modest endeavors. We overestimate its difficulties, speaking of our work and especially that of others as if kingdoms rose and fell on getting the smallest minutiae just right. We wildly overstate its activities and ambitions, behaving as if philosophers do indeed “question everything,” that patently empirically and historically false bit of self-heroics…

I think there is much self-valorizing vanity in the way we too often speak of the field. My great concern is that we have implicitly sold ourselves on a naively romantic conception of philosophy, one that has much high drama attached to it. Philosophy is not a bit of work, it is The Work. Each moment taken outside it is a moment stolen away not from one form of activity in favor of another, but from The Work. I think this likely destroys much peace people might otherwise have in their work, but my greatest objection is perhaps more aesthetic. The tenor and temperament of these all-in or C ways of describing the field assign high drama and profundity to philosophy. They make philosophy about the conspicuous and obvious, whether that be a conspicuous and obvious form of passion for the discipline, the conspicuous and obvious ways of describing it, or the most conspicuous and obvious metrics for “success” in it. They thereby sacrifice subtlety, entrancing ambiguity, and the enchantments of the banal. When we make philosophy All That, then of course every other activity will pale and seem a sacrifice or loss.

There’s much more in Miss Manner’s full post. Read the whole thing.

Julie Orser, “Floating Octopus”

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michaela
michaela
4 years ago

I have very conflicting views here. I tend to think of writing philosophy, and at least some of the activities associated with doing so, as both a highly creative and highly personal endeavor.
There has been a lot of criticism of c-types lately (including from me!); but I guess I find it sort of odd that we launch these criticisms when we would never launch the same sorts of criticisms against a painter who spends all her time painting, whose whole world is largely about painting, or a musician whose world was entirely about their music., people who had “made it” in that they could support themselves with their art (or, more analogously, with their art + some amount of teaching their art to others).

Part of the problem, I think, is that we have such complicated paying jobs–we are paid, in part, to do this very creative work, but we’re also paid to do things that seem to have not too much to do with it (service) and things that have quite a bit to do with it but are not writing (teaching, advising, etc.). But if we try to isolate to just being passionate about one’s craft/work: If you’re extremely passionate about doing philosophy, in the same way that an artist might be extremely passionate (and obsessive) about their art, then yes, it of course makes sense to be a c-type: you’ve “made it” in the same way that a painter who starts actually making significant $ off her painting has. That’s not to say that there’s not a lot of misery associated with being in either of those situations. But frankly I think we sometimes do ourselves, and our profession, a bit of a disservice saying things like “this is just a job”, or priding ourselves in working 9-5. That makes it seem like we might as well be sitting at desks in cubicles answering customer service calls. I think it de-values the thing that we do.

I have some feeling that taking in art that was produced by someone who sees herself as “just doing her job” wouldn’t be as authentic or rewarding or important to me as taking in art that was produced by someone who was so passionate about that creating that art that it took over her entire life. Is the latter healthy? I have no idea. But one’s art *is* like a lover. We see all sorts of writers and actors and directors and painters and so on saying things that echo this very kind of sentiment. Of course, I suspect lots of people will disagree with me that doing philosophy is largely an artistic and creative and personal enterprise. I won’t defend that claim here. Also, as I said, I have personally criticized the c-type way of life before. But lately I’ve been having second thoughts when I think about how I conceive of what philosophy *is* and what it is for.
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Amy Olberding
Amy Olberding
Reply to  michaela
4 years ago

I think the analogies we reach for can be telling. When I hear folks advising graduate students not to go into philosophy unless they can’t conceive any other sort of satisfying life, my thoughts turn to monastic cultures. Dialogues “testing” the acolyte’s interest and commitment, requiring one go all-in are fairly standard there. Perhaps then it’s worth asking whether there isn’t something quasi-religious underwriting some of the most intense C-styled talk?Report

Critilo
Critilo
Reply to  Amy Olberding
4 years ago

Speaking purely for myself, I think there *is* something quasi-religious (in an admittedly rather hazy sense of the word) about the reverence–sometimes laudatory, sometimes shameful–accorded to philosophy’s absolute centrality, and I don’t believe that such a level of devotion is intrinsically problematic. In other words, it strikes me that the tendencies Manners isolates in C can and should be teased carefully apart. For all the risks of overreaching vanity and grandiose parochialism (even monasticism) opened by a Parfit-like fixation on the doing of philosophy, I share with michaela the feeling that its toils, like those of a painter, can be profitably pursued as their own reward without trivializing all the rest of life. Indeed, to my mind the most vivid image of holiness (if I may use that word) rests somewhere in the clarity and concordant effort of understanding that the elenctic conversation must by all means continue. To recognize that need and act on it with one’s whole heart and a visceral urge to understand has both a missionary (Socrates) and staidly analytical (Cicero) character to it. Philosophy needn’t succumb to tunnel vision to accommodate both of these dimensions while sidestepping the temptation to make them “All That.” As Manners beautifully summarizes, where professional philosophy becomes mired in its C-style practitioners’ dedication is at the point that such dedication becomes touted as the only viable and authentic pathway to philosophical living, which often has the net effects of (a) excluding largely or completely those who don’t share it; (b) turning the philosophical enterprise into a scholastic cannibalism of “approved” ideas and sources; and (c) starving philosophical activity of much value beyond simply doing more philosophy.Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
Reply to  Amy Olberding
4 years ago

I don’t see what else we can tell graduate students given the competitive state of the job market.Report

Tim O'Keefe
Reply to  Hey Nonny Mouse
4 years ago

We can tell them the following:

There is a high chance that, if you go to a philosophy Ph.D. program, get through, and do good work, you’ll still be unable to secure long-term academic employment. Lots of people bounce around the country for several years on short-time Visiting Assistant Professor gigs, in places they probably wouldn’t to live otherwise, before finally giving up and finding a career doing something else in another field in their mid-30s or so.

You should go into a Ph.D. program in the philosophy only if you can (truly) say that if this happens to you, you will nonetheless look back at your decision to go to a Ph.D. program without bitter regret.Report

Brian Weatherson
Reply to  Tim O'Keefe
4 years ago

These seem like obviously false bits of advice to give to a large number of students. It’s not true that a student starting out at NYU has a “high chance” of being unable to secure long-term academic unemployment.

It’s arguably true that a student starting out at a generic program has a high chance of being unable to secure long-term academic unemployment. But it’s also true that literally no student starts out at a generic school. Everyone starts somewhere. And so everyone starting out should get advice that is sensitive to where they are starting.

In some cases, that advice may be even more pessimistic than what you’re saying. But in many cases it will be much less pessimistic.Report

Jack
Jack
Reply to  michaela
4 years ago

I’m with Michaela; some pursuits are not just jobs, they are vocations. (I also agree that philosophy, done well, is a creative and artistic vocation.) Report

Jack
Jack
Reply to  Jack
4 years ago

That last ‘vocation’ should be ‘pursuit’. I want to criticize bad art, not treating philosophy as just a job. That’s fine too. Report

michaela
michaela
4 years ago

Also, and perhaps this will be a claim people don’t like (I’m not sure what I really think here, just talking out loud), it seems to me that some of the basis of recent criticisms of c-type philosophers has its root in something that really bugs me about a lot of current discourse, which I guess might be summed up as a kind of fetishization of “mental health” (whatever that means) and a sort of narrow-minded view of what kinds of things satisfy this fetishization. Being obsessive, being overly passionate, doing one thing at the expense of other things, impulsively creating, being depressed (which is a source of great creativity to so many people!), spending tons of time alone (also a source of great creativity to many people), having an “abnormal” sleep schedule, etc. seem to be things that there is much more significant social pressure to “correct” than there was, say, twenty years ago. I could be wrong about this. It’s just a thought. Of course, we also shouldn’t fetishize mental illness as sort of necessary for a “true” artist. But I sometimes wonder if this is overcorrected for. Report

Carolyn Jennings
Carolyn Jennings
Reply to  michaela
4 years ago

“But I sometimes wonder if this is overcorrected for.”

One way to tell is to look at the field as a whole (so that we don’t get caught up in individual differences or momentary lapses, which we all have). In your view, does it seem as though the field as a whole errs on the side of healthy work-life balance? Or healthy appreciation of the relative importance of philosophy, compared to other disciplines, values, or life pursuits? (If “healthy” is unwelcome here, just replace with “good” or “reasonable” or something similarly normative.) My sense is that we could do better here.

Check this out: Do these phrases apply to the field of academic philosophy in your opinion? If not, are they close?

–a relatively small group of people having practices regarded by others as strange.
–a misplaced or excessive admiration for a particular person or thing.

If so, I think that is a sign that there may be more correcting to do on this front. (These phrases are adapted from the definition for “cult” provided by Google.)

(p.s. I love philosophy. I think it is important and good. But my sense that I have to say that is, maybe, a part of the problem)Report

Amy Olberding
Amy Olberding
Reply to  michaela
4 years ago

Hi, Michaela,
Neither I nor Eric invoke mental health at all…? I guess I hope my post would be taken as a plea for pluralism. I don’t begrudge C-types but I think we often sound like being that is a job requirement. I don’t want to trade that for just demanding B-types though. I even think it might be terribly interesting to have A-types. If mental health is the metric, A might be the best bet of all. But that was not my metric.Report

michaela
michaela
Reply to  Amy Olberding
4 years ago

Hi Amy,

Sorry, I realized that I should have been much clearer that I didn’t mean to be objecting to anything you said, but more just thinking out loud about what kinds of norms we ought to have here, and why. I didn’t mean to raise the mental health issue at all as a response to you or Eric, I was just thinking out loud about the more general issue! Report

Eric Schliesser
Eric Schliesser
4 years ago

I am very glad, Justin, that you are giving attention to the very interesting response by Prof. Manners to my post. It raises lots of important issues connected to the many, significant different ways we can make contributions to (professional) philosophy; it also alerts us to the sociological significance/dangers of being caught up in “ensuring that we keep the field populated with the strongest C-types is our priority.”

One small clarification about my cheeky (perhaps too cheeky) taxonomy. I had introduced it as follows: “Let me distinguish, for the sake of argument, among three stylized attitudes toward one’s academic (tenured) position.” I did not mean my list to be exhaustive or to capture fixed characteristics of one’s nature.
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Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
4 years ago

I confess to being type C. What’s more, I think the importance of the job of professional philosopher is not treated importantly enough by professional philosophers. Too often, we seem to take our paychecks without asking what exactly why our work is worth the money or what we give back to society. It leads to us becoming hobbyists, sharing information that interests us with one another, while mostly leaving broader society alone. Yes, philosophers can love to blow their own horns and bask in their own importance. Yes, we can be arrogant little prima donnas. However, I think we do much more harm through failing to take philosophy sufficiently seriously as something socially important. Further, criticizing philosophers for spending too much time on their work both makes assumptions about the importance of the work, and unfairly criticizes philosophers for their personal lives, which are their own businesses. If someone devotes their life to curing cancer, is it really up to us to tell them that they are working too hard?Report

Edward Teach
Edward Teach
4 years ago

Whilst I’m not presenting it as a debunking argument against (c), I think it is worth noting that academic philosophy seems to be a prime candidate for cognitive dissonance which could result in (c).

To ‘make it’, you have to devote many, many hours. Many of those hours may be reading things which don’t actually end up contributing to your final work or even be something you found interesting. It can be difficult to point to tangible benefits of doing academic philosophy. It can be difficult to convince others who don’t really know what philosophy is that the time we spend to is justified being spent in that way. Not knowing if you’re going to get published is stressful. Getting published and not knowing how others will react can be anxiety provoking. We’re often forced into doing side tasks e.g. admin that we don’t really want to do.

How much easier is it to rationalize all of this if the work we’re doing is The Work? If much of what we did was not even just A Work but basically Sisyphus Work, we probably wouldn’t be in the best position to recognize it. Report

Alan White
Alan White
4 years ago

What strikes me about the original exchange is that it takes the paragon of philosophy to be the researcher, which demonstrably for the majority of philosophers, is false. The 4/4+ positions of tenured and non-tenurable philosophers in the US (at least) far outstrip those with 3-2/2s or less. I’m one of those, and my career, while definitely more C than B, is internalized very differently than described. Philosophy is my life because I care about my role in making people more reflective about what’s going on in the world. Yeah, I’ve published in Analysis and Erkenntnis, but the handful of people who read and probably dismissed what I had to say there pales in significance to the thousands of students I’ve tried to reach over my almost 36 years. And of course I failed miserably in influencing most of them. But I’ve always taken my responsibility in the classroom to be the center of what I do professionally–and yes I’m self-valorizing (if you want to call it that) enough to say that is damn important. It was important enough so that in certain segments of my life, when personal shit hit the fan, that going into the classroom with a sense of purpose and responsibility carried me through.

My point is I want teachers of philosophy to care, and care deeply, in C-fashion. Those C-researchers will take care of themselves, or be taken care of as the socioeconomic case may be. The caveat about C-teachers is of course the use of that devotion to abuse them as adjuncts–which is much more a worry than if C-researchers are skewing the mass psychology of the discipline (though it may well contribute to that abuse as a kind of intellectual trickle-down).

So yeah, I’m a C. About teaching, and the responsibility to stay active and well-read enough in the discipline to remain as good at it as I can possibly be.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
4 years ago

There are some false dichotomies here. There’s no contradiction between

(a) philosophy is a fun and challenging career, but not the only thing worth doing; and
(b) *given* that I’m doing philosophy as a career, I ought to commit the time and resources to it that I need to be as successful as I can and to make as great a contribution as I can.

I’d like to think that I take my work very seriously (but not obsessively so), and also that if I were in physics, or computer programming, or counterintelligence, that I’d take my work for *those* careers equally seriously.Report

Sara L. Uckelman
4 years ago

I found reading Schliesser’s original post very strange I don’t think I know any philosophers in the “C” category.Report

asst prof
asst prof
4 years ago

There are some weird assumptions going into the characterization of C, namely:
1) If philosophy is important, it is important to the exclusion of other things.
2) If philosophy is THE most important thing, we ought to devote many hours to it (like, lots more than 40/week).
… (which seems to based, at least in part, on) 3) Devoting many many hours to philosophy, to the exclusion of other things, will lead to better philosophy.

I don’t know of anyone who thinks (2) or (3). Most recognize that the best way to do philosophy is to engage in lots of other worthwhile endeavors, goods in their own right … reading literature, keeping up on current events, having meaningful relationships with others, raising children, etc. And that stunting one’s moral, political, social, familial self may give one more time to produce philosophy, it will almost inevitably lead to bad, poorly written, insular, uninspired philosophy/teaching. Thus, far from being in competition with philosophy, developing one’s whole self is integral to doing and teaching philosophy well. Report

current grad student
current grad student
Reply to  asst prof
4 years ago

I think you’re probably right about “developing one’s whole self.” But it’s worth acknowledging that, even if it’s difficult to put a finger on particular philosophers who think (2) and (3), both seem to be very common among graduate students—especially first and second years. (This, at least, has been my experience). These assumptions often emerge during (usually very reluctant) admissions of feelings of guilt about doing things besides studying, or (god forbid!) about considering leaving grad school and to do something else. It’s not obvious where these assumptions come from, but they seem pretty widespread and difficult to shake. And given how destructive these feelings of guilt and unfitness can be for graduate students, I don’t think the assumptions underlying them should be so swiftly dismissed as “weird” or even obviously false without any substantive effort to identify and change whatever is (ostensibly) systemically wrong with academic philosophy that’s generating and/or reinforcing them. It may very well be true that most philosophers *aren’t* c-type, but many grad students seem to think the ideal ones, the one’s they should strive to be, are. Report

asst prof
asst prof
Reply to  current grad student
4 years ago

Yes, you are right. I also encountered that among graduate students. So in saying I know no one, I mean, I know no one currently who thinks this, but it is something a few students thought in graduate school (I can think of one or two friends who acted like this, guilty, overworked, keeping long hours in the library and never having time for anything else). One way of countering it is to call it what it is–weird and obviously false. I don’t see that it’s a systemic problem with the discipline, so much as a feature of overly anxious and competitive first year grad students. I doubt, for instance, that their professors tell them not to take that weekend trip, or tell them that philosophy is the only thing worth anything in life, or that they need to spend less time with friends or family. Things I was told as a first year: “You need a healthy balance” “Work smarter, not longer” “Develop your external interests, they will enrich your philosophical life”, etc.

I see no reason to assume that this view of things is promulgated from on high, rather than that it is the self-imposed and misguided tendency of a few, corrected for over the course of graduate school by professors who help their sometimes-overly-anxious graduate students to develop healthy and sustainable habits. Report

Merely Possible Philosopher
Merely Possible Philosopher
4 years ago

I think that what we really need to ask what Philosophers qua Philosophers can do about the self-valorizing vanity of Philosophers!

We’re not special, even in thinking that we’re special.Report

Jason Brennan
Jason Brennan
4 years ago

Philosophy seemed an A) low effort way to B) earn enough to buy lots of expensive guitars while C) pissing people off. Report

Kris McDaniel
Kris McDaniel
4 years ago

I unapologetically “romanticize” philosophy but not the profession of being a professor and not the institution of academic philosophy. I think the best lives are those lived with love taken in items worthy of that love, and I think philosophy is worthy of love. Philosophy (not to be identified with the profession of philosophy) is worthy of love. Of course it’s not the only thing worthy of love, and it is not the thing most worthy of love either.

The activities of thinking about philosophy, working through philosophical issues either alone or in conversation with others, producing philosophy for the consumption of others, and devoting oneself to the teaching of philosophy to others can each be ways of exemplifying a person’s love of philosophy. Maybe they aren’t the only possible ways, but they are possible ways. I am grateful to have my job because it enables me to exemplify a love for philosophy in these ways, while providing the time and material comfort for me to exemplify love for other things as well.

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Team-C
Team-C
4 years ago

Might we have been misunderstood:

“Philosophy is the most serious of things, but then again it is not all that serious.”Report