On Not Being Able To Imagine Being Satisfied Doing Anything Else


The rhetoric that describes philosophy as a kind of special calling has always struck me as smuggling in much overdetermined sociology. The most irritating version of this to me is the claim that one ought not pursue philosophy unless “one cannot imagine any other satisfying or worthwhile life for oneself.”

For people with some experience of real and actual poverty, this idea of having but one idea of how you might well earn your keep in life and count yourself satisfied is likely strange and strangely appalling. To me, this bit of advice makes it sound as if graduate school is only for the well-heeled, those who enjoy the luxury of conceiving their lives as exercising choices and fulfilling preferences driven only by what pleases and ignites one’s passions. Not all lives are like this. The idea that one might mentally canvass a rich buffet of possible lives for oneself and decide that only one will suit seems to presuppose an abundance of possibility I’m not convinced generalizes outside upper and upper-middle class lives. To be sure, any poorer student going into philosophy is also taking a big risk and chance. My point is simply that the pattern of thinking here seems alien to me, the sort of thinking people like mine have rarely engaged… 

Put another way, if your life doesn’t typically pattern on doing what one wants instead of what one must, this sort of talk just sounds, well, a bit weird and maybe precious, as if happiness, meaning, and satisfaction are a special preserve of those materially empowered with wider choices. I mostly don’t like this talk because my suspicion is that it might keep students from the “lower orders” out of the discipline. My bet is that life has trained them to a greater imaginative flexibility about possible lives they could lead, so implying that philosophy needs to be the one and only inadvertently advertises class expectations they won’t as easily meet.

— Further thoughts from Miss Manners on “The Work,” that is, the seriousness with which philosophers take philosophy. The whole thing is here.

Wayne Thiebaud, “Salads, Sandwiches and Desserts”

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Timm
Timm
4 years ago

This resonates with me. As a job seeker, I’m frequently put in the position of presenting myself as if *THIS* job at *THIS* university was what I was born for; that it’s the unique imaginable option in the universe that would satisfy me and make me whole. But I don’t feel that way and don’t think it would be healthy for me *to* feel that way.

If, on any given year, philosophy fails to produce a job for me, I’ll find an alternative career and learn to love it. Why? Well, in the first place because (a) I need to make money to survive and (b) I don’t have anyone I can fall back on. My parents make less money than I do, my partner is still a graduate student, my partner’s parents aren’t wealthy, etc. There’s just no other option. And, regarding the second bit, I’m not going to go off to that other career and hate it (why would I chose to do that?); I’m going to go and find it as fulfilling as I can.Report

Eddy Nahmias
Eddy Nahmias
4 years ago

In various advising/mentoring settings for our MA students, we give (roughly) this advice about applying to PhD programs: Don’t do it unless, after 5-7 years in such a program, were you unable to get a job in academia (which is a real possibility), you would not feel like you had wasted those years. We don’t put it this way but one interpretation of this advise is that you should not continue into a PhD program unless you enjoy doing philosophy enough that the time spend doing it is an end in itself and not a means to the end of getting a job in philosophy.

Does this advice fit the target of Miss Manner’s critique? Do people think this advice is on target?Report

Brian Weatherson
Brian Weatherson
Reply to  Eddy Nahmias
4 years ago

I agree with half of this, and disagree with half of it. The short version is that I think it’s great to encourage students to think of the intrinsic value of doing a PhD. And I think it is, for many people, something intrinsically valuable. I would have been glad I did mine, even if I didn’t get much out of it.

But I don’t like the equation of the instrumental value of a PhD with getting a job in academia. That is, I don’t think this sentence:

> Don’t do it unless, after 5-7 years in such a program, were you unable to get a job in academia (which is a real possibility), you would not feel like you had wasted those years.

and this interpretation

> you should not continue into a PhD program unless you enjoy doing philosophy enough that the time spend doing it is an end in itself and not a means to the end of getting a job in philosophy.

are the same thing. In fact, I think they are very importantly different.

There are plenty of jobs, very good jobs in fact, that you can only get with a PhD that are not not jobs in academia. There are plenty more jobs that a PhD is not strictly necessary for, but will increase your probability of getting, or your career path once you’re in them.

The most successful student I knew in grad school was an economics PhD who never had an academic job in his life, but became the youngest ever head of a department in the Australian civil service. That doesn’t happen without his getting a PhD. There are people I know at UM doing really interesting, but strictly speaking non-academic, jobs that I think they wouldn’t have got without a PhD. (I’m really happy where I am, but I’d much rather an interesting job in the UM library system, for instance, to a heavy teaching load academic job.) I was shortlisted for a national security job on the basis of a philosophy PhD. Obviously I didn’t get it, but the PhD helped. And while I’m glad how things worked out, that would have been a kind of fun career too.

That’s all to say, a PhD could still have a ton of instrumental value even if it doesn’t lead to a teaching/research position in a college/university.Report

JCM
JCM
Reply to  Brian Weatherson
4 years ago

Brian Weatherson’s enthusiasm has to be tempered or at least counterpointed, I think. These are encouraging anecdotes, but my understanding is that *in general* getting a philosophy PhD is a less efficient route to gaining the experience etc. that lands you a good career than going through the miserable internships and entry-level jobs that would otherwise be your route. Further, what PhD you get–whether it’s ‘arty’ or ‘science-y’–perhaps matters, even outside academia; and *where* you get it matters, too. At any rate, this is the situation in my and my peers’ experience. Not sure whether it’s more than more anecdotes, though.Report

Brian Weatherson
Brian Weatherson
Reply to  JCM
4 years ago

For many of the jobs I described, I don’t think a philosophy PhD is the optimally efficient way to get them.

But that’s not the contrast I was drawing. Rather, it is whether a philosophy PhD means you are better positioned to get that job than you were straight out of a BA. And I think people often underestimate how often that is true.Report

JCM
JCM
Reply to  Brian Weatherson
4 years ago

(Fwiw re whether it’s more than anecdotes, that a philosophy PhD is not terribly helpful stands to reason insofar as it’s not a direct training for any job/career other than academic philosopher, and so one would expect it to carry less weight in employers’ (etc.) minds than the same amount of time spent more directly in preparation for a position.)Report

Julia
Julia
4 years ago

I agree with Prof. Manners that this way of putting it (i.e. “only do it if you can’t imagine doing anything else”) is unhelpful. It also creates a strange notion that only people with extra special feelings for philosophy have a place in it, which I think is not true.
However, there is a different way of expressing this idea that is perhaps more accurate and captures a similar sentiment. Going to graduate school in philosophy is a risky choice, because it requires a significant investment of time and effort, and the odds of getting a job in academia afterwards are not great, depending on where one gets one’s PhD. To make this a worthwhile gamble, one must think that the expected value is at least as good as the expected value of other options, and this value can either come from studying philosophy in grad school or from getting a job afterwards. If one places high enough value on getting the PhD itself, this makes the choice more rational, since this is an almost guaranteed benefit. But if one mostly places value on getting a job in philosophy, then the choice of going into philosophy looks worse, as the probability of obtaining this benefit can be very low. To still make philosophy a rational choice in this case, the value one places on it compared to other options must be very high.
Looking at things this way also shows that it isn’t a good idea to give students general advice against going to graduate school. How risky a choice it is depends significantly on the program one is attending. Some schools place almost all of their students in decent jobs, whereas others place almost nobody in permanent academic positions. The advice we give should depend on what the student’s options are.Report

tom cochrane
4 years ago

Regardless of valuing the phd as an end in itself, it is almost inevitable that after so many years of training, they will really want to get a job doing philosophy, and will be really disappointed if they can’t get one. You cannot in good faith ask someone to only value the phd.

But if the goal is to winnow the field of candidates- how about the following: only do a phd if there’s a book you really want to write, and the only way to write that book is with the norms and methods of academic philosophy.

Obviously, lots of people go into phds with just a general interest rather than a burning idea- but I’d rather exclude those people (unless their advisers are begging them to join the field for the good of us all) than those with definite and original contributions to make.Report

Skef
Skef
4 years ago

I think it is a mistake to see the “one cannot imagine” sentiment as a general phenomenon across philosophy. This isn’t something students typically tell one another, and I doubt it is how someone stuck in a poverty level adjunct job would talk about graduate school. This is what people who have the jobs that are considered (relatively) good tell prospective and current graduate students. And it seems unlikely that it would be said often if the chances of getting a good job were more “normal”.

With this type of speaker and audience, the sentiment has two useful characteristics. First, it is a way of communicating the bad job prospects and therefore discharging a duty to be open about those prospects. Second, it is not actually discouraging, and everyone knows this. For whatever psychological reason (probably because it is taken as an invitation to signal enthusiasm), the typical reaction is not “I better think twice” but “yes, it *is* all that I can imagine”. So the student is “informed” but goes on going on, and the professor faces no psychological cost for changing someone’s plans, the program still gets all the applicants, etc.Report

John Schwenkler
4 years ago

One thing that I think is harmful about this rhetoric is that it reinforces the unrealistic sense that many students have of what a career in academic philosophy will be like for them.

That is, when she is told this the smart and excited student will look at the professor sitting in her office and think: Yes, THIS is the only kind of career I can imagine myself having! — when in fact the student’s own career in the academy is very likely not to look like this, and indeed the faculty member’s own career likely involves a great deal of stress and drudgery that is far less pleasant than her occasional conversations with smart and excited students.

Students who are passionate about philosophy need to be encouraged to think about where outside the academy they can nurture this passion — not given the sense that a non-academic career is somehow unphilosophical, or even that a life outside the academy will be significantly less philosophical than the career of the average faculty member.Report

Philodemus
Philodemus
4 years ago

I just posted this over at Feminist Philosophers. Figured I’d post it here too, even though many have made similar points.

***

Speaking as a professional philosopher who’s from the “lower orders” (I think?–I have a working class background, but I didn’t live in Dickens-esque poverty or anything), I’m somewhat baffled by the penultimate paragraph of this post. Although I’ve never had anyone tell me that I should pursue academic philosophy only if I can’t imagine a different life that’s both “worthwhile” and personally satisfying, I was told that I should pursue academic philosophy only if I can’t imagine a different life that’s personally satisfying. This was one of the best pieces of advice I received. I continue to say something similar to my students, especially students who share a similar background, as much as this might irritate Prof Manners.

Prof Manners acknowledges that poorer students who pursue professional philosophy are “taking a big risk and chance.” I think this is an understatement. The odds of finding full-time work in academic philosophy are vanishingly small, and Prof Manners doesn’t seem to appreciate the immense risk that this imposes on people from poorer backgrounds. I’m sure she understands on some level, but I just get the sense that she doesn’t truly appreciate it. In my case, I’m the first person to earn a higher degree in my family. My father doesn’t have a degree at all and works a blue collar job. And yet I make much less money than my dad. I have very little financial security. I’m in my 30s and if my contract isn’t renewed for next year, then either I very quickly find a full-time job in a completely different line of work in a city that I don’t really know (unlikely), or I literally move across the country, at great cost, into my parents’ basement (more likely). I personally know people who were faced with these sorts of options. And people from wealthier backgrounds would have many more options, needless to say.

When I tell my students that they should pursue professional philosophy only if they can’t imagine being satisfied in a different line of work, this will probably keep more poorer students from entering the discipline. I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing, since those students are more vulnerable and will be taking a significantly greater risk by entering the discipline. It’s altogether appropriate that they think harder before embarking. This won’t change until there are substantially more full-time jobs available. (That said, I’d obviously love more “class diversity” amongst full-time philosophy professors. I’m one of the few I know whose parents weren’t in the “professional class.”)

Finally, Prof Manners writes: “My bet is that life has trained them [students from the ‘lower orders’] to a greater imaginative flexibility about possible lives they could lead, so implying that philosophy needs to be the one and only inadvertently advertises class expectations they won’t as easily meet.” With respect, I have a very difficult time understanding this remark. Growing up, the idea of being a philosophy professor would have been considered far-fetched at best, like being a movie actor or something. In fact, almost none of my friends had parents who were in the “professional class” and so the idea of becoming even a doctor or lawyer or banker seemed far-fetched. If anything, I’d say that most of us had much less imaginative flexibility about possible lives to lead, for the simple reason that our options were much more limited.

I hope this comment doesn’t sound self-pitying. I know many people with philosophy PhDs who have been in worse positions. And I’m basically happy with my life. I get to be a professional philosophy professor after all. Most of the time, I still find it difficult to imagine a satisfying life in a different line of work (really it depends on how much grading I have to do).Report

Amy
Amy
Reply to  Philodemus
4 years ago

Hi, Philodemus. I also posted this at FP but in case you don’t see it there, sorry what I said seemed so off-putting. The comment that especially bothered you about imaginative flexibility was more in line with something like the following. For my own part, it seems strange to be told that things might not work out as I’d hope since I never imagined or took for granted otherwise. By imaginative flexibility, then, I just meant that the possibility of not getting what one wants and thus mental readiness to try alternatives is perhaps more familiar to those not in the “higher orders.” But I can see now the direction that comment took for you too and agree about that. The possibilities that seem live can be much more constricted so that the reach for even imagining oneself with a Ph.D. is far. I don’t know that it helps contextualize my perspective but for what it’s worth, I’m not standard issue either, nor was my trajectory into higher ed and eventually a job tidy.

Maybe a better way of getting at the issue here is that rhetorically pitching entrance to the discipline in language evocative of love and passion for it wildly underestimates the additional elements in play. To the extent that we use language evoking love and passion to test students’ commitment and desire in the face of hard material realities, I wish we could *just* talk about those material realities instead. E.g., how many graduate faculty are keeping in touch with the student loan debt load your graduate students are carrying? About whether they’re taking on additional debt for graduate training? When I talk to students about graduate school, I don’t ask them about their desires relative to the discipline since I don’t want them to try to prove – to themselves or others – how passionate or committed they are. I ask them about things like their current loan debt load, about the adjunct crisis, etc., and invite them to think about the precariousness of academia against their current and prospective material realities. I know that some can enter the discipline with a material security that may make love and commitment the most salient – they have various forms of safety netting that protect against the hardest falls. But when we only or mostly talk in terms invoking love, passion, desire, we seem to suggest this is the default – that’s where class expectations creep in.

Finally, I don’t know how best to put this except to say that I grieve for the many, many graduate students and early career philosophers who are in precarious employment or without professional employment. I spent time as an adjunct, albeit before the crisis in higher ed really hit, and I know how incredibly demoralizing it can be. That I am no longer in that position is a matter of luck and I have no illusions about my having done something special to be where I am relative to my intellectual peers struggling to get jobs. I guess one of the bones I’m picking relates to this too – the sense that we talk in ways that obscure luck too. Love, passion, merit – all these are important, I suppose, but I worry they’re utterly swamped by luck, and since we can’t engineer luck, we talk of these of these other things as if they are all there is and risk mis-leading students we advise. Also, just to be clear, I know that I am far from alone in worrying about how we do and should talk to students about these issues.Report

SCM
SCM
4 years ago

How strange that a discipline that asks people to imagine a world where contradictions were true, or what a rational choice would be behind a veil of ignorance, or whether words mean the same thing on Twin Earth, or what the value of potential life would be if humans grew from seeds, should encourage students only if they cannot imagine being satisfied in a career somewhere out there in the dark and mysterious badlands beyond the academy’s walls.Report

Josh Parsons
4 years ago

The normative claim “one ought not” seems clearly false. Are philosophers really so imaginatively challenged that we can’t even *imagine* any more satisfying life?
The nugget of truth here is that working as an academic in a top research university is an almost 24/7 commitment; so if you are aiming for that, you’d better be able to get out of it what most people would get out of other aspects of their lives.Report

Balanced
Balanced
Reply to  Josh Parsons
4 years ago

I believe that Josh Parsons’s claim here is false and somewhat harmful. Here’s a contrary data point. I work about 40 hours per week, and I have done this ever since I was a beginning assistant professor. And I don’t make up for it with efficiency. I’m a slow reader and a slow writer. This hasn’t stopped me from having a rewarding career at a good research university with a ranked PhD program. I am far from being a superstar, but it has been no problem to publish, get tenure, rise through the ranks, and more. I am married with kids, but I probably wouldn’t work more than 40 hours per week even if I were single and childless. I like philosophy and my job, but only in moderately sized doses. The lesson? If you are lucky enough to land a good job, you CAN prosper professionally while keeping your free time / family time. Professional philosophy is not that big of deal. We should not allow the expectation that professional philosophy is an almost 24/7 commitment to become normalized.Report

Charles Pigden
Charles Pigden
4 years ago

I am with Philodemus here. No doubt the target thesis is a tad overstated (‘you should not pursue a career in philosophy and should not undertake a PhD unless you *cannot imagine* any other satisfying or worthwhile life for yourself’). But if we modify it slightly it just seems to me the merest commonsense. In the current climate you should not undertake a PhD in philosophy unless either
a) you love philosophy so much more than anything else you can think of that the mere *chance* of a career in the subject – which is what doing a PhD gives you – is worth it despite the very high risk that things won’t pan out ,
and/or
b) you love philosophy so much that the delights of studying the subject for four or five years by doing a PhD outweigh the financial and/or opportunity costs incurred even if it *doesn’t* lead to a an academic job.

I submit that the opportunity costs are likely to be considerable even if we take Brian Weatherstone’s point that a PhD can sometimes confer competitive advantage in the non-academic job market over those with nothing but a good BA or a good Masters degree to boast of. This is all the more so if you already lucky enough to have a good degree from a prestigious university.

To put it bluntly if you don’t love doing philosophy a lot more than anything else you can think of then you should not try for a PhD in the subject. This isn’t to say of course that you should not have plans A, B and C on hand if a career in Philosophy does not come off , and that you should not do your best to think about them positively. But I myself undertook my PhD (incidentally fully-funded) in the firm belief that it was a gigantic gamble which might very well not pay off (as it very nearly didn’t) and that this was only worthwhile (for me) because I enjoyed doing philosophy much more than pursuing any other career that I could imagine or for which I might otherwise have been qualified. Since I had a good BA from a famous university (Cambridge) I would almost certainly have been earning a great deal more than my student allowance in any other entry-level job suited to my talents, and would probably have gone on to a higher paying career. Instead I was quite poor and quite stressed for a very long time.

The advice seems even better when addressed to those from working-class backgrounds than when addressed to those from the more comfortable classes. If one of your objects in life is to better yourself (as people used to say) then studying for a PhD in Philosophy is a very risky way of doing it. If you have some parental reserves to fall back on, then the risk is slightly mitigated as you are better able to deal with the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune which you are likely to experience in the ongoing struggle to find a permanent post.

Is this advice more likely to deter those from working-class backgrounds than those from the confortable classes? Perhaps. But we should not be encouraging working-class students to make what for them is a particularly risky choice with a high possibility of heartbreak and despair simply to increase the class-diversity of the profession. That is to deceive them into becoming caryatids for the relatively classless ballrooms of the future.

None of this implies that either philosophy or academia is ‘special’ in any sense. There are many other professions and careers to which the same basic principles apply. For instance I would not advise anyone to try for a career as an actor, movie director or screen-writer unless they wanted to do it very much more than anything else they could think of, so much so that it would be worth taking the risk despite the very high chances of failure and the near inevitability of huge sacrifices and big opportunity costs. I am well aware of what my son has had to put up with even though he has written and directed an award-winning feature film.Report

Kent
Kent
4 years ago

Some of the comments above suggest that those who decide to study philosophy who are from less well-to-do backgrounds are more vulnerable to the financial risks involved with choosing this profession. While I understand the sentiment, it seems a bit paternal to suggest that someone interested in studying philosophy should be forewarned in some greater way simply because she or he is poor.

I am a graduate student in philosophy from an extremely modest background. Neither of my parents went to college, and though they are both intelligent, they spent most of their working careers trying to make a small business work that was never really successful. My first summer job was at the age of 14. I worked on an assembly line in a factory. Though there was not family money to help with college, there were Pell grants and scholarships that gave me the freedom to choose to study philosophy and literature as an undergraduate, something for which I will always be grateful.

In college and after, I worked as a high-end waiter, a low-level tech worker, and a youth mentor, among many other things, while painting and playing music and reading. However, none of these modestly-paying jobs gave me the intellectual stimulation I desired, and I grew tired of pursuing it only in my free time. After some soul-searching, I decided to apply to graduate school.

When I decided to apply, I did not feel as though I were giving up a great career doing something else. I felt that I was giving up very little to do something I very much wanted to do–continue to study philosophy. I realize that my experience is probably fairly atypical, but I do think there’s something to the thought as expressed by Dylan: “when you got nothin’ you got nothin’ to lose.”Report

Charels Pigden
Charels Pigden
4 years ago

In reply to Kent
Just to be clear. I am not suggesting that working-class students should be warned off. I am just suggesting that they should be given the same advice that I would give to anyone else (except perhaps somebody super-rich): Don’t do a PhD in the subject unless you love the subject so much that either

a) the *chance* of a career in the subject is worth so much to you, that the sacrifices you will make and the opportunity costs incurred will be worth it for you, even if (as is quite likely) things don’t pan out
or
b) studying philosophy for a further four or five years would in itself be so rewarding that the sacrifices made and the opportunity costs incurred in doing a ‘terminating’ PhD are worth it for you.

And I would emphasize that for almost everyone for whom this is an issue, there are opportunity costs in doing a PhD since you don’t get the chance to do one without a good degree, quite often from a prestigious university. That in itself can be a big help in getting a decent and often a high-paying job and it is not clear that the extra boost that sometimes accrues from having done a PhD, will compensate in career terms for the time spent *not* earning and *not* acquiring expertise, contacts and seniority in your eventual profession.

If you DO love the subject that much then I would advise anyone with the requisite talents to go for it, as I did myself. And when two of my own children made similarly risky, passion-driven but clear-eyed choices (though in different domains, one very different) I supported them both to the hilt. But because embarking on a Philosophy PhD is a risky choice with high-opportunity costs, people should only make it with their eyes wide open. It seems to me simply cruel and irresponsible to encourage people who have other options which they would quite like to pursue, to embark on a philosophical career, given that heartbreak and at least *relative* poverty are very real risks.

Will this advice be differentially off-putting to working-class and to middle-class students?. Probably yes. But this is not because of what I or anyone else would be telling them but because of everyday sociological knowledge that is accessible to everyone and has probably been confirmed for them through personal experience. If your parents have sufficient funds they can provide you with a series of safety-nets, preserving you from catastrophe if things don’t pan out in your career. This can keep you ‘in the game’ when you might otherwise be forced to drop out. If they haven’t got the cash, they can’t do this. For some there is the Bank of Mum and Dad. My son the aspiring film-maker has drawn extensively on that bank. For others there is the Mum-and-Dad Affordable Housing Corporation. Both my son, the aspiring film-maker, and my daughter, the aspiring academic have benefited from *that* organization and my daughter and her husband continue to share the house with us. (When my wife came into some money and we built our dream-home we deliberately included three largish upstairs bedrooms, a bathroom and a sitting room so that all our three adult children could come back and live with us comfortably if they suffered simultaneous setbacks in their adventurous careers.) To take my own case, after completing my PhD I was unemployed (with a wife and a growing family to support) for about nine months. During that time we were able to live rent-free, fairly comfortably and with somewhat subsidized living costs in my parents’ largish house. Without that very crucial support the hard time that I experienced would have been even harder than it actually was.

So when I tell people that pursuing a career as a professional philosopher can be pretty tough, and that they should not do it unless they really love philosophy, this is indeed more likely to put off working-class students than middle class students because they know that for them the tough choice is likely to be even tougher. But to tell them anything else would be to give them dishonest and potentially disastrous advice. I am not prepared to do this for the sake of a more socially diverse professoriate.

I hope this this does not seem paternalistic or exclusive, to working-class readers especially as I am not I am not so far from the working-class myself. I am only the second person in my family to have gone to university, one grandfather was a brick-layer, another a truck-driver, plumber and school-janitor; one grandmother was a hospital-cleaner and the other fitter-and-turner (during the war) and subsequently a catering worker. But you don’t help anybody by giving them advice that ignores the realities of class-society. I have mentioned my son the aspiring film-maker already. I have said nothing so far about my father the aspiring playwright (the first member of my family to go to university). My father came close a couple of time to having his plays put on in the West End. But it did not work out ans in the end he had to give it up to pursue a career in education and business. With a living to earn he simply did not have the time and the energy to stay in the game. Despite some very hard times, my son, at the age of thirty-three, continues to pursue his dreams as a screen-writer, actor and director. There are of course many differences between Britain in the 1950s and New Zealand in the 2010s, but one reason that my son is hanging in there whilst my Father had to give up, is that my son’s parents were able to support him in ways that my father’s parents could not.

Is this social situation deplorable? Of course! That’s why I have devoted a large part of my life to working for social-democratic institutions, a large part of the point of which is to provide everyone with the wherewithal to develop their talents (we don’t want our Milton’s to be mute and inglorious) and to provide people with the economic security to make adventurous choices without the fear that failure might reduce them to destitution. But in the English-speaking world, social democracy has been on the backfoot for at least thirty years and advice to be helpful should correspond to the way the world is not the way that it ought to be.Report

Kent
Kent
4 years ago

Charles Pigden:
Thank you for your nuanced and thoughtful reply to my earlier comment. I do agree with your statements a) and b), and I do think that students of working class and middle class backgrounds do need to understand what they’re getting into by studying philosophy. Any career choice involves trade-offs, and most, if not all, have some risk involved. I agree that philosophy is a particularly “risky” path, much like being a painter or playwright or actor. The job markets are tiny, and they’re saturated with incredibly talented people.

What I was trying to express was something like this: from a perspective like mine, continuing to study philosophy starts to look less troubling when I consider what I have now. I live on very little money presently. Having a little stipend (and health insurance!) for the next 5-7 years doesn’t seem like a huge departure from my current state of affairs. When I also account for the degree of my interest, it seems like a choice that makes sense for me, since the opportunity cost goes down (because of my lack of interest in other fields in comparison). Jobs like my last one in web design could (and probably will) disappear in 5 years as the growth of the internet reaches a slowing point, and the job market gets saturated with greater numbers of people with low-level skills looking to get into tech. Of course, if I felt a similar degree of passion and interest in some other field in the way that I do about philosophy, it would still probably be wiser to pursue that path instead, since I would likely advance in that area, and move into a more highly-compensated position.

I do not think my view is incompatible with yours. I may have misconstrued your view when I mentioned paternalism.

I also must acknowledge that were things to fall out from under me, I could move back into my parents’ (or older successful sibling’s) home, and that they would do what they could to help. So perhaps for me, too, my chosen path is less of a risk than it would be for someone else who had even less.Report

Charles Pigden
Charles Pigden
Reply to  Kent
4 years ago

Thanks to you too Kent for your thoughtful reply. It seems to me that we are basically in agreement. You are right, of course, that opportunity costs are less of a factor if you don’t have much interest in the opportunities you are passing up. Hence nothing remains but to wish you good luck. I hope philosophy turns out as well for you as it has for me!Report