Triumphantly Breaking Free from Academic Philosophy, But Still…

In 2015 I received the National Humanities Medal at a ceremony at the White House. President Obama himself put the medal around my neck, and the rumor was that he made the final choice. In the speech he gave before awarding all the medals, in addition to citing my work on Gödel and Spinoza and Plato, he spoke of me as the philosopher who sometimes chooses to write novels. Again, the suggestion that I wasn’t any less of a philosopher for writing novels is what made me the happiest.

That’s Rebecca Goldstein, in an interview with Clifford Sosis at What Is It Like To Be A Philosopher? The interview is fascinating throughout. One of its themes is the intensity of the pull of academic philosophy for those within its gravity.

Kyouei Design, “Magnetic Field Record”

Goldstein was a philosophy professor at Barnard when her first novel, The Mind-Body Problem, was published, to critical acclaim. She says:

I did something completely insane for someone who had her heart set on an academic career in philosophy, especially as a woman, meaning someone who really had to do everything right to have any chance of being taken seriously. I published a novel, called The Mind-Body Problem… Shelly [Goldstein’s husband then] was horrified, warning me that I’d ruin my nascent career in philosophy, and obviously he was right, but I didn’t have the ears to hear what he was saying…

The book received attention out in the world. It was a bestseller. And if being a novelist had been something I’d set my heart on then what happened would have been beyond wonderful. It’s hard to feel sorry for that younger me, having a successful novel on her hands. Poor kid, what a problem. But frankly, I didn’t know what to do with that success. Frankly, it embarrassed me.

Goldstein has gone on to have a successful career as a novelist and writer. Yet she was ambivalent about her early success; it left her unsure of the quality of her philosophical thinking, or what academic philosophers thought of the quality of her philosophical thinking, and this ambivalence seems to have stayed with her throughout her remarkable career.

When she won a MacArthur Fellowship, she says, “the award made me feel as if what I was doing, though it fell outside of academic philosophy, was nevertheless philosophically worthwhile.”

In reflecting upon receiving the National Humanities Medal, the ambivalence again comes through:

It’s blindingly obvious that had I remained where I’d always longed to be, safe and accepted within the circle of academic philosophers, there’s no chance that I would have found myself in such company.

“Where I’d always longed to be.” Why?

What is it about academic philosophy that makes it such that this internationally renowned author—who writes wonderfully rich and intellectually rewarding novels that probably have been read by more people than the works of any living academic philosopher—cites as one of her career highlights being “interviewed… as if I were still a member of the tribe [of academic philosophers], with not a trace of condescension” for a philosophy show?

Goldstein herself offers a possible explanation: the appeal of being recognized as smart. She puts them as two “theorems” and applies it to her own case:

There’s a Ranking Theorem that counts for a lot, not only in philosophy but throughout academia. It’s organized by how much brilliance is seen as necessary for success in a given discipline. Its longer name could be ‘Just-How-Smart-Do-You-Have-To-Be-To-Get-Through-The-Door Ranking Theorem’. Mathematics and physics are ranked higher than philosophers—I think this is agreed upon throughout academia—and, at least according to philosophers, all other disciplines rank below philosophy. Producing novels, even if philosophical, ranks way lower than philosophy proper. It’s also generally assumed within academia that a person will engage in the highest ranked activity for which her intelligence equips her. Call this the Smartness Theorem, though its longer name could be ‘Why-Would-You-Devote-Yourself-To-Anything-Else-Than-What-Would-Most-Show-Off-How-Smart-You-Are Theorem’. Together, the Ranking Theorem and the Smartness Theorem entail that a person who sinks to writing novels doesn’t have what it takes to do philosophy.

Of course that is just one explanation. Perhaps you have another? Note that in asking about the pull of academic philosophy I don’t necessarily intend to suggest there is anything problematic about it. Maybe there is, maybe it’s perfectly ordinary, maybe it’s, on balance, salutary. But it can be remarkably intense, as Goldstein shows us. You can read the whole interview with her here.

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Carolyn Dicey Jennings
Carolyn Dicey Jennings
4 years ago

Great interview. Here is another explanation that might have been driving that decision: philosophy is expensive, in terms of resources. To get someone to a position in which they can try to find and justify answers to various deep problems, without the pressure of finding grants, doing something practical/applied, etc. takes the time, energy, and money of a great many people. For someone to get to that position and choose to do something else (e.g. write popular pieces, collect data on the profession, etc.), is to waste this precious resource. Against this, philosophy would get far fewer resources without the efforts of people like Rebecca. Further, it is possible to make progress on problems by doing philosophy in an unconventional way. (Many of us find inspiration while teaching, for example. It seems much more likely to me that Rebecca was not wasting those resources, but finding a creative way to maximize them.) In my view it is crucial that we not only devote quality time to the traditional forms of research and writing, but also to improving the philosophical community, as well as to our efforts to translate our work to others, if for no other reason than that this will improve our collective ability to solve the very problems that drive us.

Carolyn Dicey Jennings
Carolyn Dicey Jennings
Reply to  Carolyn Dicey Jennings
4 years ago

I should have said: I was referring to the decision to dismiss Rebecca and then not to support her tenure case (“Being dismissed by just about every philosopher I knew—even Mary Mothersill, who had been so supportive of me as a student—meant that the experience I’d had with Hempel, seeing myself through his eyes as someone who should be studying ballet rather than pretending to be a philosopher, felt enlarged, replicated. I didn’t even try to publish the journal articles I’d been working on, based on my dissertation. I accepted the fait accompli of not even being put up by my department for tenure and tried to refashion myself as a novelist.”).

Jon Light
4 years ago

I thought it was a great interview, too, and really showed the breadth of philosophy. If we went on to have more philosophers who successfully wrote novels, got presidential awards, and did a bunch of other stuff other than published obscure articles that were only read by a handful of experts in the field, wouldn’t that be a good thing? I’d trade my Phil Review article for the chance to meet Obama. Also, I read the novel in graduate school and thought it was really good.

4 years ago

People who study happiness, or at least so this total amateur has heard, talk about the importance of having the opportunity to develop one’s abilities and be recognized by one’s peers for doing so. I think people who find that in academic philosophy understandably feel ambivalent about anything, however positive in other respects, that might take them out of that place. And I have no idea whether publishing a successful novel gives one anything like the ongoing communal opportunity to develop one’s skills and be recognized for doing so. I’m sure it varies case by case.

Of course that’s different from the question of why academic philosophers would look down on a colleague who writes a successful novel… but it does go to the question of why someone would regret the loss. And I’m not sure it is anything specific to philosophy as compared to other scholarly disciplines.

Heath White
Heath White
4 years ago

I have never published a successful novel (or any novel), and I have never met (nor am likely to meet) the President, but just spitballing….

Tenure in academia is about the safest career you can have. It has built-in status, pay, and job security. Making it as a novelist (or entrepreneur, commissioned salesperson, etc.) is just about the opposite.

Some people really like and value security. Some don’t care so much. Without knowing anything about RG, maybe part of her really likes the things academia provides. (I know I do.)

Bharath Vallabha
4 years ago

Here is another explanation. If you care about philosophy enough to devote a decade studying it and thinking of teaching it your whole life, you deeply identify with the history of philosophy. Say, in Goldstein’s case, with Plato, Spinoza and so on. Identifying with the past greats (and lesser greats) means seeing yourself as part of that history, as the current extension of that history. Seeing yourself that way requires being seen that way by others.

There is a funny triad between non-academic philosophers, non-academics and academic philosophers. It is by breaking off from the habits of academic phil that one becomes more accessible to non-academics. But most non-academics don’t reward this by saying, “Wow, Goldstein is such an amazing philosopher – she is a like a modern Plato.” They will say, “What a great writer”, for non-academics implictly follow the academic philosophers’ cue in drawing a line between the non-academic philosopher and the “real, great” contemporary philosophers.

Even when Obama acknowledges Goldstein as a philosopher, the thought lingers: “What does Obama know about philosophy?” Should we treat his sense of philosophy as more important than Quine’s? Like most people, Obama is implicitly deferring about the meaning of “philosophy” to philosophy professors the way I defer to physicists about the meaning of “quantum theory”. And the philosophy professors might say Goldstein is a wonderful philosopher, but how many do the honor of emulating her work the way she does it – that is, by bending their habits towards hers? Philosophy professors for the most part jealously guard their terrain, and the public implicitly follow this.

Goldstein’s work perhaps suggests a more happy harmony between academic and non-academic philosophers than I am suggesting here. She doesn’t turn on academic philosophy. Contrast with a Kierkegaard or Nietzsche, whose philosophical voice was amplified by distancing themselves from academic philosophers as arcane. They felt the way to get out of the gravity well of academic philosophy was to blast academic phil in order to free themselves. It is an interesting – and perhaps ultimately personal – question for a non-academic philosopher whether to follow the more conciliatory Goldstein approach or the more critical Nietzsche approach.

4 years ago

Philosophers, you too can receive a medal from a President who drone murdered children and US citizens. If that’s a sales pitch for popular philosophy, I’ve never been so glad my work is read by a tiny handful of people and has no significant impact whatsoever.

Greg Gauthier
4 years ago

I think there’s a much simpler explanation. Professional Jealousy. Various academics occasionally become popular for various reasons. Noam Chomsky, Richard Dawkins, Nassim Taleb, Charles Murray, Germaine Greer, Jordan Peterson, Roger Penrose, Bettany Hughes, Jonathan Haidt, Nigel Warburton, and on and on.

In each case, to varying degrees of severity, these people have lost some of their “academic credibility” with their colleagues, for their willingness to engage with the broader public, to take on controversial subjects in a public setting, or for trying to popularize academic subjects. Moving from “serious” to “popularizer” attaches a stigma to you, in academic circles. I didn’t realize quite how severe this could be until I saw my wife and some of her friends exhibit this sort of sniffing attitude toward certain historians who have landed BBC gigs, and published popular histories.

This is also the prevailing attitude toward “amateur” or self-taught philosophers and historians (even if they have degrees). There are a few very good ones. Sometimes, better than the professional academics. But because academia sees itself as a gate-keeper of “proper” knowledge, being outside makes you incapable by definition. It’s a hangover of the old guild system. If you’re not in the guild, you’re not credible.

So, it makes sense to me, that a woman who craves the validation of academic credibility, would lament the loss of it when she becomes a popularizer (regardless of how spectacular she is at it). Her husband’s instincts were right. Professional jealousy has made her an outsider.

Ken Taylor
4 years ago

But it wasn’t just ANY philosophy show Rebecca was interviewed for. It was Philosophy Talk … now THAT is an achievement.

And a delightful interview it was.

Timothy Howell
Timothy Howell
4 years ago

Three not unrelated observations:
1. What are the criteria for merit in philosophical endeavors?
2. How effective are the abilities of those evaluating philosophical merit at modulating their egos?
3. How reliable is the so-called “court of history” regarding these issues?