Why I’m a Shameless Sophist (guest post)


A “more vocational attitude to philosophy is a constant temptation; I still sometimes slip into it now. But what calls me away from it is always just being reminded of the mundane ways in which this is just a living.”

The following is a guest post* by Liam Kofi Bright, assistant professor of philosophy at the London School of Economics and Political Science. It is the fifth in a series of weekly guest posts by different authors at Daily Nous this summer.


Why I’m a Shameless Sophist
by Liam Kofi Bright

It’s a clichéd observation that we professional philosophers are, in Socrates’ terms, sophists. We may profess to love wisdom, and be ever so sincere in claiming as much, but we’re still getting paid—even if (for many of our adjunct and underfunded grad student comrades out there) not quite so much as we should be. Plato had his own specific and interesting reasons for making this such a central charge against the sophists, but reflecting on his charge recently had me thinking about us, today: how does doing this for a living affect our relationship to philosophy?

Or, at least, I have been thinking about this in my personal life.

Of course there are specific elements of professional philosophy which surely nobody would choose if it was not a professional requirement. For instance I am, ah, not a fan of our present system of peer review, and if it had not been a condition of my securing future employment I doubt I would ever have submitted myself to it. Certainly when I was a teen first starting to read philosophical texts I never thought to myself, “one day people will be reading my own thoughts like this, just as soon as I can convince an anonymous stranger who seems to irrationally hate me that no I do not need to review the literature on the ground-maker semantics of counter-factual uses of the definite article.”

But let’s set aside these more superficial or contingent aspects of professionalisation. Ignore the details of how exactly we organize the profession. I am interested in whether the bare fact that it is a primary source of income changes our relationship to philosophy.

In particular, I have the following somewhat counter-intuitive hypothesis: philosophy being my primary source of income lowered the stakes of being good at philosophy for me.

Here’s my thinking. By the time doing philosophy professionally became an option for me I think I was already confident that I would be employable in some capacity in some moderately well remunerated profession. Of course all of our circumstances are idiosyncratic to some degree and this no doubt reflects ways in which I in particular have lived a charmed or privileged life. But I think it is not entirely personal. To even be a contender for an academic post such as a funded PhD you have to be fairly well credentialed and those things travel. So while philosophy has been my source of income for a while, it has never been the difference between me and starvation or homelessness, and I suspect in this regard I am similar to many. It has always been, and felt like, one career option among many.

And once it is conceptualized like that then it brings with it a whole train of associations: work-life balance and the importance of maintaining it, perhaps more generally the idea that one should work to live rather than live to work, and that my relationship with the school is simply an instance of the general one between employer and labor. In general from a relatively young age I felt I got pretty clear messages to the effect that work is something one takes an instrumental attitude towards; in general, where one can be paid more to do less of it that is to be preferred, and it’s all in all a bit sad to identify too hard with one’s work.

Whereas I think the salient alternative model of philosopher to me was something like a secular priest. Indeed some of the philosophers I first really liked were St. Thomas More, St. Augustine, and Kierkegaard—so two saints and one who we may piously hope has served his time in purgatory and thereby been reconciled to Rome. Not even secular! I still strongly identify as a philosopher, but I am probably less pious about it than I would be if I went all in on this attitude. And this more vocational attitude to philosophy is a constant temptation; I still sometimes slip into it now. But what calls me away from it is always just being reminded of the mundane ways in which this is just a living. In the main, after all, what’s nice about academia is mainly that it is an indoor job with no heavy lifting. Since all in all I think the somewhat cooler instrumental attitude is the healthier, professionalization has probably been a psychological boon to me.

Now, I said this was counter-intuitive as a hypothesis. And the reason I said that is because many people report very different experiences. Some say that they find it very hard in academia to maintain a work-life balance, and that philosophy being their profession has actually rather tended to destroy the joy they once took in it as it became simply another chore they must complete on pain of the dole. Others say that they do tend to see philosophy as more of a “calling” and find professionalization degrading and demeaning. I don’t really have a theory as to why this has been experienced so different, and I share this on Daily Nous in part because I hope the wide audience will allow lots of different types of people to chip in and report their own experience here.

But in the meantime, two cheers for professionalization! It allows those of us who are not aristocrats or likely to be employed thereby to do this thing we love full time. And it has given me a healthier attitude to my work than I might have otherwise had. Of course there are tons of problems on top, but those two are non-trivial goods as far as I am concerned. I have long been a fan of the Sophistic Movement, and it is not with shame that I continue their legacy.

Moreover, peer review must be destroyed.

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Graduate Student
5 months ago

I don’t deny that these are goods, but they’re all self-directed ones. Precisely why I find what’s called professionalization here annoying is that it priviliges scholastic busy-work over making a contribution to society through our work. Sure, a philosopher makes good money and has a leisurely enough job. If that’s all I wanted, I would have went into finance. The laudable thing about Socrates was that he was useful to other people, while the Sophists were interested first in themselves. (This picture may not be wholly historically accurate, but I’m sure you see the point).Report

Liam Kofi Bright
Reply to  Graduate Student
5 months ago

Ah I do see the point, but I don’t think it is entirely self interested. Or, at least, I don’t think this is entirely uncorrelated with the social good. I say this because: I think there are predictable social consequences to a world where only Aristocrats or those employed thereby can afford to do big picture thinking, and they are not good ones. (Indeed in my more cynical moments I think it was in defence of those bad consequences that Plato railed against the Sophists!) So making it possible for more people to participate in this way guards against a certain sort of capture by the ultra wealthy.Report

Graduate Student
Reply to  Liam Kofi Bright
5 months ago

Yes, I largely agree there. In any case, really interesting piece!Report

Graduate Student
Reply to  Liam Kofi Bright
5 months ago

Is this not an aristocratic perspective or response? I’m unsure the distinction between the above, original statement, and the response, seemingly to the contrary, to this comment.Report

M.A Phil
M.A Phil
Reply to  Graduate Student
4 months ago

Did you really just say philosophers make good money? 😂Report

Tushar Irani
5 months ago

Great post, thanks Liam! (And also: Justin’s photoshopping skills are a wonder to behold.)

This rings true to me: “In general from a relatively young age I felt I got pretty clear messages to the effect that work is something one takes an instrumental attitude towards.” I think two things helped me see past (or maybe just refine) this view, one conceptual the other empirical. The conceptual point was that the attitude may rest on a false choice: we can do things for the sake of other things and also do them for their own sake. This makes finding a work/life balance less a question of negotiating trade-offs and more a task of clarifying what matters.

The more empirical event, without which the above were just words, was getting tenure. Until that point it was harder for me to see doing good work in philosophy as something that really mattered. Falling into a sophistic attitude about such things is easier when it’s harder to thread the needle between the compulsory and the good.Report

Last edited 5 months ago by Tushar Irani
Liam Kofi Bright
Reply to  Tushar Irani
5 months ago

Ah wait the tenure point is very interesting! So the thought is once you were career safe you started doing philosophy just for its intrinsic value once again?Report

Rex2
Rex2
Reply to  Liam Kofi Bright
5 months ago

A mentor once said something along these lines, but the dividing line was full prof. They told me that once they’d crossed this point, they could begin to do the sort of slow, careful work they really wanted to do. This had less to do with experience and more with time, they said. The earlier work was good, of course, but, per my mentor, might have been better if left on the vine a bit longer.Report

Tushar Irani
Reply to  Liam Kofi Bright
5 months ago

Well that impulse has always been there; otherwise as you say we’d have made a living another way some time ago. What was more pronounced pre-tenure, I think, was the tension with the impulse to instrumentalize and a proneness to make compromises: the thought “do this or else …” was typically overriding.

Of course the instrumentalizing impulse is also always there, and it’s worth observing (see Moti Gorin’s comment below) its multiformity. Isocrates in his Antidosis says: “everyone does everything for pleasure, profit, or honor, for I do not see that people desire anything apart from these things.” FWIW, I think this is Plato’s main issue with the sophistic attitude: the problem isn’t that it degrades wisdom-seeking as such, but its totalizing tendency.Report

Last edited 5 months ago by Tushar Irani
meow meow
meow meow
Reply to  Tushar Irani
5 months ago

I heard about this do-serious-work-after-you-secure-a-tenure talk on different occasions. It makes sense to a certain extent. But, well, many places don’t have ‘real tenure’ anymore.Report

Tushar Irani
Reply to  meow meow
5 months ago

Yes, I find that a loss for everyone.Report

Richard Y Chappell
5 months ago

> “it’s all in all a bit sad to identify too hard with one’s work”

Surely it depends on what the work is? I think it’s worth caring about worthwhile activities, and I think (at least some) philosophy is incredibly worthwhile.Report

Liam Kofi Bright
Reply to  Richard Y Chappell
5 months ago

Ah yeah these are somewhat pre-reflective stereotypes I had, more just based on what sort of work people around me were doing when I was growing up. For the most part my family all hated their jobs!Report

Cristóbal Arellano
5 months ago

Bravo to the burning down of peer review!Report

Greg Littmann
Reply to  Cristóbal Arellano
5 months ago

There are huge flaws in the system, but what’s the alternative?Report

Greg Littmann
Reply to  Cristóbal Arellano
5 months ago

Sorry for that last post. The author suggests an alternative in a link.Report

Kevin T.
5 months ago

I agree that it’s fine we take money to teach philosophy and that there are goods in philosophy as a system of instrumental professionals for whom the activity is an end in itself.

I also think being a vocational “secular priest” can be a fine thing–writers and public intellectuals for whom professional philosophical activity (if they do it at all) is just a slice of a larger life and a means to greater ends.

Surely we need both in a healthy proportion (I imagine more of the former and relatively few of the latter).

But Liam, I am very curious how this distinction between instrumental professionals vs. vocational secular priests lines up with your catchy distinction carving the history of philosophy into basically pleasant bureaucrats vs. sexy murder poets.

You said previously that “it’s both super important and super boring that the pleasant bureaucrats must win.”

Do these two distinctions line up? Are instrumental professionals the same thing as pleasant bureaucrats? Are vocational secular priests the same thing as sexy murder poets? If not, how do they relate?Report

Liam Kofi Bright
Reply to  Kevin T.
5 months ago

Ah for this you will have to read my forthcoming work… 😉Report

Moti Gorin
5 months ago

I think it’s the institutionalized nature of the professionalization that leads to a kind of domestication of philosophy, a conservatism motivated by the need to impress one’s peers in order to succeed. It’s not the getting paid, per se. If we all had wealthy benefactors (or whatever) that never read our work or cared at all about what we said I suspect we’d be less prone to seeing what we do as mundane.Report

Cathy Legg
Reply to  Moti Gorin
5 months ago

“Nice work if you can get it!” (the benefactor’s employ)Report

Moti Gorin
Reply to  Cathy Legg
5 months ago

It’s not that hard actually. One simply needs to be born rich.Report

David Duffy
5 months ago

I, for one, just want to hear more about ground-maker semantics of counter-factual uses of the definite article. From a professional in these matters!Report

P D Van Pelt
5 months ago

When much younger, an administrator, to whom I did not report, criticized an administrative law opinion I had written on a complaint I had heard. He had no jurisdiction to overturn my decision on the matter, so he called it ‘sophist’ and stormed out of a conference. I was puzzled, not knowing what he was angry about. Many years later, I learned. As it turned out, his use of the term was mere bluster—he viewed the decision as a loss for himself, rather than a just adjudication of the circumstances of the case. He ‘took it personal’, instead of moving on.Report

Cathy Legg
5 months ago

Great provocation Liam, thank you!
It seems to me that building and tending a career in academic philosophy necessarily sets up some conflict of interest with following ideas where they lead. This is so particularly under current globalising models of academic ‘productivity’, which mean that if one is not emitting a steady stream of self-assured opinions within a clearly demarcated area that one ‘owns’, one can be seen as falling behind the ‘winners’ of our profession.
The longer one has been in the system, and the larger the ‘sunk cost’ in life energy (and other commitments such as mortgages etc) the more difficult it is to resist this pressure.
Having said that, though, in my understanding much progress has recently been made by those who study governance on the theory and practice of managing conflicts of interest. (I know this because my institution’s HR department has made me do a number of courses on it.) We might apply these learnings to our own context, if we so choose. But what we shouldn’t do as responsible epistemic practicioners (if indeed this is our professional self-conception) is pretend that the problem doesn’t exist.Report

Simon
5 months ago

I’m one of those people who decided to abandon philosophy for a job that’s better paid, offers a much more reasonable work-life balance, allows me to live in a place I actually want to live in, and is much less conductive to mental health problems. I duly report that life on this side is pretty nice, actually! Also, it leaves a pretty decent amount of time for occasional research or, say, teaching data ethics to data scientists and digital product managers (even without any inherited wealth, though likely based on my white male middle class privilege). It is, in fact, really nice to do those things because one wants to, not because one has to.

It is particularly nice to be out of the structural incentive system which I think would destroy both Socrates and the sophists. Specifically, the part in which it is more professionally rewarding to only talk to a small in-group of peers, than to engage in such pedestrian endeavours as trying to write for the wider public or otherwise engage in public debate.

So while I agree that professional philosophy isn’t very socratic, I’d say it’s not particularly sophist either. That’s because the sophists’ primary objective would have been doing something that is actually useful to people who were not themselves sophists 😉Report

Joe
Joe
5 months ago

Just a sidenote – I think it is a mistake to think that Socrates or Plato objected to charging money for instruction by the sophists. This is usually brought up as something that people in general, common folks, find objectionable or shameful. What they object to is that they charge fees but have in fact nothing real or true to teach. That is, they sell snake oil. That is what defines them, in Plato’s eyes, as sophists. Socrates says not once that if they really were teaching what they promise to teach, we should spend all our and our friends’ money for it, because it is worth much more than that. So, being a proud sophist, on this more Socratic understanding of what it a sophist is, is to be proud of selling snake oil.Report

Bharath Vallabha
5 months ago

Interesting post! Since it opens up space for sharing experiences, will take advantage. 🙂

I was drawn to philosophy as a spiritual vocation. A way of life contributing to new forms of consciousness. Imagine ending of 2001: A Space Odyssey. But I wasn’t drawn to religious institutions like monastaries. And wasn’t sure what such a life looked like now. Didn’t imagine that would be how I make a living – pretty funny if how I pay rent and where human consciousness is heading in 500 years coincided.

Academic philosophy was the closest institutional setting I found to balancing the mundane and the sacred. It kept my family happy I wasn’t off in a commune looking for enlightenment, and reading Plato and Wittgenstein all day seemed as close to what I imagined growing in consciousness meant for me.

The balance was too hard. I felt I lost the mundane pleasures of academia because I put too much pressure from the sacred side. And the sacred side felt lost in the struggle fit ideas into a cv. When early humans evolved from Neanderthals, it wasn’t because they won a research proposal.

I left academia ten years ago. In spite of trying to hide it from myself, I miss it every day. As I now have a 9-5 job to make ends meet and support my family, I wonder could I have enjoyed academia as a job? Surely a job as a professor is no less substantial intrinsically than a job outside it. A job is a job is a job. And I wonder how much of Plato and Wittgenstein I enjoyed because I thought of it as consciousness raising and how much just because I like those thinkers and those texts. Surely just liking is enough – or at least is something.

Still, don’t regret leaving. I have no pretense of raising human consciousness anymore. But growing as a person is always there. Leaving academia helped me see the world differently than I assumed at 19 and 35. Leaving academia was my own version of Descartes’ first meditation, a rethinking. Such rethinking might happen in academia for others. Anything is possible. People and circumstances are too different and too interesting.Report

Last edited 5 months ago by Bharath Vallabha
Justin Kalef
Reply to  Bharath Vallabha
5 months ago

Thanks for the very interesting comment, Bharath. I found this sentence especially intriguing: “I felt I lost the mundane pleasures of academia because I put too much pressure from the sacred side.

Being out of academia for ten years, you have a perspective that many of us lack. I tend to think that most philosophers, like you it seems, are drawn to the discipline because of something they find lacking in the mundane world, and therefore find themselves disappointed at the realization that much of the work turns out to be far more banal than what they imagined it to be on the way in. The ones I’ve seen who remain happy in their careers seem to find ways of limiting the mundane aspects of their work and making room to enjoy the fulfilling things that inspire them. I wonder: a decade out of the profession, what are the ‘mundane pleasures’ of the job you look back on with fondness?Report

Bharath Vallabha
Reply to  Justin Kalef
5 months ago

Thanks Justin for the question. The pressure I put on myself to be philosophical in a profound way affected my interactions with fellow academics. I didn’t let myself enjoy the simple pleasure of being with colleagues and students. The compulsion for profundity created its own form of dogmatism. If someone didn’t read Wittgenstein in just the way I did, or if people enjoyed a department party more than I did, I withdrew within myself and blamed it on the shallowness of others. It took leaving for me to see it isn’t any more profound on the outside and that whether in a dept meeting or an office meeting, in a family dispute or a colloquium disagreement, being positive and open to others goes a longer way than most theories I dreamed up or read.

Another thing that got in the way of my enjoying academia was my deep guilt. It affected everything. I felt horrible being part of an institution which seemed unjust in so many ways, some regarding diversity and also the jobs situation. Some picture of the relation of asceticism to profundity made me unable to appreciate and relax into the luck I had as an academic, making me mentally disown my achievements. It was all so tortured, no wonder Wittgenstein was my favorite. I am grateful for leaving academia because it took that for me to find the simple pleasures of thinking without the drama. When a passing thought occurs of how I would be if I was a professor now, a goal I imagine is cultivating dialogue and intellectual community without guilt or guilting in any form. This is hard, and a philosophy classroom seems as good a place as any, and in some ways a great place, to tackle that challenge.Report

Greg Littmann
5 months ago

I’ve wanted to be a philosopher since I was in Grade 5. I went into philosophy because I wanted to hunt for truth. I was purely self-interested, but I also thought philosophy was good for humanity. Once in academia, I became concerned about the fact that so little philosophical writing was directed at the public. It seemed to me that the way philosophers benefit the public is by providing them with ideas to think about (we certainly can’t provide them with many final answers, or with technologies they can use without understanding them, in the way some other disciplines can).

Getting involved with writing philosophy for the public renewed my enthusiasm enormously. I can’t imagine working in any other profession.Report

Stephen Harrop
4 months ago

Liam, I for one am disappointed (though not surprised) to fail to see a call to return to the Diogene ideal of dispensing wisdom <i>gratis</i> while living in wine casks. Ah well, can’t win them all I suppose.Report