Addicted to Philosophy


“I was trapped in the feeling that philosophy was all important and that anything and everything—including my well being—can be sacrificed for it. This is the core of my addiction to philosophy. I couldn’t stop doing philosophy.”

Those are the words of Bharath Vallabha, a former assistant professor of philosophy at Bryn Mawr.

In a post at his blog, The Radiant Path, Dr. Vallabha talks about what he calls his “addiction” to philosophy, and how it affected his life.

Here’s an excerpt:

My philosophy education helped me grow and open my horizons. Sure, academic philosophy has problems, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t good. Of course, it is good!

But what I felt I couldn’t say when I was an academic was, “I know philosophy is good, but I seem to be addicted to it.” I was depending on philosophy to submerge personal pain and trauma, and the very thing – philosophy – which helped me personally and which is important socially was also the thing which was blocking aspects of my personal growth given how I was depending on it.

I wasn’t just being a philosopher in the grand, mythical sense of Socrates, Plato, Kant and Russell. I was also snorting philosophy – using it as a numbing device to push away personal pain and insecurity. I was using my identity as an academic philosopher to convince myself and others I was thinking critically about life in general, when in fact I was also using philosophy the way one might use ice cream or alcohol or drugs – as a way to escape into a fantasy world in which the euphoria and the high of a good argument, or the thrill of intellectual combat became substitutes for taking care of myself physically and emotionally.

The more I was drawn into philosophy, the less I exercised. The more captivated I became with the importance of philosophy, I more told myself I don’t need relationships – that I don’t have time for a girlfriend or to relax with friends. The more I was drawn into philosophy, the more I lived into a world in which my main friends were the great authors I read and with whom I identified. Wittgenstein came to seem to me more real as a friend than any living person next to me. When I was fixated on Kant’s racism, Kant seemed to me more real as someone to be “defeated” than anybody still alive.

This is a familiar issue in our world of celebrity, social media and isolation. For many people the celebrities they admire feel more real and more of their friend than people they see everyday. An opponent on X or Facebook comes to seem the epitome of what all is wrong with the world, and who has to be put in their place. The continual paradox for me as an academic philosopher was the more I entered into academic philosophy, the more I felt isolated. And the more isolated I felt, the more I depended on the celebrities of academic philosophy – the great thinkers of the past and the prominent members of the current time who I didn’t really know – to be my sense of community. Something was off. As I went from being an undergrad to graduate student to being a professor, I didn’t feel I was entering into a world of real people and cultivating living relationships with those around me. It felt instead like the more I entered academic philosophy, the more I was drifting into a parallel, fantasy world in which I felt disconnected from my students and colleagues, and where I was hanging out more with Wittgenstein and Kant in my mind.

It is easy to miss this, or not take it seriously, because all academic philosophers necessarily have deep relations with the philosophers, dead and alive, with whom they engage. One can’t be a Kant scholar without in some sense living with Kant in one’s head. Academic disagreements are also personal in some sense. The disagreement between defenders of Fodor and Wittgenstein can have the flavor of a battle between the Montagues and the Capulets. For people devoted to a life of ideas, the boundaries between ideas and emotions are often blurred and not easily demarcated.

But it’s one thing for the boundaries to be blurred, and another for them to be completely erased. And that is how it became for me. Philosophy wasn’t just an activity or a job – it became my whole life…

I was trapped in the feeling that philosophy was all important and that anything and everything – including my well being – can be sacrificed for it.

This is the core of my addiction to philosophy. I couldn’t stop doing philosophy. After I left academia, the addiction grew deeper and more frenzied, mixed as it was now with a sense of frightened anxiety that perhaps I made a mistake in leaving. I pushed my wife away who had to bear the brunt of my addiction to philosophy, and we almost got divorced. I assumed I couldn’t have time to be a parent because I was afraid of the mundane life that might imply – and which I felt I couldn’t really function in. I told myself I couldn’t be a parent because I need time to focus on my philosophy. But behind the issue of time was the deeper issue that I was afraid of entering again into the normal social relations that parenthood involves. I had built philosophy as a bubble between myself and those around me, and I didn’t know how to step out of it.

I don’t think Vallabha is unique in feeling something like an addiction to philosophy, nor in letting such feelings impact the rest of one’s life.

Such feelings may prompt questions: What should I do? To whom can I talk about this? What help is available? How will other philosophers react?

Vallabha says:

I wish when I was in academic I could have recognized my addiction to philosophy as an addiction and sought help. But even if I had recognized that my particular dependence on philosophy was an addiction, where could I turned to for help? Who in academic philosophy could I have turned to for help?… I felt it was my own personal problem if I am addicted to philosophy, that I need to deal with it on my own…

It would be good if it didn’t have to be this way. If it could be talked about how addiction to philosophy is fairly common. I suspect many of the “idiosyncracies” of philosophy professors would be better understood if they are seen in the light of addiction to philosophy.

You can read the full post here.

Discussion welcome.

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A Graduate Student
A Graduate Student
27 days ago

It sounds like the author was having a difficult time of it over a long period, and I do sympathise. But I don’t think that there’s anything special about philosophy in this regard. Sinking your time and attention into it can certainly function as a coping mechanism. But almost any activity can function that way.

I know from first hand that plenty of people in non-academic fields also get lost in their work as a form of escape from things that they’d rather not think about or feel too much. Sadly this sometimes includes their nearerst and dearest. Men seem especially prone to this, for whatever that observation is worth.

Not sure if conceptualising this as ‘philosophy addiction’ as though it were akin to alcoholism or hard drugs is a good way to understand the phenomenon.

Bharath Vallabha
Reply to  A Graduate Student
26 days ago

Certainly agree this can apply to anything and is not unique to philosophy. That is partly why I find it helpful to think of it as an addiction. Structurally, it’s not different at all from workaholism of any kind. I was so convinced my passion for philosophy was so intellectual and so special in a sense compared to other ways of life that it is illuminating to think the way it took over my life isn’t that different from what can happen to musicians, athletes, doctors or those on Wall Street.

An example: when I left academia, I became focused on what I felt to the racist underpinnings of the profession. I couldn’t stop thinking about it and seeing it every where in my education. A lot of it was me coming to things others had been saying for decades. But was the anger and disorientation I felt about it just a reflection of my coming to awareness of a problem in the field, or was it also a reflection of my addiction to not be able to step back from academic philosophy and even step back from its problems? What is my responsibility here and what is the responsibility of the profession as a whole to help people with this? The culture wars in the field added to my addiction, or at least didn’t help me navigate it in a healthy way. The fever pitch of discussion naturally tied into my sense that all this is of the utmost pressing importance, so much so that my ordinary well being seemed like a luxury which I couldn’t afford. Could it be that the most vocal, strident impulses of the conservative and the radical sides are also forms of addiction to philosophy and perhaps even addiction to the conflict? It’s an interesting possibility.

Hermias
Hermias
27 days ago

To the tune of “Dopeman” by NWA
 
It was once said by a man who couldn’t quit,
“Editor please, can I have another hit?”
The editor said “Prof, I don’t give a s**t
If you do these revisions, and do them quick.”
It all happened and R2 was a choker,
R2 didn’t care, he ain’t nothing but a joker.
That’s the way it goes, that’s the name of the game,
Young brother drew distinction twixt the mind and the brain.
Deductions on tap and pro tantos on heavy,
Students checkin’ for his emails 24/7.
Co-authors beggin’ for a credit, his objection’s got teeth,
Illegal pdf downloads on the 1st and 15th.
Big wad of publications, he’s a real cognoscenti,
Yo, you want a top five? The nous man’s got plenty
To be a nous-man, yo, ya must qualify,
Don’t get high off your grad-school supply.

historygrrrl
historygrrrl
Reply to  Hermias
26 days ago

I’m glad to see somebody out there is still making philosophy raps these days.

V. Alan White
Reply to  historygrrrl
26 days ago

Well, not raps but parodies, my old songs site is still out there. Just click on my name here.

As to the OP, I really appreciate Bharath’s (if I may) take on his journey. I think many of us in the discipline fail to comprehend just how much time and thought-space our careers in philosophy expend. I certainly didn’t–until I retired several years ago. Only then did I grasp just how much stress–and neglect of other parts of my life–my career cost me. Don’t get me wrong–I’m grateful for my career and really loved teaching and research, and would have done nothing else. But those younger along with us–please do reflect on what this brave essay has to say about what philosophy and our love of it can do to us.

AsiaMommy
AsiaMommy
26 days ago

Sad thing is that I understand this to the fullest. Except I’m applying philosophy to a world that doesn’t even understand philosophy as thought.

Sometimes my children would bring up something seemingly unnecessary and instead of saying, “I’m sorry you’re experiencing that,” I would go into deep, philosophical discussions about how to ensure it doesn’t happen again and to see the bigger picture. My husband would avoid me at times because he knew that every problem I witnessed or read about, I would go deep into the 5WH positing solutions based on fields in the social sciences and philosophy.

It is very real, but the thing that could fix the problem isn’t available to me or many others. In psychology the question is, “where do psychiatrists go for psychological needs?” I feel the same in philosophy. I suppose if there were more meaningful ways for philosophers to communicate and apply out knowledge to the current state of the world/society, we would feel comfortable to discuss all the things in our head without being called names, reducing the anguish that comes along with being so interconnected.

Here I go again…

Serial Offender
Serial Offender
26 days ago

Thanks for the interesting post, Bharath.

I suppose I think we make a mistake when we extend concepts too broadly, and I think talk of being addicted to philosophy does just that with the concept of addiction. It muddies the water of the already difficult task of understanding addition, I think, if we start lumping philosophy addiction (as well as food addiction, sex addition, work addiction, and so on) under the same category as alcohol and heroin addiction.

It is interesting to me that while this “addiction talk” is rampant, no one talks about “family addiction”; presumably, we have an ideological assumption that no one can give too much time and attention to their families, but why is this?

More generally, I think I oppose addiction talk in this domain because it presupposes that the conventionally “well-rounded” life is the *only* form a good human life can take. While I take you at your your word when you say you had an unhealthy relationship to philosophy in the past insofar as it interfered with other things you find valuable, do you really want to insist that someone couldn’t have an “unbalanced” relationship to philosophy and still thrive?

I don’t like the idea of people diagnosing Socrates with an addiction to philosophy (or saying of a nun or a monk that they are addicted to the spiritual life, and so on). A good human life can take a variety of shapes; what is important is that people have the opportunities to build their lives as they see fit.

Bharath Vallabha
Reply to  Serial Offender
26 days ago

Thanks for a great comment. I am very sympathetic to this.

There is already an ordinary distinction between drug addiction and work addiction. They don’t function in the same way. But that doesn’t make talk of work addiction any less Illuminating.

I think something like family addiction can be a real issue. Philosophers or thinking people in general can do the work of creating new concepts, and I suspect talk of family addiction can very illuminate ordinary family dynamics. Where addiction doesn’t just mean doing it a whole lot. It means the contortion of well being, and that can happy under the well intentioned guise of pursuing a good end. Abuse in family – physical, emotional or even persistent dysfunctional behavior – can be traced to people thinking too much about family or appointing oneself as the person who has maintain order, etc. Is this like being addicted to drugs? Doesn’t have to be. But is it like being addicted to doing good and wanting to spread philosophy in a certain style? It can be.

I think Wittgenstein was addicted to philosophy and certainly in an important way he thrived. Another clear example was Nietzsche. With both of them the contrast isn’t a well balanced life. The contrast is someone who isn’t dependent on philosophy for all or most of their self esteem. It is part of modernity that great works seem to require sometimes misanthropic lives: Beethoven, Van Gogh, Nietzache, Wittgenstein etc. It’s a real question whether philosophy is better measured just in terms of its product understood as a book or if the product should be life of self cultivation and equanimity. An ancient stoic might look at Nietzsche’s life and think, “Oh brother. Great books but at what cost?” I am not saying the life of a professor which is well balanced in an ordinary sense is better than Nietzsche’s. But it is a real question whether there can’t be a third alternative between a middle class life where a philosophy professor is just a job like any other and the misanthropic genius? I couldn’t see a third option and I disliked the first option and so got trapped in the second option.

Socrates might very well be an example of the third option. As might be Spinoza or any number of other thinkers. But that raises the questions, what is the form of that life? And is philosophy education in contemporary colleges fostering that? What can be passionate without being obsessive, grounded without just going with the flow? In our troubled times, philosophers who can teach and exemplify that balance can really the way.

David Moir
David Moir
Reply to  Bharath Vallabha
26 days ago

David Moir. Wittgenstein believed that philosophers are entangled in the web of philosophy like a fly in a milk bottle. Eastern mystics often talk about how philosophers are entrapped in a state of fascination with their subject. It is primarily to do with the curious nature of language.The way out of the bottle I found is to enter a branch of philosophy called pure mathematics. It allows you to live a perfectly normal life in the sense that you don’t bother others with it since they would have no idea what you are talking about .

Serial Offender
Serial Offender
Reply to  Bharath Vallabha
26 days ago

Thanks for the response.

While I still don’t like the idea of borrowing from physical addition the notion of “dependence” since it seems more like punning on the concept than an actual similarity, I think I understand (at least part of) what you are pointing to. The people you describe may well thrive doing philosophy but still have an unhealthy relationship to it insofar as their self-esteem is too dependent on it. I don’t know enough about the biographies of Wittgenstein or Nietzsche to be able to assess your claims about them, but I can think of contemporary philosophers that seem to fit that description.

However, I would have thought that what the people I have in mind are too dependent on is not really philosophy, but the kind of praise and esteem that attaches to “winning” at philosophy in its current, highly professionalized formation. I’m thinking about the kind of person who attends a philosophy talk, and as they are asking their question, they deliberately look all around at the other audience members as if to say “aren’t you all terribly impressed with how clever this question is,” rather than actually making eye contact with the speaker to whom their question is purportedly addressed. To me, these people are using their philosophical talents as a means to getting a kind of “narcissistic supply,” if you will, but philosophy is just a fungible source of esteem. In these cases, the problem doesn’t seem to be with an addiction to philosophy but to the esteem that accompanies doing philosophy well.

(While I only know you from your postings, this doesn’t actually sound like you at all! :). It also doesn’t sound like the little bit I know about Nietzsche. But I suppose I could imagine a narrative of Nietzsche’s life where this frustrated desire for the esteem of others gets turned inward, ressentiment-style, and ends up morphing into the kind of misanthropy you describe.)

Bharath Vallabha
Reply to  Serial Offender
26 days ago

I think you are right that Nietzsche isn’t like the vain, approval seeking questioner. If he were, he wouldn’t have left his professorship, which gave him a lot of prestige as the young hot shot thinker. Nor could he have persevered through years of isolation and illness and thought against the grain of his time. All of which is immensely admirable.

When I speak of Nietzsche’s addiction, I mean he made it a condition of his developing any relationships with people that they enter and accept his philosophical worldview. He accepted isolation over community to preserve his ideas. When this is romanticized, it is easy to think of it as, “He had to do that to pursue his ideas and create his great works”, as if it was a conscious choice that he could change at any time. But from another angle, I wonder if he used ideas to self-soothe himself the way one might with alcohol or food or work. When he felt anxious or troubled, he might have fallen back onto his ideas as a comfort mechanism, and as a way to keep people away. If we apply even a little bit of a Nietzschean suspicion of self-narratives people fall into, it is not hard to ask if his prodigious writing was an expression not just of deep insight, but equally and at the same time, of a fear of ordinary vulnerability in everyday life and an inability on his part to acknowledge that fear.

Many musicians struggled to live balanced lives: Mozart, Beethoven, John Coltrane, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, etc. Addictions of various kinds were the norm for them, including as with most artists, an addiction to their work. Is the world better off with their work? I can’t say no because I love their music. But I do wonder if as a society we would be better off if we didn’t value so much the product (the music) over the life – we seem to easily accept their anguish as the price for our consumption of their great works. But perhaps there is a greatness a society an achieve only if it stops making this bargain. That does’t mean musicians should aim for the equivalent of a middle class life of “normalcy”. But maybe it shouldn’t also be just a choice between a mundane life or a life of extremes.

Academia is not different in this regard from the broader culture. Just the way the general population ignores the musicians’ pains in their lives and looks only at the product, so too academia prioritizes products (be it as a researcher or a teacher) over lives. This is not just a tragedy, but in many ways contrary to how best to foster philosophical reflection. If philosophers are to show society a different way forward, perhaps it involves showing how to live with a different set of priorities.

praymont
praymont
Reply to  Serial Offender
25 days ago

You find a similar notion in Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” where some “infernal peers” try to numb themselves (or “charm pain”) by sitting out more active pursuits to drift in a speculative labyrinth, “in wandering mazes lost”:

“Others apart sat on a hill retired,
In thoughts more elevate, and reasoned high
Of Providence, Foreknowledge, Will, and Fate–
Fixed fate, free will, foreknowledge absolute, 
And found no end, in wandering mazes lost.
Of good and evil much they argued then,
Of happiness and final misery,
Passion and apathy, and glory and shame:
Vain wisdom all, and false philosophy!–
Yet, with a pleasing sorcery, could charm
Pain for a while or anguish, and excite
Fallacious hope, or arm th’ obdured breast
With stubborn patience as with triple steel.”
(Paradise Lost, Book 2, lines 557-69)

Milton assigns a motive to the ones adrift in a maze(ment), implying that the fallen angels are trying to relieve pain and distress. The last two lines attribute the motive of seeking protection from future threats, which might differ from many addictions, which seem more tightly focused on escapism and numbing in the present.

Bharath Vallabha
Reply to  praymont
25 days ago

Thanks for this. What a great connection!

This captures well how it was for me. The fact that philosophy has no final answers is often bemoaned as a problem. But good or bad, that feature is particularly apt to enable philosophical debate to function as a numbing device if a person uses it unconsciously that way. Such reflection is an infinite loop and a vast maze, and the feeling that there is no end to it and that nothing ever really changes can be soothing.

When I was teaching I felt enormous guilt on this point. We introduce students to the good features of philosophy but without talking about its pitfalls and psychological traps. What happens when a student is gripped by philosophy and because of their psychological situation (such as mine) it takes on a numbing function? It’s like I was giving them a medicine which can be used for wonderful purposes but which can also be abused. If the later happens, how can I possibly help them given I was unable to help myself? Where was the public discussion in academic philosophy of these pitfalls? It’s a kind of mass psychosis to ignore what philosophers have been saying for millennia: “This is a very powerful tool and medicine. Use it with care!”

Prior to the modern period, this double edged nature of philosophical reflection was commonplace. There was a suspicion that reflection could become lost in itself – this was used to motivate other forms of mental life such as faith, ancient skepticism, yoga and so on. Traces of this were still evident in Descartes, Hume and Rousseau. In the post-Kantian secular university, philosophy was packaged as “critical”, meaning as not metaphysical in a bad sense but as only good, ennobling thinking. The Milton point in a secular context had to be made more and more from outside the university, by the Marxists, positivists, existentialists. Ordinary language philosophy, logical positivism and pragmatism were attempts to make this double edged nature of philosophy point from within academia. But all were scuttled with the rise of mass education and proliferation of Phil depts after WWII. The last 75 years which in some ways was a golden age of academic philosophy is also akin to a time of mass and uncritical prescription of pain killers in the medical field.

lu chen
lu chen
Reply to  Serial Offender
26 days ago

addition is in the eye of the beholder. e.g., my partner’s passions become addictions whenever it subtracts from the time I want to spend with them. thus no “family addition”. 🙂

(jokes aside, I agree with you.)

Michael Ellery
26 days ago

I’m a clinical psychologist. Addiction has been my main area of teaching, research, and practice for more than twenty years. I’m also a student of philosophy.

If a philosopher were concerned about where to turn for help with an addiction, I’d be as happy to talk about options with them as I would with anyone who sought me out for such a conversation.

In my experience, it has been valuable to discuss personal and professional concerns when deciding what to do about problems. We do think better together.

Not every psychologist is a good fit for everyone for lots of reasons, including how acquainted they are with philosophy. My suggestion would be the same for anyone looking for help: suspend prejudice and ask lots of questions. I suspect a philosopher’s skill set would be particularly well-suited for such a task.

Bharath Vallabha
Reply to  Michael Ellery
25 days ago

The convergence of cognitive psychology and philosophy has been very fruitful in the last fifty years. Unfortunately, a similar convergence between clinical psychology and philosophy hasn’t been as prominent, though it seems to me equally important.

I have struggled in the times I saw a therapist, and I have tried several. It’s possible I didn’t engage in as helpful a way as I could. But usually what tripped me up was what I experienced as a kind of power struggle between myself and the therapist having to do with the idea of expertise. This goes to issue from the first commenter above about whether my use of “addiction” is misleading. If philosophy addiction is like addiction to gambling or sex, etc, does the philosophy part kind of drop out such that a general expert on addiction is the person who can help? I appreciate your being and making clear you are a student of philosophy. The people I talked to tended to ignore the fact that I seem to be addicted to philosophy – in fact, like most people, they seemed to find that hard to believe. I usually would end my interactions with them because it felt like I had to fit my experiences and thoughts – merged as they were with philosophy – into the language of a clinical psychology; that as the “patient” and as the person paying I had to do all the adjusting in describing the issue, and the therapist had to just exert their expertise (if there is a distinction between therapist and clinical psychology I am missing, please let me know).

A broader issue here has to be do with the relation of philosophy as therapy, which goes back to the origins of the subject, to therapy as a modern field of professional practice. There are certainly many things which philosophy as wisdom practices can’t capture and which are truly only addressed by a clinical specialist – no amount of reading Marcus Aurelius might help someone dealing with abuse or mental illness or addictions of various kinds, and to suggest otherwise does seem naive, like thinking praying will help cure bodily illness. I concede that. And yet, I have always felt there was in fact a distinctly philosophical element of my addiction – that the addiction is related to my understanding of the world and confusion about many concepts, and which philosophical clarification can help to address. I wasn’t seeking peace from my addiction so I can just become like other people who are untroubled by philosophy, but was seeking the peace of a deeper understanding of the very issues of philosophy. In my experience, this has seemed strange to both academic philosophers and professional therapists because it falls somewhere in between the two understood as modern specializations.

William Buysse
William Buysse
26 days ago

Snorting philosophy? What philosophy? The natural philosophy of Aristotle or the artificial and subtractive philosophy of Machiavelli?

Sam Duncan
Sam Duncan
25 days ago

I think this sort of obsession is common in a lot areas, but it seems to be encouraged and valorized in intellectual pursuits in a way that it isn’t elsewhere. I just listened to an incredibly good episode of the podcast “Know Your Enemy” where the poet Christian Wiman talks about how as a young poet he thought any artist worthy of the title must subordinate life to their art and that life’s main function was as fuel and material for art. (Obviously he no longer thinks that). Philosophy does this too, and it’s almost certainly a bad thing. Think about how much we romanticize and idealize philosophers we see as suffering and sacrificing a normal life for their work. The cult of Wittgenstein is a wonderful example of this.
Now I have an exceedingly low opinion of Wittgenstein, whose work I’ve always found to have the profundity of Gilbert Ryle and the clarity of Jacques Lacan. But take Kierkegaard whose work I very much admire. I don’t think he could have written “Concluding Unscientific Postscript,” “Fear and Trembling,” or “Either/Or” if he hadn’t subordinated his whole life to his work. But would I want to be Søren Kierkegaard? Absolutely not. Would I want my children to have a life like Kierkegaard’s even if that meant they’d create works on par or even greater than his? I’m horrified at the very thought. It would have been much better for Kierkegaard had he married Regine Olsen and became a pastor at some church in the country, and I’d rather my children become country pastors or high school teachers or even work some not too stressful and somewhat rewarding desk job in corporate America than take a path like his.
So should we valorize this obsession in the way we do? Would you want your kids to be Kierkegaard? Or Wittgenstein for that matter, even if you do respect his work more than me? And keep in mind it’s worse than it may initially appears. Even if you’re exceedingly clever it’s not a sure thing that you’ll write “Concluding Unscientific Postscript” or “Either/Or” if you sacrifice your life to philosophy. You may well trade your life away and what you get out of the deal is “On What Matters.”

Charles Pigden
Charles Pigden
25 days ago

Surely there is nothing remotely surprising or controversial about the idea that philosophy for some us can be rather like an addiction. Last year, on my somewhat belated promotion to full professor, I had to give an inaugural professorial lecture about my life and work Here are some excerpts: 

In October 1976 I went up to Cambridge (only the second person in my family to have gone to university, the first being my father who did a degree at Hull after he was demobbed).
 I had signed up to the Moral Sciences (as Philosophy is called at Cambridge) though I was not sure whether I would like it. (History was what I planned to fall back on if I did not.) By the end of my first term, about the time I turned twenty, I decided that I absolutely adored philosophy and that if I possibly could I wanted to spend the rest of my life thinking about philosophical questions. Well that life is not over but I am singularly blessed since I have managed to do this for the last forty-six years. Some philosophers speak pompously of philosophy as a *vocation*. But if I am honest I would have to say that for me it is much more like an *addiction*. I just love thinking about philosophical issues, developing arguments and counterarguments. Furthermore, because for any intellectual subject X there is a subdiscipline ‘The Philosophy of X’, in the words of Daniel Dennett, one of the great things about being a professional philosopher is that you can read almost any book you like and call it work. Philosophy is *the* interdisciplinary subject *par excellence*.  But being addicted to philosophy is not like being addicted to drugs or sex. It is more like an addiction to chess or an addiction to video games or an addiction to the violin. In becoming addicted you internalize a range of standards (such as what counts as a good move or a good argument or a well-played pizzicato ) and a set of aims, victory or the right kind of victory in the case of chess and video games, the perfect performance in the case of the violin and in the case of philosophy, victory (yes I admit it, I like to win) but more importantly TRUTH.

If you really love philosophy – or if you are really addicted to philosophy – then, a) you are going to admire clever arguments; b) you are going to feel bad if your own arguments don’t stack up; c) you are likely to loathe bad arguments and detest intellectual dishonesty in general; and d) you are likely to have a passionate desire to solve philosophical questions. The philosopher is likely to be what Russell jokingly defined a a pedant – someone who likes his statements to be true. And this is not because the philosopher has a pre-prepared bunch of statements on which ‘true’ is to be conferred like some sort of honorific. There is a way the world is and the true philosopher wants to confine him- or herself to statements that correspond to it. 

—————————
   
Can this lead to an unbalanced life? I guess so. After all, we have Dr Vallabha’s testimony. But there’s being unbalanced and there’s being unbalanced. *Some* degree of obsession is often a precondition for significant achievement in many areas, and I certainly don’t regret being as unbalanced and as idiosyncratically obsessed as perhaps some people have taken me to be. The real problem with the Dr Vallabha, I suggest, is not just that he was addicted to philosophy but that he confused his addiction with a vocation. If you have an addiction and know it’s an addiction, then it is sometimes possible to manage it successfully. (There are after all quite a lot of people who have a serious drug habit but manage to maintain reasonably successful lives for years on end.) But if you think that it is not just your personal preference but the voice of God (so to speak) that is telling you to take the next hit, to read the next article or to write the next paper, then your life might indeed spin out of control. I am not suggesting that philosophy isn’t intrinsically valuable or worthwhile. But I *am* suggesting that it is one of many worthwhile and valuable activities and avocations, and maybe not the best. There is no *obligation* to be a philosopher as opposed to something else. Once you recognise your passion for philosophy for what it is – a strong personal preference rather than a response to an objective demand – then it seems to me a lot easier to indulge your addiction without letting it destroy the rest of you life. The demon of irony isn’t always a demon – sometimes she is the good fairy that keeps you sane. 

Bharath Vallabha
Reply to  Charles Pigden
25 days ago

Thanks for a very interesting, thought provoking comment.

Your distinction between addiction and vocation is illuminating. It captures well what I felt I wasn’t able to do. I experienced, or felt I had to experience, philosophy entirely as a vocation – as a calling, like the universe was propelling me to do it. When this is romanticized, it can be powerfully attractive. But conceptualizing it this way also undermined my own sense of my agency – like I was carried along often even against my own ability to stop it.

I wonder if it is moral luck that you were able to hold onto a good sense of addiction and avoid the bad sense of addiction. That is how I experienced academia – that if one is able to make that distinction and falls prey to the vocation sense, then one has to sort that out on one’s own, and that academia is really for people who are grounded and sensible enough to see how to pursue it reasonably as just one worthwhile activity as opposed to others. But even now, this seems to me strange. Someone can be passionate about philosophy and good at it and devoted to it, and yet if they slide over into the vocation sense, then it’s their tough luck to figure it out how to get out of that maze? But is it really up to just each person to figure it out for themselves? When philosophy is introduced in classes not as one possible way of life, but as the activity of reason itself and a way for a person to live a self-critical life, how can that sense of universality be balanced with the supposed sense that it is just one way of life as opposed to another? What a bargain for the philosophy teacher for whom the path works: “I am going to introduce students to this mode of intellectual activity which can be super addictive and is often presented as a vocation in the broader culture and even in academia, but it is entirely on the student to not pursue it in an emotionally problematic way, even though we as a profession won’t talk about the problems.”

From one angle, I appreciate your comment as grounded and healthy, and a perspective I struggled to develop. But from another angle, I wonder if you are not romanticizing philosophy in a different way as a healthy addiction to pursuing Truth. Is it that you were able to find this healthy psychological relation to philosophy, or is it that the way professional philosophy functions just happened to line up with your personality more or less? The focus on truth makes it seem as if I struggled because I cared for something other than truth. But that doesn’t seem right. What I struggled with wasn’t pursuing truth, but the social, inter-personal dynamics involved in pursuing truth in a social context and that too which enables me to make it my source of income. One reason I feel better speaking up about this is because I finally am letting myself see that it wasn’t just my fault that I struggled socially in academia. The addiction was mine and mine alone, and I bear responsibility for that. But the causes of the addiction aren’t mine alone, but due to broader cultural forces as well.

Charles Pigden
Charles Pigden
Reply to  Bharath Vallabha
24 days ago

No I don’t think I’m romanticising – in fact the whole point is that I’m not. That was why I insisted in my inaugural lecture that for me philosophy is more like an addiction than a vocation. I was trying to avoid the romanticising self-importance that I find so distasteful in many philosophers (and indeed in humanities scholars in general). McIntyre says somewhere (I think in After Virtue) that when you develop passion for certain practices you tend to internalise certain values. But it is possible to commit to the values internal to some practice whilst retaining the conviction that they are values for you (and perhaps others like you) but not necessarily values for anyone else. You can be committed to the pursuit of truth without supposing that truth (or at any rate the truth about certain topics) is objectively valuable – it is just something that you happen to have a passion for. Indeed, you can be committed to the pursuit of philosophic truth whilst regarding this commitment as idiosyncratic and even a bit perverse. 

Here’s a parallel. When I went up to Cambridge 48 years ago, I guess that I was more or less consciously looking for a mate. I found the ‘right’ woman and we have been together now for 47 years.  But if fate had not blown her across my path there were probably quite few others at Cambridge who would have fitted my rough and ready bill (less likely elsewhere as I was really on the lookout for an intellectual). I can love her whilst being well aware that I might have ended up loving somebody else.  Moreover it turns out that I have a ‘type’. Every woman that I have met of whom I have thought ‘If I wasn’t married already, I could really go for you’ has had a rather specific set of characteristics (mental and physical). But I can have a yen for women of type X without supposing that women of type X are objectively more desirable than women of type W, Y or Z. In this area elsewhere, you can have strong evaluative preferences without supposing that the things – or in this case the people – that you desire are either objectively desirable or more desirable than anything or anyone else.  

You write ‘ When philosophy is introduced in classes not as one possible way of life, but as the activity of reason itself and a way for a person to live a self-critical life, how can that sense of universality be balanced with the supposed sense that it is just one way of life as opposed to another?’ I find the premise of this question rather surprising. Is philosophy really ‘introduced in classes not as one possible way of life, but as the activity of reason itself and [presumably the only or the best] way for a person to live a self-critical life?’ I would never think giving philosophy such a hard, dishonest, pretentious and imperialistic sell. My message to prospective students is always that there are a great many subjects at university that are well worth studying and that philosophy is just one many options that they may find interesting and fulfilling. They should find their intellectual passion whatever that happens to be, and follow that. If they prefer the digestive systems of worms or the mechanisms governing the growth and decay of stars or the novels of Jane Austen to philosophy, that’s fine by me, so long as I get a reasonable supply of students who are interested in the subject. As for pursuing philosophy as a career, I would never recommend that anyone should do this unless a) I thought that they have a serious talent for the subject and b) they would think that doing a PhD was worthwhile for them even if they ended up having to give up philosophy for something else. (Three of the best students that I have ever had ended up dropping out of philosophy, two with competed PhD’s and one without, though all of them have subsequently had successful careers.) 

I loathe and detest the late Richard Rorty but he was right about one thing. It is possible to be committed to something whilst being well aware that one’s commitments are contingent and not susceptible to a deep justification, and regarding those commitments with a certain degree of ironic detachment.  I suppose this is another way of saying that whether the demon of irony is a demon nor a good fairy, I have been under her spell for a very long time.  And this hasn’t led me to give up on my commitments.

Apologies to readers for the stars scattered though my earlier post. I did not realise that Justin’s system could do italics. 

Bharath Vallabha
Reply to  Charles Pigden
24 days ago

Thanks, I see better what you mean. I agree whole heartedly.

I think you are right, what I failed to develop is “the demon of irony”. I took philosophy too much at face value – or rather, I took my initial plunge into philosophy at 16 too much at face value, and it took me these 30 years to adopt the ironic stance. To see how the ironic stance doesn’t have to mean my caring less for philosophy, but caring in a different, and for me a healthier, way. This is part of what I mean by saying I was too emotionally embedded with philosophy – what the 16 year old me was using philosophy to numb, I found it hard to let go of that for a long time, and that struggle was inseparable for me from the philosophical debates. I often would look in wonder at colleagues for whom philosophy didn’t seem to be an existential crisis, and couldn’t decide if they or I were missing something. The nice things about the ironic stance is that question doesn’t have to be decided – there doesn’t have to be one way.

I like Rorty a lot, and yet it took me a while to see that beyond all his metaphysic bashing, the core of his view is what you are talking about. This comes out nicely in his Trotsky and Wild Orchids autobiographical essay. Rorty had come to philosophy as a teenager fixed on Plato and universal truths, and had assumed that was necessary for doing good in the world – and his path was a way to let go of his teenage fixation on philosophy while still pursuing it. Though what he got wrong was the continued assumption that his teenage type of fixation is what defines professional philosophy. He didn’t manage to develop an ironic stance to academic philosophy itself – that it could be many things, and one can do even metaphysics or study Descartes in many other ways than as boogeymen to be overcome.

While I disagree with Rorty that one has to leave academic philosophy if one is to be ironic about philosophy, I think he is right that academic philosophy’s self image and its branding is not that of the ironic stance. I could have developed the ironic stance earlier and better and that is on me. But one reason I didn’t is the ironic stance is easier to the extent one is comfortable with how things are. I do believe academic philosophy has yet to confront its racist foundations in Kant’s time. I do think so much teaching being done by adjuncts without job security is a disgrace. And like most, I also wanted a job and a good one when I was in academia. How does one do all this while being ironic? It’s not surprising Rorty was able to express this only after being tenured at Princeton. In academia the dread of falling out the good circles, or out of the profession altogether, creates a heightened anxiety which is contrary to the ironic stance. There needs to be more discussion of how to enable it on the ground in academic philosophy, in the midst of all the difficulties one might face. Each person has to find it for themselves, but without public discourse about it, only a very few lucky people will manage it on their own.

Charles Pigden
Charles Pigden
Reply to  Bharath Vallabha
22 days ago

‘I also wanted a job and a good one when I was in academia. How does one [pursue this] while being ironic?’ I am inclined to ask ‘What’s the problem?’ I too passionately wanted a job when I started out in academia and for some time it was touch and go. (I was less fussy about getting a ‘good’ one if that means a well-paid job at a top university near some metropolitan centre. An adequately paid job at a respectable university at the ends of the earth has been quite good enough for me.) I can remember the immense feeling of relief that I felt when I eventually got a permanent post and realised (at the age of 31) that the big gamble of my life had finally paid off. But this was because I wanted a career in philosophy and consequently thought that this would be by far the best life for me, not because I thought that such a career was morally imperative. Irony for me has always been compatible with passion and commitment. ‘How can one pursue a philosophical career whilst being ironic?’. This is like asking ‘How can one pursue a love affair whilst believing that that one’s love is not dictated by reason?’ There isn’t even a tension between these two things. 

There are two levels of irony that are clearly compatible with a commitment to philosophy. You can be a general evaluative sceptic, that is a moral antirealist of some kind or other. In that case you won’t think that Philosophy is deep down valuable because in some senses nothing is. Philosophy doesn’t really matter because nothing really matters (in the kind of way that Parfit insists that something must). But most moral antirealists accept, subscribe to, or make-believe some morality or other. Given your personal evaluative framework, you can think that philosophy has some value (along with many other activities) but that your commitment to it is still merely a personal preferenceNow my commitment philosophy is ironic in both these senses (level one and level two). I am an error-theorist, and have been one now for forty-six years. So in one sense I don’t think that Philosophy is intrinsically valuable since in my view nothing is intrinsically valuable. But it is not uniquely or supremely valuable in another sense. Given the moral framework that I make-believe, Philosophy is merely one good thing among many others. Thus my commitment to Philosophy is not dictated by my morality – there is no make-believe moral ‘must’ instructing me to be a philosopher – it just happens to be something that I really, really like. Perhaps for this reason, I lack the sense of entitlement that I sometimes come across on the Philosophy blogs. Since God or the categorical imperative did not tell me to be a Philosopher, I would not have been wronged if things had not panned out. The world did not owe me the chance to indulge my addiction to philosophy which is one reason why have felt obliged to ‘give back’ to the community for giving me that chance (mainly by trying to defend in New Zealand the social-democratic institutions that gave me and my family so many golden opportunities in my native UK). 

I just don’t think you are right when you claim that ‘philosophy’s self image and its branding is not that of the ironic stance. After all, despite the relatively recent revival of moral realism, a great many philosophers are evaluative anti-realists of one kind or another and that entails some variant of level-one irony.  But level-two irony is also pretty common. There are plenty of philosophers who think that a taste for philosophy is a bit peculiar and that are many other subjects that are at least equally valuable. To begin with there are all those philosophical autobiographies which treat a predilection for philosophy as an oddity that requires an explanation. Furthermore, a great many philosophers think that philosophy is adjacent to science, and those that do set a high value on the sciences to which their work is adjacent. The same is true of the many philosophers of some non-scientific X where X is a subject other than philosophy. Many of us teach into (and are deeply committed to) interdisciplinary programmes. I, for instance, am a pioneer of PPE at Otago. If had thought of Philosophy as more worthwhile than either Politics or Economics (and if I had given any hints of such an opinion), the PPE programme would not have been as successful as it subsequently became!  Moreover I would not have learned so much from my non-philosopher colleagues in ‘keystone’ co-taught course on Political Economy, perhaps the most valuable teaching experience of my career. Indeed I would say that I have spent my entire adult life amongst philosophers most of whom do not subscribe to the kind of philosophy-chauvinism that you seem to think of as de rigueur. 

Is ‘the ironic stance is easier to the extent one is comfortable with how things are’? No, irony is quite compatible with both satisfaction and dissatisfaction and no easier in the one case than the other. Every moral anti-realist is a level-one ironist and this view is obviously compatible with dissatisfaction with some aspects of Philosophy. (For example, you may think that philosophy is clogged with the odious self- deceptions of canting moral realists). But second-level irony is also quite compatible with a considerable degree of dissatisfaction. I have plenty of pet peeves about the philosophical scene, including the ongoing predilections for idealism and pragmatism (as opposed to fallibilistic scientific realism), the complacent anti-scientism (this, and not scientism, being the real threat to our civilisation), and the prevalence of what I call ‘coercive theories or criteria of meaning’ (as exemplified particularly by Wittgenstein) where you endeavour to score victories over you opponents by pretending that their sayings don’t make sense. Thus you can love Philosophy ironically (that is as a personal preference rather than as a calling) despite believing that many things in the philosophical garden are very far from lovely and that the vigorous use of shears, secateurs and even chain-saws. might be a good idea. 

Bharath Vallabha
Reply to  Charles Pigden
22 days ago

I agree one can be ironic and pursue a philosophy career and also change things that are bad, etc. It seems like you were able to see this from the beginning of your studies – if so, great, and good for you. I am expressing how it was hard for me to see it. What seems to be mere common sense for you is something I have had to struggle decades to achieve.

That could be because I am dumb on this point; this is possible as irony is not my natural perspective; it is something I had to struggle hard to develop even with personal relationships and with the universe more generally. Also when I got interested in philosophy, it became merged for me with dealing with issues of self-worth having to do with immigration and feeling not seen in America – and so I held onto philosophy with a desperation which is the opposite of irony. Moreover, the issues in academic philosophy around eurocentrism triggered a kind of fight or flight stance, where I often alternated in my time in academia between fighting the system or withdrawing from the system. I have come to value the ironic stance precisely because it enabled me to move beyond this false dichotomy.