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09/16/2012

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Trevor Hedberg

David, you raise an important question but one that is (as you suggest) perhaps difficult to answer. Of the 6 possibilities you mention above, I would probably eliminate (3), (5), and (6). I think it's definitely possible to have a successful and enjoyable philosophical career at a department that isn't "well-regarded" (however this standard is defined). I rule out (5) because while it seems essential to having philosophical success, it is nowhere near sufficient; I think it sets the bar too low. By contract, I think (6) sets the bar for philosophical success too high. I'm not sure that even the greatest philosophers in history could say they genuinely solved very many of the philosophical problems they tackled. Their writings were, however, often exemplars of (1) and, since they have endured over time, clear exemplars of (2).

So I suspect that a successful career in philosophy probably involves some combination of (1), (2), and (4). It seems plausible that a great strength in one of these areas could make up for shortcomings in the others. If you were, for instance, an excellent teacher but not a great or influential philosophical writer, that might be sufficient for having a successful career in philosophy. Similarly, if you were a prolific writer who wrote high-quality work, but this work didn't influence the profession significantly, and your teaching was mediocre, perhaps you could still claim to have had a successful philosophical career.

Kyle Whyte

These are really interesting points. Having been in the field (post graduation) for three years, I've really begun to appreciate what it takes for a philosopher to start with whatever the job market threw at him or her, and, from that starting point, work toward finding the best situation for what he or she truly enjoys doing in philosophy. I respect people who have been able to gravitate toward jobs where the teaching situation was more to their liking because that's why they got into philosophy. It's unfortunate that this route is often times disparaged in some settings where research-research-research is the only thing that appears to be valued. I also respect people who have navigated toward jobs that support their research better, even if those jobs don't have doctoral programs, but are excellent, research oriented jobs with undergraduate or masters programs. These are only examples, and location and family are also factors that I respect people for figuring out how to juggle given how difficult the job market is. I wish we had more discussions about how different people have navigated and negotiated their starting positions and found jobs that are truly enjoyable for what they really want to do. Given how hard it is to find jobs in the field, there should be more emphasis and respect granted to what I'm describing. In my case, I would like to add one goal about a successful career in philosophy that I hold very dear but I don't think is discussed very much. I think that a successful career in philosophy involves the impact one has on one's own non-philosophical community (defined as whatever one sees one's community as being). This would be no different from how we define success in other areas, where we look at what impact someone in a profession had on the stakeholders of one's work, teaching or other efforts. Then we might find out later that that person is also considered a success or failure in the narrower discipline to which his or her profession belongs. I think there are plenty of philosophers out there who see one criterion of success as having this kind of impact. Finally, in terms of the discussion above, I think that any measure of success really and soberly has to take into consideration how hard it is to actually plan one's career around having certain kind of successes. That is, it's very hard to figure out how to plan a research program that will make one immediately famous. After the fact, people might explain why they were immensely successful, but these explanations are completely unsatisfactory, in some cases, for younger philosophers planning their careers. That's why you get examples of young philosophers, say, who start publishing lots of extreme criticisms of dominant positions in their area, because they perceive that "going against the grain" to be what made some people great. But that strategy sometimes is a terrible way to get one's career going, and often, when one does that, one loses the goal of striving for "truth" and quality research.

Marcus Arvan

Kyle: great, great post (and very thoughtful comment as well). Alas, I think I'm inclined to give the undergraduate/relativist/Big Lebowski answer: that it's just, like, a matter of opinion man. ;) I guess I think "success" or ambition in philosophy is all in the eye of the beholder. Although I personally think that people who tend to place a priority on being *seen* as good philosophers tend to be rather bad people (and, all too often, bad philosophers!), there's probably little than can be said to these people to get them to stop talking about how awesome their department is or how awesome it is that they just got published in Awesome Journal. ;)

My own feeling is that it's probably best to approach the issue *philosophically*, as you do. What's *important*, at the end of the day? Here's my answer: (1) being a good person and being good to friends and family, (2) doing research that you think is pretty cool, and which develops you as a philosopher, and (3) being a good teacher that makes a difference with students. Am I being too idealistic? I don't think so. I just think people tend to get hung up on other, less worthy things: such as being *considered* the awesomest philosopher around, friends, family, and students be damned. So maybe I guess I don't think it's just, like, a matter of opinion after all! ;) Seriously though, great post.

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