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Lisa Miracchi

This is something I've been thinking a lot about lately. As an atheist, I don't have religion to provide this for me. I also really like thinking about who I am as a philosopher as part of who I am as a person. For me it's not so much that having other identities helps me achieve distance from being a professional philosopher. Instead, I think it helps me see more clearly what being a professional philosopher is and and should be.

Speaking of one's philosophical and personal lives being deeply connected, my work on virtue epistemology actually turned me into a virtue ethicist. I find that being a virtue ethicist helps a lot. Trying to keep an objective conception of human flourishing and human relationships in mind that is independent of the carrots and sticks of one's particular niche is very helpful. I am also a pretty serious yogi, and think that many of the teachings in yoga bear deep connections to virtue ethics. I would love to teach a course on this someday.

Robert Gressis

I don't know if this counts, but reading some of the literature on philosophical disagreement changed me a lot. (I came to the conclusion that one should either have a lot of epistemological humility about one's beliefs, or not hold philosophical beliefs at all, to the extent one can avoid holding them.)

First, it made me feel a lot less motivated to do any philosophy. I felt like I didn't have skin in the game anymore.

Second, it made it harder for me to get shocked by supposedly extreme positions in philosophy.

Third, it made expressions of moral or epistemic certainty very off-putting for me.

I don't think these changes are changes for the better, nor am I positive that they were the result of my reading the literature on philosophical disagreement, but that's where I am right now.

Brad Cokelet

Good questions!

As a non-theist, I have found reading and teaching Buddhist and Stoic texts helpful in part because this often involves trying out and talking about the various practices they recommend. I also recommend Schopenhauer's Counsels and Maxims.

There are books written by thought-provoking curmudgeons or humorists that I re-read to keep things in perspective. Some examples: The Closing of the American Mind (Bloom), The Culture of Narcissism (Lasch), Straight Man (Russo)

Oh, and a recent find: "The Ends of Life and the Ends of Philosophical Writing" by MacIntyre

Derek Bowman

For me the relevant identity has been my conception of myself as a philosopher (or, if you prefer, a student of philosophy). I came into college with an exuberant young atheist's certainty in the power of rationality and got smacked down early in my first ancient philosophy class for making fun of the metaphysics of the pre-Socratics without being able to explain what was wrong with their argument. (Thanks, Ed Halper!)

I'm still an atheist - and at times still exuberant - but learning how to take the arguments of others seriously, and being willing to look as critically at my own presuppositions as those of others, has always been at the core of what I thought made being a philosopher worthwhile. Over time I came to see more and more how much that depends on listening to and collaborating with others.

But ultimately that does require recognizing a distinction between 'philosopher' and 'professional philosopher' that was especially difficult to sustain during my first year on the job market.

(The foregoing account is also something of an exaggeration - I also have my identity as a member of my family, and with regard to other personal relationships that have been invaluable in keeping me grounded.)

Helen De Cruz

Hi Robert Gressis: It's interesting you mention this about the epistemic disagreement as I've heard this before - people who feel less secure in their beliefs because they have become convinced something like the uniqueness thesis is true. In general, I think social epistemology and empirically-informed naturalistic philosophy have been good influences in philosophy, making us more humble and more aware of other sources of knowledge that might play a constructive role in philosophical work.

Neil Levy

The well-known saying seems very apt on this occasion: in God we trust; everyone else must bring data.

It would be super-interest if some personal commitment or identify provided reflective distance that enabled people to overcome some of the pathologies philosophers seem prone to. But these commitments may do no more than provide an opportunity for confabulation and a different source of bias. It's a hypothesis worth investigating but my anecdotal evidence is that theists are neither better nor worse than non-theists. Certainly I think that's a reasonable interpretation of the data concerning theism in the general population; why should philosophers be different?


Hi Helen,

Thanks for this post. I just wanted to second your suggestion that what you say also applies to early career philosophers. I'm a PhD student in philosophy and I constantly feel under pressure to do everything I can to succeed (particularly on the job market). I'm constantly chasing the next conference paper or journal article. It's hard to fight the temptation to constantly compare myself to my peers: What stage are they at? How does their CV compare to mine? Am I more likely to land a coveted job? It's difficult to get a critical distance from the discipline when most of my friends are philosophers. Don't get me wrong, I enjoy philosophy and couldn't really imagine myself doing anything else. But I really wonder what kind of person I'm becoming in an effort to "succeed." Anyway, I'm glad I'm not the only one worried about this issue.

Helen De Cruz

Hi Neil: You are right that in the broader field, theists seem to be neither more or less ethical than non-theists (there are some studies suggesting theists give more charitably, but that incorporates donations to churches, which is misleading). This is also why I think that epistemic distance could be achieved in many other means (as in the example I provide, being a parent. Again, I don't think parents are better people - if anything, you need to invest in your children which might make altruism towards other less easily attainable).
Nevertheless, I think Rea's self-reflective view that his identity as a Christian is helpful (or should be helpful, it's interesting he draws this distinction) in achieving reflective distance toward the pernicious norms of our discipline, which mean putting yourself forward and being clever (often at the expense of others). So my empirical prediction would be that people who take most of their identity out of being a professional philosopher would be more vulnerable to regarding these norms as absolute without any sense of relativizing them.

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