This may sound melodramatic and/or portentous at first, but sometimes I feel like a ghost of a person, and I wonder how many other people there are in the discipline who have a similar feeling. Let me explain what I mean, and why I thought it might be worth writing on and discussing.
I was watching the film Zero Dark Thirty on TV this weekend, and was struck by a particular scene where the main character is asked by the CIA Director what else she had been working on the past decade besides attempting to track down Osama bin Laden. Her response, delivered flatly and without hesitation is: "Nothing. I've done nothing else." It struck me that something similar--though a bit less extreme for sure--has been true in my case. When I was a graduate student in Arizona, I had a lot of friends and hobbies. Among other things, I played, recorded, and produced music semi-professionally, I read novels, and had a good social life. Then I graduated, hit the job market, and moved to different temporary jobs (UBC and Tampa) twice. And from that time (6+ years ago) until now? It occurred to me: I have literally done nothing else than try my darnedness to get a tenure-track position. Aside from listening to iTunes, I have no hobbies. I have no close friends. I have literally ate, drank, lived, and slept philosophy (and sometimes, not even slept!). Were it not for my wife, who gives my life love, some liveliness, and grounding (our friends are her friends), and my dog, who never fails to put a smile on my face, I would pretty much have one thing, and one thing only: philosophy.
In some respects, this ain't so bad. I love philosophy. I've never loved doing it as much I do today--and for that I feel very lucky (particularly given that I've pretty much always loved it, some times in grad school aside when I was too frustrated to do so). I wake up in the morning just itching to write, it feels amazing when I feel like I have a flash of insight--and a great day in the classroom feels incredibly rewarding. And yet, for all that, I wonder sometimes if this is how it should be--if the way in which professional incentives today can (and do) lead people to focus on academic philosophy above just about all else, we not only compromise ourselves as persons but also as philosophers. Let me explain why.
As longtime readers may know, one hobby that I still do have--though I don't get to do it as much as I would like--is reading biographies of interesting people, often academics. Last year, for instance, I read several biographies on Einstein, one on Darwin, one on Newton, and one on Wittgenstein. One of the most interesting things I found in a lot of these biographies were how deeply ordinary human life inspired these people. Einstein evidently came up with relativity in part because of (A) his work evaluating mechanical patents in the Swiss patent office (which required him to think through concrete mechanisms rather than abstract equations), and (B) his daily commute to work past a large clock-tower, which got him to apply the equations he was working on to the concrete operations of a clock--which got him to conclude that space-time are one and relative to reference-frames. Similarly, Darwin hit on evolution primarily through collecting data from traveling the world. And Wittgenstein, even more interestingly (to me, at any rate), apparently came up with some of the ideas of the Philosophical Investigations--his claims about meaning as use, and clever examples of how one might teach someone the use of a word in language--thanks to his time working with young children as a primary school teacher.
Although I'm no Einstein, Darwin, or Wittgenstein (by any means!), it occurred to me that a lot of what I take to be my best philosophical ideas came from ordinary life as well. For instance, the ideas that inspired my paper "A New Theory of Free Will" came from two sources: recording music and playing online videogames (both of which I did too much of in grad school:/). The idea that time's passage and consciousness might be external "readers" of 2-dimensional information came to me one day while I was recording music on Pro Tools. There I was, watching the computer process the wave-form (i.e. music) in front of me--watching the little timeline indicator pass over the wave--and I thought to myself: "Maybe that's what consciousness is like--an external reader passing over two-dimensional information, giving rise to the "music" of phenomenal consciousness and the passage of time." Similarly, the notion that a P2P simulation might explain quantum phenomena occurred to me because, when playing online videogames, it often seemed like there wasn't a determinate place where anything in the simulation is--thanks to each person in their own living room having their own computer's representation. Funnily enough, if I hadn't "wasted" so much time playing videogames, I probably never would have had that idea. Sometimes, evidently, screwing around isn't actually screwing around. If philosophy is about the real world, what's better to inspire philosophy than...random, unexpected, things about the real world--things you might never think of while reading journal articles?
Which makes me wonder. Do we perhaps shoot ourselves in the foot--both as full-blooded people and as scientific/philosophical investigators--in the way that professional academia incentivizes a kind of single-minded focus on academic ideas and achievement? I seem to recall hearing a while back that play is super important in childhood development--that it's important to let children play around, rather than focus their lives so intently on academic learning, precisely so that they can develop a wealth of experiences to draw on to think creatively (and passionately!) for themselves. Should we perhaps be more sensitive to a similar issue in an academic context? Should we take greater care to ensure that we not become "ghosts of people"? Should we reflect more deeply on the ways that current-day pressures to publish early and often--rather than playing around with crazy ideas in grad school and beyond--might lead to problematic unintended consequences, both personally and philosophically? When I reflect on the works in philosophy that have moved me the most recently--L.A. Paul's work on transformative experience immediately springs to mind--it tends to be work inspired by real life things outside of philosophy. I leave it to you to reflect on. :)