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« Songs, art & poetry on philosophical issues | Main | Mid-career reflections - part 8: on fear in the discipline »

08/02/2018

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Michel

I'm in aesthetics and a couple core subfields. The aesthetics community is absolutely fantastic, and I wouldn't trade it for any other philosophical community. We have two major journals (and several minor ones), one annual and thee divisional meetings a year (plus four more yearly international conferences), the ASA subsidizes graduate student travel to its conferences, sponsors a wide range of outreach and professional development initiatives, funds a PhD studentship and a postdoc, and runs a graduate journal and a newsletter. You couldn't ask for a more supportive professional organization, or a friendlier (and less hierarchical) set of colleagues.

This presents a sharp contrast to my other major AOSes, which are rather lacking in subfield infrastructure (especially non-exclusive infrastructure). Some of it is there, but it's all woefully underdeveloped. I suspect that being thought of as "core" subfields has actually harmed them in this respect, by making the needs for that kind of infrastructure less obvious.

I would absolutely choose aesthetics again, despite the horrific job crunch. And the reason is simple: I love the work, and my professional experience has been incredibly positive as a result of my involvement in the aesthetics community. And if I have to leave academia in the end, I'd rather leave it on those terms.

That said, I'm much more ambivalent about my other AOSes. Not because of their content--I'm constantly delighted by the thought of applying their insights to problems in aesthetics, or vice-versa--but largely because I don't feel like part of the community in the same way, and they're not exactly job winners either. I think that if I were starting over, I'd probably trade them for philosophy of science. Partly because it's got better growth prospects as a subfield, but also because it's got a more tightly-knit professional community. Plus, it ports nicely into the aesthetic domain (and, of course, I'm interested in it).

Mr. Hundun

With all due respect, the extent that careerist considerations and other trifles play in academic philosophy render the whole thing a sham. And not even an interesting or worthwhile sham. Philosophers have played an important role culturally when one takes the long historical view. But contemporary academic philosophers are seldom playing that same role, nor do they appear fit to. (For instance, one would have to be on crack if they think Steven Pinker or Rebecca Goldstein are playing the same role as a Socrates or a Marx. These contemporaries are ego-driven careerists, plain and simple. Fortunately, however, successful careerists are quickly forgotten when one takes the long historical view.)

Amanda

You have to care about your career if you want to do philosophy. If someone has a variety of philosophical interests, there is nothing wrong or impure with choosing what is number 3 on your favorite list instead of what is number 1. Especially if choosing number 1 meant leaving the profession. Because, well, then you wouldn't do number one either. Unless, of course, you were independently wealthy.

Marcus I would say what happened with you and your wife is you (and she) worked on acquiring the virtues of cooperativeness and humility :) Probably a few others as well.

Mr. Hundun

On the contrary, the second you start allowing careerist considerations trump philosophical considerations is the second you stop doing philosophy. Historically philosophers had non-academic careers when the academe was not conducive to philosophical inquiry. Spinoza was a lens grinder, Socrates was a stone mason, Hume was a man of letters, Leibniz was a diplomat, Diogenes was a tramp, Kant didn't move about in search of a post but patiently waited in Konigsberg for a post, Wittgenstein left Cambridge to teach math to schoolchildren, Russell lost his post for his pacifism and was refused another post due to his atheism, etc. Locke was appropriately an Oxford philosopher, as Oxford remains one of the few places conducive to philosophical inquiry, unlike the "career training programs" abundant in the US. I have no problem with the bizarre careerist rituals you all obsess over, as it seems like any other pointless career a present-day person can partake in, but don't be so pretentious as to call it philosophy.

Marcus Arvan

Mr. Hundun: I actually agree that one needn’t be in the profession to do philosophy, and that historically many (though by no means all) great works in philosophy were done by outsiders. However, you are not welcome to insult people or their work on this blog.

I, for one, sincerely believe I do real philosophy. I have spent the better part of my life doing it because I love it, and have put more time and more of my soul into my work than you will ever know. And I suspect there are others here who feel the same way about their work.

So, with regard to your caveat “with all due respect”, I have to say that it is no sign of respect on your part to assert or imply (without argument!) that we are all a bunch of unimportant careerists. As blog owner and moderator, my judgment is that your rhetoric is way out of line with this blog’s mission, and I will not approve further comments do things like assert that what people like I do is pretentious, or a sham, or whatever.

Marcus Arvan

And, for what it is worth, I could also rattle off dozens of great philosophers—including Kant, for one—who were university professors. So, just as there have been many who did real philosophy outside of the academy, so too have many of them done great work in the academy. That said, I ask that the discussion in this thread return to the topic of the OP.

Mr. Hundun

I think I've been misunderstood, as this is the original topic. I don't mean to be offensive, but I think people share my concerns, so perhaps I'll try to be clearer. Choosing one's AOS based on where there are jobs is indicative of one's motives. And constantly obsessing over the philosophical profession rather than philosophy is indicative of one's motives. If you're more concerned with where there are jobs in choosing your AOS, then you should take a good look in the mirror. If you sincerely care about an AOS, then study it yet accept the job market rewards careerists who had non-philosophical motives in shaping their philosophical direction. If you're willing to change you're AOS for a better chance at a job, then you're potentially taking a job from somebody with sincere interests.

Since this isn't as obvious to people in academic philosophy as it is to people outside, I'll offer a parallel: In music, musicians are quickly deemed sellouts if they compromise their music to sell records. And they are deemed showmen if they aim to do things to wow the crowd rather than for artistic considerations. Calling showmen and sellouts musicians is offensive to less compromised musicians. Yet approbation has nevertheless won out, making popular music what it is today. Approbation has ruined popular music. Why should we pretend it isn't ruining philosophy?

The claim isn't that there aren't proper philosophers in academic philosophy. My claim is also not that academics don't think they're doing philosophy.The claim is more along the lines that a philosopher in academic philosophy is becoming as rare as a musician in popular music, and for very similar reasons: non-philosophical concerns are driving people.

And Kant didn't shape his life around professional philosophy. He only got a post later in life rather than earlier because of his refusal to move for a job. And he spent fifteen years on one book rather than churning out articles. He was plainly not an academic in the contemporary sense of the word.

Mr. Hundun

Marcus: I apologize about the previous comments. They were from a place of bitterness and other ugly emotions. I am one of the unfortunate many in the field, and this is not the way I want to cope with it. I retract the content of my posts, but they should stand as a cautionary tale of what can become of a well-intended person being crushed by more stress than I can handle.

You are a good person and a good philosopher.

My sincerest apologizes.

Best,
An old friend

Marcus Arvan

Mr. Hundun: Thank you for the kind words, and for the sincere apology. I happily accept it.

There almost certainly people out there who are careerists--people more interested in professional rewards than philosophical truth or wisdom. As someone who values artistic, philosophical, and personal integrity, I am happy to agree that there is something distasteful about that (though others may disagree).

That being said, I want to push back against your music analogy, and against the idea that there is anything distasteful or problematic about caring about the thing (philosophy or music) both for its own sake and for the instrumental aim of making a decent living.

I spent over a decade of my life playing music semi-professionally (releasing original music through professional labels, some limited touring, etc.). I also have a brother and uncle who dedicated their lives to music and spent their lives struggling in the music industry. Having had these experiences, I have always been very skeptical about--and usually found distasteful--pronouncements about who is a "sellout." I've seen fellow musicians throw that label around, and frankly I've mostly (though not always) found something petty about it.

First, I've often seen the term applied to an artist not because of any appreciable change in their artistic style, but simply because they gained sudden popularity. In these cases, when fans or fellow musicians call a band a "sellout" just because of sudden popularity, I cannot help but feel that the deeper motive is often something like jealousy or a sense of possession (viz. "I knew them before they were cool").

Second, having seen people spend their lives struggling in the music business, even in those cases where an artist does change their style a bit to appeal to mainstream audiences (e.g. to make a living), I still find there something distasteful about calling the person a "sellout." As long as they are still writing their own music, and as long as it still seems to me to represent the artist's own sense about what is artistically cool (even if more accessible), then if they change a little bit and become more popular so that they can actually make a living by their craft, they I will not consider them a "sellout." On the contrary, my sincere thought is more like, "Good for them. I'm glad they've finally gained some of the recognition they've been long due." Having personally known artists who have gone this route--artists who spent many years or decades suffering in obscurity only to finally enjoy some recognition--my sincere belief is that there is something cold and petty about calling them a "sell out." Happiness is devilishly hard to come by in this world. I would like to see more people enjoy it, particular people who have suffered many long years for a craft they love. And if a little bit of happiness requires a *little* compromise, then I say: fine, good for them.

A wonderful example from film here is the movie Crazy Heart (starring Jeff Bridges). In that film, the protagonist is "the real deal": a country artist who tours relentlessly in his small pickup truck, suffering for his craft while less talented artists (including his former protege) enjoy vast fame and success. At the end of the film, he finally gets sober and compromises: he chooses to become a songwriter for others, penning a song for his former protege (who then of course goes on to become famous for it). Was this a compromise, giving up the road for a paycheck? *Absolutely*. But the feeling the viewer is supposed to have at the end of the film (or, at any rate, the feeling I had) is: GOOD FOR HIM. He deserves it.

I also don't think compromising has "ruined popular music." I think there is a lot of good music out there, some of which I have shared on this blog. What I do think leads to bad popular music is what always has: music that has *no* artistic integrity or creativity at all. But that is a different issue. The issue there isn't compromising a little. It's giving up any real interest in making beautiful, cool, and original music, and just aiming to make whatever tune--however flavorless--just to make a buck. But I don't think that describes most philosophers I know. It may describe some--who just want to be famous--but just about all of the philosophers I know want to make a living doing philosophy in a way they find reasonably authentic and care about. In which case, once again I say: GOOD FOR THEM.

Finally, while I could be wrong about this, I'm not sure you're historically right on Kant. According to this biography (https://www.biography.com/people/immanuel-kant-9360144 ), Kant was a student at Konigsberg, then took a brief break away from university after his father died, and then spent the next decade or so as a tutor and university lecturer. During that time--long before he composed the famous works we study today--he became a well-known and popular scholar who enjoyed public recognition for works such as 'General Natural History and Theory of the Celestial Bodies; or, an Attempt to Account for the Constitutional and Mechanical Origin of the Universe, upon Newtonian Principles', 'General History of Nature and Theory of the Heavens', 'Attempt to Introduce the Concept of Negative Magnitudes into Philosophy'--works that are now largely forgotten.

Evidently, then, Kant took his career in academia very seriously--both as an instructor and scholar. Long before he published his groundbreaking work later in life, he published manuscript after manuscript on more academically popular things. It was only much later that he took his famed 15 year step away, during which he began composing the Critique of Pure Reason--which, naturally, was far more poorly received at the time than the earlier work that is now largely forgotten. Kant, in other words, didn't fall on his sword. He made a career for himself in academia from Day 1, and found a way to do groundbreaking, authentic work regardless.

These disagreements aside, I thank you again for your kind words and apology, and for continuing the conversation in a better manner!

Amanda

"the second you start allowing careerist considerations trump philosophical considerations is the second you stop doing philosophy"

I really either don't understand this, or if I do understand it, then it seems obviously false. Suppose I like both philosophy of science and metaphysics. However, I like metaphysics more. In spite of liking metaphysics more, I decide to do philosophy of science for careerist reasons. Is this "allowing careerist considerations to trump philosophical ones"? Part of me says no...because liking metaphysics isn't itself a philosophical consideration, but a preference. At least I think. But then I am not sure what would count as allowing philosophical considerations to be overtaken by career reasons. If this is an example of "no longer doing philosophy", then I really do not see the justification. Why would the fact that I like metaphysics more than philosophy of science mean I am not really doing philosophy of science? What rule says "real"philosophy is only your absolutely favorite philosophical topic?

Mr. Hundun

Marcus: Perhaps you're right, or at least it is clearer to me where you, and possibly others, are coming from. Petty of not, my heroes are the Thelonius Monks of the world who don't compromise at all, but he was also of course quite miserable and unstable. Perhaps it is petty to hold others to this standard, but the concern (my driving fear, if you will) is that those who do hold themselves to this almost heroic standard are going to lose out to those who are willing to compromise (or, less pejoratively, adapt). This is of course a fear, and not much more than a fear.

But I think I am now more willing to accept that integrity comes in degrees. Perhaps I've been holding people to an unreasonably high standard. (I.e. either you're a Thelonious Monk or you're a fraud is perhaps unfair.) Though I still think there is something honorable about such people.

"Sell out" perhaps wasn't the right word, and I agree that people tend to use it because a band is fortunate enough to sell records. My concern is more of losing one's integrity in order to sell records. But in any event, it is conceivable that musicians can make concessions while maintaining their integrity. And it is the case that philosophers can (and do) likewise make concessions while maintaining their integrity. My unfortunate experience in the field is that *a lot* of academic philosophers make too many concessions, hence my ugly knee-jerk reaction to this thread.

Be that as it may, you've given me much to think about. I still fear that these heroic people seldom make it because more adaptable people tend to win out. Though my fear persists, I'm not as cocksure as I was that the fear is well-founded.

Mr. Hundun

Amanda: "In spite of liking metaphysics more, I decide to do philosophy of science for careerist reasons. Is this "allowing careerist considerations to trump philosophical ones"?"

The job market is dreadful, and the fear is that somebody whose passion is (say) philosophy of science could've had your job, but since you shifted focus you now have that job. Do you not think that, removing self-interested considerations, that the field would be better off if people following their interests got jobs, rather than (say) those who chose their topic because they wanted a better chance at a job?

If you don't share that intuition, that is one thing. But your job could've been one of several unemployed philosophers. Of these unemployed philosophers, it breaks my heart to think that philosophy of science was one of their true callings, their "first choice" (as it were), but that somebody who made a career choice got the job. Again, I really don't mean to be offensive, and maybe you don't think it is unfortunate for such a person to lose out on a job. But if you sincerely don't understand why this would upset somebody, then I'm afraid the conversation is fruitless.

Mr. Hundun

(But I do think that one should yield jobs to the most passionate. I think that that is collectively the best outcome. And I do not see that this is obviously false. Imagine a world in which those who made career choices get the jobs, rather than those following a calling. Is the former world not darker than the latter. Sure our current world is more akin to the former, but wouldn't the latter be a better world? If the world is to be more like the latter, then isn't it up to us to make it that way?

But it is clear that I'm appealing to an intuition that is not only not shared, but is obviously false to others. That is an interesting outcome, and I accept that. I may, after all, be wrong. And I may, after all, be crazy.)

Mr. Hundun

(A mathematician could hate a certain set of problems, yet still engage with these problems, and still be said to be doing maths. Or a computer that is entirely indifferent could likewise solve the problems. If philosophy were a field of progress, where philosophers solve definite problems vis-a-vis definite criteria, then it wouldn't matter who or what solves philosophical problems. But philosophy, when it is culturally relevant, tends not to conceive itself as such a discipline. For instance, if Spinoza was concerned with well-being because it could've landed him a job, then that would undercut the Ethics. So much so that it would be meaningful to say he wasn't doing philosophy. The same goes for Socrates. The thing that made their activities philosophy was the process. And the 17th-18th century genre of the essay (e.g. Locke's Essay) was a self-described exploratory genre. If the essay writer engaged in writing for career advancement, that would seriously undercut the driving motivations (i.e. purpose) of the genre. Perhaps you think philosophy is more akin to mathematics? In that case, with all due respect, I fear I retracted the charge of pretentiousness prematurely, though for different reasons.)

Mr. Hundun

(I do think that if Socrates was a computer or in some other way less passionate, that that would be unfortunate. I also do not think he would've been celebrated in the Hellenic world if not for his Thelonious Monk level authenticity. And I do believe that any philosopher getting employment over a more passionate philosopher would be unfortunate for the same reason. When the elements that made the activity worth celebrating are removed, then I think there is a non-trivial sense in which the activity is dead. But it is clear we have different conceptions of what philosophy is, has been, and should be. These issues definitely go beyond the scope of the original topic, so I politely walk away. And I apologize again for any snarkiness that has crept in, but that is my unfortunate mental state these days, and I am trying desperately to correct it..)

Mr. Hundun

Marcus: I promise I'll never disrupt your blog again, though that honestly wasn't my intention, but I have a very important point that is seldom discussed anywhere: namely, if you are American and have mental health issues do not go into academia. I repeat: IF YOU ARE AN AMERICAN WITH MENTAL HEALTH ISSUES *DO NOT* GO INTO ACADEMIA! You will likely never get a job with health insurance, and will thus lose access to your medication. Losing access to your medication can make you incomprehensible and profoundly frustrated. Even if you're highly functional when medicated, publishing meaningful contributions to the field, when the day comes that you lose access to medication, you simultaneously lose your ability to think clearly. Thinking clearly is important, and when that ability is lost, so is any chance you had not only at being an academic philosopher, but also the ability to communicate with your former friends in a productive way. You then become alienated, alone, and miserable.

Amanda

"Do you not think that, removing self-interested considerations, that the field would be better off if people following their interests got jobs, rather than (say) those who chose their topic because they wanted a better chance at a job?"

First off, my example was a hypothetical. It is not actually what happened with me. But anyway, I would say that maybe *all other things considered equal* it is better for the more passionate person to get the job. But all other things are not equal. Also, you say"chose their topic because they want a better chance of a job..." But this is not the whole story. "They" (in my example) did not chose the topic only because they wanted a job. They also chose it because they were passionate about the topic, loved philosophy, AND because it was a good career choice.

Anyway, here are some other considerations that might make it "better" for the less passionate person to get the job:

1. The less passionate person is better at it, has more interesting ideas, has more talent at getting at the truth.
2.The less passionate person is a better teacher.
3. The less passionate person is a nicer person and a better colleague.

I could go on. But the point is I disagree with you that passion is the most important aspect of philosophy. I think philosophy is about various things, such as getting at the truth, the ability to think creatively etc. and these might not always coincide with the most passion. In any case, there are plenty of legendary philosophers who took careerist considerations into account. Aristotle tutored rich kid Alexander the Great because it was a good career opportunity.


Amanda

Okay another response re mental illness post. I disagree. I have a mental illness (arguably brought on by a physical illness) that consumes every facet of my life. I cannot function without medication. I also have a career in philosophy, and I am glad I do. Would I do it again...I'm not sure. But I do not think the fact that I do not have my absolute first career choice means I have a bad career choice. I think I have a great career and made a great choice.

I agree there are many parts of the profession that are harmful for many types of mental illnesses. Yet there is no perfect profession, and it is not clear that the total number of issues a mentally ill person will face in philosophy is any worse than outside of philosophy/academia. I have great insurance. And I had great insurance when I was an adjunct and a grad student. Admittedly, there were brief periods where insurance was an issue, and that was incredibly frustrating and cost me a lot of time, money, and peace. But the truth is mental health coverage in the US is not good, almost anywhere. So I am not sure why you would think leaving academia is the solution to having good insurance that offers mental health coverage.

All this said Hundun, I recognize I was incredibly fortunate in a variety of ways, many of them having nothing to do with my skills and abilities or anything that I could attribute to myself. I know other people are suffering in academia, and I do not think that is okay. So my advice to those who have given academia their best shot and yet still consider suffering, is to not be taken down by the sunk-cost fallacy or the belief that leaving academia is not an option or makes you not a philosopher. There are great jobs, great philosophers, outside of academia. Will finding a career outside of academia be easy? Likely not. However, staying in the field isn't easy either, is it?

Amanda

One last response: "You then become alienated, alone, and miserable." If you feel this way, I am sincerely sorry. I often feel this way. But again, I do not think this is a function of being an academic, but a variety of other things that can happen in any profession.

Marcus Arvan

Mr. Hundun: I am very sorry to hear that you feel alienated, isolated, and miserable. As I have explained on this blog before, I went through many very dark years myself. While I have some substantive thoughts in response to your last few posts, I’m more fundamentally concerned with your well being. It is of course not my place to pry, but if you are in a bad place please reach out to someone for help. Wishing you well. You are not alone.

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