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« Does Philosophy Suffer from a Conflict of Interest? | Main | Necessary and Sufficient Conditions »

02/09/2013

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Lisa

Marry a rich person. Rob a bank. Buy lottery tickets. Or find any other safe, life-long source of income. Then you might have the luxury to refuse to narrow down your range of interests until it is so ridiculously small that only a handful of people, worldwide, understands what you do. Then you are a world-leading expert.
On a more serious note: as I see it, the way in which the academic circus works at the moment does not offer many possibilities if you want to work on many topics. Some countries seem to be a bit better than others. Or you might find a teaching job in which you can venture into some variety of areas. But what we call "research" is so fragmented that it is almost impossible to even know *that* there is something interesting (and potentially relevant for your own research?) going on somewhere else in the discipline, let alone understand it, or read about it.
The only tip I have: have lots of friends who work in very different areas (of philosophy, of academia, of the world…). Have a beer and chat about things. When you have secured a tenured position by being a great expert on a tiny research area, you might have the opportunity of doing something together (oh, and, the term for it seems to be "intersubdisciplinarity")…

Mark Alfano

Marrying up certainly can be helpful. But even if, like me, you marry horizontally (in terms of social class and height, not morality, intelligence, or beauty -- lucky me), I think there's a more tempered version of of Eric's point that is consistent with the sellarsian characterization of philosophy. One can pursue "world-beating" excellence in one or two areas while having lots of curious conversations with others (including other philosophers, scientists, journalists, novelists, what have you). One of the really unfortunate things about the way we are often trained is that we are taught not to admit ignorance -- or only to do so in a way that denigrates the thing we are ignorant of. But if you can muster a little intellectual humility, you can get more than a dilletante's knowledge of a field, though less than an expert's.

A more extreme version of this is to coauthor papers with people in other fields. It's brain busting, but I at least have found that co authoring produces better results than either coauthor could have produced alone, and functions as a kind of mini grad seminar for me.

David Morrow

Lisa: I don't know whether you intended it this way -- it can be so hard to judge tone in cyberspace! -- but the suggestion to get a "teaching job" came across as somewhat dismissive. And many of us are trained or enculturated to see teaching jobs as a "second best" option. A teaching job is what you get, we're led to believe, if either (a) you're not good enough to get a "real" job or (b) you just really love teaching and don't care as much about "doing philosophy." But if you think of "doing philosophy" as figuring out how things hang together, then a non-research job might be the best option for really doing philosophy. Just to be clear, I'm not saying that the Sellarsian view is the only plausible one or that people who want to be experts are doing something wrong or misguided. I'm just saying that I think there's alternative view of one's philosophical career that isn't focused on either narrow expertise or "mere" teaching.

Mark: Suppose you accumulate snapshots of your friends' research in a wide range of areas. Even if they are very good snapshots, that strikes me as a far cry from seeing how things hang together. It gives you a collection of things, but not an understanding of how they relate. And if understanding how these things fit together is hard work, as I think it is, it would be very hard to do that in one's spare time.

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