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It's a really big problem. Many of us get into philosophy because we had an undergraduate course we loved. Often we loved the course because it seemed to focus on important issues like what it means to live a good life or to be a good person. Yet once we enter graduate school, we soon realize professional philosophy is nothing like that. Indeed, those who suggest philosophy is about 'living a good life' are openly mocked.

It is so sad professional philosophy is an endless race to improve one's reputation. It also creates a bunch of very unhappy philosophers: we are never done and have never achieved enough. All of this is especially problematic for those who believe they ought to lead a life that pleases God rather than people.

recent grad

I'm not religious, but I feel the force of this consideration in the way illustrated by Sigh's first paragraph. The rat race of professional philosophy has me wanting to bail first chance I get. So much of professional philosophy seems so insignificant. Add to that insignificance the pressure to be the best at insignificant stuff? No, thanks. The only thing that gives me some professional hope--and some desire to stay--is the prospect of public philosophy. Not only is it important to relay to the public what we do--especially if we work at tax-funded schools--but having public philosophy in our lives would put more pressure on us to work on things that matter.

Don't sigh

With all due respect, I think you have to realize that people are not paid $50,000+/year to be good people or to think about how to live a good life. That would be a truly luxurious job if it existed. Indeed, throughout the history of philosophy people were never paid for this. Insofar as Plato did something like this, he relied on the wealth of his very wealthy family, which probably included household slaves. It is a terrible misunderstanding to think that such a job exists.
One of the functions of professional philosophers, though, is to teach about such issues. But that is a small part of a job that often involves many other things, some as unsavory as the things you have to do in other jobs.
I am a professional philosopher, not religious, but I also care about how to lead a good life. I think philosophy training has certainly helped me here.
But, from my own experience, "professional experts" in ethics are no more ethical than anyone else I have met.
The key reason you should aim to lead the good life is because it is something valuable. But do not expect someone to pay you for it as well.

Helen De Cruz

Not sigh and Sigh, I think all of us experienced some disillusionment when seeing what being a philosopher amounts to. Some of us (not me personally) find the teaching a drudge, others do not like the prospect of sending off papers to journals with minuscule acceptance rates. My worry is sometimes that academia encourages us to be self-aggrandizers. And so we are: we make personal websites, have a twitter account, try to get grants, papers in prestigious journals and so on. And sometimes when pursuing all these goals, there is a danger of losing track of the love of wisdom altogether. The worry is that successful philosophers may have prestige etc, but this comes at a moral cost. I find it difficult to balance all these things.

Don't sigh

I do not have a twitter account, or a Facebook account, or maintain an up to date website. And I think you are correct to say that these sorts of things lead to excessive preening and posturing. They are probably sources of unhappiness as well. We do have choices in these matters, though. Many of us would improve our lives significantly if we were not so concerned with our public image. Surely some of the greats in philosophy have taught us that - appearance versus reality!
I like to publish, and I like to see my work read and responded to. Perhaps this is vanity on my part. But it is also something of value. I am engaged in a number (about three) of research communities, and collectively we are developing insight into the issues we investigate. Generally, the exchanges are quite collegial. I have profited enormously from hearing and responding to criticism of my adversaries.

Helen De Cruz

Don't Sigh - Those are good considerations. I think collective work would be a useful antidote to the culture of big personalities and aggrandising in philosophy. I forgot who did the calculations, but I saw a graph somewhere that philosophers' collaborative work (as for instance measured in co-authored articles, which is one obvious but not the only way to collaborate) did not increase to the same extent as collaborative work in other disciplines over the past 30 years.
I know still quite some philosophers who are unconcerned with their public image - several of them established - they do not frequently go conferences, they have no internet presence, and are doing well. My advisor for instance is such a person. He is also very happy, maintaining friendships with people he has known since childhood since he never had to move. Still, it seems that such things as being one's own PR department become increasingly necessary for junior academics to succeed. I see more and more of my junior colleagues getting their own website, for example. You are right they do bring their own unhappiness with them.

Marcus Arvan

Hi Helen: These are issues I have been struggling with lately, so your post really resonates with me.

On the one hand, I still take great joy in philosophy--both in my research, and in the classroom. Additionally, unlike 'Sigh' and 'recent grad', I don't feel like professional philosophy is (A) diametrically opposed to the issues that fascinated me as an undergraduate, or that it has (B) required me to "the best at insignificant stuff". On the contrary, I feel incredibly fortunate to get to think seriously about morality, the good life, and free will for a living--and feel like I have learned a lot of value about these big questions!

At the same time, I really do encounter the concerns you and 'Sigh' discuss. I feel like professional incentives make it difficult to be happy and retain one's moral integrity. Like 'Sigh', I feel like I am never doing enough, and good enough at what I do--and I do think professional incentives play a role here in making me feel this way. One has to worry about getting a job, then about getting tenure, etc.--and these things do incentivize a certain relentlessness regarding accomplishment and prestige. Similarly, I share the worry that academic philosophy encourages self-aggrandizement--as, if one's work is not read, discussed, etc., one may not get (or keep) a job.

For these reasons, I do feel like being a professional philosopher presents one with constant personal/moral challenges here. At the same time, following "Don't sigh", I also think these are the challenges we signed up for. No one could reasonably expect to go into academia without expecting to face these kinds of personal/moral challenges, as academia is clearly an industry, and, like all industries, it incentivizes the above things.

The relevant questions, then, as far as I can see, are these:

(1) How can we best deal with these challenges as individuals?

(2) How can we best deal with them as a profession?

Although I do not pretend to have the right answers to either question, allow me to offer up a few suggests.

On (1): I think it is possible to succeed in philosophy without compromising one's integrity (though, as imperfect beings, it can be a struggle, ad sometimes, one may fail). First, one can work on things that truly interest oneself--on the issues that fascinated you as an undergraduate. You do not have to give up your interest in the "Big Questions" in favor of writing on things you take to be insignificant. Second, I think that if one truly believes that one is doing some work of value, one can pursue it, and advocate in favor of it, without necessarily falling into the vice of self-aggrandizement (though there is, I think, a very fine line between the two). Jesus evidently believed that his teachings had value--and because he did, he did not shy away from making the case for them, through stories, parables, etc. Consequently, I don't think the line between (A) self-aggrandizement, and (B) advocating for ideas one truly believes in, is very clear. A key, I think, is (as you say) not to "put personal prestige and accomplishments over everything else." One should always try, as far as possible, to be honest with oneself (to truly "know thyself", as Socrates put it). In my experience, if one is honest with oneself, one can feel the extent to which one is being a self-aggrandizer. And one can then try to take steps to not be. One may not always succeed (as again, we are all imperfect people!)--but, as with most moral issues, the truly important thing is to work hard, and honestly, at trying to hit the right target (virtue, rather than vice). Indeed, I often find myself in church on Sundays asking these kinds of questions ("Do I have my priorities straight?"), and then trying to change my behavior/attitudes to better conform to values of honesty, humility, etc., than before. Again, this is not to say that I always succeed (far from it)--but I do think there is value in continually asking oneself these questions, and then trying to do one's best to live with moral integrity.

On (2): I suspect that a big part of the reason philosophy seems to encourage self-aggrandizement is its comparatively inegalitarian structure. First, the job-market in philosophy is remarkably poor (even compared to many other academic fields). Because it is so poor, it encourages people to "do everything in their power to get ahead." Second, academic philosophy is comparatively inegalitarian in its hierarchical/reward structure. My wife works in a STEM field where a very high percentage of published work is cited and discussed. Consequently, her field seems, in my experience, seems *far* less obsessed with prestige than philosophy. Philosophy, it seems to me, encourages a kind of obsessiveness about prestige precisely because of how unequally it is doled out. 82%+ of papers are never cited or discussed at all, and it often seems as though comparatively few authors, journals, and programs (i.e. high-prestige ones) are treated as though they "matter." Rather than making people feel appreciated, this prestige structure encourages people to feel left out/unappreciated--and plausibly encourages everyone "fight for scraps" of prestige (in much the same manner that, in an inegalitarian economy where 1% have all the wealth, workers fight for scraps of $$). As my father once told me as a child, "People just want to be appreciated." Although this is probably an overstatement, I think there is also probably something to it. If you want to incentivize self-aggrandizement, set up a system (like philosophy) where very few people's contributions are recognized--as that will encourage everyone to struggle for recognition. Conversely, if you want to disincentivize self-aggrandizement, set up a system where people's contributions are recognized, and people feel appreciated.

So, then, what should we do to grapple with the moral challenges you mention? I guess those are my suggestions: (1) As individuals, it takes a lot of hard work to retain one's integrity, humility, etc., given incentives to the contrary. One may not always succeed, but should always try, with honesty and sincerity (this, at least, is what I try to do, though I am quite sure that I fail more often than I should); (2) As a discipline, we could encourage humility, and discourage self-aggrandizement, by working to be more egalitarian--by including everyone in the philosophical conversation, so that people feel appreciated rather than excluded.


Don't Sigh,

My concern is not that I expect to get paid to just think about how to live a good life. My concern is that the subject of philosophy ought to be more focused on this topic. Hence, I would get paid to teach: to engage students in analytic discussion about what it means to live a good life. To also research and write on this topic. To engage others within the university in conversation about the good life, etc. Of course, this would not exhaust my professional responsibilities. But I see no reason why they could or ought not to consist of a big part of them.

I would not want or expect this to be the only focus of philosophy. Others might focus entirely on metaphysics, that's fine. However, I would like 'living the good life' to be in the main stream. And your comment suggests the attitude of many who think that idea is fanciful. That is why I am sighing.

Marcus Arvan

Sigh: I'm sympathetic with your general point of view. However, I'm a bit puzzled by your specific suggestions that (A) philosophers who investigate the good life are openly mocked, and (B) investigations of the good life should play a greater role in philosophical inquiry. It seems to me that quite a lot of mainstream philosophy investigates these very questions, and without many people mocking it. Normative ethicists in general investigate the good life. So do many philosophers of religion. There is also good work on things like meaning in life, forgiveness, etc. Further, many standard undergraduate and graduate philosophy courses (e.g. ancient philosophy courses on Plato, Aristotle, Stoicism, etc) focus on the good life. Indeed, I feel like I *am* paid to think and teach about the good life! I spend most of my professional time thinking, writing, and teaching about ethics, which I think is central to good human (and animal) lives. So, I'm a bit puzzled about where those specific concerns of yours are coming from...


Marcus -- Sigh originally wrote that "those who suggest philosophy is about 'living a good life' are openly mocked" and that instead "professional philosophy is an endless race to improve one's reputation". So the contrast here seems to be between two ways of life, one that is about living a good life and another that's about reputation and competition. You may be right that people publish papers on ethics or the meaning of life, or teach about these topics, but I take Sigh's initial point to be that, regardless of what our papers or lectures may be about, professional philosophers don't take seriously the idea that our _lives_ as philosophers should be about living a good life. We tend to be cynical about that conception of philosophy (as a way of life not just a subject matter). I realize that Sigh now says that he or she is just claiming that the topic of the good life should be a focus, but I think the original comment is about another and possibly more important problem.


Marcus and Ambrose,

Thanks for your thoughts.

I am a bit concerned that people care so little about the connection between studying the good life and living it. However, I don't expect this to be part of professional responsibilities. That is, I don't expect people to 'pay us' to live a good life. But I do think that as people who focus on this all day, there ought to be some personal and social norms that encourage us to 'practice what we preach'. One norm might be, "don't be self-aggrandizing".

As far as my concerns about being mocked, maybe this depends on what circle one works in. I have run into many big shot people from big shot departments who do mock this kind of thing. Marcus, do you disagree that applied ethics is looked down upon in the field as a whole? Consider, for example, papers published in top journals, few ethics papers, and almost none in applied ethics. So my perspective might be from a narrow window of those who work in top research schools...

Jerry Green

The rat-race element of academic philosophy is troubling, but there's a distinction to be made between academia and philosophy as such. Many parts of academia are morally troubling, especially for the most disadvantaged among us. But I think that (1) we should distinguish what is morally problematic about academia in general from philosophy in particular, and (2) avoid something like the fallacy of composition about philosophy.

(1) is pretty straight-forward: even if philosophy is worse than some other disciplines, the competitiveness and hierarchy-climbing is an academia-wide problem. From what I've heard places like law or business school are even worse, and of course these things happen outside academia too. It isn't necessarily philosophy as such causing the moral problems with being an academic philosopher.

(2) is less straight-forward, but more important. As some of the comments mentioned, many philosophers do worry about living a good life, even if they don't study it (and some do study it!). And there are many ways where philosophy and philosophers help strengthen good living. I study ancient ethics, so this question is never far from my mind. But bracketing that, there are many areas of philosophy that are continually helping me try to live better. Feminist Philosophers, for instance, is real philosophy, and it has been a significant help to my moral perception/awareness. Ditto for Schliesser's blog, or Schwitzgebel's. And there are lots of good role models out there, for whom philosophy is an essential part of their goodness.

So while I don't want to be pollyannish or an apologist, I do think that things aren't as bad as they sometimes look. And if they are, then losing out in philosophy because of a commitment to morality isn't much of a loss.

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