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06/18/2018

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Peter

Hi Marcus,

Thanks for this and other posts you contribute to this blog (and, indeed, for creating the blog in the first place).

I think you are right, by and large, about the idea that we need to make philosophy our own. I, of course, have some worries about going too far from mainstream (or going into areas that are looked down upon in the profession). I do think that we usually worry too much, though. Even if there are some things that might hurt us, too many of us (myself included) let fear related to our perceptions of the profession guide us far too often.

I think that this fear comes in two flavors, only one of which is often discussed. The first flavor is the fear that we won't land a job (or a TT job, or a research TT job, or whatever). This has been discussed before, and I have come to think that much of what you have already said (in this post and in others) is true: many of us would benefit from ignoring popular advice.

One thing that might happen if we start making philosophy our own is that we might start looking a bit out of place, a bit unique. That might make some people not want to hire us, but it might make other people want to hire us more. This might, overall, help our chances.

This relates to a second fear that I think many people have. This is the fear that we will not be taken seriously by the philosophical profession. I know that, upon reflection, I have fallen prey to this, and I know others who have as well. If I do fairly ordinary, overly specific work in epistemology, proposing a slight modification of someone else's slight modification of a well-worn view, I may not light the world on fire, but few will claim that I am not a philosopher, or not a real philosopher, or not doing professional philosophy. No one will claim that I am intellectually (or morally) bankrupt for saying the things I say. Writing on other topics or in certain venues will likely lead to some people thinking this stuff. Even aside from job stuff, this is uncomfortable. This is especially true in philosophy, where we already hear people in other academic disciplines disparaging philosophy. Writing on small tedious topics may be soul crushing, but feeling like a pariah or inferior (whether intellectually or morally) is not exactly uplifting either. Partially, the solution is to begin feeling more comfortable in our own skin. But this is not the whole story. When I got into philosophy I wanted to join a vigorous academic community that was open to many forms of inquiry on every topic. In some ways, that may not be desirable. In any case, it was naive.

I say this not to challenge anything you said. I think that your takeaway is important: "If you're going to fail, you might as well fail doing philosophy in a way that inspires you." I also think, though, that it is important to understand all the forces that keep some of us from being the philosophers we truly want to be.

Marcus Arvan

Hi Peter: Thanks so much for weighing in, and for your kind words about the blog! I'd like to say something about your main concern, as it is something I have had to confront myself.

You write: "This relates to a second fear that I think many people have. This is the fear that we will not be taken seriously by the philosophical profession. I know that, upon reflection, I have fallen prey to this, and I know others who have as well. If I do fairly ordinary, overly specific work in epistemology, proposing a slight modification of someone else's slight modification of a well-worn view, I may not light the world on fire, but few will claim that I am not a philosopher, or not a real philosopher, or not doing professional philosophy. Partially, the solution is to begin feeling more comfortable in our own skin. But this is not the whole story. When I got into philosophy I wanted to join a vigorous academic community that was open to many forms of inquiry on every topic. In some ways, that may not be desirable. In any case, it was naive."

Funny thing. I've had people slag some of my work, both online and in print. Indeed, it's not comfortable. But here is something I find helpful here: perspective.
As you may know from reading the Cocoon, I've written before about how I like to read a lot of history, not only in science and philosophy but also music and art. Here's the fun thing about history: many of the very *best* ideas in history were either ignored or treated dismissively or with outright scorn when they first emerged. Philosophers at Pisa were hostile to Galileo's empirical approach to philosophy (preferring Aristotelian speculation about physics, dismissing Galileo's empirical tests). Kant's Critique of Pure Reason was initially met with dismissive reviews. Many scientists (including some Nobel-prize winners) initially treated Einstein as a crackpot. Or consider music: Led Zeppelin's first album was panned by critics. And don't even get me started on art.

The point here is *not* that you, I, or the next philosopher will be the next Kant, or Wittgenstein, or whomever. The point is that perspective can help: namely, the realization that even if you *were* the next Great Thinker, there's a pretty good chance your work might be met with derision--and this is sort of the way things have always been, in most creative occupations. This, in my experience, can help one feel more comfortable in one’s own skin. It can help you appreciate that being appreciated is not the most important thing, because all too often *good* ideas aren’t initially appreciated.

There's another related reason I think this kind of perspective can help: it gives me, at any rate, some faith in the power of ideas. Yes, sure, "different" ideas--out of the mainstream--may be greeted with derision; but, for all that, history suggests truly good work will be recognized for what it is sooner or later. So, I say, write on things you really believe in: if it is any good, people may come to appreciate it in time.

With this in mind, I want to clarify something about the OP. The reflection I shared here was not meant to convince people who are *happy* (or happy enough) "playing the game" to take the risk of doing something else. Rather, the reflection is directed at people who find themselves in a position like I was: unhappy and lacking any real sense of passion or enjoyment in their work! For, while not fitting in or having one's work recognized or appreciated can be uncomfortable, so too can doing work one finds little enjoyment or authenticity in. Again, part of what led me to the choice I made was that I *wasn't* being successful or happy being the philosopher I thought I was "supposed to be." My message is: if this is you, consider trying something different! There may be risks involved, but for all that, the risks may be far better than the status quo. This, at any rate, was my experience. Just doing the kind of philosophy I wanted to do made me fall in love with doing philosophy again...and that alone made it worth it. It felt liberating and made philosophy *fun* again. The fact that it also "worked" professionally (in terms of getting a job, tenure, etc.) was also very much a pleasant surprise.

Marcus Arvan

Hi again Peter: it occurred to me that I want to add a brief addendum to your last point.

While there are indeed forces that may deter us from being the kind of philosophers we want to be, I think the best way to change this is to change our own behavior, as authors, referees, etc. If, for instance, you think the discipline could be supportive of work that cuts against the grain, make it known, not only as an author (in terms of the kind of work you produce) but also in your practices as a reviewer and discussing work with others. The more of us who stand up for and promote and pursue work that cuts against the grain, the more likely we are to each do our small part to realize the kind of philosophical community you hope for!

Amanda

I have been inching my way toward trying something different. And we will see how this goes. I am just not as naturally disposed toward optimism as you seem to be, Marcus. I guess my concern is that even if I do succeed in pursuing ideas I really want to pursue, it still saddens me that the profession as a whole is the way it is. I wanted to be part of an entire community of intellectually honest people pursuing ideas. And regardless of how I change my own work/perspective, that won't change the profession. Of course, I could also work toward changing it myself. And perhaps I will do something that in 60 years leads to a more pure philosophical community. So I can write about real ideas and make real change. But alas, as mentioned, I am impatient. And I do not like the thought of waiting until I'm dead or a geriatric for these positive events to take place.

Amanda

But I should add thanks for writing this Marcus. It does remind and encourage me to try and pursue the type of philosophy that I find personally valuable.

Marcus Arvan

Thanks, Amanda.

As I indicated above, I don’t think this is an issue peculiar to philosophy. The same sort of issue has been a more or less permanent feature throughout the history of the sciences and various arts (music, painting, fiction, etc.).

The issue, I think, occurs in large part due to the phenomena Kuhn singled out in distinguishing normal science from revolutionary science. At any given point in time, there are vast numbers of assumptions in art, science, philosophy, etc.—about what good instances of the relevant practice are, why those instances are good, how people “should” go about the relevant practices (viz. “Good painting is like this. Good painters should paint like this!”). These types of assumptions—what Kuhn called normal science—create deep and pervasive expectations in audiences. They are usually codified and incentivized in professional practices (who gets hung in fancy museums, who gets art awards, etc.). Thus, it is entirely natural—and probably generally unavoidable—for work that “doesn’t fit the mold” to be dismissed in the short run. I could rattle off fairly long lists of artists, philosophers, and scientists who met this kind of short-term fate, but whose work is now remembered and celebrated.

None of this is to say, of course, that you or I will be one of them—those whose work enjoys greater appreciation in due time. However, it is, I think, reason for optimism, and reason to try—to do work that truly represents what kind of philosopher you want to be (especially if, as I said, you are unhappy—as I was—trying to be the philosopher you think you are “supposed to be”).

For what it is worth, I know far more people in this world—not just in philosophy—who wish in retrospect they had been true to themselves than taking the “easy way.” So I say: if you are unhappy being the philosopher you think you should be, just give being the philosopher you want to be a shot. You just might find it liberating and joyful, so much so that you become willing to let the cards of fate fall as they may.

Amanda

Yes, I will give it a try! And you are probably right that the problem is not peculiar to philosophy. This explains my general dislike of humans and the way we do things lol. Yeah, I do need to work on acceptance and optimism lol.

Marcus Arvan

Naturally, I find it frustrating at times too - but it doesn't lead me to generally dislike humans. I prefer to look at it as a fun challenge. ;)

Amanda

I should have been more clear - I love almost all humans individually. I simply dislike them when collected together to form "humanity." But no doubt, you have the more healthy perspective Marcus.

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