Thursday, September 29, 2011

The philosophical life

I think of Paul Livingston as a philosopher I very much admire although, oddly, I can't remember why. I've read something he wrote that struck me as very good, but I can't name it. It might even have been a syllabus or some lecture notes. Anyway, I was excited to see an interview with him at New APPS.

In the interview he describes a disappointing but all too believable undergraduate experience:

I went to Harvard as an undergraduate and honestly found it, given the background I had [he went to a great high school], disappointing -- not that there weren’t great people there and some amazing lecturers, but there were a lot of factors that made it difficult for me to learn in a real way. For instance, I found professors intimidating – I don’t think I ever once visited a professor’s office hours during my whole time there.

I realize now that there were a lot of resources there that I probably missed out on. But there was also a very “sink-or-swim” kind of attitude, both among faculty and undergraduates…seminar discussions were often sort of competitive, and didn’t do much to encourage creative thought (or confidence). 
The intimidation (intimidatingness?) of the professors and the sink-or-swim competitiveness of the students seem related. And these relate too, of course, to things like rankings. To some extent academics have little choice but to compete if they want to get a job and then tenure. And to some extent things like annual evaluations keep this going even after tenure. But to some extent I think we do it to ourselves .

Some of the discussion of this post on what it's like to be a professional philosopher with kids is (or seems to be) revealing. I was going to quote a passage or two, but I think there are too many to choose from, and the context of the whole is important too. So (pretend you have) read the whole thing. A lot of people reveal the very natural desire to be a great philosopher, and to want to publish well (i.e. a lot and in good places) for this reason. Everyone agrees that quality matters more than quantity, but people still seem to focus on quantity quite a bit. People talk about wanting to produce two papers a year, or only one every 18 months, and so on. I do this too, but in a much less regular way than I used to. I used to try to write or revise a draft of a paper every month, present at least one paper at a conference each year, and publish at least one paper every year. Now I just try to do what I can when I can. I don't think the results are any better or worse as a consequence, although I hope my work is getting better as I learn and understand more.

But the overall results seem bad. Lots of imperfect papers get published, lots of people live less happy lives because, say, they are working on papers instead of spending time with their families, and the profession becomes a competition for prestige rather than a science or a humanity. A friend of mine talks about the desire to do research in terms of not being dead inside, and he has a point. But if philosophical research is just another rat race, then joining in seems like a kind of death. And it's not as if anyone can really win. That is, it doesn't look as though there will be any great philosophers any more. Or at least not Great Philosophers. Any more than anyone will be able to get away with dedicating a musical composition to the greater glory of God.

On the other hand, maybe quitting the race is a recipe for the Blue Valentine problem. Maybe a good domestic life requires a successful (and hence competitive) working life. Round here there are people who sit for hours on their porches watching whatever goes by. I could never do that, but I often wonder whether that's a sign of virtue or vice on my part. Should we give up the idea that "I could have been a contender" or should we never be satisfied with what we have and always strive for more? Is it good or bad to be content just to sit? If you think it's good, go to Video A below. If you think it's bad, go to Video B.

Video A:

Video B: 


  1. i think perhaps the sentiment (or something of more firm status, like a belief or a principle) is widespread among professional philosophers, that satisfaction with any prior philosophical activity is illegitimate. no matter what work you've done, nothing has been proved, not all questions answered, not all doubts allayed, not all opponents refuted and converted, etc. - therefore anyone who is not still trying to keep moving, keep producing, is doing the opposite of philosophy.

    the stratification of the profession into elites broadly conversant with many ares of philosophy, specialists who can hold their limited ground, unproductive researchers, people working on minor tangents or tertiary questions deriving from more influential work, non-researching teachers, and teachers who occasionally turn out a conference paper to keep up appearances, etc. etc. - all probably just adds extra dimensions of self-dissatisfaction, since not only (so the thought would go) should one never be satisfied with what one has done as far as one's OWN efforts to make progress go, but one should not be satisfied if one's work has yet to count as making progress according to the standards of others. (which, sometimes, lends itself to crazy-talk: 'i'll never be kant'. or even: 'i'll never be wilfrid sellars' or 'i need to disprove what donald davidson says here.')

  2. I don't know whether I've ever expected to convert anyone to my point of view. I have even thought "no one will ever read this" quite consciously, although I don't recommend that thought. Maybe that's why I don't feel so driven to produce (not that I have none of that feeling). People seem to think in terms of numbers of papers produced per unit of time, though, rather than numbers of converts, refutations, or anything like that. But maybe that's what really drives them.

    Funny that you think "I'll never be Kant" is crazy, although I agree. I was thinking that "I could be the next Kant" is the crazy thought. I guess the former is crazy because the latter is so crazy. There is still no real hope of avoiding dissatisfaction.

  3. "I'll never be the next Kant" was never a problem for me while I was in academe, as my tastes were as eccentric as they were from the mainstream viewpoint and I couldn't just bracket them away. If I'd wanted to be the next something-or-other, I'd rather have wanted to be the next [obscure philosopher who, unlike Kant, is someone I personally care for]. Who in their right mind would want to be the next Kant when they could be the next O. K. Bouwsma?

  4. Bouwsma is a saner choice, certainly. But I wonder whether people like that (whoever exactly might fall into that category) are satisfied or, rather, frustrated that so many people don't seem to listen to what they say. But, yes, good point. That's probably the kind of thing to aim for. That and The Truth.

  5. at least if you want to be e.g. bouwsma, you should end up expecting not to be listened to! very tidy.

  6. It frequently saddens me to read the blogs of professional philosophers and realise what a grind the job has somehow managed to become. Philosophy is supposed to be what you do because the very idea of the rat-race makes you queasy. I'd have a word with your Philosopher's Union rep if I were you.

    I also wonder about the effect this has on the quality of what is produced. There seems to be something "mechanical" about it all.

    Ah well - we live in a world where even being in an indie rock band involves a fairly rigid "career path", so I probably shouldn't be so surprised.

    BTW, was I the only one who found the "kids and philosophy" blog post inadvertently hilarious? Who'd have thought that having a kid might take up a lot of your time? Ah, philosophers...

  7. j.: Exactly.

    Philip: Yes, although I don't think it has to be a grind, and I wouldn't call my job a grind. But there seems to be a grind-like attitude among some (maybe a lot of) people. It should be no surprise that having a kid would take up a lot of time, but what struck me were the cases of people who seem determined to grind out more publications even when that means writing in the middle of the night, preparing lectures while watching a film, etc. I couldn't do that. If that's what they want then fair enough, but I don't know why someone would want to live like that. And maybe they don't really want it. Maybe they just feel that they have to do that. If so, that's a shame. And, yes, it's hard to believe that the product is as good as it could have been when it's produced in this kind of way. But maybe some people really can do their best work under that kind of pressure.

  8. This hardly is a philosophy phenomenon (problem?) only. Any working person will have their fun-time severely reduced when having kids. An important difference, perhaps, is that a philosopher typically regards philosophy as a vocation, not just work, so she will (want to) continue reading and writing well after office-time, while most people (I imagine) are more than happy to leave their problems at the office. And of course bartenders and tax accountants don't have the same demands for publications.

    "I'll never be Kant" is crazy, I agree. Even so, it's true.

  9. That's certainly true. And talking about a vocation makes what I'm calling a grind sound much better. I understand, and share, the desire to keep reading after office-time, and even to keep writing if you really have something good you're working on. What seems odd to me is the impression I get that some people are driving themselves relentlessly for the sake not of some exciting idea they can't stop thinking about but of reaching their quota of publications, whatever they might be about. But perhaps there really aren't many people like that, and perhaps in fact there aren't any. They might have misrepresented what they do and why, or I might have misinterpreted it.

  10. Who in their right mind would want to be the next Kant when they could be the next O. K. Bouwsma?

    Thanks for that, Tommi! A memorable line.