So You Want To Be A Philosopher, Ctd.

Continued? What? As if that wasn’t long enough! [Also note: this could be regarded as an annex to the “Philosophy is Dead” post.]

First, on reflection I see that I should’ve made clear that the essay was written over a decade ago (though lightly edited just now), during one of my six years on the job market (I’m fine now, thanks for asking). And the tone reflects in part the rude awakening involved in discovering that what you thought you were preparing for is not in fact what you’ve been preparing for. My purpose then, and now, was to provide information useful to job candidates. God knows your home department won’t do it. If these expressions “home department”, “job candidates” and the like mean nothing to you, there’s nothing for you to see here. Move along.

Now several years on, and having been involved in a number of searches on the hiring end, things look quite different. So if you have tolerated the length of the last post, I beg your indulgence a bit longer.

The title, a recent addition, was of course meant to be ironic. It shouldn’t be necessary to state this, but I fear that for all too many pursuing an academic career that the following has not yet occurred to them. If you are among them, harken and heed.

Each person seeks fulfillment, but almost no one is in a position to do so alone. So we divide the labor and ideally do something which is in the intersection of an activity we find satisfying and activities others need done. A combination of market and political action hooks up the activity with the need or desire. Stripped of all ideological fluff and narcissistic delusion, what the young man who wrote that essay was doing was seeking a job as a teacher, teaching what the market or the state deemed desirable. Partly because education involves a considerable amount of economic rent, and partly because it is enshrouded in an ideology designed to justify the rent-seeking, even people in the very heart of the beast, or who aspire to be in the heart of the beast, fail to grasp that their social function is undergraduate education manufacture and delivery.

It is from this perspective that the remarks about styling yourself Sandra Bullock if they are hiring a Julia Roberts type should be seen. If I had said that one should style oneself a high school math teacher if one expected to be taken to be a high school math teacher that would sound vaguely tautological, not ironically polemical. So, our society has decided that there will be more education beyond the 12th grade, perhaps not for all, and that it will consist of a finite number of permutations of curricular possibilities. If we were to sit down with a college catalogue, we would in principle be able to produce a model of every possible way one could string together courses and graduate. We could do the same with every accredited school in America. The set of all those possible educational trajectories culminating in bachelor’s degrees would be the undergraduate education that we have decided to make available. Somewhere near the finest grain of administrative detail is the course. These courses are the product. When a college hires a professor, ultimately they are hiring someone who can deliver a certain set of courses.

The tiresome saw goes: those who can’t do, teach. Now there are certainly disciplines where this makes sense. Someone who teaches a course on the Napoleonic Wars probably stands little chance of being able to conquer Europe. But philosophy is somewhat unusual (I make no effort here to determine which other academic disciplines are similar). You cannot teach it unless you understand it, and you cannot understand it without actually doing it. You need not do it importantly, originally or well, but you must at least do it well enough to be able to retrace the footsteps of the figures you teach, or to recreate the arguments that appear in the topics you teach. To see why this is, observe sometime a professor of history, literature or a foreign language teach a history of philosophy course. They can’t. As a rule, they don’t even know that they can’t. But you need a Sixth Sense to be able to see this, and that comes from first hand experience philosophizing.

Philosophy graduate programs, as best as they know how (that’s a whole ‘nuther discussion) teach philosophizing. The way they do this, in essence, is to provide a refuge for people who philosophize, and allow younger people to hang around in that refuge for a time (often an ungodly long time) picking it up by practice and osmosis. In the course of this, a certain amount of tacit ideology circulates about how all-fired important philosophy is as an end in itself. This is a complicated error difficult to set oneself and others straight on—philosophy is both less and more important than we were led to think.

After a certain amount of time, the now less young person is turned loose in the world to do what they were, willy-nilly, trained to do: be a part of the higher education industry. It is only now that the shock begins to set in that society’s higher education production needs do not altogether correspond to what goes on the market, either as to character or quantity. This is only the fault of the world if there is some basis for the claim that how one philosophizes, or, much of the time, how one consumes the philosophizing of others, objectively ought to be subsidized. This at the very least remains to be seen. If America were to become the ideal planned socialist economy tomorrow, and the Department of Economic Planning were to address the question “how many experts on theory of reference who can teach do we need over the next five years” (assuming the answer isn’t “none, really”), I have no idea how one would go about answering that question, let alone answering it well.

What about research though? One possible purpose of having philosophy professors publish zillions of journal articles might be because it realizes symbolic or prestige or entertainment value for the polity, in much the same way that a polity having some of its people walk on the Moon does. The problem is that the Humboldtian model of “research” really makes very little sense here (send a philosophy department and a computer science department out into the larger world seeking “partnerships with industry” and see who comes back with something). Symbolic value? Well, perhaps. Entertainment value? Only for the professors themselves, and perhaps not even then.

So what the hell were we doing writing those articles, books, etc.? Well, the lawyers among you will understand me if I say: these are our CLEs. If I am correct that you cannot teach philosophy unless you can, in your own small way, philosophize, then like any other activity, that activity must be kept fresh, and requiring publication, which is to say, requiring that one engage in some recognizable, assessed philosophical activity from time to time is a very good idea; nowadays, not even the trees need be harmed. One of the harms of the tenure system in its current form (there are many) is that this recertification aspect of the paper chase stops, typically well before it should.

But for those of us in academia, the harm, if there is a harm, is that teaching suffers, and because of that, less philosophy is learned. That, in the end, is the only justification for our existence. It’s not much, but it’s not nothing either. Why philosophy itself circulates, and why that is something that is good for us, is a question I began to answer in my rant against Hawking, and which I resume next time.


4 comments on “So You Want To Be A Philosopher, Ctd.

  1. Pliny the Elder says:

    I do not beleive that it is “stoic endurance”. Once one reaches the the ABD (all but dissertation) stage (which usually means about 5 years of graduate study), the sunk cost is so great that quitting is barely an option. That is the primary reason that I left graduate school before I began my dissertation. I left to attend law school and while being an attorney has is disadvantages I have never once thought that I made a mistake by changing course. The most intellectually stimulating time of my entire life (including my year of full time law teaching) was the 28 months I clerked for a state supreme court justice. That said, I have no doubt that if I had remained in graduate school I would have finished and would right now be teaching at five different community colleges while completing yet another article on Thmositc analyses of civil disobedience (or whatever), convinced that this time some school would finally see my incredible intrinsic value and offer me a tenure-track position. I know that this is most likely true, because it almost has to be. By the time one completes that second one year appointment, some prestigious fellowship, or scores a one semester gig at truly Big U, the standards and norms are so internalized that the idea of doing other things may not even be possible (even assuming that there is something else tha one could do).
    I may soemday complete a PhD, but only if I do not care about having a regular academic job. Then, perhaps, I could actually achieve the vita contemplaiva.
    (BTW I hae also taught philosophy to undergrads at a couple of schools; less fun than it looks)

  2. Pliny the Elder says:

    should be “contemplativa”

  3. poseidonian says:

    Pliny is basically correct, but I would only qualify this by saying that it seems likely to be true of any profession that requires a comparable amount of time to master, whether through a credentialling process, an apprenticeship, or equivalent work experience. The only difference I can see here is that many aspiring philosophy professors do not experience it that way, because they move more or less continuously from undergraduate to graduate education, and mistake being a teacher for being a student, and thus think that if they are 21 when graduating from college, it stands to reason that they will also be 21 when they receive tenure 15 years later. Pliny is to be praised for being able to tell the temperature of the water in the pot in a timely fashion: most frogs do not, and are boiled.

  4. Pliny the Elder says:

    And, of course, there are some problems shared across subjects

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