Mike Rea on Christianity and norms in philosophy

There’s a really interesting post by Helen de Cruz up at Philosophers’ Cocoon in which she quotes from a forthcoming paper by Mike Rea. In the paper, Rea remarks that:

One of the most important job skills of an analytic philosopher is strongly correlated with whatever skill is involved in successfully rationalizing bad behavior, deceiving oneself, putting a positive spin on bad circumstances, and so on. Also, there are certain modes of behavior—ways of being ambitious, or arrogant, or disrespectful to others, for example—that seem much easier to fall into in professions (like philosophy) where reputation, and having oneʼs own reputation elevated over the reputations of people with whom one works, is often correlated with promotions, job security, pay raises, and the like.

. . .

To this extent, I find that being a philosopher (or being an academic generally) poses certain obstacles, or challenges, to my own moral and spiritual development as a Christian. Accordingly, I see a variety of ways in which being a Christian can, or should, enable one to achieve a degree of critical distance from certain kinds of widespread but dysfunctional norms and values in the profession. This is, of course, not to say that being a Christian is the only way of achieving such distance; but it is, or should be, a way of doing so.

I’d be really interested in whether our readers have similar experiences – whether with religious belief, personal commitments and relationships, or other social identities.

7 thoughts on “Mike Rea on Christianity and norms in philosophy

  1. I hope this doesn’t sound flippant, but my bedrock commitment is to truth.

    This kind of gets in the way of such “skills”.

    And it is very hard for me to understand how philosophy can be practiced in the absence of this kind of commitment. What are we here for?

  2. This probably does sound flippant, but for me philosophy is conceptual engineering, or maybe abstract mechanics. I got into philosophy, and stayed in, because I like monkeying around, turning the wheels to see which gears engage and how they turn. I’ve also always had an interest in what I think of as “the spooky” which is what got me in in the first place.

    I’m skeptical about the possibility of arriving at truth by doing philosophy, and in any case that’s not what I’m in the game for. For me it’s like knitting elaborate patterns or doping out and fixing a piece of machinery.

    But this doesn’t preclude other philosophical enterprises of course including the pursuit of truths. The metaphor just struck me: there are scientists who pursue truth, and there are lab technicians who monkey around with the machinery. I’m a lab technician.

  3. Talking to academics across a range of other disciplines often provides useful perspective for me. Some of the stuff I had once normalized (sexual harassment, personal abuse) can be really shocking to academics used to a higher basic standard of professional interactions, and observing that kind of reaction from others has helped me appreciate how harmful these things actually are to our working environment, as well as to our efforts to uncover truths and/or have interesting conversations.

  4. “Also, there are certain modes of behavior—ways of being ambitious, or arrogant, or disrespectful to others, for example—that seem much easier to fall into in professions (like philosophy) where reputation, and having oneʼs own reputation elevated over the reputations of people with whom one works, is often correlated with promotions, job security, pay raises, and the like.”

    Actually I was drawn toward philosophy precisely because it seemed like a career that didn’t have to be based on that kind of competition and reputation mongering. And I found that my experience, as an undergraduate, and as a graduate student at a range of different universities only confirmed that impression of the field. Of course that approach has not (yet) served me well on the job market. But I have had the good fortune of seeing good jobs go to well-deserving colleagues who share (at least this part of) my conception of philosophy. And we’ve also seen many of the well-placed scholars who have endorsed a respectful and collaborative approach to philosophical discourse here: https://feministphilosophers.wordpress.com/2014/07/03/a-pledge-to-try-to-be-kinder/

  5. Hi Derek: as an outsider (doing my undergrad in art history & archaeology, and first PhD in archaeology) I had this impression of philosophy too – the field that loves wisdom. But as I got into the field, I got quite troubled by a lot of features that philosophy has that we don’t see in other fields, for instance, the ranking of grad schools is something I don’t know in any other humanities disciplines, the emphasis of publishing in top journals (in most other humanities programs, this matters too, but mainly in the top R1-institutions; outside of it, people care less). I’m worried that philosophers seem more concerned with reputational factors than other humanities scholars.

  6. Hi, Helen.

    Thanks for the reply. I don’t mean to disagree – these are definitely parts of the profession, and I’ll rely on your experience showing that it’s moreso true of philosophy than relevantly similar disciplines.

    I meant to be presenting my own subjective experience, in which it was possible to largely (though not entirely) ignore those elements of the discipline and find homes in a number of different universities in which my place, and my perception of that place, did not require substantial engagement with that kind of focus on reputation and ranking.

    On the other hand, that was suddenly no longer possible once I had to face the job market, which is unfortunate, since the same things that made my graduate experience so good at the same time left me less prepared for the job market than I might have been. But despite that, I find it hard to regret those features of my educational experience.

    (I also recognize that race gender and other forms of privilege made this temporary insulation possible for me in ways it may not have been for others even at the same institutions).

  7. As a female philosopher with a non-philosopher partner, it is frequently pointed out to me by him that what he sees as key philosophy skills (that I have learnt in the profession and were encouraged in me at an early stage) are potentially damaging to my moral character and to our relationship. I often think that he is right and also that certain aspects of my character that attracted me to the discipline (and possibly academia in general) are not the ones I’m most proud of (e.g. enjoying being right/winning an argument/feeling superior intellectually/provoking people and upsetting their most treasured beliefs). In short, when I look back, I could be a pretty obnoxious young person and I think this helped gain me admiration and status as an undergrad in philosophy! My more timid and respectful peers (especially female ones) just got left out of the discussion because they didn’t push hard enough or speak loud enough. I know this isn’t true for everyone, but I definitely sympathise with Mike Rea’s sentiments about struggling with being a good person and being a good philosopher.

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