The Work or a bit of work

Eric Schliesser has lovely post ruminating on how to orient oneself toward research, writing, and scholarly production. It is happily not a work/life balance post – I at least tire of these since they inevitably make me feel like achieving a work/life balance is, well, one more bit of work I’m meant to do. Instead, Schliesser creates a taxonomy regarding the ways people orient themselves toward academic work, describing 3 types and focusing on the last:

A: It pays the bills; work is work.

B: It’s a fun and challenging way to earn a decent salary, but there is more to living.

C: It’s the best form of escapism from the rest of reality (recall here) and (let’s stipulate), luckily, it is also justified by way of the best available argument.

I think it would be consistent with what Schliesser offers to understand C with a little broader latitude and include not just escapism but perhaps what he intimates later in the piece, deriving (some significant measure of) well-being via one’s contributions to scholarly conversations one finds meaningful and valuable. Maybe what matters most for my purposes is that Schliesser’s C is what I think of as the “all in” attitude, the orientation we take when, on the whole if not every day, we identify scholarly work as an enormously prominent life priority or life-governing project.

Schliesser’s post is largely concerned with what sorts of strategies can bring a C-orientation together with other important life goods and projects. I don’t want to summarize what he offers – please do go read it! Instead, I want to make what I think sometimes gets treated as a shameful confession: I’m a B person. Rather, I have over time become a B person. And I suspect there are other B people out there who, like me, feel a bit sheepish about it. The sheepishness is why I’m writing this post, since I circumspectly think it unwarranted and wish it were a more commonplace admission (assuming there are in fact other B people out there).

I find my work in philosophy to be a mostly fun and almost invariably challenging way to earn a living, but I also have no hesitation in recognizing that there are a host of other things that I would also like to do, find rewarding (indeed perhaps more so), and could shape a life around. Not incidentally, all of these things are even longer shot ways of paying the bills than philosophy is, so I am also that perhaps rare creature who has found a career in philosophy easier than the other occupations that would tempt me (farming, anyone?). I have also, likewise not incidentally, had jobs that were so very less easy than professional philosophy that despite the uphill slog and low probabilities associated with a philosophy career, the career seems comparably easy – minimum wage work as a maid will do that for you. Perhaps the most relevant thing here is that I more often begrudge the time philosophy doesn’t leave me for a variety of other engaging activities than I begrudge other activities for not leaving me time for philosophy. And, to be clear, those other activities are not big life activities, such as child-rearing, but simply activities I find deeply engaging and equally if not more rewarding. Philosophy is one important-to-me thing I do, but is far, far from the only thing like this and so at least some of the time, I wish it occupied me less. The reasons I am oriented this way are of no real interest to anyone but myself, but I note all of this because I think this is one legitimate way to be in philosophy, though it is one we too rarely acknowledge or describe. Too often we seem to discount it as a possibility. If you do want to be B, or feel inclined toward B, there is much in the profession that militates against it. And that may be one of the biggest obstacles to being B if you’re so inclined.

What I want to emphasize here, I suppose, is that I think we stimulate the C orientation in ourselves, and, worse, in graduate students and early career philosophers, by reflexively discounting B as a possible and viable way to go about being in philosophy. And here I’m going to depart from Schliesser’s depiction to allude to forms of C I more often spot in professional conversations. Being C can often entail far more intensive forms of purported commitment than Schliesser observes and I worry that thinking of ourselves in C-terms implicitly winds up invoking these more intense forms. They include the tension Schliesser describes but in more radically amplified fashion. So, on to the more intense forms.

We implicitly treat philosophy as if it is an importunate, jealous lover demanding all our love and love without remainder or reservation. We overstate the distance it has from all manner of other human endeavors, too often treating it as the sine qua non of critical engagement with the world. We overrate its significance with respect to other academic disciplines, treating it as Grundwissenschaft in an academic world populated by (alas, regrettably) duller and more intellectually modest endeavors. We overestimate its difficulties, speaking of our work and especially that of others as if kingdoms rose and fell on getting the smallest minutiae just right. We wildly overstate its activities and ambitions, behaving as if philosophers do indeed “question everything,” that patently empirically and historically false bit of self-heroics. And we try our best to valorize at least some of philosophy’s practitioners, engaging in professional dialogues preoccupied with identifying “top philosophers” as if genius status is not only real, but to be coveted and conferred through polling or ephemeral professional repute. Most unhelpfully, we offer prospective graduate students advice that they “only go into philosophy if you can’t imagine any other sort of life for yourself,” as if ensuring that we keep the field populated with the strongest C-types is our priority.  Especially with respect to this last, we treat imaginative poverty about worthwhile lives as a desirable or indeed necessary passion or, worst of all, as an entry qualification for doing philosophy at all.

My tone in the above already surely gives away that I think there is much self-valorizing vanity in the way we too often speak of the field. My great concern is that we have implicitly sold ourselves on a naively romantic conception of philosophy, one that has much high drama attached to it. Philosophy is not a bit of work, it is The Work. Each moment taken outside it is a moment stolen away not from one form of activity in favor of another, but from The Work. I think this likely destroys much peace people might otherwise have in their work, but my greatest objection is perhaps more aesthetic. The tenor and temperament of these all-in or C ways of describing the field assign high drama and profundity to philosophy. They make philosophy about the conspicuous and obvious, whether that be a conspicuous and obvious form of passion for the discipline, the conspicuous and obvious ways of describing it, or the most conspicuous and obvious metrics for “success” in it. They thereby sacrifice subtlety, entrancing ambiguity, and the enchantments of the banal. When we make philosophy All That, then of course every other activity will pale and seem a sacrifice or loss.

For my own part, I find philosophy most rewarding when I treat it as something I may well (and sometimes do) put down in favor of “projects” I cannot defend as having any kind of conspicuous or obvious value to the world, to the life of the mind, to others or even to myself, things that arrest me precisely because they have hidden depths I want to explore or represent hardwon competencies I take joy in exercising. I’m pretty sure that, on Schliesser’s taxonomy, that makes me firmly B-type. The biggest obstacle to my being and embracing a B-type was thinking that this is not really allowed or acceptable within the profession. So, to the extent that others may be held by that fiction, it isn’t so and doesn’t have to be so.

8 thoughts on “The Work or a bit of work

  1. Thanks for the really thoughtful post, and I like Schliesser’s general taxonomy. Here’s a collection of thoughts about this:

    –I feel like I’ve witnessed more people recently identifying with (B) over (C), but I feel like this is in part because they can identity someone else who is much more (C) than they are. Also, a lot of us identify (C) with unhealthy aspects of the discipline.
    –I like this taxonomy in part because it allows to me to express moments when I’ve felt one or the other attitude towards research. So instead of just being a (B) or (C) person, I’ve had (B) and (C) (and (A)!) days.

    –if I was going to flesh out different interpretations or versions of (C) they would be:
    (D) it’s the best, most-rewarding intellectual project a human could possibly engage in, and thus I should do it all the time
    (E) it’s the best form of escapism / my favorite hobby, and thus I should do it all the time
    (F) it’s the best or only way for me to feel important, or to not feel like a fraud, or to hold off existential dread, and thus I should do it all the time

  2. There’s something really right about the concerns expressed here, and I love that these issues are being raised, but at the same time it strikes me that many of the issues arise because of the academic context, i.e., treating philosophy as though what it is to be dedicated to philosophy is to be dedicated to the academic discipline. But if you see philosophy as a way of living and not as a set of specific tasks, e.g., conference going, publishing, and teaching, then one can make it the dominate focus of one’s life without that meaning one does nothing else but go to conferences, publish, and teach. Or no…?

  3. I took “only go into philosophy if you can’t imagine any other sort of life for yourself,” probably the wrong way, but a sort of cut between (B) and (C). There are many things I want out of life, and I have to choose which ones get the time. Philosophy (as in the activity) is on the (short) list of things I’ll make sure to include. Other very enjoyable, worthwhile endeavors, like, say, game design, would also be fine, and I hope to keep them around, but if I only get to keep one, I’ll keep philosophy. So as far as profession-choice goes, academic philosophy makes sense.

    I’ve seen a fair number of people in person and online actively pushing away from the far end of (C), though, insisting being interested in (and good at) things outside of philosophy is at least a condition to do good philosophy.

  4. I agree, George. Schliesser’s post and Prof Manners’ thoughts seem focused on philosophy as a discipline, within the context of its professionalization. I would think philosophy conceived as a way of life has different implications. (However, I also strongly identify as a (C) type person (with qualifications), so it might be that the definitively un-academic value I find in philosophical study and insight is mere bias.)

  5. I agree, George. Both Schliesser’s post and Prof Manners’ thoughts seem to consider philosophy as a discipline, within the context of its professionalization. I would think philosophy conceived as a way of life (even when not ‘the best’ way of life) to have quite different implications. (However, I strongly identify as a (kind of) (C) type person, so it might be the definitively non-academic value in find philosophical study and insight is mere bias.) :)

  6. Conflating philosophy as a profession with philosophical activity is surely a big part of all of this. It’s a conflation hard to escape, it strikes me, as even people who regularly take time off from professional philosophy to do purportedly non-philosophical things regularly invoke the way this profits their work, as if cutting loose to exercise or play music has its value because it serves the professional activity to do so. I agree completely that talking about philosophy in terms of its professional aspects is limiting in a number of problematic ways, but I also think those in the profession are not very good at doing otherwise, myself included.

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