The Work (again)

Eric Schliesser has taken another pass at discussing philosophy with reference to The Work – that is, with reference to the seriousness with which we take philosophy. I agree wholeheartedly with what he says here and find his irony especially cheering. But I also want to set out a little more plainly what I meant in distinguishing between “a bit of work” and “The Work.” People’s responses made me think this through more, and more carefully, for whatever it’s worth.

Most of the reactions to my earlier post and to Eric’s were, I think, responding in part to the ambiguity attached to discussion of “philosophy.” There is a) philosophy qua profession and academic discipline; b) philosophy qua historically situated tradition of reflection, investigation, and reasoning; and c) a form of philosophy that transcends even history – call it the “love of wisdom.”

These overlap experientially for some, and for some likely more easily than others. My own sensibilities regarding philosophy not being The Work (for me) have to do with how the a) version often experientially swamps the b) and c) versions and can seem quite incompatible with them. Some of this is a matter of earning a living: working in the a) version entails much scutwork, to be sure, but it also entails engaging with institutional structures that, for my own part, are ill-fitting, often alienating and demoralizing.

It is, for example, I think, much harder not to have a) impede b) and c) when one works in a marginalized area of philosophy, as I do. Pursuing the b) and c) versions for me involves engaging with texts, thinkers, ideas, and, yes, wisdom that is not accepted in the a) version, is often derided in the a) version, and is simply not easily part of any romanticized version of a) that would seat well with b) and c). Put more plainly, when I’m looking for wisdom or to be abducted into robust philosophical imaginings, I’m going to be reading Chinese philosophers that many in the profession neither know nor recognize, and some even openly scorn. Pursuing these wisdoms makes me a professional outlier, a deviant. If I want to identify what I do and prize with The Work, it would be forms of work my profession as a whole and generally still fails to acknowledge as worthwhile.

The above sense of alienation is aggravated by how we talk about the profession, ways I was trying to capture in my original post and that Eric has also well-captured. In our professional talk, a) is often run together with b) and c) to the detriment of b) and c). Excelling philosophically is often characterized in terms evocative of professional job requirements, ladder climbing, reputation metrics, and that blight on our souls, “networking.” Talk about what young people need to do to develop into philosophers or “good philosophers” too often entails this sort of discussion. The reasons for that are not all bad, the job market being brutally difficult for the youngest philosophers. But the talk pitched at professional success seems to me to have considerably exceeded requirements if its aim is to ready the young for the hard, horrible work of job-seeking. We want to pronounce The Work joyful, but describe the profession as largely joyless, strategic maneuvering and jockeying for position and peer-esteem. Likewise, for folk like me with interests outside the “mainstream,” much of this advice is just further alienation – the best route to the professional “success” most touted would be to abandon the parts of philosophy I most prize and take up instead what the mainstream hierarchy values.

Finally, and I think most potently for me, the rhetoric that describes philosophy as a kind of special calling has always struck me as smuggling in much overdetermined sociology. The most irritating version of this to me is the claim that one ought not pursue philosophy unless “one cannot imagine any other satisfying or worthwhile life for oneself.” For people with some experience of real and actual poverty, this idea of having but one idea of how you might well earn your keep in life and count yourself satisfied is likely strange and strangely appalling. To me, this bit of advice makes it sound as if graduate school is only for the well-heeled, those who enjoy the luxury of conceiving their lives as exercising choices and fulfilling preferences driven only by what pleases and ignites one’s passions. Not all lives are like this. The idea that one might mentally canvass a rich buffet of possible lives for oneself and decide that only one will suit seems to presuppose an abundance of possibility I’m not convinced generalizes outside upper and upper-middle class lives. To be sure, any poorer student going into philosophy is also taking a big risk and chance. My point is simply that the pattern of thinking here seems alien to me, the sort of thinking people like mine have rarely engaged. They mostly just did what needs must and made whatever satisfactions they could out of that. Put another way, if your life doesn’t typically pattern on doing what one wants instead of what one must, this sort of talk just sounds, well, a bit weird and maybe precious, as if happiness, meaning, and satisfaction are a special preserve of those materially empowered with wider choices. I mostly don’t like this talk because my suspicion is that it might keep students from the “lower orders” out of the discipline. My bet is that life has trained them to a greater imaginative flexibility about possible lives they could lead, so implying that philosophy needs to be the one and only inadvertently advertises class expectations they won’t as easily meet.

So, in sum, however you may want to think about how you practice philosophy, the way we talk about our practice may embed commitments and restrictions that are passing unrecognized. I’m all for pluralism about ways people motivate their participation in philosophy, but our talk is too often not conducive to that.

5 thoughts on “The Work (again)

  1. So happy I discovered your blog via bloglovin today!! I love how you say “One ought not pursue philosophy unless “one cannot imagine any other satisfying or worthwhile life for oneself.” — I guess that’s exactly why I started my blog on writing in a philosophical manner, sort of following your option c) given above. Will keep an eye out for your content! :)
    xx finja | http://www.effcaa.com

  2. ‘[T]he rhetoric that describes philosophy as a kind of special calling has always struck me as smuggling in much overdetermined sociology. The most irritating version of this to me is the claim that one ought not pursue philosophy unless “one cannot imagine any other satisfying or worthwhile life for oneself.”…To me, this bit of advice makes it sound as if graduate school is only for the well-heeled, those who enjoy the luxury of conceiving their lives as exercising choices and fulfilling preferences driven only by what pleases and ignites one’s passions.’

    I give students this advice and don’t read it this way at all. The idea, as I see it, is that going for philosophy is so tough and risky, that the job market is so bad, that no one should pursue it as a career unless they have no other alternatives that they would find tolerable.

    That’s why I went for philosophy. Back then there were few career options for women and I really, really, wanted to avoid the alternatives—K-12 teaching, secretarial work, or nursing. Law was a possibility but seemed a very remote one (there were very few women in the profession at the time) and I didn’t think I was smart enough to do a science.

    I lucked out and caught the brass ring: I am tenured. I love philosophy—love it more than anything else I can imagine doing. But if I had it to do all over again—in counterfactual circumstances where I had other viable career options—I would not have gone this route. The risk, the anxiety, and the fact that I could not live anywhere close to where I wanted to live, weren’t worth it. I would have been better off with a job I liked slightly less that didn’t have all these bads going for it.

    So I tell it to students like it is. Unless you can’t imagine any other tolerable alternatives (as I couldn’t), unless you’re willing to undertake huge risk and live in terror until you get tenure (which is a long shot), and unless you are willing to sacrifice everything else of value to you for the sake of job satisfaction (as I was)—DON’T DO IT!

  3. Speaking as a professional philosopher who’s from the “lower orders” (I think?–I have a working class background, but I didn’t live in Dickens-esque poverty or anything), I’m somewhat baffled by the penultimate paragraph of this post. Although I’ve never had anyone tell me that I should pursue academic philosophy only if I can’t imagine a different life that’s both “worthwhile” and personally satisfying, I was told that I should pursue academic philosophy only if I can’t imagine a different life that’s personally satisfying. This was one of the best pieces of advice I received. I continue to say something similar to my students, especially students who share a similar background, as much as this might irritate Prof Manners.

    Prof Manners acknowledges that poorer students who pursue professional philosophy are “taking a big risk and chance.” I think this is an understatement. The odds of finding full-time work in academic philosophy are vanishingly small, and Prof Manners doesn’t seem to appreciate the immense risk that this imposes on people from poorer backgrounds. I’m sure she understands on some level, but I just get the sense that she doesn’t truly appreciate it. In my case, I’m the first person to earn a higher degree in my family. My father doesn’t have a degree at all and works a blue collar job. And yet I make much less money than my dad. I have very little financial security. I’m in my 30s and if my contract isn’t renewed for next year, then either I very quickly find a full-time job in a completely different line of work in a city that I don’t really know (unlikely), or I literally move across the country, at great cost, into my parents’ basement (more likely). I personally know people who were faced with these sorts of options. And people from wealthier backgrounds would have many more options, needless to say.

    When I tell my students that they should pursue professional philosophy only if they can’t imagine being satisfied in a different line of work, this will probably keep more poorer students from entering the discipline. I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing, since those students are more vulnerable and will be taking a significantly greater risk by entering the discipline. It’s altogether appropriate that they think harder before embarking. This won’t change until there are substantially more full-time jobs available. (That said, I’d obviously love more “class diversity” amongst full-time philosophy professors. I’m one of the few I know whose parents weren’t in the “professional class.”)

    Finally, Prof Manners writes: “My bet is that life has trained them [students from the ‘lower orders’] to a greater imaginative flexibility about possible lives they could lead, so implying that philosophy needs to be the one and only inadvertently advertises class expectations they won’t as easily meet.” With respect, I have a very difficult time understanding this remark. Growing up, the idea of being a philosophy professor would have been considered far-fetched at best, like being a movie actor or something. In fact, almost none of my friends had parents who were in the “professional class” and so the idea of becoming even a doctor or lawyer or banker seemed far-fetched. If anything, I’d say that most of us had much less imaginative flexibility about possible lives to lead, for the simple reason that our options were much more limited.

    I hope this comment doesn’t sound self-pitying. I know many people with philosophy PhDs who have been in worse positions. And I’m basically happy with my life. I get to be a professional philosophy professor after all. Most of the time, I still find it difficult to imagine a satisfying life in a different line of work (really it depends on how much grading I have to do).

  4. Hi, Philodemus. Sorry what I said seemed so off-putting. The comment that especially bothered you about imaginative flexibility was more in line with something like the following. For my own part, it seems strange to be told that things might not work out as I’d hope since I never imagined or took for granted otherwise. By imaginative flexibility, then, I just meant that the possibility of not getting what one wants and thus mental readiness to try alternatives is perhaps more familiar to those not in the “higher orders.” But I can see now the direction that comment took for you too and agree about that. The possibilities that seem live can be much more constricted so that the reach for even imagining oneself with a Ph.D. is far. I don’t know that it helps contextualize my perspective but for what it’s worth, I’m not standard issue either, nor was my trajectory into higher ed and eventually a job tidy.

    Maybe a better way of getting at the issue here is that rhetorically pitching entrance to the discipline in language evocative of love and passion for it wildly underestimates the additional elements in play. To the extent that we use language evoking love and passion to test students’ commitment and desire in the face of hard material realities, I wish we could *just* talk about those material realities instead. E.g., how many graduate faculty are keeping in touch with the student loan debt load your graduate students are carrying? About whether they’re taking on additional debt for graduate training? When I talk to students about graduate school, I don’t ask them about their desires relative to the discipline since I don’t want them to try to prove – to themselves or others – how passionate or committed they are. I ask them about things like their current loan debt load, about the adjunct crisis, etc., and invite them to think about the precariousness of academia against their current and prospective material realities. I know that some can enter the discipline with a material security that may make love and commitment the most salient – they have various forms of safety netting that protect against the hardest falls. But when we only or mostly talk in terms invoking love, passion, desire, we seem to suggest this is the default – that’s where class expectations creep in.

    Finally, I don’t know how best to put this except to say that I grieve for the many, many graduate students and early career philosophers who are in precarious employment or without professional employment. I spent time as an adjunct, albeit before the crisis in higher ed really hit, and I know how incredibly demoralizing it can be. That I am no longer in that position is a matter of luck and I have no illusions about my having done something special to be where I am relative to my intellectual peers struggling to get jobs. I guess one of the bones I’m picking relates to this too – the sense that we talk in ways that obscure luck too. Love, passion, merit – all these are important, I suppose, but I worry they’re utterly swamped by luck, and since we can’t engineer luck, we talk of these of these other things as if they are all there is and thus risk misleading students we advise. Also, just to be clear, I know that I am far from alone in worrying about how we do and should talk to students about these issues.

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