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.