Philosophy Weekend: Who Can Be a Philosopher?


I heard about a new blog called The Philosopher's Cocoon, a "safe and supportive forum for early-career philosophers", and at first I was pretty excited. I'm always looking for new approaches to public philosophy, and many of the better blogs tend to be too academic for my tastes. I imagined that a "philosopher's cocoon" would be a place where armchair philosophers like myself could feel welcome, but it turns out that I missed the emphasis in the site's self-description. The emphasis is on the word "career", and this is a blog for graduate students and low-level professors -- basically, an academic philosophy blog on training wheels.

This is not to say it's not a good blog -- in fact, it's quite lively and packed with ideas. But I am disappointed that there are so few resources or forums for serious "lay philosophers" like myself, and I find it disconcerting to see so many young people marching (pointlessly?) into the scholarly lifestyle. At one point in my life, I had intended to join this march myself.

During my second and third (of five) years in college, my career plan was to go to grad school and become a philosophy professor. Philosophy was far and away my favorite subject in college, and I had found a few mentors in the department -- the sly Prof. Meyers, the dapper Prof. Cadbury, the cosmic Prof. Garvin -- who I considered worthy of emulating with the greatest commitment of my life. I had even convinced my parents (who were funding my college education) to buy into this plan, as long as it was understood that I would be supporting myself during grad school.

By my junior year, I was taking graduate-level courses and hanging out with actual philosophy grad students and young junior-assistant professors who were a few years ahead of me on the path I planned to take. One grad student/teaching associate I befriended was a strange man several years older than me whose name I have mercifully forgotten. I remember that he had a perpetually grim expression -- any attempt at a smile looked highly painful -- and also that he strongly resembled the cartoon character Charlie Brown: tubby physique, moon-round face, even a curly little tuft of hair on the forehead of his mostly bald head. (It's probably because this person resided inside my brain as "Charlie Brown" that I can't remember his name today.)

Charlie Brown was an insider within the philosophy department, and he would stun me with gossipy tales of vicious battles, resentments and standoffs that regularly roiled the staff. I had a lofty opinion of our department chair, the regal, hawk-like and flowingly white-haired Prof. Gould, with whom I was taking a wonderful seminar in Plato. But Gould, Charlie Brown told me, was considered a complete non-entity by his staff. None of them took him seriously, he told me, and everyone was scandalized that he had just married (I knew this) a graduate student thirty years younger and then hired her as the second Prof. Gould. I guess I had idolized Gould; I took this news hard.

Because Gould was on the outs as department head, Charlie Brown told me, there was a massive battle going on over who would replace him, and a widespread resentment that one of the recently-hired new "stars" in the department would probably get the promotion over longtime staff members like Grimes and Cadbury. I was confused to hear that there were any "stars" at all in our department, though apparently my own independent study mentor Prof. Meyers was one of them.

"What makes him a 'star'?" I asked. It was all about publication in major journals, Brown explained, and several of my favorite professors were considered laughable failures for their lack of prestigious work. I asked Charlie Brown about Prof. Garvin, my favorite of all, whose Comparative Religion course had convinced me to become a philosophy major. "He's nothing," Brown said. "He's not even in the running for the chair. Nobody takes him seriously. He's just an old British hippie."

I suppose I shouldn't have been so naive as to be shocked that several of my mentors hated each other and vied jealously for insignificant promotions. It was around this time that I decided to switch my career focus to computer programming. It wasn't the discovery that my professors were flawed and sometimes petty human beings that caused me to change my career plans, but it might have been the broader realization that I was chasing a childish dream, that the life of a philosophy professor would not be any more rarefied or enlightened than the life of anybody else, and that therefore I had no reason to spend four more years as a student just to acheive a foothold in this world. I headed instead for the private sector, and never looked back.

Decades later, I still feel perturbed at the idea that any type of academic training or accreditation is necessary for serious writing about philosophy. It seems to me that the primary job of a philosopher should be to construct important messages that capture the attention of the public by virtue of originality, or validity, or relevance, or artistry of expression. Since very few of our most prestigious career academics manage to capture the attention of the public at all (leaving the agora wide open to trendy and sometimes callow TED familiars who all dress alike), it's disturbing to realize that many of these professors are obsessed with titles and positions, that they fight like cats and dogs over promotions, that they think of themselves as "stars" or not "stars" based on careerist criteria. I do want philosophy professors to be stars -- but I want them to be stars by connecting with the public and presenting ideas that change the world, not by gaining credits in scholarly journals.

These are the thoughts occupying my mind as I bring the Philosophy Weekend blog series back from a two-month hiatus. As you may have heard, I'm in the process of rethinking every aspect of this blog, and in fact one of the primary goals during this change is to allow myself to spend more time on activities like Philosophy Weekend. It's become one of my favorite parts of the site, and I haven't yet figured out exactly what I'm going to evolve it into. I'll be figuring that out over the next few weeks.

But I do know what the series is for. Like the blog mentioned above, I want the philosophy section of Literary Kicks to be a "safe and supportive" spot where crazy or brilliant opinions and ideas can be shared. But unlike the blog mentioned above, you don't need to be a grad student or junior professor to participate. You just have to have some thoughts of your own, and the willingness to speak them out loud.

This article is part of the series Philosophy Weekend. The next post in the series is Philosophy Weekend: Which Way Is The Road To Serfdom?. The previous post in the series is Philosophy Weekend: Sense of Direction.
6 Responses to "Philosophy Weekend: Who Can Be a Philosopher?"

by James Lough on

I went through a similar disillusionment in a literature department, with all the petty PhDs and the postmodernists who could defend the fashionable ideas until they were blue in the face but who ultimately, it seemed, didn't really take the ideas very seriously. They were arguing for a fad (not that pomo doesn't have some valid points). But they certainly didn't seem to think any of these issues had any actual bearing on their lives -- just matters to argue about and reinforce their egos.

And your point about academic careerism is just as valid in lit departments. A later disillusionment had to do with social class. A lot of these people (either in lit or creative writing MFA programs) were in these programs because they could afford to be in them. No big deal if they couldn't get a job soon after graduating -- there was an ample nest egg somewhere. I've later learned that many of my professors became professors -- not a high paying job for anyone but those teaching in the ivy leagues -- for the same reason. They could already afford to.

by wjwiippa on

Wm. James said philosophy bakes no bread. His (& others) Pragmatism--what the Continentals call American philosophy--only care about ideas with cash value, ideas that can be used, e.g., the scientific method, which is one of Pragmatism's pillars.

The late Neo-Pragamtist Richard Rorty whose only book I looked through and bought, I gave away in a San Diego bar. Rorty said that philosophy was done, just like Wittgenstein, and that philosophers could only sit around and talk about past philosophical clashes like old war veterans.

I just lost the book Wittgenstein's Poker in a cab but read it once before. Its climax scene is a showdown in front of a fireplace between Wittgenstein waving a fireplace poker at Karl Popper ("An idea is true until it is proven false", Popper's most famous maxim) where Wittgenstein's old teacher Bertrand Russell tells him to put the poker down.

Jean Paul Sartre's philosophy ended up with Marxism, and rejection of the USSR because they refused to go into France during the 2-weeks of riots in 1968 in Paris, and he and Foucault both felt philosophy should go out in the streets. Foucault's been dead since '84. Rorty passed away in 2007 but before said, ""I now wish that I had spent somewhat more of my life with verse. This is not because I fear having missed out on truths that are incapable of statement in prose. There are no such truths; there is nothing about death that Swinburne and Landor knew but Epicurus and Heidegger failed to grasp. Rather, it is because I would have lived more fully if I had been able to rattle off more old chestnuts — just as I would have if I had made more close friends."

At school, as for the future of philosophy, all I heard about was symbolic logic, logic being the topic in screen capture above. Solomon, the late professor emeritus at Texas, said that phenomenology, the cognitive sciences and pragmatism are all "viable options", a term I picked up in school.

Sartre wrote earlier that novels and plays were where philosophy was best done.
That's where I am working.

When Levi wrote about not looking back, I remember the line from the Don Henley song "Boys of Summer", "Don't look back, you can never look back" when the singer in the song sees a Deadhead sticker on a Cadillac. (The Ataris' 2003 version of the song replaced the 'Deadhead sticker' reference with one more appropriate to the age group of their fans, namely a 'Black Flag sticker', in honor of the '80s punk band. )

Over the centuries we have had the soul philosophised, the rational philosophised, sex philosophised, occasionally social and economic matters philosophised. What we need now is finance philosophised - or should that be fairness philosophised? Who will break that new ground?

by Tim Hawken on

The answer to the title of this post is : Anyone can be a philosopher. At the end of the day if you like to critically examine issues and questions about life and how we relate to each other, then effectively you're 'doing' philosophy.

It doesn't matter much to me if someone has qualifications or not, it's more whether they have something interesting to say (original or not), that makes you really think.

I tend to agree with wjwiippa (and Sartre) above, that the best vehicle these days to express interesting ideas is through literature, whether that be plays, movies, books or verse. The other is conversation. It seems like a novel idea, but just sitting down and talking with someone about issues can be more stimulating than anything else, and it can induce some epiphanies...who cares if you get paid for it or not?

From the armchair, or from behind the lectern, I don't think it does any good to be cynical about philosophy itself, only the attitudes that some have towards it.

by catalyst on

Levi, you've opened my eyes to some new ways of thinking more than any philosophy class I took in school (i took 2 of them). So thank you for that. However, I am generally leaning away from philosophy. I think life is to be lived, you gotta get down to the heart of it and just be. As opposed to talking about how to do it right, I find there is more value in doing it "right", or doing it "wrong"(only the person living it can decide which is which); learning from that and perceiving that as valuable experience. I visited that site and got turned off, its too many words! I admire, more than philosophers, people who understand the value of their own experience and don't always need to talk about it.

by Claudia on

I taught the history of philosophy in the academia and found, overall, that Henry Kissinger's statement, "Competition in academia is so vicious because the stakes are so small," is, for the most part, still true. Not only was there a lot of professional narcissism, about who holds the best position and is the most "brilliant," but the field itself is often immersed in so many technical debates and jargon that it's no longer accessible even to intellectuals, much less the general public. Philosophy used to be, quite literally, about the love of wisdom and the big questions of human existence. Some philosophers, such as Martha Nussbaum, fortunately still deal with those big questions. However, overall the field has become too parceled out into small areas of specialization, each with its own premises and jargon, to interest the general public anymore. This blog and others similar to it are taking over that intellectual role that philosophy as a discipline used to be about.

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