Warning: This is a personal post, so only read it if you’re interested in me and my navel gazing and victory lapping about my own life. No complaining if you read on and don’t like either of these things. You were warned!
June 23, 2009 was the beginning of the Camels With Hammers era of my life. The coming of this 5 year anniversary has had me in a reminiscent, contemplative, and optimistic mood the last few days. There are certain changes in my life that wind up, in retrospect, splitting up the years into distinct eras in my memory. Emotionally it feels like my present begins in June 2009 and it’s like remembering some other life to think back before it.
The 6 years before I started blogging were another major era of my life. They were the period after I had finished my graduate course work and was enthusiastically immersed in teaching and miserably struggling to write my dissertation. Teaching was a joy. Writing was a chore. Teaching connected me meaningfully to other people. Writing isolated me. Teaching brought with it a kind of instant gratification and immediate sense of accomplishment. Whether I was feeling up to it or not, I had no choice but to get into the classroom and just do it. Class happened for the hours it was scheduled for so I had to perform with no procrastination, and I thrived that way. I left the classroom satisfied and rejuvenated by invigorating discussions with students. But writing was something that could be endlessly put off. And it was tempting to do so because whatever payoff there would be for it was itself delayed, seemingly interminably.
I didn’t have many friends who shared my research passions with me. Almost no one was reading the writing I was doing. I was a perfectionist whose idea of what a dissertation should be was wholly impractical to reality. I also held radically skeptical stances on a number of major philosophical issues, which made it hard to zero in on some narrow specialized problem in philosophy. When you are as philosophically nihilistic as I was it is hard to just assume that the dominant paradigms that contemporary analytic philosophers are working within are fine and true and to go find some nice little puzzle within that conceptual space and parse out a few helpful distinctions related to it. It’s hard to just slot into larger debates and comfortably assume a raft of givens that some philosophical field is presently assuming.
No, instead I was, at the start of the dissertation, still in my post-fundamentalist, radically skeptical overcorrection, doubtful about everything. And in that mode I was clinging to Nietzsche as the liberator who had woken me from my dogmatic slumbers. I was just determined to work out the logic of what he had shown me that had led me out of the mistake of faith-based believing. But this did not lead to a neat and tidy dissertation topic either. I couldn’t just zero in on some narrow aspect of Nietzsche’s thought before explicitly working out for myself the whole macro-level picture that Nietzsche was sketching. Until I worked through the whole logic of Nietzsche’s philosophy and what I had found so compelling about it that I left Christianity behind, I couldn’t be terribly insightful about any particular issues.
So, since I was doing philosophy in this extraordinarily personal way, frowned on by the professionalized philosophical community, I was determined to make my dissertation about systematizing several major areas of Nietzsche’s thought rather than make a specialized, narrow, scholarly contribution. And there really was no deterring me. I bit off more than I could chew and set myself to accomplish an unfocused and sprawling project. And since my exact thesis was fairly ill-defined and broad and since I had a completist and perfectionist’s idealism about how I should research, I wound up researching and writing overly broadly. I didn’t just focus in on the papers or chapters of books that directly targeted my putative central interest (Nietzsche’s views on truth, morality, and their intersection in the virtues of truthfulness and honesty). I read widely. I tried to read Nietzsche’s influences. I read books about aspects of his philosophy with nothing to do with my dissertation. I just wanted to work out everything instead of make some particular scholarly point.
And so I languished. I took too long to propose the dissertation. I took too long to figure out the form and structure of what I was saying and to put all the puzzle pieces of my systematic reading of Nietzsche together. And I rewrote and rewrote and rewrote seemingly every sentence. Over and over I rewrote everything.
But in the summer of 2009, I could finally see the end on the horizon. All the work to develop a systematic reading of Nietzsche was paying off intellectually. It was starting to yield a viewpoint on Nietzsche that was distinctive and insightful. I had also begun engaging more vigorously with analytic moral philosophy and finding it enormously more helpful than I had ever expected.
In the latter stages of the dissertation, contemporary moral philosophers started giving me the tools to make sense of Nietzsche in ways I couldn’t before. And in the last chapter of the dissertation, first drafted in the spring semester 2009, I started focusing on the possibilities for a constructive ethical theory of my own. It was rooted in the insights I saw in Nietzsche that were under-developed elsewhere and developed in dialogue with the insights from contemporary moral philosophy. Though it was an arduous and circuitous route, I had come to a place where I really had ambitiously systematic takes on both Nietzsche’s philosophy and on moral philosophy that I had developed for myself, in interaction with dozens of scholars’ works. And having finally explicated and systematized for myself the meaning of what I had gotten from Nietzsche, I was ready to now go beyond him. Ethics itself was already becoming my primary passion instead of Nietzsche.
And so this was my state of mind when I started blogging in June 2009. At the time I resolved, impractically, to become a successful blogger, no matter how long that took. I figured that were I simply to blog at the highest level of quality I was capable of every single day, day after day, year after year, eventually it would just have to be successful. I don’t know if that’s true, that it had to be successful, but I am very proud that it was!
The blog went on to change my life. Whereas I had spent the previous 6 years on 400 pages of writing that hardly anyone will likely ever read, I have since published hundreds of high quality essays that thousands of people read. They’re rougher, of course. They’re not always necessarily original. But when I look back I am startled at how well I think the ideas hold up. I have a point of view now that has been worked out in detail. I have little of that phenomenon of reading my earlier writing and wincing at its errors. Even though I now write really quickly and usually publish immediately upon having written something (often without so much as a read-over to correct it), I am willing to stand behind the bulk of what I’ve said. And it is a relief to have down in writing, in my own words, my own distinctive take on a number of issues that come up repeatedly. When so many old arguments against my views come up, I have built up a store of links I can point people to. I have finally gotten out what I think about so many big-picture issues that I finally feel ready to move on to newer, narrower areas of more specialized exploration.
I have now, happily, found a way to write that makes me excited to write and capable of writing more than I ever had before. And I did it by finding a way to bring the immediacy, the instant gratification, the instant sense of accomplishment, and the social nature of teaching all to the act of writing. By blogging I get the rush I had in the classroom, one of immediately being heard and immediately getting feedback and social interaction from what I’m saying. I’ve recaptured for myself the social approach to doing philosophy that made me fall in love so hard with the subject in college, as my friends and I talked philosophy for hours on end.
And more than that, thanks to the blog, I have made the vast majority of my current friends. I have a whole new set of wonderful people that I have found because the blog brought me into the online atheist community. Looking back 5 years ago it’s hard to wrap my mind around how many of my favorite people and close friends were not in my life yet.
And I’m blown away to realize that in the last 5 years I taught no less than 56 and a half university classes, finished and defended my dissertation, and started my own business as an independent philosophy teacher and philosophical practitioner. 5 years ago it never crossed my mind that I would one day be taking on enough students of my own who discovered me through my blog that I would be able to leave university teaching and have a shot at an income.
In the last three years, Camels With Hammers has had nearly 3 million page views. It has connected me with a huge community of people. Regularly I hear from people who have found their passion for philosophy, constructively worked through their loss of faith, or found writings which give them a voice. Many of these people have even become my friends, some of them even my students. The chance to positively impact and be positively impacted by so many people has been an extraordinary reward for the thousands and thousands of hours I’ve invested into this endeavor. I feel happier, more accomplished, more at peace, and more like I know where my niche in the world is than ever before. Through blogging I have found the way to connect being a writer and a philosopher to engaging in real time with real people. It’s made me a far better writer. It’s given me the chance to teach thousands of people at a time instead of just a classroom’s worth. And it’s given me the opportunity to explore new ways of finding and teaching students on a smaller, face to face, scale as well.
It’s staggering to me this has been just 5 years. It’s even more mind-blowing how much of all this was really just crammed into the last 3 years of massive growth since I initially moved to Freethought Blogs and then to Patheos. It is amazing what can be accomplished in mere years’ time. And it’s inspiring to think about. It’s encouraging to realize that some of my other dreams, ones I have just started pursuing (like being a full time, self-sufficient online teacher and philosophical practitioner) and ones I have long put off pursuing (like writing and publishing fiction) really are possible. It’s possible to transform my life and take it to a totally different place in just 5 years. It’s possible to set myself a dream goal that most people are too practical to invest anything in and have it pay off in spectacular ways.
I’m still keenly aware, with respect to any given difficult dream, that I might fail. But today I have as great a sense for the possibility for success as I ever have.
Thank you to all of you who have gotten me here with your support by reading, by posting my articles to Facebook and Reddit and Twitter, by telling your friends to read me, by being my friend, by putting me on your podcast, by writing in with your questions for philosophical advice (I promise to catch up on the unanswered e-mails soon), by writing in to express your gratitude, by participating in the comments sections of my posts, by offering your constructive criticisms of my ideas, by having my back, by writing about my posts on your blog, by scheduling me to speak at your conference, by hiring me to write at your website, by guest writing for this blog, by helping me with my programming needs, and, most crucially of all, by donating your money or paying for my online philosophy classes and my advice services so that I can keep doing philosophy for the public (or keep doing it at all as my vocation) now that I have left university teaching. I am honored by your confidence in me and your support for me.
Thank you, thank you, thank you.
In response to the post above Terry sent me a picture of this cake from Cake Central!