Doing Philosophy Beyond The Academy

Doing Philosophy Beyond The Academy September 19, 2014

Steve Neumann recently asked me four questions for a forthcoming piece he’s writing on philosophers outside the academy. He said I could post my full replies to his questions here. 

1. Why did you leave—or never enter—academia?

The wages were exploitative. I was teaching between 7-9 classes a semester for anywhere from $2,800-$4,200 a class as an adjunct, trying to survive in New York City and claw my way out of tens of thousands of student loan debt accumulated from years as an underfunded graduate student. I had been in a cycle in grad school where even before I started my dissertation I had started taking on extra adjunct teaching work (in addition to the poorly paid teaching that was part of my graduate funding) in order to try to make enough to live off of and not have to take too many student loans, which slowed down my progress on my dissertation and necessitated more student loans over time anyway. It was a vicious cycle of working harder and winding up deeper in debt.

Then the job market collapsed just as I was first going onto it in 2008. Two jobs I could reasonably have had a legitimate shot at (given my personal connections) both froze up. The next two years on the market were difficult. Part of the issue was that I had written a dissertation on Nietzsche, which was out of the high demand topics to begin with. There are no jobs for “Nietzsche”, just for 19th Century Philosophy (and there are relatively few of those even), which is usually a much different subject than Nietzsche. By the end of my dissertation my research focus was on contemporary ethics. But hiring committees weren’t going to see me that way. They were going to put me in the history box. And I didn’t want to become a 19th Century specialist. I didn’t even want to be hemmed in to write narrow specialized articles on Nietzsche for the next 8+ years of my life just to make tenure. I had just spent 7 years working on him. Philosophically, for me, growing meant moving on past him to focus on the issues in ethics that I had been using Nietzsche to get to.

Because of the demands to produce technical scholarship, rather than just continue to follow my philosophical interests, in order to publish in the right ways for getting a job, I just wasn’t comfortable with the whole academic way of doing things. I was overwhelmed with too many teaching responsibilities to spend enough time on research and writing as it was. I didn’t want to spend that time I did have on just refining and refining my Nietzsche scholarship (which wouldn’t be appreciated on the job market anyway). Instead I was drawn to the internet and blogging.

I was excited by the concept of doing philosophy in a way that let me follow my interests and passions, to write out my take on the world whether it was “original” or not, and speak relevantly to the wider educated lay audience out there about the relevance of philosophical concepts to what they actually cared about. I feel like a lot of scholarship is about making smaller and smaller, more and more technical points, just because they’re technically original. There is, of course, a serious value in that. Seemingly small and technical points in the long run can accumulate into major progress. And I have a ton of respect for the patient laborers in scholarship who make that possible.

But, temperamentally, I’m just far more excited by the creativity and originality involved in synthesizing all the great technical ideas I come across or work out for myself into meaningful frameworks and applying them to the urgent issues of the day. There should be room for philosophers who do this synthetic work of narrative building and “occasional philosophy”. By “occasional philosophy”, I mean philosophy that is done in response to circumstances as they arise. I think of how Christian theology developed in Paul’s letters to churches. Paul has churches with practical interpersonal difficulties and theological disputes that are emerging among people. Paul writes in direct response to these emergent problems, coming out of real life attempts to live together or think coherently. Paul seems to develop his theology interactively as responses to these direct circumstances.

I see the freedom and instantaneity of blogging as allowing this kind of approach to philosophy to flourish today. Philosophers understand the value of abstract philosophical issues in their own right. We’re just interested in them. But what makes them come alive for non-philosophers are the occasions of life that make something like a technical semantic issue suddenly so important that tempers are flaring in arguments. Philosophers are working out technical distinctions of immense relevance but we’re doing it in irrelevant contexts–philosophy journals only read by other philosophers. My passion is for applying that same philosophical rigor in the contexts where people are sensitized to their relevance.

In my case, this is in blogging about issues relevant to social justice and to self-conscious atheism and humanism. I’m working out for myself my own integrated accounts of ethics and philosophy of religion, incorporating a wealth of insights from other philosophers into my own creative structure, while simultaneously trying to apply all this to issues emerging and immediately relevant in the atheist or social justice communities. So many people complain about the poor philosophical quality of populist atheism. To me, something like that is only the fault of academics, particularly philosophers, not being out on the internet leading the way. I believe in philosophers finding our points of contact with mainstream discourse and relevant concerns and applying our technical skills where people can see them.

2. What aspects of your philosophical education/experience do you still use?

I’m a public writer who applies philosophical rigor to issues people care about on a well-trafficked blog. I am constantly using my full philosophical education to do this as well as I can. I am also an independent philosophy teacher teaching a wide range of classes to people online. Those classes are interactive and personalized. My classes are not canned like MOOCs. They’re not prepackaged and remote. They’re real time, personal, interactive, vigorous philosophical engagements of the best small group kind. So I constantly find myself doing philosophy and not just teaching it, even when working with novice students. Teaching them I employ all my philosophical skills of both leading and improvisationally responding to an open-ended discussion that can go in a hundred philosophical directions based on student interests and ideas. They require me to be both a teacher and a bona fide philosopher at the same time, and balance two different tasks–catching students up with new material in an accessible way and responding to their ideas creatively and rigorously without going over their heads. So basically, I still use the exact skills of a college philosophy professor.

I am also a philosophical practitioner who uses philosophy to help people through their practical problems in life. This could mean their existential struggles about how to live a good life. Sometimes it’s tangible relationship issues. Other times they’re working through ethical dilemmas or philosophical questions about what is of genuine value and how someone figures that out in order to live meaningfully.

And many formerly religious people come to me for individualized help working out their post-religious worldview on philosophical matters. We live in a culture where many people are accustomed to turning to religious sources to answering properly philosophical questions about metaphysics, ethics, epistemology, the relationship between mind and body. I see my blogging, my online philosophy classes, and my private philosophical practice as each about reclaiming these areas as properly philosophical subjects.

And while I make no claims to treating mental illness or even lesser psychological maladies, I want to affirm and apply the value of properly philosophical inquiry into the internal rationality of someone’s beliefs and values as a viable approach to solving their existential, ethical, and relational problems. These techniques won’t work for everyone and they won’t cure properly neurological problems. But not everyone with a practical problem has a psychological problem. Lou Marinoff calls philosophical practice “therapy for the sane”. Psychologically healthy people have problems too. Because beliefs, values, and personal behaviors are hard to square rationally and that’s what I find my kind of practicality focused philosophical mind well equipped to help people with.

3. What do you think the role of the modern philosopher is—or what do you think it should be?

I think the role of philosophers is to work out the most rational approaches to normative problems that we can. Empirical thinking has become impressive on a hitherto unimagined scale. We need equal ability to formulate normative thinking that goes beyond what we discover about what is to rationally as possible determining what ought to be. And that takes a ton of philosophical clarity in tandem with ever updating empirical information. We need to constantly engage with the other disciplines and advise them on the philosophical issues that arise from their work, rein in other fields’ occasional tendencies to make philosophically sloppy over extensions of their findings on the theoretical level, and, most of all, be at the vanguard of philosophically synthesizing the meaning and interrelations between the findings of different fields.

We need, in other words, to be working out the avenues for integrating information into coherent pictures of the world that reconcile the differing perspectives of differing disciplines and of the ordinary lifeworld into something coherent. And we need to still work on gaining as much conceptual clarity, consistency, and logical rigor in all the places where there are empirical gaps. There are many important issues people inevitably must have provisional views about that are not yet formulated in empirically rigorous terms, either because the relevant sciences haven’t figured out how to do so yet or because such empirical methods will actually wind up never being up to the task. In those cases, we need to be as conceptually clear, consistent, and logical as possible and the disciplined imaginations of philosophers are ideal to continue doing this work. Hopefully it can even be the kind of job that aids the empiricists in adequately empiricizing these issues in time, wherever possible.

And finally, I think it’s a job for philosophers to educate the public constructively and relevantly about the raft of philosophical issues that everyone inevitably makes decisions about–who should I believe? what is right and wrong? what is just? what should I make of God and religion? in what ways am I free or not and how should these affect my behavior and my treatment of others? On and on, these philosophical issues are core to everyone’s lives. Yet the cutting edge insights from philosophers about these issues are not nearly as prevalent as those of popular pseudo-metaphysicians and outdated and often intellectually regressive religious institutions. And that’s a scandal.

4. Is rigorous, but accessible, philosophy possible outside the academy?

Yes, rigorous, accessible philosophy is not only possible outside the academy, it is urgently needed. The great debates of our time are philosophical ones. We need to popularize our philosophically rigorous contributions so that they’re a more regular part of public understanding. Who are trustworthy sources of knowledge? What is justice? How should we define rape? How should we define gender? What are the most rational solutions to the predictable irrationality of humans? How should we resolve the host of new ethical dilemmas that arise with each scientific and technological advance in medicine or spy technology or war machinery? How do we create a multicultural society and maintain cohesion? How do we work out ethics secularly in a time where religious institutions are rapidly delegitimizing themselves in the minds of millions?

For the record I always see a lot of these philosophical discussions going on in public discourse, but without philosophers in too many cases. Often other parts of the academy–from anthropology to women’s studies to empirical psychology to the natural sciences–are making progress on genuinely philosophical questions in ways that might outstrip the average philosopher. And outside the academy activists, journalists, judges, regulatory agencies, lawyers, artists, ethical review boards, parents, doctors, clerics, government bodies, the U.N., and even bloggers are leading the way in the public discussion of properly philosophical issues at any given time. And on some issues they may be well ahead in their insightfulness of the average professional philosopher. Professional philosophers can be as sluggish or myopically specialized thinkers as anyone, particularly when they get lost in abstractions and technical fineries and lose a sense for the tangible and the big picture. So while I deeply respect and appreciate the value of technical rigor and think philosophers shouldn’t be disparaged for our “irrelevant” scholarship any more than scientists are for their contributions that are not immediately applicable to world affairs, we also need to redevelop a reputation for doing work that synthesizes particular insights from our own work and the work of “lay philosophers” the world over into cohesive and applicable worldviews that can help people outside philosophy.

Your Thoughts?

For more on my decision to leave academia and my reflections on my experience of 11 years teaching at universities see my post, On The End of My Adjunct Teaching Career.

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