Saturday, September 26, 2009

Why We Are Philosophers

I'm hesitant to post this for fear of sounding like a starry-eyed undergrad or a pedantic moralizer who thinks there are still remnants of human telos to be arrived at. But from a recent conversation with a friend who's also shaking in her boots about graduate school, I have hope that I am not alone here... so, here goes:

I was recently startled when I heard the criteria which graduate schools in Philosophy are now in the habit of using to select their students. In fact, if I had walked into the room five minutes in to one of these conversations and perhaps been confused of my whereabouts, the items on this list of criteria would have assured me that I had accidentally walked into the University's business school.

Not to be nitpicky or idealistic or na├»ve, but Philosophy must be wary of functioning like an ordinary trade. To hear Philosophers talk of “marketability” and “tenure-track jobs” with such gravity raises the army of hairs on my skin (I’m talking here about non-utilitarian and non-consequentialist philosophers). Of course, the Philosopher should not be wise in some ethereal sense and a complete buffoon on the streets; but to have spent one’s entire life searching for “wisdom,” and come out living as ordinarily as one’s neighbor with a bachelor’s in entrepreneurship smells fishy—and that rotten scent stirs up serious doubt in me concerning the current real work being done in Philosophy.

Now from the inside, or at least the 7th or 8th concentric circle from the core, I am confident that good work is taking place in Philosophy. The last three Philosophers I recently heard giving lectures all acknowledged that they spent years of study in another trade before realizing that their heads were always in books of another sort, that is to say, substantive books that answer questions better than anyone in their laboratories or factories ever could. That says to me first, that some Philosophers are writing work of import for real human life, second, that a good handful of current Philosophers stepped on the path with a genuine motive to pursue wisdom, and third, that they’ve found the practice of Philosophy worth sharing with both the contemporary public and future generations. These are three evidences that we have grounds for hope.

I return, though, to my critique. Once upon a time, (and this part matters only so long as you are not a presentist or physicalist), we fell in love with learning. Looking back as the sophisticated minds with which we are now identical, we may not describe it that way, but at some point we clearly all took the road untraveled by our peers and locked ourselves in our rooms and read or wrote or researched for hours. Maybe it was an entirely intellectual falling-in-love, reflectively endorsed by reason at each step; perhaps it was a perpetual parched feeling in the throat of the mind; or a subconscious “why” that no one weeded out of your two-year-old self, naturally and gallingly curious. At any rate, somewhere we all committed to this vague concept of a quest to “figure things out,” instead of making millions—because if there is any logician in you, and I assume there is, you know that you could drop the beleaguered life of the mind and channel your genius to get rich quick. And furthermore, we probably fell in love with some philosopher, reading his or her book late into the night, falling asleep with it in arms rather than letting it go to the bedside table like all the rest.

The way one was drawn down the path of philosophical inquiry was by some teacher—be it daimon or author or roommate or professor. And Socrates, on the other side of that, chose the pupils which he dragged along his dialogue; instead of a premed weed-out class, he perhaps carefully watched to see who made it through the entire argument about pastry-baking. And Plato chose Aristotle and Bentham chose Mill and Rawls chose Korsgaard, and so on. My professors continually encourage me to find a Philosopher in particular under whom I’d like to work; but why are schools not taking this into primary order consideration? The admissions committees which appear to be looking for product-producing, prolific students over those whom they wish to bring up in the field are comprised of Philosophers—the ones (again, utilitarians, please pay no attention here) who should be taking very seriously to whom they want to hand the baton.

I recognize that this is a new age, that Philosophy is not what it was fifty years ago, much less two thousand years ago. But I appeal to the Philosopher in each of us that fell in love with doing what we do, and ask that we consider that the nature of our field is such that it should differ from (dare I say supersede) all other branches of education, because we are the truth-seekers, we are the culture shapers and the culture analysts, we are the miners sweaty and grimy from digging through the rubble and the archeologists trying to piece back together a fragmented history and a confused picture of humanity. So let us create, rather than conform to, the culture of our day; perhaps evaluate its capitalistic drive before altogether acting as though we are capitalists, and hearken back to why we are Philosophers.

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