Can Real Philosophers Survive Outside Professional Philosophy? (With Follow-Up Discussion by L_E and Z)

By real philosophy, we mean synoptic, systematic, rational reflection on the individual and collective human condition, and on the natural world in which human and other conscious animals live, move, and have their being. Real philosophy fully includes the knowledge yielded by the natural and formal sciences; but, as we see it, real philosophy also goes significantly beneath and beyond the exact sciences, and non-reductively incorporates aesthetic, artistic, affective/emotional, ethical/moral, and, more generally, personal and practical insights that cannot be adequately captured or explained by the sciences. In a word, real philosophy is all about the nature, meaning, and value of individual and collective human existence in the natural cosmos, and how it is possible to know the philosophical limits of science, without also being anti-science.


[R]eal philosophy is pursued by people working on individual or collective writing projects, or teaching projects, in the context of small, friendly circles of like-minded philosophers. Like-minded but not uncritical! Real philosophers read both intensively and also widely inside philosophy, and also widely outside of philosophy, critically discuss what they’ve read, write, mutually present and talk about their work, re-read, re-discuss, and then re-write, with the primary aim of producing work of originality and of the highest possible quality, given their own individual and collective abilities. They also seek to disseminate their work, through publication, teaching, or public conversation.


[W]e think that it’s up to all of us, as lovers of real philosophy, to dare to think for ourselves against the conventional wisdom of contemporary professional philosophy. But that’s only the beginning. We hope to help contemporary philosophers (re)discover their true vocation as rational rebels for humanity.


My Oxford English Dictionary defines “professional” as being “engaged in a specified activity as one’s paid occupation.” And it defines an “academic” as “a teacher or scholar in a university or institute of higher education.” Obviously neither the real-world classes nor the possible-world classes of professionals and academics, as such, are coextensive; and the terms “professional” and “academic,” as such, aren’t synonymous. But for the purposes of this essay, I’m going to treat the phrases “academic philosopher” and “professional philosopher” as synonymous, both meaning someone who is paid to teach and/or do philosophical scholarship in a university or other institution of higher education.

By a “State-like institution,” I mean any institution that issues commands regardless of the moral content of those commands, claims the right to issue such commands, and possesses the coercive power to compel obedience to these commands. In practice, every command-issuing institution that has its own gun-carrying police force or security guards, is a State-like institution. Hence all colleges and universities are “States,” in this extended sense. The total collection of these is what I will call “the Professional Academic State.”

After I finished my philosophy undergraduate degree in 1979, even though I was (and am) madly in love with real philosophy, I seriously doubted whether I wanted to pursue an academic career in professional philosophy, and dreamed instead of starting my own philosophical group somewhere, and doing real philosophy completely outside the Professional Academic State.

But after a year of working entirely on my own, I came to the conclusion that if I stayed outside the Professional Academic State forever, I’d be too isolated and soon become just a philosophical crank without anyone to talk to, and without having anyone who would ever read my work. Also I would have little or no social standing, and my parents would be very disappointed by me. Also I couldn’t figure out how I could support myself and still have enough time (and energy) left over for philosophy, if I didn’t become an academic or professional philosopher.

So I applied to graduate school, etc., and then worked my way up through the system. But I was never happy about it, always straining against it. Looking back on it now, actually, what’s amazing to me is that I got all the way to full professor, and lasted so long, without exploding and breaking out years ago.

Anyhow, now that I’m finally an independent philosopher, and not an academic or professional philosopher, not too surprisingly!, I’m seriously revisiting the question of whether it’s possible for real philosophers to survive outside professional philosophy.

Moreover, and well beyond my own narrow perspective on this question, as one of my APP correspondents, L_E (see part II below for more by her/him), recently pointed out,

the link between philosophy and academia is a very recent one, and for this reason, it doesn’t seem to be a necessary relation. In fact, the so-called “scientific revolution” of the seventeenth century was carried out by philosophers from outside … academia.

That’s so totally right: the seemingly eternal and necessary relation between real philosophy and academic or professional philosophy is in fact altogether recent and contingent. Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Descartes, Pascal, Spinoza, Leibniz, Locke, Berkeley, Hume, Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Sartre, Camus—none of them were professional philosophers; and even Russell was out of academic philosophy (and in jail for his pacifist political views) by 1916. Also it’s significant that of the four Nobel prize-winning philosophers (Bergson, Russell, Camus, Sartre), three of them were not “lifer” professional philosophers.

Indeed, Kant was the first truly great real philosopher who was also an academic or professional philosopher throughout his career; and he wrote “What is Enlightenment?” specifically in order to defend the moral right of real philosophers to think, speak, and write against the Church and State, including the Professional Academic State of his day.

Well, what about the 21st century? For reasons I spelled out in a recent edgy essay, I myself have serious doubts as to whether real philosophy can survive inside the contemporary Professional Academic State, under the Tenure-&-Promotion system that currently dominates academic philosophy.

But that’s not the question I’m addressing here. The question I’m addressing here, in light of the conception of real philosophy that drives APP, as reproduced in this essay’s epigraph, boils down to this: “can real philosophers survive outside the contemporary Professional Academic State?”

This question, in turn, really breaks down into at least three somewhat distinct (although, obviously, interrelated) questions:

(i) Can real philosophers keep body and soul together outside the contemporary Professional Academic State? (The Money Question)

(ii) Can individual real philosophers working outside the contemporary Professional Academic State find a genuine community of other real philosophers with whom they can actively collaborate, and critically interact? (The Philosophical Community Question)

(iii) Can real philosophers working outside the contemporary Professional Academic State find adequate venues for disseminating their work through publication, teaching, and public conversation? (The Dissemination Question)

I’ll respond to each of these distinct questions in turn, and then conclude by trying to answer my original complex question too.

Re: The Money Question.

Back to me again. The Money Question was the question that, back in the late 70s and early 80s, vexed me most.

I simply couldn’t see how anyone could be a real philosopher outside the Professional Academic State with no source of income. I mean, as supportive as my parents were, sadly they weren’t going to give me money just to do philosophy all the time for the rest of my life. So the only other option seemed to be to take a not-too-demanding “day job,” that would leave lots of left-over time and intellectual energy for doing real philosophy. But then, I’d probably always be poor. And I might easily end up unemployed during any economic downturn. Or get angry and quit. And then my partner/spouse would have to support me completely, or at the very least take on an extremely unequal role in our relationship by earning enough for both of us, and then later for the little family we also planned to have, all of which didn’t seem fair.

And even leaving all that aside, I wasn’t at all sure that at the end of a regular 8-hour day doing a not-too-demanding job, I’d actually still have enough energy and passion left to do philosophy seriously after work. Especially since I’m a morning person.

On the other hand, then, I could get up at 4:30 or 5 am, like Kant or Anthony Trollope, and write some philosophy before breakfast (and in fact, that’s what I’ve ended up doing for the rest of my life), before I went to my “day job.” But it wasn’t at all clear to me that only 2 or 3 hours of serious philosophy a day would be good enough.

Whatever the true rational force of all those reasons, I concluded that only a tenured academic job teaching philosophy would answer all my worries. So I went to graduate school, got an Ivy League PhD, published lots, taught well, kept my mouth shut, minimally behaved myself, and somehow got all the way through the fucking T&P system to full professor.

And got angrier and angrier and angrier; and continually pushed the envelope of keeping my mouth shut and behaving myself, until I wasn’t actually keeping my mouth shut in the face of absurd bullshit, or even minimally behaving myself according to what I regarded as rationally unjustified and immoral rules; until I just couldn’t stand it any more; and then finally I got the hell out, before I committed suicide. Seriously.

So, via the Dear Self, now I’m back to the original question in this section: can real philosophers keep body and soul together outside the contemporary Professional Academic State?

Yes: but only at a price, figuratively and literally. You can take a “day job.” Or you can be either completely or heavily supported by someone else. Neither is without its significant downsides. But it can be done.

Re: The Philosophical Community Question.

This question is, I think, more easily answered.

Yes again. But you have work to really hard at connecting with other real philosophers. The internet makes it at least possible. Being able to talk to other real philosophers in person too is even better, so if you can also find a few other real philosophers who live near you, and can find the time to meet up with them regularly, that is much closer to optimally good, along with the internet.

In any case, a combination of individual writing projects with mutual friendly but critical feedback, research groups, and collaborative writing projects, is the way to go.

And connecting with as many other real philosophers as possible, from as many other places places as possible, nearby or far away, is also the way to go. The more cosmopolitan the better.

The two really tricky aspects here are: (1) how can you relate to professional philosophers?, who will almost universally ignore you, and whose time in any case is almost entirely taken up by climbing up the Greasy Pole of the T&P system, which extremely effectively controls their thinking, speaking, and writing?

and (2) how can you connect with young philosophers, people just starting out and still in love with real philosophy, when you don’t have a teaching job inside the Professional Academic State?

As to the first tricky aspect, if you can somehow find at least a few professional philosopher fellow travellers, who care more about real philosophy than they do about T&P, then something can be done. Here again the internet is crucial, since these professional philosopher fellow travellers could be anywhere and still belong to your real philosophical community.

As to the second tricky aspect, I’m almost stumped. The only thing I can think of is that if you did have some professional philosopher fellow travellers in your real philosophical community, then they might also be able to connect you with their best and most interested students.

Re: The Dissemination Question.

This question is even more easily answered. Yes, yet again. But you have to be prepared to be pretty obscure and non-famous.

The internet makes it possible to publish, so there is always going to be that venue. For example, there is, whose name ironically disguises the fact that you don’t have to belong to the contemporary Professional Academic State in order to belong to it. Indeed, you can even be a dog named ‘Omar’ (deal with it).

And you can also create and maintain your own online blogs, journals, and book publishing sites too, for relatively little cost.

But publishing in professional philosophy journals is going to be mostly closed to you, unless you can find a way to pour your work into the narrow-mouthed bottles of professional philosophy. It can be done, but it’s frustratingly hard work, and the referees can be extremely brutal under the convenient cover of “double blind” reviewing.

So too with publishing books at the major or even minor academic presses. It can be done, but again it’s frustratingly hard work, and again the referees can be extremely brutal.

So, can real philosophers survive outside professional philosophy, that is, outside the contemporary Professional Academic State?

Yes. But only at a price, figuratively and literally. And you have work to really hard at connecting with other real philosophers. And be prepared to be pretty obscure and non-famous. And be prepared to have little or no social status. And be prepared to have your parents be disappointed by you.

But as real philosophers have always recognized, real philosophy has its consolations. You can dare to think, speak, and write for yourself. You can be a rational rebel for humanity. And you can have a truly meaningful life.


APP Editors’ Note:
L_E is a 20-something philosophy PhD student at a public university somewhere in the Southern Hemisphere.

L_E: I have a few comments on the “philosophy outside academia” post.

One curious and not so historically distant example is Peirce. He had a hard time in academia. It is a well-known fact that he has never been able to land a successful job in academia because Simon Newcomb, a recognized scientist at the time, did not like him and made every effort to harm his career. He earned his income by publishing articles in local magazines and through donations of friends like William James. I wonder if he had just given up.

Regarding the “Money Question”: I’ve thought a lot about this and I can also see a positive side on going for a job outside philosophy. Back in 2010 and before I started college, I had an 8-hour job and studied philosophy at night and weekends to see whether I really wanted to pursue it as a major (we have to choose majors prior to enrollment in country XXX). It was a relatively short period of time, but I had a great time back then and that’s when I fell in love with philosophy.

After graduating, and especially after going through the application process last Fall, I learned that one should be well aware of the boundaries of academia and real philosophy. I explore this point in more detail in my post, but I felt deeply unmotivated and seriously thought of doing something else during the months I was applying. I simply did not have any urge to open a philosophy book and read it for the sake of it. Doing so was so linked to unpleasant thoughts like where I would go to grad school, the rank of my institution, the likelihood of being able to land a job in the future, etc. In short, I was just starting in academic philosophy life and it had already killed my will to do philosophy. It took me a while, but I could figure out how to set the boundaries between the downsides of being an academic and the real value of studying philosophy. In my case, the best option was to choose an environment not so much poisoned by the academic life that would still allow me study and have fun with philosophy.

This is why I think that going for an outside and unrelated job might be a good idea for some. From my experience, it’s easier to sort things out when your work is not related to what you really like to do. You might hate your job (and I’m sure that many academics do), but at least it doesn’t have anything to do with what you really like to do. I would rather hate my job and keep my passion for philosophy than hate both altogether. I’m afraid that being in academia might make things harder to sort out, but that’s just my personal perspective.

Z: Yes, Peirce! Thanks so much for reminding me about his case.

On the one hand, it’s clear that Peirce was simply too philosophically original, and too personally bohemian, to fit into the narrow mold of “genteel” academic philosophy in that period and place—late 19th and early 20th century Boston, and the emerging Ivy League, East Coast academic axis from Johns Hopkins through Princeton and Columbia and Yale to Harvard.

Indeed, Santayana, another philosophical original and free spirit, eventually quit Harvard because he also couldn’t stand the intellectual and cultural straightjacket of puritanical Boston and right-coast America in that period. That’s made explicit in his personal correspondence, and in his novel, The Last Puritan.

But on the other hand, even though Peirce was certainly a real philosopher, he didn’t actually survive outside of professional philosophy, but in fact pretty much perished—all his big philosophical plans came to nothing, he never really finished anything except a few short articles, he was always poor, and he was almost completely unknown and philosophically isolated when he died.

It was really William James, and then the other famous pragmatists (Dewey, Royce, et al), who secured Peirce’s philosophical cult reputation, and then Hartshorne and Weiss, who edited his papers and finally made them widely available in the 1950s.

So Peirce himself, I think (as opposed to his posthumous influence and reputation), is a sad counterexample to the claim that real philosophers can survive outside professional philosophy….

And as to your thought “that going for an outside and unrelated job might be a good idea for some.” —

Yes I agree!, but with a qualifying worry. Certainly, this fairly recent piece in the New York Times shows that it’s possible for some people. And to that extent, two cheers!

But my third-cheer-suppressing worry, really the same as in the essay, is that doing an even not-too-demanding 9-5 job, five days a week, year in and year out, would ultimately be just too tiring and depressing to sustain a real philosophical life, especially if you ever had a partner and/or family.

Still, I think what you said was really interesting and important, namely that working at a not-too-demanding job made you love real philosophy even more, whereas the process of applying to graduate school temporarily killed your philosophical will-to-live. YES!, contemporary professional philosophy can all-too-easily make you hate the thing you loved.

Indeed, sometimes I’ve wondered in a sort of paranoid spirit whether that is the secret aim of contemporary professional philosophy, to kill real philosophy at its psychological source, because it’s essentially too creative and rebellious, and ultimately uncontrollable by the Professional Academic State.

It’s that Sapere aude! thing again. The fat-cat Fortune 500 professional philosophy and administration fuckers just can’t deal with it….

L_E: About Peirce, I totally agree! If it weren’t for his friends’ support, he wouldn’t have survived (at least not like the great philosopher that we all know about). So yes, Peirce is definitely an example of how academia can kill a real philosopher.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized by Z. Bookmark the permalink.

About Z

Z is a 50-something cosmopolitan anarcho-philosopher, and previously was a tenured full professor of philosophy at a public university somewhere in North America, but still managed to escape with his life.