“Fear, What’s Fashionable, and Fear”: An Untenured Woman Philosopher’s Thoughts on the State of Contemporary Professional Philosophy

Author’s Note:
Roughly 18 months ago, I was at a philosophy conference and had several long conversations with a super-smart and super-nice 20-something woman philosopher who’s an untenured assistant professor at a private university somewhere in North America. Let’s call her “W.”

Over the course of three days, W and I talked about all sorts of philosophical and non-philosophical things, including contemporary academia in general and contemporary professional philosophy in particular. Then the conversation suddenly shifted gears, and we shared many similar worries about the state of contemporary professional philosophy. For whatever reason, I felt that I could trust her completely, so I plunged ahead and told her about the APP project, and revealed my secret identity as Z. Later I sent her a link to the APP home-page. Then she sent me some thoughts, and I asked her permission to publish them on APP, with a few minor editorial corrections to preserve anonymity. Since then, roughly 18 months have gone by with no follow-up correspondence—was she too fearful even to admit that she’d been talking to me, or corresponding with me? That raises again the central theme of her words, namely, the culture of fear in contemporary professional philosophy.

Anyhow, with all that water under the bridge, I’m assuming that I can publish these words now, with some minor editing to preserve anonymity….

“I just read some of the entries on the blog. The entries are wise, insightful, and while they do not ‘say something nice’ they at the same time point at problems that need to be addressed (at least in my view). I wonder what is at the basis of academia being as it is. Here are some thoughts from my perspective:

First, it seems that fear (be it fear of being rejected, fear of not being able to keep a job, fear of being criticized, fear of being excluded, or just plain fear of being wrong) plays a role in how people in academia decide and act. Of course, people are more complex than that and many people’s behavior will not be correctly characterized in this way. Nevertheless, thinking about this in terms of fear allows us to imagine how it could be different. So, what kind of academic behavior would ensue if suddenly the fear of being wrong, the fear of not getting a job or not getting tenure, or the fear of getting rejected, were to lose its motivating force? I bet many people would say that nothing productive would happen; but I do not think that this would be the case. As you yourself pointed out, most people who are in philosophy are really passionate about what they do and have an intrinsic motivation for doing what they are doing.

Second, and maybe related to the first point, many people (especially junior people) experience a certain urgency to justify their philosophical projects in terms of what is fashionable this year in some major publication outlets. My graduate students often express this urgency with the question: What should I do to be ‘marketable’? Of course, given the current academic climate this is quite normal and (maybe) a good strategy for survival. However, that just seems to me like a recipe for bad philosophical work (as if what is fashionable is per se philosophically worthwhile; even though it could be).

Finally, I do think that the problems in academia need to be understood in the socio-political-economical context of the US. When I graduated from [University U in country V] I had received an upper middle class wage for 4 years for writing my dissertation (in contrast to the debt that all my graduate students are racking up). In addition, at least at that point (things are changing in V too), it would have been feasible for me to get a fulfilling job outside of academia or to get another MA (in fact, I was planning to do so). This is thanks to the respect for intellectual accomplishments and education that still characterizes public life in C. If I, however, do not get tenure here in the US, I will most likely move back to V. Not only is the cost of living insane in the US, I also do not think that any non-academic employer would be impressed by the work I have done for the last few years. And that brings us back to my first point: fear.”

My only follow-up comments are these: (1) Yes!, and (2) If the brightest young researchers in contemporary professional philosophy, like W, are being heavily driven by fear and the pressure to publish on fashionable topics, then contemporary professional philosophy is seriously fucked up, and desperately needs to be fixed up, for the sake of real philosophy.

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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.