In Praise of Semi-Professional Philosophy.

APP Editors’ note: Ishmael is a tenured associate professor of philosophy at a small private university somewhere in North America.

I have written in reply to a previous Edgy Essay about the benefits of membership in the Semi-Professional Academic State, which is to say the benefits of teaching at a small undergraduate university.

Since such universities generally care less about one’s Reputation in the Philosophy Profession, one is more or less at liberty to think, talk, and write as one pleases. Also at least to some extent to hire colleagues as one pleases. Constraints are imposed by the Administrative Suits, of course; and one wants and needs to hire colleagues who specialize in different styles and sub-areas of the discipline. But since the administrators at non-publish-or-perish universities care less than those at R1 institutions about the Professional Status of their hires, one is free to place potential personal relations high on the list of qualifications when evaluating candidates.

A thoughtfully constituted philosophy department at such a university, then, can itself resemble the sort of Philosophy Research Group about which Z has recently written.
In my small department we adopted this approach for our last three searches. Each of the three young philosophers we eventually hired has already begun to produce serious and high-caliber professional work, and they all quite evidently have the potential to produce more in the future. But, as importantly, they are all amiable colleagues. We conceive of and care about philosophy in similar ways, which makes for a collegial atmosphere, and hence for better and deeper philosophy, both among ourselves and among our students.

And this, to say it again, is the result of our explicit intentions when hiring. We interviewed individuals whose specialties fit with our departmental needs, and who had demonstrated serious philosophical knowledge and talent, but one of the final deciding factors—I might even say, the deciding factor—when narrowing down our preferences, were questions such as, “Does this person think of philosophy and the philosophical life as we do?” and, “Will this person be a good colleague—will he, or she, fit into the life of the department as we have developed it so far?”

Notice the word “life” in these two questions. Philosophy should be a way of life, not a profession, even for those who earn their living as professors of philosophy.

To regular readers of this blog, I imagine this sounds like something approaching an ideal situation. So why don’t more philosophers—sincere lovers of wisdom—take this route. Oh, the dreaded three-four, or four-four, teaching load!

But, really, think about it: each semester two or three of these classes will be Introduction to Philosophy, or something similar, a course that a competent philosopher should be able to teach—and teach well, which is to say inspirationally—with little preparation, at least after a few years of experience.

In addition to this, there’s likely to be a class in one’s specialty, or a Gen Ed class that one can frame in such a way as to involve one’s specialty. With a five-day teaching schedule that amounts to, what, 2 or 2½ hours in the classroom every day, and not too much prep time in addition.

Now if one is, or is trying to be, a real philosopher (in Z’s sense of this expression), then presumably the rest of one’s many free hours will not be wasted dawdling on the internet, obsessing over the ephemeral trivialities of politics, fiddling with fantasy sports teams, boozing, schmoozing, or sexing.

In short, one can easily find a few hours every day for serious thinking and writing. In these circumstances, a well-trained and self-disciplined philosopher should be able to produce the occasional article of the sort expected and respected by those Professional Philosophers who inhabit the Realm of Research Heaven, and still have time to produce real philosophy too—original, exciting, and culturally relevant essays or books that fall outside the narrow obsessions of the Professional Class, whose insipid obsessions are doomed to ultimate oblivion anyway.

But who will publish your works of creative, experimental, literate philosophy? A good question. Two different commissioning editors at OUP didn’t even bother to acknowledge receipt of my last two book proposals, much less write to turn me down. Presumably they didn’t recognize my name as being inscribed on the roster of any one of the Acceptable Cliques, or they recognized it as belonging to a person who writes as he pleases, Professional Reputation be damned (and despite the fact that at least one of my Scholarly Articles in a Respected Journal has multiple Citations).

But no matter. My books came out anyway, and men and women whom I consider authentic creative philosophers have read and appreciated them. I’ve made many good friends across the country this way, rare individuals and genuine philosophers living and working undercover in the Professional Academic State.

So let’s encourage all those bright young graduate students who have yet to be perverted and diverted by the Research Professionals—which is to say by scholars, logic-choppers, and careerists, not philosophers, despite the name on the door of their departmental suite—let’s encourage the many aspiring lovers of wisdom out there to apply to small teaching universities with the goal of becoming good teachers while also flourishing as creative thinkers and writers. Let’s aim to generate across the country a group of like-minded philosophers who write and publish real philosophy wherever they can, without worrying whether they’ll be invited to the Right Conferences, or whether the Right Editors at the Right Presses will appreciate their work. Genuine philosophers need not crave the approval of small-minded men.

Down with the Philosophy Profession! Up with philosophy!