In his well-known 2013 essay, “The Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs,” the political anthropologist David Graeber defines and criticizes what he calls “bullshit jobs.”
Bullshit jobs are meaningless, pointless jobs that, although they may pay extremely well, make no beneficial or salient difference to anyone else’s lives or to humanity in general, and also are characteristically regarded as meaningless and pointless by the very people who actually do them, in their more honest, reflective moments.
As Graeber notes, shining examples of bullshit jobs are:
corporate law, academic and health administration, human resources, and public relations. And these numbers do not even reflect on all those people whose job is to provide administrative, technical, or security support for these industries, or for that matter the whole host of ancillary industries (dog-washers, all-night pizza deliverymen) that only exist because everyone else is spending so much of their time working in all the other ones.
I particularly emphasize the bullshitness of academic administrative jobs.
The basic critique of bullshit jobs is fourfold:
(1) that as neoliberal global corporate capitalism in the internet age progressively dominates the modern world, bullshit jobs are, correspondingly, rapidly dominating the workforce, replacing real, productive jobs,
(2) that the holders of bullshit jobs typically look down on, and also economically oppress, the people who do real, productive jobs (with a few notable exceptions, like medical doctors),
(3) that bullshit jobs use up huge amounts of time and resources that could be much better spent on creative, productive activities that actually benefited people or made a salient difference in people’s lives, and
(4) that doing bullshit jobs turns people who, when they were young, were creative, idealistic, and intelligent, into cynical, soul-less, rule-following automata of the neoliberal technocratic state.
In turn, the counterfactual criterion of whether a given job is a bullshit job or not, is this:
If the entire class of jobs under that heading were to disappear, then would any other people be significantly worse off or would it make any salient difference to humanity in general?
In light of all that, the question I’m specifically asking is:
Is professional philosophy–i.e., professional academic philosophy–a bullshit job in the sense Graeber articulated and I’ve elaborated?
And the answer I want to give is:
Yes, but with an important qualification.
Yes, precisely insofar as it is professional and academic, professional academic philosophy is a bullshit job, for all the reasons we’ve been spelling out on APP, for years.
Moreover, the counterfactual criterion of being a bullshit job makes this self-evident:
Were the entire class of professional academic philosophers to disappear completely, it wouldn’t make anyone else worse off or make any salient difference whatsoever to humanity.
This is because:
Even if there were no professional academic philosophers at all, there would still be more than enough real, serious philosophers left over to think, write, and teach about the human condition in all its aspects and implications.
Now for the important qualification. Consider this:
Were there to be no real, serious philosophers who, as a full-time, lifetime calling, were thinkers, writers, and teachers about the human condition in all its aspects and implications, then all those who, at any point in their lives, reflected on those lives and the larger human condition, and asked themselves fundamental questions, would be significantly worse off for the lack of works of real, serious philosophy and able, committed teachers of philosophy; and their absence would indeed also make a huge difference to the larger intellectual, socio-cultural, aesthetic, moral, and political life of humanity.
The job of doing philosophy, as such–i.e., real, serious philosophy, pursued as a full-time, lifetime calling–isn’t a bullshit job: on the contrary! It’s eminently worthwhile.
Only the professional academic part is bullshit.
So we need to find a way to liberate real, serious philosophy from the Professional Academic State, so that we don’t all end up like this: