Production for Use: Professional Philosophy as a Highly Efficient System for Treating People Merely as Means.

1. One doesn’t have to be a Kantian to realize that, other things being equal, treating people (oneself or others) merely as means, that is, treating people merely as instruments to the achievement of some other end that is beyond the best interests or dignity of the people themselves, is a morally bad thing. Of course people manipulate and use each other all the time, both inside and outside professional philosophy. That’s morally worrisome, and sad, and sometimes even morally catastrophic, but not especially philosophically interesting.

2. But what is of special critical meta-philosophical interest is the discovery that contemporary professional academic philosophy has, in effect, constituted itself as a highly efficient system for treating people merely as means, i.e., exploiting them, in two fundamental ways: (i) with respect to non-tenured-teaching, and (ii) with respect to recommendation letters.

3. By non-tenured teaching, I mean all the philosophy teaching that is done by those who are not, and never will become or be, tenured faculty–i.e., the permanent, privileged departmental employees of colleges, universities, and other institutions of higher education within the Professional Academic State. This includes some undergraduate students, most graduate students, virtually all “contingent faculty,” i.e., full or part-time instructors, adjuncts, and lecturers, and also all current track-track people who for whatever reason do not manage to leap over the tenure hurdle.

4. I am willing to concede that, perhaps, some non-tenured philosophy teaching is happily done and not inherently exploitative. No doubt you can think of some really possible, or even actual, examples. If it be so, then so be it.

5. But all those current philosophy teachers inside the Professional Academic State who will, as a matter of fact, never become permanent privileged departmental employees, i.e., tenured faculty, but who desire this and would indeed accept such a position if it were offered to them, hence are wannabe tenured faculty, are being systematically used as mere means, and manipulated, by their tenured so-called colleagues and by the administrative bosses of the Professional Academic State. Their lives, as doomed wannabe tenured faculty, are lives filled with exploitation and more or less quiet desperation.

6. So, sadly, the large majority of philosophy teachers in contemporary professional academic philosophy are doomed wannabe tenured faculty. Therefore contemporary professional academic philosophy is, with respect to non-tenured philosophy teaching, essentially a highly efficient system for treating people merely as means.

7. We all know what recommendation letters are. They are more-or-less confidential discursive climbing spurs for slithering up the greasy career-pole of the system of rewards-&-punishments that consists in this Great Chain of Professional Being:

get into graduate school –> get PhD –> get tenure track job –> get tenure-&- promotion to associate professor–> get promotion to full professor–> get named chair –> retire and get emeritus/emerita status –> die,

not to mention also the closely-related and indeed overlapping system of rewards (by getting)-&-punishments (by not getting) prestigious postdocs, grants, fellowships, prizes, and “other honors.”

 

8. Now many or most talented, hard-working, and even minimally ambitious undergraduate students in philosophy very quickly figure out that the best way to get good recommendation letters, which are necessary and sometimes even sufficient conditions of succeeding in the highly intense competition for places in more or less highly-ranked graduate programs, is to pretend that they admire the persons or the published work of tenured or tenure-track faculty who come from high-status graduate programs, or are otherwise well-known in some sub-field, and use them for recommendation letters.

9. And many or most talented, hard-working, and even minimally ambitious graduate students in philosophy very quickly figure out that the best way to get good recommendation letters, which are necessary and sometimes even sufficient conditions of succeeding in the highly intense competition for jobs in professional philosophy, whether tenure-track or not, and/or postdocs, is to pretend that they admire the persons or the published work of tenured or tenure-track faculty who come from high-status graduate programs, or are otherwise well-known in some sub-field, and use them for recommendation letters.

10. And many or most talented, hard-working, and even minimally ambitious untenured philosophy teachers very quickly figure out that the best way to get good recommendation letters,which are necessary and sometimes even sufficient conditions of succeeding in the highly intense competition for tenure-track jobs, or tenure, or promotion, in professional philosophy, whether tenure-track or not, is to pretend that they admire the persons or the published work of tenured or tenure-track philosophy faculty who come from high-status graduate programs, or are otherwise well-known in some sub-field, and use them for recommendation letters.

11. And many or most talented, hard-working, and even minimally ambitious tenured philosophers very quickly figure out that the best way to get good recommendation letters, which are necessary and sometimes even sufficient conditions of succeeding in the highly intense competition for even better tenured jobs, grants, or fellowships in professional philosophy, is to pretend that they admire the persons or the published work of other tenured philosophy faculty who come from high-status graduate programs, or are otherwise well-known in some sub-field, and use them for recommendation letters.

12. I am more than willing to concede that there are at least some really possible and also actual significant teacher-student and senior colleague-junior colleague interactions in philosophy that are not based on deceit and manipulation, and are the real thing. In fact, I know this to be the case, based on the real-world experience of interactions with my own favorite former students and younger colleagues–you know who you are. The effective criterion of such real-thing interactions is that these people are the ones who stick with you as time goes by, and when the going gets tough. The others, the users, simply go away and join the careerist army or herd of professional academic philosophers, doing whatever it takes to assault-climb or moo-cow their way up to the next rung in the Great Chain of Professional Being, exploiting others higher up the Chain, or pushing lower people off it altogether, into the void of unemployment. E.g., denying young philosophers tenure, or firing contingent faculty, after they’ve used them for, say, 5-10 years. Nice, very nice. Is this one great profession, or what?

13. So, leaving aside those few truly lovely, highly-talented people who are the real thing, the whole system of slithering up the greasy career-pole of professional academic philosophy, for many or even most of those who are its “brightest and best” practitioners, not to mention all the others, is fundamentally based on deceit and manipulation. Therefore contemporary professional academic philosophy is, with respect to recommendation letters, essentially a highly efficient system for treating people merely as means, i.e., for exploiting people.

14. Now highly efficient systems for treating people merely as means, i.e., for exploiting people, even despite their high level of efficiency, are very morally bad, morally scandalous in fact. Therefore professional academic philosophy, with respect to untenured teaching and recommendation letters, is morally scandalous.

15. Is it conceivable that professional philosophers haven’t yet noticed this? My hypothesis is that they see it, but mostly repress that recognition or anyhow suppress the urge to talk out loud about it, because the neo-liberal structure of contemporary professional philosophy puts those who are the big winners in the system, i.e., the fat cats, also in the best position to control their colleagues and maintain the scandalously morally bad exploitative status quo.

 16. I leave it to the reader to figure out how contemporary professional academic philosophy could get rid of the moral scandals of non-tenured teaching and recommendation letters without dismantling professional academic philosophy itself.
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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.