Real Philosophy from the Outside. A Conversation between M, Boethius, L-E, and Z. (APP’s Readers Talk Back! 3)

APP Editors’ note: M is a recent PhD in philosophy, and also the holder of an advanced degree in law, who is currently teaching in a non-TT position at a public university somewhere in Europe; Boethius is a tenured associate professor of philosophy at a public university somewhere in North America; & L_E is a PhD student in philosophy at a public university somewhere in the Southern Hemisphere.

Their comments below are all in response to–
Can Real Philosophers Survive Outside Professional Philosophy?
An Edgy Essay by Z, with Follow-Up Discussion by L_E and Z.

M: Hi Z.

Today we’ve been discussing Thomas Hurka’s 1993 book Perfectionism in my XXX University undergrad seminar. In the chapter on equality – part i (ch. 12) he makes a point about material wealth/resouces vs. leisure (end of chapter). I think this parallels the professional vs. real philosophy debate in some respects. If I get Hurka right there should be (more) leisure time given to the (more) talented so that they can strive for (their respective) excellence. No diminishing marginal utility there. I was reminded of your demand for ‘Freisemester’ at 50 % pay for ‘real professional philosophers’ which you posted the other day. I guess this is about talent and ‘Freiheit der Wissenschaft’/academic freedom as a basic right as well.

Just to let you know my associations and further thoughts. I even handed out
the link to your webpage to my students. Guess this will utterly corrupt them.

Boethius:  Edward Abbey and Jack Turner also seem like good examples of real
philosophers who fall into neither the professional nor academic category.
Abbey never entered professional philosophy, and Turner quit after reading
Arne Naess’s paper on deep ecology. Abbey recommends living simply, thus reducing
the need to be enslaved too much by way of even a day job, thus freeing up
time for tramping around and philosophizing. Turner became a wilderness and
climbing guide in the Greater Yellowstone. That’s seasonal work, again
important to reserving time for thinking, as was Abbey’s seasonal work as a
park ranger and fire lookout. Those experiences gave him the raw material
for his brand of environmental philosophy. (The Atlantic has some good video
on the fire lookout job).

These guys got famous. I wonder how many others are out there who never
wrote anything like Desert Solitaire. Presumably there are more than a few.
I have little idea of how to get started with that kind of life, and
especially little idea of how to convert to it mid-career. I also have no
idea how to blend its components with one including family, and without
pawning familial obligations off on someone else. The life could be led as a
family, I suppose, and I guess some people indeed do that. So I echo some of
your remarks, especially those concerning The Money Question.

One might add another question to your list: The Teaching Question. How can
you get the fulfillment of teaching philosophy without some kind of academic
appointment? For many of us, the teaching side is more significant than
research: much more so, in fact. It’s my primary way of making a difference by
way of facilitating philosophy’s practical impact. The fulfillment from this
is missing or diminished outside of the academy (though this seems more
contentious the more I consider it). Can that fulfillment be had in other
educational formats? I imagine Socrates in the market, or Abbey or Turner
leading discussions around a campfire. I can see a lot of impact being had
in that latter format. But while I complain about class sizes and my
teaching load all the time, I reach many more people with a university
teaching job. I occasionally even pull it off effectively. If my own
teachers had chosen to be fire lookouts instead, I¹d have been worse off,
and so would their thousands of other students.

How to reply? It could be that I’m wrong in thinking we can teach real
philosophy to large numbers of people at a time. It might instead be that
real teaching (another term to unpack!) can only take place in small groups
at most. In that case, non-professional real philosophy might be a better
fit with with the teaching side. On the other hand, if effective teaching
and fulfillment from it can be had within the confines of the university
teaching loads some of us have, we answer the teaching question and the
money question together. I’m not seeing a clear path on this.

L_E: Probably you know about this, but I think it’s worth mentioning anyway. There’s this Patreon site where people voluntarily pay to support content makers. I’ve seen a few channels with philosophy contents that have been supported by subscribers (I think that one of them is held by an Oxford philosophy major). I find it particularly interesting because it is a legitimate way to earn some money by doing philosophy and teaching philosophy too (not that those two are different things at all). Moreover, you have no strings to institutions or something of the sort that could potentially dictate what is “worth” teaching and researching.

It’s true that one can hardly make a living off that nowadays, but maybe that’s one possibility of continuing doing philosophy and not being subject to institutional arbitrariness. Perhaps a way to change the state of professional philosophy in our days is by creating alternatives for one to make a comfortable living and still do philosophy. I think that if people had alternatives, the way things are handled in universities could change.

Z: Thanks so much! to you three. Upon reflection, I want to take your super-interesting and thought-provoking comments collectively, and also connect them with something equally super-interesting and thought-provoking that Ishmael wrote in a letter I quoted in an APP’s Readers Talk Back! post from 16 July,

Let’s Crash Out! Real Philosophy, Anti-Professional Style, and the Right Genre and Medium for the Message. A Conversation between JV, Ishmael, L_E, and Z. (APP’s Readers Talk Back! 2)

“If a creative and disciplined person is, or aspires to be, a “real philosopher” rather than a professional philosopher whose actual interests are in sports, family, beer, television, or various other forms of materialist/materialistic varieties of trivial self-indulgence, he or she can teach four classes a semester at a teaching university and still find time to publish.

Since the administration of such schools does not pressure one to publish, or to publish in particular venues, one can take one’s time and write about content and in a style and at a pace that is less professional-academic in the offensive sense, and more creative and interesting as real philosophy.

A job at a small teaching university may limit one’s future professional options, but for those who aren’t interested in playing this game of advancement, but sincerely interested in real philosophy, this should not be a problem.

Imagine a vast network across the country of small “teaching” philosophy departments staffed by real philosophers writing works that through their creative form and exciting substance reach and influence a broad audience!”

Here, then, is the overall line of thought that all your comments evoke in me:

Although real philosophy CAN be done inside professional academic philosophy—some people have managed to do it, and some people are still doing it—there’s a fundamental incompatibility between real philosophy and professional academic philosophy, as Schopenhauer, for all his ranting and exaggeration, incisively points out in “On University Philosophy.”

And that was the mid-19th century! Since the end of World War II, the situation in professional academic philosophy has gradually developed so that the precious work-time and intellectual energies of professional philosophers are increasingly deflected into other avenues—like the dreaded tenure-and-promotion (T&P) system—and also increasingly deformed by the essentially non-philosophical, and sometimes even immorally coercive and oppressive, demands and needs of The Professional Academic State, so that the essential classical aims of real philosophy are, at the very least, constantly threatened, and at worst, even effectively undermined.

Hence, if we are to sustain and pursue the thing we all loved, real philosophy, and also create the real philosophy of the future, contemporary professional academic philosophy will have to be subverted and re-structured from the inside, and this fairly radical critical and re-constructive process will be naturally driven and inspired by philosophers working, in some way or another, outside professional academic philosophy and The Professional Academic State.

But the immediate problem on the table is:  how is it really possible for real philosophers and real philosophy to survive and thrive outside professional academic philosophy and The Professional Academic State?

One important preliminary point that’s been made evident to me by reflecting on M’s, Boethius’s, Ishmael’s, and L_E’s comments, taken together, is that the meaning of the preposition “outside,” in the context of the phrases “outside professional academic philosophy” and “outside The Professional Academic State” is at least three ways ambiguous.

First, “outside” can mean something mainly psychological: not motivated by what motivates people who are entirely caught up in the cultures and mindsets of professional academic philosophy and The Professional Academic State—e.g., paradigmatically, departmental or university college/administrators, i.e., those who have fully gone over to The Dark Side.

come to the dark side

Second, “outside” can mean something mainly institutional and social-structural: not belonging to or under the coercive economic, legal, or political jurisdiction of the institutions and social structures of professional academic philosophy and The Professional Academic State.

And third, “outside” can literally mean something mainly environmental: in the wild, or at least physically out-of-doors and in that way not within the essentially urban and citified orbit of professional academic philosophy and The Professional Academic State.

All of three of these senses are directly relevant to the issue under consideration—how can real philosophers and real philosophy survive and thrive outside professional academic philosophy and The Professional Academic State?—but in subtly different ways.

In relation to what M wrote, and the issues raised by taking “outside” in the psychological sense,

I very much like the analogy she suggested, namely—

material wealth/resources : leisure :: professional philosophy : real philosophy.

But I think there would also have to be a distinction between (roughly) “lower leisure” and “higher leisure” that parallels Mill’s distinction between lower and higher pleasures, or even better, between what a contemporary Kantian philosopher calls “shallow happiness” and “deep happiness,” in a book-in-progress called Kantian Ethics and Human Existence.

The pursuit of real philosophy would then count as the pursuit of higher leisure/higher pleasure/deep happiness.

As finite/embodied rational beings, we do all have the right to pursue happiness, as such, whether shallow happiness or deep happiness;

but we also also have the obligation to pursue deep happiness, since it’s a necessary part of what Kant calls the “sole and complete good” in the Groundwork and the “highest good” in the Critique of Practical Reason.

Of course, real philosophy isn’t the ONLY way to pursue the sole and complete good! E.g., Lincoln, Ghandi, Martin Luther King, and Mother Teresa all pursued the sole and complete good, yet weren’t (or anyhow, weren’t primarily) real philosophers.

But real philosophy is certainly ONE way to pursue it, and an extremely important one, because it also spells out and explains the very idea of the sole and complete good, and its interconnections with other aspects of the rational human condition.

So departmental, college, and university administrations, if they really and truly give a shit about the good, are obligated to let philosophers wholeheartedly pursue real philosophy in the way that suits them best, whether by research or teaching, or both, or by means of other weirder philosophical projects that don’t fall neatly into the Research vs. Teaching boxes.

And when the administrator-darth-vaders actually do that, then perhaps all the real philosophers will finally be able to return to professional philosophy—assuming they haven’t perished for lack of income, philosophical community, or venues of dissemination by then.

In relation to what Boethius, L_E, and Ishmael wrote, and the issues raised by taking “outside” primarily in the institutional and social-structural sense,

I’m particularly intrigued by the idea of what Ishmael called the “semi-Professional Academic State,” in relation to what Boethius called The Teaching Question.

In the original discussion, I was subsuming the question of teaching outside professional academic philosophy and The Professional Academic State under The Community Question and The Dissemination Question, but as Boethius has laid it out, I now completely agree that it deserves its own category.

Hard question! Since virtually all young people who might have any serious interest in philosophy are already inside The Professional Academic State, getting access to them would be extremely difficult, unless, as I suggest in the original essay, some real philosophy fellow travelers who are working inside professional philosophy could put you in contact with their best and most interested students, and those students were willing and able to spend non-trivial amounts of time being taught philosophy by someone who’s an outsider or “stranger” to the academic system.

In that connection, sadly, my past experience with even my very best and most real-philosophy-committed students, who already saw the fundamental incompatibility between professional philosophy and real philosophy, was this:

Although they really, really wanted to pursue philosophy in this non-mainstream, unorthodox, authentic way, say during the summers or after they had graduated, in the end they simply couldn’t find the energy, time, or financial wherewithal to stick with it. The personal, social, and simple economic pressures from their parents, friends, partners, and society at large to get on with their working lives, stop being a “slacker,” and “make something of themselves” was just too great.

And I totally empathize and understand with them! At their age, I myself simply gritted my teeth, “sold out,” and opted for professional philosophy for just those reasons. But it’s depressing, and it makes me long for some other, better way to teach real philosophy outside the Professional Academic State.

On the other hand, inside The Professional Academic State, of course it’s really possible, to some non-trivial extent, to convey and do some real philosophy by means of teaching, either at the undergraduate or graduate level. All really first-rate professional philosophy teachers manage to do it! And since you’re being paid to teach, that solves The Money Question.

But then on the third hand, and problematically again, there’s that fundamental incompatibility between professional academic philosophy and real philosophy looming on the horizon, making everyone’s philosophical life difficult, as soon as the issues of going vs. not going to graduate school in philosophy, and/or pursuing a career vs. not pursuing a career in professional philosophy, begin to arise, either towards the end of philosophy majors’ undergraduate degree programs, or as graduate students approach the dissertation stage.

If your best and most committed students want to go on doing philosophy, then you have to turn them into grad-school-application robots, or dissertation/publication/job-search/T&P robots, and ultimately into enemies of real philosophy. You have to make them kill the thing they loved. Shit! What a paradox.

So like Boethius, “I’m not seeing a clear path on this.”

But perhaps there’s still some hope, in two directions.

First, in view of what Ishmael wrote, I do now see and completely agree that there’s another slightly less radical alternative to being wholly outside the coercive economic, legal, or political jurisdiction of the institutions and social structures of professional academic philosophy and The Professional Academic State, where “lonely are the brave,” and obviously it’s hard to survive as either a philosopher or rational human animal, without a job.

In this connection, the semi-Professional Academic State could and would certainly be a more hospitable place, and more conducive to real philosophy, than highly-Leiter-ranked departments, i.e., what I’ve called The Fortune 500 Philosophy Club, and than high-powered “Research 1” institutions more generally, and also make it possible to teach students, and have decent housing, decent health care, and enough food.

Of course, the obvious downside there is that the members of The Fortune 500 Philosophy Club will sneer at you, and find all sorts of ways to withhold from you the special benefits of being a member of the Club and a big winner in the T&P system. Oh well.

Second, as L_E points out, there is a whole world of online donations and “crowd-sourcing” that real philosophy might be able to connect with. I do doubt, however, that anyone would ever be able to live full-time on the amount of money that could be raised in this way. But it also occurred to me that enough money to sustain small summer schools for committed, keen, undergraduates interested in real philosophy, might be forthcoming.

Such funding sources, and summer schools in real philosophy, in turn, might provide a partial response to the difficult issues raised by The Teaching Question for real philosophers who are trying to survive and thrive completely (or as completely as possible) outside the institutional and social-structural jurisdiction of professional academic philosophy and The Professional (or even semi-Professional) Academic State.

And finally, in relation to something else Boethius wrote, and the questions raised by taking“outside” in the environmental sense,

I wasn’t aware of either Abbey or Turner, so I’m really happy to have my attention drawn to them. They of course remind me of Thoreau.

In any case, their philosophical lives excellently point up the fact that, depending on the nature of your “day job,” doing real philosophy (almost) full-time could be really possible.

Being a (seasonal or year-round) park ranger, fire lookout, wilderness guide, or climbing guide, all seem like they could make it work.

As for me, personally, I love contemplating, musing, and thinking while walking in quiet quasi-urban spaces, near the wild but not actually in the wild.

So as much as I love clouds, rain, oceans, rivers, lakes, ponds, streams, trees, flowers, prairie grass, snow-capped mountains, etc., etc., seen from fairly close, or from afar, etc., for their own sake, living in the wild, per se, is not my scene.

In effect, I’m a neo-Romantic about nature, understood as the well-structured world of authentic (as opposes to illusory) appearances, in line with some basic philosophical themes of the late 18th century/early 19th century, including Kant’s aesthetics and philosophy of biology, Wordsworth, Shelley and Shelley, Caspar David Friedrich,

File:Caspar David Friedrich 009.jpg

Turner, etc., etc., but also a quasi-urbanist, which is what makes me “neo” rather than strictly classical-Romantic.

Indeed, from almost the moment I started climbing up the Greasy Pole of the T&P, system, I fantasized and joked about quitting and becoming a postman (this was before the age of delivering mail from postal trucks, which seem to me like nothing but big gas-powered golf carts), and supporting my real-philosophy habit that way.

But obviously being a postman has its serious downsides—heavy bags, nasty dogs, tiredness at the end of the day, they could force you to deliver mail from big golf carts, stupid supervisors, and the possibility that the Postal Service is a coercive State-like institution too. I don’t really know! Still, I think it’s interesting that Thomas Pynchon chose the secret war between two postal services as the primary plot vehicle in his early postmodernist, conspiracy-theory novella The Crying of Lot 49, and also that “going postal” used to be a paradigm expression of violent job-related anomie, etc.

Anyhow, blah blah blah. There’s a much deeper philosophical point here, which is the essential importance of the late 18th /early 19th century Kantian and literary Romantic, and early 20th century “British emergentist” (as formulated by, say, Samuel Alexander) philosophical-moral attitude of “natural piety” towards the natural world, e.g.,

[T]wo things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and reverence, the more often and more steadily one reflects on them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me. (Kant, Critique of Practical Reason 5: 161)

It is quite certain that we can never adequately come to know the organized beings and their internal possibility in accordance with merely mechanical principles of nature, let alone explain them; and this is so certain that we can boldly say that it would be absurd for humans to make an attempt or to hope that there could ever arise a Newton who could make comprehensible even the generation of a blade of grass according to natural laws that no intention has ordered; rather we must absolutely deny this insight to human beings. (Kant, Critique of the Power of Judgment 5: 400)

My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began;
So is it now I am a man;
So be it when I shall grow old,
Or let me die!
The Child is father of the Man;
And I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.
(William Wordsworth, “My Heart Leaps Up”)

Earth, ocean, air, belov’d brotherhood!
If our great Mother has imbued my soul
With aught of natural piety to feel
Your love, and recompense the boon with mine.
(Percy Shelley, Alastor)

“I do not mean by natural piety exactly what Wordsworth meant by it–the reverent joy in nature, by which he wished that his days might be bound to each other–though there is enough connection with his interpretation to justify me in using his phrase. The natural piety I am going to speak of is that of the scientific investigator, by which he accepts with loyalty the mysteries which he cannot explain in nature and has no right to try to explain. I may describe it as the habit of knowing when to stop in asking questions of nature.” (Alexander, “Natural Piety,” in S. Alexander, Philosophical and Literary Pieces [London: Macmillan, 1939], pp. 299-315, at p. 299)

The Kantian-Romantic-British-emergentist philosophical doctrine of natural piety, as I understand it, counsels an epistemologically and metaphysically sane, aesthetically-sensitive and ethically-sensitive, non-reductive, non-mechanistic, primitivist approach to investigating nature, pro-science but not scientistic, by knowing the inherent scope and limits of natural-scientific investigation,

as an essential corrective to the epistemic, metaphysical, and military-industrial madness of the noumenal-realist and “lordship and mastery of nature” approach adopted by Bacon, Descartes in the Discourse on Method, by the leading figures of the Vienna Circle, and by scientific naturalists and proponents of mechanistic reduction in recent and contemporary natural science and philosophy.

And this attitude of natural piety is something that real philosophy can be directly driven by. So, looking to the work of contemporary environmentalist-outsiders who are also real philosophers, for guidance in a world afflicted by epistemic, metaphysical, and military-industrial madness, or for clues to the real philosophy of the future, seems like something we should all be doing.

All things considered then, in view of the psychological, institutional and social-structural, and environmental aspects of the question, I’m saying (actually shouting), let’s do more real philosophy from the outside.

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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.