The APP Dilemma For Young Philosophers. The Beginning of a Conversation.

APP Editors’ Note: YP is a young philosopher currently working on her BA somewhere in North America or Europe.

YP:  I recently found your website. I was intrigued. And relieved that such a community exists.

I’m an aspiring philosopher (age 21) and I’m working through the XYZ program in philosophy.

Since middle school I’ve been reading philosophy for pleasure. I’ve wanted a PhD in philosophy for just as long. The more I read blogs like Leiter Reports and Daily Nous, etc. the more discouraged I’ve become with academic philosophy.

I’m not quite disillusioned with the pursuit, which I think is because I feel I need external validation in the form of publications and degrees. I told myself I would earn a PhD, obtain tenure, pursue philosophy academically and then retire, open one of those philosophy cafes like they have in Europe and promote “real philosophy”. I don’t just want to make a significant contribution to philosophy, I want to contribute to the world, through philosophy.

Scrambling to write a scholarly paper, read by a few colleagues and understood by even fewer, isn’t appealing for a lot of reasons. It seems like it gets away from the things that attracted me to philosophy in the first place. The important and fun, active pursuit of knowledge and understanding and Truth.

I wouldn’t mind teaching philosophy, because sharing my passion for knowledge is attractive, though I think I’d aim for employment at a college like Reed. Academically rigorous but with liberal art values that suit me and my educational philosophy.

I think part of it, this attraction to academia, is based in personal insecurities. I admire all these philosophers in academia who have these incredible ideas. I admire them and want them to one day admire me.

I think the seemingly unobtainable nature of my goals makes it more appealing.

I’m concerned I don’t have the intelligence or discipline to earn a PhD, and since much of identity is wrapped up in this idea that I have to be the “smartest kid in the class,” I seek this validation.

It seems very likely though that I would obtain such a degree, and realize I’d lost my passion and gotten away from what appealed to me in philosophy to begin with. This frightens me.

Not that I think one is completely helpless within academia. As if academia is an entity which swallows up your purest love of wisdom, and replaces it robotically, with cfps, conferences and administrative politics. I think we can choose, to a certain extent, how we want to be influenced by the academic environment.

But since it lends itself so well to this competitive, desperate atmosphere–it can be difficult to hold onto what is most important.

So I’m scared. I’m scared I couldn’t make it in the world of academia if I wanted to. I’m scared that I might be able to, but would find I’d lost myself and my love of philosophy along the way.

It’s strange, sometimes I feel like part of being in academia is complaining about the stifling conventions of academia (but not doing much to oppose these conventions). I suppose that makes sense psychologically.

Do you have any advice for me? Thank you for promoting real philosophy on your website.

APP:  Thank you so much for your letter.

Of course we fully appreciate your dilemma, and your deeply mixed feelings about professional academic philosophy.

You’re also asking advice on one of the most difficult questions that everyone associated with APP struggles with: how to reconcile the wholehearted love of real philosophy combined with a serious, edgy critique of professional academic philosophy, with survival inside or outside professional philosophy?

We have no easy answers!

Basically, as we see it, your options are:

(i) pursue a career inside professional academic philosophy, but then be sentenced, for your entire career, to living a double life, with all the psychological and professional stresses and risks that entails,

(ii) seriously pursue real philosophy outside the professional academic context, and risk unemployment/no income, lack of social status, etc., or

(iii) give up philosophy.

The nature of pursuing option (i) is known to us, for better or worse.

Option (iii) seems like a counsel of despair.

So some or another version of option (ii), that actually provides an acceptable, reasonably reliable source of income while still seriously pursuing the fundamental aims of real philosophy, seems like the option that might be most hopeful, although it’s almost entirely unknown and unexplored territory.

Short of our being able, some day, somehow, to provide fail-safe advice, we urge you to keep thinking and writing about this, and continue corresponding with us, if you’d like to.

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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.