Why I Left Academic Philosophy

in philosophy •  last year

Have you ever spent two years pouring your heart and soul into a project that only three people will ever read? That's what writing a dissertation in academic philosophy is like. Philosophers spend a lot of time writing things that get published in journals nobody reads because in order to get a job you have to publish a lot of papers in these journals even though nobody reads them because they are behind paywalls that only large libraries at academic institutions can afford to pay.

Academic philosophy is filled with people who spend a lot of time talking about things that are almost entirely abstracted from the pragmatic realities of human existence. I will never forget I was sitting in our auditorium listening to a long talk about meta-ethics when right outside the doors of my philosophy building Black Lives Matters activists were marching - the stark contrast between the realities of "applied ethics" vs the subtleties of meta-ethics made me deeply uncomfortable. How could I justify this exuberance of abstraction when there were so many real-world problems that needed a swifter and more pragmatic approach?

Before anyone jumps down my throat, let me say that I think philosophy and even academic philosophy does a noble service to the world. Teaching young people how to think critically and analyze the world around them carefully and reasonably is a fantastic thing. But there is a big difference between the hard working philosophy professors teaching logic and critical thinking vs the rarified discussions and technicalities of what academic philosophers do with their research. The dense jargon and technical details make much of contemporary philosophy exhausting to read for the normal person who is busy enough to not have the patience or time to slog through a maze of technical wizardry.

Academic philosophy is primarily an experience in constant rejection and criticism. Everyone is taught how to brutally attack the arguments of everyone else. Have you ever hung out with someone that disagrees with everything you say? Philosophy conferences are pretty much like that. All the time. It's a never ending parade of people attempting to one-up each other in verbal combat.

Along with the constant rejection comes the publish or perish mindset. If you don't publish in "good" journals your chances of getting a good job are slim to none. Often you'd see jobs posted with hundreds of candidates, all with similar PhD holding qualifications, many with publications. The task of standing out is nearly impossible. Usually it comes down to the informal factors like having an influential advisor or coming from a "top program". My school was ranked ~25-30ish for it's PhD programs and most grad students struggled on the job market. "Struggling" is a polite term to describe the anguish and pain of rejection after sending out hundreds of job applications and not even getting a single interview.

But instead of realizing the nightmarish futility of the adjunct vs tenure-track system so many young PhDs buy into the academic insecurity that equates dropping out with failure. So they continue to slog away for years and years in that nether-world between PhD and tenure-track that involves jumping from adjunct position to adjunct position, post-doc to post-doc, always moving, never stable, never secure, never making hardly any money, always on the job market, always facing rejection.

This is the new future of academia. The ratio of adjunct to tenure-track jobs has been sliding towards the adjunct side for decades and things are accelerating in that direction. Philosophy departments are being axed for being "economically useless". Good jobs are getting more and more competitive. More and more people making in a living as "philosophers" are adjuncting.

Academic philosophy is a funny thing. When I used to tell people who asked what I did that I was a philosopher, a common refrain was "So what's like your favorite saying?" People often have no clue what it is academic philosophers do - because we are often so absurdly high in the ivory tower that any attempt to come down from the tower is seen as being "not serious". Those who work on contemporary and pressing issues like race, gender, bioethics, etc., are seen as doing something "less pure" than the "real" philosophers who work on "serious" fields like metaphysics and metametaphysics. No, seriously. There are books published and conferences about "metametaphysics". The deeper into the world of abstraction the better. The less connected to real world issues the more pure it is.

I left academic philosophy because I couldn't stand its essential stuffiness. But I will nevertheless contend that philosophers as a whole are a curious and intellectual bunch who at the very least are good conversational partners. They also drink a lot. Most good philosophy is done in the pub. I do miss it sometimes. Being surrounded by people who are equally excited about weird questions like "Do holes exist?" is a unique experience to say the least.

But ultimately I don't need academic philosophy to do philosophy. My blogging over the past ten years has reached a larger audience than I could ever hope to achieve through the academic journal system. And Steemit is now an extension of that project of doing public philosophy that is conversational and confessional. I will be doing all of my new blogging on Steemit from now on while continuing to curate the best philosophical blogging I've done over the years

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Unfortunately many of the issues you describe is existent for many fields reguarding higher education. Most employers care more about what your degree says then what skills and knowledge you possess.

Universities are heavily pressing this thought process because its what keeps them in buisness. In the age of the internet theres no real point to spending thousands on schooling for most professions.

Many professions could benefit from steemit and other sites. Science is another big one, if they could still earn a salary while opening their work to the public and discussing it, then humanity would have made a huge step forward.

Excellent post! Left a follow was already following and am off to discover what the hell metametaphysics is.

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There is a push now towards the open-access world of scientific/academic publishing. Although much of research is still behind paywalls a lot of academics are putting the pre-print pdfs on sites like researchgate or academia.edu or their own personal websites. If you know where to look you can often find the pdfs. But it's not a universal practice. They're still going to do whatever it takes to pad their cvs and get a job. And the writing itself is too inaccessible to the public because it's written in a dense technical fog that your average person is incapable of reading. While I don't believe science should dumb itself down for the public, the writing itself almost always leaves room for improvement in terms of the clarity and readability.

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Its a good start, as the internet provides more and more potential funding through interacting with the general public there will be a noticable shift in the audience these journals are directed towards.

Its a slow process with a lot of peoppe fighting against it, but I cant wait to see how the world is in 10-15 years. The internet is truly a remarkable thing.

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Really hit the nail on the head. I'm recently out of college and disillusioned af

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What were you studying in college?

Nice rant! I'm glad that you're keen to do philosophy, and here on Steemit, no less. Followed.Taking philosophical skills to the street is needed now more than ever, in the "post truth" era. I feel that blockchain technologies, including Steemit and the forthcoming Civil platform for journalism will be important weapons in the fight for truth and reason, in addition to promoting quality work.

this is really nice from you i like it

Academic philosophy is primarily an experience in constant rejection and criticism. Everyone is taught how to brutally attack the arguments of everyone else. Have you ever hung out with someone that disagrees with everything you say? Philosophy conferences are pretty much like that. All the time. It's a never ending parade of people attempting to one-up each other in verbal combat.

Not my experience. What do you call the instruction to interpret your opponent's arguments in the best light possible, when writing an essay? You will be penalized if you interpret your opponent's arguments superficially, like most people in real life are prone to do. Philosophers don't do that. Philosophers listen. They are in fact taught how to listen.

And I hear you! The main reason I didn't follow an academic career is exactly because academic philosophy - though I adore it - is locked up in its Ivory Tower instead of out in the street where it's possible to cause social change. Shows like Family Guy or The Office do more to change people's opinions (their creators being famous atheists, for instance) than the most that a hundred professional philosophers could do in a hundred lifetimes.

At some point, you wanna become a bearer of good news, and evangelize about what you've learned at uni. Implement philosophy.

I think philosophers should adapt and become popularizers of philosophy. In whatever way. Ricky Gervais whom I referred to above, studied philosophy (and biology, if I recall). I think philosophers should push themselves, find a way, any way, to get their message out there. Via the mass media preferably.

When I used to tell people who asked what I did that I was a philosopher, a common refrain was "So what's like your favorite saying?"

Lol! The question I mostly got asked about was "what's the meaning of life?" I answered either with "I don't know" or like a logical positivist "it's a meaningless question". Who would've thought I would come up with a whole theory about the subject only a couple years later, and by accident, simply by thinking about what makes people depressed.

There are books published and conferences about "metametaphysics". The deeper into the world of abstraction the better. The less connected to real world issues the more pure it is.

What makes it unconnected to the real world isn't its abstractness. Look at David Lynch's movies! :P People don't mind abstractness. What makes it unconnected to the real world is .. that it's unconnected to the real world! If David Lynch can make movies that are good even tho they make no sense, then a philosopher can find a way to make metametaphysics popular. Look at the Matrix movies. Few people understood the first part when it came out. And it fucking rocked their world regardless. Philosophers simply need to adapt and change the way they interact with this world.

Having two fancy degrees. I must, unfortunately, bemoan the fact that academia stinks. There is a lot that is good about it. But people, irrespective of their level of education will be people. Hope you don't leave the field completetly though.

Thank you so much for this article. You basically say all the things I thought when I left Sorbonne after my master's degree realizing philosophy of happiness was 1. not as interesting to teachers as pure metaphysics and that 2. I would be better off making it useful for other people by leaving the academy and becoming a yoga teacher (but that's a different story). I don't know about you but I felt most people studying philosophy had no idea of the struggle people were living on the outside. They thought they knew through books and articles but they were just talking about stuff they never experienced. It could be explained by the fact most of us were from a privileged family and never really had to work to pay our studies. Anyway, I also totally agree with you on the fact that metaphysics are seen as the purest thing to study and that the closer you get to the actual people, the dirtier it gets. Maybe we need another way of teaching philosophy, just like applied ethics does except with most of philosophy's subjects together with academic philosophy. Anyway, thanks for posting that ;) Cheers!

R.I.P. Aaron Schwartz. Who tried desperately to tear down that very paywall. Hung in a cell. Thanks for your post!

Great post

Unlike people with common sense, I pursued academic philosophy far longer than was good for me, or for anyone else. My aborted 'career' ended in 1978, but the characteristics of academic philosophers you describe match my almost antediluvian experience of the tribe. My PhD work was done in Britain. When I arrived to start the degree, my thesis supervisor suggested we meet in one of the local pubs. At the time, I didn't drink at all. In my generation, you either smoked cannabis (and sometimes dropped acid), or you drank. The two subcultures had no time for one another in Canada. But in the UK, drinking while philosophizing was an unwritten requirement if you wanted to get ahead in the department's highly competitive pecking order. Since I have a competitive streak, I soon became a journeyman level drinker, able to down 5-6 pints of an evening without stumbling while attempting to walk, and without slurring noticeably more than my colleagues. In terms of producing value-free hot air, we were exemplary. But not one of the discussions - more blabber fests than discussions, if I'm honest - ever produced anything of value to anyone, except the value to one's career in being able to best an opponent in an argument about points so trivial that no one remembered anything about the content of the verbal jousting the next morning. All that mattered was the points scored while hammered. Eventually, I realized that I would never hold an academic job even if I were to get one. So, like you, I left academia for good, and regret only that I didn't do so sooner.

Thanks for sharing :-) @rachelsmantra I am following. Best of Luck !

yep. well said. In the UK, a large proportion of the teaching staff in universities are part-time and under temporary contract [the equivalent of adjuncts] and do not enjoy any kind of economic security and endure a lot of in-job pressure. Conversational and confessional philosophy, as you describe it, and which was good enough for Socrates, is meanwhile migrating to the internet. Hurray! I have certainly had some fun with podcasts, virtual reality fora, blogs - and now steemit looks very promising. Re the rarefied nature of ivory-tower philosophy: this seems to be driven by the publish or die imperative that the current economic and cultural position of the academy is bound to generate. In anycase, infinite regresses of 'metas', seem to be the black-holes of this particular universe. Nevertheless, some vital-for-life issue or other seems to lurk in the fabric of even the most rareified discourse as thought itself is 'haunted by utopia' and enmeshed with suffering. Here on the streets of the internet, it's usefully hard to forget that and perhaps incumbent on us refugees from the academy to keep the 'meatphysics' issues in view, even if we are tempted into 'metaphysics' or even metametaphysics ... followed

It is strange that those who have a penchant for discussing and describing the most complex and basic ins and outs of the human experience often tend to use overly complicated language to describe their findings and opinions which in turn rules out the majority of the population from understanding the wisdom they have been able to extract from their thought due to the fact that they make their descriptions too difficult for the average man or woman to understand which means only a few are able to appreciate and benefit from any wisdom gained. Sort of defeats the purpose.

I'm very glad you were able to describe your experiences in language that I could understand and I am glad you have decided to share any wisdom you gain from your time thinking with us here on steemit.

Great post btw! :) Hope your day is going well!

Academia in general is not a place to get educated.

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spicy

I do agree that Steem is where we can share our thoughts with many people in the way very comfortable and very efficiently.

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Me too, and I think it could be a great platform for philosophical discussion that is hard to facilitate elsewhere. Even if this guy wants to steer away from it!

It was the same for me in mathematics. Things are becoming more and more specialized.

Philosophy aside, I think the same can be said of academia in general. I studied psychology and, while occasionally psych research yields important results, broadly speaking it's just resume padding

I wrestle with the idea I paid $50,000 for a list of books and people to talk to about those books. I feel as though there might be a more organic alternative.

Great writing. Thank you for sharing. I'll be on the lookout for more.

P.S. The trend towards adjunct/contract profs is eroding higher education. They're way too reliant on the common denominator. It's a pervasive popularity contest leading to lower standards, and less-educated people.

I love philosophy. Great peace. You made me look up the argument on "HOLES" and just wow.

Thank you so much for this!

Philosophy that works well is philosophy that children can understand. Jargon and complicated paragraph-sentences are unclear and elitist. I love talking philosophy ideas over a beer or walking in the forest...all people can discuss such topics, when they are kept in the realm of common language.

If an idea can't be explained simply, does it still have merit?

The internal politics behind the analytic-continental divide destroyed academic philosophy.

Besides there were a lot of philosophers who did their work outside academia or after they left academia, like Sartre, Camus, De Beauvoir, Nietzsche, and so on.

I like the distinction you make between "academic philosophy" and "doing philosophy". Very much to my own heart! Socrates and Plato were very much in the habit of "doing philosophy". Theirs was not so much an ever increasing abstraction from the real world, but rather a discovery of great ideas and insights in the midst of the real world. Thanks for making a stand on this issue @rachelsmantra

I don't see how "pure" philosophy, if it were doing its job, would be so divorced from the real world.

The intellectual pride in the academic world kills enthusiasm

I remember too well the abstract, and ultimately trivial (as I saw it), debates that took place when I was pursuing my education in philosophy.

I am still very grateful for my "philosophical training"—because it taught me how to think, how to question, to take the use and structure of words seriously...

...but now I try to apply that knowledge to the living of life itself: human experience. Which, honestly, I find no less challenging than the deep, twisting, metaphysical lectures I have endured. I'm glad to have found another 'practical philosopher' on STEEM. I'll be looking forward to following your work.

Thanks for sharing your reasons for leaving academia. It took me ten years with one foot in, one out of Philosophy, but I also left academia. Congrats on not waiting as long as I did. Like you, I found it too stuffy - there are a million unstated rules, mostly to do with class (and race and gender and all things normalized), that made it very exhausting to inhabit academia. I was always lobbing rocks at that glass pane. Anyhow, after teaching at a very liberal arts college and the most liberal of public universities, I was just over it. I'm just too outside even the most liberal of academic boxes. The good news is that there are more of more of us out here, and I hope we can find each other and support each other's philosophy projects. You can do a lot more "out here' and public philosophy is just now gaining steem, lol. I'm pretty sure you follow me on twitter, but if not, here is something for you and others interested in public philosophy: https://medium.com/@tPhilosophia/the-public-philosophy-platform-69c16991d6f1 Cheers, Dr.A

I think you just perfectly described why I decided against pursuing a graduate degree in philosophy. I did my undergrad in philosophy and religion, but having pursued a career in journalism, I've found that most of the relevant philosophical debates are taking place on blogs, social media, and the op-ed pages of major news organizations. And like you said, "most good philosophy is done in the pub." If/When I do finally decide to submit to the grad school grind, I decided that something in STEM, potentially comp sci or neuroscience, would be the best path for me.

Covering science, technology, and politics as a journalist has helped me apply my analytical skills in interesting ways, too, by primarily asking why things are the way they are. But because I've also focused on real issues, it's kept my questions grounded, so I'm not floating off asking whether or not holes exist. ;)

All in all, great piece, and I'm glad you're here. Upvoted, followed, and resteemed. Looking forward to reading more of your work. :)