Friday, January 28, 2011

Adventures in Philosophy School, Part I

My life plans have recently gone through some tumultuous changes. Though I haven't made an official decision yet, it looks likely that by next fall I'll be pursuing a career as a network administrator. There are many reasons for this change:

1) I will probably make more money and faster than in academia.
2) I will be able to buy a piece of land close to family sooner, to help myself prepare for a possible collapse.
3) Philosophy is a risky career choice because universities everywhere are gutting their humanities departments.
4) It will be at least probably 8 or 9 years before I get tenure and can say and write what I want.
5) Philosophy school and I ... haven't been getting along so well recently.

Today -- within days of making my unofficial and unannounced decision to become a network geek -- I got a letter from the department saying that I am making "unsatisfactory progress" and that I need to "identify a dissertation director" and "have a defensible prospectus by the end of this semester" or my funding will be "in jeopardy." I'm not sure I can meet these demands, or that I really want to.

Obviously, I'm not taking this as hard as I would be if I still had my heart set on becoming a professor.

So what happened? In my earlier posts I told the overarching story, but I strategically left out a number of details concerning my relationship with the department. One needs to be careful what one posts on the internet, especially if it might offend the person paying one's fellowship.

But I've talked it over with Emily, and we've decided that it's time for the truth to come out. I can't promise you'll be shocked, but I do hope it gets you thinking.

When I first arrived in Pittsburgh, if you'll recall, I was just recovering from a nervous breakdown in which I had questioned basically everything I believed in (science and art) and rediscovered some small connection to the divine. I felt that philosophy was a good place for me, because it would give me the freedom to ponder the meaning of life and catch up on 3000 years of Western culture. (You don't get much culture in physics.) I would be studying in a department of "History and Philosophy of Science." It didn't seem to me you could get much broader than that.

I was wrong. Unfortunately, I found that most of the philosophical readings assigned in my seminars were from the last 50 years, and focused narrowly on a number of mainstream, technical "debates." Any philosophy from before about 1950 is generally considered "quaint" and "naive" by modern academic philosophers. This was somewhat disconcerting to me, because the main reasons I had been attracted to philosophy in the first place were the writings of Plato, Nietzsche, and Wittgenstein. But none of these three philosophers were taken seriously in the department.

For a couple of years I gave them the benefit of the doubt, and did my best to immerse myself in modern American "Analytical" Philosophy. What I found was volumes upon volumes of minute technical debates, in which nothing really was at stake. For example, there is a debate over "realism vs. anti-realism" which is very popular currently. The realists believe that reality is really out there, and science can tell us what it is. The anti-realists argue that science has no choice but to postulate entities that can't really be seen (such as quarks), which means that there is no way to guarantee that scientific theories tell us what is "really there." Personally, I've avoided this particular debate completely, since it seems to me that there is no way to prove, one way or another, what is really provable.

I did a lot of hanging out with my fellow grad students, those first few years, doing my best to avoid becoming a complete bookworm. In our conversations, I gradually discovered that I wasn't the only one who was dissatisfied with Analytic-style philosophy. Over beer at the local pub, we would talk about how philosophy didn't examine real social issues anymore, how most debates were pointless, how it was silly that you couldn't talk about art or morality, how the whole field had been ruined by careerism, and how it was all about publishing papers and not about finding truth.

Bit by bit this rebellious attitude was stamped out of us. Usually about 1/3 of the students in HPS and Philosophy quit (or are kicked out) once they get their masters. Talking to them, I found that most of them were dissatisfied for all the sorts of reasons I just described.

Another 1/3 of the students, I found, were very happy in the department. They enjoyed logic and debating fine points, and they seemed to think that all this was going somewhere, that philosophy really had come along way.

The rest of us -- at least in the beginning -- were what you might call "anarchists." As we saw it, the system had to be taken down from the inside. Philosophy had fallen in love with science and logic, and had forgotten to ask questions that really matter. It had become over-professionalized, and was ripe, we thought, for a revolution. The trick was to stay in the system, get your Ph.D., become a professor, and then finally get the chance to say what needed to be said.

One of the most tragic things I've experienced is to see my friends, one by one, lose this youthful idealism. How this happened was different in each case, but most of the time it was understandable. Even if it were possible to take on and defeat the entire tradition of analytic philosophy, it would take a genius. At some point most would-be revolutionaries just have to admit defeat, and find some minor specialty that interests them. This might mean selling out to the system rather than challenging its fundamental assumptions, but at least you'll finally have some peace.

As for me, I tenaciously held on to the hope that a "revolution" would be someday possible. I'm sure that I wasn't the only one, but it's a difficult feeling to express without sounding arrogant, so I think a lot of us eventually fell silent. As I saw it, if I would have to be a "genius" and battle it out for the rest of my life, so be it. My experiences at Caltech had hardened me. Reading Plato, Wittgenstein, and Nietzsche inspired my courage. It could be done, I knew, because it had been done before. Philosophers who disagreed with the paradigm of pure logic had made themselves heard over the centuries. In my view, the thing that was needed most in philosophy was courage, not technical expertise. You didn't need to be a genius, I realized, you just had to be steadfast. You had to show that you were just as good at logic as everyone else, but that you still saw that there was something more.

But things didn't turn out to be so simple. At some point you have to learn to play their game, and soon you're going to find yourself saying things that you don't really believe. And you're faced with a choice: honesty or your career.

For a while I thought it would be easy to avoid this choice. I thought I could use logic against itself, to slowly but surely chip away at the dogmas that were keeping us in chains. To explain why this was naive, I'll need to tell the story in more detail -- this means introducing some technical ideas in Analytic philosophy, so you can understand what was at stake. But it's late, and this blog post is already long enough, so I'll leave this for next time.

1 comment:

  1. Haha, I prefer the term 'reformer' over 'anarchist'.
    I was never in such a position (since my transition from being into analytic philosophy to not was preceded by giving up on convincing people), but I must admit I know at least one person who fits that description, wanting to become established and then start rocking the boat. But, as you point out, it's not that simple.

    At any rate, sounds like a wise choice.

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