Goodbye to all that (to (academic) philosophy)(for now!)
A lot of things are happening! One thing that’s happening is that The Point is throwing a party to celebrate the release of issue 29. It’ll be in New York on the 21st, from 7:30 to who-knows when, and I will be there. I hope you can make it! You can register here: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/the-point-release-party-issue-29-what-is-tech-for-tickets-582175922857?aff=odeimcmailchimp&mc_cid=ade1cff54d&mc_eid=87b65a153e.
Another thing that’s happening is that Agnes Callard and I are doing a second Night Owls event at Harvard. In light of recent events (lol), we will be talking about marriage/love/commitment. It’ll be on the 24th, at the Leverett House library theater. I think all Bostonians are welcome! It’ll begin at 9 and lasts as long as it lasts. More information here: https://docs.google.com/document/d/14uijsIu0pNTLewX-0tZx_5uGrYpZMmuBxX5bauxNlqo/edit
Yet another thing that’s happening is that I reviewed a book called Thinking like a Woman for the New York Times Book Review. I didn’t like it, because I do not believe there is any such thing as “thinking like a woman.” The book is an object lesson in how nominally progressive identitarian thinking is often at risk of devolving into exactly the sort of essentialism it’s supposedly designed to combat. You can find the piece here.https://www.nytimes.com/2023/03/14/books/review/how-to-think-like-a-woman-regan-penaluna.html
But probably the most dramatic thing that’s happening is—I’m leaving my PhD program, for now at any rate, to join the Washington Post as non-fiction book critic. You can find the announcement here: https://www.washingtonpost.com/pr/2023/03/13/becca-rothfeld-joins-washington-post-nonfiction-book-critic/.
In ~2 weeks, I’m packing up 4000 books and moving to DC. I am going to miss my PhD program, but I won’t miss philosophy, because I will keep doing it. Of course, I will no longer be doing academic philosophy. But academic philosophy and philosophy are not, to lapse into an academic philosopher’s language, co-extensive. Philosophy is just a matter of asking questions about how to live and answering them rigorously. Anyone can do it, although the luxury of time and interlocutors and a nicely stocked library help. Even so, the most harrowed humans do it daily if not more—when they reflect on how to treat others, when they meditate on which candidate to vote for and which vision of society is more just, when they ask after “the point of it all,” and so on and on. As Stanley Cavell puts it, philosophy “seeks to disquiet the foundations of our lives and to offer us in recompense nothing better than itself—and this on the basis of no expert knowledge, of nothing closed to the ordinary human being, once, that is to say, that being lets himself or herself be informed by the process and ambition of philosophy.” As I’ve argued elsewhere, what is sometimes cordoned off and denigrated as “public philosophy” is not of necessity worse than academic philosophy, and may sometimes be a little bit better, at least insofar as it makes some effort to address problems with evident stakes.
Will I miss academic philosophy? Yes, of course. I will miss my peers and mentors, who are meticulous and exacting, and the culture of lively argument that they jointly create. I will miss reading groups, although I’m perhaps overly optimistic about my ability to convince “civilians” to read Kant with me out there in the wild. I will certainly miss teaching undergraduates, which has been one of the best part of graduate school. Above all, I will miss the discipline’s commitment to rendering judgment; at a time when ever more humanistic disciplines have abandoned evaluation in favor of various descriptive projects—historicizing, contextualizing—I always found philosophy’s emphasis on assigning values and making prescriptions refreshing. Not for a moment does it pretend to be a social science. There’s nothing wrong with social science, of course, but there is something wrong with the notion that all the humanities have to LARP as sociology all the time.
As for writing philosophy papers with an eye to publication in peer-reviewed journals, however, I’m more ambivalent. (Although now may be a good time to announce that my first peer-reviewed paper, “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly,” is out now in the British Journal of Aesthetics, and I have a chapter in the forthcoming Oxford University Handbook on art and ethics.) When I was watching Olympic figure skating last year, I noticed that each performance is awarded two scores: a technical score, and an artistic score. Nathan Chen, the winner of the men’s gold medal, can do enormously complex and athletically demanding moves, so he habitually receives high technical scores. No doubt, he deserves them: he is the first man to ever land four quads—jumps with four rotations, I think?—in a routine. He’s also no fun to watch, in my untutored opinion. There is nothing humane or graceful about him. He is a very gifted technician.
In my view, much (certainly not all) of academic philosophy—much of the academic humanities more generally, if I may overstep my bounds—is taking too many cues from Nathan Chen. Many of its practitioners have completely neglected their artistic scores. What I mean by this is not that much philosophy is not beautiful or balletic, although of course much of it isn’t, but that vast swaths of it are not responsive to actual problems or questions that would resonate with anyone outside the field. In my last post about Agnes Callard and why I love her work, I noted that a lot of academic work addresses “pseudo-problems”—problems that have been generated by academic disputes, not by reality or our experience of reality. It just so happens that a lot of more literary philosophy—Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Bernard Williams (who is, by my lights, a very beautiful writer)—does address actual problems and questions. But a lot of literary philosophy—I won’t name names, because it is my policy to insult someone or something only when I have time and inclination to really justify my disapprobation—is also absolute bullshit. And by the same token, there is a lot of philosophy that does address real problems in dryer tones but that is unfairly dismissed, either because so many people reflexively loathe the sheer aesthetics of analytic philosophy, or because they fail to grasp why certain idealizations simultaneously falsify the situation on the ground and shed light on it. (The original position thought experiment is an example of a idealization that is much maligned for making false assumptions, when in fact it is the business of an idealization to make false but illuminating assumptions.) Still, a great deal of contemporary philosophy is technically flawless, full of neat arguments and cleanly articulated premises, and completely pointless. Who cares if premise four of so-and-so’s argument might be false? Who cares if such-and-such a quadrant of so-called “logical space” is currently unoccupied?Didn’t we get into this whole gig because we care about LOVE and SEX and JUSTICE and DEATH and THE CRUEL AND UNRELENTING PASSAGE OF TIME? I can be induced to care about premise four and unoccupied quadrants of logical space, certainly. But I only be induced to care about them when I am shown or reminded how they bear on the BIG QUESTIONS. It also happens that I care to hear such topics treated in a sensible and minimally self-indulgent way, which is why I am as allergic to artistry without technology as I am to technology without art. The best works of analytic philosophy are both technical and artistic achievements: Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, Susan Wolf on moral saints, Thomas Nagel on the absurd, Ted Cohen on jokes, etc. At the limit, artistic puffery without argumentative edifice is the kind of mush produced by Jordan Peterson, who ranks among the lucky thinkers whom I feel perfectly comfortable insulting in a drive-by attack.
A certain kind of person, also unnamed for now, is apt to attribute the decline and the sterilization of the academic humanities to Anomie and Alienation and Modernity and Disenchantment and Big Sad Social Problems (and, if they’re especially unsophisticated, Wokeness and How It Is Like A Religion), but I think the explanation is simple and unsexy. People are not any smaller-minded or less ravenous for Truth and Beauty and Whatever than they used to be. No, they are just quite reasonably worried about unemployment. What turns people into intellectual technocrats is simply the organization of the academy. There are just no jobs—and the reason there are no jobs is that there are no students, and the reason there are no students is that it’s hard for them to get jobs with a humanities background (and the reasons for this state of affairs are beyond my present scope). And because there are no jobs in the academic humanities, ever more stringent criteria for distinguishing the wheat from the chaff must be devised to help us comb through all of the desperate applicants without dental insurance. Specializations and subfields and credentialing systems are spawned, and the people who have to navigate them are distorted, in much the way that Marx understood other sorts of workers in the modern economy be distorted by focusing exclusively on a single narrow task. “For as soon as the distribution of labour comes into being, each man has a particular, exclusive sphere of activity, which is forced upon him and from which he cannot escape. He is a hunter, a fisherman, a herdsman, or a critical critic, and must remain so if he does not want to lose his means of livelihood,” he writes. And, since publication is the currency of professionalization, to even have half a chance of getting a job that probably won’t exist, we all have to crank out papers in our very narrow subfields. We don’t have time to read a lot about a topic, think deeply about it, and then decide we have nothing to add to what exists already, because then we won’t have any publications by the end of graduate school, and we will be fucked. Even if we don’t take the path of least resistance—even if we’re lucky, as I am, to be in a graduate program where this path is not thrust on us—we can’t help knowing where it leads and feeling somewhat tempted by it. The thing to do, to really maximize your chances of getting a job, is to pick a small topic, read all the papers about it that exist, identify what has not been said in any of the papers, and say it, whether or not it’s interesting or true. It is impossible not to know this.
Of course, not everyone takes this path. Many do not. There are philosophers who are brimming with so many good and important ideas that they don’t have to sacrifice any integrity in order to publish a lot. There are also philosophers who publish one long brilliant paper and are thereby exempted from the usual expectations. And there are plenty of philosophers with the emotional fortitude to remain unsullied by their awareness of the path of least resistance and its glittering temptations. I’m in awe of these people. But even for those who try to resist, the path makes itself felt. It leaves traces in the intellectual atmosphere. The papers that we have to read to do our due diligence are often evidently the products of the path. And sometimes I doubt that I’m strong enough to resist the path.
I’m not sure these worries are decisive. I’m not sure I won’t return to academic philosophy someday, since there is so much I love about it. But for now, they explain how I’ve been thinking about my trajectory, and why I’m so excited to be doing exclusively public writing—with, of course, a philosophical bent!—for a while. I’m very, very excited to start at the Post, and to work with the amazing John Williams (the editor, not the author of the sappy and annoying novel Stoner, thankfully; as me abot hating Stoner at a later date)! THANKS FOR READING AND FOLLOWING ALONG, HOPE TO SEE YOU IN THE PAGES OF WAPO SHORTLY