May 18, 2012

Amateur Philosopher

Here are two facts. I chose not to be a philosophy professor. And I still want to do philosophy. This combination can make it seem as if my attitude to the profession must be a combative one, as if I don't like the profession. I fall prey to thinking this sometimes too. But it's not correct.
There are different ways in which one might be contrasted with a professional philosopher.
1) A professional philosopher as opposed to not being a philosopher at all.
2) A professional philosopher as opposed to a critic of professional philosophy.
3) A professional philosopher as opposed to being an amateur philosopher.
When I tell people I left professional philosophy, mostly their response seems to be to think that I didn't like philosophy, and so want to leave that behind. They are assuming here contrast (1).
When I say that isn't the case, and that I still like and envision doing philosophy, they get a worried look. As if I had just declared war. I imagine they think that I have it in for the profession for some personal reason (maybe I dislike my former colleagues, or I resented not publishing, or maybe I just wasn't good at it but am not able to accept that). By saying that I still want to do philosophy, I seem to be implying that the philosophy profession is somehow corrupt or trivial or some other dirty thing. They expect me to be mad. Angry. Or to at least take a righteous tone, as if I had some principles which I wasn't willing to sacrifice, and which the profession was asking me to sacrifice. When I sense this look in others, it brings out similar conceptions in myself. So I take on an angry tone. Or a righteous tone. As if I am Luther putting up my 95 theses. Here contrast (2) is assumed.
I have spent a year fluctuating between contrast (1) and (2). Sometimes I would think, "I just didn't want to do that". But this seems hard to tell myself, since I think about philosophy pretty much constantly. So then contrast (2) presents itself. And so I would think, "Yes, the profession is all wrong! What craziness! Why is no one else seeing this? I must be a great philosopher, ahead of the curve. A prophet. Ok, then, I will speak out as a prophet. I will criticize the profession, like Jesus knocking over the tables of the money changers." A great energy would overtake me. And then....frustration. And then...depression. The whole thing seems forced. Not natural. As if I am taking on some grand project to justify my decision to leave. As if I creating an enemy to prop myself up. I ask myself, "Is the philosophy profession bad? Deeply wrong?" I think there are deep assumptions of the profession I disagree with, but that doesn't make the profession unjust or vicious. It just means I have a disagreement with some of the ways the profession functions. And where exactly do I disagree with the profession? To take on the critic stand a battery of charges is needed. Do I have such a list? As I think about it, I realize: "No, I don't have such a list." I don't even know what exactly philosophy is. I have ideas, like any one else. But if I am honest with myself, I know that I am puttering around just like anyone else. This recognition takes out the venom from my mind. It deflates the call to revolution. And then at first I feel lost, as if a public stance I could take has been lost. But slowly I feel more peaceful. Because I know in my heart that I was not meant to be a critic of the profession. That is not why I left. It is a pose I could take, but it is also a pose in which I could lose myself. Better to avoid it altogether.
Recently, in the past few weeks, I have started to think that contrast (3) is what applies to me. "Amateur philosopher" can be understood in two ways: one who has not acquired the skills of a professional philosopher, or one who does not make an income as a philosopher. The former does not fit me, since I did acquire such skills. But the latter does now apply to me. Philosophy is no longer my career.
The more I think of contrast (3), the more I think it captured my reason for leaving. Or at least it is in the right direction. What I was tired of was not philosophy, but the trappings of being a professional philosopher. Sure, summers for writing were nice, and the possible job security. And talking with smart colleagues, and being able to hang out in a cafe at noon reading a book. But each person has to weigh their pros and cons. And for me, these pros weren't enough. As I experienced it, the con was greater still, and that was that I found it incredibly hard to be completely carefree in following my thinking wherever it led. For example, I enjoy thinking about the mind, and free will, etc. But I found reading most run of the mill articles on these subjects boring. And yet I couldn't be honest with myself about this, since it seemed as if I would be a bad colleague if I said that I find most of what philosophers of mind write irritating and somewhat formulaic.

Or that when I was teaching an introductory ancient philosophy course (part of my course load), I decided to include the skepticism of Sextus Empiricus, and that actually I found myself very much moved by it, so much so that I found myself having deeply skeptical tendencies and a great desire to suspend judgment on philosophical issues. But how can I do that as a teacher? I could just teach as Sextus says a skeptic can follow appearances, but if I just followed appearances, would I even find myself going into the classroom to teach? It was not at all clear that would be the case. If anything, following appearances might lead me out of the classroom. Just like it might lead me away from my desk where I am supposed to sit and write scholarly articles. In light of issues of like this, being an amateur philosopher seemed rather appealing. After all, Sextus was an amateur philosopher who was a physician by trade.
Seen from this angle, my leaving the profession doesn't have to be an angst-ridden, fight-the-system kind of affair. It can be something much simpler. I like philosophical ideas. I like engaging with them. I like their company. I wanted my relation to them to be less mediated through my professional identity. This doesn't mean that those who relate to philosophy professionally don't love philosophical ideas equally. It just means that, for some reasons, it seems to work for them. And that, for some other reasons, this works for me. Why substitute for the diversity among individuals an angst-ridden story? When I think of things this way, I am happy with my decision. It works for me.

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