On Being Drawn to Philosophy (as a job)

People are drawn to philosophy possibly for fame but never for fortune. Perhaps the most famous philosopher of all time in the West was Socrates, and he left his family drachma-less (or whatever the equivalent of pennies were in those days), having been sentenced to death for the work that he did.  Another highly famous philosopher, Marx, relied on his friend Engels for sustenance, whiling away his days in the library in London as his family starved.

But at least these two philosophers became famous, more than anyone on any reality show ever will.

No philosopher today  would be mobbed by throngs in an airport and few, if any, invited to the Sunday morning news programs.  In the wider world they are mostly obscure figures, save for the occasional op-ed in the New York Times.

Fame-seeking is not, I hope, why anyone goes into philosophy. And I don’t think it is why Socrates or Marx did.  If fame is the aim, especially long-term fame, then note that in philosophy the odds are just really bad.

Moreover, most Really Famous Philosophers did not have academic gigs. So trying to become a Really Famous Philosopher by getting an academic job isn’t a sure route.

So if you are in the midst of thinking about a job in philosophy and where to go to study to get one, think about this: why do you want to do this? If not for fame or fortune, then what?

But we haven’t really dispensed with fame or fortune.  In the little corners of the universe we might inhabit, there is ample opportunity to reap a decent living and become well respected, good-enough analogues of fortune and fame. If you are inclined toward philosophy, it might be very tempting to lean toward graduate programs that  promise more rather than less remuneration and respect from the profession as a whole. So you might be inclined to consult the whatever-ific rankings that are out there.

But again, if what you really want is fame you should go to film school or if it is fortune go to business school. The odds are surely much better. But if (more likely, if you’re reading this) you are captivated by certain deep problems or promises, and if these things keep you up at night, go to a program where you will be guided well. (If you can sleep well even as  these problems somewhat niggle at you, then you probably don’t need to be doing this.)

The whatever-ific rankings that are out there will not help you find the right program.  If you are to become a philosopher in the deep sense, then reputational rankings (such as the Leiter reports) will just tell you what faculty and institutions are well-regarded (/famous in this little corner of the universe) not which faculty and institutions are conducive to your particular interests.  Instead of consulting rankings, consult the library. Find out who out there is approaching the questions you want to approach.  Then look for what programs teach these texts, or even better have faculty who wrote those texts.

If you know you like philosophy but you are not sure what particular area you want to study, much less with whom to study, then find a program that is pluralist and strongly connected to other humanities programs in its university. In general, the higher it is on the reputational rankings, the fewer areas of specialization it might offer.

There is little worse than arriving at a program and realizing that you will not learn there what you want to learn, having just packed up and moved half way across the country.

If you want to do philosophy, attend to your own voice first. What is it you care about? What do you want to pursue? It is very likely that what is on the tip of your tongue is what the rest of us need to hear and engage next.  So find the place that will help you find your voice. It is that voice that might inadvertently be the one that achieves some fame for having spoken something that actually speaks to us.