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.

By Noelle McAfee

I am professor of philosophy at Emory University and editor of the Kettering Review. My latest book, Fear of Breakdown: Politics and Psychoanalysis, explores what is behind the upsurge of virulent nationalism and intransigent politics across the world today. My other writings include Democracy and the Political Unconscious; Habermas, Kristeva, and Citizenship; Julia Kristeva; and numerous articles and book chapters. Edited volumes include Standing with the Public: the Humanities and Democratic Practice and a special issue of the philosophy journal Hypatia on feminist engagements in democratic theory. I am also the author of the entry on feminist political philosophy in the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and well into my next book project on democratic public life.


  1. professor mcaffee! hey, this is joe, a student of yours from a few years back (you introduced me to your buds at the central apa). i remember christian telling me about your blog a while back and, now that i started one myself, i figured not only should we catch up a little but also have some cyberspace discoursing. (for a proper personal chat, an email to jholmes3 at mail.umw.edu would delight me quite a bit).

    how do you live off of philosophy with no grad school? this is my impossible-to-ask question of the moment. (mary washington has an awwwwwwwwfuuuullll philosophy dpt). i don’t think it’s just a vagary of time that marx and socrates were both poor and unaffiliated with a university–there are great opportunities as a professional academic to make the world a better place, but the type of world-bettering a Really Famous Philosopher accomplishes is not conduced by academia at all, for me at least. too much philology, not enough philosophy–call it philosophilology.

    to a certain extent (without falling into some simple-minded asceticism) i think the hard living of people like marx and peirce (or especially those who take up austerities for the sake of philosophy, for instance heraclitus) fueled their ability to think well–if marx didn’t know poverty firsthand he probably wouldn’t have fought as hard to extinguish it.

    and probably the number one problem with the institutionalized route for me is that at the end of grad school, i’m not sure what i would teach! i don’t mean i don’t know what kind of specialization or subject i want to concentrate on or all those blahblahblahs, i mean if philosophy is taken with the proper life or death seriousness and you realize, dewey-style, that education is the most noble undertaking a human being can decide to do, it means you need to know how to really teach wisdom and not philology. so then the question is, where are you trained in something other than philology that would both qualify you for a well-paying university job and give you something that reconstructs culture and reforms society in the way only education can? who knows? right now the best answer i’ve got is aimless vagabond traveling (while working on a book) and perhaps training at some zen monasteries.

    but anyway, i’m going to look around and post on some more of your things (this was just some wordvomit rambling, i hope you don’t mind.) if you get the chance, take a look at diogenesandalexander.wordpress.com and we could cross-pollinate a little. it has been very long since i’ve had any good discussions/attentions/encouragements from a philosophy professor–it is a long time coming! i miss teaching styles like yours. umw is more multiple-choice minded, no invent-a-projects.

    hope to hear from you!

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