I heard about a new blog called The Philosopher’s Cocoon, a “safe and supportive forum for early-career philosophers”, and at first I was pretty excited. I’m always looking for new approaches to public philosophy, and many of the better blogs tend to be too academic for my tastes. I imagined that a “philosopher’s cocoon” would be a place where armchair philosophers like myself could feel welcome, but it turns out that I missed the emphasis in the site’s self-description. The emphasis is on the word “career”, and this is a blog for graduate students and low-level professors — basically, an academic philosophy blog on training wheels.
This is not to say it’s not a good blog — in fact, it’s quite lively and packed with ideas. But I am disappointed that there are so few resources or forums for serious “lay philosophers” like myself, and I find it disconcerting to see so many young people marching (pointlessly?) into the scholarly lifestyle. At one point in my life, I had intended to join this march myself.
During my second and third (of five) years in college, my career plan was to go to grad school and become a philosophy professor. Philosophy was far and away my favorite subject in college, and I had found a few mentors in the department — the sly Prof. Meyers, the dapper Prof. Cadbury, the cosmic Prof. Garvin — who I considered worthy of emulating with the greatest commitment of my life. I had even convinced my parents (who were funding my college education) to buy into this plan, as long as it was understood that I would be supporting myself during grad school.
By my junior year, I was taking graduate-level courses and hanging out with actual philosophy grad students and young junior-assistant professors who were a few years ahead of me on the path I planned to take. One grad student/teaching associate I befriended was a strange man several years older than me whose name I have mercifully forgotten. I remember that he had a perpetually grim expression — any attempt at a smile looked highly painful — and also that he strongly resembled the cartoon character Charlie Brown: tubby physique, moon-round face, even a curly little tuft of hair on the forehead of his mostly bald head. (It’s probably because this person resided inside my brain as “Charlie Brown” that I can’t remember his name today.)
Charlie Brown was an insider within the philosophy department, and he would stun me with gossipy tales of vicious battles, resentments and standoffs that regularly roiled the staff. I had a lofty opinion of our department chair, the regal, hawk-like and flowingly white-haired Prof. Gould, with whom I was taking a wonderful seminar in Plato. But Gould, Charlie Brown told me, was considered a complete non-entity by his staff. None of them took him seriously, he told me, and everyone was scandalized that he had just married (I knew this) a graduate student thirty years younger and then hired her as the second Prof. Gould. I guess I had idolized Gould; I took this news hard.
Because Gould was on the outs as department head, Charlie Brown told me, there was a massive battle going on over who would replace him, and a widespread resentment that one of the recently-hired new “stars” in the department would probably get the promotion over longtime staff members like Grimes and Cadbury. I was confused to hear that there were any “stars” at all in our department, though apparently my own independent study mentor Prof. Meyers was one of them.
“What makes him a ‘star’?” I asked. It was all about publication in major journals, Brown explained, and several of my favorite professors were considered laughable failures for their lack of prestigious work. I asked Charlie Brown about Prof. Garvin, my favorite of all, whose Comparative Religion course had convinced me to become a philosophy major. “He’s nothing,” Brown said. “He’s not even in the running for the chair. Nobody takes him seriously. He’s just an old British hippie.”
I suppose I shouldn’t have been so naive as to be shocked that several of my mentors hated each other and vied jealously for insignificant promotions. It was around this time that I decided to switch my career focus to computer programming. It wasn’t the discovery that my professors were flawed and sometimes petty human beings that caused me to change my career plans, but it might have been the broader realization that I was chasing a childish dream, that the life of a philosophy professor would not be any more rarefied or enlightened than the life of anybody else, and that therefore I had no reason to spend four more years as a student just to acheive a foothold in this world. I headed instead for the private sector, and never looked back.
Decades later, I still feel perturbed at the idea that any type of academic training or accreditation is necessary for serious writing about philosophy. It seems to me that the primary job of a philosopher should be to construct important messages that capture the attention of the public by virtue of originality, or validity, or relevance, or artistry of expression. Since very few of our most prestigious career academics manage to capture the attention of the public at all (leaving the agora wide open to trendy and sometimes callow TED familiars who all dress alike), it’s disturbing to realize that many of these professors are obsessed with titles and positions, that they fight like cats and dogs over promotions, that they think of themselves as “stars” or not “stars” based on careerist criteria. I do want philosophy professors to be stars — but I want them to be stars by connecting with the public and presenting ideas that change the world, not by gaining credits in scholarly journals.
These are the thoughts occupying my mind as I bring the Philosophy Weekend blog series back from a two-month hiatus. As you may have heard, I’m in the process of rethinking every aspect of this blog, and in fact one of the primary goals during this change is to allow myself to spend more time on activities like Philosophy Weekend. It’s become one of my favorite parts of the site, and I haven’t yet figured out exactly what I’m going to evolve it into. I’ll be figuring that out over the next few weeks.
But I do know what the series is for. Like the blog mentioned above, I want the philosophy section of Literary Kicks to be a “safe and supportive” spot where crazy or brilliant opinions and ideas can be shared. But unlike the blog mentioned above, you don’t need to be a grad student or junior professor to participate. You just have to have some thoughts of your own, and the willingness to speak them out loud.