Sunday, October 8, 2017

Philosophy as a Vocation

There's a (perhaps apocryphal) story of a philosopher being asked at a party what exactly it was they did and responding -- ``you define a few concepts, you make a few distinctions; it's a living.'' People sometimes tell this story as an example of how base, flippant, and ignoble the culture of analytic philosophy has become; but I begin with it for the exact opposite reason. I want to acknowledge from the get go that, in the end, one of the big attractions to being a philosopher is that it's an indoor job with no heavy lifting, and that's alright. I'm not from the school of thought that thinks the problem with academics is that we fail to be sufficiently self-important, so I think it worth grounding all this vocation talk in the more humble reality straight away.

Max Weber -- ``... Wait, did I leave the stove on?''
Max Weber has a rather famous essay called `Science as a Vocation'. In it he gives an account of the existential situation of the young scientist. I'm not going to do full justice to it here, but here are four points Weber makes that I want to highlight:
  1. There is an enormous element of luck involved in deciding who makes it and who does not.
  2. To make a valuable contribution one has to narrow one's horizons and become ultra specialised.
  3. Even if one achieves something it inevitably shall eventually be over-tuned and surpassed.
  4. We live in a morally blank, existentially meaningless, universe, and one's choice of vocation will never receive compelling, external, ultimate justification.
Cheery bloke, Weber; big hit at parties.

It's not clear, from the essay, whether Weber none the less means to be advocating the life of the scientist as a noble one worthy of pursuit. Much of what he says seems to indicate that he thinks its a noble pursuit, yet when he most directly touches on the matter he says:
Hence academic life is a mad hazard. If a young scholar asks for my advice with regard to habilitation, the responsibility of encouraging him can hardly be borne. If he is a Jew, of course one says lasciate ogni speranza [abandon all hope]. But one must ask every other man: do you in all conscience believe that you can stand seeing mediocrity after mediocrity, year after year, climb beyond you; without becoming embittered and without coming to grief? Naturally one always receives the answer: ``Of course, I live only for my `calling'''. Yet, I have found that only a few men could endure this situation without coming to grief.
So we get here, also, a nod to the role that raw prejudice can play in deciding academic fates, and the bitterness that academic life can bring with it as one sees any pretense of meritocracy destroyed before one's eyes, and (so one thinks) to one's own disadvantage.

How much of this goes for philosophy as well? The role of prejudice is much discussed in our community, as are failures of our system to be meritocratic and the role of luck. I don't quite so often see it discussed, but I think we all have seen (or felt, in some of our cases) folk suffering from the peculiar kind of bitterness which results from the following combination of beliefs: that things ought be a meritocracy, that in such a system one would be doing well and widely acknowledged, that one is not doing well or widely acknowledged. Philosophy as a vocation may well contain many of the same elements as science as a vocation.

Points (2) and (3), however, are much more disputed in the case of philosophy. A recent essay in the LA Review of Books seems to me representative of certain stands of thought which vigorously protest any analogy between the sciences and philosophy in these regards. Rather than put our heads down (and together) and specialise, hoping to each make small contributions to a long running project of collective inquiry that shall - if successful - inevitably surpass our meagre contributions, ``true philosophizing is “thinking against oneself” — done systematically, mercilessly, with no safety net and no escape routes''. The picture painted is of a kind of wildly ambitious and deeply individualistic project, where one, if successful, arrives at one's own profound insight that shall last the ages, but really where one must accept at the outset that one's quest will probably result in failure.  Plato isn't quite the highlander, but there can be only so many such people. This essay was an especially fervent expression of this sentiment, but I do think it captures something of a recurring theme in our debates about our own self-conception as a distinct class of inquirers.

My heart is very much with the first of these options, I think philosophy is or ought be much more a Weberian vocation than a Romantic quest for self-assertion. I'll limit myself to one problem I had with this piece and how I think it misunderstands the position of one who commits to the less individualistic Weberian vocation. Reflections in the spirit of the LA Review of Books just fail to appreciate the full existential resources of communalism, even where they place lip service to it. For instance, in the LA Review of Books article it seems to me that a lot of what they want to claim for their own approach is its superior courage, its better ability to display that virtue. What is being praised is the courage to squarely face one's high chance of failure, and the heroism of the philosopher in daring to be idiosyncratic in an institutional structure that prefers conformism. Now, privately I initially responded by complaining a bit about the pretentiousness here (systematic mercilessness leaving no room for escape better describes assassins operating predator drones, not people who write books about philosophy and cinema) but I've got my initial disclaimer, and in any case I'll grant that there's such a thing as intellectual courage and its valuable to display it.  But somebody pursuing a Weberian vocation has no especial reason to think that the project of inquiry they commit to shall succeed in its aims. And so even if they personally have some reason to think they may succeed in making their own within-paradigm contributions (which, given the discussion about well known roles of luck, prejudice, and failures of the reward system, actually shouldn't be granted so quickly) they know that the communal project is just as precarious and fraught as the personal project of the attempted heroic individual.

Indeed, this goes in philosophy even more so than the case of science Weber focussed on, since somebody who throws themselves into a communal project of philosophical inquiry with their eyes open does so knowing that the utter abandonment of paradigms is frequent in the history of philosophy, that centuries long projects which attracted the brightest minds of entire continents are now viewed as wildly and obviously erroneous by even the average undergrad, and it is at least obscure whether we build progressively upon each other at all. (An existentialist exploration of the pessimistic meta-induction or a proper exploration of the phenomenology of the historically aware scientist would, I think,  be an interesting and valuable project.) Even granting that intellectual courage is a virtue we ought display, the Romantic individualists are too quick to write off the Weberian vocationalists as thoughtless functionaries, and not appreciate the extent to which they display the same virtue, simply at a communal level rather than displaying it for their idiosyncratic project. This kind of unsympathetic failure to appreciate the principles and positions of Weberian types is typical, I think, and part of the reason I have wrote in their defence before.

It would be exactly missing my point to see in this as a defence of all the projects of inquiry philosophy now supports, all features of dominant paradigms as they now exist. In fact, they very well might fail, and per the judgement of history bear no fruits, and this may well be because of features of how those engaged in them arranged themselves socially. See here, for instance, for one of my own discussions of a failure of the reward system which philosophers and scientists alike are subject to in the present academy. Such failings, and the real possibility that a huge number of very smart people are simply wasting their lives by their own lights but shall never know as much, underlie rather than contradict my point. One does not have to buy into a full nihilistic metaphysic to see the relevance of Weber's (4) and how it applies to philosophy -- when one buys into a communal project of inquiry, one is committing oneself to something whose horizons of success or potential revelation of failure lie far outside one's lifespan. Whether we shall collectively discern and perfect and instantiate a just society, limn and explicate the metaphysical structure of being,  understand the nature of knowledge and see it properly organised, disseminated, and implemented -- and whether any of the approaches to these now adopted and collectively worked upon shall in any way help advance or hold us back in these -- we shall probably ourselves never know in this life. If one takes philosophy as one's vocation, in the Weberian sense, one none the less commits to the attempt at some or all of these problems, and does so with less hope of glory as one of history's celebrated geniuses, but as one among many making a small and under-appreciated contribution to a greater whole.

Also it's nice not having to come into the office over summer.


  1. I confess that I find this post quite desperately depressing...!

    I'm very glad that I don't share either the Weberian vocationalist view or what you call the "Romantic individualist" view (although I guess I am significantly closer to the latter than the former...).

    For me, my motivation for keeping plugging away at philosophy is fundamentally Socratic. It is a personal quest: My goal is just that I personally will achieve a better understanding of these issues, which I believe to be of unrivalled fundamental importance.

    Unlike the Romantic individualists (as you describe them), I have virtually no expectations that I personally will revolutionize the study of philosophy for humanity as a whole. But unlike the both the Romantic individualist and the Weberian voacationalist, I don't really think that the strongest reasons for me to engage in philosophical investigations lie in the expected effects of my research either on "the ages" or on any collective pursuit of philosophical truth.

    Indeed, at the end of the day (and perhaps others will find my attitude on this point to be shockingly self-absorbed...?), I don't really care all that much about how useful my work is for other people. What I want is simply to understand this stuff as well as possible myself. The views and ideas that I have tried to develop appeal to me because they seem to help *me* to understand these things better. Of course, I want to learn from as many other people as I can. And one good way for me to check if I really am making progress at understanding these rivetingly fascinating issues is by running my ideas past other people. But my fundamental goal is just that I personally will understand these things better. If I also help others to understand things better, that is an extra added bonus, but it's not the main goal for me.

    Because I *am* convinced that I have made great progress in understanding these issues, and that these issues are of such unrivalled importance, philosophy is for me a constant source of delight. If I thought it was all completely pointless unless I somehow made a big enough impact on the wider world, I suspect that I would succumb to abject despair!

  2. Thanks for the comment! It is useful for people to get this kind of counter-point, so I am glad it can accompany the piece.