To live (and die) for philosophy

Philosophy produces a level of intensity and dedication like no other academic pursuit. To do it right, the discipline is supposed to be all consuming. Socrates drank hemlock rather than give it up. The young Wittgenstein told Russell that if he could not be a philosopher, he would shoot himself. Maybe it’s just because I don’t get around enough but I’ve never heard anyone say ‘dermatology or death’ or ‘the life without geology is not worth living’.

Some time ago I heard on the grapevine of an acquaintance thinking badly of me because I was treating philosophy as a nine-to-five job. Apparently they’d seen me walking my kids to school, shopping in the supermarket and chatting to the local greengrocer like I was some kind of normal person. Philosophy should be your life and, if you are a true philosopher, you can never switch it off. It’s hard to imagine Nietzsche doing laundry or Kant caring for elderly relatives. Philosophical heroes are unhappy and moody, constantly preoccupied with loftier thoughts and it would be unconscionable to distract them with mundanities of regular living.

This must all look very pompous to non-philosophers. We think hard, for sure, but so does anyone who succeeds in any academic discipline. I’ve not known any subject area where it’s easy to become a university professor. We do have a very long history, though, and this has helped create a number of myths out of our long line of forebears, such the story of Diogenes, who lived his philosophy to the full and made his home in a barrel.

I don’t see the norms that have come out of this historical practice as being particularly helpful. The performative conception of being a philosopher – that you must do it right, and to do so you it must consume your every thought and action – is one that serves us badly, especially in relation to the current employment arrangements. It discriminates against those who wish to raise a family, the effort of which often falls disproportionately on women. It discriminates against those with disabilities who might have good reason to prioritise personal care. Generally, I think it is bad for our mental health to have nothing but philosophy in our lives. It also means that to succeed, and secure a permanent position at a university, you have to dedicate your life to your work. Given that there are fewer jobs than people wanting them, what happens to those who then have to change direction in life? How have we served them? Or are we happy to treat them as philosophy’s collateral damage: our very own human sacrifice?

I am happy to challenge these norms of our profession and have plenty of interests outside of philosophy and academia generally. I think it makes me a happier and more adaptable person. Indeed, I suspect that most other professional philosophers are like this too. What varies is only the degree of guilt for not performing our philosopher-hood right. Instead, we can subvert the stereotype, discard the myths of what a philosopher looks like, and think about a more positive set of norms for our profession. As well as being healthier for us, I see no reason why this couldn’t produce better philosophy too.

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