Tuesday, October 26, 2004

On Being an Independent Philosopher

A software engineer with an interest in philosophy inquires:

1. Why did you leave a tenured position? Too much emphasis on teaching? Bureaucratic nightmares? Departmental politics?

Why did I quit? The main reason was in order to have time to write philosophy and pursue my wide-ranging studies free of teaching duties. I was lucky to have a Tuesday-Thursday teaching schedule; but even so, that meant that two twelve-hour days were consumed by teaching and lecture preparation. I would also come in on Wednesday afternoons for office hours. Grading, administrative tasks, and attendance at various meetings took time, and a long-distance relationship with my wife who taught at a university 220 miles away added to the hassle.

Philosophy is a magnificent thing and my reason for living. Unfortunately, many if not most philosophy professors don’t see it that way: they are time-servers who went into the teaching business because of the long summers, a relaxed schedule, and the lack of heavy lifting. It’s a job to them, and as one erstwhile colleague remarked, "It beats working for a living." Some of them play the game quite well; the bottom line, however, is that they live from philosophy, not for it, and if they became unable to live from it they would drop it like a hot potato and go into real estate or something.

I felt alienated from them and their mentality and I wanted to be free of them. That was part of my reason for resigning. I thought about it for a long time before finally taking the leap. The catalyst was my wife’s being offered an excellent position at Arizona State University in Tempe, Arizona, near Phoenix. That was during my two-year visiting associate professorship at Case Western Reserve University. After that stint, I could have returned to my tenured position, but I advised my wife to take the Arizona job. The lure of beautiful Arizona was just too much for this outdoorsman to resist, and I saw that I had reached a critical juncture: would I have the courage to take the next step in my life and become a real philosopher rather than a mere paid professor of it, or would attachment to security keep me stuck in a rut? Somehow I found the courage to make the right decision, one that was right at the time and has turned out to be right in the sequel. It may be doubted whether philosophy has made progress in me, but there can be no doubt that I have made progress in philosophy, and had I stayed in the university rut the progress would have been less than it is.

It’s like this. All your life you set and attain goals: getting into a competitive high school, a university, graduate school, then attaining the advanced degree, landing a tenure-track position (which is really hard and involves luck as well), and then tenure (dicey!) followed by associate rank. Now you’ve got it made in the shade, a life time ride with all the amenities. So you enjoy your tenured status for a spell. I enjoyed it for seven years. But then the seven-year itch sets in and it gets old; it’s a been there done that situation. What’s the next goal? Well, there was the visiting appointment for a couple of years, which was extremely stimulating, but then the prospect of returning to the tenured grind started to look grim indeed. I suppose any job can turn into a living death. I’m going to spend the rest of my life with these people, in Dayton, Ohio, teaching logic and intro, intro and logic to bored and boring undergraduates in an institution that has lost its moorings and is drifting to the prevailing winds of political correctness in a decadent society whose culture is growing ever more toxic? Hell no. Time to hit the road, Jack.

Into the desert, like the questers of late antiquity.

Perhaps I should add that I do not see philosophy as a merely theoretical, let alone academic, activity, but as one that is indissolubly both theoretical and spiritual, as a quest for the Absolute, along the lines of a Plato or Plotinus or Augustine or Spinoza, to name four classical thinkers high on my list. Philosophy so conceived involves not just ratiocination but also contemplation and meditation -- which take time, peace of mind, seclusion perhaps to the point of Bradleyan reclusivity, and a generous distance from academic hustlers.

2. How are you able to, financially speaking? I work full-time as an engineer, allocating most of my free time to shifting into philosophy. While I'm able to make some time to do my own research, I am repeatedly and frequently reminded of just how much time for research & writing I lose as a result of my day job. Are you independently wealthy? Or ascetic, the way Quentin Smith was for a number of years when he chose to be an independent philosopher?

No, I am not independently wealthy, but I am frugal, and some might say ascetic, married, have no children, and am fortunate to live in a country in which it is very easy to accumulate wealth if you work hard, have the old-fashioned virtues, know how to defer gratification, and live well below your means, saving and investing what one doesn’t spend. It is essential to give oneself a financial education and to avoid the traps into which most Americans fall. One is the credit trap. It astonishes me that the average American household runs something like $8,000 of credit card debt and has something like 15 credit cards. I use credit cards for almost everything, enjoy the float, gladly take the 1-5% rebate, never go near my credit limit on even one card, and have never paid a cent of interest. I drive an old Jeep Cherokee that I have had going on 17 years. It’s a base model 4WD, with roll-up windows, no air conditioning, and a five-speed manual tranny. The only upgrades are big tires, off-road shocks, and a cheap tapedeck. I intend to keep it another ten years or so. Why not? It costs practically nothing to operate, insure, and register.

3. Isn't the loss of professional colleagues to bounce ideas off of a somewhat significant loss? Or is it not an issue due to e-mail correspondence with other philosophers, discussions at conferences (if you attend such), or some other factor?

That is a problem one can face even with an academic position. Only a handful of people get jobs in top departments with plenty of bright and committed people available for stimulating conversation and mutual criticism. It is easy to end up in a department with no one to talk to. That was my situation at the institution where I had tenure. Many of my colleagues were decent people, but they were of no use to me philosophically. Some lacked intelligence, others were lazy and/or unserious about philosophy, and still others were disqualified by such other attributes as excessive narrowness or personal repugnance. But I suppose the main thing was their unseriousness and lack of intellectual/spiritual eros. I would give a paper to a colleague and get little or nothing back in the way of comments. Or I would comment in great detail on a colleague’s paper, and the person wouldn’t care enough to respond. It was just something he wrote so that he could get on the program at a conference in some exotic place he wanted to visit using departmental funds. Or else his motive for writing was to earn a merit increase in salary.

I resigned in 1991, but didn’t go on-line until 1994. Those three years were ones of isolation, but of course that is what one expects in a self-imposed spiritual desert. But with e-mail, the WWW, and in particular, the blogosphere, everything changed for independent scholars. In cyberspace, especially in blogspace, one can find community that is simply impossible to find in physical space.

I have also found that I can satisfy my residual urge to teach with my weblog. Part of my purpose is to provide free philosophy lessons to any one who wants them. The beauty of it is that I can lecture when I want about what I want and say anything I want, and the ‘students’ are free to come and go as they please. There is none of the unreality of the university classroom where one teaches for pay and one learns for credits and neither party takes any of it very seriously.