Divorcing Academia: Freedom or Despair?

I have spent two years on the academic job market and had only a very few first-round interviews, and one campus visit.  I did not bother counting how many rejections; let us just call it a large number, nearing if not past 100.

Additionally, I have applied for at least 90 non-academic jobs in the same time-frame, probably more.  There, the closest I came was the final three for a job I had to convince myself I wanted, and, in the aftermath, am (still) very glad I did not take.  Admittedly, I have turned down many interviews, because I applied for the job without first investigating the company, and, investigating after receiving the interview request, said, “No thanks, charlatans/hucksters.”

But my heart has never been in applying for any non-academic job.  I am not being an arrogant son-of-a-bitch–at least, not too much of one–when I say that I am good at the meat of academia: I have three published articles, two (soon to be) published books, two book reviews, and three articles currently under review; another article almost ready to submit, and a third book for which I have about 50,000 words written, all of this in less than a year from defending my dissertation.  Granted, my articles are not published in “high-impact” journals.  Being a mixed medievalist-phenomenologist-semiotician means I am on the edge of everyone’s acceptable content-range.  Nevertheless, I think it’s hard to say that’s a bad publishing record; my books, at least, are both with highly reputable academic publishers.

I am also, from most of the feedback I’ve gotten (students and peers alike), a good teacher.

And yet, still, no one wants to hire me.

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It could be that my doctoral program isn’t extremely well-known; but it is known somewhat, and respected–enough that I should receive attention from at least someone, somewhere.

It could just be that the market is particularly bad for my AOS/AOC this year–though the tendency away from metaphysical and towards “practical” topics of philosophy seems unlikely to ebb any time soon–and that, in a few months as the 2018-19 cycle starts, the market will be flush with jobs fit for me.

But I cannot wait for that.  It seems I may have to break up with academia… and I mean really and truly.  Not just “taking a break” and “exploring my options”.  I think I need to acknowledge that she is a faithless bitch and cut my ties.  Will this be freeing?  Will it cause me to despair?  Can I ever really be happy outside academia?  My thoughts, my research, my writing, my teaching; in some sense these seem like children, to me.  If I divorce the academy, will I still be able to be a father to them?  Or is it that I can only see them on the weekends, perhaps the occasional weeknight?

I do not think I will really feel free, to be honest, because the commitment is not externally imposed, but the consequence of an internal desire.  I would have to change myself; and I do not see that happening.

I interviewed for a last-minute, poorly-paying, one-year instructor position earlier this week.  It is a marginal step up from being an adjunct.  I’ll know their decision in a few days.  I have a couple other, long-shot applications out on the market, for which I have no expectations.

An Incoherent Imperative

Philosophy is not an empirical discipline and it cannot be conducted as such.  Though it may make use of empirical observations, and although many philosophers insist upon an empirical origin of our knowledge, the process of philosophical reasoning itself is not contained within the boundaries of an empirical nor an empiriometric methodology.   In point of fact, empiricism without the context of philosophy is an incoherent approach to understanding anything.

Among the most important of philosophy’s lessons is that the more we know, the more we realize that we do not know.  True comprehension is an elusive goal; and, yet, today, an arrogant presumption about the extent and profundity of human understanding is taken up in every quarter.  It cannot be doubted that the amount of information available far exceeds what was held by previous generations, but to confuse this information with knowledge (a habit), let alone understanding (an act), is to confuse the severed parts with the whole.  A pile of information no more makes understanding than a clump of atoms makes a human being.

The notion that empirical science will provide knowledge of any kind, therefore, seems rather misguided; for the empiriometric method provides us the means to gathering information, but not to incorporating it into the narratives whereby that information is made meaningful.  It is ironic that Western civilization purchased the means to improved information access and collection at the cost of the means to understand it.  This is especially true in questions of morality: what is revealed by empiriometric inquiries can be manipulated to fit whatever narrative, promoting or denigrating whichever agenda, and therefore gives us no foundation for saying what is right or wrong.

So how are we to reconcile the discoveries of science with our moral sentiments?  Of foremost importance is that we insist upon an approach to morality which makes of it something other than mere sentiment.  Empathy, like all feelings, follows the determinations of cultural contextualization.  That someone might feel empathy for another human being, or at least act with sympathy, in an idealized transcendence of distinctions of gender, race, sexual orientation, religious belief, and so on, is not a given.  The hows and whys of our positive and negative affections are indeterminate and open to nigh infinite degrees of alteration.

That said, I think it prudent to respond to three claims recently made by Brian Boutwell on Quillette.com:

1) We do not need specific versions of empirical realities to exist in order to realize that we’re all capable of suffering, that the properties of our central nervous system equip us to feel sorrow and anguish. We already have every reason we ever needed to advocate fairness and decency.

I do not mean to belittle a fellow academic, but this first sentence–and I promise you, it is not improved by context–is downright silly.  While Boutwell is doubtlessly trying to say that we do not need an empirical proof of equality to demonstrate our universal capacity for suffering, that universal capacity is itself a kind of equality shown by empirical evidence.  In other words, the claim is that we do not need an empirical account because we have an empirical account.

The second sentence is a more sophisticated piece of sophistry.  Everyone likes pleasure and no one likes pain (except those fun individuals who derive pleasure from pain; and even then, the pain is liked only because the derived pleasure outweighs the pain).   But this preferentiality gives us no reason, as such.  Why should the universal capacity for suffering be sufficient reason to advocate fairness and decency?  The statement resounds with the philosophies of the Enlightenment–Mill, in particular, comes to mind–but the classical liberalism theory of natural human rights rests always either on a belief in empirically-discerned nature (discerned, at least, in outline), or on a belief in the divine granting of human rights; or, in the counter-Enlightenment, solely upon social convention.

2) My hero Charles Darwin, by all accounts a good and decent man, stole from us the idea that we are products of special creation, made in the image of a loving god. We were clumsily assembled piecemeal by an emotionless process of selection. And yet, our worth—the worth of all human beings—is not diminished one iota because of it.

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“I don’t think that word means what you think it means.”

Anyone who thinks that the Darwinian theory of evolution undermines belief in a divine creation does not understand the idea of creation as presented in any of its more intelligent articulations.  You might as well say that the Big Bang disproves that there could be a God (Fr. Lemaitre would disagree with you on that, I’m sure).  I am quite certain, at any rate, that Thomas Aquinas–who admitted that the eternal motion of the celestial spheres was merely an account which saved the appearances, and not a certitude at all–would tell you that the how of a divine generation of human beings, of whom the image and likeness of the divine consists essentially in species-specific human intelligence, is of little importance.

 

At any rate, the idea that our worth is not diminished by discarding the belief that human beings are of a special divine provenance sounds like boastful posturing.  As aforementioned, the classical liberal belief of the Enlightenment in human rights requires either that they be divinely granted or grounded in nature.  Otherwise, we must turn to a contractarian position, in which social agreement alone grants us this “worth”.  The dangers of such a turn should be quite evident; society is fickle, and the culture by which any society is united, malleable, open to perversion every hour of every day.

3) We should be united in the idea that nothing in science will overturn the imperative to treat all individuals as sentient creatures capable of feeling great happiness, and also great suffering. We do not need the natural world to exist in a certain way in order to ensure the moral worth of all creatures who inhabit it.

At this point, I must say–as a graduate professor of mine often would–that I’m confused.  I am pretty certain that either the contradiction has come full circle or a really unjustified and extraordinarily dangerous claim has been.  In the first case, Boutwell is saying that because the natural world exists a certain way we do not need the natural world to exist a certain way; because we exist with a capacity for “feeling great happiness” and “great suffering”, by nature, we do not need–what?  An equal capacity for such feelings?  (Then, I ask, why is it that people should be treated equally if their capacities are unequal?)  Or perhaps I am missing something?

Or perhaps it is the second case: that Boutwell is saying we designate human beings equally worthy and thus deserving of fair and decent treatment out of a pure volition.  That we should be nice to one another because we want to; or because we fear what will happen to us if we do not.  If the only reason to advocate for fairness and equality is the fear that failure to do so might result in our being victimized in turn, then Glaucon and Adeimantus would like to sell you Thrasymachus’ house.  If, contrariwise, the only reason to advocate for fairness and equality is that we want to, that seems no stronger a reason than to advocate for survival of the fittest, for right of the strongest.

If we divide nature from culture (as do counter-Enlightenment figures, and which divide grows organically out of the philosophical presuppositions of Enlightenment figures, as well), and place the value of human life–and all the consequent considerations of a moral kind–squarely in the realm of culture, we cannot be surprised when there develop certain cultural perspectives which attack our own.  For culture stands on no firm, timeless, or cognition-independent grounds, but begins anew in the cognitive life of every human individual.

Perhaps what it needs is less sentiment, such as permeates Boutwell’s piece, and more reason; a reason granted not by empiriometric science, but by philosophical inquiry.  Perhaps if we want to understand what makes human beings worthy of being treated with dignity, we should try looking for a way to make the empirical meaningful.

Why Everyone Needs to Calm Down

First, I’m going to call shame.  I saw innumerable tweets last night calling over 59 million Americans racist, homophobic, xenophobic, sexist, horrible deplorables and so on.  I’m sure there are many Trump voters who are those things.  But I am also certain that there are many more who are not.  Some of my own family voted for Trump, and they are certainly not any of those things.

If anything, those harsh accusations help explain why Trump won.  Middle class jobs are and have been disappearing for years, and that trend seems likely to continue.  For people without a college (or higher) education, this means a path to nowhere.  Low-income jobs typically do not result in any career advancement or significant raises.  As college becomes more expensive (and grad school even more so, not only financially, but chronologically), this turns into a vicious cycle from generation to generation.  It is a problem which has, historically, disproportionately affected minorities–but it has also affected whites as well, and whites (non-Latino/Hispanic) make up the majority of the population.  80% of 13.2% (African American population) is less than 20% of 62.6% (white population).

Add to this that many white people who do succeed are told that they succeed primarily because they are white, and it’s not hard to see why they might become resentful.  They’re told that they need to support and accept people who are different, less privileged, who come from cultures they don’t understand, against whom they do have some reason to be suspicious–not a good one, but still a reason–and that if they don’t put their needs after the needs of foreigners, they’re racist and xenophobic bigots.

I’m not saying they’re right.  I’m not saying that they have the proper perspective.  But, my God, for all those who preach tolerance and universal acceptance, you might want to start in your own backyard.  Are they ignorant regarding other cultures?  Definitely.  Are you ignorant of theirs?  I think this election shows that you quite probably are.  Flyover country–and that includes rural Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin–has long felt ignored, neglected, and abused.  To be honest, I don’t really blame them.

Second, I’m going to exhort you to take a very deep breath.  Donald Trump may soon be the most powerful man in the world; but he’s still just one man.  It is regrettable that the power of the president has been exponentially increased in the past 16 years–for which we can blame both Bush and Obama–but it is still the power of one man.

Additionally, that man is a notorious liar.  Bush promised smaller government for everyone.  It mushroomed into a revolting behemoth during his 8 years.  Obama promised affordable healthcare for everyone and a withdrawal of military interventions, while many people’s rates went up 100% or more and he ordered 10 times as many drone strikes as Bush.

Trump made outlandish, vague, poorly-defined campaign promises.  Do we really think he’s going to keep any of them–when he has switched political parties 5 times since the late 1980’s?  He was for abortion before he was against abortion.  He donated to Hillary Clinton’s senate campaign.

So read his acceptance speech and tell me if you think he’s going to stay hard-line with his promises, or if he, like nearly every other successful politician in the history of the world, made his promises to win votes.  The cynic in me–which is all of me–thinks that we’re really just in store for more political words coming up empty.  And today, that’s a good thing.

I could be wrong.  Let’s hope I’m not.

Why Transgenderism is Philosophically Problematic

This might not win me much love from many of my Twitter followers, but here goes:

There are two things I find philosophically problematic with the attitude towards transgenderism as it is advocated in the public square.  The first, and the more immediately-troubling, from a socio-political standpoint, is the authoritarian nature with which it makes and defends its proclamations: how dare you protest, or suggest, or imply, that there might be any reason someone is psychologically transgendered?! and so on.  I do not believe myself to be caricaturing the viewpoint, but if someone feels that I am, by all means, feel free to correct me… preferably without saying something about how dare I, and how could I know, etc.

The second, and more deeply troubling, is the identification of one’s gender with a psychological experience entirely incapable of being observed or publicly demonstrated in any way other than through the communication of assertions: i.e., despite the biological constitution of a male, I am, as a person, female, and there is nothing you can say about this, regardless of what evidence you might want to present to the contrary.  This identification with a gender which cannot be demonstrated is consequently no more than the response to a feeling.  Having a feeling does not justify action; many of our feelings, we do not hesitate to admit, are irrational.  In order to act upon a feeling, we typically try to sort out whether or not that feeling coheres with a rational basis.  What the rational basis is for an individual’s gender being a psychologically-grounded rather than biologically-grounded reality, I have not yet heard, despite having looked.

The closest to a rational basis which I have encountered is the general line of thought not initiated but, in terms of temporal proximity, formalized and popularized for recent generations by Berger and Luckmann in their 1967 book The Social Construction of Reality.  Berger and Luckmann, among others, opened the door to theories that notions such as gender are merely social constructions.  If you take the idea that every aspect of gender roles, for instance, is something socially and therefore conventionally but in no way biologically grounded, then gender itself begins to appear as something socially constructed.  We come to know things, after all, by the way they act; and if we think all the ways in which men and women act are the products of human artifice, i.e., a sense of culture dissociated from nature, then we start to think that “male” and “female” are products of human artifice.  In other words, these concepts seem to be founded on something purely arbitrary, and what is purely arbitrary is subject to change.

(This is why I say that Berger and Luckmann are far from initiating this path; if we really wanted to trace out the whole history, we would have to traipse through William of Ockham and the other scholastic nominalists, Rene Descartes, Locke, Hobbes, and most especially Rousseau.  Ain’t no Krampus got time for that.)

The problem with this line of thinking–that nature and culture are divorced from one another and that concepts concerning personhood are therefore arbitrarily established–however, is that it is the very antithesis of rational thought: that is, it destroys rational thinking if followed out to its actual conclusions.  Where, how does this domain of “culture”, including “personhood”, become established?  How is this something independent from, different from nature?  One can appeal to all sorts of theories about intersubjectivity or supersubjectivity, but “inter” as “between” and “super” as “above” are prepositional prefixes, implying a connection between substances, between actual subjects, between ontologically grounded things having natures, between the constituents of nature.

I am hard-pressed to see any theory of culture as independent from nature which is not a dualism, that is, a philosophy which, to quote C.S. Peirce, “performs its analyses with an axe, leaving, as the ultimate elements, unrelated chunks of being”.  Dualism is always ultimately unintelligible, because, unless we can somehow resolve the parts–unless there is some common basis between the two–there cannot be communication between the two.  In other words, some things are reasonable and some things are not, and to get from one to the other requires a leap to faith: a leap which requires a fundamental alteration of the mode of existence and of behavior from one side of the chasm to the other.

If you say that reason itself is the common denominator of our experiences of both culture and nature, I would very much agree with you: except that, if you understand the same thing I do by nature (which is quite possibly not the case, but likely not so profound a difference as to invalidate this claim), you would see that reason is from human nature itself… meaning that our experience of culture must be dependent upon the nature we ourselves have.