Surprising negative: how narrow and incurious many philosophers are (and how conventional and unimaginative much work in philosophy is). Philosophy would be (I thought) the place that people went because they wouldn’t drop awkward and insistent questions that didn’t fit into disciplinary constraints. I expected philosophers to be open-minded explorers of ideas.
I think I can explain the phenomenon. Philosophy is immensely challenging. All of its parts relate to one another and, of course, to all of the different disciplines to which philosophy responds. Yet no one can expect to master them fully, so a defensive reaction is natural. When people meet something outside their background that is potentially challenging the reaction too often is: “If it doesn’t fit in with what I know and work on it, can’t be significant.” Still, it continues to be extremely disappointing.--Michael Rosen commenting at Leiter Reports.
Then I graduated, hit the job market, and moved to different temporary jobs (UBC and Tampa) twice. And from that time (6+ years ago) until now? It occurred to me: I have literally done nothing else than try my darnedness to get a tenure-track position. Aside from listening to iTunes, I have no hobbies. I have no close friends. I have literally ate, drank, lived, and slept philosophy (and sometimes, not even slept!). Were it not for my wife, who gives my life love, some liveliness, and grounding (our friends are her friends), and my dog, who never fails to put a smile on my face, I would pretty much have one thing, and one thing only: philosophy.
In some respects, this ain't so bad. I love philosophy...I wonder sometimes if this is how it should be--if the way in which professional incentives today can (and do) lead people to focus on academic philosophy above just about all else, we not only compromise ourselves as persons but also as philosophers. Let me explain why.--Marcus Arvan Philosopherscocoon.
Once I had been invited to give a talk on Newton at a conference; but since a lot of very good Spinoza people had been invited, too, I talked the conference hosts into letting me present new work on Spinoza—a philosopher I had not published on yet and had been teaching for a few years alongside my other research commitments. I lucked out because Michael Della Rocca was assigned to be my commentator. It turned out my paper was a bit of a mess; hyper-ambitious and not quite clear on the main issues. Michael’s comments were helpful and generous, and down the road I published some of the still, imperfect material in an edited volume. It was an exhilarating experience, and I hoped that folk could see that the underlying approach was promising. But I also sensed that I had not impressed my specialist peers. Most, tactfully, simply avoided comment on my paper. One bumped into me in the coffee-line during the break, and I had the following exchange:
[Big deal peer:] “You're so broad.”
[Me:] “Ahh...thank you, I guess.”
It's true that I take a vain delight in my broadness, especially since I have moved to Europe where the compartmentalization within departments and their specialist research chairs (around Systematic, Practical, and Historical groups) feels very pronounced. Even so, I know that being thought broad is not always thought a good thing in research circles. (It may help, perhaps, in landing a teaching oriented position.) It can be thought charming and endearing, but generally 'broad' is code for unclear, uninteresting, non-core, safely to be ignored, etc. Like all properties in a zero-sum status hierarchy, it can be inverted at the top, so that for some -- very special -- philosophers a certain kind of bravura, broadness (nod to Veblen or Bourdieu here) adds to the hip-factor. I have never been hip, alas. (Don't cry for me.)
Of course, there are a lot of inquisitive, fascinatingly broad folk among professional philosophers, and they are undoubtedly over-represented among you, my dear Impressionable reader. (Flattery works if it is plausible, after all.)* But even so it's very hard to keep one's interest fairly broad through a career in professional philosophy. I find that I use my (undergraduate) teaching to keep reading widely. But there are curricular limitations to this (and sometimes one discovers a displeased territorial colleague along the way). Even so, Rosen's explanation (quoted above), while correct, is incomplete psychologically. It also ignores some professional and disciplinary dimensions. On the psychological side, it ignores the joyful feeling one can obtain in the control over, and understanding of, an ordered whole (nod to Nietzsche here). Often such control is only acquired by treating the target-puzzle as a relatively isolated system (Spinoza's "Letter on the Infinite" is an early criticism of this).
On the disciplinary side, in particular, a conceptual-puzzling-solving ethos -- as is broadly embraced within analytical philosophy -- encourages one to focus narrowly on the issue at hand; one learns to discard irrelevant and distracting detail; one peels away layers of cultural and empirical accretion that jam clarity of focus in order to isolate the conceptual core of an issue. There is a suspicion of cultural artifacts that thrive on polysemy, while there is a fondness for assertion.
Recently Tim Maudlin defended this ethos in noble fashion against ignorant physicists. But I was struck that Maudlin closed his essay with a rousing quote from Einstein in which Einstein went well beyond Maudlin's defense by suggesting, in addition, that the history of thought/theorizing/use is also non-trivial part of conceptual articulation and conceptual isolation. ("It is by no means an idle game if we become practiced in analyzing the long commonplace concepts and exhibiting those circumstances upon which their justification and usefulness depend, how they have grown up, individually, out of the givens of experience.") That is to say, in practice, as Maudlin's example shows, we tend to focus on analysis and not on the cultural/historical/political/social contexts of conceptual articulation and development (and some of us harbor a suspicion that such activity may reveal a genetic fallacy or a failure to distinguish between the history of pragmatics vs semantics).+
Moreover, professionally, (soul-narrowing) specialization pays; that's the best strategy within the intellectual division of labor. Analytical philosophy, suspicious of great men as gurus, embraced specialization from the start and so flourished in the modern, twentieth century research university. (Yes, I am familiar with countervailing tendencies -- Wittgensteinian fondness for depth over technicality, etc. -- including local hero-worship.) So, on the whole, the hedgehogs outperform the foxes in our zero-sum environment--again, there are interesting and subtle exceptions to this rule. This pattern is worsened by the administrative duties that start to increase as one transitions from graduate student to tenured faculty (even in a research friendly environment).**
I don't have easy solutions (see Arvan's beautiful piece for one approach). I continue to be inspired by the wonderful intellectual friends I encounter within the profession and, by embracing the history and philosophy of X, that is, working across disciplinary divides, in other disciplines. There are also tactical opportunities away from the beaten path that allow one to use one's professional activities as a means toward life-long learning; more about that some other time. But one can understand these Digressions as the curricular vitae counterpart to my professional self.