My Struggles with Academic Philosophy

Well now.  I know I haven’t written here for a good while.  This past semester has been busy and fruitful.  A lot of new things have happened in my life, but I want to focus on my academic career in this post.

This is my fourth semester in the Ph. D. program, and I’m struggling.  Not struggling in the academic sense, although the past semester was challenging.  And I’m not struggling in the adjustment of a new geographical place.  So far, I’m liking Milwaukee.  I mean that I’m struggling with my interests in the classes.  In short, I love philosophy, but I’m frustrated with academic philosophy.

To begin, my specialty in philosophy is out in the fringes.  I enjoy the philosophy of relationships in general (this includes love, sex, coupledom, friendship, and the dynamics within).  Ever since I have read Benatar’s Better to Never Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence, I have become more intrigued with anti-natalism and the arguments around that area.  Also, I have always been intrigued with the philosophy of Schopenhauer.  I’m also interested in phenomenology and existentialism, but the interest level does not come close to the other three.  I would say that my desire for phenomenology and existentialism is roughly 65-70% (on a good day) to that of my other three interests.

Now, I have yet to find a university that would talk about anti-natalism.  I have read various syllabi that brings up the topic through reproduction and parenthood, but those are specialty classes.  It’s also pretty rare to find classes on the philosophy of love and sex, and I think it’s more rare to find a class just on Schopenhauer.  Usually, Schopenhauer is taught in a 19th Century philosophy class, or in German philosophy class.

Talking with other students, most have their specialties in big categories and those topics are taught: philosophy of religion, aesthetics, continental philosophy, philosophy of mind, modern philosophy, ethics, ancient philosophy.  Some go into the details of a specific philosopher: Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Kant, Hegel, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche.  All of my fellow colleagues have found a niche within philosophy and they can easily take advantage of their interests by studying with other fellow students who share the same topic, by taking the class, or by discussing with the professor.  Me?  No one shares my interests.  Or if there is an interest, it is only in a tangental way.  I have to study the materials on my own and hope that I am interpreting it correctly.  However, it becomes tiresome because I cannot converse with anyone on the topic at hand.  And because I work on the materials on my own, I am at a starting point whereas my colleagues are at an advanced level with their interests.  I typically browse through anthologies just to get started and then I can continue with the process down the road.  Yet, I look at my fellow colleagues and they have vastly gained more insight in their speciality, and I feel that I have only gained a little with mine.  My colleagues can sip up the water of knowledge but I’m struggling to swim in mine.

This is not to say that I’m not enjoying what I’m learning or have learned in academia so far.  I actually enjoy learning this new material.  Yet, I don’t *soak* in the material like my colleagues do.  No idea has really grabbed me to the point where I want to research more into the material.  Whenever I think of a final paper, it’s always a struggle to come up with a topic.  Or whenever I do think of a topic, it usually relates back to my specialty which is hard.

This post wasn’t meant for me to complain about my situation.  I wouldn’t take back my time.  It’s just that for the past few weeks, I have been wondering why my colleagues seem to be advancing at a faster rate than I am in their specialties.  Obviously one answer is that they are smarter than me, and no doubt I believe that many of them are smarter than me.  I think part of the answer is that they can tap into their field with better accessibility than I can with mine.  However, I think the main thing is that I like to learn new information and gain new insights.  I struggle with incorporating this information into my life.  It’s as if I’m look at these ideas from afar, scrutinizing and analyzing what the idea offers, but I can’t say that I own these ideas.  There are a few ideas that I could say that I would take on and make them my own, but these are very rare.  This isn’t to say that to do philosophy, one must incorporate these ideas, but for me, without any sense of incorporation, I struggle with the idea of taking these ideas seriously.  Hell, sometimes I don’t even know which ideas I own.  It seems that I take on a mitigated skepticism on everything.  Sometimes it can be beneficial: I don’t have to be dogmatic on a position, and if the idea turns out to be false, I am glad that I didn’t hold that position.  But sometimes, the knowledge I have is very broad, but there’s no depth.  Academic philosophy is getting engaged with the depth, but usually, I’m not interested in the depth.  I find myself enjoying teaching more and more because I can cover the breadth to students who have never talked or thought about these ideas.  When it comes to my own philosophy, I usually don’t even know where to begin.  I look at the arguments to see which position makes the most sense, but in all, I just don’t have any stake in these ideas that most philosophers get involved with.  I’m still passionate about philosophy, yet the academic stuff where I have to jump through the hoops is limiting that passion.

About shaunmiller

I have just completed a visiting position as an assistant professor at Dalhousie University. My ideas are not associated with my employer; they are expressions of my own thoughts and ideas. Some of them are just musings while others could be serious discussions that could turn into a bigger project. Besides philosophy, I enjoy martial arts (Kuk Sool Won), playing my violin, enjoying coffee around town, and experimenting with new food.
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4 Responses to My Struggles with Academic Philosophy

  1. Handsome Matt says:

    You’re pursuing knowledge the way it was always meant to be pursued. There has been a growing trend in the academic world to simply rehash the same material over and over and over again. Sleep deprivation tests are still run on mice, for example.

    The central idea of a liberal arts education was simple: Being exposed to smaller portions of the “classics” makes an individual better in their chosen field of study. They then go forth and use their multi-faceted knowledge to come up with new things, new ideas, to “boldly go where no man has gone before.” Somewhere along the line, we lost sight of that, and have ended up with the mess we’re in now.

    I’d like to say pursue your field of interest, but I’m a son of a bitch who would relish the fight you’ll have defending that dissertation. But, having recently returned to college myself (I’m still reeling from how different it is, even from seven years ago) I doubt your board (is that the right word?) would know what to do with a truly original idea.

    All that is a long way of saying: I’ve been there, I know a bit of what you’re feeling, it is a lonely place but you can tough it out!

  2. Beyondthehorizon says:

    But sometimes, the knowledge I have is very broad, but there’s no depth. Academic philosophy is getting engaged with the depth, but usually, I’m not interested in the depth

    Maybe academic philosophy doesn’t have much to do with philosophy anymore, except the name. What for instance is the philosophical idea behind of becoming an expert on Plato? I am, personally, interested in depth, or better: in precision. But I do think one needs a conscious understanding of why a question matters first. Why for instance would it be interesting to know what Plato thought about justice? Apparently it would be interesting if you were interested either in knowledge about justice itself or in knowledge about how Plato influenced others in their thinking about justice. The first one is a philosophical interest, the second a historical. Now you would of course not become an expert on Plato alone, if you were interested in justice, but instead an expert on justice itself, given that such a person can exist. So the question is: Why are there people who are called philosophers and who are, at the same time, primarily experts on Plato? This seems to be a paradoxical form of existence.

    Intentions to achieve precision and depth about irrelevant questions are themselves irrelevant attitudes. But my impression now is that academic philosophy is reducing philosophy to the reproduction of certain subject matters due to historical tradition alone, without being capable of answering the question why the subject matter is important in and out of itself. The questions are taken for granted, because there have been people traditionally interested in them, in an enterprise traditionally called “philosophy”. But why should this enterprise exist at all? Why not transfer the economic means to other, socially more useful applications? Now since I think that philosophy is necessarily also the concern for the significance of questions in and out of themselves, academic philosophy is apparently missing something quite essential. It is missing the ethical dimension of philosophy.

    • shaunmiller says:

      I’m not sure what you mean by academic philosophy is missing the ethical dimension of philosophy. There is a field called applied philosophy and experimental philosophy and it usually has to do with ethics. My contention is that academic philosophy has made boundaries of what one has to do in order to get the degree so that one can be considered a “professional philosopher.” One has to jump through the hoops to get the degree and it’s drudgery work. On the other hand, I could just read on my own and do what I want to do, but in all seriousness, no one would take me seriously and I couldn’t do much without going further. Such is life, I suppose.

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