On Being a ‘Professional Philosopher’

A recent post in The Philosopher’s Magazine blog set me thinking about some of the strictures on being a professional or academic philosopher, which today amount to pretty much the same thing. (I realize this might leave out bioethicists, some of whom do not have the typical duties or work profiles of philosophers that are faculty members, but in many important regards, especially writing, they are bound in the manner I describe below.)

To be a professional philosopher today, in the political economy of the modern university, requires that you have a particular theoretical orientation: whether you conceive of yourself in a particular way or not, it is quite likely that in the Anglo-American or European world, you will be classified as either an ‘analytical’ or a ‘continental’ philosopher. Matters might be different in say, Latin America or Asia, but even there, many departments of philosophy aspire to such a classification. (When I visited Taiwan in 2009, many of its recent faculty hires were graduates of Anglo-American or European universities and as such, had imported their own classifications into their department. My guess is that their influence on future hiring would further entrench whatever ‘orientation’ the department had taken on.) Obviously, those who work in say, Eastern philosophy–still considered ‘exoteric’, ‘less rigorous’ or straightforwardly ‘marginal’ in most Anglo-American departments–do not fall into these categories, but that merely serves to confirm their outlier nature. If your work does not fall straightforwardly into these categories–because of style or content–there is a decent to middling chance that you will not be considered a philosopher, but rather, a member of some other discipline. Maybe you are a political scientist, an environmentalist, a literary theorist, or a scientist who is fond of speculation, but you aren’t a philosopher.

To write as a professional philosopher means that you must write in particular venues, in particular fora. The chunks of writing are quite well-defined: five-thousand to fifteen thousand word articles in journals published by corporate publishing houses. Or books: seventy-five thousand to one hundred twenty-five thousand word monographs published by half-a-dozen publishers, some corporate and some university. (There are another twenty or so publishing houses that also have decent catalogs but in terms of professional influence on peers, if you aren’t publishing in that first group, you might as well be invisible. This second group is mainly useful for CVs, for promotion or tenure boards.) Many philosophers blog, and perhaps these venues will someday be established as accepted venues for writing and publication but that day is not here yet. And even then, the style–see below–remains the same.

The content of these publications is quite rigorously controlled: professional philosophers write on a well-defined set of topics. These are typically those of interest to well-established luminaries–mostly male–who have already written on them recently, thus setting off a flurry of responses, counter-responses and embellishments. A smart PhD student should check the back issues of journals for the past two years to figure out what topic to write his dissertation on. Every once in a while, in a field, like say, metaphysics or philosophy of  language, a topic rises to the surface, enjoys its day in the sun, and then sinks. Some fifteen or so years ago, deflationary theories of truth were the rage; now, you’d be an idiot if you wrote on them. (Or perhaps the vogue is back; I haven’t checked in a while.)  Needless to say, the broader subject areas of these topics are also clearly articulated: in the Anglo-American analytical world, these are metaphysics, epistemology, philosophy of mind as the big three (or perhaps, if you count philosophy of language, the big four). Then, closely following on their heels: philosophy of science, political philosophy, logic and ethics (including applied ethics). Aesthetics trails just a bit. If your topic does not fall neatly into these categories, you stand a good chance of being reckoned as not doing philosophy.

Lastly, style. To write like a professional philosopher, you must employ certain locutions, phrases, and sentence constructs profusely; your journal articles should also follow a well-established structural template. (For instance, identify the target of your critique, state and articulate the target argument, and then present your ‘solution’ and its advantages. I write ‘solution’ because it is ‘understood’ that ‘problems’ are being ‘solved’ when philosophers write.) By reading recent journal articles the current style can be figured out quite accurately and then followed for one’s own journal or monograph submissions. Deviance from this style is very likely to prompt the judgment that–you guessed it–you aren’t a philosopher at all.

None of what I’ve said above is new or too startling. It is not new because many before me–professional philosophers, I think–have said as much, and it is not startling because members of the discipline understand these constraints as defining it in the modern university. If the discipline–that word, so redolent of permission and boundaries!–was not demarcated thus, it would–the implicit fear goes–simply ebb away, its edges worn down, transformed into an inchoate mess, absorbed into other disciplines and departments or perhaps utterly marginalized and finally made invisible.

I will address teaching as a professional philosopher–including the business of departmental course offerings–in another post in the near future.

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