Sour Grapes and Anxiety
The motivation for this piece is purely personal and highly speculative but is the result of some very concrete circumstances that have been weighing on me for quite a while and which, I believe have a broader scope than my own feelings at the moment. Nevertheless, I've restrained myself to speaking strictly from a first-person perspective and make no official presumptions that my position is one that has bearing outside of its narrow scope. As such, the reader should beware that this piece is more self-indulgent than normal and fairly rambling.
The central question that interests me is that of what happens when one finds oneself alienated from a project to which one has devoted a considerable amount of time and energy and through which one has come to understand their own place in the world. For me, this is the project of being an academic philosopher.
How I got wrapped up in this project is, like many such projects that one commits to, quite unclear. I remember that at some point in my early days as an undergraduate I decided that I wanted to pursue philosophy seriously and make a career out of it. Just when that happened and on what grounds I decided to do this, I admit, I have forgotten. The best I can make of it is that I remember finding philosophy more challenging and invigorating than any other subject I had encountered, and thinking that the work being done was important and admirable. Why this vague memory should sustain me through one failed attempt at going to grad school, a master's degree, and a PhD program is beyond me but I suspect similar stories can be told about other similar projects. I suspect that for many of us, the pursuits of such projects never starts with a clear view of where they'll end up or how they'll be possible to complete, but rather with a naive commitment to its fulfillment that eventually becomes a force of habit that we can't break without feeling that something terribly important would be lost. As I tell my students occasionally when they ask me why I decided to do philosophy, I find myself living with the decisions of a person who I no longer remember for reasons that were never quite clear.
The genetic analysis here does nothing to change the fact that I do find myself living with these decisions, nor does it change the fact that they have given me certain reasons to structure and follow a certain path. That is to say that even if I were to find some long-lost diary which spelled out my initial thinking and judged the reasoning there to be incredibly poor, it wouldn't change the fact that now, in my fifth year of my PhD I have come to live a certain life that simply wouldn't make sense outside of this context. All this is to say that the solution to the problem that bothers me isn't to be found in some initial mistake. Something more must be said.
In the current context, the fact of the matter is that it is becoming more unlikely that a future in the profession is likely to develop. Part of this is due to external circumstances. The political and economic circumstances developing around the COVID-19 epidemic make it unlikely that the university system will have much space for the amount of academics that have been trained within it. Given how universities in the United States are funded and the risky games they have played in modeling themselves after businesses, accepting decades-long cuts to state and federal funding, I just don't see there being an expansion of jobs in the next decade (at the earliest). Rather, I expect that there will be significant austerity measures that will be taken specifically against the humanities. While I do have some friends who are optimistic that this will be balanced out as professors retire, or who cite the fact that graduate enrollment increases during recessions, I remain skeptical. I simply don't believe that the vacated positions will be preserved and kept open for younger candidates, nor do I think that the increase in graduate enrollment will spur further expansions of positions. Rather, I suspect that the field will constrict and that the existing faculty will be asked to do more with less.
This is not to say that there will be a complete closing of the humanities just yet. There will still be positions available, but these will be fewer than normal and will drive competition among the candidates to increase such that only the most brilliant, dedicated, and productive scholars will be considered. Those familiar with the process have already seen how the 2008 recession affected application portfolios. The changes that resulted from that recession proved themselves to be permanent and I see no reason to think that this recession will be different (unless, of course, a political, social, and economic revolution occurs that serves to heavily subsidize the academy and its labor. While this is possible, I'm not holding my breath). In short, the crunch that will be the result of this will leave room for geniuses in the field, but probably not much more room for people who are not.
This brings in the other factor that I think is at play. I don't believe that I'm a genius, nor do I think I have the fortitude of spirit to, say, manage three publications in the next two years. I don't say this to be modest, but rather as a bit of self-reflective honesty. I'm a clear thinker and a good writer, but at this stage in my development I don't have the brilliant streaks that would allow me to revolutionize the field. There may be others who have believe they have these streaks, but I have yet to meet them. In any case, if there are people who genuinely have them, they will be fine.
A bigger worry for me is that there may be other people who equally don't have these streaks of genius, but who through sheer force of will and fortitude are able to achieve what they set out to do. There may indeed be people who are able to spend ten hours a day, every day, reading and writing without being fatigued or worn down, but as I mentioned, I don't think I'm that kind of person. (Here, perhaps, the origin of that motivation to pursue this kind of life might matter--maybe the spark of inspiration that initially brought them to the discipline still burns bright. But again, I believe if there are such people, they are few and far between)
Along with these two factors is the further fact that in the past five years my understanding of the value of philosophy has shifted quite significantly. I still think the work is incredibly important and I still find myself to be challenged and inspired by reading and writing, but there are certain questions that have come to loom closer to my mind. Namely, I see myself now as much more politically oriented and motivated, which has brought my thinking to spheres that appear much broader and more important than the comparably narrower way of thinking that I've had in the past decade. I find myself deeply troubled about the reluctance that academic philosophers have to actually be political and engaged in a world that doesn't start and stop at the gates of the university.
I also find myself deeply frustrated by the fact that even in their work, philosophers don't see anything like a full and unified project that goes beyond a single, clearly defined, narrow problem. Writers will spend pages and pages on minutiae, bring criticisms to specific issues, then publish criticisms of those criticisms and pat themselves on the back for contributing to the field while failing to incorporate this dialectic into anything broader. It all feels like noticing and analyzing different parts of a car engine without understanding the car itself or the function that the engine serves.
This should not be seen as an attack on the grounds of the impracticality of philosophy, nor do I think that the value of philosophical thinking must be brought down to some concrete particular that must be addressed. Even when philosophers do address practical concerns they seem so divorced from what they're writing about in terms of how they live. That is, modern academic philosophy seems to be what is done as separate from life, much in the same way that one might go to work at a factory and crank out widgets only to return home and then switch to an entirely different mode of living.
My frustration shouldn't be seen as an indictment of any individual philosopher either. I understand the pressures and incentives that generate this kind of behavior and attitude and I don't blame people for following them. This, I believe is another unfortunate result of the neoliberalisation of the academy in which the publish-or-perish model of merit operates. As far as I'm concerned, I don't see philosophers as different from other kinds of workers with respect to their livelihood. However, I am frustrated--perhaps at myself--for thinking that things would and should be different here.
My frustration should also not be taken as applying to everyone equally. I'm sure that there are wonderful scholars who are currently doing precisely what I wish would be done. Rather, it's a general impression. Nor do I intend to imply that I am somehow different in this respect--the little work I've done is just as myopic and narrow as anyone else's (and probably much worse for other reasons!). So, I'm not coming from a position of moral or intellectual superiority. I hope that's clear.
But let's return to the problem at hand which can now be put in the form that I'm aware of all these things--the internal and external factors that are at play in making it likely that my project will come to an end--and yet, find myself with the same reasons and life that I've had so far.
To put it another way, I find myself realizing that I have certain reasons to be such-and-such a way which find their grounds in who I am (from the inside, as it were), and some very good reasons to think that this is not possible which also find their grounds in who I am (internally and externally, given that despite my psychology I still live in a recession and still have to feed myself).
This raises the rather uninteresting question of which reasons are supposed to be decisive here. The question is uninteresting to me because I think that the obvious answer is both: think hard about which ones are more pressing and go with those. One might say, for example, that this is a bit of bad luck (intrinsic or extrinsic whatever may be the case) and that I should just go with what would make me happiest or whatever. This is fine, but again, uninteresting.
The more interesting question is how one is supposed to live in light of following either of these reasons. In either case something of a great loss seems to be on the line: on the one hand, "making my peace" with not being able to pursue my project leaves me without a basis for which to make sense of what I'm doing. My life loses structure which must be replaced with something else--something towards which my energies are directed and towards which I'm striving. On the other hand, continuing to pursue what may very well be a lost cause (either because of the political and economic conditions or because of my own shortcomings) would preserve this structure, but would itself seem to lack any substance and would be haunted by perpetual doubt and anxiety. One side of me takes the latter solution to be untenable in the long run; another side of me takes the former to be psychologically dangerous. Life is not impossible with either route, but both represents certain real risks that seem incredibly pertinent.
Let's turn to the route of "making one's peace" and losing the project. Not only do I take this to be dangerous, but I'm also not sure that it's the correct one. Despite my thoughts to the contrary earlier, I'm not certain that it's impossible for me to continue my project of being a philosopher and I'm not sure that my thinking about the matter isn't a result of reacting to some deep-seated anxiety. That is, I'm not sure that I'm actually incapable of climbing the mountain, or if I'm so scared to climb it that I would retreat to anything that tells me that I shouldn't. I believe every graduate student who is familiar with the concept of impostor syndrome is familiar with this thought--could we be sabotaging ourselves by not believing and hoping against hope? Perhaps if I could become a different person who wouldn't be anxious, everything would be okay...
At the same time, a similar problem presents itself from the other direction as well: could the urge to hope against hope simply be another anxiety stemming from the fact that, once again, to be left without a structure, without a project, is to be left without a way to make sense of one's life?
In this light, the problem of competing reasons reveals itself to be a problem of competing anxieties and complexes. What a horrible and suffocating light it is! Are there people in this condition who possess such-transparency and such honesty that they can look inside and truly say "there is no danger or living reactively for me! I am not pushed by worries or anxieties!"? Where are they? From where do they get this unquestioning confidence?
But maybe I'm being too hard on myself. One could see the problem I'm facing as a problem of growth. A kind person might say that I have grown to be a different person from the person that I was ten, five, or even three years ago, and that the tension that I'm feeling is that of growing out of a certain stage of life and into another. This growth would not be that of superiority--I haven't transcended academic philosophy--and it may very well be the growth that is compatible with both the internal and external conditions described earlier. That is, it could be a growth of coming to know oneself better and coming to terms with that. Such transitions are by their nature anxiety producing, so it's not surprising that they take this form. One simply needs to learn to accept the person who one is becoming and all will be fine.
Looking at the problem in this light is much more comforting, but I think it pushes the problem elsewhere. Namely, it assumes that growth of this kind is, at the end of the day, something good--it is not something that should be pushed away or rejected, but, at the very least, tolerated and eventually accepted as an inevitability.
But that's not something that I can honestly accept. Behind it lies the suspicion that not all growth is good, and that the person who one becomes is not always the person who one should have become or who one should make one's peace with. It seems just as possible that there are ways that people 'grow' that reflect their worst characteristics and that if what I'm experiencing is growth, then its source may very well be laziness, indolence, self-centeredness, and incompetence.
I think if I could remove the doubt that this is the case and if I could know that such a transformation would indeed be a good one, then I would feel much better. But I don't know how to remove it. Nor do I know the standard by which I would judge whether it is successful or not. Should it be judged from the perspective of the person who started the project? Should it be judged from the perspective of the person who I am to become? In both cases there's a bias to be deceptive, to look away, to read one's history differently and inaccurately. And why should either one of these perspectives be favored over the other? Why should the person who I no longer remember be the judge of what I become?--how suffocating! And why should the person I become be the arbiter of whether what they've become is worthwhile?--how cruel!
I really don't know how to solve this problem but I believe it must be solved if there's anything like a happy life for me in the future. Maybe I'm looking at the matter too naively, or too closely. If so, drop a comment below.