My friend and colleague Dan Fincke just posted a reflection on his own journey through the twisted funhouse of the academic employment market. Dan’s energy and passion–as a teacher and a blogger–has for years simply dumbfounded those of us who know him; his efforts are über-human, and in this way he is true to the ideal of his favorite philosopher, Nietzsche.
Dan’s situation is a symbol for what is wrong with professional philosophy. In much the same way that Andrew Sullivan–one of Dan’s role models as a blogger–has led the charge in upsetting the conventions and exposing the limitations of traditional print journalism, Dan is leveraging the new medium of the blog to do philosophy in way that is accessible, interesting, relevant, and important for a broader audience. I don’t say “popular” audience because that carries the whiff of “pop culture,” which spells “dumb.” But today’s popular audience, in some parts of the country and the world, at least, no longer spells dumb. When academics turn their nose up at “popular” writing and venues, I think they have this 19th century vision of a semi-literate hoi polloi a world removed from the elite bastions of oak-adorned studies and sophisticated salons. But Dan, like an increasing number of younger academics, smells the rot and decadence that infects this way of thinking and this way of doing philosophy. Again, like his intellectual hero, Nietzsche, Dan is finding a way to do philosophy outside the confines of academic scholarship. And it should concern us that the 20th century was the first in which almost all the major philosophers were academics. I heard a talk recently where a scholar argued that philosophy has always done better as a parasite (gadfly?)–when it uses something else as fodder for reflection, be it new developments in science, culture, technology, or politics. Whenever it tries, or pretends, to become it’s own thing, it retreats into a sorry sort of solipsistic solitude, a cloud of self-important knowingness; a retreat fueled by fear and insecurity. Voltaire’s Candide is precisely a mockery of this tendency–Dr. Pangloss (literally, “all words”) is the caricature of this mindset.
Dan is exactly the kind of person that academic philosophy departments should be clambering to hire because he is a real thinker, a beloved teacher, and a powerful writer. He is also exactly the kind of person that they probably won’t. I hope this is not read as a screed against academics; there are oodles of good, caring, thoughtful, sincere, genuine people in the academy. The problem is that there are severe cultural and political selection pressures that militate against being authentically philosophical. But Dan is a true leader is charting a new path for philosophy out of these toxic thickets.
For 5 strategies to deal with un- or under-employment blues, see Daniel Mullin’s recent post.