The Long of It…

“When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.” ~ Walt Whitman

When I first went to college, I planned to be a psychiatrist, and declared a major in psychology with a pre-med concentration.  There was just one problem:  I had to take a year of courses in something called “philosophy” before I could begin my psychology studies.  Despite immensely enjoying that first year’s education in philosophy, I assumed that psychology would be more challenging and interesting, and was eager to move on to the real deal.

However, the more courses I took, the more disenchanted I became.  In the scientific and medical approaches to psychology working with a disease/disorder paradigm, it seemed that the soul and spirit had been outsourced to religion, the mind by and large reduced to the brain.  Put another way, psychology seemed to raise questions that were not scientific or medical in nature, questions that exceeded its grasp.  Moreover, it was a relatively young discipline that, in many ways, was an outgrowth of philosophy.  And finally, a number of its more humanistic variants and innovators, such as Carl Rogers, Abraham Maslow, and Albert Ellis, implicitly or explicitly drew on philosophical traditions.  Put more simply, I found more that was psychologically rich in Plato and Nietzsche than in Behavioral Statistics 101.

So I switched my major to philosophy.  It’s a cliche, but in retrospect, it doesn’t seem like a choice, in the same way that we don’t choose to fall in love.  One thing led to another, and I found myself starting a PhD program in philosophy at Fordham University and, after a couple of years, teaching introductory courses in human nature and ethics, eventually completing my PhD, and winning the academic job market lottery and securing a position at Boston College, where I have had the privilege of teaching since 2013.

Despite my passion for teaching, writing, and doing philosophy, something was missing.  I was irked by Nietzsche’s challenge:

“For a psychologist there are few questions that are as attractive as that concerning the relation of health and philosophy….  I am still waiting for a philosophical physician…to risk the proposition:  that what was at stake in all philosophizing hitherto was not at all ‘truth’ but something else–let us say, health, future, growth, power, life.”

The tendency toward hyper-specialization in scholarship, as well as the tendency for classroom discussions to remain at the abstract, hypothetical level, failed to enlist what I originally took to be one of philosophy’s greatest functions:  to not only help people think deeply and critically about theoretical questions, but to do so in order to better pursue what the Greeks called eudaimonia; to transfigure and transcend existential struggle and suffering; to find value, meaning, and purpose in their lives; in short, to live wisely and live well.  So I course-corrected:  I bent my teaching more toward issus in applied ethics; I developed a specialization in environmental ethics and pursued a certificate in health care ethics; I founded and facilitated a Zen meditation sitting group.

Around this time, I discovered an international movement started in the 1980s and developed through the 90s called philosophical counseling.  The basic premise, captured in the title of Lou Marinoff’s seminal work, Plato not Prozac, was that philosophy can be therapeutic:  that some of the suffering that gets diagnosed as mental disorders, diseases, or illness, and then treated with pharmaceutical drugs, can be effectively addressed through philosophical inquiry and methods.  Another central idea is that this is nothing new:  for many of the ancients philosophers East and West, philosophy was first and foremost a way of life, a primarily practical enterprise, a critical inquiry into matters of ultimate concern conducted through writing, reflection, and conversation.  Epicurus is a perfect example:  “Vain is the word of that philosopher which does not heal any suffering of mankind.”

This was a far cry from how philosophy has mainly come to be practiced in the modern world, in which it is generally construed as a purely theoretical and academic discipline; indeed, the 20th century is the first in which almost all of the major philosophers to emerge were academics.  This seemed a curious parallel:  just as psychology, formerly the province of philosophy, had become a largely scientific discipline, philosophy, formerly a highly practical affair, had become a largely theoretical discipline.  I wondered:  what was lost in transformation?  So in the summer of 2011, I completed a Certification in Philosophical Counseling with the American Philosophical Practitioner’s Association, and set about building a practice in philosophical counseling.

But I also learned that philosophical counseling was just one part of a sea change taking place in the role of philosophy in the modern world:  more and more, philosophy is coming out of the ivory tower and into public and private life.  The image of the philosopher as the astronomer locked up in his tower, or as the tenured hippie quarantined on the university campus, is starting to fade.  What we are seeing is nothing short of a renaissance in the role of philosophy in contemporary life.

Many people have successfully transferred philosophy to the business world, through channels such as Corporate Social Responsibility, organizational design and development, compliance, management consulting, and corporate training.  For instance, Tom Morris, a former professor at Notre Dame, author of If Aristotle Ran General Motors, and arguably the most famous philosophical consultant in the world, has worked for many companies, including Toyota, Ford, and Merrill Lynch.  Sal Giambanco, former Vice President of Human Resources at PayPal and currently a partner with Pierre Omidyar, the founder of eBay, came from a background in philosophy and describes his work as an executive coach as a form of philosophical counseling.  Dov Seidman, founder and CEO of LRN, a leader in compliance, comes from a background in moral philosophy (and named the company’s conference rooms after famous moral philosophers).  Former president Bill Clinton wrote the forward to Seidman’s book.  Google has an in-house philosopher.  The list goes on.

In the public arena, we’ve seen the emergence of “Socrates Cafes,” community meetups where people get together in a bar or coffee shop to discuss basic existential and moral issues.  And even in academic philosophy, a major growth area is in applied ethics:  environmental, business, engineering, information technology, and biomedical and health care ethics.  More and more, the philosophical is the personal, the professional, the political.

These trends have only accelerated in the years since the Great Recession:  the world is changing faster, and in more ways, than our default categories and world views can keep up with.  Whether it comes to rethinking the corporate culture of Wall Street, grappling with the moral challenges of climate change, or dealing with the social effects of communications technologies–the modern world is rife with unprecedented complexity, disruption, and uncertainty, conditions which philosophy is well positioned to confront.  Speed and change are constants in the modern world, but over the last decade, it seems as though things have gone into overdrive.  We’ve all felt it.  And young people seem to intuitively sense this:  that may be one reason that, despite the jokes about unemployed philosophers, the percentage of undergraduates majoring in philosophy has spiked in recent years, despite the stigma of “uselessness.”  And that stigma may well be unfounded.  Philosophy majors score the highest, or among the highest, on the GRE, the LSAT, and the GMAT.  One might object that this is just because they are a self-selecting group; but then all that means is that the brightest young minds see value in the subject.  And not just pure, intellectual value–but a way to add value.  Indeed, as a CEO recently wrote in the Harvard Business Review, “Want Innovative Thinking?  Hire from the Humanities.”

When it comes to the role of philosophy within and beyond the academy, I think what we need is a balanced, both/and approach.  There is a sprawling, ongoing conversation  about this balance:  many academics may frown upon, or are at least be indifferent to, attempts to apply philosophy outside the academy; and many post- or non-academics denounce the academy as hopelessly rotten (and the university itself as throughly corporatized).  The debate often curdles the way such debates tend to:  academics might sneer at the vacuity and lack of rigor in attempts to apply philosophy elsewhere, while non-academics may snarl at the narrowness and pointlessness of the professoriate.  

Now I think we can agree that some attempts to “apply” philosophy to real world problems will be clumsy, misplaced and ill-conceived.  I think we can also agree that much academic work is indeed narrow and insular, the splitting of split hairs.  But I think it’s fair to say that, at the end of the day, the work of teaching is vital, the institution of the university as a vehicle for the transmission of our philosophical traditions is indispensable, and the function of academic freedom (if channeled toward research on worthy topics) is crucial. On the flip side, I think it’s fair to say that philosophy can help us gain greater clarity in many walks of life, and that through the use of what the Buddhists call upaya, “skillful means,” it can be distilled and productively applied to issues in our personal and professional lives.

Moving forward, it seems to me that the challenge for philosophers, academic or otherwise, is to figure out how to strike that balance:  how to cultivate the philosophical life within and beyond the borders of the academy.  For my part, that means education–in the original sense of the word, a “leading out”–through teaching, writing, podcasting, counseling, and consulting–or, in a phrase, helping people get where they need to go. The podcast I started in 2019, Wisdom at Work, is my own small attempt to hasten the turning of the aircraft carrier of the academy in a more practical direction and connect philosophy to the wider world.