Tag Archives: philosophy blogs

I’ve been reading the comments on this post at Brian Leiter’s blog (via Sympoze). It’s been exhausting on several levels. If you read a few of the comments for yourself, I think you’ll understand why.

Together at last - via <a href=Of particular interest to me is the explicit invocation (here and here, among other places) of the distinction between research and teaching, and between departments where one or the other of these practices is emphasized. What’s the connection between the two?

Practically speaking, someone who wants to do philosophical research and is not independently wealthy must, in the vast majority of cases, teach as well. Likewise, someone who wants to teach philosophy to undergraduates must, in the vast majority of cases, go through a very research-centric graduate education and, if he wants eventual job security, engage in research for the purpose of publication. Are these connections de jure or merely de facto? Are there principled reasons why there should be such intricate links between teaching- and research-based careers, or are the connections the result of historical and economic accident?

I thought I’d try to articulate some of the ties between teaching philosophy and doing philosophical research. Feel free to jump in if you can think of any more.

Why researchers must teach

  • The most obvious explanation is that philosophy (alas!) doesn’t pay: original philosophical research typically doesn’t make the NYT best-seller list, and the market for philosophers to the royal court is depressingly lackluster. Universities need people to teach philosophy, and practicing philosophers are a captive work pool. If this were the only explanation for why philosophers teach then we would certainly say that the combined vocation is an economic accident.
  • I’ve had a few classes in graduate school that were built around a draft of a book being written by the professor. The class works like a testing ground for the draft. The philosopher thus gets to use his teaching in order to advance and improve his work. So this is a reason why teaching might be useful to a practicing philosopher.
  • More generally speaking, it might be argued that teaching – including the process of explaining something you know well to a bunch of people who don’t know it all that well – enhances one’s own understanding of, and ability to articulate, what one knows or believes. This explanatory skill is important for the writer of philosophy.
  • Philosophical researchers presumably care about the health of the discipline of philosophy, and in particular the future health of the discipline. The future of philosophy is dependent on future philosophers, and future philosophers come from the general student pool. Thus philosophers have a vested interest in making sure that at least these students get a decent philosophical training. (The big premise here is that philosophers care about the discipline as a whole. I wonder how true this actually is.)

I might note in passing that these last three reasons explain why philosophers ought to want to teach, while the first reason explains why philosophers are required to teach. If the benefits gleaned from the “ought to want” category could be guaranteed in a different way, then it’s hard to see how there is any necessary connection between research and teaching in this direction.

Why teachers must research

  • In order to teach effectively, you must have a certain mastery of your subject (or, at least, there has to be a certain differential between your mastery and your students’). Mastery in philosophy comes down to the ability to read texts, understand problems, construct arguments, and so on. These skills are best developed through the kinds of research that philosophers do. So research is good job training.
  • One of the reasons why philosophy is taught widely is to locate and train the next generation of philosophical researchers. Instructors with no knowledge of how philosophical research is done won’t be able to spot potential philosophers and hone them for the field.
  • More broadly, doing philosophy in a classroom is not really that different from doing philosophy in the armchair. You’re still reading those texts and still constructing those arguments. The practice of teaching philosophy might be a somewhat watered-down version of “real” research, but it’s not fundamentally different. If you want to be able to teach philosophy, you need to be able to do philosophy, since teaching and doing philosophy are essentially the same thing and, you know, the indiscernability of identicals. (The immediate problem I see with this is that teaching old arguments is crucially different from developing new arguments, at least from the point of view of the teacher’s epistemic states. Contributing something new to the debate, as researchers do, is generally something altogether over and above the argumentation that is done in classrooms.)

It’s hard to draw a definitive conclusion from these considerations. All things being equal, the more de jure connections you can point to between philosophical research and philosophical teaching, the more justified the de facto connection between the two vocations becomes. On the other hand, it remains an open question whether there might be other models for philosophers: a way for individuals to do research outside of the university, a way for individuals to teach philosophy without the rigors of a research-based education. Since people come to philosophy for different reasons, wouldn’t it make sense to have different career paths?

Blatz, venison, and the dreaded “What do you do for a living” question

It’s always been tough explaining to my family what I do. ‘Student’ they understand; ‘graduate student’ is easy enough by extension. ‘Philosophy’ is hit-and-miss. While the folk (i.e. my folks) has an sense that philosophy involves far-out, abstract thinking (and maybe a pipe and leather elbow patches), it’s harder to grasp what it means to write a dissertation on the subject. Trying to explain the specific nature of the problems I’m interested in, or even how my subdiscipline is delineated, is a non-starter. It takes lots of setup for the problems to make sense, and lots of persuasion to convince that the problems are worthy of a research program. This is either a testament to the erudite nature of philosophy, the pointlessness of philosophy, or my ineptitude as an explainer. (I am indifferent between these possibilities.)


Fridge-o-Blatz: taken at a more carefree moment in my life

I had a new spiel this Christmas Eve, trying to explain my new job as an
educational technologist. In some ways it’s easier. When I tell them that it has to do with computers they usually glaze over and that’s that. (Unlike, incidentally, when I tell people that I’m doing philosophy and they really want to engage in a philosophical discussion with me. Seriously, what is up with that? I just want to drink this Blatz and eat this venison sausage and not think about Kripke for like ten minutes.) Of course, when I try to dodge the question with the “work with computers” line, I’m sure the position they imagine is something very different from what I actually do (they probably envision the administrator that Jim Groom describes here). Does it make me cynical that I don’t care to disillusion them? Seriously, I just want to drink this Blatz and eat this venison sausage and not think about pedagogy for like ten minutes.

I’m curious to know how other people deal with the “What do you do?” question, when “what you do” is not well-defined by the kinds of categories familiar to, say, my grandfather.