Perverse Incentives for Perverts: Why I’m Not So Sure About Academia Anymore.

Let’s talk for a little bit about academia. Specifically, let’s talk about the academic apparatus surrounding Philosophy, and let’s talk about why it seems to have made the pursuit of Philosophy in an academic context into a complete waste of time at best, and at worst, a fantastic way to abuse yourself until you’re unable to pursue philosophy at all.

At one point in my life, I was completely and unequivocally focused on the pursuit of acquiring a PhD in Philosophy. Maybe there are some sour grapes here. But just to let you know, there is absolutely no better way to disabuse yourself of the desire for a PhD in Philosophy, or in any other ‘passion subject’ than by looking closely at the lives of PhD graduates, even just in terms of their output.

By output, here, I mean the sorts of papers that get traded around now-a-days, and which claim to be party to the same intellectual tradition as such works as the dialogues of Plato or the work of Nietzsche. I’m talking about serious intellectual masturbation, presumably under the pretense that it’s going to be good for anyone.

The most relevant difference I can see between the people we call Great Philosophers and the people that call themselves Philosophers now-a-days is that Great Philosophers, at least so far as I can tell, were motivated solely by curiosity. For them, there were no external motivations for the pursuit of ‘capital-W’ Wisdom. Or I guess you could say no external impingements. To the degree that there were external impingements, they seem to have for the most part ignored them, and in some cases they suffered for it.

Or in one special class, class ‘H’ of philosophers, they were almost universally loved and the academic/structural incentives of their professional context lined up perfectly with what they wanted to achieve in their philosophical work. The ‘H’ stands for Hegel. I’m pretty sure it only has one member.

That isn’t to say that grad students are well compensated for their time and suffering. They aren’t. The infamous and pervasive suffering of all grad students and non-tenure track faculty is well documented.

Let’s ask a question about the point of academia. What the hell is it? It seems like at one point in time, the raison d’etre of academia was to protect people who liked reading books from ugly and gross things like farming or war. In exchange, they took care of books for us, and taught our second sons how to be priests, and everything was happy.

Of course, that isn’t the point of academia anymore. Now it seems to be, like most things, a profit machine. For everyone except for academics, academia seems to be a profit machine in the traditional sense. For academics, it seems like academia is a profit machine for prestige. Which strikes me as odd. I wonder why academics go into academia, don’t they want to have an impact?

It seems like, for the most part, the life of any Philosopher who ended up having an impact was wrought with rejection, both personal and professional. Maybe that just seems to be the case because famous people have more scrutiny placed on them than most. But also maybe not.

My hypothesis is that we’re accidentally using the term ‘Philosopher’ equivocally. We use it historically to describe people who produced texts of wisdom that survive the test of time. That’s something like the participatory model of philosophy. Participatory philosophers include those individuals that the majority of the educated population would recognize as philosophers. So that list includes people like Voltaire and Kierkegaard, who tend to be ignored in more ‘serious’ philosophical contexts.

Then there are the people who play an institutional game for the right to have the title of philosopher regardless of having produced any particular work of wisdom. They seem less interested in producing something valuable that will add to the sum of human wisdom, and they seem more interested in funding and publication in journals that nobody reads.

Don’t think I’m a philistine. I’m not trying to say that all modern philosophers are wasting their time. I really like several of them, for example, anything written by David Lewis really gets me going. I’m all about the sheer wackiness of Modal Realism. And I’m not going to pretend I don’t find Naming and Necessity by Saul Kripke to be equally fascinating.

But why the hell would anyone who wasn’t a philosopher care about these things? As much as I dislike Daniel Dennett in most cases, he does make an exceptional point about this in his essay on Chmess. To summarize his conclusion: Philosophy is arguably the academic subject most likely to get caught up in navel-gazing to the point that it completely loses contact with reality. But hey, you probably didn’t need a fancy philosophy professor to tell you that.

What is a worthy object of study? That in itself is a philosophical question, and I am under no illusions about the fact that I’m trying to do philosophy here in answering it.

It seems like if work done on object of study o is appreciated by exactly zero possible people, then there’s no point in pursuing it. To appreciate the product of work on some subject, in this case, is to look on it and to feel in a substantial bodily sense that you are glad it exists.

I have no statistics for this, but I wonder how many people can say that of their PhD theses. I’ve spoken to some academics in my time, and for the most part, they just seemed glad their theses were over and done with. But that’s okay because that means they get to be part of the club.

Philosophy doesn’t seem to be about wisdom anymore, it seems to be about pleasing other philosophers.

This is the same in other fields. In psychology, the replication crisis seems to have shaken the faculty at which I studied for my master’s degree to such an extent that no statements without an accompanying peer-reviewed reference were allowed. Now I really do sound like I have a case of sour grapes, but don’t worry, I’m still going to pursue that psychology doctorate. It’ll just be a professional one. I don’t think I’m man enough to grind myself into in the attempt at a research career.

I look back on some of the most important works of psychology and philosophy — and here I mean psychology in terms of actually attempting to study the mind from within its own perspective — and it doesn’t seem like the authors suffered much from not having Google Scholar available. Their points don’t seem to suffer at all from not being peppered with other people’s names.

I guess what I want to accuse Academia of is this: scholarship has ceased to be about learning, and is now a form of social media. Which makes sense. There are those who argue that education has simply become about costly signaling. Human beings like prestige. They like to be in a group. They like to be accepted.

When the hell did anyone who liked to be accepted write anything useful or paradigm-shifting? Isn’t that the exact opposite of the right incentive if you want to produce something ground-breaking?

Here’s the part I’m worried about: you need more than just the ability to be out-grouped by everyone to produce something ground-breaking. You also need to have access to the previous work on a subject and also you need the time to work on it unmolested. Ideally, you’d also have some students to try your ideas out on who are too shy to mock you.

But those aren’t exactly provided by universities anymore. I wonder what’s next for research and scholarship. I really wonder where the next paradigm-shifting sorts of work will come from. Jordan Peterson seems to have made a killing from publicizing his work, but it seems to have been the most accessible bits of it that were focused on the most. It doesn’t matter if you think he’s a charlatan or not, he’s wildly successful and that isn’t deniable. Beyond that, it’s not as if he’s a push-over regarding traditional models of academic success.

There’s also Alain De Botton on the more philosophical side of things, though his goal seems to be different from producing unique and novel perspectives on issues; he seems a lot more interested in making wisdom accessible to the average educated consumer. Which is actually pretty admirable, if you ask me. He certainly seems to enjoy it, but maybe that’s part of his brand.

So if Philosophy is maladapted for generating wisdom, and Psychology has become — like most scholastic enterprises — a sterile exercise in playing the social-political game with a bunch of other nerds, then where do we look for Wisdom?

I think John Vervaeke makes a good case that Cognitive Science is well-adapted for helping us answer our wisdom oriented problems, though I really can’t find the singular Cognitive Science that he’s pointing at.

I also think the rationalist community is doing a pretty good job at de-centralizing the pursuit of wisdom, but they do seem to focus on questions regarding epistemology rather than morality. It’d be great if we could find or found a new community dedicated to the discussion of moral problems that didn’t immediately dissolve into the beef-o-sphere of the contemporary internet, where we are all wearing targets on our foreheads, and the cost of an opinion might be your life.

Beyond all that, and for me, this is the single most motivating reason to stay away from philosophy as it is currently practiced: there seems to be a serious lack of emphasis in Philosophy regarding problems of practical wisdom.

Any ethicist will tell you that they could understand the arguments for a certain position, agree with them completely, and yet still feel perfectly unmotivated to adhere to those principles. Doesn’t that seem a little messed up to you? Wouldn’t you wonder what the point of pursuing wisdom could be if the pursuit didn’t change your ultimate conduct in the slightest?

That’s what I wonder, constantly. And I don’t fancy four years of training under back-breaking conditions of storm and stress for the privilege to subject myself to brutal, implicit cultural and social constraints that optimize against producing anything useful or wisdom-producing.

Wisdom takes some time and some effort to generate, and I don’t think you’ll generate it by joining academia any more. So I suppose I’ll have to take a gamble here and hope I can find some other way to finance my crippling book addiction.

(At this point, if you’re still convinced that I can’t help myself to an opinion on this topic without personal experience, watch this video from the exceptional Contrapoints on her own experiences. Though I had already watched enough Grad Students suffer up close to know it wasn’t for me by the time I saw the video, I still find it pretty entertaining and informative.)

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