Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Advice for Future Philosophers

Rob Koons offers sage advice for future philosophers.


I write to a “future philosopher” and not to a “future philosophy professor”, because I don’t want to presume that the latter is the only possible career for the former. That being said, I have found the life of the philosophy professor to be a remarkably rewarding one. First, because you can spend almost all of your time thinking about the most interesting subject of all. Philosophy is a field that can barely be mastered in a lifetime, much less in the few years one can spend in college and graduate school. And, second, because of the astonishing degree of autonomy one enjoys as a tenured professor. One is held accountable by one’s peers, but it is a fairly large group to whom one is accountable, and one can to a very large extent define that group for oneself. There is no one who can dictate to you what to focus on or what to say on your chosen subjects.

As a field, philosophy has done relatively well resisting the worst of the trends toward political correctness, dogmatic multiculturalism, and fashionable Franco-German agitprop disguised as serious scholarship. A strong tradition of clarity in writing and rigor in argumentation creates opportunities for the exceptionally bright young person.


What can you do with a philosophy Ph.​D. if you can’t find a tenure-track position in academia? Fortunately, there are alternatives. First, there are many secondary schools, especially private and charter schools, that will look favorably on your application. With a Ph.​D. in hand, you will be well qualified to advance to a headmastership. Even if you can’t teach technical philosophy, you can teach logic, political thought, and intellectual history at a high level.

You can pursue work with think tanks and academically oriented foundations (many in the conservative constellation). There is also journalism, political and business consulting, software engineering, and writing (at least as a supplement to one’s regular income).

It is very likely that higher education will succumb in the next thirty years to significant disruptions from innovation, partly driven by communication technology. It will become far easier to re-create the proverbial ideal situation for philosophy: Socrates sitting on one one of the log, a student on the other. Thanks to the internet, the two ends of this log can now be half a world apart. Investigate and strategize about ways to be on the winning side of future disruption. This might include: MOOCs targeted on introducing Western philosophy or culture to students in developing countries, quality distance learning in philosophy for adults (including retirees), or the developing of certificate or badges in philosophy and other liberal arts.

Short of an apocalyptic disaster, interest in Western philosophy will endure. You have formidable allies: Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Leibniz, Hume, Kant, Russell. Be hopeful but be well prepared for some adversity.

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