Love of All Wisdom

The philosopher’s leisure

by on May.19, 2010, under Greek and Roman Tradition, Metaphilosophy, Monasticism, Work

In a happy and somewhat surprising move, the New York Times has introduced The Stone, a column in philosophy. Happier still, it’s written by someone other than regular NYT writer Stanley Fish, who too often seems to be a hater of wisdom. The inaugural column is instead written by New School philosopher Simon Critchley, who gives us a thoughtful and interesting meditation on what a philosopher is.

Riffing on a “digression” in Plato’s Theaetetus, Critchley comes up with a creative definition: the philosopher is one who takes time. Plato’s Socrates contrasts such a philosopher to the lawyer, the “pettifogger,” the specialist – for whom time is money, for whom a result must be reached quickly. It is likely not a coincidence that Socrates made his living from stonecutting, not from philosophy. The “digression” is introduced when Socrates’s interlocutor asks “Aren’t we at leisure?” and Socrates replies “It appears we are.” The pettifogger asks “What do I need to know right now, for this practical purpose?” The philosopher explores the bigger picture, takes the leisure to explore at length.

This picture of the philosopher seems to describe Socrates very well – or the monastic philosophers like Buddhaghosa or Śāntideva or Aquinas, who were charged to spend their lives in contemplation, and were fed and clothed and housed for doing so. It might even describe the tenured research-university philosophy professors of the 20th century, who had a guaranteed income for life as long as they showed up to teach a few classes and refrained from having sex with their students.

But what a different world faces the young man or woman who dreams of being a philosopher today! Our elders and betters tell us incessantly: figure out what you love, and then find a way to make money from it. And with the exception of a few (very, very rare) independent philosophers like Ken Wilber, to make money from philosophy is to be a philosophy professor. And those who aspire to be philosophy professors today epitomize a lack of time.

Noelle McAfee notes: “the academic system robs even we supposedly otherwordly philosophers of the leisure of time. There is a constant pressure to rush through things to get things done.” I wouldn’t say “even” us philosophers; rather, especially us philosophers, for whom the academic job situation is so dire. In graduate school and as a junior professor, there is a constant sense that every moment you spend at leisure could rob you of your only chance to ever get that semi-mythical leisured state of tenure – a state which the majority of current PhD candidates in philosophy and religious studies will never have. (If you’re unfamiliar with the apocalyptic state of the academic job market in the humanities, see here and here for a primer on the current situation; and see the acute analyses of Marc Bousquet if you would like to think it’s ever going to get significantly better.) McAfee tries to address the situation with the stopgap time-management measure of taking 20 minutes for every professional task she undertakes, thus creating a minimal amount of leisure for each task. Within the unfortunate position of the junior academic, that may be the best you can do. But it’s not very much. When you are teaching four courses a semester and struggling desperately to simultaneously publish articles in the knowledge that you’ll never get tenure without them, the idea that you can have any “leisure” is entirely implausible, no matter how you arrange your time.

Instead, if one is really to live the leisured philosophical life that Socrates and Critchley speak of, why not seek leisure in the more conventional sense? If we fight to hold on to the imperilled work schedule our grandparents fought so hard to get – a 35-40 hour week, with sick days and a few weeks a year of paid vacation (much more than this if we live in Europe) – and we don’t have children, we can have genuine leisure time, genuine spare time in which we can think about philosophy at a slow, leisurely, thoughtful pace. Such a job is the complete antithesis of the academic philosophy career track. Which is to say that one can best be a philosopher in Plato’s or Critchley’s sense if one has a completely unphilosophical job.

It seems to me, then, that a young person can most truly be a philosopher today if – like Socrates and Spinoza – she does not try to make of philosophy a profession. For them, philosophy was neither career nor hobby. For them, as for the nearly-extinct tenured professor, philosophy was genuine leisure. Their path seems the surest route for the aspiring young philosopher now.

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10 Comments for this entry

  • Pete Schult

    This post is relevant to more than just philosophy. I’ve been thinking a lot about the “do what you love, and the money will follow” school of career choice lately. It seems to me that when you start doing something for money, you then encounter the challenge of not becoming alienated from your labor, regardless of how much you loved it as an amateur or student. I’m not saying that it’s impossible to balance the demands of the employer/market place against the passion that drives you internally and avoid that alienation, but I think it probably involves work.

    • Amod Lele

      I agree absolutely, Pete; if anything I’d go further than this. I’ve increasingly been seeing the wisdom in Marx’s theory of alienation and may do a post on it. The work we do for money is ipso facto not our own; it belongs to the people who pay for it. It seems to me that the answer is not to chase vainly after non-alienated paid labour, but to keep our amount of paid labour manageable enough that we can have meaningful and fulfilling lives outside of work, whether they’re devoted to family or to the other interests we love (like philosophy).

  • Justin Whitaker

    I don’t know which is worse, being an academic robbed of leisure time or your suggestion of getting a 9-5 job with 2 (a few?) weeks of vacation a year.

    I’ve had a couple 9-5ish jobs in my life and both left me too drained to really count my evenings and weekends as leisure time. Instead these were times to ‘recharge’ (the mechanical metaphor is apt) before the next day or week. Of course, I wasn’t a lens maker or a stone cutter – I’ll check Monster for those later. Perhaps, in all seriousness, such a job *would* be better for a philosopher than one requiring ‘water cooler’ conversations and the likes.

    • Amod Lele

      The American standard of two weeks’ vacation is pretty minimal, for sure – in my books, more in a category with “9-5″ jobs that want you to take work home with you. I doubt I’d be satisfied in the long run with less than three (which is standard in Canada) – even that’s not much.

      But in terms of the nature of the job… I’ve done a lot of soul-searching in recent years, as you can probably imagine. It still astounds me when I think back on it, but I realize one of the jobs I liked most was working in a call centre in Toronto back in the summer of 2001. I had a skill they needed (it was a national call centre and I was fluent in French) and I went in there, used the skill they needed for eight hours, got paid and went home. And since I worked evening shifts there was also a lot of downtime, which I mostly spent reading Wilhelm Halbfass. I liked that a lot better than leading discussion sections in required courses among students who don’t want to talk. Very straightforward: I have a talent I can offer, I offer it to the best of my ability for a set period of time, and in exchange they pay me. Then I go home and everybody’s happy. Very much like lens grinding or stone cutting, really. And I miss it.

  • michael reidy

    Get a trade that leaves you independent, where you’re your own boss where you can do single jobs, in out, money in your hand and you keep your accounts in a plastic bag or two plastic bags. Get that magic quotient where you have more coming in, just, than you have going out. These days spouses can take turns. Children, the old and tired adage, libri aut liberi, well we can go through life in tin shoes, sipping tepid milk as Stevenson put it or we can grapple with it in its fullness. Now I really must work on the dresser.

    • Amod Lele

      Well paid contract work is a very good kind of trade. One might work for six months of the year and then gallivant around Asia for the rest of the year, like a young Australian, with plenty of leisure time to think.

  • michael reidy

    Perhaps the lack of leisure for expatiative study begins with the undergraduate. Would it be grade prudent to read all of Kant’s Critique? And then what used to be a field has shrunk to a rood, a closely managed and intensely cultivated specialism. Some stay out of the academy and get funky in the agora. One thinks of Tom Morris and his Philosophy for Dummies. ‘When bad things happen’ indeed. Julian Baggini in Britain sans the American appurtenance of an Institute is peripatetic and keeps a decent level.

    • Amod Lele

      True; it’s not only Ken Wilber who brings philosophy to the masses in an intelligent way. But it seems to me that the freelance writer’s career is at least as hard to attain as the academic’s.

  • michael reidy

    As an afterthought perhaps the debacle in Middlesex is due to the beancounters being unaware of philosophy due to its absence in the wider society. It does not impinge on their consciousness and it is a surprise to them that people take it so seriously. One cannot imagine such a thing happening in France where philosophy has a very public presence with characters like BHL having pop star status. One notes his blond wife and the his and her décolletage. Bertrand Russell was the last such in the Anglophone world.

    • Amod Lele

      That’s true. Widely known anglophone public intellectuals (Ditchkins are the first who come to mind) typically make no claim to being philosophers. It startles me to see Kantstrasse in Berlin or Spinozastraat in Amsterdam, to see a society’s respect accorded to philosophers in that way. The anglophone societies are too pragmatic to respect philosophy – to the point that even pragmatist philosophers get little attention. I live in William James’s old stomping ground of Cambridge; Harvard named a (hideous) building for him, but this supposedly intellectual city named no street, no school, no park after its most famous resident philosopher.

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