Why I Left Academic Philosophy

books in a library
ave you ever spent two years pouring your heart and soul into a project that only three people will ever see? In academia, we call that your “dissertation.”

Philosophers spend a lot of time writing things and trying to get them published in journals nobody reads — not even other philosophers — because in order to get a job, you need to have these papers and journals on your C.V.

Those two years you spent every day working on that paper — all that effort reduced to a single line on a C.V., just to ever-so-slightly improve your odds of getting a good job as you compete against people who also have those lines on their C.V.

Nobody reads this stuff because most of the journals are behind paywalls so expensive that only large libraries at academic institutions can afford to access them (and even then, many university libraries are cutting some journals off for budget reasons). Even within the halls of academia, where people do have access, there are simply so many papers published every year, even within niche fields, that nobody has time to read anywhere close to all the papers/books being published, especially considering the amount of reading it takes just to teach classes, etc.

Although there is already a growing mountain of philosophical research that’s impossible to keep up with, it’s common for journal referees to reject your paper because you didn’t engage with [X] paper/book, where often [X] is either written by the referee themselves or someone they’re chummy with.

As an end-result, academic papers usually end up popularity contests, a game of who’s-who where the goal is to develop incestuous citation networks so that your impact factor will look better for hiring and/or tenure committees. Analysis of these citation networks in “top” journals reveals they mostly revolve around a small group of influential people (btw, they’re like 97% white men if you were wondering).

And speaking of men, philosophy is absolutely notorious for not being a great place in academia for women, especially grad students. Recent high profile cases of Big Shot Male Philosophers losing their jobs because of women coming forward and speaking out about sexual harassment indicate that sexism is alive and well in academia. (You can read firsthand accounts here.)

Philosophers use “rigor” to justify bad writing

Even if academic philosophy were publicly accessible, I doubt the public would be interested in reading any of it. Philosophers often go to great lengths to make their papers as boring and difficult to read as possible. This is done in order to seem “rigorous” and “technical,” but most of the time that “rigor” does nothing but make it harder for non-philosophers to understand.

But I think the ultimate sin is that academic philosophy is filled with people — mostly men — who spend a lot of time talking about things that are almost entirely abstracted from the pragmatic realities of human existence.

And not in a good way.

Contemporary academic philosophy is embarrassing

I will never forget sitting in our auditorium listening to a long talk about meta-ethics when, right outside the doors of the university, Black Lives Matter activists were marching (this was in St. Louis at the time of Ferguson).

Photo by Spenser H on Unsplash

I could hear them chanting; the stark contrast between the esoteric subtleties of meta-ethics vs. the concrete realities of what would be considered “applied ethics” — a term usually uttered with slight contempt — made me deeply uncomfortable.

How could I justify this exuberance of abstraction when there were so many real-world problems that needed the minds of intelligent people? I know, I know: the value of pure research, etc., etc., But lemme just give you a flavor of what contemporary “pure research” in philosophy looks like. I went to philpapers.org → topic: metaphysics → top trending article. The abstract of that paper reads as follows:

“I argue that if David Lewis’ modal realism is true, modal realists from different possible worlds can fall in love with each other. I offer a method for uniquely picking out possible people who are in love with us and not with our counterparts. Impossible lovers and trans-world love letters are considered. Anticipating objections, I argue that we can stand in the right kinds of relations to merely possible people to be in love with them and that ending a trans-world relationship to start a relationship with an actual person isn’t cruel to one’s otherworldly lover.”

I don’t mean to pick on this particular paper, or the author — who I happen to know is a very smart and nice individual — merely to give a flavor of what I mean when I say contemporary academic philosophy is almost wholly divorced from the messy world we live in.

Which is not necessarily a bad thing — I enjoy thinking about philosophical questions and find many of them interesting. But I would often feel uncomfortable listening to philosophers give talks about their research because I had this gut feeling we were all wasting our time arguing about things we would continue to argue about for decades to come (that’s what we call a “research project”).

Before anyone jumps down my throat, let me say that I think philosophy and even academic philosophy does a noble service to the world. Teaching young people how to think critically and analyze the world around them carefully and reasonably is a fantastic thing.

But there is a big difference between the hard working philosophy professors who teach logic and critical thinking and the rarified discussions and the technicalities of what academic philosophers do with their research. The dense jargon and technical details make much of contemporary philosophy exhausting for the average person, who likely does not have the patience or time to slog through a maze of technical wizardry.

Philosophers are exemplified by contrarian assholes

Academic philosophy is primarily an experience in constant rejection and criticism. Everyone is taught how to brutally attack the arguments of their peers. Have you ever hung out with someone who disagrees with everything you say? Philosophy conferences are pretty much like that. All the time. It’s a never-ending parade of people attempting to one-up each other in verbal combat, all under the pretense of being lovers of wisdom.

An accurate representation of your average philosophy grad student. (Photo by Elijah Hiett on Unsplash)

Along with the constant rejection comes the publish or perish mindset. If you don’t publish in “good” journals, your chances of getting a good job are slim to none. Often you’d see jobs posted with hundreds of candidates, all with similar PhD holding qualifications, most with publications in similarly ranked journals.

The task of standing out is nearly impossible. Usually it comes down to informal factors, like having an influential advisor or coming from a “top program.” My school was ranked ~25–30ish (in the world) for its philosophy PhD program, and it would be polite to say most grad students struggled on the job market. “Struggling” doesn’t begin to describe the pain and anguish of sending hundreds of job applications and not landing a single interview. That’s not uncommon.

But instead of realizing the nightmarish futility of the adjunct vs. tenure-track system, so many young PhDs buy into the academic insecurity that equates dropping out with failure.

So they continue to slog away for years in that nether-world between PhD and tenure-track, jumping from adjunct position to adjunct position, post-doc to post-doc, always moving, never stable, never secure, always on the job market, always facing rejection, never making enough money. (For reference, I make ~2.5x more delivering pizza, working fewer hours than I ever did with a “fully funded” grad stipend at a university with a 7.5 billion endowment.)

This is the future of academia. The ratio of adjunct to tenure-track jobs has been sliding towards the adjunct side for decades, and things are accelerating in that direction. Philosophy departments are being axed for being “economically useless.” The job market is getting more competitive. An increasing number of people who make their living as “philosophers” are adjuncting.

Philosophy is a silly profession

When I used to tell people I was a philosopher, a common refrain was “So what’s like, your favorite saying?” People often have no clue what it is academic philosophers do — because we are often so absurdly high in the ivory tower that any attempt to come down is seen as being “not serious.”

Those who work on contemporary and pressing issues like race, gender, and bioethics are seen as doing something “less pure” than the “real” philosophers who work in “serious” fields like metaphysics and metametaphysics. No, seriously. There are books and conferences about “metametaphysics.” The deeper into the world of abstraction, the better. The less connected to real world issues, the more pure it is.

I left academic philosophy because I couldn’t stand its essential stuffiness. But I will nevertheless contend that philosophers as a whole are a curious and intellectual bunch who, at the very least, are good conversational partners. They also drink a lot. Most good philosophy is done in the pub. I do miss it sometimes. Being surrounded by people who are equally excited about weird questions like “Do holes exist?” is a unique experience, to say the least.

But I don’t need academic philosophy to do philosophy. Blogging over the past ten years, I’ve reached a larger audience than I could have ever hoped to find through the traditional academic journal system. And that’s ultimately why I dropped out: it was holding me back.

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