How can I lead a life of the mind outside the university? On re-conceiving ourselves (part 3)

This is Part 3 of a 4-part series on leading the life of the mind outside the academy. In Part 1, I examined 3 models for living well. In Part 2, I discussed what we need to do in order to change our conception of leading a life of the mind. In Part 3, I try to give a fairly broad picture of how we’ll need to re-conceive of ourselves. In Part 4, I discuss the virtues (e.g., resourcefulness, modesty, self-mockery) necessary for leading such a life in this the new economy.

A Preface on Subject Matter and Moral Expertise

In Book I of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle says that we should expect no more precision than is warranted by the subject matter. “[I]t is the mark of an educated man to look for precision in each class of things just so far as the nature of the subject admits.” In other words, don’t think that you can get the same kind of rigor out of ethics than you can out of math. Aristotle would have marveled at Kant’s ethical project or at Leibniz’s proposal for a moral calculus. Human affairs are messy, life is complicated, and we do well to muddle on. Indeed.

I confess that like many of you, I’m muddling on. I don’t have everything sorted out, and some days I’m not sure whether my vision of a good life is lucid or achievable. I also grant the provisional nature of my solution: the three-fold manifestation (writer, philosophical counselor, and consultant) of my leading a philosophical life. Will it work? I’m not sure.

And yet, I’ve also come to believe that I have worked out a broad sketch of a solution for how to lead a philosophical life outside the university. I’m not sitting in the dark, listening to REM… That’s to say that I believe that I’ve solved the conceptual problem, and now I’m in the midst of working out the technical issues–the means, the how-to’s, the particular tactics and approaches. My student loans are mostly paid off, I have a 6 month financial cushion, my writing continues apace, and my philosophical counseling business is growing.

Yes, there may be no Platonic Blueprint regarding how to lead a good and fulfilling life, but it doesn’t follow from this that philosophers can’t offer suggestions, make proposals, rule out false options (no more Peripateticism please!), and provide others with mental clarity. I think moral philosophers who claim that there aren’t and can’t be moral experts are missing the point, picking on straw men, or being disingenuous. Philosophical counselors, for instance, can remind us that certain models for living well cannot possibly be satisfying, they can provide with reasonable alternatives (litmus test: can you see yourself in such and such a model? What would it be like to live this way rather than that?), and they can offer exempla, that is, good examples of virtuous persons embodying these basic models. What’s more, they can help keep us honest by inviting us to consider, once again and as if for the first time, whether we are living in the way we desire or whether we are at odds with our basic commitments. And they can do all of this, ideally, because they have become “mentally fit” at applying this line of reasoning to their own lives.


How much more moral expertise do we want or need?

Kinds of Person: Getting Down and Dirty

I want to return briefly to what I said about “kinds of person” in Part 2. There, I was worried about two false options canvassed in Part 1. The first would have it that we “compartmentalize,” taking part of ourselves to be our Authentic Selves (I’m really an writer, actor, filmmaker…) and another part of our self to be the Inauthentic Selves (I work part-time as a web designer, promoter, booker, librarian…). In Part 1, I called this the Peripatetic life. The focus, I argued, is too narrow, and the lifestyle too alienating.

The other false option was the Hustler Entrepeneur, someone who took on board, too unreflectively, a thinned-out final end. He led the life of pleasure but lost his soul in the process.

I wonder, now, whether there isn’t a third figure, someone we might call the Sublimator. This figure takes consolation from the fact that her initial pursuit was blocked, but she has managed to re-channel her energies. She adjusted, compensated, and re-calibrated. The danger in Life Sublimation becomes almost immediately apparent: unless she is especially strong, she will be prone to regret and to counterfactual “what ifs.” “I wanted to become an actor, but I became a parent instead. Yes, I love parenting, but could I have been an actor? And would that life have been [guilt now creeping up on her] more fulfilling?”

I’m curious whether there an alternative to the Peripatetic, the Hustler Entrepreneur, and the Sublimator. I think there is. But to see a new form of life open up to us, we’ll need to be conceptually nimble. Let me resort to my life, again, as a reasonable, albeit imperfect, test case.

Years ago, when someone asked me what kind of person I was, I typically replied that I was a writer. But, for reasons that I needn’t explore here, living as a freelance writer in the Internet Age is damn-near impossible. My first instinct, of course, was to become a Professional Scholar. Nope. Then I then tried out Peripateticism. Verdict: unsustainable. Then I flirted with Hustlerism. And, more than once, I’ve done my fair share of sublimation–but all to no avail. Perhaps what was standing in my way of getting on in life was how I conceived of myself and how I thought about what ultimately mattered.

My strategy, one I stumbled upon and am only now working out, was to ascend to a second-order viewpoint. What kind of person did I really want to be? A philosopher. But how is this possible?  In what modes could I hope to lead a philosophical life in this the modern world? In the modes of a writer, a consultant, and a philosophical counselor. But aren’t those different things? No, they are, as it were, three different names for the same thing. So you’re not alienated or riddled with regret? Not at all–how could I be? But can you make ends meet this way? Absolutely! How, pray tell? What are your secrets? I began thinking in terms of mixed motivations, mixed goods, and “subsidizers.”

Mixed Motivations, Mixed Goods, and ‘Subsidizers’

We need to get used to the idea that most of our motivations are mixed and that most of the goods we pursue likewise mixed. When we act with the intention of doing something for others or for some larger purpose, we are also often acting for our own sake. And when we pursue goods for their own sake, we are typically pursuing them for the sake of something else. This “mixed motivation, mixed good” view I’m proposing seems to fly in the face of common sense and to preclude leading a satisfactory life of the mind. How so?

It’s generally held that we act self-interestedly or disinterestedly: we’re egoists or Mother Theresas. People in business fall into the first category. As self-interest maximizers, they talk almost exclusively of “bottom lines” and “dollars and cents”; they “touch base” and “make contacts”; they use others for their own ends without so much as a moment’s hesitation; they care, above all, about “advancing their agenda.” Meanwhile, academics (in this idealized version) teach young persons how to think critically and broaden young persons’ perspectives, they perform research for the sake of the common good, they do their “duty for duty’s sake” by meeting their service commitments, and, not the least, they value the life of contemplation afforded by weekends, winters, summers, and sabbaticals.

For the moment, I’m not interested in whether this picture matches reality (we know it doesn’t); I’m concerned only with how it figures, however unconsciously, in the thinking of us Life of the Minders. Indeed, no matter how much aspirant academics acknowledge institutional realities, no matter how often they grumble about all the bullshit associated with university life, they still come back to this old story in some form or another.

We need to get off this conceptual seesaw. If we don’t, then we’ll continue to teeter-totter between our “angelic nature” and our “mercenary interests” and we’ll unwittingly fetishize university life and demonize the World of Business. Or we’ll smuggle in Professionalism as the seedy underside of disinterested rational inquiry but not without believing that we can still find some inner citadel, some small nook where our disinterested pursuits can unfold.

We need, that is, to be more like Rousseau and less like Kant. For Rousseau, the social contract, however fictional, represented the harmony of self-interest and regard for the other: in the social contract, I see my interest as coinciding with the interest of all. Kant was more suspicious. In the “dear self,” as he called it, he smelled a rat: a figure sneaking in under the cover of our claim to be doing our duty for its own sake.

To see what I’m getting at, let me offer an example. Recently, I’ve begun moderating Cafe Philo events. Cafe Philo is a public forum where citizens discuss issues of ultimate importance. During the first event, we examined the proposal that philosophy is an art of consolation. On March 3rd, we’ll be weighing the importance of friendship in the modern world. These ongoing events are free and open to the public. In this sense, they are public goods.

I’m committed to putting on these events because I’m committed to bringing philosophy back into the public sphere. I don’t get paid for moderating these events, and the coffee shop does not immediately profit from remaining open late.

However, I also acknowledge that I will likely profit in any number of ways. It is, after all, a great way to meet well-connected, well-established people (the New York “cultural elite”). In addition, it will likely increase traffic to my website. And it’s not inconceivable hat some people will be interested in speaking to me about philosophical counseling, consulting, or writing projects. Putting on popular events such as this (and it has, so far, been remarkably popular) is also “good exposure.”

I’ve made my peace with this because I’ve come to see good and intentions as mixed. I don’t see any conceptual problem with having multiple motives and with striving to realize intrinsic and extrinsic goods. It’s taken me a while to reach this conclusion, a conclusion you have to reach if you want to achieve peace of mind and a sense of wholeness. I don’t mean to imply that you should stop reflecting on your intentions or your aims, but I do mean to suggest that you shouldn’t feel guilty for acting for purportedly “impure reasons.”

Get comfortable with mixed motives and mixed goods. What’s more, learn to think in terms of “subsidizers,” activities you do for their own sake and for the sake of providing you with the financial means to do things for which you won’t get paid but which you love. Notice the “and” in the last sentence.

Remind yourself that the Peripatetic model simply won’t do. Recall that our tendency is to return to the Peripatetic way of life, but that way lies alienation and fragmentation. Yes, you think you want to be an actor, and so you decide that you need to work at a coffee shop or a restaurant to make ends meet. You work at some bullshit job only for the sake of pursuing your acting career. How are you feeling? Alienated? Torn in two? As if you’re wasting your time? Thinking you can’t stomach another day? Longing, fantasizing about your Big Break? Projecting an ideal future? Resentful of Reality?

Time to reject the Peripatetic once again as untenable. Resist the desire to regress to that form of consciousness. Consider instead what I said about about “subsidizers.” By the latter, I mean an activity that pays exceptionally well, that you enjoy doing, that manifests your being in the world (my being-an-actor is realized through doing X), and that supports other endeavors (going to tryouts, rehearsing in off-off-off Broadway plays,  putting on unpaid public performances, etc.). In my case, I tutor students and work as a philosophical counselor, both of which pay remarkably well and both of which help me to realize my being an educator and, more generally, my being a philosopher. I need to be clear: These activities afford me intrinsic pleasure, but they also “subsidize” the other ways I conceive of my leading a philosophical life in the modern world: namely, writing for a wide readership about issues of ultimate importance, doing public philosophy, exploring educational reform projects, and the like. The educational and business consulting work I do also falls into the “subsidizer” category.

Leading the life of the mind in a post-patronage age is only possible, I submit, after you’ve begun thinking about your life in terms of mixed goods, mixed goods, and multiple (non-alienating) subsidizers. Do this, and you’ll be well on your way to leading a morally virtuous, meaningful, and financially stable life.