How can I lead a life of the mind outside the academy? (part 2)

This is Part 2 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.

The Problem of the Excluded Middle

I want to begin by examining why academics are so attached to the university despite the fact that the latter is ceasing to be a good provider. There are many strategies I could employ. I could, for instance, write a genealogy of the modern university with the aim of showing that it did not always exist in its current form: it was not always the patron of the arts. The implication would be that it is unlikely to be such a patron in the coming decades. The intended effect would be to help you detach yourself from something that is more transient than it now appears. Maybe it is not necessary after all.

Alternatively, I could write a Borges-esque version of Russell Jacoby’s The Last Intellectuals, a book that valorizes the independent thinking of pre-WWII, pre-university Bohemian New York intellectuals (I know, quite a mouthful that). For Jacoby, Greenwich Village provided the right conditions for intellectuals to flourish. After WWII, things changed: the university became the home of aspiring humanists and slowly their attention turned away from the public and toward their professional colleagues. Thus was born The Professional who cares about Collegiality and Tenure above all else. Writing such an account might have the effect of diminishing the value you currently place on university life. (“University life: It ain’t that good” might be the slogan.) If Jacoby is right, there was once a better, more vibrant life outside the walls of the university.

Both are reasonable tacks, but neither one I wish to take. My approach will instead be to key into our failure of imagination. I think the general line of argument goes something like this: Either we choose a life of drudgery outside the university, or we set our sights on the vocational path however difficult that may be. The vocational path will allow us to pursue the life of the mind, it will provide us with an animating story (we are on the tenure track!), and it will supply us with a final end (tenure! chaired professorship! accolades! original contributions to our respective fields!). Now contrast the vocational path with the life of drudgery outside the university. True, we may have gained financial stability but at the cost of our soul. What meaningful and, perhaps, ethically questionable stuff is this. Oh, how I am wasting my life!

My wager is that there is an excluded middle in this argument. Suppose there were a path that happened to be just as meaningful as the vocational path and just as financially stable as the life of drudgery. Let’s follow this conjecture and see where it takes us.

The Dead-End Notion of a Career: Changing the Topic of Conversation

I have suggested so far that part of the problem stems from the way we think about leading a life of the mind. We assume that only the university can provide us with the shelter we need in order to undertake disinterested inquiry.  (Here as elsewhere, I assume that you’re not independently wealthy. If you are, these blogs will only be of antiquarian value.) I think this assumption is false. In order to show why this is the case, I want to change the topic of conversation.

Thinking of one’s life in terms of a career used to make a lot of sense, but it no longer does. The main reason is that the economic situation has changed swiftly and dramatically. Increasingly, the concept of a career can be applied to fewer and fewer actual cases. It still applies, of course, to doctors and lawyers and perhaps to a few other professions. The economic trend, however, is moving toward a world of freelancing, with skilled workers cobbling together short-term projects here with long-term projects there. The Organizational Man, someone who exchanged loyalty for welfare, is giving way to the Freelancer, one who’s free to contract and whose value is measured almost exclusively in market terms.

If the trend I am describing is roughly correct, then it follows that the notion of a Career is, for many people, a thing of the past. We can mourn the loss of this life-structuring narrative, or we can ask how we might see this problem as an opportunity–in our case, as an opportunity for leading the life of the mind by some other means.

A career involves fitting yourself into a pre-given narrative. By contrast, being a “kind of person” does not. In what follows, I want to talk in terms of “kinds of person” and “activities.” To illustrate this point, it might be easiest for me to refer to my own case. I am a philosopher. I am also an educator. Let’s take the simpler case: namely, my being an educator.

According to the career view, the only way I can be an educator is to teach in the academy or in K-12. Though I used to see things this way, I no longer do, and thankfully so. According to the kind of person view, I see myself qua educator as instantiated in a number of cases: I’ve begun crafting philosophy for kids programs, I’ve starting doing public philosophy events, I’ve taught senior citizens during the past couple summers, I plan on teaching continuing education courses, I’ve done educational consulting, I work as a philosophical counselor, I write these blogs, and so on. Through all these activities, I am able to educate, to manifest my being-an-educator in the world.

I’ve sought to see the basic kind of person I am–a philosopher–as manifesting itself in three basic ways–freelance writer, philosophical counselor, and educational consultant–and as unfolding in a set of finite, discrete activities. (I would call myself a “Spinozist” according to the lumbering terminology I dredged up yesterday.) By changing the topic of conversation (or, if you prefer, by reorienting myself to the world), I’ve managed to realize my educational aspirations despite the fact that traditional paths no longer made sense or were blocked. Once I started looking at things from the kind of person perspective, obstacles became problems and problems opportunities. I don’t see why you can’t do the same.

Criteria for Success

Leading such a life will require satisfying three basic criteria. First, it must be financially sustainable (once again, this rules out being a “Peripatetic”–see Part 1) In a future column, I’ll have to discuss how one goes about doing this, but for now I can say with confidence that it is quite doable. Second, it must be morally virtuous. And, third, it must be meaningful.

It is entirely possible, of course, that one could devise a model for living that met criterion 1 but not 2 and 3, or that met criterion 1 and 2 but not 3; etc. For instance, a sustainable and virtuous life may not be meaningful: you may not be able to see why you should bother getting up in the morning; it may all seem pointless. Or a particular model for living might be virtuous and meaningful yet not feasible. Non-profit work for an underfunded NGO anyone? In short, we need to aim for feasible, ethical, and meaningful. Take some time to think about how you could satisfy these 3 criteria.

“All right, Andrew, but apart from the ‘kind of person’ song and dance you gave us and apart from commonsensical criteria you tossed our way, how do we aim at this new model for living the life of the mind?” A promissory note: I’ll broach this topic tomorrow.

Can one lead a life of the mind in a post-patronage society?

Update: You can also read snippets of this 4-part series over at Inside Higher Ed.

This is Part 1 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.

Can one be devoted to the life of the mind outside of the university? Can one do so in these “post-patronage” days? Since World War II, the university has been the chief patron of artists, writers, and philosophers. Around 1980 or so, we began to see the university shift from a “welfare system” to a “neoliberal system.” Precisely how this happened is still hotly debated, yet the results are not. Strangely, many of those pursuing the life of the mind still seem to think that the university is a patron of the arts despite the fact that it no longer regards this as its overarching mission. They are sorely mistaken and often deluded.

What we are witnessing, then, is a slow, awkward, painful paradigm shift concerning the role of the university in modern society. Exhibit A: Ideologically blind graduate students working for “mixed message” universities. Exhibit B: The life of the Professional Researcher. Exhibit C: The wasted lives of adjuncts.

Hence my question: How will creative types go about “manufacturing” a patronage system in the early 21st C.? Let’s consider three figures, three models of living.

1. The Peripatetic

The peripatetic scholar, musician, or artist is an independent thinker roaming about the countryside. In a New York Times job market article, “Independent Scholars: A Moving Lot,” Katherine Wentworth Rinne describes how she left the academy in 1992 in order to devote herself to completing a cartographic project on ancient Rome. Over the past 20 years, she has lived on anywhere from $8,000 to 80,000 a year and moved around 15 times. Hers has been the peripatetic existence, one that by her own reckoning has not been entirely fulfilling.

There are two major problems with the peripatetic way of life. First and most obviously, it is financially unstable. I think Aristotle is right that financial stability is a necessary (but not a sufficient) condition for living well. Having enough money in the bank is very useful if one wants to do something worthwhile: fear and anxiety, countless hours spent worrying, moving about vagrantly, and so on are all mentally exhausting; all take away from the mental focus that is necessary for creating good art. Artists need a room with a view.

Second, this model entails self-division, the severing of one part of my self (my scrounge-about worklife) from another (my life as an artist). The work gets in the way of the art and vice versa, it feels meaningless and distracting, and the only value it has is instrumental value (I work for the sake of making art). Worst of all, rarely does it pay well. Alienation breeds moodiness, resentment, and, not infrequently, spells of depression. Why, the peripatetic asks, can’t these people see that I have a Ph.D., that I studied at Julliard, and that I shouldn’t have to bus tables? What kind of topsy-turvey world is this after all?

Rule out the peripatetic way of life since it fails to meet the financial stability and the wholeness requirements. The peripatetic will always be torn in two.

2. The Hustler Entrepreneur

Then there is the “hustler entrepreneur,” a figure best likened to a clever slacker. He does not believe in working a 40-hour week for some large organization. Instead, he wants to maximize gain while minimizing the amount of time he needs to work. He may even be interested in doing something that provides social utility, though this is not necessary. In my view, the great hustler entrepreneur is a cross between a visionary, a Great Awakening evangelical preacher, a good-ole American pragmatist, and a P.T. Barnum.

A fine example of this quintessentially American figure is Timothy Ferriss, author of The Four-Hour Workweek and, more recently, of The Four-Hour Body. Ferriss is not only remarkably clever; he is incredibly charismatic and immensely resourceful. Part pseudo-scientist, part-orator, part-businessman, part-opportunist, part-self-help guru, Ferriss seems to pull off the self-made man trick with elegance and brio. And, frankly, there are some good bits, some useful tips in his 4-Hour book. He hasn’t filled the thing up with sawdust.

Still, there is one major flaw in the design, and that is the hustler’s dubious final end. Ferriss claims that the final end is a life of hedonism: enjoying what you want rather than deferring till much later. Of course, when he writes this, he may be stretching the truth. Either way, he is caught in a dilemma. Either he believes that a life of pleasure is the highest end, or he doesn’t. If he does, then he is wasting his life (and, if we follow him, then we are surely wasting ours). If he doesn’t, then he is living a life of insincerity (on the problem of insincerity, see Bernard Williams’s Truth and Truthfulness). But neither hedonism nor insincerity is admirable. It follows that this way of life, though not without its virtues, is not entirely satisfying. The hustler may get what he wants but not want what he should.

3. The ‘Man of Integrity’


Which brings me to the third way of life, that of the “man of integrity.” A person with integrity (integritas) experiences a sense of wholeness throughout the various facets of his life. On good days, he feels that the most important bits have come together in a synthetic, aesthetic whole. He would not say that he feels constantly riven by doubt or interminably ambivalent about his basic commitments. As the moral philosopher Harry Frankfurt nicely puts it, he is “wholehearted.”

There are (at least) two sub-species of the “man of integrity.” They are the “Spinozist” and the “Neoplatonist.”

a. The “Spinozist” regards his whole self (“his substance”) as being expressed or instantiated in different modes. Each mode fully expresses his entire being but under a different aspect. I think my new friend, the philosopher Robert Rowland Smith, is a fine example of the “Spinozist.” He writes academic and trade press books on philosophy, he does business consulting, and he writes columns that appear in British newspapers. (And he does a great deal more besides.) I doubt he sees one bit as being completely separate from his whole being. (At least not in principle and hopefully not in practice.) Rather, I suspect he regards each mode of his life as an instantiation of the Life of a philosopher.

b. According to the “Neoplatonist,” god is a being who must actualize his entire being in the very act of creation. All potency must be actualized (it cannot not be), and, in being so actualized, emanates outward into a diversity of things. Hence, each concrete thing is an expression of god’s power, and all things partake in god. The historian Arthur Lovejoy had a beautiful name for this: he called it the “principle of plenitude.”

My new friend Dougald Hine is a “Neoplatonist,” so understood. When you look at his website, you’re immediately struck by the range and diversity of his projects, plans, and ideas. At first blush, the experience is rather overwhelming. And yet you soon realize that his life is not a cabinet of curiosities or a hoarder’s dingy apartment. You finally see that it’s governed by a novel understanding of education, public spiritedness, and friendship, all of which are expressed in a near-infinite plurality of projects, start-ups, institutions, and ideas.

My provisional conclusion is that the “man of integrity” is a workable, indeed a noble and beautiful way of life in these “post-patronage” days. Unlike the hustler, he is involved in projects of ultimate value. Unlike the peripatetic, he is financially stable. Also to his credit: he doesn’t suffer from compartmentalization or alienation for he sees his work in his life and his life in his work. We might say that he has his life-of-the-mind in order.

On gratitude

Some mornings, I sit before my computer and, as the sun rises, feel gratitude emanate through me. I give thanks to a world to which I belong, for having projects that matter to me, for seeing my ideas and plans get realized, for being friends with people who are capable of kindness, and, not the least, for managing to live as a philosopher.

“To live as a philosopher”: What a beautiful, noble thought. Let’s see whether I am up to it.

What is the role of the public philosopher in the case of Madison, Wisconsin?

I don’t know what’s going on, and I don’t know why it’s happening. I don’t understand.

I’m not Naomi Klein, and I’m not Scott Walker.

I want to be honest: I’m confused.

Why am I confused? Not because I haven’t read the news, watched video, or poured over commentary. Not for lack of trying or for want to empathy but because I’m in doubt whether the events, as their unfolding, fit our tried-and-true conceptual frameworks.

For many leftists, the situation could not be any clearer. The right, in making an assault on collective bargaining, is seeking to break labor’s back. At issue is the right to freely associate, the right to be autonomous, and the capacity to resist capital. Hence, protests in the street = shock doctrine resistance.

Those on the right state that there is a budget shortfall and insist that this is a good, exigent way of closing that shortfall. What’s more, unions are sclerotic, ineffective, and overly powerful. In the age of increasing competition, unions are bureaucratic dinosaurs. As a result, new legislation = fiscal and political responsibility.

Are we witnessing the playing out of an antinomy of old understandings (the last vestiges of the New Deal vs. the triumphal push of neoliberalism), or is this the coming–not with one event but slowly and over time–of new understandings? I’m not sure that either narrative makes sense of this historical moment, and I want to admit as much.

The political situations in Tunisia and Cairo seem much clearer: resistance against the tyrannical state, the desire for political freedom, etc. But in Madison, Wisconsin?

There is, I grant, a quietism inherent in my conception of public philosophy. Dogmatism on left and right smells fishy; the task of public philosophy is to think seriously in order to sort things out.