A Philosopher’s Diary, #12: Philosophy and Flow States, Part 1 — Real Philosophy and Professional Academic Philosophy.
The descriptive sub-title of this blog — Against Professional Philosophy — originally created and rolled out in 2013, is “A Co-Authored Anarcho-Philosophical Diary.”
Now, ten years later, after more than 300,000 views of the site, this series, A Philosopher’s Diary, finally literally instantiates that description by featuring short monthly entries by one or another of the members of the APP circle, in order to create an ongoing collective philosophical diary that records the creative results of critical, synoptic, systematic rational reflection on any philosophical topic or topics under the sun, without any special restrictions as to content, format, or length.
In this twelfth installment, Boethius applies some of the core ideas of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience to the experience and practice of doing philosophy.
A Philosopher’s Diary, #12: Philosophy and Flow States, Part 1 — Real Philosophy and Professional Academic Philosophy.
Right now I’m reading Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990/2008). I claim no further expertise, and I haven’t reviewed the literature since its publication. The text is something of a classic now, the terms “flow” and “flow states” having entered the psychology and well-being discourse long ago. But I came to it not just for summer reading, but also for its connection to intellectual activities like real philosophy and its professionalized version.
A flow state, so-called, is a type of optimal experience, and I’ll unpack the concept in Csikszentmihalyi’s terms first. Flow states are possible for many experiences related to real philosophy, professional philosophy, academic life, and teaching and learning. Importantly, not all flow states are good, in the sense of being an ultimate good to pursue in life simply for their own stake. Flow states might be had in activities that are harmful to others or to oneself, or as part of a larger enterprise the world might be better off without. Csikszentmihalyi offers some critiques of professionalized academia that mirror some of APP’s critiques. But we can extend those or apply them to recast some of APP’s vision of what real philosophy and even porfessional academic philosophy could aspire to be. Part 2 of this will apply the flow state concept to a more classical aspect of philosophy.
What is a flow state? From what the book says of the research story, Csikszentmihalyi and colleagues were interested in those human experiences that are most enjoyable, most valuable, most memorable, most conducive to well-being. What human experiences are the best kind to have? If there’s a common optimal state, then we might cultivate the conditions for it and seek them out to make life better. From surveys and interviews of a wide range of people, rich and poor, young and old, across different cultures and countries, and across a wide range of vocations, the researchers identified a family-resemblance set of features common to what subjects considered optimal experience. Given how often the subjects described the phenomenology in terms of a kind of “flow,” the state got called a flow state.
Chapter 3 unpacks the concept of a flow state. Flow states involve two features of activities in which flow states tend to be present, and four more features of flow state phenomenology. Flow state activities include:
- A challenge whereby we get to use our mental and/or physical skills, and where the challenge can be met or completed.
- Clear goals with immediate feedback on progress and/or success.
And flow state phenomenology tends to include:
- Full focus and attention, or concentration on the task, in which awareness of one’s surroundings and everyday concerns disappear.
- A loss of a sense of self or of self-consciousness, with awareness “merged” with the task.
- A sense of relaxed exercise of control in the process of completing the task.
- An altered sense of time, either shortened or lengthened.
Csikszentmihalyi presents these in a slightly different order than I have here. There are nuances and exceptions. But optimal experience tends to be described in these terms. And “optimal” also correlates with “successful.” The challenges do tend to be met in such states, with excellence shown in completing the task or challenge. Flow states abound in athletic successes, producing great art or an excellent performance, success in intellectual competition (chess, debate, poker), and writing poetry or prose. Flow states can occur with work too, whether by a surgeon, financial analyst, or factory worker. They can occur with nearly any everyday life activity, provided one has or sets up a challenge and falls into the phenomenology described.
What about flow states for real philosophy, the activity of real philosophy? Our activities break into many different types, from thinking to writing to discussing to presenting to teaching. But for each, there’s clear challenge. For real philosophy as a whole, we have some of the most challenging questions human beings can consider, and we get to use our intellectual skills in spades. Real philosophy has goals, at least to answer our questions, and we also have all the nuanced forms of “answering,” like giving partial or conditional answers, clarifying concepts, raising objections, and reframing debates. Independently of answering our questions, we have other epistemic goals such as knowledge, understanding, and enlightenment. In tandem with all of this, real philosophy aims to improve life, for oneself, for others, for society, for future generations.
Feedback for real philosophical pursuits might seem elusive. But there’s at least an internal judge of one’s ideas and arguments. There’s a running critical dialogue internally as to whether a line of argument is promising or not. If it’s unpromising, one’s Socratic daimon complains. I’m in the camp of (aspiring) real philosophers who take a priori or epistemic intuitions as reliable evidence, and those are a fundamental source of internal feedback. Such internal feedback surely gets shaped by externally-sourced education and influence as well, but the point here is that we do get internal feedback. Csikszentmihalyi’s examples here involve artists in the process of creating an artwork. Artists describe a similar internal judge as to how well the production is unfolding, whether to make refinements, to start over, and in sort, there’s internal critique and guidance or feedback.
External feedback for real philosophical pursuits is perhaps easier to recognize. We talk about our ideas with others. In conversation, we get feedback as to the strength or weakness of our arguments, possible objections, what needs clarifying, where the inquiry might lead. In my experience, Q&A with students serves the same purpose. It might not be my own ideas in play, but I find working through real philosophical problems with students to be fruitful feedback to help understand a problem. But for our own arguments, we write papers and books, and we get external feedback from colleagues, conference audiences, and referees.
Can the phenomenology of flow states be achieved in real philosophical pursuits? Certainly. There’s the image of Socrates standing alone in deep contemplation, in a trance, oblivious to his surroundings. Philosophers lose themselves in thought. The problem or flow of argument becomes the sole object of attention, and there’s a sense of internal control over the analysis or inquiry. Time passes unnoticed. And in line with Csikszentmihalyi’s conclusions as to the value of flow states for well-being, I find that time spent in such states where the thinking “flows” to be an important reward of real philosophy. It is a significant intrinsic reward or good that I’d somewhat overlooked until reading Csikszentmihalyi’s text.
There are caveats and cautions to all this, and the concerns will carry over to some questions about professional academic philosophy.
A fundamental point that affects and inflects everything else is that while flow states themselves may be intrinsic goods and optimal experiences for those who have them, the activities in which flow occurs need not be good or produce something good. Burglars and con artists may well have flow states in the course of what they do. They might be so focused on the task that the outside world drops away, they merge with the task, and so on, and they may well show excellence in what they do. Yet it’s not for the moral good. Scientists might experience flow and thereby improve their well-being as part of research that leads to weapons production. The Manhattan Project scientists fell into intense concentration on their work to the exclusion of all else, or so we might say, and let the intellectual good for their well-being be as high as one might imagine. Yet what they produced was horrific. Other scientists surely experienced flow in research for other kinds of weapons, genetically-modified organisms, social media algorithms, and AI “tools” like ChatGPT, yet the moral status of the products are ambiguous at best or wrong at worst. The same holds for intellectually-inspired products of marketers, political operatives, financial managers, and internet influencers. Flow states are good for one’s well-being, yet this entails nothing about the goodness of a flow state activity.
The same point applies to work generally. Csikszentmihalyi’s Chapter 6 (“The flow of thought”) and Chapter 7 (“Work as flow”) tell us that people experience flow states at work very often, and for most people, more often than at home or at leisure. We all have our vocational skills. We get tasked with challenges at work where we get to use our skills, and we can fall into flow states in the process. We interact with people, we solve problems, we do our work. We get internal and external feedback on it, we merge with the tasks, time can pass quickly, and so on. Many of us find fulfillment to some degree in this. It’s independent of the actual value anyone might see in the activity, and the activity itself might have little positive value or none at all.
As an aspiring real philosopher inside professional academic philosophy myself, I can relate. I’ll get to the professional academic philosophy side shortly, but university life has two kinds of work that readily admit of flow states.
The first kind is teaching. In my own case, it’s the most significant and valuable thing I do as an aspiring real philosopher. It impacts far more people than my professional academic philosophical papers and presentations. It occupies far more time than those other professional academic philosophical activities. I definitely don’t always fall into flow states when preparing for class, lecturing or leading discussion, meeting with students or reading their work, or studying philosophy pedagogy. But I do fall into them often enough. As observed above, it’s a significant good of the job for me personally. It is beyond the good impacts (I hope) for my students and their education.
The second kind is administrative life. I suspect this isn’t much different from other white-collar professionals. I have a constant inflow of email. Some of it has to be answered. I do forms and grades. I write reports. I write reports on other people’s reports. I sit on committees and participate in meetings. I follow procedures and sometimes help draft them. In fact, I fall into flow states for such things somewhat often too. I get in the zone or flow of solving some problem or participating in some discussion, where I have to use my institutional knowledge and intellectual skills. I use my philosophy degree every day. It’s not real philosophy per se for these aspects of my professional life, but rather the analytical and critical skills I wouldn’t trade for anything else. And I do experience flow in using them.
What of the negatives? Neither of these two aspects of university life is uniformly good, even if we grant a lot of flow states for the participants.
Teaching, for instance, seems a great good. But one can teach with a perfectly rewarding flow state and in fact it’s all crap. The same lecture can be delivered year after year with a wonderful flow state present, showing excellence in the delivery, timing, clarity, and so on, and yet nobody learns anything from it. The same flawed pedagogy, whether lecture, or discussion, or feedback on papers, can be engaged in with whatever degree of flow state one might imagine. There might be little educational gain, or worse yet, a turnoff of intellectual curiosity altogether for real philosophy, history, science, mathematics, and everything else. Flow or no flow, there’s still the logically independent issue of good pedagogy.
I’m well aware of the necessary evil of administrative university life. If you’re going to have an institution of higher learning, there will be an administration of it. Yet we’re all aware of administrative pointlessness. Administrative coercion is always suspect, whether for strategic plans, faculty manuals, promotion and tenure procedures, departmental performance expectations, or syllabi requirements. “Procedures” and “best practices” all entail coercive influences. I see the good of some of this. But it’s as if all the institutional structure creates is a set of challenges, with clear goals and feedback (yes, sometimes not so clear on either), and those are in fact two features had by flow activities. If one falls into the phenomenology of flow states while doing the administrative minutiae, the experience can be rewarding independently of whatever administrative good resulted. It can be rewarding even if the activity was utterly pointless.
As to professional academic philosophy, Csikszentmihalyi comments directly on it as follows:
“Philosophy” used to mean “love of wisdom,” and people devoted their lives to it for that reason. Nowadays professional philosophers would be embarrassed to acknowledge so naïve a conception of their craft. Today a philosopher may be a specialist in deconstructionism or logical positivism, an expert in early Kant or late Hegel, an epistemologist or an existentialist, but don’t bother him with wisdom. It is a common fate of many human institutions to begin as a response to some universal problem until, after many generations, the problems peculiar to the institutions themselves will take precedence over the original goal…. Amateur philosophers [here intended as those who love or take delight in philosophy for its own sake], unlike their professional counterparts at universities, need not worry about historical struggles for prominence among competing schools, the politics of journals, and the personal jealousies of scholars. They can keep their minds on the basic questions… [T]he importance of personally taking control of the direction of learning from the very first steps cannot be stressed enough. If a person feels coerced to read a certain book, to follow a given course because that is supposed to be the way to do it, learning will go against the grain. But if the decision is to take that same route because of an inner feeling of rightness, the learning will be relatively effortless and enjoyable…. In philosophy as in other disciplines there comes a point where a person is ready to pass from the status of passive consumer to that of active producer… [I]f one records ideas in response to an inner challenge to express clearly the major questions by which one feels confronted, and tries to sketch out answers that will help make sense of one’s experiences, then the amateur philosopher will have learned to derive enjoyment from one of the most difficult and rewarding tasks of life. (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990/2008: pp. 138–139)
Bingo! Here we have a critique that mirrors various lines of thought at APP. We have professionalized, scholasticized, institutionalized, coercive structures in place in all departments, all universities, and all academic disciplines, and at the larger State level too, that undermine the possibility for one of the most valuable experiential states humans can have. It is as if all philosophers would be better off, qua philosophers, being amateurs in Csikszentmihalyi’s sense: as lovers of wisdom who pursue it for its own sake, as what we might just call independent real philosophers.
But I would add more. As suggested earlier, our professional academic social institutions are structured in such a way that flow states are possible, not deliberately so, but as a by-product. Those states can still have intrinsic value. The teaching side of academic life allows for flow, and for that reason one might remain in university life rather than being independent. As for the administrative side, flow or no flow, I could in most cases do without it. I’ve done it, but never again.
However, for both teaching and one’s own real philosophical inquiries, it’s as if the institutional elements create opportunities for flow states that distract from other possible flow states for what matters more. It isn’t a matter of eating up time, in the sense that while falling into the flow of doing a year-end program assessment report, I could have done something more meaningful like read real philosophy or think more deeply about how best to teach my logic class. It’s worse, for I suspect the flow states from professional academic life may even substitute for flow states from more meaningful inquiries. By “substitute,” I mean that one might gain some similar personal good or well-being from doing the professional or administrative work. One might even gain great good from it. Csikszentmihalyi’s research documents this. But even if it enriches life, the good of such flow states substitutes for the good of other flow states, those had from real philosophy proper or from activities with a higher proportion or higher degree of intrinsic good. So the danger isn’t simply wasting time. It’s substituting one kind of well-being for another, lower-grade kind.
But is it really a “lower-grade” kind of well-being? An objection would be that it could be commensurate. I have met administrators who are good at what they do, well-intentioned, aren’t assholes, and derive a lot of personal good from what they do. Would they have been better off engaging with their academic discipline instead, and thus avoiding substituting one kind of well-being from another? On the one hand, we ought to grant that administrative life can be a source of great good for some, and in fact that might even be ideal for them in pursuing life’s goods. But on the other hand, for the rest of us, it gets in the way, it distracts, and it threatens to substitute for better goods. And now just to speculate: Even for those (rare) great administrators, what might they have done if their social institutions had been different? What if there had been more minimal administrative structures, with fewer opportunities for flow states in working within that structure? Or what if there had been fewer barriers to flow states for inquiry? Perhaps those individuals would have continued on a more inquiry-driven path. Most of us went to graduate school to study things like philosophy, science, literature, or art. That was the drive, and for many of us there was an attraction to teaching too. I don’t know anyone who in grad school wanted to be an administrator.
A similar comparison likely holds between flow states in the service of real philosophy compared to flow states for professional academic philosophy. The latter takes its guidance from “the profession” of philosophy, from its governing bodies, from its influential figures, from its dominant schools, journals, publishers, and university departments. Within that mode of philosophy, one can easily fall into many different flow states. But given the coercive influence, it would be more difficult to achieve flow states. Moreover, as with the comparison between administrative tasks and inquiry-driven ones, one might substitute one kind of flow state for another. Consider the optimal experiential state of doing real philosophy independently, informed by the history of philosophy, with intellectual virtues like open-mindedness, fair-mindedness and independent-mindedness in place, along with other intellectual virtues like intellectual courage and intellectual humility, and also with the standard philosophical skills of analysis and argument. Compare that state with the optimal experiential state for coercively-influenced professional academic philosophy. Given the coercive influence, the professional academic version would of necessity be less independent-minded, less informed by the history of philosophy (since some of it would be privileged by the profession), less fair- and open-minded to different positions and starting points, and with less intellectual courage and humility. What then of the different flow states and corresponding well-being? Those for real philosophy would seem superior or more likely to maximize well-being.
But one might raise an objection parallel to the critique of different “grades” of well-being above. All things considered, might the well-being from flow states for professional academic philosophy be commensurate with those for real philosophy per se, or independent real philosophy in particular? As with the earlier objection, we should concede that it’s at least logically possible to achieve the same level of well-being with respect to flow states for the different modes of philosophy. But moving from logical possibility to real possibility, this is hard to see. Given the negative impacts, or at least threats, to one’s intellectual virtue, indeed to one’s very mental constitution, from all the coercive threats, it seems that the overall good simply can’t be commensurate between the two modes. We would have to imagine a case where one philosopher, a professional academic one, has sacrificed some intellectual virtue for some greater well-being from the flow states or other rewards of professional academic life, and this somehow outweighs the well-being of an independent philosopher who has made no such sacrifices. Other things being equal, independent real philosophy comes out ahead.
Still, perhaps other things are not equal, and here at the end of this essay, I’ll return to flow states coming from a different activity: teaching. Professional academic philosophers get to teach regularly, and while independent real philosophers do that as well (or can, or do so differently), I wonder if it’s the same degree of potential good. Some philosophers, whether professional academic or independent real, see teaching as a barrier to what they take to be more worthy intellectual pursuits. I disagree. For those of us who experience plenty of flow states while helping people learn, and on the perfectly reasonable assumption that such activities are themselves great goods, how should we weigh that against the intellectual harms from being professionalized and academicized, even if those professional academic activities lend themselves to flow states as well? I leave that as an open question.
My title calls this essay “Part 1” on philosophy and flow states. My purpose was to consider flow states in relation to real philosophy and professional academic philosophy. Part 2 will apply Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of flow to a different idea about real philosophy: real philosophy as a way of life. There’s renewed interest in the Hellenistic philosophers and Eastern philosophers who address questions about life’s overall good as served by real philosophy. I see flow states as central to this, but that is for the next installment.
(Csikszentmihalyi, 1990/2008). Csikszentmihalyi, M. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics.
(Wikipedia, 2023). Wikipedia. “Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.” Available online at URL = <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mihaly_Csikszentmihalyi>.
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