Why Does Conscience Make Cowards of Us All? The Tenure-&-Promotion System as an Extremely Effective Device for Thought-Control.

An edgy essay by Z

With Follow-Up Discussion by L_E and Z

Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pitch and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action.

Hamlet, act III, scene 1


What I mean is: why are we so afraid to think, speak, and write for ourselves?

Why are we so afraid, as philosophers, to challenge the conventional wisdom of contemporary philosophy, whether the conventional wisdom of Establishment, mainstream “analytic” philosophy, or the conventional wisdom of Disestablishment, mainstream “continental” philosophy?

And why are we so afraid to challenge our senior colleagues, and our departmental and university administrations?

More generally, why are we such intellectual and moral chickenshits?

The obvious answer is that the tenure-&-promotion (T&P) system is being used as an extremely effective device to control the thinking, speaking, and writing of tenure-track philosophers.

Of course, most current graduate students in philosophy, most of whom are currently teaching philosophy for colleges or universities all over the USA for pathetically low wages and with no benefits, will never even get PhDs, and of those who do get PhDs, most will never have tenure-track jobs, but will instead either quit philosophy altogether or end up being permanently exploited by departmental, college, or university administrations as instructors, lecturers, or (worst of all) adjuncts.

That’s what I call “the problem of contingent faculty,” which I’ve discussed in a recent edgy essay.

But suppose for a moment that you’ve climbed the Greasy Pole to the point of having a tenure-track job tightly clutched between your hands, arms, knees, and ankles. Then this is how the coercive process of T&P thought-control happens.

• By threatening to fire you at pre-tenure re-appointment time, if you don’t conform and obey. You very quickly learn that “publish or perish” really means “publish only on the topics we think you should be publishing on, and only in the venues (journals, presses, etc.) we tell you to be publishing in, or perish.” Let’s call this “publish and eat toad, or perish.”

• By threatening to fire you at tenure-&-promotion-to-associate-professor time, if you don’t conform and obey. Again, “publish and eat toad, or perish.”

• By threatening to make you into a forever “stalled associate” at promotion-to-full-professor time, if you don’t conform and obey. Let’s call this “publish and eat toad, or languish.”

• By threatening to withold “named Chairs” and other administratively-granted “honors” from you, even if you’re already a tenured full professor who’s published and published and published, if you don’t conform and obey. Again, “publish and eat toad, or languish.”

• And by threatening to disgrace you and fire you, thus destroying your career, even if you are already a tenured professor, whether an associate professors or a full professor or a named Chair, if you don’t conform and obey. Or in other words, “publish and publish and publish, and still perish.”

A perfect example of the last kind of coercion is the case of David Barnett, the third and most recent member of The Colorado Three.

Now the only actual counterexamples to all of this extremely effective T&P thought-control that I can think of, that is, the only actual examples of active contemporary professional philosophers who’ve consistently dared to think for themselves, speak for themselves, and write for themselves, yet still have neither perished nor languished, that I can think of, are Peter Singer and Michael Tooley.

But they’re the only ones amongst at least ten thousand active contemporary professional philosophers!

Sidebar: I’m not thinking here about famous philosophers who are also “public intellectuals” — e.g., Martha Nussbaum and Thomas Pogge. To be sure, they’re important thinkers, and make significant contributions to public debates. But they’re not critically pushing the limits of what most people both inside and outside the Professional Academic State will tolerate, hence they’re not radicals.

Q: Well, what about Chomsky?

A: He’s definitely a radical political thinker, and also definitely a famous academic and “public intellectual” who’s miraculously neither perished nor languished; and he’s most definitely a real philosopher; but he’s not a professional philosopher.

By contrast to all of the above, Singer and Tooley are both professional philosophers who’ve also taken genuinely radical positions on issues of real moral and political importance — on our treatment of non-human animals, on charitable giving, on abortion and infanticide, etc. — and still, somehow, have neither perished (= been expelled by the Professional Academic State) nor languished (= been overlooked for “named Chairs” or other honors).

But in any case, this is all so fucking ironic, because

(i) Tooley was one of Barnett’s departmental colleagues, and did whatever he could, yet still couldn’t prevent Barnett’s being driven out of professional philosophy, and

(ii) because, to the extent that tenure isn’t just a form of job-security, it is supposed to be rationally justified by the protection of academic freedom, as the American Association of University Professors (AAUP)’s official statement on the rationale for tenure clearly states:

The purpose of this statement is to promote public understanding and support of academic freedom and tenure and agreement upon procedures to ensure them in colleges and universities. Institutions of higher education are conducted for the common good and not to further the interest of either the individual teacher or the institution as a whole. The common good depends upon the free search for truth and its free exposition.

Academic freedom is essential to these purposes and applies to both teaching and research. Freedom in research is fundamental to the advancement of truth. Academic freedom in its teaching aspect is fundamental for the protection of the rights of the teacher in teaching and of the student to freedom in learning. It carries with it duties correlative with rights.

Tenure is a means to certain ends; specifically: (1) freedom of teaching and research and of extramural activities, and (2) a sufficient degree of economic security to make the profession attractive to men and women of ability. Freedom and economic security, hence, tenure, are indispensable to the success of an institution in fulfilling its obligations to its students and to society.


In fact, the T&P system has had and continues to have, almost universally, exactly the reverse effect of killing and suppressing academic freedom.

So as contemporary professional philosophers, by the time we reach our reflective mid-to-late 50s and early 60s, the philosophical prime-time of our lives, we’re so used to being intellectual and moral lackeys that we never grow out of our “self-incurred immaturity,” to borrow Kant’s classical formulation in the opening sentence of “What is Enlightenment?”

In short, by the time we contemporary professional philosophers have reached our mid-to-late 50s and early 60s, most of us have become, as Kant again so beautifully puts it, this time in the Critique of Pure Reason, mere plaster casts of living human beings:

[The philosopher who fails to think for himself] has formed himself according to an alien reason, but the faculty of imitation is not that of generation, i.e., the cognition did not arise from reason in him, and although objectively it was certainly a rational cognition, subjectively it is still merely historical. He has grasped and preserved well, i.e., he has learned, and is a plaster cast of a living human being. (CPR A836–837/B864–865, underlining added)

And as full-sized plaster casts, we just bide our time till our “much-deserved” retirement, when we acquire the status of “emeritus,” then work in our gardens and watch golf on TV, whoopie-shit.

But this rational immaturity, and this intellectual and moral lackeydom, are terrible things for contemporary and future philosophy, and for us as individual philosophers and persons too.

So how can we break out of the system of T&P thought-control, grow up rationally and morally, and finally begin to think, speak, and write for ourselves?

The answer has six parts.

First, philosophy departments, colleges, and universities need to abolish the current T&P system.

Second, philosophy departments, colleges, and universities need to make being a good or excellent teacher of real philosophy the necessary and sufficient condition of being “tenured,” which then means, as currently in the UK, “re-appointed to the retiring age,” and this “tenure” decision needs to be made within four years of hiring someone.

Third, philosophy departments, colleges, and universities need to make it possible for all and only those who are personally driven to do original research and publish, to do original research and publish, by giving them regular research-leave to do so, say, every third semester, at half-pay for that semester.

Fourth, philosophy departments, colleges, and universities need to make it clear that their commitment to “high-quality teaching” isn’t just bullshit by paying those who opt simply to teach real philosophy for their entire careers well or excellently and not doing original research or publishing, more than those who do opt to do original research and publish. This will happen because (i) research-leave semesters are always at half-pay, and (ii) those who do original research and publish are never given a higher base-pay rate than those who do not, since all raises are exclusively based on years-in-post and cost-of-living.

Fifth, as a consequence of the fourth point, there will be no such thing as “promotion.” No such thing as “assistants,” “associates,” or “fulls.” And no “named Chairs,” or other administratively-granted “honors.” Hence no “winner-takes-all” bullshit. Everyone in the post-T&P system earns a fair wage, has good benefits, derives their satisfaction from doing real philosophy well, and is just a philosophy professor, pure and simple.

Sixth, finally, and most importantly of all, philosophy departments, colleges, and universities need to protect academic freedom authentically by designing the whole post-T&P system to conform rigorously to the moral content of the First Amendment, and not be held hostage to sanctimonious right-wing drivel, to sanctimonious politically-correct left-wing drivel, or to senior-collegial, administrative, or extra-academic coercive thought-control of any kind, Church-imposed, State-imposed, or whatever. Sapere aude!

— Of course, I’m deadly serious about all of this.

But as a parting thought, it also occurred to me that if my relentlessly critical, Enlightenment-enlightened, and possibly quixotic/utopian six-part post-T&P, anti-thought-control program somehow fails to be implemented (I mean, how could it?), then we could always build for ourselves the philosophical equivalent of alien thought-screen helmets and revolt against the T&P system that way.

Fucking-ay!, sez Manny the K.


APP Editors’ Note:
L_E is a 20-something philosophy PhD student at a public university somewhere in the Southern Hemisphere.

L_E: Regarding the next post on the tenure system, I completely agree that departments should hire those who are good at teaching philosophy. But I’m not sure whether this is the main part of the problem. From my limited experience, those who dedicate themselves to teaching are usually seen as less smart than those who decide to do research. Thus, although paying them well would definitely do some good to improve the situation, I believe that a whole solution would require not only a change in the structure of academic jobs, but also in the mentality of people overall.

Re: your point on having fair salaries for everyone, I think this might have some downsides. In country XXX, the best jobs in higher educations are all publicly funded. You cannot be hired to a tenured position in a public university. Instead, you have to go through a selective process which is entirely constrained by government laws. The reason for this is that it allegedly makes the hiring process fair. When you join an institution, everyone receives the same payment check, and you have to progress in the “career plan” to get a promotion. Everyone has the same career plan and it doesn’t matter whether you publish 100 papers or only 1 per year, the salary in the end of the month is the same (assuming that the career level is the same). The downsides of this system is that people get accommodated and stop doing their work well. There are a ton of examples in my previous institution (university YYY). Also, academics simply don’t have any incentive to move on to other places. Once you are attached to an institution, your career develops within the institutional parameters of that particular place. If you move to another place, you have to start at the bottom of your new career plan all over again. I’ve seen [professor AAA] making this point a couple of times, maybe you could ask her to comment on this. I’m sure she is more entitled to do so than I am.

Z: Two quick follow-ups.

As to “From my limited experience, those who dedicate themselves to teaching are usually seen as less smart than those who decide to do research.” —

Hmm. When you say “are usually seen as,” I think you mean to distance yourself from the claim that teaching specialists are actually less smart than research specialists, yes? Assuming that, then I think we both probably agree in sharply disagreeing with the truth of that perception. But at the same time there’s certainly been a kind of philosophical class system introduced between those who do research (the upper class) and those who merely teach (the lower class), and correspondingly, there’s been tremendous arrogance on the part of upper-class research-philosopher smart-asses who make lots of money, and get big raises, and real disdain and disrespect towards their lower-class teaching-philosopher sluggo colleagues, who have much lower salaries, and get very small raises, etc.

I myself was always and still am personally driven to do research, and publish, but that’s just me, and my obsessions. I’m certainly not smarter than any of my former colleagues who are excellent teachers but don’t do research. I’m just a dumb-ass from Winnipeg who loves real philosophy.

And as to “your point on having fair salaries for everyone, I think this might have some downsides….” —

Hmm again. I can see how the government-imposed system in country XXX can lead to the result that some or even many academic philosophers become intellectually complacent and lazy. But I don’t think that’s a result of “fair salaries for everyone” in my sense. What I mean is that in the system I’m thinking about, everyone would receive pretty much the same starting salary, adjusted yearly for inflation and the cost of living; and then after that, they’d receive regular raises based on years-in-post, again adjusted for inflation and the cost of living. But if you went to another university, you’d keep your years-in-post seniority, and start at that level in the new place. Also hiring tenured people would be totally acceptable.

So there would be a certain amount of “free agent” movement from philosophy department to philosophy department, depending on what the philosophical profile of any given department was, and given people’s family needs, and how nice the city and area are, etc.

But above all, I’m thinking that different departments would then develop certain specializations, and create both individual and collaborative research and teaching projects related to those specializations, so that everyone would stay interested and active, by contributing to one project or another, or to more than one project.

Or are those thoughts too crazy and utopian?…

L_E: About teachers being less-smart, I certainly do not think that this is the case. In fact, I’ve gotten to know wonderful researchers who were pretty bad at teaching and other philosophers who had a poor publication record but could really get you entertained for hours and hours in a certain subject. I actually had a professor who only had a Master’s and no publications at all, but who was so passionate about teaching Kant that his classes were always populated.

Still, I’ve heard many people saying that X is a teacher and Y a researcher because X is not really good as Y. Maybe this has to do with my short experience in academia, but it looks like there is a question of “social” prestige involved. I would say that this is something like a doctor and a construction worker earning the same wage. Even if both have equal salaries, being a doctor enjoys a sort of “social prestige” that being a construction worker doesn’t….


Mr Nemo, W, X, Y, and Z, Friday 2 June 2017.

Against Professional Philosophy is a sub-project of the online mega-project Philosophy Without Borders, which is home-based on Patreon here.

Formerly Captain Nemo. A not-so-very-angry, but still unemployed, full-time philosopher-nobody.

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