Learning to Love Your Captors, Or, How to Publish, then Perish before Leaving Grad School.

An edgy essay by X

Originally published 14 August 2015.

I would venture to guess that the vast majority of us took an interest in philosophy not as a way to have better access to a job, but as a way of life.

I would also venture to guess that the vast majority of those who began philosophy in this way have now abandoned philosophy as a way of life, embracing the professional philosophical life (where ‘philosophical’ is included in name only, of course).

To be an authentic philosopher is to be a philosopher with a soul, someone who loves philosophy to death and whose sense of self is grounded in being a philosopher, no matter the external circumstances.

An authentic philosopher is one whose philosophical education is an end in itself rather than a bargaining tool for gaining employment or other ends.

Most of us start out as authentic philosophers in this regard.

How many undergraduates pick up philosophy as a way of obtaining something else?

So what turns soulful philosophers into professionalized philosophers?

It is coming to love one’s captors, in a Stockholm Syndrome-type way, that enables this transition.

The captors are those professionalized philosophers whose identity as such depends on (i) their being recognized as players in their respective game, and (ii) their recruiting young and enthusiastic philosophers to join their ranks.

Now, not all philosophers who teach and publish for a living count as professionalized philosophers, only those who have given up authentic philosophy.

But the vast majority of philosophers at reputable programs (mostly research universities) are professionalized, and had to become professionalized to get where they are.

Why regard professionalized philosophers as “captors”?

Well, let’s think about the number one expectation of tenure track (TT) faculty at most of the reputable grad programs in the U.S.: publish often in the top journals and publish only on topics that make a “significant contribution” to philosophy.

But of course the “top” journals are run by those who have climbed the professional ladder.

Moreover, they are run by those who will only give credit to those who are on the same path.

Publishing in Philosophical Studies or Analysis takes discipline — namely, the discipline of writing like those who publish in Philosophical Studies or Analysis.

And by “significant contribution,” professionalized philosophers tend to mean “a contribution to a puzzle or set of puzzles deemed interesting and worthwhile by other well-known philosophers.”

Again, the standard for success is to live up to the expectations of influential, powerful philosophers.

Now, whether or not you see this as a problem, we can infer that to become professionalized, one must either naturally love the set of puzzles deemed interesting and worthwhile, or come to love them by other means.

It is not totally implausible that some young and soulful philosophers would want to spend their time on just these philosophical puzzles, but so many of us are interested in so much more.

This brings us to what I think is the mechanism of professionalization.

One way to professionalize is to give us maxims such as “publish or perish!”

But, you ask, how can this be a bad thing? We all want to publish our work, right?

We all want to get jobs in philosophy, right?

And getting a job in philosophy these days is rough.

You have to compete! You have to pad that CV!

These days it is highly likely that on your grad school orientation day, someone will tell you two things:

first, that the job market is really tough (wow!, like we didn’t know!) and therefore you should prepare for a highly depressing life as a philosopher, since getting a job is everything;

second, that in order to make it more likely that you will get a TT job, you need to learn how to publish a lot before leaving grad school.

They probably won’t reassure you that it’s okay if you don’t plan on getting an academic job, since many of your professors will be of the opinion that those who aren’t trying to get a job in academia are not serious about philosophy.

But even if they do assure you that it’s okay not to pursue an academic career, it will probably sound more like lip service than anything.

Once you begin writing seminar papers, after all, they will tell you that they are training you to write publishable work.

And thus the once soulful young philosopher becomes focused primarily on becoming professionalized — and all under the pressure of not being taken seriously, not being recognized as a legitimate philosopher.

If your seminar papers are exercises in what it’s like to publish in philosophy journals, then your sense of how well you are doing in your program will be bound up with how much progress you think you are making in precisely that regard.

The problem is that publishing is not a mere tool for enabling us to do philosophy.

Publishing, that is, disseminating one’s written work, together with private reflection or thinking, and other forms of dissemination like discussion and teaching, are philosophy itself.

And since authentic philosophy resists professionalization, an authentic philosopher should publish only what she loves and what she sees as a worthwhile contribution from her own rational perspective.

To imbibe the maxim “publish or perish!” is to transition from soulful philosophy to professionalized philosophy, and thus “publish or perish!” leads to the death of soulful philosophy.

I believe that we should see (i) many publications, and (ii) real philosophy done to the best of one’s ability, via reflection or thinking, and especially when written and circulated, or otherwise disseminated, as two distinct phenomena.

Authentic philosophy is normatively directed towards the latter, not the former.

So authentic philosophers should publish only when they are proud of what they have written, and never under an external command.

Publishing under command requires conformity to a set of highly interest-laden set of communal norms.

In this way, “publish or perish!” ironically and inevitably leads to our philosophical deaths.

Captors should recognize themselves as such, and young soulful philosophers should resist professionalization by refusing to publish on topics simply because important philosophers find them interesting or illuminating.

Finally, we should start caring infinitely more about quality than about quantity.

We should care infinitely more about real philosophy done to the best of our ability than we do about many publications, and stop conflating the two.


Mr Nemo, W, X, Y, and Z, Wednesday 5 July 2017.

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



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Mr Nemo

Mr Nemo


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