“Failed Academics”: Schopenhauer, Peirce, and the (D)evolution of University Philosophy.

Mr Nemo
18 min readJan 15, 2018

An edgy essay by L_E

(Originally published 29 January 2016, Re-edited January 2018)

1. The relationship between philosophy and academia is tricky, and sometimes even tragic.

For individuals living in the 21st century, the standard path towards a “quality” education is to enroll in universities. Those among us who are deeply interested in philosophy are naturally led to philosophy departments, and accordingly, we spend a great deal of money paying for philosophy lectures that are supposed to “educate” us in this old subject.

This is what I will call The Tale of the Young Philosopher.

Philosophy has a long and distinguished history that dates back to at least the first Greek pre-Socratic philosophers such as Thales, Anaximander, Heraclitus, Parmenides, etc. Since the preSocratics, philosophy has been pursued in a great variety of different ways. Some philosophers, like Socrates, believed that philosophy is essentially a reflection of our way of living.

For Socrates, then, philosophical reflection took place in the domain of the immediate concerns of human life, which highlights the importance of the dynamics of spoken interaction among individuals. This way of doing philosophy is beautifully illustrated in Plato’s dialogues.

Other philosophers, however, had different views of what is the best way to philosophize.

Augustine wrote some of his major works in the form of confessions, as if he were speaking directly to God.

Aquinas, on the other hand, wrote his Summa in the form of disputes, which reflected the way university lectures were carried out in his time.

Similarly and more close to us, Descartes opted for the meditational style, Bacon and Nietzsche for aphorismatic works, Kant for critical treatises, and so forth.

That much is widely known to most philosophy students. We could go further and further and write down many more examples.

But what is important to note by looking at this long and distinguished tradition is that many of the great philosophers in the past had different conceptions of what is the best way to philosophize, and even of what is the best way to communicate philosophy to other individuals.

With all this in mind, I propose that we go back to The Tale of the Young Philosopher.

2. At least in most English-speaking universities, one has the option to take many different philosophy classes ranging from ethics and political philosophy to metaphysics and epistemology. When one enrolls in a philosophy course, one learns that his “progress” is to be measured by writing brief papers, preparing small seminar presentations, etc. If one is happy with such model, then one will simply comply with the instructions and do whatever work is required from him or her.

Let us suppose, however, that our young philosophy student, who was passionately driven to philosophy by reading some of the classics and being impressed by them, decides to write one assignment in the form of aphorisms or meditations.

If our student is lucky enough to have a nice and kind philosophy professor, then he will be told that although this might consist in interesting philosophical work, there are some established guidelines used to assess his progress in the course, and that for his philosophy course, he will have to comply with this model.

As long as the student understands that he is a part of a bigger institution (the university), and that there are standard procedures to evaluate the progress of those who agree to be a part of this institution, then all of this seems to be fair.

The above scenario doesn’t look problematic at all. But it would be simply mistaken to assume that all cases like this will be handled in the same way.

For most of the time, one’s philosophy professor will in fact be an arrogant asshole and mock one’s attempt to write outside the established model, and what is worse, one will be told that the right way of doing philosophy is such-and-such, where “such-and-such” is usually the “rigorous,” deadly dry style of academic journal articles.

In this case, EITHER the student can simply tell the professor to fuck off and drop philosophy altogether OR else s/he takes his/her Master’s word for granted even if he doesn’t agree with the Master.

After all, the Master-professor should know more, for s/he has a PhD (in philosophy!) from Princeton.

Of course this is all anecdotal, but with a little bit of reflection, I suspect that most of us will recall episodes like this either in one’s own history or in someone’s else trajectory.

3. And this, I believe, is a very sad state of affairs for contemporary philosophy.

The reason is very straightforward: any attempt to impose standardized rules to philosophy, or more importantly, any attempt to make philosophy a part of any other institutional body (the Church, the State, universities, etc.) is likely to have catastrophic results, for this undermines the intrinsic value of philosophy, which is freedom of thought to reflect on the human condition as a whole and in all its proper parts, and challenge critically whatever should be challenged.

Currently, we live in an age in which universities bring together the very best people, the most competent and expert scholars in certain specialized areas of human knowledge. Accordingly, young people go to universities to learn that most advanced knowledge in order to keep the wheel of society running. From this perspective, universities are supposed to give us access to the most sophisticated and up-to-date knowledge in different areas.

As a part of the university system, many would say: philosophy is not an exception to this. If one wants to learn the best kind of philosophy, then one should take philosophy courses at the best philosophy departments, since this is where all the (self-proclaimed) philosophers are. After all, who’s better equipped to teach philosophy than a professional philosopher?

This all looks like very sensible, but it is deeply mistaken.

The line of reasoning above overlooks the fact that the relationship between professional philosophy and real philosophy is a very fragile one, and often merely accidental. Getting a degree in philosophy doesn’t entail that you learned how to philosophize in the real sense of the term, but (in the best case scenario) that you learned how to philosophize according to certain arbitrary rules.

Nevertheless, this is not something that most professional philosophers are willing to tell you as part of The Tale of the Young Philosopher.

By sharp contrast, The Tale has it that a truly promising young philosopher should get really good grades (4.0 is the rule, but 3.9 is acceptable), then get almost perfect GRE scores (apparently, philosophy majors are really good at this), then spend at least two hours a day reading and studying Leiter Reports and Daily Nous, and then two more hours thinking of crazy objections (even if they don’t make sense to you) to premise four of X’s argument for the conceivability of zombies.

That way you impress your philosophy professors and get really strong letters of recommendation. Now you can go to a top graduate school!

Then The Tale continues all the way through graduate school. You should get excellent grades once again, go to conferences, publish anything that is publishable, etc.

You should also network as much as possible. This shouldn’t absorb too much of your energy, however.

Be alert to when the word “premise” comes up in a talk, then write it down and think of some crazy and boring objection to it, and then go back to sleep again.

When the Q&A queue starts, then you raise a devastating objection to premise n, and voilà, your philosophical contribution to someone’s else work is done.

Just be careful to look SUPER smart when you ask the question, and not appear to be too nervous or tentative — medium-level arrogance is just about right — because your (professional) philosophical life depends a lot on first impressions.

If you feel sick to your stomach at the end of the day for being obliged to play the professional game, then you can just go to Daily Nous and complain about how bad the practices of our profession are. Two or three long posts will be enough to settle your stomach and save your philosophical soul.

One could say at this point: this is simply how philosophy is done nowadays. If you want to be a philosopher, you have to play the “professional game,” even if you don’t agree with it.

You can play safe at earlier stages of your career, and THEN, when you’re finally an established professional philosopher, you can venture into new and unorthodox work.

Ya, right. How many professional philosophers do you know who actually ventured into new and unorthodox work after receiving tenure? Or after being promoted to full professor? Or even after retirement and entering the elephant’s graveyard of emeritus professorship?

This line of bullshit would work very well if it didn’t overlook the force of old established habits.

If you conform to the rules of practice-P for too long, and survive, and in that sense “succeed” in practice-P, then even if you started out being deeply opposed to the whole practice-P enterprise, eventually you turn into a card-carrying P-er.

4. But this takes us down a different rabbit hole. What I want to discuss now, instead, is what happens when you refuse to play the professional game.

If you find it too soul-destroying to play the professional game in order to become and be a real philosopher, you might get to the point where you just decide to give up and end The Tale of the Young Philosopher as it were tragically, by getting the hell out of professional academic philosophy altogether. Then this thesis kicks in:

(*) If you’re a “failed professional academic philosopher,” then you’re a “failed philosopher.”

But, you might say, this is not necessarily a bad thing: in the same way that playing professional basketball wasn’t for you, maybe philosophy wasn’t for you as well. We all make wrong decisions and it’s never too late to change things.

But this is a deeply wrong way to think of the subject. Thesis (*) is a fallacy! I’m not denying that perhaps studying philosophy wasn’t your real passion, but failing at being a professional academic philosopher has nothing to do with failing to be a real philosopher.

When you fail to play the professional game, you’re AT MOST a “failed academic”. And to the great surprise of anyone telling or following The Tale of the Young Philosopher, this should not mean that your philosophical story is over.

“Failed academics” can be real philosophers, and we have some exceptionally good examples of this.

Obviously, this is not something “interesting” to be added to the official Tale of the Young Philosopher that is told to students, for professional philosophers need to be paid in order to make a living out of it, and presumably truly professional philosophers WOULDN’T do philosophy if they WEREN’T paid to do it and receive the social benefits of professional status.

But suppose that you’re a Young Philosopher who satisfies the following counterfactual criterion:

(**) I would still passionately study and do real philosophy as a lifelong project, to the best of my natural abilities, even if I weren’t paid to do it and receive professional social status benefits.

Then, why go to university to study philosophy if it only accidentally helps you become a real philosopher?

Moreover, the fallacious conflation of “failed professional academics” and “failed philosophers” is not so surprising coming from a group of individuals who typically dismiss their own history to the point of praising attitudes such as one placing on one’s office door the much-repeated Quinean saying that one need not (must not?) know history of philosophy in order to be a (real) philosopher.

Here’s a shocking suggestion: Perhaps we should pay more attention to our own history instead of spending countless hours in useless blogosphere bullshit?

Indeed, two great “failed academics” are deeply instructive examples of why failing at academia has nothing to do with failing at philosophy: Arthur Schopenhauer and Charles Sanders Peirce.

5. These are the crucial bits of Schopenhauer’s life, as described in the same-named article about his life and work in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

[With his masterpiece, The World as Will and Representation,] in hand, Schopenhauer applied for the opportunity to lecture at the University of Berlin, the institution at which he had formerly studied, and where two years earlier (1818), Hegel had arrived to assume Fichte’s prestigious philosophical chair. His experiences upon returning to Berlin were less than professionally fruitful, however, for in March of 1820, Schopenhauer daringly scheduled his class at a time that was simultaneous with Hegel’s popular lectures, and few students chose to hear Schopenhauer. Two years later, in 1822, he left his Berlin apartment near the University and travelled to Italy for a second time, returning to Munich a year later. He then lived in Mannheim and Dresden in 1824 before tracing his way back to Berlin in 1825. A second attempt to lecture at the University of Berlin was unsuccessful, and this disappointment was complicated by the loss of a lawsuit that had begun several years earlier in August, 1821. The dispute issued from an angry shoving-match between Schopenhauer and a 47-year-old seamstress, Caroline Luise Marguet (d. 1852), which occurred in the rooming house where they were both living. The issue concerned Ms. Marguet’s conversing loudly with her associates in the anteroom of Schopenhauer’s apartment, making it difficult for him to concentrate on his work. The conversations were apparently a matter of routine that built up Schopenhauer’s animosity, leading to the explosive confrontation.

Leaving Berlin in 1831 in light of a cholera epidemic that was entering Germany from Russia, Schopenhauer moved south, first briefly to Frankfurt-am-Main, and then to Mannheim. Shortly thereafter, in June of 1833, he settled permanently in Frankfurt, where he remained for the next twenty-seven years, residing in an apartment along the river Main’s waterfront from 1843 to 1859 at Schöne Aussicht 17. His daily life, living alone with a succession of pet French poodles (named Atma and Butz), was defined by a deliberate routine: Schopenhauer would awake, wash, read and study during the morning hours, play his flute, lunch at the Englisher Hof — an inn at the city center near the Hauptwache — rest afterwards, read, take an afternoon walk, check the world events as reported in The London Times, sometimes attend concerts in the evenings, and frequently read inspirational texts such as the Upanishads before going to sleep.

In short, Schopenhauer was a “failed academic,” par excellence.

In his 1851 essay “On University Philosophy,” Schopenhauer makes some exceedingly powerful and sharp criticisms of philosophy being taught at German universities in the nineteenth century, that are surprisingly parallel to the way we do philosophy at Anglo-American (and, increasingly, German and other continental European) universities in the twentieth-first century.

If one replaces the terms “theology” by “natural science” and “Hegelry” by “fetishized analytic logical rigor,” then one has a quite accurate picture of contemporary analytic university philosophy that was written almost two hundred years ago.

In his essay, Schopenhauer calls our attention to the dangers of treating philosophy as a means to earn one’s living.

While for most of us this might look like a good thing (after all, you can do what you love and still earn money by doing it), Schopenhauer could foresee the dangers of this practice.

As he correctly points out, treating philosophy as means to earn one’s living undermines the very core of philosophical reflection: it makes philosophy subject to something external to it, and accordingly, it undermines the radical freedom of thought that is characteristic of the discipline.

In Schopenhauer’s time, this was directly reflected in the way philosophy was subjected to the opinions of theologians and the Church. The pernicious state in which philosophy was found is then obvious: if one wants to earn money to teach philosophy, then one has to teach the kind of philosophy that conforms to the opinions of one’s employer.

This state of affairs also captures in a quite ironic way Plato’s harsh criticisms of the sophists.

Just like ancient sophists, in the 19th century and now again in the 20th and 21st centuries, university professors of philosophy are not fundamentally concerned with real philosophical reflection, but rather only with the kind of philosophical reflection that favors the established opinions of whoever pays them.

This is, I believe, symptomatic of the frequent attempts to sell philosophy as “the fine art of critical thinking.”

Although philosophical reflection requires critical thinking, philosophy is NOT merely critical thinking. Identifying premises, conclusions, and raising objections to them is not philosophical work per se. Virtually all human beings endowed with rationality are capable of doing that.

But then again, if you’re not willing to comply with such rules, then as a matter of necessity you are mocked and ignored by those who make their lives out of those rules.

You won’t be invited to important conferences, and if for some reason the ideas of “unconventional” philosophers come up along the way, there is always the post-conference bar to make fun of those people.

No one likes being the object of mockery, and of the all-too-familiar analytic philosopher’s “blank stare of incomprehension”; and what seems ridiculous to others is quite often dismissed without much further reflection.

That’s a very effective strategy to make outsiders even more outsiders. But it is in precisely this way that the professional community is built, and those concerned not with philosophy, but with making a living out of it, are taken to be real philosophers.

We are thus led to an almost universal situation in which one has to adapt philosophy to whatever is required to make a living out of it.

In our current professional academic condition, this is exemplified by the constantly failed attempts of professional academic philosophers to make philosophy into a “rigorous science,” strenge Wissenschaft.

If you can offer a “naturalist defense of x”, then you are already more than halfway through the process of achieving publication in a journal with high professional status.

Similarly, if you have nothing else interesting to say on a certain subject, you might just use formal tools to make a trivial point.

Fetishized logical analytic rigor, the LaTeX template, “Advice from MIT on How to Prepare a Writing Sample,” and APP’s very own “How to Write a Publishable Paper Without Even Having to Think,” will help you a long way in getting something in print without having to think much about it.

Your work will look SO specialized and SO smart that only other equally special and smart people will read it.

Then, even if it doesn’t make much sense, it is still “delightful” for some people to spend hours reading some intensely boring, soul-destroying stuff in order to recognize some utterly trivial point (aha!) and finally have the sense of belonging to an esoteric community of “rigorous” thinkers and speakers. And being paid for it! And having professional status!

What else would one want from one’s philosophical life?

You might still be thinking that all of this is a necessary evil to keep philosophy alive. In an age in which people need to work constantly to make a living, it would be simply naive and “stupid” to think that something as abstract as philosophy could survive outside the professional academic setting.

This may well be true, but it also has the very inconvenient and tragic consequence that real philosophers have to pay with their lives in order to keep the professional wheel running.

6. This is vividly exemplified by C. S. Peirce, who is arguably one of the most creative and intense philosophers of all times.

Here are the relevant bits of Peirce’s life, also taken from a same-named Stanford Encyclopedia article about his life and work:

From 1879 until 1884, Peirce maintained a … job teaching logic in the Department of Mathematics at Johns Hopkins University…. Peirce’s teaching job at Johns Hopkins was suddenly terminated for reasons that are apparently connected with the fact that Peirce’s second wife (Juliette Annette Froissy, a.k.a. Juliette Annette Pourtalai) was a Gypsy, moreover a Gypsy with whom Peirce had more or less openly cohabited before marriage and before his divorce from his first wife Zina. (In fact Peirce obtained his divorce from Zina only two days before marrying Juliette.) The Johns Hopkins position was Peirce’s only academic employment, and after losing it Peirce worked thereafter only for the U. S. Coast and Geodetic Survey (and constructing entries for the Century Dictionary) and writing book reviews for the Nation. The government employment came to an end the last day of 1891, ultimately because of funding objections to pure research (and perhaps also to Peirce’s extravagant spending and to his procrastination in finishing his required reports) that were generated in an ever-practical-minded Congress. Thereafter, Peirce often lived on the edge of penury, eking out a living doing intellectual odd-jobs (such as translating or writing occasional pieces) and carrying out consulting work (mainly in chemical engineering and analysis). For the remainder of his life, except for money inherited from his mother and aunt, Peirce was often in dire financial straits; sometimes he managed to survive only because of the overt or covert charity of relatives or friends, for example that of his old friend William James.

Like Schopenhauer, then, Peirce was a paradigmatic “failed academic” according to our contemporary standards.

True, Peirce was a very difficult person to deal with, because of his bohemian and anti-“genteel” way of life, and his quite unorthodox opinions; and admittedly, he was a somewhat unstable person, mainly because he suffered from neuralgia.

But he was also a brilliant scientist, philosopher and logician. If we take universities to be the place where knowledge is advanced, then Peirce had all the intellectual requisites required to be a very successful academic. Yet, he failed so miserably at this subject as, basically, to starve to death.

Peirce’s career had also been constantly promoted by his famous mathematician father, Benjamin Peirce, who was a very influential person at the time.

Sadly, this made Peirce a lot of enemies, who would later cause severe damages to his prospects of becoming a university professor. One of these enemies was Charles Eliot, a former student of Benjamin Peirce and president of Harvard, where Peirce tried to land a job.

Peirce was in constant conflict with Eliot, and most of the time this had to do with the fact that Peirce simply couldn’t meet the professional expectations imposed on him. Yet, this didn’t prevent him from doing the brilliant and influential work that we all know. The crucial thing was that, even despite being an exceptional philosopher and scientist, Peirce simply wasn’t a “safe” person to employ as a university professor, and this prevented him from landing and keeping a permanent academic job.

So, what decided Peirce’s fate as a professional academic philosopher was NOT his philosophical work, but only how “unsafe” it was to employ him as a professional academic.

Quite ironically, this is a piece of advice that Eliot took very seriously from Benjamin Peirce:

One day in my senior year, when Professor [Benjamin] Peirce had already acquired the habit of giving me the highest possible marks on all my notes of his lectures and on every exercise for which marks could be given, to the great concern of my competitor for the first place in the class […] — I graduated second — I ventured to say that what he had just been saying to us about functions and infinitesimal variables seemed to me to be theories or imaginations rather than facts or realities. Professor Peirce looked at me gravely, and remarked gently, “Eliot, your trouble is that your mind has a skeptical turn. Be on your guard against that tendency or it will hurt your career.” That was new light to me; for I had never thought at all about my own turns of mind. The diagnosis was correct. (J. Brent, Charles Sanders Peirce: A Life, p. 109)

7. There are several other important examples of marginal individuals who managed to become and be, and live, as serious, real philosophers outside professional academic philosophy: e.g., Edith Stein, Simone Weil, Simone de Beauvoir, Russell, Camus, and Sartre all come to mind.

The most ironic part of all of this is that one of the most successful human intellectual achievements, and what is more, what keeps universities alive today, that is, modern natural science, was born from a marginal intellectual movement that took place OUTSIDE medieval universities.

In fact, philosophy in universities is a very recent thing (Kant is arguably the first professor of professional academic philosophy as we now know it), and the same worries expressed at the beginning of this professional academic philosophical tradition by Schopenhauer are still deeply relevant to our own condition.

It is a quite strong conclusion to say that real philosophy doesn’t belong at universities, but a little bit of critical reflection on the history of philosophy will almost certainly yield a strong negative suspicion about whether we are doing the right thing.

As a modest proposal, perhaps some subversive “social networking” with the past of our own subject could do some genuine good for the contemporary profession of academic philosophy.

And here is a more radical thesis, drawn not from The Tale of the Young Philosopher, but rather from reflection on the philosophical life-histories of Schopenhauer, Peirce, Stein, Weil, de Beauvoir, Russell, Camus, Sartre, and others:

(***) As aspirational real philosophers, as real philosophers in-the-making, and as real philosophers of the future, we should all be actively working at once for real philosophy and against contemporary professional academic philosophy.



Mr Nemo, W, X, Y, & Z, Wednesday 17 January 2018

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Mr Nemo

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