By Jon Cogburn
I know why lawyers are unhappy. You have to be pretty smart to get through law school and then the job is mostly unrelenting drudgery sometimes percolated with backstabbing your colleagues on the way to the top. I know why neurosurgeons are unhappy. Human beings are not built for medical school and residency and, when it comes to brain damage, there are very few happy endings. I know why police officers and prison guards are unhappy. Being the sharp end of Leviathon's stick is not conducive to flourishing. I know why classical musicians are unhappy. Like lawyers, you have to have a lot on the ball to get the gig, but then it's aesthetic drudgery, serving at the whims of a dictatorial director.
But why are tenured philosophy professors unhappy? It doesn't make very much sense. The job security is pretty good. The pay's not horrible. You have more control over your time and physical space than most other victims of late capitalism. Objectively speaking, your colleagues are less irritating than when you worked at that large retail store in high school. There are always some great students. And, if you are not a total bum, you get an hour or two each day doing what you claim to love. Why the unhappiness? Why so much alcoholism? Why are so many of us taking prescription happy pills?
I might be wrong about the relative distribution of unhappiness. In any case independent of the statistics, one can still inquire into the causes of philosophy professor unhappiness. Here are some hypotheses:
- Decompression Sickness - According to Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Kierkegaard said that anxiety is the dizziness of freedom. While it's clear from this that Kierkegaard did not have a panic disorder, there is something to it. Up to the point of tenure, academics are relentlessly pushed by external forces. If you don't jump through some very high hoops (and get very lucky) you are out on your ear. With tenure all of that pressure is suddenly lifted and people have to find out what's really important to them. This is strangely the opposite of the way that terminal disease gives life meaning. With terminal diseases people are intensely aware of the finite amount of time left and how their choices affirm values. Awareness of lack of freedom somehow increases the awareness of freedom. But tenure is the opposite, an amorphous blob in which people lose themselves. I think that some realize that they really don't like philosophy that much any more. It wasn't initially a calling after all, but rather academia was more like an aspirational lifestyle that became a forced march. When you don't have to keep marching you suddenly have to wonder who this person is twenty or so years after they took that first intro class. How could they have known at that point whether it really was a calling or not? In any case, I think that the loss of self when the external pressure is removed is actually traumatizing for some people.
- Social Stigma - We usually go along with the jokes at our expense, trying to correct Marco Rubio type idiocy when we can without being killjoys. But it's actually not at all fun being a socially acceptable punchline. About half of the population thinks what we teach is at best a waste of time and their tax dollars. At worst we are practicing some kind of harmful indoctrination. If you are a philosophy professor then your family members who watch Fox News routinely treat you like your more rednecky family members treat Cousin Ernie's black girlfriend at the Christmas party. Even when well intentioned (to be fair, it almost always is) it's a drag. And strangers are not so well intentioned. And this stigma reaches into the academy itself. We aren't STEM. We don't bring in grants. We have to scrape and beg just to get someone to cover our ethics classes.
- The Impossibility of Doing a Good Job - At most universities nobody can be stellar at teaching, service, and research. So the vast majority of us are always failing at something, not bad enough to get canned (else decompression sickness wouldn't be an issue), but bad enough to feel guilty. If you put more time into research, then you are free riding off of your colleague's willingness to do the awful, submental make-work (assessment, strategic planning, etc.) coming down administration, who are responding to incompetent accreditors, governmental bodies and the strange logic of the management myth. If, on the other hand, you help carry the department in this way, it will fill up your brain and time with nonsense and eat into your research. And the metrics by which "good teaching" are measured don't have much to do with good teaching. Basically, for most of us, there's always a stick to beat ourselves with.
- The Hours - It's great to have control over your own time, but when you're putting sixty to eighty hours a week in there's not that much time to go around. And the extent to which you don't put that time in just makes problem #3 worse.
- Nobody Cares - If a couple of hundred people read this blog post (optimistic), that will be more than have read several papers that it's taken me years to write. I've tried to reason my way out of this before (e.g. here, here, and more lengthy treatment I can't find on google). It is something that the overwhelming majority of us have to reason our ways out of. Writing is intrinsically social, and it's a lot of work to get anything published. But then nobody shows up.
- Dialectics - The whole process of making progress by disproving bad philosophies means that to the extent that anything you do or say does get noticed, it's going to be attacked.
- Truth Schmooth - Truth is wonderful, but pursuing it monomaniacly might crowd out the prospects of having a proper relation to beauty and goodness. Philosophy professors tend to be rude and dress badly. These might just be symptoms of a deeper spiritual rot. I don't know.
- I'll Show You Unhappiness! - Google "first world problems" and then google "academic job crisis" or "adjunctification." Basically, tenured professors have no right to complain. But, on the other hand, maybe not having a right to unhappiness maybe sometimes increases unhappiness?
Those are the only eight that I can think of.
I haven't considered the extent to which philosophy attracts unhappy people in the first place. I mean, well watered houseplants don't have any need of philosophy. They (I imagine) are just happy photosynthesizing. I think that philosophy, like other creative endeavors and certain forms of religion, attracts people who experience the brokenness of the world and the self yet also have experience of the numinous (truth, beauty, goodness), experience that partially transcend the all encompassing brokenness. But meaningful unhappiness just is the experience of brokenness. I wish it were the case that unhappy tenured philosophy professors were, through their unhappiness, bearing witness to this brokenness. But, as is appropriate to philosophy, it's more meta than that, instead of bearing witness to the brokenness of the world, bearing witness to the vanity of twenty or so years of trying to transcend that brokenness. There is a kind of wisdom here I think, one that needn't lead to despair. But perhaps it is something manifest in action rather than cognized and argued about.