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Posts Tagged ‘Continental philosohy

No, Really: What does a Philosopher do?

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When Adjuncts Escape

Helen De Cruz has done a fascinating and very readable series of blog posts (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3) tracking the migration of philosophical thinking from academia into the rest of life. As low-paid, temporary workers (that is, “contingent faculty” or “adjuncts”) take over more and more university teaching duties (50% of all faculty hold part-time appointments); smart, degreed people are also starting to find their way out of this system that rewards increasingly narrowed focus with low pay and a kick in the butt at the end of the semester.

Ms. De Cruz has a number of excellent interactions with her sample of former academics (at least one of whom left a tenured position!). I love that Ms. De Cruz named transferable skills. What would a philosophy Ph.D. bring to a start-up? Or a tech position? The answers she arrives at may surprise you.

Why the Nichols Station Apartments look different.

Why the Nichols Station Apartments look different.

I’ve always felt we carry our interests and passions and skills with us, from this class to that job to this project to that collaboration. And thus we form a life of work. Possibly we produce a body of work. We once called this a “career,” but that word has overtones of climbing some institutional ladder. I think we’re starting to see more willingness to make your own way—much like Seth Godin described his 30 years of projects.

The notion of “career” is very much in flux.

And that is a good thing.

Of particular interest to me was the discussion Ms. De Cruz had with Eric Kaplan. Mr. Kaplan found his way out of studying phenomenology (and philosophy of language with advisor John Searle!) at Columbia and UC Berkeley to writing television comedy (Letterman, Flight of the Conchords, and Big Bang Theory, among others). If you’ve watched any of these, it’s likely you’ve witnessed some of the things a philosophical bent does out loud: ask obvious questions and produce not-so-obvious answers. And that’s when the funny starts. It’s this hidden machinery that will drive the really interesting stuff in a number of industries.

Our colleges and universities are beginning to do an excellent job dispersing talent. That thoughtful diaspora will only grow as time pitches forward.


Image credit: Kirk Livingston

When Did I Learn People Don’t Matter?

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Jesus and Mr. Levinas show a different way


I’m scanning back through my childhood to remember when it was I picked up this notion that people don’t matter. I cannot blame my parents or my early religious communities or the packs of feral boys I ran with. It wasn’t at Riley Elementary School, and certainly not from my first grade teacher Mrs. Buck.

But somewhere along the line I got in my mind that I could turn and walk away from people and relationships. Somewhere I learned a kind of arrogance that made me think I alone knew what was right, had all the answers, knew the best way. This thinking meant I didn’t need to listen, though sometimes I could condescend to pretend interest. Looking back, it’s hard to imagine why I ever thought this way.

Maybe it’s our get-the-checklist-done culture. Maybe it was the arrogance of my 18-year-old self who knew everything without the slightest inkling how wide the world was. And yet that arrogance persists in the odd niche and behind unopened doors in my life.

I’ve taken to dwelling with a dead philosopher whose writing remains quite lively to me. Emmanuel Levinas is not the model of clarity, but even in his glorious obscurity he says things that make me pause. I recently asked [the long dead] Mr. Levinas to comment on that inaugural address Jesus delivered up on the mountaintop. Mr. Levinas, not exactly a Jesus-follower though he respected the Torah, has a lot to say about the intrinsic worth of people and even hints that others have authority over us in the sense that we owe them attention. From the get-go.

I started to find a lot of agreement between Mr. Levinas and Jesus. Mr. Levinas insisted on the priority that the Other holds in our lives. Jesus reframed the Old Testament law by putting treatment of people up near the top of what it means to be right with God. For instance: Jesus talked about forgiving, even loving, as the alternative to getting even. This has huge implications. Not because we have so many enemies, but because we naturally harbor and nourish each slight done to us.

My philosopher friends from the Analytic tradition (most of the philosophers in this country, judging by the academic programs available), get all twitchy when I mention the Continental tradition of philosophy, which is where Mr. Levinas hangs out. Analytics have a lot of suspicion about how Continentals assemble their arguments. And lots of smart people think Mr. Levinas goes too far. But I think not. In fact there is something in Mr. Levinas that brings Jesus’ inaugural speech back in focus for me.

Mr. Levinas is helping me reconsider the notion that Jesus was not speaking hyperbole. That he really wanted his listeners to give priority to others—even those who had hurt them. This is revolutionary stuff and not at all easy. And it must be understood in the larger context of Jesus’ inaugural address and the way he walked it out later.


Giving people priority in our lives is neither a recipe for madness nor sycophancy. In fact it may be at the heart of our humaneness and our mental health.


Image credit: John Kenn via 2headedsnake

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