What Is It Like to Be a Lost Generation Philosopher (Part 2)

[Continued from here.]

Getting back to personal stuff again if you don’t mind: what did your parents make of your decision to go into philosophy?

My mom had always encouraged me to find out and pursue what I was really interested in, but my dad wasn’t happy at all! He would have preferred I finish my geology degree, get an MBA, and follow his footsteps into business. But I remembered those evenings he fell asleep on the couch from exhaustion, and how he’d often complained about the pettiness of some of the people he worked with. I very much didn’t want to go that route, especially since I didn’t think it would work. I don’t have a good head for business. I tried a couple of sales jobs and struck out miserably.

You mentioned Thomas S. Kuhn? What other philosophers did you read when you were first starting out?

David Hume was the first major figure I read closely, in an undergraduate seminar. Took a philosophy of science course to study Kuhn formally instead of reading him on my own, and the professor introduced us to Paul Feyerabend, whose Against Method: Outline of an Anarchistic Theory of Knowledge electrified me more than Kuhn’s book had. My thoughts about Kuhn had become, ho-hum, what’s so controversial here? Isn’t what he saying obvious? Feyerabend was a lot more challenging to intellectual authoritarianism than Kuhn — he was debunking the logical abstractions philosophers were trying to impose on science and calling scientific method. He claimed they would have prevented the most important episodes in the history of science from ever happening, and made a compelling case. His claim is that no method covers everything we call science; that’s the “anarchy” here. It’s kind of a joke, actually, as he says himself; the rationalist predicament is that if you want a rule that always holds, it will have to be something as empty as “anything goes.” Feyerabend complained more bitterly than Kuhn that critics didn’t understand him. He went so far as to call them illiterates, which seemed a bit over the top at the time, but most professional philosophers have little in the way of a sense of humor, or of irony.

Anyone else?

A British philosopher of science, Nicholas Maxwell, came to my attention when I was working on my MA. He stressed the presupposition made by science that nature is intelligible, and sought to promote a methodology in which scientists presuppose, a priori, that the world is intelligible in the sense of structural simplicity, and seek to identify and refine the specific ways in which the subject matter in their discipline is intelligible and structurally simple so that Occam’s Razor really does work. Since this seemed closer to how real science made progress, I thought Maxwell might have had the best answer to Feyerabend and be the next step in reconstructing the philosophy of science in the wake of epistemological anarchism. I wrote my MA thesis based on this idea, but later realized that nearly every endeavor, not just science, works under the assumption of a minimum of stability, order, intelligibility, simplicity, and so on, so this wasn’t a satisfactory answer to Feyerabend’s challenge to the idea that science has a unique method for finding truth.

You wrote your dissertation on the Kuhn-Feyerabend incommensurability thesis, and you used the term earlier to describe theism versus atheism. What is incommensurability?

Not something talked about much today, unfortunately, since the problem never really was addressed in my opinion. The idea comes from mathematics. Rational and irrational numbers are mathematically incommensurable, because the former can be expressed in the form a/b and the latter can’t. Comparisons between them are therefore approximate, and can be made to whatever degree you want, but are never exact. Example: ∏ and 22/7, or the far more exact ∏ and 3.14159 … non-ending and nonrepeating. Incommensurability can similarly hold between conceptual systems, vocabularies, cultural systems as systems of habits, and worldviews. We get the same inexactitude. Incommensurable systems can’t be reduced to one another or shoehorned inside a larger vocabulary or method with the conceptual machinery of both intact. I tried to argue that the phenomenon was not the threat to either scientific realism or rationality that it had been made out to be, if we don’t define these in formal terms. Kuhn’s eventual version of the thesis, which he had articulated by the time I was writing about this in the mid-80s, was that it was restricted to a few core postulates or propositions designating concepts not shared, so that when one theory replaces another, these postulates or propositions are not explained, or subsumed, they simply drop out of the vocabulary, like phlogiston did from chemistry, or élan vital from biology. The terms, viewed as referring in the old paradigm, are no longer seen as such, and so are no longer used. The pragmatics are relatively straightforward. But there is no “logical” means of convincing someone to drop a term or idea from across an incommensurable divide, since the very standards one needs to convince them are bound to the new system. As Kuhn says somewhere in Structure, there is no logical method of convincing the unconvinced to step inside the circle. But those who insist on defending an “old” paradigm end up written out of the discipline as it moves on, as was Joseph Priestley who defended the phlogiston theory of combustion for the rest of his life.

You’d worked this out in your dissertation?

Most of it.

Should have been a good launching pad for an academic career. Let’s talk about that, or what there was of it. How did you land your first teaching job?

It wasn’t on my own. If anybody actually does that, how they do it is a mystery to me. A professor in my graduate program knew a professor going on sabbatical for a semester at a university up the road, as it were, and had me send that department my CV. I interviewed for and got a job no one else knew about.

How long were you there?

A year. My first two jobs lasted one year each. Then I was out of work for a semester, part-time for a semester, then full-time for the next five years but still not on a path to tenure.

You never landed a tenure-track job?

No, and not through lack of trying. All those early years, I sent out over a hundred applications per year.

Did you get any interviews?

One, the first year out. Again, through a personal contact. Three, I think, the next year; and five the year after that. After that the interviews were just sporadic, and again it was usually because somebody who knew me knew somebody. It’s definitely true that it’s not what you know but who you know. And coming from the right graduate program, somewhere highly ranked, which I didn’t do. There was no Philosophy Gourmet Report in those days, either, if that matters. Academia, I like to say, is not a meritocracy or anything close. The more years you’re on the job market without finding a tenure-track job, the more it hurts you even if you’re building up teaching experience and even if you’re publishing in refereed journals. I think search committees conclude there must be something wrong with you, that you couldn’t keep a job. If they have over a hundred applications to go through, they’re looking for excuses to put yours in the slush pile where it never gets looked at again. You can publish and still perish, therefore.

You were writing articles in graduate school.

That’s right. My first published article was based on a chapter of my MA thesis, on one of Feyerabend’s ideas. It came out in ‘84 in a European journal called Inquiry, three years before I had my Ph.D. It proved important enough that someone wrote a discussion article of it. I replied, and that was my second academic refereed journal publication. Then I got a third, based on a conference presentation. A fourth came out right after I got the Ph.D. and when I had that first job. I had something like eight after three years out on the job market, and nearly always had something out to a journal. Naively, I thought this sort of thing would help my career.

And you don’t think it did.

Search committees have to read your CV first — not just three letters of recommendation from people they never heard of before.

What was the high point of your career?

The three years I spent at Auburn University teaching mainly logic — occasionally ethics, and once, philosophy of mind which I steered towards AI. Auburn had serious degree programs in schools like engineering, and for them logic was a required subject. Those students were damned smart! A lot of them were a joy to teach! I was very motivated during that period. During my four years there total — one of my one year jobs before had been in that department — I published a total of seven articles and review essays in refereed journals I can think of off the top of my head, and had the manuscript of my first book accepted by a publisher.

Was there an effort to get you on a tenure line?

Yes, but it failed. According to university bylaws I had to leave after four years of full-time work: after five years I would have de facto tenure, they called it, which took the tenure decision out of the hands of the department. They didn’t want that. I never saw any such system elsewhere, and I suppose whoever came up with that thought they were doing us some kind of favor, not putting us out of work. That’s what happens when bureaucrats make rules up on high. I didn’t have the unanimous support it would have taken to get on a tenure track and be put up for tenure before the end of that fourth year. So after that fourth year I was history.

You found another job, though.

Yes, right away, but I went from a place with those strong technical programs to a “flagship” state university with all but open admissions, tons of students on academic probation, a lot of them in remedial courses. The University of South Carolina at Columbia. It was culture shock. I went from classes of around 30 students, around seven of whom made A’s on average, A’s they’d earned, to classes of around 80 students in which only four or five did well enough to make an A without rampant grade inflation, and where a lot of students thought they were entitled to good grades just for showing up. There were some who had attitudes that said, “Teach me something, I dare you.” I’d say about a third shouldn’t have been in college at all. A lot of what went on in classrooms there amounted to little more than crowd control. There were no remedial courses in my subject, and I cut large pieces out of it anyway since they weren’t teachable to those students. One formal logic course I’d taught at Auburn went all the way through proofs in predicate logic using three-place relations. I’d never have been able to do that at USC. As it was, I had many bad experiences there with defiant students arguing over grades; I didn’t always handle them that well, and that hurt me with what really counts if you don’t have tenure: student evaluations. Plus I published a book that skewered one of academia’s the sacred cows. I wasn’t rehired for a third year, and found myself wishing I’d simply resigned.

You’re referring to your book on affirmative action?

Yeah, that one. Civil Wrongs was its name, and it came out in ‘94. It gave me my Warholian 15 minutes, as I was on talk radio quite a few times talking about it, and had several requests for spin-off articles based on it. I also had invitations to speak to off-campus groups and made some friendships I still have.

But you got no job offers?

No. That was when the interviews for academic jobs dried up. Imagine that. After that book came out I had two interviews for tenure-track teaching jobs. Two.

Low point of your career?

Learning the circumstances of my departure from Auburn, that one person had opposed my bid for tenurability — one person who had not identified himself, and gotten away with it. I was unemployed for six months, and then got a temp job in a state government office, doing typing, filing, stuff like that. Ridiculous underemployment. For a while I wasn’t even sending out applications, though. It probably sounds like whining, but there is a lot of professional jealousy in academic philosophy. I’d heard about, and sometimes met, other victims of that sort of thing. As much as I’d wanted to avoid the kind of pettiness my dad had seen, philosopher professors worried about someone encroaching on their territory are magnitudes worse — probably because so many of them with tenure do very little of value, and every one of them, in their heart of hearts, damned well knows it. This guy saw a chance to eliminate a threat, and he took it.

If you could go back in time and give yourself advice then, what would it be?

Some of what I said at the beginning [see Part 1]. I wouldn’t go anywhere near the humanities today. Never mind the anomalies, stick with the sciences, although I’ve heard that realistic employment prospects are no better in the hard sciences. If you just have to study philosophy, either get into an Ivy League doctoral program or keep it as a hobby. And then don’t get sidetracked.


About Steven Yates

I have a Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Georgia and teach Critical Thinking (mostly in English) at Universidad Nacionale Andrés Bello in Santiago, Chile. I moved here in 2012 from South Carolina. My most recent book is entitled Four Cardinal Errors: Reasons for the Decline of the American Republic (2011). I am the author of an earlier book, around two dozen articles & reviews, & still more articles on commentary sites on the Web. I live in Santiago with my wife Gisela & two spoiled cats, Bo & Princesa.
This entry was posted in Academia, Christian Worldview, Higher Education Generally, Libertarianism, Philosophy, Philosophy of Science, Political Economy, Political Philosophy, Where Is Philosophy Going? and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to What Is It Like to Be a Lost Generation Philosopher (Part 2)

  1. Pingback: What Is It Like to Be a Lost Generation Philosopher (Part 3) | Lost Generation Philosopher

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