Academy Advice/Existential Horror


Two posts and resulting responses over at Larval Subjects have convinced me to do a pragmatic post.  While I generally try and avoid anything relating to normal existence I am concerned about applying to Phd programs in the US.

Basically, based on what I have read and heard about philosophy PhD programs in the US, it seems that it is not sensible to attempt to do continental philosophy within philosophy programs but only within the humanities.

Any experiences or any advice anyone has would be greatly appreciated

15 Responses to “Academy Advice/Existential Horror”

  1. 1 Alexei

    Hi Ben,

    I Just wanted to share a few thoughts with you on the subject, since deciding on where to apply and where to go can be really nerve racking. Anyway, everything I’m going to say is pretty pragmatic, based on my experiences, as well as that of my friends (which range form 1st year MAs to graduated PhDs). All this said, take everything I say with a grain of salt. The only expert on your particular situation is you, and you need to evaluate stuff form where you stand, and from there only.

    So, this said, my first bit of advice is this: only do a graduate degree if you are passionate about the discipline in general, are disciplined, and have staying power. Finishing a degree is equal parts love and sheer determination to keep your ass in a seat working on one thing for a long time. It’s just not enough to be passionate about one thing in philosophy (such passions inevitably fade, and who knows what will replace it). You really need to care about philosophy in general, and persevere when that love dies off for a moment as you learn new stuff, and your positions on particular issues change. You will fall out of love with philosophy, but you will fall for it again if you keep working. When all is said and done, philosophy is still about wonder (and disappointment, about the toughness to sit down and figure out why things we are invested in fail), and if you’re closed off to one, it’s really difficult to manage the 4-10 years it takes to get a PhD. Unless you love it, a PhD is a jail sentence.

    But that aside, I think it’s a terrible idea to pursue philosophy outside of philosophy departments. Although some people trained in philosophy settle into other departments, although the work these people do is excellent, and although there may be a number of classes in such a dept that interest you, the general orientation to theoretical questions, and to argument is so radically different in such academic spaces that the kind of education you’re likely to receive will not match your expectations. If you’re into analyzing arguments, ‘taking apart’ and ‘putting back together’ thought, extending it and developing it in consistent rigorous ways, then these programs are not likely to be very stimulating (and this has absolutely nothing to do with the quality of the profs, but with the way that the profs have to manage a different notion of teaching, disciplinarity, and student expectation). So I would strongly advise you not to consider comp lit programs or ‘theory’ programs — especially to do Doctoral wok; there may be some reason to do a terminal MA in such a program, but ultimately even that’s a gamble. Once you leave a philosophy dept, it’s really difficult to get back in. It’s sad, but disciplinary boundaries are still dogmatically policed (witness the still enforced analytic/continental dispute, which is nothing other than a form of protectionism).

    More pragmatically, though, if you enter an interdisciplinary program (or Some other program in the Humanities more generally — like German or comp lit) to do philosophy, you’re really making your future life very difficult. I’ve friends who’ve done PhDs in such programs, and the consensus is that no Modern Language dept (English, French, Spanish, German, Comp Lit) is likely to hire you, afterwards (the worst academic job market in the world right now is probably comp lit; where these depts still exist they are mostly populated by folks with degrees in some national literature, rather than with comp lit degrees, so it’s almost like professional suicide to even think about comp lit. Unless of course — and this makes all the difference — you are passionate about comp lit; there’s no other reason to do a grad degree, especially given ‘marketability etc.). Philosophy departments are even worse in this respect. I know of no individual who has a primary appointment in a philosophy dept who does not have a philosophy PhD. Nor do I know of any sessional workers etc. Again, if a job in the academe is an issue for you, then it’s important to figure out what kind of work you want to do (I’ve already mentioned com lit, but Modern languages Generally are abysmal. You must love literature to go into them, and forget about ever getting a relatively secure position, afterward)

    So, although it’s possible to make a home for yourself, say, in a german dept. or a political theory dept, it is for all intents and purposes impossible to go from one of them to a philosophy dept. Long story short, think hard before accepting any offer from a non-philosophy dept. if your love is philosophy.

    The Second major point, which follows form the preamble I suppose, is that you shouldn’t worry too much about analytic/continental differences. There are places that you absolutely don’t want to be, but there’s no a priori way to figure this out (For example, Paul Franks, at the University of Toronto is amazing on Post-Kantian philosophy, and very sympathetic to ‘contintental philosophy more generally, but he is ‘analytic’). The best way to figure out what a grad program is like is to email the students there. Do this — a lot. Ask them how certain kinds of work would be received, ask them what they think of the dept. The more folks you email the more accurate a view you’ll have, and I guarantee folks will respond. Email the profs that interest you too. Ask them whether they or someone they know is interested on work being done on Schelling today (and when they answer, ask them more questions, like how many PhD candidates they supervise, and then send them a proposal of study, or a writing sample. This is crucial). Again, because the PhD process is so long, you need to think more about general features of education, mentoring, funding, breadth and depth of the philosophical dept, than about what you’re super keen on right now. Most PhD programs require you to take between 10 and 20 1-semester courses, before you’re even allowed to think of a dissertation topic. If the dept is good for what you’re interested in, but doesn’t offer interesting course, you’re not going to make it to the dissertation; If all they offer are courses in your specific interest right now, you’re going to be burnt out by the time you finish them all (it’s like being forced to smoke a carton of cigarettes in one sitting) What you need to think about is how knowledgeable in general you want to be about your discipline. Being too narrow is a great way to burn out, or end up spinning your wheels.

    Now, about going to Europe. This is tricky if ever you want to come back to North America. Since most institutions don’t offer american-style degrees (what they call taught degrees, and which are pretty exclusively terminal MA programs), you’re likely to come out — after 3 years of working only on a PhD dissertation — with nothing more than this area of specialization. It makes it difficult to come back, since no one really knows what you’re competent to teach. There are exceptions, of course, and I would highly — very highly — recommend going to Europe for a terminal MA, and then coming back to North America for a PhD. In fact, if you wanted to do an MA on Schelling, the place to be is here. Both Wolfram Hoegrebe and Markus Gabriel are there. The former has written the best stuff on Schelling I know, the latter is young, energetic, and fun. He’s also written some pretty cool stuff on Schelling (mostly on the Mythology stuff form the later years) — and you’ll learn German, which you’ll need anyway; plus tuition and fees is stupid cheap in Germany — 200 and maybe 1,000 Euros a semester, with two or three semesters a year — and you should be able to write your thesis in English (though you might want to check whether Bonn is a well-respected school in general; I only know those two guys).

    That’s about all I can think off, really. One last thing, maybe. finishing a PhD is a lot like getting a driver’s license. It entitles you to do certain things — but it doesn’t make you good at them, and it certainly doesn’t make you a race-car driver. Once you accept a grad-school offer, your life will become a an unending sequence of ‘learned competences.’ And this is what you need to base your decisions on. Simply put, What kind of basic, learned competences do you want? Do you want to be able to drive stick, or is automatic good enough? Do you want to be comfortable on the Autobahn, or shall stick to the backroads? Everything else is smoke and mirrors. Writing with flair and style, for example, is a wonderful talent, but it shouldn’t be your primary focus yet. First comes the ability to write clearly, to argue rigorously, and to analyze and reconstruct ideas in a way that makes sense to others. After you’ve gained these competences, you can be fancy. But you can’t get it all at once — and you can’t expect a philosophy program to teach you how to write well (that you need to teach yourself in your spare time). So forget the analytic/continental thing (especially if it hinges on a particular style of presentation or set of problems — that’s an outdated model), and find people who are sympathetic to your interests, but whose abilities and expertise aren’t exhuasted by them.

    You’re about to begin a marathon that will last for the rest of your life: you will read and think about philosophy each day for the remainder of your existence, and the most important thing I can say is that you should always keep that in mind. If that’s terrifying, if that’s a commitment you can’t make, if you can’t accept what comes along with it, then you need to think twice about going to grad school (at least at this moment in your life). If you can enthusiastically commit to the idea of reading and arguing (but crucially not of being right or proving others wrong), of living in substandard apartments, and having crappy jobs in dead end parts of the world, and having little else but books, a few friends, and a lot of tribulations, then go to grad school in philosophy. If you can commit entirely, everything will simply become a momentary muscle cramp. You just need to keep running, which — fingers crossed — gives you pleasure, and makes you wonder.

  2. 2 Nate

    I want to second Alexei’s advice about going to other programs than philosophy. Don’t do it. I went to grad school in a comp lit program that does pretty much entirely theory and found that habits from my philosophy BA caused problems – the ways of thinking and posing questions were very different as were the expectations. Different, but never in a clearly articulated way and it took me quite a while to realize that it was a disciplinary difference I was having and not just me being a misfit. I spoke at length about this as it was happening with two friends who were doing PhDs in philosophy departments at other universities and who were very familiar with the comp lit programs at their universities, they helped me see that it was a mismatch between philosophy and comp lit that had me down. In the end I left that department and have little to show for it.

    Three other things – you may know this already and if so I apologize, but – – if at all possible get a friend who got into a PhD to look over your written application materials, and get a prof you’re close to do the same. They can help you get a clearer sense of how to best jump through the application hoops, having been through this previously.

    Second thing – when you get offers, read them closely. Go where the money is best unless you have REALLY REALLY compelling reasons to do otherwise (like say the grad students there tell you they hate it and want to die).

    Third, don’t go to graduate school unless you like teaching or think you will like teaching. Unless you’re incredibly lucky, you’ll be doing a fair bit of teaching in school and a lot after you’re done. If you don’t like to teach you will hate a lot about your life for a really long time. I happen to love teaching (it’s the reading and writing that I struggle with), it’s why I’m in grad school, but I’ve got colleagues who are quite miserable because they don’t like to teach and it’s a major responsibility for grad students where I go.


  3. 3 kvond

    Ask yourself: Are my professors happy? I mean, are they happy *persons*?

  4. 4 michaeloneillburns

    Lots of good advice already.

    All I’d really want to add is that if you absolutely want to do a PhD in philosophy, but also wanted to be some place with a big continental focus, it’s really worth considering heading to Europe, and specifically the UK. I know the argument here is “if you do a UK phd, you’ll never get a US job”. First of all, it does happen, so it’s not impossible. Also, I was recently eating dinner with a tenured professor from a philosophy department in the states and sharing with him my fears about being forever stuck in the UK if I want an academic job, and how I was toying with the idea of finishing my PhD in the states, and this professor said something like “well, at this point, you likely wouldn’t get a job in the US even with a US PhD, so at least you’re somewhere that you’re happy and doing the research you’re passionate about.”

    Also, it’s worth noting that in certain UK PhD programs there are teaching opportunities, you can audit MA modules, and most people don’t actually do them in 3 years, so you usually end up with about 4 years of time in the PhD program, which is plenty of time to write a good thesis, and hopefully some articles/essays in other areas, while doing some teaching.

    All of that said, if DePaul/Villanova/Stony Brook was going to offer me a full tuition scholarship for a PhD, I’d damn well take it. But, because there is about a 1/100 chance of all that, it’s worth at least considering options on foreign soil.

    Good luck man.

  5. Because this is good advice, I will add something I just came across that is less practical, obviously arguable, but hopefully not less helpful! : “We do not argue the universe, we express it. And philosophy does not express it. The real problems begin only after having ranged or exhausted it; after the last chapter of a huge tome which prints the final period as an abdication before the Unknown, in which all of our moments are rooted and with which we must struggle because it is naturally more immediate, more important than our daily bread. Here the philosopher leaves us: enemy of disaster, he is sane as reason itself, and as prudent. And we remain in the company of an old plague victim, of a poet learned in every lunacy, and of a musician whose sublimity transcends the sphere of the heart. We begin to live authentically only where philosophy ends, at its wreck, when we have understood its terrible nullity, when we have understood that it was futile to resort to it, that it is no help.–Cioran

    So here’s to exhaustion, shipwreck!

    • 6 Ben Woodard

      Great quote – do you know what text in particular it is from?

      My only concern with sentiment like this is that it can lead to pure hermeneutic approaches to philosophy – nothing but picking over the bones of the dead where we should carry the putresence of philosophy with us into we collapse under it and add to its rotting bulk – philosophy becomes another means towards death.

  6. It’s from Cioran’s Short History of Decay, pp.47-8 in the Howard translation.

    Yes. Which I think means one must distinguish between a real post-philosophy (putrescence) and a merely belated- or after-philosophy (hermeneutic in the thinner sense of explication/preservation), decay vs. embalming. Here we could place in parallel contrast, in reverse order, Gadamerian or Levinasian hermeneutics against Reza’s concept of hidden writings (Cyclonopedia), though the boundary between them is hardly distinct. Ciroan is with you, but in a pessimist-romantic way that must still talk about decay as failure, when instead ‘putrescence of philosophy’ is precisely philosophy’s aim, the hastening of its own rot, the production of the death of the philosopher (which is much much more than his perishing of course). And I do have a problem of course with philosophy’s disciplinary fetishism of “the argument.” Something that attracts me about the speculative realist impulse is its ungrounding of argument as such.

  7. 8 kvond

    Nicola: ” And I do have a problem of course with philosophy’s disciplinary fetishism of “the argument.” ”

    Kvond: Interesting choice of words. One wonders if you, or others, would have a problem with THIS fetish, or all fetishes? For instance in any romance of pessimism, “rot” or “decay” itself works in a highly fetishistic fashion. In fact it stands can be an extraordinary signifier stand-in for what is taken to be complete.

    On the opposite side of the coin, this is what I find as least satisfying about the usual philosophical concern for death, decay and absence. It is its fetish in the Fruedian sense, without an appreciation of the fetish in the African sense (if we can put it that way).

  8. A welcome point and question. I think I have a problem with all fetishism, in the sense of a relation to an object that goes to maintain some form of unconsciousness, that actively inhibits some dimension of self-knowledge, that amount to some kind of dishonesty. In the case of the argument as fetish, this would correspond, for example, to the presentation of argument as motive-free, answerable only in its own terms, etc.

    About death as philosophical fetish, certainly, particularly insofar as the maintaining of death as a *topic* of philosophy stands in for actually learning to die (dice mori).

    Personally, I find birth to be a more looming philosophical problem, but perhaps it is the same isse.

  9. woops, in case you thought I was doing something really cryptic, isse->issue!

  10. 11 kvond

    Nicola: “About death as philosophical fetish, certainly, particularly insofar as the maintaining of death as a *topic* of philosophy stands in for actually learning to die (dice mori).”

    Kvond: But further, the decay and putrescence become fetishized to an extraordinary degree. What does mean to “remain in the company of the old plague victim” if we are not taking illness as a fetish?

    • 12 Ben Woodard

      I think part of this is trying to break through poeticized death, through Blanchot, Heidegger and others towards the real and reality of death – fetishism is a risk running towards that

      • 13 kvond

        Yes. But we have to then ask, What gives the priority to the non-poeticized death/decay?

        It seems to me that we must Africanize the poet’s trope, turn it into a material talisman that we ourselves worked to create, make it that kind of turn-key, that kind of fetish. One can neither blanche it into a concept, purged of its imagery, nor indulge merely in its associative, evocative sweetness.

        Its hard to say what the “proper” response to death is, but it certainly seems the case that “decay” poses fetishistic tendencies complementary to “argument”.

  11. Cioran is linking the plague victim, the poet, and the musician as companions who remain with us through the disaster of existence, “after” the nullity of philosophy (as answer, way out, wisdom) has been proven. Next to the actual moment that *is* our being, he sees philosophy as a mirage, as the passage continues: “The great systems are actually no more than brilliant tautologies. What advantage is it to know that the nature of being consists in ‘the will to live,’ in ‘idea,’ or in the whim of God or of Chemistry? . . . What *is* loathes the verbal embrace . . . We are engulfed in a pleonastic universe, in which the questions and answers amount to the same thing.”
    His argument of course is with everything.

  12. 15 tV

    You might want to consider the Philosophy Department at McGill University, if you wish to remain in North America.

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