I recently graduated with a Master of Arts degree in philosophy. The grade I received allows me to go on further and study a PhD course at a prestigious institution, and pursue an academic career in an intellectually demanding course, inevitably surrounding myself with smart people and smart conversation.
Hell, I could even become a doctor able to aid those with existential grievances. Just don’t expect me to be the kind of doctor who can, you know, actually cure you...
But instead, I am working a gruelling warehouse job on the weekends, involving two consecutive 12-hour shifts, and waking up in the freezing winter morning at 4:30 am, arriving home at 6:30 pm ready to do it all again the day after.
And you know what? I would much rather do this than pursue an academic career at Oxford or Cambridge.
Most people would think I have gone mad to turn down an opportunity of a lifetime. But for those who have delved so far as the surface of academia, it should come as no surprise.
Particularly in the modern-day where information is more accessible than ever before, there exists a genuine disillusionment with academia across the board.
Though I can speak confidently about that in philosophy, I am sure it happens with other subjects too. I've had the pleasure of speakings with many PhD students who have felt that they were unable to explore their genuine passions and convince others of them.
But it is not philosophy, the subject, that I am disillusioned with. It is a subject that has been and always will be dear to my heart; one that fundamentally encourages people to think critically and independently, challenge dogma and authorities, and articulate complex information with ease.
My contention is mostly with how academic philosophy is conducted. Whether that be the ostensible priority of following tradition over innovation, or the fact that though academia is often advertised as an intrinsically valuable road to discovering absolute truths about the world, it is very evidently a business churning profit.
My bachelor's degree was also in philosophy, and I thoroughly enjoyed the course. My university allowed students to flexibly choose modules, so there weren’t any core modules I necessarily ‘had’ to study.
I could choose whatever subjects I wanted, which is fitting for a course like philosophy - a pursuit encompassing a wide range of diffuse subjects like metaphysics, ethics, epistemology, etc.
My problems began when I went on to study for a Masters degree. I was one of those lucky few who received a scholarship, so I often felt that whenever I had a grievance about my course, I would be ungrateful to complain about it.
But knowing others paid a good amount of money to study the course, it made me think that most of the course was significantly overvalued for an £8,000 price mark.
That's a price not specific to my university, but the average price across the board for a Master’s degree in the UK.
Not only that, but academia still very much remained an option for those who can afford it despite the possibility of a scholarship.
I come from a working-class family, and without luck on my side, it would be unthinkable for me to even get this far.
During a Bachelor’s degree, it was very much a matter of learning about the course, enjoying the ride, and by the end of it, frolicking around as a qualified flaneur.
During a Masters, you are expected to start contributing original research to the discipline. Which surely sounds more exciting, right?
Not only is it a large amount of pressure to write something that holds up against the greatest historical thinkers of human history, but the subjects you write about end up being so esoteric and irrelevant, they can become ridiculously inaccessible and uninteresting for anyone who knows little to nothing about the subject.
That might not seem like a huge problem, as it is expected that a PhD student in Biology could discover a function of human anatomy that would be difficult to explain to an economist. It doesn’t necessarily devalue the achievements or discoveries made by that person, granted.
But there is at least someone genuine potential for that student’s work to benefit humanity in some way, like curing a certain disease, or understanding how our bodies work in a way we have not understood before.
With subjects regarding ‘The Ontological Status of Deceased Persons’, there are only a minority of philosophy students, let alone people, who would care about it.
Even that would be acceptable — if it involved some freedom in pursuing wildly original philosophical subjects.
But everything had to be written in a particular way. In philosophy, we call this the 'analytic tradition', where clarity, precision, logical rigour, and the use of formal methods of analysis rule all.
It seeks to address philosophical questions by carefully analysing and clarifying the language and concepts used in those questions. The goal is to break down complex problems into smaller, more manageable components, and to subject them to logical scrutiny.
The purpose of this is to strip our thinking away from bias, assumptions, and ambiguity.
Though you'll find this approach of writing and talking about philosophy in 19th/20th-century philosophers like Bertrand Russell or G.E. Moore, many philosophers have historically not written in the analytic tradition. Most philosophers, though undeniably genius thinkers, actually write confusingly.
I recall reading a very helpful and interesting guide by Jim Pryor on how to specifically write a philosophy paper in my first year. It was incredibly helpful and revealed to my then-18-year-old mind that the course I signed up for wasn't writing anything similar to Alan Watts. Not even close.
The analytic style of writing prevents any possibility of disguising a paper with flowery language, so the thesaurus is far from a philosopher's best friend. This leads writing to be very robust and concise, perhaps at the expense of philosophy students writing in ways that can lend themselves to interpretation like Martin Buber's I and Thou.
My experience with academic philosophy past a certain point proved to be a breeding ground for sycophants more than anything else.
It reminds me of my new favourite quote:
“There are nowadays professors of philosophy, but not philosophers.” - Henry David Thoreau
The Bias Of Analytic Philosophy
But don’t get me wrong. The course is intellectually demanding.
I was expected to not only write logically concise essays in taking a particular position to life's greatest debates, but to read an array of confusingly written papers, again and again, undergoing several existential crises, before summoning an essay idea, and then trying to work that into something nobody has ever said before.
It was a very insular experience to discuss the course with someone less familiar with philosophy which I was writing about half the time.
Metaphysical problems would deeply fester inside my head, which sometimes developed unhealthy patterns of overthinking, self-doubt, and considering too many sides of the equation when making important life decisions.
I learned to trust my gut feeling a lot less and prioritise logic and rationality over my emotions, which may sound virtuous, but I sometimes felt like a malfunctioning robot over a human being with emotion.
Academic philosophy also appeared narrow-minded to other types of philosophy that weren’t Western or from the analytic tradition. I would have loved a module on Eastern philosophy, Jainism, or a way of thinking that wasn't solely concerted by rationality.
It often feels disingenuous to describe myself as a philosophy student whilst learning absolutely nothing of Confucius, or Islamic philosophers like Averroes.
The Business That Is Academia
I have heard from many a Boomer that before the new millennium, admission into university was a special and uncommon occurrence. It was based on genuine merit and aptitude, rather than those who wanted to be sponsored by the government to get pissed up.
This is where I feel academia has become a business, rather than an institution primarily concerned with producing lasting achievements in human knowledge.
Now anyone can go to university, with relatively mediocre grades, and pretty much study anything. Because of this, universities take on more students than they can chew, pushing inexperienced and occasionally vagabond PhD students to teach the subject to those satisfied with a grade sufficient enough to stay another year to take drugs.
The benefits? More money.
The expense? Fewer shits are given about education.
It has deviated so far from its original purpose as an institution of knowledge, it becomes more transparent by the second. University has become experience money can buy, rather than the genuine will to push the boundaries of human knowledge.
It is one of many reasons PhD students, particularly in philosophy, have expressed to me their desire to quit. They are now trapped in a heap of student debt and must follow through and feign giving a fuck, thereby committing themselves to the sunk cost fallacy of pursuing an academic career.
The Future of Philosophy
Despite the above appearing a scathing polemic on philosophy, I honestly feel more than ever, we can learn a lot from philosophy in a world where fake news, dogma, and propaganda pervade every corner.
At the same time, I earnestly feel we do not necessarily have to adhere to philosophical traditions like academia does and utilise the tools we have learned from the subject to advance the discipline further in other places.
There are many contemporary issues I feel could be discussed using philosophy, whilst being relevant and accessible for those who have no background in the subject — like whether privacy over our data is a human right, or how our online identities factor into philosophical theories on personal identity.
Currently, there seems to be no space for these things in academia, since they are often too focused on adhering to tradition.
My recent dissertation tackled contemporary issues of social media using ideas of previous philosophers, which considering my professor’s profuse enjoyment, suggests one such path the future of philosophy could walk in.
It also proved to me that the lessons I have learned from the degree are not just abstract pondering, but abilities to think critically present arguments, and articulate conceptual ideas many struggle to finesse into words.
But rather than exclusively debate these issues with other fellow philosophers, I feel very strongly this is something to be discussed in the public domain, which is why I want to articulate essays I have previously written for my course, as well as new ones, online for a general audience.
For an incredibly long time, knowledge has been exclusive to those fortunate enough to enrol in an academic institution, and those patient enough to deal with pretentious and gatekept vocabulary. But the floodgates are open.
The internet has now made it possible to share this information with everyone and anyone willing to learn.
Ultimately, I feel I would fare better sharing things online than with other sycophants, in a genuine pool of knowledge where complex jargon making philosophical ideas inaccessible can disappear when it is taught with simplicity and accuracy.
I believe it is a matter of time before others follow suit.
I do not hesitate or doubt there is much to be taken from a PhD, and at least it remains a viable window of opportunity if and when my heart wants to jump out for it.
But until then, it is a relief knowing I can put my efforts into hard labour, genuinely experimenting with new formats, rather than reading an archaic book about Kant for a seminar which is mostly an hour of silent anxiety.