Why I Left Academic Philosophy
Including other problems with academia.
I am about to graduate 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, smart conversation, and 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 barking mad to turn down an opportunity of a lifetime. But for those who have touched the surface of academia, it should come as no surprise. Particularly in the modern-day, there exists a genuine and often unspoken disillusionment with academia. Though I can speak confidently about that in philosophy, I am sure it happens with other subjects too.
But it is not philosophy, the subject, that I am disillusioned with. It is a subject that has 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 priority of the 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.
My Bachelor's degree was also in philosophy, and I thoroughly enjoyed the course. My university allowed students to flexibly choose modules, so there wasn’t anything 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 (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, including friends, who paid a good amount of money to study the course, it made me think that most of the course was a scam.
Not only that, but academia very much remained an option for those who can afford it. 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 Bachelors degree, it is very much a matter of learning about the course content, enjoying the ride, and by the end of it, being able to say you know a good deal about philosophy.
During a Masters, you are expected to start contributing original research to the discipline. 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, it 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 at least there is often a 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, about pre-existing subjects within the philosophical canon, that there were more limitations than instances of experimentation and innovation. Academic philosophy proved more than anything to be a breeding ground for sycophants.
“There are nowadays professors of philosophy, but not philosophers.” — Henry David Thoreau
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 in a certain debate, 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 unaware of philosophy what 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.
Additionally, academic philosophy was often ignorant of 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 was 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.
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 then 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 given about education.
It is so shallow, and 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. Yet for some reason or another, they are now trapped in a heap of student debt and must follow through and feign giving a shit.
Despite the above seeming a scathing polemic on philosophy, I honestly feel more than ever, that we can learn a lot from philosophy in a world where fake news, dogma, and propaganda pervade every corner. At the same time, I honestly feel that 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 this could be a feasible direction philosophy can take. It also proved to me that the lessons I have learned from the degree, are not just pondering, but abilities to think critically, present arguments, and articulate conceptual ideas many struggles to finesse into words.
But rather than exclusively debate these issues with other fellow philosophers, I feel very strongly this is something that could 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 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, superfluous 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.