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Is it much harder to be a philosopher now (that is, to make a contribution to

Is it much harder to be a philosopher now (that is, to make a contribution to the discipline) than it was 50 years ago? Is philosophy like science in that there can seem at times to be less and less left for us to "discover," over time?

I agree that it is more difficult to gain access to and to contribute to highly specialized and professionalized academic communities than to less specialized and less professionalized ones. Not all fields of philosophy are as highly technical as mathematical logic, but nearly all philosphical communities are highly professionalized and can be accessed only by those with strong professional credentials.

That said, contributing to a highly professionalized academic community is by no means the only way to engage philospohical issues in a profound manner: the classical philosophical texts and problems are just as amenable (or not) to human thought as they have been, and it is no harder for anyone to think philosophically about them now than it has been in the past.

Is my interest in studying legal theory better served by enrolling in philosophy

Is my interest in studying legal theory better served by enrolling in philosophy graduate school or enrolling in law school?

This depends on the university as well as on your specific interests in this field. You might apply especially to universities that have both: a law school with a real interest in legal theory as well as a philosophy department with strength in philosophy of law, ethics, and political philosophy. Such universities also typically offer a joint JD/PhD program, which may be just right for your interests and would allow you to keep more career options open.

I have a question about getting an advanced degree in philosophy:

I have a question about getting an advanced degree in philosophy: I hold an undergraduate and master’s degree in political science. Instead of getting a doctorate in political science I would like to switch gears and move into the realms of philosophy. In short, the more I investigated the philosophical underpinnings of my research in political science, the more I had a hunger to study philosophy as my first academic objective. (Even my doctoral prospectus (which was originally outlined during my Masters program), I have been informed by various political and social science faculty members throughout the country, is one that fits more appropriately within the realms of philosophy.) After completing the Masters (Virginia Tech), I began inquiring with various departments of philosophy (US) and found that it was going to be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to be accepted into a graduate program in philosophy as a result of my lack of background in philosophy at the undergraduate and graduate...

If you are really mainly interested in "the philosophical underpinnings of research in political science," then one plausible solution is to apply to political science doctoral programs after all. Look for a program that has strength in political theory/philosophy and/or is located at a university with a strong political philosophy presence in its philosophy department. This way you can take courses in political (and moral) philosophy and can later, when it comes time to write a dissertation, invite a philosopher to be on your committee. This sort of collaboration is quite common -- for example, as a philosopher I have supervised four political science dissertations at my institution.

Should prolonged exposure get you interested in other areas of philosophy and make you eager to write a dissertation on a topic that does not fit into political science, then you'll be in a very good position to switch departments at that point. Doing so is usually much easier than getting admitted from the outside (because by then you're known to the philosophy faculty and already on the university's budget).

I am a (first year) graduate student interested in the philosophy of science and of biology. I have no formal training in natural science. Assuming that I do a PhD in this area how important is it to get a formal grounding in science and what's a good way to go about getting it?

This is a difficult question. Different philosophers of science have different opinions regarding how much background in science one needs to do good philosophy of science. In the olden days, less scientific background was needed than is the case today. A great deal of philosophy of science today presumes considerable scientific literacy. However, it is frequently not the kind of literacy that is especially fostered by taking science courses or reading science textbooks.

Furthermore, different philosophers of science will specialize in different areas. Some areas require less technical knowledge of science, others more. Someone who works on the philosophical ramifications of relativistic quantum field theory obviously needs to know a good deal about relativistic quantum field theory. On the other hand, someone who works on the philosophical ramifications of 19th century electromagnetic field theory does not need to know about relativistic quantum field theory. But she needs to know about 19th century electromagnetic field theory.

It seems to me that your best course is to see what background you need in order to work on the questions that interest you. As you read philosophy of science, you will find yourself needing to know some science in order to understand it or to proceed further with your research. When that happens, take the opportunity to read around in the area that you find yourself needing to learn. You may find a philosophy book or article that will fill in the necessary background. That's ideal. When that doesn't happen, work in the history of science (or by historically minded scientists) may present the material you need from a "history of ideas" vantage point that will be philosophically provocative.

If you make a career of philosophy of science, you will constantly be finding yourself needing to fill in your scientific knowledge on some topic or other. That is often a lot of fun. As long as you have enough general science background to be able to do that, then you will be in fine shape. On the other hand, if you do not have enough of a basic scientific background to do that, then it will be difficult for you to fill in the gaps in your knowledge as needed. Philosophy of science may then not be the best field for you.

Okay, before you read my question - please read it with a "voice-tone" of

Okay, before you read my question - please read it with a "voice-tone" of curious respect. How does one becomed "recognized" as a philosopher? I suppose the simplified version of my question is "What makes a Philosopher a Philosopher"? I mean, we all have ideas about how things work, and spend time considering the great mysteries of life. If I want to become a philosopher, how can I make a living at it? It seems there are few options aside from teaching philosophy in universities or writing philosophy books. Thanks.

It's hard to answer what makes someone a philosopher for perhaps the same reason it's hard to say what precisely philosophy is. These days (and probably it's never been very different) most people who are able to make contributions to philosophy (and in that sense are philosophers) have received an education in which they've read and thought about many of the great classical texts, about many seminal contemporary contributions, and have had the opportunity, through conversation with others, to improve upon their native talents for critical analysis, imaginative reflection, and clear exposition.

As for how you make a living, well these days I'd say close to 100% of those making widely recognized contributions to philosophy are in the education business (universities, colleges, community colleges, distance-learning enterprises, perhaps even schools). Some philosophers work in hospitals and businesses offering help in matters of practical ethics. Alas, there are not many philosophy stores.

How much does competition, fashion, etc. influence academic philosophy?

How much does competition, fashion, etc. influence academic philosophy?

How is it that philosophers make their views know to others? By lecturing at a University, for one. But here we have competition for students: Universities with each other, and between departments over students. The student-customer has to make a choice where and what to study. So, in order to be able to lecture, the philosopher must enter into and have some success in competition. Still more so with publishing: since publishers are in competition, the authors must likewise. However, does this competition necessarily influence what philosophers say and think, or just how they market themselves? That is not so clear.

Fashion is more difficult still. It certainly often looks like there are philosophical bandwagons that roll rapidly for a few years or decades. No doubt the element of competition is important here: a young PhD student will want to write on a topic that is likely to get him or her a job. But the latest idea in philosophy may be attractive not merely because it is new, or because distinguished Professor so-and-so was seen wearing it. Rather, it may appeal because it seems to solve (or make irrelevant) a long-standing problem, or offer a fertile new territory of questions, and so forth. That is, it may be that there are philosophical fashions for good philosophical reasons.

How much does a philosopher read per day? How long do you read each day?

How much does a philosopher read per day? How long do you read each day?

This varies enormously from person to person, and from day to day., and on how hard the material is. When I'm working intensively on a paper, or trying to develop a new course, I might read one or two very challenging articles a day, or I might try to "blitz" through the relevant literature and read four or five. It generally takes me a week or so to read an entire academic philosophy book. If I'm developing a new course, I'll try to read six or seven pieces for every one I assign (exclusive of essays I know I want students to read.)

Then there are novels and political magazines and knitting books The New Yorker. I read about one of these every week. My line is that I'm engaging with popular culture in a way that will ultimately enrich my philosophy

Some philosophers, like David Chalmers, read about 17books a day. Linguist and political critic Noam Chomsky writes about 17 books a day.

I have a question which many grad students probably ponder: what's important

I have a question which many grad students probably ponder: what's important when it comes to getting a job as a philosopher? Please can you rank, in order of importance, the following: Where you received your degrees from. Who your supervisors were. Who your references are. What area(s) you specialize in. How many publications you have (assume that they are not in obscure journals). How many professional (i.e., not grad) conferences you have spoken at. Results from BA and MA degrees. Teaching experience. Awards. Interpersonal skills. Activities (i.e., organizing conferences, founding societies). Who you know. Please include any other criteria which you think I may have failed to mention. If you are aware of any difference between what employers from the UK or USA may be looking for, please could you mention them.

Ranking these dimensions is impossible, I believe. You cannotcompare dimensions as such, but at best only specific differencesacross dimensions. Consider, for example, whether teaching experienceis moreimportant than awards. Well, a large advantage in teaching experiencewill outweigh some small advantage in awards, and a large advantage inawards will outweigh some small advantage in teaching experience. Inorderto compare advantages across dimensions, we would need a metric withineach dimension as well as a standard of comparison across thesedimensions. We might then be able to conclude that, say, teachingexperience is more important than awards in the sense that a smalleradvantage in teaching experience outweighs a larger advantage inawards. But such a conclusion presupposes cross-dimensional comparisons ofmagnitudes.

There are two further difficulties. First, dimensions that receive a lot of attention from some mayreceive very little attention from others or none at all. Employers have quite diverse needs, interests, preferences, andpredilections -- a small liberal arts college will give greater weight to teaching relative to publications than a major research university. In the same vein, hiring decisions are often made by acollective consisting of people who vary greatly in what they pay attention to and in how they then form theirjudgments.

Thesecond further difficulty is that someone on a hiring committee will adjust the weight sheassigns to specific pieces of evidence according to the other evidenceshe has. The weight she will give to an applicant's grades may dependon how she assesses the school he attended, for example, and the weightshe will give to his conference appearances may depend on how pushy shetakes him to be. Like a juror in a criminal trial: One assigns acertain initial credibility to the various witness testimonies andpieces of evidence; but one then adjusts such initial assignments up ordown depending upon how each testimony or other evidence fits with therest. These adjustments are case-specific.

This brings me to your question whether there are criteria youhave failed to mention. Yes! You have failed to mention what (for me atleast) is of the greatest interest: the quality of the applicant'swriting sample(s). If the applicant's writing shows that s/he cannotwrite philosophy or think philosophically, then all the rest of therecord cannot really make up for that. (By contrast, if the writing issuperb and the rest of the record mediocre, one might suspect that theapplicant got rather too much outside help with his/her essay.) You also fail tomention the content of the references. It's not the name and fame ofyour referees that will get you a job, but their assessments of you inconjunction with their reputation for honesty and good judgment. (Somevery famous people are well known for their grotesque exaggerations, andreferences from them consequently carry very little weight.)

Dear AskPhilosophers,

Dear AskPhilosophers, I'm not an avid philosopher (ask me to pull up quotes from a philosopher and I'll mumble something from Thomas Jefferson), but I've always been curious about something: What kind of jobs do philosophers do? I ask this in good heart; I'm just curious as to what you do after going to college for four years to learn about philosophy. But then what? Is there a philosophy job of sorts? Can you just have that job and nothing else?

There are a couple different parts to this question.

You ask about people who "go[] to college for four years to learn about philosophy", so I take it you have undergraduate concentrators in mind. Such people do just about every job you can imagine. The study of philosophy is excellent preparation for many lines of work, because it teaches you how to read, how to write, and how to think, and those are generally useful skills. So it should be no surprise that I've had students go into business, law (a very popular choice), medicine (gotta do those pre-med requirements!), music, and so on and so forth.

But I take it you are more interested in whether there is "a philosophy job of sorts". There is, or better, there are. The obvious one is teaching philosophy, and that is what all of us here do, which means that we are employed by colleges and universities. (I've known people who teach philosophy at private high schools, as well.) As part of that work, we also write philosophy: books, journal articles, and the like. But there are similar jobs in related areas. Many hospitals nowadays have medical ethicists on staff, and these are often people with training both in philosophy and in medicine. There are also medical ethicists who work in government and business, as well as for various sorts of foundations or think tanks. Business and environmental ethicists can be found in similar positions, as well as in business schools.

I am only in my first few years of studying philosophy, yet I have been reading

I am only in my first few years of studying philosophy, yet I have been reading simple introductions, and philosophical novels since I was quite young. When I was younger I often thought I had stumbled upon some "great new theory" or other, only to find out that, not only had it been done before, but done much better than I ever could have. Now that it is the main focus of my academic life, I find myself truly discouraged every time I have what I think might be something new to the world of philosophy, or some original thought. It seems that all there is to discover in philosophy has been picked apart to the bare bones, or that my own thoughts simply could never in my wildest dreams stand up to any critical analysis. I have thought of simply giving up on the subject to start writing novels about my far-fetched ideas. Should I let it go and save myself the discouragement and disappointment? (please don't take this late night e-mail as evidence of my writing skills... I promise with some coffee I...

I suspect that many of us suffer from your incoherent-footnote-to-Plato worry from time to time, but let me say two encouraging things.

The first is that although philosophy does often circle back to issues and arguments in its own history, when we consider them anew we consider them in a new context, and this makes room for originality. Of course it helps not to expect too much. You don't have to provide a definitive reply to scepticism about the external world: it's glory enough to push the discussion along in smaller but still productive ways.

The second encouragin thing to say is that originality isn't everything. Even if it turns out that someone else had the idea centuries ago, working things out for yourself has a special intellectual value for you. Philosophy is not a spectator sport.

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