Monday, April 30, 2012

Advice for Aspiring Philosophers

I normally do not do posts like this because I am not primarily interested in writing about the careerism of contemporary philosophy. Hopefully this will be my first and last such post. Nevertheless, it is a reality, and it is something any prospective philosopher is going to have to deal with. Here is some advice that I wrote to a friend who is considering a career in philosophy. I've invested some time researching these issues, so I thought it might be helpful for others. I should note, I'm not an expert and I have not had years of experience in the field: I myself am a mere undergrad after all! However, most of this information is just stuff handed on to me from personal talk with my professors and from reading things written by other professionals in the field. So take the advice on their authority and not mine.

First, there is the problem of getting into a top PhD program. It is extremely difficult to get into one of the top 20 or so programs from anything less than, well, a top 20 program. (For the rankings, see here.) This is because of at least two things: PhD committees are (a) prestige-oriented and (b) lazy. They attach a lot of significance to the title of the university one is coming from, and they know they can get good students if they just pick from the top programs. Hence, if one is not from one of those schools the committee doesn't bother reading the writing sample very carefully. For more info on how difficult it is to get into a top program from a non-top program, see here.

Second, there is the problem of landing a job. In the humanities more generally 40% of graduates end up without jobs. Most philosophers do end up with jobs at community colleges at least, though not necessarily a dream job. One may have to try for a couple of years but it usually happens. For more on all that see here. Nevertheless it is still more difficult to get a job unless one is coming from a top program. Even those coming from a top program will often end up teaching at small liberal arts colleges or less prestigious universities. And of course, all this isn't to say getting a job is guaranteed. For more info on this one might want to check out this blog. The blog gets a little feisty because these people are so frustrated, but it paints an accurate picture of how bad it can be at times. The job market is especially bad at this moment.

What I have mentioned are serious concerns. I don't want to under-emphasize that. If you don't think you are going to have to deal with them, you're wrong. However, I should note that it is not all hopeless if one isn't coming out of a top school. Most people who aren't coming from top schools as undergrads are able to get into good PhD programs via a good MA program. Having a graduate degree under one's belt makes it much more likely that a PhD committee will take one's application and writing sample seriously. There are a couple of problems with this strategy though. First, many terminal Master's programs do not fund their students. Going into debt is almost always not worth it. Second, it makes a difference which MA program one is coming from. Some good terminal Master's programs are listed here. Finally, this essentially takes up two more years of one's life which could have been spent in a PhD program.

Another good thing to do is to work very hard on a writing sample. Most schools offer independent study so one can work with a professor on it. Also, one may want to see if one's department has an honors program. Usually that doesn't require more than having a good GPA and doing a writing sample. Applying for honors gives one motivation to make a good sample; it also makes one look much better when applying to graduate schools.

So what is my ultimate advice? I would tell anyone considering philosophy as a career to try to do as many of the following things as possible: (1) Go to a prestigious and high-ranked undergraduate school; (2) Get to know professors with big names, and impress them, so they can write you good letters of recommendation; (3) Make connections with important people in the field; (4) Write an excellent sample paper, maybe taking independent study time to do so; (5) Try to receive departmental honors; (6) If you are not able to go to a prestigious university, try to find a way to get a Master's degree from a good program. (7) Get into a top PhD program in order to get a job when coming out.

For anyone considering going on in philosophy I would recommend seriously talking to academic advisers and professors. The ones who are youngest will likely have the most information since they have only recently gotten out of the whole fray. I'm fortunate that I had professors who pulled me aside and let me know about all these problems. I'll be transferring to UCLA in the Fall as a result. This in conjunction with good letters would give me a decent shot. However, if I had decided to continue my education where I am currently at my prospects would have been far worse. I might have just chosen a different, less treacherous, path.

Some of this may sound Machiavellian. However, I am not saying it is okay to slit throats in order to do all these things. Nor am I saying I approve of the way the system works. Nor am I recommending that one view professors as nothing more than means to getting good letters of recommendation. Nor would I want to impress upon other students the idea that "prestigious philosophy program" equates to "good philosophy program"; quite frankly I think my philosophical education would be just as good with my current professors as with those at UCLA, since at most "prestigious" universities the department is far more impersonal and large in size. I am simply describing the "facts", minus the "values." One can do all the things I've listed and accept all the realities without descending into barbarism. I hope this information will be helpful to some people!

Monday, April 23, 2012

The Critique of 'The Critique of Pure Reason' II: Preface to the Second Edition

In this post I'll note some areas of concern I have from an Aristotelian-Thomistic (henceforth just 'Aristotelian') point of view with Kant's B-edition preface. Again, as I said in my first post, this isn't really meant to be a summary of Kant's views, but more along the lines of a set of notes.

One thing which already indicates Kant has a different conception of reality than an Aristotelian realist view is his description of logic toward the beginning. Kant says that logic is "the science that exhaustively presents and strictly proves nothing but the formal rules of all thinking." But a realist will want to ask why logic is defined in terms of its applicability to our thoughts rather than to mind-independent propositions or even objects. After all, since Kant's time, many different logics have been developed, and we can think in terms of any of these if we want to. But this says nothing about which one more correctly describes reality. Of course, what Kant will want to argue is that what I am calling "reality" is actually a product of human cognitive capacities. So the difference to note here between the two views is not so much of whether logic is to be applied to reality, but rather, what reality refers to.

A second point of interest is Kant's discussion of mathematical knowledge at Bxii, where he takes as his example that of a Euclidean triangle. Kant uses this point to illustrate how he thinks it is that we acquire mathematical knowledge. What I would focus on though is his view that, more generally, Euclidean geometry is necessary. For Kant, a judgment is necessary if and only if it is a priori. The problem is that we now know that Euclidean geometry is not, in fact, necessary, since it doesn't even accurately describe the physical universe. So either euclidean geometry is not a priori or Kant was wrong to include necessity as part of something's being a priori. But it seems rather clear euclidean geometry was formulated a priori if anything was. So it must follow that not all a priori cognitions are necessary. But this is okay for the Aristotelian. The Aristotelian method of doing metaphysics or science has never been equivalent to discovering necessary truths which are wholly a priori; rather, it is empirical. We can delineate what is metaphysically possible and impossible through a priori reasoning and we see whether our theories correspond to empirical reality.

Kant's view of the a priori goes with his view of metaphysics. He defines metaphysics as "a wholly isolated speculative cognition of reason that elevates itself entirely above all instruction from experience." Not according to an Aristotelian view however. As Aquinas states in 'De Veritate', "Whatever is in the intellect was first in the senses." Of course, the reason Kant wants to make metaphysics a wholly a priori discipline is because he wants the certainty which he thinks the method of previous thinkers cannot provide. In his own words Kant thinks that "up to now [i.e. up until Kant] the procedure of metaphysics has been a mere groping, and what is the worst, a groping among mere concepts." But the Aristotelian wants to ask why it has only been a "mere groping among concepts"? For one, the metaphysician does not need to limit the scope of his inquiry to concepts, at least if we don't hold to the view that metaphysics must be a priori. As regards "mere groping," admittedly, we cannot be absolutely certain our metaphysical theories are true; but this is a far too strict condition upon knowledge which, were it not for Descartes, we would not think was necessary.

In the next post I will focus on the second half of the preface, examining Kant's solution to the problem of metaphysical knowledge as he sees it.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

The Critique of 'The Critique of Pure Reason' I: Preface to the First Edition

As I study Kant's Critique of Pure Reason I am taking notes and trying to identify the points where someone sympathetic to a generally Aristotelian (particularly Thomist) view of metaphysics and knowledge would have reservations. So I will be essentially transferring my notes and other thoughts here as an ongoing commentary on Kant's great work. I will not be going line for line and explaining all his ideas. Rather, I will be picking out parts that I think are particularly pertinent to distinguishing him from, and criticizing him from the perspective of, a view which an Aristotelian is likely to take. I should note that, though I am coming from a decidedly realist picture and hence not particularly sympathetic with all aspects of Kant's thought, I certainly consider it a huge step up from Hume and a work of ingenious creativity. Kant definitely has my respect as one of the greatest thinkers to have lived, and I think he needs to be taken much more seriously than he is today.

With that said, let's look at the preface to the first edition of Kant's treatise. Though it does contain important information, since it is relatively short I will say more about the preface to the second edition. As a general remark, Kant seems to be primarily concerned here with the problem of metaphysical knowledge, whereas in the second edition preface he focuses in more on his own "Copernican revolution". Kant wants to know how it is possible for metaphysics to be justified. After all, in the very first paragraph Kant admits that metaphysics certainly deals in perennial problems which reason is always tempted to come back to.

One might wonder why we need any justification for thinking that we can have metaphysical beliefs. But Kant lays out a story as to what has happened to metaphysics up to the time of his writing:

"In the beginning, under the administration of the dogmatists, her rule was despotic. Yet because her legislation still retained traces of ancient barbarism, this rule gradually degenerated through internal wars into complete anarchy..."

Here the dogmatists represent the continental rationalists, especially people like Descartes, Leibniz, and Wolff. The anarchy was brought about by skeptical empiricists, Hume in particular. Kant considers the skeptical criticisms of rationalist philosophy to have been something of a deathblow, at least given rationalist assumptions about knowledge (such as a correspondence theory of truth or the doctrine of innate ideas). This is the background within which Kant hopes to provide a new, certain and complete theory which will solve the empiricist objections and provide a basis for metaphysics. Of course, right off the bat it is clear that no room between the rationalists and empiricists has been made for something like a more Aristotelian view of the matter, so it appears that Kant's argument will be a non-starter at least in terms of disproving the Aristotelian type of metaphysics and knowledge. This is a theme which will come up often, viz. that Kant, working within a certain philosophical movement, will fail to consider the Aristoteliean view which could solve the same problems he wants to without the seismic shift in our analyses of knowledge, objectivitiy, necessity, truth, etc.

In part II I'll examine the preface to the second edition of Kant's Critique and bring up some more specific points and objections.