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Just graduated … now what?

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So you just graduated from college with a philosophy degree.  Now what?  You’ve been living in an educational bubble that has allowed you to live the life of the mind, but now practical concerns are pulling you away from the cherished task of contemplation.

The relationship between the contemplative life and the practical life has always been vexed.  Aristotle describes the difficulty in Book X of his Nicomachean Ethics:

“But [a contemplative] life would be too high for man; for it is not in so far as he is man that he will live so, but in so far as something divine is present in him; and by so much as this is superior to our composite nature is its activity superior to that which is the exercise of the other kind of virtue. If reason is divine, then, in comparison with man, the life according to it is divine in comparison with human life. But we must not follow those who advise us, being men, to think of human things, and, being mortal, of mortal things, but must, so far as we can, make ourselves immortal, and strain every nerve to live in accordance with the best thing in us; for even if it be small in bulk, much more does it in power and worth surpass everything.”

The difficult that Aristotle finds is that our most natural desire (men by nature desire to understand) is strangely something of an unnatural desire, for fulfilling this desire seems to require that we be something that we are not – divine.  In other words, to satisfy this natural desire we must needs go beyond our composite nature.  This introduces a problem – how do I live a life that is both practical and contemplative?  At the end of the day, I think Aristotle aims at some kind of a balance here, but it is not at all clear how to work that out.  He goes on to contrast the “perfect happiness” of contemplation with the kind of practical happiness that “befits out human estate”, and seems to try to strike a balance but I don’t think ever quite manages to clearly negotiate the tension.  Instead, Aristotle leaves us at the end of his great work on the practical life with a great argument for why contemplation is the best possible (or is it impossible?) life for man.

It is tempting to believe that one can live the “life of the mind” only in the academe.  And so many liberal arts students graduate from college and think graduate school.  You can’t imagine setting aside the life of the mind for the all-too-practical life of a business person or some such thing.  But yet the prospects for a career after graduate school are exceptionally grim.  So what should you do?

Well, this article suggests that it is just wrong-headed to think that a life of the mind cannot exist outside the academe.  Is there a proper balance available out there?  For those of you out there working in the “real world”, share your experiences.  This is an issue that will face nearly all of our graduates.

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8 Comments

  1. Mike says:

    This guy is an interesting example of someone who has managed to be both a poet and a bureaucrat.

    I personally find programming, sysadmin and starting and working with companies to be tasks fit for a philosopher. Programming is satisfying in ways similar to meditation.

    A more straightforward answer for students might be to do what my cousins are doing, teach english in a foreign country for a couple years until the economy bounces back.

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  2. Huenemann says:

    Wallace Stevens was a poet and an insurance salesman. It is hard to name many great philosophers who were academics. Most of the famous medievals were, sort of, and Kant was, and Nietzsche was for a brief spell,and then many philosophers in the 20th century were academics (but not many of them very great).

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    • Kleiner says:

      First we should say that there are very few great philosophers in general, so it is not surprising that there aren’t a lot of great philosophers who were also academics in the 20th century. But depending on how loosely we want to use “great” in “great philosopher”, there is a decent list of 20th century philosophers who were academics philosophers who were academics and who were hardly hacks:
      Husserl, Heidegger, Derrida, Levinas, Arendt, Jaspers, Buber, Sartre, de Beauvoir, etc. Etienne Gilson was in the academe. Russell was in the academy, and Whitehead. John Rawls. I think Wittgenstein was in the academe for a while but left when he inherited enough money to be self-supporting. And weren’t most recognized names in analytic philosophy (Quine, etc) – granted, none of whom will ever be considered “great” – also in the academe?

      My sense is that most of the important philosophers of the 20th century were also academics. In fact, I am having a hard time coming up with many noteworthy names from the 20th century that weren’t academics. Now it may be too soon to judge whether they are “great” or not, and nearly all on my list are probably not. But Heidegger is already in the pantheon in my view, and there are several other significant philosophers on that list.

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  3. Huenemann says:

    “Does the modern academy destroy creativity or is it that the truly creative individual is truly rare?”

    I think both are true. Certainly it’s rare to find a creative genius, and ever more rare for such a genius to rise to prominence so everyone gets to learn about him/her. And the modern academy doesn’t always destroy creativity, but it has features that end up discouraging it. I’m thinking primarily of the “publish or perish” attitude, which tends to drive people deeper into narrow specialties and promote shallow work. But there are exceptions of course.

    Of the academics Kleiner mentions, I think Heidegger and Wittgenstein are likely to stand the test of time; the others, probably not. I guess I’m presuming that “great” means leaving a written corpus that several generations will regard as important.

    Indeed, if anyone wants to see the rise and decline of famous philosophers’ “stocks” in recent history — at least, as judged by discussions in philosophy journals — check out these links:

    http://schwitzsplinters.blogspot.com/2010/04/discussion-arcs.html

    http://schwitzsplinters.blogspot.com/2010/04/heidegger-and-wittgenstein-break-away.html

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  4. Rob says:

    Schopenhauer, undoubtedly, and Kierkegaard are a few other “greats” who were estranged, more or less, from academia. As for the last century, I think Freud is perhaps the “greatest” philosopher of the last century, in terms of the breadth of phenomena he systematically attempted to encompass within a synoptic post-Darwinian, neo-Stoic spirit.

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  5. anonymous says:

    Thank you for posting the link to the article. I too, just like everybody else, have been struggling with what I want to do after graduation, and this gives me a lot of insight.

    My one fear, though, is how I will accomplish an intellectual lifestyle and belong to a group of similar minded people outside of academic institutions. Universities make it easy to meet with people, but when it comes to being outside, I am scared and lost as how to start. Also, in academe we are rewarded for our accomplishments, and that is part of the motivation we get. How do we achieve that outside of the walls we know?

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  6. Nick Jones says:

    This is such as common problem! So many people just need help with some direction. When I graduated I just focused on getting my graduate career on track. So many people complete degree’s then go off travelling for 5 years and the degree they completed is useless. Lets focus people and lets get our careers on track :) (pep talk over)

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