Review: Stoic Pragmatism

Review: Stoic Pragmatism

Stoic PragmatismStoic Pragmatism by John Lachs
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The questions of philosophy will continue to haunt us so long as we remain finite, baffled animals. The fact that philosophy offers no final answers is not an impediment but a lesson. That first great lesson of philosophy is that we must learn to live with uncertainty.

Since it’s that time of year, I’ve lately been seeing many of my friends—struggling artists, mostly—reposting graduation speeches by famous actors, musicians, entrepreneurs, and other celebrities. So many of these communal pep talks boil down to one message: persist. Every artist worth her salt has a story about how they struggled in the purgatory of unsuccessful oblivion for ten centuries—eating ramen and living in a closet—before finally ascending to the paradise of fame. Jonathan Goldsmith, for example—now famous as the Most Interesting Man Alive for the Dos Equis ads—was an obscure actor for over forty years before his “breakout” role.

But success stories and inspiring graduation speeches all have one obvious, debilitating shortcoming: survivor bias. Of course, every successful person was once unsuccessful and then became successful; so for them hard work paid off. But the vital question is not whether hard work ever pays off, but how often, and for whom? History has been the silent witness of generations of brilliant musicians and talented actors who remained obscure all their lives. The world is simply stuffed with artists of all kinds, many mediocre, but a fair number extremely talented—far more than will ever be able to support themselves in comfort with their craft. The plain fact is that, even if every budding artist in those ceremonies follows the advice to persist, not even half will achieve anything close to the level of success as the person on the podium.

And, indeed, even if there is an appealing wisdom in carrying on in the teeth of disappointment and failure, there is also a wisdom in throwing in the towel. Better to cut your losses and do something else, rather than struggle pointlessly for years on end. The real difficulty, though, is knowing which choice to make. What if you give up right when you’re on the cusp of a breakthrough? Or what if you persist for years and get nowhere? And this isn’t just a question for young artists; it is one of the basic questions of life. I recently encountered it in the philosophy of science: When should a hypothesis be abandoned or pursued? An overly tractable scientist may give up on a truly promising theory with the first hint of difficulty; and an overly stubborn scientist may spend a career working on a bankrupt idea, in the vain hope of making it work.

Seeking an analysis of this dilemma, I picked up John Lachs’s book, Stoic Pragmatism, which explicitly promises to address just this question. Lachs is attempting here to combine the pragmatist doctrine that we must improve the world with the stoic resignation to the inevitable. Unfortunately, he does not get any further than noting what I hope is obvious—that we should improve what we can and resign ourselves to what we can’t change. This is true; but of course we very often have no idea what we can or can’t change, what will or won’t work, whether we’ll be successful or not, which leaves us in the same baffled place we started. Insofar as truly answering this question would require knowing the future, it is unanswerable. Uncertainty about success and the need to commit to potentially doomed actions are inescapable elements of our existential situation. The best we can hope for, I think, are a few good rules of thumb; and these will likely depend on personal preference.

In any case, this book is far more than an analysis of this common dilemma, but an attempt to give a complete picture of Lachs’s philosophical perspective. Lachs promises a new philosophical system, but delivers only a disorganized gallimaufry of opinions that do not cohere. For example, Lachs begins by denigrating the professionalization of philosophy, holding that philosophy is not a discipline that seeks the truth—he asserts that not a single proposition would command assent by the majority of practitioners (though I disagree!)—rather, philosophy is better thought of as intellectual training that helps us to make sense of other activities. But the book includes lengthy analyses of ethics, ontology, and epistemology, so apparently Lachs does see the value in answering the traditional problems of philosophy. To make matters worse, Lachs continually excoriates philosophers who do not practice what they preach; and then he goes on to outline an ethical system wholly compatible with a middle-class, bourgeois lifestyle (our main obligations are to do our jobs and to leave other people alone, it seems).

I am being unfairly satirical. I actually agree with most of what Lachs says; and this of course means I must make fun of him. (According to the “Lotz Theory of Agreement” no intellectual will permit herself to simply agree with another intellectual, but will search out any small point of difference, even a difference in attitude or emphasis, in order to seem superior.) Lachs is an inspiring example of an academic trying to address himself to broader problems using more accessible language. He is an attractive thinker and a skilled writer, a humane intellectual capable of fine prose.

Nevertheless, I must admit that this book makes me despair a little. Here we have a man explicitly and repeatedly repudiating his profession and trying to write for non-specialists; and yet Lachs is so palpably an academic that he simply cannot do it. The book begins with his opinions about the canonical philosophers, frequently breaks off to criticize fellow professors and intellectual movements, and includes academic controversies (such as how to interpret Santayana’s use of the word “matter” in his ontological work) of no interest to a general reader. Lachs tries to come up with an ethical system that he can follow himself as an example of a committed intellectual, and then ends up creating an ethical system with no obligations other than to do one’s job (which, in his case, consists of writing books and advising graduate students). Lachs’s primary example of committed moral action, to which he returns again and again, is signing a petition to remove the president of his university (and he notes that most of his colleagues refused to do even this!).

I am being unduly harsh on Lachs. Really, he is one of the very best examples of what academics can and should do to engage with the world around them. And yet his example demonstrates, to me, the enormous gap that separates academia from the rest of society. Lachs dwells again and again on the pointless abstractions of professional philosophers and the wisdom of everyday people, and then the next moment he launches into an analysis of the concept of the individual in the metaphysics of Josiah Royce—Royce, someone who not even most professional philosophers are interested in, much less the general public—and all this in the context of a book that emphasizes self-consistency over and over again.

This makes me sad, because I think we really do need more intellectuals in the public sphere, intellectuals who are capable of communicating clearly and elegantly to non-specialists about problems of wide interest. And yet our age seems to be conspicuously bereft of anyone resembling a public intellectual. Yes, we have popularizers, but that’s a different thing entirely.

Seeking an answer to this absence, I usually return to the model of specialization in the university.

To get a doctorate, you need to write a dissertation on something, usually a topic of excessive, often ludicrous specificity—the upper-arm tattoos of Taiwanese sailors, the arrangement of furniture inside French colonial homes in North Africa in the 1890s, and so on. This model originated in German research universities, I believe; and indeed it makes perfect sense for many disciplines, particularly the natural sciences. But I do not think this model is at all suited to the humanities, where seeing human things in a wide context is so important. This is not to deny that specialized research can make valuable contributions in the humanities—indeed, I think it is necessary, especially in fields like history—but I do not think it should be the only, or even the dominant, pattern for academics in the humanities.

If I can put forward my own very modest proposal in this review, it would be the creation of another class of academic—let’s call them “scholars”—who would focus, not on specialized research, but on general coverage in several related fields (I’m thinking specifically of philosophy, literature, and history, but this is just one possibility). These scholars would be mainly responsible for teaching courses, not publishing research; and this would give them an incentive to communicate to undergraduates, and by extension the general public, rather than to disappear into arcane regions of the inky night.

These scholars could also be responsible for writing reviews and critiques of research. Their more general knowledge might make them more capable of seeing connections between fields; and by acting as gatekeepers to publication (in the form of a reviewer), they could serve as a check on the groupthink, and also the lack of accountability, that can prevail within a discipline where sometimes research is so obscure that nobody outside the community can adequately judge it (thus proving a shield to shoddy work).

I’m sure my own proposal is impractical, has already been tried, is already widespread, or just plain bad, and so on. (Even if you agree with it, the Lotz Theory of Agreement will apply.) But whatever the solution, I think it is a palpable and growing problem that there is so much intellectual work—especially in the humanities, where there is far less excuse for unintelligibility and sterile specialization—that is totally disconnected with the wider society, and is unreadable and uninteresting to most people, even well-educated people. We simply cannot have a functioning society where intellectuals only talk to each other in their own special language. Lachs, to his credit, is doing his best to break this pattern. But this book, to me, is evidence that the problem is far too serious for well-intentioned individuals to solve on their own.

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Review: Do What You Love and Other Lies About Success and Happiness

Review: Do What You Love and Other Lies About Success and Happiness

Do What You Love and Other Lies About Success and HappinessDo What You Love and Other Lies About Success and Happiness by Miya Tokumitsu
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Maybe anybody can do what he or she loves, but only the wealthy can avoid going into debt to pay for it.

I first heard of Tokumitsu when an essay of hers was being circulating among some friends on Facebook. I was struck by how well she articulated some half-formed thoughts that had lately been kicking around my head, so I immediately got her book. Then, I immediately put off reading it, until now.

Tokumitsu’s thesis is that the cultural ideal of doing what you love (DYWL) is, in practice, often exploitative and nefarious. She gives many reasons for this. First, DWYL glorifies certain types of work—almost all white collar—and ignores others. Only certain jobs are believably lovable; other types of work are unglamorous, and thus ignored. Steve Jobs gave a famous commencement speech in which he encouraged the young graduates to follow their dreams; but Apple would be impossible without the thousands of people toiling in factories, cafeterias, and warehouses supporting the visionaries.

Another way that DWYL can be exploitative is when it is used to underpay workers. Any musician can tell you that they are often expected to play for free, because they’re doing it out of love and not for money. Unpaid internships have grown in popularity; and academics nowadays often find themselves in underpaid adjunct work, because they’re supposed to be passionate about their subject. These purgatory periods are characterized as paying your dues; and yet studies have shown that, more often than not, unpaid internships and adjunct work don’t lead to full-time positions.

I find the situation in academia especially ironic. As a group, academics are some of the most politically conscious, leftist people out there. And yet in academia the pressure to do underpaid work, to personally identify with your job, and to work long hours can be intense. All this is justified with the notion that academic work is more noble than the grubby capitalism of the non-academic world. In the process, however, academics become ideal capitalist workers, doing enormous amounts of work for little compensation. This is “hope labor” at its purest: badly paid work performed in the hope of breaking through to the next tier.

In many ways, the DWYL ethic is not so different from the Protestant Work Ethic identified by Weber over 100 years ago. The major shift is that the Protestant Ethic viewed work as a duty, while DWYL sees work as love. Duty isn’t trendy anymore, but self expression is, which is what DWYL is all about. In any case, although the virtues we choose to emphasize have changed, the basic logic of an individualistic, competitive system remain. When you’re living in a supposed meritocracy, the poor can be dismissed as deserving their poverty, and the rich congratulated for deserving their wealth. DWYL just puts a different spin on this. One hundred years ago we might have chosen to emphasize Steve Job’s force of will, penuriousness, or his abstemiousness; but now we talk about his passion, vision, and his courage.

Another consequence of DWYL, in Tokumitsu’s opinion, is the culture of overwork. Employers want their employees to be passionate; and the easiest way to demonstrate dedication is to work long hours. This mentality is certainly common in both New York and Madrid; and it is rather strange when you consider that people become generally worse employees when they work longer hours. When you don’t sleep enough, it takes a toll on your health, not to mention makes you sluggish and slow-witted.

One of Tokumitsu’s most valuable observations, in my opinion, is that the DWYL mindset seems to devalue sources of pleasure, pride, and love that are not work-related. Under DWYL, finding love in a non-work activity, like a hobby, a relationship, or just relaxing, is frivolous. If you were serious and passionate, you would be paying your dues and working as an intern. Tokumitsu illustrates this with her discussion of the documentary Finding Vivian Maier, in which the interviewees express astonishment and mild disapproval that Maier, who worked her whole life as a nanny, could have been such a dedicated, talented photographer and have not sought recognition.

The book ends with a call to make free time legitimate. In order to enjoy free time, we need to be paid decently and to work reasonable hours. We shouldn’t be seen as lazy or insufficiently passionate if we want to be fairly compensated for artistic, academic, or even menial work; and we should have the leisure to pursue interests outside work, since for most of us having a wonderful job isn’t realistic. To accomplish this, Tokumitsu envisions labor movements.

These are some of the Tokumitsu’s observations I have found most valuable. For that reason, I think the book is worth reading. But I must admit that, even when I was in agreement, I often found this book exasperating. Without looking at her biography, I could tell Tokumitsu was a recovering academic. The formal writing style, the many quotations and citations, the Marxist bent, and especially the topic of the book—everything belied a recently minted PhD who had felt the pain of the academic job market.

There’s nothing wrong with having a PhD, of course. But there is something wrong with writing a book like this in an academic style. The book’s subject is accessible and relevant, and Tokumitsu’s aim is to spur labor movements. Yet its orientation and tone severely restrict its audience. Her first chapter, for example, is an analysis of two television shows and the way that they portray the DWYL mentality. The analysis was well done, but why on earth would you lead with that?

The prose was also a problem for me. I admit I’m especially sensitive to this sort of thing, since I spent a bad year in a PhD program. And I also admit that Tokumitsu is certainly a better writer than the vast majority of her peers in academe. (I’m talking about the humanities, specifically.) I also think that Tokumitsu has great potential.

Even so, there are many sentences like this one: “Attending the theatrical performance of one’s child faces long odds against the obligations of capitalist production.”

The sentence is irritating in many ways. It is about something intimate, but uses formal language. It is about something concrete, and yet uses abstractions. It turns something personal into something coldly impersonal. Here’s an example of a rewrite: “Making time for your daughter’s school play is hard when your boss can email you at any hour of the day.” I’m not saying my sentence is perfect, but it’s at least an improvement.

The Marxist perspective was also unfortunate, in my opinion, because it will further limit her audience. The DWYL mentality afflicts people of all political persuasions; and I think you can see serious flaws in the mentality without being opposed to capitalism itself. Wanting shorter hours and higher pay is pretty uncontroversial, after all.

I could go on with this complaining, but I’d better stop. Really, the book is a worthy read. Certainly it will be hard for me to forget Tokumitsu’s insights. And even if the style isn’t terribly accessible, the book compensates by being short. So stop doing what you love, and read this book.

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