People think that philosophy is about pondering, and ideally answering, questions like the following ones: Does life have meaning? What…
By Penelope Rush
I remember announcing to my high school careers counsellor that I wanted a job “thinking”. I resisted all attempts to narrow this down: “thinking about…?”; “no, just thinking. About anything. Everything. How do I get a job doing that?” I was crushed when he informed me that no such job existed. The gist of his reasoning went: “everybody just thinks anyway” (oh no they don’t); “so you can’t do it for a job” (oh yes, it turned out, you can!)
It’s a strange thing to be paid to run counter to our everyday interaction with the known, instead turning to tangle with the unknown – sometimes equipped with the dubious tools of extended theory, other times with nothing but will and wonder. I’ve found it involves the deliberate practice of a natural curiosity; one which sustains but also engenders the particular optimism I remember from childhood.
Nonetheless, doing this well requires a level of physical and mental strength perhaps not typically associated with thought. It can take its own peculiar toll: William James wrote of “the scepticism and unreality that too much grubbing around in the abstract roots of things will breed”. Metaphysical fatigue and howling despair are close cousins.
But being out of work is more terrifying still – then it can seem as though there’s somehow no lens through which you can be recognised in the eyes of others. The tax that apparent existential invisibility exacts trumps anything philosophy ever inflicted.
In some ways taking gainful employment works like getting a haircut or dressing up, in that it can carve a place from which we have implicit permission to walk around in public, voice an opinion, express a thought, or in the case of being a philosopher, be benignly eccentric, not to say decidedly odd.
I was horrified on two levels to discover that my own self-image wilted under the intense moral gaze of unemployment: first, I believed that you are what you are, whether or not the rest of humanity agrees. Under pressure, it appeared that belief was not quite so robust as I might have hoped. Second, I suspected my internal collapse related not only to the absence of righteous industry, but also to an alarming gap in the place I’d been happily supposing my self itself would always be.
It seemed I’d vanished under the weight of my own expectations. Once questioned – What if I changed career? What if I stopped doing philosophy? – my ideas of me were revealed as scarily inadequate. “I philosophise therefore I am (me)” turns out to be a shaky foundation upon which to base my essence.
Taking work as anything is shoehorning yourself to fit a set of ideas, ideas which in turn inform deceptively definitive patterns of existence and trajectories of achievement. Deceptive because it can start to seem that these exhaust the number of possible ways we can be or be understood. To counter this, I’ve come to equate philosophy with a shoe, albeit, for me, a particularly comfortable one.