MAPH Week 23: The Pragmatic Turn

Reality check.  As amazing as his guitar, harmonium, and pornstache skills were…

Bob’s questionable fashion sense would detract from his mainstream success.

Philosophy is full of turns.  Individual philosopher’s careers can be divided into pre and post turn.  Ludwig Wittgenstein’s oeuvre is usually characterized by the early–works like his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus that applied modern logic to metaphysics, via language–and the later Wittgenstein–writer of the Philosophical Investigations who basically critiqued all traditional philosophy including his own early work.  Martin Heidegger had two turns, the earliest work focused on an analysis of the self-being (Dasein) in order to put a finger on being in general, which was followed by an analysis of being via time, before finally turning to the study how being gets destined or scattered about over history.  My careful analysis of the work of Hilary Putnam has revealed no less that two-hundred and forty-three turns from a supporter of Fregeian meaning theory, to an opponent championing semantic internalism, then semantic externalism, causal-chain theory, functionalism, and many, many more positions that weren’t even around long enough to get names.  Analytic philosophy has the pragmatic turn and the linguistic turn while continental philosophy has the theological turn and the speculative turn.  It seems that if one thinks seriously about any issue for long enough one is likely to run into a dead-end or unforseen adverse entailments so that a turn just sort of happens.

Personally, I’ve not been thinking that long or that hard on any particular issue for nearly long enough to necessitate that I burn all my notebooks and recant my earlier positions, but I have been working for the last three and a half years very, very hard at becoming a scholar and it seems I am just about at that point where a turn is necessary.  For those wondering why I’ve decided to change careers when I just got a job, I’m not talking about a change of vocation–I’ve already called Disney and all the spots for male leads in future animated films have been reserved for “princes” more rogue-ish than myself.  The fact is, the past four years–three years to earn my BA in philosophy and one year for the MA–of my life have been a mad dash toward educational success and academic superiority at the cost of normal life: friends and family, hearth and home, comfort and relationship.  The mantra of the past four years has been “we can do this now because soon it will be over.”  So selling our beloved home, most of our stuff, moving to a new area, saying good-bye to friends and family, and an absolute willingness to sacrifice anything and everything to ensure the success of my academic career was rationalized under the heading of this “Long-term Goal.”

Now, with a great academic job secured and graduation just a few months ahead I find that my wife and I have turned–from the anxiety and exhaustion of the scholastic rat race toward the pragmatic concerns of finding a new house, decorating, and perhaps making a kid or two.  It feels like a real paradigm shift, from focusing on “winning” the academic game to actually enjoying a bit of what we’ve worked so hard for.  Now, I know that there will be more continuity than discontinuity in my switch from student to professor than I might like.  I spent many, many hours at the curb as an undergraduate listening to professor’s lamenting and stressing out about administrative changes and academic politics and I know that I’ll have to work just as hard, or harder, to present information to students as I did as a student learning the information presented.  However, there is still a very real difference between being the professional in a school being paid and being the student in a school paying.

My guess is that I’m not the only one feeling a turn at this point in the MAPH year.  It seems like there are a couple new job postings being forwarded through the MAPH ListServ everyday–far more than in the first quarter–and conversation in the lounge have turned more often to internships, externships, applications, and consolations–as opposed to first quarter’s questions about analytical expositions, thesis topics, and grade point averages.  While the realities of class selection, workload, and thesis writing are still very much at the forefront of our minds, creeping ever closer are the questions about the time after–when all this preparation for life meets actual life.  No doubt there are many who have decided that a Ph.D. from a top-shelf school really isn’t all that great a prize after all and hope, instead, to find satisfying work in as a professional.  Likely, there are many–including myself–that know that MAPH graduation won’t be the last time they locate their lives in the academy–one way or another.  However, regardless of the “next step” many of us are finding ourselves becoming very concerned with how all this works in practice when so much of our academic lives have been focused on theory.

In general, the MAPH program is a pragmatic instrument.  It comes to the rescue of those needing to build some academic street cred before re-applying for Ph.D. programs.   It supplies a great way of transitioning out of an academic pedigree focused in one field and supplying a foundation work for another.   It even works as a terminal degree to convince some that this is as far down the scholarly rabbit hole as they wish to fall.  However, as a pragmatic instrument it has a tendency to keep one’s focus on the bottom line, school debt, job prospects, networking advantages, and non-traditional career paths.  In this regard I think it does a better job that the Ph.D. of keeping everyone a little hungry and a little scared.  You can’t stretch a MAPH degree out to six, seven, eight, or more years comfortable in the arms of a Ph.D. program.  You can’t turn in this quarter’s seminar papers in a couple weeks late–let alone five or six years late and I think there is something good about being forced to take an accounting of one’s own effort and standing.  If a Ph.D. has the tendency to prolong produce “perpetual students,” then the MAPH has the tendency to bring long, slow flights of academic fantasy crashing to earth.  MAPH maintains itself as a reality check to those reaching for academic success.  And that is a good thing.


2 comments on “MAPH Week 23: The Pragmatic Turn

  1. S.C. says:

    I have been meaning to communicate with you via email for a while, but have refrained so far because there is much I want to say. But your latest post really intrigues me: what is the academic job you speak of (that you have secured), and will you be pursuing your doctoral goals?

  2. maphman says:

    Hello! I was extremely fortunate to–with the assistance of several fantastic professors and administrators–get a two year contract teaching courses back at my alma mater. The dream of a Ph.D. has not, in any way, dimmed, but the reality is that academic jobs are just about as easily to get in this market as winning Illinois lottery tickets–as you know. The opportunity has presented itself now and there is no guarantee that it will come again.

    The plan, at this point, is to put in some time as a adjunct and lecturer until I either secure a place as a full professor at that institution or decide that I need return to the academy for a Ph.D. Either way, I’ll probably look for the Ph.D. within 5 to 7 years. It’s great to hear from you, I’d love to hear more about how things are going via email!

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