Saturday, August 10, 2013

Can Philosophers job strike?

Philosophers can hold signs and chant but, ironically, it's not clear they can actually stop working.

This picture makes me wonder about Philosophy as a job as compared to philosophy as a mode or style of thinking. If one has a job they can go on strike, but how can one go on strike from thinking? Suppose you were a philosopher. Maybe you'd think about different things, or maybe you would chose as often as possible to think differently, or even irrationally, about various subjects. But you can't exactly stop thinking, akin to how one might stop baking, or butchering, or candlestick making.

Generally, people strike because they feel their labor does not net them some appropriate level of material good or consumer services.  But philosophers do philosophy like vocal musicians do music.  Even when they're not getting paid, they tend to operate in the mode -- as vocal musicians tend to constantly hum or even outright sing to themselves, sometimes not even knowing it.  Philosophers likewise find it unnatural to "turn off the beam" as it were, constantly mulling over chains of evidence or counterarguments to various positions of interest. (This can often make sleeping a challenge.)

For some disciplines, people say those disciplines define who they are in some psychologically essential sense.  "I'm a writer.  That's what I am, and nothing else.  To write is to live!" and other such writing quotes abound. Many philosophers and musicians make equally strong claims about themselves in relation to their discipline.  They are not "working" the are "being". [1]  But imagine a sewer cleaner or dishwasher making the same level of claim on what they do.  It would seem very odd that a person would define the core of their being by such trivial activities.  Society seems to affirm my intuition here, since we don't have statues, schools, or bridges named after people in occupations.  However, we must be careful here, as works like this show we might indeed have statues which honor the role an occupation plays in society, but not the singular person him- or her-self whose essence is defined by that role, since such a role is not one that can adequately define a person's character.  More generally, being a hard worker, say, is a laudable fact about a person's character; but being a sewer worker is a trivial fact about their character (if it's a character fact at all).  Imagine being a hard worker, but being a state-sponsored torturer. Should that person get a statue?  I think not! [2]

Perhaps a strike would actually be about the contract for conditions of the activity, where the conditions were no longer being met by the employer.  The musician contracts to be at a certain place, time, etc and to make greater efforts to maximize their talent than s/he otherwise would if s/he hadn't contracted for a payment, yet the payment side of the contract isn't met or has suddenly become unfair on other grounds. [3] The parallel would then be true for the philosopher.  On their side of the contract, for both the musician and the philosopher the payment is for attentiveness and focus, not just for the simple activity itself.  But that addresses the level of the work, not the simply the doing (or not) of the work itself.   Overall, then, I still argue the philosopher (and similar character-essence disciplines) cannot really stop working; though, they can certainly stop working well.


[1] This reminds me of the paradoxical capitalist proverb, "If you find a job you love, you'll never work again" as uttered by Winston Churchill. The saying also might have the utility of explaining why some philosophers often appear not to be working: it's an unfortunate side-effect of loving their job so much.

[2] My analysis on the torturer here is drawn from a point that the philosopher Immanuel Kant made about virtues -- namely, that in the wrong context of willing something, virtues function as vices.  For example, consider Pat, a cool-headed, intelligent person.  At first glance, it seems Pat has at least two virtues, but now also note that Pat is a robber.  Suddenly those virtues take on a new place in the morally despicable character of the person.

[3] Imagine that owner Carol contracts with banjoist Jeb to play bluegrass music at a local Okie honkytonk in 1933 for the minimum wage of 50 cents an hour, six hours a nite.  But in 2013 the same (now geezer) owner waves the original signed document and says "a deal's a deal,  Jeb!"  Here the extenuating grounds for unfairness are easy to identify, and should have consequences.



At 3:15 PM, Anonymous Michael Speck said...

The philosopher cannot stop working and remain a philosopher. Whether or not the philosopher is doing meaningful work isn't a question of intent. If the work product relayed to the philosopher's employer is deliberately shoddy, then it is no longer the product of one who loves wisdom.

A philosopher could refuse to deliver the product: glare rather than lecture; submit doodles and keep the papers in draft form on a jump drive affixed securely to a key, along with charms from various APA conferences. Therefore a philosopher can indeed strike. The work will continue, necessitated by the philosopher's character, but it will not be for the benefit of the philosopher's employer

At 4:42 PM, Blogger Stefan Forrester said...

Hi Brint, it's your long lost pal Stefan from OU phil. dept. in the 90's. --Michael posted this on Facebook and my girlfriend sent it to me (since she is on Facebook and I am not). --I think you are essentially correct, however I don't think anyone has ever been paid to philosophize. As you suggest, that would be something like paying someone for being sentient...which is weird. We get paid to teach classes, grade papers, and serve on committees. I could easily go on strike from these activities in the same way that the butcher,, go on strike. But to go on strike from philosophizing would itself require philosophizing, i.e., marshaling sufficient evidence and arguments for justifying the strike, showing that a strike is morally justified, etc. Thus, going on strike from philosophizing generates a paradox in the same way that doubting you exist generates a paradox for Descartes.

At 6:49 PM, Blogger Brint Montgomery said...

Hey, Forrester, nice to hear from you! You should try Facebook. It's a great way to do nothing and look busy sitting in front of a computer!


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