Why we shouldn’t study what we love

I recognize that I could only start to write about this … once I related to it. I dislike myself for this; my scholarly pride likes to think I can write about the unrelatable, too. Eric Schliesser

Philosophy students often receive the advice that they should focus on topics that they have a passion for. So if you have fallen for Sartre, ancient scepticism or theories of justice, the general advice is to go for one of those. On the face of it, this seems quite reasonable. A strong motivation might predict good results which, in turn, might motivate you further. However, I think that you might actually learn more by exposing yourself to material, topics and questions that you initially find remote, unwieldy or even boring. In what follows, I’d like to counter the common idea that you should follow your passions and interests, and try to explain why it might help to study things that feel remote.

Let me begin by admitting that this approach is partly motivated by my own experience as a student. I loved and still love to read Nietzsche, especially his aphorisms in The Gay Science. There is something about his prose that just clicks. Yet, I was always sure that I couldn’t write anything interesting about his work. Instead, I began to study Wittgenstein’s Tractatus and works from the Vienna Circle. During my first year, most of these writings didn’t make sense to me: I didn’t see why they found what they said significant; most of the terminology and writing style was unfamiliar. In my second year, I made things worse by diving into medieval philosophy, especially Ockham’s Summa Logicae and Quodlibeta. Again, not because I loved these works. In fact, I found them unwieldy and sometimes outright boring. So why would I expose myself to these things? Already at the time, I felt that I was actually learning something: I began to understand concerns that were alien to me; I learned new terminology; I learned to read Latin. Moreover, I needed to use tools, secondary literature and dictionaries. And for Ockham’s technical terms, there often were no translations. So I learned moving around in the dark. There was no passion for the topics or texts. But speaking with hindsight (and ignoring a lot of frustration along the way), I think I discovered techniques and ultimately even a passion for learning, for familiarising myself with stuff that didn’t resonate with me in the least. (In a way, it seemed to turn out that it’s a lot easier to say interesting things about boring texts than to say even boring things about interesting texts.)

Looking back at these early years of study, I’d now say that I discovered a certain form of scholarly explanation. While reading works I liked was based on a largely unquestioned understanding, reading these unwieldy new texts required me to explain them to myself. This in turn, prompted two things: To explain these texts (to myself), I needed to learn about the new terminology etc. Additionally, I began to learn something new about myself. Discovering that certain things felt unfamiliar to me, while others seemed familiar meant that I belonged to one kind of tradition rather than another. Make no mistake: Although I read Nietzsche with an unquestioned familiarity, this doesn’t mean that I could have explained, say, his aphorisms any better than the strange lines of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus. The fact that I thought I understood Nietzsche didn’t give me any scholarly insights about his work. So on top of my newly discovered form of explanation I also found myself in a new relation to myself or to my preferences. I began to learn that it was one thing to like Nietzsche and quite another to explain Nietzsche’s work, and still another to explain one’s own liking (perhaps as being part of a tradition).

So my point about not studying what you like is a point about learning, learning to get oneself into a certain mode of reading. Put more fancily: learning to do a certain way of (history of) philosophy. Being passionate about some work or way of thinking is something that is in need of explanation, just as much as not being passionate and feeling unfamiliar about something needs explaining. Such explanations are greatly aided by alienation. As I said in an earlier post, a crucial effect of alienation is a shift of focus. You can concentrate on things that normally escape your attention: the logical or conceptual structures for instance, ambiguities, things that seemed clear get blurred and vice versa. In this sense, logical formalisation or translation are great tools of alienation that help you to raise questions, and generally take an explanatory stance, even to your most cherished texts.

As a student, discovering this mode of scholarly explanation instilled pride, a pride that can be hurt when explanations fail or evade us. It was remembering this kind of pain, described in the motto of this post, that prompted these musings. There is a lot to be said for aloof scholarship and the pride that comes with it, but sometimes it just doesn’t add up. Because there are some texts that require a more passionate or intuitive relation before we can attain a scholarly stance towards them. If the passion can’t be found, it might have to be sought. Just like our ears have to be trained before we can appreciate some forms of, say, very modern music “intuitively”.

On being a first-generation student

First off: the following is not to be taken as a tale of woe. I am grateful for whatever life has had on offer for me so far, and I am indebted to my teachers – from primary school to university and beyond – in many ways. But I felt that, given that Martin invited me to do so, I should probably provide some context to my comment on his recent post on meritocracy, in which I claimed that my being a first-generation student has had a “profound influence on how I conceive of academia”. So here goes.

I am a first-generation student from a lower-middle-class family. My grandparents on the maternal side owned and operated a small farm, my grandfather on the paternal side worked in a foundry, and his wife – my father’s mother – did off-the-books work as a cleaning woman in order to make ends meet.

When I got my first job as a lecturer in philosophy my monthly income already exceeded that of my mother, who has worked a full-time job in a hospital for more than thirty years. My father, a bricklayer by training, is by now divorced from my mother and declutters homes for a living. Sometimes he calls me in order to tell me about a particularly good bargain he stroke on the flea market.

My parents did not save money for my education. As an undergraduate I was lucky to receive close to the maximum amount of financial assistance afforded by the German Federal Law on Support in Education (BAföG) – still, I had to work in order to be able to fully support myself (tuition fees, which had just been introduced when I began my studies, did not help). At the worst time, I juggled three jobs on the side. I have work experience as a call center agent (bad), cleaning woman (not as bad), fitness club receptionist (strange), private tutor (okay), and teaching assistant (by far the nicest experience).

Not every middle-class family is the same, of course. Nor is every family in which both parents are non-academics. Here is one way in which the latter differ: There are those parents who encourage – or, sometimes, push – their children to do better than themselves, who emphasize the value of higher education, who make sure their children acquire certain skills that are tied to a particular habitus (like playing the piano), who provide age-appropriate books and art experiences. My parents were not like that. “Doing well”, especially for my father, meant having a secure and “down-to-earth” job, ideally for a lifetime. For a boy, this would have been a craft. Girls, ostensibly being less well-suited for handiwork, should strive for a desk job – or aim “to be provided for”. My father had strong reservations about my going to grammar school, even though I did well in primary school and despite my teacher’s unambiguous recommendation. I think it never occurred to him that I could want to attend university – academia was a world too far removed from his own to even consider that possibility.

I think that my upbringing has shaped – and shapes – my experience of academia in many ways. Some of these I consider good, others I have considered stifling at times. And some might even be loosely related to Martin’s blogpost about meritocracy. Let me mention a few points (much of what follows is not news, and has been put more eloquently by others):

  • Estrangement. An awareness of the ways in which the experiences of my childhood and youth, my interests and preferences, my habits and skills differ from what I consider a prototypical academic philosopher – and I concede that my picture of said prototype might be somewhat exaggerated – has often made me feel “not quite at home” in academia. At the same time, my “professional advancement” has been accompanied by a growing estrangement from my family. This is something that, to my knowledge, many first-generation students testify to, and which can be painful at times. My day-to-day life does not have much in common with my parents’ life, my struggles (Will this or that paper ever get published?) must seem alien, if not ridiculous, to them. They have no clear idea of what it is that I do, other than that it consists of a lot of desk-sitting, reading, and typing. And I think it is hard for them to understand why anyone would even want to do something like this. One thing I am pretty sure of is that academia is, indeed, or in one sense at least, a comparatively cozy bubble. And while I deem it admirable to think of ways of how to engage more with the public, I am often unsure about how much of what we actually do can be made intelligible to “the folk”, or justified in the face of crushing real-world problems.
  • Empathy. One reason why I am grateful for my experiences is that they help me empathize with my students, especially those who seem to be afflicted by some kind of hardship – or so I think. I believe that I am a reasonably good and well-liked teacher, and I think that part of what makes my teaching good is precisely this: empathy. Also, I believe that my experiences are responsible for a heightened sensibility to mechanisms of inclusion and exclusion, and privilege. I know that – being white, having grown up in a relatively secure small town, being blessed with resilience and a certain kind of stubbornness, and so on – I am still very well-off. And I do not want to pretend that I know what it is like to come from real poverty, or how it feels to be a victim of racism or constant harassment. But I hope that I am reasonably open to others’ stories about these kinds of things.
  • Authority. In my family of origin, the prevailing attitude towards intellectuals was a strange mixture between contempt and reverence. Both sentiments were probably due to a sense of disparity: intellectuals seemed to belong to a kind of people quite different from ourselves. This attitude has, I believe, shaped how I perceived of my teachers when I was a philosophy student. I noticed that our lecturers invited us – me – to engage with them “on equal terms”, but I could not bring myself to do so. I had a clear sense of hierarchy; to me, my teachers were authorities. I did eventually manage to speak up in class, but I often felt at a loss for words outside of the classroom setting with its relatively fixed and easily discernable rules. I also struggled with finding my voice in class papers, with taking up and defending a certain position. I realize that this struggle is probably not unique to first-generation students, or to students from lower-class or lower-middle-class backgrounds, or to students whose parents are immigrants, et cetera – but I believe that the struggle is often aggravated by backgrounds like these. As teachers, I think, we should pay close attention to the different needs our students might have regarding how we engage with them. It should go without saying, but if someone seems shy or reserved, don’t try to push them into a friendly and casual conversation about the model of femininity and its relation to sexuality in the novel you recently read.
  • Merit. Now, how does all this relate to the idea of meritocracy? I think there is a lot to say about meritocracy, much more than can possibly be covered in a (somewhat rambling) blogpost. But let me try to point out at least one aspect. Martin loosely characterizes the belief in meritocracy as the belief that “if you’re good or trying hard enough, you’ll get where you want”. But what does “being good enough” or “trying hard enough” amount to in the first place? Are two students who write equally good term papers working equally hard? What if one of them has two children to care for while the other one still lives with and is supported by her parents? What if one struggles with depression while the other does not? What if one comes equipped with “cultural capital” and a sense of entitlement, while the other feels undeserving and stupid? I am not sure about how to answer these questions. But one thing that has always bothered me is talk of students being “smart” or “not so smart”. Much has been written about this already. And yet, some people still talk that way. Many of the students I teach struggle with writing scientific prose, many of them struggle with understanding the assigned readings, many of them struggle with the task of “making up their own minds” or “finding their voice”. And while I agree that those who do not struggle, or who do not struggle as much, should, of course, be encouraged and supported – I sometimes think that the struggling students might be the ones who benefit the most from our teaching philosophy, and for whom our dedication and encouragement might really make a much-needed difference. It certainly did so for me.

On (dis)orientation and the epistemology of personal experience. A response to Martin Lenz

In a previous blog post, Martin wondered what we can say about the current crisis without simply repeating or questioning statistics or predictions. And he answered this question in a performative manner, as I interpreted it, namely by devoting most of his blog post to a discussion centered around the importance of personal experience in this time of crisis.

And this might be thought to be a good point of departure, too, since we are dealing with a crisis of such a massive scale that we all feel and experience it personally in any case. That is to say, irrespective of our geographical location or societal context, the crisis appears to us in the guise of something that immediately intrudes into and changes our lives. And so, the outbreak of Covid-19 affects us all, globally and indiscriminately, but at the same time also in irreducibly personal ways. And this makes is so that we are, perhaps, better served by personal experience than by imagination or theory if we want to understand our current situation, or so one might think.

However, this is a thought that needs to be heavily qualified and scrutinized, I believe, because, as it turns out, we are indeed all affected by the current crisis, but not all in the same way or in the same measure. And this renders an uncritical reference to personal experience more than a little problematic, seeing as it could all too easily lead into false generalizations and ideological deadlocks.

This is a problem that became especially pronounced, to my mind, when I considered Martin’s personal experience as he described it in his above-mentioned blog post and compared it with my own personal experience and the experiences that were reported by my friends. Because whereas Martin (and some of my friends) reported experiences of disorientation, confusion, and a loss of cognitive mapping in light of the crisis, I myself (and some of my other friends) reported experiences of validation, of a strengthening of our pre-existing beliefs, and of ideological certitude.

And so, the questions that I began asking myself, in light of these conflicting reports, were questions along the lines of ‘Who is actually on the right track here?’ and ‘Whose experiences are epistemically reliable?’. After all, if we assume that our personal experience of orientation or disorientation – i.e., our sense of our ability to ‘make sense’ of things – has an epistemic import, then it is not so outlandish to believe that an experience of disorientation might indicate a cognitive failure and that an experience of orientation might indicate a cognitive success.

But this is precisely a juncture at which I recognize a possibility for an error to creep into our thinking. Because it seems to me that an experience marked by a sense of having found one’s orientation despite the maelstrom of events is, in fact, always epistemically uninformative; whereas an experience marked by disorientation can be epistemically informative, but, even then, only in a negative way.

And so, to illustrate, let us first consider the experience of (still) being able to make sense of things. This has so far been my own experience in the face of the crisis and it is the reported experience of some of my friends, too, which means that it can be said that, for us, nothing has fundamentally changed since the beginning of the crisis. Our beliefs and expectations did not need to be altered because of the Covid-19 outbreak, and the worldwide response to it only confirmed our pre-existing beliefs and expectations.

The reasons for this are multifaceted and complex, as they are wont to be, but for the most part they boil down to us being Marxists. And so, naturally, we have no faith in the bourgeois state that can be eclipsed by its current legitimation crisis, nor any confidence in market economies that can be shaken by the onset of yet another economic recession. Moreover, as Marxists, we have of course been having a field day in theoretical and political discussions in the last weeks, because the way in which the crisis is unfolding – tragic as it may be – makes our positions easier to illustrate and more defensible than they have been in decades. Indeed, from a certain perspective, it may even seem as though the response to the current crisis, which is shaped by material pressures and practical necessities more than that it is determined by any normative ideals or moral considerations, has been specifically designed to provide new empirical grounds for historical materialists to stand on.

And so, for us, there is no disconfirmation; no disorientation. Our personal experience has a rather sanguine overall character in spite of all that has happened, and our beliefs have never seemed more true or justified than they seem now. But, even so, this momentary stability or sense of coherence does not, to my mind, bear any positive epistemic significance. After all, it could be based on quicksand.

Indeed, in this regard the standpoint that my Marxist friends and I now avail ourselves of is, structurally speaking, not so different from the standpoint that Francis Fukuyama availed himself of when he announced the end of history and the timeless marriage of liberal democracy and free market capitalism. That allowed him to make sense of many things, too, at a time when any honest Marxist would have admitted to feeling very disoriented in light of the then-recent world historical events and the collapse of ‘actually existing socialism’. Yet the tables have turned on Fukuyama rather spectacularly in the meantime, and nothing about his experience of being able to make sense of things at the time could have tipped him off to that possibility, I imagine.

So, the experience of being able to make sense of things is, in itself, not epistemically useful. It makes one neither better nor worse off when it comes to finding the truth or developing appropriate ways of relating to the world. After all, an experience such as this can occur accidentally, too, due to unknown or misunderstood causes that only make it seem as though one has understood something, while one has, in fact, misapprehended or badly contextualized it. And, of course, we also have a tendency of initially repressing our awareness of any evidence that makes our heartfelt convictions and cherished frameworks unworkable, meaning that we sometimes still feel like we can make sense of things even though some pieces of the puzzle already do not quite fit.

But what about the opposite experience, then? What about an experience of disorientation, such as the one that Martin and others reportedly have (had) in light of the crisis?

Well, here I think things look differently. That is, I think that an experience of disorientation can be epistemically useful, even when it is considered by itself. And the reason for this is that an experience of disorientation occurs when one is trying to orient oneself – i.e., when one is trying to make sense of things – but is frustrated in the attempt. And it seems to me that such an experience of frustration, as a rule, needs to have some real cause.

After all, why would one have trouble making sense of things if there is not something outside of oneself that directly and manifestly renders one’s ideas unfeasible or unfitting? And so, for this reason, it can safely be said that an experience of disorientation almost certainly reflects an actual incongruity between the reality one tries to subsume under one’s Notion, on the one hand, and one’s Notion itself, on the other hand. Moreover, this will be an incongruity that one, in some sense, cannot get around when one has such an experience. The contradiction is too obvious or too glaring here; it distorts one’s whole experiential field, that is why one feels disoriented.

And, what is more, it seems likely that, if one attends to one’s experience of disorientation closely enough, one can glimpse the real cause of the disorientation, too, precisely because the experience of disorientation is so intimately tied to some directly experienced incongruity. And this then also means that the experience of disorientation provides a key, not so much to positive knowledge, but certainly to a specific diagnosis of what went wrong. In other words, an experience of disorientation immanently provides the dialectical means to its own solution; at least when one attends to it closely enough. Or that is the hope anyway.

However, beyond this, I doubt that personal experience – even when it is theoretically developed and considered as a totality – should be considered a reliable guide to positive knowledge. It is simply too partial and conditioned, and not to mention too determined by self-serving interests, for us to put stock in it.