View this post on Instagram
I’m slowly making my way through Malebranche’s magnum opus, The Search After Truth – so far its a super fun text. Malebranche spends a lot of time in the first two major sections on criticising his contemporaries for their lack of clear thinking. This quote is just a small sample – but there are many many others in the first two books of this text. Not long after this passage, he moves on to criticising some prior thinkers: Tertullian, Seneca, and Montaigne. He’s particularly strong worded about Montaigne, of whom he says that “He worked hard to give himself the air of a gentleman, but he did not work to give himself a precise mind, or at least he did not succeed in doing so.” Malebranche is by no means an exception in his harsh words about other thinkers. We see this happen today as well – with some prominent philosophers having a reputation for just how mean they are about others. Personally, I think this sort of adversarial attitude hurts us more than helps.
While this was a slow week for me writing on the blog, it has been a big week of reading things online. I have a new post on some early modern weirdness coming up on Wednesday (the key phrase is De Morbo Galico, for those who know). Until then, here is a brief digest of some of the more exciting things I’d read this week; quite Marx heavy, but then, it was his 200th birthday this week.
A nice little excerpt from David Graeber’s latest in the Guardian // Marshall Berman recounts his first adventure with Marx in Jacobin // Steven Sherman interviews Jim Ledbetter on his new collection of Marx’s journalism // Sarah Laskow on the hidden side of libraries at Atlas Obscura // Rachel Kadish on recovering the lost lives of women in the Paris Review // Lorraine Boissoneault on why we travel at the JSTOR Blog // Jedediah Purdy’s review of a bunch of #resistance themed books at Dissent //
I’m fortunate enough to be getting steady tutoring work in philosophy at my institution. In Australia, teaching isn’t tied to graduate funding the way it is elsewhere, so not everyone has the inclination to do it. One of the things I like about teaching is getting to know my students. Some students tend to just coast through, which is fine – they were curious and found philosophy isn’t for them. Others think it’s a good way of rounding out their arts degree, perhaps with an eye to studying something else later. Others still come into philosophy, find they love it, and in their surprise over this find they’re not sure what to do. Sometimes these students come to me for advice on whether they should pursue philosophy beyond their three-year undergraduate degree. Recently I’d had one of these sort of conversations with a few students, so I thought it’d be worth sharing in case any of my readers were also on the fence.
Before I go on, my advice is very Australia-centric, and I know the degrees are organised in different ways in various places. The advice I have to give is also quite idiosyncratic – I think you’ll probably get as many opinions as you have philosophy grad students in any given room. My hope is that some of these things apply more generally and will be useful to anyone still on the fence.
I’m unsure if there is an equivalent thing to this outside of the UK or Australian education system. Here, Honours is a 4th year added to your Bachelor’s degree, during which you write an extended thesis in the field of your major, along with some coursework. Usually it’s intended as a stepping stone towards postgraduate study, and in Australia it’s a requirement. I think this extra year is worth the effort, even if you don’t decide to study philosophy further. Firstly, it’s a taste of what real research is like – you do a lot of very focused work on a topic, you end up knowing more than your supervisor might, and it’s a great way to finish off your arts degree. From my experience doing honours in philosophy makes the whole degree worth much more – it polishes the writing, researching, and critical thinking skills you get through studying philosophy to a really high degree, and if that’s where your adventure ended, you’ll have gotten the most of the opportunities a BA can provide. Secondly, if you have doubts about whether you want to do more philosophy, honours will help you resolve them. It’s a really tough year – the amount of reading you have to absorb and understand is just huge, and it can be tremendously stressful, much like graduate school is. You’ll meet some awesome people though, and the classes you can take are way more fun then the undergrad classes. So I absolutely recommend it – it was my favourite part of my arts degree.
People are divided on this. In Australia, you typically only need honours to be able to do a PhD, and some people go that way, and they do very well. In the US and elsewhere, the MA is sometimes included as part of the PhD program. If you do just an MA, it’s sometimes called a “terminal master’s”. I did one, partly because my grades weren’t strong enough to get me a scholarship for a PhD, and partly because I didn’t feel ready. As for the grades, the MA is your make or break moment – you can do really well and then more easily get into a PhD program of your choice, or you can decide it’s ultimately not for you and finish your education at this point.
I did well, and tried applying in the US, but the competition there is ridiculous so I ended up staying at the same school I did my BA and MA. The thing I got out of the MA is that it gave me all of the skills and habits I need to do well in my PhD – I’ve been to a few conferences, I tried publishing some papers (still trying on those..), I have teaching experience, my writing is at a pretty high standard, etc. All of these will be things that you’ll need to do as a PhD student. So given that I knew I’d wanted to do a PhD, I think the MA was a very good choice.
I love philosophy, so I knew since before my honours year that this is where I wanted to be – and my end goal is working in academia (more on that later). I’ve been at it for a few months now, and so far it’s great – quite similar to the MA in many ways, but I’m much better at doing the work (experience helps) and the stakes are higher. The good thing about both the MA and PhD (and to a lesser degree Honours) is that you get to pick your topic. While you have more guidance with honours, and somewhat less with an MA, the PhD is all you. It’s super independent, and the best preparation is to start thinking early what you want to commit yourself to. I applied with a pretty well worked out proposal already in hand, and was able to hit the ground running. In general though, I think I shouldn’t say too much about whether it’s worth doing a PhD in philosophy yet – I’m only about 8 months into one.
Overall, I think there is a second part to this topic – one about job prospects after doing some postgraduate study in philosophy. I’ve had a non-academic job for about a year and a half between my MA and the start of my PhD. It left me feeling very positive about my options for non-academic work if that’s where I were to end up. It’s not a topic I’m ready to write about too much though, especially since there are lots of really good resources on the topic already. Either way though, I think studying philosophy beyond an undergraduate degree is pretty awesome, that is if you are so inclined, and if you have the sort of temperament to survive.
I’ve always been somewhat fascinated by the sometimes odd choices for the historical figures that adorn the currencies we use every day. The design of our legal tender is usually taken to be one of the ways of asserting our national identity and acknowledging those who made key contributions to our nations. This is why the US has its presidents on its money and why dictatorships and monarchies put their sovereign on theirs.
The other week I was having coffee with a friend who mentioned someone telling them about their list of philosophers who’ve made their way onto their national currencies, which made me curious to see who was deemed important enough.
I started with Wikipedia’s list of people on banknotes, and just searched for the term “philosopher”, which yielded some of the usual suspects (cough Descartes cough). It also presented me with a bit of a problem – the list didn’t count some philosophers as philosophers. The German political theorist Clara Zetkin (featured on East German marks from 1975 to 1990) is listed as a “Marxist theorist”, and not a philosopher. The Chinese philosophers Yi I and Yi Hwang are listed as “Confucian scholars”. There are more examples I could cite. The Wikipedia page is rather long, so there wasn’t a very good way of classifying these.
Besides the obvious issue with classifying who was a philosopher and who wasn’t, the second issue was my ignorance of so many of the people on the list. Thankfully, Twitter (shout-out to my friend Patrick for his help with some of these!) was a huge help.
One thing that is a mystery still is why these people were chosen. Descartes seems an obvious choice for France, given that he is without a doubt the most influential of her philosophers. But why Montesquieu as opposed to Émilie du Châtelet? (That’s a naïve question, I know – the only woman that is listed as appearing on the old French franc is Marie Curie – and she wasn’t even French, and she appears with her husband, Pierre; so there’s definitely a theme here…).
Putting the politics of choosing who gets to be on money aside, I find some of these portraits to be pretty interesting aesthetically. Some people are surrounded by some items relevant to their life. A good example is Juana Ines de la Cruz, whose portrait on the Mexican 200 peso note is set next to a book, an inkwell and part of the cloister where she lived. Are these objects the subject of the portrait would have chosen? De la Cruz was a nun – would she think any of these objects are fitting her memory?
The French 100 franc note featured a portrait of Descartes, and behind him was one of the muses holding a thick book and sitting next to an hourglass. Perhaps an allusion to his famous Olympica dreams, where he was presented with the book of knowledge. Really though, it seems an odd choice, given his other achievements are so much more prominent than his whacky story about how he had a bad dream and as a result became a philosopher.
I don’t feel it’s within my power to compile a full list of philosophers on national currencies, but it is nice knowing some have made the cut. I wonder if any contemporary philosophers would make it? I reckon Martha Nussbaum might be a good candidate – her work is wide ranging but at the same time accessible. Or maybe someone more niche would fit? It’s hard to see how any criteria proposed would be sufficient.
I’d love to hear your ideas in the comments – who do you think deserves to be put on a banknote? Why?
It’s been a busy week, so I have a super long queue of things to read waiting for me, so I imagine next week’s transmission might be much longer. This week the best thing I read was Richard Flanagan’s extraordinary address to the National Press Club republished at the Guardian //
I also recommend every one of the things below.
Paul J. Griffiths on how to be an intellectual at First Things // Ben Roth is Against Readability at the Millions // Dan Chiasson on the making of 2001: A Space Odyssey at the New Yorker // Hope Reese interviews Michelle Dean on literary criticism by women at Jstor Daily // A pretty neat looking computer game version of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden // Justin Richards on walking in Epoché Magazine //
This week went by quickly, but your morning will go by even quicker if you have a browse of this sweet reading material.
In case you missed it, I posted about Freud psychoanalysing Descartes.
Other great things to read:
Julie Sedivy on whether mind-wandering is bad for you at Nautilus // A neat collection of cool homes at the Atlantic // Jaz Hee-jeong Choi on how we can adapt society to loneliness at the Conversation // Richard Marshall reviews Mitchell Merback’s Perfection’s Therapy at 3:AM Magazine // A very cool interview with Peter Adamson on the APA Blog // Henry David Thoreau’s Walden as a computer game //