Saturday, March 10, 2007

Professional Philosophy: A Seething Cauldron of Ressentiment

Ressentiment. That was the theme of the last panel I saw last night that got me thinking. To summarize: those who hate others because, down deep, they don't feel "equal" to them are resentful. And, in Nietzsche's account, those who become resentful act out their resentment passive aggresively. They start to value traits such as "meakness" or "impotence," denigrating those who are forceful, vital, aggressive, and direct. Schopenhauer discusses something similar when he describes why we think those who are stupid are morally virtuous: we like to feel better about ourselves by surrounding ourselves with inferiors. To cover up this devious motive, we valorize those who are intellectually inferior and we, likewise, characterize those who are our intellectual superioirs as morally depraved/evil.

The paper in particular that I was stimulated by touched on ressentiment in the profession of philosophy. The presenter (Prof. S) proposed a hypothesis that many, if not most, philosophers (particularly in SAAP) are resentful of their perceived unimportance in Academia. Prof. S analyzed some data from a questionnaire that he sent out to SAAP members, and the results made me feel a whole lot better about my situation in academia. The majority of members queried felt they had been slighted by a colleague in the past two years, but did not own up to slighting a colleague. The members believed they were teaching at colleges/universities that were "beneath" their Ph.D. granting institution. The members believed that they had little to no power to effect the direction of their home institution as a philosopher, etc.

The upshot of this analysis was to consider how we can prevent those who are resentful from destroying the community. His aim was not to figure out how to "help" those who are resentful, but rather to neutralize them. He made the point that there are not a whole lot of disincentives to bad behavior in the academy. [How can you prevent the damage of ressentiment if it is indeed this widespread?]

I passed a note to "I," that I certainly didn't feel any of these things. "I" responded: "this must be what happens if you go work at a large research university."

Upon further reflection of this paper, I am struck by how depressing a picture this paints of my profession. I have been feeling rather restless since I got tenure. The fear is that I will be teaching for the rest of my life and doing nothing else to contribute to my field. I sometimes wonder if I should try another profession or move to administration. But, I think these desires come from feeling impotent in my field. And yet, I hear from this paper that most of the "big names" in Philosophy feel slighted, resentful, angry, and bitter. What's up?

I think a lot of this comes back to ambitiousness. Those who are ambitious in my field seem to injure a lot of of folks on their way up. They snub them, steal their work, poison their self-esteem, etc. Maybe they don't do it consciously; they are just convinced of their own right to be and to thrive and so believe that they way they are treating others is perfectly normal. If one succeeds in their quest to earn a named professorship and a large salary (by academic standards), then they have amassed quite a few enemies along the way.

My question is: are all of those enemies simply resentful? Are the bruised egos that the ambitious one trampled on to blame for their resentful nature? Are all those who succeed (by the standards I described above) Nietzsche's ubermenchen? Aren't some of them just more clever and devious bearers of ressentiment?

I guess what is really gnawing at me this morning is the question: why is ambition a pre-requisite for being influential in the field of Philosophy?

My other, perhaps more important, question is: if Prof. S's portrait of professional philosophy is true, then how on earth does anyone get a job? Do you have to demonstrate that you are not a threat to your colleagues? Do you play down your energy, enthusiasm and vitality? Do you play to the egos of those hiring you? And, where are the students in all of these considerations?