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  • Matt Andersson

    This is an interesting topic, if I understand the writer (I find her writing of a somewhat unconventional form that has to be decoded a bit; perhaps that is the general nature of the academic philosopher). So, concerning that act of teaching, or advice thereby, and especially over the act of writing (and thinking writing), I agree with her (again if I understand her) that such advice is loaded with uncertainties or difficulties; however let me say that teaching, instructing or advice, like thinking itself or in the overused word in business, “leadership,” is specific. That is, it depends on context, use, application and other specific factors. Giving someone advice on say, playing a musical instrument or flying an airplane, can be very effective and by efffective I mean resulting in learning (what is the definition of learning? Here’s one: “a change in behavior as a result of experience”). In writing however, let me merely suggest that without making the task overly complex, one can, for example, begin to be a better writer by first, not being a bad one. How to proceed? A good place is the Prentice Hall Handbook for Writers that includes exercises in re-writing poor sentences (grammar, syntax, logic) and in re-writing good writing (the précis). And like learning a truly foreign language such as Russian for example, the act of translation is instructive in developing expertise in philology. Otherwise the example of someone like Atwood is more a case of an admirer asking not how one can write, but typically how one can write like Atwood. Which is probably a counterproductive goal and like a student asking the writer here how to be a philosopher, equally confused (my answer? Read Schopenhauer: take a class in logic and one survey from Thales to Gadamer,and, you’re on your way–the rest is up to you, and you’re done with the academy). One last thought about both writing and philosophy: both depend on application. If writing, writing what? A novel; short story; essay; poem; script; biography; historical thesis; tweet, email, comment, business memo; business plan; legal brief, motion, complaint, affirmative defense, opinion? And in what domain and for what audience? All is specific. In philosophy, what philosophy? History; logic or set theory; philosophy of science; political philosophy; legal, moral, linguistic, existential, economic, social, or perhaps philosophy of education? All is specific. Popper is in my view the voice of constant logic: philosophy loses its coherency unless it is focused on solving a specific problem outside philosophy proper. So to answer a young adult asking how to be a philosopher? Go be a problem solver in an actual domain, which may mean there is really no such thing as philosophy proper. Regards, ’96

  • NM

    Interesting piece, thank you.
    The examples of advice you give are all failed attempts, prompted on request. But you probably see that from such failures it doesn’t follow that advice is a myth. You conceive advice as transformative but impersonal, intended to transform anyone, and this characterization gives it the place of a bit of doctrine. But if wise advice is a condensed bit of doctrine, than it is not narrowly concerned with this or that practical matter but with providing orientation. I tend to think of it then as something quite pristine: a poetic expression of one’s wisdom. So instead of the list of failures and the abounding display of false advice, you might consider something more akin to the Wisdom Books of the Tanakh, perhaps the Book of Proverbs. ‘Love covereth all sins’: impersonal, transformative and, indeed, stays with you for the long haul.

  • Matt Andersson

    As a brief follow up: it is evidently the writer’s intent, as I discussed this issue further with those more expert than I am, to deliberate over responses or advice to inquiries that are vocational; that is, if one asks “how do I become a philosopher” the writer’s frame of reference is (strictly) of a student seeking career advice and employment guidance. Those are two rather separate issues however, from actually being a philosopher (somewhere on that spectrum). Academic philosophy is not really philosophy, per se. At least, not if one defines the role or function as a problem solving enterprise. It may indeed involve pedagogy but that too is somewhat a different inquiry. It is unfortunate that the writer (apparently) struggles with how to answer or respond to such a student question, and by unfortunate I mean unnecessarily vague and instrumental. There is in fact much to say concerning such a question but an academic philosophy professor is probably the less prepared source of a productive or imaginative response. I do not mean to be cynical but rather merely factual. I would otherwise advise a student–undergrad or grad–to find specific application outside philosophy proper (natural cience, business, education, law, finance, cognitive sciences, engineering; but please, not politics or public policy until you have a substrate of experience) unless historical research is an objective, but even there, many alternatives exist to the academy. And otherwise in my view, current students may profit from contemplating a philosophical project rather different from the academic environment they assume as dominant. A good place to start (if not deeply investigate) is the APP/PWB project by philosopher (the real kind) Robert Hanna (https://againstprofphil.org/blog/). I hope otherwise that this is of some constructive advice. With Regards. ’96 (Booth MBA)

  • Tom D

    Thanks, excellent advice.

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This is the fourth in a series of columns on public philosophy by Agnes Callard; read more here.

We live in a glorious era of podcasting, public conversation and boundary-crossing interest in niche academic areas. It’s a great time to be a public intellectual, except for one thing: the part of the interview known as the “advice segment.” When someone is found to have specialized knowledge that provokes public engagement and interest, you can bet she will be asked to offer suggestions as to how others might follow in her footsteps. And you can bet those suggestions will be useless.

The novelist Margaret Atwood, in a recent interview, responds to the relevant request with the predictable advice to write every day. Then, perhaps prompted by the fact that earlier in that very interview she admitted to not writing every day herself, she follows it up with: “I don’t, but you should. Because if you’re a starting-out writer, that’s good for you.”

She continues (I suspect she can hear how little wisdom she has just communicated): “But the main thing to remember is, nobody’s going to see it until you let them. So you need not be inhibited when you’re actually writing. It’s just between you and the page. And if you don’t like what you wrote that day, the wastepaper basket is there for you.”

Given that “be uninhibited” is pretty useless advice to the inhibited, the information Atwood has actually conveyed here is “be prepared to throw out what you write.”  Which is to say, “practice writing.” If you asked someone for advice about how to be a writer, and she said, “practice writing,” it would be hard to hear that response unsarcastically.

Atwood is a brilliant and successful writer; she has a lifetime’s worth of wisdom gleaned from near-daily battles with the blank page. She is gamely endeavoring to give the interviewer what he asks for: she wants to be helpful; she is trying to play ball. So why does she keep tripping herself up? Why does her advice sound empty and canned? (Who uses wastepaper baskets anymore?!)

I have a lot of empathy for Atwood: When starry-eyed students come to my office to ask for tips and strategies for becoming a philosopher, I find myself cringing in anticipation of the drivel I am about to spout. My advice isn’t “bad” in the sense that it will lead them astray, but it is bad nonetheless, in that it won’t lead them anywhere. It’s as though right before I give the advice, I push a button that sucks all the informational content out of what I’m about to say, and I end up saying basically nothing at all.

This problem does not afflict every form of verbal assistance equally. Let me make a three-way terminological distinction between “advice,” “instructions” and “coaching.” You give someone instructions as to how achieve a goal that is itself instrumental to some (unspecified) further goal—here is how someone might get to the library, if for some reason she wanted to go there; this is the way to put toner in a printer, etc. Coaching, by contrast, effects in someone a transformative orientation towards something of intrinsic value: an athletic or intellectual or even social triumph.

Instructions make you better at doing what you (independently) valued, whereas coaching makes you better at valuing—it cues you in to what’s important, at an intellectual or physical or emotional level. Coaching takes many forms—teaching philosophy is coaching, and I see my therapist as a coach of sorts—but one thing it always requires is the kind of time-investment that generates a shared educational history. Coaching is personal.

As I’m using the word “advice,” it aims to combine the impersonal and the transformative. You could think of it as “instructions for self-transformation.” The young person is not approaching Atwood for instructionson how to operate Microsoft Word, nor is she making the unreasonable demand that Atwood become her writing coach. She wants the kind of value she would get from the second, but she wants it given to her in the manner of the first. But there is no there there. Hence the advice-giver is reduced to repeating reasonable-sounding things she has heard others say—thoughts that are watered down so far that there’s really no thought left, just water.

The problem here is a mismatch between form and content. Instrumental knowledge is knowledge of universals: whenever you have an X, it will get you a Y. I can give you such knowledge without our having any robust connection to one another. Knowledge of becoming, by contrast, always involves a particularized grasp of where the aspirant currently stands on the path between total cluelessness and near-perfection. What are her characteristic weaknesses; where does she already excel; what nudges could she use? Only someone who knows her knows this. An aspirational history is full of minute corrections, dead ends, backtracking, re-orientation and random noise. It is as idiosyncratic, odd and particular as the human being herself.

Suppose Margaret Atwood gave us a detailed account of how she got to be who she is, and pinpointed for us which events were especially formative. No aspiring writer should try to use such an account as a template for success. For one thing Atwood was surely not doing when she, for example, moved to Berlin or took up a job teaching grammar was: following in anyone else’s footsteps. The moral of every great person’s story seems to be that they were not trying to retell another’s. Indeed, one of the paradoxes of advice seems to be that those most likely to be asked for it are least likely to have taken anyone else’s: their projects of “becoming” are the most particularized of all.

It would be really nice if information that could transform someone’s values was able to be handed over as cheaply as driving instructions. In such a world, people could be of profound assistance to one another with little investment in one another’s lives. The myth of advice is the possibility that we can transform one another with the most glancing contact, and so it is not surprising that one finds so much advice exchanged on social media. When people are not fighting on Twitter, they are cheerfully and helpfully telling one another how to live. In that context, advice functions as a kind of small talk or social glue: it helps people feel they are getting along in a space not bound together by any kind of shared weather.

There is probably nothing wrong with this, as long as we do not let it bleed into those contexts in which real assistance is possible. I do not have tips or tricks for becoming a philosopher to hand over to my students; my wisdom is contained in the slog of philosophical argument—the daily grind of reading old books, picking out the premises, tearing them apart. I can make you better at that, by showing you how to do more of this and less of that. I can’t help you become a philosopher without being your philosophy teacher, any more than I can massage you without touching you. Someone who wiggles her fingers and pretends she has magical powers isn’t actually getting you anywhere.

Real assistance requires contact. It is, however, worth noting that not all contact needs to take a two-way form. Atwood can be quite helpful to young and confused people whom she has never met, for they might, nonetheless, have met her. I was one of those people. There is an image from her novel Cat’s Eye that has stayed with me for almost thirty years now: a girl who peels the bottoms of her feet to deal with her loneliness and alienation. It’s an image of knowing one’s own difference and punishing oneself for it, and, at the same time, of suffering as a game one plays with oneself, and thereby takes possession of. As a teenager I connected it with the story of the little mermaid, who suffers in a similar way for her humanity, and with my own feeling that the process of self-creation involved a fair amount of violence to myself. I expect I’ll be unpacking that image all my life, learning as I go along.

 

Art credit: Nathan Sawaya; photo by Mary Harrsch (CC / BY Flickr)

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  • Matt Andersson

    This is an interesting topic, if I understand the writer (I find her writing of a somewhat unconventional form that has to be decoded a bit; perhaps that is the general nature of the academic philosopher). So, concerning that act of teaching, or advice thereby, and especially over the act of writing (and thinking writing), I agree with her (again if I understand her) that such advice is loaded with uncertainties or difficulties; however let me say that teaching, instructing or advice, like thinking itself or in the overused word in business, “leadership,” is specific. That is, it depends on context, use, application and other specific factors. Giving someone advice on say, playing a musical instrument or flying an airplane, can be very effective and by efffective I mean resulting in learning (what is the definition of learning? Here’s one: “a change in behavior as a result of experience”). In writing however, let me merely suggest that without making the task overly complex, one can, for example, begin to be a better writer by first, not being a bad one. How to proceed? A good place is the Prentice Hall Handbook for Writers that includes exercises in re-writing poor sentences (grammar, syntax, logic) and in re-writing good writing (the précis). And like learning a truly foreign language such as Russian for example, the act of translation is instructive in developing expertise in philology. Otherwise the example of someone like Atwood is more a case of an admirer asking not how one can write, but typically how one can write like Atwood. Which is probably a counterproductive goal and like a student asking the writer here how to be a philosopher, equally confused (my answer? Read Schopenhauer: take a class in logic and one survey from Thales to Gadamer,and, you’re on your way–the rest is up to you, and you’re done with the academy). One last thought about both writing and philosophy: both depend on application. If writing, writing what? A novel; short story; essay; poem; script; biography; historical thesis; tweet, email, comment, business memo; business plan; legal brief, motion, complaint, affirmative defense, opinion? And in what domain and for what audience? All is specific. In philosophy, what philosophy? History; logic or set theory; philosophy of science; political philosophy; legal, moral, linguistic, existential, economic, social, or perhaps philosophy of education? All is specific. Popper is in my view the voice of constant logic: philosophy loses its coherency unless it is focused on solving a specific problem outside philosophy proper. So to answer a young adult asking how to be a philosopher? Go be a problem solver in an actual domain, which may mean there is really no such thing as philosophy proper. Regards, ’96

  • NM

    Interesting piece, thank you.
    The examples of advice you give are all failed attempts, prompted on request. But you probably see that from such failures it doesn’t follow that advice is a myth. You conceive advice as transformative but impersonal, intended to transform anyone, and this characterization gives it the place of a bit of doctrine. But if wise advice is a condensed bit of doctrine, than it is not narrowly concerned with this or that practical matter but with providing orientation. I tend to think of it then as something quite pristine: a poetic expression of one’s wisdom. So instead of the list of failures and the abounding display of false advice, you might consider something more akin to the Wisdom Books of the Tanakh, perhaps the Book of Proverbs. ‘Love covereth all sins’: impersonal, transformative and, indeed, stays with you for the long haul.

  • Matt Andersson

    As a brief follow up: it is evidently the writer’s intent, as I discussed this issue further with those more expert than I am, to deliberate over responses or advice to inquiries that are vocational; that is, if one asks “how do I become a philosopher” the writer’s frame of reference is (strictly) of a student seeking career advice and employment guidance. Those are two rather separate issues however, from actually being a philosopher (somewhere on that spectrum). Academic philosophy is not really philosophy, per se. At least, not if one defines the role or function as a problem solving enterprise. It may indeed involve pedagogy but that too is somewhat a different inquiry. It is unfortunate that the writer (apparently) struggles with how to answer or respond to such a student question, and by unfortunate I mean unnecessarily vague and instrumental. There is in fact much to say concerning such a question but an academic philosophy professor is probably the less prepared source of a productive or imaginative response. I do not mean to be cynical but rather merely factual. I would otherwise advise a student–undergrad or grad–to find specific application outside philosophy proper (natural cience, business, education, law, finance, cognitive sciences, engineering; but please, not politics or public policy until you have a substrate of experience) unless historical research is an objective, but even there, many alternatives exist to the academy. And otherwise in my view, current students may profit from contemplating a philosophical project rather different from the academic environment they assume as dominant. A good place to start (if not deeply investigate) is the APP/PWB project by philosopher (the real kind) Robert Hanna (https://againstprofphil.org/blog/). I hope otherwise that this is of some constructive advice. With Regards. ’96 (Booth MBA)

  • Tom D

    Thanks, excellent advice.

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