Philosopher Labor

Reading today on Marx’s theories of political economy proposed in Capital was enough to send me again to my thoughts of philosopher labor. What is the exchange labor of a philosopher?  Are philosophers exploited, alienated from their labor? Who owns the production of philosophical thought?  And what is the going rate of a well-crafted, carefully cited tome on the global market?

These are, of course, Marx’s terms. What I mean to say is:  I set a course to teach religion at a liberal arts institution but I seem to be marching towards obsolescence.  Humanities courses are not what is driving higher education these days, so while more people are enrolled in higher education than ever before, the proportion of those taking courses has diminished.   There are many of us who are getting training in graduate schools to fill positions at these coveted ivy-covered institutions but not enough jobs for us to have. Add to this the arduous path to getting one of these highly sought jobs and it seems that reading philosophy is a skill that has no marketplace.

Arguments go that it never did, that the “life of the mind” was never up for commodification.  Of course, they are wrong: romanticization of philosophy as an avocation, external to political economy is what sells philosophy.

But “Professional Philosopher” sounds borish and inauthentic.  A philosopher who works is more aptly a “writer” or a “teacher.”  The tools of the philosopher are words, not ideas, as at first glance one would assume.  And with these tools, the philosopher-laborer makes sentences and paragraphs for others to consume.  What is yet to determine is if there is a market for these goods, if the philosopher-laborer can make enough to feed herself, to take vacations in beautiful places and have time for friends. Unfortunately, being a professional philosopher, ironically, leaves little time to think: he works too hard for too little money, and every year passing, capital’s intensification demands more output, more papers, more conferences, more teaching hours, more service time, for the same amount of money and less prestige than was once enjoyed by those of the generation who taught us our Marx, and Kant, our Weber and Freud.

More to the point: while I am a lover of wisdom–a philosopher–I am not sure that my products will do well in this challenging economic climate. I may be producing shoddy goods, and indeed, compared to the teachers and philosophers I admire, I am unlearned and undisciplined. My word-tools build too many passive constructions. My paragraphs fall over in a stiff breeze.  Who would want to live in any of these theoretical houses I build?

I imagine myself adrift in the internet sea among the talented and thoughtful people I run into in comment sections and on blogs.  They make a living in some fashion, don’t they? They do, perhaps, but most of them from other work in the offline world. Clever people, producing ideas in their free time to put up for nothing on the internet. Do they blog and fill up comment threads because they like it? Or because they hope to someday generate enough clout that someone will pay for their words.

This blog begins with the hesitation that there are already too many unread blogs in the world, much like there are too many of us underemployed graduate students of philosophy or religion.  Crowding the gate, we all want a seat on this bus going to security and stable wages.  Or maybe that is me: I want security and a wage for my words. Perhaps I want a wage to support my labor as a philosopher.   Marx survived on the patronage of his buddy Engels and his wife’s family inheritance, and earned a little bit from the articles he published as a correspondent for the New York Daily Tribune.

But alas, I am not Marx, and this reminds me that comparison to others in this just a habit of capitalist competition. I will eek out a living in some way, trusting that if I don’t get good enough at this philosopher gig to make it to a good farm team, then I will not stop using words, and working to make my sentences sturdier.  If a sentence is solid enough, maybe it can be sat in.  A philosophy chair, perhaps? Can I really furnish a house with solid thoughts, ones that make for cozy living and can be offered to guests?  With my functional sentences and useful paragraphs, I will enjoy the use-value of my philosophical labor.

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