Philosophy as Vocation

Last fall, I was asked to write an article for Logoi, the Center for Philosophy of Religion's annual magazine.  I was honored for many reasons, not least of which is because I edited and helped design Logoi last year, and I feel strongly about the magazine. I'm posting the text of my article below, but I encourage you to take a look at the PDF (which you can access here), because the rest of the articles in this issue are really worth your while!

You can access the whole magazine -- which is incredible -- here. 

You can access the whole magazine -- which is incredible -- here

Philosophy as Vocation 

One thing academic philosophers occasionally laugh about over cocktails is the puzzling reactions we get when we tell strangers what we do for work. This information is met, with surprising frequency, by a question along the lines of: “So what’s your philosophy?”

The question is funny because it comes across as confused and a little absurd. It’d be like asking a physicist what her physics is. Contrary to the role it plays in the popular imagination, philosophy is just an academic discipline. It’s a profession, and it bears little resemblance to the wandering schools of thought led by our bearded Greek ancestors.

Until recently, my response to this question reflected this understanding -- call it “The Professional View” -- of my discipline. “Being a philosopher,” I would say, “is just my day job.”

But lately I’ve been growing increasingly anxious about this answer.

In my view, there are three main problems with it. First, there’s the notorious question of whether and how philosophy makes intellectual progress. Unlike doctors or scientists, we philosophers are unable to point to medical or technological breakthroughs to justify the cultural value of our profession. Our most celebrated breakthroughs -- Descartes’s Cogito, for instance, or Kant’s Categorical Imperative -- only seem to underscore the abstract, impractical nature of our discipline. Finally, conceiving of philosophy in the aforementioned way seemingly vindicates the widespread suspicion that philosophy is trivia; an esoteric game played by a privileged few.

In addition to these concerns, there’s the fact that The Professional View just doesn’t do justice to my own vision of what philosophy can be. The reason I majored in philosophy, decided to get my PhD, and the reason I’m training to write complex academic articles, is because the value of truth got a grip on me. The emptiness of ideological rhetoric paints over a vibrant, pulsing world with dull and obscuring shades of gray. My pursuit of a career in the discipline of philosophy is, in some ways, instrumental: I took it to be my best shot at garnering the time and resources to pursue truth full time. I didn’t then, nor do I now, think that my work in philosophy is “just my day job.”

So we need to abandon The Professional View, but what could we put in its place? And how would such an alternative get around the problems outlined above?

This past semester I explored this question with a number of my colleagues. Together, we asked whether there was any value in seeing our work in philosophy as a “vocation,” a concept we had mainly inherited from our religious traditions.

To modern ears, the word “vocation” might sound like a job one feels particularly passionate about, or to which one feels a “special calling.” The latter is a bit more etymologically accurate. “Vocation” comes (through Middle English and French) from the latin “vocare,” which means “to call.” Its latin root is “vox,” meaning “voice.” It’s the word Jerome used in the vulgate to describe the prophetic call of Samuel, “Et venit Dominus, et stetit: et vocavit..." And the Lord came, and stood, and called...

This conception -- call it “The Vocational View” of philosophy -- takes on special significance for the Christian philosopher. Like Samuel, many of us Christian philosophers feel that we have a special calling to pursue philosophy, that our profession provides us the occasion to respond to “vox dei,” the voice of God.

How does The Vocational View fare with regard to the problems we raised for the Professional View above?

First, the pursuit of truth and understanding is given both individual and communal applications within this framework. The Christian philosopher pursues truth wholeheartedly, and trusts that her efforts will result in a deeper understanding of God, the source and summit of truth. This aspect of the Christian spirituality has often been referred to as “contemplative” activity, and has long been held as essential to a full, healthy Christian life.

The Christian philosopher also sees her intellectual efforts as part of a greater communal enterprise. The pursuit of truth advances the mission of her church to spread the gospel in charity. Far from an impractical exercise, then, the Christian philosopher trusts that her efforts will culminate in an encounter with truth that will transform her, and allow her to spread that transformative understanding to those in her community.

Finally, Christian philosophers are called to put their love of the truth -- and our skill in uncovering it through argumentation -- above all other commitments for the good of the communities to which they belong. This might mean bolstering the reasonability of faith by carefully examining the grounds for particular doctrines and dogma, but it can also mean helping our communities engage with the most pressing political, social, and personal problems in our world. By critically examining the sources of systematic injustice, for instance, we put ourselves and our characteristic skills at the service of the most vulnerable of our brothers and sisters in Christ.

So the next time someone asks me what “my philosophy” is, I’ll take it as an opportunity. Not to preach, or to wax eloquent about an abstract love of wisdom, but to do what I think characterizes my vocation as a philosopher: I’ll tell the truth and invite him to join me in pursuit of it.

“My philosophy,” I’ll tell him, “Is that life is best lived in the humble pursuit of understanding, for the glory of God, and for the good of his creation.”