Is This Philosophy — and Does It Matter?

(This post was inspired by a discussion in the Harvard graduate students’ Metaphysics & Epistemology workshop. Many of the points I make here can be traced back to insightful remarks by fellow participants.)

“Why does this matter?” and “Is this philosophy?” — these innocous questions are the stuff of nightmares for wannabe philosophy professors. They have the power to instantly transform a friendly workshop environment into one dripping with hostility. They’re the absolute worst thing that could happen to you in a job interview.

But — why? What exactly is so bad about them? This is what I’d like to find out here — probing deep inside some of my own philosophical anxieties to dig out one grad student’s answer. Along the way, I’ll also ask: what’s good about these questions? Why do we keep reaching for them?

“Is this philosophy?” and “Does it matter?” are explosive questions. They can wound and terrify — but they can also liberate. I hope this post is a step towards liberation.

The Casaubon Anxiety

Some days, we all suspect that it doesn’t matter. This is the biggest and simplest reason why being asked whether it does can be so terrifying. Facing the question forces us to stare straight into the abyss.

Edward Casaubon, a tragic character in George Eliot’s Middlemarch, devoted his life to creating the mythical Key to All Mythologies. He died before he could complete his masterwork — which, the readers are led to suspect, was a misguided, meaningless, and highly derivative endeavor to begin with.

When I’m worried that none of the philosophy I do matters, this is the possibility that terrifies me: that I might be Casaubon.

If you’re an academic, you probably share this anxiety with me. We’re all terrified of being Casaubon. I bet even Casaubon was.

And when someone asks us: “Well, are you Casaubon?” we either get defensive or curl up into a terrified ball. (Pick your poison; I tend to opt for the latter.)

This is the wrong response — but the anxiety isn’t all wrong. In its overblown way, it’s pointing to an entirely real danger. I could be Casaubon — and so could you.

Research means committing yourself to a project based on hunches, folklore, other people’s opinions. It could all lead someplace you’re not really interested in going. It could lead nowhere at all.

If you want to discover… not even the Key to All Mythologies, but as much as a Picklock to a Myth, you have to risk being Casaubon.

The trick is, on the one hand, not letting the anxiety debilitate you, and on the other, paying attention to what it has to tell you. The value of being asked “Does this matter?” is that it forces you to make sure you’ve calculated the Casaubon risk to the best of your abilities — and that this risk is still outweighed by the likely gains of plodding along with your research. The danger is that your fear of the possible answer will lead you straight into self-deception.

You’re probably not Casaubon. But if you have an airtight story for why your research is indubitably meaningful… take another look in the mirror.

It Doesn’t Matter… To Me

When I talk about “mattering” here, I don’t mean some grand objective notion. Rather, things matter to you if you care about them. Maybe some things matter, full stop, maybe not. (If there are such things, I doubt much of academic philosophy makes the cut anyway.) But even if nothing “objectively” matters, there’s room for a legitmiate Casaubon anxiety. It makes sense to worry that you’re deceiving yourself about what matters to you.

“Does it matter?” is helpful when it allows you to productively reconsider your personal brand of mattering. (Note that it’s also perfectly legitimate for academia to just be a job, something that matters little except as a means to purchase things which actually matter to you. I just wish we were more honest with each other when that’s the case.) “Does it matter?” is particulary hurtful when the questioner insists that she’s talking about grand objective mattering — but secretly (whether or not she realizes it) means mattering to her.

At its most hostile, “Why does this matter?” can be code for any one of the following.

  • “Why should this matter to me?”
  • “This doesn’t matter to me. Therefore, it doesn’t matter, period.”
  • “I’m quite sure this doesn’t matter. Prove me wrong.”
  • “You don’t belong here.”

This is where “Does this matter?” reacts with “Is this philosophy?” — forming a particularly explosive mix. The questioner suspects your research doesn’t matter because it isn’t philosophy — and it isn’t philosophy because it isn’t like the issues which personally interest him. “Is this philosophy?” is often code for: “This is uninteresting because it’s too far removed from my research interests.”

These versions of the questions are particularly troubling when they are systematically targeted at certain subfields. Philosophers of gender can expect to hear the question; traditional epistemologists need not.

The questions are asked as if they were based on objective, commonly shared standards. In fact, they are often asked by people who get to set the arbitrary rules just because they got here earlier.

“Does this matter?” isn’t a bad question. I think we’d all benefit from periodically posing it to ourselves. The problem isn’t that philosophers of race, say, are asked the question — the problem is that metaphysicians, say, aren’t.

Mattering Is Experienced

When you feel the urge to ask “why does this matter?,” consider asking “why does this matter to you?” instead. This is the friendly form in which the question can actually be useful to your interlocutor.

But don’t expect too much from an answer. Some things are good because they lead to other good things — but that won’t be much help if we disagree about the goodness of these other things. If you don’t care an ounce about art, I won’t know how to begin to convince you that aesthetics matters. It simply matters to me — and not to you.

Philosophers are obsessed with arguments — but arguments aren’t always the best tool for showing that a domain of inquiry matters. They can get you extrinsic justification — but a field’s intrinsic interest is often something you feel rather than deducing.

You don’t find out whether your armchair is soft and comfy by sitting in a second armchair and contemplating the virtues of the first one. You sit in the damned armchair.

This is why arguments can feel so dissatisfying here: it’s easy to give post hoc rationalizations to make up for a missing sense of meaningfulness. (A philosopher’s favorite rationalization (I’m guilty of this one too): My research matters because it provides an account of X, and X matters. Great — but why should I believe that an “account” (whatever that is) will be useful for anything at all?)

Mattering is like comfiness. Sometimes if your audience asks you “Why does it matter?” the right answer is: “Didn’t you listen to the talk?”

Audience Matters

Imagine a post-concert Q&A session with a famous pianist. An audience member stands up and says “Thanks, I really enjoyed that concert. But maybe you could explain: how, exactly, was that beautiful?”

Clearly, something has gone wrong. (Unless the music wasn’t supposed to sound beautiful… which is just another thing going wrong.)

But what precisely went wrong will depend on the concert. Maybe the audience-member doesn’t understand how beauty works. Maybe he doesn’t have very good hearing. Maybe he’s unfamiliar with the style. But it’s also possible that it’s the pianist who’s to blame. Maybe she played badly. Maybe she misjudged her audience.

“How does this talk matter?” means something has gone wrong in just this way. It’s symptomatic of some sort of audience-presenter mismatch — but whether the fault lies with the audience, the presenter, or both, will vary from case to case.

More often than not, some fault lies with the presenter. Often, this can be traced back to a simple presentational issue. You weren’t engaging or enthusiastic. You jumped right in, without any background or motivation. You presupposed terminology your audience is unfamiliar with.

When they ask you “how does this matter?” your audience doesn’t usually have grand objective mattering in mind. To borrow a Polish phrase, they’re just wondering: what does one eat your talk with?

It’s a good idea to meet the presenter halfway and ask “why does this matter to you?” But it’s just as important for the presenter to go the extra mile, giving an answer that lies in some sort of common ground, mapping out the territory of their talk relative to landmarks lying in the audience’s fields.

If I’m not willing to do this, why would I even bother to give the talk?

Colloquium Culture

Philosophy is concerned with answering questions which matter to every human being, in language which everyone can understand. Right?

Hell no. Philosophy is a cornucopia of tenuously connected questions, in domains ranging from Heidegger interpretation to set theory, studied in language that is barely comprehensible even for denizens of neighboring fields.

And yet we still try talking to each other. Philosophy is full of grad workshops and department colloquia with which to valiantly fight overspecialization.

But are we really fighting? Or are we pretending we’ve won the battle which has in fact been lost years ago?

There’s nothing obvious about a department colloquium. It’s quite possible that there really is nothing for a set theorist and a Kant scholar, say, to talk about — and no common language to talk in. It’s quite possible that we should just go our separate ways and officially split off into the myriad subcultures which philosophy already de facto forms.

And yet it would be a shame to give up too quickly. There’s an aspiration in the idealistic picture (of philosophy as universal pursuit) that I’d hate to give up. Being understood matters to me. I became a philosopher rather than mathematician in part because I wanted to be able to discuss the things I think about all day with non-experts.

I also think it’s important to keep the borders between philosophy and non-philosophy vague and open. Some of the most interesting philosophical work is interdisciplinary. At its best, philosophy is a refuge from more oppressive fields: a haven for the mathematician interested in logic, the psychologist interested in consciousness, the art historian interested in beauty. I hope we keep it that way.

Can we remain such a broad discipline and still talk to each other? I’m not sure — but it’s worth trying a while longer.

I think of talks for general audiences as opportunities to keep myself honest. After all, “this is so deep and difficult that I can’t hope to explain it to you” sounds suspiciously like Casaubon.

The Grad Student Condition

Grad school is a particularly scary time to be asked “Does this matter?” We pick our research projects for a myriad extrinsic reasons. Our advisor suggested it. We want to get a job. We have the right background. Or we have a gut feeling that we can’t fully justify yet.

On days when our sense of purpose wavers, these extrinsic reasons are crucially important. We’re still learning to hold on to our resolve to keep building, and we need our departments to provide scaffolding while we do. If we’re constantly asked to prove the sturdiness of the foundations of our barely begun structures, everything will crumble. It should be fine to say: “I don’t know if this matters yet. Wait till I have my dissertation.”

But grad school is also the time when the question is particularly important. It’s the time when you stop relying on your professors and start relying on yourself when deciding what topics are worth investigating. It’s the time when you develop your personal brand of mattering and figure out how it fits with other people’s values. It’s the time when you figure out how to talk to other philosophers.

It’s also the time to seriously consider the possiblity that your research doesn’t in fact matter. (You matter — but you aren’t your research.)

Grad school is the time to take a hard look in the mirror and make sure you’re not Casaubon. If you are — it’s still not too late to turn back.

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