Grad School Notebook 8: First Summer Thoughts

The academic calendar runs opposite the cycle of nature. In the fall you start planting the seeds of questions you’re interested in, they grow throughout the winter, and by the spring maybe you’ve answered a thing or two. Now it’s summer, activity in my building has ground to a halt, and so I get a chance to kick back with a cup of coffee and think about the year that was.

My reflections fall broadly into three different buckets. Firstly, there’s thoughts on the nuts-and-bolts of grad school life, but since that’s more insider-baseball stuff I’ve put it in a different post. More importantly, there’s what to make of one’s intellectual development and personal development, which I will write about below. In between, I’ll have a short bridge about how I’m thinking about writing/blogging these days.

Intellectual Development

The first QUESTIONS I planted at the outset of starting school last fall were about how (if at all) studying the history of political thought relates to contemporary politics (which, if you hadn’t heard, have changed in one or two ways as the year’s gone by). I came up with some provisional answers here and here. In between the two semesters, I came up with a new set of THE QUESTIONS:

· What is the best way to think about and bring about community?

· What are the best ways of framing the discussion so as to achieve greater social justice?

· Why can’t everyone be happy?

All three of these were covered in a class “Liberalism and Theodicy,” which was perhaps the best class I’ve so far taken. Here’s a brief stab of how I’ve come to think about each:


For a long time I’ve considered myself toward the “communitarian” spectrum of things. Recently, however, after reading Rawls, I actually find myself persuaded that at least on the topic of community liberalism has sufficiently in itself the answers to communitarians’ concerns. I tried to sketch why here. Yet regardless of the debate at the level of theory, I think it remains the case that both liberals, communitarians, radicals, conservatives, and in general most American thinkers have been pretty woeful about connecting their appreciation for the benefits of community to concrete policy proposals aimed at shoring up democratic communities in practice. That’s a task that needs more political imagination and is hopefully one I can try to get more involved in as things progress.

Social Justice

The reading I’ve been trying to do on this question has focused on, on the one hand, the meaning of equality and, on the other, theories of recognition. I’ve sketched out some criticisms of common liberal positions here and conservative ones here. A basic point that is good to keep in mind, I think, on the equality front is the fact that both equality of opportunity and equality of outcome are pretty unhelpful concepts, despite the frequency with which they’re trotted out. Imagine the simple example of a 1-on-1 basketball game where the losing player gets put to death. Even if the two players were of perfectly equal skill and the game was officiated fairly, it’s probably the case that we would think there’s something wrong with the set-up. The point being: even if everyone has an equal opportunity for every outcome, there are certain outcomes that we’d think no one ought to be assigned to. So we ought to debate what those outcomes are that we want no one to have to suffer. On the other hand, if there was a basketball game in which the losing player got nothing but the winning player got a trophy, many people would be okay with this even though the outcome was technically unequal because everyone benefits from the competition and everyone at least has a shot at the trophy. So simple equality of outcome doesn’t seem desirable either because there are types of competitions that even the “losers” would affirm are worthwhile. And so the conversation there is really over what sorts of inequality everyone is comfortable affirming. These questions implicate theories of recognition and difficult questions about the relationship between subjective and objective evidences of inequality and social esteem.

Why Can’t Everyone Be Happy?

This is a huge question, and perhaps it’s just a version of every question in political theory, so I’ll only note briefly here that one theme I’ve noticed in thinking through it is the disconnect in decision-making between individual and aggregate perspectives. Let me illustrate with a situation I call in my head “The Bullfight Dilemma.” (I’ve taken this example from a short lovely little book called “Thinking of Others” recommended to me by my friend Brian). It goes like this: say you go to a bullfight. Unless you are a mean person, you don’t want the bull-fighter to be gored. You want them to be a hero. However, if you knew that no bullfighter was ever killed by a bull, the activity would lose excitement. There would be no drama. So you want simultaneously that no individual bullfighters ever die and yet that some bull-fighters die. You would seem to be willing two contradictory things!

Sometimes, like the bullfighting case, the contradiction is built into the activity itself. Bullfighting without death wouldn’t be bullfighting at all. Similarly, most people wake up each day no wishing to die. And yet if people never died then many might say that life — or at least many aspects of it — would lose its meaning. Is the bad a prerequisite for the good? In the bullfighting case, one might conclude that the fact of the riders dying (or more likely, the bulls dying) would be enough to say one probably shouldn’t go to the bullfight at all. Yet with life we might not give the same verdict, and besides we don’t in fact choose to be born the same way we do chose to go for a bullfight.

Sometimes though, the contradiction isn’t not built-in to the definition of the activity. This seems to make trickier cases. For example, you go to the liquor store to buy some beer. Maybe you’re lucky and living in Minnesota where that beer is Hamms. You are just planning to drink with your friends for fun and have no intention of being an alcoholic. However, it turns out that most money that major beer companies make is from alcoholics. And so it turns out that the system in which you are taking part is predicated on the existence of a negative outcome. While the fact that the alcohol industry is predicated on alcoholism doesn’t necessarily follow the same way the bullfight is predicated on murder, and though you are not per say causing alcoholism by buying a beer for fun, you are nevertheless taking part in something that at least right now seems built on the misfortunes of others.

Obviously going to the liquor store is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to these sorts of questions; I’ll let you imagine others examples. In general though, it seems like our moral reasoning is still having difficulty recalibrating to economies of scale, moving from individual actions to collective outcomes and responsibilities. So hopefully I can gain some more clarity in the coming year to what exactly to make of the Bullfight Dilemma.

I won’t pose any more specific new QUESTIONS right now because, to pick up the seasonal analogy from the beginning, the summer is the winter of the spirit, a time for quiescence, for absorbing thoughts from others and from life rather than trying to assert new ones of one’s own.


As you can no doubt gather from the gratuitous self-linking above, I’ve been using my Medium blog as sort of an academic journal. (Almost all of the papers I’ve written started out as ideas I wrote about here). But I also as a hobby try to write about things that will allow me to think about things other than what I’m up to during the day. In any case, right now I feel like I’m at a crossroads of sorts with what I want to do with writing. I’ve been doing this blog for enough that I feel like I have showed myself I can enjoy writing just for myself and maybe a few friends and I want to continue doing that. A few of the things on here though I think might have been interesting to a wider audience (e.g. this Llewyn Davis thing I just finished), and, I’ve begun to think that if I want to push myself more to write crisper, get better at self-editing, and develop ideas the extra step further it would be worthwhile to try to get a bigger audience for some pieces. The question I guess is how much extra effort to spend trying to pursue that. Obviously it’s silly to try to get a byline somewhere fancy just to do it, unless you need it for career or financial reasons. And if you are so worried about writing what other people might want you might end up sapping the activity of what made it fun in the first place. Anyway, hopefully I’ll find the balance to strike. I’ll think more this summer about what direction I should try to go next; perhaps this’ll mean writing less but focusing more on making the things I do write better.

Personal Stuff

It’s very important for me to make sure blogging continues to be fun because I’ve been having difficulty finding other hobbies to do outside of school. I tried to get back into chess in the fall and this spring I got way-too-attached to crossword puzzles. On a long boring day spent just reading it’s really important to have something you can come back home to that’s worthwhile on the evenings you’re not fortunate to have friends to hang out with. Of course, as important as having specific outlets, it’s important also, as my friend Michael points out, to understand what specific emotions are driving one’s need to have an outlet. So I want to think more carefully about the desires I have as I go about the day and how to better manage them. One big source of frustration for me is my short attention span. My friend recommended the app Forest as a way of making sure you’re staying focused and so far I’ve found it a pretty good nudge. Five stars, would use again!

Besides that, two other small but important processes I’ve been trying to get better at recently are food and exercise. On the food front, my friend Alex and I just finished doing a month-long food challenge called Whole30 where you basically eat just fruits, veggies, eggs and potatoes. I cooked more and ate healthier than I ever had before and it was cool to see that with just a little bit more planning and effort that’s doable. It’s not something I could keep up forever, but it definitely will affect how I think about eating habits going forward. On the fitness front, the ol’ running keeps on keeping on. I’m looking forward to trying to put in a good block of training in during the summer to gear up for a marathon in the fall.

Oh yeah, and hopefully I’ll have some time too to go out and look at the universe!

Well, that’s about all for now. Thanks for stopping by to read. Have a gentle, adventuresome summer : )

— Jacob