This Freelance Philosopher Says You Don’t Need a PhD To Be a Professional Philosopher
Steve Patterson is a freelance philosopher…who doesn’t have a PhD (or even an undergraduate degree in philosophy). Spending his time primarily on issues of philosophy of mind and epistemology, Steve decided to make “philosophy that doesn’t suck” after years of asking himself the big questions.
Typically, to “do philosophy” as a professional, you would pursue an undergraduate degree in philosophy (or a related field) and then spend 5–7 years completing a PhD at a university, doing a thesis and a dissertation, defending that dissertation, and going on to work in academia. Steve stepped entirely outside of this paradigm.
I got a chance to sit down with him and ask him about what it is like to pursue such a non-traditional path without the necessary credential.
You are a freelance philosopher, but you are not a PhD at a university doing research or teaching. What do you do?
I write, and recently, I started creating videos. My goal is to create the most accurate worldview possible and communicate it clearly.
From my perspective, most modern philosophy is poorly written claptrap about unimportant topics. I am trying to change that, and because my work is outside of academia, it’s not written in clunky academic jargon. I’d like to think it’s accessible to everybody who’s interested in big ideas.
What do you say to people who say you can’t be a professional philosopher outside of academia?
It depends on what you mean by “professional.” If you’re saying, “You cannot teach philosophy at a university without formal accreditation,” then I’d agree. If by “professional”, you mean “You cannot make a living philosophizing outside of academia,” then I’d disagree.
Perhaps more importantly, if you mean “You cannot make substantial contributions to philosophy” or “You cannot work with the deepest ideas,” (implying the biggest ideas are reserved for established “academics”) then I strongly disagree. Philosophy, of all fields, is wide-open to anybody with a sharp mind.
Historically speaking, academia served a wonderful purpose: to centralize knowledge and make it accessible to bright people. Researchers needed access to gigantic libraries and an intellectual community. But things are changing. The internet decentralizes knowledge and intellectual communication.
A modern, lone-wolf philosopher has more resources available to him than most “professional” philosophers have throughout history. I can get free copies of nearly any book ever written and have instant correspondence with any intellectual around the globe. It would be difficult to overstate the impact of this; the possibilities are extraordinary. I imagine within a few decades, we will see self-studied thinkers become the norm, not the exception.
What’s your background?
I am a self-studied nerd. Formally, I have a degree in Political Science, but nearly everything I learned in college was wrong and useless. Prior to that, I was homeschooled. My mother did a great job instilling a love of learning in me, and for the past decade, I’ve been nose-deep in my own research, mainly about philosophy, political theory, and economics.
Professionally, I’ve been doing freelance writing and video production for the last four years — also self-taught, since I didn’t learn any employable skills in college.
What made you decide to do freelance philosophy?
Certainly not the paycheck. I do it because I love it. In my mind, nothing is more important than ideas. Our philosophy determines every action we take; it’s inescapable, and the deeper an idea is, the more important it becomes. When you get down to the fundamentals of philosophy (i.e. epistemology), you’re dealing with the foundations of all thought. What could be more exciting?
I’ve also discovered that foundational ideas aren’t defended very well. We live in a culture of philosophic obscurantism which romanticizes blurry thinking. Too many people think that paradoxes exist, for example, and they will argue until they become blue in the face. This deeply bothers me, and it motivates a substantial part of my writing.
What does your average day of work look like?
Unfortunately, I am a night owl, and my wife isn’t. My best work is usually around 8pm-3am, though I am trying to push it back earlier. Since I work from the house, I have a few house-husband duties during the day, and I also practice Brazilian ju jitsu a couple times a week.
Before the evening, I’ll usually get to spend several hours reading and researching. And I’ll usually take an absurdly long hot shower, which is where I do my deepest thinking (I own two waterproof notebooks, which I’d highly recommend if you’re a shower-thinker).
Then, sometime in the evening, I start dumping ideas into my laptop. Often, I’ll spend hours just getting all the concepts out onto paper — 2,000, 3,000, even 4,000 words sometimes. Of course, those words are assembled horribly and read like crap. So, the next day, I’ll sit down and revise, which is a much longer and more deliberative process. Recently, I purchased some reasonable lighting and camera equipment for Youtube, so video production is starting to enter into my workday as well.
How did you get started?
I’ve been tiptoeing into it for several years, writing little articles here and there. Finally, last September, I got serious and decided to write my first book. It’s an introduction to Bitcoin. After that was finished, I’ve been writing weekly philosophic articles for my website — some of which have gotten major traffic, considering the subject matter.
What do you ultimately envision your work being like?
Clear, concise, and sweeping. Because these ideas are foundational, they apply to virtually every other field of thought. By understanding the nature of logic, you can justifiably commit the highest intellectual heresy — commenting on fields outside of your expertise. In my case, quantum physics. Or, by understanding the relationship between language and objects, you can sharpen your political worldview — if governments only exist as mental abstractions, that has radical implications.
I see my website as an outlet for these ideas, but also as fodder for future books. Instead of writing a 1000-page monolith, I intend to publish several shorter books on specific topics. My website will make it easy to draw material from.
What is philosophy? Is it a field of study? Is it an activity? Why is it important?
It’s an ambiguous word. Philosophy with a capital “P” is often seen as a field of study, incorporating topics like Ethics, Philosophy of Mind, Epistemology, and so on. I prefer philosophy with a lowercase “p” — something like: “the process of discovering the abstract principles of any field.” With this definition, philosophy is not limited to traditional, established topics. You can have the philosophy of cuisine, the philosophy of the martial arts, or perhaps the philosophy of learning. In my mind, “understanding something” is synonymous with “understanding its abstract principles.”
It’s important for the reason I mentioned earlier; it’s inescapable. All of our decisions flow from our conscious and sub-conscious ideas about the world. Therefore, all of human history is essentially an expression of philosophy — ideas competing with one another. This isn’t hyperbole. When you see the world through the philosophic lens, it becomes quite clear: humans act according to their ideas, and these ideas are open to debate.
So, in my mind, philosophy is the attempt to discover and clarify the most important ideas in the world.
What advice do you have for somebody who wants to do philosophy outside academia?
I’d suggest diving as deep as you can into the ideas. Without formal credentialing, people will look to dismiss you for any reason, so you’d better know what you’re talking about inside and out.
There are a bunch of fantastic resources online. My favorite, by far, is closertotruth.com– it’s a modern-day Socrates with a camera crew. Also,openculture.com has a massive database of philosophic literature.
If somebody wants to make a living doing freelance philosophy, I’d caution: it’s an uphill battle. We don’t yet live in a world where self-studied intellectuals can get a whole lot of respect. Perhaps in ten years things will be different, but we aren’t there yet. I am still trying to figure out the best way to monetize my work.
What’s your favorite philosophical topic/problem?
I am fascinated and excited by all epistemological questions. Perhaps my favorite is:
“Can we know anything with certainty? And if so, how?”
This question represents square one in my worldview. The implications are enormous, however we answer. My answer is, “Yes, we can, because of logical necessity .”
I am convinced that logic is the key to understanding the universe. In fact, I am certain of it!
What is the most overrated philosophical topic/problem?
To be honest — and I’m sure this will upset people — I’m not impressed by the entire field of Ethics. I see too many unjustified assumptions being made. From my perspective, in order to make any meaningful ethical claims, the philosopher must first overcome moral Nihilism, which I find extremely difficult to do. If moral statements are essentially statements of preference, then the entire field of Ethics is “much ado about nothing.”
It’s like economists arguing about how high the minimum wage should be. $8.25 or $10.10? Perhaps $15.00? Well, from my understanding, we shouldn’t have a minimum wage at all. So that puts a damper on the entire discussion. Or at least, it refocuses the question to its more fundamental presuppositions.
If you have an interesting story about doing work in an area without a required credential, feel free to reach out to me at zslayback [at] gmail [dot] com.
Originally published at zakslayback.com on June 20, 2015.