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Money Money Money!; or, That Great Unthinking Life of the Writer (Part 2)

When we left off last week, we were stuck in a conceptual trap. Patronage systems have dried up or gone on holiday. Work was drudgery, whether well-paid or ill-paid. Life—that is to say, the life of the mind—was isolated from work. Accordingly, it was either left untouched like week-old leftovers or left unsupported like lovers’ cold hands.

I promised, in Part 2, to give some indication of a way forward. [1] It is to this project that I now turn. In what follows, I would like to sketch a conceptual schema, a different way of being in the world, a way of reconceiving ourselves in the early 21st C. It is the schema I have used to make my life financially stable and my work life meaningful.

A caveat, though, before we begin: The conceptual schema I sketch will be more substantial than airy directives launched from a distance yet less prescriptive than self-help guides that, by my lights, overstep the bounds of reason.


The Capability Approach. The economist Amartya Sen and the philosopher Martha Nussbaum have argued that there is a set of cross-cultural capabilities that make leading a flourishing life possible. According to Ingrid Robeyns, this approach is used in “(1) the assessment of individual well-being; (2) the evaluation and assessment of social arrangements; and (3) the design of policies and proposals about social change in society.”

There is only a range of possible conditions that will be conducive to the growth and flourishing of a plant. Beyond that range, the seed will wither, or the plant will perish. The range permits of a certain vagueness, and yet there will be identifiable hard edges when we go past the conditions making life possible.

The capability approach has immediate pay-offs. For one thing, it gives us an excellent report card of which societies are inhabitable and which are not. Perhaps, liberal democracy and social democracy fall within the inhabitable range whereas fascism and authoritarianism do not. For another, it suggests that certain ways of living within a good enough society may not be sustainable. Let’s say that these ways of life are “structurally unsound,” so that, given world enough and time, they will collapse of their own accord.

My thesis is that certain models for leading a life of the mind are, on this construal, structurally unsound—externally because they imply a patronage society that doesn’t exist but seem to be waiting for (the Ian McEwan book advance, as it were) and internally because they generate psychological problems. In Part 1, I suggested that aduncting and barista-ing are two such examples. I might go further and say that they are synecdoches. (It would be useful to create a taxonomy of structurally unsound models for leading a life of the mind. A pin-up chart we could put on our bedroom walls.)

The Concept of Austerity. We need to substitute the concept of austerity for that of penury. This suggestion does not amount to conceptual kung-fu or Orwellian rebranding. To be able to think of our lives in terms of austerity, we need above all to conduct a philosophical inventory of our most basic needs and desires and then withdraw our value from excessive or unfulfillable desires. (Cf. Epictetus, Enchiridion.)

In Memory Chalet, Tony Judt describes the post-WWII austerity measures implemented in Britain. In one sense, here was a sad game of painting gray on gray. Public housing was functional but awfully ugly; food rationing was necessary but unpalatable; the mood was earnest but dour. Yet in another sense, this gesture was aimed at a beautiful final end: mutual sharing, mutual responsibility, and a commitment to the common good.

For historical, sociological, and economic reasons, we are now living through a period where austerity ought to be a lived reality. The lovely, though challenging, thing about austerity is that it returns us to fundamentals, compelling us to understand in the most basic philosophical terms at our disposal what things we can’t do without, what things we should leave behind, and what things we’d do well not to want.

The Argument

The Work = Life Identity. One of the craftsman Eric Gill’s key insights is that work = life and life = work. To hive off one from the other is to get into all sorts of conceptual muddles. A few of the more prominent ones I spotlighted last week.

Working entails realizing one’s full power to create and craft in the world. On this conception, one can work with things, ideas, or persons provided that one is manifesting oneself fully (see the section, “The Kind of Person-Vision Nexus” below). A mother works to craft a child. An social entrepreneur works to actualize a vision of ecological harmony. A photographer works to make something familiar stand forth in its unfamiliarity.

For its part, living is not pleasure-seeking or release-taking or lollygagging but taking pleasure in realizing oneself in the world. As Aristotle wrote in connection with the good life, we do not act virtuously for the sake of pleasure but neither do we swear off pleasure for the sake of duty. Pleasure, he noted, accompanies of virtue like the bloom of a flower.

Leisure is not opposed to work = life. Leisure is also work, also life: the work of thought, the life of the mind, the stretching and bending and relaxing of mental life.

Unless I’m sleeping, I’m always working (in different modes). I don’t do research; I think, converse, and inquire. I don’t take vacations; I indulge my curiosities. And I don’t want to retire; I want to keep working, living, taking my time.

The Kind of Person-Vision Nexus. The kind of person concept is a metaphysical category that picks out and unifies a bundle of past experiences, desires, and values. Over the past decade, I have tried out and subsequently ruled out the following organizational categories: graduate student, professor, therapist, and freelancer. Our lives are also the memories of past essays.

First-order questions of the sort, “What sorts of questions do I wish to ask?,” “What do I care most about?,” ultimately  lead to second-order descriptions, “A philosopher is the kind of person who inquires into the meaning and value of life.” Once I had reconceived of myself as a philosopher (10 years later…), I then had to sort out how to instantiate leading a philosophical way of life outside the academy. Presently, my being a philosopher is manifested completely in writing about ethics, in philosophical counseling, educational consulting, and public philosophy (more about the last below).

Furthermore, being a certain kind of person should go hand-in-hand with offering a certain kind of vision. By “vision,” I mean a representation or conception of something at once possible and worthwhile. A vision gains value in virtue either of its presenting something in a new way or its promise of actualizing something hitherto unactualizable. I have two relevant kinds of vision in mind: self-improvement and world-improvement, both very broadly understood. Vision so understood should be opposed to the project/gig/one-off contract (the freelancer paradigm) and to the career (the organization man paradigm).

But then how does being a certain kind of person and having a certain kind of vision pay off? As a philosopher, I get paid well because I am able to offer a vision of self-improvement—a good and flourishing life—as well as a vision of world-improvement—a learning society modeled on craft and wisdom. Vision is charisma writ large.

By contrast, consider the case of someone who believes that he is a copyeditor. To begin with, I don’t think that this is a relevant kind of person conception inasmuch as it fails to ascend to the second-order: someone may provide copyediting services, but I doubt that she actually thinks of herself in copyediting terms. Second of all, a copyeditor can’t hope to get a reasonable fee not just because of Craigslist, outsourcing, lack of quality control, and so on but also because she is not offering a relevant kind of vision. She is mending something that exists. [2]

The Concept of Mixed Goods. What might a self-generated and self-sustaining “patronage system” look like? In “Our Failure of Imagination,” I argue for a notion of mixed goods. Some goods we do for their own sake. I put on Café Philo events because I believe philosophical conversation is intrinsically worthwhile.

Other goods, I argue, are mixed goods—good for their own sake and good for the sake of something else, most notably getting paid decently. For instance, I participate in philosophical conversations with conversation partners for its own sake (again, I think examining one’s life is intrinsically worthwhile) as well as for the sake of getting paid fairly.

Mixed goods, in turn, serve as “subsidizers” for idle contemplation, for writing (some of which is done for free), and for putting on public events. They are the backbone of the oxymoronic yet apt expression, self-patronage.

The important thing to bear in mind is that this conception does not lead to fragmentation and alienation (see “Models for Post-University Life”). In principle, every activity I undertake is consistent with the kind of person I am, is a full instantiation of my being a philosopher, and is an actualization of the basic visions I have of self- and world-improvement.

The Concept of the Essay. For Montaigne, to “essay” is to try things out, to experiment, to sally—but to sally, let me add, in keeping with the kinds of persons we are and with the kinds of visions we have. We don’t try anything out, though trying certain things out can be one way of hitting up the kinds of persons we are. (For more on the concept of “trying things out,” see reflection 3 at New Public Thinking.)

i. We try out ways of realizing ourselves and our visions and we see where things might go.

ii. We let go of things that don’t seem to work out or that seem to be going nowhere.

iii. We learn to grasp when to persist and when to let go.

iv. Lastly, we learn not to try this thing out, to rule this thought out from the get go. As Woody Allen’s character observes at the end of Husbands and Wives, “Somehow I feel as if I know how this is going to come out.” And much to my surprise, he doesn’t pursue a relationship with this 21-year-old. He has managed to grow up.

A Brief Illustration of the Essay

One mixed good (among many others) I’ve been mulling over of late is that of the private salon. Some have asked me whether my philosophical services could be offered to New Yorkers who’d like to place philosophical conversation at the center of their dinner parties or get-togethers.

Consider the kind of person I am: A philosopher who puts on public philosophy events. Consider also that it fits with my past experience in teaching, my profound interest in the art of conversation, my ongoing Café Philo events, and so on.

The vision? The art of conversation as a key to self-improvement. A reinvigoration of the get-together.

Sort of good? Mixed. Good for its own sake (I think it would be quite pleasurable) and good for financial reasons (it would financially support, e.g., my taking on more conversation partners pro bono).

Worth trying out? Quite possibly, despite the fact that it’s unlikely to work.

End Notes

[1] Much of what I write in Part 2 will be a recapitulation of what I have written elsewhere. This statement is both true and untrue. True in that parts have been discussed in previous blogs and essays. Yet untrue in that “the whole” has yet to be effected. I’m of the view that one of the abiding, tireless aims of philosophical thinking is to subsume the manifold under a concept—that is to say, to provide greater and greater conceptual clarity. In this case, reason demands the clearest eludication possible of the concept, “the-life-of-the-mind-in-the-early-21st C.” I’m trying to meet that demand.

[2] With the copyediting case, my intention is not to belittle the aspirant writer or to blame the victim seeking to scrape by but to suggest that copyediting, on some basic structural level, is not likely to generate decent hourly wages. To be sure, a clean manuscript is a good thing, and a brilliant copy edit a thing of beauty, but a better manuscript is not the same thing as a cancer-free body, a victim receiving reparations, or a novel invention that changes social practices. The latter have one thing in common: they are all visions.

5 thoughts on “Money Money Money!; or, That Great Unthinking Life of the Writer (Part 2)

  1. life, said the buddah, is suffering. as a westerner (and a romantic) i take that to mean that living fully in the world requires suffering. love, eg, is suffering. art, eg, is suffering. it is also happy, joyful, relaxing, pleasurable, transcendent, etc. pursuing art, or the life of the mind as you put it, might require (will require) suffering of some kind, perhaps economic. me, most of my art-type friends, suffer that way, economically. but we (or i, at least) CHOOSE that particular path of suffering over others, whatever alternative paths of suffering there might be, since all paths require suffering of some sort. but why choose that particular path over another? because of the good it brings back, the happy, joyful, etc. working together as creative people, a community, working on our own as creative people, brings those goods back. in a sense, we ARE that community because of our suffering, in the way we help and support each other in its midst, as well as because of those goods brought back.

  2. Wonderful. Yes, and I’ve been to your salon and felt more enlivened, more cognizant of not only my role in life but others as well – my compassion key was played a few times more than normal.

    This could lead one (me) to say that face to face sharing is so much more powerful than texts, emails, and instant messaging, that in the face of faces with blood swimming behind them, technology tanks and it wears human contact as we can erase what we mean with our friendemy, the blinking cursor.

    “For its part, living is not pleasure-seeking or release-taking or lollygagging but taking pleasure in realizing oneself in the world.”

    This seems like the key statement of the piece and the one most not followed. With pleasures often temporary, the status update of something good happening has a lifespan. The Catch-22 of the life of drudgery hits hard here. I’m also thinking about people who do physical work 40 hours a week. I doubt many can just about think after that workload (if they have kids I can’t imagine), and they can, can only realize they have two days off and the weekend is the weekend. Of course there are exceptions.

    Has any culture ever had the “life being taking pleasure in realizing oneself in the world” as a motto? Maybe the ancients. When it’s a dog eat dog world, something else is afoot or apaw.

    How do we get there?

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