Wednesday, January 02, 2013

On Trusting Your Sense of Fun

Maybe, like me, you're a philosophy dork. Maybe, like me, when you were thirteen, you said to your friends, "Is there really a world behind that closed door? Or does the outside world only pop into existence when I open the door?", and they said, "Dude, you're weird! Let's go play basketball." Maybe, like me, when you were in high school you read science fiction and wondered whether an entirely alien moral code might be as legitimate as our own, and this prevented you from taking your World History teacher entirely seriously.

If you are a deep-down philosophy dork, then you might have a certain underappreciated asset: a philosophically-tuned sense of what's fun. You should trust that sense of fun.

It's fun -- at least I find it fun -- to think about whether there's some way to prove that the external world exists. It's fun to see whether ethics books are any less likely to be stolen than other philosophy books. (They're actually more likely to be stolen, it turns out.) It's fun to think about why people used to say they dreamed in black and white, to think about how weirdly self-ignorant people often are, to think about what sorts of bizarre aliens might be conscious, to think about whether babies know that things continue exist outside of their perceptual fields. At every turn in my career, I have faced choices about whether to pursue what seems to me to be boring, respectable, philosophically mainstream, and at first glance the better career choice, or whether instead to follow my sense of fun. Rarely have I regretted it in the long term when I have chosen fun.

I see three main reasons a philosophy dork should trust her sense of fun:

(1.) If you truly are a philosophy dork in the sense I intend the phrase -- and I assume most readers of this blog are (consider: this is how you're spending your free time?!) -- then your sense of what's fun will tend to manifest some sort of attunement to what really is philosophically worth pursuing. You might not be able quite to put your finger on why it's worth pursuing, at first. It might even just seem a pointless intellectual lark. But my experience is that the deeper significance will eventually reveal itself. Maybe it's just that everything can be explored philosophically and brought around back to main themes, if one plunges deep enough. But I'm inclined to think it's not just that. The true dork's mind has a horse-sense of where it needs to go next.

(2.) It energizes you. Few things are more dispiriting than doing something tedious because "it's good for your career". You'll find yourself wondering whether this is really the career for you, whether you're really cut out for philosophy. You'll find yourself procrastinating, checking Facebook, spacing out while reading, prioritizing other responsibilities. In contrast, if you chase the fun first, you will find yourself positively eager, at a visceral level, to do your research. And this eagerness can then be harnessed back into a sense of responsibility. Finding your weird passion first, and figuring out what you want to say about it, can energize you to go back later and read what others have said about your topic, so you can fill in the references, connect it with previous research, sophisticate your view in light of others' work. It's much more rewarding to read the great philosophers, and one's older contemporaries, when you have a lens to read them through than when you're slogging through them from a vague sense of duty.

(3.) Fun is contagious. So is boredom. Readers are unlikely to enjoy your work and be enthusiastic about your ideas, if even you don't have that joy and enthusiasm.

These remarks probably generalize across disciplines. I think of Richard Feynman's description of how he recovered from his early-career doldrums (see the last fifth of this autobiographical essay).


bjorn said...

Thanks for all your interesting and inspirational texts! One of my absolute favorite blogs.

Anonymous said...

Great topic. I would be very interested in reading any further analyses that you might have about it, perhaps in relation to other emotions or on its evolutionary significance. Among the historical philosophers, do you get a sense that some are guided by fun more than others, or does it become difficult to discern for thinkers coming from distant cultural contexts?

clasqm said...

Within my own academic context, I agree entirely with what you propose here. Unfortunately the rest of the world is moving the other way.

Conferences are becoming hyper-specialized with little space for the "open papers" that were usually the main reason for attending in the first place.

Journal editors churn out one dull thematic issue after another, while sitting on your off-the-wall, fun article until they can squeeze it in somewhere.

In my country, there is tremendous pressure on all academics to get themselves "rated" by a quasi-governmental institution that really LOVES narrow specialists.

There still is space for the fun-loving academic. But the walls are closing in. Sometimes I think we should go back to the beginning: sit down on a rock by the city gates and talk to anyone who passes by ...

Anonymous said...

My view is somewhat similar to clasqm's. Some people have had to learn to 'channel' our untutored sense of fun into directions that could result in something that has a decent chance of getting published. Not everyone's untutored sense of fun matches perfectly with disciplinary expectations of 2012.

Everything I've managed to get published has been fun for me... but not everything I've found fun is publishable. I had to learn to operate those professional constraints.

Anonymous said...

typo: "operate WITHIN those professional constraints." Sorry.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Yeah, clasqm and Anon, that is the other side of the story! And yet I'm inclined to think philosophers tend to err too much on the side of professionalization in the face of such hurdles. And that's also one reason I said I have rarely regretted it in the *long term* when I have pursued the fun. My inclination is to think that the problems you describe are more daunting in the short term than in the long term. What leads to short-term success and what works best for the long term are, I'm inclined to think, somewhat different.

(Yes, I know. Job market, tenure. If these are looming, a short-term view might be temporarily more desirable.)

Zach Barnett said...

I like this. Already I heed this advice more than I should.

An example: I meet with a professor seeking advice about which of two topics I should pursue for my final paper in a course. Topic A is "boring, respectable, philosophically mainstream, and at first glance the better choice," and topic B is ambitious, provocative, and more fun. In my experience, professors almost always recommended topic A in such circumstances. (David Christensen is a notable exception. Love him.)

Do you think I should *always* go with topic B? Probably not. I usually do, though. :)

Anyway, as much as I agree with the post, I think you run the risk of generalizing from your own experience more than is warranted. Perhaps this should be called "The Commencement Speaker's Fallacy."

Commencement speeches often refer to an important choice that faced the speaker in the past. For instance: Stick with that safe, ordinary job, or quit it with the hope of achieving something greater — maybe to start that business, or to try to become a musician, or a comedian, or a journalist, or an actor, or an astronaut. Invariably, the speaker took "the road not taken" and was rewarded for her boldness. Accordingly, the advice imparted is that one should never settle for 'ordinary', since can accomplish anything she puts her mind to.

Okay, so that might be a caricature of commencement speeches. But you get the point. This is irresponsible advice. And I think someone could have the same complaint about the "trust your sense of fun" advice.

Of course, if you only intend to suggest that "philosophers tend to err too much on the side of professionalization [rather than on the side of fun]" then I'll unabashedly agree.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Zach: Thanks for the thoughtful comment! I love your conceptualization of the commencement speaker's fallacy, and I recognize there is some risk that I am guilty of it. Two reasons to think I might be less guilty of it than the typical sports hero: (1.) I am drawing partly on my knowledge of the careers of people I have known as graduate students and assistant professors, so there's looking forward as well as looking back. (2.) One way the commencement speaker fallacy might have played out in my case is if I lucked into a topic that turned out to be fruitful just by chance. But I don't think it can be that sort of luck, since the pattern has played out in my career for several very different topics.

I should concede that the advice to be boring and respectable probably the best *short-term* advice, including for writing term papers. To turn the weird into something valuable requires a nerdy persistence that needs the kind of patience that is difficult to sustain if it doesn't arise from deep-down dorkdom. A quick piece of lazy fun without long-term follow-through is not what I advise.

Zach Barnett said...

Thanks, Eric! :)

(1.) I feel better about the advice knowing this. It strikes me as important information to include.

(2.) Another possibility (which you can feel free to modestly deny) is that you happen to be clever enough to make the fun stuff valuable, and that not all of us are. This would be "unfair," perhaps, but it seems to be a live possibility nonetheless.

Shyam said...

Dear Eric Schwitzgebel,
You have a lot of stuffs but I don't have time to read now.I would like to share my honest views on philosophy:

I'm a rebel or you can consider me as a drop out from society conditioning. Philosophy was good in the beginning I could project any idea and then all kinds of rationalizations to support it. My interests varied from god to sexual repressions, read stuffs written by Friedrich Nietzsche,Sigmund Freud,Alfred Adler, Jung and few eastern philosophers.

Later skepticism became my problem, it was too much and sometimes I used to feel insane with numerous thoughts(even with positive thoughts). I strongly feel that somewhere skepticism has to end (not with doubts but with a deep satisfaction) There are many examples where philosophers/psychologists have gone mad in the end because it is so difficult to control thoughts.

Mysticism helped me to overcome with techniques to transcend mind and go beyond it. Thoughtlessness(without drugs) gives me a deep satisfaction.
Finally I said good bye to philosophy and sometimes read it for fun.
Have a nice time!!!

PS: I don't know whether it is appropriate to comment here but I just felt like.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Interesting to hear your experience, Megha!

Unknown said...

I'm not sure how you'd decide between this idea of fun guiding you to findings of significance before you're aware of what exactly the significance is - and the idea that everything, if studied hard enough, reveals something of philosophical significance. I think the latter is probably true but I'm not averse to the first either.

Can they be made compatible? If you think that the sense of fun guides you to findings of particular significance whereas random scrutiny only guarantees some limited significance then maybe. The sense of fun would direct you to the most important areas. But if you take a stronger line and think sufficient scrutiny of anything can reveal findings of equal significance (Blake's vision of the universe in a grain of sand comes to mind here), then it's more difficult to see how this sense of fun can involve a special attunement. The only way I can see to resolve this tension is maybe to see the sense of fun as guiding you to the findings of significance that - relative to your present knowledge - are most proximate or accessible. This would give it a slightly different role but still a significant one.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Andrew! Those all seem like reasonable options. Your last way of tying them together is particularly interesting.

giulia said...

I'm able to ground my thoughts on the topic only in my limited experience as an undergraduate student. I think there are two main points at stake here:
1) Choice or selection of topics to work on.
2) Awareness of one's feeling of “fun”.
1) Obviously, if you are a very young researcher, you had better follow your professors' advice, or at least start your planning with an open-minded meeting with them. Let me explain.
I'm not concerned here with short papers students are asked to write for an academic course – these are not the best occasions for freely experimenting with your own ideas. I am thinking of students willing to try some independent research.
First, students shouldn't take for granted that their advisers will adress them towards mainstream, safe topics one may find boring, but which the advisers consider to be good for the student's career. In fact, your professor is not always able to foresee what topics will be “hot” and lively discussed in the community in the next few years.
Second, one shouldn't worry too much that professors propose bizarre, risky topics. If the professor usually pursues original, curiosity-driven research, she may push the student towards her own (the professor's) research interests. But, at this stage of your philosophical development, you are likely to having been deeply influenced by your professors' perspectives, methodes and interests.
So why asking you professors' advice at all? Well, if you're lucky, these more expert philosophers have some knowledge of you – your strong qualities; your tendency to get lost if you face an unexplored field or, instead, your tendency to stick to a hyper-specific issue; your perseverance or your generous imagination. In this ideal case, they can orientate your efforts towards a development of your capacities – working on something that is a challenge for us is also a way to work on us. But, if the professor doesn't know you so, it is nevertheless helpful to have an expert who will support you during the work, read your papers and discuss them – hopefully, I should precise; but is you start by asking them advice with genuine interest, the professor may be more likely to help you in the future.
This relates to another idea: I think the topic one BEGINS to do research on is not so determinant. In fact, moving to the other point,

giulia said...

2) What is determinant is the researcher's awareness of her “fun”. Suppose you start working on the topic your professor suggested. In fact, if you explore any topic – a topic which anyway is within your broad area of interest, since you asked your professor – you're likely to find some questions that attract your attention, and pursue these ones. You will orientate your work and define the lines of research as you go along. It is not something you can do in advance, before starting; rather, you discover what is puzzling and fascinating for you as you work. Or, better, you select what fascinates you and concentrate on such aspects of the topic, which may lead you to abandon the initial topic in a substantial sense.
My point is you can be able to do curiosity-driven, “thrilling” research that really stimulates you almost independently from the topic you (apparenlty) begin with, because the real choices come after. What is crucial is your awareness of how it is like for you to reflect on something. Are wide-spread questions the most interesting or you have an intuition there is an alternative way of framing the problem? A contribution in an apparently very distant field in philosophy (or even in another discipline) captivates your you “feel” it is meaningful to your topic? Do you feel like you're wasting your time with irrelevant arguments? These are questions one should never stop asking oneself very honestly while working. Finally, I just want to note how determinant is to have someone who supports you. Otherwise, the most original, risky, new research – which can be thrilling but frustrating – may get lost because one looses one's strenght and enthousiasm.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the thoughtful comments, guilia! That all makes sense to me. It can be very useful, especially early, to have someone who will start you off by pointing your nose in a potentially fruitful direction.