O to Be in Academia

When I speak to people outside of academia about some of the things that go on inside it, they often don’t believe me. But I never lie about such things. Here is one of the stories people find hard to believe.

I defended my dissertation in the philosophy department of the University of Chicago in the spring of 1997. The title of my dissertation was “The Unintended Order of Morality in Adam Smith and David Hume.” I had wanted to write the dissertation on only Smith’s moral theory, and I had wanted to call the dissertation “Adam Smith’s Marketplace of Morality”—what I thought was a catchy title.

My dissertation director tried to talk me out of writing a dissertation on Adam Smith on the grounds that it could be career suicide. I appreciated his concern, but in my naivete I thought his worries were exaggerated; so I decided to write on Smith anyway. He then warned me, however, that I would never get a job having written a dissertation that had the word “marketplace” in the title. He also strongly cautioned me against writing on only Adam Smith, even if it was on his moral theory and not his economics. I was, I confess, puzzled by his cautions. Wouldn’t my dissertation be judged on its quality? What exactly did he think people might think? Still, out of deference to my director, who was—is—after all an eminent scholar, I decided to add a discussion of Hume to the dissertation, and I changed the title.

When it came time for my public defense of the dissertation, one of the members of my committee, about two-thirds the way through the defense, asked asked me this:

Reader: “Mr. Otteson, even historians of philosophy must eventually ask what, in what they’re studying, is true—not just exegetical questions, but what we should believe today. Wouldn’t you agree?”

Me [with a sense of foreboding]: “Yes, I would agree.” 

Reader: “Well, then, should I infer from the fact that you chose to write your dissertation on Adam Smith that you endorse multinational corporations selling tainted baby milk in third-world countries?”

I was, as one might imagine, shocked at the question. I hadn’t discussed multinational or any other corporations in my dissertation; I hadn’t discussed tainted baby milk or any other product or good; I hadn’t discussed globalism or third-world countries. I had discussed what I think is Smith’s spontaneous-order conception of human morality, and I had even discussed how I think Smith makes an “invisible-hand” argument in his Theory of Moral Sentiments that parallels his invisible-hand argument in The Wealth of Nations.

But how does one go from there to inferring that I want companies selling tainted baby milk? The connecting chain of ideas I imagined might be taking place was: Adam Smith is the father of capitalism; capitalism leads to evil things; someone writing about Adam Smith must endorse Smithian capitalism; therefore Mr. Otteson must endorse the evil things capitalism allows; prehaps Mr. Otteson is himself evil. How else, I wondered, would one arrive at thinking that one should ask me that question?

Perhaps my dissertation director, who had tried to warn me, had a point after all.

I did not manage to come up with much by way of an answer. I asked whether the company in question knew that the milk was tainted, and then tried to muddle my way forward from there. Thankfully, however, I was rescued by another member of my committee—my lone outside reader, distinguished Adam Smith scholar Knud Haakonssen—who interrupted me and said that he didn’t think the question was fair to Mr. Otteson since he hadn’t addressed any of those issues in the dissertation. I will forever be thankful to Professor Haakonssen for that.

That exchange has stuck with me ever since. The person who posed that question has now retired, after a long and distinguished scholarly career. I had even served as a teaching assistant to him during my time at Chicago; I learned a great deal from him and developed a deep respect for his scholarship. But that question was not fair, not fair at all; yet I fear the fact that it was asked is telling.

Imagine this analogous exchange in a hypothetical dissertation defense:

Reader: “Mr. ——, even historians of philosophy must eventually ask what, in what they’re studying, is true—not just exegetical questions, but what we should believe today. Wouldn’t you agree?”

Mr. ——: “Yes, I would agree.”

Reader: “Well, then, should I infer from the fact that you chose to write your dissertation on Karl Marx that you endorse the slaughter of tens of millions of innocent noncombatants that took place during the twentieth century in the name of Marxian ideals?”

Though I have no evidence for it, I suspect that an exchange like the one I had is not all that uncommon; by contrast, I would be quite surprised if an exchange like the hypothetical one I describe has ever happened. Am I wrong?

In a future post I may recount some other bizarre or shocking things that I have heard in my years as an academic. In the meantime, I invite readers to share their own.

7 thoughts on “O to Be in Academia

  1. Was there a possibility he was being deliberately outrageous, to see how you would handle the confrontation?

  2. I publish every week an article in a polarized country. I write in green but my readers can only read me in yellow or blue. The same article gets me hate mail from both sides, as they understand completely different things from the same words.

    Since most of the Academia, like most of the rest of the world, cannot handle being exposed to the current information overload, they use a centrifuge which rapidly divides the world in right or wrong, progressive or conservative, black or white. The intellectual impoverishing polarization of the elite going on is about the saddest thing happening in the world.

    I come from a developing country and I am not an academician, nor a PhD. One of the first things that shocked me when I arrived to Washington at the end of 2002, was to see how a group of self named experts operating under the name of the Basel Committee, had managed to completely hijack the extremely important issue of bank regulations, and were able to apply outright idiotic regulatory paradigms, while 99.99% of the tenured community of Academia kept totally mum about it.

    Of course, now, all the Monday morning quarterbacks are out there… speaking loud.

  3. Per, thank you for your comments.

    Penelope, it is possible he was being deliberately outrageous, and I guess I cannot know for sure. But at the time he seemed to be quite serious, and nothing that has happened since has given me reason to think otherwise.

  4. My own thought, in reading your post, was close to Penelope’s. Not that the reader qas being outrageous, but that he wanted to throw you of-balance.

    Has this guy has really grasped the material, or can he only re-gurgitate it? Force him out of his comfort zone … ask him to apply it in some unanticipated context.

  5. I suggest that the questioner demonstrated the absurdity that generally results from extrapolation via syllogism. Your countering question about Marx would have been outstanding as a reply; but who could foresee such a deranged and irrelevant question coming and keep his composure enough to make that response?

  6. Interestingly, in the same institution, I had experiences quite parallel to these. First, for my dissertation, I was advised repeatedly that it would be career suicide to discuss only the Stoics, and in deference to this advice I added much material on Plato and Aristotle. Then, at my defense, I was asked–and I suspect that the asker was the same person–an off-the-wall question to the effect of why I thought that seeking philosophical truth in Cicero was any more reasonable than seeking philosophical truth in Ann Landers.

    I am tempted to draw two possible mitigating lessons.

    First, while I don’t doubt that there are ideologues in academe–and that this was why you were advised to drop the word ‘marketplace’ from your title–it’s possible that *part* of the concern for your dissertation topic was animated not by worries about political ideology but by the thought that dissertations in the history of philosophy on figures not admitted to the profession’s narrow, conservative canon are viewed as marginal to the central concerns of most departments.

    It’s also possible that the question put to you was put by a questioner who likes to ask off-the-wall, even crude questions to see how the examinee can distinguish his or her work and commitments from the *possible* implications others might take away. Like you, I was a bit too flustered to come up with a good reply. I learned something from that experience, and I’d like to think I’d be better at handling an off-the-wall question in the future.

    It would be nice, I agree, if we could all assess the quality of another’s scholarship and teaching without being biased by our prior commitments about the material on which the other’s scholarship and teaching focus. That’s very hard to do, though, and I’ve seen pernicious bias run in all sorts of ways on all sorts of topics (many of which were very far from hot-button matters of current politics, such as what counts as a viable view of causation). Moreover, one of the tasks of a hiring committee is not just to find the most skilled scholar but to find a scholar whose research best adds to the existing strengths and such of the department. So *some* kinds of content bias are perfectly reasonable.

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