Horoscope for Academics 2016

waarzegsterHistorically, academics have ignored horoscopes like they don’t exist. But just like marking deadlines, your fate always sneaks up on you at the least convenient moment. So Madame Metaphysica advises academics to cut the disdain and pay some attention to their horoscopes for 2016, so they can prepare for the year to come.

AriesAries – That seemingly interesting conference with the erudite keynote speaker? Don’t go. It’s going to be disappointing. The keynote speaker is a grumpy old man repeating old tropes, the papers are incomprehensible and the wine is sour. Try a less prestigious conference in a warm, Mediterranean country instead. Much better wine.

TaurusTaurus – End your affair with the undergraduate student. Although that will break both your hearts because you had real love, it really is better for your career.


GeminiGemini – Apply for a sabbatical. If you don’t do it now, that mental breakdown that has been hanging over you like Damocles’ sword for the past few years will force you to.


CancerCancer – Don’t bother. Just… don’t bother, ok? Just leave it in the drawer. It’s not worth your time. It’s ok. It’s not you, it’s Uranus. This is just not the year for you to get published. Instead, use your time to work on improving student feedback on that introductory module you’re bored of teaching. Tip: buy them chocolate.

Leo – Due to the position of Pluto, so far, far away into the distance, the start of the year is marked by loneliness and you feel like no one Leounderstands you. This feeling is merited: your friends really aren’t interested in your research on the metaphysics of time after quantum physics. But towards the summer solstice you will meet someone who will change your life. Adopt this cat, it will be your best friend.

Virgo – Saturn an Jupiter are aligned, so your persistence in applying again and again for funding will finally pay off: a grant from a local Virgocharity will allow you to provide a sandwich lunch at your conference on early mediaeval women logicians!


Libra – Not much will change this year: you will still sell out large halls across Europe, publish here and there and attract young, beautiful, Libraclever women in spite of your grumpy face and angry – slightly incoherent – lectures. Oh no, wait. Sorry, that’s Slavoj Žižek’s horoscope. I got confused there. Let me see. Oh yes, here it is: Libra. Oh well, just keep applying for jobs, but don’t reject the part-time teaching position yet. Beggars can’t be choosers.

ScorpiusScorpio – Contrary to what you’re trying to argue in this book you’ve been writing for the past six years, the free will does not exist. It’s all in the stars. So I would advise you to abort this futile project before you waste any more time on it, if it weren’t pointless to give you this advice. You have, after all, no say in the matter because you haven’t got a free will.

SagitSagittarius – Write an article in which you take an outrageous position on a politically controversial topic. It will backfire dramatically, but at least you’ll have your name out there as the radical intellectual. Someone important to you will take offense and part ways.


CapriCapricorn – With Mercury in your sign, you will realise that alcohol isn’t the solution to your despair. Mercury poisoning can cause alcohol intolerance, you see? It’s not all made up nonsense, this horoscope! Try Cognitive Behavioural Therapy instead. That has much better results with people with your levels of impostor syndrome.

AquaAquarius – Finally, departmental politics will work in your favour and you get to share a tedious admin task with the attractive postdoc. But be sure to check they are not a Capricorn before you get drunk with them on leftover workshop wine and lure them into the stationary cupboard! If they are, remember there are plenty of people to seduce at the next conference.

PiscesPisces – After some frustration at the start of the year, you will encounter unexpected success when you attempt to remove the jammed paper from compartment D of the photocopier. You will ride this wave of victory until next Christmas.



Philosophy complicates things

Since Adrian is a real philosopher (see previous post), he lives in the hills. I always picture him strolling over these hills, pondering about Wittgenstein, his deep thoughts interrupted only by birdsong.

Sarah and I, however, live in London, where deep thought is smothered in the bud by road rage.

So the three of us figured it would be a good idea if Sarah and I would join Adrian for a walk in the hills. So we picked a Sunday that suited us all.

A few days in advance, Adrian emailed: “One thing occurs: do we have any idea about the weather? It might be awful!”

We checked: heavy rain, all day. Awful indeed.

What to do? We identified the following options:

A ) Nietzschean option: suffering is good for us, so we’ll climb that hill starkers with 50 pounds of stones on our backs. The stormier the weather, the better.
B ) Stoic option: rain is irrelevant, resulting emotions of irritation are also irrelevant, so stick to the plan.
C ) Platonic option: only the sun is The Good, philosophers won’t bother with clouded reality.
D ) Epicurean option: sod the walking, go to the pub
E ) Utilitarian option: the greatest good for the greatest number is achieved when the walking happens in good weather, so postpone to a date with better weather.
F ) Cartesian option: we sit in an armchair and think about a walk in sunny hills, therefore we are walking in sunny hills.
G) Hegelian option: We could go walking in the rain and also not go walking in the rain, towards a synthesis of thesis and anti-thesis.
H) The Heideggerian option: Build a hut in the rain and stay in playing with hammers
I) Marxist option: Praise comrade rain for alerting us to the fact that a country walk was a bourgeois option anyway
J) Buddhist option: Discover through enlightenment that we are already one with the rain.
K) Kantian option: only walk in the rain if you can will, at the same time, that it should become a universal law.
L) Machiavellian option: Manipulate others to walk in the rain for us.
M) Hobbesian option: life in the state of rain is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.
N) Humean option: As inductive reasoning involves circular reasoning in its premises there is no reason to to think that it will be raining on Sunday. However there is no reason to think that we will be able to use our limbs on Sunday either. Tricky.

Unable to think ourselves out of the theoretical pickle we had talked ourselves into, we decided to postpone to a later date, hoping the weather will be better by then.

Now, you might think: “but you could’ve just postponed in the first place, without getting all these philosophers involved!” And to that I say: “True. But didn’t I warn you that philosophy complicates things?”

To be is to get paid

After Adrian’s talk at the Philosophy Now festival, we – Adrian, Sarah and I – chat with a small group of people about the difference between genuine dialogue and manipulation.

A woman asks Adrian: “So, are you a philosopher, then.”

Adrian: “Yes, I am a philosopher.”

Woman: “A real philosopher?”

Adrian: “Well, I guess so…”

Woman: “I mean: are you a bread-and-butter philosopher? Is philosophy your job?”

Adrian: “Ah, if that is what you mean: yes, I am a real bread-and-butter philosopher.”

The woman stares at Adrian in amazement, if not disbelief. “I am a lawyer,” she says, “I didn’t know philosopher was an actual job! That there were still real philosophers around!”

Adrian, pointing at me: “Oh, there are. Here’s another one!”

The woman turns to me and her eyes nearly pop out of her head with astonishment: “Are you also a philosopher?”

Me: “Yep.”

Woman: “But you’re way too young to be a philosopher!”

Me: “I’m 32, which is well above the legally permitted age to be a philosopher. I’ve spent the past 13 years studying it. Besides, I’m not much younger than Adrian. In fact, Sarah here is also a philosopher, and she’s even younger than I am!”

The woman turns to Sarah, now looking as if her world and everything it stood on has just crumbled apart. Sarah just nods.

Woman: “Are you ALSO a philosopher?!”

Sarah: “I am. You’re in luck today. I’m guessing you’ve never met so many philosophers at once, have you?”

Woman: “So you all get PAID to do philosophy?”

Sarah and I nod.

Woman: “But what do philosophers DO all day?”

Me: “We teach… do some admin….”

Sarah: “Mark essays… think… write… tutor…”

Woman: “Well, I’m astonished. I’ve never met a REAL philosopher before! And you’re so young!”

Me: “You do realize we’re at a philosophy festival at the moment?”

Woman: “Yes of course, but I hadn’t thought there would be anyone who actually gets PAID for philosophy!”

After the conversation I ponder a bit about the connection between being real and getting paid. The woman seems committed to an ontology whereby one is only real when one gets paid: if you get paid, you’re a real philosopher. Do we all get paid into existence? Do we only exist if we get paid? I have never heard of such a philosophy of existence before. Or have I? The more I think about it, the more prevalent this idea seems to be: you only exist insofar as you get paid, stimulate the flow of money, contribute to economic growth. You are what you get paid for.

The Eggman, The Walrus, Goo Goo G’Joob

Some academic philosophers, myself included, contribute to philosophy events for non-academic audiences. These events are great, because I would like to live in a world where philosophical virtues flourish, so the more philosophy is made accessible to everyone, the better.

A bonus is that at these events you get to meet eccentric individuals.

This weekend I attended the Philosophy Now Festival. Adrian, a good philosopher-friend, delivered an excellent talk about the humanizing potential of honest dialogue.

On the front row, the incarnation of the song I Am A Walrus from the Beatles stood out due to his perfectly oblong-shaped long beard, which contrasted with his short hair like the beard of a walrus contrasts with its smooth head.

Midway through Adrian’s talk, Walrus reaches into his bag and unearths a boiled egg and a spoon. He proceeds to slice the top off and spoons the soft-boiled contents efficiently into his mouth, maintaining his concentration on Adrian’s argument in the process.

He is the egg man, he is the walrus, goo goo g’joob.

A Riddle

“I have a riddle for you. What have I got in mind? It is at once the most frustrating and the most appealing thing in your life. It keeps you up at night and yet it’s all you can talk about at parties….

“Ah. I know. It’s a child.”

“…your friends wish you would talk about something else for once. They complain that you weren’t like this before, that you were much more fun, had more time for them and had more interesting things to say before you had this thing in your life. You cancel parties and turn down invites. You’re always broke…”

“Yep, that’s a child.”

“…because this thing costs you at least a couple of grand per year in fees and all sorts of things you need to maintain it, and it just keeps growing and growing. And it absorbs most of your energy. You’re tired all the time. The last time you’ve been on holiday was when?Also, you can’t really remember the last time you were intimate with someone, because your romantic and sex life have been on the back burner for some time…”

“Yes, I’m quite sure now, it’s a child.”

“…and you devote most of your time to it – you have to, it’s yours, and nobody else is going to do it! – which makes it very hard to combine with a career. Your friends have interesting jobs, a good pay, responsibility and status, but you’re doing a poorly paid part time job on the side. Some people have dropped hints that you could have had a career if you hadn’t had this thing, if you’d chosen a career in a corporate environment instead. You could’ve owned a house and a car instead of renting a small space and riding around on a second hand bicycle. You realise they’re probably correct…”

“A child.”

“…and it’s so much harder than you thought. You thought you’d be good at this, but you can’t help doubting: am I doing this right? What if I take the wrong turn, make the wrong decision? What are the consequences? If it turns out bad, there’ll be nobody to blame but me, and I will have failed. Then I will never be able to fulfil my calling….”

“Yep, parenting does that to you. The thing is a child.”

“….Some of your friends and family think it’s always been a bad idea to begin this. It’s clearly hindering your success, your career and your relationships and look at you, your general well-being has never been this low. They’re right, you sometimes think it’s actually driving you insane. And yet you maintain, without a trace of a doubt, that it’s all worth it, whatever it takes. Anyone who hasn’t had this thing, doesn’t really understand what it’s like.”

“That’s right, they don’t understand what it’s like to have a child.”

“…Sometimes you wonder: ‘is it ever going to stop running around in circles? when will it run head first into a fatal obstacle?'”

“Haha, yes, endless energy and a danger to themselves, kids.”

“…And after about 4 or 5 years, when it miraculously hasn’t died and it is finally time for it to go out into the world, when you no longer have to watch it full time, there is nothing you want more than…”

“for it to do well at school, with the other kids. You can stop now, it’s a kid.”

“…to set fire to it and watch it burn slowly so you can forget it has ever existed.”


“It’s not a child. It’s a PhD.”


(Note: loosely based on comments by Sarah, Jon, A., C. and several other academics on their own PhD experience.)

The Force of the Better Argument

At a big conference in Prague, I present a paper about the German philosopher Jurgen Habermas. Central to Habermas’ philosophy is the idea that we cannot choose which arguments convince us. We simply find ourselves persuaded when we are confronted with a good argument, whether we like it or not. Good arguments have that effect on us. Habermas calls this “the force of the better argument”.

The most important part of any conference is the conference dinner, because people may forget your presentation, but they will remember how you promised not to tell anyone the dirty joke they made at the expense of a colleague after a bottle of wine. That’s how you acquire useful contacts. So I attended the buffet in the conference villa.

Back home in London the next evening, I – as many of those who attended the conference dinner, so I learned later – suddenly fell ill. Food poisoning. The following morning, weak and dehydrated, I stood up too quickly. I fainted and fell flat on my face, with a swollen black eye as a result.

Jon, the next day at college: “What happened at the conference? Did Habermas punch you in the eye with the force of the better argument?”



Four academics in Jon’s office. Jon asks: “How do I print something with a staple?” All four of us gather to bend inquisitively over his computer, ready to cooperate on the research that might lead us to a possible solution to this puzzle.
S.: “Ooh…. quite a question. You’d probably need that big fancy printer/photo-copier in the corridor for that.”
Sarah: “Can’t you just use a stapler?”
Jon: “Yes, but then I’d have to do it all manually.”
Me: “Let’s try ‘options'”
Jon: “Ah, it’s probably in the ‘advanced’ tab”
Me: “Nah, I don’t think it’s advanced. It’s only a staple.”
S.: “I don’t think these ordinary printers like the ones on this floor can do such a thing as stapling.”
Me: “Look, there! It says ‘staple’ and you can choose one or two staples, or none.”
S.: “So it’s not actually that difficult really!”
Jon: “It’s remarkably straightforward!”

Sarah: “How many academics does it take to staple a single document?”

Monads (2), or why philosophers can’t get anything done.

Philosophers, like anyone else, need to get around in life. That is challenging enough as it is for the best of us. There are plenty of practical hurdles to take. Philosophers, however, are frequently faced with additional theoretical difficulties. Sometimes, all this frustration gets too much. Then you just want to kick somebody. But even that proves logically inconsistent upon closer analysis. Life is difficult.

A few examples:


Sarah and I work in our office. The sun is out. I grab my coat.

Me: “I’m going out to get lunch. Can I get you anything from External Reality?”

Sarah: “How do you know it exists?”


I have purchased a bag of apples. I decide to share them.

Me: “Apple, anyone?”

Sarah: “Do these apples have material substance, or are they only ideas of apples, existing only in our minds?”

Max: “Are they noumenal apples or phenomenal apples?”


Friend and fellow philosopher A.: “I think we should kick Leibniz in his monads.”

Me: “My idea. But his monads are everywhere. How do we kick them?”

The Philosophy Department Social Gathering with Cake

Most employers plan and organise semi-regular social events for the purpose of team-building, colleague-bonding and …er… fun. University colleges are no different. So this week one of the lecture rooms was booked for the purpose of a Philosophy Department Informal Social Gathering at lunchtime. All staff members were emailed months in advance that we could bring our own lunch, but CAKE would be provided. Regular reminders were sent to remind us of this Informal Gathering, and did we mention that there would be Cake?

So the Big Day is finally there, and ten of us gather in the lecture room. A table is placed festively in the middle and a wide circle of classroom chairs arranged around it. We’re all very excited, and take a seat in the circle, eagerly anticipating what’s going to happen next. Then M. comes in with the promised cake – it’s a chocolate cake! But M&S didn’t sell paper plates, explains M, so there’s also a kitchen roll, which will do just fine.

And there we are, ten intelligent, sociable individuals, who all know and like each other, sitting in an awkward group-therapy-like arrangement, staring at a cake. None of us, individually, is socially inept, but the Informality of it all is pressing heavily on all of us.

SILENCE (and I think: Oh good grief. We should’ve gone to the pub.)

Sarah bravely decides to break the ice, a little louder and more demonstrably than necessary, as if talking to a class of children: “OK, WHO WANTS CAKE? SHALL I CUT IT?”

I can’t leave her alone in this brave move, so I add, continuing the clarity and loudness of tone: “SHALL I RIP OFF KITCHEN ROLL SHEETS THEN?”

Sarah cuts, I rip, and we arrange a slice of cake on each sheet of kitchen roll.




Sarah, in yet another brave move: “Miroslav, HAVE CAKE!” whilst Max pushes a sheet of kitchen roll with a slice of cake in Miro’s direction.

Miroslav takes the cake, and with this Ritual of Acceptance, finally, the ice is broken and small conversations emerge among the philosophers in the circle, who now each have a sheet of kitchen roll with a slice of cake on their knees. Conversations about fun, informal topics like: should or shouldn’t one give a student a 69 for an essay, arthritis, and the advantages of publishing outrageous arguments and exactly how outrageous they should be. You’d almost think that the philosophers have mastered the art of small talk.


Your brain goes “bzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz” and a tiny, weak voice in your mind, not quite like your own but not quite unlike it either says: “Must..  write.. more.  2000.. words.. and.. it’ll.. be.. over” but your brain only goes “bzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz” like a radio that’s not receiving any signal.

You watch kitten videos. “Bzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz”. You eat another chocolate bar. “Bzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz”. Nothing makes the radio work.

You’ve received 12 years of academic education, expert training intended to make you think like an expert on thought, but a 2-year-old has more exciting thoughts. A 2 year old sea urchin that is. Or basically anything that thinks more than “bzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz”.

That. That’s what it’s like to do a PhD.