The philosophy work I’m most familiar with as a day job is called continental, like the breakfast. It’s typically accused of being esoteric or, more damningly, French, but in fact it spends most of its time carefully deploying a limited number of entities, like I, you, it, the world, God, and so on. To which basic stock I typically append my two children, my dog, my wife and, on occasion, Joe Bageant from Winchester. I suppose if you take these universal and particular entities once again and do them up in quotation marks, and then chart the lines between them, then all of that taken together is everything there is or could be in any possible universe, so maybe that’s a bit esoteric. But it’s good work.
The thing about getting paid to do this work is that your paycheck is one of those slyly allusive rectangles, like paper money or art frames, that nod elsewhere, and you’re only ever a couple of degrees of separation from people doing work you’d never want to do and only about three degrees from people doing stuff you’d never want to make money off even indirectly. A willingness to pretend that your own paycheck isn’t outsourced like this is what is usually called maturity.
Just for fun, you could summon, in a degree or two of separation, all the major players in continental philosophy with a keyword search of just a few players who thought being a Nazi was a good thing to get in on the ground floor of, but who then later had the leisure to qualify that enthusiasm—from Carl Schmitt to the appropriately named Paul de Man (full disclosure, my wife and I courted each other reading bits of him out loud) all the way up to Heidegger. And then as the pendulum swings the other way, well, plenty of exculpatory work, which is like fast-talking he-says-she-says-he-says with a shovel, to get these guys out of the Nazi hole. Love the sinner and hate the sin, in short, because the good stuff’s all in there somewhere too. If it’s an archaeology of knowledge you want, you’re going to have to get into the dirt a bit.
At thirty, I’d been hoping that the form, professor, would be an ethically neutral container into which I could pour good ethical content. When I turned forty, my hands took to shaking for a couple of years. Never figured that one out—maybe it was a pouring metaphor. About that time my philosopher friend cut a deal to be named Petro Canada Young Innovator of the Year for a year and used the undisclosed sum from wearing that mantle to write a critique of Big Oil. He went up for early tenure, and his hands never shook. I used to be jealous about that. Still am, but in a different way. Now I’m fifty and I suppose I’m employed, give or take a few royalties, not much more and not much less than Michael Jackson, who was born on the same day as me.
My hands don’t shake these days, though last night I was awake for an hour wondering what it all means. They say it ain’t over till the skinny guy stops singing. Maybe I’ll take up carpentry, work with my hands again. “You did that last year,” my wife says. I’m not so sure being not so sure isn’t rather a good thing, after all, given the options. Maybe I’ll grow up one day, maybe not. Maybe I’ll stop chanting odes to ambivalence, maybe not. For now, I’m still able to put one foot forward onto the ground of being, then the next one. It’s all you need to get to breakfast.
Dufferin Grove watershed, Toronto.
DAVID KER THOMSON writes for Lowbagger.org. He was a gravedigger during the Reagan administration. He has taught at Duke, Princeton, and the University of Texas. Currently between jobs, he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org