What is the Point of Being an Average Philosopher?

Many of us hold up influential people as exemplars of human excellence. We look to the scientist, the doctor, the activist, and think to ourselves, “Now that person is doing something with her life!” Such acknowledgments of greatness are almost immediately followed by the depressing thought of the mediocrity of our own lives, which raises the question about the value of being average.

I just finished reading A Mathematician’s Apology, a book written by G. H. Hardy about the intrinsic worth of what he calls pure mathematics. In essence, he thinks pure mathematics is valuable because it is a kind of knowledge, and because it can be beautiful. More importantly, he draws on the value of knowledge to defend the value of his life. Hardy (1967) says,

The case for my life, then, or for that of any one else who has been a mathematician in the same sense which I have been one, is this: that I have added something to knowledge, and helped others to add more; and that these somethings have a value which differs in degree only, and not in kind, from that of the creations of the great mathematicians, or of any of the other artists, great or small, who have left some kind of memorial behind them. (p. 151) 

This sounds like a good answer to me, given that he was an excellent mathematician. But what does this mean for a person who is only average at what he does? What does this say about the value of my life as a philosopher? Though I have published and probably will publish again, I question how much this contribution is worth. How valuable is it to write a paper that only five people will read? In contrast to Hardy, I will not be known after I die. I will not leave behind a legacy.

Exploring the pointlessness of our lives is an emotionally difficult endeavor, because it reminds us not only of our mortality but also of our limited capacities. The fact is that not everyone can be excellent at what they do, no matter how hard they try. I am an average philosopher not because I do not desire to be great, but because I am simply not smart enough. This is unfortunate, but true, and I have accepted it for a long time.

Luckily, there is another aspect of a being professional philosopher where I can make a larger difference, and that is teaching. Even according to conservative estimates, I will teach around 5,500 students in my lifetime. To be clear, I do not claim that I will change the lives of every student under my instruction, but I hope to have some positive effect on at least 1/3 of them.

If I were to make a case for my life, then, it would be that I will help thousands of students throughout my career think in a more rigorous and intellectually-honest way, about fundamental questions of moral and political significance.

References

Hardy, G. H. (1967). A Mathematician’s Apology. London: Cambridge University Press.