A PhD in Philosophy: more useful than expected!

I started my PhD in Philosophy shortly after a major restructure at my workplace promised to dramatically alter my professional life in more pragmatic directions. I joked at the time that I was studying Philosophy so as not to become excessively practical.

But it turns out that a PhD in Philosophy is not as useless as I had hoped. That is, in keeping with the ethos of this blog, I had expected that Philosophy would be free from the kinds of insidious controls that ravage more useful occupations. I had hoped that a PhD would give me the freedom to explore my interest in Chinese Philosophy on its own merits.

Unfortunately, it turns out that my university has embarked upon a program of radical self-transformation intended to lift its research ranking. This “research intensification” strategy translates into two measures: first, the recruitment of high-profile researchers to specialised research centres within the university. Second, the application of downward pressure on existing staff to encourage an outcomes-based mentality in research generally, with the corresponding threat of cuts to research allocations.

Some of you may recognise in this brief outline the essence of a “performance management” strategy more commonly found in corporate and bureaucratic environments: bring in new people at the top, and “performance manage” subordinates until they either leave of their own accord or comply with the new regime.

What does this have to do with a part-time Philosophy PhD student? Well, on top of all the challenges intrinsic to pursuing a PhD, it means being actively managed by the administrative arm of the university, “jumping through hoops”, meeting administrative goals extrinsic to the subject matter and the discipline, and generally dealing with an outcomes-focused, antagonistic administration. The great challenge of meeting the academic standards of my discipline was overshadowed by the demoralising demands of an arbitrary managerial culture.

The slogan of this blog is that “the superior man is not a utensil”, and in writing it I have been continually engaged by the idea that our preoccupation with utility diminishes us.  As Zhuangzi wrote: “Everyone knows the usefulness of what is useful, but few know the usefulness of what is useless.”

Working toward a PhD in Philosophy was supposed to be an expression of such uselessness. It was supposed to reveal the value inherent in the pursuit of learning, against the current of increasingly mundane efforts to prove the economic merits of such endeavours.

But it turns out that even a part-time PhD in Philosophy is too ‘useful’.  Universities are becoming big businesses, more a home for managers and administrators than academics, let alone for people who wish to study for their own personal development and for the sake of learning itself. A student like me is therefore ‘useful’ in the sense that my existence is increasingly anomalous in a performance management culture, and I must either strive to meet the requirements of this new order, or withdraw.

I’ve found management culture to be insidious and unpleasant, antithetical to the discipline I wish to pursue. If I were angling for an academic role in future I might have to be more circumspect, but since I was never counting on academic employment in the first place, and given the other demands on my time and attention, I’ve been pleased to withdraw from the program.

My supervisor has been excellent, and I will miss working regularly with him on my topic.  I’ve learned a huge amount about the free will debate, and enjoyed the opportunity to look deeper into the Chinese philosophers I admire. Perhaps I will have a chance to return to this theme in the future, but for now it’s fitting that it come to an end.

The ideal approach

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Melancholics are idealists, and in any venture or activity we seek out and adhere to the ideal.

This can be both an advantage and an obstacle. For example, I mentioned in a previous post that I always thought the ideal approach to exercise would be to incorporate it into everyday life, avoiding ‘exercise for its own sake’.

What I neglected in this approach is that such an ideal may not be attainable given the circumstances of a contemporary lifestyle, but also that people do in fact ‘exercise’ for fun and enjoyment. People run, ride, walk and play sports because it is enjoyable. But if you presume at the outset that exercise is onerous and pointless exercise is adding insult to injury, then this insight will evade you.

Growing up with numerous vague and confounding frailties of posture, coordination, physical tension, fatigue and other interrelated yet undiscovered obstacles may have contributed to this blind-spot toward exercise. On my better days it is obvious that exercise is enjoyable. But most days merely remaining upright is enough of an effort to make exercise seem implausibly demanding.

Nonetheless, since I started jogging regularly I’ve noticed a number of minor improvements, but more pertinent to this post, I found myself once again inclining toward the ideal – idealising the difficulty and purity of running or jogging as a simple and complete form of exercise.

What this shows is that ideals can be mistaken, ideals can be incomplete, but ideals can also be useful.

Perhaps it is best to consider ideals in this context: not so much as eternal and objective truths to be discovered but as a way of seeing the world, a way of understanding, communicating, teaching, and learning.

For example, I’ve been learning a particular martial art for about 16 years now, and for nearly half that time I was preoccupied – perhaps ‘obsessed’ is a better word – with finding a definitive copy of the names of the various moves in Chinese. My teacher’s generation were more focused on actually learning the art, and admittedly it seems a bit strange to feel that the name of a movement is in any way key to understanding or performing the movement. A fist by any other name will smack you just as hard around the head.

It’s only taken eight years for my enthusiasm to dim; hopefully in part as a result of improving at the art itself. But on reflection I can see that what I hoped to find in the names was not so much a better technical understanding of the movements, but a way of idealising them, of getting to their essence and encapsulating them.

It’s true that techniques are not definitive; they can be adapted, changed, put to multiple uses. But the mere fact that a technique has a name means that someone saw fit to name it in a particular way and denote from their own perspective what made this technique specific or unique.

In the 2005 doctoral dissertation of Jude Chua Soo Meng the author analyses the correlative theory of naming in the neo-Daoist philosopher wang Bi:

clearly for Wang, the names do in fact correlate to a certain actuality, a certain reality, and is not something which is random or frivolous. In his Laozi Zhilue, he presents explicitly the correlative theory of naming:

“All names arise from forms [phenomenal manifestations, (xing)]; never has a form arisen from a name. Therefore if there is this name, there must be this form, and, if there is this form, there must be its separation [fen] [from all other forms]. If “benevolence” [ren] cannot be called “sagehood” [sheng] or “intelligence” [zhi] called “benevolence,” each must have its own actuality.”

This passage clearly indicates that for Wang Bi names are not conventionally determined, but are determined depending on the shi [actuality/essence] of things, on which basis he can say that one cannot trade a name for another, since names have to accord with their actualities, and are determined by depending on these actualities, and not according to the fancy of the person. Again, names arise from xing, not the other way around, for “the name arises from how it appears to us” So in effect for Wang Bi the shi is manifested through the xing, and the names are determined according to the xing. Thus names ultimately are dependent on the shi through the xing, and the names are dependent immediately on the xing. Hence he can say that if there is this name, there must be this form (xing), since the form is the source of the name. Names come from somewhere objective, and this somewhere is the form.

What this describes is the creative process inherent in naming a thing. We look to the form, the form in turn is a reflection of the actuality or essence of the thing. Hence the name, deemed appropriate to the form yet also being mindful of the essence behind the form, is always in relation with the reality. No one names things arbitrarily, or rather, an arbitrary name is not a true name.

Chua addresses the allocation of arbitrary names in the context of conventions, drawing on Wang’s comments on ‘designation’ as opposed to true naming:

To accommodate this latter class of words which are conventional in order to distinguish it from the determination of names which follow from phenomenal manifestations (xing), Wang Bi calls it “designation” cheng:

“To name [ming] is to determine [ding] objects [bi]. To designate [cheng] is to follow what objects are conventionally called. A name arises from the object, but a designation issues from the subjective [wo].”

Now the designation is said to be subjective because when I designate something, I simply follow a convention and not the objective xing. Compared to naming, it appears that it is up to me (wo) that the designation is what it is; I am not immediately constrained by the objective form in the thing itself, as I would be in naming. After all, in choosing to adopt a conventional designation, I have implicitly chosen to follow convention even if the words fail to name or correspond to the phenomenal xing, if there is one.

In the context of martial arts, as someone who can’t speak Cantonese and doesn’t know the name of a technique, I am instead ‘designating’ a technique through the convention that has evolved in our practice. I can say to a newcomer “We call this move ‘jong’ or ‘kwan’,” but I can’t go beyond that to say that these are the techniques’ names or to explain their meaning in the context of a technique’s form (xing) or actuality (shi).

But the subjectivity of designations cannot be overstated. Subjectivity is not arbitrariness. We should be clear that designation is subjective comparatively, not absolutely. For despite its (comparative) subjectivity, designation for Wang is not divorced from objective reality simpliciter. It is only divorced from the objective reality qua form or shape. Thus he writes, “…designations do not arise without cause.”

Indeed, the designations used in our art are derived from oral repetition and aural impression of the actual names. The designations are far from arbitrary.

Nonetheless, to the original point: I realise now that my fascination with names is a function of idealism more generally. To know the name given to a technique by someone grounded in their practice and study is to have an insight into both the form (xing) and essence (shi) of the technique. It is a somewhat idiosyncratic way of making sense of the art, consolidating and encapsulating it, and translating it into the realm of ideas.

I can do things without an idealist approach, but idealism is my greatest strength, the way that makes most sense to me. While other temperaments are inspired by different aspects of life, the melancholic thrives in a world populated by ideals, and a life lived through them.

Freedom from desire

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An interesting theme in my current studies is the boundary between self and other, and how this boundary shifts as a consequence of different theories of free will.

For example, a simple theory of free will might hold that one acts voluntarily except when one’s actions are the result of physical coercion or ignorance.  Non-coerced actions can be considered the product of free will.

But a more complex theory of free will would recognise that sometimes we act in ways that are difficult to own as fully voluntary, such as eating dessert when you’ve sworn you want to lose weight.  No one has physically coerced you to eat the dessert, yet in the broader context of your wishes, intentions, and subsequent regrets, it doesn’t seem quite right to say that eating the dessert is representative of your free will.

Accordingly some have suggested that we are not free when we act in accordance with our lower appetites.  In the same vein, others have said that ‘free’ actions are those which arise from truly rational considerations. To exercise free will is to act in accordance with rational desire; anything less is a kind of slavery.

But in accepting this more nuanced view of the will, we implicitly redraw the boundary between self and other; the coercive forces we face are no longer external, physical agents but internal appetites and desires.  What is the ‘self’ that is the subject of these appetites, the self that might somehow will instead to follow reason?

This internalisation of the self is not a necessary outcome of a more complex view of free will, but it does make such a perspective easier to adopt.  We start viewing ourselves a little like a homunculus positioned somewhere back behind our eyes, controlling our body and attempting to reason and make choices while assailed by powerful appetites and desires.

The internalised self may be a promising line of inquiry for when I start examining Chinese philosophical texts on the topic of free will. Take, for example, this extract from the QingJing Jing or ‘Classic of Purity and Rest’, a Daoist text developed supposedly in response to the emerging Buddhist theme of ’emptiness’ typified by the Heart Sutra.

Now the spirit of man loves Purity, but his mind disturbs it. The mind of man loves stillness, but his desires draw it away. If he could always send his desires away, his mind would of itself become still. Let his mind be made clean, and his spirit will of itself become pure.

As a matter of course the six desires won’t arise, and the three poisons will be taken away and disappear.

The reason why men are not able to attain to this, is because their minds have not been cleansed, and their desires have not been sent away.

If one is able to send the desires away, when he then looks in at his mind, it is no longer his; when he looks out at his body, it is no longer his; and when he looks farther off at external things, they are things which he has nothing to do with.

Sending the desires away may imply a similarly internalised view of the will, such that one is able to control or manipulate mental faculties as though they were external objects.

The end point in this Daoist context is achieving a state of purity and stillness concomitant with the Dao itself:

In that condition of rest independently of place how can any desire arise? And when no desire any longer arises, there is the True stillness and rest.

That True (stillness) becomes (a) constant quality, and responds to external things (without error); yea, that True and Constant quality holds possession of the nature.


He who has this absolute purity enters gradually into the (inspiration of the) True Dao. And having entered thereinto, he is styled Possessor of the Dao.


It is intriguing that the Daoist text portrays desires as an intrinsically disturbing force that should be ‘put away’.  This presents another opportunity for fruitful comparison with Stoicism, where such desires are viewed as the product of our assent to false beliefs.  This is, in turn, reminiscent of the Buddhist assertion that the unsatisfactory nature of existence can be traced back to ignorant desire.

If we put aside desires, our mind and spirit will revert to their natural purity and stillness, bringing us back to the influence of the Dao.  This is consistent with Wang Bi’s much earlier commentary on the Dao De Jing, the heart of the Daoist Canon, in which he depicts the goal of the sage as embracing ’emptiness’ through renunciation of private interests and desires.

I think this critical attitude toward desire is a crucial part of serious religious practice universally.  We should not be surprised to find it emerging in the context of Daoism, Buddhism, and even Stoicism, as part of a broader attempt to discover the root of humanity’s failing and misery, and the path towards a renovation of the human spirit.

What it means to be free

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In my reading of the early free will debate it became apparent that our modern notion of ‘free’ is quite different from that of the Greek philosophers.

For us the freedom of a ‘free will’ implies an unbounded capacity, the absence of limitations, the ability to pick and choose according to our own desires.

But for earlier thinkers, those who laid the foundations of the ‘free will’ concept, to be free meant to be rational, wise, and virtuous.  Free did mean the absence of limitations, but only the kinds of limitations that stop us from acting and being as we ought.  The apparent paradox is that wise and virtuous people have no freedom in the modern sense: an honest person is not free to tell a lie. We might even say that virtuous people are ‘enslaved’ by virtue, and the wise have no choice but to act according to wisdom.

The ancient understanding of freedom was built around a normative sense of human potential and human virtue, just as a doctor’s understanding of health is built around a study of the correct functioning of the human organism.  ‘Free’ was defined in that context, not in a modern context of existential doubt and an overarching relativism.

Freedom for them was like the free movement of a joint. In a state of health your shoulder should be free to move within its proper range.  If you dislocate your shoulder you may be able to extend it beyond its proper range, but this would not be considered ‘free movement’.

Ultimately, this ancient idea of freedom is grounded in an equally deep understanding of what is good for us, such that being free means having an unrestricted opportunity to pursue and enjoy these goods.

It certainly casts a different light on our contemporary sense of freedom and individual autonomy, which is less about the content of our choices and more about our sense of power and sufficiency in the face of obstacles and limitations.  The modern idea of freedom and autonomy puts an emphasis on overcoming and avoiding obstacles at a cost to our understanding of wisdom and virtue.  It’s why so many people apparently choose to have Sinatra’s “My Way” sung at their funerals.  In the end we take comfort not from diligently pursuing something greater than ourselves, but from what is essentially an egoists self-justification set to an uplifting melody.

I think on some level we know that virtue is a kind of limitation, which is probably why we fear it. Not only is virtue difficult to achieve, but it means giving up attitudes and actions that, for most of us, are the substance of our lives.  To be free of our attachments and desires is indeed an intimidating thought.