Work and the Self

Friday, September 4, 2009 -- 5:00 PM

This post was originally published back in January of 2008, when the episode on work -- which was actually recorded in October of 2007 -- first aired. I thought it would be interesting to republish it at the top of the blog as we re-air that episode.

Today's episode was on Work. Our guest was Al Gini from Loyola University of Chicago. He's a philosopher by trade, the author of a number of books about work and the self, and the resident philosopher at WBEZ public radio in Chicago.

The episode was recorded a couple of months ago, back in late October, in front of a live, large and lively audience of students and faculty at Centenary College in Shreveport Louisiana. We were at Centenary for the better part of a week. We not only recorded today's episode there, but we also broadcast an episode on Philosophy and Literature live from Centenary's college radio station, KSCL, which has the singular distinction of airing our show twice per week. We also did a couple of other public events in connection with Centenary's First Year experience. Meeting with the students was especially fun. But we were also wined and dined, in very fine style, by many of Centenary's energetic and engaged faculty members. It was a delight getting to know you all.

We thank all the good folks at Centenary, the nation's smallest Division 1 school, for making this all possible. And I hope you enjoyed having us around as much as we enjoyed being around.

We'd like to do more of this sort of thing in the future -- as I think I've mentioned before. So if you'd like to bring us to a college campus near you, including your own, get in touch and let us know.

Since it's been a couple of months since we recorded the show, I have to admit that it's been about that long since I thought hard about the topic of the show. I listened to it as it was broadcast this morning and was reminded of many things that I thought at the time. I think I still think most of them. But in the rest of this post, I'll try out briefly a few follow-up thoughts.

I count myself very lucky in my own work. I mostly love being a professor of philosophy. I love doing philosophy for its own sake. I love teaching philosophy. And I love this public intellectual radio thing that I've stumbled into in the last few years. I enjoy almost everything about working at a top-flight university like Stanford, where I am surrounded by world class colleagues in just about every department and where I get to teach extremely well-prepared, disciplined and often highly creative students. I even admire the intellects and dedication of the people who do the necessary but less intrinsically rewarding task of administering this very fine place. I can sometimes hardly believe my good fortune in finding work to which I am so well suited, in a place where a love living, in a community whose values I mostly share and respect. To be sure, I do work very long hours -- especially in the years since I have been simultaneously chairing my department, trying to make a go of a certain radio show, and trying to keep my teaching and research more or less on track. The long hours aren't always happiness making -- both because some of what I have to do as department chair, for example, I could easily do without. But, more importantly, it's at times hard to keep work confined to its proper proportions. I am deeply committed to being an available and engaged father to my son and a supportive and present husband to my wife. Sometimes the demands of work and the demands of family come into deep conflict. So as much as I love my work, it's not as though I find it "cost free" or that I've found the magical formula for adjudicating the delicate balance between costs and benefits of work vs. non-work.

I said something during the episode that certainly could have been said more clearly about getting the proportions right. On the one hand, there's how much of the time available to one, one's work will take. There are only so many hours in a day, week, or life. How many of the hours of one's day will one allow one's work to consume? Work also consumes the self. And there's only so much of the self to go around too. What occurred to me as the conversation developed during the show was sort of a half-baked formula. Try to let one's work consumes no greater portion of one's available hours -- one's total temporal allotment, as we might call it -- than the proportion of one's self that one is willing to give over to one's work -- one's degree of self investment, as it were. The rough thought was just that, all things being equal, the more of one's self one "invests" in one's work, the more of one's total temporal allotment it will be worth investing in one's work. Correlatively, the less of one's self one invests in one's work, the less of one's total temporal allotment, one should invest in one's work.

Or so the thought went.

Two plus month's later, I'm not sure that I had a fully coherent thought or that the thought provides very much positive guidance as to how to adjust the balance between work and the rest of one's life. Even if the rough thought is right, it's surely only roughly right. Not every minute of one's life counts the same, for one thing. Hours spent doing sheer drudgery or delaying gratification can cost relatively less in terms of "self-investment" than is gained back in the moments in which one finally, if only briefly, reaps the reward.

One could spend one's entire life doing back-breaking, intrinsically unrewarding work, in service of a cause larger than oneself. Imagine a factory worker, with children to feed, clothe and educate, doing work that he finds mind-numbing. But he does it nonetheless, does it with pride and does it in a sense willingly, because he invest himself not so much in his work per se, but in what that work is instrumental to -- providing for his children and his wife. I think generations have taken deep and deserved pride in doing work like that.

Would their lives have been "better" had they been able to provide for their families by means of work they found more intrinsically rewarding, more intrinsically self-defining? In some sense, that certainly seems true. Certainly, all things being equal one would prefer intrinsically rewarding to intrinsically unrewarding work. But a life willingly given over to back-breaking, intrinsically unrewarding, work out of devotion to things larger than oneself seems to have a certain dignity and nobility to it that is not easily matched by a life spent doing only work that naturally "fits" the self, as it were.

Of course, I don't mean to romanticize back-breaking, intrinsically degrading work. Probably, nobody should have to do such things -- at least not without decent compensation. But to acknowledge this is not to deny the quiet dignity that is often displayed by those who find themselves stuck doing such work.

Comments (11)


Guest's picture

Guest

Sunday, January 6, 2008 -- 4:00 PM

On the program about "Work" (01/06/08) the guest f

On the program about "Work" (01/06/08) the guest from Loyola Univ. of Chicago summed up his ideas by quoting author/lecturer Leo Buscaglia. He felt it necessary
to preface his summary with an apology, something to the effect of "I'm sorry to quote Leo Buscaglia to a table full of academics."
I would be interested in knowing what he thinks Buscaglia was, if not an academic. He held three academic degrees, all in Education. He considered himself an educator above all else. Most of his career was in a classroom of some sort, from
elementary to graduate school.
He also was broad-minded enough to know that wisdom abides in many places, including places you might not expect to find it. The fact that he presented information in a winning way should not require an apology; that just makes the information more memorable ... as the guest from Loyola knows, or
Buscaglia's statement wouldn't have stuck with him all these years.
In other words, no apologies necessary.

Guest's picture

Guest

Sunday, January 6, 2008 -- 4:00 PM

Perhaps not quite on the subject but I invariably

Perhaps not quite on the subject but I invariably wonder about modern versus whatever homo sapiens evolved from. I believe Darwin himself mused about how "overqualified" the post-'missing link' hominid was for his/her job at the time. What's next on the horizon for our advanced race of arrowhead-makers and hide tanners?

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Guest

Thursday, January 17, 2008 -- 4:00 PM

I listen to philosophy talk on podcasts so I just

I listen to philosophy talk on podcasts so I just listened to the one on personal identity. I want to mention a novel that has a very interesting take on this matter. It is If I Were You (Si j'étais vous) by Julien Green (the American author who wrote in French, not to be confused with the English novelist Henry Green). At the beginning of the novel the protagonist makes a pact with the Devil that enables him to become another person. What does this mean? It is not like the transposed brain s trick discussed in the podcast. Rather the consciousness of the protagonist enters the consciousness of the other person, both merging and not merging. As I recall (another person with my name read this book decades ago so it?s not fresh in my consciousness) this process is subtle and intriguing, not at all hokey or simple minded. As time passes the protagonist becomes more and more merged with his host?s identity. The protagonist has magic formal to recite to return to himself, and, as he merges more fully with his host, he risks forgetting it (this is the ticking clock of the novel). I won?t give away the end, but Green was a believing Catholic and took things like pacts with the Devils seriously.

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Guest

Wednesday, September 24, 2008 -- 5:00 PM

The one caller on today's show had it correct. The

The one caller on today's show had it correct. The associations of words goes way beyond frames into philsophical frameworks that depends on cultural symbols. "Appeasement" has become a symbol for the world war II worldview framework and its consequences - as if it were a general politcal rule.
To explain the theoretical framework behind this opinion be ready for the following long essay.
The following is a summary of the theoretical work of Ernest Becker (Pulizter Prize winner Denial of Death 1974) and the experimental work of Sheldon Solomon, et. al. (In the wake of 911)
Please google Ernest Becker or check out wikipedia for more information
1) We are animals first, humans with imaginations second. We live in a dangerous world, in an unsure world where death is just around the cornor. Try to remember your own anxiety as an infant or notice the fearful stages of growth in your children, especially when they realize how dependent they are on the adults. Humanity was also in this state of anxiety in our early history. Tigers were big and all we had were spears. Part of us feels this all time. We feel vulnerable in our animal natures and limited. We strive for growth, mastery and propagation just like every living thing that has ever existed. We crave and greed for anything that represents more abundant and secure biological life - even when it is actually taken care of in our advanced civilization. In the following essay remember we are animals. Thinking animals but animals nevertheless.
2) However, we are social animals - like some herd or pack animals but not at all like big cats, sharks, or hawks. We need each other and the group to compete against other animals and nature. But we also compete with our fellow humans for mastery and status. Knowing our place allows us take on specific jobs in the group and to feel purpose and meaning. We test and gauge our status wihin the group. We constantly compare ourselves (and judge others) by cultural standards of mastery. Early in history and our physical skills were the important measure but that soon turned to social skills. The function of out direct perceptual senses is guage our level of security, protection and worth within the group. Getting our fellow humans approval and esteem enhances this protection because somebody is literally watching your back. In a sufficiently advanced civlization, when the food supply, healthcare, shelter and education are taken care of the impulse to grow - to have more abundant life - does not go away. That is because the emotional part of us knows we are still limited and vulnerable without our cultural and group protections. So we unconsciously compare worth, significance and power in our society - to find our place in it and to gather as many protectve affliations around us as possible.
3) As our brains evolved and abstraction and symbolic abilities developed we imagined we could be gods! Our situation was so perilous in the wild we tended to make false correlations in nature, thus creating "magic" to allow us to feel more in control. Eventually, our egos created complex systems of symbols representing physical skills. We created institualized ritual to control the environment and its ceremonies to control each other. Magic turned into religion. Religion turned into divine states. Divine states turned into secular society and political philosophies. Thus, magical ritual, religion and its decendent instutions allowed for defined heirarchy, castes, classes and organizational efficiencies.
4) Our egos do not like to hear we have weaknesses or are simply competing status seeking animals, or we are the cause our own suffering or that we are vulnerable, limited and will one day die. So we seek ways of removing our guilt and feelings of vulnerability by latching on to anything or anybody who can make us feel secure, safe and confident that all will be well, and in their care that we will prosper, grow, be significant and live a much fuller life. This is the "heroic impulse". It is pervasive within all cultures except the most simple and egalitarian. We value and acknowledge those symbols (not reality) that which will make us feel safe or make us feel like winners. Of course, this had loads of survival value in the forest because some did have real heroic skills - as hunter gatherers - but the impulse to affliate with the "heroic" has been distorted to an absurd point. Acquisition of possesions, titles, status, large families, and attachment to symbols far and long divorced from actual survival needs is what drives our culture and politics. The impuluse for more, more, more drives our economic systems. In fact, it is OUR need for MORE SECURE LIFE and our unconsciousness of why we desire MORE SECURE LIFE that creates the economic system - a system that depends on 4% growth per year despite that fact that we live in a finite world with finite resources. Unbridled and un-reflective thinking in service of the fear of death is what makes the human animal insane in comparison to other species. The fundamental confusion is taking mere words or concepts to be reality.
6) Biologically, abstracting egos arise from the left hemisphere of the brain. The symbolic processors of the left brain take fear arising from the amygdala and rationalizes an insulating symbolic defense - many of which are words or concepts. The left hemisphere also tends to mask perceptual realities of the right hemisphere since this holistic part does not harbor linguistic processors. The right hemisphere cannot argue for itself even though it harbors many intelligences! This effectively removes feelings of vulnerability and fear from our thinking selves but it also veils broader realities and perceptions that could have survival value. This is a necessary condition for mental health and negotiation in a highly symbolic environments which most people live in. Cultures are systems of symbols that reinforce a consensual strategy against this fear of death. Or, at least, a "social symbolic death" with insignificance or loss of approval among our fellows. Cultural values change as the demands of survival from the environment change. We create complex symbolic absolutist views and cultural sanctioned rituals, rules and behaviors that institutionalize the strategy against death because total faith brings the most confidence. That is why suicide bombers say they love death as much as we love life - they are assured at place in paradise. These emotional displacements provide order and sense of meaning to our world and provide confidence. The value of the concept of immortality, gods and single great hero, God, has provided the greatest sense of relief for many cultures.
7) Furthermore, We create conflict and suffering through mutual exclusive competing symbols within and between our arbitrary rule-bound cultures. Thus, individuals will constantly compare who's up and who's down, one street gang will fight another over graffiti, how clothing is worn, territoral encroachment; soceer games will erupt in violence over a game, republicans and democrats will demean and "symbolically" fight each to other's social death (the inability to influence others). Our egos constantly strive to strengthen its stature compared to others. Our egos are willing to defend, belittle or even fight to the death any symbol or person who threatens our unconscious immortality symbols because our ego's imaginary life is at stake. The impulse to prove oneself right and the other wrong is simply the defense of the ego against imaginary death.
8) Whether it be God, Nirvana or our imagined legacies on earth, or our political philsophies our egos find something to latch on to, no matter where we live. Cultures, religions and all absolutist philosophies exist to provide approval-seeking humans ways of organizing, encouraging, coping, prospering, staving off fear of death and moving civilzation forward toward some imagined good life - even at the expense of present happiness. We are social beings that create our own environments whose need for a sense-of-belonging and self esteem is universal so convienently adopt the prevailing notions that imply worth. The need for human-connection and approval is primary and real, cultural values are secondary and imaginery. This is a very important point!
9) Our egos can be exploited, controlled and abused by those who use our needs, hopes and dreams to suit their own agendas or by those that insist to withdraw their respect unless we tow the cultural line. We all, quite naturally, give our loyalty and our lives to those who best can communicate to our emotions the symbols that promise security and strength but most importantly - a sense of belonging. The sucess of leadership is proportional to the level of alignment of culturally adopted values to the real demands of the environment. Blind following often leads to disaster. Following, a worldview, hero or personal expression is only useful to the extent that it actually haromonizes with the reality of others, other cultures and the physical environment.
10) So, we only contribute more suffering in the world when we allow the ego unbridled comparison, identification and power-seeking or when we let our egos get competitive, huffy and violent over whose coping mechanisms, behaviors, opinions are best. Judgment and negativity is the primary diagnostic of absolutism - whether it is ubridled praise or criticism. Acceptance (tolerance), enjoyment and enthusism is the primary diagnostic for awareness of the extreme comparative activity of the ego.
Opinion - Recent research has shown that anxiety displacement is counter-balanced by the impulse toward social approval and security through cooperation, sense-of-belonging, and expansion of personal expression. However, this has been overshadowed by anxiety displacement throughout much of history. Since we have some idea of whats going on psychodynamically, we could spend our time much more profitably by recognizing more when our ego's comparative and defensive functions operate and instead look to our fundamental common needs - food, shelter health, education, need for belonging and personal expression. We could look to our common problems and working together to make a difference, rather than defending our egoic coping belief systems or sense of status and worth or defending out-dated cultural systems and pet ideologies.
Ultimately, all human activity is "religiously" or "politically" becomes defensive if it is an activity that provides a sense of mastery of life over death or limitation.
We must be vigilant in the tendency for our human psyche to attach to absolutist concepts or worldviews. The unconscious denial of death is the primary motivation for humanity. This irrational motive lies behind science, art, technology, politics, philosophy and culture.

Guest's picture

Guest

Thursday, September 25, 2008 -- 5:00 PM

The preceding comment was meant to be a response t

The preceding comment was meant to be a response to radio program on linguistics and meaning...not work and self - even though some it applies to this conversation as well. The theory tends to subsume and not contradict many investigations - a good test of its revelatory power.

Guest's picture

Guest

Friday, October 31, 2008 -- 5:00 PM

As a recent graduate and new member of the work

As a recent graduate and new member of the workforce, I found this episode particularly intriguing. I am currently an instructional assistant at a school and one day hope to become a teacher. I think one of the main reasons I want to become a teacher is to be able to have the time off (Summers, Winter Break, etc)!
But since I've begun working as an instructional assistant, I find myself getting frustrated because I'm learning how to manage a group of kids- and I must admit, since I'm just starting, I do it very poorly and see little results in the form of warm fuzzy stories about giving kids the world when I try to get them to learn how to read. Another thing that has been worrying me is that I dread Mondays. Every Sunday night I feel myself getting hesitant to have to work again.
You were talking in th episode about how no job is completley void of annoying tasks, but you were also mentioning how it's important to work a job you like. My question is, how much dislike of one's job (dreading mondays, frustrating kids, etc) is normal or even acceptable? In general, I find a lot of meaning in what I do now, and what I hope to do in the future- teaching is a very meaningful job. But everyday struggles, especially at this point when I'm new to it all, make it tough to see the rewards.

Guest's picture

Guest

Thursday, November 13, 2008 -- 4:00 PM

Call For Entries: Atlanta Philosophy Film Festival

Call For Entries: Atlanta Philosophy Film Festival
Submissions are free. Visit our website for more info.
AtlantaThinkFestival.org
Cheers.

Guest's picture

Guest

Sunday, January 4, 2009 -- 4:00 PM

I like what you said: "I love doing philosophy for

I like what you said: "I love doing philosophy for its own sake."
Reading Hofstadter's Anti-intellectualism in America and recognize that our culture totally regards and reveres the person who does unrewarding, back-breaking work for a cause greater than himself. That's the practical way.
I think in a way we all start off that way. We have to do journeymen time.
But some people--my father in law for example--found the life-long journeymen pursuit just fine. He provided. That's what counts. Security and money were important to him [He was a telephone line man, so lots of over time.]
However, job satisfaction is most important to me. I'd make peanuts, as long as I'm happy. That includes studying subjects like theology or philosophy--for their sake.
But I'd never get that opportunity if I hadn't sweated it out in the trenches. If I hadn't laid the foundation.

Guest's picture

Guest

Tuesday, September 15, 2009 -- 5:00 PM

My previous comment has apparently been deleted. I

My previous comment has apparently been deleted. It's hard to believe someone has wasted their time reading all the comments.
I'll say it again. To be a philosophy professor is not an option for a moral person.

Guest's picture

Guest

Wednesday, November 18, 2009 -- 4:00 PM

To recoin a recoined phrase: work is the curse of

To recoin a recoined phrase: work is the curse of the thinking class!

Guest's picture

Guest

Saturday, March 20, 2010 -- 5:00 PM

I don't see what's so bad about work. Just find so

I don't see what's so bad about work. Just find something you like to do, then find a damn job. That's what I do.

 
 
 

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