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Why I’m leaving philosophy

For the past three years, I’ve held a permanent position as a philosophy lecturer at Cardiff University. I’ve now moved back to Boston, am resigning at the end of 2021, and am not currently planning to apply for other academic jobs.

In case it’s helpful to other people who are pursuing (or thinking about pursuing) a career in philosophy academia, I thought I would share my reasons for leaving it. There are two main reasons: location constraints, and teaching workload.

Reason #1: Location constraints

Philosophy jobs are very scarce, so even for someone like me with a fairly good publication record, there isn’t a lot of choice about where you’ll end up working. I thought Cardiff was a nice place, but there were a couple of reasons I decided that I would prefer to move back to Boston.

The main one was the social situation. I made some friends in my department, but they often left when classes weren’t in session. I was also single, and found it hard to date there. This meant I was by myself there a lot more than I would have liked. In Boston, I have more friends and family nearby, and I think the dating demographics are better for me here.

I also just generally think I enjoy living in Boston more. Cardiff is one of the rainiest cities in the UK, which had an effect on my mood. The weather in Boston can get bad, but it’s also a lot more variable. There are also smaller things I missed about Boston, e.g. movie theaters, restaurants, libraries, coffeeshops, more nice areas to explore. I’m also probably just attached to it because of how much time I’ve spent here. (See also this Jeff Kaufman post.)

Reason #2: Teaching workload

On paper, when I took my job, the teaching workload seemed pretty reasonable. Each year, I’d lead two undergraduate courses, one in the fall, one in the spring; lead one graduate seminar; and deliver ten weeks’ worth of lectures for two first-year courses. The advice I got was that this was a light workload in comparison to most philosophy jobs.

In practice, though, I did not find this workload to be super fun. Each week, I’d have to prepare classes on two to three different subjects, which felt like when I had to research and write two papers every week for the classes I took during my study abroad at Oxford. I’d also have to not only lead those classes, but also, for the upper-year undergraduate course, at least three back-to-back discussion groups. Also, twice each semester, I’d have to grade about fifty papers. And I’d be assigned to supervise an undergraduate thesis. And I’d be assigned to participate in the “moderation” system used in UK academia: peer-reviewing samples of a colleague’s grading. And I’d have other departmental duties, such as coordinating one of the first-year courses, attending department meetings and research talks, serving as a personal tutor, etc.

And all of this was in addition to time spent working on my own research. This was in theory supposed to take up about a third of my time; my understanding was that it would be the main factor in determining whether I would get promoted or other job offers; and it was the thing I personally found the most fulfilling.

I think there were a few reasons why I didn’t find this super fun. One was just the stress of how much work I had to do, which made each academic year feel like a marathon. Second, and relatedly, there was the mental difficulty of frequently having to switch between different cognitively demanding tasks and of working while feeling drained from having just taught. Third, a lot of my work felt intrinsically tedious, in particular the discussion groups where I’d have to talk about the same subjects three or four times in a row, and the grading. And finally, I was never sure that most my teaching was actually doing much good, or if I was just serving as a cog in a bureaucracy that was forcing young people to spend years studying subjects they mostly didn’t care about as an inefficient way of signaling their intelligence and diligence to potential employers (see Bryan Caplan, The Case Against Education).

I thought about various ways in which my situation might improve. I could have tried moving to a bigger city and commuting to Cardiff. Preparing lectures would probably have gotten a little easier over time as I settled on materials I was satisfied with. And I might have eventually gotten another job in a city I preferred and with a lighter teaching load. But ultimately, I decided that my prospects of finding a better situation weren’t good enough to justify giving up any more of my life.

(I have a few friends who seem to have lighter teaching loads than I did, so I’m not actually sure how my workload compares to that of other philosophy jobs. But mostly, these jobs are still not in areas where they’d prefer to live. Also, much of the lighter teaching load is because their departments recruit more graduate students who then take on the grading and discussion sessions, and I have doubts about the ethics of this, given the state of the job market.)

See also: Michael Huemer on philosophy jobs, Richard Yetter Chappell on US vs. UK academia

Everything I know about fitness


Running has been my main cardio exercise.

I used to run more. I would do as many as five short runs during the week and one longer run on the weekend. I was interested in increasing my long-run distance, and in increasing my weekly mileage (inspired by Haruki Murakami’s daily schedule of getting up at 4am, writing for five to six hours, and then running a 10k).

But I’ve now cut back to just the one long run, since I’ve been focusing on building muscle and running is supposed to interfere with that.


  • Virtual runs: I do my long runs with my friend in Seattle: that is, we have a phone call while we’re both going for a run. I’ve found that running with other people makes it feel a lot easier.
  • Mindful runs: When I run alone, I don’t listen to anything. I mostly just think about stuff, and then if I get frustrated, I try to do the meditation thing of trying to step back and observe my experiences.


  • I use an Apple Watch to track my workouts and general calorie burning.
  • I wear these shorts, which I like because they’re slim and have a zipper pocket for my house key.
  • For my virtual runs, I use the Powerbeats Pro, and keep my phone in this running belt.



For strength training, I go to my local YMCA and do the following exercises:

  • MWF: Bench press, squat, deadlift
  • TTh: Bicep curls, shoulder press, pull-ups or lat pulldown, machine crunches

These work the main muscle groups you’re supposed to work: chest, arms, back, glutes, shoulders, and abs.

For each exercise, I do three sets of four to six reps, resting two to three minutes between sets. Once I get to six reps, then I add weight and try to do four reps on the next set.


  • When deadlifting, I use these lifting straps to prevent the bar from slipping.
  • I use this lifting belt to support my back when doing squats and deadlifts. (I can’t actually tell if it’s doing anything.)
  • I used to think you needed a spotter to do the bench press, but actually you just need a rack that has safety bars.
  • I keep track of the weight and reps for each exercise in a note on my phone.



Apparently, most of the time, you can’t lose fat and build muscle at the same time. If you want to lose fat, you need to be on a calorie deficit (i.e. consume fewer calories than you’re burning). If you want to build muscle, you need to be on a calorie surplus. So bodybuilders will alternate between phases of cutting (calorie deficit), bulking (calorie surplus), or maintaining (consuming as many calories as you’re burning).

Mike Matthews recommends the following targets:

Diet Calories Protein* Carbs* Fat*
Cutting TDEE x 75% 1.1 1.1 0.25
Bulking TDEE x 110% 1 2.2 0.35
Maintaining TDEE x 100% 1 1.6 0.4

* In grams per pound of bodyweight

“TDEE” is total daily energy expenditure. I use my Apple Watch to estimate this. (In the “Fitness” app on my phone, you look at your Activity Ring information for a given day, and under the Move ring there’s an estimate of “total” calories, as opposed to just “active” calories.)

According to Matthews, your cuts should end when you’re around 8 to 10% body fat, and your bulks should end when you’re around 15 to 17% body fat.

To measure my body fat, I weigh myself and measure my neck and waist using a measuring tape, and plug the results into this calculator.

Here’s the cutting diet I’m currently following while on a cutting phase.

When I was bulking, I added calories by making steel-cut oatmeal with peanut butter, maple syrup, salt, and cinnamon. I also give myself permission to eat three cheat meals per week.

You’ll see that most of my protein comes from Soylent. I’d like to have more of my diet be made up of whole foods (see this Zen Habits post), but I’ve found that it’s tough for vegetarians to get enough protein from whole foods without also consuming a ton of calories.




The basic idea of Buddhism, as I understand it, is that our lives are filled with suffering caused by attachment, a special kind of deluded desire for oneself to be permanently united with an object. This desire is deluded because it rests on false metaphysical beliefs in (1) the permanence of external things and (2) the existence of a persisting self. We try to grasp onto things with the intention of having them permanently, but this is impossible both because external things are impermanent and because there is no persisting self that can have them.

Luckily, Buddhists suggest, we can let go of these beliefs through meditation. This can help us to notice how the world, as we perceive it, consists in a flow of constantly changing experiences. And it can also help us to notice that there is no persisting self that is having these experiences. We are inclined to identify ourselves with our thoughts, but we can see in meditation that thoughts are just more experiences that come and go.

Are these ideas correct?

Well, I think it’s true that our lives do involve a lot of suffering, and that suffering is indeed caused by desire. If I didn’t care about anything (including any physical sensations the Romulans might be giving me), then I wouldn’t suffer. (I think suffering just means something like being averse to what you think is going on.)

But I’m not sure how much my desires (to focus on my own case) really count as attachments. Here are some things I want: I want to be physically comfortable, I want to go on runs, I want to hang out with people, I want to do things that other people find useful. Comfort and runs and hanging out are nice; I want there to be more of these experiences rather than less. And being useful just means helping other people have nicer experiences. None of these desires seems to require anything permanent. Of course, I might want, for example, to be comfortable for as long as possible, in which case permanent comfort would be ideal, but that doesn’t mean my desire is really just aiming at that permanent state.

I’m also not yet convinced that my natural metaphysical beliefs are actually as false as Buddhists suggest. Of course, nothing is permanent, and everything is constantly changing. But I’m not sure how far I was ever really inclined to believe that anything was permanent. What I am inclined to believe is that a lot of things persist intact for a long time. And on reflection, I don’t see what reason I have for rejecting that belief. True, my perceptions of these things can change radically from one moment to the next, but the external world exists independently of my perceptions. I also think that I do exist as a persisting thing. That thing, again, is a physical human being. That’s the thing that’s having my experiences, using my brain.

Even if I don’t think the Buddhist picture is generally right, does it nevertheless contain valuable insights?

I think so. While I think the self does exist (it’s just the whole organism), I think the Buddhists are right to suggest that we shouldn’t identify the self with our thoughts, and that meditation can help us overcome the tendency to do that. And detaching ourselves from our thoughts is useful. If I identify myself with my internal monologue, then I’ll feel committed to anything I think, just as I’d want to stand behind any claim I made in public. (This applies both to thoughts expressing beliefs and to thoughts expressing desires.) But if I see a thought not as something that I myself have asserted, but just as something that’s appeared in my brain, then I can let go of it more easily. And that’s a good thing, because a lot of my thoughts are just momentary impulses that I wouldn’t want to endorse on reflection.


Stoicism and Buddhism are both interesting. They’re the two most popular schools of thought that promise to use philosophical insight to help people achieve tranquility. I want to understand (1) what the basic ideas are, (2) whether they’re true, and (3) whether they contain valuable insights (even if not all of it is true). This week, I’m going to look at Stoicism.

The basic idea of Stoicism, as I understand it, is that virtue is the good. The only thing that’s fundamentally good for you—that determines whether your life is going well—is being virtuous. Likewise, the only thing that’s fundamentally bad for you is being vicious. Being virtuous or vicious just means exercising your will correctly or incorrectly, i.e. making good or bad choices. Things outside of your will, or externals, such as wealth/poverty, health/sickness, your relationships with other people, or even pleasure/pain, do not have any intrinsic value or disvalue for you. Once you recognize this, you can just decide to make the right choices, and then your life will be going well. And you can regard externals with detachment, since you now see that they don’t really matter.

One wrinkle: Some externals, the Stoics acknowledge, are of a sort that are reasonable to choose or avoid. For example, a reasonable person would choose health and avoid sickness. But they still don’t really matter, so they’re called preferred or dispreferred indifferents. Epictetus compares preferred indifferents to hors d’oeuvres at a party—you’ll take one if they’re being passed around, but you wouldn’t miss them.

The idea that virtue and vice are what are fundamentally good or bad for us derives from a deeper principle that the good life is a life in accordance with one’s nature. You are essentially your rational mind, the Stoics think. So living according to your nature means having your rational mind function correctly, which means making the right choices, i.e. being virtuous. (This is supposed to cover not only actions in the ordinary sense but also judgments about what to believe.) Which externals count as preferred or dispreferred, and the content of our ethical obligations, has to do with what’s natural for us insofar as we fall into other less important categories, e.g. as animals or as members of a society.

On reflection, I think that pretty much all of the Stoic ideas are false.

I don’t think that I am essentially my rational mind. I think I’m a human being, a physical organism.

I don’t think that virtue is the only good and that vice is the only evil for me. It’s true that, if I act rightly, then this is enough to give me a certain sort of satisfaction with myself; I’ve done the best I can. But being satisfied with how you’ve lived isn’t the same thing as having had a good life. When Jean-Luc Picard refused to sacrifice his principles while being tortured by the Romulans, that was great, but he was definitely better off in command of the Enterprise.

Besides, even if virtue were the only good and vice the only evil for me, that wouldn’t actually be enough to get me tranquility. What about other people? Their lives might go badly, and why shouldn’t I feel bad/worry about that? Well, the Stoic might say, their lives going badly would consist in their being vicious, so fuck ‘em. But their being vicious itself seems regrettable. Similarly, even if I can decide to be virtuous from now on, I might have been vicious in the past, so why wouldn’t it be reasonable to regret that? Finally, the good/evil for non-rational animals presumably consists in things like pleasure/pain, so why shouldn’t I feel bad when they feel pain?

Even so, I do think Stoic ideas can be useful. It just so happens that a lot of the time, the thing I’m most concerned with just is whether I’m doing the best I can. I might be especially prone to this because I’m a little neurotic and also not especially empathetic. In those cases, it can be useful to distinguish between what is under my control and what is not under my control.

(Actually, it can also be helpful to distinguish between what is and is not under your control even if your main concern doesn’t just happen to be doing the best you can. This is because making this distinction can prompt you to remember that you have some control over your own thoughts, and so you can decide to try to focus on things that it would be more constructive to think about rather than unpleasant things that are outside of your control. But I don’t think this strategy would technically count as Stoic, because it doesn’t rely on the idea that what’s outside your control doesn’t matter, and I take that to be the key move that the Stoics are making.)

Racial inequality

As I understand it, there are two prominent strands in the contemporary U.S. left. On the one hand, there’s interest in economic issues, e.g. either making existing institutions more redistributive, or changing them in more fundamental ways. On the other hand, there’s interest in identity-based social issues—so-called “social justice” issues—particularly having to do with race and gender. (This isn’t meant to be exhaustive; e.g. it doesn’t cover COVID or climate change.)

Because social-justice issues are particularly prominent these days, and also seem like good candidates for being among the most important issues in the U.S., I’m interested in improving my understanding of them. I’m going to start with race. As I did last week, I’m relying mainly on Wikipedia (particularly African Americans and Racial inequality in the United States). Here are some things I’ve learned and some thoughts.

Demographics. African Americans are the third-largest ethnic group in the U.S., with about 12% of the population, after whites (72%) and Hispanics (18%).

History. Before the Civil War, most blacks in the U.S. were enslaved. The conflict between the pro-slavery South and anti-slavery North was the main political issue in the first half of the 19th century. After the war, discrimination against blacks continued, including segregation, voter suppression, and violence. The civil rights movement gained traction in the 1950s; causes included the participation of African Americans in World War II and outrage over Emmett Till’s murder in 1955. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 banned discrimination in public accommodations, employment, and labor unions, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 expanded federal authority over states to protect black voting rights.

Economics. Black and Hispanic households have a lot less wealth than white households. According to a 2009 study, the median black household has $5,677, the median Hispanic household has $6,325, and the median white household has $113,149. Similarly, blacks and Hispanics have about double the rate of episodic poverty as whites.

Crime. As of 2008, the prison population (of 1.6m) was 38% black (591,900), 34% white (528,200), and 20% Hispanic (313,100). Since 2015, police have each year killed an average of 241 blacks, 462 whites, and 170 Hispanics. In 2018, 2,925 blacks were murdered (2,600 by black offenders), compared to 3,315 whites and 957 Hispanics.

As you can see above, blacks (and Hispanics) are a lot poorer than whites. Prima facie, I would think that improving the economic conditions of blacks should be the most important policy goal in this area (after all, this is presumably the biggest driver of other problems such as crime/imprisonment). But of course, we could also just push for policies that help the poor generally, regardless of race (as Freddie deBoer argues here). So the biggest question I have would be whether there are any reasons to prioritize policies aimed at helping blacks per se over policies aimed at helping the poor.

You would want to focus on racially targeted policies, I would think, just in case the persistence in poverty among blacks turns out to be mainly a result of factors that don’t apply to other poor people—e.g., if the main reason why there’s persistent black poverty is discrimination against blacks, then maybe the most efficient response would be to do things to stop the discrimination. (Here’s a debate on that question that I found interesting.)

I also find it helpful, though, to distinguish policy issues like these from social or cultural issues. For example, one popular idea these days is that the U.S. suffers from “structural racism” or “systemic racism,” and, relatedly, that U.S. history is a history of racism/racial oppression. I think these ideas are not necessarily connected to any particular policy proposals (except maybe that the ideas should be taught in schools). So we should evaluate these ideas just in terms of whether (1) they’re accurate and (2) whether promoting them is constructive (keeping in mind the opportunity costs of focusing on these ideas rather than others).

I also see Black Lives Matter as falling into this category. Ostensibly, BLM is focused primarily on the issue of police violence against blacks. If we just go by the numbers of blacks killed each year by police (241), this doesn’t seem like it should count as one of the most important policy issues. (Compare the 93,000 people who died of drug overdoses last year.) But I take it that BLM is concerned with this issue because it’s a symptom of what they see as a more general social problem, that blacks aren’t regarded as the equals of whites.

What is capitalism?

These days, I hear a lot of people—including people I’ve come across personally—saying they’re against “capitalism.” So I was interested in getting a better understanding of what that word means. Here’s where I’ve gotten so far. (This is all based on Wikipedia, but I’m trying to think it through myself to my own satisfaction.)

1. Capitalism as private property

Initially, I would have been inclined to equate capitalism with a system of private property. In other words, in a capitalist society, goods are owned by private parties, parties who acquired these goods either through some sort of initial acquisition or through voluntary exchange.

This would contrast with a socialist society, where goods are owned by the state. Or you could have mixed systems, e.g. the state owns key industries, but not houses and cars. There are also many other possible systems, e.g. all land is owned by the Church, or by the society’s tallest redhead. 

Aside: What does it mean to “own” something? Let’s say you count as owning something when you are generally agreed to have the right to use it and prevent others from using it, as well as the right to transfer those use- and transfer-rights to others. (Note: this means that under all systems, ownership is a product of social consensus. But this doesn’t make all systems socialist, because the consensus might not approve of the idea of society collectively doing whatever it wanted with particular pieces of property.)

2. Why private property isn’t enough

But on reflection, I no longer think that capitalism is equivalent to private property.

For example, let’s say you have a society where you have a bunch of individual hunter-gatherers, and everyone owns what they hunt/gather. This society would be organized in terms of private property, but I don’t think it would count as “capitalist,” as that term is generally used.

Maybe the difference is that the hunter-gatherer society is probably relatively equal, in material terms, whereas capitalist societies are divided into a rich capitalist class and a poor working class? I don’t think so. Private property plus inequality still don’t seem sufficient to make a society “capitalist.” There were rich people and poor people in Roman times, but “capitalism” is supposed to refer to a system that only came about in the last few hundred years. Nor does inequality seem necessary for capitalism: I think in principle you could have a capitalist society where everyone was equal, e.g. everyone both works for some business and also owns their business that employs other people.

3. Does etymology help?

Maybe it would help to ask: why is it called “capitalism”? What is “capital”?

Capital, according to Wikipedia, means “human-created assets.” And an asset, in turn, is a resource that can be used to produce positive economic value. Tools and machines count as capital, because they can be used to make things like cars, which can be sold for money. Money itself also counts as capital, because you can invest it by buying land and labor that can be used to make cars that can be sold for money. A capitalist is an owner of capital.

Would there be capital in the hunter-gatherer society? Well, if they’re not exchanging anything, then maybe their goods don’t count as having economic value. What about in Roman times? Yes, there were tools and machines that people used to make things with economic value, like axes and scythes and stuff. So the mere presence of capital also doesn’t seem like enough to make a society count as capitalist.

4. Wage labor, capital accumulation, and productivity

Wikipedia mentions two other ideas that seem important: capital accumulation and wage labor.

Capital accumulation means getting more and more capital. You start with some money, which you use to buy factories and workers, which produce things to sell at a profit, which enables you to buy even more factories and workers, and so on. Wage labor means selling your labor for an agreed wage or salary, where your employer gets to keep whatever your labor produced.

But I think the key missing piece is productivity. During the Industrial Revolution, productivity went way up: people invented new machines and methods that enabled a lot more goods to be produced per hour of labor. And because of wage labor, this meant that a given hour of labor could end up generating a lot of profit for the employer (who, again, got to own all the products of the labor), without the worker getting in on the action. And because this profit was also itself capital that could be used to generate even more wealth, this meant that employers could keep getting richer and richer.

This seems like it’s getting at the kind of thing critics of capitalism don’t like. They don’t like that, even though the Industrial Revolution enabled society to create a lot more wealth, the legal structure of private property enabled a lot of this wealth to go to a minority of people, who could get richer and richer while others might remain poor or even get poorer. And there were two things that add insult to injury. First, the poor are the very people whose labor is producing the wealth. And second, because the inequality is generated under a system of private property and voluntary exchange, it can seem fair in a way that inequality generated in other ways—say, lords using their political power to seize people’s wealth—would not.

The hunter-gatherer society isn’t capitalist, then, because there’s no capital accumulation or wage labor, and so the offensive rise in inequality isn’t possible. Roman times weren’t capitalist either, because while there was capital, productivity was low enough that not much capital accumulation through exploitative wage labor was possible. But once the Industrial Revolution starts, we’re off to the races.

So let’s say: a society is capitalist to the extent that it has private property and enough productivity to enable owners of capital to accumulate a lot more of it by employing wage labor.

Journaling for learning and thinking

1. My method

I’ve been trying out journaling as a method for both learning and clarifying my thoughts. That is, I’ve been using my diary to (1) write about whatever I’ve read recently, and (2) think through my own ideas or questions. 

For example, I feel like I generally don’t retain much of what I read in the news or in nonfiction books. So in my diary, I’ve been writing summaries of any news articles and book chapters I’ve read recently, and any other avenues for future research or thinking that they suggest. My ideas and questions are usually practical, e.g. problems I’ve been having that I might be able to do something about, so I also use my diary to reflect on those.

The important insight, I think, is that the exercise of writing is in itself useful for learning and thinking, even if nothing happens to the finished product. I used to keep reading summaries in Zotero, and I was interested in trying out the Zettelkasten method in Obsidian. But if it’s just about the exercise, then I can just keep my reading notes chronologically rather than in some logical system like that. And if it’s about the exercise, then it makes sense to go through the process of working out ideas in writing even if the ultimate goal is just to decide, say, what time I should set my alarm for.

Also, I’m doing this analog: I keep my diary in a Moleskine notebook, and I capture the ideas or questions that occur to me on a blank index card. I find it’s a nice break from the distraction machine, and if I don’t really care about referring to the writing once it’s over, then there’s no need to store it digitally.

2. Why does writing help learning and thinking?

Why does writing, just as an exercise, help learning and thinking? Learning, research suggests, often needs to be active: you need to make the effort of retrieving material from memory in order to store it in your long-term memory, and you need to make yourself understand it by putting it in your own words and relating it to what you already know. The exercise of writing about something is a good way to do those things. In addition, because it’s active, I find it gives me a feeling of ownership over the topic, and I feel empowered to learn more about it.

I think the usefulness of writing for thinking has to do with the fact that it makes explicit ideas and reasoning that are otherwise kept implicit in our heads (probably because of how few things we’re able to keep in short-term memory at a given time). As a character in Ted Chiang’s “The Truth of Fact, The Truth of Feeling” observes, writing enables you to

grasp your thoughts like bricks in your hands and push them into different arrangements. Writing let you look at your thoughts in a way you couldn’t if you were just talking, and having seen them, you could improve them, making them stronger and more elaborate.

Another reason is that writing can be useful for thinking is that it can give you distance from your thoughts (by literally moving them from your head to the page), and this easier to avoid biases that prevent you from evaluating your own thoughts in the same way that you would those of someone else. For example, I’ve found that writing has helped me to spot and detach myself from some negative self-talk.

3. But why not keep permanent notes?

Now, one might ask: even if the exercise of writing is in itself useful for learning and thinking, why not also use the products—i.e., store them as permanent notes in some logically organized system, so that I’ll more easily be able to refer back to them later? I’m not against making permanent notes, but I have two reservations. 

First, because the exercise itself is the primary purpose of this method, in many cases the writing will be stream-of-consciousness and therefore not the same as what a good permanent note would look like. So whether or not making permanent notes is worthwhile, I think that wouldn’t be a matter of saving and organizing your journaling notes, but would in fact just be a different activity.

Second, if you’re going to make permanent notes, then that means you have to think about what your system should be, and whether a particular note is worth adding or would just create clutter. Knowing that you don’t have to do anything with your writing gives you the freedom to write more.