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How philosophers made a living

It was not necessarily easy for French philosophers to make a living. There were clearly a handful of famous, “mediatized” philosophers in France who were successful as public intellectuals, selling books or, since the 1950s, speaking on television (Godechot 1999, Matheson 2005). Such figures could make their living partly by producing artisanally crafted intellectual goods for a mass market. Many philosophers also entered other career paths, retaining to a greater or lesser degree their disciplinary identity while being, for instance, journalists or government officials, though this was a population that to my knowledge had no definite census. But the major labor market for philosophers in France lay in the public education system, which in 2000 employed some 4148 secondary school philosophy teachers and some 335 university philosophers (Pinto 2007:109, 111). This meant that academic philosophers generally had the legal status of state functionaries (fonctionnaires d’état) or, in more familiar English terms, civil servants. Philosophy’s partial integration into the French state apparatus constituted, nonetheless, a fragile compromise with the state. The official rationale for philosophy teaching, especially in secondary schools, was that intellectual freedom was a prerequisite of enlightened citizenship and even a symbol of the French nation itself (Sherringham 2006). But the French government has at times tried to cut costs by reducing the number of philosophy jobs, while philosophers often remained quite critical of the French state.

This meant that the discipline’s material basis — the philosophers’ wage relationship to the state, their public-sector jobs — could itself become a source of political trouble, or conversely, of political mobilization. The long university strike of Spring 2009 was controversial because striking professors were paid throughout its duration, but it may also have been easier to strike because of the lack of economic penalty to the strikers. If we turn to consider the material basis for Paris 8’s Philosophy Department, it is safe to say that professorial salaries comprised the bulk of the cost of running the department. There were in 2012 around 25 permanent full-time teacher-researchers, paid on a national salary scale that runs from about 24,000€/year to about 60,000€/year; if we estimate conservatively that the mean salary was around 40,000€/year, the department’s teaching salaries would have added up to at least 1 million euros yearly.[18] The Department did not handle its own staff budget, which had formerly been handled by the Ministry of Higher Education, and was subsequently administered by the local university administration. The Department was instead allocated a number of “posts” (“lines” in American university jargon), abstracting over the actual salary costs (as often happens elsewhere). It is nevertheless interesting to compare the general costs of salaries with the departmental research budget, which supported approximately 300 doctoral students along with the professoriat. The total research budget was only 30,000€ in 2011 — which suggests comparatively that salaries may have cost as much as 97% of the total cost of the enterprise. We can thus conclude that the costs of academic philosophy were almost exclusively the costs of reproducing the philosophical workforce.[19]

The social composition of the philosophical workforce was deeply structured and segmented, even as its work processes remained relatively unregimented. At the time of my research, the Paris 8 Philosophy Department had roughly 2/3 male teachers. While its initial staff in 1968 came largely from the elite Ecole Normale Supérieure, subsequent hires often came from the margins of the traditional French academy. It hired many of its own alumni, and granting mid-career doctoral degrees to its friends.

A comparison of academic CVs suggests that one could divide its professors into those with more traditional academic careers and those who were hired through what we could call alternative institutional routes. Even the more conventional senior professors had not necessarily been university professors their whole careers. The historical pattern in France was for philosophy professors to have started out teaching high school (lycée) philosophy classes, to get doctorates after a decade or more of this work, and then finally to obtain university posts in mid-career. “Alternative” career paths could be more varied still. One professor, among the most activist of his peers, began as a telephone technician in the 70s, taught grade school, eventually started to study social sciences, and finally got a philosophy doctorate and a philosophy job. A number of others came to the campus in the 70s when it was at the height of its radical effervescence and never left, getting degrees in-house and getting professorial jobs often after long periods of part-time campus work. Such professors had a visibly different relationship to the academy, often lacking the air of academic comfort and intellectual mastery that derives from French elite education.

Professorial work itself could be divided into several segments, all of which were largely self-managed. Legally, the only fixed requirement was to provide 192 hours of classroom instruction per year. At Paris 8, the year was divided into two semesters, and philosophy professors taught two courses per semester, each class meeting 3 hours once a week. Such a schedule made it easier for professors to squeeze their teaching into one or two weekdays. Most professors lived in central Paris, or in other suburbs even further away, and their commutes were often long; the majority seemed to commute by metro.[20] Many of the students worked, as well, and it was said to facilitate their schedules to have a fewer number of long classes.

Teaching was perceived as the most “obligatory” part of the job. There was relatively little statutory pressure to publish, since all teaching jobs technically had lifetime tenure from the moment of hiring. The technical term for professorial jobs was “teacher-researcher” (enseignant-chercheur), but while the Humboldtian ideal was for these two tasks to be integrated, philosophers often distinguished them quite strongly. They tended to call research “my work,” as if it were something done for themselves, often in private or at home. Work largely had to be done at home, because there were no offices for academics on the campus, which was cramped and underfinanced. This lack of workspace was considered an indignity.

There were also two major kinds of “intermediate” work activities, falling between the social, obligatory sphere of teaching and the private, optional sphere of research. First were numerous kinds of scholarly communication—conferences, editorial work, dissertation defenses, and the like. These did not seem to be perceived as “obligatory” in quite the same way as teaching, but were nonetheless much more collective, convivial affairs than the solitude of writing.

Alongside this was a second realm of administrative activity. The Department had a very small administrative staff, and the professors did a good deal of work to administer the undergraduate and graduate programs. Administrative work did not seem to be a statutory job obligation; it was more a moral expectation that went along with French universities’ increasingly threatened forms of collective governance. In the Philosophy Department, this means that a minority of professors wound up “voluntarily” undertaking most of the administrative work, while some of their peers consistently refused such work (or did it so badly that they were soon replaced by someone else). Some professors said they preferred “their own” work to administrative tasks. Predictably, some of the teaching and administrative labor was also done by doctoral students, employed on precarious contracts lasting at most 3 years.

  1. The total cost of employment for a single staff person was about twice the direct salary costs, given taxes, the costs of state-supported benefits and social security, bonuses, overtime, and so on.  ↩

  2. I have not tried to estimate the costs of the Department’s small administrative workforce, which typically included 0–2 full time staff; I heard that the direct administrative budget was also very small.  ↩

  3. Across the university as a whole, in 2012, 52% of teaching staff lived in Paris, 12% in Seine-Saint-Denis, and the rest elsewhere (including 12% outside the Paris region).  ↩

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