Since I started this blog, I’ve been collecting stories of philosophers who have gone on to exciting non-academic careers. The coolest by far is the story of Josiah Thompson who went from Kierkegaard scholar to private investigator. You can’t make this stuff up.
Thompson received his PhD from Yale in 1964, after serving in the Navy and studying in Denmark. He took a tenure track job at Haverford College outside Philadelphia. His interest in detective work became evident when he researched the Kennedy assassination. He published the results of his investigation in Six Seconds in Dallas which challenges the Warren Report and argues that Oswald did not act alone. Interestingly, he wasn’t the only professional philosopher to question the official story. Bertrand Russell and Richard Popkin also expressed skepticism.
Despite Thompson’s professional success, he became dissatisfied with academic life. He told People magazine, “My very success had become a velvet trap. I felt a kind of deadness.” While on a sabbatical in San Fransisco, writing a book on Nietzsche, Thomspon had his own existential crisis. After 12 years in academia, he decided he wanted out. He took an apprentice job with a San Fransisco private investigator, Hal Lipset, and soon Thompson was investigating a labor dispute that had become violent. The hard edges of this new world were driven home when he found a bullet hole during the course of his investigation: “Whoever put that bullet hole in the door, I told myself, isn’t going to care you’re some kind of college professor dicking around as a detective.” He wasn’t in the ivory tower anymore.
Although the job was difficult at first, he was hooked on the “voyeur’s rush” and the fact that this new world had clear criteria for winning and losing: “there was something more fundamental, more ‘gritty’ about it … in this business, unlike teaching or writing, failure and success were obvious.” Thompson went on to establish his own investigation firm and investigate over 100 homicide cases. He was an investigator in the defense of Bill and Emily Harris in the Patty Hearst kidnapping among other high profile cases. He records many of his exploits in his memoir, Gumshoe: Reflections in a Private Eye. Although I haven’t read it, by all accounts it’s a good read that contains a number of philosophical reflections on his experiences. Especially telling, from my perspective, is the contrast between the idealized world of academia and the ‘real world’ of money and power. For Thompson, “to be a cogent actor in that domain requires craft and guile.”
It also required, in Kierkegaardian terms, a ‘teleological suspension of the ethical.’ He notes that “the investigator isn’t a moral hero. Nobody told me that as a detective I was put on this planet to help determine who goes to jail. Someone can buy my loyalty.” However, this comes at a cost. From the People article:
The paycheck, he has found, is no protection against feelings of guilt and moral confusion. He had bad dreams for some time after he helped kidnap a 6-year-old girl from her Indian father and return her to her American mother’s legal custody. The elaborate undertaking took Thompson to Bombay, where he hired an eccentric Indian detective and his group of Indian goondas, or “thugs.” “I never thought,” he says, “that I’d walk into a hotel room and look into the eyes of a father my age, who had sacrificed a lot for his child and who had been bound and gagged on my orders.”
The craft and guile necessary to succeed in this world also took a toll on Thompson’s marriage. He and his wife grew apart and he had numerous affairs. Fortunately, his marriage survived, but his memoir is candid about the ways in which the psychological attitudes cultivated by his new profession created a “psychic obstacle that blocks one’s entry into the world of love.” In terse, Chandler-esque prose he muses, “The world of power and love: they stand one against the other.”
Of course, the world of private investigating isn’t all Marlowe and Spade. Thompson points out that the computer, rather than a gat, is the ‘weapon’ of choice for the modern P.I. I’m not sure if Thompson’s background as a philosopher endowed him with any ‘transferable skills’ that lent themselves to being a successful detective. It’s certainly an unusual career trajectory. Still, maybe I’ll add P.I. to my list of career options.