Philosophers and the ACLS (updated)


Of the 81 newly named “ACLS Fellows” of the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS), only one is a philosophy professor.

That philosophy professor is Erin Beeghly of the University of UtahHer fellowship will support her research and writing of her book, What’s Wrong With Stereotyping (under contract with Oxford University Press), which you can read more about here.

Meanwhile, there were over 25 history professors, 11 English professors, and a number of faculty from several other disciplines among the 2019 ACLS Fellowship winners.

There was also one philosophy professor among this year’s 21 winners of the ACLS’s Frederick Burkhardt Residential Fellowships for Recently Tenured ScholarsMichael S. Brownstein of the City University of New York (CUNY), who will be working on a project entitled “Detribalizing Epistemology“.

The ACLS bills itself as “the preeminent representative of American scholarship in the humanities and related social sciences” and aims to “promote the circulation of humanistic knowledge throughout society.” It has a number of fellowship programs it funds with its $140 million endowment.

Why are there so few philosophy faculty among the winners of these fellowships? Professor Beeghly wasn’t the only philosophy professor to apply for an ACLS Fellowship, according to one philosopher who served as an reviewer for that program. That philosopher writes:

I saw a large number of very strong applications (I don’t think any reviewers see them all even within a field, and I am sure that I did not since I had a conflict of interest with at least one of them). Of course, I don’t know how the proportions stacked up, so perhaps philosophy had a surprising low number of applications.

It’s worth noting that some of the projects by other winners of the fellowship employed outside of philosophy departments cover philosophical terrain. For example, Susanna Berger, an art historian at the University of Southern California, works on the art of philosophy and her funded project is on visual expertise and the aesthetics of deception. Joel Alden Schlosser, a political scientist at Bryn Mawr College, has a book on Socrates and his fellowship project is on philosophical aestheticism. These and a couple of other examples suggest that if there is a problem, it may not be with philosophy, but with philosophy professors. Overall, there’s not much evidence to go on here and I don’t want to jump to conclusions.

For context on the 2019 numbers, we can look at past years. There was only one philosopher among the similarly-sized 2018 class of ACLS Fellows. However, there were three in 2017, four in 2016, three in 2015, three in 2014, six in 2013, four in 2012, none in 2011,  two in 2010, and three in 2009.

The ACLS Fellowship and Burkhardt Fellowship are only two of several fellowship programs offered by the ACLS. How did members of philosophy departments fare in the competition for the others? The following list gives us the number of winning philosophers out of the total number of awardees for a number of ACLS programs last year (this year’s winners of these programs have yet to be announced):

The numbers appear low, but without knowing how many faculty from each discipline submitted applications, it is hard to determine whether there’s an issue, and if there is, whether it is with how the applications of philosophers are considered by ACLS, or with the way philosophers are pitching their work, or something else.

The American Philosophical Association (APA) is a member society of the ACLS. Perhaps it can look into the matter. [See update, below.]

Note: The original version of this post mistakenly referred to the ACLS as the American Association of Learned Societies rather than the American Council of Learned Societies.

UPDATE (4/5/19): Amy Ferrer, in a Twitter thread she links to in a recent comment, below, shares that only 5% of the ACLS fellowship applications were from philosophers. By contrast, 25% were from historians. She says, “Historians and philosophers win fellowships at the same rate, but WAY fewer philosophers are applying, so fewer win. Go apply, philosophers!”

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