Philosophy: Now Even More Popular in Germany


Philosophy is so popular in Germany right now, reports The Chronicle of Higher Education (may be behind paywall). How popular is it? So popular that at least one philosophy book may have sold more copies in Germany than the latest album by David Hasselhoff, a fact the author of the Chronicle piece neglects to mention. Perhaps because it is not true. In any event, he does provide some other evidence for philosophy’s popularity in Germany. For example, there have been increased enrollments in philosophy courses:

At Tübingen… the number of students enrolled in philosophy courses has increased by nearly one-third, to 1,600, in the past three years. The philosophy departments at both Albert Ludwigs University of Freiburg and Goethe University, in Frankfurt am Main, have had to impose limits on enrollments for the first time ever. 

Additionally, philosophy seems to be making a dent in popular culture:

The boom includes several new magazines, three TV shows, several radio “philosophy cafes,” which are informal roundtables with deep thinkers, and an annual Philosophy Festival. Popular paperbacks, too, aspire to tackle the profound questions of the day by employing the ideas of Plato and Aristotle, Descartes and Spinoza, as well as contemporary practitioners like Judith Butler and Jürgen Habermas.

Philosophie Magazin has a circulation of 9000 (and some interesting marketing strategies). The popular books mentioned include Who Am I?—And If So, How Many? by Richard David Precht, Why The World Does Not Exist by Markus Gabriel (Bonn), and Four Meditations on Happiness by Michael Hampe.

Perhaps readers who live in or have spent some time recently in Germany can give their impressions about philosophy’s popularity there, and also comment on the author’s claim that “some worry that the so-called philosophy boom may put pressure on academics to dumb down the likes of metaphysics and epistemology for a lay audience.”

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Anne Pollok
6 years ago

I do not know all the numbers, but the real danger is that all those philosophy students cannot be taken care of in an appropriate way. If the ratio is one Professor to 300 (or more) students (as was the case in Marburg when two Professors at once left the department last year), then you can imagine what the quality of student advisement is. Well, or how bad life as an adjunct faculty member (and this includes all “assistant professors”, Wissenschaftliche Assistenten on their way to the Habilitation, the second dissertation – which is somewhat (only somewhat) equivalent to getting tenure here in the US) is.
The other danger is that popular philosophy is nice, but does not really live up to academic philosophy, which will strike students as “too hard”, “superfluous” etc., if one can make claims way more appealingly. That this needs some serious study beforehand is something all too easy to overlook.Report

James Wilberding
James Wilberding
6 years ago

Some background also helps to explain some of these numbers:
1. Philosophy is taught in high schools (Gymnasia) here. This has double explanatory value: Many might be choosing philosophy because they have already had some positive exposure to philosophy, and many of those studying are doing so with an eye towards getting a teaching certificate.
2. At the universities I’ve been connected to, you never major in philosophy all by itself; you always have at least one other major.
3. The universities are still free (bzw. free again), so there is less pressure to major in subjects that will help pay back the loans.
4. The media have a much more positive attitude towards philosophy. This appears to be part of a more general friendly attitude to academic pursuits and titles.
5. My sense is that philosophy is not being made more popular in the sense of courses being dumbed-down at the universities. Our numbers here in Bochum are comparable to those given above for Tübingen, and in my opinion the courses we have on offer are as serious as those you would find at any other research university.Report

Sebastian Luft
Sebastian Luft
6 years ago

I second both posts. In addition, the stats mentioned in the article seem to me to be some kind of sales pitch to decrease the professor-student ratio. Rationale: If philosophy is this popular in the wider culture, then we need more instructors to teach it professionally. But the impetus behind this is correct: the number of professors in philosophy has nearly stagnated in Germany since the 1970s, when the universities opened up to large(r) number of students. It is unfortunate that not more positions are being created, but philosophy is always facing an uphill battle, I guess.
Following James, I am also not concerned about the “dumbing down” effect. You have got to start somewhere, and it can hardly be “dumbed down” more than in some intro classes that happen to be mandatory.Report

Eddy Nahmias
6 years ago

Does anyone know if there are stats about the gender proportions of philosophy majors (right term?) in Germany? I am interested in whether the fact that it’s taught in high schools or that it is a popular major (and popular more widely) have any correlation with the proportion of women interested in majoring in it (contra the U.S. where the proportion of women majors has stagnated at 1/3 for decades and it is also not taught in high school nor particularly popular).Report

ben
ben
6 years ago

Here’s a link to numbers the German government released: http://goo.gl/Q4FuZg
According to this, ~41% of philosophy students are female.Report

Anonym
Anonym
6 years ago

Ben: Thanks a lot for the link, very interesting! According to the same database, in 2013, 41% of professional philosophers holding academic full-time positions (apparently including both tenured and untenured faculty) in Germany have been female. Link: http://goo.gl/vdVTGa (Hope the link works!) This is quite remarkable, but I would guess that the percentage of women among tenured philosophers is lower.
Unfortunately they don’t have statistics for the distribution of majors/minors (the German terms are “Hauptfach” and “Nebenfach”) among bachelor students.

Some remarks on philosophy as a taught subject at secondary schools in Germany and especially at the “Gymnasium”: There are significant regional differences regarding the status of the subject and its role in the curriculum. Philosophy classes in general are either optional or (inclusive or!) function as a “replacement-subject” for religious studies (i.e. students who opt-out of religious studies have to take philosophy). In the latter case, the subject is often called “ethics” or “values and norms” rather than philosophy and correspondingly has a narrower focus. Some more information in German can be found here: http://goo.gl/0VJ8fI (pdf of a 2010 DGPhil-newsletter). Personal anecdote: I went through secondary school in Germany and had my first contact with philosophy as a taught subject after enrolling at a university.Report

Mari Mikkola
Mari Mikkola
6 years ago

Anonym, I wonder about the 41% of females holding academic full-time positions being a bit misleading. This may also include PhD candidates who have 6-year post as assistants to professors. They also work full-time, 50% of that time supposedly going into writing their PhD theses. So, if that figure includes all female PhDs employed as assistants to professors, postdocs AND professors, the number may not be so remarkable. What we’d need to know is the breakdown of different status groups. The current estimate is that female professors make up 17% of all philosophy professors and that includes both tenured and untenured. The percentage on tenured female philosophers is likely to be much smaller still (e.g. the percentage of tenured female profs across disciplines is around 11%).

And more generally: there are LOTS of students who only take one or two philosophy classes during their studies. So philosophy may be popular, but how many students really finish a degree majoring in philosophy is another matter. As noted, the statistics don’t tell us this. And as far as I can tell, the number of students (c. 17 000) is the total number of students studying philosophy in Germany in fall 2013 (not students starting to study philosophy). In a country with around 100 philosophy departments, that number does not strike me as incredibly high. There is a big difference in Germany between the popularity of academic and “popular” philosophy.Report

Anonym
Anonym
6 years ago

Mari Mikkola, thanks a lot for your reply! Your remark about the uneven distribution of the reported percentages on the level of untenured and tenured faculty is spot on and your comment also made me realize that there is an embarrassing mistake in my earlier comment: According to the statistics I linked to above, 405 of 1378, so approximately 29% of philosophy faculty working full time in 2013 in Germany were female, not 41% percent as I wrote earlier. I’m sorry about this!
That said, I still find the numbers at least remarkable (to a lesser degree, of course!), since based on my own observations, I expected the percentage of women to be even lower.Report

Pseudonym
Pseudonym
6 years ago

My impression as a German is that philosophy is more popular in the UK and in France. When you look at the items mentioned: in UK and F there are more philosophy books written for a wider audience and a lot of them are from academic philosophers, which German academic philosphers don’t do. There are a lot of podcasts, blogs, events, lectures, public appearances in UK and F, again some from academic philosophers, but not in Germany. British and French philosophers frequently give their opinion on subjects of public interest, which some German philosophers do, but that seems to be received only by intellectuals (with the exception mainly of Habermas). And, again except Habermas, the German public doesn’t know the names of contemporary philosophers, which, I guess, has to do with a postwar attitude not to appear as bold as the likes of Hegel, Nietzsche and Heidegger.Report

Rick Lewis
6 years ago

When I was recently passing through Hamburg Airport I was happy to see that there were three philosophy magazines in German displayed in the main magazine outlet there. They were “Philosophie Magazin” (which is an offshoot of the French magazine with a similar name), “Abenteuer Philosophie” (which is based in Austria, I believe) and “Hohe Luft” (which means “High Air”, and is the name of the district of Hamburg in which it is based). In addition, I was even more delighted to see that the magazine I edit, “Philosophy Now”, was on sale there as well, in the international titles section, making a total of four philosophy magazines in all.

Hamburg Airport apparently is the philosophical hub of Germany.Report