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!”

guest
26 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Kareem Khalifa
2 years ago

Here’s at least one possible explanation: there is a fairly standard way for many humanists to pitch a grant: (a) here’s a big problem that speaks to the human condition; (b) here is the special group of people, places, or things that I study that promise to shed new light on this big question. Doing (a) and (b) then generates “narrative momentum” in terms of the other part of the grant proposal. Many (but by no means all) philosophers don’t really conceive of (b) as a central part of their research, and so they write grants that are pretty poorly motivated to humanists in other fields.Report

Kareem Khalifa
Kareem Khalifa
Reply to  Kareem Khalifa
2 years ago

And by “special people, places, and things,” I mean “historically or culturally special.” So, reading your peers’ work doesn’t really count, since humanists of all stripes do that.Report

Ben
Ben
Reply to  Kareem Khalifa
2 years ago

My impression after going to many of my university’s interdisciplinary meetings and sharing sessions is that philosophers generally (of course there are exceptions) have very little in common with people in other humanities, both in terms of interests and methodology. To be fair, other humanities disciplines also differ a lot from each other, but philosophy really stands out. So it’s not surprising to me that philosophers would not be successful in general humanities competitions.Report

Barry Lam
2 years ago

This isn’t a problem with a single explanation. I’ve served on review boards, not ACLS but others, and have had a large share of rejections (and two successes) with these things (ACLS, NEH, National Humanities Center, others). Every explanation that has been offered in the past is partly right; philosophy reviewers are in fact statistically much harsher on their colleagues’ work, philosophy reviewers are interpreted by others as harsh and negative, even if by philosophy-internal standards they are not, philosophical engagement and literacy with adjacent issues that are treated in the humanities is naive or non-existent, the review criteria at these places for relevance, timeliness, and impact puts philosophy as it currently stands and is practiced in the U.S. at a disadvantage, and finally, there is a distaste for analytic philosophy in the broader humanities, sometimes for good reason. Let me give you an anonymized, only slightly fictionalized example. A group of humanities-social science scholars are assessing whether to fund a range of proposals dealing with race in America, maybe its at a later stage of the process. In front of them is a history project documenting cold cases of murders of African-Americans in the South during the civil rights era, a literary analysis of the influence of Haitian (Saint-Domingue) refugee narratives in early Colonial America on early slave narratives, and a philosophy of race project doing thought experiments about aliens who came down to America with a history of skin-based privilege in their world, but who are indistinguishable from African Americans in our world. Do you think the philosophy project stands a chance? Multiply this out across many panels, Report

Michel
Michel
2 years ago

A sociologist called Michèle Lamont has a great book on interdisciplinary grant competitions in the humanities and social sciences called “How Professors Think: Inside the Curious World of Academic Judgment”. It doesn’t have much to say about philosophy and philosophers, except to reiterate what Barry Lam said above: philosophy is widely perceived to be a problematic discipline, and philosophers aren’t thought to play well with others.

It does have a lot to say about history, however, and that’s super-helpfuil from an applicant’s perspective because history blows all competition out of the water when it comes to successful applications. I learned a lot from it, and have applied those lessons to my own grant applications–some of which have been successful, and more of which have come close. In particular, I think I learned some valuable lessons about framing my research questions, and establishing my methodology in ways that will be recognizable (and appreciable!) to people outside philosophy.Report

Craig
Craig
Reply to  Michel
2 years ago

History is so damned good at this that the American Philosophical Society (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_Philosophical_Society) is, for all serious purposes, a History society. I gotta check out this book — thanks for the recommendation.Report

Erin Beeghly
Erin Beeghly
2 years ago

I am happy to share my proposal with anyone who is interested. Just email me. The project was funded by both NEH and ACLS this year, so there is something in the proposal to which humanities boards have responded well. One thought, which connects to Barry’s observations about philosophical methodology, is that my work often uses historical and legal case studies as starting points for thinking about the ethics of stereotyping. It’s also pretty multidisciplinary and accessible in other ways. But that’s not unique among philosophers working in social and political philosophy . . . or in other areas like philosophy of perception or philosophy of science. So I have no explanation for why I have been so lucky. Barry’s hypotheses are interesting, though!Report

Michael Brownstein
Michael Brownstein
Reply to  Erin Beeghly
2 years ago

Congrats on the grant, Erin! I’m also happy to share my proposal with anyone who is interested. My proposal was also multidisciplinary, as well as framed around contemporary issues. So there’s at least one additional example in favor of the point you and Barry and others are making.Report

Lisa Shapiro
Lisa Shapiro
2 years ago

I have served on selection committees for the ACLS. Barry Lam hits the nail on the head. During the three years I served, there were only a handful of applications from philosophers, and many more from scholars in other disciplines. So statistically speaking, it is less likely a philosopher will be funded. Perhaps this is because applicants are almost always writing books, and the monograph is rare in Philosophy. Of the philosophy applications, (a) some were simply not as strong as other applications; (b) some were recognized as strong by the philosopher on the committee (me) but not recognized as strong by others; (c) some were recognized as strong by the committee as a whole. The issue is with (b). Philosophers do a good job speaking to their peers, but not as good a job explaining to those without a philosophy background, but very well grounded in the humanities, why someone should care about their project. Historians are really good at telling a story about why their narrow project matters. Philosophers could learn a lot by thinking a bit more historically. I will note that the ACLS also recognizes it does not fund as much philosophy, and they actively try to ensure that a philosophers is on the selection committee to ensure that applications get a fair assessment. Report

Neil Levy
Neil Levy
2 years ago

Philosophers tend to do pretty well in open competition with other disciplines for grant money in the UK, Australia and Europe. Perhaps there’s something about US assessors? I doubt it, since the pool of assessors tends to be international. I would bet that it’s simply the product that we non-US people have lots of practice at pitching grants, whereas it’s just catching on in the US. I don’t think any of my 10 successful applications featured a narrative involving lots of examples. Report

Kenny Easwaran
Reply to  Neil Levy
2 years ago

How are fields grouped together for purposes of grants in these countries? Is philosophy in a pool with the humanities, or are social sciences included, or are proposals separated in some way that cuts across academic disciplines? I’ve reviewed some individual grant proposals from European agencies, but it is usually only one proposal I see, and I don’t have a sense of what the competition is that it is up against. (Some of them are for national “science” foundations, which suggests that the pool may be broader than humanities.)Report

Neil Levy
Neil Levy
Reply to  Kenny Easwaran
2 years ago

Different agencies have different approaches, but the two bodies with which I’ve had most success (both of whom provide very much more than the ACLS) have panels in which philosophers compete with people outside philosophy and are assessed largely by non-philosophers. With Wellcome, philosophers compete with social sciences and to a lesser extent humanities. With the Australian Research Council, the competition is almost exclusively with the humanities. Report

Charles
Charles
2 years ago

I got one of the dissertation grants for my work on complexity – which is a pretty abstract topic in philosophy of science. Ironically, I think it helped that I was working in a department that tends to think of philosophy as an autonomous discipline, oriented toward a unique set of concerns with its own unique history. Since my dissertation project had only tenuous relations to that history, and also since it was heavily interdisciplinary, it was viewed with some suspicion by the faculty. To compensate, I had to learn how to pitch the work in a way that didn’t lean much on any well-established philosophical dialectic. It also had to make technical ideas accessible to people with no background in the relevant disciplines. This experience helped me make my grant application more accessible than it might otherwise have been. So, one lesson from my experience might simply be that Lisa Shapiro is right in her comments above. To add my own spin on her point, I’d emphasize the distinction between making the content of your work accessible to outsiders, and making the motivation behind the work accessible. My impression is that the latter is at least as important as the former. Report

John McCumber
John McCumber
2 years ago

Barry Lam definitely has it right. When I left philosophy after 19 years to make my way in the Germanic Studies world, I was surprised to discover how differently people thought in other fields–and how similar to one another those fields were. Philosophy was definitely an odd discipline out.

I was not surprised but actually shocked by the degree of antipathy toward philosophers , and not only analytical ones, on the part of other humanists. Once I was no longer a philosopher, I guess they started coming clean.

Still, the humanists were kinder than the scientists. I am still marked by reading in Scientific American sometime around 2000 that to many scientists, being seen talking to a philosopher is like being seen coming out of a porn theater.Report

Robert A Gressis
Robert A Gressis
Reply to  John McCumber
2 years ago

John McCumber, would you care to elaborate on how philosophers think differently from humanists? (I would have said “from other humanists”, but apparently we’re not part of the club?)Report

John McCumber
John McCumber
Reply to  Robert A Gressis
2 years ago

That’s a tall order, but one difference between philosophers and humanists is evident from Barry Lam’s discussion: philosophers, instead of getting involved with real history in all its complexities the way everyone else does, will invent some “thought experiment” whose merit is then claimed to be that it illustrates the very point they want to make (looking at you, trolley problem!). Not all philosophers do this, of course, but enough do that everyone gets mud on them. There are other issues as well; I talked about some of them in my Time in the Ditch (2001).Report

Ben
Ben
Reply to  John McCumber
2 years ago

There is nothing wrong with considering thought experiments rather than “real history in all its complexity.” Thought experiments are usually much better if the goal is to isolate what the relevant factors are (e.g. moral factors, in case of the trolley problem) than is history. In my view (and, I think, the view of most philosophers), thought experiments play a role that’s very similar to the role played by idealized models in the sciences or multivariate linear regression in statistical inference. But we philosophers need to be better at getting it across both to our students and to people in other disciplines that thought experiments are a *tool* for philosophical inquiry rather than an end in themselves. I’ve met several people who think ethicists are interested in “solving” the trolley problem. Report

Arthur Greeves
Arthur Greeves
2 years ago

How does C stand for Academy?Report

Sam Duncan
Sam Duncan
2 years ago

I applied for an ACLS grant several years ago. I didn’t get it so I suppose what I say should be taken with a grain of salt…. But the university I was at at the time had a person whose entire job was to help faculty apply for grants. Pretty much the first thing he told me when we met was that philosophers were notoriously bad at applying for ACLS, NEH, and similar grants. And he said that the reason was that we weren’t good at speaking with people in other disciplines. His own impression was that we didn’t feel like we needed to while people in other disciplines realized that they very much did. (He also highly recommended the book by Lamont Michel mentions in an earlier post).
My own 2 cents on this is that analytic philosophers are often a prickly, arrogant, and dismissive bunch and this is one of the many ways we pay the price for it. I know it’s trendy in analytic philosophy to poop all over what goes on in the English or Religion departments but the problem is that there are a lot more people in those fields so when it comes time for decisions where every discipline gets a role they are going to have a lot more pull than we do. Playing nice with others is very much in our own interest. Another example of this comes from my PhD granting institution. Our department had a chair who was utterly dismissive of any field outside the hard sciences and made no secret of his disdain. And guess what since everyone else in Arts and Sciences disliked us we go treated pretty badly. (Among other things we’d gotten stuck in pretty much the worst building on campus). The next chair was much more of a humanist and one of his main goals was to repair our relations with other departments. He did and afterward we started to do much better in the competition for academic resources.Report

Double A
Double A
2 years ago

There are many more historians and English scholars than philosophers, so I’m not sure this indicates anything at all. But I guess it’s good for people to have a thread to explain the grave failings of philosophy as a discipline. By the way, anyone know how many Germanic Studies proposals were funded? Report

Amy Ferrer
2 years ago

I spoke to the ACLS fellowship staff about this concern after last year’s group of fellows included just one philosopher. Barry Lam and Lisa Shapiro’s comments above are right on. In addition, to try to help philosophers succeed in ACLS fellowship competitions, I worked with their Director of Fellowship Programs, Matthew Goldfeder, to put together a session at the most recent APA Eastern Division meeting with philosophers who have served on ACLS panels: Mitch Green, Lori Gruen, and Rebecca Stangl. Unfortunately the session was under-attended, but I posted a thread on Twitter at the time with some key takeaways: https://twitter.com/amyeferrer/status/1083403074591514625

Indeed, as Lisa pointed out, ACLS works hard to make sure that philosophy projects get a fair shot in their fellowship competitions—and to achieve that, they need the philosophers on the review panels to be advocates for philosophy proposals. I’m also in ongoing discussions with ACLS about finding more ways (like meeting sessions or webinars) to help give philosophers the tools they need to prepare applications that are more likely to succeed.Report

Mitzi Lee
Mitzi Lee
2 years ago

I’ve served on numerous fellowship and grant selection committees, including the NEH. A very typical problem in philosophy proposals is that they have the following form. There is this problem P. I’m going to argue for my unique solution S, which consists of this that and the other. No motivation concerning the problem, and not much to show how solution S fits into the context of previous attempts to ‘solve’ the problem, or why it’s original, or why it’s important and significant in relation to the history of other discussions. Your typical English or history professor sitting on the panel is smart enough to know that this can’t possibly be the first attempt to solve say the problem of free will and moral responsibility, or the problem of skepticism, and will throw the proposal in the bin for being impossibly arrogant and parochial. Report

S
S
2 years ago

Some very useful tips above. One very useful piece of advice I received, from someone with a lot of experience sitting on interdisciplinary panels, was that philosophers have a problem with explaining what they will actually do with their time and money. So, a historian or lit studies person can say they will go to such-and-such an archive, or look at such-and-such database. Social scientists will go interview people or collect data in some way. Typically, philosophers will just say that they will read some stuff and think and talk about it. But, of course, all academics do that! (Indeed, historians, for example, tend to read s lot more than philosophers, as well as going to the archives). What philosophy lacks is anything like (or even functionally equivalent to) fieldwork or experiments. So, it’s very important for philosophers to explain what they will actually do (and not in a way that makes it seem as if they think that other scholars don’t read and think about conceptual issues).

(I’m posting this anonymously simply because I was told all of this off-the-record – apologies!)Report

krell_154
krell_154
Reply to  S
2 years ago

”So, it’s very important for philosophers to explain what they will actually do (and not in a way that makes it seem as if they think that other scholars don’t read and think about conceptual issues)”

Well, maybe reading and thinking about conceptual issues takes more of a philosopher’s time, than the historian’s, since it is a more central part of philosophical methodology than it is of methodology of history, or literature…

I mean, I guess you’re right in saying that describing philosophical projects like that might be perceived negatively, but I’m not sure what should philosphers do about it? Invent some fieldwork?Report