The 2020 Class of Newcombe Fellows in Ethics & Religion Includes (Just) One Philosophy Student


Joanna Demaree-Cotton, a Ph.D. student in philosophy at Yale University, has won a 2020 Charlotte W. Newcombe Doctoral Dissertation Fellowship from the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation.

Newcombe Fellows receive a 12-month award of $27,500 to support their final year of dissertation writing. Ms. Demaree-Cotton’s dissertation is entitled Rehabilitating Moral Agency in the Age of Cognitive Science. You can learn more about her work here.

The Newcombe Fellowship is described by the Wilson Foundation as “the largest and most prestigious award for Ph.D. candidates in the humanities and social sciences addressing questions of ethical and religious values in interesting, original, or significant ways.” This year, the foundation awarded the fellowship to 23 students. Of these 23, Ms. Demaree-Cotton is the only philosophy student. In 2019, two fellowship winners were philosophy students. The same is true in 2018 and 2017.

Philosophers might find it striking that so few philosophy students are among the winners of a dissertation fellowship awarded for work on values. Was this the result of a paucity of applications from philosophy students? A failure of philosophy students to appropriately pitch their work to an interdisciplinary selection committee? A bias against philosophical work? Something else? One inside source says that a some very strong candidates who are philosophy students are almost always among the finalists, but it is not clear what is keeping more of them from being among the winners of the fellowship.

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Nick
Nick
1 year ago

Wow, 7 students won in religion or religious studies. 7 won in anthropology. 14 out of 23 winners from 2 disciplines (of the 15 disciplines eligible). I don’t know what that means. Not a criticism. Just striking.

Looks like 7 anthropology students won last year (2019) and 5 won in (2018). Something about anthropology.Report

Aaron V Garrett
Aaron V Garrett
1 year ago

The final selection committee appears to be two people in religion, one in literature, one in classics, and one in anthropology. So the explanation seems pretty clear. Report

Conor Mayo-Wilson
Reply to  Aaron V Garrett
1 year ago

Aaron, I’m not sure what your purported explanation is, but it’s not clear to me. I think you might be suggesting that people on the selection committee are likely to favor applicants in their field. But there are zero fellows in literature and classics this year. There are, however, several winners in history, despite no one on the selection committee working in history.

Here’s a simple explanation for some of the results: anthropology and history departments are often bigger than philosophy ones. Bigger departments produce more applicants, and so even in the absence of any favoritism, we’d expect more winners in anthropology and history if the distribution of deserving proposals were the same across disciplines (whatever that means). Fellows in religion might outnumber other disciplines because (a) “religion” is in the title of fellowship program, and (b) anyone in a religion can apply, whereas many philosophers don’t work on either ethics or religion. In short, the number of fellows in the various fields might be directly proportional to the number of applications that program receives.Report

Aaron V Garrett
Aaron V Garrett
Reply to  Conor Mayo-Wilson
1 year ago

That’s interesting and you may well be right. But I do think two people on the committee who are in religious studies, and 7 out of 23 winners from that area, is a pretty strong correlation. I don’t think anthropology is necessarily a bigger discipline than philosophy overall, but I don’t know. Anthropologists need money for fieldwork, which tends to be expensive, so maybe that is an additional factor.

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Aaron V Garrett
Aaron V Garrett
Reply to  Aaron V Garrett
1 year ago

I hope you are correct though!Report

Lowlygrad
Lowlygrad
Reply to  Conor Mayo-Wilson
1 year ago

Can’t find it now, and can’t recall where it was discussed (if anyone remembers this I would appreciate it), but I remember some time ago there being a discussion of how historians were particularly good at getting interdisciplinary grants (think NEH) while philosophers were particularly bad. I think the running explanation was that historians tend to be better at making the importance of their work clear to non-experts, while philosophers are much more insular and so their projects do not appeal to outsiders. I suppose that might be in line with the relative popularity of popular history books vs philosophy books as well, but that’s speculative.Report

Aaron V Garrett
Aaron V Garrett
Reply to  Lowlygrad
1 year ago

I was thinking the same thing. And when there is not a philosopher on a committee to make an argument for a philosophy application and to explain what seems insular, it is worse. All the more reason to congratulate the philosopher who received the fellowship! Report

Lowlygrad
Lowlygrad
Reply to  Aaron V Garrett
1 year ago

Just as a follow up, I always noted the NEH summer seminars that philosophers manage to get that are posted here and elsewhere heavily lean historical, with contemporary stuff tending to be about value theory/political philosophy/philosophy as a way of life. Report

Chris Stephens
Chris Stephens
Reply to  Lowlygrad
1 year ago

Lowlygrad: you might be thinking of the sociologist of academia, Michelle Lamont. In her book, How Professors Think, she talks about how philosophy is well known “problem discipline” in interdisciplinary grant committees. Philosophers are often excessively critical of their own (imagine) and they also often seem to think their discipline is more demanding than other humanities, and that only philosophers are qualified to evaluate their own work. Other disciplines often discount philosophers as having a misplaced intellectual superiority. Additionally, philosophers, it seems, don’t do a great job of explaining their research to non-philosophers, esp. those in other humanities.Report

Lowlygrad
Lowlygrad
Reply to  Chris Stephens
1 year ago

Exactly what I was thinking of, thanks for jogging my memory.Report

Michel
Michel
Reply to  Lowlygrad
1 year ago

lowlygrad: Yeah, I believe I made that post. It’s part of the lessons I learned from Michèle Lamont’s book “How Professors Think: inside the curious world of academic judgment”. (So: Chris is also right!)

Philosophers are particularly bad at these kinds of competitions. We don’t do a good job of justifying our research to outsiders, and we don’t usually have tangible payoffs or methods which would clearly require the funding. Historians, anthropologists, etc., however, do. They need to conduct studies, visit archives, etc., and their research fits neatly into the kinds of niches people think are valuable. Philosophers need to spend a lot of time and effort making the case that their methods are appropriate, and their results worthwhile and robust.Report

YAAGS
YAAGS
Reply to  Michel
1 year ago

Are those relayed general impressions of professors from other humanities, or does she have specific examples of philosophers behaving badly that show how they earned those judgments? [I don’t have access to her book.] I wouldn’t be surprised if the judgments are due to there being too many dismissive jerk philosophers on those committees. But it also wouldn’t surprise me if at least some of our bad reputation is due to ideological disagreements. I can easily see committee members in the other humanities viewing philosophers as arrogant just for trying to use armchair methods like thought experiments due to their own entrenched relativistic/anti-realist inclinations, regardless of how kindly and patiently and clearly the philosopher tries to explain their work.Report

Chris Stephens
Chris Stephens
Reply to  YAAGS
1 year ago

Hi YAAGS
She has anonymous quotations from both philosophers she has interviewed and non philosophers who opine about the philosophers. I think she’s trying to avoid taking sides (mostly) on whether these judgments are justified or not – she’s just try to note the sociological differences between different disciplines including their attitudes about one another and how this impacts multi disciplinary committees and how they make awards.Report

harry b
harry b
Reply to  YAAGS
1 year ago

The book is grounded in extensive fieldwork — she was allowed to sit in on numerous committee meetings, and has direct quotations throughout both from those meetings and from an interview part of the study. Anyone with plenty of experience on similar committees recognizes the problem. PhD programs generally don’t take seriously the task of training students to engage in fruitful discourse with other people in the Humanities, but for the rest of the Humanities that’s ok because they have a lot of shared language and many shared assumptions (even History). Philosophy doesn’t have that, and also has a culture which is arrogant and off-putting. (And, to be perfectly honest, that is partly but only partly a reflection of a reality that it is more intellectually ambitious and rigorous discipline currently than most of the rest of the humanities). Report

Elizabeth
Elizabeth
1 year ago

Congratulations, Joanna! 🙂Report