Several years ago, a session at a meeting of the American Philosophical Association (APA) on “new funding organizations and the direction of philosophy” took up, among other things, the influence that the John Templeton Foundation was having on philosophical research.
In the five years prior (2011-2016), according to my estimates, Templeton had provided $57 million of funding for projects headed by philosophers. That’s a lot. By contrast, the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) had provided approximately just $7 million in funding for projects headed by philosophers (about 1.34% of the total funding it disbursed).
Since Templeton doesn’t even aspire to be a “neutral” funding body (it has a pro-religion agenda, sometimes described as legitimating religious explanations by making sure the scientific and philosophical projects they funded included a religious component, or included theologians as part of the research team), there had been a concern about its enormous influence on the shape of philosophy. A multi-million dollar grant on a project funds workshops, fellowships, research time, publications, etc., leading to a surge in work on a topic, and in turn, this leads to special issues of journals, sessions at conferences, and so on, affecting people’s sense of what the discipline considers important, which in turn affects what is taught, what students end up writing their theses on, with subsequent reinforcing and ramifying effects. Philosophy will look different to the historians of the future than it otherwise would have because of Templeton’s substantial funding. (Though see this.)
At the session, I argued that, though some philosophers may think Templeton’s influence on philosophy is bad for philosophy, no wrongdoing was involved here. Templeton is within its rights to give away money, and researchers are within their rights to use it to support their work. The history of philosophy, after all, is full of philosophers whose writings we treasure and continue to study, the production of which was supported by wealthy patrons.
If we’re concerned about Templeton’s influence, I said, one solution would be to get more wealthy donors and institutions interested in philosophy. Dilute Templeton’s influence through competition.
Perhaps philosophy could be the next luxury good, I suggested, half-jokingly, with billionaires bragging to each other about what “their” philosophers have been up to.
Others have had this idea, of course.
Recently, someone forwarded me a letter that began:
You get many letters asking for funds. But this one offers you something extremely rare, the opportunity to be known and remembered as a patron of a major philosopher.
We remember Lorenzo de’Medici as the patron of Michelangelo. We remember Lord Shaftesbury for being the patron of John Locke, the English philosopher who among other things wrote a political treatise at the heart of American government. These and other patrons of individual talent are personally and permanently connected to work that lasts through the ages; we admire their taste and judgment in aiding a well-known thinker or artist. Theirs is a more personal way of being remembered than associating one’s name with an institution.
It closes, about five pages later, with:
Even if you decide not to become a patron of my own work, I hope you will consider doing that for some other substantial talent. If so, this letter will have an important effect. But remember, it is difficult to uncover and identify genuine talent doing valuable work that will last. Such people are extremely rare in any field, and especially so in philosophy. Yet right here, before your eyes, an instance is presenting itself.
The letter was sent in the early 1990s to an unknown number of extremely wealthy people. Written with a braggadocio I’m charitably assuming was an attempt to fit in with the norms of high-flyers in the corporate world and a confidence to match the business proposals regularly coming across their desks, it is a bracing contrast to the humility with which we tend to expect scholars to discuss themselves and their work.
Can you guess who wrote it? Tell us in the comments. One clue: this person is no longer alive. (If you happen to already know who wrote it, please don’t spoil the fun.)
I’ll reveal the author, eventually.