Philosophy as Luxury Good


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.

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Padron Bartholemew
1 month ago

I am a bit uneasy about the idea of rich patrons sponsoring philosophers, as it risks weakening the quality of work. Philosophers, like other aspirational achievers, often do their best work when they are ‘hungry’ — e.g., when the pressure is high for them to perform. If you spoil and pamper philosophers, their mettle will soften and we can expect them to phone it (slinging stuff to edited volumes) in rather than to strive for excellence (like a permanent job or a promotion depended on it!). Wittgenstien remember did his best work in the trenches of the war. If we pamper the philosophers, we can expect the quality of work you get from Rocky during Rocky III (remember he got spoiled and lost to Clubber Lang before he got his hunger back).

Patrick Lin
Reply to  Padron Bartholemew
1 month ago

This is the best use of a Clubber Lang analogy I’ve ever seen. But I suspect Aristotle, Descartes, et al. would disagree with your unease.

Certainly, some people (of any profession) work better when backed into a corner, whether it’s a deadline or destitution. But I’d be careful about generalizing this—it may be making a virtue out of a necessity for most working philosophers. Maybe we should pity those fools…

Padron Bartholemew
Reply to  Patrick Lin
1 month ago

Nice use of ‘pity those fools’, and fair enough, we don’t want to make a virtue out of a necessity… (but I still feel the right way to do philosophy is to work like when Rocky went to Russia and prepared for Ivan Drago)

Padron Bartholemew
Reply to  Padron Bartholemew
1 month ago

when I finally go to Oxford one day to face Williamson, I will train like they did in the old days (read only paper books, study by the light of candles I make with my own tallow)

Patrick Lin
Reply to  Padron Bartholemew
1 month ago

Public funding orgs to philosophy (at least in the US): “I must break you.”

Patrick Lin
Reply to  Patrick Lin
1 month ago

P.S. As someone who gets a good amount of public funding, I still never feel quite comfortable. Those funded projects end within 1-5 years, and funding rates are ever-decreasing (at least in the US; I can’t speak for other geographies), in part due to increasing competition. So, we’re always hustlin’, and funding is never guaranteed for long.

If I may make a non-Rocky metaphor, I’m reminded of Bruce Springsteen’s lyrics:

Stay on the streets of this town

And they’ll be carvin’ you up alright

They say you gotta stay hungry

Hey baby, I’m just about starvin’ tonight

Kenny Easwaran
Reply to  Padron Bartholemew
1 month ago

Even if none of the funding goes to salary, so that all the individual philosophers remain poor enough to do the kind of work you like, one might expect that something valuable could come of paying for several people working on a related topic to come together for a conference. And choosing a place that has someone working on a project you like, and funding a few extra grad students or postdocs at the same wage as their peers, could get more people working on a topic, without accidentally making their individual lives any easier.

Peregrinus_Proteus_61
Peregrinus_Proteus_61
Reply to  Padron Bartholemew
25 days ago

“I am a bit uneasy about the idea of rich patrons sponsoring philosophers, as it risks weakening the quality of work.” In the US at least, where do you think the money generally comes from for endowed chairs, especially ones with names attached? Looking backwards, do you think Kant’s and Locke’s work suffered because of their rich patrons?

Jeremy Tanner
Jeremy Tanner
Reply to  Padron Bartholemew
23 days ago

I left the military to become a professional philosopher. I know what it is like to work literally hungry and backed into a corner. I know what is like to have one’s mettle hardened to brittleness. I know what it is like when the pressure to perform is the fate of millions of lives.

I can tell you with certainty that one’s creative functions work better with a night’s rest a little breakfast.

E D
E D
1 month ago

I vaguely recall someone here once saying that the best bang for a billionaire’s buck in terms of very publicly associating themselves with philosophers is for them to drop a million or so into endowing a named chair at a department. I wonder if that’s true.

Gorm
Reply to  E D
1 month ago

The only way to find out is to try it! Go ahead … make my day

Jamie Dreier
Jamie Dreier
Reply to  E D
1 month ago

I think at Brown it’s more like $3 million.

Kenny Easwaran
Reply to  Jamie Dreier
1 month ago

Even that sounds cheap! If your endowment needs to pay a $150,000 salary (high for a philosopher, low for a full professor at a prestigious private university) and $60,000 of health insurance and other benefits (also probably a low estimate) it already needs to earn 7% per year at $3 million!

Serial Offender
Serial Offender
1 month ago

Nozick!

BunnyHugger
Reply to  Serial Offender
29 days ago

This was the name that jumped to my mind also.

Animal Symbolicum
1 month ago

I can’t even hazard a guess, but let me just say: this post rules.

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
1 month ago

I don’t think that being a patron for philosophers would be an effective way to win status. Very few people seem to know what we contribute to the world and conservatives in particular tend to take a dim view of the humanities.

David Wallace
Reply to  Hey Nonny Mouse
1 month ago

I don’t think conservatives are anti-humanities exactly, so much as anti-the way the humanities are done at present (or rather: anti a certain stereotype of how the humanities are done, where the stereotype has a certain amount of truth in it.) Think pro-teaching US history, anti-the 1619 project (with different levels of thoughtfulness and sophistication depending on exactly who you’re talking to).

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
Reply to  David Wallace
1 month ago

I don’t believe that conservatives are anti-humanities in principle either. I just think that given how they view us now, they aren’t likely to want to support us for status.

Sam Duncan
Sam Duncan
Reply to  Hey Nonny Mouse
1 month ago

I reluctantly find myself agreeing with David Wallace in that neither party is very good on supporting humanities. I saw this in Virginia where Terry McAuliffe’s entire philosophy of public education was that it should be nothing more or less than job training for the likes of Amazon
See here: https://www.thenation.com/article/politics/mcaufliffe-defeat-public-education/

Nor is Barack Obama great on supporting the humanities in public education:
https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2014/01/31/obama-becomes-latest-politician-criticize-liberal-arts-discipline

I suppose that Obama and McAuliffe value the humanities in that they make sure to send their children to private schools where they can study what they want. But neither think it appropriate for all the rest of us who rely on public education. Their children can have nice things but heaven help if the rest of us get anything the Jeff Bezoses of the world don’t think absolutely necessary for a job. Philosophy as a luxury good indeed. It’s a subtly but deeply anti-egalitarian view and its prominence in the Democratic Party says volumes.

David Wallace
Reply to  Sam Duncan
1 month ago

“ I reluctantly find myself agreeing with David Wallace in that neither party is very good on supporting humanities.”

“Reluctantly” in that you regret the lack of support for the humanities, or “reluctantly” in that you regret having found something we agree on? 🙂

Kenny Easwaran
Reply to  Hey Nonny Mouse
1 month ago

They aren’t likely to want to support “us” generally, but I bet there are some individual ones of us that they might be able to be talked into supporting, especially if they think it would provide some legacy in future generations.

On the Market Too
On the Market Too
1 month ago

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.

Perhaps, but I’m skeptical. It seems like the pruning done at each link in the chain would quickly leave very little left that wouldn’t have been there anyway.

Eric Steinhart
1 month ago

We just had a billionaire funding philosophy: Sam Bankman-Fried funding FTX Futures Fund, which helped philosophers in the Effective Altruism movement. It didn’t go well.

But sure, philosophers tend to pitch philosophy as a luxury good: prestige! reputation! quality! All very fancy – the best philosophers money can buy!. Of course, if you sell philosophy as a luxury good, don’t be surprised if people say they can’t afford it. And we’ve seen some very high profile cases of that recently too.

So no, I don’t think philosophy should be (or should be marketed as) a luxury good. But I think that’s how many of us are trying to market it.

manny
Reply to  Eric Steinhart
1 month ago

I guess it must help to be peddling a moral theory that allows rich guys to sleep at night.

V. Alan White
1 month ago

Unwilling to speak evil of the dead–even as over-the-top as this is–my guess is that the person’s last name begins with S. I knew this person, and that person would be capable of such an ambitious self-promotion, especially around that period of time due to that person’s circumstances.

Last edited 1 month ago by V. Alan White
Zac Cogley
24 days ago

Justin, are you going to reveal the author here or in another spot?