The Demand for Philosophers


Last week I was part of a panel invited to discuss “The State of Philosophy: Challenges, Threats, and Strategies” at the Eastern Division Meeting of the American Philosophical Association (APA).

I and my co-panelists each shared brief remarks on various topics. Sally Haslanger (MIT) discussed threats to academic freedom, particularly the academic freedom of scholars working on topics related to diversity and equality, which is being increasingly targeted by rightwing politicians and activists. Fritz McDonald (Oakland) enjoined philosophers to get involved in the APA and volunteer for positions and committees in the organization. Eric Schwitzgebel (UC Riverside) shared some of his valuable work on demographic trends in philosophy, focusing on philosophy majors (see here).

I talked about the demand for people with philosophy PhDs in the U.S. (for the purposes of the discussion, “philosophers”).

I first noted some evidence that the demand for philosophers is declining. Cuts to philosophy departments and the elimination of philosophy degree programs (see here for some examples) continue, and though new programs are occasionally created, losses seem to outweigh the gains. The number of tenure-track jobs in philosophy has not been growing over the long term and is down compared to ten years ago (464 advertised jobs in 2011-12 cycle compared to 345 in the 2021-22 cycle, 547 in 2012-13 compared to 346 in 2022-23, 356 in 2013-14 compared to a projected 332 in 2023-24).

What are some possible causes of the decreased demand for philosophers?

  • Enrollment declines at some schools, causing budget cuts and closures.
  • Declines in the percentage of bachelor’s degrees in the humanities conferred by four-year institutions. (Though philosophy has “held steady at 0.39%-0.40% since 2015-2016,” it is not clear that administrators are going to be looking at such fine-grained detail when setting the agenda for cuts.)
  • In a majority of U.S. states, there have been decreases in state expenditures on public colleges and universities (e.g., there was less spent by states on higher ed in 2020 than in 2008).
  • With decreased state funding, many institutions are even more reliant on grants, and philosophers are not major grant-getters (the sciences bring in over 125 times more in grants than the humanities).
    (In response to this point, Sally Haslanger rightly pointed out that philosophy departments may be a financial plus for universities as the revenue from philosophy enrollments may exceed the relatively small costs of having a philosophy department; however, Fritz McDonald, if I recall accurately, raised the question of whether, of the various disciplines for which this cost-benefit analysis is correct, philosophy is particularly good in this regard—say, in comparison to English, which might be just as cheap but with more enrollments.)

There are also broader social changes that I think are relevant to the demand for philosophers. These are changes that philosophers can do little to nothing about, and it is not clear that all of them are, on balance, changes for the worse (though they may be). These include:

  • Fracturing of a hegemonic cultural canon.
    There’s no longer a manageable body of cultural knowledge that is widely understood to be what an educated person ought to know, and so whatever role philosophers played in introducing people to that is diminished. Some causes of this seem to be:

    • “Entertainment explosion”: the massive increase in a wider array of easily accessible opportunities for entertainment means there’s less of a shared culture. People have more options, a greater ability to exercise choice among them, and more of a capacity to easily create entertainment for others (social media).
    • Both good (anti-prejudicial) and bad (anti-judgment) forms of cultural egalitarianism means it is harder to make the case that the bits of culture philosophy focuses on are especially worth attention; the perceived value of informed cultural and personal criticism/judgment is declining.
  • Vocationalist creep.
    Universities seem to be increasingly sending the message that their chief aim is to prepare students for the job market, which is both a self-fulfilling prophecy and a self-destructive survival strategy.

    • It’s self-fulling in that it lends the reinforcing authority of the university itself to the instrumentalization of education. As universities increasingly understand themselves as handmaidens to the job market, aspects of education not obviously or directly connected to the employment are deprioritized. The number of students choosing a liberal arts major goes down, while the number of students choosing a business major go up (NCES).
    • It’s self-destructive in that it positions the university as an increasingly inefficient middleman between employee and employer. Already some universities are offering training modules by corporations as part of their curriculum. How long until Google Certifications are seen as a much better value than a BA, and more and more students skip the university altogether?
  • Technology.
    • Information is widely available, and in many domains more people have more opportunity to learn facts and skills outside institutional settings than ever before because of information technology. (People in general may not be especially skillful at sorting and assessing the abundance of information available to them, but it’s unclear how often one needs to apply such skills, given their aims.)
    • Skills taught at universities may increasingly thought of as unnecessary to learn because we can automate them. Search engines are ways of automating research, and now we have large language models (LLMs) for automating our writing. (What these means may lack, perhaps glaringly clear to some experts, is much less visible to their typical user than what said means deliver.)
    • Education has trouble competing for attention with all of the world’s entertainment and all of the friends of each student, which each student now, via their phone, has access to at all times. The entertainment explosion has led to reduced attention spans, resulting in professors lowering standards, in turn resulting in lower quality output from students, and so decreasing the educational value of college courses.
    • Artificial Intelligence (AI) will be a cheaper alternative teacher, probably starting with courses in which there is no physical equipment or activity. (AIs replacing course instructors may be the most conservative prediction regarding how AI will alter education.)

Additionally, there is no major growth in demand for philosophers outside of academia. While there are a number of success stories of philosophy PhDs finding great non-academic jobs (I should remind people of this page) many of these are one-offs which do not indicate burgeoning trends of particular industries finding themselves in need of a substantial number of philosophers. (AI may be a sector in which a lot of philosophers get hired but it is probably too early to tell; it is not clear that the increased demand in academia for philosophers working on AI-related topics means an increase in overall demand for philosophers, or merely a change in which areas of specialization experts are being sought.)

In light of these and other factors that may contribute to a lowered demand for philosophers, what, if anything should we do?

I acknowledge that some may argue that this is not a problem worth doing anything about. The status quo is far from perfect, after all, and change is inevitable. Yet I expect most people reading this—most philosophers—have several reasons for thinking that a diminished demand for philosophers is worth addressing, if possible. I’ll continue under the assumption that that’s correct.

In thinking about what to do, we should avoid the futile. We cannot stop or turn back technology. We cannot change the major economic institutions of society. Rather, we must be realistic about existing and likely technology and we must work within our economic institutions. As distasteful as it may seem to some of you, think of us philosophers as having a “product” we’re trying to sell. That product is philosophy. It comes in a variety of formats: courses, articles, books, advising, videos, podcasts, etc. What is our marketing strategy?

I’m not a marketing expert, so what follows is more a guess than anything else.

It seems that, fundamentally, our market is undergraduates. This is not because they’re the only consumers of philosophy, but they’re the consumers on which so much of our activities depend. At most institutions, being employed as a philosopher means (among other things) teaching philosophy to undergraduates; doing that affords some people the opportunity to engage in philosophical research. Undergraduate enrollments also affect, through multiple mechanisms over the long term, graduate enrollments, which also in turn affect the extent to which philosophy professors can focus on research. Further, it would seem reasonable to think that the number of undergraduates who take philosophy courses is related to the number of people in the general public who form a non-academic constituency for philosophy which is beneficial to philosophy politically and economically.

So we ought to focus on how philosophy and the places philosophy is “sold” (that is, colleges and universities) are “advertised” to that core market of current and prospective undergraduates. Universities and colleges are their own marketers, so we can ask whether we think their marketing strategy is effective and sustainable.

I don’t think it is. By focusing increasingly on conveying the message that they are ideal institutions for preparing students for jobs, universities and colleges are selling themselves short. Universities have so much more to offer than that, and businesses can and do train their new employees, anyway. Better for universities to more enthusiastically promote what they, compared to others, are especially well positioned to deliver. What is that? In short: self-improvement.

While job training makes you better for others, self-improvement makes you better, primarily, for yourself. Given the high concentration of self-obsession in our cultural atmosphere, this should be an easier sell than ever (even if it’s not easy). The idea that education is a form of self-improvement is an old one, but here’s a relatively recent version of it I’ve noted here before, from Talbot Brewer (UVA):

What happens in [college], when it’s in good working order, is a kind of intensification of a form of reflective self-cultivation that can and ought to be a continuous life activity. It is the stuff of a good life, not some mere instrumental means. It can be intertwined with, and can deepen, almost any subsequent life activity (including many forms of work and political engagement).

If universities trumpeted the value of “reflective self-cultivation” and spent as much energy advertising how good they are at producing opportunities for reflection and self-cultivation as they do on student employability, that could send a loud and valuable message to students. So I think that one thing we should do is encourage universities and colleges to better promote the distinctive value of philosophy and the study of the liberal arts more broadly.

But how do we get universities to take up the mission of sending that message? What you need are people in positions of power who care about sending that message. That’s us (but not just us: there are potential allies across a wide range of disciplines). And so it would serve philosophy well if more philosophers took up administrative positions at the colleges and universities. We don’t need philosopher kings, but philosopher deans and associate deans, philosopher provosts, and philosopher university presidents would be helpful.

This point was reinforced by Andy Cullison (Cincinnati) at the session, who also noted that there seems to be some resistance among philosophers towards taking up administrative positions. He recommended that the APA hold sessions about or with philosophers in administrative positions. He also urged that someone collect more data about the number of philosophy PhDs in college or university-level administrative positions (any volunteers?).

(Some recent examples were mentioned. My former colleague, Jennifer Frey, recently became the founding dean of the Honors College at the University of Tulsa, which features a curriculum focused on philosophical and other classic texts. Ann Cudd is the new president of Portland State University.)

I’ve sketched in rather broad strokes here both diagnosis and prescription. I’ll admit I’m not sure how feasible my suggestion is, or how much of a difference it might make. I’d be happy to hear you thoughts on it and the general situation we face. Your suggestions as to what ought to be done, if anything, are, as usual, welcome.


Related: “Against Reducing the Number of Philosophy PhDs

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Jason Chen
4 months ago

Thanks for the informative article. I agree with a lot of what you said, and I especially like the emphasis on self-cultivation.

To add on to that, I wonder if the message should also include the importance of critical thinking and civil discourse. People generally think they’re are valuable.

Another thought is this. I wonder if the target audience for this campaign should primarily be the parents rather than the students. I’m only speaking from my experience, but undergrads seem to be less likely to appreciate reflective self-cultivation, critical thinking, and civil discourse. So, if we can get the message to the parents, then perhaps it’ll have a bigger impact.

The last thought I had is regarding academic celebrities. I recently saw a Twitter post asking people who they thought was the best philosopher of our times, and almost none of the responses named who we would consider to be philosophers.

Relatedly, I’ve always thought that it was a shame that they aren’t any philosopher celebrities like there are in science. I can name three scientists off of the top of my head right now that are almost household names. The same should be true with philosophers.

Anyways, those are just my two cents. I am by no means an expert on this, and I’m sure others have thought more about it than I have.

ERW
ERW
Reply to  Jason Chen
4 months ago

I like the comment about philosophical celebrities. A Bertrand Russell would do wonders for the discipline. Despite all the talk about “public philosophy” a lot of it is not directed at the public, but an urbane subset who already know some philosophy.

The people presenting philosophy on YouTube or other social media sites are generally not philosophers. Which means a lot of it is wrong, shallow, or misinformed. I know part of it is technological illiteracy, but given the video essay has been a dominant form of video for a decade now, it surprises me that no professionals have an interest.

Ben M-Y
4 months ago

Thanks for posting on these important topics, Justin. I’ll add a smattering of loosely connected thoughts that cover a range of the issues your post touches on.

At my institution (and many others), almost all students come in having declared a major already. Of course, they can switch, but there are pressures not to–eg, added time to degree–and barriers to doing so–e.g., inability to use loan money on courses not in one’s degree plan. So, it seems to me that growing the ranks of philosophy majors requires outreach to high schoolers, and perhaps even younger grades. Philosophy is not taught at many high schools, and even if students have access to something like an Ethics Bowl team, this is a limited recruiting mechanism (though, to be clear, think it is a good one; we should expand the pool of tools at our disposal). Programs like P4C have important roles to play in our disciplinary outreach, in my view.

I wholeheartedly agree that universities are too focused on career placement, at the expense of what is here being referred to under the rubric of self-development. But even given the vocational focus, there are good reasons to major in philosophy. The average American will have something like 12 different jobs during their lifetime, and though it is difficult to define precisely what constitutes a career change, estimates put career changes at between 5 and 6 for the average American worker. If philosophy provides broad training in areas that equip one to shift careers (and even to make more informed decisions about when to change careers), then this may be cast as a benefit of philosophy in the context of career readiness. While philosophers would do well to continue to remind our colleagues, upper administration, legislators, and the general public that there is more to life than work (and that putting ourselves in contexts where we critically engage, in a good faith way, with opposing viewpoints is an important and declining part of civic life), we would also do well to remind them that there is more to one’s working life than the job(s) one’s undergraduate major prepares one for.

As regards philosophers in administration, I echo Andy’s call for data on this. I recently moved into a full-time administrative role myself. I never would’ve predicted this, but I love it. I also find that my day-to-day work is rewarding, in part, because it makes use of the skills I gained through my philosophical training and overlaps in many significant ways with things I read, think, and write about when doing philosophy. (It doesn’t even impede doing philosophy!) And it has the added benefit of putting these ideas into practice. I don’t think I’m in any way special. I think having philosophers in administrative roles is (generally, and with the obvious caveats) a healthy thing for an institution. I recall watching a webinar from the APA a while back where Jeanine Weekes Schroer made this same basic point very convincingly. Universities need more gadflies!

ADG
ADG
Reply to  Ben M-Y
4 months ago

“inability to use loan money on courses not in one’s degree plan.”

This is a huge deal for many small schools. At my institution, all undergraduates have to take a 1-semester intro to philosophy course–a historical survey–but few majors are required to take more. Thus, enrollment at the upper level courses has to compete with all the other upper level humanities courses for the couple of electives required in the degrees that require them.

Interestingly, this seems to imply that one of the ways to get more philosophy students, or even humanities in general, would be to advocate for the Dept. of Ed to relax this funding rule. Many of my students are taking 15 hours or fewer. They could easily take another class each semester, if they could afford it.

Nick
4 months ago

“Artificial Intelligence (AI) will be a cheaper alternative teacher, probably starting with courses in which there is no physical equipment or activity. (AIs replacing course instructors may be the most conservative prediction regarding how AI will alter education.)”

Been thinking about this a lot, since it has the potential to render all the other listed efforts moot in the long-term. But it is something we have a good chance of resisting if we organize. I think faculty at universities should try to collectively secure guarantees from admins that tenure lines will never be replaced with AI. Hollywood screenwriters just did something similar, and it isn’t clear to me why many of us can’t do the same at our home institutions.

It’s also worth noting that ASU is already plainning to develop an AI avatar “study buddy” for undergrads that will guide them through their studies, so the “reflective self-cultivation” branding actually isn’t sufficient on this point. In combination we should also aggressively promote the branding of university life as humanistic self-cultivation, i.e. done with other humans, which will not appeal to every institution but which may allow some to ride out the storm more effectively

I would be very interested in helping to form a cross-institutional coalition designed to get the ball rolling on this issue.

Fenner Tanswell
Fenner Tanswell
Reply to  Nick
4 months ago

The tech writer Cory Doctorow wrote a few days ago:

“That’s the true cost of all the automation-driven unemployment criti-hype: while we’re nowhere near a place where bots can steal your job, we’re certainly at the point where your boss can be suckered into firing you and replacing you with a bot that fails at doing your job.”

https://pluralistic.net/2024/01/15/passive-income-brainworms/

I think this applies to philosophy too, and the strategy is to keep reminding management that AI or LLMs distinctly cannot do our jobs.

Alex H
Reply to  Nick
4 months ago

If the profession can’t organize to prevent the bulk of teaching from being done by adjuncts, I am not that confident it can organize to prevent the bulk of teaching from being done by AIs (should they become plausible “adjuncts”).

Last edited 4 months ago by Alex H
Mike Archbold
Reply to  Nick
4 months ago

Keep in mind AI cannot make any sort of judgment beyond its training data or coding yet.

Mike Archbold
Reply to  Nick
4 months ago

Just to note though, in a cold blooded way, that there is no greater acid test of the success of AI than people afraid for their jobs. It used to be that people didn’t know what “AI” meant. Then people didn’t know what “AGI” meant. Times have changed. A “real” philosopher though would be tough to replace with AI, except for having the AI answer more mundate inquiries.

Preston Stovall
4 months ago

Thank you, Justin. I’ve been employed in Europe since 2017, and I’m not sure what to think about the state of the profession in the U.S. today, but I would have attended this meeting if it was more feasible to do so. If there’s a recording, I hope someone puts a link up. Here are some thoughts and questions; happy to have any of these questions answered (or to be advised as to where to turn for answers), and to be informed if I’m mistaken about something.

  1. The educational landscape in the U.S. underwent a marked expansion in the second half of the 20th century, as did many American institutions in the decades following the second world war. It might be worth our time to think systematically about what the profession should look like in the future, given what higher education as a whole will probably look like in the next decade. Universities are facing an “enrollment cliff”, owing to declining birthrates initiated by the recession of 2008. Combined with the fact that the value of higher education has apparently been eroding, for people as varied as working-class urban liberals and affluent conservatives, this suggests that the contraction in higher education will continue. That will put pressure on faculties to make the case for their continued existence. It’s easy to bristle at that thought, and the neo-liberal approach to higher education is partly to blame for the situation we’re in. At the same time, the brute demographic and reputational facts are such that, if the profession of philosophy is to thrive in the academy today, we need to articulate a conception of ourselves, and what we offer, that illustrates philosophy’s value. 
  2. During the period from the Civil War to the second world war, American philosophy underwent an expansion comparable to that which followed the second world war. During this first period of expansion, however, American philosophy was much more directly involved in the affairs of American civic life. William James was something of a celebrity on the lecture circuit, and Peirce and Dewey each published some of their most famous works in Popular Science Monthly. At the time, American philosophy offered American citizens something they found valuable – what could we offer them today? 
  3. How have U.S. philosophy departments changed during the period from the second world war to today? There’s no question that the influence of the analytic tradition in American philosophy came by way of a capture of the relevant institutions, particularly the philosophy departments at places like Harvard, Princeton, Columbia, and Chicago, and the leading journals, which put analytic philosophers in a position to take advantage of the expansion of U.S. higher education in the second half of the 20th century. My sense is that many Americans have little interest in that kind of philosophy, while it’s fairly easy to get them jazzed up about pragmatism and personalism.
  4. Whatever we decide about how to attract students to philosophy, that effort should probably be matched by collective interest in the state of the job market in academic philosophy today. Justin notes the decrease in job openings over the last 15 years, and it is not uncommon for open positions to receive over 300 applications – I know of one this year that was just under 400, and of one last year at over 700. How does that compare to the landscape in the 1940s, the 1960s, and the 1980s? Where were the PhDs coming from during these periods, what were placement rates like during these times, how frequently were first positions TT positions, and how long did people tend to stay on the market? Do we want a smaller number of tenured professors in stable positions, or a larger number of adjuncts working at many different places? There’s more I could say about this topic, but I suppose I’ve carried on enough.
current graduate student
current graduate student
4 months ago

If the demand for philosophers is decreasing, why do philosophy departments train philosophy PhD students for tenure-track jobs and academic work that may not exist when they go on the job market?

I think philosophy departments need to change their approach, and see two options. First, reduce the amount of people getting PhDs in philosophy. That’s pretty straightforward. But I like another option: train philosophy PhDs to do more than academic work. This may be difficult because often all the professors know about is academics. But what about allowing and encouraging a student to write papers and articles (or podcasts or social media posts) that are aimed at a general audience, instead of always aiming at academic journals? What about encouraging philosophy graduate students to learn things like computer programming or pedagogy or instructional design?

I do not see a tenure-track job in my future, or lots of academic publications. I love philosophy, but I want to write books for a different audience than academic philosophers. I would love for my dissertation not to be a strictly academic work, but to be a book that I can then submit for publication with non-academic publishers. I would like to increase pedagogy skills and perhaps even figure out other ways to teach philosophy beyond the part-time, low-wage jobs that are the only things I would get after graduation.

But I feel like I have to figure out my own path by myself, because my philosophy department is just preparing and training me for a job that doesn’t exist.

Caligula's Goat
Reply to  current graduate student
4 months ago

current grad student,

I think you catch the double-bind that graduate programs are facing and that bind also explains why your department can’t be the one that teaches you how to prepare for other employment.

Graduate programs are staffed almost entirely by people who have never worked outside of academia. There are exceptions, of course, (J.D.s with experience in the courtroom, bioethicists with clinical experience, etc) but these are almost all rare cases and almost none -barring perhaps the rare lab-physicist who goes on to do metaphysics- is going to be found in a “core” area of philosophy. Even in departments where they exist they’re not likely to be part of the bulk of faculty. 

Philosophy faculty really only have experience doing two things: teaching philosophy and writing philosophy (and some are only good at one of those things). So how is this group supposed to know how to help you do something that they don’t have any experience doing themselves? In the end, their advice would probably be worse than if you went to your university’s career center and worked with them to develop a Plan B. At least the folks in the career center will have some contacts in the private sector. For the same reason, your doing public philosophy is not something most of your grad professors can assess you for (most haven’t ever done it themselves) and public philosophy is not going to get you a job in the academy anyway (which, to be frank, I think isn’t a bad thing – I don’t want someone in my department that primarily does public philosophy at the expense of more detailed academic work even though I think public philosophy is important and that we should all do it).

I think what most faculty in graduate programs are doing (though please correct me everyone!) is asking some of their alumni who just happen to have made a successful career outside academia come and give talks. Those alumni, in my experience, probably found their success outside academia for idiosyncratic reasons (they’re good networkers, had another skill set that they were able to rely on, etc) and so those don’t tend to be super useful. 

One strategy that Philosophy departments at all levels can adopt that would do a bit better than the ad-hoc alumni approach is to rebuild their curricula and to rebuild them so that they are deeply, instead of superficially, focused on applied philosophy. Outside of a philosophy department (and maybe a religious studies department) very few people are ever going to care, or be interested in hiring, someone with knowledge of an abstract core area of philosophy (language, epistemology, metaphysics, even history) because it’s really hard to see how that knowledge gets them anything.

Applied philosophy is so much easier to see an upshot to: bioethics, AI ethics, tech ethics, business ethics, applied non-ideal political philosophy, etc.

Back when I was a graduate student, applied philosophy was definitely seen as “less than” in comparison to core areas. That sort of elitist view needs to die for philosophy to live and if it does die, then maybe we can make a broader push for industry employment for people (undergraduates and graduates) with strong applied philosophy experience.

Matt
Matt
Reply to  current graduate student
4 months ago

If the demand for philosophers is decreasing, why do philosophy departments train philosophy PhD students for tenure-track jobs and academic work that may not exist when they go on the job market?

The same applies to the vast majority of jobs. There is basically no guarantee of a position. Now frankly speaking, the job market in academia has always been this bad, but now it seems there’s new challenges that make things quite precarious.

Overall I think this comes down to the nature of higher education funding. Why is no one here advocating Bernie’s free college bill? Nationalization will solve a good deal of problems.

Preston Stovall
Reply to  Matt
4 months ago

Now frankly speaking, the job market in academia has always been this bad

What’s the evidence for this claim? In the OP, Justin notes that there were 547 TT positions advertised in 2012-13, with 332 anticipated for 2023-24. That’s a decrease of nearly 40% in 10 years. Looking farther into the past, we have to take into consideration the growth in PhD granting institutions since WWII, and the adjunctification of the job market in the last few decades, with the result that more people are staying longer on the market in competition with greater numbers of people for fewer TT jobs.

I asked for data on any of this upthread. If you could point us in that direction, I’d appreciate it.

Derek Bowman
4 months ago

1. One of the difficulties with this proposal is that universities can’t credibly market value claims to students and families that they don’t believe themselves. My former employer makes lots of claims to students about the value of a liberal arts education to their self-cultivation, requiring plenty of humanities core classes. But they show how little they actually value that education when they choose to continue staffing many of those classes with poorly paid adjuncts.

2. Related to 1, it’s hard to sell students and families on the importance of the education we offer for self-cultivation when those of us who are purported experts in these disciplines can’t do better for ourselves and for one another than to tie ourselves to academia where we jockey for position and compete for scraps.

3. “While there are a number of success stories of philosophy PhDs finding great non-academic jobs… many of these are one-offs…” Yes, this is very important to keep in mind when we talk about all the many possible paths for philosophy PhDs. This is part of what motivated me to do the interviews I did at http://www.freerangephilosophers.com . There are lots of things individual philosophy PhDs can do, but there is no general ‘path.’

4. If the problem is one of less demand for philosophy PhDs, why isn’t the obvious answer to reduce supply? Related to 2, why can’t those of us who received this broadening education and self-cultivation find ways to create other social and cultural homes for serious philosophical study? Is the university really the only place in our culture to do that?

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
4 months ago

I think the biggest cause is economic. From the perspective of maximizing earnings, there are almost always going to be more rewarding options than philosophy.

However, I believe that another important cause is that we live in a time when questioning what you believe is particularly unpopular. One symptom of this is now rare it is for someone to cross the political aisle on an issue these days.

It’s hard to say what we can to improve our numbers. I don’t think a “star” philosophy would be very helpful. If they said anything substantive and socially relevant, and weren’t just parroting popular orthodoxy, they would likely be demonized from multiple sides.

Kenny Easwaran
Reply to  Hey Nonny Mouse
4 months ago

I think Agnes Callard has done a good job at becoming a popular and in-demand commentator in the press, despite (or because of?) being demonized from multiple sides.

Tom
Tom
4 months ago

Self-cultivation is great, and I love philosophy. To be honest, though, I myself wonder whether the self-cultivation that philosophy provides is worth the price tag of the degree. Even more than the price, I wonder whether doing a philosophy major is worth the opportunity cost. The salary boost some majors provide just strikes me as worth more than the self-cultivation that philosophy provides. ‘Tis better to own a home and never worry about long-term unemployment than to know oneself a little better.

I suspect that there’s a lot of motivated reasoning going on in philosophy. Everyone is trying to figure out how to justify philosophy departments. Not enough are asking whether they’re really justified.

An adjunct
An adjunct
4 months ago

Do you think a typical adjunct can credibly promote the value of self-improvement via philosophy? Do you think a typical academic employer can credibly tout its support for the self-improvement of its adjunct employees?

How do the employment practices condoned/ignored by permanent employees contribute to an institution’s marketing endeavors? What do students or nonacademics learn about the value of philosophy when they can see how philosophers work and therefore for the most part live?

Derek Bowman
Reply to  An adjunct
4 months ago

Well said. This is part of why I couldn’t bring myself to return to adjuncting when my VAP ran out, even though in my case the alternative was an extended period of unemployment. If any of the claims I would be making to my students about the value of the education I was offering them were true, I ought to be able to able to make better choices than doubling down on a career path that was heading nowhere and devoting my energy to an institution that showed in start material terms how little it valued my contributions.

Animal Symbolicum
4 months ago

Thanks for all of this, Justin.

I probably harp on this too much, so I apologize for playing the broken record, but I do think it’s true and of some consequence:

The claim that philosophy is good for X is different from the claim that philosophy-as-currently-instituted is good for X.

The cases for each claim will be different. And if X = self-cultivation, the case for the first claim is probably easier to make.

The idea that philosophy is good for self-cultivation is greatly appealing to me. But even I, a believer, am skeptical that philosophy-as-currently-instituted is good for self-cultivation. So I wonder how skeptical the average parent or their undergraduate child will be.

Last edited 4 months ago by Animal Symbolicum
Travis
Travis
4 months ago

A big issue, at least in the US, is the cost of higher education. Self improvement is great, but is it going to cover the costs of your student loans?

If the cost of education is high, of course colleges and universities are going to focus on jobs when advertising, and of course students are going to be inclined to pick majors they perceive as career oriented.

Louis Zapst
4 months ago

If I were counseling someone already interested in philosophy and about to enter college in the USA, I might advise them to consider philosophy as a second major or a minor, but never as a standalone major. The value of philosophy in a joint major can be seen in how that works at Oxford where there is no undergraduate degree course in philosophy alone. This approach seems even more prudent for students at the many non-prestigious universities in the USA where a standalone philosophy degree is unlikely to yield even a fellowship acceptance from a mediocre philosophy graduate program, much less a well-paying job.
Philosophy as an essential part of educational self-cultivation (Bildung) is a wonderful idea, but we obviously don’t need to assume that everyone so cultivated needs to make philosophy their vocation. How many vocational philosophers do we really need?

Robert Kippes
Robert Kippes
4 months ago

I think your suggestion about marketing philosophy as the best education for self-cultivation is good. But I’m not convinced more philosophers serving as deans would necessarily work, though I don’t think it will hurt. Many philosophers are defenders of the status quo. There’s often no (at least explicit) pushback against the trend to increase the number of precarious positions (lecturer and adjunct) compared to tenure-track ones. And there’s often no explicit condemnation of the commodification of education. The more education is eaten by capitalism the less value philosophy will have for the institution. You’re right it is a self-destructive survival strategy to rely on marketing education for the sake of jobs. But capitalism has always been nihilistic in this way.

So, in short, I think you’re right about trying to convince deans and administrators of the value philosophy can play in advocating self-cultivation. It also wouldn’t hurt to have philosophers serve in the administration. One way I think philosophy departments have underplayed their hand is integrating philosophy into other departments. Shouldn’t students who study science be required to take one course in epistemology? Nursing students take medical ethics? Business students take business ethics? And so on? Philosophy departments could also develop philosophy degrees oriented to “applied philosophy” in the same way one can get a philosophy degree as a PPL degree or something similar.

While I think these ideas are worth a shot I don’t think they will work long-term. If we’re doing our jobs as educators we are also teaching students to question the very society we are supposed to convince administrators we are preparing them to enter. Philosophy is inherently political in that we don’t pursue knowledge for its own sake but for the sake of living the good life. And doing that requires questioning what we take most for granted. So until capitalism isn’t commodifying every aspect of society no plan will work in the end.

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
4 months ago

I suppose that until we can come to some consensus on why philosophy is important, we aren’t going to come to a consensus on what to tell people regarding why they should be doing philosophy.

Self-cultivation sounds good, but what exactly are we cultivating?

I came to philosophy to find the answers to fundamental questions, but philosophers still don’t agree on the answers. I think at least that philosophy has given me more coherent and better justified opinions on fundamental questions than I had before.

Meme
Meme
Reply to  Hey Nonny Mouse
4 months ago

“Self-cultivation sounds good, but what exactly are we cultivating?”

Um, the self?

(Joking)

Michel
4 months ago

On the cultural canon:

“Both good (anti-prejudicial) and bad (anti-judgment) forms of cultural egalitarianism means it is harder to make the case that the bits of culture philosophy focuses on are especially worth attention; the perceived value of informed cultural and personal criticism/judgment is declining.”

It may be worth pointing out that we do have a subfield of philosophy that engages directly and explicitly with the cultural canon (including in its fragmented state): aesthetics.

But it’s not a subfield that sees much hiring, and it’s increasingly rarely covered even at the graduate level in the US. And that’s too bad, because it’s really quite popular with students, and a specialist can offer quite a wide range of courses which focus on different aspects of that fragmented cultural canon. But I guess we’ve decided that’s a luxury, or something.

Bharath Vallabha
4 months ago

I am all for marketing. But focusing on marketing makes it seem like the issue is how to attract people by focusing on how wonderful academic philosophy can be. Speaking as someone who bought into the marketing in my classes and who did the marketing when I was a professor, the question I often think about is: is the product being marketed actually flawed? Is it like marketing cars knowing the manufacturing isn’t up to standards dictated by law? I think it is exactly like that. Anyone who markets academic philosophy without being explicit about its problems and how to address them is selling a flawed product.

But how do you market it while being explicit about its problems? By treating academic philosophy as being no different from any other institution – inside or outside academia. The promise of academic philosophy isn’t a method or even a subject called “philosophy” (which in its current academic form was only created with the rise of modern research university 200 years ago). If there is a promise which is to be marketed, it lies in the commitment to think self-consciously in the academic philosophy context about the same problems everyone faces in their lives and in whatever institutions they are a part of. The best way to show the commitment to that promise (which is the best form of marketing) is to be loud and open about the problems in the profession, and to let outsiders see them clearly and honestly – the more honestly the problems are shown, the more inspiring can be the commitment to addressing the problems.

Do I think academic philosophy will do this? I don’t have much hope, and think people should be organizing outside academia. In my experience it actually isn’t true that academic philosophy is more committed to rethinking itself than any other institution. There are a lot of passionate, smart, inspiring academic philosophers, but there isn’t the required honesty. It’s no different than on Wall Street or government or health care, etc. The “best” doctors might be the richest ones with the fanciest jobs, but they might not be the ones who care about the health of their patients the most. Same with philosophy professors. Is there any reason to think the philosophy professors with the best, most secure jobs and the most resources care the most about philosophy as self-cultivation, or they care about marketing philosophy? There isn’t, because those academics are the one most insulated from the broader public. One of the best things that can happen to academic philosophy is for its richest departments to start to feel the burden of defending themselves – which is surely coming. And when that happens, those departments have been so insulated for so long, they will be the least capable of giving coherent, moving, inspiring reasons for their existence and why philosophy matters.

Eric Steinhart
4 months ago

Either we make a case based on employment and student return on investment, or we don’t make any case at all.

Legislators in both red and blue states are increasingly demanding that public-funded colleges and universities measure the employment of graduates, and student return on investment. Did college get you a better job? Private colleges, competing with the publics for students, but at much higher price points, increasingly face the same pressure. And rankings like US News and World Report explicitly include student return on investment (e.g. in their social mobility metrics). Colleges routinely measure all sorts of economic outcomes of their students, and they advertise them loudly.

Either we figure out how philosophy contributes to the global economy, and to direct employment and greater social mobility, or academic philosophy dies. My generation (I’m in my 60s) failed to do this. Either the next generation figures it out, or there won’t be a third generation. I think this can be done, there are good ways to save academic philosophy. But I also think saving academic philosophy will require a near total restructuring of the norms of the field.

Jobs are nice
Jobs are nice
Reply to  Eric Steinhart
4 months ago

Strongly agreed. The best pitch I know is that Philosophy is a bit like mathematics, in that it teaches a generic skillset (rigour, creativity, being at ease with abstraction, etc.) that combines well with other subjects. While very few people become mathematicians, everyone can benefit from studying it and applying it. Same with Philosophy.

Which is why our place in programs like the PPE makes so much sense.

I would treat the self-cultvation as a great perk, not as the main thing for most.

Laura
Reply to  Eric Steinhart
4 months ago

Doesn’t a Philosophy major already tend to improve one’s ability to find acceptably remunerative employment? The problem I’ve found when presenting this evidence to the Higher Decision Makers is (1) they don’t believe it, (2) they don’t care because the evidence doesn’t fit the predetermined plan to trim and consolidate areas they feel can be easily targeted, and (3) most importantly, they do not understand that career preparation usually is not a matter of fitting a particular shape into an existing slot of the same shape. Most people do not end up doing the specific thing for which they took a college major, and if they do, the nature of that work evolves over time. Many jobs that are most in-demand today did not exist ten or twenty years ago, as things for which colleges could have prepped students with great specificity.

In short, if what we do in Philosophy courses is edifying and makes students more skilled in ways that end up being useful to employers later, then we have done what they needed. The problem is that we do not have a specific name for our widget that fits into a like-named slot, like pre-nursing and nursing jobs or accounting and jobs as an accountant.

Eric Steinhart
Reply to  Laura
4 months ago

There’s some oldish data about how philosophy majors do well mid-career. But, as you are perhaps suggesting, that’s not the kind of data admins want.

The usual metrics stakeholders are interested in are usually 6 months from graduation. Stakeholders here are legislators, rankers like US News, parents, and colleges themselves.

A larger problem is that philosophy majors are so few that they don’t change the overall metrics of a school.

And almost nobody enrolls as an undergrad at a college because of its philosophy program. So it’s useless for recruitment.

And since few philosophy majors get rich, they don’t make for good high-donor alums.

Even worse, national higher-ed consulting groups (like EAB) list almost no career outcomes for philosophy (when we got our EAB analysis, they listed “religious counselor” as the only career outcome).

You wrote: “if what we do in Philosophy courses is edifying and makes students more skilled in ways that end up being useful to employers later, then we have done what they needed.” I wish non-philosophers thought that way. They don’t.

Laura
Reply to  Eric Steinhart
4 months ago

Exactly. We struggle even to communicate with our own career center about which interviews and internships might be appropriate for Philosophy majors! One thing US Philosophy faculty could do better across the board is explicitly linking the major to careers and jobs anyone can recognize as desirable outcomes. Much of this problem is beyond our collective control but that’s one of the things we could improve to change some narratives. I wish the APA could engage more effectively with these external groups that assign “career outcomes”, like the one you mention. We need backup in order to successfully claim our graduates can do what we know they can. My own anecdotal evidence of alums with six figure insurance and technology industry salaries, or leadership of non-profits and small businesses, is not very persuasive. Established pathways or links between curriculum A and job outcome B have to be very clear to admins and other audiences.

In keeping with what you said above, our legislators and admins here care about the jobs students get a month before or after graduation; what happens across a professional life span is less relevant. (It’s similar with learning itself: if it cannot be captured in a numerical metric a week later, then it’s as if the learning didn’t happen). I find it interesting that the career center, local HR dept and chamber of commerce have no idea that Philosophy majors are one of the most successful on the GMAT and in Business school, perhaps because they were trained on logical arguments and had to write about difficult things. Our students run loops around typical business majors – why is it still such a secret? I’m not a marketer (I am trying my best though!) and those who do market our degrees have no interest in this evidence (and if they did, the powerful Business school is not interested, and is already annoyed that we presume to train the pre-law majors). This is where groups like the APA need to be trumpeting our virtues more aggressively.

Last edited 4 months ago by Laura
Billy
4 months ago

I keep hoping — maybe in vain — that interest in English, history, theology, and philosophy rides waves up and down in American society and that, since 2008, we’ve just been in a pronounced, anti-humanities wave down, one that will eventually go back up. Is there any reason to think that my hope is well grounded (i.e., not in vain)?

I’m asking because, while we can talk about strategies and things we can do, I think these will only have a minor impact. The major forces in play seem bigger (to me) than anything we can control. I’m not saying the minor strategies aren’t worth pursuing. We should fight for the role of philosophy in the core or gen ed curriculum at colleges and universities. We should build minors and majors that involve philosophy. We should try to make inroads into high school. We should try to find ways for PhD students in philosophy to do well in non-academic careers. We should try to get philosophers into administrative roles. And so on. But all of this seems to me merely to be doing work on the periphery or the edges of the matter. The central problem seems to me much deeper and involves not only philosophy, but the humanities in general. And I do think that, insofar any moment or point in time could be picked out here, 2008 was that moment. For context, I’m 45 and graduated from my PhD program in 2009. So maybe I was overly affected by the financial crisis in 2007 – 2009 (or, for short, 2008). Maybe older philosophers can put the history of receptiveness to humanities (or philosophy in particular) in perspective. I guess that is part of what I am asking for here…

Preston Stovall
Reply to  Billy
4 months ago

Look up the enrollment cliff in higher education. Even if we successfully address the crisis the humanities are facing in terms of their perceived credibility and value today, we’re liable to be facing significant enrollment shortfalls beginning in the near future.

Laura
4 months ago

Although expertise may not be highly enough valued these days, it still matters and universities still help to provide it. Philosophy offers training in a particular flexible kind of theoretical expertise, applicable to the needs of many different jobs and careers. We should want more such non-specialists who gain, in philosophy training, an excellent foundation for developing further expertise once they are hired. Other disciplines train more narrow specialists who may find it hard to adapt to the different needs of the jobs they actually hold later in life. Ours has a unique value in being versatile. We already know that Philosophy students often succeed in law school but it is a better kept secret how well they do in a range of other disciplines in graduate and professional school, or careers straight out of undergrad. The intellectual training we provide is valuable and adaptable, and I only wish this truth was better recognized and appreciated by those who move the levers. Many of us are trying to communicate it.

Lynn Chiu
4 months ago

Just wanted to point out that I’m an admin philosopher doing the good work from the Corporate Communications service unit of a large university in Europe. It’s an admin position, though I’m not a dean/president, etc. We are in charge of university messaging and we participate in the University’s developmental plans. Please count us as admin-philosophers as well!

Last edited 4 months ago by Lynn Chiu
Off the cuff
Off the cuff
4 months ago

Philosophy suffers from a variation on the public/private distinction. People put universities in the public realm, so schools should focus on Gradgrindian ‘facts’ and skills for business or a livelihood. They see philosophy as self-cultivation, which is quasi-religious and therefore something to pursue in private. The professionalization of philosophy pulled it toward the public sphere but largely failed.

Jonathan Kendrick
4 months ago

I think, at least in the US, this boils down to a structural problem: university is too expensive. Despite coming from a very poor household, I got a very large scholarship to go to my state’s flagship university, which was in my hometown and I lived with my mom. I had basically no living expenses. As a result, I faced no pressures to study something practical. So, I got degrees in philosophy and math. If I had gone massively into debt though, I probably would have felt the urge to major in CS or something like that. If we want the American academy to survive, we have to do something about the exorbitant cost of higher-ed. Academics need to start lobbying both for free public higher-ed, and also for caps on wasteful spending on administrator salaries and fancy new amenities.

Gorm
Reply to  Jonathan Kendrick
4 months ago

Jonathan
You are absolutely right. I saw my state college spend more and more on things like a hockey rink in order to attract students (and parents) when they were on campus tours. There was such a need to aggressively court students and their parents, and this is very costly.

Maria
Maria
4 months ago

In the United States, at least, the people who shape (or have disproportionate power to shape) disciplinary norms in philosophy are by and large unrepresentative of the profession as a whole. There is an enormous disconnect between the professional culture these mandarins foster (and into which all of us, to greater or lesser extent, are enculturated) and the workaday reality of being a philosophy instructor / lecturer / professor in this country. The overwhelming majority of philosophers who are fortunate enough to have academic positions of some kind or another work at teaching-centric institutions that don’t give a single solitary shit about their latest publication in (insert highly-ranked journal here). Their *departments* might, but at a time when belonging to a philosophy department is itself becoming a rare luxury, this is just further evidence of the disconnect: it makes zero sense for non-elite philosophy programs to continue to make decisions (including hiring decisions) and mold departmental cultures more generally on the basis of what people at MIT or even UC Riverside think about “the philosophy profession,” precisely because administrators at institutions that house these programs don’t share those sentiments, or are actively hostile toward them. This is anecdotal, of course, but my experience over the course of the last 25 years has been that, in various ways and for various reasons, teaching (and, really, anything else beyond scholarship) is desperately under-emphasized and under-valued within the professional culture promoted by the mandarins. Teaching is often regarded as a secondary concern, at best, and is generally irrelevant for purposes of garnering the relevant sort of acclaim and recognition amongst one’s peers in the wider profession. It’s not hard to see why this phenomenon is (or could be) self-destructive: if the vast majority of academic philosophers any more are kept around principally (if not exclusively) for purposes of teaching gen ed courses and humanities electives, and if those same philosophers have internalized a professional culture that devalues teaching, a not insignificant number of those philosophers will end up being shitty (or simply disengaged / indifferent) teachers, which makes it all the easier for institutions to show them the door (or not invite them in in the first place). Also, to the extent that the mandarins really care about the ongoing evisceration of philosophy outside their own rarefied domains, I can’t help but think that this is motivated principally by self-interest, at least in a large and sufficiently representative number of cases. Why? Because the continued existence of their fiefdom depends on a steady flow of rubes to serve as renters and serfs in their doctoral programs, either as graduate students or as precarious faculty. Once that river dries up, they stand to find themselves in the same situation as 99.9% of philosopher teachers, who struggle to maintain any kind of research program because they’re teaching 9-12 hours of undergraduate philosophy courses per semester. These people are completely divorced from reality and I don’t understand why people give so much credence to what they think.

Eric Steinhart
Reply to  Maria
4 months ago

You’re absolutely right. This is a serious problem, about which the APA doesn’t care in the least. This disconnect will destroy our profession.

The Doctor
The Doctor
4 months ago

Would you share the images above in the ‘Value of Philosophy’ section of the webpage?

Patrick Lin
4 months ago

The latest article about the value of philosophy in business:

“Unlocking the Power: Why You Should Consider Hiring Philosophy Graduates”
https://www.rollingstone.com/culture-council/articles/unlocking-power-why-you-should-consider-hiring-philosophy-graduates-1234956773