by Daniel A. Kaufman

What could the election of Donald Trump possibly have to do with the plight of academic philosophy?   Well, nothing … and everything.

First, though, regarding philosophy’s plight.  We’re in trouble, but unfortunately, our leadership seems not to realize it.  Or if they do, they don’t care.  Or are too confused to know how to address it.  You decide which is worse.  There’s no good version of this story.

What leadership?  Well, philosophy, as a discipline, doesn’t have a leadership, per se.  By “leadership,” I mean a combination of the most prominent members of our profession, at our most prestigious colleges and universities and top programs, and those who run the American Philosophical Association.  The two groups overlap to a substantial degree, insofar as there are few people who have been or are currently in charge of the Association, at least at the national level, who aren’t and haven’t been from these sorts of institutions.

What plight?  Well, there are several.  Most significantly, philosophy programs, across the country, are under threat of merger, diminishment – i.e. elimination of the major – or elimination altogether.  The ostensible reason is what in the academic business is called “low-completion,” meaning that philosophy departments’ graduation rates are low, not because philosophy students wash out before graduation, but because  of the small number of philosophy majors.  This need not mean low enrollments: philosophy courses are typically bundled into General Education distribution requirements, which means that for the typically small size of a philosophy faculty, an awful lot of credit-hours are being produced.  But a college or university need not sustain an entire department and major and minor programs – and all of the expenses that come with them – for Gen Ed service.  And I trust that I don’t need to explain why few people choose to major in philosophy, given the terrifying economic and labor prospects with which young millennials and Generation Z are faced.

A second significant plight concerns, as it were, the supply-side.  There is a prodigious, I would say obscene surplus of professional philosophers.   I am, at this moment, chairing a search committee – my third … or is it my fourth? – charged with finding a replacement for one of our retiring faculty, and we have over 250 applicants for the job.  And we’re just a run-of-the-mill, undistinguished, public university in the lower Midwest – the shi-shi places are getting double that many applicants per job.  Yet, the graduate programs keep admitting students and pumping out new philosophy Ph.D.’s, regardless.  It’s a human and moral disaster.

If the leadership, as I have defined it, cares about any of this, I see no evidence of it.  And why would they?  Their departments aren’t the ones in trouble.  The liberal arts and humanities are doing just fine at places like Stanford and Duke and Johns Hopkins and NYU.  As for caring about what happens to all those poor jerks who find themselves wandering around the country with a brand-new Ph.D.  and no job prospect in sight, why should they?  Putting a moratorium on or even a temporary halt to new admissions to graduate programs means that those belonging to our leadership will be deprived of cheap labor; that they won’t be able to maintain their 2-2 or even cushier teaching loads; that they may have to teach introductory level courses and even worse, grade papers and exams themselves.   (For those who may be unaware of what the normal state of affairs is for professional philosophers at all the un-fancy places around the country, standard teaching loads are 3-3 or 4-4, we may have between 150 and 200 students per semester, half to two-thirds of our teaching may be in introductory level courses, and we do all of our own grading … every last bit of it.  Oh, and we are still required to publish, too.)

But you’ve heard that professors, in general, lean to the Left, politically, and liberal arts and humanities professors even more so.  (1)  The data bears it out, and anecdotally, I can count the number of conservative philosophy professors I know on one hand.  It’s not as if philosophy professors are some cabal of rapacious corporatists or egoistical Randians.  You would think, then, that the leadership would care about these things: about the plight of struggling programs; of faculty who belong to what is the academic equivalent of the working class; and of vulnerable young people, just starting their careers.

Not to worry.  Our leadership remains committed to progressive causes.  Not, perhaps, the ones I’ve been discussing, but … well … others.  In fact, the APA has just announced the projects and initiatives they will be funding this year, and they are as follows:

  1. Ethics and Aesthetics of Stand-Up Comedy
  2. Gender in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
  3. Mexican Indigenous Knowledge, Chican@ Identity, and Philosophy for Children.
  4. Non-Academic Placement Data and Analysis
  5. Prejudice: An Interdisciplinary Workshop
  6. Second Annual Undergraduate Women in Philosophy Conference
  7. Workshop for Early Career Women in Medieval and Renaissance Philosophy

‘Chican@’ (Initiative 3) is not a typo, though researching it made me wish that it was.  Apparently, it’s just intolerable to some people that words like ‘Chicano’ and ‘Chicana’ carry specifically gendered connotations.  After all, as we now know, there are at least fifty-seven genders if not more, which means that, clearly, ‘Chicano’ and ‘Chicana’ are not only insufficient but downright discriminatory; bigoted, even.  ‘Chican@’ solves this terrible and pressing problem.  Indeed, whole university departments have adopted this spelling in naming their programs, like the University of Wisconsin, which is proud to house the “Department of Chican@ and Latin@ Studies.”  (3)  The fact that it is unpronounceable, while perhaps making things “complicated,” (according to one faculty member), is apparently not enough to give pause. (4)

In case you don’t find gendered words sufficiently concerning, the APA is also committed to support those who want to pore over the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, so as to “provid[e] statistical measures of female representation in authorship and rates of citation, investigating patterns of citation for potential biases.”  (Initiative 2) That doesn’t scratch your progressive itch enough?  Our leadership is also funding a conference devoted to examining “aspects of identity in stand-up comedy, such as race, ethnicity, ability, gender, sexuality, ability, age, and/or class,” as well as the “ethics of heckling [and] hostility.”  (Initiative 1)  Of course, given much more of that sort of thing, no standup comedian in his right mind is ever going to set foot on a college campus, and in fact, many already refuse to do so … and they’re not conservatives. (5)

The list reads like a right-wing parody of liberal academics, and this brings me to my last – and first – point: the connection between the plight of academic philosophy and the election of Donald Trump.  It’s no secret that many political analysts have attributed Trump’s election at least partly to a backlash against progressive excesses and to identity-politics in particular; to the fact that a good portion of the United States, especially the part living in so-called “flyover country,” is still quite socially conservative, and to the effect on such people of a constant drumbeat of gay marriage, anti-police activism and the like.  Indeed, I have done so myself, in these very pages.  But there’s another significant dimension to this and that is a perception of terrible triviality.  We have tens of millions of non-college-educated, working people who have no idea how they are supposed to make a living in what is rapidly becoming a post-industrial country.  And yet, the Democrats in the last election gave the impression that as far as they were concerned, the really pressing issue of our day is what to do about transgender people, who need to use the toilet.

Transgender people make up about .3% of the population, (6) while some 60% of Americans have less than a bachelor’s degree, and some 40% have no education beyond high school.  (7)  The wild disparity between those numbers is worth meditating upon, for they explain the  impression of elites fiddling, while Rome burns.  The Democrats worry about transgender toilet protocols, while Flint and Detroit disintegrate.  The philosophy leadership worries about gendered words and the number of women cited in the SEP, while philosophy departments around the country collapse.  And as is always the case in such situations, it’s not the elites themselves who suffer the worst of Rome burning, protected, as they are in their towers of ivory and steel.  It’s the rest of us sad sacks down below who do.  And just as Hillary Clinton and her circle will do just fine, no matter how many elections they lose, so the philosophers at the Stanfords, Dukes, and NYUs will do just fine, no matter how many undistinguished philosophy programs are gutted or get the axe.









18 responses to “Provocations”

  1. dmf

    had the pleasure of hearing this address not long ago:

  2. brodix


    How much of this is just bouncing along the bottom of a rut of irrelevance and conformity that few had problems with when a decent living could be made at it? How much has philosophy really tried any fresh thinking, as opposed to beating the same, increasingly arcane horses to death? I think I’ve offered up some different ways of looking at things, from time to money and they don’t spark much interest. How about just politics; Will anyone ever step back and see liberal and conservative are two sides of the same coin? Yes, we need social freedoms, but we need civil and cultural order as well. Are any philosophers ever going to actually look at the big picture and not just nitpick over details, like the whole world full of specialists out there?

  3. Good Gods, that list read like an indictment or a joke straight out of the Onion.

    I looked at the link about them and to be “fair” they are small grants. Then again, is that really the best the APA had as requests for grants? Or what they *thought* were the best grants?

    More bizarre to me than the use of “Chican@” in #3 was the added dimension of “Philosophy for Children”. How did that get lumped in with Latino oriented projects? And really what concern is there for lack of philosophy for children? They are still learning the ropes.

    If it is any consolation, handing out advanced degrees in all sort of fields, including STEM fields like I am in, is going on without concern for its impact on the employment of students (or those already in the field). Neuroscience is glutted as is molecular biology. Sure there are plenty of jobs, but mostly at lower levels compared to the MScs and PhDs on the market.

    This is a systemic problem with education as a profit-driven enterprise without any connection (or regulation) from the market. It really wouldn’t matter so much if education was viewed as a “good’ which society funded regardless of final career, but with such costs it really should matter.

    TBH I was surprised to see transgender as high as 0.3%. I suppose that shouldn’t lower the importance of gaining philosophical analysis on the concept of gender. My worry is whether it is analysis… or politics.

  4. Dan,
    yes, I saw some of this happening at my graduate English program is the late ’80s. Back then, however, everyone thought the baby boom of the ’80s would bring pressure on government and other resources to flood money into education… which never happened. But of course if it had, then all sorts of research could be funded.

    What’s philosophy’s excuse? I don’t think it has one. I think the problem runs deeper than that. I remember – again in the ’80s – when Cognitive Science was all the rage (and some in the philosophy department at my grad school were discussing the possibility of phasing out the last of traditional philosophy courses in favor of it), there was a distinct lack of interest in preserving a practice of philosophy, as somehow irrelevant in the new era of neurosciences and AI. This at a time when philosophy departments were getting cut at most of the State University colleges.

    I mean, what is it about some philosophers? They seem to delight in the demise of their own passion.

    As to the larger issue you raise here… I’ve actually noted on a number of science blogs, a complete failure to realize what the election of Donald Trump means for intellectuals and intellectual pursuits in education. George W. was an uneducated, ignorant man; but concerning those things he did not know about, he did not care, and just ignored. Trump and some of his people are openly hostile to education and the sciences – we may have a member of Cabinet who believes the pyramids of Egypt were built by the Biblical Joseph to house grain, for heaven’s sake!* If anyone thinks this Administration will be ‘business as usual’ for any form of theoretical research, they will be sadly disappointed.

    *The implication of this belief is that studies in archeology, and history are simply part of some grand conspiracy against ‘the true faith,’ which Creationists have long charged of biology..

  5. What a list! Not all items reach the same level of self-parody but you have to wonder if there is any easy way back to planet Earth from here. The main redeeming item for me is philosophy for children, but what it’s doing tacked on to the other topics in item 3 is a mystery to me.
    I don’t believe the world needs thousands of academic philosophers berating each other over interpretations of this or that piece of arcana. What we do need are millions of young – and old – people with sophisticated BS detectors given the unfettered access we all have to ever-more dubious sources of information nowadays.
    The ingredients of this detector will include insights from psychology, sociology and linguistics. If philosophy has a contribution to make that doesn’t require a PhD in the works of Wittgenstein to understand, it’s time it stepped up.

  6. That piece is excellent. Thank you.

    I myself argued against reducing philosophy to “general education” on spurious claims of cultivating general skills.

  7. dmf

    my pleasure, thanks I’ll take a look
    a related line of thought @

  8. mpboyle56

    Kaufman is dead on re: priorities. The tired old economic assurances based on the Theory of Comparitive Advantage, Human Capital Theory, etc. clearly have difficulty working for First World nations in the era of globalization that has emerged in the last few decades. Hence why Trump won the Rust Belt and the election. Democrats, along with a compliant media, though they could punt on this, ignore Sanders, and crown Hillary. They still have not faced the reality of the election. The APA is, as Dan K. notes, seemingly equally disconnected, with consequences for lower tier institutions. An important and timely Provocations piece.

  9. Jake Z.

    I think philosophy has been seen as trivial by the general public before the identity swing. Gettier cases are just as embarassing.

  10. I disagree entirely.

  11. Dan, Philosophy suffers from the fact that it has no career path outside of universities. If that is the only career path, then why teach it in your average university, why not let the elite universities supply the very small market? Alternatively we could see philosophy as teaching conceptual skills and forms of understanding that are widely valuable and valued, though not often encountered. As part of that approach, philosophy could be promoted at the school level, which in turn would create a career path similar to that enjoyed by many other disciplines (literature, history, biology, geography, maths, etc). That would provide a part of the rationale for teaching philosophy at university level, a rationale that the APA could promote. It is what is done in some parts of the world, though not as it happens in the US.

    But it seems that you rule out that option. Having now read your interesting essay from October last year (thanks for the link), I can see you have better reasons for your views than the awful arguments put forward in the Aeon article that you describe as excellent. Your views go deep into the history of philosophy, so there’s no point in debating them here. I just hope others won’t feel as pessimistically about these matters as you do, because in my experience philosophy has much to contribute to our collective education, and (though you disagree) some of what it can contribute is of considerable practical value. The best proof of this is the many students and graduates who say so. Philosophy also has “gratuitous” value, as you rightly emphasise.

  12. marc levesque



    Not my concern but I would have thought the ‘a’ surrounded by ‘O’ would have been rejected, though I do like the @ look, seemed simple to me, I pronounced it Chicana without thinking, and by the way French gender rules, official or not, are very complicated in comparison.

    “After all, as we now know, there are at least fifty-seven genders if not more”

    Well, considering biological sex isn’t a clear either or, gender being driven culturally to a great extent, and the inclusion of cross cultural synonyms, I’m not surprised the number is above 50 and maybe still rising. Not sure I’d want it otherwise, maybe it’s like some artists getting by with a few colors while others’ needs can run into the hundreds.

  13. I find it all rather absurd, in truth. And definitely trivial, as indicated in the essay.

  14. marc levesque

    I enjoyed the first half of your essay but the second half wasn’t my cup of tea.

  15. Sorry to hear that. I’ve also written in support of the idea of “bathroom freedom” for transgender people. But the focus placed on the issue by the Democrats in this election cycle, while giving the impression of ignoring the concerns of tens of millions of non-college educated white, working voters in the rust belt was a strategic blunder of enormous proportions.

  16. “Poor jerks” and “sad sacks”. Great stuff, Dan.

    You naturally feel sorry for all these people (bar one, presumably, but then he/she will only be transitioning from the first designation to the second) who have taken the trouble to put together an application.

    “As for caring about what happens to all those poor jerks who find themselves wandering around the country with a brand-new Ph.D. and no job prospect in sight, why should they?”

    I don’t see these people as victims, however, and I’m not sure that you do. They are intelligent folk who knew the general situation before they committed themselves. Or should have done. It’s not as if this information is hidden or difficult to find.

    Besides, most of them probably have a Plan B and – compared to a lot of people – are probably not too badly placed to succeed in other areas.

    I agree with you that the situation (hundreds of applicants etc.) is crazy and unfortunate.


    You talk about the “awful arguments” put forward in the Aeon article. I think a case can be made that ‘critical thinking’ *is* best taught within the context of specific (traditional) disciplines. That said, I think that there are parts of philosophy (I would focus on the history of ideas aspect and logic, I think) which are of great intrinsic value. Practical value too, I agree.