There goes philosophy — Claremont Graduate University closes its philosophy program

The Digital media outlet INSIDE HIGHER ED reports that Claremont Graduate University has just closed down its philosophy department. “We were each given the day before an offer to continue as contract employees,” one of the two tenured professors in the department said, according to the report. “The offers were unacceptable in form and content, and presented as take-it-or-be-fired. We ignored them and got fired the next day.” According to the interim university president of Claremont Graduate University, Jacob Adams, the decision was “in recognition of a unique combination of market, enrollment and limited faculty resources that militated against the program’s sustainability, even academic viability.” According to Adams, the trustees considered that Claremont “is not a comprehensive university,” but rather a “graduate university offering degrees in selected fields with unique programs of study and opportunities to study across disciplinary boundaries.” In this spirit, Claremont is now undertaking “a process of program reprioritization.” The university’s news release cites a number of other institutions to have closed graduate programs in recent in years, and such closures — for reasons similar to those at Claremont — are on the rise. Click here

The implications of this decision are surely complex. There is no doubt that there are too many Philosophy Ph.D.’s being produced and too many Ph.D. programs  churning them out. Just a few years ago, Berkeley advertised one position in philosophy and received some 600 applications. That year there were 300 job openings in philosophy altogether in the US. Some of the Berkeley applicants may, of course, have already been teaching somewhere, but we must assume that many of them were left without a job. The closure of Claremont’s small philosophy department will not make much difference to this situation. But it may indicate that a larger retrenchment is on the way and that is surely to be welcomed.

At the same time, such a retrenchment will mean a reduction in the number of teaching positions available and this spells trouble for those who are now getting ready to enter the job market. It is, moreover, far from clear that we are facing only a limited retrenchment. The humanities as a whole are now under pressure. One reason for this are steeply increasing tuition fees. These force students to concentrate on subjects that promise well-paid employment. They also induce them to cut their time to a degree to a minimum and thus makes them forgo the luxury of taking courses in the humanities including philosophy. The number of humanities and philosophy majors has been sinking as a result across the country and so has the enrollment in humanities and philosophy courses meant for non-majors. Meanwhile, newly emerging technical subjects are in need of funding which they may seek to cover by stripping or eliminating other programs in their Universities.

We can’t put all the blame, however, on outside forces. Philosophy and the humanities in general need to rethink where they are and what they are doing. Too often their work has become an insider business. A re-orientation is called for. If we are lucky, the current pressure on these programs will help to bring this about. But there is no guarantee.


  1. I feel conflicted. While I agree that “Philosophy and the humanities in general need to rethink where they are and what they are doing”, I also wonder if we are exacting that as the price of being surrounded by an agenda which finds value almost entirely in what can be justified and how it can be justified. Philosophy could be doing so much better, should be doing so much better than the “insider business” it occupies itself with, but doing better is itself doing better philosophy. You can’t have better philosophy without DOING philosophy. So in a sense, asking whether philosophy or for that matter any of the arts and humanities are ‘justified’ is merely a commitment to the idea that these are things that need to be measured in some sense.

    And of course there are plenty of valid reasons for wanting to measure them! But the mistake seems to be that we defer all reputable value to merely that which can be justified, to that which we can measure. What it fails to capture is that in addition to things in our lives that are open questions, that need to have their values established, we also have things that act AS the measures. And while sometimes it makes sense to subject even those things to doubt and testing, what we are seemingly blind to is that the role of a measure and the role of measurable things are distinct. Not necessarily as exemplified by the things under scrutiny, but in how-they-function-in-our-lives. What is the cost of failing to adequately recognize the difference?

    What I’m getting at is that when we doubt the value of things like philosophy, things like the humanities, things like the arts, we forget that these are *also* things which have a proper place at the center of ways that (some) people interact with the world. They are part of our meaning-making. They are often in important ways how we come to measure value in the world. That is, they sometimes ARE our measures. And at least occasionally when you try to measure the measure things get confusing if not downright messy.

    We are doing what Procrustes did, in other words. Rather than respecting the value that things have in themselves as part of our lives, we subject those measures to often violent and catastrophic alterations. To measure a thing something else has to hold fast, remain aloof from the actual testing and doubts. What happens if the thing that was in other circumstances removed from the game of doubt and inquiry is suddenly on the receiving end?

    Normally we measure how well a bed fits by whether IT is too long or too short for US. We are the measure of the bed. In Procrustes’ world the bed is what measures US, and his guests were themselves either stretched out or amputated to make them fit. It is a question whether this sort of maiming is always necessary or merely a consequence of the lengths we go to subject anything and everything to being ‘justified’.

    There may be very good reasons why philosophy is unsustainable in academia. I think it would be tragic if we lost philosophy, the humanities, and the arts from things people studied. But another question is what human life would actually BE without these things? I’m not saying that people don’t do very well already in their absence. Forms of life abound that are largely untouched by deep thoughts, literature, and museums. What I’m asking is what life would look like where the ideals and practices we know under those names were simply gone from the world.

    The point I’m making, in this round about way, is that when we start questioning everything, as if everything either stood or fell on its ability to be justified, what we are ignoring is that underneath all our practices is simply a form of life where many such things are just what we do. They ARE us. And they are not present in our lives by reason of or *because* we are necessarily justified in doing them.

    We are often so occupied with the foreground of deciding where things fit in our lives that we entirely miss the background that our life HAS a place for many things. It is something that goes unnoticed by us, is unquestioned, and yet without which none of our foreground concerns would even make sense. I take that as at least part of the concern Wittgenstein had in On Certainty (and of course elsewhere).

    Sorry this is such a long ramble down that road and maybe only tangential to your own concerns in raising these issues. Not many people seem to be worried by our Procrustean temptations, much less willing to talk about them. I suggest them here because I firmly believe that avoiding the issue gets us ever deeper into confusions that not only hamstring the practice of philosophy but tangle things up in our daily lives with senseless amputations and other violent tortures.

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