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March 24, 2009

Philosophy Talk and the Ignorant NEH Panelist: A Rant!

posted by Ken Taylor

I don't usually rant.   I fancy myself a calm deliberate guy.   Not only do I play a dispassionate voice of reason on the radio,  I really do try to be a dispassionate voice of reason in my every day life.   I don't always succeed mind you.  But at least my heart's in the right place. 

But I've got to get something off my chest.  And what better place to do that than on a blog.  I wish I could do it anonymously, like so many do.  But I don't think that would work here.   So what's my beef?

It has to do with Philosophy Talk and the National Endowment for the Humanities.   In general,  i don't have a big problem with the NEH.  Actually,  I kind of like at least the idea of the NEH.   They've funded many worthwhile endeavors -- some of which have materially affected my own research. 

But I do have a bone to pick with them -- a bone I'd like to share with everybody who wishes Philosophy Talk well. We've applied to them five different times for various grants.  And five different times we've been turned down.  This time around, we were turned down -- rejected, refused, denied  (take your pick) -- for an America's Media Makers production grant.   The grant would have given us funds to produce a special 12 part series on the Philosophical Foundations of American Democracy.   

It would have been a fun series.   We would have done each  episode in front of a live audience at various venues around the country in Town Hall Format.  Sort of a Philosophy Talk takes Democracy on the road, kind of thing. 

The 12 episodes in the series would have covered a range of Philosophical topics designed to provide the American public with a deeper understanding of the problem and prospects of Democracy in the 21st Century.  Shows  would have been clustered around four broad themes.  

One theme was called American Political Philosophies.  Under this theme we proposed to do episodes on:  (a) Rawls, Justice, and Equal Opportunity:  (b)  Communitarianism;  (c)  Libertarianism and (d)  Neo-Conservativism & The Chicago School.   

Another theme  concerned Pluralism and its Challenges and included episodes on the struggle to rewrite the narrative of American history and contemporary challenges raised by Multiculturalism.   

A third theme would have concerned the idea of an educated and informed democratic citizenry and how to achieve it.   We intended to discuss the struggle over creation and evolution, and the role of the state in determining the content of an education more generally. The fourth theme was called something like "Our Brother's Keepers?  Individual rights and Public Responsibility."   We would have talked about a variety of things including whether money is speech, whether corporations are really persons,  what sorts of rights and responsibilities corporations have  to promote the social good.  We would also have done an episode on  religious freedom, religious conflict and  religious tolerance and the role of the state vs civil society in mediating these.  

Stuff like that.  Stuff that's at the core of trying to make democracy work in the 21st century. You could think this wouldn't make great radio.   You could also think that  even if it would make great radio, there isn't any audience for it.  You could even think that somehow the Philosophy Talk team was inadequate to the task.  

But it's hard to imagine being told that these topics were  "strange"  and "confused"  But get this.  That's just what one of the evaluators for the NEH did say.  I kid you not.  Here's a direct quote: 

The intellectual content of this proposal is strange. The philosophical foundations of American democracy are to be found in the philosophers that influenced the founding fathers as they created the Constitution. The foundations are not to be found in John Rawls and the Chicago Schoo. You could probably solve this problem by giving the project a new title, something like "philosophical ideas that influence American culture."

It is not clear what writing American history and multiculturalism have to do with philosophy--at least fundamental philosophy.

American education doesn't seem to be a philosophical question, although the founding fathers excepted an educated and informed citizenry. This seems to be a special question, rather than a foundational question.

Individual rights and public responsibility is an interesting question to which philosophers may have much to contribute, but it's not clear how this is the foundation of democracy.

It seems to me that the topics to be considered are rather traditional philosophical topics and it may be much more important to understand (even in philosophical terms) the processes that actually move and shake the country. It might be more important to deal with "the predator state" than with democracy, the public good, or education.

Let's just call this panelist, Panelist #4 -- cause that's how he/she is referred to in the materials we got back from the NEH explaining why our proposal was not fit to fund.   (Frankly, evaluator # 4 if you read this blog,  I wish you'd have courage enough to try and defend this dribble in a public forum.)  

Now I can accept rejection.  Believe me in both the businesses I am in -- radio and Academia -- one gets used to rejection and develops a thick skin pretty quickly.  If you don't, you just  go crazy.  So rejection is not the point.   I can deal with rejection.  Really!  I can!

But what I find  unfathomable is that anybody so ignorant could possibly be allowed to evaluate proposals of any kind for  the NEH.  Evaluator number 4 writes as if  philosophical thinking about the justification of the democratic political state began and ended in the 16th and 17th centuries, that nothing said or done since then adds to our understanding of the foundations of democracy, as if the founding fathers delivered to us our current democratic polity, and its complete philosophical justification, whole cloth.

I certainly wish Evaluator #4 would tell that to the hundreds or thousands of  scholars currently writing books and articles about the foundations of democracy.  He/she should tell them that it was all already said by Locke and Montesquieu. They should just stop wasting paper and killing trees. 

Just to carry on with the rant a tiny little bit more.   Again,  you might think the topics uninteresting, but to say that  "writing American history and multiculturalism"  have nothing to do with philosophy or the foundations of democracy is, well, extraordinarily ignorant again.     Not just we Americans, but peoples around the world, are faced with burning questions about whether and how there can be a shared democratic polity among people who are more or less divided and at odds with one another.   The question is one about what Philosophers like to call  "reasonable pluralism."  To be sure, the problem of developing a philosophical defense of a reasonable pluralism is indeed a problem with which our Founding Fathers, in their great but incomplete wisdom,  were hardly seized.  In their world   many, many voices were silenced, oppressed, etc.   But of course  the 20th century was massively seized with the problem of achieving a reasonable pluralism.  And no doubt the 21st century will also be.  Frankly,  it's hard for me to see what could be a more urgent topic of discussion for a radio program that purports to bring the resources of philosophy to greater public attention.

I'm  almost done with my rant. I swear. Indeed, I'm feeling calmer already. But I can't let this go without standing up for John Rawls and defending him against the claim that his work has nothing to do with the Philosophical Foundations of Democracy.

But on second thought.  I don't have to do that.  A former US President already did that.  I cite no lesser authority than former President William Jefferson Clinton, who awarded Rawls the National Humanities Medal in 1999.  I quote in full below  Clinton's citation of Rawls:

THE PRESIDENT: John Rawls is perhaps the greatest political philosopher of the 20th century. In 1971, when Hillary and I were in law school, we were among the millions moved by a remarkable books he wrote, "A Theory of Justice," that placed our rights to liberty and justice upon a strong and brilliant new foundation of reason.

Almost singlehandedly, John Rawls revived the disciplines of political and ethical philosophy with his argument that a society in which the most fortunate helped the least fortunate is not only a moral society, but a logical one. Just as impressively, he has helped a whole generation of learned Americans revive their faith in democracy itself.

Ladies and gentlemen, Margaret Rawls will accept the medal on behalf of her husband. 

Take that evaluator #4,  whoever you are.

We don't have much hope of changing the NEH's mind. I'm sure that if we apply a sixth time,  we'll get turned down a sixth time.     Plus,  I suppose everyone -- even someone as  ignorant as evaluator #4 -- is entitled to his/her opinion.   But I don't have to be happy that someone  so manifestly out of his/her depth sits in judgment of proposals to the NEH.  Do I? 

If I thought it would do any good,  I'd urge all right-thinking Philosophy Talk fans everywhere to write to the  Senior Program Officer for the Public Programs division of the NEH to urge that the Evaluator #4 on proposal TR50035,  be barred, on grounds of sheer ignorance,  from ever evaluating an NEH proposal again. 

But I'm not that bitter or vindictive.   I'm really not.   And rejection doesn't bother me -- much.

UPDATE:  Somebody pointed out that I left out the parts where panelist 4 (and also another panelist) call our proposal "confused."   But that's worth quoting too. So here is panelist 4's overall conclusion: 

The discussion convinced me that the content was confused and not terribly important to understanding democracy. 

Another panelist,  who was initially more favorably disposed to our proposal ended up confused too (and lowered our score):

Still confused on the content -- what is the role on the philosophy in the program? Are we learning philosophical approaches? Or basic philosophical ideas? How philosophy can help us in the present?

I have to admit that the last one really gets me.  Is there supposed to be some conflict between learning philosophical approaches, basic philosophical ideas, and showing that philosophy can be applied to present social problems?   How else would one imagine that we might go about trying to present philosophy to a non-philosophical audience?   Seriously,  would it even be possible to do one of these things without doing the other two?   Imagine that we tried to teach philosophical approaches without teaching philosophical ideas.  How would that even work?   And suppose we taught approaches and ideas,  but didn't try to show how philosophy can help us in the present. Then who would care?   Or suppose we tried to illustrate that philosophy had application to present problems and situations,  but we never said what a philosophical idea is or didn't try to show how philosophers approach problems.

In short this statement is sophomoric babble that shows as much seriousness of thought as one might expect from a casual conversation in a bar over too many beers.   That it is presented as some sort of criticism of our proposal is just astounding, utterly astounding.   That such nonsense could be utter as part of the NEH's supposedly "rigorous"  evaluation process is, well, both infuriating and depressing.

March 24, 2009 in Ken Taylor, Politics and Political Philosophy, Rant | Permalink


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Nice rant, but you forgot to mention evaluator 4's ignorance about which questions count as philosophical questions. Questions about the foundations of liberal democracy aren't philosophical questions? Please.

Posted by: John Basl | Mar 25, 2009 7:03:49 AM

P#4 wrote: "American education doesn't seem to be a philosophical question, although the founding fathers excepted an educated and informed citizenry."

This itself is completely idiotic. Clearly, there is nothing like a philosophical question about what counts as being "educated and informed."

So sorry for your bad luck with the NEH. I guess government agencies don't want to fund projects that force us to reflect on whether the government agencies are doing their jobs, especially concerning whether the citizenry is "educated and informed"...

Posted by: MP | Mar 25, 2009 12:15:09 PM

This is astounding. I wish it were an early April Fool's joke.

Posted by: Cruss | Mar 25, 2009 12:20:11 PM

I wonder what Evaluator #4's discipline is. My initial guess was History, because of the way they got hung up on the "foundations" thing, but now I'm not so sure. To be honest the evaluation reads it was written as the proposal was being read, so that each thought that pops into the head of the evaluator is written down as an assessment without further revision or checking to see if it's consistent with earlier comments. E.g., on the one hand "It is not clear what writing American history and multiculturalism have to do with philosophy--at least fundamental philosophy" and "This seems to be a special question, rather than a foundational question", but on the other hand "It seems to me that the topics to be considered are rather traditional philosophical topics".

The bit of musing at the end about the predator state is very odd. So is the weird assertion that "American education doesn't seem to be a philosophical question", when perhaps the most famous philosopher in America for much of the 20th century (meaning: a philosopher that someone without a Ph.D in philosophy was likely to have heard of) was John Dewey.

Posted by: Kieran | Mar 25, 2009 12:51:09 PM

NEH is required under the FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) to provide all those comments to you. That does not necessarily mean they gave serious weight to all of them in reaching a final decision. The best way to get a good sense of what really went awry is to talk on the phone with the program officer who handled your proposal. They can't tell you everything they know, but they will try to steer you to the most important things you can do to address perceived shortcomings.

I can remember many situations where I was required to send along panelist/reviewer comments that I thought were ridiculous and that had not been taken seriously by NEH staff. Panelist #4 might or might not have been influential.

Please also remember that the members of the National Council for the Humanities, which makes the final recommendation for funding to the NEH Chair, are appointed by the President to 6-year terms. That means all current members were appointed by George W. Bush. It would not be surprising if those appointees were selected with informal advice from Lynne Cheney and/or Bill Bennett (both former NEH Chairs in Republican administrations).

In my near-decade-long experience at NEH (overlapping different administrations), I saw a wide variety of scenarios that led to funding decisions. Some political appointees from the previous administration might have been influential in the process. Some National Council members are very activist in blocking proposals. Etc., etc.

Call your program officer and see what you can learn.

Posted by: former NEH program officer | Mar 25, 2009 12:53:16 PM

Thanks for the advice, former NEH Program Officer. Yeah, I've asked to be able to talk with program officer who handled our proposal. We've done that every time and each time, we've tried to take account of his/her feedback in revising the proposal for resubmission. So I'm not terribly hopeful. I do think there is perhaps a little underlying ideological hostility to what we do by some of the panelists. Others are more receptive, though, so I don't want to paint them all with the same brush. Only Panelist 4's comments drove me completely up the wall. I think Kieran Healy is right that P4 put hardly any thought into them. But I also thought maybe it was an historian who equates "foundations" with "historical foundations" which would explain the obsession with dead guys.

Posted by: ken | Mar 25, 2009 1:11:19 PM

my recent rejection from the neh seemed to be based on my inability, or unwillingness, to explain why i was working on davidson instead of dennett.

i have the sneaking suspicion that had i been working on dennett, i would have been rejected due to my inability, or unwillingness, to explain why i wasn't working on davidson.

Posted by: kurt | Mar 25, 2009 1:18:37 PM

Wow, that's a truly remarkable betrayal of ignorance. Personally, I expect a lot more than that even from a casual conversation in the bar, even over too many beers. I hope Panelist #4 reads these comments and feels appropriately shamed.

Posted by: Simon | Mar 25, 2009 2:43:04 PM

Just more evidence that only philosophers should be monarchs ... er, um, I mean NEH panelists.

Posted by: PA | Mar 25, 2009 2:55:38 PM

A few more observations: if you got a rejection in the last few months, the panel must have met last year, meaning the final selection of panelists who reviewed your proposal was approved by Bush political appointees. Although the career staff have very high standards of integrity, political leanings can have some influence overall, depending on the administration in charge.

Please also note that the NEH budget is roughly the same now, in actual dollars, as it was in the mid-80s -- about $150 million. Programs are able to fund only a small fraction of worthy projects. In Fellowships, funding only 10% of applicants is not unusual. Anybody who has been on an NEH panel knows how heartbreaking it is to realize they have nowhere near enough money to fund all the worthy projects.

Don't blame NEH. Write to your members of Congress to tell them how important funding is in the humanities. Learn all you can glean from the program officers. Ask to see funded proposals. (They're listed in their news releases and annual reports and must be released under the FOIA. Your campus research office might also have examples on file.) Ask for the list of panelists who reviewed your proposal, if it wasn't provided. And be persistent with resubmissions.

Posted by: former NEH program officer | Mar 25, 2009 5:44:20 PM

It's such a shame that researchers have to spend so much pursuing grants, instead of doing their research. (Philosophers, of course, don't spend nearly as much time as researchers in most other disciplines.) There must be a better system.

Posted by: Eric Schwitzgebel | Mar 25, 2009 9:42:23 PM

Reviewer 4's comments are outrageous, partly for their disjointedness, but mostly for the ignorance of current philosophy that they display. This seems to be a symptom of a larger problem: the NEH does not serve philosophy as well as it serves other areas of the humanities. There are very few grant programs under the NEH that we can take advantage of, and even when our work would seem to fall under a program description, funding is very hard to come by because so many of the reviewers are hostile to, or at least ignorant of, what we actually do in analytic philosophy. This is a symptom of an even larger problem: philosophy has become quite estranged from the rest of the humanities. We don't do enough as a discipline to sell ourselves to others, and to explain what we do. The APA is a very weak organization that does minimal PR work for the discipline. Many individual philosophers have an anti-interdisciplinary attitude. The result is that we are one of the least federally supported disciplines in the academy. We generally can't use NSF, NIH, and FDA funds as the sciences do. And we can't take much advantage of NEH funds, scant as they are. This creates a problem within our universities; departments are increasingly relying on external funding sources, and philosophy always seems like it's not pulling its weight.

Posted by: Amy Lara | Mar 26, 2009 7:08:23 AM

Fellowships is just about the only program that uses discipline-specific panelists and reviewers. Typically, for research grants, public grants (media, museums, conferences), etc., they assemble panels with a range of disciplines represented in the mix of proposals received for that deadline in that program. All disciplines face these interdisciplinary panels, not just philosophy. It's very important to explain the significance of the project, as you're not just talking to other philosophers.

Other federal agencies do have some opportunities for philosophers. If you are working in anything related to applied ethics/bioethics/animal welfare, look to NIH for their individual research support. If you address empirical elements or work in interdisciplinary areas that involve empirical elements (e.g., cog sci), look to NSF for support. Political philosophers that involve empirical research can also look to NSF, as can philosophers of science.

Now that we have a sea change in political administrations, people working in environmental ethics should watch the contract/grant opportunities at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Energy, especially with regard to ethical issues of global warming.

Granted, my examples here are mainly areas of philosophy that verge into empirical and/or applied areas, but many philosophers could take advantage of them.

Posted by: former NEH program officer | Mar 26, 2009 1:38:26 PM


This is outrageous. You might have a look at this book, which I just ran across in a local bookstore. http://www.amazon.com/How-Professors-Think-Academic-Judgment/dp/0674032667/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1238104900&sr=1-1

The author's account (starting around pp. 64-65, as I recall) of how panel members in other disciplines view philosophy proposals is quite distressing, but it rings true from my limited experience serving on such committees (never NEH, though). It makes less surprising the phenomena many have observed, such as that Guggenheims rarely go to philosophers other than those who are so well known that the committee feels it can't turn them down. There is a definite problem here for us as a profession I think, although I am not at all sure what we can do about it.


Posted by: Tim Scanlon | Mar 26, 2009 3:09:40 PM

It is indeed shocking that your proposal was turned out at least in part for idiotic reasons provided by an ignoramus. For my part, I think that your grant proposal is fantastic, and I would vote to fund it in a nanosecond. Part of the problem must lie with the selection process for NEH grant reviewers, and with the general ignorance of what philosophy is and what philosophers do, even within the academy.

I have met professors who don't know the first thing about philosophy who have told me, with a straight face, that they are philosophers. It used to be the case that a well-educated academic in, say, history or literature, would be familiar with the rough lines of current philosophical research. There used to be regular gatherings at faculty clubs and other venues where academics from different disciplines could talk to each other about their research. Perhaps this happens at Stanford and the Ivies. But I guarantee you that at other universities it happens far less than it used to.

I also think that there is less respect for philosophy in our culture as a whole. In Europe, of course, there is a long history of respect for philosophers, many of whom are public figures. Widely watched television programs include discussions with philosophers. (I remember John Searle's and Bryan Magee's entertaining interviews when I lived in England.) Philosophers write regular columns in newspapers! (Think of Jonathan Wolff in the Guardian or Ermanno Bencivenga in La Stampa.) Philosophers are asked to take part in policy making. (Think Onora O'Neill in England, Charles Taylor in Canada.) It's sad, but our culture venerates those who DO, rather than those who THINK. (Sometimes, of course, thinking is a prerequisite for doing, which explains in part why there is so much respect for scientists at work on new drugs or new technologies.) Of course, in the late eighteenth century, there was a much stronger connection between thinking (about democracy and the conditions of its legitimacy) and doing (fighting the British). But somehow the cultural veneration of the founding generation has not been transmuted into respect for those who continue to think about the same issues that the founders discussed. And part of the reason for this, I think, is that philosophers are not perceived as doers. When they participate in decision-making, it often happens behind the scenes (e.g., on university research-on-human-subjects committees), and so philosophers are just less visible. (And notice how, when it comes to making really important decisions about biomedical research, the powers-that-be tend to go to "experts in biomedical ethics", rather than to respected academics in highly ranked philosophy departments who specialize in normative ethics.)

Speaking of the radio, I was listening to a local radio show on KPBS yesterday. It was a very interesting show in which Robert McChesney was being interviewed about his recent call for content-neutral subsidy of the press (through, e.g., tax rebates for folks who subscribe to newspapers, no postal charges for newspapers, and so on). McChesney started to talk about how the founding generation thought that a vibrant press was essential to a legitimate democracy. So he was making what is essentially an argument from political theory or political philosophy. And yet, in the middle of his interview, he made light of philosophy and philosophers, saying something like, "This is urgent. We must act now to save the press. We can't wait for some Harvard philosopher to think through all the issues and come up with a plan in 2037." And that's when I thought to myself: "Yup. This is a professor of journalism falling for the old stereotype of philosophers as bald-headed gurus issuing pronouncements about the meaning of life every hundred years." And if McChesney can make fun of Harvard philosophers like that, just imagine what other people think of Harvard philosophers, or Stanford philosophers, or, sheesh, UCSD philosophers.....

Posted by: Sam Rickless | Mar 26, 2009 4:38:43 PM

I'm very disappointed by the NEH's rejection of your proposal - a look at the philosophical foundations of American society is long-overdue and may address a lot of the questions driving the culture wars and the current parties' ideological alignments.

While I'm primarily a student of history, I have experience in media and an abiding interest in philosophy. I'd love to help out, if at all possible!

Posted by: Sam Sukaton | Mar 29, 2009 12:46:16 AM

In the Reagan years I proposed a comparative study of the American opposition to the Vietnam War and the French opposition to the Algerian War and NEH turned me down on the grounds that there was no basis for the comparison. a few years later someone published an excellent book on exactly that topic. NEH reviewers sometimes leave a lot to be desired.

Posted by: Stan Nadels | Mar 31, 2009 3:23:39 AM

Our department tried unsuccessfully for several years to get an NEH grant. We were finally told by someone at NEH, off the record, to remember that the appointees were Bushies. (The "predator state" comment in your report is the ideological cue there.) Our informant told us to mask any content that seemed remotely left-leaning (Rawls's name being your red flag) and replace it with safe, traditional primary texts. We followed the advice and, like magic, got the grant the next year.
I don't like anonymous posts, but I'll leave my name off to protect the innocent and the guilty.

Posted by: JDS | Mar 31, 2009 4:45:53 AM

Panelist #4's criticism is the equivalent of the Emporers comments to Mozart in the movie Amadeus. "Too many notes, Wolfgang!"

Oh wait, what am I thinking...Philosophy has nothing to do with music either.

Posted by: RAF | Mar 31, 2009 5:33:21 AM

Dear Ken and Commenters,

Hey, what's with the gratuitous swipe at historians?! Some of us love philosophy---past, present, and future-oriented. Indeed, one of my primary subfields is U.S. intellectual history. Those of us in tune with that field understand that political philosophy is ongoing. And "foundations" doesn't mean, to us, musty (but worthy) great books for the 17th and 18th centuries. Historians of America's intellectual life understand the contributions of Dewey, Rawls, etc. and promote their connections to practical matters in our work.

While the Ph.D. has certainly been devalued over the past 100 years, I take most seriously my obligations as a philosopher who studies history. Indeed, those who don't are over-educated anti-intellectuals. They're credentialists who know nothing of the joys of our distinct intellectual life.

So while your NEH reviewer may have been a conservative Bush appointee, it's just as likely that she/he was an anti-intellectual specialist who happens to hold a PhD. They don't know difference between philosophy and ideological "theory."


Tim Lacy
Chicago, IL

Posted by: Tim Lacy | Mar 31, 2009 8:26:47 AM

So many of these comments seem defensive versions of "how could they not see how important our project is". None engage or take seriously the very helpful, repeated posts from the former NEH officer. As part of an interdisciplinary grant writing program, we often hear such complaints from philosophy students, many of whom are reluctant (or unwilling) to make serious efforts to communicate with an interdisciplinary review committee, to clearly situate their project and its broader importance. Circulating your draft proposal to a wide range of colleagues can flag some of these problems before you submit it and improve your likelihood of success.

Posted by: AtlSfe | Mar 31, 2009 9:54:18 AM

Dear AtlSfe:

Your comment subsumes the very problem that is being complained of, namely, the need for philosophers and philosophy to justify its significance and relevance to, and contributions to, North American culture generally, and academia more specifically.

That you require philosophy students to "clearly situate their project and its broader importance" and your statement that "so many of these comments seem defensive versions of "how could they not see how important our project is" captures perfectly the attitude in North American culture that philosophy as a discipline deserves no more prominence than any other subject matter in a humanities or liberal arts program. The failure on your part to appreciate that philosophy is unlike any other subject area in the humanities - that its subject matter is questioning reality rather than merely describing it, for example - is precisely the sort of opinion symptomatic of the larger problem. Philosophy's two-fold task of discovering our relationship to reality and the elements of a "happy" life ought, to my mind, not require justification as to its significance or relevance to existence, much less North American culture.
As someone with a graduate degree in philosophy currently in law school, I have become habituated to this sort of attitude. Law professors and practitioners dismiss philosophy as theoretical babble on the one hand while relying on it at every turn without even realizing it. The best legal arguments owe a debt to philosophy.
All of this also indicts the North American educational system. Clearly there is something fundamentally wrong with a system where students who appreciate the relevance of philosophy are made to justify to individuals like yourself empowered as you are to decide the success of their project the "broader importance" of their endeavour.

Posted by: Chloe | Apr 1, 2009 8:04:45 AM

Wow- maybe I'm the only one who thinks that #4 had some decent points to make. I think that his point of departure, which seems to be what the title of your proposal would connote, is entirely legitimate.

When the typical person reads, "Philosophical Foundations of American Democracy"- it is reasonable to believe that they will have the same set of expectations that he suggests, namely that it will deal with the philosophical principles which were important in the founding of American democracy. Your point, which seems to be that the title can mean that you will deal with the philosophical principles which are fundamental to democracy in America, is also correct, but I think that the average person will not read it that way. It is a bit confusing.

You used the term '21st century' more than once. Might, something like "Philosophical Principles in a 21st Century Democracy" be a more fitting title? How about "Philosophical Principles of Modern Democracy"? You could avoid the founding/fundamental ambiguity that comes from using "foundations" that way. Another possibility would be to call it, "Fundamental Principles of Our American Democracy".

I really don't think you're being fair. I'd love to hear a show talking about Rawls and Nozick and all that, but that isn't what I'd expect based on your title. I'd expect to hear about the effect of enlightenment political thought on the founding fathers.

Posted by: Ockraz | Apr 1, 2009 8:36:05 PM

I think that he made sense on history too. I obviously haven't read your proposal, but I'm assuming that the idea was to look at ideas in political philosophy which are of particular relevance with regard to modern American democracy.

The narrative of American history- or it might be more correct to speak of endorsing historiographies- is an important topic, but I think that it is a real stretch to classify it as a fundamental issue of political philosophy. You could say that it is a culturally significant issue which has political implications, but then you'd be getting kind of far afield from what I thought the theme was supposed to be.

Also, if you want to focus on pluralism, maybe 'multiculturalism' isn't the best label to use. Whether it ought to be or not, the term is pretty closely associated with ethnicity. Forming consensus in a democracy is more of an issue of moral pluralism than of cultural (or ethnic) diversity. There is a relationship between the two, but the former is inherently philosophical, and the latter is more sociological.

Posted by: Ockraz | Apr 1, 2009 9:24:15 PM

I strongly agree with you regarding the following comments...

"American education doesn't seem to be a philosophical question, although the founding fathers excepted an educated and informed citizenry. This seems to be a special question, rather than a foundational question.

Individual rights and public responsibility is an interesting question to which philosophers may have much to contribute, but it's not clear how this is the foundation of democracy."

I don't know how to account for any of that.

Obviously how well informed the citizenry is (which is inseparable from the issue of education) well affect how well different types of democracy can function! It at least partly determines the power that representatives and ordinary individuals have over one another. I can't imagine how anyone could deny that this was a factor in the creation of the Electoral College.

Individual rights and public responsibility isn't part of the foundation of democracy? It doesn't matter if one uses the 'founding' or the 'fundamental' sense of the word in this case. Either way, #4's statement is nonsense.

Posted by: Ockraz | Apr 1, 2009 9:42:45 PM

Dear Chloe,

We don't single out philosophy students, we ask all students who are trying to learn to write a fundable proposal to articulate clearly the focus and significance of their work. Philosophy students are not exempt, if they want to receive fellowships and grants to support their research.

Posted by: AtlSfe | Apr 6, 2009 3:30:31 PM

Maybe #4 got crappy grades in philosophy while in college. In fact, that seems likely.

Posted by: DSNVL | Apr 9, 2009 5:54:14 AM

This conflagration is an opportunity.

It's an opportunity for Philosophy to sharpen its focus. If it's a matter of substance, then Philosophy had better stop mentally masturbating and get relevant, but I don't think that's really the problem. "Philosophy Talk" puts the discipline's best foot forward, I think, and highlighting in the title that you are as current as possible, as Ockraz suggests, is very constructive criticism, although to me it attacks Philosophy's image rather than its substance.

If it's a matter of PR, then Philosophy needs a hipness makeover, get off its duff--be loud and be proud! The very word Philosophy makes the average person yawn. Sorry, I'm only saying what's true. I love "Philosophy Talk" because it's not like that. This show is fun, fresh, with good pacing, and nice segments to break it up for the contemporary short attention span.

Philosophy needs to become Activism--it's evolutionary for us to adapt and become multi-taskers just like everybody else these days. If Philosophy is not being represented rightly, then it's up to us to counter that, transform it!

People NEED to care about Philosophy. People NEED the program that was denied. We need to get active about getting it to them! Ideological bias is an affront to everything we stand for. We can fight it with an information-finding and letter-writing campaign. That's what former NEH dude said, and he knows. It's a kafkaesque adventure! Let's go!

Posted by: Cat | Apr 20, 2009 11:48:46 AM

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