Can There Be a Real Philosophy Department?

What is “real,” or what one might call “authentic,” philosophy?

Can there be philosophy departments that practice and promote such authentic philosophy?

Take the former question first.

From the home page of Against Professional Philosophy (, we have the following answer to consider:

By real philosophy, we mean synoptic, systematic, rational reflection on the individual and collective human condition, and on the natural world in which human and other conscious animals live, move, and have their being. Real philosophy fully includes the knowledge yielded by the natural and formal sciences; but, as we see it, real philosophy also goes significantly beneath and beyond the exact sciences, and non-reductively incorporates aesthetic, artistic, affective/emotional, ethical/moral, and, more generally, personal and practical insights that cannot be adequately captured or explained by the sciences. In a word, real philosophy is all about the nature, meaning, and value of individual and collective human existence in the natural cosmos, and how it is possible to know the philosophical limits of science, without also being anti-science. Finally, real philosophy is pursued by people working on individual or collective writing projects, or teaching projects, in the context of small, friendly circles of like-minded philosophers. Like-minded but not uncritical! Real philosophers read both intensively and also widely inside philosophy, and also widely outside of philosophy, critically discuss what they’ve read, write, mutually present and talk about their work, re-read, re-discuss, and then re-write, with the primary aim of producing work of originality and of the highest possible quality, given their own individual and collective abilities. They also seek to disseminate their work, through publication, teaching, or public conversation.

In view of this conception of real philosophy, we also share some serious worries about contemporary professional philosophy. More bluntly put, we think that contemporary professional philosophy is seriously fucked up in various ways that, ironically and even tragically, oppose and undermine the ongoing project of real philosophy.

As for the APP’s guiding principles or basic motives, we have Kant’s recommendation from “What is Enlightenment?” (1784), given at the same page as above:

Enlightenment is the human being’s emergence from his own self-incurred immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one’s understanding without the direction from another. This immaturity is self-incurred when its cause lies not in lack of understanding but in lack of resolution and courage to use it without direction from another. Sapere aude! Have courage to use your own understanding! is thus the motto of Enlightenment.

One can cite other philosophers through history making similar assertions of such higher goals of philosophy.

Diogenes the Cynic’s dictum of “Deface the currency” comes to mind (read as recommending a challenge to traditional values (Dobbin, 2012, pp. xiii-xiv, xxiv, 29)), as do various passages in Russell’s “Philosophy” (1945) and “Philosophy for laymen” (1946).

The final paragraph of the former gives us this:

With modern methods of education and propaganda it has become possible to indoctrinate a whole population with a philosophy which there is no rational ground to suppose true. The results of such indoctrination are fanaticism, spiritual enslavement, and war. The only permanently adequate defence against a mass hysteria of this kind is a rational temper, skeptical of assertions unsupported by evidence, but willing to believe even what is unpalatable where there are good grounds in its favour. Such a temper of mind is cultivated by empirical philosophy, and is greatly encouraged by the historical study of the strange variety of beliefs that even the ablest men have entertained at one time or another… For inculcating this state of mind, philosophy, rightly studied, is invaluable; it is to be prized most, not as the somewhat arid pursuit of a few specialists, but in the manner in which it was conceived by the ancients: as a way of life, and the means of obtaining such glimpses of wisdom as are vouchsafed to human beings.

Russell is speaking of propaganda and fanaticism of the political sort one finds in society at large as opposed to that within the community of professional philosophers.

Yet applying Russell’s remarks to professional philosophy nevertheless produces a warning and a recommendation consistent with the APP’s.

One doesn’t often see such Kantian or Russellian higher goals present in professional contexts or in the average philosophy classroom.

Such goals get mentioned, but it seems they’re rarely acted on or centralized in philosophy pedagogy.

Related to these ideas about goals and benefits of philosophy, and given various harms to free thinking from the excessive professionalization of philosophy, is a doctrine necessary for promoting real philosophy: Anarcho-philosophy, defined at the APP (Z, 2013[i]) as

the art of resisting and subverting contemporary professional philosophy from the inside, for the sake of real philosophy.

Given all this, what would a real philosophy department be?

Is a “real” philosophy department in the sense of the APP’s definition of real philosophy even possible?

How can a philosophy department promote real philosophy?

The APP project is an anarchist one aligned against “professionalized” philosophy.

Philosophy departments are of course housed within Statelike colleges and universities, and are both supported and overseen by the same.

Philosophy has its professional body, the APA, that both supports and oversees what’s taken to count as philosophy.

So one might be pessimistic about the prospects of a so-called “real” philosophy department modeled after the APP’s ideals.

Several APP entries (Z, 2015, 2016[ii]) even argue specifically against the (traditional, typical) philosophy department, preferring philosophy research groups and so-called open philosophy[iii] instead.

Other posts argue that real philosophy can exist only outside the traditional professionalized department (e.g., Z, 2017a, 2017b[iv]).

Real philosophy seems to be “philosophy unbound,” and this seems quite inconsistent with a professionalized department housed in a university.

As Z (2017b) points out, there is quite a bit of published metaphilosophy on the question of reconciling philosophy with professionalization.

I confess to some ignorance of this literature (at the time of this writing), so much of what follows here will be based on my own experience.

As is true of many of us, I have some experience of what the quite-possibly-decisively-objectionable administrative aspects of a department, college, and university are like.

I see many of these as entailed by the existence of universities qua hierarchical organizations.

Yet I see potential for great good too, and I see ways to practice and promote real philosophy (and real history, and real political science, etc.) within what is admittedly a coercive State.

So you can read me as not entirely sharing Z’s purity about real philosophy, where philosophy inside the university is largely impossible.

I agree as far as the ideal state of philosophy would be, but I see more of a continuum between real philosophy and whatever one might imagine on the other pole.

What of the potential for a real philosophy department?

I say it is possible, and it is possible for departments to promote real philosophy, but this requires a sense of real philosophy more moderate than the APP’s ideal.

There are many ways, it seems, that real philosophy can be practiced and promoted in the academy short of its ideal state.

Teaching is one, where it seems to me that if we all left the academy, significant harms indeed would result to the students left behind.

Teaching can also focus on promoting the ideals of real philosophy.

There are fewer barriers to overcome for such a focus.

For a more difficult task, I pick one of what many take to be a painful, time-consuming task of contemporary professional academic life.

It is unique to the last 10 years or so, and that is program assessment.

Freeing philosophy from this indeed would seem ideal, but losing real philosophers from it, whether for program assessment run by a department or the committees that oversee it from higher up, would significantly undermine the good those activities can accomplish.

Moreover, I suggest that assessment with the right focus can fit well with the goals of real philosophy.

Take philosophy teaching first.

A community of real philosophers, in the form of a department, can be dedicated to the ideals of real philosophy and inspiring students to the same.

The group can agree to offer courses commensurate with real philosophy, structured accordingly, and offered as often as possible in the form of small-format discussion groups, seminars, and independent studies.

As far as inculcating virtuous habits of mind are concerned, the group could agree that the highest ideal is having graduates not just capable of independent thought and argument, but also with the propensity and even deep character to do so.

Graduates would live the Kantian dictum of Sapere aude! Is this possible in the context of the limited freedom of a university setting?

Perhaps not to the ideal state, but realizing those goals to some high level surely is possible.

Realizing such goals seems quite unlikely though if real philosophers left the academy in large numbers.

For it seems only those teaching what one might call philosophy-lite[v] would remain.

Those who remain would still be in a position for moderate success in teaching undergraduates (and graduate students, though my focus here is mostly on my own institution where undergraduate teaching is the primary mission).

Students would still learn the drill of getting a good grasp of the history of philosophy, the major theories and arguments in their defense, and the basic skills of critical thinking such as close reading for arguments and larger argumentative structures, identifying, classifying, and diagramming arguments, etc.

Like the proverbial horse being led to the trough, our teaching might lead students to the proverbial trough of Enlightenment.

Some might even drink from it.

But how inspired would they be toward real philosophy as something like a way of life, lived with Kantian and Russellian intellectual virtues?

Perhaps real philosophy teaching could just move outside the academy, with a corresponding move of the work of producing independent-minded human beings outside the academy too.

Perhaps we can have the same overall teaching good, but without the objectionable features of teaching philosophy in the objectionably professionalized context.

Perhaps, but all I’ll say here is that there are large practical questions to be answered, and that would take us too far afield.

But it is a good question: Exactly how would the same effects of real philosophy teaching be possible outside the academy as in?

Could real philosophy be inculcated within the framework of the familiar administrative unit known as the philosophy department?

I say yes, but it would require our extending the goals of the more common philosophy-lite to include the more challenging goals mentioned above.

One requirement is that administrative units above the philosophy program (the college, say of Arts and Sciences, as well as the university more broadly) have to trust the philosophy program to pursue what it takes to be the best and right form of philosophy teaching.

One needs the same trust from those administrative entities governing assessment and accreditation.

I find this trust to exist generally at my own institution, so at least in my own department’s case, the road seems open to pursuing real philosophy teaching.

After all, if a department were to earnestly pursue real philosophy teaching, with the central goal being for students to be able and willing to think independently—to really dare to know—then it seems the formal aspects of the administrative and bureaucratic machinery would look much the same.

The catalog descriptions might change slightly to emphasize critical thinking (in the higher, “real” sense) more.

The department’s mission statement and program objectives would emphasize it, the assessment practices (to be discussed shortly) would assess progress toward it, and so on.

Departmental hiring practices would gravitate toward preferring real philosophers, but the blurbs on PhilJobs would still have much the same structure as other ads.

To the extent the State supports the department with resources, classrooms, support for research in teaching, and so on, the State could support real philosophy teaching with the potential to reach most if not all undergraduates.

Teaching seems to me to be easy to shift to an emphasis on real philosophy, at least in principle.

I now turn though to something more difficult, and that is program assessment.

Until perhaps 10-15 years ago, such practices were only familiar to programs in the arts, with their independent accrediting bodies, as well as to business and education.

(For K-12’s professional world, assessment driven and administered by state and federal bodies has a much longer history.)

But since the late 00s, my own institution has included assessment as part of its mission.

The choice is not coming from nowhere or just the upper administration.

Regional accrediting bodies require it, and I usually figure that if it’s going to be required, we’re far better off doing it ourselves than having the state oversee it (as in the K-12 world).

We’re also far better off doing it as a department instead of having the college or university administer it.

That is for reasons of having those with expertise in the field be central to designing and implementing assessment practices.

I’ve worked on assessment for our department since the start of it in the late 00s.

I’ve helped put together an exit exam (and then successfully suggested abolishing it).

I gather data on argumentative writing: I help get writing samples from our required classes, I’m one of the scorers of the samples with a rubric we developed, and I spend a lot of time compiling the scores to present with a lot of nice-looking tables.

I write a lengthy report and navigate an online system to submit it.

A college committee reviews the report, then a university committee does the same.

The evaluations we receive say we do an effective job of it and that our reports are good models for others.

We receive earnest thanks, and our appreciation for the thanks is likewise in earnest.

There are many interesting objections to raise to assessment, whether for philosophy assessment or for anything else.

I’ll raise just three that are related to real philosophy.

First, I’ve always been struck by the fact that for a supposedly empirical investigation into student learning, the methods tend to be quasi-scientific at best.

One sees plenty of mean scores for various skill levels and outcomes, yet statistical analysis with p-values and confidence intervals is rare.

It was nearly nonexistent in the early days.

Even when such statistical checks and caveats are included, such checks rarely seem to check any conclusions drawn for the sake of using the results for making changes to one’s program.

This sins against empirically-informed methods, and by extension against rational thinking more generally.

And such sins against rational thinking by extension are sins against philosophy and real philosophy.

One could put it in terms of playing fast and loose with the truth, and such a practice is objectionable.

Second, the standards for success one sees adopted sometimes show a remarkable tendency to generate successful results.

For cases where the goals involve writing or analytical abilities, this is surprising given that our own data suggest a lot of struggle in these areas.

Defining the standard of success to generate success seems again to play fast and loose with the truth.

Yet one can set the standards more in line with what one perceives them really to be.

I hope we’ve at least tried in our own department.

One can also identify useful ways to help one’s students, even with only the tentative conclusions one can draw given the quasi-scientific nature of assessment, and work toward rectifying what seems to be missing.

I’ll give one example.

On their own, students won’t consider objections in their papers.

Even when prompted, encouraged, or even required to do so by the assignment, they tend to do a modest job of it at best.

In subsequent semesters after being required to consider objections in papers in a course devoted to argumentative writing, they typically revert back to not considering objections.

They practice a skill I’d say is crucial to real philosophy—considering objections—and they seem to understand that the skill is crucial, but they don’t gain the tendency or character to exercise it independently of its being required.

While discouraging, I think that without being forced to do program assessment, I’d never have happened upon this particular fact about student abilities.

I also wouldn’t have adjusted my writing assignments accordingly, I wouldn’t have reviewed the empirical literature on it, and I wouldn’t have devised new teaching strategies to try to address it.

I don’t know how much of a real philosopher I am, but real philosophers surely would be more likely to steer such chores as assessment in the most productive direction possible.

So these first two objections turn out to be modest and not too threatening.

One can work around them by avoiding the harms they warn of and encouraging others that showing weakness is both acceptable and useful for making improvements.

Having real philosophers in the academy makes this more likely.

But a third objection is most important and most relevant to promoting real philosophy.

To my knowledge, no assessment ever aims to measure the capacity for independent rational judgment, or the extent of its exercise, or the willingness to exercise it.

The objection is that such outcomes aren’t assessable at all, or at least not in any easy way, and since these habits of mind are crucial to what philosophy really is, assessment is a completely misguided exercise.

I see this as the most powerful objection to program assessment in philosophy.

But I don’t think the objection can be sustained.

For it seems that empirical research into whether students have these habits of mind is possible, it would be useful to our teaching to have it done, and such research would be interesting in its own right.

We’re in the realm of assessing so-called “effective student learning outcomes” here.

This is quite challenging.

Students’ “appreciation” of something, or their capacity for exercising a skill tied to such appreciation, OR their tendency to do so independently of any artificial prompt (like a test or paper assignment), OR their willingness to do so for the reason that it’s right to do it—all of these are notoriously difficult to assess.

But there is interest in empirical circles of doing so,[vi] and even if one ultimately needs completely different assessment tools for this, as well as longitudinal studies running beyond the time students are in college, the objection can be met.

One concern that’s easy to see though is that we professorial types really shouldn’t be the ones to do that empirical work.

Just as with the other assessment practices, if we do it, even with the best of intentions, the results risk being empirically unsound.

One has only to review some of the educational psychology literature to see this.

The conclusions drawn in that literature are the sorts of extremely modest and circumspect conclusions one would expect from scientists, while the conclusions drawn in assessment reports tend to go far beyond what the data would allow.

Given the challenge of assessing goals like “having the tendency and willingness to think rationally,” there is reason to be skeptical here.[vii]

Still, suppose again that real philosophers all left the academy.

What hope would there be for assessment’s helping the students that remain?

If some of us stay in with the proper motivation, there at least would be the work toward understanding what best improves students’ capacities tied to being real philosophers themselves.

Now to conclude.

First, I’m sympathetic if not completely on board with conceiving of philosophy as what the APP calls real philosophy.

Call it “authentic, serious” philosophy instead if one likes.

I suspect the ideal sort of philosophy would indeed be unbound from potentially corrupting and coercive influences in the professionalized academic world of philosophy.

But this leaves much room within the academy for what one might call corrective real philosophy or moderate real philosophy.

It would be corrective in the sense of pushing academic philosophy toward the ideal, and moderate in nevertheless falling short of that ideal.

We can push teaching practices toward what philosophy ought to be inculcating and inspiring, namely the capacity and willingness to exercise philosophical skills independently.

We can push students toward following Kant’s dictum.

Leaving the academy for independent teaching and research risks harms to those left.

Second, even some of the most bureaucratic practices of professionalized philosophy and professionalized academia—program assessment, for instance—can be made more effective if guided by real philosophers (and real historians, real political scientists, etc.).

Other examples surely abound.

So one might pause before exiting the academy altogether, even if an ideal state of philosophy exists outside it.

At the least, a transitional period would exist even if there happened to be a forceful push toward open philosophy and open academia.

That transitional period would still need real philosophy and real philosophy departments.

I’ve given some suggestions here to support the latter.


Abrami, P., Bernard, R., Borokhovski, E., Wade, A., Surkes, M., Tamim, R., Zhang, D. 2008. Instructional interventions affecting critical thinking skills and dispositions: A stage 1 meta-analysis. Review of Educational Research, 78(4), 1102–1134.

Abrami, P., Bernard, R., Borokhovski, E., Waddington, D., Wade, C., & Tonje, P. 2014. Strategies for teaching students to think critically: A meta-analysis. Review of Educational Research, 85, 275–314.

American Philosophical Association. 1990. Critical thinking: A statement of expert consensus for purposes of educational assessment and instruction. Millbrae, CA: American Philosophical Association. (Executive Summary accessed July 25, 2017 at

American Philosophical Association. 1995. Statement on the teaching of philosophy. Retrieved July 25, 2017 from (originally in Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association, 69(2), pp. 96–100, in “News from the national office”).

Battaly, H. 2006. Teaching intellectual virtues: Applying virtue epistemology in the classroom. Teaching Philosophy, 29(3), 191–222.

Dobbin, R. 2012. The Cynic philosophers from Diogenes to Julian. Penguin.

Kant, I. 1784. An answer to the question: What is enlightenment? Retrieved July 25, 2017 from

Kirk, K. 2015. What is the affective domain anyway? Student motivations and attitudes: The role of the affective domain in geoscience learning. Retrieved July 25, 2017 from

Koballa, T. 2013. Framework for the affective domain in science education. Student motivations and attitudes: The role of the affective domain in geoscience learning. Retrieved July 25, 2017 from

Martin, B. 1989. A checklist for designing instruction in the affective domain. Educational Technology, 29(8), 7–15.

Miller, L. 2015. Philosophical practice in the classroom, or, how I kill zombies for a living. AAPT Studies in Pedagogy, 1, 131–158.

Russell, B. 1945. Philosophy. In Slater 1997, pp. 223–233.

Russell, B. 1946. Philosophy for laymen. In Slater 1997, pp. 376–383.

Slater, J. (Ed.). 1997. The collected papers of Bertrand Russell, vol. 11: Last philosophical testament, 1943-68. Routledge.

Z, 2013. Philosophical anarchism, political anarchism, & anarcho-philosophy. Against Professional Philosophy. (

Z, 2015a. The pseudo-family from hell: Against philosophy departments & for philosophy research groups. Against Professional Philosophy. (

Z, 2015b. From Enlightenment lite to nihilism: How professional philosophy has totally let everyone down about the real purpose of an undergraduate liberal arts education. Against Professional Philosophy (

Z, 2016. Collective wisdom, collective stupidity, professional philosophy, and open philosophy. Against Professional Philosophy. (

Z, 2017a. Philosophy’s second Copernican revolution. Against Professional Philosophy (

Z, 2017b. Philosophy unbound. Against Professional Philosophy (


[i] “Philosophical anarchism, political anarchism, & anarcho-philosophy”

[ii] E.g., “The pseudo-family from hell: Against philosophy departments & for philosophy research groups” and “Collective wisdom, collective stupidity, professional philosophy, and open philosophy”

[iii] Open philosophy’s two proposals are (Z (2016)):

First, get rid of graduate schools, MA and PhD degrees, and philosophy departments altogether, and replace them with a network of interlinked open philosophy communities, each one created and sustained by voluntary association, team-spirit, and a shared sense of real, serious philosophy as a full-time, lifetime calling and mission, that combine dialogue, research, writing, publishing, teaching, and grassroots social activism, whose members are widely distributed spatiotemporally, in many different countries, continents, and time-zones, and who are therefore also fully cosmopolitan thinkers, doing real, serious philosophy without borders.

Second, get rid of professional academic philosophy journals, presses, and the rest of the professional academic publishing racket altogether, and replace them with a cosmopolitan, border-less, worldwide network of interlinked open philosophy online sites and platforms for dialogue, research, writing, publishing, teaching, and grassroots social activism, that are severally and collectively organized and run by the worldwide network of open philosophy communities.

I have no principled objection to this, except to point out that really it is open academia that should be proposed more broadly. As I go on to suggest in the text, academia without philosophy would be significantly bad for students and faculty that remain.

[iv] “Philosophy’s second Copernican revolution”, and “Philosophy unbound”

[v] By teaching philosophy-lite I mean teaching philosophy as if the main measures of student success are attainable by memory of theses, arguments, and criticisms thereof, together with gaining the basic writing abilities of organizing expository work in well-organized sets of grammatically correct sentences. Teaching philosophy-lite also includes teaching the tools of argument and criticism, including the ability to identify and categorize arguments, how to draw out logical consequences of statements, and how to recognize what would determine whether an argument is sound or not. This is all commendable. But I worry a student learning these things would still lack the capacity for independent thinking, and he or she would still lack the tendency or drive or character to engage in it. Instead of philosophy-lite, one might call it Enlightenment-lite, as opposed to Heavy-Duty Enlightenment, or Enlightenment in the sense of Kant (1784). See (Z, 2015) “From Enlightenment lite to nihilism: How professional philosophy has totally let everyone down about the real purpose of an undergraduate liberal arts education” (

For a good statement of what still seems to me to be philosophy-lite, we have this from the APA’s Statement on the Teaching of Philosophy (

Philosophical education involves far more than imparting of information about figures and developments in the history of philosophy, training in the latest techniques, or of getting students to learn the correct answers to philosophical questions, or even teaching them about alternative possible answers to these questions. The development of an appreciation and grasp of philosophical methods, issues, and traditions is an important part of it; and another is the cultivation of students’ analytical, critical, interpretive, and evaluative abilities in thinking about a variety of kinds of problems, historical texts, and issues, both “philosophical” and commonplace.

This is nicely put, but it leaves out the Kantian/Russellian ideal of having the intellectual virtues of tending to exercise the skills the statement mentions, and exercising them in the right contexts, and doing so on one’s own.

[vi] See, e.g., Martin (1989), Koballa (2013), and Kirk (2015). For teaching strategies in philosophy, see Battaly (2006) and Miller (2015). The APA’s Delphi Report (1990) recommends the focus I mention here. Section IV of that report, entitled “The Dispositional Dimension of Critical Thinking,” gives us this:

FINDING: Although the language here is metaphorical, one would find the panelists to be in general accord with the view that there is a critical spirit, a probing inquisitiveness, a keenness of mind, a zealous dedication to reason, and a hunger or eagerness for reliable information which good critical thinkers possess but weak critical thinkers do not seem to have. As water strengthens a thirsty plant, the affective dispositions are necessary for the CT skills identified to take root and to flourish in students.

RECOMMENDATION 4: Modeling that critical spirit, awakening and nurturing those attitudes in students, exciting those inclinations and attempting to determine objectively if they have become genuinely integrated with the high quality execution of CT skills are, for the majority of panelists, important instructional goals and legitimate targets for educational assessment. However, the experts harbor no illusions about the ease of designing appropriate instructional programs or assessment tools.

This is more heavy-duty critical thinking, in line with the APP’s conception of Heavy-Duty Enlightenment and real philosophy.

[vii] For extensive discussion of the challenges faced for instruction in both low-level and heavy-duty (disposition-related) critical thinking, see Abrami et al. (2008) and Abrami et al. (2014) for meta-analysis of the empirical literature.

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