To Be or Not to Be?

Is it time for the American Philosophical Association to be euthanized? A philosopher appointed to a committee to look into the organization’s future asks the provocative question.

February 6, 2012

Detractors of the century-old American Philosophical Association often complain about what they say are its dysfunctional ways. Many women openly ridicule the Smoker, a quasi-job fair at the association’s eastern conference where free beer is the norm; some have questioned the need for three regional conferences instead of one national meeting; and many more like to vent about its website, which has a late-1990s feel to it.

Late last year, the American Philosophical Association set about forming four committees to look into the future of the organization, suggest remedial measures and come up with ideas to improve its declining finances. The four groups would investigate four specific areas: membership and member services, communication and publication, development, and structure and governance.

But what the APA might not have bargained for was a member of one of these committees suggesting that the organization itself be disbanded. Peter Ludlow, professor of moral and intellectual philosophy at Northwestern University, suggested just that last week on Leiter Reports, a popular philosophy blog run by Brian Leiter, a law professor who also teaches philosophy at the University of Chicago.

The post, which invoked Albert Camus in the beginning and ended with Ludlow asking readers the point of keeping the APA alive, delved into the worrisome finances of the organization and the redundancy of face-to-face job interviews in the age of Skype, the latter a reference to a major reason why many people have historically become involved in the association, to use its job services at meetings. "I was appointed to this committee a couple of weeks ago and I think it is necessary to rethink everything," Ludlow said. The post was a way to make the problems vivid, Ludlow said. "It opens up a menu of possibilities."

The APA was established in 1900 and has historically had three annual conferences run by its three geographical divisions: Eastern, Central and Pacific. Regular members currently number about 7,000, while there are about 1,300 emeritus members, who do not pay yearly membership fees but often make annual donations. The organization does not have a journal -- meaning it does not have a revenue source many disciplinary groups have.

Ludlow said in his blog that he is making the case for the APA to be dissolved not because he is convinced but because the question needs to be entertained. “In the financial period ending June 30, 2011, the APA had operating revenue of around $1.2 million, but operating expenses of $1.3 million, meaning that it was digging a financial hole,” he said. He pointed out how other organizations such as the American Anthropological Society, with an annual budget of $5 million, are in a better financial space. (To be fair, many of the disciplinary associations with larger budgets serve disciplines with more professors.)

His solutions are drastic and sure to be unpopular: ask for more money from members, get wealthy members and patrons of the APA to donate money or create a journal of philosophy that members might be forced to buy. Or die.

David Schrader, executive director of the APA, said the organization’s financial need is an issue of concern, but not dire. About half of the deficit comes from the money lost on the meetings, he said. “The divisions are committed to making the meetings at very least revenue-neutral. The board is also exploring the possibility of an association journal as well,” Schrader said. He said the APA was the only major disciplinary organization that did not publish a journal.

He said the APA last went through a period of self-evaluation in 1999, and 13 years later it was time for introspection again.

Lost in the debate, Schrader said, is what the APA does for philosophy departments. He mentioned how the organization last year spoke up for two philosophy departments at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas and Reno when they were facing cuts and ultimately both those departments were largely preserved. “There were other groups who were speaking up for them but we played an important part,” he said.   “We have also formed a committee to develop a standard for adjuncts in two-year colleges.”

Schrader also added that the APA is a decentralized organization because of its three divisions and there are more occasions for scholarly dialogue.

Not every philosopher agrees with this version.

Leiter, who publishes the Leiter Reports, said though the organization may not be “entirely worthless,” younger philosophers tend to think that the APA is a bit of a disaster -- though it could hold some value for them in terms of networking opportunities or jobs. “The question is whether the APA can serve them better. I think even a better-designed website would improve opinions on the APA, but to do that, it would cost more money,” said Leiter, who is currently not a member and declined to be a part of one of the committees.

V. Alan White, a philosophy professor at the University of Wisconsin-Manitowoc, agreed that the APA website is a “disaster”, and the tradition of interviews at the eastern conference “places a burden on early career Ph.Ds that is unnecessary in the age of Skype.”

Even so, White said the APA fills a crucial need when it comes to smaller philosophical societies. “I am a longtime member of the Philosophy of Time Society, which typically meets along with the regional conferences…I suspect that many such societies probably could not survive the breakup of the APA because most have such shoestring budgets that they (like mine) could not independently afford to organize meetings apart from the regional conferences,” he said.

Though philosophers jumped online to criticize the APA after the blog was published, some talked about their wonderful experiences with the organization and the social role of the conferences. One of them was Elizabeth Harman, a philosophy professor at Princeton University.

“I submitted papers to many APA meetings, got some good practice with rejection, and also got good practice giving talks. Many people saw my papers who would otherwise never have read my work,” she said in a reply to the blog post. “That the APA conferences provide a forum for graduate students to present their work -- often with a more distinguished philosopher as commentator -- is one of the wonderful things about the conferences.”

Harman pointed out in a phone conversation how the APA took a stand against those colleges who may discriminate against gay people as an example of the organization’s usefulness.

Another philosopher, Kenneth Easwaran, an associate professor at the University of Southern California, pointed out the usefulness of an APA publication called Jobs for Philosophers, which is published twice a year. He said the publication includes just about every job in a philosophy department in the United States and Canada and some international openings. "The fact that there is one place and time to look for ads is a great service for job-seekers," he said, but noted that there are newer sites such as, that could play a similar role if they become well-established. Easwaran said he is open to discussions of alternative arrangements but that there is value to the job listings and meetings  being managed by "the profession" in the form of the APA.

What no one disputes is that Ludlow’s post has opened up the discussion. John Martin Fischer, a philosophy professor at the University of California at Riverside, said that it would be wrong to assume that the APA will continue to carry on in its present form. Fischer, who is the president elect for the Pacific division and co-chairs the membership and member service committee, said he is on the side that favors keeping the APA. "But we have to improve the way it functions and cater to the needs of our members in a smart and nimble way," he said.

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