How to get a philosophical education for free

A regularly updated version of this guide can be found here.

DIY UI teach at the third-most expensive school in the country, where I regularly persuade students that they should major or minor in philosophy. For many students, this is a value question, and as I like to put it, there’s a difference here between the value of a philosophy education and its price. Specifically, it’s not clear to me that it ought to cost $200,000 to get a bachelor’s degree in philosophy… but I do think it’s worth it.

As a result of this tension, the current crisis in the humanities has very personal implications for me. In the UK, whole departments are being cut, while the US continues to squeeze the humanities even when they are massively popular and profitable. As I’ve been trying to argue, this was always entailed by the growing rent-seeking class of administrators who we have apparently hired so that we can be saved the labor needed to fire us. Frankly, I suspect we’ve had this coming for a couple of millennia now: didn’t Socrates make his name undermining the paid-teaching models of the Sophists?

Iain Pears writes critically of this trend but the upshot is actually somewhat conservative:

The combination of artificially-induced market forces and government disdain for the humanities as economically non-productive will shrink arts subjects into a ghetto where they will become increasingly studied by those who can afford to pay, at institutions which can afford to charge

I call that conservative because the humanities will again be relegated to their role in signaling status, as only richer Britons or Americans will be able to afford the tuition fees at top schools where the humanities are still taught.

Caught in the middle of this, I think we have two options: we can criticize and decry this course of events in hopes of changing it, or we can begin preparing for a time when humanities instruction is less accessible than it has been over the past half-century. In fact, we should do both, but today I want to focus on preparation.

So, here’s what I have in mind: a free syllabus in philosophy for all those students who can’t afford to attend one of the elite schools that still teaches philosophy in a decade.

Here’s how it works: combine the free online offerings of MIT’s Open Courseware, Academic Earth, Itunes U, and Youtube with other free web resources that would suffice to supply what could once only be gained by taking out student loans.

Check it out!

  • Introduction to Philosophy

Start with Oxford’s Peter Millican at Itunes U.

  • Introduction to Ethics and Political Philosophy

Michael Sandel’s Justice course has drawn tens of thousands of Harvard students and focuses on themes and problems in the good life and the good society. Steven B. Smith offers a historical approach at Yale on Academic Earth. Explore special topics the BBC’s Ethics Bites or spend a semester with Berkley’s Michael Nagler considering the case for Nonviolence.

  • Epistemology and Metaphysics

I haven’t been able to find an introductory course just on metaphysics, but how about John Searle’s lectures on the Philosophy of Mind? Alternatively, take a look at this course on the ethics and metaphysics of Death by Yale’s Shelly Kagan.

  • Aesthetics

Kent State’s Jeffrey Wattles offers an Introduction.

What’s missing?

Now, self-regard prevents me from really believing that the education available online is better than the one you can get in my classroom, but I’m not so arrogant to think that I’m a better lecturer than Michael Sandel. Notable is what’s lost when all you have are these kinds of courses: you lose feedback and the interrogative experience of a seminar room, you lose the cohort of fellow students who will stay up late hashing out a passage from Aristotle, you lose the synchronicity of associations between very different courses taken simultaneously, and you lose the assessment and professionalization that a professor’s comments and counseling supply. What makes my classroom work is the seminar-style I learned as an undergraduate at Bard College, and which I try to foster at George Washington. That’s the practice of philosophy as a liberal art, a technique for free citizens to inquire together into matters of fundamental concern. You can’t learn the habitus of philosophy from an online video.

  • Special Topics

So far, the courses available online might supply the first two years of a philosophy degree. A disciplined person pursing this syllabus would have a good sense of the overall discipline, but could not be said to have “majored” in philosophy, because the free university offerings become a bit sparser at the advanced level. Courses at this level become specialized, focusing on epochs, figures, problems, and themes. Plus, this is the stage when we start really pushing students to see which ones have potential to become professional scholars, if not in philosophy than in a proximate academic discipline or as lawyers. That means it’s a much more interactive and much more textual education, and it may be less easily-suppled online.

However, it’s always possible glean specific insights and avenues for research from Philosophy Bites or the Guardian’s How to Believe series. You can dig deeper into any topic using the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Herbert Dreyfus takes students through Heidegger’s Being and Time (continued here), which you can supplement with Simon Critchley’s series in the Guardian. Also at the Guardian, Mark Vernon blogs The Platonic Dialogues, and in the same vein, Chris Long offers a series of interviews on Socratic Political themes. (More from the Guardian: KierkegaardNietzscheHume,Wittgenstein, and Hobbes.)

For a while Susan Stuart’s lectures on Kant’s epistemology offered a pretty thorough guide to The Critique of Pure Reason, but they’ve been removed. Perhaps they’ll be back. I wouldn’t ask DIY-ers to brave the first Critique without a guide, but this is the point when a good library or bookstore might supply the missing manual.

  • Interaction and Feedback

The quickest way to get feedback on an idea or argument is to start blogging about it. A really ambitious DIY student could recruit a cohort of fellow DIY-ers to work with her. Start a WordPress or Blogger blog and join a community like Big Big QuestionEphilosopherMetafilter, or Less Wrong. Start writing, reading, responding, and linking, and the commentary will come. Some of it will be critical, some helpful, some mean, but you’ll learn and make connections, develop insights and obsessions, just like a traditional student.

The hardest part is finding someone to grade your work, but Virtual-TA has you covered there.

  • Professionalization

If all the instruction is happening online, and all the grading is is Bangalore, who would want to be a “professional” philosopher? With the UK cutting budgets and whole departments, and humanities instruction increasingly done by adjuncts and graduate students rather than tenure/tenure-track faculty, it appears that there may soon be fewer opportunities for philosophy instruction that there were previously.

So maybe we could forgo professionalization… except that it seems to me that an amateur philosophy student has only learned enough to be dangerous, not enough to be useful. So in that sense, my free syllabus is a failure: you can get a philosophical education for free, online, but it takes bit more than that to garner the benefits of studying philosophy. (But hopefully not $200,000 more….) If this page whets your whistle, though… well, remind me to tell you about Socrates’ art of matchmaking and midwifery when you sign up for my course. 🙂

If we love our discipline as much as the paycheck and status it promises, we have to work to combat the exclusivity of an examined life available only to those who can pay. If the internet is not yet able to take over our duties… I guess we’re going to have to fight.


11 responses to “How to get a philosophical education for free”

  1. Brunson Avatar

    Just wanted to highlight the obvious ambiguity between getting a free philosophical education and a free education in philosophy. However, I am not sure what to say about this other than the boilerplate approach/content 'What is philosophy?' stuff. You can learn a lot of chemistry online for free, but few would refer to that as a free chemical education.

    1. Joshua Avatar

      Yeah, I'm not sure if this is clear, but I don't think a free education in philosophy is actually possible, at least not yet. You can learn some philosophy content online, but I'm not sure you can learn to practice philosophy on-line.

      Without digging too far into "What is Philosophy?" I do suspect that there's a fundamental practice that each student in my courses must learn, and even very smart students don't know when they arrive.

      That fundamental practical skill? How to fill in the content of a "…because…" statement. If there's one thing I do to intro students more than any other, it's correct their initial impressions as to how to finish a sentence that purports to offer reasons or justifications. I really don't think that's something you can learn in a purely passive mode.

  2. Nick Avatar

    I have been listening and watching many of these online resources for a few years now, it all started with Hubert Dreyfus on iTunes. I enjoyed listening to the lectures so much I enrolled on a beginners philosophy course at the Mary Ward Centre in London which ran the only Access to Philosophy course in the country (now cut) and will start at the University of London in October reading Philosophy. Whilst there is no substitute for debate, these online courses (including Openlearn where the Open University publish course material for free), have been and continue to be daily brain fodder for a mature student like me – long may they continue.

  3. Fred Avatar

    You can learn atleast a part of what can be considered the/a method of philosophy online, through participation with much more experienced (and often, better educated) thinkers on the net. It is quite hit and miss, with a very large amount of useless dross, but useful debates and knowledge are present. I have learnt a good deal in my online forays, I will admit that I only do so because my university studies brought philosophical questions in to my awareness of the world, but I highly doubt that any university has a monopoly on such things, and the internet does provide for those interested in philosophy, philosophical debates, generalised learning etc.

  4. Monica Avatar

    We can tilt at windmills, but without the sheepskin we won't get paid for it.

    1. anotherpanacea Avatar

      Indeed, if you have an instrumental relationship to education, than this is an important consideration. On the other hand, if you have a purely instrumental relationship to education, it\’s probably best for you to major in engineering or the sciences. While philosophy departments teach many instrumentally useful skills, they do so by delving deeply into topics that are far from instrumental.

    2. Jacob Avatar

      I have the sheepskin and i don't get paid for it.

  5. Craig Lykins Avatar

    I remember thinking, during the sunrise of YouTube, that education as we knew it, had changed forever. Now in seconds you can choose to watch a Nobel Prize Winner give a lecture, learn to build a pipe bomb, and everything in-between. With Wikipedia you now can access billions of dollars of information that only 20 years ago would have required weeks of research in a library. Credentials now matter much less. Hits matter. And of equal importance, YOU can now become the teacher. Your opinion can be posted and heard. This is democracy at it's finest, devoid of political and economic barriers. Craigslist is killing newspapers. Will YouTube kill colleges? Why pay for something when you can get it for free? The answer: As of right now, sheepskins still matter. Companies pay for sheepskins. But wll they always? That is the trillion dollar question.

  6. @olivershiny Avatar

    I think this is a good idea. There's a breakdown in teaching analytical thought in schools. I view this as dangerous considering that there's also a rise in the ease with which information can be accessed. More information added to less actual thinking equals an educated and misled population. Seems dangerous. I believe a lot of the big, public problems rise from this.

  7. Jhowson Avatar

    I came across this course titled "Moral Foundations of Politics," available at Yale Open Courses.
    Here's the link to the 25 lecture series:

    These lectures are simular to Sandel's "Justice" lectures, but these Yale lectures emphasises political philosophy over moral philosophy.

    Thanks for putting this together. Cheers.

    1. anotherpanacea Avatar

      Thanks! I'm going to leave this post static, but I'll add it to my evolving free syllabus here.

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