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.

Creative Philanthrophy?

What would you do with $100 and a case of altruism? How about giving away umbrellas during a rainstorm:

David Ibnale had no idea how tough it would be to give away umbrellas on Market Street the other day. He figured that he and his free umbrellas were going to change the world. The world had other ideas.

“People thought there was something fishy about it,” Ibnale said. “There wasn’t. It was just free umbrellas.”

Ibnale was one of a dozen people in San Francisco who had been given $100 by a startup charity that is trying to get strangers to start doing nice things for other strangers. It’s a novel concept. Most folks, it turns out, aren’t prepared for it. “What’s the catch?” a man asked.

No catch, replied Ibnale. Take an umbrella. You’re getting wet.

“No, thanks,” the man answered, and kept walking through the rain. Ibnale began keeping count. He asked 27 wet people if they would like to have an umbrella. Seventeen of them said no.

Altruism is something of a novelty these days, and most people have little time to partake. But altruism is the whole idea behind the new charity, called the Secret Society for Creative Philanthropy.

The article mentions other attempts at ordinary altruism, some of which were more successful. I love this sort of thing, less for for the evidence of suspicion built into our daily interactions (“What’s the catch?”) and more for the creativity it demands of folks and the plus-sized benefits it engenders. (400 quarters on a grammar school playground is worth more than $100.)

That said, the hedonic utilitarian in me (an unpleasant man to be sure) worries that we ought not to call random acts of generosity philanthropy, or even altruism, exactly. The reason to do this kind of show-off charity is thoroughly selfish, since we end up keeping so much of the enjoyment for ourselves. On this view, the real reason we love these stories is that they sound like fun: it’s the utility monster in all of us trying to find its way out. (“I can spend $100 better than you can!”) Though this kind of creativity is certainly welcome, there’s a niggling voice who insists that a true altruist wouldn’t even need to see the benefits of her efforts, and would donate the money to Oxfam or Doctors Without Borders where it can do “the most good.”

So let’s put these suspicions to rest: understood as virtue or capacity cultivation, these kinds of exercises are more effective than duties or obligations for accomplishing the goals that duties and obligations seek. We know this with children: we use enjoyable and fun exercises cultivate the virtue of charity so that they learn to cherish altruism later and elsewhere. So why not skip that fancy dinner and buy some umbrellas? Maybe it’ll make you a better person, but even if you fail to flourish, there’ll be a lot of dry and suspiciously grateful people. And if it turns out to be fun, maybe we can skip two dinners, and split the proceeds: half for Haiti, half for random acts of kindness.

Zero-sum games are for suckers. Hedonic utilitarians ought to know that better than anyone: be full of win.

How to Carry Out the Duty to Assist in Haiti

I won’t spend much time justifying the duty to assist now, except to link to Ramsey Clark’s essay “Haiti’s Agonies and Exaltations,” but I do want to talk about the kinds of assistance we can offer:

  1. Personal: in the short term, we can all text “HAITI” to 90999 to give $10 to the Red Cross. I also recommend Oxfam America and Doctors Without Borders.
  2. Domestic: We can petition our governments to grant Haitian immigrants Temporary Protected Status. Let them help themselves by working and remitting money to their relatives. To support Temporary Protected Status in the US, contact the White House here. You’ll need to select “I have a policy comment”, and “Immigration” from the drop-down menu.
  3. Fiscal: Cancel Haiti’s debt. It was largely symbolic, anyway.
  4. Institutional: Haiti had one of the worst and most dysfunctional governments in the western hemisphere. Now, that government has largely ceased to exist. Before the earthquake, half of the government’s revenue came from foreign development assistance.  Now, that number will be 100%. “For the next few years, we will effectively hold government power there, whether we want to or not….” The question we should be asking ourselves is, what’s the responsible thing to do with such control? Let’s try to do better than we did in 1915, 1934, 1947, 1980, 1986, and 2004.


I understand why folks do retrospective blog posts and best-of lists in early December, and I certainly benefit from it as I’m thinking about Christmas gifts, but it seems to violate the spirit of the list or retrospective itself to start before the year or decade is done.  If this is the *only* lesson that we learn from Mutallab’s attempted attack on Northwest Airlines Flight 253, I’ll be happy: just because you’re going on vacation for the last few weeks of the year doesn’t mean the year is over. Having safely escaped 2009 and the whole ‘Naughty Aughts’ decade, here are my reflections, predictions, and lists:

Trend for the past decade: The Blog

Domestically, this was the decade of the blog. Like many Americans, I started the decade accessing the internet through AOL via a phone line and a modem: today I don’t even have a landline and my cell phone gets e-mail. Whether it was terrorism,  the Fuehrer principle, sorry, theory of the unitary executive in the White House, the dual wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, America’s first black president, or the almost zero economic growth we experienced this decade, the place where most of us went for more information was the internet, and specifically to that mix of news and opinion that was pioneered on cable news networks but found its home here in the blogosphere.

Of course, that’s a pretty narrow-minded view of what’s been going on: the blog has primarily been revolutionary for, well, bloggers, and the journalists who’ve been losing their jobs to folks who’re willing to do the work for free. The biggest trends are largely not domestic American trends at all:

Internationally, I think the big economic story was China, which succeeded in achieving tremendous economic gains for the least advantaged through trade liberalization. Since the end of the Cultural Revolution, China has lifted HALF A BILLION people out of absolute poverty. In this decade, it managed to befriend its biggest competitor through the simple expedient of loaning us 3/4 of a trillion dollars. As a consequence, it’s true, relative inequality has exploded. For my part, I spent the decade deciding that trading absolute poverty for relative poverty was actually a good deal.

On the international political scene, I think Iran steals the cake, though this presumes, falsely,  that our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are not international political stories closely tied to the troubles of the nation stuck between them. The Green Revolution in Iran will overturn the government there, whether it happens this year or in five years. Watching the Twitter feeds of Iranian dissidents made me feel like Immanuel Kant listening to reports of the French Revolution: “a wishful participation that borders closely on enthusiasm.” Details aside, it’s an unbeatable lesson in what Arendt called “the elementary grammar of political action.”

Trend for the coming decade: Lowered Expectations

I predict that Americans will lower their expectations in the Teens. Basically, a bastardized version of the ‘Small is Beautiful‘ movement will finally gain mainstream status. The new normal will be a lower trend line for growth, higher taxes, higher savings, and risk aversion. I expect some counter-cyclical grandiosity, but I think in general we’ll learn to live with less, and even the rich will come to disdain conspicuous consumption or else meet with the derision of their fellows. Simplicity will be in style.  The fads that remain will continue to surround expensive and compact electronics like the iPhone or Kindle.

I think these lowered expectations will have cultural implications as well: just as we had a bit of a letdown when the world didn’t end as the millennium came to a close, we’re going to be busy realizing that a black president won’t save us from ourselves or eliminate racism, and that there’s no easy solution to the messes we’ve made. Hopefully we’ll buckle down and work at paying back our parents’ debts. More Americans will ‘settle’ for second-tier cities rather than flocking to New York or Los Angeles or Chicago. I predict we’ll have more kids (which is consumption of a different sort) and that there will be another demographic bulge to rival the Baby Boomers from the children born over the next decade.

What’s the 21st Century going to be like? Slower and Hotter

As the Financial Times has recently pointed out, we rarely realize the themes of a century during its first decade: whether it’s World War I starting in 1914, or Napoleon’s downfall in 1814, the events that end up defining a century’s character for historians tend to occur in the century’s ‘adolescence.’ So I don’t think this will be a terror century just because the US finally realized how devastating domestic attacks on civilians by foreign nationals can be in 2001. Terrorism is a thoroughly 20th century problem, but like knives and forks, some things don’t go away when their time is past.

If anything, I think this century is most likely to be defined by two factors: the environment and peak oil. The fact that we still don’t have a functioning international carbon regulation regime suggests that there’s plenty of time to make that the crowning achievement of the next decade, and fighting the fraud that’s likely to emerge from a carbon cap trading system is going to take us a bunch more decades still. Then we’ll have to deal with the hangover from the last fifty years of carbon emissions.

Peak oil itself would just spell the loss of the standards of growth and development that characterized the post-war Anglo-American experience, and the post-Cultural Revolution experience in China. Combined with the growth of communications technologies, however, I think we might see a set of competing trends around geographic decentralization and information centralization, a la Google. Why send people to interact by expensive & polluting aeroplane when you can video teleconference or communicate via wiki? On the other hand, the physical goods that still satisfy our biggest needs will be in increasingly short supply: we’ll compete with our cars and trucks for calories, we’ll find that we’ll make do with less space in order to live close to city centers, and we’ll make do with less medicine and health care.

At the same time, I don’t think peak oil will significantly effect international trade: the really inefficient transportation is the one-person gas guzzling car. A container ship is still the best way to get goods from low labor cost countries to high labor cost countries, so I don’t expect a re-industrialization of the first world or a major sectoral shift towards manual labor. The benefits of education (and greater and greater specialization) will only increase, with the attendant inequalities and impoverishment of those who aren’t the recipients of educational largesses by the state or rich families. So China, Brazil, Russia, and India will continue to decouple their economies from the growth of the first world, even as they continue to supply many of our needs.

I’m well aware of the poor track record of futurists, so if this turns out to be the century that we perfect immortality and the Alpha Centauris finally show up to say, “Hi,” I’ll be embarrassed, but those sorts of mistakes are par for the course.

Best Political Philosophy:

The folks at Crooked Timber gave me much to chew on a few weeks ago, but here’s my (unordered) list:

  • Thomas Pogge World Poverty and Human Rights
  • Martha Nussbaum Frontiers of Justice
  • Amartya Sen The Idea of Justice
  • Iris Marion Young Inclusion and Democracy
  • Sheldon Wolin Democracy Incorporated
  • Claude Lefort Complications
  • Stephen Breyer Active Liberty
  • Phillip Petit A Theory of Freedom
  • Diana Mutz Hearing the Other Side
  • David Estlund Democratic Authority
  • Charles Taylor A Secular Age

Best Films and Television

A person could do worse than just read through the Slate Interactive List or the Metacritic list and add things to their Netflix queue, but here’s my personal short list for true greatness:

  • Pan’s Labyrinth
  • Up (really, everything by Pixar, but especially Up)
  • 25th Hour
  • The Road (absolutely destroys the post-apocalyptic genre: “Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose“)

Jon Stewart ruled late night, but this was a decade of serial narratives on television. This is a highly contested space, and most peoples preferences are closely tied to their class and background, so I’ll just say that, for my part, I think the best of these were:

  • The Wire
  • Dexter
  • The West Wing
  • Six Feet Under
  • Lost

Some other best-of lists: io9’s 20 Best Science Fiction Novels, The Onion AV Club’s Best Books of the 00’s. I’d say that Freakonomics was the most influential book of the decade, that Zadie Smith was the best new novelist, and that Harry Potter was the best fantasy/science fiction.

Weekend Reading

Can Liberals Take Their Own Side in an Argument? (PDF) Robert Talisse takes on Robert Frost and Mozert v. Hawkins.

Epistemic dependence is unavoidable because every individual has limited
cognitive resources. However, this dependence in itself is not a bad
thing; great stores of knowledge and information that could not be produced
by a single person are available to us precisely because of the division
of epistemic labor that epistemic dependence necessitates. Nonetheless,

Epistemic dependence is unavoidable because every individual has limited cognitive resources. However, this dependence in itself is not a bad thing; great stores of knowledge and information that could not be produced by a single person are available to us precisely because of the division of epistemic labor that epistemic dependence necessitates. Nonetheless, epistemic dependence is risky, because one may defer to the wrong persons to the wrong extent and so become vulnerable to developing beliefs and epistemic habits that engender and sustain falsehood. The risks associated with having false beliefs are both prudential and moral: They are prudential insofar as false beliefs frustrate one’s deliberations about means; they are moral insofar as they can lead one to adopt immoral ends.

In light of the risks associated with unavoidable epistemic dependence and our strong interest in getting moral matters right and avoiding moral error, we should agree that those social institutions are best which tend to minimize the risks of dependence while maximizing the benefits of the epistemic division of labor.

Arthur Koestler and his Century: Louis Menand reviews Koestler: The Literary and Political Odyssey of a Twentieth-Century Skeptic by Michael Scammell.

In 1976, he published “The Thirteenth Tribe,” a book purporting to prove that Ashkenazi Jews are descendants of eighth-century converts, the Khazars, who immigrated to Europe from the Caucasus. The book was a best-seller in the United States. Koestler, who was Jewish, claimed that his argument refuted anti-Semitism by showing that European Jews were not related to the Jews whom some anti-Semites blame for the killing of Christ. But the book was popular with Arabs, since it implied that European Jews settling in Israel were returning to the wrong homeland, and with neo-Nazis, since it suggested that Diaspora Jews constituted a pseudo nation constructed on a racial myth, and that Jews should either immigrate to Israel or assimilate—which is, in fact, what Koestler himself believed.

Breakdown in the Academy: Peter Berkowitz reviews The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University by Louis Menand.

As Menand sees it, one big problem, or one big cause of problems, in America’s vast empire of advanced education…  is that faculty are too conservative. He does not mean that professors are conservative in the partisan political sense — he cites data that demonstrate that a substantial majority of today’s professors are left of center — but rather in the professional sense that they seek to preserve their discipline’s established ways and in the vulgar sense that they selfishly seek to protect their entrenched privilege. While eager to impose dramatic reforms on the rest of society, professors, he argues, demonstrate a decided preference for maintaining the status quo inside the university.

Climate Rules Set from the Top Are Not Enough: Spiegel Online interviews Elinor Ostrom.

Ostrom: Successful communities often have a few common design principles — monitoring and sanctioning of the participants, for example. They also have conflict resolution mechanisms in place and the people have some authority to make their own rules. Under those circumstances humans can develop some trust in each other — faith that if they take a costly action that benefits everybody in the long run, others will also invest.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Why is it less effective if governments establish strict rules from the top down?

Ostrom: Because people will not identify with it. My research has shown that forests managed by local communities are in a far better state than state-run parks, where locals feel left out and officials can be bribed. Let us imagine, we live in a village and have all agreed that none of us is going to be in the forest on Saturday or Sunday, so that we can give the forest time to recreate. If I then see you in the forest when you’re not supposed to be, I will probably yell at you. If only the state is in charge, I will just walk on past.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: In other words, an anti-corruption task force — like the one that exists in Indonesia — might be the best environmental protection agency?

Ostrom: Absolutely! If you look at the role corruption plays in giving away forests to big corporations and in looking away if forest protection rules are broken, you will see that bribery is one of the main contributors to environmental destruction.

If Only Tiger Were a Socialist:

Tiger Woods is the reason Americans cannot get universal health care. Allegorically speaking.