By Richard Bett
The Johns Hopkins Philosophy Department is immensely grateful to Bill Miller for his truly spectacular $75 million gift. The fact that a very successful investor sees enduring value in philosophy is just the kind of publicity the discipline needs. Johns Hopkins President Ron Daniels rightly called this gift “wonderfully contrarian”; it pushes against the mindset that only STEM fields are important. In an era when many philosophy departments have been at risk of elimination – something that, as an APA Board member, I have all too often heard about, and co-signed letters aiming to prevent (sometimes successfully) – I think this is really a shot in the arm for the profession.
The gift will allow us to increase the faculty to 22. The Hopkins philosophy department has always suffered from its small size. While the leading Ph.D.-granting departments typically have well over 20 faculty, we are currently at an all-time high of 13. We have had, and currently have, some first-rate philosophers. But it is not just a quirk of the Philosophical Gourmet Report that small departments tend to be viewed less favorably than large ones (of comparable average quality). Such a preference makes good sense, for both faculty and graduate students: if you have more people to talk to on a daily basis, in your own sub-field and others, you are more likely to thrive as a philosopher. What the Miller gift promises to do, very simply, is to raise us into a different league.
I think Miller understands this quite well, but he has also made clear that he would like another effect of his gift to be a much broader exposure to philosophy for Hopkins undergraduates. He credits his own success as an investor in part to the habits of mind he picked up in studying philosophy. Again, I just want to say: Yes!!!! We all know about the real usefulness of the thinking skills philosophy cultivates, in so many different endeavors; it’s a message that needs to be promoted as widely as possible. As the department starts thinking about who we might want to attract to the department, we will be looking not just at scholarly or research accomplishments, but also at exciting and innovative teaching.
Johns Hopkins University is not that old. It began in 1876, and was explicitly conceived on the model of the then new German research university. It was the first university in the US to offer the Ph.D. The department had a number of philosophical celebrities in its early years, either as faculty or as students; John Dewey and Josiah Royce were among the university’s first Ph.D.s, and Charles Sanders Peirce was
an early faculty member. Other notable figures in the 20th century were Arthur Lovejoy (faculty) and Harry Frankfurt (Ph.D.).
At least as long as I have been in the department (since 1991), it has combined a strong emphasis on the history of philosophy with an attention to systematic concerns. Since around the turn of the 21st century it has developed a particular strength in German philosophy, especially German Idealism. Our most recent hires (both in 2017) were Chris Lebron and Elanor Taylor, who, among several other strengths, have for the first time given us some significant coverage of race and gender issues in philosophy. It is much too early to say what the department will look like in detail when all the positions are filled (which will take a number of years). But the goal will be to build on our strengths while also filling some gaps, and in general to recruit the best philosophers and teachers of philosophy we possibly can. One gap that I would especially like to fill is non-Western philosophy (probably Chinese or Indian). In the department at its current size, this could never really be argued for as a top priority, but it can surely be included in the larger department.
This is both a huge opportunity and a huge responsibility. We hope to justify the confidence Bill Miller has shown in the department.
Richard Bett is Professor of Philosophy and Classics and Chair of the Department of Philosophy at Johns Hopkins University. His focus is on ancient Greek philosophy, as well as ethics and epistemology. He is the author of Phyrrho, His Antecedents and His Legacy (Oxford, 2000) and of translations of Sextus Empiricus’ Against the Ethicists (Oxford, 1997), Against the Logicians (Cambridge, 2005) and Against the Physicists (Cambridge, 2012). From January 2000 to June 2001 he was the acting executive director of The American Philosophical Association, and from 2003-2013 he was the secretary-treasurer of its Eastern Division; he is currently Vice Chair of its Board of Officers.