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So, I'm working on this paper in hopes to present at the Foucault Circle next Spring. Thoughts/comments? (I'm also considering creating an entirely separate forum concentrating on the genealogy of professional philosophy and moving this post over there; thoughts?)

A Genealogy of the “PhD Octopus”:
A Foucaultian Case Study of Professional Philosophy

Kevin S. Jobe

Stony Brook University (SUNY)

Philosophy Department

The professional apparatus of the PhD system in philosophy and its related disciplines is so
commonplace today that we hardly give it any critical thought. Indeed, “(W)e
have become so accustomed to it, it is so ingrained in our ways of thinking
about higher education, that we consider it part of the natural order of the
universe.”[1] If we have learned anything from Foucault, it is precisely that those institutions
and practices which are held to be part of the natural order of things are in
fact contingent features of the discursive ordering of our experience. This
paper, therefore, will aim to give a brief sketch of a genealogy of the
professionalization of philosophy in order to reveal and explore new ways of
thinking about ourselves and others as collective ‘producers of knowledge’.
Such a genealogy, I claim, reveals an entire set of problems that include not
only questions about the amateur-professional distinction in philosophy, but
fundamental questions about our definitions of truth and knowledge. In the
process, I argue that William James’ critique of academic professionalism
anticipates in important ways Foucault’s analysis of disciplinary power and its
manifestations in the school and university. As a conclusion, I advance a notion
of knowledge production that draws upon both James and Foucault’s conceptions
of truth and knowledge.

More than a century ago, William James, just three years after the formation of the
American Philosophical Association, published a piece in the Harvard Monthly in
which he railed against the ‘PhD octopus’ that had taken over higher education.
James characterized this stamp-approving, merit-based professionalism as “…a
tyrannical Machine with unforeseen powers of exclusion and corruption.”[2] Indeed,
the “culture of professionalism” had won the day over and against (for example)
the American pragmatists who had a quite different conception of how knowledge
and inquiry might be organized.[3]  This historical division, I argue,
represented a ‘great casesura’ in early 20th-century debates over
the aims, goals and methods of philosophy proper. Indeed, this division was
even seen at the time by people like James as a kind of ‘war of learning’[4]
over the very meaning of philosophy, inquiry and even knowledge itself.

Seen in this light, James’ critique of academic professionalism anticipates in important
ways Foucault’s analysis of disciplinary power and its manifestations in the
school and university. Even as early as 1903 James clearly saw the normalizing
effects through which the culture of professionalism operated. Like Foucault,
James identified the normalizing effects of the system of the ‘examination’,
whose function it was, according to James, “…to divert the attention of
aspiring youth from direct dealings with truth to the passing of examinations”.[5] James
also identified what Foucault came to call the ‘hierarchical observation’
inherent to the reward mechanisms of the profession, and the ever-constant
weight and pressure of the all-powerful ‘stamp-of-approval’, the PhD award
itself. However, as I shall argue, James retained a positive conception of
knowledge inquiry in the university, and one which I believe can be elaborated
upon with the help of Foucault’s ideas on knowledge and the production of
truth. By comparing James and Foucault’s remarks on truth and the production of
knowledge, I discuss possible models for knowledge inquiry that address the
problems of professionalization and normalization in current academic

[1] (Kerline 1995, 2)

[2] (James 1984, 344)

[3] “The Culture of Professionalism: the Middle Class and the Development of Higher Education” by Bledstein (1988)

[4] (James 1984, 346)

[5] (James 1984, 344)


Bledstein, Burton J. The culture of professionalism: the middle class and the development of higher education in America. London: Norton.

James, William. “The Ph.D Octopus” in William James: The Essential Writings. Bruce Wilshire (ed). Albany: SUNY Press. 1984

Kerline, Scott P. Pursuit of the Ph. D: “Survival of the Fittest”. Or is it Time for a New Approach? Education Policy
Analysis Archives. Vol. 3, No. 16. 1995

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Replies to This Discussion

For what it's worth, I wrote a paper that might be of use, using John McCumber's work, "Time in the Ditch" (McCumber's book with same title, came out a couple of years later, and I think it would be a must read for your project). Here's the citation (I wasn't able to find it online, or I'd provide the link):

“‘An Unsuitable Job for a Philosopher’: Graduate Education and the Limits of the Profession” in Philosophy Today “Extending the Horizons of Continental Philosophy: Selected Studies in Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy,” edited by Linda Martín Alcoff and Walter Brogan, Volume 25 (Supplement 2000) pp. 177-185

Of course, any institution--the university included--will impose constraints on its members. Philosophy done within an institutional context will be constrained along lines that conform to the institution's agenda. You don't need to rely on Foucault or James to make that claim (unless you happen to be working in an academic setting that expects you to justify your claims in that way). 

And that's a good reason to do philosophy outside the academy--indeed, outside any institutional context at all.  The price you pay is that you lose the support--monetary and otherwise--of the academy. And that imposes its own constaints. In my own experience, having worked within academia for 17 years and outside it for 20 years, I've found that working outside academia has enabled me to expand the scope of my quest for truth beyond the narrowly defined field of academic philosophy into other related fields such as history, sociology, psychology, economics, etc. Working outside academia has also made it easier to pursue a "problem oriented" approach to philosophy rather than a "text oriented" approach.

Please provide a link to your paper if you've finished writing it. I'd be interested in learning more about the history of academic philosophy, including William James's role in its development.



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