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High-Rolling Philosophers

Posted by Josh Rothman  September 15, 2012 10:31 AM

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We don’t normally think of philosophy as a money-intensive enterprise -- all you need to philosophize, after all, are some books and a brain. And yet, as Nathan Schneider explains in a new essay, “The Templeton Effect,” in the Chronicle of Higher Education, one of the most important developments in modern philosophy is the arrival of a huge pot of money.

The things I could do with a few million....

Since it was founded in 1987, the John Templeton Foundation has been giving millions of dollars in grants and awards to philosophers, and all that money is changing the sorts of questions philosophers are asking. The foundation was created by the late Sir John Marks Templeton, an eccentric, self-made billionaire who became convinced as he grew older that people who think about big meaning-of-life questions could benefit from the kind of serious funding that scientists receive.

Today, his foundation lavishes support on philosophers, scientists, theologians, and other thinkers who are interested in the “Big Questions” -- free will, spirituality, good and evil, and our place in the universe. Philosophers receive multi-million dollar Templeton grants to study, often in collaboration with scientists, questions like whether or not animals feel pain, or “whether worldly pain and suffering can coexist with a perfectly good God.” One philosophy professor at the University of California at Riverside received $5 million to study the concept of immortality; another at Wake Forest University got $3.7 million to “promote significant progress in the scholarly investigation of character.” For comparison, a typical non-Templeton grant to a philosopher might be around $25,000.

The foundation is particularly interested in religion and spirituality: some of the thinkers who receive Templeton grants are Christians, and many more have spiritual inclinations. The Foundation is open about its belief that intellectual life has become too atheistic. (It’s now administered by Templeton’s son, John, Jr., “a devoted neoconservative and evangelical Christian who finances Tea Party causes on his own dime.”) If the money were given out by a group of typical philosophy professors, it's likely that it would go to fund far less spiritual inquiries But, Schneider explains, philosophers who don’t share the Foundation's spiritual inclinations readily acknowledge that the Templeton philosophers are serious scholars making real contributions.

The Foundation, Schneider concludes, is approaching philosophy with an investor’s mindset: “Grants of a few million dollars are a drop in the bucket for the sciences... but in philosophy, where such sums are unheard of, they have the potential to transform the whole field.” As philosophers use their Templeton grants to establish research centers of their own, that appears to be happening.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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