How do I justify running a publication that does not pay people enough? Does it need to exist? If The Philosopher can no longer afford to pay its contributors, do we have a moral/political duty to shut down?
For those of you who do not know, The Philosopher is the journal of the PSE (Philosophical Society of England), a charitable organisation founded in 1913 to provide an alternative to the formal university-based discipline. While both the PSE and The Philosopher have been hugely influential over the past century in shaping public philosophy in the UK, when I took over as editor in late 2018, the journal was in bad shape and the PSE unfunded with a very limited budget. Essentially, I inherited a name and a history.
At the time, I had no real understanding of the moral and political responsibilities involved in running a philosophy publication. Take the issue of payment for contributors as an example. To begin with, I did not even consider paying contributors. I had always assumed that academics would give their time for free. This was a “no brainer”. It was only when I emailed Chi Rainer Bornfree in early 2019 to see if they would be interested in writing something for us and they asked me what we pay that I began to realize what a big question this was. Chi sent me a 2017 essay published by Eidolon (“an online journal for scholarly writing about Classics that isn’t formal scholarship”). The essay was from the editors and was called “Why We Pay Our Writers” (you can find it easily). I think I paid Chi £50 for their essay. It is clear that a year later I had still not managed to find a satisfactory payment model for The Philosopher as I emailed one of the editors at Eidolon in July 2020:
I am writing today as I seem to remember that a previous draft of [Why We Pay Our Writers] contained some figures for how much you pay for a lead piece, a review etc (it doesn’t seem to be in the current online version), and I was hoping you could let me know how much you pay for different contributions, as well as any other best practices you have in relation to matters related to payment. Although I have come to take the payment issue seriously, I am still unsure what would be considered a fair payment.
It turned out that they had taken the original figures down because they could no longer afford to pay their writers these amounts. As the editor concluded, “you have to constantly find a balance between being fair and not going bankrupt”.
I just looked now and it turns out that Eidolon stopped producing new content at the end of 2020.
I spent my later teenage years and early 20s as a dedicated attendee at London’s “free party” scene. This was heavily inspired by a punk “do-it-yourself” ethos. I subsequently immersed myself in quite a lot of literature related to the punk scene. Taking over The Philosopher was my chance to put this ethos into practice.
An interesting ambiguity about the “free party” scene is that it was not free. Or, as the people who ran the sound systems would say, it is free “in spirit” but you still have to pay (only a little bit though, and certainly much less than the glitzy nightclub down the road). I have tried to maintain this “free in spirit” approach as the editor of The Philosopher. Having never been in academic philosophy beyond a distance-learning MA in the early 2010s, I have never felt any strong allegiances to this or that approach; I have never felt the need to “gate-keep” or to try and limit what counts as philosophy. I spent the years leading up to my editorship of The Philosopher immersed in the world of the (now defunct) “Newcastle Philosophy Society”, a small but extremely dedicated society of non-academic philosophers who tended to snub their noses at academic philosophy. My main realisation from this period was that the UK public philosophy scene was overwhelmingly bland, pushing a chirpy, atheist-humanist-rationalist line of thinking that remained far too heavily indebted to the Oxbridge model of philosophy. Under my editorship, then, The Philosopher sought to buck this trend.
So much for the “free in spirit” bit. The “free in payment” bit is more complicated. Once Chi had opened my eyes to the political implications of expecting free labour, I did my best to rectify this. I asked certain big UK philosophy organisations if they would offer some funding (they said no) and frequently reached out to people to step up and help (also no). Still, as I was able to work for free and was supported by the free labour and immense kindnesses of my great friends Will and (my now wife) Joanna, as well as the members of the journal’s editorial board, we stumbled through the first few issues and over time grew enough that we were able to develop a policy of paying those in insecure or precarious employment within academia, as well as freelancers.
When I took over The Philosopher, I was securely employed. I also had the enormous privilege of living in the UK where my basic health and social security needs were covered, and I lived in Newcastle upon Tyne (in the North-East of England) where the cost of living is a fraction of what it would have been had I remained living in London. As a result, I was able to supplement contributors’ payments from my own pocket if the finances were not there. In this sense, running The Philosopher has been both a hobby and a habit. Fortunately, it has been a glorious hobby, and as far as habits go, cheaper than those enjoyed by many people my age, such as luxury travel, fine dining, noteworthy apparel, and so on. And while Joanna thought I was “crazy” for occasionally paying contributors from my own pocket (and she is not the only one), other people’s attitudes towards money seem far crazier to me.
As time went on and I came to realise that the contributions from the more senior, securely paid tenured academics were typically more mediocre than those from the younger PhD students and post-docs, the wage bill inevitably increased as this more youthful demographic came to dominate. As did the size of the journal itself – from 56 pages in the first issue I edited to (a rather excessive, to be fair) 148 pages in the spring issue of this year. Then, of course, there came the online events series in autumn 2020, which we put on for free, thus inevitably losing quite a considerable sum of money, despite regular nudges in the direction of donations from attendees. Last time I checked the per capita donation level was at £0.03.
This all still seemed sustainable, however, if a little delicately poised. Sales of the print issue were still increasing, we had managed to secure a number of digital institutional subscriptions (thanks to the immense generosity and hard work of Keren Bester and Martin Hägglund), and my situation in the UK remained much the same, so I still had some surplus income available when necessary. All this changed earlier this year, however, when I moved to the United States and got married to Joanna. Now, for the first time since taking over as editor, I could no longer “dick around” with my time and money. I also no longer had a job. Furthermore, the US is a far more precarious place to live than the UK (as evidenced, among other things, by my four-figure health insurance bill). To add insult to injury, the coding on our website collapsed earlier this year and we had to pay an exorbitant fee to fix it. The upshot was that I received an email from the treasurer of the PSE saying that we could no longer afford to put out our next issue.
Earlier this year, Joanna and I thought it would be fun to do an Enneagram personality test. It told me that I am by nature an “enthusiast”. I was pretty happy with this, as I can think of worse ways to describe myself. As I write, the fortune of tech entrepreneur Sam Bankman-Fried has imploded in a perfect storm of hubris, fraud, and bad philosophy. No doubt, SBF is also an “enthusiast”. In fact, the whole tech world seems riddled with enthusiasts hell-bent on changing the world. Fortunately, there is much less at stake in my enthusiasm (and I don’t defraud people). But enthusiasm has only been able to get me so far. I needed someone who could help me to run things more professionally and sustainably. A few months back, I finally found someone who agreed to come on board in a kind of management consultant role. I asked them whether they thought the current model was failing. When they replied that there is no current model and then proceeded to dish out a litany of “home truths”, I felt as if I had found the superego to my id, the yin to my yang (or the yang to my yin, whichever it is).
However, after producing an ambitious vision document and overseeing a meeting of The Philosopher’s editorial board, they were suddenly forced to resign due to unforeseen circumstances in their life. Of course, we all understood and supported this, but no one on the editorial board had the time to pick up where they left off and move things forward. We were back to square one. It was all on me again. The impact of this was quite devastating and I have been spending the past couple of months trying to work out how to take things forward.
How, then, do I justify running a publication that does not pay people enough? Does it need to exist? If The Philosopher can no longer afford to pay its contributors, do we have a moral/political duty to shut down? Should we, like the noble folk at Eidolon, self-immolate on the pyre of our pristine moral standing?
In order to answer these questions, it is worth noting some of our achievements in the four years since I took over as editor:
Across 16 beautifully designed print issues, we have published over 300 pieces of emotionally intelligent and mature, challenging, formally innovative, and socially just philosophy by contributors ranging from the biggest philosophers in the world to high school students;
We have taken risks by placing at the centre of what we publish many topics and ideas that remain very much on the peripheries of philosophy, both within and outside of academia;
We have mentored and nurtured numerous young academic philosophers who had never published outside of an academic context, working closely with them to develop their abilities to write for a non-specialist audience (a skill that is especially useful given the precarity of the academic job market). Many of these have gone on to secure full-time jobs, book contracts, commissions from larger publications, and much more, as a direct result of their work with us;
We have also managed to achieve considerable levels of success (with our freely offered content at least): more than 100,000 people visit our website annually; our YouTube videos have been viewed more than 100,000 times; our events series has attracted over 12,000 people from over 100 countries; our podcast, “The Philosopher and the News”, was ranked #2 in a recent list of the UK’s top 15 philosophy podcasts.
When I started, I felt The Philosopher was needed to combat the stunning mediocrity of public philosophy as practiced in the UK. But times change. Even the Royal Institute of Philosophy, that crustiest and whitest of behemoth institutions, has run a series of events this past year called “Words and Worlds”, featuring an array of “our kind” of philosophers (although this is probably best interpreted as a case of what Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò calls “elite capture”). Were we to fold and you wished to seek out similar content to us, longstanding publications like Boston Review share our commitment to promoting diverse and exciting philosophical voices, while the recent rise of remarkable student-led organizations like oxford public philosophy further underscores the obsolescence of traditional Oxbridge-inspired models of public philosophy. And, of course, if you are a philosopher looking for a decent wage and feel like producing a charmless, thinly intellectualized culture war screed, last time I checked Unherd was offering £1,000 of their Brexit-supporting millionaire owner’s cash for each contribution (congratulations to John Gray, the philosopher hack par excellence, for seeing out his days in the public eye writing withering critiques of “wokeness” in exchange for fat wads of Brexit blood money). Amidst these ever-shifting tides in the world of publicly-oriented philosophy, however, I believe The Philosopher still has an important role to play. We may not need to exist, but I think that the world is just that little bit better because we do.
Things can no longer carry on the way they are for The Philosopher, but given what we have managed to achieve these past four years on a minuscule budget, it is clear that we could achieve so much more if we had the secure financial foundations necessary to continue. So, I invite everyone who cares about The Philosopher to support us as generously as you can.
Times are extremely tough, and it may be more difficult than ever to find funds to donate to organizations like us. But we truly are a community effort that now spans across continents, and we rely 100% on the generosity of those who read our content, watch our events, listen to our podcast, and so on. With your support, we will not be forced to choose between existing and paying our writers, between being fair and going bankrupt. Without it, we will be gone.
Thank you very much for taking the time to read this.
Anthony Morgan is editor of The Philosopher. Email: email@example.com Twitter: @philosopher1923