The trail of the Jamesian octopus is over everything

Among my agenda items for the summer were participating in a reading group on Alexander Nehamas’ theory of beauty and writing a paper on William James’ epistemology. Done and done.1

Scholarly synchronicity being what it is, Nehamas offers a theory of friendship that dovetails nicely with James’ discussion of making friends. So the book that I was reading just as a fun sideline ends up cited in the paper.

Earlier this week, I was working on the paper in a coffee shop when someone remarked on a book I was reading: William James! He’s great. Are you reading that for school?

I paused. Yes, in a sense, but no.

The interlocutor was an historian who had, until recently, held a visiting position at a local community college. He recommended, in a bit of a non sequitur, that I read James’ essay ‘The PhD Octopus‘. I had a hard enough time finding a copy that— having found it— I decided to clean up a transcription to share on my increasingly random archive of philosophy texts.

James rails against credentialism in the essay, arguing that it is unreasonable to demand that someone earn a PhD in order to teach at the college level. James begins with the case of someone who, after having already been hired, was made to earn a PhD that wasn’t necessary for the job.

The case is well chosen, because it keenly illustrates an absurd policy. To consider it in contemporary terms: It is one thing to hire someone who is ABD with the requirement that they defend their thesis, but another to hire someone who has an MA with the requirement that they start a PhD program and earn the degree while teaching courses. I’ve seen the latter done, and it is perverse.

But James pivots from the case to a sweeping condemnation of requiring any degree for anything. He suggests, “Private letters of recommendation from their instructors, which in any event are ultimately needful, ought, in these cases, completely to offset the lack of the bread-winning degree…”

I’m struck by how unsatisfactory this alternative is.

Although letters of recommendation are a legitimate factor in hiring, they can’t bear so much weight. Some letter writers are effusive while others are more understated. In some cases, the same letter writer will have written for several candidates, allowing the hiring committee to compare them and establish a baseline. One letter alone, though, can be a miasma.

The force of a recommendation letter may also depend on the letter writer, who they are and whether they are chums with the committee. Letters thus reward the candidate not for their work but for their network. Letters alone would just reinforce old-boy cronyism.2


  1. Considerations of informativeness stop me from listing items which aren’t and probably won’t get done. There certainly are some of those, too.
  2. Open hiring is important, both to thwart corruption and to increase fairness. Beyond academia, consider the value of civil service exams.

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