Wood Paths: Articles

Pathways to Philosophy



by Geoffrey Klempner

In the summer of 1995, being an unemployed philosopher with nothing better to do I decided to start my own school of philosophy.

I'd heard on the academic grapevine that distance learning was the coming thing but in my plans the Internet hardly figured. This was to be an old-fashioned correspondence course with students receiving course units in the post and sending off assignments to be marked.

The previous year, my book Naive Metaphysics[1] had appeared with hardly a sound, despite an enthusiastic endorsement from my erstwhile mentor David Hamlyn[2]. A month before, I'd finished teaching a Metaphysics course for final year undergraduates as a guest lecturer at Sheffield University but there was no permanent post in the offing. I had little inclination to try another shot at publishing. The idea of writing for a captive audience appealed to me.

Many years before, when I was a graduate student at Oxford University, I once remarked half-jokingly to my D.Phil thesis supervisor John McDowell that I would love to have a school of philosophy 'like Plato or Aristotle'. McDowell agreed that — knowing me — that was probably the only place I would be happy. That exchange has always stuck in my mind as a turning point in my academic career.

In a nutshell, the aim of Naive Metaphysics is to demonstrate the truth, or rather half-truth, in solipsism. Rather ironic, considering the life I have lived since then. One of the more popular essay questions from the Pathways Introduction to Philosophy Program, Possible World Machine[3] is, 'How do you know that the author of these words has a mind?' Only a handful of my students have had the chance to meet the author of those words.

In order to proceed with my plan I first needed to do some market research. A circular sent to philosophers at all the University Departments in the UK brought some encouraging feedback. I put together an information pack with a few choice quotes and placed a postage stamp sized advert in the London Sunday Times: 'Pathways to Philosophy — an exciting new development in distance learning.'[4]

Out of thirty replies which I received over the following week, three plucky students enrolled. Only the first unit from each of the six planned fifteen-unit courses had actually been written but I was confident in my ability to keep up the supply of course units in response to demand. I've never suffered from writer's block.

I spent the next two years churning out course units, in between responding to student notes and essays. During that time I learned to love Apple Macintosh computers. I didn't yet have a computer of my own so I spent long days and evenings in the Sheffield University Computer Centre.

That was also the time I discovered the Internet.

It took a while to put 2 and 2 together. By August 1997, most of the planned ninety course units had been written — around half a million words. Sheffield University kindly lent me some web space and I built a web site, the 'Pathways to Philosophy Distance Learning Programme' with help from the Sheffield Computing Service's four page 'Guide to HTML for Beginners'. The six Pathways remained unchanged. The only difference was in the method of delivery. The course units and essay questions were reviewed by then Sheffield Professors Peter Carruthers and David Bell.

Since then, Pathways has introduced two new study tracks, an Associate and Fellowship for self-devised programs of study[5], and support for the Diploma and BA (Hons) in Philosophy offered by the University of London External Programme[6].

Like the six Pathways, the Associate and Fellowship are not university accredited but instead validated by the Board of the International Society for Philosophers[7], a society which I launched in March 2002 with the help of academic friends and supporters of Pathways. Successful essay portfolios submitted for the Associate and dissertations submitted for the Fellowship are archived on the Pathways web site.

To give some idea of the relative length of the University of London Diploma and BA courses, one Pathways program or Associate portfolio is roughly equivalent — in terms of study time required — to one UoL Diploma or BA module. The Diploma consists of four modules, while the BA consists of ten. A hard-working distance learning student can expect to complete two UoL modules — or two Pathways — in a year.

One of the key features of all three Pathways study tracks is that our students receive an 800 word letter from their mentor in response to each assignment: for example, notes on a course unit or an essay. At the present time, I am responsible for half the total teaching load, the rest is done by volunteer graduate students who teach on the six Pathways in return for my supervision of their work towards the ISFP Fellowship.

To date, students have joined Pathways from over 60 countries, mainly thanks to the high profile of the Pathways web sites.

Over the 12 years that Pathways has been running, I have learned quite a bit about what distance learning students are looking for — at least in a philosophy course. The majority seem reluctant to get involved in online forums or conferences. What they value most is the opportunity for one-to-one dialogue. And some of them are damn good at it too.

There is an interesting dynamic which becomes apparent if you look closely at the way people behave in one-to-one email correspondence compared with online forums. In email correspondence, one exercises tact and restraint. It takes time to get to know someone when the only input is words on a screen. By contrast — and to the despair of many forum moderators — people in forums love to sound off. And for the very same reason: you have no face, no bodily presence. The only consequence of irresponsible behaviour is more words on a screen which you can switch off at will. This gives the participant a false sense of invulnerability. On some forums that I have visited, the lack of respect is palpable.

Perhaps I have a distorted view because the Pathways web site acts as a filter for potential applicants. We have our own online conference, but it is given a low profile and run on a strictly voluntary basis with no credits for 'successful' participation (whatever that means).

This totally contradicts the current accepted wisdom in distance learning. All the talk nowadays is of the great opportunities offered by the latest conferencing and interactive software. By contrast, all a wired Pathways student needs is an email address. I'm not knocking the alternative. But I still wait to be convinced.

In 2001, I had the opportunity to explain the Pathways approach at the European Education Technology Forum organized by University College Dublin. In my handout I wrote:

Pathways was created as a solution to a problem: how can one work in philosophy?

I had no interest in writing for an audience of academic philosophers. Yet I realized I needed an audience for my work. Pathways was launched as a quest to find that audience.

Pathways is unique for several reasons.

It is a world class distance learning program which has arisen outside university structures. The majority of students who enrol for Pathways have no special desire to gain a qualification, but do so purely for the love of the subject. Many are already highly qualified in other fields.

Pathways was conceived as a one-to-one dialogue between student and mentor, following the Socratic ideal. The form of the program is thus determined by the unique character of philosophy itself.

Pathways tuition is designed to be labour intensive, at a time when universities have been looking to distance learning and computer technology as a way of increasing the throughput of students per lecturer hour. Yet Pathways is entirely self-financing, receiving no grant aid of any kind.

Pathways is run as a business. It has to pay its way. In case of failure, there is no safety net. It would be interesting to see what would happen if professors faced dismissal if they failed to make a profit!

My deliberate intention was to be provocative. In the 1999 introduction to my weblog 'The Glass House Philosopher'[8] I described myself as an 'Internet sophist'. When I repeated this to the other participating philosopher in the hotel bar the evening before the conference he replied curtly, 'Well, I'm an anti-sophist!'

That was the end of that conversation.

My presentation consisted mainly of a tour of the Pathways web sites, explaining how the Pathways idea developed — the e-journal Philosophy Pathways, 'Letters to My students', 'Pathways How-to-do-it Guide', 'Pathways Essay Archive', and last but not least 'Ask a Philosopher', originally launched in 1999, which though staffed mainly by graduate students manages to give the Amherst guys[9] a run for their money.

I also tried to explain my motivation. What was in it for me? I had (and still have) no great ambitions to publish. I just wanted to do philosophy the best way I knew, by writing letters — following the example of my philosophical heroes:

Since the Middle ages and before philosophers had produced... volumes of letters. Some of the most precious documents we possess about the Modern philosophers such as Descartes and Leibniz are the letters they wrote. To all and sundry. People who were asking them about their philosophy. Students they took on, or people who were working in other fields.

And I had this... crazy idea that when I wrote to my students — incidentally, writing to students isn't anything like what you imagine in a course. When a student sent me a piece of work I would write an 800-1000 word letter in reply, and in the beginning I was taking up to three hours to do it. Multiply that by 20 and that's just one student! — I had this idea that if at some future date someone was going to collect my works, I wouldn't be embarrassed to see the letter, amongst those works. So that every letter that I wrote was an attempt to do philosophy in an honest a way as I could.[10]

After my presentation one member of the audience remarked drily that the Pathways model would be difficult to implement in a university department because of the teaching load. Heads nodded and there was a ripple of polite laughter.

My reply was simple and to the point: 'Get your students to do the teaching!' I didn't just mean the graduate students but second and final-year undergraduates. They could only benefit from the experience, I said. From the audience reaction, I could see that this was obviously a novel idea.

At this point, the academic reader is probably grimacing at the thought of university departments taking advantage of the knowledge and teaching abilities of the average undergraduate student. Are undergraduates going to grade assignments and mark exam papers? Where would that lead?

Where indeed.

Maybe this is an idea whose time has not yet come. I would argue that the current widespread student cynicism and apathy and the growing service industry of cheating and essay writing sites is largely a consequence of the misplaced emphasis on getting the right letters after your name. Fierce competition for places in the best graduate schools results in too much importance being placed on the process of weighing and measuring the individual student's academic performance and not enough on the aspects which can't be measured — the sheer joy of learning and enlarging one's mind.

Pathways students are different. We have doctors, lawyers, priests and rabbis, school teachers, programmers and IT consultants, business and marketing executives — as well as a handful of university professors. As one would expect, there is a noticeable bulge around the 40-somethings but ages range from 15 to the mid 80's — all seeking refreshment at the ancient well of philosophy. It is an incredible joy and privilege to have the opportunity to engage these people in dialogue.

At the beginning of 2006, Pathways moved from the Sheffield University Web site to commercial web hosting. Just last week, I decided to break the last remnants of umbilical cord and changed my email address from sheffield.ac.uk to Fastmail. I do get annoyed when people assume that Pathways is run under the supervision of the Sheffield Philosophy Department, even though I am proud to have worked there.

My career has recently taken a turn in the direction of the philosophy of business and business ethics, following the launch in 2002 of a second Pathways e-journal Philosophy for Business. It's still too early to tell whether the new graft will take, although I've enjoyed my business trips. The most recent was in March for a presentation at a one-day conference in Prague organized by the British Chamber of Commerce Czech Republic on the topic of 'Social Responsibility for Small and Medium Sized Enterprises'. Corporations have a lot more money to spend, but I find business people hard to fathom. Perhaps only time will tell how much of a sophist I really am.


1. Naive Metaphysics: a theory of subjective and objective worlds Avebury Series in Philosophy 1994. Now available as a PDF download from http://philosophypathways.com/download.html

2. Avebury Flyer http://philosophypathways.com/programs/book3.html

3. Six Pathways http://philosophypathways.com/programs/pak2.html

4. 'Pathways to Philosophy: Seven Years On' Practical Philosophy Journal of the Society for Philosophy in Practice, Issue 6:1 April 2003. Online at http://klempner.freeshell.org/articles/pathways.html

5. Associate and Fellowship Awards http://isfp.sdf.org/awards.html

6. University of London Diploma and BA via Pathways http://philosophos.sdf.org/london_university/

7. Board of the International Society for Philosophers http://isfp.sdf.org/board.html

8. Glass House Philosopher http://sophist.co.uk/glasshouse/

9. AskPhilosophers http://www.askphilosophers.org

10. 2001 European Educational Technology Forum, Video Highlights

Pathways web pages

Pathways School of Philosophy

International Society for Philosophers

Philosophy Pathways e-journal

Letters to My Students

How-to-do-it Guide

Pathways Essay Archive

Ask a Philosopher

Philosophy for Business e-journal

© Geoffrey Klempner 2007

E-mail: klempner@fastmail.net

This article appeared in the American Philosophical Association (APA) Newsletter on Philosophy and Computers Volume 07, Number 1 Fall 2007