Provocations

By Daniel A. Kaufman

Over at the Daily Nous, a much read, insider philosophy blog, David Velleman, one of today’s top philosophers, who enjoys digs in the world’s #1 ranked philosophy department, posted his version of a Modest Proposal: philosophy journals should no longer publish papers written by graduate students, and tenure and promotion committees should stop counting papers produced while the candidate was a graduate student. (1)

The Problem, as Velleman describes it, is a “publishing arms race” that has flooded philosophy journals with publications that they are not equipped to process properly.  (Velleman is Editor of Philosophers’ Imprint, a peer-reviewed online journal of philosophy. (2))  Refereeing philosophy articles and serving on the editorial boards of philosophy journals is almost entirely unpaid work, and it is hard to get people to do it.  Greatly increase the supply, and you have a significant problem, resulting either in superficial editorial judgments, or greatly increased review times, which already are far too long, sometimes in excess of a year.  He describes other negative effects – encouraging graduate student publishing will lead to an undesirable specialization and narrowing of focus in young philosophers, before they’ve even entered the profession  – but it’s the publishing arms race itself, and its effects on journals that he treats as the primary problem.

The proposal is a good one, but it doesn’t go nearly far enough.  That’s because the real problem isn’t that philosophy graduate students are publishing too much, but rather that philosophy professors – including, with a few exceptions, today’s most distinguished – are publishing too much.  Way too much.

Consider that Thomas Hobbes published six philosophical works.  John Locke, eight or so.  John Stuart Mill, ten, give or take a few.  David Hume published two, plus a small essay collection.  G.E. Moore published three books and a normal-sized volume’s worth of collected papers.  J.L. Austin published How to Do Things With Words, Sense and Sensibilia and enough papers to fill a slim volume.  Gilbert Ryle published four philosophical books and papers that fill two average-sized volumes.  In contrast, today’s top philosophers publish scores upon scores upon scores of articles and books, and at the highest levels, the numbers stretch into the hundreds.  Now ask yourself the following question: Do you really believe that we need more papers and books from, say, David Chalmers than from Gilbert Ryle?  Or from David Velleman than from John Stuart Mill?  Or from any of our current crop of philosophical big shots then the ones I just listed?  The answer, for anyone who isn’t either crazy or cynically invested in the current system, is obviously, overwhelmingly  “No.”  If Moore, Austin, and Ryle were dwarfs standing on the shoulders of giants like Hobbes, Locke, and Mill, then our current philosophical royalty are fleas, living in the beards of the dwarfs.

The dirty game into which this all figures quickly becomes evident, when one peruses the discussion thread that follows Velleman’ Modest Proposal, to which graduate students and recent graduates naturally responded with alarm.  After all, the reason why doctoral students are feeling greater and greater pressure to publish is because of the hyper-competitiveness of the current job market, which is about the worst it’s ever been, filled as it is not only with newly minted Ph.Ds., but with people who have been out in the wilderness for years, drifting from one temporary job to another.  For an impression of the situation, consider that my own small, undistinguished undergraduate degree-program, in a middling university, in a not-particularly-desirable location received over 250 applications for the last tenure track job we posted.

Now the obvious solution to a grossly oversaturated profession is a moratorium on new PhDs, for as long as it takes for those already in the system to find work, and several people in the discussion – including me – suggested this.  In response, Velleman wrote the following:

PhD students are an essential (and inexpensive) source of teaching. Replacing them is bound to raise the already excessive cost of higher education. I’m not saying that I like the arrangement; I’m just saying that I don’t know how to change it. Moratoria on admissions are not a possibility.

One could spend an entire essay on this amazingly entitled, un-self-aware comment, but let’s continue to follow the trail we are already on.

Why are PhD students an “essential source of teaching”?  NYU – where Velleman is employed – has twenty-eight full time philosophy faculty and another seven faculty that are  “associated and affiliated” with the philosophy department.  Surely, this is enough people to teach the department’s undergraduate curriculum, including general education courses.  My department has only four full-time faculty members, one full-time instructor and a handful of per-course faculty.  Our teaching load is four per semester, with a reduction to three, if one keeps up a regular publishing schedule, which in my department is defined as at least one peer reviewed article every two years.  It’s not uncommon for us to teach 200 undergraduates in a semester.  And while NYU’s undergraduate enrollment is larger than ours, it’s not that much larger and certainly not seven times larger.  So, why the need for PhD students as “essential sources of teaching”?

I asked this of Velleman in the discussion, but got no response, so I’ll answer for him. The leading lights in our profession don’t want to do very much undergraduate teaching, and certainly not introductory-level teaching or grading, which is tedious and labor intensive.   (Two-thirds of my teaching load is introductory-level teaching, and I do all of the grading.)  They do not teach 4/4 or even 3/3 loads, but much smaller ones, and sometimes they do no undergraduate teaching at all.  Some of this has to do with snobbery and a sense of entitlement – I was both an undergraduate and graduate student at top programs and saw plenty of this – but a lot of it is because they want to publish those scores upon scores upon scores of papers and books that I mentioned earlier.  Two books and a handful of articles were enough from J.L. Austin, but we are supposed to believe that we need to keep enrolling graduate students who won’t get jobs so that our philosophical royalty can publish sixty to several hundred articles and books apiece.

There is something particularly obnoxious about the initial suggestion, then, given its source.  After all, it’s our discipline’s royalty that created this toxic cul-de-sac in the first place.  Flooding the market with Ph.D.’s for whom there are no jobs, so that they barely have to teach undergraduates and can endlessly riff upon the work of their predecessors and betters – more on this in a minute – and then, when the unpleasant results of this cynical game begin to play out and graduate students begin publishing articles themselves, so as to eke out some tiny advantage in the desperate race that getting a tenure track job in philosophy has become, the royalty complain about an oversaturation of journal articles and propose banning graduate publishing.  It’s the sort of thing that is so outrageous, that you either burst out laughing or punch holes in the walls of your house.

Beyond the exploitation of graduate students that the excessive publishing engaged in by today’s professional philosophers both engenders and relies upon, the practice has also had the effect of diminishing the discipline itself, as it represents a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature and value of the humanities and serves no purpose other than that of professional advancement and prestige.  This sort of cynical professionalism, on the part of people working in the humanities – and it’s not limited to philosophy – is something that the university and the broader public will tolerate less and less, as the financial disposition of higher education in its current form becomes more and more stressed, in its decades long transformation from a system designed to educate elites, into one of mass education.

The purpose and value of the humanities and of arts and letters lies in the deepening of human experience and the enrichment of human life; the enhancement of our ability to contemplate the significance and meaningfulness of our lives and activities, once the sciences and engineering and medicine and business have attended to our material condition.  Philosophy’s role in this is to provide us with a number of cognitive and linguistic tools, as well as a set of distinctive starting-point style questions that will enable those who are reflective and thoughtful to address a number of deep, fundamental issues that occupy a lifetime’s contemplation.  What is beauty?  What is knowledge?  What is justice?  Who are we?  What is our purpose?  Are we free?  Are we responsible?  Why does any of this matter to us?  And anyone who hasn’t been stricken blind and stupid by professional concerns should recognize that these are not the sorts of questions that will ever admit of conclusive answers; that all the value of posing and attempting to answer them lies in the engagement itself and in the life-enriching effects such engagement engenders.

You would never know this, however, from reading the contemporary professional literature, much of which is done in a mode that suggests that these are questions that admit of conclusive answers.  The endless pushing of the umpteenth version of utilitarianism or deontology or realism or materialism or compatibilism or whatever-the-fuck-ism is nothing but an exercise in ever diminishing returns.  There is value in the initial round of questions and in enough iterations of formal discussion of that initial round of questions to fully bring out all of their significant dimensions.  But to go beyond this point and to constantly increase the level of technical apparatus brought to bear and to engage in an obsessive-compulsive (and mutually congratulatory) regimen of citation is to change the nature of the activity itself; to turn it from the starting point for individual and public contemplation of timeless questions into a grotesque mimicry of scientific investigation.

Have you discovered a genuinely interesting new question that should be added to the history of great questions that will enrich and endure over the course of peoples’ lives?  Write about it.  Do you have the ability to develop an existing question in a way that facilitates its capacity to enrich and endure?  Do it.  But otherwise?  Stop publishing all this philosophical detritus.  Teach your students.  Grade their papers.  And perhaps most importantly, venture into or create public forums, in which you bring philosophy’s enriching and enduring questions and its tools for answering them to your friends and neighbors and fellow citizens.  But stop playing philosopher-scientist.  And stop filling your departments with graduate students for whom there are no jobs, just so you can do it.  You created the damned publishing arms race that you’re complaining about.  You can stop it by ceasing to engage in it yourselves.

Notes

  1. http://dailynous.com/2017/07/31/publication-emergency-guest-post-j-david-velleman/
  2. http://www.philosophersimprint.org/

66 Comments »

  1. Alex,
    philosophy’s use is limited to discussing how many angels can dance on the tip of a pin ad infinitum for the next 500 years.

    Your knowledge of philosophy is several hundred years out of date and even then it was a very narrow, selective point of view.

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  2. Hi Alex, I used to hold the position you expressed. But it really is blinkered and reductive.

    Dan did not argue that philosophy gives you nothing. And some of what you said, like being able to reject arguments that are errant, does not contradict what he said. Yes, philosophy can give you tools that help you work through practical issues that do admit of some, if somewhat subjectively defined, solutions.

    Given that he has repeatedly discussed Hacker, who works and publishes with a neuroscientist on issues concerning cognitive neuroscience, means he is not dismissing *any* practical value to philosophical inquiry, or the tools you develop from such inquiry.

    However, the *major* issues, the big ticket items, the ones that have been left to the field of philosophy after so many others “budded off” (as I described earlier) into sciences, do not admit of singular answers. They are not that kind of problem.

    Some I do not find very interesting, others I do, neither define whether they are of academic interest. That is up to the individual, not to you.

    It was your professor of watercolor painting jibe that really hit home. Yeah, I used to think the same way. And having started out in the analytical side of philosophy I used to scoff at certain directions of philosophical inquiry. But I came to realize that attitude was simply to conflate education with some commodified, quantitative concept of life. Somewhat puritanical.

    Education is a time where one has an environment to practice and explore different things. That these should be linked at all times to practical answers is to not understand the benefit of “play” or “practice without possible solution”. It is to believe the cat gains nothing from a scratching post.

    Getting you to think, more deeply and clearly, can help you define yourself (not to mention enjoy our life), as well as set you up with skills to tackle other issues that happen to be better defined (like those in science).

    Since there will be no “solution” to what is the best essay, novel, short story, poem, etc. does not mean that English is not a worthy academic pursuit. It (and watercolor painting in art) can help one develop skills to produce *better* works. That is to become *better* at communication.

    This is what studying the humanities *produce*: a better, richer understanding of common elements/experiences within human life, and improved skill sets in dealing with those aspects. Where the visual arts improves skills in various forms of visual communication/expression, philosophy improves skills in verbal/written communication and conceptual analysis.

    That improves the *quality* of the person, and works produced by that person, without necessarily having produced any specified conclusions.

    In contrast, for all the concrete solutions to practical problems one might discover by studying a physical science, there is *no* discernible improvement in the quality of one’s own person, one’s life. It is highly specialized inquiry and each solution is almost as useful as discovering how many angels dance upon the head of a pin. Hey, I found a planet around star X, or a gene related to disease Y, that doesn’t give me jack shit in understanding how to deal with/approach/discuss the most common life problem Z.

    Perhaps the world is moving toward a decision about education: whether there is a future in liberal arts (and so individual, personal growth), or if it should be limited to specialized, pragmatic solutions (and so external, commercial growth).

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  3. Daniel Kaufman,

    Philosophy has not solved a single one of the major problems that it has raised since the days of Plato.

    Yes, I hear that sentence all the time (!) from the people who think philosophy should therefore be scrapped. So I am not sure it will work well as a sales tactic.

    Angels on a pin: That was meant as “this is what people will equate philosophy with”, not as an actual question of contemporary philosophy. The point was that if you say there will never be any knowledge gain on ethics from philosophy then people may well equate any discussion of ethics with futile theological hair-splitting and/or pin their hopes on a combination of neurobiology, game theory and evolutionary psychology, which I would find regrettable because I have at least heard of is-ought.

    labnut,

    A taxpayer may well have a point if they say that they’d be willing to fund a professor of music who studies the history, principles and theory of music, which is generating knowledge for the public good, but that a professor of music who merely teaches how to play the guitar should be funded privately by those who want to learn how to play the guitar. I assume the analogy to a philosophy professor who states that philosophy is enriching but cannot ever answer its research questions is obvious.

    As above re angelpins.

    dbholmes,

    Well, maybe we are talking past each other, but when I wrote that I believe logic and analytic philosophy can decisively reject some claims or propositions, for example by showing that they are self-contradictory or lead to absurd conclusions, and thus generate knowledge and provide answers (just like science can reject hypotheses even as its ‘positive’ conclusions generally remain tentative), the answer was a mere “I disagree with just about everything here”, followed later by “philosophy has not solved a single one of the major problems that it has raised since the days of Plato”. That sounds as if DK at least does not think that “philosophy can give you tools that admit of some solutions”.

    Again, if philosophy is like watercolours or writing better poems I can only say that I do not see the the need for a tenured professor teaching my past undergraduate self pretty watercolours. We may have a different view of what a university is for – I think it is for academic pursuits, not for hobbies.

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  4. Well, we clearly aren’t going to agree, so I don’t see much point going around and around again. Fine arts are not “hobbies” but I really don’t see any point in trying to persuade you.

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  5. Hi Alex SL:

    I think you are right to question why taxpayers should fund philosophy. My answer is that the problems philosophy deals with hover on the edge of everything we do — whether it be hard science or watercolour painting. As soon as we reflect on, say, causality or beauty we are doing philosophy.

    The problems don’t get “solved” by philosophy, but they do get articulated through philosophy. Every well-trained philosopher will know the limited set of opening moves that can be made in trying to understand these problems, whereas the average educated person will only dimly sense what those moves might be. The role of philosophy teachers is to help students enter into the problem and find their way around. (One of my teachers described it as like being a guide on a mountain.) Philosophers as researchers will try to find a way through the maze, but even if one thinks she has solved the problem she will know that others equally capable as her think otherwise.

    The economic question is whether we want people to have to keep reinventing for themselves this skilled articulation of a bunch of problems that won’t go away. It is hugely more efficient to have people who specialise in keeping alive and passing on what has been learned about them over the centuries.

    The thought that the problems simply don’t matter is very implausible, since the problems include ethics, political philosophy, philosophy of religion, logic, argument evaluation and much else.

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  6. Daniel Kaufmann,

    I agree that this has gone in circles and had been wondering whether I should make my last response. So perhaps a slightly different question, not under the assumption that the scales will suddenly fall from my eyes but because I would genuinely like to understand your stance: Can you elaborate on why you think that it is the role of a university to provide funding for a professorship in enriching students lives as opposed to providing them with knowledge and tools for generating knowledge? And, perhaps more to the point, if you could unilaterally decide how a university should work, where would you draw the line? Would you have a professor of computer games help the students get better at World of Warcraft? And if not, what is the criterion by which that differs from a discussion group that admittedly will never make progress on its topic of discussion? What do you say to the student who finds gaming more enriching than “wasting my time on an unanswerable question”?

    (And just to clarify again, I do not think that philosophy is a hobby and has no place at a university, precisely because I think that the tools it provides can serve to produce knowledge.)

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  7. Your question suggests that you are not aware of the history of the liberal arts in the university, which have their roots in the studia humanitatis of the Renaissance.

    https://www.britannica.com/topic/humanities#ref278620

    So, this has nothing to do with me “unilaterally deciding how the university should work.” It has to do with the actual history of the institution.

    I would be interested to know what knowledge in ethics, political philosophy or any other of the main areas of philosophy the discipline has produced. There is no consensus, historically or at present, in any of these areas. What they have done is made our capacity to reflect on moral, political, and other matters increasingly sophisticated over the generations.

    The university was not created to be a vo-tech for white collar jobs, but rather for the education and enculturation of the ruling classes. It’s transformation into a white collar vo-tech is very recent, and in my view has been disastrous. It’s the reason why the institution is in the crisis it currently is in.

    It was good talking with you.

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  8. Alex,
    We engage in the pleasurable activities of feeding, fighting, fornicating and defecation just as all animal species do. This has no meaning except that of enjoyment and survival. True, we have a better cognitive apparatus, allowing us to improve our material condition and thus derive more pleasure from feeding, fighting, fornicating and defecation.

    But strangely, there is much more to us. We have a unique capacity which elevates us far above the mere pleasures of feeding, fighting, fornicating and defecation. This capacity is not just concerned with improving our material condition, it is a capacity for enriching our mental condition. This capacity is shown in our innate need to pursue the transcendentals, the true, the good and the beautiful. This capacity is what makes us a unique and noble species(you may accuse me of speciesism) Our greatest fulfilment is found when realising this capacity and it far transcends to the mere pleasures of feeding, fighting, fornicating and defecation. Philosophy is an integral part of this. That is because we are reflective animals looking for insights into ourselves and philosophy gives us cognitive insights. Our debate on these pages is a perfect example of working philosophy. It is a complete waste of time applying a utilitarian calculus to this issue. We will continue to do this despite the lack of economic or functional justification. We will continue to do this because we need to do it. And we need to do it because it is our deepest form of enrichment.

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  9. labnut,

    But strangely, there is much more to us.

    The questions are whether philosophy can produce knowledge, and whether it is the job of universities to teach activities that do not produce knowledge. I say yes and no, DK says no and yes. Nobody here doubts that there is value to activities that go beyond eating, sleeping and procreating, even if they do not produce knowledge.

    You made a false implication and now you wish to dodge the bullet.

    This may sound a bit harsh, but do you seriously not understand the concept of analogies? If I had written, “the Cambrian saw an explosion in biodiversity”, would you lambaste me because there was no dynamite involved in animal evolution?

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  10. Hi Alex

    I like that summary of the dispute: you answer yes and no to the two questions and Dan answers no and yes. I just wanted to say that I have an interest in these questions too. I have a few ideas for a piece on the topic but would prefer it if someone else wrote something. Anyway, I hope we can further explore some of these questions here in the not too distant future.

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  11. Alex,
    but do you seriously not understand the concept of analogies?

    What a strange remark. It is impossible to understand it as being anything other than an analogy. There are good analogies, bad analogies and atrocious analogies. Yours is at the bottom of the scale.

    whether it is the job of universities to teach activities that do not produce knowledge. I say … no,

    I suspect you have a narrow view of what constitutes knowledge.

    Nobody here doubts that there is value to activities that go beyond eating, sleeping and procreating, even if they do not produce knowledge.

    And if they have value they are worth examining, thinking about and enhancing our understanding of them. I think you have just conceded my case.

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  12. labnut,

    Perhaps you should re-read the OP and the comment stream. It is Daniel Kaufman who argues that philosophy does not produce knowledge but should be considered part of academia nonetheless, while I argue that it does and is part of academia only for that reason. Why would I have to expand my view of what constitutes knowledge when I already consider philosophy to deal with knowledge? What was your “case” which I have conceded by saying that philosophy should be taught at universities unless we were agreed all along? What is going on here?

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  13. Hi Alex, I believe you are talking past me and Dan. Let me see if I can clarify things…

    Dan’s short “I disagree with just about everything here”, was responding to a rather large comment with several claims in it. That he said *just about* everything, directly means that it was not denying everything. The latter statement, “philosophy has not solved a single one of the major problems that it has raised since the days of Plato” does not conflict with a claim that philosophy can give one tools to help solve issues that do admit of solutions. And it should be noted that being able to dismiss certain errant arguments/positions (what you were touting) does not mean that singular answers will be possible (which was all he was denying).

    “That sounds as if DK at least does not think that “philosophy can give you tools that admit of some solutions”.”

    But this is easily refuted by looking at his essay. Take the most pertinent paragraph:

    “Philosophy’s role in this is to provide us with a number of cognitive and linguistic tools, as well as a set of distinctive starting-point style questions that will enable those who are reflective and thoughtful to address a number of deep, fundamental issues that occupy a lifetime’s contemplation. What is beauty? What is knowledge? What is justice? Who are we? What is our purpose? Are we free? Are we responsible? Why does any of this matter to us? And anyone who hasn’t been stricken blind and stupid by professional concerns should recognize that these are not the sorts of questions that will ever admit of conclusive answers;”

    The first half of the first sentence makes explicit that he believes philosophy gives us *something*, specifically cognitive and linguistic *tools*. From that point on, Dan distingishes the subject matter that modern philosophy addresses from other subjects. Philosophy gives you certain tools *as well as* a set of (philosophical) questions to chew on. The tools mentioned can obviously be used for other questions, and given that science budded off from philosophy, it uses (at least in part) those tools as part of its toolkit.

    “We may have a different view of what a university is for – I think it is for academic pursuits, not for hobbies.”

    No, what we have is a different view of what an academic pursuit is vs a hobby. Someone teaching watercolor technique as part of an academic art class/major, is different than someone giving you half-ass pointers on a painting stuck on your fridge. Going back to Dan’s earlier comment, you seem not to understand where the university came from, as well as the meaning of the word “academic”. There is a history here, and it is clear. Only very recently has it become tied to expectations of strict vocational training.

    “The questions are whether philosophy can produce knowledge, and whether it is the job of universities to teach activities that do not produce knowledge. I say yes and no, DK says no and yes.”

    I don’t mean to speak for Dan, but this seems to misrepresent (by oversimplification) what I would take to be Dan’s position… and certainly my own. Does philosophy, or do philosophy departments, “produce knowledge”?

    If you mean do student’s studying philosophy gain knowledge, then the answer is clearly yes. They gain knowledge of logic, rhetoric (usually), and the history of philosophy. Depending on their specialization they will gain knowledge, in the sense of experience, using those cognitive and language tools on specified topics (some philosophical, some perhaps very practical/vocational). I assume Dan would agree with that.

    If you mean, are the questions addressed in the field of philosophy capable of producing knowledge in the sense of conclusive answers, as science attempts to do, then the answer is no. And that is all Dan was denying.

    But if that second meaning is the criteria for being in a university, then on top of art, there goes political science, and law. The best you get in either of those last two are logic, rhetoric, and historical knowledge of those fields. I might want to go further, to point out that certain business or vocation oriented programs are not concerned with questions that “produce knowledge” either, unless by knowledge you mean “potential ways of making money”. Mainly they give you knowledge of possible approaches, which you can draw on and test in specific situations, with no set answers, though there will be results/products. That is much like philosophy, much like art. The only difference is that they are set in the workspace (and so commercial growth), rather than living space (and so personal growth).

    To deny personal growth is something real, or desirable, is up to you. But that is similar to thinking martial arts schools should only focus on beating people up, and arguing the frivolousness of punching bags, practicing forms, throws, meditation, or ritual because they don’t “produce defeated enemies”.

    Maybe, just maybe, there is more to life than the bottom line: production of something concrete, tangible, or conclusive. And maybe that is worthy of pursuit, including academic pursuit. It certainly used to be considered valuable.

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