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. 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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