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. 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.

    I see this as a problem in mathematics and science.

    The problem for philosophy and the humanities is, I think, different. They are using promotion and tenure standards which, though not perfect, work pretty well for the sciences. But those standards have long seemed to me to be a poor fit for the humanities. I don’t have any suggestions on what would be better standards. I’m from the sciences, so I’m ill equipped to suggest standards for the humanities. But I can see that the effect of the current standards is to provide incentives for carving out narrow arcane niches. And I don’t think that is good for the health of the humanities.

    Liked by 3 people

    • I agree entirely. I was trying to get at some of what you say here with my last few paragraphs about what the real value of the humanities is. And it’s not something that is served by the kind of publication one finds in the sciences.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. 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.

    Beautifully and succinctly put.

    Like

  3. 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

    This is also so powerful.

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  4. 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.

    You saved the best for last. Make philosophy relevant by going into the agora.

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  5. Hi Dan, interesting information and another great description of the power and value of philosophy, while pointing out the pitfalls of trying to make make it mimic science.

    I am also wondering how much of this is caused by the increasing commercial nature of modern life itself? The infotainment culture. To seem real and relevant (and get decent pay) you need to be hawking something new, or something old, even if it is garbage. Just be hawking something, while building that catalog of things you have to offer. See I’m somebody because I have so many books.

    BTW, didn’t Dennett suggest something like this (not publishing graduates) before?

    I think this is also a problem in the sciences, and can include promotion and tenure requirements. Though I agree it at least makes more sense (there are more reasons) to publish regularly in science than in philosophy.

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  6. In my less-sober moments I sometimes consider returning to study to become a Professional Philosopher myself. But one thing that gives me pause is the insane job market as described in this article. So if I ever do make the leap, presumably I should treat it like being in a band – keep your day job, in other words, writing philosophy on weekends and hope someone notices.

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  7. “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, personal contemplation of timeless questions into a grotesque mimicry of scientific investigation.”

    Yes, this is clearly correct. Diminishing returns.

    The only slight reservation I have is that I see the boundary between philosophy and the sciences as very fluid insofar as new ideas in science have often come from philosophical thinking. But they need to be handed over to the sciences (or become part of a new science) to be developed. J.L. Austin, as I recall, saw his work as something that might be developed scientifically.

    Congratulations, Dan, on a compelling and beautifully-written piece.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I second Mark’s comment. The problem is clear but the solution is anything but clear. The various professional associations are in reality nothing more than gatekeepers, designed to address this kind of problem. There is really no equivalent body in philosophy that has any kind of power and so there is no means of addressing this problem. The market forces of supply and demand will slowly work through the system and produce balance. But these same forces distort the nature of the profession and this is where the danger really lies.

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  9. Dan,
    Wholly agree; but good people have been making this argument for decades, I don’t see the situation changing.

    One problem is that the Ivy League schools are considered the models for the University per se. That’s obviously mistaken, but it’s not clear how we can ween non-Ivy schools off the Harvard pap, so to speak. (The irony being that Ivy Leaguers treat all other schools with disdain.)

    I wholly agree with you on the value of the humanities; but I’m not sure there’s any way to save them in the long run, caught between scientistic disregard of them on the one hand, and political suspicion of them from outside on the other.

    But I’m not sure if the theoretical sciences can be saved beyond the “major research centers” either. People are asking themselves, “why spend the money?’ and the responses from the academy are well worn and do not adapt in an environment where politicians come up with new reasons for not spending the money every year.

    If we think of ‘burning books’ as a metaphor for ;dumbing down,; perhaps the solution here can be found in “Fahrenheit 451” – small groups with no fixed abode preserving the past by disciplined remembrance of its potential for the future.

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  10. I woke this morning from a terrifying nightmare, my heart pounding and body drenched in sweat. The MD, the Company Secretary, the company’s legal advisor and the HR Director were in my office. On the MD’s face was an expression of malicious pleasure as he announced my immediate dismissal on the most punitive terms possible. My daring initiative had failed and corporate retribution followed as inevitably as night follows day. I was so glad to wake up and find it was only a dream, triggered, I think, by reading your essay.

    This story nearly happened to me except that, improbably or perhaps impossibly, my initiative succeeded. I had been warned and threatened in graphic terms and the dice had been loaded against me. I knew this outcome was a real possibility as I had seen this fate befall some of my colleagues. My entire career had been spent in a state of intense anxiety and fear, knowing that I was on a tightrope and that just one slip would see me consigned to impoverished oblivion. Worse still, there were people intent on giving me a shove if by chance I did not slip.

    There is no niceness or decency in business. Look under the polished PR and you see it is ugly, ruthless, unprincipled and malicious.

    The academic world is an attempt to shield our best thinkers from these awful pressures so that they have the space and time to think.

    I say all this because, despite all the problems, you, in academia, have a privileged status. I think you deserve this privileged status and I think it is necessary that our best thinkers have this privileged status. I acknowledge that your problems are real(and even threatening) but you need to see them in perspective. I sincerely hope you preserve this privileged status against the encroachments of the Darwinian business world.

    Liked by 2 people

  11. Hi Dan:

    You make a powerful and brave argument. I hope it has an impact.

    One tangential disagreement. I think Moore, Austin and Ryle were unusual in being parsimonious producers. The great philosophers were mostly very prolific. Think Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Descartes, Hobbes, Leibniz, Hume, Smith, Rousseau, Kant, Reid, Hegel, Mill, Heidegger, Wittgenstein.

    You say for example that Hobbes only produced six books. But the Oxford edition of Hobbes is planned to be 27 volumes, not all but mostly philosophy.

    Hume, you say, “published two [books], plus a small essay collection”. Yes, but the Treatise (as Passmore said) is like three PhDs of the highest standard and of considerable length, all written by age 26! Then he wrote his very substantial History of England.

    Wikipedia says of Wittgenstein that “During his lifetime he published just one slim book, the 75-page Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921), one article, one book review and a children’s dictionary”. True, but as it adds: “Wittgenstein left a voluminous archive of unpublished papers, including 83 manuscripts, 46 typescripts and 11 dictations, amounting to an estimated 20,000 pages”.

    The big academic publishers of today are probably quite modest by comparison. Your point still stands: why should there be the mountain of mediocrity (a small bit of it mine) that fills the ever-expanding journals?

    What will happen to the 250 applicants for the one job at your university? I hope some of them will go into school-teaching. Schools and school students need these very bright people. That’s another way of bringing “philosophy’s enriching and enduring questions and its tools for answering them to your friends and neighbors and fellow citizens.”

    Alan

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  12. Not being sarcastic, what then is the appropriate philosopher-folk ratio? For the medical profession, to “to ensure a life of dignity for all”, it is supposed to be ~1:1000; for Catholics priests, somewhere around 1:800-1000 laity (given the characterization of the clergy as being “the retail arm” of philosophy and ethics). If exposure to philosophy is a good thing that improves quality of life, then there will be objectively measurable (even if just in terms of customer satisfaction) outcomes eg the controlled trials of primary schoolchildren being exposed to philosophy cited in a recent Leiter post. In the future atheistic socialist utopia, everyone will have a local philosopher to advise on ethical conundrums and the meaning of life (hey, the sensayers in Too Like the Lightning).

    As opposed to the idea that there are no giants alive today, I would argue that just like every other professionalised field arising from a much larger population base, we have lots of people who would be the equals of Aristotle, Newton, Leibniz, Kant, Hume, Tennyson, Shakespeare etc. Those folks merely had the advantage of getting in on the ground floor. Is the ideas supply smaller in philosophy? I don’t think so based on my limited reading in small specialty areas eg various flavours of logic and how they might relate to natural cognition.

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  13. Hi Dan,

    Great post! As someone who isn’t an academic and has an amateur’s interest in philosophy I really appreciate your efforts to bring your thoughts and ideas to the public, instead of hiding them away in journals which, for a variety of reasons, are pretty much beyond the reach of your average person. There is a certain irony to this which I’m sure hasn’t escaped your attention – that academics will loudly bemoan the ignorance of the public to the fruits of their labours, when those same labours are locked behind journal paywalls. Publishing hundreds of papers might raise their esteem in the eyes of their peers but precious little of it seems to escape into the public domain. Which is why the outreach that philosophers like you and Massimo on your sites is so valuable – you aren’t afraid to rub shoulders at the ballgame, as Michael Sandel might put it.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Well said, all of it.

    I’ve grown increasingly cynical about the field over the years I’ve been in it. I’m still a graduate student for another year, give or take grad-student fudge factors, and even going in I was already resigned to the fact that the PhD was a labor of love. Fortunately I started older than the usual age so I’ve got options on the table for returning to civilian life and I avoided the debt-trap entirely. I can’t say the same for many of my colleagues, which is unfortunate all around.

    As a scholar-in-training the sheer volume of material one must face is more daunting each year on. Even in my niche of niches I still come across new things routinely, adding to the pressure to stay on top of it and grapple with it all — which is of course impossible, and in philosophy’s case I think this is more harmful than not. I don’t need more hairs split about this normative theory or that meta-ethical stance. After awhile it all starts to run together and I find myself asking why I care about any of it, leading to the inevitable wonderment at the very idea of going through all the effort of building a career in hair-splitting.

    Now that I think of it, it’s probably not coincidental that the philosophers I think of most highly are also the ones who wanted to set fire to the discipline and pretend it never happened.

    Good spirits for all!

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  15. I have had a related discussion about ‘research’ in the visual arts and the pressures to ‘publish’ and also to specialize. The folks I discussed this with used a comparison with the sciences to explain where many in the visual arts see themselves. The idea was that contemporary art did not need to be understood by the man-in-the-streets any more than contemporary research in the sciences. The work of professionals was pushing the boundaries, exploring further, and the more the limits were pushed the more ordinary people were left behind and the fewer remain who could understand the things art was now ‘about’. On the model of science artists were imagining themselves explorers in the same sense, and that specialization and esotericism were not only normal but somehow also required. If science was an expanding horizon then the visual arts could make sense of themselves as also standing on the advance edge of exploration.

    The difference is that science builds on its past, has a structure that underpins its projects, even on the fringes. When frameworks are overthrown they are replaced with what is accepted as ‘better’ explanations (in whatever sense). In the arts the expanding fringe is a soap bubble with nothing especially to hold things together but the fringe itself. The history of art isn’t what hold things together, what unifies the past with contemporary practice, but things that need to be overcome and replaced. And replacing is not so much making ‘better’ art in any recognizable sense, merely different. The fringe is crowded with people attempting to push things further simply for the sake of standing on the cutting edge (whatever that seems to mean at any one moment). If new art can move further out only by standing on the corpses of past artists, so be it.

    The comparison I see with philosophy is that contemporary practice may not be so much fleas in the beards of dwarves standing on the shoulders of giants as practitioners confused by the resemblance of an external fringe where exploration takes place. Philosophers sometimes seem desperate to imagine they are doing a kind of science, and as long as they heed the call of an esoteric fringe they will be pulled in the direction of specialization and ever more nuanced ways of describing the world. We are tempted by thinking we can be more *accurate* by inspecting the subject matter more closely. On the fringe it seems we can advance only by having better tools to explore with, more refined language, a technical apparatus that peers deeper, and better theoretical frameworks that these tools can be applied from. We are doing science, in a sense, only we are using language.

    One reason Wittgenstein appeals to me is that he questioned whether it was the business of philosophy to make discoveries in the scientific sense. All this work by philosophers to establish truth and fundamental principles and foundations is a very scientific seeming project. It is work out on the fringes. The problem, he thought, was that our primary tool (language) was so poorly understood that anything we did with it in service to this scientific ideal only made problems for us, made seeming puzzles. For Wittgenstein the work on the fringes is not so much even fleas in beards as weeds in a garden. If language serves us and makes us who we are, then the garden where it grows needs to be understood better, cultivated better, harvested better.

    I like how you phrase it that, “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.” The beards of dwarves should only have so much appeal. We think by inhabiting beards of those who stand on giants’ shoulders we somehow see farther, and that by seeing farther we can make new discoveries. The horizon we think we see casts a spell. But the more we look at that distant seeming potential the less we make space for real work on the human level. The job of fleas may be to look off into the distance, but as long as humans lead human lives with life-engaging questions, the work at the fringes is often beside the point, weeds that clutter the garden.

    Because art is not science, it seems difficult to justify art through an appeal to the work it does on the fringes. Why should we care? Preserving the soap bubble is not itself a convincing argument. Can philosophy be justified by the work it attempts at the fringes? Is that what makes doing philosophy important? Fleas will assume it is, they are so far off the ground that the ground may no longer be visible. If we are invested in weeds, we will grow weeds. We will cultivate and harvest weeds and then sell them to anyone who can be convinced there is a market for weeds. The big question is whether it is the right crop. Is it a sustainable model for the work we do? Just because weeds sell, is that enough? Is the illusion of doing science really that convincing in the end?

    Sorry this was so long!

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  16. When I took philosophy at UC Berkeley 35 years ago, I confused the hell out of the teaching assistants by failing to regurgitate the curriculum in my papers. Rather, I was trying to explore how the ideas related to my life – which, as you point out, meant that there was no obvious conclusion. I got ‘B’s.

    Prof. Tussman offered me another view of philosophy that may be of value. Philosophy protects the use of words to empower people to negotiate solutions to shared problems. He touted that Supreme Court as the only significant philosophical authority of our age. The force of a Supreme Court decision rests upon its clarity and the perceived fairness of its conclusions. From this, I deduced that the right role of a philosopher is to help people understand each other, defending against the corruption of discourse by those that seek power through illusion.

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  17. alandtapper1950,
    Interestingly most of the texts written by the prolific authors you name would not pass muster in blind peer processes used to select for publication in academic journals. As instance, a glance at some articles appearing in Philosopher’s Imprint reveals that an acceptable paper must have a page of citations to relevant literature for every 5 pages of text. I understand the need for demonstration of knowledge of the field. But while most of the philosophers you name certainly demonstrate their acquaintance with philosophers they need to synthesize, or whom they admire, or feel a need to rebut, there’s no effort to go about this programmatically or mechanically, in order to meet the artificial standards of peer review.

    And that is one of the problems with the peer review process. Don’t get me wrong, I understand the need for it. But I’m also aware that surviving that process requires a certain politic savvy, a knowledge of what buttons to push, and when. It takes a while to get to a point in one’s career where one can begin addressing issues of interest in a natural and insightful way. On the other hand, it is also the case that playing that game eventually becomes a way of life in itself, so that writers lose the naturalness and the potential for real insight.

    Increasing demand on publication seems more frequently to lead to the latter phenomenon.

    I chose not to play that game; but I had friends who did. One has at last abandoned the arcane formalism of his early work; another was so crushed into repetitive academese that he at last abandon his subject of research and went into administration. (This proved disastrous due to office politics, and eventually he took early retirement to pursue a career in art.)

    I don’t think young intellectuals should be forced to make these choices.

    For myself, I like writing but actually entered the academy in order to teach – to talk about subjects with those students willing to learn from my acquired knowledge base. However, teaching is still not treated as having value equal to research and debate among peers.

    What are those students doing in those classrooms?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I agree with all of this and did speak to the “obsessive compulsive (and mutually congratulatory)” regimen of citation, today. I can’t tell you how many papers I’ve had sent back to me with, “You didn’t consider/discuss/consult X.” (Fill in your favorite philosopher/work.) It’s funny that Montaigne, Descartes, Hume, and the like, felt no need to do this and kept citations down to a very bare minimum. Again, one has to wonder what people today are thinking. Can they really believe that their work is better than that of their predecessors for having all this mutual masturbation of one another?

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  18. This train of thought is one that Victor Davis Hanson, et al., have been pursuing for years regarding the Classics in works such as “Who Killed Homer?” And “Bonfire of the Humanities “. Their conclusion is similar to yours, go into the fields and work, teach, keep wonder and competence alive in more than a handful per decade even if they never become Ph.Ds themselves.

    If a new work serves merely to be part of the smokescreen occluding more primary sources, they only encourage sharp minds to grind themselves to dullness before they ever get to fertile fields. Of course, one would argue that this is precisely why Ph.Ds are needed in abundance, to guide us past the crap and onward to the good stuff. But if we just stopped publishing crap in the first place? If the work itself did not glory in being unintelligible to the unintelligent by virtue of its elevated (that is, convoluted) language, might philosophy itself benefit?

    Liked by 1 person

  19. Yes, definitely. When going back to the originals, they did not speak from upon high, but neither did they couch every word in footnotes. Instead, they spoke with authority and spoke highly of inspiration and this was not contradictory. They could do this precisely because they published so infrequently as you demonstrated above and held their pen still until they had something to say.

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  20. Really great piece. Thanks for writing, and for articulating it so clearly.

    One question. You say a contemporary big shot publishing 100 articles is being privileged, and is the root of the publishing arms race. Sounds totally right. You also say it should be enough for contemporary big shot to publish no more than Ryle or Austin. But werent Ryle and Austin more privilaged than any current big shot? The fact that Austin published relatively little wasn’t a sign that he was somehow more egalitarian, but was due to fact that he had the privilege to have a position in an elite educational setting where he didn’t have to constantly prove himself. In a way, it is this privilege that Velleman is actually trying to hold onto: the privilege to not have to publish so that one can think about the big topics of philosophy and make great advances.

    Austin published so little in part because he interacted with philosophers mainly at a half dozen departments. He didn’t have to worry about interacting with philosophers outside of the circle of privilaged departments.

    When the current job market system was set up in the 70s, the big shot departments wanted to be, or atleast seem, more egalatarian, and so they gave up the system Austin funcoined in of calling up friends at other departments to get his grad students jobs. The very existence of a job market was supposed to level the playing field. The current pressure to publish is the natural extension of that. Which is one reason why current big shots publish so much – because they seem to feel that if they don’t publish, they will be like Austin and Ryle and, worse, Dreben.

    Your point seems to be that now the over publishing is creating it’s own forms of privilege. Very true.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The main issue is how much publishing is really warranted in the humanities, not privilege. I was merely pointing out the irony of people complaining about the effects of the publishing arms race when they are the ones creating it.

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  21. The irony – and the hypocrisy – of Velleman’s proposal is clear, especially when brought to light as you do here. And agree the issue isn’t about privilege, but model of publishing in humanities.

    My point is that there is a different irony in your being critical of Velleman by putting forward Ryle and Austin as what to aspire to. Imagine if Velleman and others at top departments accepted your idea of cutting back on graduate students, and Velleman, Chalmers, etc. did a lot more teaching and graded hundreds of undergrad papers. If that happened, their situation would be very different from Austin or Ryle. Austin published the quantity he did not because he was busy with a 4-4 teaching load, but because he was having intensive philosophy discussions day in and day out for years with a small group of people, and what he wrote were part of those discussions. Austin didn’t have to teach courses that took him away from his “research”, nor did he have to give large lecture courses on intro logic or phil of religion or ethics. He was able to do what he wanted, and didn’t have to worry about his position getting taken away by his university, or even of having to justify his position. Call this the “complete freedom” model of humanities publishing.

    I was once in a grad course given by Cavell in which he basically said what I am calling “complete freedom” model is necessary for humanities work. Cavell said he never had a job interview, and he didn’t know how worrying about jobs could be compatible with doing humanities work. The image Cavell had was what he and Austin took for granted: they get a bunch of money, job security and complete freedom to just talk to other intellectuals who they feel are their equals intellectually and they figure stuff out.

    Velleman is trying to hold on to this model. Only the kicker is that it is only possible for a few people, high up in the profession. But then again, the same was true for Austin or Ryle.

    I am not disagreeing with your overall point. Only wondering if pointing to previous great philosophers might cut against your point. Maybe tenured professors should aim to publish in journals just once every 2 or 3 years. But if so, other than the frequency of publishing, the current professor who does that would have little in common with Austin. And to make what he writes be interesting, while teaching a 4-4 load, he would have to be, it seems to me, a lot more innovative than someone like Austin.

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  22. ejwinner asks; “What are those students doing in those classrooms?” This may addressed to me. I’m not sure what the question is about, so I’ll change the question to: “What could philosophy graduates do in schools?” Answer: in those places where philosophy is taught they would teach philosophy. In Ontario, I believe, a great many students (28,000 it is said) take philosophy. In other places where philosophy is not part of the curriculum they could still teach their second favourite subject, and infuse it with a spirit of Socratic inquiry. My guess is that the best school-teachers have picked up the Socratic approach, even if they haven’t got it from philosophy.

    Incidentally, Sartre, Beauvior and Merleau-Ponty, after graduating from the Ecole Normale Superieure, got their first jobs as philosophy school-teachers.

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  23. alandtapper1950,
    No, the question was rhetorical – and was largely referencing undergraduate students.

    One of the reasons I went to SUNY as a graduate student was because William Kennedy (the novelist, not the judge) had recently been appointed full professor with tenure by the University, having recently won the Pulitzer for Ironweed. I had no great hope of working closely with him, but I did hope to attend a seminar, or at least a lecture, or possibly have some discussion with him. What I didn’t know was that Kennedy – who only has a bachelor’s degree, BTW – was not hired (although he had worked for a while as an adjunct) – his Pulitzer was. Kennedy’s ‘professorship’ contract was very simple: he would be on their faculty roster, and he would do absolutely no teaching, no mentoring, no nothing. In my four years at Albany (one as an adjunct) I did not see him on campus, he performed no services for the university, he was not involved in any committee meetings which, in my last year before graduating, I was invited to attend. I did hear that the year after I left, he gave a public lecture on something the University sponsored. And of course, he was well paid.

    There were other reasons for attending Albany’s graduate program – one being that the emphasis of the program would be on teaching (which, of course, was not true – it was actually *research* into the teaching of composition – which doesn’t necessitate any actual teaching, unless you are using your classroom as a research lab, which was the advised practice). Stuck between Composition Theory and Literary Theory (the hot topic of the day), I concentrated on Rhetoric.

    Fortunately, I was also able to work – quite extensively – with another author at Albany I admired, poet Don Byrd.

    So I wasn’t terribly disappointed with never meeting William Kennedy; Yet I always wondered about the undergraduate students coming to Albany with the hope that might be able to take a creative writing class from William Kennedy. Their disappointment could very well have been profound, leading to an understandable cynicism concerning academic promises over all.

    What were *those* students doing in *those* classrooms, waiting for a teacher who would never show up?

    With all due respect, your response had to do with graduate students teaching. That’s exactly the problem. It is not that graduate students should not teach – they certainly should, and first-year classes are suited to their teaching, literally right off the bat. But at least some undergraduate students are not simply at college to sleep walk through a degree to get to a job. And these are the real victims of the system. They come to learn – but regardless of the teacher, what they end up discovering is that the system does not care about them.

    But that’s not what the brochures say, is it?

    Most academicians think the graduate student – besides being cheap labor – is a meat-and -potatoes commodity to be sold to state agencies and granting organizations. Actually, at least as far as the state is concerned, it is the undergraduate student (and the research that has military or commercial value.). And universities pander to that. Which leaves us with a somewhat schizoid and schizogenic academic culture indeed.

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  24. Sorry, ej, I quite misunderstood your direction. I am Australian. I think the word “school” means something different to you — to me it refers to places attended between age 5 and age 17. Confusing. I was trying to talk about what graduates might do after they complete postgraduate study. They might get a job in a “school” as I was using the word.

    In my university days, graduate student were not permitted to teach more than 10 hours a week. Almost all lecturing and tutoring was done by tenured academics, including the most senior ones.

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  25. Hi Dan, how much control over accepting students is open to departments themselves? If philosophy departments decided to start caring about how many students they were graduating into the market for philosophers, could/would the university be able to override them for sake of income or reaching stats to show they have so and so many students in that department?

    I also wonder if it is possible for any single department to start selecting based on the overall size of the market.

    I bring this up not to dispute what you’ve written, but because I wonder if it is able to be addressed by departments or professors within departments. This seems a systemic problem related to many fields, including the sciences, even if it is more dramatically effecting philosophy.

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    • I’m not sure about the answer to this. But they certainly have a good amount of control over their tenure/promotion policies. They could significantly slow down the publishing arms race if they wanted to.

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  26. Dan-K,
    I’m not sure about the answer to this. But they certainly have a good amount of control over their tenure/promotion policies. They could significantly slow down the publishing arms race if they wanted to.

    I suggest a three part answer:

    1) Dramatically raise the standards for entry into a graduate programme. The number of graduate students will be reduced. The papers they publish will be reduced. This will increase the teaching load on faculty and this will diminish their publication rate.

    2) Require entrants to a graduate programme to work first for one year(an internship). A report on that experience, from a philosophical perspective, should form part of the requirements for entry into the graduate programme. This will further weed out entrants to the graduate programme. Those that survive this selection process will be the truly determined and the more able. Most importantly though, this will be the beginning of a process that reorientates them to seeing philosophy as a service to the general public.

    3) Appointments to tenure track positions should be preceded by a three to six month employment period(internship) in business or industry. Once again, this is a throttle point that slows down the whole process and increases teaching load. More importantly, it reinforces your message that “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

    These steps work against the interests of the university, mainly because a high publication rate contributes to the university’s standing, and so institutional resistance will be formidable. For this reason the professional associations that represent philosophy must be strengthened so that they work together for the larger interests of the profession. This requires that philosophers agree on a common purpose. Getting philosophers to agree is, I think, rather worse than herding cats and so I don’t hold out any hope for this.

    Society needs the ethical guidance that religion once supplied, even if it does not know that fact. Religion will continue to perform that role on a reduced scale but for the greater part of the population that guidance will be missing. Philosophy will slowly expand into this role, giving it greater purpose and relevance. We already see the first stirring of this. Longer term, then, philosophy has a healthy future but first it must spend its forty days in the desert before it can emerge with a clarified purpose.

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  27. “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.”

    I’ve no doubt that this Socratic ideal forms part of the mission of philosophy, both now and historically, but does this accurately describe most of the activities of e.g. Descartes, Spinoza, Hume, Chrysippus, Anaxagoras, Frege, and even an archetypical ‘continental’ philosopher such as Husserl (‘Philosophy as Rigorous Science’)…? I would rather have thought that all of them would have thought that they were engaged in formulating theories and accepting or rejecting them in terms of evidence, much as the rest of the sciences do (and let us note that the German term for the humanities is ‘Geisteswissenschaften’ – sciences of the mind / spirit). So I think that the Socratic model only works for a small part of what philosophy is, and has been throughout its history.

    What makes the above thinkers specifically philosophers instead of other kinds of scientists is that they used specific, focused inquires to form comprehensive general theories about knowledge and other areas of human endeavour – for example, Descartes tried to generalize his solution to Pappus’ geometrical problem to a general method for the quantitive sciences and knowledge in general; Frege attempted to model mathematics by means of logic; Hume, to ‘extend the method of experimental reasoning into moral subjects’. I think we can safely say that subsequent history has shown that all were successful and unsuccessful in various ways, so the old adage that philosophy asks questions for reasons other than seeking answers cannot be the whole story.

    As others have noted here, the publication ‘arms race’ is a problem in the ‘regular’ sciences as well, so I doubt that misunderstanding the mission of philosophy or the humanities is the root of the problem. It has likely more to do with the employment conditions in modern universities and the consequent tendency to overspecialization, a topic so well documented here and elsewhere.

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    • No, it does not describe some of that which has passed under the name of philosophy. Nonetheless, that’s where I think it’s enduring value lies, and it is there that I think some sort of case can be made to the public to continue to support it financially and institutionally. Otherwise, it will go the way it is already going, which is down.

      Liked by 2 people

  28. Dan, I understand your point, but I think that there is another kind of enduring value, and that would lie in convincing the rest of the academy (so long as it continues to exist!) that philosophy has some value, that is that people in sociology, linguistics, physics, what have you, might find something of interest in what is going on in philosophy currently, which doesn’t seem to be the case, and maybe hasn’t been the case since Wittgenstein at least.

    Unless one includes philosophers such as Foucault, Derrida, Lacan, Zizek, G. Bachelard, Luciano Floridi, etc., I’m not a fan of all of these, but they are the philosophers that get attention outside of philosophy.

    It used to be that sociologists, for example, read standard ’academic’ philosophy as a source of ideas, eg. I believe that much of the inspiration for the very influential sociological movement of ethnomethodology (1960s, I think) came from a reading of phenomenologists. Now it is the other way around – philosophy of science has almost become a branch of sociology, logic a branch of computer science.

    I have no idea how this trend might be reversed, but I do think that at least it shows that ‘non-Socratic’ philosophy has had and might continue to have value outside of philosophy departments, indirectly perhaps, initially to other academics, and perhaps from there to the general public.

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  29. I would rather have thought that all of them would have thought that they were engaged in formulating theories and accepting or rejecting them in terms of evidence, much as the rest of the sciences do

    Yes, that has been a strong impetus in philosophy and still is today. But we can safely look back and say it is a failed experiment. We can also say it has no prospect of success. Imagine for a moment you had killed philosophy. Would our world of science and technology be any different? Would our world of economics and politics be any different? I doubt it. Scientists and technologists would still have done what scientists and technologists do. The markets and politicians would still have done what markets and politicians do. Philosophers have had an influence but nowhere has it been decisive except perhaps in plunging a sword in the heart of religion. And its most memorable contribution may turn out to be its worst contribution.

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  30. Certainly the idea of banning PhD students from publishing is utter lunacy. At least as far as I as an academic understand academia, the whole point of a PhD is to demonstrate that you can produce a work that is worth being published, so… how is that supposed to work? Are the dissertations just going to be binned? And that is before asking why it should be status instead of the quality of a work that should decide its publication.

    But then again, I may be misunderstanding a few other things here. If I understand the OP correctly, (1) publication output of two items per career would be adequate for a philosopher, (2) the primary job of a fully trained philosopher should be undergraduate teaching, largely so that the lives of people who are not going to become philosophers themselves are supposedly enriched by (3) futilely (!) asking questions that can never, ever be answered in principle. Is that right?

    Being a scientist myself I have often defended philosophy against the charge that it is useless. The OP, however, seems like a very good piece of evidence to support that charge.

    Regarding the first point, certainly people are pushed to publish too much and too much nonsense. Nonetheless an outsider may well ask what a philosopher is drawing a salary for during the remaining 30 years of their career if they plan to publish a mere two to four papers. Second, teaching undergraduates and a single PhD student per generation to replace oneself is great, but an outsider might well conclude that if that is all then the field has outlived its usefulness and can be covered by re-printing Aristotle and Hume ad infinitum while closing all philosophy departments. I mean, fantasy novels enrich my life, but that doesn’t mean that I needed a tenured professor in Terry Pratchettology when I studied biology, it only meant that I needed a bookstore in town.

    Third, seriously? Those questions can never be answered, but it is just so enriching to go around in circles getting nowhere? If that is really the case then you have just made the argument for those who wish to de-fund philosophy, but I would actually say that the situation is not all that different from the empirical sciences. We may not be able to prove how life started on this planet, but we can explore several options and compare their plausibility, and most importantly we can decisively reject those that are utterly implausible and/or have no evidence on their side. That is something, and it has brought us a long way. Philosophy may not be able to prove from first principles that this or that particular set of morals is best, but it can decisively show that “because god said so” isn’t working, for example. That is also something.

    I think it is actually quite possible in principle to show a lot of ideas to be rubbish using logic and analytic philosophy, it is merely the case that the field finds it a bit harder to discard them than fields using empirical data; it is easier to rationalise if you are only up against logic than if you are up against a reproducible experiment.

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    • Needless to say, I disagree with just about everything here. I did not say that 2 articles per career would be enough, and I did not suggest that we should only enroll enough graduate students to replace each individual professor. Your point re: the defunding of philosophy is also a flat out non sequitur.

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  31. Hi Dan, I definitely agree about the ability of those within departments to affect the publishing arms race.

    Though what I have to say is about science, where I am now there are some high expectations/requirements for publishing. That is even more so than the general pressures within science. When I went to Germany to look at PhD programs they openly laughed at Dutch requirements, and criticized them for being detrimental to science as well as scientists.

    What was funny is that these expectations were resulting in lots of publications in lower impact journals. At one symposium for neuroscience graduate students a top level administrator suggested that it would be ok to publish less, in order to publish higher. It seems reasonable to ask why worry about publication at all… until one actually has something of merit to publish? Assessment should be about the quality of work a student performs, not the quantity (or quality) of discoveries.

    It amazes me when scientists treat all fields as capable of running experiments, and so reaching conclusions, at the same rate. It is even more mind blowing when some feel that within a specific time period a significant discovery should be made. A sort of assembly line concept of how science works. They really should know better.

    Significant and worthy effort can be put into a line of research, and nothing come out of it. The world does not reward effort itself with a find, and so if you have found nothing it does not reflect some inherent deficiency in one’s scientific ability.

    I know there are some journals which have begun to be open to publishing negative results. But I’m not sure that is the answer.

    Perhaps lowering expectations about discoveries, and so publications, is. Especially with the internet, negative results could be shared in a direct, streamlined fashion as well as minor improvements (or discoveries) that will help the community as a whole.

    I think the arena can be cleaned up, less cluttered and so more meaningful, if we moved expectations about publications to more complete stories… well established stories.

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  32. Although a bit off topic, comments by Paul and Labnut about the nature of philosophy raise some questions that I’d like to address.

    Paul argues that there is more to philosophy than Dan was describing. While true in some sense, I think Dan was right in characterizing Paul’s examples as “that which has passed under the name of philosophy.” Dan might have meant that a bit more pejoratively than I would want to (perhaps not), but I think it is accurate. While there are certainly philosophical pursuits that rely on evidence and reason, those that start heading toward actual conclusions basically bud off into specified disciplines, sciences. I take most of the modern sciences (or science writ large) to be a subset of philosophy, having emerged rather recently (largely from the 1700s through the 1900s) from natural philosophy and natural history.

    That philosophers in the past engaged in what would be considered science or bordering on science does not mean philosophy is similar to science. Perhaps it once was and included that form of inquiry (natural philosophy), but what remains of modern philosophy (writ large) after all that historical budding off isn’t and doesn’t.

    This is not meant as a criticism or description of some deterioration of philosophy. Rather, I think it is an accurate conceptualization that helps deflate some confusions made by philosophers and scientists alike. To think that philosophy, generally speaking, will produce answers in the way the sciences do, and so open it to criticism when it fails to do so (as many scientists have been arguing, and philosophers agreeing) is to make a category mistake.

    And I think Dan is right that that will lead to a lack of appreciation for its strengths and so decline within academia.

    Labnut seems to be making another comparison, which I’m not sure I agree with.

    “Society needs the ethical guidance that religion once supplied, even if it does not know that fact. Religion will continue to perform that role on a reduced scale but for the greater part of the population that guidance will be missing. Philosophy will slowly expand into this role, giving it greater purpose and relevance. We already see the first stirring of this. Longer term, then, philosophy has a healthy future but first it must spend its forty days in the desert before it can emerge with a clarified purpose.”

    Strike that. I *know* I disagree with that comparison. Just as philosophy is not science, it is also not religion, and it is not a source of ethical guidance.

    “Philosophers have had an influence but nowhere has it been decisive except perhaps in plunging a sword in the heart of religion. And its most memorable contribution may turn out to be its worst contribution.”

    This too is problematic. Atheism is not a philosophy, nor does it emerge from philosophy, or science.

    All of this seems to conflate *philosophy* with having *a* philosophy. That is to say some particular belief. Some specific goals or sets of conclusions. This is (to my mind) opposite of what Dan was arguing, and certainly different from my own conception.

    While it is true that certain philosophers argued against religion (specific or general), there were philosophers working in the pro-religion camp as well. And there still are, on both sides.

    I think more important is that first quote I cited. There certainly are those trying to get *specific* philosophies organized as some kind of replacement for organized religion. Stoicism comes to mind. But that is a particular system of belief, a discipline, and not *philosophy* itself. Philosophy is not, and I don’t think ever could be, an organizing principle for the way one lives or how communities should operate. A community can organize in order to practice philosophy, but philosophy cannot drive communities to organize themselves.

    I say this especially as some people are making the further mistake in thinking that *science* can replace religion (and philosophy as I discussed above).

    As religion departs, if it ever does, nothing needs to take its place. What Labnut seems to be concerned with is a sense of community, shared values and mores. That can exist with or without religion. And it can exist with or without philosophy, or any specific philosophical system. It is a social phenomenon that will occur through natural interaction.

    If there is something practical that the study of philosophy gives us, it is a set of tools to help make decisions and seek answers for ourselves. To clarify our position. In that sense it can help the scientist. It can help the person deliberating their spiritual or moral concerns. It is least practical when there is a pretence that philosophy is capable of delivering *the* answer, particularly on subject matter found within the humanities.

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  33. I did not say it follows logically from what you said, merely that it would be the conclusion drawn by most people. Although admittedly those people would include me if I really believed that philosophy cannot answer questions, which I don’t.

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    • Philosophy’s problem is precisely that people expect it to answer questions/solve problems, when it doesn’t and can’t. This gives the impression of discipline that makes no progress and is thus, useless, which is the chief criticism levied against philosophy. Notice that no one says this about the arts or literature, precisely because no one confuses those disciplines with science.

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  34. Honestly I have no idea what e.g. a professor of watercolour painting would be good for, as opposed to a professor of art history or of theory of art. Again, there are many activities that are enriching to our lives, but that does not by itself mean that those activities need to have university departments and professors dedicated to them, that they are academic in nature.

    But my main point is not that you need to convince me that philosophy cannot say, for example, “this stance is self-contradictory” or “this claim, if accepted, leads to absurd consequences”, although I do think it can. My main point is that there are other people out there who have control over the purse-strings. Your approach appears to be to tell them that philosophy is like watercolour painting, under the assumption that they will continue to fund it if their expectations can be lowered to that degree. I doubt that approach will work. And clearly there are people who would declare literature and arts useless and place them on the chopping block.

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  35. Hi Alex SL:

    You say, “But then again, I may be misunderstanding a few other things here. If I understand the OP correctly, (1) publication output of two items per career would be adequate for a philosopher, (2) the primary job of a fully trained philosopher should be undergraduate teaching, largely so that the lives of people who are not going to become philosophers themselves are supposedly enriched by (3) futilely (!) asking questions that can never, ever be answered in principle. Is that right?”

    You have misunderstood. Dan’s points were pretty clear.

    (1) “philosophy professors – including, with a few exceptions, today’s most distinguished – are publishing too much. Way too much.” David Velleman was a case in point. He’s published roughly eight books and 50 papers. Count each book as equalling seven papers, and you get a total of 100 papers in about 30 years of work, or three per year. Nothing like your “publication output of two items per career”.

    (2) “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.” Dan’s claim was that academics can and should cover most of the teaching load. They owe it to the students and to the wider society to do so. Teaching is part of their “primary job”, though not the whole of it.

    (3) Philosophers should “stop playing philosopher-scientist”. Instead, they should “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.” Dan didn’t deny that philosophers may generate new ideas; he is asking only that they publish only when they do have something worth saying. It’s about quality control. A good philosophy career might be ten papers and two books of quality, along with plenty of high quality teaching and some contribution to public life. Today that would be regarded as close to failure in some circles.

    Alan

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  36. There was a time when physicists were less dismissive of philosophers, in the twenties and thirties for instance, similarly academics in sociology departments took ideas from phenomenology into sociological theory (I’m thinking of the 1960s movement called Ethnomethodology). Currently it seems all the attention nowadays goes the other way.

    If philosophy cannot provide answers, perhaps it can provide models, and means of evaluation or adjudication of the foundational claims of various other disciplines, such as those whom some have dubbed ‘cultural Marxists’ (sociology of knowledge), economists, behavioural psychologists, ‘big data’ theorists, complexity scientists, and others, who now appear to be the philosophers of our time, in that they are shaping much of the public debate about the meaning and direction of society (and not just individual lives). If philosophy can once again be important to other areas of intellectual inquiry, or at least help in providing tools and intellectual traditions to judge among their various claims, then that would be a good start.

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  37. alandtapper1950,

    I am happy to accept that I have misunderstood 1-2, if I have, because responding to 3 and its implications was my main point. I have no problems with people publishing less and teaching more anyway.

    But the quote about “philosophy’s enriching and enduring questions and its tools for answering them” comes from the same text as “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.” There are two problems here. One is I hope and believe that this is wrong, that philosophy can actually say something. The second is, even if it is right it may be tactically unsound to use this as a pitch, because the taxpayer or administrator may well take it as an admission that 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.

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    • Philosophy has not solved a single one of the major problems that it has raised since the days of Plato. That should give an indication that it is a very different sort of inquiry than natural science.

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    • No one has said that philosophy is about what you describe in your last sentence. And it certainly doesn’t follow from the idea that philosophy confronts us with life’s most enriching and enduring questions. How many angels can dance on the tip of a pin is not an enriching question.

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  38. Alex,
    Philosophy does not solve problems. People with fine, well developed and well equipped minds solve problems. Training in philosophy helps to develop such minds.

    But it goes deeper than that. The study of poetry solves no problems either and the study of poetry does not equip our minds to solve problems. But we do it because we find it intrinsically worthwhile. In it we find beauty that speaks to us in deep ways that enriches our lives. There is no utilitarian calculus that can justify it but we know that it is deeply worthwhile.

    In just the same way that we know poetry is enriching we also find that the deep, organised thought we call philosophy is enriching and therefore worthwhile.

    But why should these forms of enrichment matter? You might as well ask why we spend money on literature, museums, galleries, etc. We need this enrichment. It is an innate part of us and we should pursue it because it ennobles us.

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  39. 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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  40. 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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  41. 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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    • 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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  42. 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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  43. 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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    • 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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  44. 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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  45. 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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  46. 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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  47. 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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  48. 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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