The Philosophy Rapture

by Robert Gressis

_____

Assume there are about 20,000 professional philosophers in the USA. Imagine that the bottom 19,000 of them were raptured, leaving only the top 1,000 philosophers.[1] What would happen to philosophy?

I don’t believe much of anything would happen to philosophy. Indeed, I bet that if you looked just at the top fifty journals and if you didn’t know beforehand about the philosophy rapture, then you would never be able to tell, just from looking at the names of the authors of the articles in the journals, that the rapture had happened. I would guess that 95% of the same names that predominated before the rapture would predominate after the rapture.

Call this claim The Guess: if the bottom 95% of all philosophers stopped producing academic research, that would have almost no effect on what articles appeared in the top fifty philosophy journals. Another way of putting The Guess: 95% of the articles in the top fifty philosophy journals are produced by the top 5% of philosophers.

Here’s a very important note you should internalize before going on: I’m not equating “top” philosopher with “best” philosopher, nor am I equating “top” journal with “best” journal. “Top” is meant as purely descriptively as I can mean it: A top department is a department ranked by The Philosophical Gourmet Report; a top philosopher is a philosopher who is tenured or on the tenure track at a top department; a top journal is one that gets highly ranked as top in surveys of philosophers. (And you could use other metrics like h-index or selectivity to determine the top journals and other ranking systems besides the Philosophical Gourmet for departments.) Importantly, it’s quite possible for a top philosopher to be a bad philosopher and for a bottom philosopher to be a good philosopher. Nevertheless, because “top” associates so naturally with “best”, from this point on I’m going to use different terminology: “upper-class” for “top”, “middle-class” for “middle” and “lower-class” for bottom. And, to avoid monotony, I’m going to use synonyms for upper-class, middle-class, and lower-class.

I want to discuss the significance of The Guess, but before I do that, I want to respond to what I bet is the main objection to it, which is simply: The Guess is laughably, wildly wrong. Lots of articles appearing in the upper-class journals are written by philosophers from the middle- and lower-classes. Consequently, if the bottom 19,000 philosophers’ contributions stopped coming, people would quickly notice, simply because lots of the names and topics they had seen in the ritzy journals before the rapture would stop appearing after it.

Maybe this objection is correct. I can’t know until someone does the empirical legwork. But without doing any legwork myself, I still think The Guess is plausible. To see why, just change the numbers a bit. Instead of the bottom 19,000 philosophers getting raptured away, imagine it’s the bottom 18,000. Do you think you’d notice that? What about the bottom 17,000? Remember, we’re just talking about the top fifty journals here! Do you really think that, say, 10,000 philosophers regularly publish in those journals? Even 5,000? I’d be quite surprised if more than 10% of philosophers were responsible for 95% of the upper-class research. But at the end of the day, this is just my gut talking. That’s why I’m calling it The Guess.

Assume the Guess is correct. How should we react to it?

First, we shouldn’t be surprised. Why not? Three reasons:

  • Philosophers at fancy universities both have more time to do research and suffer more pressure to produce it. On average, you would expect them to produce more upper-class research under these conditions than under the alternatives.
  • Posh philosophers are, much more than the hoi-polloi, friends with the editors of the top journals. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying that editors of philosophy journals are corrupt; that they will publish only their friends’ work without regard for quality. Instead, I’m saying that what they think is worth talking about in philosophy will be deeply affected by what their friends and colleagues think is worth talking about, because these are the people whom they most often talk to about philosophy.
  • Unless you think that the hiring decisions of the aristocratic philosophy programs have no or a negative relationship to ability to produce aristocratic research (i.e., research that lands in upper-class journals), it stands to reason that philosophers at upper-class departments are, on average, going to be better at producing upper-class philosophy than philosophers at less prestigious departments. So it is, again, not surprising that most of the most prestigious research is produced by the well-heeled philosophers, who are far fewer in number than the middle- and lower-class philosophers.

If I’m right about the foregoing, then it shouldn’t surprise us if The Guess is right. But if the Guess is right, who cares? Why does it matter?

I think there are a couple of ways it might matter.

The first way it might matter is that it could mean that most philosophers should do a lot less research. If it’s really true that the vast majority of prestigious research is done by the top 5% of philosophers, then why do the remaining 95% of philosophers do research? There are a few answers here.

  • Maybe some of the 95% want to ascend to the ranks of the top 5%. They’re strivers. To them I say: good luck. I’m not sure I hope you succeed (I don’t believe that life in an upper-class research department is necessarily better than life in an unassuming state school—though I’m not sure that it’s not!), but maybe you will.
  • Some of those philosophers might have to do research to get tenure. If I’m right that their research is largely unnoticed and, consequently, would be un-mourned if it ceased, then this strikes me as rather silly. Why pressure young faculty to produce research that will, chances are, make no or little difference to almost anyone?
  • Some of those philosophers no doubt think that the upper-class research isn’t very good, and that their own research is better. Consequently, they try to publish in the top journals because they hope to shift the conversation in what they think of as a better direction.
  • Finally, some of those 95% produce research simply because they have peculiar psychologies. I’m certainly one of these. I produce a fair amount of research, but I have no belief that it will move me to a top department, nor do I believe that it will improve my salary or anything like that. Instead, I do it because I have certain philosophical perplexities that are best solved by writing articles. And I like sending these articles off for peer review to get feedback from other philosophers. But I don’t maniacally try to get them published. If I get good peer reviews, and they show me I’ve made big mistakes, I don’t feel pressure to try to revise and resubmit. I got what I wanted out of it.

(Note: This is kind of a lie. If I get my work published, I feel great about myself. I think, “see, I’m not bad at philosophy – I may even be good at it!” As if getting published is some  neutral arbiter of philosophical quality! And yet, I can’t help but to think it is, at least to some extent. It could be that I’ve been socialized into this – I went to an upper-class graduate school, and that way of thinking is rather in the air there. But there are also good reasons for believing it as well: philosophers whom editors select to be peer reviewers usually have expertise in the area in which you’re trying to publish. If they think you’re bringing something good to the table, that’s some (defeasible) evidence that you are.)

So, those are four reasons why philosophers do produce research: they want to become upper-class, they’re required to by their employers, they think their research will make an important difference, or they’re just weirdos. But there’s another reason why you should do research, one that people often push: the main reason your work as a philosopher matters is how you affect students. But doing research makes you better at teaching. So, it’s important for the bottom 95% of philosophers to do research, because it will make them better teachers.

In response to this rationale, I ask: Has this been researched? Is there more than anecdotal evidence that people become better teachers when they do research and become worse teachers when they don’t? How much research do you need to be a good teacher? And what kind of people benefit from this alleged pedagogical improvement that research bestows?

Personally, I’m skeptical that it’s true in general that doing research makes you a better teacher. I’m sure there are some people out there about whom it’s true, but it could also be that there are some people out there for whom more research makes them worse teachers (think of the professors at top universities who have such pressure to produce research that they resent having to teach and, as much as possible, phone it in). I doubt anyone knows ahead of time who is who, or what the relative distributions of both are.

So, the first significant consequence of The Guess is that it means that the vast majority of philosophers should do less research. A second significant consequence of The Guess is that it might mean that philosophy is more fashion-driven than you might at first think. Let me explain.

Above, one of the reason I gave for believing that The Guess is right is that editors of prestigious  journals are likelier to be friends with upper-class philosophers, and hence to see their concerns as the most philosophically interesting ones. I’ll elaborate: if I edit The Philosophical Review, housed in Cornell, I’ll talk to Cornell philosophers on a day-to-day basis. The visiting speakers who come to my campus will probably be big shots from other top universities. And the people I hang out with at conferences will probably be people who are top philosophers themselves, students of top philosophers, or who are friends of mine from graduate school (which was itself probably a top grad school if I edit The Philosophical Review). This, along with wide reading as well as a sense of general cultural trends in philosophy, is how I come to form my gestalt about the most pressing and interesting issues in the field.

If all this is right—and it may not be; for all I know, the modal journal editor tries to get to know lots of different people, situated in lots of different institutions, not only to have a large supply of editors, but also to prevent themselves from becoming myopic—then trends in the top journals are due as much to acquaintanceships as they are to pressing social or intellectual problems. And that, in turn, means that there is a feedback loop: Top Journal J wants to publish articles about X because the friends of editor E work on X; and the friends of E want to work on X because J publishes articles on X.

Of course, this isn’t necessarily bad: it could be that the reason that the friends of editors work on the issues they do is just that they find them socially or intellectually pressing, or perhaps that they find them fascinating, or tractable. There are lots of different reasons. But I suspect that the mere fact that articles in T focus lately on T is also a reason. After all: the friends of E will predominantly work at top schools. And the people who work at top schools tend to supervise graduate students. And such students are understandably concerned about getting jobs, so many of them will want to work on hot topics. How will they find that out? One important way is: looking at trends in top journals.

One thing to note about the two consequences of The Guess is that they may be in tension with each other. After all, the first consequence is that philosophers should do less research –let the top 5% do their research thing, let 90% do their teaching thing, and let the remaining 5% who are strivers do their striving thing. But the second consequence is that philosophy is a fashion-driven industry: the issues that get attention are the ones that journal editors (who are among the top 5%) give attention to, and they do this because they pay attention to their friends (who are among the top 5%). If you think it’s a bad thing that philosophy is so faddish, then you’ll want the bottom 95% to do more research, not less, and want the top 5% to do less research, not the same amount.

So, how should we react to the tension of the two consequences? My thinking is that most philosophers should do less research, and the upper-class philosophers should continue to do as much research as they currently do. In other words, faddishness is not really a problem, whereas too much research is a problem.

I’ll start with the first thought first, that most philosophers should do less, or even no, research. I take a whiggish view of philosophy. It’s unlike science, in that it doesn’t benefit from the kind of slow accretion of results that confirm or disconfirm big theories. Instead, it’s more about novel theories, usually coming from great thinkers. Now, the more great interlocutors these great thinkers have, the better the work they’ll do, and the better the work they do, the more exciting philosophy becomes. Moreover, the more exciting philosophy becomes, and the better the work that the great thinkers do, the more you attract other great and very good thinkers to it.

To elaborate a little more: although I don’t think that philosophy is all that much like natural science, I think Thomas Kuhn’s picture of how science functions applies to philosophy, in the following way: there is revolutionary philosophy and normal philosophy. Revolutionary philosophy is when a philosopher comes along and articulates a new insight that captivates and inspires other philosophers to elaborate on his or her picture. By contrast, normal philosophy is the activity of other philosophers elaborating on that picture. That said, since physical experiments (as opposed to thought experiments) aren’t generally parts of philosophy, these elaborations are generally attempts merely to put old wine into new wineskins. Some of this may be worth doing, and may even lead to new, revolutionary insights, but a lot of it is wheel-spinning that doesn’t end up illuminating much.

See, I’m of the view that there is a continuum of philosophical ability that I will sort into five parts: there are great philosophers, very good philosophers, good philosophers, average philosophers, and bad philosophers. I think, and this is the first controversial thing I will say, that philosophers of good-and-below quality don’t contribute much to revolutionary or normal philosophy. There are exceptions, of course, but by and large, the great contribute a lot more than the very good, and the very good contribute a lot more than the good, and by the time you get to the good, there’s not much left to contribute to the advancement of philosophy itself. The good-and-below can teach, and they can explain philosophy to non-philosophers, but I don’t think they can add much to it.

Why do I think this? Well, honestly, it’s my view of just about all intellectual fields (even science). And why is that my view? I admit, I can’t make a great case for it, though I think there’s a great case to be made, albeit one that requires a lot more research than I have time to devote to it. The basic insight, though, comes from the following intuitions. I think that a great piece of literature like The Brothers Karamazov makes an immeasurably larger contribution to the liberal arts than a perfectly cromulent novel like Julie Schumacher’s Dear Committee Members. Similarly, I think a great piece of philosophy like On Liberty makes an immeasurably greater contribution to philosophy than, say, Abraham Anderson’s Kant, Hume, and the Interruption of Dogmatic Slumber (which is, again, perfectly cromulent).

Now, I admit, it could be that great philosophers can’t really make great philosophical contributions without interacting with good, average, and bad philosophers. But I have to confess, I just don’t see why this would be the case. Let me analogize it to literature again. Is the view that, unless Thomas Mann reads lots of bad novels, he’ll never be able to produce The Magic Mountain? And if that’s the view, does it also follow that, at some point, if Mann has to choose between reading George Eliot and a lowbrow mystery novel, that he should read the mystery novel? In other words: I’ll grant that slumming it with mediocrities may sometimes help a great thinker; but why think it would help more than interacting with other greats?

Let me get to a second, much more controversial point, which I’m betting underpins a lot of what I’ve written so far. Here’s the more controversial point: our institutions of higher education, by and large, do about as good a job as you could hope in promoting the best philosophers to the top positions.

Let me say what this doesn’t mean. This doesn’t mean that I think there’s a one-to-one correspondence between talent and placement. I’m not saying that every professor at NYU is better at philosophy than every professor at Cal State University, Northridge (where I teach), though I wouldn’t be shocked if that were the case. Nor does it mean that I think our system of placing philosophical talent even does a good job. I just think it does about as good a job as can be done.

If you think a better job can be done, I’d like to hear you describe it (seriously; my confidence is pretty low on my own point; maybe I just haven’t thought enough, or maybe thinking of good institutional arrangements isn’t my strength, or maybe I’m too close to it). But just think about what we’re asking for here: we’re asking people to judge people’s philosophical talent and offer them jobs based on it. Who is a good judge of philosophical talent? Well, I’d say philosophers are probably the best judges there are of it. Is it the case that the better a philosopher you are, the better a judge you are of philosophical talent? I would say that, in general, it helps. I mean, it’s not always the case; look at the distinction between filmmakers and movie critics. It’s certainly possible that someone could be a great movie critic while being a terrible filmmaker (Roger Ebert, perhaps), or vice versa (Quentin Tarantino, perhaps). The same could happen with philosophy.

But whereas filmmaking, it seems to me, draws on significantly different skills from film criticism, I don’t think that’s the case with philosophy. To really appreciate philosophical moves, it helps if you are, like, good at philosophy. At least, good enough to understand the arguments, evaluate how well-defended, clearly presented, and creative the arguments and presentation are, not to mention aware of how the piece of philosophy relates to its context. I certainly think that philosophers would be better at these things than non-philosophers. And I think if you’re good at them yourself, you’ll be better at identifying them in others. Ceteris paribus.

Let’s say you’re with me so far: philosophers are, by and large, the best judge of philosophical talent. The next question to ask is: how did the philosophers who sitting in judgment of others’ philosophical talent themselves get to be there? Well, they got there because they were judged by their colleagues to be good enough to have a seat at the table. But their colleagues are philosophers! So, unless you think that, I don’t know, economists would be better judges than philosophers (and I’m sure the economists already think this), then I don’t see what recourse you have than to let philosophers pick out who the good philosophers.

OK, but there’s a hell of a lot more to this system than just philosophers picking philosophers. There are also philosophers having tunnel-vision, thinking that only their way of doing philosophy counts as real philosophy, not interrogating whether the intellectual methods they use could possibly count intellectually legitimate, not bothering to be empirically informed about their work, focusing on trivialities because they’re more tractable or easier to publish, etc., etc.

Yeah, yeah. Sure. All that stuff is … well, it’s not great. (I was going to say “problematic”, but that lovely word has been taken and corrupted to mean “heretical”.) But when was it great? I mean, I don’t know. Maybe there really was a halcyon time when philosophers weren’t concerned with trivialities, when their work was empirically informed, when all their intellectual methods were on the up-and-up, you get the idea. But even if there was such a time (I doubt it), I’m guessing it wasn’t long-lasting, or, if it was long-lasting (ancient Greece, maybe?), it was long-lasting because the kind of pressures we’re now dealing with were absent.

I could go on about the pressures I’m talking about, but the essay is already too long. So I’ll close with my observations about what all this means.

First, most philosophers do too much research.

Second, a lot of the best philosophers are among the upper-class philosophers, and if you think you could do a better job than The System of finding and placing the best philosophical talent, you’re probably wrong.

Third, if philosophy right now seems boring and trivial, maybe it is. But for that to change, you’re going to have to wait. Another Wittgenstein will come along, great minds will be attracted, and the discipline will flourish. In the interim, those of us who are good and worse will try to teach and hope that it resonates with the right person at the right time, producing a new age of philosophical excitement.

Notes

[1] The Rapture, according to many contemporary evangelical Christians, is an event where certain people (usually understood to be believing evangelical Christians) rise into the skies to be reunited with their maker, leaving only unbelievers behind to deal with divine judgment.

29 comments

  1. Robert, you have written a lovely, clear essay. This unPhilosopher simply knows too little to comment on the substance but you have expressed your point of view with such clarity that even an unPhilosopher has come away feeling he has learnt something important.

    What you have described is more generally known as the Pareto principle and it underlies most fields of human ebdeavour, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pareto_distribution. Philosophers, it turns out, are just like everyone else. Even the sizes of sand particles fit the Pareto distribution 🙂

  2. Your mention of ‘cromulent’ can only be followed up with the note that your essay ’embiggens’ the Electric Agora.

  3. “But for that to change, you’re going to have to wait. Another Wittgenstein will come along, great minds will be attracted, and the discipline will flourish.”

    My first thought is that you are waiting for Godot.

    You are assuming that there is this thing — what you call “the discipline” — which maintains its identity over time. I don’t see it like this. Disciplines change over time. Disciplines come and go. Disciplines split up and go their separate ways or merge to create new disciplines.

    You are assuming — because in the past a series of great thinkers has arisen whom we refer to as philosophers — that this pattern will continue. Maybe it will. But what of the relationship between these future thinkers and future manifestations of the loose, unstable (and to some extent parochial) coalition which currently constitutes academic philosophy? I would hesitate to make predictions on this score.

    Other aspects of what you are saying I agree with. As usual, you write with discipline and integrity. You follow the argument where it leads.

    1. That’s a good point. First response: I don’t accept a teleological view of history, which I think is the most popular view right now. So, I’m a little disappointed that I didn’t see that my view was assuming the continuation of philosophy. In other words, this first response is: you’re right, that’s something I need to think about.

      Second response: I have a *very* big conception of philosophy. Basically, it’s formulating and trying to answer fundamental questions that can’t (at the moment) be answered empirically. To the extent that answering such questions remains a human desire, I think we will have philosophy.

      1. I’m not in the discipline of philosophy myself, but I have similar views to Robert about many areas of academica, especially in social and natural science. (I am a Teaching Professor in a College of Education, and ONE reason I am a teaching professor is that while I love research, I think there is a VERY large point of diminishing returns from each new piece of research and we’ve long since passed that point. Considering how much time and money research takes, I’d not be surprised – were we able to measure such a thing – that there is a net negative on each new piece of research produced.

        BUT, here are a few counter-arguments I sometimes think about that might offer some challenge to Robert:

        1. As someone mentioned below, this view sort of assumes that we can tell right now who the best philosophers – the ones we were glad wrote their shit down – are in the future. But what if it is the case that we have to produce a LOT of chaff right now to really get at what the future will decide was the wheat? What if academia bought Robert’s arguments and no longer required philosophers to publish that much, maybe making 95% of jobs teaching-only jobs? Surely, we’d miss out on some really good stuff that might seem like unimportant stuff when it is produced but come later to be seen as golden.

        2. Just in a numerical sense, it it possibly the case that we need the chaff to produce the wheat just in a purely numerical sense? In other words, the top 25 journals are selective and that’s sort of what makes them the top 25 journals. The fact that they reject a lot of articles is presumably what ensures that their quality is the best of all the journals. Okay, well, in order to reject a lot of stuff – to have those really high quality control filters – don’t people need to produce a lot of crap for those journals to be selective enough to publish the best stuff?

        3. Again, I am not in a philosophy department. But I read enough of the “greatest hits” of philosophy to be utterly unconvinced that the philosophy we love in the future will have come from academic journals. Nietzsche, Wittgenstein (think the notebooks), Kierkegaard, Hume, Plato, Aristotle – these folks did not publish in journals and wrote the kind of stuff that just couldn’t be published in journals. No citations, very reflective and often first person, not built around a response to a response to a point made by x philosopher, etc. The greatness of what those authors did is precisely that it DIDN’T do the sorts of things that are virtually necessary conditions for being published in academic journals, and especially the ‘really good’ journals. So, I’d challenge the very idea (implicit in this piece?) that talking about what will produce the best philosophy should mean talking about what is produced in top journals.

  4. My reaction on first reading is largely to agree with Mark English.

    I would also like to suggest The Sociology of Philosophies by Randall Collins. The phenomenon you begin unravelling as the Guess may really be the result of what Collins calls “the Law of Small Numbers” – the limited space for active participation in direct conversation over contested ideas limits the number of participants to the strongest voices. Collins’ book (huge, a thousand pages) is what it says in the title, but for that reason the best single volume history of philosophy (literally globally) I know of – largely because Collins has no vested interest (in this study, anyway) in evaluating the better or worse, the stronger or weaker, the truer or falser philosophies available at any given time, but merely which philosophers achieve notice within a given philosophical-historical context.

    Two quick side notes: Schopenhauer dismissed Hegel for reading sentimental romances; but Bertrand Russell was a speed reader of mystery novels.

    Roger Ebert wrote the screenplay for Russ Meyer’s Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, which I remember splitting my gut with laughter watching – not sure that proves or disapproves your point. On the other hand. most of the French New Wave directors started out as critics; perhaps it’s a matter of taste.

  5. I enjoyed reading this essay. Thanks for writing it.

    I’m not a professional philosopher, so I can’t really judge your guess. But it does look to me as if it does describe one aspect of academia. Fashion probably does play a role in philosophy. But then it also plays a role in science and in mathematics. I expect it plays a bigger role in the humanities (including philosophy) than in the sciences. But I’m not troubled by this. It is part of how societies work.

    Doing research just because you want to and because you enjoy it? I cannot think of a better reason to do research.

    1. “Doing research just because you want to and because you enjoy it? I cannot think of a better reason to do research”

      The irony is that as most everyone who publishes in journals can attest, there must always be some sort of section in an article about why this research is valuable…. and it has to be something other than “I find it hella interesting.”

      I’ve had this problem with pieces I’ve written, where I pursue a line of inquiry mostly because I find it really interesting, can’t stop thinking about it, want to justify my thinking about it, and think that maybe someone will find my thoughts useful. Submit. The piece comes back asking me to address why others would care about this research/justify the research as a contribution to the literature. And from there, I have to basically make up some reason for why the research is valuable other than “I found it hella interesting, don’t you?”

  6. I think this again comes back to the concept of progress in philosophy. In the sciences, everyone publishes because every little bit helps, and more people publishing leads to more progress. So one of your enthymemes seems to be that there are no useful small advances in philosophy.

    1. Hmm. When you put it like that, I don’t want to endorse it. I mean, I think there are useful small advances in philosophy. For instance, Gettier’s paper (arguably) demonstrating that knowledge is not *just* justified true belief is a useful, small advance. But I think I would say that (a) Gettier’s paper counts as “normal”, not “revolutionary” philosophy, and (b) from what I know, Gettier would count as one of those “very good” philosophers I mentioned above.

        1. You’re right, of course. I think it was in Problems of Philosophy, no? And if I recall correctly, Locke had a similar example much earlier than Russell.

          For whatever reason, though, it wasn’t taken up when Russell and Locke articulated the example. And I don’t think Gettier knew about Russell or Locke’s version. So, he deserves credit for thinking of the example in a context where it was relevant.

  7. I share your skepticism about the idea that people become better teachers when they do research. It’s the other way round. Teaching forces clarity of thought and exposition, and it focuses the mind (it increases your grasp of the subject at hand). These are two important philosophical virtues and they help in becoming a good researcher. It’s only recently that universities came up with the idea to split research and teaching duties, because university administrators think of finance, first and foremost. They don’t understand the nexus between teaching and research.

    I do like the image of philosophers floating up to heaven. But, for some light relief, I must take issue with your interpretation of the Rapture. You are assuming that the upper-class philosophers will have to keep toiling on Earth, because they haven’t seen the (Christian) light. I am sure that their ranks will also be depleted, because God, disregarding any particular denomination, does appreciate good philosophy in combination with how they conducted themselves on Earth.

    1. Remember, though: the meek shall inherit the earth; the last shall be first, and the first shall be last; it’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than a rich man to enter heaven; etc.

      But yes, should there be a rapture, I wouldn’t expect the raptures to neatly track class!

      1. I’m not a philosopher or trained in philosophy. But the (admittedly few) philosophers I have met online and in real life don’t, for the most part, come across as “meek.” (I’m not necessarily including present company, mind.) Frankly, that generalization seems to apply to most academics I have known.

  8. This is a most interesting essay. i think part of it undoubtedly correct: the part that calls into question the relentless interrogation and attack on institutions as they are. That is, there is a real level of professionalism that is reflected in who teachers are and in their position. As you note it is far from perfect but still neither arbitrary nor meaningless. To name but one example. Some of the big names in philosophy are names who I regularly read, for example Bernard Williams and Thomas Nagel. It is thoroughly incontestable that they are simply superior prose stylists: they are inherently interesting to read (with the possible and important exception of certain technical texts of Williams where the language is of necessity specific and narrow).
    Of course we are in a moment in which all differentiation and hierarchy is seems as always already bad: this makes such evaluations most difficult. I suspect a lot of what you are discussing is the necessary tension between out dual desires for equality on the one hand, and high quality, even excellence, on the other.

    1. “I suspect a lot of what you are discussing is the necessary tension between out dual desires for equality on the one hand, and high quality, even excellence, on the other.” You’re right on with that. This is something that has come to increasingly bother me over the last four or five years.

  9. A few things about this which make it unpersuasive to me. [Robert and I have discussed the piece at length, prior to publication, so nothing I say here will surprise him.]

    1. To a significant degree, “top” and “best” do not overlap, with regard either to journals, institutions, or people. This is especially true for roughly the last 20 years or so, and becomes more true with each passing day.

    2. A person has not really mastered a subject or a particular bit of material, until he or she has taught it. I would go farther than this and add “to introductory level students,” if I was speaking solely from personal experience.

    3. Unlike, say, Chemistry, philosophy is the sort of subject where it is often the case that a fresh, untutored mind will have valuable insights and sometimes notice things that a seasoned professional won’t. So not only would I reject the idea that “Top” people have little to learn from “lower” people, but I would maintain that they even have something to learn from the *lowest* people — i.e. college freshmen.

    4. Following up on #3, I can identify a number of some of my most successful papers, in which the core idea or argument came from one of the students or from several students in classroom conversation.

    5. The most important philosophy that goes on is the philosophy that is being taught on a daily basis at the sorts of places at which the overwhelming majority of people get their higher education: unranked, undistinguished state universities and community colleges. The least important kind of philosophy that goes on is the philosophy that is taught at the kinds of places that virtually no one receives their higher education.

    6. Robert asks “When was it great?” but far from being the difficult question he imagines it to be, it’s actually very easy to answer, if one’s historical consciousness of the discipline extends back more than 5 minutes. It was great up through the generation of philosophers that are now in the process of retiring and or dying.

  10. Why did it stop being great in your opinion? What happened? Did those with potential for greatness drift to other disciplines?

      1. Specifically to you, but to all readers actually. By the way, I ask out of curiosity, I have no theory about this at all.

        Coincidentally, I was just listening to a Nietzsche lecture by Raymond Geuss in Youtube about how philosophy ran out of steam in the second half of the 19th century after a brilliant first half dominated by Kant and then by Hegel and was revived at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century.

    1. It stopped being great for a number of reasons.

      1. The “replacement population” of philosophers has received a significantly poorer education, not just in philosophy but across the board.

      2. Millennial and Gen Z populations, on the whole, are far less capable of coping with the demands of adult life than previous generations.

      3. Philosophy and its institutions have been captured by an anti-intellectual, anti-critical ideology.

      4. The final triumph of Science and Technology has been in terms of cultural esteem, and it has gone badly for the humanities.

      These are some of the main reasons. There are more.

      1. Not sure if this applies to the discipline of philosophy (it certainly applies in my field of Education.) BUT, I’d suspect one of the key reasons – more important than those Dan lays out -is that over time, the incentive structure of being a professor leads folks to produce research in certain ways, often just to have beans to count.

        So, in Education (and other social sciences) I see folks do stuff like: break up one piece of research into two pieces solely to gain an additional CV line, put out research that is primarily motivated not be researcher interest but by probability of publication, (the reverse of this) NOT focus on the research the researcher is more interested in out of fear that it may not be publishable in a good journal, stringing together papers that the researcher knows may not be interesting to anyone solely for the line one the CV.

        Incentives really do matter. And if the expectation is to publish at a certain rate in a certain type of journal, THAT quickly becomes the goal. If anyone wonders why, for instance, there are so many pay-to-publish journals and clients willing to use that service, my advice is think less about the players and more about the rules of the game they are playing.

  11. Dan wrote
    4. The final triumph of Science and Technology has been in terms of cultural esteem, and it has gone badly for the humanities.

    I think he has hit the nail on the head. To elaborate I will begin with an analogy. The two most powerful rugby playing nations in the world are South Africa(the Springboks) and New Zealand(the All Blacks). I am biased so I list South Africa first 🙂

    Now this is a very strange fact because these are two tiny rugby playing nations. The white population of South Africa is 4.6 million(this population group sources most rugby players) and the population of New Zealand is 4.9 million. They are dwarfed by the population of London. How is it that two tiny rugby playing nations can exercise such dominance on the world stage?

    The answer is cultural selection. There is a small, finite pool of elite athletes in any nation and cultural factors determine where they deploy their talents. In New Zealand and South Africa cultural selection in favour of rugby is so strong that almost all elite athletes are drawn to rugby. The result is that in these countries more elite athletes are drawn to rugby than they are, for example, in England(another very strong rugby playing nation). In England elite athletes are attracted to many, diverse athletic disciplines, diminishing the concentration of the athlete in areas such as rugby.

    Now I think this process is generally true. Just as in athletics, there is a finite pool of outstanding intellectuals. Cultural factors determine where they deploy their talents, enriching some fields and impoverishing others. I suspect that the climate in the US is now such that the best and the brightest are drawn to other fields, outside of academia, impoverishing academia. Effectively academia is populated by second tier also-rans. And then within academia there is further cultural selection in favour of the sciences, leaving the third tier of also-also-rans to populate the humanities.

    Is this a plausible hypothesis? I think so but others equally may disagree. It needs to be tested against the data. But how should we do this? I can’t even imagine how we might do it so I must be content with postulating an unprovable explanation. Your intuitions may differ.

    1. I mean, it’s vaguely testable. You could do a huge number of IQ tests, or whatever, on people in those fields, and compare them to the average IQ of people in those fields back in the 70s or 80s or whenever. But that’s putting a lot of faith in IQ. Regardless, if you read Michael Lewis’s Liar’s Poker, you’ll see that the financial industry didn’t attract the best and the brightest until the 80s. I’m sure there are studies of various fields that can support intuitions to a greater or lesser degree.

      If I had to bet, I’d bet the very smartest people in the USA today are not in academia, but in tech and finance (and, to a lesser degree, television writing). I suspect that back in the 50s and 60s, a lot of the smartest people were in academia and government. But this is based mainly on gut feelings.

      The fact is that, for better or worse, a lot of the smartest people go where the money and prestige is. There’s just not much prestige in government anymore, and there’s too much conformity and risk-aversion in academia.

  12. I think good important philosophical work or ideas can come from anyone, anywhere, at any time. It may seem there is a surfeit of philosophers today, but out of all those philosophers working in academia, under enormous pressure to publish, there is always the potential for an important paper. With enough oysters comes a few pearls.

    Part of the problem is that philosophers don’t usually have enough time to really concentrate on a problem to make profound headway on it. There are teaching obligations, faculty meetings, papers to grade, PhD students to supervise, conferences to attend, and even the pull of domestic life, etc. The only respite from the daily grind is through sabbatical or some other form of hiatus. It’s a wonder most philosophers manage to publish anything at all.

    There’s probably no better example of this than Wittgenstein, who had few academic obligations, and didn’t do any teaching at Cambridge until later in life. Before then he had an endless amount of free time to devote to his subjects of interest. He even built a secluded cabin in Norway to further isolate himself from distractions (I made a pilgrimage there several years ago while visiting my uncle in Karlstad). LW had the luxury of time to pound away and brute force philosophical problems. Of course it helps to have been born into the wealthiest family in Europe. But even so, LW still managed to write his first important book while serving in WW I and ended up giving away all his inherited fortune anyway.

    Edmund Gettier toiled away in obscurity at Wayne State until his famous and important paper in Analysis. He hasn’t published anything since. Wouldn’t that actually make him a candidate for the Rapture?

    Maybe the lesson here is to publish less, but publish better. I don’t know.

    While it can be advantageous to get your paper in Philosophical Review, Mind, Nous, Synthese, and other high impact journals, it isn’t necessary to do good work. Some philosophers choose to write trade books and can be influential that way. For any young aspiring philosophers out there wanting to navigate the mine field of publishing, I recommend Michael Huemer’s (University of Colorado) guide to writing and publishing in philosophy: https://spot.colorado.edu/~huemer/

    Finally just a quick observation about the Pareto Principle. It’s regarded as an 80:20 ratio. Whereas Robert here is suggesting a 95:5 ratio.

Comments are closed.