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. 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.
 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.