On The Journal of Controversial Ideas

by Robert Gressis


Recently, a new journal, the Journal of Controversial Ideas (JCI), has emerged. Edited by Jeff McMahan, Francesca Minerva, and Peter Singer, its aim is not only to publish controversial ideas, but to allow them to be published pseudonymously. One reaction to JCI’s emergence that came almost immediately from a number of quarters is that “philosophy journals already publish controversial ideas. Consequently, there is no need for JCI.”

Call this the “Superfluity Objection,” and the person who advances it the “Superfluity Objector.” the basic idea behind the Superfluity Objection is that JCI is superfluous, so there’s no reason to start such a journal.

I have two responses to this, one quick, and one slow.

The quick response is this: If you accept the reasoning, “Does a journal exist that already does X? If so, then there is no need to have a journal that does X,” then lots of journals are unneeded. Imagine, for example that one wanted to start the Journal of the Philosophy of Pedagogy, the point of which is to examine the philosophical presuppositions of educational psychology. Couldn’t one rejoin, “There are already a few philosophy of education journals, and they do this. So, such a journal is not needed”?

And yet, I have never seen widespread condemnation about the introduction of a new philosophy journal on the grounds that it’s not needed. This leads me to suspect that the charge, “JCI is not needed” is not the real charge. Rather, the real charge is, “JCI should not exist, because controversial ideas of the type it’s going to publish should not be given a legitimate venue.” So, to the extent that the Superfluity Objectors are offering the Superfluity Objection, they’re objecting in bad faith.

That’s the quick response. Against it, the Superfluity Objector could reply:

Hold on! You’re accusing me of bad faith, but I’m really being sincere that the JCI is not needed! To see why, imagine someone started something called the Journal of Good Philosophy, the point of which is to publish only good philosophy. Surely, it would be fair to say, “Every journal is trying to publish good philosophy already. So, there is no need for such a journal.”

In other words, whereas the Journal of the Philosophy of Pedagogy actually fills a need, because it has a substantive remit, JCI fills no such need because it has only a formal remit. It’s willing to publish papers that have a formal feature that philosophy journals are already willing to publish. Indeed, I could go further: To say, “We’re creating the JCI because we need to have a journal that publishes controversial ideas” is not only false [because every journal already fills the need] but also insulting. Journals already publish controversial ideas, so producing JCI is implicitly claiming that other journals aren’t doing their job.

However, this doesn’t save the Superfluity Objection. First, it’s probably not true that every journal is even willing to publish controversial ideas. Even though Philosophical Psychology and Hypatia published controversial ideas, the fallout from their doing so has probably discouraged them from publishing similarly controversial ideas in the future and may have deterred other journals from doing the same. Second, there’s a difference between being willing to publish controversial ideas and focusing on publishing controversial ideas. JCI claims it’s trying to publish only controversial ideas, and it’s not obvious that any other journal are trying to do this.

The Superfluity Objector might say:

Not so fast! Every journal does try to publish controversial ideas. After all, in order for a paper to get published, it’s supposed to make a substantive contribution to the literature. And in order to do that, it has to disagree with existing scholarship. And disagreeing with existing scholarship is, in fact, controversial. So, every journal is not only willing to publish controversial ideas, but every journal does, in fact, publish controversial work with every paper it publishes.

This is simply false. There are more ways to make a substantive contribution to the literature than by disagreeing. To take just two: An article can deepen an existing analysis (in Responsibility and the Moral Sentiments, R. Jay Wallace does this for Peter Strawson’s “Freedom and Resentment”); and an article can use one move made in one field and apply it to another (in Is a Good God Logically Possible? James Sterba uses standard deontological ethical theories to try to rehabilitate the logical problem of evil). And there are many more. See this article at the Daily Nous for numerous examples.

So, even if every journal was willing to publish controversial ideas, a journal that focused on controversial ideas would be substantively different from most, if not all, journals out there, even if we take ‘controversial’ in the deflated sense of “disagrees with some existing scholarship.”

Of course, there is another sense of ‘controversial’ that has a much thicker meaning than merely, “disagrees with some existing scholarship.” Recall what I wrote above about the objection that the Superfluity Objection is a cover for: “JCI should not exist, because controversial ideas of the type it’s going to publish should not be given a legitimate venue.” Call this objection the “Legitimacy Objection,” according to which the problem with JCI is that it legitimates ideas that should not be legitimated.

Responding to the Legitimacy Objection will take some contextualization, though the one I’m about to offer is well-worn. Right now, in philosophy, there are a number of issues where a significant number of philosophers think that certain views are simply beyond the pale, whereas others think those views are not beyond the pale, and possibly might even be true. The idea that women are adult, human females is one such idea, despite the possibility that it might be the most popular view on this subject throughout the world (and even if it’s not the most popular view on this subject, it’s still a view that’s held by lots of people). [1] The idea that it’s likely — or perhaps even possible, given our epistemic situation — that racial disparities in IQ scores might be partly genetic is another such idea, despite the fact that in his survey of intelligence research, intelligence researcher Russell T. Warne writes, “the hereditarian hypothesis is almost certainly true [for groups that have similar environments or large mean IQ gaps], though how strong heritability is between groups is unknown” (In the Know, 262-63). [2]

These aren’t the only such ideas that many philosophers think beyond the pale. Others include: there’s nothing morally wrong with factory farming;  and the combination of (a) the pro-life position is true and (b) if the pro-life position is true, then we’re morally required to commit violent acts to stop abortions. There are, of course, many more.

Call such beyond-the-pale ideas “thickly controversial.” These ideas are thickly controversial because not only are they thinly controversial, in the sense that that asserting them entails disagreeing with a lot of existing scholarship, but also because people who publicly advocate for them can expect to face all manner of social sanction. First, they will be decried on social media; some of their colleagues will shun them or vituperate them in face-to-face interactions; activist groups may seize upon these writings and organize protests against the scholars who authored them; and administrators may discipline the authors or remove them from teaching.

Even if these ideas are as bad as their detractors think, it may nonetheless be important to hear from the most articulate advocates of such positions, for all the usual Millian reasons. [3] But there is another, non-Millian reason to give an outlet for the people who advocate these positions to be able to express them anonymously. If you subject people who depart from the non-controversial mainstream to powerful social sanction, then the only people who will continue to assert the controversial ideas are people who can accept being publicly shamed. Call such people “happy warriors.” Happy warriors may be attractive to some people, but many will find them off-putting, or even assholes. Moreover, their articulation of their point of view may be blunter and more polemical than others’ articulation of their views would be, because that’s the kind of personality they have.

What this means is that without venues like the JCI, what onlookers will see is a large, vocal group of academics who condemn departures from their outlook in the strongest terms and a small, vocal group of mavericks who delight in pissing off people from the first group. Though this state of affairs benefits both groups — it convinces the happy warriors that they’re a persecuted minority, and it convinces the social justice academics that those who disagree with them have character flaws — it makes both sides appear unattractive to neutral parties. The social justice skeptics seem to consist of insensitive shit-stirrers while the social justice adherents look like zealous heresy-hunters.

One reason to have JCI, then, is precisely to incentivize people of a different character to advocate thickly controversial ideas. Since they’re anonymous, their presence probably won’t move social justice academics into accepting that you can depart from social justice orthodoxy without thereby having a character flaw (though their different writing style may nudge them a bit in that direction). But, their presenting their ideas in a more sensitive way may convince neutral parties that you can refrain from dogmatic social justice leftism while also being irenic. And, there simply being an outlet to present challenges may embolden more academics to take off-beat stands that open up the debate still further.

So I say: bring on the Journal of Controversial Ideas. Ironically enough, its presence may actually cool things down rather than heat them up.


[1] I am not suggesting that because a view is extremely popular it’s therefore defensible. Throughout human history, most people have held attitudes to women and slavery that most people today would regard as entirely indefensible. What I am saying is that even if a view is beyond the pale, if it’s held by a large number of people, it’s worth repeatedly explaining why the view is beyond the pale. I realize that advocates for trans rights have explained their position repeatedly, but most people, I would bet, are still unfamiliar with their arguments. To me, the situation is similar to that of vegan activists. Ethical vegans have been advocating for ethical veganism for decades, and it may be that ethical veganism is the correct position, but not only do most non-philosophers seem to be unconvinced by ethical veganism, they seem to be unfamiliar with ethical veganism’s main arguments!

[2] It could be that Warne, despite his credentials, university position, and research focus, is not to be trusted on this subject, and that his book, at least when it comes to this issue, provides misleading evidence, despite the blurbs on its back cover from Douglas Detterman, Richard Haier, James Lee, and Joyce E. Juntune. Similarly, it could be that this survey, the abstract of which claims that “Genes were rated [by seventy-one experts] as the second most relevant factor [after education] [in causing international ability differences in psychometric IQ test results] but also had the highest variability in ratings” was poorly conducted. It could even be that, when it comes to race and IQ, most psychometricians are compromised, and that people well-versed in critical race theory are best positioned to see that.

By the way, I’m not being sarcastic with these “it could be’s.” Many academics think that there are portions of academic fields that should be disregarded. Besides intelligence research, many academics have voiced skepticism about, e.g., evolutionary psychology, educational psychology, critical-race-theory-inflected humanities and social science research, theology, philosophy of religion, neoclassical economics, etc. In the one field I am well-versed in, philosophy of religion, I disagree with the contention, though I think it’s reasonable for someone to assert it.

[3] The most salient Millian reasons in these cases are: (a) hearing the opposition’s reasons is valuable because it allows you to understand your own position better; and (b) it’s always possible, however unlikely, that you’re wrong, and it’s important to leave open a safety valve in case that happens to be the case. Now, people often respond that Mill assumes unrealistic things about a market of ideas — namely, that ordinary people are more capable of critical thinking than they in fact are — but I think that, even if you find Millianism implausible about a free speech regime for the general public, it’s worth pointing out that even Herbert Marcuse thought that Millianism was acceptable for academics engaging in discourse among themselves (see Brian Leiter’s paper on the subject); and that’s clearly the audience at which JCI aims.


48 responses to “On The Journal of Controversial Ideas”

  1. Boy is this good. And I have to say, you have the patience of a saint, Robert.

  2. Two days prior to the publication of the JCI the online publication, ‘The Conversation’, published a critical piece about it – written by a philosopher [https://theconversation.com/safe-space-or-shirking-accountability-a-new-journal-of-controversial-ideas-will-allow-academics-to-write-under-pseudonyms-159433]. One wonders: why pass judgement before you have even seen it? The author concludes his essay: “Are you, in the end, making life better for other people, or worse? In light of that standard, a pseudonymous journal devoted entirely to “controversial” ideas starts to look less like a way to protect researchers from cancel culture, and more like a safe-house for ideas that couldn’t withstand moral scrutiny the first time around.” My response was that ‘The Conversation’ should be renamed ‘The Journal of Half-Baked Ideas’.

  3. What a smarmy dick that man comes across as.

  4. A year or so back I got a request to referee a paper that argued that polygamous marriages ought to be accepted for immigration benefits even by receiving states that reject such marriages. I’ve argued against that view (although only briefly and not in depth) in print, so was interested to see the paper. I thought it was a very interesting argument, and worth considering, but suggested that a worry was that it seemed to me that the argument, as put, might also justify recognizing child marriages (or at least marriages to people well below the age when most of us think it’s plausible to get married.) But – I didn’t recommend rejection on this ground, but rather said that the author should be given the chance to either modify his or her view, say why I was wrong, or else to “bite the bullet” and try to show why this was the lesser evil in this area. It seemed to me that any one of these would be enough to justify publishing what seemed like a pretty novel and interesting paper. But – the editors just rejected the paper, saying that they agreed with me that the argument would justify child marriage, and that this was obviously unacceptable, and so the paper had to be rejected. I was really surprised at that. Right at the moment I can’t actually remember which journal this was for. (I’d have to look back through my file of referee reports, and that would be tedious now.) But, that sort of thing was enough for me to see pretty clearly that some of the objections to this journal are, at best, mistaken and misguided.

  5. Yeah, there’s a philosopher named Stephen Kershnar who argues for the permissibility of pedophilia. He published a book about it.* But he’s rather radioactive. I can certainly imagine that someone might think such an argument is good but not want to be publicly associated with it, lest he be considered radioactive too.

    This has come up in some of the critique I saw of JCI online. Alex Guerrero argued that the only ideas controversial in academia are conservative ideas, so the JCI should be renamed the Journal of Conservative Ideas (Guererro didn’t seem to think that having such a journal would be a bad idea, by the way).

    I think Guerrero is not too far off the mark, but I also think there are some leftwing ideas that, even if not thickly controversial in academia in general, are nonetheless thickly controversial for particular academics at particular universities. E.g., if you wanted to argue that homeschooling should be banned (as a Harvard professor Elizabeth Batholet recently argued**), then you’ll be fine at Harvard, but would you be fine saying that at a university in Alaska or West Virginia?



  6. s. wallerstein

    Some far leftwing ideas might easily be considered controversial: how about all fortunes over one million dollars should be confiscated by the state and used for social spending on healthcare and education? That could be defended on ethical grounds by some.

  7. Arturo Javier-Castellanos

    I agree that the superfluity objection fails for the reasons the author mentions and more. Even if there were nothing unique about the kinds of papers the JCI is willing to publish or intends to focus on, it would still be unique (as far as I know) in offering authors the opportunity to publish anonymously.

    I also agree that the superfluity objection is really cover for a different objection (though I wouldn’t go as far as accusing people of objecting in bad faith). However, I don’t think it’s necessarily a cover for the legitimacy objection. One of the main people to complain on Twitter that all journals seek controversial ideas later clarified their objection. The objection was that in talking about “controversial ideas”, the journal was engaging in a bit of propagandizing–they are implying that other journals are not accepting of controversial ideas, which is unfair. That’s the point of saying “all journals seek controversial ideas.” Now this is not an objection to the existence of the journal as much as an objection to its name, but there seems to be something to it. “Controversial ideas” sounds a bit like a euphemism. At any rate, I don’t think the post addresses this objection.

  8. Adam

    I’m curious to know what strikes you as smarmy about it. AFAICT it’s just an application of the argument from inductive risk to philosophers rather than scientists. Which, maybe you think the argument for inductive risk is bad; but is someone who makes it smarmy?

  9. I wonder what’s going to happen if the JCI receives articles defending transgender ideology, critical race theory etc., ideas that may be fashionable in some quarters but are controversial nevertheless. JCI’s declaration of intent suggests they will publish these articles (perhaps pseudonymously), but I wonder how this is going to work. Who is going to peer-review these articles? Based on which standards? Critical race theory permits “an emphasis on storytelling and personal experience”, but the JCI says “the main criterion for acceptance will be the quality of the arguments given”. When does storytelling become an argument of sufficiently high quality? It’s going to be an interesting experiment.

  10. I honestly don’t think that would be considered controversial among philosophers, at least, not to the degree that they would think you deserve social sanction because of it.

  11. After thinking about it, I regret the bad faith remark. It’s possible, of course, that some of the people who level the superfluity objection do so in bad faith, but the person I interacted with on this issue (Patrick Lin, over at Daily Nous), clearly wasn’t objecting in bad faith.

    As for the objection you don’t think the post addressed, the post kind of addressed it. I pointed out that calling a journal the Journal of Good Philosophy is insulting to all the other journals, insofar as it implies that they don’t publish good philosophy. But given that I think the JCI is about publishing thickly controversial ideas, and given that publishing a thickly controversial idea can be bad for your career and mental health, I think that it’s not an insult to other journals to say that they don’t really publish these ideas. The main reason I think they don’t publish thickly controversial ideas is that they don’t allow anonymous publication. Consequently, the people who would be willing to publish such ideas anonymously are unwilling to publish them at other journals.

  12. I would imagine such a paper may have to have a part arguing for why storytelling is legitimate. But this shouldn’t be *that* hard, right? Philosophers tell stories in their articles all the time, and the most famous bits of philosophy are generally famous precisely because of those stories (the Ring of Gyges, Leibniz’s Mill, Thomson’s violinist, etc.).

    Maybe I’m confusing thought experiments with stories, but such experiments certainly seem to have story-like elements to them.

  13. Smarm is all in the tone, man.

    As for the rest, it’s essentially a string of Woke cliches/catchphrases/veiled accusations strung together in a semblance of writing. I am reminded of the characterization of “the man from the Fiction department” talking, in 1984:

    “As he watched the…face with the jaw moving rapidly up and down, Winston had a curious feeling that this was not a real human being but some kind of dummy. It was not the man’s brain that was speaking, it was his larynx. The stuff that was coming out of him consisted of words, but it was not speech in the true sense: it was a noise uttered in unconsciousness, like the quacking of a duck.”

  14. s. wallerstein

    Interesting. How about outlawing the nuclear family, sexual exclusivity and private property of any kind and obliging people to live in communes?

  15. The storytelling was just an example.
    If you call yourself “Journal of Controversial Ideas”, I suppose you’ll receive articles from many different disciplines, because they all have their controversies. However, different disciplines have their own, different, standards of scholarly rigor.
    I wonder how the JCI is going to peer-review these articles. Suppose you receive an article from someone who defends transgender ideology. Man and woman are just performative acts, biology is … – well, I don’t know what it is, but I suppose biological facts are nothing more than social conveniences etc. etc. – whom are you going to send it to for a peer review, as an editor of the JCI? To a biologist? To Kathleen Stock? To Judith Butler? To Judy Blume?

  16. Well, eventually you get to positions that are both so difficult to justify and so unappealing that you simply don’t have enough advocates who can come up with arguments sophisticated enough to pass peer review. Outlawing the nuclear families would probably get some takers. But arguments to outlaw sexual exclusivity, or to mandate people to live in communes, would just have too few people both agree with the conclusions and can come up with good-enough arguments for them.

  17. Arturo Javier-Castellanos

    I thought that was a different objection, but regardless, I’m not convinced. To use your own example, I think most people would find the name “The Journal of Good Philosophy” insulting. Now suppose that the hypothetical Journal of Good Philosophy only publishes articles written by senior philosophers. A defender of the journal could then mount the same sort of defense as you did. They could cook up a stipulative definition of “good philosophy”, e.g., by “good philosophy”, we really mean “philosophy articles written by senior philosophers”—call this, “professionally good philosophy.” Thus, they could go on to argue that it’s not an insult to say that other journals do not focus on professionally good philosophy, since other journals are willing to publish articles not written by senior philosophers. I take it nobody would buy this defense. After all, the hypothetical journal is called “The Journal of Good Philosophy”—the implication is not that other journals do not exclusively publish articles written by senior philosophers, but that they do not publish good philosophy. Just because we can come up with a stipulative definition of “good philosophy”, that doesn’t cancel the implication. Likewise, since the controversial journal is called “The Journal of Controversial Ideas”, the implication is not that other journals do not publish *thickly* controversial ideas, but that they do not publish controversial ideas, period, which is insulting.

    I’m not sure I myself buy this objection, but I also don’t see what’s wrong with it from what you’ve said.

  18. Seems like an awfully intricate, academic investigation into something that really doesn’t deserve it. These people think there is a problem that the journal can help with. So what? If one doesn’t like it, ignore it. No one is forced to publish there. And who cares about some performative, abstract notion of “insult”? Are we adults or are we six year olds? You tell me that you’re insulted by the implications of the title of a journal? I tell you “tough luck” and “get the fuck over it.”

    Those objecting to this journal are the same people as the Cancel crowd. It is their aim to purge the discipline and the discourse of views they disagree with. And all the elaborate, deadpan, “I’m just concerned” arguments are nothing more than transparent, obvious bullshit to cover this fact. They want to cancel people, and people are resisting and creating their own institutions.

    It’s a lot like the way trans activists are trying to bring down every institution whose purpose is to advance and protect the interests of females. Stonewall throws lesbians under the bus? They create LGB alliance. Then the Woke say “LGB Alliance is a hate group!” in an effort to get it shut down too. The point being, lesbians should not be entitled to have *any* space of their own.

    It’s because of the fundamental dishonesty involved in these critiques that I either (a) ignore them; (b) tell the people advancing them to fuck off; (c) mock and lampoon them. After all, they are unpersuadable and regardless, are operating in bad faith. I know what Robert said about this, but in my view, he is generous to a fault and bends over backwards in circumstances where the recipient of his generosity doesn’t deserve it.

  19. s. wallerstein

    I was trying to push you a little to see if I could think of something far left enough to be controversial in a today’s leftwing academic climate. There were people in the late 60’s and early 70’s who thought that ending sexual exclusivity, all private property and making people live in communes was a good idea. It’s not my cause nor was it ever mine, but 50 years ago I certainly would have taken it more seriously.

  20. Robert Gressis

    I really like that objection. I need to think about it.

  21. You think it matters one whit whether someone is “insulted” by the implications of a journal title?

  22. G.D.

    I don’t see the puzzle. The journal is committed to publishing defenses controversial *ideas*, not to publish articles that don’t live up to their standards for what counts as good *arguments* for ideas. Arguments for critical race theory, or articles defending storytelling as a form of argument, might qualify. I don’t see why they need to admit that articles that apply controversial methods or forms of argumentation, or don’t adhere to their standards for good scholarship, however (although they should at least consider articles that argue for changing those standards).

  23. Pavo Drovenge

    “If you subject people who depart from the non-controversial mainstream to powerful social sanction, then the only people who will continue to assert the controversial ideas are people who can accept being publicly shamed. Call such people ‘happy warriors.’ Happy warriors may be attractive to some people, but many will find them off-putting, or even assholes.”

    This really landed with me and might be the most relevant point to non-academics who might want to support the JCI. The number of times I’ve rolled my eyes and walked away from a “happy warrior” “just asking questions” at a party or at work is too high to count. And it’s all over social media. That stuff is necessary though and needs its space to do its thing where those who express controversial opinions won’t be so tempted to turn into insufferable Bizarro-like inversions of the woke. I’m really glad to see the Journal of Controversial Ideas pop up. Hopefully it helps bring down the temperature a little.

    Great piece, Robert!

  24. Arturo Javier-Castellanos

    Like I said, the above objection is not an objection to the journal’s existence, but to its name. Nobody is arguing that the JCI shouldn’t exist—not me, anyway—so the point that nobody is forced to publish there and that we can just ignore it is neither here nor there, I don’t think.

    I also don’t mean to defend the people who are pushing this argument online. Maybe you’re right that it’s all cover to purge the discourse of views they disagree with—I don’t really care, to be honest. I took my comment to be in the exact same spirit as the original post. “People are making these objections online. These are obviously bad objections, so that’s not what they could possibly have in mind. So, let’s see if there are any good objection in the vicinity.” (That’s how I understood the project, anyway.) Maybe you think it’s so obvious that these people are operating in bad faith that there is no point searching for good objections, but then you’re just not on board with the present project, I don’t think.

    I will add that it’s a bit unfair that you respond to my comment by calling it an “awfully intricate, academic investigation into something that really doesn’t deserve it.” Obviously, people can reasonably disagree about how much investigation something deserves, but I don’t think my comments were any more intricate or academic than the original post—I used the same methods and even the same example. So, I think it’s unfair for you to praise the OP and then call my comment “academic”, but whatever. Not a big deal—just a little rude, that’s all.

    Onto the substance of your response, the first thing to say is that the objection is not that I (or anyone else) is insulted by the implications of the journal’s name, but that those implications are *insulting*, meaning that they warrant being insulted (independently of whether anyone is, actually, insulted). Maybe you don’t buy that distinction, or maybe you don’t think the fact that something is insulting is ever a significant consideration against it. However, I don’t think that’s a very interesting response insofar as you could say the exact same thing in response to any charges that something is insulting, including the hypothetical Journal of Good Philosophy. “You’re insulted by the implication that other journals don’t publish good philosophy? Tough luck—get the fuck over it.” Maybe that’s exactly what you would want to say, but that’s not a bullet I’m willing to buy.

  25. Adam

    I’m honestly surprised you’d characterize it this way. The only thing I see that I can recognize as resembling a “Woke cliche” or catchphrase is the phrase ‘validity of a marginalised person’s very existence’. And I see no veiled accusations; everything is out in the open.

    The author is offering a challenge to philosophers who think of themselves as advancing controversial positions: Where the advancement of such positions has social consequences, there is a corresponding moral question about whether such advancement is justified/permissible. Some views considered controversial are in fact opposed by a majority of academics, or by a minority the views are about, precisely because the views are considered harmful or ill-founded (or both). Thus when a philosopher intends to advance such a view, there is a moral liability: if the view is indeed harmful to advance, you’d better be goddamn sure that (a) it’s true and (b) advancing it is, for whatever reason, worth the harms that doing so incurs.

    Is any of what I’ve just outlined a “woke cliche” or merely a semblance of writing rather than an argument?

  26. J. Bogart

    “Likewise, since the controversial journal is called “The Journal of Controversial Ideas”, the implication is not that other journals do not publish *thickly* controversial ideas, but that they do not publish controversial ideas, period, which is insulting.” So what of Journal of Philosophy? The only journal publishing real philosophy I take it. What about Ethics?

  27. Dan asked, “You think it matters one whit whether someone is ‘insulted’ by the implications of a journal title?”

    I agree that this question is orthogonal to what is really driving people about the JCI, and that, even if they were insulted, it wouldn’t mean that the journal should change its name (do phenomenologists look at _Philosophy and Phenomenological Research_ and roll their eyes? If so, should the journal change its name? No). The reason I liked Arturo’s objection is that I think it’s an objection that forces me to amend, expand, or clarify the OP’s argument. Here is the dialectic, as I see it:

    ROBERT: Some people might feel insulted by the title of JCI, on the grounds that it implies that other journals don’t publish controversial ideas. E.g., if JCI were called the _Journal of Good Philosophy_, this might imply that other journals don’t publish good philosophy. And that *would* be insulting. But while it’s true that *all* journals aim to publish only papers that are good, it’s not true that all journals aim to publish only papers that are controversial. In other words, whereas trying to be good is a formal feature of papers, trying to be controversial is substantive. So, the title of JCI is not insulting, because what it implies–that other journals don’t *focus* on controversial ideas–is true!
    ARTURO: Your argument doesn’t work. Imagine a journal called itself the _Journal of Good Philosophy_, but then stipulated that by “good philosophy” it meant “philosophy that senior philosophers write”. Now, they have a substantive meaning for “good philosophy”, so now your response doesn’t work. After all, in *this* sense, not all journals aim to publish only good philosophy, so the property of being good philosophy is substantive, not formal. And yet, the journal title would still be insulting!

    So, how do I respond to this? As follows: whereas I think defining “controversial” in either the thin way (as disagreeing with existing scholarship) or the thick way (such that it is liable to cause the author to receive significant social sanction) is a natural way of understanding “controversial”, I don’t think defining “good philosophy” as “philosophy published by senior figures” is a natural way of defining good philosophy. After all, on this definition of good philosophy, it would follow that senior philosophers could never publish bad philosophy. And that seems to be an absurd implication. I don’t see either way I’ve defined “controversial” as having such an implication.

    Now, Arturo also wrote: “Likewise, since the controversial journal is called ‘The Journal of Controversial Ideas’, the implication is not that other journals do not publish *thickly* controversial ideas, but that they do not publish controversial ideas, period, which is insulting.”

    I confess, I don’t see that implication. Or at least: I don’t see that that’s the most obvious way to read what the title implies. The distinction I drew in my essay was that whereas it’s true that all journals are *willing* to publish thinly controversial ideas, and many journals are *willing* to publish thickly controversial ideas, no journal *focuses* on thickly, or even thinly, controversial ideas. The way I read JCI’s title is that it’s a journal that *focuses* on controversial ideas. Take, for example, _Philosophy of Science_ or _Ethics_. I think the implications of these journals’ titles is that they *focus* on philosophy of science or ethics, not that they’re the only ones *willing* to publish philosophy of science or ethics. That’s why I think reading the title of JCI as I do–as implying a focus on, rather than a willing to, publish controversial ideas–is the more natural reading.

  28. I’m sure there are things far left enough to qualify as controversial in today’s academic climate. E.g., if you said that all Americans who descended from the original colonists should be executed, on the grounds that their ancestors committed a genocide against America’s indigenous peoples … well, I don’t think that would go over well, even with very radical leftists (though I confess, I’m not sure that this is, exactly, a leftwing position).

    I didn’t know that such attitudes to sexual exclusivity were extant in the 60s and 70s. I can see thinking that sexual exclusivity is immoral and shouldn’t be practiced; but thinking the government should make it illegal to be sexually exclusive, on pain of prison time? That’s pretty wild.

    But you raise an important point: what would be controversial in one time might not be controversial later, and vice versa. E.g., I would bet that Michael Levin’s critique of homosexuality as abnormal, and so, immoral was probably not thickly controversial in 1984 (I even recall it being published in some anthologies in the 90s), but nowadays I think that would be thickly controversial. By contrast, I would imagine (I could be wrong) that open borders would have been thickly controversial in the 80s (I would bet it would have been seen as a fringe, right-wing idea, endorsed by the likes of Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and the Wall Street Journal in order to break labor unions) but is nowadays almost de rigueur.

  29. “If you call yourself ‘Journal of Controversial Ideas’, I suppose you’ll receive articles from many different disciplines, because they all have their controversies.”

    You don’t have to just suppose this! They explicitly say it: “We welcome submissions in all areas of academic research insofar as the topics discussed are relevant to society at large.” [See https://www.journalofcontroversialideas.org/%5D

  30. Seth Edenbaum

    The Journal of Controversial Ideas, and a list of inconvenient facts. Not that the editorial committee includes at least one promoter of race science, Haidt, but that as Brian Leiter knows, Haidt censored a critical response from Jonah Gelbach

    Similarly Thomas Chatterton Williams, one of the authors of the Harper’s Letter, also defends censorship when it suits him, in his case of critics of Israel https://tinyurl.com/48ej9br4

    John McWhorter’s not on the committee but I’m sure he’s a fan, and vice versa; he defends censorship https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BRsKS7spUkQ

    On more general terms, Steven Pinker’s Dangerous Ideas includes the possible efficacy of torture against terrorists. He has less to say about Israel’s funding of Hamas, to undermine the secular and socialist Fatah https://www.wsj.com/articles/SB123275572295011847
    while expelling a Christian pacifist
    or Israel’s creation of a fake Lebanese terrorist group the FLLF, unleashing a campaign of terror bombings, car bombs killing hundreds of civilians, to goad the PLO to attack.
    Ronen Bergman’s Rise and Kill First

    I could go on and on. Did any of you know that a writer for Charlie Hebdo was brought up on charges for a ridiculously minor anti-Semitic quip? Or that Germany threatened the singer in a klezmer band, the daughter of Holocaust survivors, with arrest if she promoted BDS on stage?

    The Journal of Controversial Ideas is an exercise in ideological commitment, to low-information rationality.
    the mirror image of moralizing liberalism

  31. I’m publishing this, but you sound unhinged.

    The journal is much needed and fortunately, has launched as planned.

  32. s. wallerstein

    For example, I’ve read a lot of Simone de Beauvoir, who is one of my favorite authors. She was bisexual, taught philosophy in high school for many years and had sex with her high school students, who were technically over the age of consent in France at the time. She even mentions that in her memoirs, without any sense of guilt.

    In the 60’s and 70’s Simone de Beauvoir was considered in the avant garde of sexual liberation and worshipped by the left since sexual liberation was a left cause. Now many on the left (and probably on the right) see her as corrupting youth.

    In fact, on the whole issue of older people having sex with younger people (I’m not talking about pedophiles), what was once considered avant garde and “in” is now almost condemned by almost everyone. Not by me by the way.

  33. Richard

    Regarding the hypothetical “Journal of Good Philosophy” objection: why should this kind of objection be limited to the *title* of a journal and not include a journal’s mission statement or self-description? For example, this is how MIND characterizes itself on its “About” page:

    > MIND has long been a leading journal in philosophy. For well over 100 years it has published the best new work in all areas of the subject. The journal continues its tradition of excellence today. The journal aims to take quality to be the sole criterion of publication, with no area of philosophy, no style of philosophy, and no school of philosophy excluded. Each issue also contains a selection of book reviews that summarize and evaluate some of the most interesting recent publications in the discipline….MIND has always enjoyed a strong reputation for the high standards established by its editors and receives over 800 submissions each year….MIND is well known for cutting edge philosophical papers in epistemology, metaphysics, philosophy of language, philosophy of logic, and philosophy of mind…


    Although MIND doesn’t literally call itself “The Journal of Good Philosophy” it explicitly characterizes itself as publishing “the best new work”, “cutting edge philosophical papers”, and taking “quality to be the sole criterion of publication.” It seems to me that any argument against the title “The Journal of Good Philosophy” applies just as forcefully to MIND’s mission statement. So if you don’t have a problem with MIND’s mission statement, I don’t think you should have a problem with the title “Journal of Good Philosophy” either, so the objection fails.

    Here’s another way to put the point: suppose JCI had called itself something bland like “DISPUTATIONS”, but left the mission statement as is. What would be the objection then? If MIND gets to describe itself as a general journal committed to the best and cutting edge philosophy, why could DISPUTATIONS describe itself as a general journal committed to the cutting edge, controversial ideas?

  34. She didn’t just have sex with her high school students. She also groomed them for Sartre, no? I haven’t read about that, um, “situation” very much, so I don’t know the extent to which any of the students who had sex with Sartre or de Beauvoir felt pressured or could be said to have consented, but I do find it fascinating that more philosophers don’t bring those features of Sartre’s and de Beauvoir’s lives as a reason to wonder about their philosophies.

  35. I think that’s a really good point, Richard. My own reaction to _Mind_’s mission statement is twofold: (1) well, that’s just marketing-speak. No reason to take it seriously. And (2) well, they really *are* thought of as a top journal, so it’s probably not inaccurate marketing-speak!

  36. s. wallerstein

    “Groomed” is a really loaded moralistic word, isn’t it?

    Some of the young women later had sex with Sartre. Is there any evidence that it wasn’t consensual?

    Some of the young women remained friends with both De Beauvoir and Sartre for the rest of their lives, were members of their inner circle, nicknamed “the family”.

    That’s the generational difference between us. All of the criticism of Sartre’s and De Beauvoir’s sex lives (at least from the left) is post 1980, as political correctness becomes hegemonic. Before that, they both were idols on the left.

    Finally, I don’t see any relation between the Sartre’s and De Beauvoir’s sex lives and their philosophies. Rejecting their philosophies because of their sex lives is like rejecting Kant’s philosophy because he was a racist.

  37. Did I say it shouldn’t be launched? No. Did I complain about racism? I didn’t. My first comment was about hypocrisy, and the second about focusing on abstractions as a way to avoid discussion of facts.

    I’ll put it another way, on the transgender issue. Kathleen Stock and others put themselves in the position of promoting a defense of Rachel Dolezal’s “transracialism” to defend the author from attacks by supporters of transgenderism. But on another day Stock derided an academic defense of the “transabled”. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/09687599.2015.1050088

    Rebecca Tuvel’s essay was as absurd as the essay linked just above. The relation of race fetishism to gender fetishism, of self-hatred and resulting fantasy life is clear enough. But the issues are too messy for the academy to face. Criticism of the misogyny of male fantasies of femininity is not really an excuse to defend a white fantasy of blackness.
    My comments are a response to academic “idea fetishism”, but I’m not trying to stop you, and I’m certainly never going to call for censorship.

  38. The comment you are responding to was to someone else.

  39. s. wallerstein

    It’s interesting that the word “grooming” was first used to refer to pedophiles in 1985 and that now the word has extended its semantic domain to refer to people like Simone de Beauvoir and Sartre who have sex with teenagers over the age of consent.

  40. Ah, I didn’t express myself well, in two ways. First, I used “groomed” because that was how I saw it described on a website. I don’t know enough about the situation to know whether there was grooming or not. Second, I agree with you that you shouldn’t (usually) move from the personal choices of philosophers to the soundness of their philosophies, but what I was saying was this:

    A lot of philosophers nowadays point to personal failings of philosophers as evidence that their philosophies are suspect. *Those same philosophers* are not doing this w/r/t Sartre and de Beauvoir. It’s interesting that they don’t do this!

  41. Marc Levesque

    Interesting points in your last paragraphs. I tend to agree. And good to hear about the journal, I don’t remember hearing about it till I read your article. A couple of thoughts after a fast look at the journal:

    It seems an unusually large field:

    “… address issues that have implications for society at large … to enable people to publish ideas that they reasonably expect will be regarded by some as offensive, immoral, or dangerous … they judge the paper to be sufficiently well-argued to contribute to our understanding of the relevant topic.”

    Wonder how the editors’ choice of topics, the quality and selection of papers, the perceived side taken in a paper, if any, will map over time. A lot of readers will be able to judge some of those points for themselves, and a lot of it will depend on people’s trust in the editors.

    “… and to provide them with the opportunity to do so using a pseudonym, if they so choose.”

    Can the introduction of the use of pseudonyms (plus no affiliations, could be multiple authors, conflicts unstated, etc.) have a negative impact on public trust or academic credibility, in general or for philosophy in particular, and what role will various media play in that process.

    Still interesting experiment, some likely positive aspects too as you mention. l haven’t had a chance to look all the papers in the first issue but I admit I’m pleasantly surprised by what I’ve seen so far.

  42. s. wallerstein

    I don’t believe that we should ever “cancel” a philosopher or writer or composer because of their personal life or even political options. I enjoy listening to Richard Wagner even though he was an anti-semite and I’m Jewish. I’d read Heidegger (if I could understand him) even though he was a Nazi. I’ve read the French writer Louis-Fernand Celine who was an anti-semite and collaborated with the Nazi occupation.

  43. They have received such articles and published them. Look at the article following Byrne’s paper: ‘Deflating Byrne’s “Are Women Adult Human Females?” ‘ by Maggie Heartsilver (pseudonym)

  44. Seth Edenbaum

    That was me; sometimes I forget to replace my name trying to post through wordpress.
    And I pointed to Leiter calling out Haidt’s hypocrisy. Is Leiter now “unhinged”?

  45. Rageforthemachine

    I am assuming by controversial ideas they are not referring to good old chestnuts like is there synthetic a priori knowledge or can we empirically justify the statement that all statements need to be empirically justified to be meaningful, but rather the predominantly racial and sexual topics Robert alluded to.

    Honestly not sure how I feel about the magazine. On the one hand since it seems the whole point of it is to comment on the current academic zeitgeist rather than examine certain issues it may rapidly devolve into kitchen-sink drama. On the other hand I do agree that if academia were willing to follow the mandate of philosophy in the first place the journal would not be necessary.

    When I studied philosophy in college some 30 years ago it was because I was enamored with an approach I thought unique to philosophy. That since it dealt with questions of ultimate meaning the beauty in it was the approach Descartes pursued. Nothing could be taken for granted, everything must be doubted, every question must be asked, and most importantly people had to be willing to argue against their own beliefs.

    The other day spending 10 minutes reading about the latest Richard Dawkins flap showed me that isn’t true. As in the Rebecca Tuvel incident Dawkins approached a claim in a philosophical manner. The claim is that it is possible for someone to have a transgender identity, but not a transracial one. So the obvious question is why? What are the factors and criteria that allow one, and not another? The responses mostly were either “no one should have to answer this question”, or only an absolutely evil person would ask this question.

    I hope the Journal Of Controversial Ideas c an do better.

  46. Marc Levesque


    I’m also not reading the tone as problematic as you are, maybe like I sometimes over read your tone too.

    “essentially a string of Woke cliches/catchphrases/veiled accusations strung together in a semblance of writing”

    Still that reminds me of the expression about the pot calling the kettle black, and how easy it is to radicalize those one would want to change.

    “As he watched the…face with the jaw moving rapidly up and down, Winston had a curious feeling that this was not a real human being but some kind of dummy. It was not the man’s brain that was speaking, it was his larynx. The stuff that was coming out of him consisted of words, but it was not speech in the true sense: it was a noise uttered in unconsciousness, like the quacking of a duck.”

    … I find the force of those images amazing.

  47. To each his own, I guess. And yes, I was being deliberately insulting. That’s how little I thought of it.