Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Armchair Sociology of the Profession 101: Two Models of Philosophical Production

(by guest blogger Manuel Vargas)

I take it that for any one reading this blog, it is not news that philosophical publication matters for disciplinary reputation. What I think is less widely recognized is how there are increasingly two main models around which philosophers organize their own writing, and what consequences this might have for individuals and the profession as a whole.

(By identifying two models I do not meant to suggest that these are the only models, that there are no mixed models, or that there are not differences internal to these models, broadly conceived. As seems necessary, imagine the relevant qualifications in what follows.)

The older, traditional model is one that aspires to produce only careful, precisely worked out, and exhaustively defended works. Doing this takes time, and on this model, quantity of production is not nearly so important as quality of production. Indeed, on this model, too much publication suggests a kind of shallowness, or a failure to carefully think things through.

In recent years, an alternative model has emerged in various parts of the profession, especially those that interact with the cognitive and social sciences. On this model, it remains a virtuous to produce careful, precise, and exhaustively defended works. But these virtues are not paramount. Instead, what is paramount is the presentation of a promising new idea, a novel argument, or a relevant datum that does not already have currency in the discussion.

Philosophers working under the newer model tend to publish more frequently. It is a model where one can justify a publication by presenting the new idea even if the presentation of it is not maximally careful, precise, or exhaustively defended. Moreover, to the extent that one’s interlocutors also operate with this model, one needn’t be especially worried about the old virtues: if the idea is a good one, the marketplace of ideas will do much of the precisifying, along with the articulation of objections and replies. It is a model that relies on something like a division of cognitive labor, where the marketplace of ideas does much of the work that old-model philosophers regard as a prerequisite to publication. Of course, a mangled presentation never benefits any idea, so the old virtues are never completely abandoned even on the new model. They are merely downgraded, and (partly) off-loaded.

There are I think, lots of things to say about how this plays out in the life of the profession. It is certainly relevant in hiring, tenure, and promotion, and in how subsets of the philosophical community regard one another. Philosophers working under the older model tend to regard the work of philosophers on the younger model as superficial, ill-conceived, not very philosophically rigorous. Philosophers on the newer model tend to regard philosophers on the older model as (let’s be honest) stuffy, remarkably unproductive (especially if at a Famous Institution), and oftentimes disconnected from the larger field or profession.

What I wonder is if, over time, there is any difference in useful philosophical production generated by these models? Take two communities, one working on the old model and one working on the new model. Add a hundred years. I wonder which community will, after a hundred years, have made more philosophical progress by whatever standard you measure such things?


John Basl said...

Great post. Your last questions are really good ones. There are people who model epistemic landscapes. I wonder if some of them could try to model the differences.

Jonathan said...

Very interesting line of thought, Manuel. Regarding that closing question, my inclinations tend towards methodological pluralism. I'd suggest that either of those hypothetical philosophical communities would be out-competed by a community that managed to make good use of both sorts of work, interacting with each other, building on each other, correcting each other's errors.

Kevin said...

Regarding your last question, I would argue that the short-term productiveness of the second method of philosophy nevertheless requires further work down the road. So, a greater propinquity to publish in less depth begets the necessity to publish more and more of these superficial papers in order to compensate for the lack of rigor in the first ones (it need not be just one author who is publishing to compensate in this way). In the short-term, then, the second method may be more beneficial to individual careers. In the long-term, the hundred years say, any benefit will even out. I would hypothesize that about the same amount of "progress" is made in that time span, but with a very different distribution of works. While there may be no equivalent of Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations or of the Principia Mathematica, these would be substituted by a cluster of articles by multiple people addressing each other.

This matches the structure of science, where the institutionalization of the field in some some sense allows, or even necessitates, progress through, for lack of a better word, mediocrity and specialization. The large Kuhnian revolutions are replaced by very small "micro-revolutions."

Nick said...

And which model do you think this entry follows? ;)

Justin Tiwald said...

Very interesting post and comments. Three quick thoughts about the very idea of measuring the progress of a philosophical community 100 years out.

- If a community of old model philosophers were still to exist a century from now, they would hardly agree about the extent to which their community has made progress, or about what constitutes philosophical progress in the first place.

- But there would be more agreement about which particular philosophers of the prior century are worth studying.

- And this is why they would be old model philosophers (god bless 'em).

Sean said...

This new method in philosophy frustrates me to a certain extent, probably in part because I'm personally frustrated right now, but also because it doesn't strike me as philosophy. What attracted me to philosophy in the first place was the conceptual rigor, the attempt to systematize a great deal of information, in order to achieve a broader and well-articulated perspective. That act of systematization, the rigor itself, strikes me as a significant part of philosophy's role in the broader academic division of labor.

Most of the specific fields - be they AI, sociology, psychology, politics, economics, physics, etc. - have their own theorists who test out the new ideas and ways of thinking of the profession. Furthermore, the chronic need to publish in those fields serves a degree of empirical utility, ensuring that we have statistical data on a vast number of issues. As someone currently pursuing a master's degree in a social science (international economics), I recognize that validity. However, the lack of conceptual rigor, and lack of thorough systematic analyses of many issues through multiple lenses (e.g. incorporating politics, economics, environment, and technology in a development framework) leads me to believe something is lacking. This lack is a large part of why I am applying to philosophy graduate programs.

If philosophers are not to fill that gap, then who? It seems that those who go into the philosophic community seem uniquely interested in grappling with this questions in a sustained, analytic, and conceptual manner. Perhaps more importantly, they have the training in logic and argumentation, and perhaps the disposition to be curious about everything, that many people do not. There is a need for such analysis to be done, in order to be applied, however imperfectly (to say nothing of the arguable intrinsic value of doing the analysis itself).

If philosophy fragments itself into a vast number of sub-fields, and relies on mass publication of new ideas that may not be fully fleshed out, who remains to provide the broader perspective?

Justin said...

I've always thought that an obvious issue that's been overlooked is that the divide might express differences in area of study, or methods within a given area of study.

Roughly, if your project can be described as providing an account which can systematize intuitions concerning easily described cases, then quickly written papers can contribute simply by drawing attention to new types of cases and putative counterexamples to existing doctrines. Such a project can be straightforwardly cumulative (although it's a very different project, parts of experimental philosophy might also have this progressive character).

In contrast, if you're doing something like interpreting a historical figure, it's hard to even contribute without paying attention to the correctness of every aspect of your interpretation. Maybe you'd say the task is more holistic.

Now, those are the extreme cases--not all projects look exactly like analyzing "S knows that p" or commenting on Kant, but these are two tendencies that projects and approaches might take on. (Also, I tried to avoid any value judgments in describing the tendencies--hopefully I did ok).

Probably this can't explain everything, but I think it's worth keeping in mind.

Manuel Vargas said...

Thanks all for the thoughtful reactions. A couple of quick reactions:

Jonathan and Justin T: Yeah, I'm inclined to think that we're collectively best off with both kinds of work having a role in the profession, and with interaction across communities that emphasize these different modes of production.

Kevin: That seems right to me.

Justin: I wonder whether that is right that you'd see more agreement about which figures are worth studying. I'm tempted by the thought that we manufacture assessments of the great figures partly in light of the projects that bother us now, combined with accidents about who is interested in what and teaching where. If I'm right about this, then I bet we get some narrative of the great figures regardless of the dominant model of writing. But it wouldn't surprise me that I'm wrong.

Justin- Yeah, the history/contemporary phil difference and what these fields demand certainly constitute another dimension of difference I didn't highlight. But I wonder if, even in the history of philosophy, we'll start to see encroachment of the newer publication strategy.

Super V said...

Argh. Sorry about that. First reply should have been directed to Jonathan and Sean. The second to last reply was directed at Justin T.

Sean said...

Just a further thought/question - to what extent does having the two different models affect tenure processes, etc.? Is there a certain amount of pressure from university administrations, in terms of the university's prestige, to force more publishing, perhaps at the cost of quality of publication?

Any thoughts on what the structural causes of the new model are?

Justin Tiwald said...

If I'm right about this, then I bet we get some narrative of the great figures regardless of the dominant model of writing.

I agree! My suggestion, though, was that the old model types would agree about which philosophers' works should be studied or read, not just which ones were great.

My point (put too breezily and elliptically) was that old model philosophers wouldn't know what to make of your 100-years-of-progress test: what is philosophical progress, exactly? Can we even compare the progress made by the neo-Platonists to the progress made by the logical positivists?

But they would be more comfortable talking about the extent to which the neo-Platonists and logical positivists produced masterworks that are worth reading. And that's the mark of success by their lights. In contrast, those who work under the scientific (new?) model care more about the advancement of the field, which has no necessary or direct connection to the production of masterworks worthy of study far and wide.

It might help to think about how a philosophical Newton would measure up by these two standards. Philosophical Newton would do well on your 100-years-of-progress test: he'd contribute enormously to the advancement of the field. But on the view of philosophers working under the old model he wouldn't fare as well. Assuming his masterworks are read as rarely as the Principia is, he'd compare very unfavorably with Russell and Hume--or even Berkeley (yikes!).

Without straying too far from your topic, I think there are some really important meta-philosophical issues here. While I'm a bit more comfortable in the new model, I'm still loyal to the old model notion that a philosophical community should produce masterworks that continue to be widely read. Let's say the philosophers active 100 years from now are considerably more sophisticated because of us, but that they nevertheless consider our generation's writings too dated irrelevant to be worth assigning in their seminars. Will we have been successful as philosophers?

In spite of my sympathy for the new model, I'd say "no." It's not enough that the best of our work have a positive impact on them. It should to speak to them too.

Brandon said...

In a sense a variant of your scenario already played out in nineteenth-century Germany; the Romantic movement was in part a new-model movement, one in which "what [was] paramount [was] the presentation of a promising new idea, a novel argument, or a relevant datum that does not already have currency in the discussion." The Romantics often saw themselves as engaging in a massive reform of philosophy in which it became 'symphilosophy', a progressive communal enterprise; because of this, they put emphasis on means of publication that were good ways of throwing out ideas for other people to think about -- aphorisms and notes, literary reviews, public lectures -- rather than systematic treatises. I have a taste for the Romantics myself, but I'm not sure what that historical episode tells us. And I think this would probably always be a problem: the two models really won't end up agreeing on what counts as progress because both are making up, as they go along, the idea of what counts as progress in the particular approach that they are taking.

I wonder, though, if in the present case the real difference is more a matter of emphasis than of genuinely different models -- related, perhaps, to the difference between those who still regard The Authoritative Book as the most important focus of academic publication and those who regard Lots of Cited Journal Articles as the most important focus of academic publication.

Anonymous said...

I was not aware of this trend (sincerely). Can you give an example of recent books/articles that strike you as trying out new ideas, but not being precise, rigorous, and detailed? I'm trying to figure who you have in mind as exemplifying each model. (Or would it be impolitic to come out with examples?!)

Manuel Vargas said...

Sean- A few more reactions are in my subsequent post. On some of the structural forces driving it, see the link to the underblog. I'm also inclined to think that part of the impetus comes from interactions with fields where the newer model is the norm

Brandon- nice example with the German romantics. I don't know that period particularly well, but it sounds like an excellent comparison case to think about.

Anonymous- I think you are misreading my claim. My point is not that the newer model doesn't value precision, etc. In fact, I'd say both models value originality, precision, fully worked out arguments, and the like. The difference is one of emphasis, or which values are taken as more and less important. As a rough measure, I'd say something like this: for any philosopher who publishes significantly more than an average of 2 articles per year over an extended period of time, said philosopher is likely to be working under something like the second model. Naturally, there are going to be counterexamples, but I'm not going to name names unless there is a beer or higher octane beverage in my hand.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Hi Manuel - I think that more-than 2-a-year criterion doesn't work for the aged lions who now get asked to do many things and toss out rehashes and replies right and left but may still be pretty old school in their hearts.

Sean said...

With respect to the discussion of "philosophic progress" - I know that other social science fields, there is a tendency towards stagnation/equilibrium in terms of who argues for what, and the potential for advancing the debate. Part of that may be due to tie-ins with political advocacy, but I think some of it is also due to pressure to publish numerous articles. When writing the analysis of results, it is often simpler to fall back on a pre-established paradigm, then it is to really question the "why" of a data set.

How would this tendency apply to philosophy? Perhaps, in some of the philosophy of science/AI fields, not as much - my guess is that progress in the related empirical field will force a rethinking of conceptual models as new tools become available (perhaps this is a bit naive). However, in some of the more "classical" fields of ethics, political philosophy, metaphysics, etc. I can easily see some form of stagnation/polarization.

Some of the reason for the "Authoritative Book" model is that it forces an internal dialectic (and an external one with editing and the conference presentations involved in the ideas). This relates to Justin T.'s comment about "success" as a philosopher. I think a big part of that success is attempting some form of synthesis of well-established arguments, to draw on the strengths of each and tease out what is essential to those strengths. Obviously, that's an old-school mode of thinking - in that it seems to be along the lines of Rawls, Korsgaard, and Kant's methodology.

Lastly - those systematic treatments also strike me as the place in which philosophy is most likely to impact the "real world," because it is there that philosophers are most likely to come up with truly new ideas, and not be lost in the standard academic jockeying for influence (which, I suspect, favors those in the "empirical" or "practical" disciplines). This may be tangential to some, but I do think it is important.

Manuel Vargas said...


Yeah, that's right— the "significantly more than 2 a year" standard of publication doesn't capture some of the old timers in the right way. I was thinking of this as a rough and ready way of getting a sense of who, among early to mid-career types, might fall in one or another category. It won't capture old timers who do a lot of responding to their work, and various other limit cases (e.g., people who do lots of book reviews but relative few substantive publications).

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

I've been thinking there's a variation on "new" model that isn't quite accurately captured as putting an emphasis on tossing novel ideas out there to see what comes of them. This model is to write a series of related articles, which may have considerable overlap in theme and content, coming at the same issue from a variety of angles. Obviously, some "old school" folks effectively do the same thing, at a slower pace (e.g., Gary Watson). The key difference is that the project is conceived from the outset as a series of articles that complement each other.

Badda Being said...

This is interesting, but I don't see the value of this distinction except as a consequence of (1) you making it and (2) others cementing it in place by serializing output under the banner of one or the other model as a distinct philosophical method or style, mimicking the so-called analytic-continental rift.

Still, having placed this idea on the table, I think if you want to control the trajectory of subsequent discourse -- if you want to make it rigorous -- you would need to reinforce your description of each model. This can be done by making the "relevant qualifications" more explicit, the better to establish what might count as variations of either one and what might count as anomalies or outright falsifications of your distinction. Otherwise you'll start hearing counter-proposals for how to stereotype the old and new models, each one valid in its own right and more or less germane to future discussion, diluting your initial thesis with so much chatter.

For example, I don't share your sense of the rate of production between the two models. In fact, my own sense is that the vast majority of publications fall under the old model, but that's because I've been influenced by Alain Badiou. So, aside from or prior to the question of progress, it might be useful to clarify how you would grade the newness of an idea, unhinged from Badiou's concept of the event, so ideas may be serialized under either model consistent with your sense of the rate of production.

Manuel Vargas said...


Yeah, I think your picture of a tightly focused research project from which one spins out lots of publications by working on overlapping but different aspects of that project is a good one, and it surely captures what a lot of high publication folks are doing. As an alternative to the high publication model I mentioned, I'm not yet convinced precisely because—as you note—lots of "old school" types see themselves doing that. However, as a species of the "new model" approach, that seems right. Indeed, it may well be the dominant species of the new model.


I'm unfamiliar with Badiou's work, so I'm not competent to say anything about how my picture is similar or dissimilar to his. I can say this—by "new idea" I just mean "new as perceived by the philosopher writing it up." It could turn out that virtually everything being written up and produced under models that take novelty seriously are, in fact, not new at all but simply regarded as such by their producers. Nothing in my picture turns on ruling out this possibility.

Finally, with respect to the value of the distinction between new and old models, I certainly don't intend this to be a purely manufactured distinction, nor a recommendation for how things ought to proceed. Rather, I take myself to be describing some differences in how professional philosophers in research-active departments in the mainstream of the profession regard the norms of publication in their own work. Either the picture I offer usefully describes some of those differences or it doesn't. If it doesn't, that's fine. It wouldn't be the first time I'm wrong. However, I definitely don't have any investment in controlling downstream discourse about these models of production, so if I am wrong about the descriptive claim, I don't have any interest in pursuing the distinction as a prescriptive recommendation for how philosophers think of their own work.

Badda Being said...

I wouldn't go so far as to say that the distinction is manufactured. At most I would say that it's undecidable as to its existence. Even so, the announcement of that distinction could have consequences in excess of mere recognition of the fact. I'm referring to the phenomenon of reflexivity. But I figure that the reflexive relationship between your announcement and the modeling of future productions would be unsustainable without the distinction being made more rigorous or at least more broadly intuitive.