Thursday, July 12, 2012

Discussion Arcs of APA Presidents from the 1970s

One of the highest forms of recognition a philosopher in the U.S. can receive is the presidency of an APA division. Lists of the APA divisional presidencies thus provide information, not filtered through current lenses, of people who were regarded as prominent philosophers in their day.

If, like me, you have a kind of morbid curiosity about the fleetingness of academic fame, you might wonder what becomes of these divisional presidents. Lists from the 1930s and 1940s are almost entirely names I don't recognize: Albert Perly Brogan? Marten ten Hoor?

In several past posts, I have used the concept of a "discussion arc". A discussion arc for a topic or a philosopher is simply the number of times the topic or philosopher appears in a keyword search (including title and abstract) in the Philosopher's Index, divided by some representative number of the universe of articles. Some topics and philosophers have fairly steady rates of discussion over the decades (dualism, Kant); others show sharp temporal peaks (ordinary language, Chisholm). I have found that, in general, twentieth century Anglophone philosophers' discussion arcs tend to peak at around age 55-70.

The three divisions (Eastern, Central, Pacific) had a total of 30 presidents in the years ending 1970-1979. I excluded from analysis nine presidents with last names generating too many false positives in keyword searches.[note 1] Of the 21 remaining presidents, six achieved discussion rates of over five per thousand articles (from a representative universe of articles [note 2]). For analysis, discussion is broken into five-year chunks. Click for a clearer view of the figure below:

Around 1975, most of this group had similar discussion rates (though John Rawls rather more). Most arcs show the typical hump shape with peaks at around ages 55-70. The declines of Jaakko Hintikka and especially Norman Malcolm (both of whom peaked a bit young) are notably more severe than the others.  Rawls and Wilfrid Sellars show bimodal distributions, with the typical late-career peak followed by a more recent resurgence.

A second group of five philosophers had peak discussion rates between 1.5 and 5 per thousand (again click for clarity):
Although the data are noisier, as one might expect with fewer data points, all five show the typical hump-shaped arc, though Stuart Hampshire peaks a bit earlier than typical and Alan Gewirth a bit later. Paul Grice appears to have had considerably more staying power than the others, though his recent discussion rate of about 1.5 remains lower than all in the first group except Hintikka and Malcolm.

Four more 1970s APA divisional presidents, while peaking below 1.5, still continue to draw a bit of discussion, with William Alston and Patrick Suppes recently exceeding all in the mid-tier group except Grice.
Finally, there's a group of six who together have drawn only three keyword hits since the year 2000:
Could we have predicted these results in the 1970s? Yes! If we average the discussion arcs of the four tier groups, the overall trend is clear: The much-discussed remained much discussed, the less discussed remain less discussed:
In fact, the decline is much less sharp, on a percentage basis, for the Tier 1's than for the lower tiers, which might be partly explained by my hypothesis about the Winnowing of Greats.

The spread also seems to be clearly evident by the early 1960s, when these philosophers were in their early 40s to early 50s -- maybe even earlier. We can to a substantial extent predict discussion rates in the 2000s, among APA division presidents from the 1970s, based on those presidents' discussion rates in the five-year span during which they turned 45. If we rank their age-mid-40s discussion rates and also rank their discussion rates since 2000, the ranks correlate at r = .59 (p = .006). Nine of the 21 are ranked very near their age-mid-40's discussion ranks (within 2) and 13 are within 4. The biggest outliers are Malcolm (fell from 2 to 12), Donald Davidson (rose from 12 to 2), and Grice (rose from 14 to 5).

1. William Thomas Jones, John Wisdom, Lewis White Beck, Alonzo Church, William Henry Hay, Ruth Barcan Marcus, Kurt Baier, Wesley Charles Salmon, and William Craig.  Also: I hand-culled false positives in any five-year period in which the target philosopher generated 40 or fewer keyword hits on a truncation-symbol appended version of his last name (e.g., Lazerowitz*); for those with 40 or more keyword hits, I spot-checked for problematic patterns.

2. Search term: KW=ethic* or KW=moral* or KW=politic* or KW=language* or KW=epistem* or KW=mind* or KW= metaphys*.

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