Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The MacArthur Drought in Philosophy

See here.  The last MacArthur "genius" fellowship awarded to someone they classified as philosopher was in 1993.

On the whole, scholars outside of philosophy tend, I think, not to see much value in what most professional philosophers do.  The MacArthur drought is one reflection and measure of that.

Not that prizes matter.  Sheesh.  We're too busy thinking about important stuff like whether the external world exists (82% of target faculty agree that it does).  The MacArthur folks probably think that climate change is a more important topic.  But if the external world doesn't exist then the climate can't change, can it now?  So there!

23 comments:

Gerald Dworkin said...

Any prize named after General MacArthur is not worth having.

Anonymous said...

The MacArther prizes, whatever their other merits, are not named after General Douglas MacArthur.

David Brink said...

Actually, the linked list omits the award to Nancy Cartwright (then aged 49). http://www.macfound.org/fellows/search/?name=cartwright

David T said...

There's a separate category for "history and philosophy of science" with more recent entries (e.g. Peter Galison in '97)

Mobius Trip said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for that, David Brink. Cartwright was also 1993, so that doesn't change the basic facts of the post. But I'm glad to see that they appreciated her awesomeness!

David T.: I am loathe to adjudicate who counts as a philosopher. My own view is that "philosophy" is, or should be, a broad term that encompasses the most general and foundational issues of any discipline. That's why I phrased the post in terms of who was classified as a philosopher by the MacArthur Foundation itself. Maybe, for purposes of the present comment, we could consider as "philosophers" those whose primary disciplinary background, training, and affiliation is with "Philosophy" departments or the "philosophy" side of interdisciplinary departments. By that criterion, Cartwright probably counts as a philosopher, Galison as a historian. (I say this despite the fact that the two history of science classes I took at Stanford with Galison had probably at least as much influence on me as a philosopher as did any of the straight "philosophy" classes I took, and despite my great admiration of him as a philosopher in the broad, non-department-affiliation-sense of "philosopher".)

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Anon 05:35: I assume that Gerald Dworkin's comment was meant in jest!

Mobius Trip said...

I was recalling from memory that C.S. Peirce was refused an award, but upon researching the facts, I can not substantiate it. It seems the time line doesn’t work out, though I recall this being discussed in the classroom.

Anonymous said...

Eric Schwitzgebel: Anon 05:35 here. I imagined so, but thought it was worth pointing out nonetheless given that they devote an entire entry in their FAQ to the question.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the correction, Mobius!

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Anon: Right!

Anonymous said...

The real problem with the MacArthur awards is that they clearly aren't consistently awarded using the criteria stipulated by their mission.

According to Wikipedia,

The MacArthur Fellows Program, MacArthur Fellowship, or "Genius Grant" is a prize awarded annually by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation typically to between 20 and 40 individuals, working in any field, who "show exceptional merit and promise for continued and enhanced creative work" and are citizens or residents of the United States.

According to the Foundation's website, "the fellowship is not a reward for past accomplishment, but rather an investment in a person's originality, insight, and potential."


Any honest person who looks down the list of MacArthur Fellows can't help but notice that it is very heavily tilted toward what amounts to Affirmative Actions choices, and/or those who have a Social Justice agenda.

This isn't a bad thing, necessarily, but how is it even possibly a fair implementation of the stipulated goals of the MacArthur awards?

What makes the term "genius" as applied to the chosen candidates seem like a joke is not so much that there aren't so many geniuses knocking around that 20 to 40 can be selected every year. Rather, it's that the selections are so clearly not based primarily on "originality" or "insight" -- which certainly is part of being a true genius -- but, far more typically, on a specific political agenda.

Or are we to believe that the only disciplines and investigations of importance are those of political nature, and with a particular political conclusion, and that, utterly unlike what we see in the academy, the good majority of those who might have something "original" and "insightful" to offer are women or of an underrepresented minority?

Anonymous said...

Oops,

should probably have written instead,

...Or are we to believe that the disciplines and investigations of importance are strongly skewed toward those of a political nature, and with a particular political conclusion...

Als said...

Unfortunately I suspect that Anonymous' observations are correct : the prize rewards political alignment rather than creativity. For some reason mathematicians still manage to get it, probably to serve as fig-leaves ( Jacob Lurie is the only real genius in the entire list ).

Anonymous said...

"We're too busy thinking about important stuff like whether the external world exists... The MacArthur folks probably think that climate change is a more important topic."

Yeah.

David Velleman said...

I can say that at least one philosopher was nominated this year and got far enough along in the selection process that the foundation solicited letters. They got a glowing recommendation from me.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

I'm delighted to hear that, David. Your point about letters reminds me of a trend I think I and some others have noticed of philosophers being on average less effusive in their recommendation letters than members of other disciplines. I'm not sure that's correct (my sample is small), but if so that might also play a role, not only with the MacArthurs but in other interdisciplinary awards and competitions.

Alex Rosenberg said...

It's worth remembering that the MacAthur is a quintessentially "old boy" network award, given to the proteges of the members of the selection board, and has been since a few years after they began to give these awards out. If you can find the membership, you can track the awards in academic areas especially.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Is that why you look so world-weary in that 3:AM picture, Alex? (Among other reasons, I mean.)

Callan S. said...

I guess maths in itself it politically neutral. Thus bias might suddenly vanish.

Still begs the question of by what metric would you measure the whole thing if you used a metric instead of people.

UserGoogol said...

Anonymous@2:52: Even if that's true, that seems like it should encourage philosophers to win the prize. There's plenty of philosophers who "have a social justice agenda." Philosophers have quite a lot to say about social justice, (and anyone who studies the concept of social justice in any in-depth sense is arguably a de facto philosopher) and philosophers as a profession are generally pretty liberal.

Carolyn Dicey Jennings said...

Maybe this is part of the explanation: "Emphasis is placed on nominees for whom our support would relieve limitations that inhibit them from pursuing their most innovative ideas." Philosophers are probably not as constrained as those in other fields. Those with strong political views may be especially constrained, relative to everyone else.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Interesting observation, Carolyn. I have always appreciated the liberty philosophy affords to pursue almost any line of academic inquiry as long as one can frame it in a sufficiently "big picture" way. I say this knowing that departments vary considerably in their tolerance of work outside the mainstream (UCR being, I suspect, more tolerant than most) and that one's liberty is much greater post-tenure than pre-tenure. Still, I think if one compared philosophy as a whole with, say, psychology as a whole or chemistry as a whole, one would see fewer limitations on the creative pursuit of innovative ideas.