Thursday, June 11, 2015

What Philosophical Work Could Be

Academic philosophers in Anglophone Ph.D.-granting departments tend to have a narrow conception of what counts as valuable philosophical work. Hiring, tenure, promotion, and prestige turn mainly on one's ability to write an essay in a particular theoretical, abstract style, normally in reaction to the work of a small group of canonical historical and 20th century figures, on a fairly constrained range of topics, published in a limited range of journals and presses. This is too narrow a view.

I won't discuss cultural diversity here, which I have addressed elsewhere. Today I'll focus on genre and medium.

Consider the recency and historical contingency of the philosophical journal article. It's a late 19th century invention. Even as late as the mid-20th century, leading philosophers in Western Europe and North America were doing important work in a much broader range of styles than is typical now. Think of the fictions and difficult-to-classify reflections of Sartre, Camus, and Unamuno, the activism and popular writings of Russell, Dewey's work on educational reform, Wittgenstein's fragments. It's really only with the generation hired to teach the baby boomers that our conception of philosophical work became narrowly focused on the academic journal article, and on books written in that same style.

(Miguel de Unamuno)

Consider the future of media. The magazine is a printing-press invention and carries with it the history and limitations of that medium. With the rise of the internet, other possibilities emerge: videos, interactive demonstrations, blogs, multi-party conversations on social media, etc. Is there something about the journal article that makes it uniquely better for philosophical reflection than these other media? (Hint: no.)

Nor need we think that philosophical work must consist of expository argumentation targeted toward disciplinary experts and students in the classroom. This, too, is a narrow and historically recent conception of philosophical work. Popular essays, fictions, aphorisms, dialogues, autobiographical reflections, and personal letters have historically played a central role in philosophy. We could potentially add, too, public performances, movies, video games, political activism, and interactions with the judicial system and governmental agencies.

Philosophers are paid to develop expertise in philosophy, to bring that expertise in philosophy into the classroom, and to contribute that expertise to society in part by further advancing philosophical knowledge. A wide range of activities fit within that job description. I am inclined to be especially liberal here for two reasons: First, I have a liberal conception of philosophy as inquiry into big-picture ontological, normative, conceptual, and broadly theoretical issues about anything (including, e.g., hair and football as well as more traditionally philosophical topics). I favor treating a wide range of inquiries as philosophical, only a small minority of which happen in philosophy departments. And second, I have a liberal conception of "inquiry" on which sitting at one's desk reading and writing expository arguments is only one sort of inquiry. Engaging with the world, trying out one's ideas in action, seeing the reactions of non-academics, exploring ideas in fiction and meditation -- these are also valuable modes of inquiry that advance our philosophical knowledge, activities in which we not only deploy our expertise but cultivate and expand it, influencing society and, in a small or a large way, the future of both academic philosophy and non-academic philosophical inquiry.

Research-oriented philosophy departments tend to regard writing for popular media or consulting with governmental agencies as "service", which is typically held in less esteem than "research". I'm not sure service should be held in less esteem; but I would also challenge the idea that such work is not also partly research. If one approaches popular writing as a means of "dumbing down" pre-existing philosophical ideas for an audience of non-experts whose reactions one does not plan to take seriously, then, yes, that popular writing is not really research. But if the popular essay is itself a locus of philosophical creativity, where philosophical ideas are explored in hopes of discovering new possibilities, advancing (and not just marketing) one's own thinking, furthering the community's philosophical dialogue in a way that might strike professional philosophers, too, as interesting rather than merely familiar re-hashing, and if it's done in a way that is properly intellectually responsive to the work of others, then it is every bit as much "research" as is a standard journal article. Analogously with consulting -- and with Twitter feeds, TED videos, and poetry.

I urge our discipline to conceptualize philosophical work more broadly than we typically do. A Philosophical Review article can be an amazing, awesome thing. Yes! But we should see journal articles of that style, in that type of venue, as only one of many possible forms of important, field-shaping philosophical work.

21 comments:

PJ Welsh said...

Amen. In this regard, check out The Public Philosophy Journal , which is a Mellon-funded project to establish a journal accessible to the public that would still generate the peer-reviewed articles academics need to succeed professionally in the academy. I'm not involved, just hugely impressed by a recent conference presentation on Chris Long gave describing their mission and the novel process they're developing to secure, review, refine, and publish content.

PJ Welsh said...

Amen. Check out The Public Philosophy Journal , a Mellon-funded project working to create a whole new kind of journal very much to this end. (I'm not involved, just very much impressed with a conference presentation Chris Long gave on the model they are developing.)

Neal Tognazzini said...

Very well-put, Eric. I wonder whether you have any thoughts about how best to translate this ethos into the classroom? I'm thinking specifically of what sorts of assignments have worked well for you (or you think might work well) outside of the standard philosophy research paper.

kyle broom said...
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kyle broom said...
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Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the comments, folks! I'm heading off on family vacation, so I'll keep it brief and don't have time to check out the links yet.

Neal: One exercise I've used in classical Chinese philosophy, which seems to resonate with students, is to spend four hours trying to live approximately as Philosopher X would have wanted, then write a two paragraph reflection on their experience.

Lisa Shapiro said...

Thanks, Eric. I wholly concur. You might find the paper I presented at the Pacific APA meeting of the Modern Philosophy Society of interest. It is posted at https://philosophymodsquad.wordpress.com/2015/05/13/society-for-modern-philosophy-reflections-on-canon/.

Thomas Goodnow said...

All these helpful thoughts made me think of a book I read a decade ago, "Who Killed Homer: the Demise of Classical Education and the Recovery of Greek Wisdom" by Hanson and Heath. They confront the same issues in Classics departments: what used to be Classical study for the sake of learning a sturdy perspective on the good, the true and the beautiful has become debates over the reasons for the dominant orthography of Homeric manuscripts from the Renaissance etc hashed out in journals almost no one reads (and, as a result, are absurdly expensive to subscribe to).
Philosophical problems underlie so much of the cultural war narratives and political and economic issues we confront today; philosophy desperately needs for itself what Christianity got in CS Lewis or astronomy got in Carl Sagan. As an added bonus, it would stop being the department at the university we have to fund because we've always funded it but has no relevance to anything.

Richard Baron said...

I entirely agree that there is more to philosophy than the type of work that is typically done in university departments. Having said that, we should still hold that type of work in high regard. As well as often being very good in itself, it sets a standard of rigour that anyone who wants to philosophize in the same style (rather than, for example, writing novels) should do their best to meet. As someone who does not have a university post, I am very grateful for the opportunity I have to go to seminars and discuss ideas with people who do have university posts.

For professors who want to experiment with the possibilities while still doing the same kind of thing as they normally do, I strongly recommend giving talks to general audiences - something I do quite often. If you present academic philosophy to audiences that may include doctors, soldiers, artists, anthropologists and all sorts of other people, you don't just make them think. Their responses, coming as they do from a far wider variety of perspectives than you would find in a philosophy seminar, make you think too. If you live in a big city, there is a reasonable chance that there will be an established group of people interested in philosophy already.

Amod said...

For me the things you're saying seem so obvious that the most interesting question – particularly relevant for an Experimental Philosopher, I suppose – is, "why *aren't* philosophy departments doing things this way?"

dshiller said...

I agree that it seems somewhat arbitrary that journal articles have such a prominent place in our field. Setting aside all issues of content, I find the format distasteful, particularly because it enforces linearity.

Philosophical ideas and arguments are rarely best presented in a linear fashion. In a journal article, the introduction and elaboration of concepts, defenses of premises and discussions of related issues all get crammed into a single path for the reader to follow no matter what their background or interests. This makes sense given the constraints of printing, but as you note, the internet opens up new resources.

I'd love to be able to write and read papers in the style of wikipedia, where elaboration and argumentation of particular points are included in a series of hyperlinked pages.

Eric Steinhart said...

Preach it, brother! Much more evangelism has to be done in this area. Sooner or later, philosophy will be forced by economic pressures alone to move online. We should try to prepare for it.

Colin Farrelly said...

Great post! I completely agree with you Eric that the discipline has a very narrow conception of what counts as valuable philosophical work today. And that narrowness becomes so stark when we contrast the attitude we take towards the work we value from the greats of the past (whether it be Dewey, Marx or Hobbes). It really is hard to see much intellectual continuity between the work published in philosophy journals today and the work we most admire in philosophy that was written before the "sticks and carrots" of the professionalization of the discipline took hold in the late 20th century.

Christopher Meyers said...

While I fully agree with your sentiments, Eric, there are two related constraints: First, most programs won't recognize such work as qualifying for tenure and promotion because, second, the kind of critical evaluation that comes with peer-reviewed journals and books is very tough to match in other venues. Both problems are, I believe, fixable, but it won't be an easy fix. If interested, see my comments on this in http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/impactofsocialsciences/2014/04/09/public-scholarship-promotion-criteria/ Christopher Meyers

ltirrell said...

Great post, Eric. Just FYI, the APA Committee on Public Philosophy is sponsoring a session at the next Eastern APA on generating ideas for and getting support for non-journal-article projects. An NEH representative, Peter Fristedt, from their "Public Programs" division, will talk about the wide range of types of projects they are sponsoring. That's really interesting, because there is a lot going on, one just has to look. Michael Lynch, from U Conn, will talk about writing books for the public, and Gaurev Vazirani, who founded WiPhi, will talk about developing online media. I'll be there to give a very brief overview of public philosophy today. Our committee really wants to support a wide variety of endeavors, and to get more departments to value them in all the ways that we show that we value each others' work. So come, brainstorm with us, at this session or others.

Tamler said...

Hey Eric, I couldn’t agree more with this post. There’s an additional challenge beyond the entrenchment of a certain perspective on philosophical scholarship. I think people in my department would be open to consider other contributions in merit raises and tenure/promotion . But a big reason that journal articles figure so heavily is that they're easily quantifiable. If you start incorporating things like blog posts, popular magazine articles, and podcasts, never mind something like twitter, then the merit or promotion committee has to make qualitative value judgments. And that can lead to official appeals, bitterness, accusations of bias, alliances, even litigation. In short, a boatload of extra work for the department chair. An easy formula of 1 journal article gets you this, 2 get you this, and a book gets you this, doesn't allow for much room to complain.

Having said that, there must be some way to reward these important ways of contributing to our profession. Right now, a journal article that will get read by 15 people and get cited a couple times by friends count for much more than a Stone or Atlantic article, having a popular blog, being a featured author on a blog and writing 5-6 substantive posts that generate tons of good philosophical back and forth--not to mention (sniff) 69 episodes of a relatively popular podcast. It's true that these other contributions bring rewards of their own--they increase visibility, open the door for new opportunities, you meet people, you get your name out there. (This is why I encourage grad students to take advantage of new media, maybe even at the expense of submitting to journals or certainly grad conferences. And don’t worry too much about the risks.) But I'd love to find a way to reward these contributions properly, in a way that doesn't burden the Chair too much. They have enough to deal with. Any ideas are more than welcome!

Emily said...

Sounds liberatory, but is there a risk this will trivialise philosophy? How will we demarcate the philosophical from the non-philosophical?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for all those thoughtful comments, folks! I'm writing from Florence, where I've just started family vacation -- so not enough time to follow up on all the suggestions yet!

Just to confirm, though, dshiller: I agree that journal articles should remain a central part of the discipline, and partly for their argumentative rigor. I'm a big fan of the well-written journal article. So I think our views are probably similar.

And Christopher: I agree that that is an important issue. We don't want someone just writing some mediocre poem, say, post it on their blog, and get credit for it comparable to that of a journal article in a selective venue, for official purposes of promotion -- . Imperfect partial solutions: (1.) Use existing standards in other disciplines, e.g., is the poem published in an elite poetry venue, as well as serving philosophical aims? Or (2.) look for broader measures of impact, such as citations of the poem or online discussions with lots of participants. Or (3.) rely more on qualitative judgments by the evaluating department -- though as Tamler suggests, this does raise the issue of bias and politicking. Just as a toehold into that issue....

And Tamler: Keep up the awesome work on the podcast!

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Emily: I don't think it trivializes philosophy, since philosophy (in my view) is inquiry into fundamental issues in any region of inquiry -- that's only trivial if the region itself is trivial.

Robert M Ellis said...

I very much agree with this post. However, for me the problem doesn't just lie in the format in which philosophy is judged, but primarily in the narrowness of the criteria used to judge journal articles. Submission for journals is now incredibly competitive, and very often submissions that are not simple extensions of an existing discourse get dismissed at an early editorial review stage, without even reaching the blind review stage where they might get proper consideration. It seems to me that the criteria used are often the very reverse of the ones that should be used to support creative and innovative philosophy. Instead of having to be thoroughly grounded in the existing recent literature, thus guaranteeing that the argument will be based on pretty similar assumptions to those in existing literature, and thus that the philosophy will be of very little value to the world, the articles journals should be looking for should be ones that break new ground and put forward risky and unorthodox arguments. Even if a fair proportion of articles accepted on the basis of that criterion turn out not to be leading anywhere, they will at least have provoked debate and had a chance of developing the discipline, rather than reinforcing the very limited assumptions that rule in most journal articles. Changing the criteria used in judging journal articles is not an impracticable proposal, it would just need a decision by those who run journals to start operating in that way.

Anonymous said...

The message of the post seems good, although it is puzzling why no instances of the suggestions, apart from other entries on this blog, were linked. For example, both Philosophy Talk (http://www.philosophytalk.org) and the UnMute podcast (http://www.unmutepodcast.co), among others, do a good job of covering new philosophical topics. Ken Taylor and John Perry do an excellent job of exploring a range of ideas, including traditional topics (Nietzsche, epistemology) and less traditional topics (sports, surveillance and whistleblowing), in a way that is accessible to a non-specialist audience. Myisha Cherry's work on UnMute aims to explore topics not often covered within current disciplinary boundaries. Both of these cover some of the issues listed in the post.

It is, perhaps, worth mentioning that other disciplines, such as math and computer science seem to take contributions to q&a sites, such as stack exchange, fairly seriously. Some mathematicians have cited questions and discussions from those sites as providing the initial developments of research articles. Philosophy could adopt this as well.