Thursday, October 19, 2017

Practical and Impractical Advice for Philosophers Writing Fiction

Hugh D. Reynolds has written up a fun, vivid summary of my talk at Oxford Brookes last spring, on fiction writing for philosophers!


Eric Schwitzgebel has a pleasingly liberal view of what constitutes philosophy. A philosopher is anyone wrestling with the “biggest picture framing issues” of... well, anything.

In a keynote session at the Fiction Writing for Philosophers Workshop that was held at Oxford Brookes University in June 2017, Schwitzgebel, Professor of Philosophy at the University of California, Riverside, shared his advice–which he stated would be both practical and impractical.

Schwitzgebel tells us of a leading coiffeur who styles himself as a “Philosopher of Hair”. We laugh – but there’s something in this – the vagary, the contingency in favoured forms of philosophical output. And it’s not just hairdressers that threaten to encroach upon the Philosophy Department’s turf. Given that the foundational issues in any branch of science or art are philosophical in nature, it follows that most people “doing” philosophy today aren’t professional philosophers.

There are a host of ways one could go about doing philosophy, but of late a consensus has emerged amongst those that write articles for academic journals: the only proper way to “do” philosophy is by writing articles for academic journals. Is it time to re-stock the tool shed? Philosophical nuts come in all shapes and sizes; yet contemporary attempts to crack them are somewhat monotone.

As Schwitzgebel wrote in a Los Angeles Times op-ed piece:

Too exclusive a focus on technical journal articles excludes non-academics from the dialogue — or maybe, better said, excludes us philosophers from non-academics’ more important dialogue.

[Hugh's account of my talk continues here.]


Thanks also to Helen De Cruz for setting up the talk and to Skye Cleary for finding a home for Hugh's account on the APA blog.

[image detail from APA Blog]

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Should You Referee the Same Paper Twice, for Different Journals?

Uh-oh, it happened again. That paper I refereed for Journal X a few months ago -- it's back in my inbox. Journal X rejected it, and now Journal Y wants to know what I think. Would I be willing to referee it for Journal Y?

In the past, I've tended to say no if I had previously recommended rejection, yes if I had previously recommended acceptance.

If I'd previously recommended rejection, I've tended to reason thus: I could be mistaken in my negative view. It would be a disservice both to the field in general and to the author in particular if a single stubborn referee prevented an excellent paper from being published by rejecting it again and again from different journals. If the paper really doesn't merit publication, then another referee will presumably reach the same conclusion, and the paper will be rejected without my help.

If I'd previously recommended acceptance (or encouraging R&R), I've tended to just permit myself think that the other journal's decision was probably the wrong call, and it does no harm to the field or to the author for me to serve as referee again to help this promising paper find the home it deserves.

I've begun to wonder whether I should just generally refuse to referee the same paper more than once for different journals, even in positive cases. Maybe if everyone followed my policy, that would overall tend to harm the field by skewing the referee pool too much toward the positive side?

I could also imagine arguments -- though I'm not as tempted by them -- that it's fine to reject the same paper multiple times from different journals. After all, it's hard for journals to find expert referees, and if you're confident in your opinion, you might as well share it widely and save everyone's time.

I'd be curious to hear about others' practices, and their reasons for and against.

(Let's assume that anonymity isn't an issue, having been maintained throughout the process.)

[Cross-posted at Daily Nous]

Monday, October 16, 2017

New Essay in Draft: Kant Meets Cyberpunk


I defend a how-possibly argument for Kantian (or Kant*-ian) transcendental idealism, drawing on concepts from David Chalmers, Nick Bostrom, and the cyberpunk subgenre of science fiction. If we are artificial intelligences living in a virtual reality instantiated on a giant computer, then the fundamental structure of reality might be very different than we suppose. Indeed, since computation does not require spatial properties, spatiality might not be a feature of things as they are in themselves but instead only the way that things necessarily appear to us. It might seem unlikely that we are living in a virtual reality instantiated on a non-spatial computer. However, understanding this possibility can help us appreciate the merits of transcendental idealism in general, as well as transcendental idealism's underappreciated skeptical consequences.

Full essay here.

As always, I welcome comments, objections, and discussion either as comments on this post or by email to my UCR email address.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Truth, Dare, and Wonder

According to Nomy Arpaly and Zach Barnett, some philosophers prefer Truth and others prefer Dare. I love the distinction. It helps us see an important dynamic in the field. But it's not exhaustive. I think there are also Wonder philosophers.

As I see the distinction, Truth philosophers sincerely aim to present the philosophical truth as they see it. They tend to prefer modest, moderate, and commonsensical positions. They tend to recognize the substantial truth in multiple different perspectives (at least once they've been around long enough to see the flaws in their youthful enthusiasms), and thus tend to prefer multidimensionality and nuance. Truth philosophers would rather be boring and right than interesting and wrong.

Dare philosophers reach instead for the bold and unusual. They want to explore the boundaries of what can be defended. They're happy for the sake of argument to champion unusual positions that they might not fully believe, if those positions are elegant, novel, fun, contrarian, or if they think the positions have more going for them than is generally recognized. Dare philosophers sometimes treat philosophy like a game in which the ideal achievement is the breathtakingly clever defense of a position that others would have thought to be patently absurd.

There's a familiar dynamic that arises from their interaction. The Dare philosopher ventures a bold thesis, cleverly defended. ("Possible worlds really exist!", "All matter is conscious!", "We're morally obliged to let humanity go extinct!") If the defense is clever enough, so that a substantial number of readers are tempted to think "Wait, could that really be true? What exactly is wrong with the argument?" then the Truth philosopher steps in. The Truth philosopher finds the holes and presuppositions in the argument, or at least tries to, and defends a more seemingly sensible view.

This Dare-and-Truth dynamic is central to the field and good for its development. Sometimes there's more truth in the Dare positions than one would have thought, and without the Dare philosophers out there pushing the limits, seeing what can be said in defense of the seemingly absurd, then as a field we wouldn't appreciate those positions as vividly as we might. Also, I think, there's something intrinsically valuable about exploring the boundaries of philosophical defensibility, even if the positions explored turn out to be flatly false. It's part of the magnificent glory of life on Earth that we have fiendishly clever panpsychists and modal realists in our midst.

Now consider Wonder.

Why study philosophy? I mean at a personal level. Personally, what do you find cool, interesting, or rewarding about philosophy? One answer is Truth: Through philosophy, you discover answers to some of the profoundest and most difficult questions that people can pose. Another answer is Dare: It's fun to match wits, push arguments, defend surprising theses, win the argumentative game (or at least play to a draw) despite starting from a seemingly indefensible position. Both of those motivations speak to me somewhat. But I think what really delights me more than anything else in philosophy is its capacity to upend what I think I know, its capacity to call into question what I previously took for granted, its capacity to cast me into doubt, confusion, and wonder.

Unlike the Dare philosopher, the Wonder philosopher is guided by a norm of sincerity and truth. It's not primarily about matching wits and finding clever arguments. Unlike the Truth philosopher, the Wonder philosopher has an affection for the strange and seemingly wrong -- and is willing to push wild theses to the extent they suspect that those theses, wonderfully, surprisingly, might be true.

But in the Dare-and-Truth dynamic of the field, the Wonder philosopher can struggle to find a place. Bold Dare articles and sensible Truth articles both have a natural home in the journals. But "whoa, I wonder if this weird thing might be true?" is a little harder to publish.

Probably no one is pure Truth, pure Dare, or pure Wonder. We're all a mix of the three, I suspect. Thus, one approach is to leave Wonder out of your research profile: Find the Truth, where you can, publish that, and leave Wonder for your classroom teaching and private reading. Defend the existence of moderate naturalistically-grounded moral truths in your published papers; read Zhuangzi on the side.

Still, there are a few publishing strategies for Wonder philosophers. Here are four:

(1.) Find a Dare-like position that you really do sincerely endorse on reflection, and defend that -- optionally with some explicit qualifications indicating that you are exploring it only as a possibility.

(2.) Explicitly argue that we should invest a small but non-trivial credence in some Dare-like position -- for example, because the Truth-type arguments against it aren't fully compelling.

(3.) Find a Truth-like view that generates Wonder if it's true. For example, defend some form of doubt about philosophical method or about the extent of our self-knowledge. Defend the position on sensible, widely acceptable grounds; and then sensibly argue that one possible consequence is that we don't know some of the things that we normally take for granted that we do know.

(4.) Write about historical philosophers with weird and wonderful views. This gives you a chance to explore the Wonderful without committing to it.

In retrospect, I think one unifying theme in my disparate work is that it fits under one of these four heads. Much of my recent metaphysics fits under (1) or (2) (e.g., here, here, here). My work on belief and introspection mostly fits under (3) (with some (1) in my bolder moments): We can't take for granted that we have the handsome beliefs (e.g., "the sexes are intellectually equal") that we think we do, or that we have the moral character or types of experience that we think we do. And my interest in Zhuangzi and some of the stranger corners of early introspective psychology fits under (4).

Friday, October 06, 2017

Do Philosophy Professors Tend to Come from Socially Elite Backgrounds?

To judge from the examples we use in our essays, we philosophers are a pretty classy bunch. Evidently, philosophers tend to frequent the theater, delight in expensive wines, enjoy novels by George Eliot, and regret owning insufficiently many boats. Ah, the life of the philosopher, full of deep thoughts about opera while sipping Ch√Ęteau Latour and lingering over 19th-century novels on your yacht!

Maybe it's true that philosophers typically come from wealthy or educationally elite family backgrounds? Various studies suggest that lower-income students and first-generation college students in the U.S. and Britain are more likely to choose what are sometimes perceived as lower risk, more "practical" majors like engineering, the physical sciences, and education, than they are to choose arts and humanities majors.

To explore this question, I requested data from the National Science Foundation's Survey of Earned Doctorates. The SED collects demographic and other data from PhD recipients from virtually all accredited universities in the U.S., typically with response rates over 90%.

I requested data on two relevant SED questions:

  • What is the highest educational attainment of your mother and father?
  • and also, since starting at community college is generally regarded as a less elite educational path than going directly from high school to a four-year university,

  • Did you earn college credit from a community or two-year college?
  • Before you read on... any guesses about the results?

    Community college attendance.

    Philosophy PhD recipients [red line below] were less likely than PhD recipients overall [black line] to have attended community college, but philosophers might actually be slightly more likely than other arts and humanities majors to have attended community college [blue line]:

    [click picture for clearer image]

    [The apparent jump from 2003 to 2004 is due to a format change in the question, from asking the respondent to list all colleges attended (2003 and earlier) to asking the yes or no question above (2004 and after).]

    Merging the 2004-2015 data for analysis, 17% of philosophy PhD recipients had attended community college, compared to 15% of other arts and humanities PhDs and 19% of PhDs overall. Pairwise comparisons: philosophy 696/4107 vs. arts & humanities overall (excl. phil.) 7051/45966 (z = 2.7, p = .006); vs. all PhD recipients (excl. phil.) 69958/372985 (z = -3.0, p = .003).

    The NSF also sent me the breakdown by race, gender, and ethnicity. I found no substantial differences by gender. Non-Hispanic white philosophy PhD recipients may have been a bit less likely to have attended community college than the other groups (17% vs. 21%, z = -2.2, p = .03) -- actually a somewhat smaller effect size than I might have predicted. (Among PhD recipients as a whole, Asians were a bit less likely (14%) and Hispanics [any race] a bit more likely (25%) to have attended community college than whites (20%) and blacks (19%).)

    In sum, as measured by rates of community college attendance, philosophers' educational background is only a little more elite than that of PhD recipients overall and might be slightly less elite, on average, than that of PhD recipients in the other arts and humanities.

    Parental Education.

    The SED divides parental education levels into four categories: high school or less, some college, bachelor's degree, or advanced degree.

    Overall, recipients reported higher education levels for their fathers (35% higher degree, 25% high school or less [merging 2010-2015]) than for their mothers (25% and 31% respectively). Interestingly, women PhD recipients reported slightly higher levels of maternal education than did men, while women and men reported similar levels of paternal education, suggesting that a mother's education is a small specific predictor of her daughter's educational attainment. (Among women PhD recipients [in all fields, 2010-2015], 27% report their mothers having a higher degree and 29% report high school or less; for men the corresponding numbers are 24% and 33%.)

    Philosophers report higher levels of parental education than do other PhD recipients. In 2010-2015, 45% of philosophy PhD recipients reported having fathers with higher degrees and 33% reported having mothers with higher degrees, compared to 43% and 31% in the arts and humanities generally and 35% and 25% among all PhD recipients (philosophers' fathers 1129/2509 vs. arts & humanities' fathers (excl. phil.) 11110/26064, z = 2.3, p = .02; philosophers' mothers 817/2512 vs. a&h mothers 8078/26176, z = 1.7, p = .09). Similar trends for earlier decades suggest that the small difference between philosophy and the remaining arts and humanities is unlikely to be chance.

    [click picture for clearer image]

    Although philosophy has a higher percentage of men among recent PhDs (about 72%) than do most other disciplines outside of the physical sciences and engineering, this fact does not appear to explain the pattern. Limiting the data either to only men or only women, the same trends remain evident.

    Recent philosophy PhD recipients are also disproportionately non-Hispanic white (about 85%) compared to most other academic disciplines that do not focus on European culture. It is possible that this explains some of the tendency toward higher parental educational attainment among philosophy PhDs than among PhDs in other areas. For example, limiting the data to only non-Hispanic whites eliminates the difference in parental educational attainment between philosophy and the other arts and humanities: 46% both of recent philosophy PhDs and of arts and humanities PhDs report fathers with higher degrees and 34% of both groups report mothers with higher degrees. (Among all non-Hispanic white PhD recipients, it's 41% and 31% respectively.)

    Unsurprisingly, parental education is much higher in general among PhD recipients than in the U.S. population overall: Approximately 12% of people over the age of 25 in the US have higher degrees (roughly similar for all age groups, including the age groups that would be expected of the parents of recent PhD recipients).

    In sum, the parents of PhD recipients in philosophy tend to have somewhat higher educational attainment than PhD recipients overall and slightly higher educational attainment that PhD recipients in the other arts and humanities. However, much of this difference may be explainable by the overrepresentation of non-Hispanic whites within philosophy, rather than by a field-specific factor.


    Although PhD recipients in general tend to come from more educationally privileged backgrounds than do people who do not earn PhDs, philosophy PhD recipients do not appear to come from especially elite academic backgrounds, compared to their peers in other departments, despite our field's penchant for highbrow examples.


    ETA: Raw data here.

    ETA2: On my public Facebook link to this post, Wesley Buckwalter has emphasized that not all philosophy PhDs become professors. Of course that is true, though it looks like a majority of philosophy PhDs do attain permanent academic posts within five years of completion (see here). If it were the case that people with community college credit or with lower levels of parental education were substantially less likely than others to become professors even after completing the PhD, then that would undermine the inference from these data about PhD recipients to conclusions about philosophy professors in general.