Thursday, October 10, 2019

Applying to PhD Programs in Philosophy, Part III: Letters of Recommendation

Part I: Should You Apply, and Where?

Part II: Grades, Classes, and Institution of Origin

Good grades alone won't secure admission to a PhD program in philosophy. Writing samples and letters of recommendation are also very important. I believe that writing samples should carry more weight than letters of recommendation (and admission committee members often say they do), but I suspect that in fact letters carry at least as much weight. An applicant needs at least three.

Who to Ask

If a professor gave you an A (not an A-minus) in an upper-division philosophy course, consider them a candidate to write a letter. You needn't have any special relationship with the professor, or have visited during office hours, or have taken multiple classes from them -- though all of these things can help. Don't be shy about asking; we're used to it!

No matter how friendly they seem, you should be cautious about asking for letters from professors who have given you A-minuses or below, since if they have integrity in writing their letters, it will come out that your performance in their class was not quite top notch. If a professor has given you both an A and an A-minus, there might still have to be some restraint in the letter -- though less so if the A is the more recent grade.

Letters from philosophers are distinctly preferable to letters from non-philosophers. Letters from eminent scholars are distinctly preferable to letters from assistant professors. Of course, these factors need to be weighed against the expected quality of the letter.

You may submit more than the stated minimum of letters, but be advised that three strong letters looks considerably better in an application than three strong letters and a mediocre one.

Although it's a delicate matter, you can ask a professor whether they think they can write a strong letter for you. If you feel doubt, and if you have a backup letter writer in mind, tactfully asking is probably a good idea.

Should You Waive Your Right to See the Letter?

Most applicants waive the right, and some professors will feel offended or put on the spot if an applicant does not waive the right.

However, I confess that in my own case, I think I might be slightly less likely to say something negative, and I might think more carefully about how the letter would come across, if I think the applicant might view it. On the other hand, for the few very best of my letters, I might also slightly restrain my transports of enthusiasm. (I suspect professors don't really have good self-knowledge about such matters.)

Enabling Your Professors to Write the Best Possible Letters

Think of all those wonderful things you've done that don't show up on your transcript! You went to a bunch of talks at the APA last year when it was in town. You gave free tutoring to high school students. You won the Philosophy Department award for best undergraduate essay. All on your own, you read Kant's Critique of Pure Reason last summer and two commentaries on it. You play piano in nightclubs. You have two thousand Twitter followers. (Be careful, however, what you say on publicly viewable social media, since admissions committees might discover it.) You got a perfect score on the SAT. You work with a local charitable organization. You're captain of the college debate team.

Your letter writers want to know these things. Such facts come across much better in letters than in your personal statement (where they might seem immodest or irrelevant). In letters, they can be integrated with other facts to draw a picture of you as an interesting, promising student. So give your letter writers a brag sheet and don't be modest! Err on the side of over-including things rather than under-including. Sit there while they read it so they have a chance to ask questions. Explain to them that it's just a brag sheet and that you realize that much or most of it might be irrelevant to their letters. If you're embarrassed, feel free to blame me! ("Well, on Eric Schwitzgebel's blog, he said I should give you a brag sheet with all of this kind of stuff, even though it's kind of embarrassing.")

Give your professors copies of all of the essays you've written for them, including if possible their comments on those essays. I don't always remember what my students have written about, especially if it has been a year, even if the essays are excellent. With a copy of the essays in hand, I can briefly describe them -- their topics, what seemed especially good about them -- in a way that adds convincing detail to the letter and gives the impression that I really do know and remember the student's work.

Give your letter writers copies of your personal statement. If a letter writer says "Augustin has a deep passion for epistemology and hopes to continue to study that in graduate school" and your personal statement says nothing about epistemology, it looks a bit odd. You want the portraits drawn by your letter writers and your own self-portrait to match. Also, personal statements are extremely hard to write well (more on that later!) and it's good to have feedback on them from your letter writers.

Give your letter writers your transcript. They may not know you have excellent grades across the board. Once they know this, they can write a stronger letter and one that more concretely addresses your performance relative to other students at your school. Also, they might be able to comment helpfully to the admissions committee on aberrations in your transcript. ("Prof. Hubelhauser hasn't given a student an A since 2003" or "Although Vania's grades slipped a bit in Fall Quarter 2016, her mother was dying of cancer that term, and her previous and subsequent grades more accurately reflect her abilities". Of course, they can't write the latter unless you tell them.)

Give your letter writers a list of all the schools you are applying to and their deadlines, ideally with the first deadline highlighted. This serves several functions: It tells them when the letter needs to be completed (the first deadline). It makes it convenient for them to confirm that they have received all of the schools' letter requests and sent out all of their letters. It is an opportunity for them to provide feedback on your choice of schools. (Maybe there's a school that would be a good fit that you are needlessly omitting?) And it gives them an occasion to reflect on whether they might want to customize their letters for some of the schools.

Maybe I'm a little old fashioned, but I prefer all of this material printed in hard copy. Then I can just staple it together and easily access everything I need. But it probably wouldn't hurt to also send it electronically, for professors who prefer things that way.

Give your letter writers all of this material at least one month before the first deadline.

Gentle Reminders

Professors are flaky and forgetful. They are hardly ever punished for such behavior, so their laxity is unsurprising. Also, it's part of the charm of being absent-minded and absorbed in deeper things like the fundamental structure of reality!

Consequently, it is advisable to email your letter writers a gentle reminder a week before your first deadline. If you don't receive confirmation from the schools (some will give you confirmation, some won't) or from the letter writer, saying that the letters are sent, send another reminder a week after the deadline.

Don't panic if the letters are late. Admissions committees are used to it, and they don't blame the applicant. However, if the letter still isn't in the file by the time the committee gets around to reading your application, it will probably never be read. (You may still be admitted if the two letters that did arrive were good ones.)

If the school doesn't provide electronic confirmation that your application is received and complete, it might be advisable to email the secretarial staff a week or so after the deadline to confirm that your application is all in order.

Advice to Letter Writers

Reading hundreds of letters of recommendation, things become something of a blur. Most letters say "outstanding student" or "I'm delighted to recommend X" or "I'm confident X will succeed in graduate school in philosophy". It would be strange not to say something of this sort, but still -- my eyes start to glaze over. I suspect that trying to detect nuanced differences in such phrases is pointless, since I doubt such nuances closely track applicant quality. More helpful: (1.) Comparative evaluations like: "best philosophy major in this year's graduating class"; or "though only an undergraduate, one of three students, among 9, to earn an 'A' in my graduate seminar"; or "her GPA of 3.87 is second-highest among philosophy majors". (2.) Descriptions of concrete accomplishments: "Won the department's prize in 2018 for best undergraduate essay in philosophy"; or "President of the Philosophy Club". It's also nice to hear a little about the applicant's work and what's distinctive of her as a student and person.

Regarding those little checkboxes on some schools' cover sheets ("top 5%, top 10%" etc.): My impression is that letter writers vary in their conscientiousness about such numbers and have different comparison groups in mind, so I tend to discount them unless backed up by specific comparison assessments in the letter. However, my experience is that other people on the admissions committee sometimes take the checkboxes more seriously.

Most letter writers write the same letter for every school rather than addressing the specific paragraph-answer questions that some schools ask. However, if you think an applicant is a particularly good fit for one school, a specifically tailored letter that explains why can be helpful.

Gifts of Thanks

The best gift of thanks that you can give to your letter writers is to update them on your admissions and rejections from time to time. Even if it's a complete whiff and you're rejected everywhere, please do tell them. Also, maybe about year later, after you're in a graduate program, or alternatively after you're out of academia into the world of business or elsewhere, an update on how things are going is lovely to hear!

Personally, I -- and I suspect most letter writers -- prefer not to receive chocolates or gift cards or such. Of course, we appreciate the thought behind such tokens, and there's nothing wrong with expressing appreciation this way. If you do this, please keep the monetary value low.

[image source]

Tuesday, October 08, 2019

So 2018?

I'm told that A Theory of Jerks and Other Philosophical Misadventures is now being printed. I haven't yet seen a physical copy, but hopefully soon! If you're thinking of reviewing it or commenting on it, that would be awesome, and I can see if I can talk MIT Press into sending you an advance copy.

PS: Is the cover already dated? Will vaping hipsters soon seem so 2018, a relic of the past, to whom we owe mainly a wistful nostalgia?

Friday, October 04, 2019

What Makes for a Good Philosophical Argument, and The Common Ground Problem for Animal Consciousness

What is it reasonable to hope for from a philosophical argument?

Soundness would be nice -- a true conclusion that logically follows from true premises. But soundness isn't enough. Also, in another way, soundness is sometimes too much to demand.

To see why soundness isn't enough, consider this argument:

Premise: Snails have conscious sensory experiences, and ants have conscious sensory experiences.

Conclusion: Therefore, snails have conscious sensory experiences.

The argument is valid: The conclusion follows from the premises. For purposes of this post, let's assume that premise, about snails and ants, is also true and that the philosopher advancing the argument knows it to be true. If so, then the argument is sound and known to be so by the person advancing it. But it doesn't really work as an argument, since anyone who isn't already inclined to believe the conclusion won't be inclined to believe the premise. This argument isn't going to win anyone over.

So soundness isn't sufficient for argumentative excellence. Nor is it necessary. An argument can be excellent if the conclusion is strongly suggested by the premises, despite lacking the full force of logical validity. That the Sun has risen many times in a regular way and that its doing so again tomorrow fits with our best scientific models of the Solar System is an excellent argument that it will rise again tomorrow, even though the conclusion isn't a 100% logical certainty given the premises.

What then, should we want from a philosophical argument?

First, let me suggest that a good philosophical argument needs a target audience, the expected consumers of the argument. For academic philosophical arguments, the target audience would presumably include other philosophers in one's academic community who specialize in the subarea. It might also include a broader range of academic philosophers or some segment of the general public.

Second, an excellent philosophical argument should be such that the target audience ought to be moved by the argument. Unpacking "ought to be moved": A good argument ought to incline members of its target audience who began initially neutral or negative concerning its conclusion to move in the direction of endorsing its conclusion. Also, members of its target audience antecedently inclined in favor of the conclusion ought to feel that the argument provides good support for the conclusion, reinforcing their confidence in the conclusion.

I intend this standard to be a normative standard, rather than a psychological standard. Consumers of the argument ought to be moved. Whether they are actually moved is another question. People -- even, sad to say, academic philosophers! -- are often stubborn, biased, dense, and careless. They might not actually be moved even if they ought to be moved. The blame for that is on them, not on the argument.

I intend this standard as an imperfect generalization: It must be the case that generally the target audience ought to be moved. But if some minority of the target audience ought not to be moved, that's consistent with excellence of argument. One case would be an argument that assumes as a premise something widely taken for granted by the target audience (and reasonably so) but which some minority portion of the target audience does not, for their own good reasons, accept.

I intend this standard to require only movement, not full endorsement: If some audience members initially have a credence of 10% in the conclusion and they are moved to a 35% credence after exposure to the argument, they have been moved. Likewise, someone whose credence is already 60% before reading the argument is moved in the relevant sense if they rationally increase their credence to 90% after exposure to the argument. But "movement" in the sense needn't be understood wholly in terms of credence. Some philosophical conclusions aren't so much true or false as endorseable in some other way -- beautiful, practical, appealing, expressive of a praiseworthy worldview. Movement toward endorsement on those grounds should also count as movement in the relevant sense.

You might think that this standard -- that the target audience ought to be moved -- is too much to demand from a philosophical argument. Hoping that one's arguments are good enough to change reasonable people's opinions is maybe a lot to hope for. But (perhaps stubbornly?) I do hope for it. A good, or at least an excellent, philosophical argument should move its audience. If you're only preaching to the choir, what's the point?

In his preface to Consciousness and Experience, William G. Lycan writes

In 1987... I published a work entitled Consciousness. In it I claimed to have saved the materialist view of human beings from all perils.... But not everyone has been convinced. In most cases this is due to plain pigheadedness. But in others its results from what I now see to have been badly compressed and cryptic exposition, and in still others it is articulately grounded in a peril or two that I inadvertently left unaddressed (1996, p. xii).

I interpret Lycan's preface as embracing something like my standard -- though with the higher bar of convincing the audience rather than moving the audience. Note also that Lycan's standard appears to be normative. There may be no hope of convincing the pigheaded; the argument need not succeed in that task to be excellent.

So, when I write about the nature of belief, for example, I hope that reasonable academic philosophers who are not too stubbornly committed to alternative views, will find themselves moved in the direction of thinking that a dispositional approach (on which belief is at least as much about walking the walk as talking the talk) will be moved toward dispositionalism -- and I hope that other dispositionalists will feel reinforced in their inclinations. The target audience will feel the pull of the arguments. Even if they don't ultimately endorse my approach to belief, they will, I hope, be less averse to it than previously. Similarly, when I defend the view that the United States might literally be conscious, I hope that the target audience of materialistically-inclined philosophers will come to regard the group consciousness of a nation as less absurd than they probably initially thought. That would be movement!

Recently, I have turned my attention to the consciousness, or not, of garden snails. Do garden snails have a real stream of conscious experience, like we normally assume that dogs and ravens have? Or is there "nothing it's like" to be a garden snail, in the way we normally assume there's nothing it's like to be a pine tree or a toy robot? In thinking about this question, I find myself especially struck by what I'll call The Common Ground Problem.

The Common Ground Problem is this. To get an argument going, you need some common ground with your intended audience. Ideally, you start with some shared common ground, and then maybe you also introduce factual considerations from science or elsewhere that you expect they will (or ought to) accept, and then you deliver the conclusion that moves them your direction. But on the question of animal consciousness specifically, people start so far apart that finding enough common ground to reach most of the intended audience becomes a substantial problem, maybe even an insurmountable problem.

I can illustrate the problem by appealing to extreme cases; but I don't think the problem is limited to extreme cases.

Panpsychists believe that consciousness is ubiquitous. That's an extreme view on one end. Although not every panpsychist would believe that garden snails are conscious (they might think, for example, that subparts of the snail are conscious but not the snail as a whole), let's imagine a panpsychist who acknowledges snail consciousness. On the other end, some philosophers, such as Peter Carruthers, argue that even dogs might not be (determinately) conscious. Now let's assume that you want to construct an argument for (or against) the consciousness of garden snails. If your target audience includes the whole range of philosophers from panpsychists to people with very restrictive views about consciousness like Carruthers, it's very hard to see how you speak to that whole range of readers. What kind of argument could you mount that would reasonably move a target audience with such a wide spread of starting positions?

Arguments about animal consciousness seem always to start already from a set of assumptions about consciousness (this kind of test would be sufficient, this other kind not; this thing is an essential feature of consciousness, the other thing not). The arguments will generally beg the question against audience members who start out with views too far away from one's own starting points.

How many issues in philosophy have this kind of problem? Not all, I think! In some subareas, there are excellent arguments that can or should move, even if not fully convince, most of the target audience. Animal consciousness is, I suspect, unusual (but probably not unique) in its degree of intractability, and in the near-impossibility of constructing an argument that is excellent by the standard I have articulated.

[image source]