Monday, November 23, 2020

Nazi Philosophers, World War I, and the Grand Wisdom Hypothesis

A Theory of Jerks and Other Philosophical Misadventures is now out in paperback. Yay!

I'll celebrate by sharing a sample chapter here.

Chapter 53: Nazi Philosophers, World War I, and the Grand Wisdom Hypothesis

As described in chapter 4, I’ve done a fair bit of empirical research on the moral behavior of ethics professors. My collaborators and I have consistently found that ethicists behave no better than socially comparable nonethicists. However, the moral violations that we’ve examined have mostly been minor: stealing library books, neglecting student emails, littering, forgetting to call mom. Some behaviors are arguably much more significant -- donating large amounts to charity, vegetarianism -- but there’s certainly no consensus about the moral importance of those things. Sometimes I hear the objection that the moral behavior I’ve studied is all trivial stuff: that even if ethicists behave no better in day-to-day ways, on issues of great moral importance -- decisions that reflect on one’s overarching worldview, one’s broad concern for humanity, one’s general moral vision -- professional ethicists, and professional philosophers in general, might show greater wisdom. Call this the Grand Wisdom Hypothesis.

Now let’s think about Nazis. Nazism is an excellent test case of the Grand Wisdom Hypothesis, since pretty much everyone now agrees that Nazism is extremely morally odious. Germany had a robust philosophical tradition in the 1930s, and excellent records are available on individual professors’ participation in or resistance to the Nazi movement. So we can ask: Did a background in philosophical ethics serve as any kind of protection against the moral delusions of Nazism? Or were ethicists just as likely to be swept up in noxious German nationalism as were others of their social class? Did reading Kant on the importance of treating all people as “ends in themselves” help philosophers better see the errors of Nazism, or did philosophers instead tend to appropriate Kant for anti-Semitic and expansionist purposes?

Heidegger’s involvement with Nazism is famous and much discussed, but he’s only one data point. There were also, of course, German philosophers who opposed Nazism, possibly partly—if the Grand Wisdom Hypothesis is correct—because of their familiarity with theoretical ethics. My question is quantitative: Were philosophers as a group any more likely than other academics to oppose Nazism or any less likely to be enthusiastic supporters? I am not aware of any careful quantitative attempts to address this question.

There’s a terrific resource on ordinary German philosophers’ engagement with Nazism: George Leaman’s (1993) Heidegger im Kontext, which includes a complete list of all German philosophy professors from 1932 to 1945 and provides summary data on their involvement with or resistance to Nazism. In Leaman’s data set, I count 179 philosophers with habilitation in 1932 when the Nazis started to ascend to power, including dozents and ausserordentlichers but not assistants. (Habilitation is an academic achievement beyond the doctorate, with no equivalent in the Anglophone world, but roughly comparable in its requirements to gaining tenure in the US.) I haven’t attempted to divide these philosophers into ethicists and nonethicists, since the ethics/nonethics division wasn’t as sharp then as it is now in twenty-first century Anglophone philosophy. (Consider Heidegger again. In a sense he’s an ethicist, since he writes among other things on the question of how one should live, but his interests range broadly.) Of these 179 philosophers, 58 (32 percent) joined the Nazi Party.[28] This compares with estimates of about 21–25 percent Nazi Party membership among German professors as a whole.[29] Philosophers were thus not underrepresented in the Nazi Party.

To what extent did joining the Nazi Party reflect enthusiasm for its goals versus opportunism versus a reluctant decision under pressure? I think we can assume that membership in either of the two notorious Nazi paramilitary organizations, the Sturmabteilung (Storm Detachment, SA) or the Schutzstaffel (Protection Squadron, SS), reflects either enthusiastic Nazism or an unusual degree of self-serving opportunism: Membership in these organizations was by no means required for continuation in a university position. Among philosophers with habilitation in 1932, 2 (1 percent) joined the SS and another 20 (11 percent) joined (or were already in) the SA (one philosopher joined both), percentages approximately similar to the overall academic participation in these organizations.

I suspect that this estimate substantially undercounts enthusiastic Nazis, since a number of philosophers (including briefly Heidegger) appear to have gone beyond mere membership to enthusiastic support through their writings and other academic activities, despite not joining the SA or SS. One further possible measure is involvement with Alfred Rosenberg, the notorious Nazi racial theorist. Combining SA and SS members and Rosenberg associates yields a minimum of 30 philosophers (17 percent) on the far right side of Nazism—not even including those who received their posts or habilitation after the Nazis rose to power (and thus perhaps partly because of their Nazism). By 1932, Hitler’s Mein Kampf was widely known and widely circulated, proudly proclaiming Hitler’s genocidal aims. Almost a fifth of professional philosophers thus embraced a political worldview that is now rightly regarded by most as a paradigm example of evil.

Among philosophers who were not party members, 22 (12 percent) were “Jewish” (by the broad Nazi definition) and thus automatically excluded from party membership. Excluding these from the total leaves 157 non-Jewish philosophers with habilitation before 1933. The 58 Nazis thus constituted 37 percent of established philosophers who had the opportunity to join the party. Of the remainder, 47 (30 percent) were deprived of the right to teach, imprisoned, or otherwise severely punished by the Nazis for Jewish family connections or political unreliability. (This second number does not include five philosophers who were Nazi Party members but also later severely penalized.) It’s difficult to know how many of this group took courageous stands versus found themselves intolerable for reasons outside of their control. The remaining 33 percent we might think of as “coasters”—those who neither joined the party nor incurred severe penalty. Most of these coasters had at least token Nazi affiliations, especially with the Nationalsozialistische Lehrerbund (NSLB, the Nazi organization of teachers), but NSLB affiliation alone probably did not reflect much commitment to the Nazi cause.

If joining the Nazi Party were necessary for simply getting along as a professor, membership in the Nazi Party would not reflect much commitment to Nazism. The fact that about a third of professors could be coasters suggests that token gestures of Nazism, rather than actual party membership, were sufficient, as long as one did not actively protest or have Jewish affiliations. Nor were the coasters mostly old men on the verge of retirement (though there was a wave of retirements in 1933, the year the Nazis assumed power). If we include only the subset of 107 professors who were not Jewish, received habilitation before 1933, and continued to teach past 1940, we still find 30 percent coasters (or 28 percent, excluding two emigrants).

The existence of unpunished coasters shows that philosophy professors were not forced to join the Nazi Party. Nevertheless, a substantial proportion did so voluntarily, either out of enthusiasm or opportunistically for the sake of career advancement. A substantial minority, at least 19 percent of the non-Jews, occupied the far right of the Nazi Party, as reflected by membership in the SS or SA or association with Rosenberg. It is unclear whether pressures might have been greater on philosophers than on those in other disciplines, but there was substantial ideological pressure in many disciplines: There was also Nazi physics (no Jewish relativity theory, for example), Nazi biology, Nazi history, and so on. Given the possible differences in pressure and the lack of a data set strictly comparable to Leaman’s for the professoriate as a whole, I don’t think we can conclude that philosophers were especially more likely to endorse Nazism than were other professors. However, I do think it is reasonable to conclude that they were not especially less likely.

Nonetheless, given that about a third of non-Jewish philosophers were severely penalized by the Nazis (including one executed for resistance and two who died in concentration camps), it remains possible that philosophers are overrepresented among those who resisted or were ejected. I have not seen quantitative data that bear on this question.


In doing background reading for the analysis I’ve just presented, I was struck by the following passage from Fritz Ringer’s 1969 classic Decline of the German Mandarins:

Early in August of 1914, the war finally came. One imagines that at least a few educated Germans had private moments of horror at the slaughter which was about to commence. In public, however, German academics of all political persuasions spoke almost exclusively of their optimism and enthusiasm. Indeed, they greeted the war with a sense of relief. Party differences and class antagonisms seemed to evaporate at the call of national duty … intellectuals rejoiced at the apparent rebirth of “idealism” in Germany. They celebrated the death of politics, the triumph of ultimate, apolitical objectives over short-range interests, and the resurgence of those moral and irrational sources of social cohesion that had been threatened by the “materialistic” calculation of Wilhelmian modernity.

On August 2, the day after the German mobilization order, the modernist [theologian] Ernst Troeltsch spoke at a public rally. Early in his address, he hinted that “criminal elements” might try to attack property and order, now that the army had been moved from the German cities to the front. This is the only overt reference to fear of social disturbance that I have been able to discover in the academic literature of the years 1914–1916 … the German university professors sang hymns of praise to the “voluntary submission of all individuals and social groups to this army.” They were almost grateful that the outbreak of war had given them the chance to experience the national enthusiasm of those heady weeks in August. (180–81)

With the notable exception of Bertrand Russell (who lost his academic post and was imprisoned for his pacifism), philosophers in England appear to have been similarly enthusiastic. Ludwig Wittgenstein never did anything so cheerily, it seems, as head off to fight as an Austrian foot soldier. Alfred North Whitehead rebuked his friend and coauthor Russell for his opposition to the war and eagerly sent off his sons North and Eric. (Eric Whitehead died.) French philosophers appear to have been similarly enthusiastic. It’s as though, in 1914, European philosophers rose as one to join the general chorus of people proudly declaring, “Yay! World war is a great idea!”

If there is anything that seems, in retrospect, plainly, head-smackingly obviously not to have been a great idea, it was World War I, which destroyed millions of lives to no purpose. At best, it should have been viewed as a regrettable, painful necessity in the face of foreign aggression that hopefully could soon be diplomatically resolved, yet that seems rarely to have been the mood of academic thought about war in 1914. Philosophers at the time were evidently no more capable of seeing the downsides of world war than was anyone else. Even if those downsides were, in the period, not entirely obvious upon careful reflection—the glory of Bismarck and all that?—with a few rare and ostracized exceptions, philosophers and other academics showed little of the special foresight and broad vision required by the Grand Wisdom Hypothesis.

Here’s a model of philosophical reflection on which philosophers’ enthusiasm for World War I is unsurprising: Philosophers -- and everyone else -- possess their views about the big questions of life for emotional and sociological reasons that have little to do with their philosophical theories and academic research. They recruit Kant, Mill, Locke, Rousseau, and Aristotle only after the fact to justify what they would have believed anyway. Moral and political philosophy is nothing but post hoc rationalization.

Here’s a model of philosophical reflection on which philosophers’ enthusiasm for World War I is, in contrast, surprising: Reading Kant, Mill, Locke, Rousseau, Aristotle, and so on helps induce a broadly humanitarian view, helps you see that people everywhere deserve respect and self-determination, moves you toward a more cosmopolitan worldview that doesn’t overvalue national borders, helps you gain critical perspective on the political currents of your own time and country, and helps you better see through the rhetoric of demagogues and narrow-minded politicians.

Both models are of course too simple.


When I was in Berlin in 2010, I spent some time in the Humboldt University library, browsing philosophy journals from the Nazi era. The journals differed in their degree of alignment with the Nazi worldview. Perhaps the most Nazified was Kant-Studien, which at the time was one of the leading German-language journals of general philosophy (not just a journal for Kant scholarship). The old issues of Kant-Studien aren’t widely available, but I took some photos. Below, Sascha Fink and I have translated the preface to Kant-Studien volume 40 (1935):

Kant-Studien, now under its new leadership that begins with this first issue of the fortieth volume, sets itself a new task: to bring the new will, in which the deeper essence of the German life and the German mind is powerfully realized, to a breakthrough in the fundamental questions as well as the individual questions of philosophy and science.

Guiding us is the conviction that the German Revolution is a unified metaphysical act of German life, which expresses itself in all areas of German existence, and which will therefore—with irresistible necessity—put philosophy and science under its spell.

But is this not—as is so often said—to snatch away the autonomy of philosophy and science and give it over to a law alien to them?

Against all such questions and concerns, we offer the insight that moves our innermost being: that the reality of our life, that shapes itself and will shape itself, is deeper, more fundamental, and more true than that of our modern era as a whole—that philosophy and science, which compete for it, will in a radical sense become liberated to their own essence, to their own truth. Precisely for the sake of truth, the struggle with modernity—maybe with the basic norms and basic forms of the time in which we live—is necessary. It is—in a sense that is alien and outrageous to modern thinking—to recapture the form in which the untrue and fundamentally destroyed life can win back its innermost truth—its rescue and salvation. This connection of the German life to fundamental forces and to the original truth of Being and its order—as has never been attempted in the same depth in our entire history—is what we think of when we hear that word of destiny: a new Reich.

If on the basis of German life German philosophy struggles for this truly Platonic unity of truth with historical-political life, then it takes up a European duty. Because it poses the problem that each European people must solve, as a necessity of life, from its own individual powers and freedoms.

Again, one must—and now in a new and unexpected sense, in the spirit of Kant’s term, “bracket knowledge” [das Wissen aufzuheben]. Not for the sake of negation: but to gain space for a more fundamental form of philosophy and science, for the new form of spirit and life [für die neue Form … des Lebens Raum zu gewinnen]. In this living and creative sense is Kant-Studien connected to the true spirit of Kantian philosophy.

So we call on the productive forces of German philosophy and science to collaborate in these new tasks. We also turn especially to foreign friends, confident that in this joint struggle with the fundamental questions of philosophy and science, concerning the truth of Being and life, we will not only gain a deeper understanding of each other, but also develop an awareness of our joint responsibility for the cultural community of peoples.

—H. Heyse, Professor of Philosophy, University of Königsberg


Is it just good cultural luck -- the luck of having been born into the right kind of society -- that explains why twenty-first-century Anglophone philosophers reject such loathsome worldviews? Or is it more than luck? Have we somehow acquired better tools for rising above our cultural prejudices?

Or -- as I’ll suggest in chapter 58 -- ought we to entirely refrain from self-congratulation, whether for our luck or our skill? Maybe we aren’t so different, after all, from the early-twentieth-century Germans. Maybe we have our own suite of culturally shared, heinous moral defects, invisible to us or obscured by a fog of bad philosophy.



[28] A few joined the SA or SS but not the Nazi Party, but since involvement in one of these dedicated Nazi organizations reflects at least as much involvement in Nazism as does Nazi Party membership alone, I have included them in the total.

[29] Jarausch and Arminger 1989.

Thursday, November 19, 2020

How to Publish a Journal Article in Philosophy: Advice for Graduate Students and New Assistant Professors

My possibly quirky advice. General thoughts first. Nitty-gritty details second. Disagreement and correction welcome.

Should You Try to Publish as a Graduate Student?

Yes, if you are seeking a job where hiring will be determined primarily on research promise, and if you can do so without excessively hindering progress toward your degree.

A couple of years ago, I was on a search committee for a new tenure-track Assistant Professor at U.C. Riverside, in epistemology, philosophy of action, philosophy of language, and/or philosophy of mind. We received about 200 applications. How do you, as an applicant, stand out in such a crowded field? I noticed three main ways:

(1.) Something about your dissertation abstract or the first few pages of your writing sample strikes a committee member as extremely interesting -- interesting enough for them to want to read your whole writing sample despite having a pile of 200 in their box. Of course, what any particular philosopher finds interesting varies enormously, so this is basically impossible to predict.

(2.) Your file has a truly glowing letter of recommendation from someone whose judgment a committee member trusts.

(3.) You have two or more publications either in well-regarded general philosophy journals (approx. 1-20 on this list) or in the best-regarded specialty journals in your subfield. (Publications in less elite venues probably won't count much toward making you stand out.)

A couple of good publications, then, is one path toward getting you a closer look.


* Publication is neither necessary (see routes 1 and 2) nor sufficient (if the committee doesn't care for what they see after looking more closely).

* If you spend a year postponing work on your dissertation to polish up an article for publication, that's probably too much of a delay. The main thing is to complete a terrific dissertation.

* If you're aiming for schools that hire primarily based on teaching, effort spent on polishing publications rather than on improving your teaching profile (e.g., by teaching more courses and teaching them better) might be counterproductive.

* Some people have argued that academic philosophy would be better off if graduate students weren't permitted to publish and maybe if people published fewer philosophy articles in general. I disagree. But even if you agree with the general principle, it would be an excess of virtue to take a lonely purist stand by declining to submit your publishable work.

What Should Be Your First Publication?

Generally speaking, you'll want your first publication to be on something so narrow that you are among the five top experts in the world on that topic.

Think about it this way: The readers of elite philosophy journals aren't so interested in hearing about free will or the mind-body problem from the 437th most-informed person in the world on these topics. If you haven't really mastered the huge literature on these topics, it will show. With some rare exceptions, as a graduate student or newly-minted assistant prof, publishing an ambitious, broad-ranging paper on a well-trodden subject is probably beyond your reach.

But there are interesting topics on which you can quickly become among the world's leading experts. You want to find something that will interest scholars in your subfield but small enough that you can read the entire literature on that topic. Read that entire literature. You'll find you have a perspective that is in some important respect different from others'. Your article, then, articulates that perspective, fully informed by the relevant literature, with which you contrast yourself.

Some examples from early in my career:

(a.) the apparent inaccuracy of people's introspective reports about their experience of echolocation (i.e., hearing sounds reflected off silent objects and walls);

(b.) ambiguities in the use of the term "representation" by developmental psychologists in the (then new) literature on children's understanding of false belief;

(c.) attempts by Anglophone interpreters of Zhuangzi to make sense of the seeming contradictions in his claims about skepticism.

These topics were each narrow enough to thoroughly research in a semester's time (given the tools and background knowledge I already had). Since then, (b) has grown too large but (a) and (c) are probably still about the right size.

The topic should be narrow enough that you really do know it better than almost anyone else in the world and yet interesting enough for someone in your subfield to see how it might illuminate bigger issues. In your introduction and conclusion, you highlight those bigger framing issues (without overcommitting on them).

The Tripod Theory of Building Expertise

Now if you're going to have a research career in philosophy, eventually you're going to want to publish more ambitiously, on broader topics -- at least by the time you're approaching tenure. Here's what I recommend: Publish three papers on narrow but related topics. These serve as a tripod establishing your expertise in the broader subarea to which they belong. Once you have this tripod, reach for more general theories and more ambitious claims.

Again, from my own career: My paper on our introspective ignorance of the experience of echolocation ((a) above) was followed by a paper on our introspective ignorance of our experience of coloration in dreams and a paper on the weak relationship between people's introspective self-reports of imagery experience and their actually measured imagery skills. Each is a small topic, but combined they suggested a generalization: People aren't especially accurate introspectors of features of their stream of conscious experience (contra philosophical orthodoxy at the time). (N.B.: In psychology, critiques of introspection generally focused on introspection of causes of our behavior, not introspection of the stream of ongoing inner experience.) My work on this topic culminated in an broad, ambitious, skeptical paper in Philosophical Review in 2008. These articles then were further revised into a book.

Simultaneously, I built a tripod of expertise on belief: first, a detailed (but unpublished) criticism of Donald Davidson's arguments that believing requires having language, relying on a "dispositional" approach to belief; second, a dispositionalist model of gradual belief change in children's understanding of object permanence and false belief; third, a discussion of how dispositional approaches to belief neatly handle vagueness in belief attribution in "in-between" cases of kind-of-believing. These culminated in a general paper on the nature of belief, from a dispositionalist perspective.

Imagine a ship landing on an alien planet: It sets down some tiny feet of narrow expertise. If the feet are a little separated but not too far apart, three are enough to support a stable platform -- a generalization across the broader region that they touch (e.g., empirical evidence suggests that we are bad introspectors of the stream of experience; or dispositionalism elegantly handles various puzzles about belief). From this platform, you hopefully have a new, good viewing angle, grounded in your unique expertise, on a large issue nearby (e.g., the epistemology of introspection, the nature of belief).

Writing the Paper

A typical journal article is about 8000 words long. Much longer, and reviewers start to tire and you bump up against journals' word limits. Much shorter, and you're not talking about a typical full-length journal article (although some journals specialize in shorter articles).

Write a great paper! Revise it many times. I recommend retyping the whole thing from beginning to end at least once, to give yourself a chance to actively rethink every word. I recommend writing it at different lengths: a short conference version that forces you to focus efficiently on the heart of the matter, a long dissertation-chapter version that forces you to give an accurate blow-by-blow accounting of others' views and what is right and wrong in them. Actively expanding and contracting like this can really help you corral and discipline your thoughts.

Cite heavily, especially near the beginning of the paper. Not all philosophers do this (and I don't always do it myself, I confess). But there are several reasons.

First, other scholars should be cited. Their work and their influence on you should be recognized. This is good for them, and it's good for the field, and it's good for your reader. If you cite only a few people, it will probably be the same few big names everyone else cites, burying others' contributions and amplifying the winner-take-all dynamics in philosophy.

Second, it establishes your credibility. It helps show that you know the topic. Your great command of the topic shows in other ways too! But the reader and the journal's reviewers (who advise the editor on whether to accept your article) will feel reassured if they can say to themselves, "Yes, the author has read all the good recent literature on this topic. They cite all the right stuff."

Third, one of the ways that journals select reviewers is by looking at your reference list. Your citations are, in a way, implicit recommendations of other experts in the field who might find your topic interesting. Even if you disagree with them, as long as you treat them fairly and respectfully, reviewers are generally happy to see themselves cited in the papers they are reviewing. Citing helps you build a pool of potential reviewers who might be positively disposed toward your topic and article.

Your introduction and conclusion help the reader see why your topic should be of broad interest among those in your subfield. The body of your paper lays out the narrow problem and your insightful answer. Keep focused on that narrow problem.

If the topic is narrow enough that your friends can't imagine how you could write 8000 words about it, while you are expert enough that it's hard to imagine how you could do it justice in only 8000 words, that's a good sign.

Choosing a Journal

You needn't write with a particular target journal in mind. Just write a terrific philosophy article. (Lots of professors have circulating draft papers on their websites. Typically, these are in something pretty close to the form of what they submit to journals. Use these as models of the general form.)

In choosing a journal, you probably want to keep in mind three considerations:

(i.) Prestige of the journal, either in general or in your subfield.

(ii.) Response time of the journal (some data are available here) and possibly other editorial practices you care about, such as open access or anonymous reviewing.

(iii.) Fit between the interests of the journal's readers and your article.

(Wow, I'm really digging threes today!)

On iii, it can help to note where recent work on the topic has been published. You also want to consider whether your topic is more likely to be appreciated in a specialist's journal.

On i vs ii: Here you need to think about how much time you have to see the paper through to publication. If you're near the job market or tenure, you might want to focus on journals with quicker response times and less selective journals that are more likely to say yes. You might not want to wait a year for Journal of Philosophy to very likely tell you no. I recommend creating a list of six journals -- one aspirational journal that's a bit of a reach (if you have enough time), three good journals that you think are realistic, and two fall-back journals you'd still be happy to publish in. When that rejection comes, it's easier to cope if your backup plan is already set. Acceptance rates in the most elite philosophy journals are small, and bear in mind that you're competing with eminent scholars as well as graduate students and assistant professors.

I usually figure on about two years between when I first submit a paper and when it is finally accepted for publication somewhere.

Submit to only one journal at a time. This is standard in the field, and editors and reviewers will be seriously annoyed if they discover you're not heeding this advice.

Preparing Your Manuscript

Once you've chosen your journal, prepare your manuscript for submission to that journal by creating an anonymized version in a boring font with abstract, keywords, and word count, and any other advice that the journal lists on its webpage under its guide for authors. (One exception: You needn't spend all day formatting the references in the required way. As long as the references are consistently formatted, no one really cares at the submission stage.)

Boring font: Unless there's some reason to do otherwise, I recommend Times New Roman 12, double spaced.

Anonymized: Remove the title page and your name. Remove revealing self-references, if any, such as "as I argued in Wong (2018)". You can either cut the reference, cite it in the third person ("as Wong (2018) argued"), or cite it anonymously "as I argued in [Author's Article 1]". Remove other compromises to anonymity, such as acknowledgements.

First page: Title, then abstract (look at the recent issues to see how long abstracts tend to run), then maybe five keywords (these don't matter much, but look at a recent issue for examples), and word count including notes and references (rounding to the nearest hundred is fine).

Second page: Title again, then start your paper.

Have page numbers and a shortened version of the title in the header or footer.

If your article has notes, I recommend formatting them as footnotes rather than endnotes for the purposes of review, even if the journal uses endnotes for published articles. It doesn't matter much, but most reviewers like it better and it makes your scholarly credibility just a little more salient up front.

All of the above, of course, would be overridden by contrary instructions on the journal's website.

If you're attaching to an email or submitting through a portal that asks for a cover letter, the cover letter need not be anything long or fancy. Something like:

Dear Prof. Lewis:

Attached please find "A Tactile Refutation of Duomorphholismicism" (about 8000 words), intended as a new submission to Holomorphicism Studies Bulletin. The article has been prepared for anonymous review and is not under consideration for publication elsewhere.


[Your Name]

Referee Reports

Your article will probably either be desk rejected by the editor or sent out to reviewers.

Desk rejection is a relatively quick decision (within a few weeks) that the article is outside of the scope of the journal, or doesn't meet the journal's standards or requirements, or is unlikely to be of sufficient interest to the journal's readers.

If your article isn't desk rejected, it will be sent to one or two, or sometimes more, reviewers. Reviewers are chosen by the editor based on some combination of (1) does the editor know of the person as a good scholar working in the field, (2) is the person reasonably likely to say yes, (3) has the person written decent referee reports in the past, and (4) if 1-3 don't bring anyone immediately to mind, the editor might skim the references to see if any names pop out as potential reviewers. Reviewers receive an email typically containing the title and abstract of the paper and asking if they are willing to review the paper for the journal. If the reviewer doesn't reply with a yes or a no within a few days, they will probably get a nudge. If the reviewer declines, they will typically be asked if they could suggest a few names of other potential reviewers. Refereeing is thankless work, and it can take a lot of time to do it well, and it doesn't benefit the reviewer professionally very much -- so sometimes it can take several weeks for editors to find suitable reviewers.

In philosophy, reviewers will usually be given at least two months to return a referee report (a few journals try to be faster). The referee report will have a recommendation of "accept", "revise and resubmit", or "reject" -- sometimes with finer-grained distinctions between accept and R&R such as "accept with revisions" or "minor revisions". It is rare to get a straight acceptance in your first round of submission. What you're shooting for is R&R.

After the reviewers complete their reports (sometimes requiring several rounds of nudging by the editor), the editor will make a decision. For the most selective journals, split decisions typically but not always go against the author (e.g., if Reviewer 1 says R&R and Reviewer 2 says reject, the editor is likely to reject). It's generally considered good practice for journals to share anonymized referee reports with the author, but not all journals do so.

If you are rejected with referee reports:

Remember your backup journal, already chosen in advance with this contingency in mind! Read the referee reports and think about what changes you might want to make in light of those referee reports. If the reports seem insightful, great! If the reviewers missed the point or seem totally uncharitable, maybe there are some clarifications you can make to prevent readers from making those same interpretative mistakes at the next journal.

Don't linger too long, unless the referee report really causes you to see the issues in a new way, sending you back to the drawing board. In most cases, you want to sling a revised version of your paper to the next journal within a few weeks.

If you get an R&R:

Read the referee reports very carefully. Note every criticism they make and every change they suggest. Your revision should address every single one of these points. You can rephrase things to avoid the criticisms. You can mention and explicitly respond to the criticisms. If the reviewer recommends a structural change of some sort, consider making that structural change. In general, you should make every change the reviewers request, unless you think the change would make your paper worse. Depending on how purist you are, you might also consider making some changes that you feel make your paper just a little worse, e.g., clunkier, if you think they don't compromise your core content. If you think a recommended change would make your paper worse, you need not make that change, but you should address it in a new cover letter.

You should aim to resubmit a revised version of your paper within a couple of months of receiving the referee reports. (If you send it the next day, everyone knows you didn't seriously engage with the reviewers' suggestions. If you send it ten months later, the reviewers might not remember the paper very well or might not still be available.)

Your new submission should contain a detailed cover letter addressing the reviewers' suggestions, alongside the revised version of your paper. My impression is that at most journals a majority of papers that receive R&R are eventually accepted. Sometimes it requires more than one round of R&R, and rejection after R&R is definitely a live possibility. To be accepted, the reviewers and editor must come to feel that you have adequately addressed the reviewers' concerns. The aim of the cover letter is to show how you have done so.

In my cover letters, I usually quote the reviewers' letters word for word (block indented), inserting my replies (not indented). If they have praise, I insert responses like "I thank the reviewer for the kind remark about the potential importance of this work" (or whatever). For simple criticisms and corrections, you can insert responses like "Corrected. I appreciate the careful eye." or "I now respond to this concern in a new paragraph on page 7 of the revised version of the manuscript."

For more difficult issues, or where you disagree with the reviewer, you will want to explain more in your cover letter. It might seem to you that the reviewer is being stupid or uncharitable or missing obvious things. While this is possibly true, it is also possible that you are being defensive or your writing is unclear or you are not seeing weaknesses in your argument. You should try always try to keep a tone of politeness, gratitude, and respect -- and if possible, think of misreadings as valuable feedback about issues on which you could have been clearer. I try to push back against reviewers' suggestions only when I feel it's important, and hopefully on at most one substantial issue per reviewer.

If there's a strongly voiced objection based on a misreading, this should be handled delicately. First, revise the text so that it no longer invites that misreading. Be extra clear in the revised version of the text what you are not saying or committing to. Then in the cover letter, explain that you have clarified the text to avoid this interpretation of your position. But also answer the objection that the reviewer raised, so they aren't left feeling like you ducked the issue and they aren't left curious. In this case, your response to the objection can be entirely in the cover letter and need not appear in the paper at all. (You might or might not agree that the objection would have been fatal to the position they had thought you were taking.)

Generally, the revised paper and the reply to reviewers will go back to the same reviewers. Typically, a reviewer will recommend acceptance after an R&R if they feel you have adequately engaged with and addressed their concerns (even if in the end they don't agree), they will recommend rejection if they feel that you didn't engage their concerns seriously or if your engagement reveals (in their judgment) that their original concerns really are fatal to the whole project, and they will recommend a second round of R&R if they feel you've made progress but one or two important issues still remain outstanding.

Some people add footnotes thanking anonymous reviewers. In my view it's unnecessary. Everyone knows that virtually every article contains changes made in response to the criticisms of anonymous reviewers.

After It's Accepted

(1.) Celebrate! Yay!

(2.) Put it on your c.v. as "forthcoming" in the journal that accepted it. Yay!

(3.) Keep your eye out for page proofs. Some journals give you just a few days to implement corrections after receiving the proofs, and it's not uncommon for there to be screwy copyediting mistakes that it would be embarrassing to see in print. You can also make minor wording changes and corrections during proofs. Journals discourage making big changes at this stage, such as inserting whole new paragraphs, though if it's important you can try to make the case.


Nov 20, 2020, 12:21 pm, ETA

Marcus Arvan at Philosophers' Cocoon and Bryce at Daily Nous raise some valuable counterpoints, with some finer-grained thoughts about who should and who should not focus on publishing in this way in graduate school. I expect there will be further interesting comments on both sites.

Thursday, November 12, 2020

The Nesting Problem for Theories of Consciousness

In 2016, Tomer Fekete, Cees Van Leeuwen, and Shimon Edelman articulated a general problem for computational theories of consciousness, which they called the Boundary Problem. The problem extends to most mainstream functional or biological theories of consciousness, and I will call it the Nesting Problem.

Consider your favorite functional, biological, informational, or computational criterion of consciousness, criterion C. When a system has C, that system is, according to the theory, conscious. Maybe C involves a certain kind of behaviorally sophisticated reactivity to inputs (as in the Turing Test), or maybe C involves structured meta-representations of a certain sort, or information sharing in a global workspace, or whatever. Unless you possess a fairly unusual and specific theory, probably the following will be true: Not only the whole animal (alternatively, the whole brain) will meet criterion C. So also will some subparts of the animal and some larger systems to which the animal belongs.

If there are relatively functionally isolated cognitive processes, for example, they will also have inputs and outputs, and integrate information, and maybe have some self-monitoring or higher-order representational tracking -- possibly enough, in at least one subsystem, if the boundaries are drawn just so, to meet criterion C. Arguably too, groups of people organized as companies or nations receive group-level inputs, engage in group-level information processing and self-representation, and act collectively. These groups might also meet criterion C.[1]

Various puzzles, or problems, or at least questions immediately follow, which few mainstream theorists of consciousness have engaged seriously and in detail.[2] First: Are all these subsystems and groups conscious? Maybe so! Maybe meeting C truly is sufficient, and there's a kind of consciousness transpiring at these higher and/or lower levels. How would that consciousness relate to consciousness at the animal level? Is there, for example, a stream of experience in the visual cortex, or in the enteric nervous system (the half billion neurons lining your gut), that is distinct from, or alternatively contributes to, the experience of the animal as a whole?

Second: If we want to attribute consciousness only to the animal (alternatively, the whole brain) and not to its subsystems or to groups, on what grounds do we justify denying consciousness to subsystems or groups? For many theories, this will require adjustment to or at least refinement of criterion C or alternatively the defense of a general "exclusion postulate" or "anti-nesting principle", which specifically forbids nesting levels of consciousness.

Suppose, for example, that you think that, in humans, consciousness occurs in the thalamacortical neural loop. Why there? Maybe because it's a big hub of information connectivity around the brain. Well, the world has lots of hubs of complex information connectivity, both at smaller scales and at larger scales. What makes one scale special? Maybe it has the most connectivity? Sure, that could be. If so, then maybe you're committed to saying that connectivity above some threshold is necessary for consciousness. But then we should probably theorize that threshold. Why is it that amount rather than some other amount? And how should we think about the discontinuity between systems that barely exceed the threshold versus barely fall short?

Or maybe instead of a threshold, it's a comparative matter: Whenever systems nest, whichever has the most connectivity is the conscious system.  But that principle can lead to some odd results. Or maybe it's not really C (connectivity, in this example) alone but C plus such-and-such other features, which groups and subsystems lack. Also fine! But again, let's theorize that. Or maybe groups and subsystems are also conscious -- consciousness happens simultaneously at many levels of organization. Fine, too! Then think through the consequences of that.[3]

My point is not that these approaches won't work or that there's anything wrong with them. My point is that this is a fundamental question about consciousness which is open to a variety of very different views, each of which brings challenges and puzzles -- challenges and puzzles which philosophers and scientists of consciousness, with a few exceptions, have not yet seriously explored.



[1] For an extended argument that the United States, conceived of as an entity with people as parts, meets most materialist criteria for being a consciousness entity, see my essay here. Philip Pettit also appears to argue for something in this vicinity.

[2] Giulio Tononi is an important exception (e.g., in Oizumi, Albantakis, and Tononi 2014 and Tononi and Koch 2015).

[3] Luke Roelofs explores a panpsychist version of this approach in his recent book Combining Minds, which was the inspiration for this post.

[image source]

Wednesday, November 04, 2020

Gender Proportions among Faculty in 98 PhD-Granting U.S. Philosophy Departments

If you need a reprieve from an excessively exciting U.S. election, here's some mostly unsurprising news about gender proportions in philosophy.

Yesterday, the Women in Philosophy / Demographics in Philosophy research group released draft numbers on women faculty in PhD granting philosophy departments in the United States. These data are based on publicly available sources (mostly department websites) and reflect a snapshot from 2019. Follow the link for methodological details. Two important changes are a coding category for publicly nonbinary philosophers and more methods for checking the accuracy of the data. The project was led by Gregory Peterson and mostly follows the 2015 methodology of Sherri Conklin, Irina Artamanova, and Nicole Hassoun. (I also consulted during some phases of the project.)

Overall, across the 98 programs studied, women comprised 24% (681/2801) of the faculty. This isn't far from the 27% women among respondents to the American Philosophical Association's 2018 faculty survey, the 26% women across a wide swath of college philosophy instructors from Debra Nails and John Davenport's study of the 2017 Directory of American Philosophers, and the 24% in Conklin and colleagues' 2015 analysis.

Among tenured and tenure-track faculty, Peterson and collaborators find 28% women (477/1689), very similar to the 27% that Julie Van Camp found looking at the same set of 98 PhD granting departments in 2018.

Thus, within a few percentage points, the picture from 2015-2019 is very consistently around 24%-28% women faculty in philosophy departments, across a variety of data collection methods and variety of samples. The results are broadly similar whether you look at elite PhD programs, APA membership, or at all faculty listed in the Directory of American Philosophers.

Peterson and colleagues find four philosophers among the 1689 who were publicly non-binary as of fall 2019 (less than 1%). I could imagine this number rising a bit with corrections.

They also break the data down by rank. Looking at the three primary tenure-stream ranks, I see:

Assistant: 43% women (122/283)
Associate: 32% (148/456)
Full: 21% (207/950)

Here are the same data with 95% confidence intervals:

[click to enlarge and clarify]

This difference by rank is striking, but not unusual in these sorts of analyses. (In the Directory of American Philosophers, the corresponding numbers are 34% assistant, 28% associate, and 21% full. In Conklin and colleagues 2015, the numbers are 42% assistant, 30% associate, and 23% full.)

The question that immediately arises is whether these numbers reflect a generational shift. Should we expect a change in the gender proportions in the philosophy professoriate over the next 10 to 20 years, as these assistant professors age? In other words, to what extent is the difference a cohort effect, reflecting a generally much higher percentage of women in the younger generation than in the older generation? And to what extent is it, instead, a rank effect, reflecting either slower and less certain advance for women from the lower to the higher ranks or more recruiting and better retention of men at higher ranks?

We are not currently in the position, I think, to answer that. Check back a decade or two!

Friday, October 30, 2020

Slippery In-Between Persons: Growing, Fading, Merging, Splitting

Philosophers normally treat personhood as all-or-nothing. An entity either is a person or is not a person. There are no half-persons, and no one has more personhood than anyone else. We usually don't think much about vague or in-between cases.

One exception is the literature on so-called "marginal cases" -- humans with severe disabilities, for example, or entities in the slow progression from fertilized egg to self-aware toddler, who either wholly or partially lack features that philosophers sometimes regard as essential to personhood.

The literature on personal identity offers other exceptions -- classically in Derek Parfit's wild thought experiments in Reasons and Persons and recently in Luke Roelofs' Combining Minds. "Split brain" callosotomy patients are another interesting case, as are craniopagus twins.

[P.T. Selbit, in an early attempt at person splitting]

The latter cases, though less common (and often purely hypothetical), present a deeper challenge to our notion of personhood than the former cases. The difference between one and two persons is more difficult to manage, conceptually and socially, than the difference between zero and one, which can be handled partly through extending our ordinary thinking about ordinary persons to a range of "marginal" cases, with some tweaks or reductions.

I won't press that point here. What I want to note instead is this: On almost all notions of personhood, we think of personhood as coming in discrete countable numbers -- zero, one, two, etc. -- not 1/8 or 2.4. At the same time, on most accounts of personhood, personhood is grounded in smoothly gradable phenomena, such as cognitive and emotional capacities, social role, and the history of or potentiality for these.

Thus we can in general constuct a gradual series from cases in which we have, clearly, a single person, down to zero or up to two, forcing a theoretical trilemma. In general form:

(1.) Case 1: an ordinary human being who no one would reasonably doubt counts as one person.

(2.) Case n: an entity that is either clearly not a person (the zero case) or a situation in which there clearly are two distinct people (the two case).

(3.) A series of arbitrarily slow and finely-graded steps between 1 and n.

The zero case is tricky if we want to use real-life examples, given that some philosophers would want to describe as persons both a fertilized egg and someone in an irreverisble comatose state due to extreme brain damage. Rather than entering those fights, we can use science fiction: Imagine removing cells from a person's body, one at a time, while keeping the body alive, until eventually only a single neuron remains.

For the two case, we might imagine slowly budding one brain off of another, or we might imagine two people whose brains are slowly interconnected eventually becoming an entity operating as a single person with a single stream of conscious experience.

Imagine, then, such gradual series between 1 and 0 or between 1 and 2. Here's the trilemma.

Option 1: A discrete jump. You might argue that despite the slow series of changes, there will always be a sharp threshold at which personhood vanishes, arrives, merges, or splits. Despite continuity in the grounding properties of personhood, personhood itself remains discrete. Removing a single cell might cause a metaphysical saltation from personhood to nonpersonhood. Adding a single connection between two slowly merging brains might cause a metaphysical saltation from two people to one.

Option 2: Gradations of personhood. At some point between zero and one, you have a kind-of person. More radically, at some point between one and two, you have... what, a person and a half?

Option 3: Conceptual collapse. Some concepts have false presuppositions built into them and should be rejected entirely (e.g., exorcism, the luminiferous ether). Other concepts are okay for a limited range of cases but fail to apply, either yes-or-no, to other cases (e.g., primeness to things that aren't numbers). Maybe personhood is such a concept -- a concept built exclusively for ordinary countable-persons situations.

Option 1 strikes me as implausible. (Admittedly, some people are more willing than I to see sudden metaphysical saltations in gradual continua.)

On Option 3, we might eventually need to retire the concept of personhood. Maybe -- far-fetched science fiction, but not impossible -- the world will eventually be populated with intelligent AI or biological systems that can divide or merge at will (fission/fusion monsters). Our concept of personhood, if it's inherently and unchangeably committed to discrete countability, might end up looking like the quaint, unworkable relic of old days in which brains were inevitably confined to single bodies.

On Option 2, we face the task of modifying personhood into a gradable concept. I worry about the implications for our thinking about disability if we rush to do that too quickly for the zero case; but the one-to-two case is intriguing and insufficiently explored.

[image source]

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Black Students Are Increasingly Interested in Philosophy but Still Underrepresented among Graduating Majors (and Other Data on Race and the Philosophy Major)

by Eric Schwitzgebel, Morgan Thompson, and Eric Winsberg

Earlier this year, with the help of a grant from the APA, we obtained data from the Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) on intention to major in philosophy among first-year students in the U.S. In earlier posts, we analyzed these data by gender and sexual orientation. See those earlier posts for more details about the dataset and some methodological concerns.

The data on race are more complicated, partly because race categories change over time and partly because of sampling bias and non-response bias. However, after exploring the data from several different angles, we believe the data support the conclusion that since the year 2000, Black students have become increasingly interested in majoring in philosophy.

Across the U.S., Black people constitute about 13% of the general population. Black people are, however, underrepresented among students completing Bachelor's degrees (9% in the 2018-2019 academic year). In a previous analysis of completion rates using data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), Eric S. found that from 1995-2016, the percentage of Philosophy Bachelor's degree recipients who are Black was about half of the percentage of Bachelor degree recipients overall who are Black: In 1994-1995, 3% of Philosophy BA recipients were black, compared to 7% of Bachelor's recipients overall; by 2015-2016, the percentages had risen to 5% in Philosophy and 10% overall.

The HERI database allows us to compare these graduation data with first-year intention to major. Also, since the HERI data run through Fall 2016 (average expected completion 2022), we can look at a slightly younger cohort. Furthermore, since NCES has recently released data for the 2018-2019 academic year, we can also update those data.

HERI First-Year Intention to Major by Race

From Fall 2000 through Fall 2016, HERI collected first-year intention to major from 4.9 million students. Race/ethnicity questions varied somewhat over time, but students were always able to respond with more than one race. HERI currently aggregates all past and present race/ethnicity questions into seven categories: American Indian, Asian, Black, Hispanic, White, Other, and Two or More Races/Ethnicities.

Overall, 0.35% of students expressed an intention to major in Philosophy. Although this is small, it is similar to the approximately 0.4-0.6% of students who completed majors in Philosophy during the period.

As usual, American Indian respondents were a tiny percentage of first-year students: 0.2-0.3% overall, and 0.0-0.4% of those intending to major in Philosophy.

Also in keeping with general trends, students in the "Other" category were low and steady, both overall (1-2%) and in Philosophy (1-4%), and White students steadily declined, both overall (from 74% in 2000 to 52% in 2016) and in Philosophy (from 76% to 48%). Notably, by 2016, White students might be slightly underrepresented among first-year students in Philosophy, in sharp contrast with the overrepresentation of White people among philosophy faculty.

The following charts show the percentage of students in the Asian, Black, Hispanic, and Two or More categories by year, both in Philosophy and overall. (Click the images to enlarge and clarify.)

As you can see from the images, the percentage of students entering college intending to major in Philosophy who identify as Asian, Hispanic, or multiracial approximately matches the overall racial percentages across all majors. Until recently, it looks like Asians were a little underrepresented and multiracial students overrepresented in Philosophy, but both groups are now near proportionality.

The data for Black students are strikingly different. In the early 2000s the pattern is similar to the pattern in Bachelor's degree completions: Black students were about 7% of students overall but only about 3% in philosophy. By the end of the HERI data, however, Black students are approximately proportionately represented in philosophy: 8-10% of students overall and 8-12% in Philosophy. (The sharp spike in 2016, however, might be noise: With 494 total respondents, the estimate is only accurate +/- 2%.)

The numbers aren't large, but they are large enough to rule out random variation as the primary explanation. The most recent four years of data, for example, contain data from 201 Black students intending to major in Philosophy among 2176 Philosophy majors overall, and the early years have even larger overall sample sizes.

Unfortunately, there are reasons to be concerned about the representativeness of these data. Let's not too quickly uncork the champagne.

Although the HERI surveys drew huge numbers of respondents in the early 2000s (376,777 in the year 2000 alone), by 2016, the number of respondents had declined by more than half, to 121,297. Furthermore, as HERI clarifies in its methods sections, school participation rates vary substantially by school type. For example, high-status private undergraduate universities are more likely to participate in the HERI data collection than are lower-status state universities. The possible unrepresentativeness of institutions included in the HERI dataset is a serious potential issue.

We have two approaches to address this methodological concern.

First, in recognition of these sampling issues, HERI supplies researchers with a variable called "student weight" which functions to overweight students from groups they anticipate to be undersampled and to underweight students from oversampled groups. Although we are somewhat hesitant about the use and interpretability of this variable, it represents HERI's best attempt to compensate for sampling and nonresponse issues, so we reanalyzed the data using the student weight correction. The results were not materially different. For example, over the past four years (2013-2016), with the weighting correction, Black students were 10% of first-year students intending to to major in Philosophy as well as 10% of first-year students overall, compared to 5% Philosophy and 11% overall in the first four years of the dataset (2000-2003). The correction thus supports the general finding that over the period Black students went from being seriously underrepresented among first-year students intending to major in philosophy to being about proportionately represented.

Second, we compared with NCES data on Bachelor degree completions. The NCES IPEDS dataset is reported by administrators at accredited schools, constituting an approximately complete record of Bachelor's degree recipients in the U.S., largely avoiding systematic sampling and nonresponse distortions.

NCES Completed Bachelor's Degrees by Race

We looked at NCES data on Bachelor's degree completions from all U.S. institutions from 2011 (representing the 2010-2011 academic year) to 2019 (the 2018-2019 academic year). Since average time to degree is about five years, this corresponds to HERI entering classes from 2005 through 2013. (We start in 2010-2011, since NCES changed its racial classification categories in 2010.)

NCES uses the following race/ethnicity categories: American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian, Black or African American, Hispanic or Latino, Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander, White, two or more races, race/ethnicity unknown, and nonresident alien. Unknown and nonresident were 2-8% of students throughout the period, both in Philosophy and overall. American Indian or Alaska Native were about 0.5% throughout the period, both in Philosophy and overall. Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander were about 0.2%, both in Philosophy and overall.

As has been generally observed, and in keeping with the HERI data, the percentage of graduates identifying as White fell considerably over the period: from 70% to 59% in Philosophy and from 65% to 57% overall. White students are still slightly overrepresented in Philosophy (59% vs. 57% overall, two-proportion z = 3.0, p = .003).

As with the HERI data, we start with graphs for Asian, Hispanic, and Multiracial:

These trends fit fairly well with the HERI data: Hispanic students are proportionately represented among Philosophy majors throughout the period. Asian students are perhaps a bit underrepresented. Multiracial students are somewhat overrepresented, as indeed they are in years 2005-2013 in HERI data (bearing in mind the six-year offset).

What about Black students?

Hm! Still very much underrepresented in Philosophy!

The contrast with HERI is substantial. In the HERI database, by fall 2013, Black students were already proportionately represented among entering students intending to major in Philosophy. Those students should be graduating around 2019, when NCES finds Black students still substantially underrepresented: 9.4% of the graduating student body vs. only 5.4% of graduating Philosophy majors.

Could the Black students' underrepresentation among Philosophy graduates in 2019 be statistical chance? Nope, not with numbers of this magnitude (435/8075 vs 189519/2014860, z = 15.9, p < .001).

Could it be HERI's unbalanced selection of participating schools? We don't think this explanation quite works. Here's what we tried. We looked at HERI's participating schools from two sample years, 2004 and 2016, and matched those schools with schools in the NCES database. This allowed us to look at the NCES racial data from just the HERI-participating schools. We could thus assess whether there's some unusual pattern in the HERI schools. We found some distortion, but no pattern large enough to explain the difference between the HERI and NCES data. Black students were maybe not quite as underrepresented among Philosophy graduates in HERI-participating schools as in other schools, but they were still substantially underrepresented. [note 1]

Nevertheless it's worth noting and perhaps celebrating one point of consensus between the NCES and HERI data: Over the past several years, Black students have become increasingly interested in Philosophy, both upon entering their first year of undergraduate study and upon completing the major. This conclusion is supported by both the HERI and NCES data. It might not look like much in the NCES graph, but the increase from 4.0% to 5.4% over nine years is arguably a meaningful move in the direction of proportionality (and yes, statistically significant at p < .001).

It remains to be seen if the very recent spike in first-year Black student's intention to major in Philosophy, which seems so encouraging in HERI, shows itself in a continued rise in completions of the degree in the 2020s. If not, at least two possible explanations suggest themselves: (1.) Some undetected sampling bias is messing up the HERI data, or more worryingly (2.) Black students are disproportionately more likely to leave or less likely to enter the Philosophy major in the period between first-year intention to major and actual completion of the degree.


Note 1: Among schools participating in HERI in 2004, Black students rose from 4.1% of graduating Philospohy majors in 2011 to 5.4% in 2019, compared to 7.8% to 8.0% overall. Among HERI 2016 schools, they rose from 4.5% to 6.7% in Philosophy, compared to declining from 8.9% to 8.4% overall. Among schools included in both the 2004 and 2016 HERI sample, Black students rose from 4.7% to 6.8% in Philosophy, compared to declining from 8.8% to 8.4% overall.

Friday, October 16, 2020

Best Philosophical Science Fiction in the History of All Earth

I'm putting together a new anthology for MIT Press, with the working title Philosophy and Sci-Fi, with co-editors Rich Horton and Helen De Cruz. Our original title idea was Best Philosophical Science Fiction in the History of All Earth, and that title, though a mouthful, captures our ambitions.

We would love suggestions of your favorite philosophically themed science fiction stories.

We hope that the anthology will be attractive both to SF fans who love idea-based stories like Ursula K. Le Guin's "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" and Daniel Keyes "Flowers for Algernon".

We also hope that people who teach classes with titles like Philosophy and Science Fiction will want to use it in their teaching. Send us your syllabae! We're curious what stories philosophers have been successfully using in their teaching, for possible inclusion.

We want the anthology to contain great classics by authors like Le Guin, Asimov, and Chiang -- but we also hope to reach deeper into history and reach outside the English-language tradition to an extent that other anthologies typically do not. So if you know of relevant older science fiction and science fiction from outside the dominant US-UK tradition, we'd especially love to hear your suggestions.

We'll also of course write a cool intro on the relationship of science fiction and philosophy, and we'll introduce every story with a brief discussion of its place in the history of SF and a little relevant philosophical background.

I'm really looking forward to putting this antho together. Yay!

[image source]

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Ethics Without the Costs: Two Tropes in Fiction

I've been binge-watching Doctor Who, and two days ago I finished Susanna Clarke's new novel Piranesi. I love them both! Doctor Who is among my favorite TV series ever, and the images of Piranesi will probably linger with me for the rest of my life. But. But! I'm a philosopher and a critic and I'm never satisfied and I've spent 52 years cultivating a fussy intellect. What good is a fussy intellect if not to find fault in everything?

Clarke is wonderful in part because she bends and defies genre expectations and fiction-writing expectations (also in Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell). She writes slowly and atmospherically -- with prose so beautiful that you don't mind that nothing is happening. After a while the almost-nothingness becomes its own kind of plot and tension -- surely something will happen soon! Ah... ah... ah... as if you're on the edge of a sneeze. The tiniest thing becomes major plot news. On page 52, Piranesi is given a pair of shoes!

With as unconventional a writer as Clarke, you might expect the climax of Piranesi to be... SPOILER ALERT.

Spoiler alert. Stop reading.

[image: The Round Tower by Giovanni Piranesi]

You haven't stopped. Last chance! I'll wait if you want to get the book and come back in a week or two. I'm patient. I'm not even a real person, just some html code on a Google server somewhere. Time is meaningless.


The climax of Piranesi is surprisingly ordinary. It fits perfectly into an overused and predictable trope. I'll call it Hero Tries to Save Bad Guy's Life but Fails Because Bad Guy Is Just Too Vicious. (Suggestions for a shorter name welcomed.) Behind the trope is a sugary ethical fantasy that we probably shouldn't indulge too regularly, lest we mistake it for the world.

In Clarke's version, Bad Guy is caught in a flood, trying to shoot Hero who is taking cover with Helper behind some statues high up above water level. Near Bad Guy is an empty inflatable boat. If Bad Guy gets into the boat, he will live. If not, he risks drowning. Hero tries to save Bad Guy. Hero shouts "Get in the boat! Get in the boat before it's too late!" Bad Guy ignores the shouts (or maybe doesn't hear amid the noise) and shoots again at Hero. Hero shouts again to get in the boat, the tide is almost here! Again, Bad Guy ignores or fails to hear, instead leaving the boat behind to aim more shots at innocent Hero. The flood arrives, killing Bad Guy.

So familiar! Bad Guy is trying to kill Hero. In the attempt, Bad Guy falls into danger. Hero admirably finds the compassion and courage to try to rescue Bad Guy. In some variants, Bad Guy is temporarily rescued. Regardless, Bad Guy viciously continues the unjust attack on Hero, confirming Bad Guy's deep wickedness. This final, especially unjust attack precipitates Bad Guy's death despite Hero's rescue efforts, delivering a happy ending of moral clarity in which Bad Guy's evil directly causes Bad Guy's death while Hero needn't do anything as unseemly as intentionally permit that death.

Examples of this trope abound. Consider the end of Disney's version of Beauty and the Beast. Gaston (Bad Guy) is chasing Beast (Hero) across a roof. Gaston slips. Beast reaches down, grabs Gaston, and helps him up, momentarily saving his enemy's life. Instead of abandoning the quarrel in gratitude, Gaston stabs again at Beast, loses his balance, and falls to his death.

The appeal of this trope is part of the broader appeal, I think -- which we see throughout literature and film -- of ethics (or seeming ethics) without costs. Hero gets to do the (seemingly) ethical thing of forgiving and helping even the Bad Guy, revealing Hero's amazing courage, compassion, and strength of character. But Hero pays no price for this choice. Bad Guy dies anyway, in a final act that confirms his irredeemable viciousness, and the world becomes safe. It's win-win. Hero gets to embody a certain version of deontological ethics or virtue ethics and then also gets the good consequences too.

Yes, sometimes things to work out that way! I confess to being tired of how often, in fiction and movies, they work out that way. Good luck engineers a happy ending with no real costs or tragic losses (for Hero at least; we can feel faint sadness at bad outcomes for some minor characters). Escapist fantasy, I suppose. Which is a fine thing. We all need it sometimes. But from the scintillatingly unconventional Clarke I guess I'd been hoping for something a little less middle-of-the-trope.


Doctor Who makes no pretense to be anything other than escapist fantasy, right in the middle of every trope. Sometimes it's so absurdly on trope as to verge on parody. At the end of every timer is the destruction of (at least) the entire Earth, and salvation never arrives until the last hair of a fraction of a second. Every whiff of trouble, with utter predictability, means real trouble, with some preposterously destructive Bad Guy behind it.

Last night, we watched "Kill the Moon" (2nd era, s8:e7). (Spoilers coming.) The Moon, it turns out, is an egg about to hatch a giant bird! The heroes face a moral choice: Kill the innocent bird embryo an hour (a minute, a split second...) before it hatches, to prevent the risk to the Earth that would presumably be entailed by having an unpredictable Moon-sized hatchling nearby, or let the innocent thing hatch and accept the risk to Earth.

Thus looms another familiar trope of escapist ethics. Let's call this one Save One Innocent Life at Risk to the World but Whew the World Is Fine Anyway (SOILARWWWIFA for short). Of course the heroes choose not to kill the innocent creature. And of course it works out fine. In the denouement, the minor character whose unfortunate plot role was voicing the consequentialist argument to nuke the egg is forced to humbly thank the wiser others for staying her hand. It's foolish to favor killing one innocent life, even to protect the world! The dour consequentialist is shamed, and the moral order of the universe is affirmed. Emotionally, we learn that there's never any real conflict between saving the innocent creature before you and protecting the world.

I loved it. Of course I loved it. If the egg had birthed a monster that intentionally or accidentally destroyed humanity, or if they'd nuked the egg and the beautiful corpse had drifted sadly but safely away -- well, my family and I wouldn't have been reassured with the comfortable thought that ethical criteria never seriously conflict. You can have have your compassion, your respect for every individual's life, your softness and humaneness, and all of your good consequences too, in one yummy package. We can retire for the night remembering the beautiful Moon-bird that, in our courageous and compassionate wisdom, we chose to let live.

ETA 09:11

The acronyms are intentionally absurd, but here's pronunciation advice anyway. For "HTSBGLBFBBGIJTV", just say "hits biggle" then give up. For "SOILARWWWIFA", "solar wife" might serve.

Thursday, October 08, 2020

The Philosophy Major Is Back on the Rise (Kind of)

Back in 2017, I noticed that the number of students completing the Philosophy major in the U.S. had plummeted from a high of 9431 in 2013 (0.54% of all Bachelor's recipents) to 7305 in 2016 (0.39% of Bachelor's recipients) -- a shocking 23% decline in just four years, despite Bachelor's degree completions across all majors rising overall. This appeared to be part of a general decline in the humanities. English, History, and foreign languages showed similar declines in the same period. This week I've been rummaging through three years' more data, and the Philosophy major is back on the rise -- kind of!

All data are from the National Center for Education Statistics' excellent IPEDS database, confined to "U.S. only", Philosophy major category 38.01, and combining first and second majors.

Here's the breakdown year by year for philosophy since 2011 (i.e., the 2010-2011 academic year):

2011: 9301 Philosophy Bachelor's recipients (0.57% of Bachelor's recipients overall)
2012: 9371 (0.55%)
2013: 9431 (0.54%)
2014: 8826 (0.48%)
2015: 8190 (0.44%)
2016: 7498 (0.39%)
2017: 7577 (0.39%)
2018: 7670 (0.39%)
2019: 8075 (0.40%)

Given the large numbers involved, the recent recovery cannot be due to statistical chance.

Of course, the absolute numbers look better than the percentages, but the percentages are at least stable and have been now for four consecutive years.

Meanwhile, the other big humanities majors continue to decline, as shown in this graph:

[click to enlarge and clarify]

For a longer-term perspective we can look back to the 2000-2001 academic year (the earliest year in which information for second majors is available). The percentage of Bachelor's degree recipients completing a major in Philosophy fell from 0.48% in 2001 to 0.40% in 2019. The percentage completing in English fell from 4.5% in 2001 to 2.1% in 2019; in History, from 2.2% to 1.3%; and in foreign languages, from 2.2% to 1.1%.

Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Some Good News, Some Bad News in the APA’s State of the Profession Report

by Carolyn Dicey Jennings and Eric Schwitzgebel

[cross-posted at The Blog of the APA and Daily Nous]

We were recently provided with a report from the APA that recounts work by Debra Nails and John Davenport to collect, organize, and analyze available data on the discipline over the past 50 years, including data from the Philosophy Documentation Center, the National Center for Education Statistics, and the APA itself. We are grateful for the efforts of Nails and Davenport in creating this important report on the state of the profession. As colleagues on the Data Task Force, we have some insider knowledge of how challenging this task was, and how much time it required between 2016 and now. In reviewing the report, a few threads stood out: good news, bad news, and supporting news. Let’s start with the good.

Contingent Faculty

While some use the language of “adjunct” or “part-time” faculty, we follow the report in using “contingent,” since it is possible for adjunct and part-time positions to be permanent ones. The national issue of increasing contingent labor in academia has come up many times at the APA Blog and Daily Nous, and there was recently an APA session dedicated to the topic. As one report puts the problem:

“For many part-time faculty, contingent employment goes hand-in-hand with being marginalized within the faculty. It is not uncommon for part-time faculty to learn which, if any, classes they are teaching just weeks or days before a semester begins. Their access to orientation, professional development, administrative and technology support, office space, and accommodations for meeting with students typically is limited, unclear, or inconsistent. Moreover, part-time faculty have infrequent opportunities to interact with peers about teaching and learning. Perhaps most concerning, they rarely are included in important campus discussions about the kinds of change needed to improve student learning, academic progress, and college completion. Thus, institutions’ interactions with part-time faculty result in a profound incongruity: Colleges depend on part-time faculty to educate more than half of their students, yet they do not fully embrace these faculty members. Because of this disconnect, contingency can have consequences that negatively affect student engagement and learning.”

So far this sounds like bad news, but we want to be sure that we do not overlook the real issues contingent faculty face in communicating the good. Namely, that the percentage of contingent faculty in philosophy is low and stable. As Nails and Davenport explain, around 73% of all faculty nationwide are in contingent or “unranked” positions, whereas only 22% of philosophy faculty had contingent positions in 2017. Moreover, there is a lower percentage of contingent philosophy faculty now than there was in the 1960s. While the APA membership numbers have suggested this for some time (with around 20% of its members reporting contingent status), a reasonable concern about that estimate was that contingent faculty might be underrepresented among APA members. This new report suggests that the numbers just are low in our discipline. That’s good news, under the plausible assumption that it is best for the discipline if a large majority of faculty are tenured or tenure track.

[click to enlarge and clarify]

While we are heartened by these findings, we see a couple of reasons to stay vigilant about the status of contingent faculty.

First, we don’t know the reason that there are fewer contingent faculty in philosophy. It may be, for example, that philosophers are less likely to teach the types of courses that are typically offered to contingent faculty, such as general education and writing courses. In that case, this wouldn’t be a reason to celebrate philosophy’s success on the issue.

Second, the report raises the possibility that contingent positions have recently been replacing assistant professor positions: “Since 1987, there has been a steady increase in the number of faculty hired outside the tenure system compared to entry-level positions inside it.” We note only that the numbers show that the ratio of assistant professor positions to contingent positions has shifted from about 1:1 in 1987 to about 4:3 in 2017, representing a gain of about 500 contingent positions while the number of assistant professor positions remains about the same (see “a” in Figure 5).

[click to enlarge and clarify]

It is unclear what we should conclude from this, since the overall ratio of contingent to non-contingent faculty hasn’t really changed: there are also nearly 500 extra professor and associate professor positions since 1987 (“b” in Figure 5). This could be due to faculty staying in the profession for longer than in past decades, but it could be for some other reason. Zooming in on the difference between 2007 and 2017, Nails and Davenport note that “the drop in assistant professors and rise in associate professors may indicate a decline in entry-level hires since 2007. Universities that hired new faculty into contingent positions in the wake of the Great Recession have not yet made tenure lines available to those who, under normal circumstances, would have been hired as assistant professors.” But here, too, the additional numbers of those in associate and professor positions could explain the difference (“c” in Figure 5). It may be, for example, that those in more recent years are achieving promotion faster than in past years, leaving fewer people at the assistant rank relative to ranked positions, overall. So it is unclear what to take from this data, but we may want to be cautious, given the possibility Nails and Davenport raise.

Alright, how about some bad news?


The bad news is that philosophy is represented at about 100 fewer institutions in 2017 than in 1967 (1669 colleges and universities in 1967 and 1552 in 2017). This appears to represent a decline of the discipline in academia that has been the subject of numerous blog posts.

Surprisingly, the report particularly notes a decline in philosophy at (non-Catholic) religious institutions, both at the undergraduate and graduate level. Whereas around 16% of all public institutions offer no philosophy degree, this is true of 27% of non-Catholic religious institutions (but only 11% of Catholic colleges and universities). We don’t know the root of this decline of philosophy in religious institutions. It might be due to the especially atheistic culture of philosophy and its writings, or due to such institutions having comparatively stronger religious studies or theology programs competing for majors, or due to the relatively left-wing politics of many academic philosophers.

In addition, a striking 78% of historically Black colleges and universities (HBCU) offer no philosophy degree. Given the historical racism in philosophy, it seems likely that this is also connected to cultural issues. It would be in the interest of philosophy to further explore the matter. (Interested readers might start with this interview with Brandon Horgan at Howard University, an HBCU.)

We did note one reason for optimism with the overall numbers: while the numbers of institutions with a degree in philosophy has declined, the number of faculty at these institutions has increased, from around 6k in 1967 to around 9k in 2017. One can see how this played out at most institutions through the median number of faculty: whereas the median number of faculty for programs offering a PhD in philosophy was around 13 in 1967, it was around 19 in 2017. Similarly, those offering a Master’s went from 6 to 11, those offering Bachelor’s went from 3 to 5, and those offering courses only went from 1 to 2 (Figures 6a-b and 7a-b).

[click to enlarge and clarify]

The report also provided some numbers that support other findings, which we called “supporting news” above. We focus here on the supporting news regarding gender diversity. (The authors of the report were unable to explore race/ethnicity, disability, LBGTQ status, or other aspects of diversity.)

Gender Diversity

The APA now collects some demographic data from its members, including gender, race/ethnicity, LGBT status, and disability status. Among the 1874 APA members who reported gender, 505 (27%) answered “female”, 1363 (73%) answered “male”, and 6 (<1%) answered “something else.” Other recent research has suggested that women constitute about 30% of recent philosophy PhDs and new assistant professors in the U.S., about 20% of full professors, and about 25% of philosophy faculty overall (plus or minus a few percentage points). However, most of this previous research is either a decade out of date or is limited to possibly unrepresentative samples, such as APA member respondents, faculty at PhD-granting programs, or recent PhDs.

The current report finds generally similar numbers, in a larger and more representative sample (all faculty in the Directory of American Philosophers from 2017). Overall, 26% of philosophy faculty were women, including 34% of assistant professors and 21% of full professors. (Associate professors and contingent faculty are intermediate at 28% and 26%, respectively.)

We note that the authors of the report relied on the DAP’s binary gender classifications of faculty, which were generally reported by department heads or other department staff. And where faculty gender was not specified, the report’s authors searched websites and CVs for gender designations. Thus, the data do not include non-binary gender and some classification errors are possible.

The tendency for women to be a smaller percentage of full professors than assistant professors could reflect either a cohort effect, a tendency for women to advance more slowly up the ranks than men, or a tendency for women to exit the profession at higher rates than men. On the possibility of a cohort effect, since professors often teach into their 70s, the lower percentage of women among professors might to some extent reflect the fact that in the 1970s and 1980s, 17% and 22% of philosophy PhDs in the U.S. were awarded to women. By the 1990s, it was 27%, which is closer to the numbers for recent graduates. However, cohort effects might not be a complete explanation, since 21% might be a bit on the low side for a group that should reflect a mix of people who earned their PhDs from approximately the 1970s through the early 2000s. In the NSF data, women received 23% of all philosophy PhDs from the year 1973 through 2003—the approximate pool for full professors in 2017.

The report also explores gender by institution type, highest degree offered, and region. One notable result is that philosophy departments offering at least Bachelor’s degrees had on average higher percentages of women than departments not offering Bachelor’s degrees. Faculty were 27% women in departments offering the PhD, 28% in departments offering a Master’s but no PhD, 27% in departments offering a Bachelor’s degree, 22% in departments offering a minor but no Bachelor’s, 23% in departments offering an Associate degree but no minor, and 20% in departments offering philosophy courses but no degrees. (A chi-square test shows that this is unlikely to be statistical chance: 2x6 chi-square = 24.3, p < .001, lowest expected cell count = 104.) We are unsure what would explain this phenomenon.