Monday, April 16, 2007

Are 38-Year-Olds the Best Philosophers?

I'm sitting here looking at the covers of Donald Davidon's recently re-issued anthologies. Boy does he look old. Is that what philosophers look like?

Davidson was born in 1917. The pictures must have been taken near the time of his death (I'd almost say after) in 2003, when he was 86. But his most famous, best regarded essays were written long before, in the 1960s and 1970s, when he was in his 40s and 50s. Why not grace the cover with a picture of him from that era? Non-philosophers often think of philosophers as old. My mother advised me, when I was an undergraduate, to do science first and philosophy when I'm old, since the best scientists are young the the best philosophers are old!

Davidson actually started a bit late. In my philosophy of mind class, I present to students the dates of the philosophers we read and the dates of publication of the assigned essays -- some of the most important essays in historical and 20th-century philosophy of mind. To calculate age, I subtract one from the difference of the years (if you're born in the middle of 1900, in 1950 you're 49 for half the year, and there's always a delay before publication). Here's the list from the main part of the course:

Rene Descartes: 1596-1650. Meditations on First Philosophy: 1641 (age 44).

John Locke (1632-1704). Essay Concerning Human Understanding: 1689 (age 56).

George Berkeley (1685-1753). A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge: 1710 (age 24). Three Dialogues Between Hylas and Philonous: 1713 (age 27).

Julien Offray de la Mettrie (1709-1751). Man a Machine: 1748 (age 38).

J. J. C. Smart (1920- ). "Sensations and Brain Processes": 1959 (age 38).

Hilary Putnam (1926- ). "The Nature of Mental States": 1967 (age 40).

David Lewis (1941-2001). "Psychophysical and Theoretical Identifications": 1972 (age 30). "Mad Pain and Martian Pain": 1980 (age 38).

Ned Block (1942- ). "Troubles with Functionalism": 1978 (age 35).

Frank Jackson (1943- ). "What Mary Didn’t Know": 1986 (age 42).

Paul M. Churchland (1942- ). "Eliminative Materialism and the Propositional Attitudes": 1981 (age 38).

Colin McGinn (1950- ). "Can we solve the mind-body problem?": 1989 (age 38).

David Chalmers (1966- ). The Conscious Mind: 1996 (age 29).

Supposing these data are representative, here are two theories:
(1.) Philosophers tend to peak around age 40; or
(2.) Philosophers who haven't done anything very influential by age 40 tend to withdraw from publishing philosophy, or not aim very high, for the rest of their careers; and those who do achieve eminence by age 40 tend to regress toward the mean for the rest of their careers. (How many great ideas, or bursts of genius, can you expect one person to have?) This second theory would explain the overrepresentation of great work by 40-year-old philosophers without committing to the thesis that 40 years of age is the best time to do philosophy.

(I just left 38 behind me last weekend. What will I think of this issue, I wonder, when I'm 60?)


Anonymous said...

How about Immanuel Kant, who went supernova well into his sixties?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

A comforting example! Kant's three Critiques came out when he was 56-65 years old. I don't know that we should take that much comfort in the example of Kant, though. There's always someone in the tail ends of a good distribution! Berkeley offsets him.

Anonymous said...

Also Hegel, born 1770, published Phenomenology of Spirit 1807.
Which is close to 38.

Brandon said...

I wonder how much the list is affected by philosophical fashions. We tend to focus on Berkeley's Principles and Three Dialogues, but that's largely because we are interested in idealism as an epistemological foil (in great measure due to Hume and Kant). But Berkeley was going strong philosophically in the Analyst controversy in the 1730s; although, objectively, his most enduring philosophical contribution has been the one that was formulated in his first major work, the New Theory of Vision (1709). If we had less interest in epistemology and more in philosophy of mathematics or philosophy of perception, we'd tend to get different answers. We tend to emphasize Hume's Treatise (27/28 mark) because we're obsessed with issues of skepticism; but there have been periods and places where that's been considered Hume's least interesting contribution (in comparison with, say, his philosophy of religion, which pushes the mark way up to the end of Hume's life, or his aesthetics, which pushes it to the mid-40s).

I wonder, too, how much the list is affected by two other things: academic positions and interactions. That is, I wonder if the structure of academia itself will tend to put pressure on the 35-45 years, leading people simply to publish much more in that period than in other periods. And similarly, the years of 'peak' are bound to be affected by how much interaction with peers (and thus the debates of the day) is practically possible. One would tend to assume that below a certain age and above a certain age people are limited in how much interaction of that sort is possible.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

I wouldn't say Phenomenology of Spirit is my *favorite* work of philosophy, Tanasije -- but I suppose reflections of this sort shouldn't be focused on idiosyncratic matters of judgment! So Hegel is a good example.

It's interesting to consider cases of philosophers who made major contributions over a long span of time -- more than the typical (it seems to me) span of 15 years. Hume is a good example of that, Brandon, if (as seems right) you count his philosophy of religion; Wittgenstein and Mill also come to mind. (I won't mention whom I think fits in this category among late 20th-century philosophers of mind, for fear of offending!) But maybe part of philosophical longevity is a willingness to start fresh with new topics or perspectives -- and not cavalierly, like a Nobel laureate who begins pronouncing broadly on everything now that his views have weight, but with a seriousness of scholarship.

The points in your final paragraph are pretty interesting, Brandon, but I'm not sure I agree with them. The motivation to publish starts pretty early, if one is ambitious. Maybe it wanes later, for some; but I don't think tenure is the main driving force of philosophers of this caliber. As for the opportunity to interact with other philosophers -- that seems to me generally to increase over time for the most professionally successful philosophers. To the extent there is ageism in this profession (which I fear I may be promoting with this post!) I don't think it applies, or applies much, to those at the very top of the profession. Indeed, the perception of the quality of a person's work generally lags considerably behind the actual quality of her work.

Roman Altshuler said...

Averaging 38 seems to be a general trend in Europe, as well. Consider:

Jean-Paul Sartre. The Transcndence of the Ego: 1937 (age 32), Being and Nothingness: 1943 (age 38)

Jacques Derrida. Writing and Difference, Of Grammatology, Speech and Phenomena: 1967 (age 37)

Gilles Deleuze. Difference and Repetition: 1968 (age 43)

Edmund Husserl. Logical Investigations: 1900 (age: 41)

Martin Heidegger. Being and Time: 1926 (age 37)

Juergen Habermas. The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: 1962 (age: 33)

I don't know what you personally think of these people, given your stated lack of appreciation for Hegel's Phenomenology, but each of the above books was a major agenda-setting work. (The big exception in this tradition is Gadamer, who was about 60 when Truth and Method appeared.)

On the other hand, as far as I can tell, all of the above continued producing major work for well over 15 years, so I wonder if that is a cultural difference (along, of coruse, with the fact that the above are typically massive books rather than 20 page papers...).

Finally, I wonder if the peaking age might be dropping now in the anglophone world, given the greater emphasis on early publication.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Neat list, Roman -- thanks! My personal taste runs more to the analytic (though with a soft spot for Nietzsche [Genealogy of Morality, age 42]), but that's irrelevant to my hypothesis.

On the 15 years comment, let me make clear that I mean to be talking about the person's *best* work. Most philosophers who reach eminence in their late 30s and early 40s continue to publish through at least their 60s, and generally that work is competent. But often (not always!) it seems to me not to rise to the level of their earlier work (as in the case of Davidson). This could easily be a deviation-toward-the-mean phenomenon, though.

Do you think Continental philosophy is different in that respect? The late Heidegger is famous, of course, but what's the general opinion about its quality? How about the late Sartre, Husserl, Habermas? (These are genuine questions, not rhetorical ones.)

I agree that institutions create pressure now to publish before one has reached philosophical maturity. (How different this is from the past, I don't know.) But I don't think that affects when the peak occurs -- it just means there is more juvenalia.

Anonymous said...

In response to the parenthetical comment in your last paragraph, Eric:

I'm not sure the demands to publish at universities in previous times matters as much -- the reason being that few of the great philosophers of the early modern period (or even the 19th century) worked in universities at all!

Bacon, Descartes, Hobbes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Locke, Berkeley, Hume, Voltaire, Rousseau... even Bentham and Mill... worked outside of the university system. They had, therefore, no pressure upon them to publish to hold on to a job.

I've found that interesting since I happened to notice it. I also find it interesting that most philosophers seem to be unaware of it. What does it say about the effect academic life has or had on progress in philosophy?

Presumably there were academic pressures that made it more difficult for philosophers working within the system to thrive (I know, I know, there are exceptions like Reid, Kant and Hegel), or at least that this was the perception of many philosophers. Spinoza, despite his poverty, turned down an offer of a university position in order to be free. Can we be sure that whatever pressures were seen to get in the way of that freedom are gone now? Different thread, perhaps...

Roman Altshuler said...

The question of how later work of the various continental philosophers is regarded is difficult. I get the sense that anglophone philosophers have a tendency to put out their major work first, and then move on to defending and/or modifying their positions; thus, their later work is likely to appear less radical and less interesting (this appearance is also partly, I'm guessing, due to the fact that in their later work they are competing for recognition against other philosophers who are building on the foundation of their own early work). Continental philosophers sometimes have a tendency to start out radical and then become more radical with age, which means that their later work frequently appeals more to a more radical crowd and less to a traditionalist crowd (like myself).

Habermas is a clear exception to this. Structural Transformation (1962) was followed by Communicative Action (1981), Moral Consciousness (1983), and Between Facts and Norms (1992), along with a host of other work, much of it regarded as being extremely important in its own right.

Husserl's work almost certainly improved and deepened with age as he struggled to refine phenomenology and work out theories of temporality and intersubjectivity, so that the truly impressive period of his career lasts almost 40 years.

With the others, judgements about their later work are maybe too debated to be expressed with any sort of definite conviction. Derrida's later work on ethics and politics certainly breaks new ground; I tend to find it more interesting. Later Heidegger is especially hard to assess, because there you run into a rift between two very different readings of his work, so that there just isn't a general evaluation of quality.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Justin: Right, many philosophers prior to the 20th century were outside the university system. I didn't mean to imply otherwise! But how that related to issues of pressure to publish I don't know. What led Hume and Berkeley to want to publish so early, for example? James Mill had to sell books to put dinner on the table. Etc. I think it's probably also a mistake to think that philosophers of the very top rank are mostly motivated to publish by formal institutional pressures, even circa 2000. Having ideas you want to share and win recognition for is probably the main thing (as long as you're in a context that permits you to do that for your livelihood) -- and I don't know if that has changed much.

Roman: That's an interesting analysis. _Between Facts and Norms_ is certainly a well-cited book, for something so late in a philosopher's career. It is even well-cited in the analytically-dominated Stanford Encyclopedia, according to my November analysis on this blog -- Habermas's only book to make my lists.

If there is the trend you state, for anglophone philosophers to defend and modify (and I'd add qualify and moderate) the cleaner, bolder claims of their youth and for Continential philosophers to become more radical, I wonder why that is. Here's one possibility on the anglophone side: Analytic philosophers, seeking truth (or at least to avoid the embarrassment of being on the losing side of an argument), get educated in and correct the overstatements that arise from youthful ignorance and enthusiasm. I won't venture any ignorant generalizations about why Continental philosophers tend the opposite direction, if they do.

Roman Altshuler said...

I'll venture an ignorant generalization of my own, then. On an uncharitable reading, when continental philosophers publish something radical, they realize how much they can get away with and then get even more radical. On a more charitable reading, however, what makes the earlier work radical is the questioning of some key assumptions of the tradition; thinking more about the issue suggests that these assumptions are deeply linked with other assumptions, which also need to be done away with; thus, the later work appears more radical. (I think Wittgenstein is a decent example of such a trend.) I don't know why analytic philosophers tend not to go in this direction, but I am guessing that a host of institutional factors, including how many of their assumptions the author's expected readership is willing to have attacked, comes into play.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

I must confess that your uncharitable interpretation is more or less what I was tempted to, Roman -- but I like your charitable interpretation much better!

Anonymous said...

Eric, you old fart!

Thank goodness I'm only 37.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

So you have about a year to work that unicorn argument up to perfection! ;)

Justin Tiwald said...

I wonder if it has always taken as long to publish a finished manuscript as it does today. I wouldn't be surprised if it took even longer. If that's the case, then perhaps we should start despairing at the age of 36. Maybe even sooner.

Sorry to rain on your parade, Pete.

cathalcom said...

there also seems to be room to produce as a certain 'kind' of philosopher. The boy wonder year seems to be 24 - Berkeley, Wittgenstein (TLP), Searle ("Proper Names").

like Ragu, who discovered they were looking not for the perfect pasta sauce, but the perfect pasta sauceS - there may be perfect ages, depending on your flavor.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the comment, Justin and Cathalsread! I'm inclined to think (is this what you're suggesting, Cathalsread?) that there's a difference between the type of philosophy produce by wunderkinds and that produced by the gray-hair set? I'm inclined to think so. It seems to me that (in general) young philosophers tend to have simpler, starker, bolder positions -- often one brilliant twist on earlier ideas (Berkeley's metaphysics is a great example of this) -- and that older philosophers are inclined toward more nuanced positions, often a little flabby and wordy (though older philosophers who gain their fame early sometimes get lazy and can be brief and oversimple because of that).

I wonder if there's a way to study this empirically....

Michael said...

At least with respect to Davidson I would disagree with your estimation of when he did his most important work. You write: "his most famous, best regarded essays were written long before, in the 1960s and 1970s, when he was in his 40s and 50s."

Well, how about the following, going just by publication dates (Davidson was born in 1917):

"On the very idea of a conceptual scheme," 1974 (56 or 57)
"What Metaphors Mean," 1978 (60 or 61)
"A Coherence Theory of Truth and Knowledge," 1983 (65 or 66)
"A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs," 1986 (68 or 69!)

These are not merely "competent" work by any standards and are surely among Davidson's most famous publications.

This example suggests that your conclusions may over-reach your data.

(Michael Kremer, writing at 52, and still hoping to produce some competent work at least)

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Michael --

Maybe Kant can be your role model! Right now, I don't think there's evidence to distinguish between these three hypotheses, all of which seem plausible:

(1.) Peaking at 38 is due to philosophical skill peaking at 38.

(2.) Peaking at 38 is due to sociological factors, such as the fact that those who *would have* peaked later don't end up in prestigious research posts.

(3.) Peaking at 38 is due to differences in the typical motivations and aspirations of 38-year-olds vs. 58-year-olds.

Only the first of these should be worrying to older philosophers. And even if so, it's only a mean, not destiny.

I'd like to gave a good set of data on people who enter the profession late. That would help distinguish (1) from (2).

On Davidson: I'm pretty sure his work in the 1960s and 1970s on philosophy of action and radical interpretation is more influential than his later material. But I don't mean to imply that the later material isn't also good!

Andy said...

I think there are various other sociological possibilities. There is, with this kind of thing, a clear danger that we confuse 'most influential/most cited etc' with 'best quality work'.It's very hard to get a measure on the latter.

With this in mind, I also think that we should acknowledge that although we like to understand ourselves as responding cooly and rationally to the emergence of new ideas there is also the distinct possibility that we systematically judge ideas in conjunction with their source. That, to put it very crudely, we buy into the person as well as their ideas.

If this does occur, then early responses to new ideas are quite likely to follow certain sociological patterns - the development of a role for the individual within intellectual circles and, as with any relationship, this will evolve and change. Early responses to ideas will be affected directly by this whilst later responses, however many decades later, will be swayed by the authority of earlier reactions.

This is probably quite an uncharitable reading but I remain suspicious of any interpretation that models creative thought on the lines of a limited commodity or resource that will inevitably be exhausted.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks, Andy. My inclination is to think that the sociological patterns, if anything, favor philosophers in the 55- to 70-year-old range -- at least if we are considering only professors who are having relatively successful research careers. Also, I think it's pretty clear that creative productivity after age 75 is considerably lower than before that age, so there must be some age-related trends on the backside. My hope is that the best explanation of those trends is not cognitive or creative deficit.

Anonymous said...

I think the numbers for women might be different, since the 30s are prime child-bearing years. To the extent that women have any influence at all in philosophy (given your recent post on citations).

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Interesting thought! I'll keep an eye out for that.

Anonymous said...

Interesting stuff, Eric!

In addition to age, I think it would be interesting to have data on the number of years spent working in philosophy (where "working in philosophy" could include being a grad student). Someone who publishes at 38 in 1900 might have been researching since he/she was 21, whereas these days it's not uncommon for folks to enter grad school after a few years teaching/working/traveling. Though obviously this sort of data would take a lot more work to collect!

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the suggestion, Anon. I agree that those data would be interesting to have.