Tuesday, December 06, 2011

The Baby Boom Philosophy Bust

In 2010, I compiled a list of the top 200 most-cited contemporary authors in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. (By "contemporary" I mean born in 1900 or later.) One striking feature of this list is the underrepresentation of baby boomers, especially near the top.

Let's compare the representation of people born 1931-1945 (the fifteen years before the baby boom) with those born in 1946-1960 (the bulk of the baby boom), among the top 25.

Among the pre-baby boomers, we find:

David Lewis (#1)
Saul Kripke (#6)
Thomas Nagel (tied #7)
Jerry Fodor (#9)
Daniel Dennett (tied #10)
Frank Jackson (tied #10)
Robert Nozick (tied #13)
John Searle (tied #13)
Gilbert Harman (#16)
Ronald Dworkin (#18)
Joseph Raz (tied #19)
Bas Van Fraassen (tied #19)
Fred Dretske (tied #22)
Peter Van Inwagen (tied #22)
Alvin Goldman (tied #24).
Among the baby boomers we find:
Martha Nussbaum (tied #19)
Philip Kitcher (tied #24).
These numbers seem to suggest that the depression-era and World War II babies have had a much larger impact than the baby boomers on mainstream Anglophone philosophy.

You might have thought the reverse would be the case. Aren't there more baby boomers? Haven't baby boomers been culturally dominant in other areas of society? So what's going on here?

One possibility is that the boomers haven't yet had time to achieve maximum influence on the field. Someone born in 1940 has had ten more years to write and to influence peers and students than has someone born in 1950. Although I think there is something to this thought, especially for the younger boomers, I suspect it's not the primary explanation. A boomer born in 1950 would be sixty years old by 2010. The large majority of philosophers who have a big impact on the field achieve a substantial proportion of that impact well before the age of sixty. Certainly that's true of the top philosophers on the list above -- Lewis, Kripke, Nagel, and Fodor. Their most influential work was in the 1960s to early 1990s. The boomers have had plenty of time to generate the same kind of influence, if it were simply a matter of catching up from a later start. In fact, contemporary Anglophone philosophers seem to have their average peak influence from about age 55-70, declining thereafter. On average, the baby boomers should be enjoying peak citation rates right now, and the depression babies should be starting to wane.

Here's an alternative diagnosis: College enrollment grew explosively in the 1960s and then flattened out. The pre-baby-boomers were hired in large numbers in the 1960s to teach the baby boomers. The pre-baby boomers rose quickly to prominence in the 1960s and 1970s and set the agenda for philosophy during that period. Through the 1980s and into the 1990s, the pre-baby-boomers remained dominant. During the 1980s, when the baby boomers should have been exploding onto the philosophical scene, they instead struggled to find faculty positions, journal space, and professional attention in a field still dominated by the depression-era and World War II babies.

This started to change, I think, with the retirement of the depression babies and the hiring boom of Gen-Xers in the late 1990s and early 2000s. It remains to be seen if history will repeat itself.


robert gorton said...

Interesting observation Eric. But I'm not entirely convinced by your explanation. Sure, it's more difficult in general for baby boomers to find a prestigious teaching position. But if there were any younger Nagels, Krikpes etc., out there, they would have little trouble finding employment, no? I suspect another more nebulous reason: Every field of human endeavor has its day - and like the novel, and (maybe) rock n'roll, the best and most influential work in what we think of as analytic philosophy is behind us.

Neal Tognazzini said...

Hey Eric -- interesting stuff. Here's another thought: as you point out in your original blog post with the list, using the SEP is going to make for a list that represents breadth of influence on philosophy more than depth. Since philosophy has become more and more specialized, younger generations of philosophers contain fewer and fewer people who have the breadth needed to make the top of the SEP list, even if younger philosophers are equally "influential" on the field along some other dimension.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks, Robert and Neal, for your interesting reflections! Both thoughts seem plausible/possible to me.

Here's an empirical prediction from my hypothesis: The prediction is that the current Gen Xers (e.g., Chalmers, Stanley, Knobe) will start to overshadow the baby boomers in citation rates in a way that the baby boomers never did overshadow the depression and WWII babies. Unfortunately, to see if this comes true we might have to wait about twenty years for Gen Xers to reach average peak citation age.

Absolutely, that conjecture could be wrong. Maybe we're looking at a secular trend toward increasingly narrower spheres of influence, or maybe Anglophone philosophy has done what it can do and is fading slowly away into mediocrity. But I'm inclined to think, more optimistically, that fields can be revolutionized and reinvigorated by new approaches, and that when those new approaches come to fruition they can cast light on enough different portions of the field that the early adopters of those approaches can be influential across a wide variety of areas.

Benj Hellie said...

My advisor gave this speech to me and my chum back in Summer 2001 about how Lewis was out there picking up ingots off the ground; then later he (my advisor) found that there were still rich veins to be mined; and that my chum and I were in the position of hard laborers grinding out the tailings his mine had disgorged.

I found that metaphor rather terrifying for a while, but then I learned about 'cyanide heap-leach mining' -- if you get the right solvent, you can collect all the tailings in a vast heap in a plastic-lined pit, pour the solvent over all the tailings at once, and wait. Eventually the gold will be soaking in a hideous poisonous slurry at the bottom of the pit. You then suction this all out, precipitate the gold out of the hideous poison, cycle the poison over the heap a few more times, and -- voila: ingots!

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

That's pretty much x-phi right there!

Martin said...

Two alternative explanations:

1. the pre-baby boomers came at the first great harvest time for modern philosophy. They discovered and systematically developed important types of arguments that much later work contines work on and relate to, thus ensuring enduring referentiability.

2. baby boomers face "the great expansion": more people turn to philosophy which increase reference competition which result in fewer references per philosopher. Add to that increasing complexity which makes it harder for later philosophers to do highly reference generating work in many different philosophical subfields. So many of us in later generations have a hard time comprehending what it is like to be a Thomas Nagel.

Hilary Kornblith said...

Eric--I'm just not convinced. You mention Kitcher and Nussbaum. Here are a few others from that generation who might have been mentioned: Robert Brandom; Tyler Burge; Hartry Field; Paul Horwich; Terence Irwin; Christine Korsgaard; Samuel Scheffler; Michael Smith; Timothy Williamson. That's just off the top of my head. What this suggests to me is that the method of looking at the Stanford Encyclopedia may not be the best one for what you're interested in. So once we discount for the extra ten years, it's not clear to me that there's a phenomenon here that calls out for any explanation.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

@ Martin: On your 1: It seems odd that there were (as Benj puts it) suddenly undiscovered gold nuggets on the ground in the 1960s that weren't there in previous decades and centuries. More likely, it seems to me, there was some sort of change in approach that revealed what seemed to them and what seems to us now to be gold nuggets. And if there was one such change in approach in the mid-20th century, maybe there will be more in the future and new gold rushes.

On your 2: Would it be an empirical commitment of this conjecture that there were very much more academic staff in Anglophone philosophy in the boomer generation than in the pre-boom generation? That doesn't seem likely to be true to me, though there are probably ways to check. If the comment isn't about population size but rather about arriving early, then it seems to blur into point 1.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

@ Hilary: A fair point. Only historical distance -- and maybe not even that -- will give us a good perspective on the relative contributions of Kripke, Lewis, Fodor, Nagel, and Dennett vs. Nussbaum, Kitcher, Burge, Williamson, and Sober (the 5 top SEP boomers) or some other boomer group along roughly those lines. My own judgment favors the first group, though I readily admit that it may be distorted by several factors including the fact my formal philosophical education was from 1987-1997.

Edith Steffen said...

Reading all the comments above, I am wondering if all this talent (in generating interpretations)could not be mined more widely! As an applied psychologist with an interest in theory and research, I think our discipline could do with a philosophical reverse take-over, so to speak. In fact, why are there no 'real' philosophers in different disciplines who sort through the conceptual messes and 'mine' the data for a bit of gold here and there!? Job opportunities for unemployed philosophers, guys?

Garret Merriam said...

I'm tempted to agree with Hilary. I don't have any data to back this up, but it seems to me that applied ethics has boomed in the last 60 years. I also (and independently) suspect that SEP doesn't really focus as much on applied ethics as it does on M&E, and the like. How can Peter Singer--born in '46, first year of the baby boom cut off--not be considered one of the most influential philosophers of the 20th century? He doesn't even make the top 100 by the SEP scale. I take that as a red-flag about SEP as a data set.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

I agree that Singer is oddly low at #103. Kuhn (born 1922) seems to me also strangely low at #89. In both cases, it may have to do with their having a huge influence on relatively narrow areas. Of course, maybe it's a sickness of our field that Singer's foci in applied ethics would be a relatively small slice of what's going on in venues like the SEP.

Garret Merriam said...

That does seem low for Kuhn. I remember hearing that "Structure..." had been cited more times than any other work in the second half of the 20th century, but I can't remember where that was. (I think it was in a Teaching Company course, but I don't know which one.) If that is true, then that would certainly suggest that using SEP as a barometer isn't a very good method. Maybe some well structured Google Scholar searches could be used.

cargan said...

Some other considerations are 1) genre (the particular subject matter of the source)
2) tenure or rank as a need to publish
3) longevity of previous sources, perhaps even satisfaction of argument.
A comparison can be made to authors cited in the Philosopher's Index which runs parallel: a count of any year between 1990 and the present will put all of these authors in the upper third, but not at the top. As the Philosopher's Index counts down to a single article, it would allow you to measure in some detail the Baby Boomer hypothesis.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Garrett: Kuhn had a huge influence outside of philosophy that Lewis and Kripke haven't had, explaining their differences in overall citation rate across academia. *Within* philosophy, which is my intended measure, I suspect that Lewis and Kripke have been more influential, though I could see an argument the other way.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Cargan: Yes, I've been using Phil Index for various projects too (like "discussion arcs" - search that term within the blog and you'll see). SEP seems like a better snapshot of contemporary high-profile Anglophone philosophy, though, when I look at the results. (Compare, for example, Frege and Dewey.)

Anonymous said...

It's only if you assume the world actually is a meritocracy that the objections of Robert Gorton have any kind of weight. But there are dozens of reasons why smart and competent cream with brilliant insights into important problems will not, in practice, rise to the top of the milk bottle. The institutional barriers to non-faculty finding an audience for philosophical works are huge, which makes the academic job market a likely place to find the reasons for the lack of baby-boomers you observe. Try approaching an academic press sometime without academic credentials. Try inserting your ideas into an academic conference.

It's a sample-bias problem, really. The view that our world is is largely meritocratic is propagated largely by the people who have succeeded in this world. They have a natural bias to see their success as a result of their talent, work, determination, whatever. Attributing a big share of their success to luck does not make them feel good about that achievement. The ignored brilliance of the people who didn't have that luck shines under a rock somewhere, but is by definition ignored and therefore useless as a counter-argument to the existence of a meritocracy.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Anon 10:56: I am inclined to agree with all that. You might be interested also in my post "How To Get a Big Head in Academia":

Anonymous said...

Do I risk contributing to the big-head-making process to compliment you on the points at the link? It's quite a responsibility you lay on us commenters. Maybe I'll just keep my compliments to myself.

Anonymous said...

I think that the first hypothesis we should consider is that of a general decline of "super" philosophers. Such "greatness dilution" makes sense, given the growth of the field and the high average levels of talent.

What speaks against this is the impression that the 1960-1980 generation seems more star-studded than the baby boomers, but there are ways in which it might seem so without being so sub specie eternitatis. For one thing, the apparent greatness of a philosopher has a lot to do with what her successors are working on. Today's outstanding young philosophers have in many ways simply decided to change the subject from the debates of the previous generation - along with substantial updates of methodology and style. This alone can explain the reduction in interest and readership in the good work done by the previous generation. It's not that they weren't great; it's that we don't care much about the clever moves they made. Hawthorne and Stanley are indisputably brilliant, but whether they will ever be considered a great philosophers depends a lot on the fashions of our discipline 20 years in the future. If the tide goes out on their approach to problems, they'll be remembered as talented contributors to a flawed paradigm.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

@ Anon Dec 14: Growth of field and high average levels of talent lead to "greatness dilution" only under the assumption that greatness is comparative, right? Perhaps this is a variant of the argument that growth of field means narrower specialization?

I completely agree that facts about the importance of a philosopher depend to a large extent on subsequent contingencies in the development of the field. It's too early, I think, to know what the historical judgment will be on Stanley and Hawthorne or other philosophers of that generation who seem to be off to an agenda-setting start.