Thursday, January 26, 2012

The Base Rate of Kant

People sometimes say that increasing specialization within philosophy means that there could never be another figure like Locke or Hume or Kant -- a figure with giant impact across a broad range of philosophical subdisciplines. The massive growth of the research university has created armies of specialists in each subfield whose copious volumes one must master to become a major player in the subfield; and no one person could master the work of a broad range of subfields.

Let's consider the merits of this theory.

First: Is there any need for a theory to explain the recent lack of Kants? Well, what's the base rate of Kant? We could calculate rate per century or we could calculate rate per professional philosopher.

Consider by century: It seems plausible that no philosopher of at least the past 60 years has achieved the kind of huge, broad impact of Locke, Hume, or Kant. Lewis, Quine, Rawls, and Foucault had huge impacts in clusters of areas but not across as broad a range of areas. Others like McDowell and Rorty have had substantial impact in a broad range of areas but not impact of near-Kantian magnitude. Going back another several decades we get perhaps some near misses, including Wittgenstein, Russell, Heidegger, and Nietzsche, who worked ambitiously in a wide range of areas but whose impact across that range was uneven. Going back two centuries brings in Hegel, Mill, Marx, and Comte about whom historical judgment seems to be highly spatiotemporally variable. In contrast, Locke, Hume, and Kant span a bit over a century between them. But still, three within about hundred years followed by a 200 year break with some near misses isn't really anomalous if we're comparing a peak against an ordinary run.

(I don't mention Descartes despite his huge importance because he didn't have the same kind of impact in ethics/political as did the other three. Also, here is evidence that my judgments about importance aren't too idiosyncratic.)

If we consider the rate of Kants per thousand working professional philosophers, it does seem to be vastly higher in the early modern era than recently. But field-changing ideas can only occur so fast -- probably not much more than once per generation per subfield, since few philosophers are going to be ready to retool every ten years for the newest thing. Probably Kant rate per generation, in cultures with lively enough philosophical communities, is a better way to conceptualize the denominator of the expected base rate.

Thus, I don't think that the recent lack of Kants is a fact so anomalous that it cries out for explanation. There's only so much space at the top for heroes and field definers. Inevitably, Kants will be rare.

But maybe it's still true that the size of the community in each subfield makes it impossible for any one philosopher in the foreseeable future to have a huge impact across the subfields? Maybe a new Kant simply couldn't arise in a discipline as populous as 21st century philosophy? I see two reasons for skepticism about that theory.

(1.) People with huge impact are sometimes young. This was true historically (e.g., Hume was 26 when he finished the Treatise) and it seems to be still true (e.g., Lewis did much of his most influential work when he was in his 20s and 30s). If Lewis (or Kripke, or Chalmers, or...) could master enough of one subfield in 10 years to have a huge impact by age 30, then by age 60 -- and philosophers are by no means washed out by age 60 -- they ought to be able to master, well enough to potentially have a huge impact, several disparate subfields. Nor does it seem that there should be substantial barriers to this in practice. Although sociologically it would be difficult to leap from math to philosophy to physics to have huge impacts in all three fields -- so maybe there will never be another Descartes -- philosophy is not so sociologically divided. Setting aside language-driven divides, the sharpest sociological divide seems to be between "value theory" fields (ethics/aesthetics/political) and "LEMMings" fields (language/epistemology/metaphysics/mind plus logic). But even that divide is quite permeable. There are plenty of philosophers with interests and ambitions on both sides of the divide, and no one finds it odd.

(2.) Across academia as a whole, field-transforming contributions are sometimes achieved by adopting a novel angle or method and then applying it fruitfully both to traditional problems and to new previously unthought-of problems. In philosophy, this means having a new (implicit or explicit) metaphilosophy. Although none of the metaphilosophical revolutions of the past hundred years have generated a Kant, I think we can imagine how they might have, had things played out somewhat differently. Had there been a single dominant figure in the linguistic turn who managed to compellingly apply early linguistic-turnish thoughts to both metaphysics and epistemology and to ethics and political philosophy, that person might have had approximately Kant-sized influence. I see no reason to think such a scenario implausibly unlikely. Similarly, there could have been, I think, a Kant-sized ordinary language philosopher or logical positivist. More recently -- in my opinion! -- philosophy has received a charge of new ideas from the methods and results of empirical psychology, now that psychology has matured past Freudian and behaviorist strictures. People like Jesse Prinz and Shaun Nichols have been able to master enough of the literature in disparate areas of philosophy to have impact in those areas partly through applying methods and ideas from psychology. So I see no reason a great philosopher couldn't arise with a fresh angle, a new approach, applied compellingly to a broad range of the biggest issues, with a consequent Kant-like impact. We won't see it coming in advance -- but that's just us, stuck in our paradigms. Although it is impossible to have encyclopedic mastery of the ever-increasing existing literature across a wide range of subfields of philosophy, such encyclopedic mastery has never been a prerequisite of field-changing genius.


* This isn't to say that I'm particularly fond of Kant! I'm just making a sociological point, and he seems the best example. (See here and here for rough criticism.)

* One way in which it might be harder now to have a broad impact across subfields with a new approach is that once that approach catches on in one subfield, there will be a larger pool of people than there used to be who might quickly adopt it to other subfields, attenuating the aspiring Great Philosopher's direct impact on those subfields.

* Our perspective on the past is probably distorted by the Winnowing of Greats. Appropriately winnowed, maybe David Lewis (or whoever) will some day stand out like Kant. (And yes, I know that much of this post in is conflict with much of that earlier post. I take an appropriately Whitmanian attitude.)


Jeremy Goodman said...

I agree that no one in the 20th century made the sort of central contributions both to M&E and to value theory that Locke/Hume/Kant did. But just M&E-wise, Wittgenstein, Kripke and Lewis clearly rank among the most influential post-Cartesian philosophers. Fodor's impact in the philosophy of mind has been pretty staggering too.

Anonymous said...

The fact you present applies to most scientific fields: maths, physics, chemistry... the era of the old giants is over. I believe it's a logical trend, too much area to cover.

clasqm said...

Perhaps the best and brightest in western society are no longer attracted to philosophy? If Einstein had taken it up, who knows what might have resulted.

Anonymous said...

How long can a philosopher survive having a reputation for being merely very good (or even less than that) before it becomes impossible for them to be considered great? I'm sure it's too late for Mill and Schlick, but how about, say, Anscombe or Dennett, depending on how tastes change in the future?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Anon Jan 26: I'm inclined to think, actually, that philosophy as it currently stands is much more methodologically unified and has many fewer barriers between subdisciplines than do most scientific disciplines. So I'm inclined to think that it's more likely that a new Kant arises than that a new Newton does.

Jeremy: Agreed!

Clasqm: There's always competition between disciplines and philosophy doesn't always win (see Newton, Darwin, etc., though in a way I think their visions are so broad reaching as to be philosophical in the capacious sense of that term). It's an interesting conjecture about decline in relative draw, though. I'm not sure how to measure that, but philosophers do tend to be pretty smart as a whole by standardized measures like GRE and (I believe) GPA outside of discipline.

Anon Jan 27: They get winnowed with distance, I suppose. I'm not sure about Mill as the example, though.

Steven Hales said...

The idea that the issue is base rate per number of working philosophers is on the right track. When there is a smaller number of competitors, it is easier to be the best (being #1 out of 1000 is easier than being #1 out of 10,000). Suppose that Hume is the best out of 10,000 philosophers, and there are only 1000 per generation in his day. That makes him the best for a few generations. So when Hume or Kant is the best for a few generations, then the impact they have on students and other scholars is huge. Now there are many more philosophers. Suppose that someone now is the best out of 10,000 philosophers. If that's the number of people in the profession, their "bestness" is limited to a single generation, not multiple ones like Hume and Kant. So the old school folks weren't any better than the best philosophers we have now; they just were the best for longer, and so had more of an impact. Add to this the contemporary Balkanization of subdisciplines and it is clear why it is so much harder for any contemporary philosopher to have the overall disciplinary impact of the heroes of yore.

Anonymous said...

Couldn't it be that there have been a lot of Kants, but we just don't notice for that reason (since Kant being Kant depends on everyone else being less-than-Kant)?

Kapitano said...

Two thoughts about this:

1) The range of philosophy is much smaller, and also more fine-grained, than it was 200 years ago.

Questions like 'what is light?' and 'where do dreams come from?' have been largely answered.

Questions about god and biblical interpretation have been relegated to theology courses.

Even questions like 'what is economic profit?', which haven't been conclusively answered, have still been narrowed down - and moved into other fields. There are a lot of answers which have been disproven, and only a few contenders remain. A genuinely new theory of money seems unlikely.

So, fewer fields, but more subfields. And it's hard to revolutionise a field by working in one subfield.

2) Prefiguring and influencing every major figure like Hegel, there were dozens of other figures now largely forgotten or known only to specialists - Fichte, Schelling, Boehme, Eckhardt. Plus later interpreters through whose lens we tend to see the major figures - much our image of Hegel comes from Engels, Plekanov and Chalybäus.

It may only be in hindsight that towering figures tower, once we've forgotten the others who surround them.

Anonymous said...

by 2022, wittgenstein, kripke and lewis will be recognized for what they are: charlatans.

The Uncredible Hallq said...

By the criteria you use to exclude Hegel, Russell, etc., was even Kant a Kant? I.e. were Locke and Hume really more even in their impact than Russell?

On the other hand, the "spatiotemporal variability" issue may be a product of philosophy getting more factitious. People mostly agree that Kant was great, but for everyone after Kant, different factions have different ideas about who was great.

Anonymous said...

Hardly anyone has recognized the fact but Western philosophy (in particular) essentially came to and end with the original 1972 publication of the remarkable book introduced here.

He then then spent 36 years patiently explaining the cultural implications of His appearance here. The results of His explanations (etc) are introduced here.


clasqm said...

"see Newton, Darwin, etc., though in a way I think their visions are so broad reaching as to be philosophical in the capacious sense of that term"

@ Eric: Yes, of course, there is that issue. Historically, most if not all modern academic disciplines descend from a branch of philosophy and an adept from any one of them may produce results that sound very philosophical. Is Chomsky a linguist or a philosopher?

Anonymous said...

What about the hypothesis that we're closer to the truth in more and more subfields now than when Kant wrote? So it was easier for someone really smart to nail all sorts of insights and come up with all sorts of arguments that aren't available to us. I don't think this is the right explanation, but I bet it's in the back of a lot of people's minds.

candid_observer said...

Philosophy hardly seems to be in any way unusual in its current lack of a towering figure like Kant. Where is there today any discipline blessed (or cursed) with such a towering figure? Not in any of the hard sciences or in mathematics that I can think of (which you pretty much acknowledge) -- but not, I believe, even in any of the social sciences nor in the humanities (can you think of such a case?).

The only example I can come up with who casts such a dominating shadow in the contemporary scene is Chomsky over linguistics. And the largeness of his presence is well compensated for by the relative smallness of his discipline.

Perhaps it's specialization, perhaps it's the number of participants in the disciplines (obviously related phenomena), perhaps it's our own blindness to the true stature of current figures, or our blindness to the true stature of contemporaries of figures of the past we now regard as towering. But, in any case, the dearth of contemporary dominant figures is not an issue with philosophy alone.

In short, the base rate of overpowering figures in ANY discipline today is near or at zero. You might ask yourself why you think philosophy might be an exception.

Jones, one of the Jones boys said...

Four thoughts:

1) independent of their inherent quality as philosophers, one might a priori expect earlier philosophers to be more influential than later ones, just because they were earlier. If Philosopher A precedes B who precedes C, then it's more likely (to say the least) that B will have been influenced by A than vice versa...and so more likely that someone (say, C) who wants to engage with the work of B will have to engage with the work of A. Western philosophy could not have been mere footnotes to Plato and Aristotle had those two guys been contemporaries of Kripke.

2) Related to (1), philosophers may just need a lot of time to become Towering Greats. Kant probably didn't seem to be KANT to his contemporaries, and not just because of "winnowing" or the slower rate back then of dissemination of ideas. Rather, back then Kant had not yet enjoyed the benefits of several centuries of debates, conferences, monographs etc. on the theme of Why Everything Kant Said Was True, Even the Transparently Ridiculous Things (or the secondary industry of why the opposite is the case). After several centuries of such work, future generations will surely recognise, say, Deepak Chopra for the genius he is.

3)I still think there's something to the idea of the rate of Kant per philosopher, and expecting there to be more Kants now just because there are more would-be Kants around. Even granting that 'field-changing ideas can only occur so fast', the dissemination of ideas happens so very much faster nowadays, that you might expect that such ideas could occur much more often too -- and hence that there "should" be more Kants.

4) Here's one way to "test" the opening hypothesis: if it's true that specialisation is the culprit for our sorry lack of Kants, then you might expect that current work recognised as major in a subfield typically cites more authors than older work recognised as major in that subfield. i.e. that, say, Parfit has to cite more authors than Kant. Of course, one would have to control for the differing norms of citation...

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Wow, lots of interesting comments! I see some plausibility in (almost) all of them, despite the conflicts among them and also with my original post. I'm not sure how one might go about settling the issues in a rigorous way.

A few thoughts in reaction:

Jones: On #4, I like the idea of a quantitative test, but I worry that the factor you mention will be inextricably conflated with other sources of subcultural and temporal variation in general citation practices.

Candid: I do suspect philosophy might be different than most other disciplines in its relative lack of subdisciplinary barriers.

Steven/Kapitano/Uncredible/Anon 7:19: Interesting ideas all. Is there a way to address these issues more rigorously?

Uncredible: I excluded Russell for his relative lack of impact on value theory and Hegel for the sociological patchiness of his impact. Kant had huge impact in value theory and LEMMings, and that impact has been broad and steady. The same is true of Locke, I think, and arguably true of Hume. I recognize that such judgments about specific figures are contestable, though.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

One further thought on the difficulty of having a huge, broad impact on a mature discipline: Physics was arguably quite mature when Einstein came and had a huge impact on several different (or seemingly different!) parts of it. Einstein's broad impact (at such a young age, too) was possible, I suspect, partly because of a lack of sociological barriers between subdisciplines of physics -- barriers that are probably much higher now. For a discipline the size of philosophy, it's remarkable how sociologically unsegmented it is. I suspect that's partly because expertise in the methods of one subdiscipline transfers fairly readily to the other subdisciplines.

Or... maybe that's entirely wrong and another Einstein could be around the corner, who finally straightens out (say) the apparent mess of current particle physics, resulting in a swift and thorough reconceptualization of broad swaths of other parts of physics.

clasqm said...

"After several centuries of such work, future generations will surely recognise, say, Deepak Chopra for the genius he is."


candid_observer said...

Here's some relevant information:

Apparently, in the academic year 1879-80, 54 PhDs were awarded in the US across all disciplines. In 2005-2006, the number was over 56,000. A rather similar ratio applies to the overall number of faculty.

Now the change in Europe was surely not so extreme. But it's still reasonable to expect that in the sciences and philosophy the number of practitioners has risen by a factor of 100 or so.

One would expect that that would bear very much on the dominant figure issue, both in the sciences and in philosophy. Many, many more really smart competitors these days for the open throne of Towering Presence, and much, much more ground to cover to seize it.

candid_observer said...

Just to add to my previous comment, it might be worthwhile to think about the total number of practitioners of philosophy (and science) in, say, the 20th and 21st centuries vs the total number of such practitioners in all of previous history.

Given the numbers I'm seeing, it wouldn't surprise me to find out that there were well over 10 times as many in the 20th and 21st century than in all of previous history.

Hard to dominate in quite same way.

Paul R said...

Could it be that Locke, Hume, and Kant became famous to a large degree because they were breaking down what came before? Hume obviously attacked causation and Kant basically accepted that and tried to limit the losses. Locke certainly attacked Scholasticism to some extent. It's obviously the case that it's easier to tear down a building than build it up. Could it be that these early modern philosophers became famous for bucking the system and tearing stuff down? Maybe that could explain why we no longer have such towering figures- because having broken down the prior edifice, it's now much harder to build something in its place. Since constructive philosophy is always harder, there would be less chance of as many people mastering it.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Interesting thought, Paul! Of course, the time might be ripe for some more tearing down. And arguably Kant was more of an upbuilder than a teardowner, especially if Hume is the baseline.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Candid: I agree the numbers are much larger now. Maybe two orders of magnitude is about right. And although this surely has a major impact on the sociology of fame within the discipline, I'm still inclined to think that once a certain population of scholars is achieved the better denominator for revolution rate is per year or per generation rather than per scholar.

Compare fame in music. I'm inclined to think that regardless of the total number of garage bands and semi-professional string quartets, there are only so many field-topping musicians that can be hugely famous across the entire culture at any one time and only so many broadly culturally important changes in musical style over the years.

Of course, with tons and tons of serious non-famous musicians one also starts to get subareas like bluegrass and reggae and whatever with leaders within those subareas who don't rise to broader cultural visibility but have huge fame and influence in their niche.

Steve G. said...

~ the time might be ripe for some more tearing down

So it is.

Modern philosophy is centered around greats who reiterated, or introduced, devastating critiques against classical dogma. These figures were surrounded by followers who often misinterpreted the critique to soften its edge, and by opponents, always ready with another epicyclic defense of the old dogma.

We have many potential Kants, all we need is one with the mojo to say what needs to be said, then to follow up with 'new' constructive philosophy. In science, this was done by Galileo.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps this is the wrong forum for such a discussion, but leaving aside the issue of whether or not contemporary philosophy is in a lull, it seems the only practical option is to attempt to increase "the base rate of Kants."

Even if we were experiencing a burst of Kantian level figures, the proper action is almost certainly to attempt to improve further rather than merely celebrating our success.

Ignoring for the moment issues of resources, it seems palpable that cultural issues have a huge impact on the future productivity of most everyone. If there was some way to weaken the influence of individuals with poisonous interpersonal skills, this might profoundly impact the field going forward.