Thursday, October 10, 2019

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

Part I: Should You Apply, and Where?

Part II: Grades, Classes, and Institution of Origin

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

Who to Ask

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

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

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

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

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

Should You Waive Your Right to See the Letter?

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

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

Enabling Your Professors to Write the Best Possible Letters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gentle Reminders

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

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

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

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

Advice to Letter Writers

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

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

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

Gifts of Thanks

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

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

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Tuesday, October 08, 2019

So 2018?

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

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

Friday, October 04, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion: Therefore, snails have conscious sensory experiences.

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

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

What then, should we want from a philosophical argument?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Friday, September 27, 2019

Age Effects on SEP Citation, Plus the Baby Boom Philosophy Bust and The Winnowing of Greats

I have a theory about the baby boom and academic philosophy in the major Anglophone countries. To explain and defend it, we'll need to work through some more numbers from my analysis of citations in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Recency Bias

First, left's examine recency bias in the encyclopedia. I've done this by taking David Schwitzgebel's August 2019 scrape of the bibliographic sections of all the main-page SEP entries and searching for the first occurrence of "19", "20", or "forthcoming" on each line, then retrieving the first four characters from that location. Non-numbers (except "fort") and numbers <1900 or >2019 were excluded. Everything else was interpreted as a date. (I did not include dates from before 1900, since those works citation formats are less systematic, and often a translation date is cited rather than an original publication date.)

The result is a pretty little curve peaking at 2003-2007:

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In 2014, I'd conducted a similar analysis. In those data, the peak was 1999-2003:

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And in 2010, I'd also done a similar analysis! The peak year was 2000:

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Thus, in the Stanford Encyclopedia, the most recent works appear to be somewhat disadvantaged compared to works about ten years old. Back in time from the peak years, there's a steep linear decline to about 1950, before which there are few citations and the citation rate becomes approximately flat. (Probably, serious curve fitting wouldn't show it to be three linear phases; but close enough.) Over the past nine years, the peak appears to have advanced by about five years. Since SEP entries are updated about every five years on average, we might expect some delays for that reason; and if people are a little lazy about updating references when they update their entries, that could explain why the peak isn't advancing as fast as the clock.

I assume that all these effects are recency effects. Another alternative, of course, is that early 21st century philosophy is vastly better and more citable than earlier philosophy, so that a good a 23rd century encyclopedia would show a similar curve, also massively disproportionately citing early 21st century philosophers compared to 20th century philosophers. (If you find that plausible, I have a beautiful little Proof that P to sell you!)

Based on these results, one might expect that the most-cited philosophers in the 2019 Stanford Encyclopedia would be those whose most influential works appeared around 2003-2007. However, that is not the case.

I have a twofold explanation why: The Winnowing of Greats and The Baby Boom Philosophy Bust. But it's going to take a bit of data analyses to get there.

Most Cited Philosophers, Oldest Generation

For analysis, I have divided my list of the 295 most-cited philosophers into four generations based on age: 1900-1919 (oldest), 1920-1945 (pre-boom), 1946-1964 (boomers), and 1965-present (Generation X). Age was estimated based on birthyear as recorded in Wikipedia (for most authors) or estimated based on date of undergraduate degree (assuming age 22) or in a few cases date of PhD (assuming age 29). A CSV with the data is here. I welcome corrections.

Looking at the oldest generation (1900-1919), we see some stalwarts near the top of the most-cited list: Quine at #2 and Davidson at #5. Chisholm, Strawson, Popper, Geach, Goodman, Mackie, and Anscombe all appear in the top 50. Interestingly, although 19 philosophers from this generation rank among the top 100, only 13 appear in the remainder of the list of 295.

I'm inclined to attribute this to a phenomenon I call The Winnowing of Greats. This is the tendency for the difference between the top performers and the nearly-top performers in any group to come to seem larger with historical (and other types of) distance. We're still citing Quine and Davidson, and to some extent Richard Brandt (#129) and Norman Malcolm (#236), but less famous philosophers from that generation are quickly dropping off the radar.

The intuitive idea of Winnowing of Greats is this: If you're close to a field and you want to list, say, ten leaders in that field in rank order, you might list A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, I, and J. Another person, also close, might partly agree, maybe listing A, C, B, E, G, D, I, K, L, and M. With more distance, someone might only list or think of five -- likely A, B, C (consensus top) and two of D, E, F, or G, starting to forget about H and higher. Still later, people might only mention A, B, and C. Over time, these will come to seem the consensus "best" and thus the ones who need to be discussed on grounds of historical importance in addition to whatever other reasons there are to discuss them; and others will be relatively less mentioned and mostly forgotten except by specialists, and the gap in apparent importance between the top and the remainder will grow -- eventually becoming the "consensus of history".

We could interpret such winnowing as a type of recency bias against all but the most famous, flowing from ignorance due to distance; or we could see it as a more legitimate winnowing process.

Starting somewhere around rank #50, the philosophers from the oldest generation who are still ranked might strike those of us who know the history of 20th century philosophy to be ranked rather low relative to their historical importance. I interpret this as recency bias. Quantitative evidence of recency bias is this: Looking at only those philosophers on both the 2014 and 2019 lists, the average loss in rank between the two measures was 11 spots. (Going logarithmic, the average natural log of the rank is 4.11 in 2014 and 4.29 in 2019.)

(For the curious, Chisholm was a notable decliner, rank 12 to 19, which is proportionally large in just 5 years, while Anscombe bucked the trend, climbing significantly, from 66 to 48.)

Most Cited Philosophers, Pre-Boom Generation

The dominant generation is the pre-boom generation (1920-1945). Although this generation includes the largest number of birth years, their dominance of the top of the list is too great to be explainable by that fact alone. This generation gives us six of the top ten (Lewis, Putnam, Rawls, Kripke, Williams, and Nozick) and 33 of the top 50. Most of these authors did their most influential work in the 1960s-1980s. Despite the citation curve peaking for works written in 2003-2007, foundational work by this generation is still being heavily cited. For example, the two most-cited works in the Stanford Encyclopedia are Rawls's A Theory of Justice (1971, cited in 115 entries) and Kripke's Naming and Necessity (1980, cited in 88 entries). (More data on this soon.)

Time is starting to affect the rankings of this generation, too, with an average decline in rank of 8 (average difference in ln of .05). Notably, however, in the top 50, there is an average increase in rank of 3. (It's 1.4 if we exclude Pettit, whose rank increased markedly due to a methodological change: I now include second authors.) This difference in trajectory between the top and bottom is consistent with the Winnowing of Greats.

According to a demographic theory that I call The Baby Boom Philosophy Bust, the Baby Boom generation had a substantial demographic advantage in academic philosophy in the United States. (This probably generalizes outside of the U.S. and outside of philosophy, but let me stick with what I know.) Undergraduate enrollments in the U.S. jumped from 2,444,900 in 1949-1950 to 3,639,847 in 1959-1960 to 8,004,660 to 1969-1970 to 11,569,899 in 1979-1980. After that, enrollments continued to grow, but at a much slower pace. The latter part of this period was of course when the baby boomers hit college, but the earlier part of the period was important too, in the wake of the G.I. Bill and the fast growth of the national prestige of higher education. This national prestige was, I conjecture, partly due to the prestige of the space race and the power of the atom bomb, and it extended into the humanities and arts partly due to the popularity of the idea of IQ and the emerging notion of "creativity". (I have a colleague here at UCR, Ann Goldberg, who is doing fascinating work on the history of the concept of creativity and its role in educational institutions.)

Who was hired to teach all of these new undergraduates? It was of course, the pre-boom generation. A flood of pre-boom Assistant Professors hit the universities during this period. Doing their foundational early-career work in the 1960s-1970s, they set the agenda for the philosophy of the period. Then when the boomers got their PhDs and hit the job market in the 1980s, they discovered that pre-boomers were already astride the academy -- mid-career now, at the height of their influence, not yet ready to step aside for their younger generation. The job market was terrible, and those who made it into tenure-track positions found themselves in an academic world already dominated by Rawls, Lewis, Kripke, Fodor, etc., without a lot of new space at the top. My hypothesis is that this fact about academia in the 1980s and early 1990s means that the baby boomers grew philosophically in the shade of the pre-boom generation -- and not to the heights of prestige and influence that they would have grown to, had they not been so overshadowed in their early careers.

With this hypothesis in mind....

Most Cited Philosophers, Baby-Boom Generation

The boomers (born 1946-1964) contribute two philosophers to the top ten: Nussbaum (#9) and Williamson (#10). Another five are among the top fifty: Fine, Sober, Kitcher, Hawthorne, Smith. (Hawthorne, born 1964, is right at the cutoff between Boom and Gen X, if I have his date right.) They are thus vastly underrepresented in the top 50 compared to the pre-boomers (7 vs 33). However, they are more proportionately represented in the list as a whole (113, compared to 129 for the pre-boomers).

Could the boomers rise in relative prestige, so that if we did a similar analysis in ten or twenty years, we'd find them dominating the top 50 in the way the pre-boomers do now? I see three reasons not to think so.

First, the boomers have already started declining in citation rate, comparing 2014 and 2019, with an average rank decline of 8 (ln = +.009). Mitigating this, however, if we look at the top 100, there's an overall average rank gain of 11 (ln = -.16) -- consistent with the winnowing hypothesis.

Second, in other research, I've found that philosophers tend to reach peak influence around ages 55-70. Thus, boomers should be at their peak influence now and we shouldn't expect a lot more climbing overall.

Third, as noted above, there is a strong recency bias in the Stanford Encyclopedia citations. This should tend to favor philosophers younger than the boomers, and increasingly so over time -- especially since philosophers on average tend to do their most influential work in their late 30s and 40s.

Most Cited Philosophers, Generation X

Gen Xers (born 1965-1980) are still too young to be very well represented among the top-cited philosophers in the Stanford Encyclopedia: Only 21 qualify for the list of 295, three in the top 100 (Chalmers, Schaffer, and Sider). In the past five years, the average rank gain in this group is 16 positions (ln = -.15), so, as one would expect, they are still on an upward trajectory. Also as one would expect, many of them are new to the list as of 2019 (11 of the 21), and so not included in these trajectory averages, though headed upward in another sense.

It is, I think, too early to know if Generation X will ultimately prove also to have grown too much in the shade of the pre-boom generation. I sense that this might be so: Mainstream analytic philosophers still to a large extent live in a philosophical world whose agenda was set by Lewis, Kripke, Rawls, Williams, and Putnam.

Side note on demographic diversity of most-cited Gen X philosophers: If my gender and race/ethnicity classifications are correct, then (perhaps surprisingly?) the most-cited Gen X philosophers are slightly farther from gender parity and racial diversity than the Boomers, with 3/21 women and no Latinx or non-White philosophers (compared to the Boomers' 17% women, 2% Latinx or non-White). However, since the numbers are small, this might be chance variation.

Explanation of the Misalignment of Peak Citation Year and the Age of the Most-Cited Philosophers

To cross my t's and dot my i's: Although the peak citation years are 2003-2007, the pre-boom generation is the most cited because, due to their demographic advantage in academia, they dominated philosophy from the 1970s at least into the 1990s (and maybe they still do, despite death and retirement), shading the boomers and maybe also the Gen-Xers. Although recent work is the most cited in the aggregate, the Winnowing process hasn't yet given us the distance required for consensus on the Greats, so those recent citations remain scattered among many authors.

This post is already plenty long, so I won't bother crossing my x's and dotting my j's.

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Applying to PhD Programs in Philosophy, Part II: Grades, Classes, and Institution of Origin

It's awfully hard to be admitted to top-ranked PhD programs in philosophy in the U.S., as I mentioned in Part I of this series.

Today: What do admissions committees look for in transcripts? In future posts, I'll talk about other aspects of the application.

First: How Admissions Committees Work

Normally, philosophy PhD admissions are decided by committees constituted of a few faculty members from the philosophy department, with higher administration formally reviewing and approving the choices. Although some faculty members work on admissions year after year, most faculty rotate on and off the committee.

At U.C. Riverside, where I teach, we receive one to two hundred applications every year, arriving in January. (Elite programs must receive hundreds more.) We have a committee of four, and two members read the files of every applicant. In February, we winnow to about 40 applicants, who are then reviewed and discussed by the whole committee. Offers go out February to March or sometimes April. We usually aim to admit about 15-20 students for a final entering class of 6-8.

In my experience, committee members employ different approaches. Some take GRE scores seriously; others don't consider them at all. Some look carefully at the letters; others think letters typically say more about the letter writer than about the applicant. Some read every writing sample, looking for gems; others don't bother with the samples unless the student looks plausible on other grounds. Some care a lot about whether the student's interests fit with strengths of the department; others happily admit students with any range of interests. These differences, along with yearly changes in committee composition, explain some of the unpredictability of the process. There is no formula.

GPA, Overall and in Philosophy

You must have excellent grades to have a reasonable prospect of admission to a top-50 ranked philosophy PhD program, unless there is something very unusual about your application. At UCR, currently ranked #32 in the U.S. in the Philosophical Gourmet Report, admitted students typically have GPAs of 3.8 or more and basically straight A's in philosophy during the last year or two of their transcript. For example, in a two-year sample of 13 entering students at UCR (excluding non-U.S. students), median GPA at the most recent previous institution was 3.89, and there were several perfect 4.0's. (Admitted students who declined our offer presumably had GPAs at least as good on average.) The lowest GPA in the two-year sample was about 3.6, but that student had straight As in the final three terms of their record.

Transcripts are evaluated holistically. Not all 3.8 GPAs are equal. What matters most are grades in upper-division philosophy courses. A "C" in chemistry your first year won't sink your application. Conversely, a 3.9 that includes a lot of A-minuses in senior-year philosophy courses doesn't look so good. We want the very strongest students, not (usually) the A-minus students.

Of course, transcript isn't everything. Eyeballing last year's applicant pool, the median GPA of rejected applicants was probably at least 3.75, and we rejected at least 16 applicants with GPAs in the 3.95-4.00 range. A great transcript earns you a closer look, but the whole application has to be impressive, standing out in a field containing dozens, or even hundreds, of other terrific students.

Yes, it's that competitive.

Institution of Origin

By institution of origin I mean where you received or expect to receive your undergraduate degree, or if you are in a Master's program, your Master's degree. Institution of origin strongly influences prospects for admission. Admissions committees tend to look more favorably on applicants from Yale and Oxford than on applicants from less prestigious schools. This appears to be especially true of the most elite PhD programs (PGR top ten ranked), perhaps less true of lower-ranked PhD programs (PGR ranked 30-50), though even among lower-ranked PhD programs I suspect that pedigree has a big influence. (Follow the links for some quantitative analysis.)

This pedigree advantage has several possible explanations. It can be difficult for faculty to evaluate transcripts from schools with which they are unfamiliar (how meaningful is that "A"?). Also, students from elite schools might be better taught how to create writing samples and personal statements that will please admissions committees. Members of admissions committees are more likely to know of, and respect the judgment of, letter writers at elite schools. They might also generally respect the ability of elite schools to select and train excellent students. And, of course, there may also be simple prestige bias.

Non-U.S. students, except from a few elite universities, are probably also disadvantaged in the admissions process, for related reasons: transcripts that can be difficult for U.S. committees to evaluate, differences in philosophical culture and training, fewer personal and professional connections. Furthermore, some programs cap their foreign admissions. At UCR, for example, the Philosophy Department normally can’t enroll more than one new foreign student per year, due to (foolish!) U.C. regulations concerning international students.

Since it can be difficult for admissions committees to evaluate transcripts from small liberal arts schools, foreign schools, and the less famous M.A. programs, it helps if students can have at least one of their letter writers address the issue with concrete comparisons. "Jill's GPA of 3.91 is the best GPA for a graduating senior in Philosophy in the past five years, among 80 graduates." Now the admissions committee knows better what that 3.91 means, in your context.

If you have attended multiple institutions (e.g., community college before undergrad), you are normally required to submit transcripts from all institutions. This can be worrying if, for example, your grades from an older institution are weak. Although ideally its best to have strong grades throughout your college career, in my experience, the most recent two years are more seriously considered than older work, so poor grades early in your education aren't necessarily an application killer. People's educational aspirations and priorities can change over time, especially if their educational path has been crooked. Admissions committees know this.

Master's Degrees

Although probably the majority of admittees to PhD programs gain admission straight from undergraduate study, a substantial minority (about a third?) have some graduate work first. Typically, this is in the form of a terminal Master's program in philosophy. If you aren't admitted into a PhD program that you like, you might want to consider applying to M.A. programs. However, there are also downsides. See the discussion of this issue in Part I.

Transcripts from M.A. programs are evaluated somewhat differently from undergraduate transcripts and often read alongside undergraduate transcripts. From the most demanding M.A. programs, a mix of A's and A-minuses is more favorably viewed than a similar mix would be at the undergraduate level, though in my experience successful applicants from M.A. programs typically do have all or mostly A's, with few A-minuses.

Do You Need to Be a Philosophy Major?

Somewhat to my surprise, when I crunched the numbers, I found that 96% of graduate students in a sample of elite PhD programs and 90% in lower-ranked programs had majored in philosophy or a cognate discipline like History and Philosophy of Science, either at the undergraduate or graduate level. This might give you the impression that unless you are a Philosophy major, your odds of admission are low.

My experience on admissions at UCR suggests that these numbers might be misleading. As long as a student has performed excellently in a substantial number of upper-division courses in philosophy (maybe six to eight), I'm not sure we care so much about the major. There's something attractive about admitting, say, a Biology major who has also done well in a bunch of philosophy courses. That student will bring an unusual perspective and set of skills to the department. The main thing is to have a track record of excellent performance in upper-division or graduate level philosophy.

If I’m right about that, maybe the very high proportion of philosophy majors among admitted students reflects a similarly high proportion in the applicant pool (or the pool of plausible applicants), rather than the preference of admissions committees.

Graduate-Level Courses

If you have the opportunity to take graduate courses in philosophy, by all means do so, especially if you're at a school with a PhD program. If you can earn an A or two in graduate-level courses in philosophy, that can really solidify the case that you're ready for graduate school -- especially if one or your letter writers compares you favorably with their current graduate students! Also, a graduate course can provide a good opportunity to write an essay that will make a good writing sample.

Unfortunately, applications generally have to be sent in early winter, so make sure you do that graduate work by fall term of the year you apply.

Honors Thesis

For some reason, we don't get many applicants who have written undergraduate honors theses, nor do many philosophy students at UCR write them. (I have supervised only two in my 22 years.) However, if your school offers this option, I would recommend considering it, especially if you are able to complete the thesis by the time of application. It establishes that you can do long-term, self-directed work, and also it gives you a taste of such work so that you can think about whether it's really for you; it's likely to be your best piece of work and so a natural candidate for a writing sample; and on top of all that, it's an intrinsically worthwhile experience!

Timing Graduation

Oddly, students completing their studies in May or June, as is traditional, are at a disadvantage compared to students who finish in December. If you start on the standard U.S. undergraduate schedule, take four years to graduate and apply at the beginning of your 4th year, 1/2 or 2/3 or your senior year won't show in your transcripts, you'll have fewer essays to draw on as writing samples, and you'll have had less exposure to potential letter writers than if you take an extra term to graduate and apply at the beginning of your fifth year.

I myself took an extra quarter at Stanford and applied in fall of my fifth year -- and I know my application was much better than it would have been had I applied in fall quarter of my fourth year. I then had fun for nine months, hanging out with friends in northern California, holding a temporary job I didn't care much about. I had plenty of time to travel to the schools that admitted me -- a wonderful experience that I'll describe in Part VII of this series.

Another possibility is to graduate your fourth year, then apply the year after. This potentially doesn't look quite as good to admissions committees, who might wonder why you didn't proceed straight to graduate school. However, let me emphasize that if you are still within one year of graduation this consideration is a relatively minor factor.

If you are more than a year past graduation, the situation is more difficult. You will need to work carefully on your Personal Statement (which I will discuss in Part V) to explain why you are now interested in pursuing graduate school in philosophy. You will probably also want to show recent engagement in academic philosophy, for example, by taking further coursework.

Part III: Letters of Recommendation


Applying to PhD Programs in Philosophy, Part I: Should you Apply, and Where?

Old series from 2007, Parts I-VII.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

In Praise of UC Riverside Undergraduates

This year, U.C. Riverside is ranked #1 among national universities on the US News & World Report college ranking metric of "social mobility". This metric is based on six-year graduation rates among Pell Grant recipients (most of whose family incomes are below $50,000) and the relative graduation rates of Pell students vs non-Pell students.

UCR has long been notable for its success with first-generation college students, economically disadvantaged students, and students from historically underrepresented groups. Money Magazine ranks it #1 among "most transformative" public colleges (and #4 overall), based on having higher-than-expected graduation rates, earnings, and student loan repayment given the economic and academic background of its students. In 2014, when President Obama proposed a plan to rank universities based on graduation rates, percent of Pell recipients, and affordability, UC Riverside also came out as #1. Fifty-six percent of UCR students are Pell recipients, and the plurality (40%) are Latinx.

I often hear faculty from other universities complain about their undergraduates acting entitled to high grades and special treatment. I have not found this to be the case at UC Riverside. Last year, only one student complained to me about their grade, and the few who asked for accommodations or exceptions seemed genuinely to need them. Many UCR students work incredibly hard, juggling work, school, and sometimes difficult family lives. Students admitted to the U.C. system who want to party choose one of the coastal schools instead.

In theory, a school could achieve high graduation rates by making the coursework easy. Although grade inflation is widespread in academia, I don't think it is especially the case at UCR. My lower-division class "Evil", for example, requires substantial amounts of difficult reading, two essays, and three exams in a ten week term, including a comprehensive in-class final exam which students must pass in order to pass the course. Despite the difficulty of the course, it is among the most popular courses at UCR, always filling with as many spots as we can open up, usually 300-500.

Although students cannot pass Evil without passing the final exam, and about 10% normally fail the final exam, there is almost no cheating on the exam as far as I can tell. Potentially, students could cheat by going to the restroom and looking things up on their phones, but only a small percentage go to the restroom at all, and almost all of those students are quickly in and out. Only about 1% of students even spend long enough in the bathroom to call up a meaningful amount of information on their phone if they wanted to. Students in my Evil class would rather fail the final exam than cheat in that way. Those who do fail tend to blame themselves and retake the course, doing better the next time through.

You won't find me complaining about "kids these days". Not at UCR.

ETA (8:15 a.m.): Some speculations on how this comes about. Mostly, I think, it's explained by the population of students who choose UCR: solid enough academically to gain U.C. admissions, but not the ones who choose schools on grounds of attractive location or party reputation, and often commuting students from the greater L.A. area, with family ties that keep them local. Partly, it's a critical mass of diverse students, so that students from traditionally disadvantaged backgrounds don't feel unusual or isolated, and professors are accustomed to students from such backgrounds. And partly, it's the generally supportive and collaborative academic culture at UCR, in which staff, faculty, and peers all generally want to see each other succeed.

Friday, September 06, 2019

Aiming for Moral Mediocrity

New essay, just out!

  • published version: Res Philosophica, 96, 347-368
  • manuscript version

  • Introduction

    I have an empirical thesis and a normative thesis. The empirical thesis is: Most people aim to be morally-mediocre. They aim to be about as morally good as their peers -- not especially better, not especially worse. This mediocrity has two aspects. It is peer relative rather than absolute, and it is middling rather than extreme. We do not aim to be good, or non—bad, or to act permissibly rather than impermissibly, by fixed moral standards. Rather, we notice the typical behavior of people we regard as out peers, and we aim to behave broadly within that range. We aim to be neither among the best nor among the worst. We -- most of us -- look around, notice how others are acting, then calibrate toward so—so. The normative thesis is that this a somewhat bad way to be, but it's not a terribly bad way to be. Also, it is a somewhat good Way to be, but it's not a Wonderfully good way to be. It's morally mediocre to aim for moral mediocrity. This might sound like a tautology, but it's not. Someone with stringent normative views might regard it as inexcusably rotten to aim merely for mediocrity in our rotten world. Someone with much less stringent views might think that it's perfectly fine to aim for mediocrity, as long as you avoid being among the Worst. I will argue that aiming for mediocrity is neither perfectly fine nor inexcusably rotten. We're morally blameworthy not to aspire for better, but we also deserve tepid praise for avoiding the swampy bottom.

    Part One defends the view that most of us aim for about the moral middle. Part Two argues that, at least in out culture, having such an aim is not perfectly morally fine, and thus that the somewhat pejorative term mediocre is warranted, capturing in a single word both the empirical peer-relative middlingness and the moderate moral badness.

    Part One: The Empirical Thesis

    2. Following the Moral Crowd

    Robert B. Cialdini and collaborators went to Arizona's Petrified Forest National Park (2006). The park had been losing about a ton of petrified wood per month, mostly stolen in small amounts by casual visitors. Cialdini and collaborators posted four different signs intended to discourage theft, rotating their placement at the heads of different paths. Two signs were explicit injunctions: (A) "Please don't remove petrified wood from the park" (with a picture of a visitor stealing wood, crossed by a red circle and bar) and (B) "Please leave petrified wood in the park" (with a picture of a visitor admiring and photographing a piece of wood). Two signs were descriptive: (C) "Many past visitors have removed petrified wood from the park, changing the state of the Petrified Forest" with pictures of three visitors taking wood) and (D) "The vast majority of past visitors have left the petrified wood in the park, preserving the natural state of the Petrified Forest" (with pictures of three visitors admiring and photographing the petrified wood). Cialdini and collaborators then noted how much wood the visitors tookc from the paths headed by the different signs. Rates of theft were lowest (1.7%) when visitors were explicitly enjoined not to take wood (Condition A). Rates of theft were highest (8.0%) when visitors were told that many past visitors have removed wood (Condition C). Being told that many visitors have removed wood might even have increased the rates of theft, which were estimated normally to be 1% to 4% of visitors (Roggenbuck et al. 1997).

    Cialdini and collaborators also found that hotel guests were substantially more likely to reuse towels when a message to "help save the environment" was supplemented with the information that "75% of the guests who stayed in this room (#xxx) participated in our new resource savings program by using their towels more than once" than when the message to help save the environment was supplemented with other types of information or a longer injunction (Goldstein et al. 2008). Similarly, evidence suggests that people are more likely to heed injunctions to reduce household energy usage when shown statistics indicating that they using more energy than their neighbors -- and they may even increase usage when shown statistics that they are using less (Schultz et al. 2007; Allcott 2011; Ayres et al. 2013; Karim et al. 2015). Littering, lying, tax compliance, and suicide appear to be contagious (Cialdini et al. 1990; Gould 2001; Keizer et al. 2011; Haw et al. 2013; Innes and Mitra 2013; Abrutyn and Mueller Z014; Hays and Carver 2014; Kroher and Wolbring, 2015; Maple et al. 2017; Hallsworth et al. 2017; Reyes-Portjllo et al. 2018). In "dictator games" (i.e., in laboratory situations in which randomly chosen participants are given money and told they can either keep it all for themselves or share some with less lucky participants), participants tend to be less generous when they learn that previous participants kept most of the money (Bicchieri and Xiao 2009; Dimant 2015; Mcauliffe et al. 2017).


    To read more about the empirical evidence that people mostly aim for peer-relative moral mediocrity and for my reflections on the ethics of doing so, access the full paper here.

    Monday, August 26, 2019

    Some Demographic Features of the Most-Cited Contemporary Authors in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

    Last week, I published a list of the 295 most-cited contemporary authors in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Citation in the SEP is a plausible approximate measure of prominence in mainstream Anglophone philosophy (though see last week's post for several caveats). Let's look at some demographic features of the list.

    Note: A few people on this list, such as Daniel Kahneman and John Maynard Smith, would not normally be classified as philosophers, but this is a small percentage and I won't exclude them from the analysis.

    Women or Transgender Philosophers

    If any of the philosophers on this list are transgender, I am unaware of it. Among the 295, 33 (11%) present as women. This percentage is substantially lower than the percentage of philosophy professors who are women in the U.S. and Britain (where most of the professors on this list are or were employed), which is variously estimated at about 20-30%. Near the top of the list, women are even sparser: Only two in the top 50 (Martha Nussbaum at #9 and G.E.M. Anscombe at #48) and seven in the top 100.

    You might think that even if the most prominent philosophers born in the early 20th century were men, the younger generation is closer to gender parity? I have birthyear information on most of the philosophers and estimates for the remainder (later I'll do a fuller analysis of this information), so I looked for a relationship between gender and birthyear. There does appear to be a small cohort effect in the expected direction, revealed by a small correlation between birthyear and being female (r = .12, p = .04; female = 1, male = 0).

    To further examine the relationship, I partitioned the data into four demographic groups, based on (estimated) birthyear (chi-square = 8.0, p = .047):

    1900-1929: 8% women (5/60)

    1930-1945: 6% women (6/101)

    1946-1959: 18% women (18/100)

    1960+: 12% women (4/34)

    At the highest levels of visibility, mainstream Anglophone philosophy remains very far from gender parity.

    Philosophers of Color and Latinx Philosophers

    Racial and ethnic judgments are difficult to make, so I definitely welcome corrections on this point! However, based on a combination of personal knowledge, professional knowledge, physical appearance, name, and country of origin, I estimate that this list contains two Latinx philosophers (Ernest Sosa and Linda Martín Alcoff) and four non-Latinx philosophers of color (Jaegwon Kim, Amartya Sen, Richard Sorabji, and Kwame Anthony Appiah).

    If this is correct, the list is 98% (289/295) non-Latinx white.

    Disabled Philosophers

    I know of only one philosopher on this list who has an obvious major physical disability (excepting those who acquired disability later in life, often connected with ageing, after their reputation was established) -- though we might also include Paul Feyerabend, who walked heavily on a cane due to a war injury. Please correct me (privately) if I am mistaken!

    Less visually obvious disabilities are of course more difficult to identify, and it's not clear exactly how to categorize disability. I am aware of a couple philosophers on this list who have disvalued speech patterns such as stuttering. Certainly, too, there are at least a few philosophers on this list with histories of depression, severe anxiety, and/or alcoholism, as well as serious chronic physical diseases, though my information here is too sketchy to warrant quantitative analysis. I hesitate to spotlight individual living or recently deceased people in this category unless they put themselves forward. For one example, however, see Peter Railton's Dewey Lecture, where he discusses his history of depression.

    Shelley Tremain has presented data suggesting that in North America the percentage of employable disabled people in philosophy departments is very much less than the percentage in the general population.

    Non-Anglophone Philosophers

    Linus Ta-Lun Huang, Andrew Higgins, and Ivan Gonzalez-Cabrera and I studied citation patterns in elite Anglophone philosophy journals in 2016. In one analysis, we found that, excluding citations of historical work before 1946, 99.7% of citations were of work originally written in English.

    In this context, it is almost surprising that any philosophers who published post-WWII work in a language other than English are among the 295 at all. However, we do find two: Jürgen Habermas (#120) and Michel Foucault (#271) -- though obviously their rankings are far below what one would expect based on their global academic importance. (Sartre [#162] has influential work on both sides of World War II, but his most cited work is his 1943 Being and Nothingness.)

    In the oldest cohort, there are a few philosophers who did influential work in languages other than English before World War II, then shifted to writing primarily in English (e.g., Karl Popper).

    [image: philosophy academic family tree (image source, family tree project)]

    Tuesday, August 20, 2019

    The 295 Most-Cited Contemporary Authors in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

    My son David Schwitzgebel is back in town with new mad computer skills, so I thought I'd have him update his 2014 scrape of the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy bibliographies. Below are the 295 most-cited authors (including only authors born 1900 or later).

    Image of a young David K. Lewis [source, cropped]


    * Each author is only counted once per entry. In 2010, I found that this generated more intuitively plausible results than counting authors multiple times per entry.

    * Unlike in the 2014 list, I include co-authors. Co-authorship is increasingly important in philosophy. However, due to unsystematic formatting, I was also only able to search for co-authorship if the author was cited in at least 27 entries as first author in my first-pass coding. Even among authors in that group, I probably didn't capture all co-authorships.

    * Also unlike in the 2014 list, I included editors, but only if their name appeared before the date and any author names in the bibliographical line. Putting the editor at the front of the bibliographical line highlights the editor's role or the edited collection as a whole.

    * After computerized search and sort, I hand-coded the data, in some cases correcting misspellings and merging authors (e.g., Ruth Barcan = Ruth Marcus), more often separating authors with similar names (e.g., various A. Goldmans and J. Cohens), in a process that involved some guesswork and pattern recognition. Inconsistent syntax and imperfect redundancy removal procedures also created some error, though nothing large or systematic that I noticed. Bear in mind that with about 170,000 bibliographic entries, perfection is not possible! I estimate coding error of up to about +/- 2 entries.

    * If you just plug the author's name as search term into SEP's front page, you'll almost certainly get more page hits than my method delivers (e.g., people in non-headline editing roles, on in subentries, or mentioned in the text but not cited in the bibliography section, or as false positives). So please don't critique my numbers via that method! I do welcome thoughtful corrections.

    As a rough measure of influence in current mainstream Anglophone philosophy

    This list generates a rough measure of current influence in what I call "mainstream Anglophone philosophy" (a sociological category I have defined and discussed here and here). For example, the top five -- Lewis, Quine, Putnam, Rawls, and Davidson -- contains four of the top five in Brian Leiter's poll results concerning the best Anglophone philosophers since 1957. Better-known bibliographic metrics, like Google Scholar and Web of Science do not as accurately measure this particular sociological phenomenon.

    The list captures, if anything, a moment in one academic philosophical culture. For example, despite Michel Foucault's huge global academic influence, mainstream Anglophone philosophers rarely cite him, and on this list he ranks #271.

    Further caveats:

    * Philosophers who work on topics that are underrepresented in the Stanford Encyclopedia relative to their visibility in mainstream Anglophone philosophy will appear lower on the list than their eminence would suggest. I'm inclined to think that philosophy of race, for example, is underrepresented.

    * Authors who have a transformative impact in one area will probably be underrepresented relative to authors who make significant but less transformative contributions to several topics. This will explain some conspicuous absences from the list, such as Barry Stroud, who died about a week ago and so is on my mind.

    * Editors of the Stanford Encyclopedia might be somewhat overrepresented, since they might tend to disproportionately solicit entries on topics to which they have contributed and authors might feel some pressure to cite them in their entries.

    * ETA: Also, I'm pretty sure that philosophers whose main contributions were before 1960 are substantially underrated on this list relative to their historical importance.

    * ETA2: As several readers have pointed out, yes, I'm on this list (in a tie for #251). I find this somewhat embarrassing, since I think this method substantially overrates me (see the 2nd and 4th caveats). If you could withhold congratulations and comparisons, I'd appreciate it!

    As I did in 2014, I will follow up later with some demographic analyses. (ETA3: gender, race/ethnicity, disability, language.)

    1. Lewis, David K. (cited in 267 main-page SEP entries)
    2. Quine, W.V.O. (191)
    3. Putnam, Hilary (168)
    4. Rawls, John (146)
    5. Davidson, Donald (142)
    6. Kripke, Saul (139)
    7. Williams, Bernard (133)
    8. Nozick, Robert (126)
    9. Nussbaum, Martha (121)
    10. Williamson, Timothy (116)
    11. Jackson, Frank (113)
    11. Nagel, Thomas (113)
    13. Searle, John R. (111)
    13. Van Fraassen, Bas (111)
    15. Armstrong, David M. (106)
    16. Dummett, Michael (104)
    16. Fodor, Jerry (104)
    16. Harman, Gilbert (104)
    19. Chisholm, Roderick (103)
    19. Dennett, Daniel C. (103)
    21. Chalmers, David J. (101)
    21. Strawson, P.F. (101)
    23. Stalnaker, Robert (96)
    24. Scanlon, T.M. (92)
    25. Dworkin, Ronald (91)
    26. Pettit, Philip (90)
    27. Fine, Kit (89)
    27. Sober, Elliott (89)
    27. Van Inwagen, Peter (89)
    30. Popper, Karl (88)
    31. Parfit, Derek (87)
    32. Kitcher, Philip (86)
    33. Bennett, Jonathan (83)
    33. Raz, Joseph (83)
    35. Hawthorne, John (82)
    35. McDowell, John (82)
    37. Geach, P.T. (81)
    38. Hintikka, Jaakko (80)
    39. Adams, Robert (79)
    39. Hacking, Ian (79)
    41. Goldman, Alvin I. (78)
    42. Goodman, Nelson (76)
    43. Mackie, John (74)
    43. Plantinga, Alvin (74)
    45. Dretske, Fred (73)
    45. Smith, Michael (73)
    45. Taylor, Charles (73)
    48. Alston, William (72)
    48. Anscombe, G.E.M. (72)
    50. Wright, Crispin (71)
    51. Ayer, A.J. (69)
    51. Gibbard, Allan (69)
    51. Kim, Jaegwon (69)
    51. Stich, Stephen (69)
    55. Evans, Gareth (68)
    55. Tarski, Alfred (68)
    57. Korsgaard, Christine (67)
    57. Lycan, William G. (67)
    59. Gödel, Kurt (66)
    59. Schaffer, Jonathan (66)
    59. Sellars, Wilfrid (66)
    59. Singer, Peter (66)
    63. Anderson, Elizabeth (65)
    63. Burge, Tyler (65)
    63. Horgan, Terence (65)
    66. Block, Ned (63)
    66. Feinberg, Joel (63)
    66. Kaplan, David (63)
    66. Priest, Graham (63)
    66. Swinburne, Richard (63)
    66. Thomson, Judith Jarvis (63)
    72. Rescher, Nicholas (62)
    73. Blackburn, Simon (61)
    73. Wiggins, David (61)
    75. Frankfurt, Harry (60)
    75. Hempel, Carl (60)
    75. Kuhn, Thomas (60)
    75. Shoemaker, Sydney (60)
    75. Sosa, Ernest (60)
    75. Zalta, Edward (60)
    81. Earman, John (59)
    81. Grice, H.P. (59)
    83. Skyrms, Brian (58)
    83. Smart, J.J.C. (58)
    85. Barnes, Jonathan (57)
    85. Cartwright, Nancy (57)
    85. Field, Hartry (57)
    85. Hare, R.M. (57)
    85. Lowe, E.J. (57)
    85. Ramsey, Frank P. (57)
    85. Rosen, Gideon (57)
    85. Ryle, Gilbert (57)
    85. Sen, Amartya (57)
    94. Perry, John (56)
    94. Sider, Theodore (56)
    94. Soames, Scott (56)
    94. Velleman, David (56)
    94. Woodward, James (56)
    99. MacIntyr e, Alasdair (55)
    100. Annas, Julia (54)
    100. Kenny, Anthony (54)
    100. Prior, Arthur N. (54)
    100. Yablo, Stephen (54)
    104. Clark, Andy (53)
    104. Darwall, Stephen (53)
    104. Waldron, Jeremy (53)
    107. Parsons, Terence (52)
    107. Schofield, Malcolm (52)
    109. Dancy, Jonathan (51)
    109. Friedman, Michael (51)
    109. Jeffrey, Richard C. (51)
    109. Nichols, Shaun (51)
    109. Peacocke, Christopher (51)
    109. Shapiro, Stewart (51)
    109. Sorabji, Richard (51)
    116. Brink, David O. (50)
    116. Church, Alonzo (50)
    116. Simons, Peter (50)
    116. Van Benthem, Johan (50)
    120. Cooper, John M. (49)
    120. Habermas, Jürgen (49)
    120. Hart, H.L.A. (49)
    120. Irwin, Terence (49)
    120. Young, Iris Marion (49)
    125. Audi, Robert (48)
    125. Griffiths, Paul (48)
    125. Millikan, Ruth G. (48)
    125. Tye, Michael (48)
    129. Austin, J.L. (47)
    129. Barwise, Jon (47)
    129. Belnap, Nuel (47)
    129. Brandom, Robert (47)
    129. Chomsky, Noam (47)
    129. Glymour, Clark (47)
    129. Papineau, David (47)
    129. Rorty, Richard (47)
    137. Burgess, John P. (46)
    137. McGinn, Colin (46)
    139. Brandt, Richard (45)
    139. Devitt, Michael (45)
    139. Foot, Philippa (45)
    139. Kretzmann, Norman (45)
    139. McLaughlin, Brian P. (45)
    139. Sedley, D.N. (45)
    139. Von Neumann, John (45)
    146. Montague, Richard (44)
    146. Stump, Eleonore (44)
    148. Boolos, George (43)
    148. Horwich, Paul (43)
    148. Johnston, Mark (43)
    151. Buchanan, Allen (42)
    151. Godfrey-Smith, Peter (42)
    151. Mellor, D.H. (42)
    151. Prinz, Jesse J. (42)
    151. Smith, Barry (42)
    156. Arneson, Richard (41)
    156. Miller, David (41)
    156. Railton, Peter (41)
    156. Salmon, Nathan (41)
    156. Salmon, W.C. (41)
    156. Unger, Peter (41)
    162. Carruthers, Peter (40)
    162. Churchland, Paul M. (40)
    162. Feferman, Solomon (40)
    162. Kymlicka, Will (40)
    162. Loewer, Barry (40)
    162. Okin, Susan Moller (40)
    162. Sartre, Jean-Paul (40)
    162. Sterelny, Kim (40)
    162. Suppes, Patrick (40)
    171. Davies, Martin (39)
    171. Finnis, John (39)
    171. Kahneman, Daniel (39)
    171. Maudlin, Tim (39)
    171. Sandel, Michael (39)
    171. Stanley, Jason (39)
    171. Strawson, Galen (39)
    178. Appiah, Kwame Anthony (38)
    178. Butler, Judith (38)
    178. Dupré, John (38)
    178. Gauthier, David (38)
    178. Guyer, Paul (38)
    178. Hampton, Jean (38)
    178. Kriegel, Uriah (38)
    178. Merricks, Trenton (38)
    178. Schiffer, Stephen (38)
    178. Wolterstorff, Nicholas (38)
    188. Burnyeat, Myles (37)
    188. Goodin, Robert E. (37)
    188. Heil, John (37)
    188. McMahan, Jeff (37)
    188. Mele, Alfred (37)
    188. O'Neill, Onora (37)
    188. Sinnott-Armstrong, Walter (37)
    188. Sunstein, Cass (37)
    188. Zagzebski, Linda (37)
    197. Baker, Lynne Rudder (36)
    197. Barry, Brian (36)
    197. Gabbay, Dov (36)
    197. Mancosu, Paolo (36)
    197. Nagel, Ernest (36)
    197. Walzer, Michael (36)
    197. Wood, Allen (36)
    204. Boghossian, Paul (35)
    204. Cohen, G.A. (35)
    204. Feldman, Fred (35)
    204. Laudan, Larry (35)
    204. Lehrer, Keith (35)
    204. Pogge, Thomas (35)
    204. Rowe, William (35)
    211. Bach, Kent (34)
    211. Bealer, George (34)
    211. Bird, Alexander (34)
    211. Broome, John (34)
    211. Elster, Jon (34)
    211. Hale, Bob (34)
    211. Haslanger, Sally (34)
    211. Hull, David L. (34)
    211. Scheffler, Samuel (34)
    211. Slote, Michael (34)
    211. Teller, Paul (34)
    211. Thomasson, Amie (34)
    211. Van Cleve, James (34)
    211. Watson, Gary (34)
    211. Zimmerman, Dean (34)
    226. Beiser, Frederick C. (33)
    226. Bonjour, Laurence (33)
    226. Flanagan, Owen (33)
    226. Garber, Daniel (33)
    226. Hurka, Thomas (33)
    226. Hurley, Susan (33)
    226. List, Christian (33)
    226. Nolan, Daniel (33)
    226. Price, Huw (33)
    226. Wimsatt, William C. (33)
    236. Byrne, Alex (32)
    236. Cohen, Joshua (32)
    236. Conee, Earl (32)
    236. Craig, William Lane (32)
    236. Hájek, Alan (32)
    236. Halpern, Joseph Y. (32)
    236. Kagan, Shelly (32)
    236. Kraut, Richard (32)
    236. Levy, Neil (32)
    236. Long, A.A. (32)
    236. Longino, Helen (32)
    236. Malcolm, Norman (32)
    236. Pollock, John (32)
    236. Recanati, François (32)
    236. Sainsbury, R.M. (32)
    251. Allison, Henry E. (31)
    251. Black, Max (31)
    251. Crane, Tim (31)
    251. Feyerabend, Paul K. (31)
    251. Kahn, C.H. (31)
    251. Linsky, Bernard (31)
    251. MacKinnon, Catharine (31)
    251. Marcus, Ruth Barcan (31)
    251. Schroeder, Mark (31)
    251. Schwitzgebel, Eric (31)
    251. Shafer-Landau, Russ (31)
    262. Bechtel, William (30)
    262. Benhabib, Seyla (30)
    262. Berlin, Isaiah (30)
    262. Butterfield, Jeremy (30)
    262. Fischer, John Martin (30)
    262. Griffin, James (30)
    262. Levi, Isaac (30)
    262. Paul, L.A. (30)
    262. Sorensen, Roy A. (30)
    271. Alcoff, Linda Martín (29)
    271. Bayne, Tim (29)
    271. Bigelow, John (29)
    271. Crisp, Roger (29)
    271. Feldman, Richard (29)
    271. Foucault, Michel (29)
    271. Gendler, Tamar (29)
    271. Kleene, S.C. (29)
    271. Loar, Brian (29)
    271. Parsons, Charles (29)
    271. Vlastos, Gregory (29)
    271. Von Wright, Georg H. (29)
    271. Wolf, Susan (29)
    271. Wolff, Jonathan (29)
    285. Adams, Marilyn McCord (28)
    285. Baier, Annette (28)
    285. Bratman, Michael (28)
    285. Ebbesen, Sten (28)
    285. Huemer, Michael (28)
    285. Kamm, Frances (28)
    285. Langton, Rae (28)
    285. Lloyd, Elisabeth (28)
    285. Maynard Smith, John (28)
    285. Pasnau, Robert (28)
    285. Spade, Paul Vincent (28)

    For the 2014 list, see here.

    Thursday, August 15, 2019

    Why I Write Weird Stuff, Like "Kant Meets Cyberpunk"

    My paper "Kant Meets Cyberpunk" has finally appeared (published version, manuscript version). Yay!

    I imagine someone asking, Eric, why do you write such weird stuff?

    In "Kant Meets Cyberpunk", I entertain the possibility that we are artificial intelligences living inside a computer simulation. But unlike computer simulations as they are typically conceived, the computer that implements our reality is a non-physical thing, an immaterial spirit named Angel. Angel can implement any Turing-equivalent machine by sadly humming while shifting back and forth along an imagined musical score.

    If that were the nature of our reality, transcendental idealism would be true. Spatiality would be a property not of things as they are in themselves, but rather the form of our empirical perceptions of things; and beneath the familiar world of empirical appearances would be a more fundamental reality that is unknowable to us. (This isn't full-blown Kantian transcendental idealism, but it knocks on Kant's door.)

    Now, I suspect that you'll agree that this view is weird. I hope that is also fun, in a nerdy sort of way. Philosophers should celebrate weirdness and fun!

    The weird and fun are intrinsically valuable. They are part of the richness and delightfulness of the world. But philosophical weirdness is especially useful, I think. Philosophical weirdness pushes against the boundaries of what we normally take for granted about the fundamental values and structures of the world.

    The weird undercuts our expectations. And if it's also fun, it does it in a joyful, interesting way. This is true both in philosophy and in ordinary life. "She wore that to work? How weird and fun!"... and suddenly a new possibility is open. You could wear something weird too.

    Philosophy has a wide range of possible functions. Different people might reasonably want different things from it. You might want the secure, sensible answer to an important question, for example. Or you might want to know what ideas were culturally influential in the past. Or you might want an ethical system that confirms your prejudices so that you can bludgeon your foes with formidable argumentation.

    What I want most from philosophy, I find, is a sense of wonder. I want to challenge what I previously thought I knew. I want to feel awed by the strangeness, complexity, and incomprehensibility of the world. I want a philosophy that opens up new possibilities for me and induces interesting doubt, rather than one that primarily seeks to close possibilities by settling definitively on the right answer.

    Right answers are great in a way, too, of course, and I wouldn't toss one away if I find it has landed in my hands. But I suspect we discover right answers much less in philosophy than we think we do, and thinking one has found the right answer typically incites a different mood than wonder -- a mood that is already abundant and doesn't need to be especially encouraged.

    We are almost certainly not artificial intelligences living inside of a Turing-machine-equivalent angel sadly humming. But I think if we can insert that weird, fun idea into our possibility space, however tiny and remote the possibility, that opens up something philosophically valuable. The range of ways our (or at least someone's) world could be is wider and weirder than we might have previously assumed, and that's wonderful.

    [image source]



    On Trusting Your Sense of Fun (Jan 23, 2013)

    Skepticism, Godzilla, and the Artificial Computerized Many-Branching You (Nov 15, 2013)

    Common Sense, Science Fiction, and Weird, Uncharitable History of Philosophy (Apr 21, 2017)

    How to Build an Immaterial Computer (Sep 25, 2017)

    Thursday, August 08, 2019

    Top Science Fiction and Fantasy Magazines 2019

    Since 2014, I've compiled an annual ranking of science fiction and fantasy magazines, based on prominent awards nominations and "best of" placements over the past ten years.

    Below is my list for 2019. (For all previous lists, see here.)

    Method and Caveats:

    (1.) Only magazines are included (online or in print), not anthologies, standalones, or series.

    (2.) I gave each magazine one point for each story nominated for a Hugo, Nebula, Eugie, or World Fantasy Award in the past ten years; one point for each story appearance in any of the Dozois, Horton, Strahan, Clarke, or Adams "Year's Best" anthologies; and half a point for each story appearing in the short story or novelette category of the annual Locus Recommended list.

    (3.) I am not attempting to include the horror / dark fantasy genre, except as it appears incidentally on the list.

    (4.) Prose only, not poetry.

    (5.) I'm not attempting to correct for frequency of publication or length of table of contents.

    (6.) I'm also not correcting for a magazine's only having published during part of the ten-year period. Reputations of defunct magazines slowly fade, and sometimes they are restarted. Reputations of new magazines take time to build.

    (7.) I take the list down to 1.5 points.

    (8.) I welcome corrections.

    (9.) I confess to some ambivalence about rankings of this sort. They reinforce the prestige hierarchy, and they compress interesting complexity into a single scale. However, the prestige of a magazine is a socially real phenomenon that deserves to be tracked, especially for the sake of outsiders and newcomers who might not otherwise know what magazines are well regarded by insiders when considering, for example, where to submit.


    1. Asimov's (206.5 points)
    2. Clarkesworld (163.5)
    3. (162)
    4. Fantasy & Science Fiction (142.5)
    5. Lightspeed (116)
    6. Subterranean (73) (ceased 2014)
    7. Analog (56.5)
    8. Uncanny (54) (started 2014)
    9. Strange Horizons (49.5)
    10. Beneath Ceaseless Skies (48)
    11. Interzone (43)
    12. Apex (28.5)
    13. Fantasy Magazine (24.5) (merged into Lightspeed 2012, occasional special issues thereafter)
    14. Nightmare (18.5) (started 2012)
    15. Fireside (10) (started 2012)
    16t. Postscripts (9) (ceased short fiction in 2014)
    16t. The New Yorker (9)
    18. Slate / Future Tense (7.5)
    19t. Black Static (7)
    19t. Realms of Fantasy (7) (ceased 2011)
    21t. McSweeney's (6)
    21t. Shimmer (6) (ceased 2018)
    23t. Electric Velocipede (5.5) (ceased 2013)
    23t. Sirenia Digest (5.5)
    23t. The Dark (5.5) (started 2013)
    26t. Conjunctions (5)
    26t. GigaNotoSaurus (5)
    26t. Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet (5)
    29t. Fiyah (4.5) (started 2017)
    29t. Intergalactic Medicine Show (4.5) (ceased 2019)
    29t. Omni (4.5) (classic science/SF magazine, restarted 2017)
    29t. Terraform (4.5) (started 2014)
    29t. Tin House (4.5)
    34. Boston Review (4)
    35t. Cosmos (3)
    35t. Helix SF (3) (ceased 2008)
    35t. Jim Baen's Universe (3) (ceased 2010)
    38t. Buzzfeed (2.5)
    38t. Harper's (2.5)
    38t. Kaleidotrope (2.5)
    38t. Lone Star Stories (2.5) (ceased 2009)
    38t. Matter (2.5) (started 2011)
    38t. Paris Review (2.5)
    38t. Weird Tales (2.5) (ceased 2014)
    45t. Abyss & Apex (2)
    45t. Augur (2) (started 2018)
    45t. B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog (2)
    45t. Beloit Fiction Journal (2)
    45t. Mothership Zeta (2) (started 2015)
    50t. Black Gate (1.5)
    50t. Daily Science Fiction (1.5)
    50t. e-flux journal (1.5)
    50t. Flurb (1.5) (ceased 2012)


    (1.) The New Yorker, Tin House, McSweeney's, Conjunctions, Harper's, Beloit Fiction Journal, Boston Review, and Paris Review are literary magazines that occasionally publish science fiction or fantasy. Cosmos, Slate, and Buzzfeed are popular magazines that publish a bit of science fiction on the side. e-flux is a wide-ranging arts journal. The remaining magazines focus on the F/SF genre.

    (2.) It's also interesting to consider a three-year window. Here are those results, down to six points:

    1. (67.5)
    2. Clarkesworld (63.5)
    3. Lightspeed (51.5)
    4. Uncanny (48)
    5. Asimov's (47)
    6. F&SF (36.5)
    7. Beneath Ceaseless Skies (29.5)
    8. Analog (17.5)
    9. Apex (14)
    10. Strange Horizons (14)
    11. Nightmare (12)
    12. Fireside (10.5)
    13. Interzone (8.5)
    14. Slate / Future Tense (8)

    The classic "big three" print SF magazines are Asimov's, F&SF, and Analog. The three-year list makes clearer how these paid-subscription magazines have been increasingly challenged in importance by a trio of free online magazines, all founded 2006-2010:, Clarkesworld, and Lightspeed -- plus relative newcomer Uncanny, founded in 2014.

    These three-year results also confirm, I think, my decision to use a ten-year window. For example, my impression from chatting with people in the field is that Asimov's is still arguably the most prestigious venue in the mind of the median SF insider, though increasingly challenged by Clarkesworld and -- just what the ten-year results say.

    (3.) Looking back on my original 2014 list, I'm struck by these differences:

    (a.) More magazines are represented in 2019. Twenty-nine magazines appear on the 2014 list; fifty-four appear now. Now, that's not quite an apples-to-apples comparison, since my methodology changed in 2015 to include the Locus list and go down to 1.5 points. However, the more comparable 2015 list still only contains forty magazines. Although several magazines have closed since 2014, overall there are now more opportunities to publish in venues that are regularly read by Locus editors and Best-of editors and awards nominators. I credit the rise of online magazines, which are less expensive to publish.

    (b.) The falloff between the top-ranked and the mid-ranked magazines is less steep in 2019 than it was in 2014. For example, in 2014, the top ranked magazine (Asimov's) earned 8 times as many points as the tenth ranked magazine (Lightspeed). In 2019, the 1st:10th ratio was only 4 to 1. I'm inclined to credit, again, the rise of free online magazines. The rise of such magazines means that publication outside of the bigger circulation print magazines doesn't doom your story to obscurity. This makes it easier for authors to choose other magazines that they personally like for whatever reason. Another factor might be better communication among authors, allowing authors to find magazines that are a good fit for their stories.

    (c.) The relative decline of Asimov's and F&SF. Both are still terrific magazines, of course! But in 2014 they were far ahead of all other contenders: 197 and 146 points respectively, while no other magazine had even a third as many points. F&SF is now 4th. Asimov's is still 1st, but based on the past three years' data, it looks quite possible that Clarkesworld or will soon claim the #1 spot.

    (4.) Left out of these numbers are some terrific podcast venues such as the Escape Artists' podcasts (Escape Pod, Podcastle, Pseudopod, and Cast of Wonders), Drabblecast, and StarShipSofa. None of these qualify for my list by existing criteria, but podcasts are also important venues.

    (5.) Check out Nelson Kingfisher's analysis of acceptance rates and response times for most of the magazines above.

    (6.) Other lists: The SFWA qualifying markets list is a list of "pro" science fiction and fantasy venues based on pay rates and track records of strong circulation. is a regularly updated list of markets, divided into categories based on pay rate.

    [image source; or check out the reboot of Amazing Stories, which I hope will soon qualify for my list!]