In Defense of Academic Writing


Cass Sunstein, writing in The Chronicle of Higher Education, defends serious academic writing against the pressures of popularization and accessibility. Articles in popular magazines and blogs “might be clear and beautifully written, but usually they don’t add much if anything to the stock of knowledge,” and “even when they are written by professors, they are often glib, cheap, and superficial.” Meanwhile, academic work

often adds to what humanity knows, and that should not be disparaged. Such work often has a commitment to rigor, care, discipline, and sheer quality — to avoidance of the narrowly ideological and to mischaracterizing other people’s arguments. When it comes to scholarship, fairness is a coin of the realm. When they are working well, academic journals discourage arguments that are glib, sloppy, or circular. They require conclusions to be earned. They also require both development of and sympathetic engagement with competing points of view, rather than easy or rapid dismissals. Counterarguments are encouraged, even mandatory. There is a kind of internal morality here, one that is connected with and helps account for some of its rigidity. The morality involves respect for the integrity of the process of argument, which entails respect for a wide range of arguers as well. 

Yes, when they are working well. (There’s no mention of Reviewer 2 in there, I noticed.) He adds that academics

write for a specialized audience, and that’s fine. All of them are interested in fundamental questions, and they approach those questions in ways that many general readers would find obscure. What might seem to be unintelligible gibberish, or jargon, often has precision, shorthand, and nuance that cannot be captured in ordinary language…

Sure, there’s room for different kinds of writing. But whatever else they do, academic journals often display great care and rigor, in a way that can make op-eds, blog posts, and essays in even excellent general-interest magazines look like pretty thin gruel—mere bumper stickers, a kind of wind, even when written by professors.

I would bet that there are more academic journals publishing more academic articles by more academics today than ever before, so one might wonder why Sunstein bothered writing the piece, which is on the face of it directed at fellow academics—he says:

I wish, devoutly, that some of the immensely talented academics who write for popular outlets would reallocate some of their time to their academic work, which is less like popcorn. 

However, the essay could be seen as part of a defense of academia from external threats, and much of the essay defends academic work on the basis of its influence. “Common sense can be affected by academic influences, and is sometimes a product of it,” he says, and “academic work often orients our politics, our culture, and our lives.”

So, academic work at its best: rigorous, fair, knowledge-producing, and influential.

Examples of this in ethics and social and political philosophy are not hard to find. But how about some examples from other areas of philosophy?

drop of water

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