Self-Doubt and “Publish or Perish”

It took a while for Jonathan Dancy (University of Texas, University of Reading) to come around to the idea that he had any philosophical talent, he says, in an interview with Clifford Sosis (Coastal Carolina) at What Is It Like To Be A Philosopher? As a result, he did not publish much in the early part of his career.

He received his BPhil from Oxford in 1971, for which he wrote a 30,000 word thesis but “was deeply ashamed of it at the time and never mentioned it,” let alone tried to publish parts of it until recently. “In my first 10 years in post at Keele, I published one 3-page article.”

He adds:

There was no issue about tenure once one had a permanent job, and so there was plenty of time to look around one, learn the subject while teaching it (the best way) and develop one’s talents slowly. I had no ambition because I didn’t think I had any talent, despite having done so well at Oxford (with a double distinction in the BPhil, which was very smart). I was just happy to be in a lifetime job that was reasonably paid and enabled me to read interesting stuff and talk about it to interesting people…

I was not even trying to publish, for the reason that any ideas I had were not worth it.

Those were different times, as he acknowledges:

The trouble about giving advice is that the way I started is now irrelevant, and the way it is for me now is also irrelevant to the needs of those starting out, because at my stage there is no problem about publication, other than the original one of not writing rubbish…

If someone isn’t trying to publish nowadays, they are probably not going to stay in the profession very long. If they are trying but failing, there are still the vagaries of the refereeing system between them and any thought that their ideas are unworthy.

One wonders what kind of work Jonathan Dancy would have produced had he been brought up professionally in today’s “publish or perish” environment. He didn’t start off in moral philosophy. Maybe he would have felt pressured to write and publish on philosophical logic, the subject of his thesis—that and a little path dependency could have meant he never developed his ideas on moral particularism, for example. Instead, he had time to “evolve philosophically on the job” and wait until he thought he had something worthwhile to say. There is certainly something attractive about that.

Yet Dancy is far from the only philosopher to experience self-doubt. For some, it is the pressure of having to publish to get a job or get tenure that overcomes their reticence to share ideas they lack confidence in. How many good ideas and arguments do we know about only because their authors were forced to abandon their harsh self-judgments under the pressure of the publish or perish system? We don’t know, of course, but it is certainly a number greater than zero.

Though Dancy is hesitant to give advice to today’s younger philosophers, when Sosis asks him what counsel he would give his younger self, he begins with “Believe in yourself.”

For philosophers, who are specifically trained to doubt, that might be difficult advice to follow.

The whole interview is here.

Jonathan Dancy

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