Philosophical Research after the Virus (guest post by Eric Steinhart)


The following is a guest post* by Eric Steinhart, professor of philosophy at William Paterson University, on the possible consequences of the widespread disruptions to ordinary life being caused by the pandemic and reactions to it. 

It first appeared at The Philosophers’ Cocoon.


Edvard Munch, “Self-Portrait after Spanish Influenza”

Philosophical Research after the Virus
by Eric Steinhart

Most of us are acutely aware of the extreme impact of the virus on our teaching (it’s SARS-CoV-2, but I’ll just call it the virus). We’ve been suddenly forced to move our entire teaching loads into new formats very rapidly. This is disruptive. Actually, it’s more than disruptive—it’s a shock.

Some of us have become aware of the impacts the virus will also have on our schools. The outlook is not pretty. For a large number of reasons, detailed in publications like The Chronicle of Higher Education or Inside Higher Ed, many colleges and universities now face uncertain financial futures. And even if jobs are not lost and departments are not closed, research funding is likely to be cut back severely. This includes release time for research, as well as money for travel to conferences, and so on. It also includes money for buying new books and maintaining subscriptions to journals.

If the shock to teaching is the lightning, then the shock to research is the thunder. Already, in my own limited Facebook feed, I see conferences being cancelled, visiting professorships cancelled, travel to specialized libraries made impossible, collaborative projects suddenly ended by more pressing concerns.

The immediate impact is on conferences—one after another is being cancelled. These cancellations represent an enormous amount of potentially wasted labor. You wrote that paper; it got accepted; you were going to present it–now nothing. Of course, people are saying you should list it on your vita as accepted. But that fails to address the problem of lost research, research done but now not disseminated.

I suspect there will be a larger disruption to philosophical publication channels. There will be shocks to the system of journal subscriptions and library book purchases. And there will be shocks to the reviewer system. For many reviewers, who are older people, reviewing has now fallen to the absolute bottom of the priority scale. An enormous number of more pressing problems have suddenly presented themselves.  These problems are not going to be solved quickly. It seems likely that our publishing models, already barely sustainable, may no longer be sustained.

Junior faculty now face severe obstacles to research. Putting all courses online takes time away from research.  Other family members may be losing their jobs or may have become ill with the virus. Or worse. It’s reasonable to think that research production by most junior faculty has dropped to near zero. Ideas that might take years to bring to full maturity now have decreasing chances of ever maturing at all.

Senior faculty face a different system of obstacles to research. If you’re a late-career professor (like me), what you’re now worried about is actually dying. Or losing your spouse or parents. All your work may be rather abruptly terminated, and, to say the least, this is research labor lost. It now seems rather pointless to try to work out an extremely polished argument. And, returning to the issue of review, most of us are not likely to prioritize it in our precarious remaining days.

And all of us, junior or senior, face the fact that it takes years to go from a completed philosophical text to an actual publication. Given the disruption caused by the virus, where will you be, and what will you be doing, in five months? Two years? Will the journal system still be functioning? Will libraries still be buying your hundred and fifty dollar book? Should you write that chapter for a book scheduled to come out in two years? Will you be alive then? Will you still have your job? If you have an article or book ready (or almost ready) for submission, why would you bother to submit it? Why not just post it on an online repository while you’re still alive.

Many philosophers have lamented the state of philosophical publication. I won’t repeat their excellent criticisms. But this viral shock means one thing: philosophical scholarship is about to become severely disrupted. Senior faculty are morally obligated to take this into consideration when evaluating junior colleagues for tenure and promotion in the coming years. But what will we be evaluating if not conference talks, journal articles, or academic books? We’ll have to evaluate something else.

I contend that the disruptions caused by this virus are going to transform philosophical publication. The old journal system already has no reason for continuing. The old academic book publishing system has no reason for continuing. There are alternative systems. Most of them involve publication via submission to online repositories like PhilPapers. Review and quality assurance can be done in online repositories. Surely philosophers are intelligent enough to figure out new ways to do quality assurance in new publishing models.

So I see a brighter and much larger future for PhilPapers or something like it. It involves much more curatorial work by area editors. It involves a draft system, in which labor can be recorded through many drafts before being submitted for curation. It involves systems of citation tracking and other metrics. It involves dropping our library subscriptions to predatory publishers and sending the funds to PhilPapers or something like it.

I also see a brighter and larger future for philosophical blogs, podcasts, YouTube channels, and so on. By forcing philosophy to face the public, this can only be good for philosophy. But there will need to be ways to assess the quality and impact of these new publication channels. I’m confident these ways can be found.

I don’t know what the future holds for any of us or our institutions. I’m sure I’ve missed important parts of the future of philosophical scholarship. But I suspect many of us will now mark our lives as BV and AV. I’m confident that we can make AV better for philosophy than BV.

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