Co-Authorship and Voice in Philosophy


Necessarily, it seems to me, a co-authored work, growing… out of collaborative discussion and intellectual exchange, cannot have an authentic and distinctive voice. Inevitably, unless one author completely dominates the others, it will be written in the flat, correct, acceptable one-dimensional language of the Academy. There will be no dark recesses or ironic overtones, no multi-dimensional representations of a complex, perhaps even internally contradictory social reality. In short, in literary style, it will be indistinguishable from a journal article in Microbiology. But if that is true, why bother?

Robert Paul Wolff discusses whether co-authorship and too much collaboration threatens what is of value in philosophy.

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David McNaughton
David McNaughton
6 years ago

Wolff on co-authorship. Could not access video; just got advert! But the quoted claim seems to me implausible and unimaginative. Why cannot a shared vision, arrived at when two or more people reach agreement, be as much, if not more, penetrating as a single-authored work. Why cannot two people share a distinctive voice? Most of my papers are co-authored and, I hope, neither flat, nor one-dimensional.
David McNaughtonReport

Matt Matravers
6 years ago

I do not want to violate the policy of being “kind”, which (rightly understood) seems sensible, but Wolff’s claim seems to me demonstrably false. Of course, “voice” is important – one of the things I often say to my PhD students towards the end of their theses (when true) is “you have found your own voice” and I mean it as high praise – but two (or, I guess, more) people can find a shared voice. I have found this co-authoring pieces with Brian Barry (on the one hand) and with students (on the other). I won’t speak for my own pieces, but (for example) John Gardner has several co-authored pieces in legal philosophy and it would be extraordinary to describe them as “flat” or “one-dimensional”.Report

Rachel McKinnon
Rachel McKinnon
6 years ago

So far I have three co-authored pieces, all with different voices. One is mostly my own voice, one is half my co-author’s voice half mine, and one is a completely new voice through the combination of both authors. There’s nothing inherent to co-authorship that leads to “voiceless” papers. That’s on the authors. Co-authored papers can still have all the lyrical, literary qualities Robert values.Report

Helen
Helen
6 years ago

Most of my work is co-authored, usually with the same author. I find it puzzling that philosophers are so averse to co-authored work – the objections to this (going from, we can’t attribute the work to an author to, now, co-authored work sounds flat and dull) seem to me post-hoc rationalizations for what is a bias toward the individual lone, brilliant, thinker that still plagues philosophy.
Let me address the “voice objection” here. My co-authored work does not sound more dull or flat than my single-authored work. In fact, because we have a long-standing collaboration and some non-overlapping interests and expertise, our co-authored pieces are typically richer and the prose is better. For instance, the hyperboles and literal style are mostly (but not exclusively) his, so my sole-authored papers do have the quirky links to other fields (which is how I tend to write) but they tend to be a bit drier than my co-authored work. Moreover, for some reason I can’t put my finger on, our jointly written papers have a consistent, distinct voice that is more than the sum of our single-authored work.
When we write a paper, we often have points of disagreement. We usually discuss extensively when disagreement arises – if I can’t even convince my co-author, how can I ever hope to convince a referee? So if I (or he) find we cannot make a compelling argument for why the controversial bit should be in the paper, it goes out. If disagreement remains, but we both feel the controversial bit makes the paper more interesting, richer, stronger, i.e., if it’s in the best interest *of the paper*, it remains in. While the person who is listed as first author typically did most of the writing, I would not say that this means that person “dominated” the other – there will always be discussion about what goes in the paper, how it’s organized, how the argument is developed.
Given what we know about the social dynamics of reasoning (e.g., work by Mercier & Sperber), we can expect that a co-authored paper, especially written by people who have a long-standing collaboration, will all things being equal, be stronger and richer than a single-authored paper.Report

John Protevi
John Protevi
6 years ago

“Inevitably, unless one author completely dominates the others, it will be written in the flat, correct, acceptable one-dimensional language of the Academy. There will be no dark recesses or ironic overtones, no multi-dimensional representations of a complex, perhaps even internally contradictory social reality. In short, in literary style, it will be indistinguishable from a journal article in Microbiology.”

When I think of _Anti-Oedipus_ I always bemoan its lack of dark recesses and ironic overtones, and think to myself, “Gah, this reads just like a J Microbio piece.”Report