Keeping it Real in Philosophy: an Exchange

Keeping it Real in Philosophy: an Exchange


This summer has seen a series of guest posts by Elijah Millgram (Utah) on his new book,  The Great Endarkenment: Philosophy for an Age of HyperspecializationOne theme of the book is that there has been a steep increase in specialization that in some ways threatens knowledge. In the following post*, Millgram starts an exchange with Jerome Ravetz, author of Scientific Knowledge and Its Social Problems, among other works, about how specialization makes quality control in philosophy and other academic fields more difficult.


Keeping it Real (in Philosophy and Other Fields)
by Elijah Millgram and Jerome Ravetz

Millgram: Having posted on several themes from The Great Endarkenment, I’d like to wrap up by touching on the problem of quality assurance in specialized research. In other fields, it’s a matter of falsifying data; in philosophy, it’s rather a matter of merely going through the motions. I frequently find myself citing Jerome Ravetz’s Scientific Knowledge and Its Social Problems, so I thought I’d ask him to help me start a conversation about this.

o0O0o

Dear Jerry,

I’ve talked to you in the past about quality control in research, which is an issue in philosophy in two ways. First, it comes up as a properly philosophical problem. Second, our failures on this front are eroding the practice of philosophy. While philosophers don’t fabricate data, one can’t but notice the increasing volume and decreasing quality of our professional publications.

It’s struck me that you see this as in the first place a moral matter. I agree, but some moral issues are especially difficult because of other problems lurking in the background.

Scientific research drives specialization, but then specialization makes quality control harder. If outsiders could assess whether work in some specialized field was good, it would be visible when the field’s institutions weren’t doing their job, and research integrity wouldn’t be nearly the issue it’s become. However, you can’t apply standards you don’t understand to activities and results you don’t understand.

This means that once specialists stop doing the exacting work of enforcing their own standards locally, there’s no backup. Charlie Munger is enthusiastic about cash registers, because they help retail employees to be honest. The idea is that, without the level of monitoring cash registers provide, over time you’re actually eroding the integrity of your sales staff. Analogously, when outsiders can’t monitor the way a specialized discipline is running, it has no cash register; it easily becomes corrupted very quickly.

If I’m right, the prior problem is cross-disciplinary assessment. We can’t just harvest metrics or assessments generated in-field—e.g., count publications or citations, or collect referee reports.  If the field is becoming corrupted, they’ll tell us only that people are going through the motions. But outsiders can’t assess specialist activity as the specialists themselves do. We need to find a path between the horns of this dilemma.

Best,

Lije

o0O0o

Dear Lije,

 

I certainly can’t provide an answer to the dilemma, but I can try to help give it a shape. I start by observing the assumptions behind Hume’s classic separation of factual from value statements.  These are, that those making the statements are honest and competent, so that there is no problem of quality assessment in their acceptance and implementation. As soon as quality enters the picture, then the distinction is dissolved. For as knowledge is a social possession, its reproduction and implementation depends on trust, in many ways.  If the agents prove to be untrustworthy in their claims, then the knowledge itself is vitiated, and the process and the agents all become, in their own ways, corrupt.

We note that this corruption does not at need to be based on bad motivations. Everyone may be doing their best, but are forced to act falsely in a pathological situation. This is the case when scientists or scholars act as quality-controllers and inevitably do so incompetently. Then epistemology and ethics are inseparable. Such considerations were totally foreign to two of the three founders of modern science, Descartes and Galileo. But Bacon had a fund of practical wisdom that the other two lacked. He identified the evils in the knowledge of his time, and described ‘vermiculate’ knowledge as prevalent. His response was twofold:  methodology and morals. The former was worked out in great detail, and was very popular in the times and places that science was conceived as ‘inductive’. For the latter, he had only some aphorisms and private reflections, some very profound but none worked out.

If we are to begin to heal these social problems of scientific knowledge and prevent endarkenment, we will need to work our way out of the classical perfectionist paradigm. For this a useful start might be the paradoxical question: “What is the scientific explanation of why I should not cheat at doing science?”

Best,

Jerry

o0O0o

Dear Jerry,

I’ll append a proper response shortly, but this seems like a good point at which to open up the conversation to people following the blog; suggestions and dissent are both welcome.

Best,

Lije

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William Smith
William Smith
6 years ago

I am a MD candidate and a PhD candidate in philosophy. I don’t know if that makes me the problem, the solution, or both, but I think it does give me some insight into particular cases of these sorts of problems. At least regarding human subjects research, I’m inclined to think that “cross-disciplinary assessment” can induce more hyperspecialization in an interdisciplinary realm, which can have many positive, but some negative results. An overly simplistic illustration of how this mechanism might play out:

IRBs/ERBs are generally required to have some non-professional (roughly, non-medical researcher) serve on them to help with “cross disciplinary assessment.” That functions fairly well, yet it induces institutionalization with professional ethicists, journals, conferences, etc. These people and institutions get endowed with a certain degree of institutional authority. Further, often the researchers (or the doctors in clinical ethics) turn to these people (sometimes begrudgingly) expecting “the answer” to some given problem or dilemma to be delivered in some easily applicable, short formula. That seems to promote two results: (1) insulation of ‘the cross-disciplinary assessment’ mechanisms, which though having members of various disciplines, end up having substantial deference to specialized experts and (2) some deterence of more thoughtful productive exchanges because those who can deliver these easily applicable, short formula-like solutions (particularly if down in an authoritative manner) tend to thrive (rather than those who might offer more critical, more reflective, less institutionalized responses).

This need not mean that more hyperspecialization in response to hyperspecialization is a bad thing. But I wonder if it genuinely offers solutions as opposed to creating epicycles.Report

Elijah Millgram
6 years ago

Dear Jerry,

I like the idea that deciding something is a fact involves a quality judgment (and that this muddies what some folks think is a clear fact-value distinction); this seems true to my experience. What I want to focus on are the problems that arise when the *content* of the quality judgments varies from specialization to specialization. For instance, and keeping it close to home, in philosophy, you have to have a lot of chutzpah to decide that some philosophical claim is a *fact*. So the quality assessments might have to do instead with whether something is a move that has to be taken seriously, or rather just what one says when one is — as Aristotle put it — defending a thesis.

That variation has to be pretty much invisible from the outside. The nonspecialist perhaps sees tags like “high quality,” “medium quality,” or “low quality,” but doesn’t know what they summarize. After all, what does he know about what can go wrong in someone else’s field? How does he know what “high quality” certifies the item *for*? Sticking with the example, someone who isn’t a philosopher might think that the labels tell you whether the claim counts as reliably established. (He might make the mistake of treating the tag as telling him what his credences should be.) Whereas high-quality philosophy can be, say, an occasion for rethinking assumptions — which needn’t require “probably true.”

The straight answer to “why not cheat at science?” is that you’d have to have been crazy to become an academic (a philosopher especially, but this is true mostly across the board) for the *money*. If you decided to devote your life to an academic specialization, it would for the most part only have been a sensible choice if you had internalized the standards of the discipline that was becoming your own. If you went into it because it mattered to *you* to live up to those standards, unless something changed in the meantime, you should still be committed to living up to those standards. After all, that’s what you’re in it for: to figure out how gifts work in Algeria, in a way that counts as properly executed anthropology; to understand what makes a truth true, in way that counts as strong philosophy; to help Jane Austen’s readers see more clearly how thoughtful her novels are. Oh, right, science: to be not only a pioneer but a muoneer. (Sorry.)

So how did we get to the place where — I’ll keep it local, so that all this is familiar — if you go to a conference, and want to talk philosophy rather than professional gossip, you’re thereby *unsophisticated*? Where philosophers are fixated on the standing of their departments in the profession, rather than the quality of the philosophy that’s done in them? Where they obsessively follow an international game of musical chairs? How did all these people who went into philosophy because they cared about philosophy start publishing for the sake of publishing? How did we become a tribe of Pretend Philosophers?

It does seem right to me that one big part of the problem has to do with people who are, as you say, forced to act falsely in a pathological situation. Again, I’m especially interested in the incentives that have to do with cross-disciplinary assessment. Here’s a tiny potted history of one such system of incentives. The outsiders couldn’t tell good quality from bad quality, so instead they tied resources to a proxy they could see (publication counts, for instance, or department rankings). Suddenly, the cases one made to outsiders started to diverge from one’s own assessments. (You were
impressed because his writing sample was genuinely exquisite; but you couldn’t explain that to your dean, so you talked about the length of his CV.) It’s very hard for the third parties in these circumstances not to respond to such incentives, e.g., by publishing more and more. And eventually cognitive dissonance reduction kicks in; in this tiny history, insiders *internalized* the external perspective. Nowadays, especially among the younger generation of philosophers, you will see them just assuming that the best candidate for the hire is the one with the longest list of publications, no matter how threadbare. One reason (certainly not the only one) that we got to this (very bad) place was that administrators needed assessments they could understand without becoming philosophers themselves — and we were forced to comply.

Best,

LijeReport

BLS Nelson
6 years ago

(I don’t know who to address this comment to, not wanting to interrupt the narrative of a correspondence, so I’ll just leave it unaddressed, as a tangential thread that somebody can pull on if they want.)

The correspondence between Elijah Millgram and Jerome Ravetz begins with Elijah mentioning citation rates as a potential metric in the evaluation of philosophical productivity. Some of the remarks in the OP seem to suggest that citation rates are mainly tracking the standards of the people in the inner circuit, either directly or vicariously. But, for what it’s worth, it is a fact that other academics sometimes can and do take a look at what the self-identified philosophers are doing, and are happy to remark on the contents of what they see. It seems reasonable to make the point with the philosophy of science in particular, since PoS is especially amenable to cross-disciplinary content analysis. For example, in looking over the citation rates for authors who contributed to major philosophy of science journals, by far the most exogenously influential paper was by JA Goguen’s “Logic of inexact concepts” (cited 321 total, only 10 of which were in the top philosophy of science journals, with most of the endogenous attention from computer science). At the other extreme you have Hardin & Rosenberg’s “In Defense of Convergent Realism” which gets exclusively endogenous attention (45 citations total, all from philosophy of science journals).

I realize that the whole question is about quality assessment, and that there aren’t firm answers being offered in the OP about how to do that. I guess I just want to make sure that this is an empirical question — or at least, make sure that we don’t leave empirical measures entirely out of the question. After all, if this is a moral matter, and we are being asked to keep it real, and one of our animating concerns is with the literature, then quite a lot seems to depend on whether we are willing and able to arrive at the right kind of casuistic verdicts on the basis of evidence (which might include evidence concerning differential patterns of attention). If so, then I think we have to be prepared to answer — or avoid — embarrassing questions like, “Hey! What’s so wrong with defending convergent realism?” On the other hand, if the problem is that people are trivial careerist dullards at conferences, then that’s probably good reason to stop going to those kinds of conferences.Report

BLS Nelson
6 years ago

*with most of the exogenous attention from computer science.Report

Jerome Ravetz
6 years ago

Hi Lije –

I will be brief! First, I think that your argument is of great systematic importance. There has been a very active concern with the decline of quality standards in natural science. A variety of causes has been cited, but so far noone has mentioned the ‘Babel syndrome’. It could be argued empirically that when a field, in whatever discipline, loses contact with others, and thereby is deprived of stimulus and criticism, it will naturally tend to decay. So I believe that the scientists would do well to be reminded of your insight, and I will do what I can to make that happen.

My rhetorical question about why not to cheat at science was somewhat misplaced in this particular discussion, as it is directed more at the ideologues of science than at professional philosophers. But it is relevant in that it further erodes the ‘fact-value’ distinction that is so important for maintaining the hegemony of scientific expertise in such a large portion of our social lives. The distinction provides a spurious justification for the ‘metrics’ that provide a temporary illusion of a solution to the Quality problem, thereby staving off the realisation that the crisis is profound.

If you look again at your discussion, you will see that you are making a number of empirical statements about the motivation of scholars. To those I have two replies. The first is that for you (and for me) scholarship is a vocation (see Max Weber, Wissenschaft als Beruf). But for many others it is a career; and now it is increasingly becoming just a job. And it should be remarked that for earlier generations, being a college teacher, while not a road to riches, was certainly a better option than, say, being a high school teacher. And as in any profession, one may enter with the highest ideals, and then adjust to unanticipated realities. So please do not be surprised or intolerant of those who prefer professional gossip to Socratic dialogues.

Where do we go from here? I don’t know. I am tempted to combine Pirsig and Lao-Tse, and adapt thus:
‘When Quality is lost, there are metrics…’.

Thanks so much for getting this going.

All best –

JerryReport

Elijah Millgram
6 years ago

Dear Jerry,

First, I want to acknowledge that for a great many academics, it is indeed a career rather than a vocation. I still think that that may require an explanation. When practicality displaces idealism, that’s often enough because circumstances make it quixotic to hang onto your ideals. In which case the prior question is, What was the institutional environment that made that unrealistic?

And recall that the heading of the post was “Keeping It Real in Philosophy”; the philosophy-specific version of your question would be, what’s the philosophical reason for not cheating at philosophy? (An interesting question!) Now, however the much-better-sponsored sciences look career-wise, it does seem to me that for someone who is literate enough, smart enough, and possessed of strong enough work habits to have a career as a professor of philosophy, the decision doesn’t make sense unless he or she cares a good deal about *philosophy*; such a person can expect to have a much more lucrative career doing many other things.

Let me also acknowledge points made by other contributors to the thread.

BLS Nelson suggests looking at out-of-field citations, and also skipping gossipy conferences. I like the first of those; usability outside one’s field is informative, at any rate when the clients are in fields that are themselves doing well on the quality control front. Of course, however informative it is, it’s not nearly everything. It’s normal, in any field, for there to be much high quality work that isn’t exported. Moreover, results and concepts can be used for the wrong reasons. And in addition, you have to watch out for what in *Scientific Knowledge and Its Social Problems* turn up as descent lattices (at pp. 193ff or so): where the exported result or problem or other bit of intellectual apparatus has been morphed to suit the expertise and practices of different types of client. (Since these lattices are your concept, it occurs to me you might have insights here.) In that case, what’s used outside the field isn’t quite the same thing as what was produced inside it.

I also endorse that second piece of advice, and in fact I’m already taking it; I’m not a member of the APA, and I don’t go to its meetings.

William Smith observes that in his experience the mandatory nonspecialist participants tend to coalesce into their own specialization, and that when they do, there’s a premium on simple pronouncements delivered confidently. That tallies with a theme of *The Great Endarkenment*, namely, that the problems of managing specialization often turn out to be hydra-headed; attempting to solve them merely reproduces them. He also wonders whether as an MD/PhD-in-progress, he’s part of the problem or part of the solution; *The Great Endarkenment* actually argues that that sort of training is part of the solution.

Let’s press the point about the simple pronouncements a bit more. We can tag this as a relatively pervasive ingredient of the problem we were characterizing. Outsiders don’t have in-field background and competences, so they need assessments that are pretty simple, actually. US News and World Report ratings of colleges make a familiar example: there are rankings (first, second, third and so on, in a handful of categories), and (leaving aside issues about how they’re generated — on this sort of problem, see my initial post in this series) it’s pretty obvious how to use a ranking. Whereas, okay, here’s a little bit of anecdotal contrast: As a college teacher, I’m relatively knowledgeable about the ins and outs of getting an undergraduate education at academic institutions of different types. And so at various points I’ve tried to help out friends whose children were trying to decide what schools to apply to, and then which college to attend. Almost always, their eyes would glaze over in the middle of an explanation. The complicated assessments turn out to be too complicated.

So here’s the tension once again, seen from a slightly different angle. Quality control involves a lot of nuance. We were considering the idea that maintaining the quality of work in a specialized discipline requires a reality check from outside the field. But the reality check we’re looking at is a client putting something to use successfully. And that’s going to have to look relatively simple to him; the nuance is going to have to be suppressed.

As you say, When Quality is lost, there are metrics. Want to do a round of considering
the side effects of different sorts of metrics, in philosophy and elsewhere?

Best,

LijeReport

BLS Nelson
6 years ago

(I will offer another spirited monologue here. I offer it in the hopes of being acknowledged as the loneliest man in the world.)

I do not doubt that there are problems in the profession. Actually, since the productivity of philosophy is implicit and non-obvious, I think we should assume that everything is wrong until a good case is made to say me something has gone right. Everything is awful unless it isn’t; that’s my motto. That said, I don’t much like complaints that are made in the abstract — I want to hear about the details. In particular, I want stories about what things would look like if they were going right, including some imaginative description about a possible world where mechanisms were in place that made all the things go right. A little bit of utopian daydreaming may be useful, if only to enhance our pessimism about the world we live in.

What I gather from the brief discussion so far is that administrators look at metrics and procedural evidence, and are willing to defer to experts in areas where an analysis of content is required. In other words, the administrator must be assumed to occupy an external point of view. But that means that the onus is on philosophers to have some kind of coherent story to tell about the internal point of view which is not beset by pathologies according to its own lights. This requires the philosopher to diagnose the troubles from the internal point of view, and propose procedures for dealing with those pathologies that translate into some intelligible verdicts for those working externally.

I think there are four great embarrassments to professional philosophy that recur when you look at philosophy from the internal point of view: dogmatism, worry-mongering, logic-chopping, and sycophancy. Each of these diseases mistakes some legitimate aspect of philosophical deliberation — intuition, doubt, rationality, or dialectic — and distorts its significance to the point where the possibility of doing actual honest-to-goodness mature philosophy is lost along the way. Each has been the source of some recent attention on Daily Nous: for example, whether or not you agree with the linked argument, the worry about cliques is at least the most recent attack on sycophancy. And I worry that the institutions we have built mainly seem to be prepared to take aim at one of them — dogmatism (i.e., the illicit fetishization of intuition and rapt belief). I worry that there is much less emphasis on trying to deal with the others. As a result, there is some reason to believe that vices have become institutionalized: e.g., at least on first blush, Elijah’s claim that the APA suffers from a gossip culture seems to be based in a desire to uproot something like sycophancy, and one might see how a concern over specialization within philosophy might be diagnosed as a certain kind of logic-chopping.

I assume that publication is central to the evaluation of a philosopher’s research career, and when we talk about the institutions of philosophy, it is reasonable to focus on them first. There are three main stages involved in publication: (1) the writing process, (2) the refereeing process, and the (3) post-publication process (process of uptake).

(1) At this point there are a great many conventions about how to write a good philosophy paper that is fit for publication, though one may question whether the norms are any good in mooting the above-mentioned pathologies. There are two examples on the bright side of things: it is conventional (or, anyway, written best practice) to deal with interesting objections in your work; to read your interlocutors more or less charitably; and to narrow a thesis topic to a manageable level so that you might actually say something directly about it. By dealing with interesting objections, you ostensibly challenge yourself to not fall into dogmatism; and by adopting the maxim of charity to some reasonable degree, you are supposed to achieve the same result by claiming victory over an army of straw. One of the benefits of conventionally abiding by the practice of defending a narrow thesis is that you remove the contrarian’s opportunity to automatically gainsay your thesis by denying its presuppositions, which if allowed would be tedious and eliminate the mere possibility of doing any productive work.

On the dark side of things, there do not seem to be any robust conventions out there about who you must go out of your way to cite, or how to topically situate yourself in discussions of wider philosophical import. By “robust conventions”, I mean that there is no expectation for writers to conduct a genuine systematic review when doing their scholarship, a review which potentially would include the discovery of lost gems in the literature. Hence, it is reasonable to worry about the rise of sycophantic citation practices, where a small cadre of the same names show up for seemingly non-philosophical reasons. Moreover, by placing uneven emphasis on narrowing your thesis and not being expected to show your place in broader debates, it seems reasonable to worry that arguments are destined to be divested of all their interesting features by logic-chopping. For it is a fact that precision is sometimes the enemy of accuracy; one more debate over internalism/externalism in meta-ethics might just water the interesting questions down to the point where it verges on homeopathy. Anyway, at all points, the aim of our conventions should be to allow the writer to do the best work by their own lights, insofar as it is work done in good faith.

(2) One of the salutary features of the publication process is that it involves peer review, and the institution of peer review earns at least some credible veneer of objectivity when it is double/triple-anonymous. Ostensibly, the practice of double-blinding helps to weed out dogmatists, as the reviewer then has the opportunity to freely criticize the contents of an article by their own lights. But double-blinding has its costs and benefits which is now pretty clear; i.e., there is an argument to be made that anonymization in professional philosophy removes disincentives to be awful. But if we wanted, we might try to experiment with some mechanisms for coping with this problem. For example, it has been suggested elsewhere on this site that we should promote informal publications, magazines, blogging, and the like, and formally acknowledge the worthiness of such matters in the promotion to tenure. I think that’s great, so long as we keep the pedagogical point of the practice in mind — namely, to attempt to help people in general see the bigger picture, and to show philosophy in its best light.

I am also tempted to advocate reforming the peer-review system by putting strong checks on the reviewers themselves. One idea might be to develop a system of second-order reviewing, i.e., occasionally having someone review the reviewer and their reply to the initial essay, and using this measure to figure out whether or not to ask the reviewer to return. Alternately, editors could ask reviewers to send in a profile of their own main philosophical convictions and then use that as a way of diagnosing bias, if sending stuff out to the more peripheral colleagues. (Obviously these aren’t especially realistic proposals given that it is hard enough to get people to review in a timely manner, which means there has to also be some appropriate way to to reward referees. But this is my utopian daydream, and at any rate I am talking to myself.)

At all points it seems important to give appropriate guidance to reviewers: in particular, it should be made clear to the referee that their task is to eliminate low- and mediocre-quality work, whatever that takes, and is not to distinguish between good and great philosophy. The reason, here, being the manifest fact that there is such thing as objectively good philosophy, but there is no reason to suppose that Reviewer #2 knows what counts as great philosophy. For it seems to me that after surpassing a certain vertical threshold of quality, diagnoses of quality are lateral decisions about what sorts of inferences the reviewer thinks are worth caring about. Pace the Zen motorcycle guy, there is no good reason to believe in a metaphysics of quality. I think that same appreciation for the modest role of the reviewer needs to be absorbed by the professional culture.

(3) When I talk about the post-publication process, what I mean is the process of figuring out what forms of published philosophy really are worth attending to — the processes, when put in place, that would allow independent thinkers in the profession to find and report on what they consider great. Again, there are plenty of mechanisms out there to burden the dogmatist with the weight of their convictions; e.g., “author meets critics” events at conferences. But the other pathologies of philosophy seem to have been given very little consideration at this stage. It is evidently hard enough to find an uncontroversial way to find a balance between collegiality and pointedness in reviews of published works.

Yet it is not clear to me is that there is any ongoing, systematic attempt to appreciate the volume, quality, and influence of even that material which is printed in the high-quality journals. Our best-known attempt to look at the uptake of LEMM articles in the “top four” journals in the profession was done by a sociologist doing work in his spare time. Even then, his findings were extremely limited in scope, owing to the fact that “the top four” are only misleadingly identified as the top four, and it requires an immense amount of work to do a more informative analysis that would incorporate contentful measures. But we regularly hear reports on the state of the art in the profession, positive and negative. And it seems to me that when we are writing articles in CHE, or The Stone, or talking at annual meetings, or even complaining over the water cooler, our opinions shouldn’t be wantonly ad hoc. Sometimes, we are Reviewer #2.

It seems to me that the sociology of philosophy (this including the work of suitably minded experimental philosophers) ought to have a mandatory place in every department alongside the history of philosophy. If it is done right, then the sociology of philosophy is essential in providing a corrective to sycophantic tendencies. If suitably informed people outside the discipline think that professional philosophers have the wrong intuitions about Gettier cases, then that is essential for us to know, and we are better people for knowing it, whether or not we think the outside-people are ultimately right or wrong. If philosophers themselves don’t abide by the knowledge norm of assertion, or deem the vast majority of cases of justifiably ignorant assertion are blameless, then that is important for us to know and we should ask, though this information is not decisive in either direction. The fact that we would care about the facts counts as progress in philosophy, if anything does.

What is less clear to me is how to correct for logic-chopping at this stage of the process. The only thing that comes to mind is that we should not be afraid to ask, “How is your work philosophy?” — i.e., how does it answer wide-scope questions, explaining something about our relationship with ourselves, others, and the world, with the aim of decreasing our confusion and increasing our understanding of it? It is a general project, and the point of the project is to see how things in general hang together, in the broadest sense. Admittedly, this is a risky question. It is the kind of question is catastrophically pretentious when asked in bad faith. But there is no metric or procedure that can ultimately correct for bad faith, there are only ways of mitigating obvious disasters.Report

Elijah Millgram
6 years ago

I want to keep my focus on that trap: that it’s the insiders who are competent to deploy disciplinary standards, but it’s the nonexpert clients who need that reality check on what the experts tell them. So I’ll address BLS Nelson’s very constructive post with that in mind. (Not all of it just now, because he’s made a good number of points.) He suggests that “sociology of philosophy ought to have a mandatory place in every department [of philosophy, understood],” and accordingly I’ll help myself to Randall Collins’s insufficiently appreciated *Sociology of Philosophies* to gesture at an alternative category of dysfunction in professional philosophy.

Collins observes that philosophy can spring out of crude cosmology, or the worst sort of dogmatic theological debate, or other quite varied subject matters. In the right institutional environment (or so he suggests), a characteristic deadlock of opposing positions is followed by a characteristic shift of focus to methodology, techniques of argument (logic), cogito-like fixed points and so on… and suddenly a tradition that is recognizably philosophy has been launched.

Now, Collins doesn’t discuss movement in the other direction: philosophy lapsing back into the sort of enterprise from which it once emerged. We mostly don’t notice when this happens, because although the activity and content are on a par with pre-Socratic protoscience, the disputations produced by the Monothelite heresy and so on, it *sounds* like philosophy; after all, it’s debate over, just for instance, the correct analysis of knowledge, or the correct semantics for “actual,” or whether consequentialism should be objective or subjective. That is, the content, typically, is that of an earlier philosophical discussion that has, so to speak, *fossilized*. We need a name for the phenomenon, so let’s call it *hypophilosophy*. There’s a lot of it out there.

Jerry was especially worried about cheating in science, so let’s take time out to contrast hypophilosophy with our—the philosophers’ rather than the scientists’—version of getting away with stuff: let’s call that *Pretend Philosophy*. This would be going through the motions of philosophizing, but having, for instance, no stake in whether your positions are correct, no interest in whether your arguments are any good, etc. There’s also a lot of Pretend Philosophy out there, and while I take that problem very seriously, let’s postpone the attention it needs to a different occasion. Right now I just want to distinguish hypophilosophy and Pretend Philosophy. Obviously these dysfunctions can overlap. Hypophilosophy lends itself to merely going through the motions. And when philosophers are *just pretending*, some of the more cynical of them invent artificial debates, meant to serve as busywork for their weaker students; the subject matter of these debates is usually hypophilosophy. Nevertheless, practitioners of hypophilosophy can be fully, sincerely engaged in whatever debate it is they are conducting. And Pretend Philosophy need not purport to be about a hypophilosophical subject matter.

Now notice that the problem that I introduced earlier on crops up even when it’s hypophilosophy, and not Pretend Philosophy. In philosophy, anyway, quality control isn’t always about catching cheaters. From the outside, hypophilosophy looks a whole lot like philosophy. Whatever metrics you pick, you can expect hypophilosophers to do well on them: hypophilosophy generates publications, conference-going, textbook anthologies, citations… and much of it is even sincere: look as deep as you want into the eyes of a hypophilosopher; if he’s not also a Pretend Philosopher, he’ll think what he and his conversation partners are doing is philosophy.

Quality control, in philosophy especially, turns out to be a very subtle, very demanding matter. To outsiders, hypophilosophy looks to be professional activity within the field. But we see that even the insiders have a hard time keeping track of their own standards for what they do. And even when insiders notice that we’ve let our standards go in this particular way, it’s not our professional practice to call hypophilosophers out; the closest thing I see to that is certain very fastidious philosophers acting as though hypophilosophical work was invisible. (Not me: I don’t myself aim to be that sort of fastidious; rather, I engage hypophilosophy on a fairly regular basis, in hopes of bringing some its practitioners back into the fold.) So the outsiders can’t just rely on what they see the insiders doing.Report

BLS Nelson
6 years ago

(Ben continues to devolve into a mockery of himself, staring deep into the eyes of a skull named Horatio, and monologues:)

Much like Elijah, I think we should not be stuck in the insider’s trap — for personal preference I’ll call it the tweed bunker. But we should also avoid what he calls “pretend philosophy”, which is actually more like its opposite — seeing things from the external point of view even while notionally participating as an insider (e.g., a graduate student working in the salt mines of a research project whose salutary features are only visible to those with tenure). The tweed bunker contrasts sharply with the salt mine, but in practice they reinforce each other. For the further that the philosopher retreats into the bunker, the more incentives the non-philosopher has to judge the philosopher’s work by inappropriate standards, and vice-versa. That having been said, I like to think that people occupy the extremes only when there is financial and political pressure to do so, and in the absence of such things we might as well assume that they are willing to sympathize with the other.

My immediate concern with Elijah’s recent post is with the concept of “hypophilosophy”, because I am not quite sure whether or not it helps us with ‘quality control’ for better or worse. I gather that it is meant to refer to the kinds of people who are either unconsciously drifting into the external point of view, or are tacitly participating in practices that encourage others to look at things from that view. But if the concept is deployed inappropriately, it does little more than to indicate that the user of the concept has entrenched their place in the bunker. This may be one of the problems that Elijah had in mind when he referred to the “delicateness” of the problem of quality control.

Philosophy has to do with exploring the space of reasons worth caring about, concerning certain general topics, in order to achieve richer understanding and diminished confusion. Because it’s a wide-scope sort of thing, philosophers have got to look at their colleagues with some principled tolerance, charity, and humility. I need to hear more about how to use the concept appropriately. If there are principled ways of distinguishing between the appropriate and inappropriate ways of talking about ‘hypophilosophy’, then that is going to be where a lot of the problem lies. But the distinction can’t be made without some tolerance for diverging views. (The word “control” in “quality control” runs the risk of sounding tyrannical, if it is left unqualified.)

I take it that the appropriate line to draw between hypophilosopher and philosopher will have to do with the level of productivity of their work, as seen from different points of view. From the internal point of view, the most general catch-all thing you can say about what philosophy is good for when you’re doing it right is something like this: we point to some general subjects and then say, “we’d like to be less confused about these things, and understand them better”. This answer is oracular enough that it could only satisfy the bunker people. Luckily, the general aim, when satisfied, accomplishes at least five major subsidiary aims, and which should ideally make some minimal sense from a sympathetic external point of view: clarity over the nature of concepts and their use; emancipation from oppressive systems of thought and action; evaluating and interpreting sources of controversy in our mental lives; opening up a space for a structured discussion of messy subjects; and developing characteristic scholarly and logical skills of the philosopher. These are the analytic, critical, ameliorative, synthetic, and practical criteria, respectively.

On its face, it seems like it should be uncontroversial to say that stagnant research programmes satisfy none of these criteria. And to be sure, there is something a bit ridiculous about disciplinary fossilization, since it suggests that the people involved are under illusions about the stakes of their work. But even that worry has to be attenuated by the fact that long-dead debates can sometimes be resurrected in new and profitable ways. Moreover, in fact, these productive aims might very well be consistent with continuing research programmes that are stagnant as seen by unsympathetic lights.

Example. Suppose that much of Western metaphysics and epistemology can be reasonably thought to be attempts to answer the skeptic. Suppose also that nobody cares about skepticism anymore because (mumble-something-something pragmatism, mumble-something-something inference to the best explanation). Now finally suppose I were to bring up a new argument that beats the dead horse just a little more, by showing that the best version of skepticism were to turn out to be incoherent by its own lights. Wouldn’t that be an interesting and exciting result? I think it might be, and would risk being called a hypophilosopher for it. But if you asked me for my reasons, I might offer a few considerations that are indirect and partly hidden. There are reasons related to emancipation: if it turns out that Western philosophy — this civilization-wide, epoch-making, agenda-setting cultural behemoth — has been scared of a boogeymen the whole time, then we should be able to find the courage to envision what it would look like if the philosopher tried to defeat more plausible monsters. Some are related to seeing the concepts clearly for what they are: we thought skepticism was this one thing, and it turns out to have been another. Even if the issue of “is skepticism right or wrong?” has no stakes, there are stakes related to matters close at hand, if there were some tolerance for discussion of those enthusiasms.

If you point at many of the above-mentioned considerations about the internal value of philosophy and ask the people from an unsympathetic external point of view to soak in the value of what is going it, there is a strong possibility that none of it will scan. That’s because the unsympathetic external point of view only wants to hear a story about how all this abstract tweed bunker business connects with the sociological features that are open to plain view: in the Collinsian vocabulary of “attention space”, “emotional energy”, “interaction ritual”, and their metrics. So they’ll ask, what makes this or that project worthy of attention, philosophically speaking, especially considering that it’s a busy world full of people with ebbing emotional energy? And: which interaction rituals can track the relevant criteria for the productivity of philosophy (its analytic, critical, ameliorative, synthetic, and practical dimensions)? And I think the only criteria that can be tracked reasonably well from the external point of view are the ameliorative and practical ones. For people on the outside to see the value of the others, we will have to develop some ingenious metrics, and/or encourage outsiders to find some sympathy. (Preferably both, I think.)Report

BLS Nelson
Reply to  BLS Nelson
6 years ago

*Yorick, too.Report