Intelligence and the Cultures of Philosophy and Psychology


Josh Knobe holds appointments in Yale’s Department of Philosophy and its Cognitive Science program. He has an office in the Psychology Department there and he works with both philosophy and psychology students. In a recent interview, he remarks on the cultural differences between the disciplines of philosophy and psychology:

It has been fascinating to experience these two quite different cultures up close. The two disciplines differ in numerous ways; and I think that each of them has a lot to learn from the other. I’ll focus here on just one difference that strikes me as especially important.

Within philosophy, there is an almost absurd value placed on intelligence. Just imagine what might happen if a philosophy department were faced with a choice between (a) a job candidate who has consistently made valuable contributions in research and teaching and (b) a candidate who has not made any valuable contributions in either of these domains but who is universally believed to be extraordinarily smart. In such a case, I fear that many philosophy departments would actually choose the latter candidate.

In psychology, it is exactly the opposite. When people are trying to decide whether to hire a given candidate, the question is never, “How smart is she?” Instead, the question is always, “What has she actually discovered?” If you haven’t contributed anything of value, there is basically no chance at all that you will be hired just for having a high I.Q.

This cultural difference results in a quite radical difference in the atmosphere that one finds in graduate education. Philosophy students experience constant anxiety about whether they are smart enough. Psychology students also experience a lot of anxiety, but it is about a completely different topic. They have this ever-present sense that they absolutely must find some way to make a concrete contribution to the field.

This aspect of our disciplinary culture really serves to shape the character of our everyday interactions. In philosophy, there is so much concern about whether the thing that one is about to say is smart or not smart. As a result, philosophers often self-censor. They feel unable to actually engage with the philosophical question at hand because they are too busy thinking instead about what the things they say will reveal about their intellectual abilities. In psychology, the situation tends to be quite different. The most common concern is not whether the thing that one is about to say is smart or not smart but rather whether it will actually help to make progress on the project.

I think that this is one area in which the culture of philosophy could potentially do with some improvement, but to be honest, I don’t have any very good ideas about precisely how we might go about changing things. Of course, the simplest thing that we could do would be to call on individual philosophers to change their behavior. We could say, “When you are working on a philosophical question, don’t think about whether what you are saying is smart, or whether it is creative, or whether it shows a mastery of the existing literature. Just think about the philosophical question itself and try to make real progress on it.” Yet, it seems that there is something a bit glib about this response. Given the way things are set up at present, it would take extraordinary courage for an individual philosopher just to spontaneously stop caring about looking smart and start focusing only on making genuine intellectual progress. If we are going to make this sort of individual change possible, it will presumably require some larger change in the incentive structures that govern our discipline as a whole. 

The whole interview, conducted by Shelley Tremain as part of her Dialogues on Disability series at the Discrimination and Disadvantage blog, is interesting, including some details on Knobe’s work habits, as well as some data about experimental philosophy: it turns out the stereotypical view that experimental philosophy is about critiquing analytic philosophers’ deployment of intuitions is “a gross mischaracterization… [and that] only 1.1% of the studies aimed to show that appeals to intuition are in some way unreliable.”

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Henry
4 years ago

Note that psychology and other social sciences are perceived as much more amenable to collaboration than philosophy. That is, scientists regularly work together on research, and more important, collaborations are not looked down upon because team projects are the norm. Contrast with philosophy, where the expectation seems to be for philosophers producing “original” and “brilliant” work…all on their own. We are taught to look up to the master works of the past, and the geniuses behind them, as opposed to the ground breaking work of a team at x or y university. We want to be Wittgenstein or Kant (or Rawls or Kripke). I hope I am wrong; but I can’t, for the life of me, remember the last time I heard someone say that they yearn to be part of a team working on an important problem, as opposed to someone saying they want to publish an article in a prestigious journal or to publish a book with MIT or OUP. Report

Joshua Knobe
Reply to  Henry
4 years ago

Thanks, Henry – this is an important point. My impression is that people are becoming more and more open to co-authorship in philosophy and that opposition to this practice is rapidly disappearing. Still, it is worth asking why anyone would have been opposed to it in the first place.

One possibility is that people were genuinely concerned with the question about how best to advance our understanding of justice, or modality, or free will, or whatever, and they formed the opinion that the best approach would be for people to work individually rather than working together. I disagree with this opinion, but I can certainly respect it.

However, I have sometimes heard people give a very different sort of justification. They say that if you write a paper in collaboration with someone else, you do not thereby provide evidence of your own philosophical abilities. This argument seems to involved a fundamental mistake about the point of doing philosophy. Clearly, the point of writing a paper about modality should be to advance our understanding of modality, not to prove that you yourself are good at writing papers about modality. If the latter aim is shaping the nature of our philosophical work in this very deep way, we should try our best to make some change in the existing incentive structures .Report

Ed
Ed
4 years ago

Perhaps because I was listening to wrong podcasts lately, this reminded me of static vs. growth mindset distinction from Carol Dweck… And I think this line of work supports the view that simply speaking against this will not achieve anything.Report

Mike Titelbaum
Mike Titelbaum
4 years ago

I’d like to push back a bit against the suggestion I see in many places that philosophers are obsessed with some mythical form of raw analytical intelligence. Perhaps we’re more concerned with intelligence than people in other disciplines—I don’t work enough in those disciplines to know. And perhaps there are departments in which this is all people think about. But speaking for myself, and I think for my colleagues (whose opinions I’m most familiar with), this seems like an exaggeration. First off, there are many forms of intelligence. Having a certain amount of some of those forms may be a necessary condition for being a successful philosopher. The subject we study is abstract, difficult, and complicated. But that’s not to say that intelligence is the only thing that matters, or even the most important thing. I know many highly intelligent philosophers who are not productive, or are not good teachers, for one reason or another.

Knobe writes, “Just imagine what might happen if a philosophy department were faced with a choice between (a) a job candidate who has consistently made valuable contributions in research and teaching and (b) a candidate who has not made any valuable contributions in either of these domains but who is universally believed to be extraordinarily smart. In such a case, I fear that many philosophy departments would actually choose the latter candidate.” Again, I can’t speak for all other departments, but I have good evidence that my colleagues and many other philosophers I know would choose (a) over (b).

Perhaps there are a few brilliant, great minds who stand out in the history of our field. But not all of us are trying to be them, and not all of us are trying to hire only them. Sure, when I read Gödel, or Kripke’s modal logic work, I’m struck by the brilliance of the person doing the work. But when I read an ordinary philosophy paper—even in the best journals—I’m focused on the interest of the arguments or the inventiveness of the examples. I’m not thinking of the thing as a referendum on the intelligence of the author. And worrying all the time about whether your comment or question is going to make you look smart is something I try to encourage our graduate students to get past.Report

Joshua Knobe
Reply to  Mike Titelbaum
4 years ago

This is a helpful comment, and I really appreciate your engagement with this issue. You note that many people seem to see the culture of philosophy in one way but that, in your experience, it is actually a different way. Given this, it seems like there are two possible hypotheses. One hypothesis would be that some people are simply mistaken about the nature of the culture in which they are embedded (i.e., that either you are mistaken or other people are mistaken). The other hypothesis would be that neither side is mistaken but that different parts of the philosophical world genuinely do have different cultures. It is clearly an empirical question, but my bet is that the second hypothesis is correct.

Here is one way in which this might occur. Perhaps people in the more formal areas of philosophy (logic, formal semantics, formal epistemology) are evaluated based on their actual concrete contributions to the field to a greater degree than are people in less formal areas. Then you could be completely right to say that you don’t at all experience the problems I was discussing, but at the same time, other people could be right to say that these problems do exist and play an important role in shaping certain facets of our discipline. Report

Mike Titelbaum
Mike Titelbaum
Reply to  Joshua Knobe
4 years ago

Thanks for the reply! I would also bet that the culture in question varies across departments. That makes me worry about overgeneralization. First, we risk giving folks—ourselves, people outside philosophy, potential philosophy students—a misleading picture of “what philosophers are like”. Second, overgeneralization may support false explanations of other phenomena in philosophy that occur more broadly than the culture at issue.
Others in this thread have suggested variables that might be correlated with the culture of brilliance worship. Working strictly from my personal, anecdotal experience, I don’t think it’s a matter of people who do formal philosophy versus people who work in other subfields. Report

Mikkel Gerken
4 years ago

Knobe’s point is important but it is somewhat US-centric. The emphasis on talent/intelligence/promise derives at least in part from the fact that US departments (still) tend to hire candidates for tenure track positions straight out of grad school. Given that newly minted philosophy grad students tend to have little in terms of publication track-record, perceived talent/promise becomes a key parameter. (The point is important because perceived raw talent this comes with a ton of biases pertaining to gender, pedigree etc.)
But in other places of the world, hires for a tenured position tend to be far more based on research track-record. In the UK, the REF contributes to this pattern and I am reasonably confident that most UK departments will hire (a) over (b) for a tenured position.
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paolo
paolo
4 years ago

I think the point is not just US centric, but also top departments (esp. Northeast) centric. In my department, the culture of “super smart” hot shots overhyped by their respective departments -(especially in their 20’s as they are coming out of grad school) is more or less actively made fun of. Most people do not care after they grow up. They do care about whether you are good to talk philosophy too and whether you have anything interesting to say, whether in writing or not. But that’s very different from being deemed “smart” mostly on the basis of in-class battles about who has a bigger..objection to something that just heard…Report

Sean
Sean
4 years ago

Of course, focusing too much on “What has he actually discovered?” (i.e. what positive results has he produced) has given psychology a massive, embarrassing replicability crisis.Report

Shelley Tremain
Shelley Tremain
4 years ago

I can’t help but feel that some of the commenters here have caricatured remarks that Joshua made in the interview that we did, or at least, have not considered them charitably nor considered them in light of the many comments about hiring and privilege in the discipline that have been made in a variety of contexts, by a variety of philosophers (many of them underrepresented). For instance, Mike seems to suggest that Josh was appealing to “some mythical form of raw analytical intelligence.” I can see no reason to interpret Josh in that way; for one thing, that suggestion would seem to be undermined by the choice of article to which Josh linked when he referred to the fact that intelligence is given “absurd value.” The article in question considers the gendered construction of “brilliance.” Indeed, it seems to me that Josh articulated a view about the way that *a certain construction of intelligence* is venerated in the discipline, a construction of intelligence that is, inter alia, gendered.

It is no secret that hiring in the discipline (and not only at Ivy League universities in the northeastern U.S.) is conducted largely on the basis of assumptions that correlate with, or are associated in some way with, a certain very narrow construction of intelligence. Many philosophers (especially members of underrepresented groups) have repeatedly drawn attention to the fact that the conclusions drawn from these assumptions are themselves biases and reproduce unfairness and discriminatory practices within philosophy. Here is a brief list of factors taken to correlate with a certain construction of intelligence to which attention has been (repeatedly) drawn:

1. Ph.D. granting institution
2. persona of the philosopher that is nondisabled, gendered, racialized (among other things)
3.. number of years out
4. editing work is subordinate to authorship (i.e., edited collections are subordinate to monographs)
5. one’s supervisor (and committee more generally)
6. number of years that one has been employed in non-tenure track positions and/or unemployed

Do any of these factors — that is, these factors that construct a certain notion of intelligence in the discipline — enter into the deliberations of search committees at the departments of the commenters who have argued that “intelligence” isn’t privileged by them and their colleagues?

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Mike Titelbaum
Mike Titelbaum
Reply to  Shelley Tremain
4 years ago

Let me try to reply without getting defensive. Speaking only for myself, when I contribute to hiring decisions I take into account some of the factors you listed above, along with many others. Those factors are taken by some people to correlate with a certain construction of intelligence, and some of them are probably taken by me to correlate with that construction of intelligence. However, there’s an important difference between taking into account factors that correlate with a notion of intelligence and taking them into account *because* they correlate with that notion of intelligence. I’ve already said that I suspect some kinds of intelligence might be necessary for successful philosophical work. But I don’t think I venerate the construction of intelligence you’re talking about, nor place an absurd value on it (or even much value at all). Pointing out that I take the listed factors into account in making hiring decisions is not evidence that I do. And the same goes for my colleagues, and the other philosophers with whom I’ve discussed these issues.

That’s not to deny that some philosophers think in the way you and Josh describe. It’s an important question how widespread the practice is, and perhaps what other features of philosophers or departments it correlates with. If you’ll recall, my original worry was about overgeneralization. But can we please stop asserting things as “facts” and saying things like “It’s no secret that hiring in the discipline is conducted largely on the basis of…” until we have more evidence what’s really going on, and how widespread it is? (All right, I got a little bit defensive.)Report

Kenny Easwaran
4 years ago

One point that seems to me to mitigate some of this is the interplay of the different cultures of collaboration in the two disciplines with the culture of “intelligence”. In many disciplines (perhaps including psychology?) the norm is for anyone who made an important contribution to the production of a paper to be listed as a coauthor, so it’s reasonable to track the importance of someone’s work for the development of the field by looking at the list of papers they are listed as a coauthor on. In philosophy however, the bar for being listed as a coauthor is much higher. As a result, there are certain colleagues who provide very helpful feedback on many papers and presentations in many different fields, whose contributions are severely undervalued by looking just at what papers their name is on. I take it that at least some of the focus on “intelligence” is actually an interest in how much the presence of this person will benefit the work of the other people around them. Obviously, there are many personal skills and qualities completely different from “intelligence” that are important for this (generosity with time, charity in reading and listening to arguments, ability to give constructive feedback, etc.).

I wonder if changing norms so that everyone thanked in the first footnote in a paper were listed as an author (perhaps in some sort of secondary list) would allow for hiring committees to focus more on concrete work than on reputations.Report