Interestingly Wrong


In a Facebook discussion about yesterday’s “Traits of the Greats” post, Liam Kofi Bright, a PhD student at Carnegie Mellon University, offers the following take on what is conducive to success in academic philosophy:

Just a personal guess at what it is I think philosophy selects for, and which I think may even be a good thing though I am sure to some this will sound cynical: I think we select for being interestingly wrong. The reward structure in philosophy, it seems to me, best rewards those who say things which other people think can’t be quite right, but who can’t agree on why this is so, and who further think that maybe with a bit of tweaking something true could be made of the initial claim, and this reformed truth would itself be a useful truth indeed. If there is any skill to finding claims that are wrong, but will be received in the above way, then I think this is the skill philosophy selects for. The reason, though, I think this might not be a bad thing, is that it may be that: trying your damndest to get things right is the surest way to be interestingly wrong, and further this is a reward structure that tends to encourage anti-triangulation (disagreeing with others).

Do people find this… interestingly wrong?

(Thanks to Liam for permitting me to share this on DN.)

dartboard interesting misses

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Fritz Warfield
Fritz Warfield
5 years ago

This can’t quite be right, though no doubt there will be disagreement as to why. Report

Mm
Mm
Reply to  Fritz Warfield
5 years ago

That fruit was hanging so low it was underground. Report

YAAGS
YAAGS
5 years ago

Mmm… I think philosophy rewards work that is interesting and well-argued. It just also happens to be the case that most of it will turn out to be wrong. Because… you know… it’s philosophy.Report

YAAGS
YAAGS
Reply to  YAAGS
5 years ago

Also, it’s not clear what kind of rewards we’re talking about here. Hiring or citations? Because I actually suspect that the opposite tends to be true in hiring decisions. I know at least one anecdotal story about a now very famous philosopher not getting a position in part because his position was considered to be wrong, even if well-argued. Of course anecdotes aren’t great evidence. But it also seems that departments seem to subscribe to similar schools of thought, which I think is further evidence that people tend to reward work that they agree with in hiring decisions.

As far as publications go, of course you’ll be rewarded with more citations if you say something interesting and well-argued that people disagree with. Otherwise why would they bother responding to you?Report

Liam Kofi Bright
Liam Kofi Bright
Reply to  YAAGS
5 years ago

Thanks for the replies! I actually suspect that the rewards for being wrong over being right (or, rather, being widely-agreed-to-be-right) may result from more than just the fact that, alas, we shall most likely be wrong.

In that: in a great many fields of philosophy, there’s no obvious source of external application for our ideas. It’s not as if, the problem being solved, it can serve as the basis for some policy or technology, or generally be applied to things that might continue to garner interest in it once the intrinsic interest of disputing the controversy has died down. One’s work on a topic garners attention just because people are interested in solving whatever mysteries are associated with that topic. Once the mysteries go away, I suspect that so too will attention paid to the topic matter.

Of course, one might hope that people will take one’s solution to whatever puzzle is at issue here and apply it elsewhere, and in that way (through application-within-philosophy, so to speak) may the work live on in the field’s imagination. But the thing is, this already happens with ideas even where they are not widely agreed to be correct, it does not seem to be a condition on such borrowing that it be settled consensus that what is borrowed is itself correct in its original domain of application. So I suspect that, on the whole, one does better if people think you are interesting but wrong, than if people agree you have successfully resolved whatever puzzle or mystery or question one worked on.

(So I hope this reply also makes clear that I primarily have in mind success in terms of having people agree one’s work is interesting and worth engaging with. Interesting thought that hiring may actually come apart from this!)Report

Phoenix, son of Amyntor
Phoenix, son of Amyntor
5 years ago

On my darker days, I’m convinced that academic philosophy is nothing more than a form of story-telling, one governed by a byzantine set of rules. As a result, and perhaps surprisingly, I find Liam Kofi Bright’s suggestion to be a much more optimistic take on what we do!Report

Charles
Charles
5 years ago

It seems to me that one of the major mistakes many graduate students make is this: They chose a topic which they find incredibly interesting. In my very selective observation, these people more often than others end up as adjuncts or leaving academia. Graduate students need to realize: It doesn’t really matter whether YOU find your topic (your position, interpretation, argument etc.) interesting. This may be helpful for you to actually finish your PhD, but it won’t help you with anything else. You’ll only end up in a solipsistic bubble. Your topic needs to be interesting to OTHER people – and the more other people are excited about this, the better it’ll be for you. You don’t want to talk to other philosophers about your thesis and make them say: “Uh, I don’t know anything about this” and then change topics. You want to make them say: “This is an interesting topic, I’ve been working on something similar and I always wanted to do some research about this too!”

People always forget that it usually isn’t up to the colleagues who are working on the same or similar topics to decide whether you will get hired or not, but the other faculty members who work on something very different. Your work should be interesting (and understandable) to them too, otherwise they won’t hire you. (Interesting enough, almost the opposite holds for grants and stipends.)Report

some person or other
some person or other
Reply to  Charles
5 years ago

I don’t agree with this (maybe it’s because I picked a topic that no one was interested in and that no one is working on and am not an adjunct etc.). I think there’s a pragmatic issue with making sure work is accessible and being able to see the big picture enough/figure out ways to tie it/relate it to other people’s work and motivate why other people should *get* interested in it. But I’m pretty sure there are very few topics in philosophy for which this is not possible. It will be more challenging for people working on topics outside the mainstream, but putting in the extra work is worth it I think–both because it’s better to work on something you find intrinsically interesting and valuable, and because if you put enough work into making it accessible and interesting to other people, then working on something unusual, or having an unusual angle on some pre-existing topic, are the kinds of things that can make people stick out (positively) on the market.

But also, given how scarce tt jobs and helpful postdocs are, I’d be wary of following any advice like this (work on something that is marketable rather than interesting to you) since lots of people are never going to get another opportunity to do significant research (if they end up adjuncting a lot or end up leaving philosophy), and I at least went to grad school to try to take advantage of an opportunity to think hard and read and write about something I deeply cared about, and not (just) to try to get a job. (Even if you *do* get a job, grad school is research paradise compared to most jobs, and it’s where many people lay the foundations of their research programs for the next 5+ years, so I don’t know, I think the most important thing might be to have it be interesting to you?)

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Charles
Charles
Reply to  some person or other
5 years ago

Of course it is desirable to work on something which you are passionate about AND that is interesting to other people. Of course I would strongly advise against picking up a topic you don’t really care about, because otherwise chance that you won’t even finish your work go up quite a bit. But if you were to ask me to write about, say, the minutiae of Marxist discourse in 1970s France, or about Hermann Lotze’s interpretation of Schelling, I’d rather guess that that you’re on a highway to adjunct hell (or unemployment).Report