On Philosophy’s Uselessness to Society

In “Publishing in Philosophy,” Michael Huemer, professor of philosophy at the University of Colorado, provides an abundance of detailed and helpful advice about writing and publishing philosophical work. He also includes several criticisms of the refereeing system and some suggestions for fixing it. Along the way is an interesting discussion of philosophy’s uselessness to society

He draws attention to three aspects of this uselessness [emphasis added]:

1. Unwanted Writings

The philosophy publication system is also pretty much useless to society, where it seems to me that one might reasonably have hoped for something useful. Quite a bit of intellectual talent and energy is being channeled into producing thousands upon thousands of papers and books that hardly anyone will ever read or want to read. These articles and books are written almost entirely for other academics working in the same sub-sub-sub-specialization that the author works in. The main reason they are written is so that the author can get tenure or otherwise get credit for publishing. The main reason they are read even by the tiny number of people who read them is so that the readers can cite those articles in their own articles.

Some years ago, I looked up statistics on how much philosophy was being published. At the time, the Philosopher’s Index (which indexed most articles and books in the English-speaking world) was getting 14,000 new records per year. The number has probably expanded greatly since then. PhilPapers presently lists 646 new records this week. What proportion of those books and articles could the average philosopher possibly read?

In my years in the profession, I have read many papers. Almost none of them were read for the purpose of my learning anything interesting from them. Most were read solely so that I could give an evaluation to them – as in the case of student papers, which are written solely to be graded and then are generally thrown away; or journal submissions, which one reads solely so that one can say whether they should be published. My guess is that I’ve read more journal submissions as a referee than I’ve read published papers as a scholar.

When the main reason why people do x is so that someone else can evaluate their ability to do x, it seems to me that something has gone wrong.

2. Narrow Scholars

Most academics have very narrow intellectual horizons. Becoming an academic greatly narrows one’s intellectual field of view, actually preventing one from learning, thinking about, or discussing many interesting things that one might otherwise have learned and discussed.

How so? In order to get published, one must stay current with the literature in one’s field. In most cases, that literature is enormous and constantly growing. So, to phrase matters in economic terms, there is a very large fixed cost to publishing in a given area. That fixed cost discourages one from doing work in new areas and encourages one to remain in the area one is already familiar with. The narrower the area, the easier it is to learn enough to publish there. So the system creates a collection of extremely narrow scholars, who know next to nothing about, and have almost nothing to say about, anything outside their tiny areas of specialization.

Furthermore, the time demands of staying current in one’s own field are significant enough to crowd out general interest reading. It’s not that one literally has no time to read other books for general interest. It’s just that most people have a limited appetite for nonfiction reading, and it is more than filled doing the reading necessary to stay current in one’s field. So philosophers in one field typically know very little even about other branches of philosophy—to say nothing of natural science, psychology, economics, etc.

The same problem affects scholars in other fields. But the situation is especially unfortunate for philosophers, because philosophy is, of all disciplines, the one that ought most to take in the big picture.

3. Why are we ignored?

Sometimes, philosophers lament our low profile in society. For instance, let’s say someone decides to have a discussion on TV of the ethics of cloning. They invite a couple of doctors, a politician, and a priest. No philosopher.

Not always, of course; sometimes, philosophers are invited to things like this. But fairly often, when obviously philosophical issues are being discussed, people don’t even think to consult philosophers. (What if there was a public discussion of global warming, and they forgot to invite any climate scientists?)

There are probably a variety of reasons for this. One reason is that we have an irrational educational system, in which people can complete sixteen years of study without ever being exposed to some of the most central questions in the history of human thought and what the great thinkers have said about those questions.

But at least some of the blame has to fall on the philosophical profession itself. For the reasons discussed above, most philosophical writing is incredibly boring to most people. You can’t blame a television producer for not inviting someone from a profession that produces such fare.

The whole document is here.

I don’t think that philosophy’s “uselessness,” at least in the way “useful” is typically construed, is that much of a problem, but of course that is something over which reasonable people might disagree. However, one needn’t think that uselessness is a problem to share Professor Huemer’s view that unwanted writings, narrow scholars, and the absence of philosophers from much public discussion are problems for philosophy. Discussion welcome.

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