An Anonymous Peer-Reviewed Philosophy Journal?


Are some philosophical positions so controversial that we should have a journal that publishes peer-reviewed essays about them anonymously?

In a new interview at What Is It Like To Be A Philosopher?, (and also in the video interview here, around 8 and a half minutes in), Peter Singer (Princeton) mentions the idea:

I’ve recently been sounded out about a proposal for a journal that would allow people to publish anonymously. The journal would keep a record of authorship that could, on request by the author, be sent to committees considering appointments and promotions.

He adds:

It’s unfortunate that such a journal should ever be considered necessary to enable controversial ideas to be published, but perhaps we have got to the point where it is.

The idea would be to protect academics, particularly those who are untenured, from having their jobs threatened via a wave of social-media-enhanced outrage at their views.

It would be useful to hear opinions on this idea, both in terms of desirability and feasibility.

By the way, you can support What Is It Like To Be A Philosopher? on Patreon.

art by Bronia Sawyer

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youngling
youngling
4 years ago

I think this is a wonderful idea. It could also be used to prevent “deference to authority”.Report

Greg Gauthier
4 years ago

James Madison and Ben Franklin would approve… Anonymity has long been a useful tool in the fight for free expression and free thought. As a side-effect, it would refocus people back on the *ideas* and *arguments*, and away from meaningless nonsense like the author’s membership in any particular group, or the author’s special identity, or the author’s political reputation. Only the ideas would matter. Which is all that should matter, in philosophy…
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Ken Friedman
Ken Friedman
4 years ago

I am sad to say that this is a terrible idea whose time may nevertheless have come.

The use of social media to attack scholars has become a significant and unfortunate feature of our times.

An anonymous peer-reviewed journal offers a viable solution in difficult times.

Ken Friedman

Chair Professor of Design Innovation Studies | College of Design and Innovation | Tongji University | Shanghai, China ||| Email [email protected] | Academia http://swinburne.academia.edu/KenFriedman | D&I http://tjdi.tongji.edu.cnReport

Roberta Millstein
4 years ago

If you think that philosophers should be part of a community of scholars with whom they engage – a view that I myself hold – then this is a terrible idea. An anonymous philosopher cannot be invited to give a talk. You cannot make a point of attending a paper presented by an anonymous philosopher, asking them a question during Q and A, or talking with them afterward. You cannot track who they are influenced by and who they have influenced. It could even prove challenging for you to contact them by email, given that email addresses often change. Etc.Report

David Mathers
David Mathers
Reply to  Roberta Millstein
4 years ago

Well, it would be terrible if everyone published anonymously, for the reasons you give, but given that most people won’t, it’s not clear that having the issues you mention in the case of a few papers (probably by people who also publish non-anonymously) outweighs the gain of having some very controversial stuff published. Especially since *if Singer is right that people are afraid to publish really controversial stuff* (a big ‘if’ admittedly, and I’d need to see more evidence), the alternative with the particular papers in question is not them being properly discussed in the way you describe, it’s the papers not being discussed at all. Report

Greg Gauthier
Reply to  Roberta Millstein
4 years ago

“…An anonymous philosopher cannot be invited to give a talk…” — No, but you cannot do this already, for dead philosophers. Lots of talks are given on Popper’s work, Kant’s work, Nietzsche’s work, Spinoza’s work, Hume’s work, etc, all without having any of them in the room. Still, learning occurs.

“…You cannot make a point of attending a paper presented by an anonymous philosopher, asking them a question during Q and A, or talking with them afterwards…” — No, but you could organize a group discussion on an anonymously published paper, and advertise it well. You would have no idea if the author of the original anonymous work was in the room with you, or not. But you could ask for a volunteer to defend the paper. This approach might help to make academic philosophy papers more clear and accessible. If everyone had to be capable of defending the ideas of any paper, the writing would probably improve (a Rawlsian “veil of ignorance” for philosophical argumentation, perhaps?)

“…You cannot track who they are influenced by and who they have influenced…” – Why is *who* important? In my own studies, I’ve noticed (as I suppose most every undergrad probably does) how Hume has influenced Kant, and how Kant has influenced Schopenhauer, and how Plato has influence Freud, and so on. But what is it I’m really noticing? It’s not the ownership threads I care about, but the *propagation of ideas* from mind to mind. If all those writings I’ve read over the last 10 years or so had no known authorship, or if all the works were individually assigned a random number, rather than a name, I would still have noticed the same trend regardless. It’s the *ideas* that matter, not the mouths out of which they come.Report

Docfe
Docfe
Reply to  Roberta Millstein
4 years ago

I agree. I do understand the wish for anonymity, though. But one of the great problems of social media is anonymous denigration, bullying, and such. Do we need another anonymous medium?

Yet, again, given social media and reactions to posts, one faces all sorts of negative reactions to an article. But I wonder if philosophy journals and other publications garner enough attention to trigger such attacks. It is a tough question.

Some small part of me wonders if authors should ask themselves, “Am I willing to have this published with my name on it?” And if the answer is “no”, maybe don’t send it to the editors/journal. Self-censorship, is still censorship; so again, really tough question.
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Maja Sidzinska
4 years ago

I see that there are some problems with this idea, but it’s merits outweigh its costs, provided authorship is traceable in specified circumstances.

It has dawned on me that the relative absence of philosophy of institutions, philosophy of organizations (i.e., the intersection of philosophy and organizational theory), and philosophy of bureaucracy, for instance, is the result of too many philosophers fearing for their jobs. Our private gripes about the institutions with which we are affiliated are the case studies that could underpin substantive analyses of institutions, if only we didn’t have so much to lose.Report

X
X
4 years ago

Before going that route, I think it’s up to the discipline, and especially intra-disciplinary associations like the APA, to investigate the sort of conduct that is described here as “social media-enhanced outrage” and issue informal guidelines for what counts as respectful public criticism and what counts as bullying, or e-bullying. (As an analogy, consider David Chalmers’s guidelines on conduct and etiquette during conference talks.) If it’s a threat to people’s jobs (and well-being, and results in further instances of online harassment that are reasonably foreseeable) then what we have is an issue that needs to be looked into. To adopt anonymous publication as a convention is to treat that sort of conduct as acceptable, but if anonymous publication is really necessary then that raises a question about whether the discipline should treat it as such.Report

Peter Alward
Peter Alward
4 years ago

Before it would make sense to publish in some such journal, you would have to have to be pretty sure that your article would likely produce a a social media frenzy. And not only are such article-directed frenzies quite rare in philosophy, they are also pretty unpredictable when they do occur. But I suppose if you are really risk averse …Report

Dale Miller
4 years ago

I don’t think that this is an argument against the proposal, but it’s easy to anticipate that many papers would be published anonymously entirely unnecessarily, just so the authors could enjoy the frisson of imagining themselves dangerous. It is indeed a sad sign for academia that such an idea would ever be proposed. My initial reaction, though, is that it’s probably not a bad idea for one such journal to exist. But what do we call it? The Journal of Anonymous Philosophy? Pseudonymous Philosophical Quarterly? Nameless Nous? Unidentified Philosophical Objections?Report

Docfe
Docfe
Reply to  Dale Miller
4 years ago

Very cogent and intelligent comment!! Especially the “imagine themselves dangerous” comment.Report

Aaron Thomas-Bolduc
Aaron Thomas-Bolduc
Reply to  Dale Miller
4 years ago

Love the title suggestions. It might be that for submissions being seriously considered (not desk rejections) the author would have to provide some reason(s) for wanting to publish anonymously.Report

Eric
Eric
4 years ago

It’s worth a shot, right? I mean a journal like that *might* have a really big and exciting impact. It could open up all kinds of new issues in the discipline that few were willing to discuss previously. It could make reading philosophy articles extraordinarily fun. Both would be a huge benefit to philosophy. Of course, I can also imagine a journal like that failing. There might not be many people willing to publish there. The quality of the articles might be low due to a dearth of submissions. But will anyone be significantly harmed if an experimental philosophy journal turns out to be a dud? I can’t imagine that they would be.Report

Ken Friedman
Ken Friedman
4 years ago

Dear All,

As a mild follow-up to earlier comments, the reason that I agree with the idea – and with Peter Singer – is that people underestimate the risk of self-censorship due to fear.

There are enough well-publicized problem incidents in the last year or so involving publications on several topics that people may reasonably be afraid to touch some issues.

This is even more significant for people who teach and do research on philosophical issues in authoritarian states or theocracies. In some places, one does not even need to work at a university to suffer adverse consequences. It is enough to publish on a problematic or forbidden topic. This is also the case for those who publish on specific topics in mildly authoritarian democracies – for example, any potentially critical topic touching on the royal family of Thailand, on past monarchs, or on projects sponsored by the royal household places the author at risk of a jail sentence under the law of lese majeste.

It is a mistake to imagine that everyone lives in a world protected by academic freedom or the equivalent of America’s First Amendment rights. And these days, there is evidence to suggest that some colleges and universities in the United States have a troubled relationship with both.

By and large, I agree with all the objections that opponents of this idea raise. It is indeed a bad idea – and I continue to believe that it may be worth considering for all those many people who might not dare to publish on these topics given the examples made of others who have done so.

Will a topic subject you to FaceBook attack? Perhaps not. Might it get you arrested and convicted of a crime in any number of places in today’s world? Perhaps. Might it get you fired from a college that requires adherence to the literal authority of Biblical text? Perhaps.

“You will break them with a rod of iron;
you will dash them to pieces like pottery.”
— Psalm 2:9

Ken Friedman
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Docfe
Docfe
Reply to  Ken Friedman
4 years ago

Is this a greater threat than Hobbes faced when the monarchy fell? Greater than Spinoza faced when accused of being an atheist/pantheist? Socrates? And so on. Philosophers have always faced threats of personal injury, ruin, and such for standing for their principles and critiques of those in power.

I do have to say that social media have blown the numbers of people who might respond violently out of all proportion to just having the king/government out to get you. And, indeed, in some countries certain articles might put you on a list with Salman Rushdie, Scheransky, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and others.

And, as I mentioned in another comment above, self-censorship is still censorship — especially in light of possible violence or retaliation against one or one’s family.Report

Jason Brennan
Jason Brennan
4 years ago

Finally I could stop holding back. Report

Smith&Jones
Smith&Jones
Reply to  Jason Brennan
3 years ago

Way late to this thread, but I still laughed.Report

J
J
4 years ago

Alternatively, existing journals could issue guidelines that allow for the publication of anonymous pieces.Report

Lowlygrad
Lowlygrad
Reply to  J
4 years ago

Relatedly, do journals allow for pseudonyms? I understand that they allow people to use non-legal names (e.g. maiden names).

I can imagine some Kierkegaardian benefits to “character” philosophers.Report

Docfe
Docfe
Reply to  Lowlygrad
4 years ago

Let us not forget that many of the Founders wrote using pseudonyms such as “Publius” for fear of their lives, in some cases, or to protect against automatic dismissal by personal opponents (“well, I thought it was a good essay, then I found Hamilton wrote it…”). 😉Report

nicholesuomi
4 years ago

I’m wondering why a journal is a particularly good venue for this. There are already anonymous outlets that are simple enough to use. I imagine the peer-review process of such a journal would be interesting since the submissions would generally be against the grain. (Perhaps philosophy of institutions and other things philosophers themselves would be friendly to would flourish, but more generally, something strongly enough the grain that having one’s name attached would be risky may also have trouble even getting published.)

That said, given what Ken Friedman said, the “and other things” might be a much bigger collection than I initially suspected. Report

Brian Weatherson
Brian Weatherson
4 years ago

Why do we need a journal for this? Has a rule against pseudonymous publication been promulgated since 1982? I doubt it, so I think we could just have more papers like https://philpapers.org/rec/LECCV

I think anonymous publication anywhere is typically bad for the discourse, but pseudonymous publication has a lot of virtues, not least that it can allow for easy claiming of credit once the author feels safe associating themselves with the work.Report

S
S
4 years ago

This doesn’t address the main problems of censorship that non-tenured faculty face, but I think the fact that it’s offered as a solution is revealing as to the blind spots that more established philosophers have. It’s relatively rare that academics face “waves of social media outrage” for what they publish. Notwithstanding the whole Tuvel fracas–where it’s important to remember that philosophers were the people responsible for the social media outrage and other forms of harassment directed at her– when is the last time a philosopher had his or her career seriously threatened for something he or she published? What’s much more common is that non-tenured faculty face such harassment because of something they’ve taught in class, and all too often this can lead to someone losing their job. You don’t even have to touch off a social media firestorm to worry about this. I used to work as a lecturer on a year to year contract, and the school could fail to renew that contract for any reason. In fact, they didn’t even have to give a reason at all. You better bet I did a lot of thinking about what I taught in class. I didn’t even want students complaining to my department head because if he decided that I made too many problems for him he could just let me go and get someone else. Now I think he had more integrity than to do that, but the thing is I didn’t know. And I wouldn’t have counted on him to support me for a second if he’d faced real political or social pressure. So you better bet I did some self-censorship on what I taught in class and went out of my way not to offend students. I didn’t avoid controversy entirely but I was way more cautious in what I taught than I would have liked to have been, and I’m much more confident in what I teach now that I have a more stable job. On the other hand I never for a second censored what I wrote in my published papers since I thought that it was exceedingly unlikely that enough people would read them for them to kick up any kind of outrage. If we had our priorities straight as a profession we’d worry about the fact that adjuncts and other non-TT aren’t free to teach the hundreds of students most have every year the best way they see fit and not worry so much about the fact they might choose not to publish papers that in most cases pretty much no one will read anyway.Report

Ken Friedman
Ken Friedman
4 years ago

Doc F Emeritus asks whether people today face greater threats and more difficult situations than Locke, Spinoza, or Socrates. Locke or Spinoza may have been at greater risk, but they lived in a different world. Socrates is a special case — he was not executed for proclaiming his philosophy, but because of his place and that of his followers in the thorny situation of Athenian politics.

Even Locke and Spinoza lived in a different world to our own. The world in their day had fewer than 200 universities all told. Depending on how you count, we have something like 20,000 colleges and universities. More people teach philosophy at university now than all people who taught at university when Spinoza was alive. And he declined a university chair to maintain his intellectual independence.

This proposal is designed to offer a pragmatic solution to people who wish to publish potentially risky ideas while still keeping jobs in today’s world. The context is mass higher education. In today’s world, relatively few universities provide the kinds of situation that typified academic life only a few decades ago.

As a few commentators have suggested, equally worthy approaches might involve pseudonyms or “character philosophers” in the manner of Kierkegaard’s authorship

Unlike Locke, Spinoza, Socrates — or others in this conversation — I note that Doc F Emeritus uses a pseudonym. If one chooses a pseudonym for a mild discussion on a relatively uncontroversial topic in a safe context like Nous, it should be possible to understand why untenured philosophers writing on threatening issues might prefer not to publish under their own names. This is even more true of the many part-time university teachers who ride the freeways from school to school while look for a stable job at one university. And most of us can understand why it might be better not to criticize the royal family of certain nations or the government policy of others while working at a university in those countries.

Ken Friedman
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Docfe
Docfe
Reply to  Ken Friedman
4 years ago

I agree with your comments entirely. I use Doc F Emeritus only because it relates to my email address, is also my signature on such emails, so I was merely being consistent. Just to be up front, I am Ralph Forsberg. But again, your comments are well taken as to the different worlds we live in as opposed to former philosophers. In many ways their worlds were much more dangerous for outspoken critics than ours. I also agree that expressing unpopular (public outcry) views should not influence one’s job security — as long as protected by academic freedom, which covers comments within one’s field, no? So a controversial paper about a standard philosophical topic should not negatively affect one’s job (though it very well might in the real world); but stepping out of one’s academic field and publishing offensive views on, say, race, gender, etc…with no relation to philosophy raises different questions. Enjoyiong the discussions.Report

Lizard
Lizard
4 years ago

This is quite late, but there was a really interesting paper on anonymity in publishing presented recently in the SWIP panel at The Joint Sessions by Amanda Cawston from Tilburg.. She had some good arguments (but hadn’t decided one way or another herself) and they really persuaded me. Anyone interested in the issue might do well to ask her for a copy of her paper. Report