No Winner of Sanders Public Philosophy Award


The Marc Sanders Foundation offers a number of generous awards in several areas of philosophy and in 2016 launched its Public Philosophy Award. For the 2017 run of this contest, the foundation received 65 entries. However, it made no awards.

For the Public Philosophy contest, interested philosophers submit unpublished essays for consideration by a panel of judges. The essays may be on “any area of philosophy,” so long as they have “significant philosophical content or method” and are “written to engage the general reader.” First prize is $4,500 and publication of the essay in Philosophers’ Imprint. Second prize is publication of the essay at Aeon.

In an email, Barry Maguire (Stanford), who is on the Sanders’ Public Philosophy Award Committee and who was integral in creating the award, wrote about the submissions: “Many were good. But, by the opinion of the committee, none managed to develop an argument for the general reader of sufficient interest and depth to merit the award.”

A number of entrants to the contest wrote to me to share this news. It is, of course, within the rights of the foundation to withhold an award if they judge no entry to be deserving. However, a few of the philosophers reported finding the news discouraging, and there are concerns that the result may undermine one of the aims of the prize, which is to “encourage more production of excellent long form public philosophy.”

Perhaps this will be countered by the foundation’s plan to offer two $4,500 prizes in this contest.

 

This is disappointing news. Perhaps these owl babies will cheer you up.

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Shane Ralston
3 years ago

A very simple explanation: Nobody really knows what public philosophy is. Some, such as myself, think of it as engaged scholarship, i.e. addressing real-world problems using philosophical method. Others just see it as cheerleading for philosophy in the public square. Still others think it is philosophers talking to the public about their favorite pet cause. It’s odd because philosophers are usually well equipped to address definitional issues. Unfortunately we’ve never been very good at reaching consensus.Report

Chaz McEnroe
Chaz McEnroe
Reply to  Shane Ralston
3 years ago

I think Shane Ralston is right, and the reward structure of this prize only furthers the confusion. If public philosophy is the sort of thing that might appear in Phil Imprint, then that encourages one to think it is something along the line of what Ralston calls engaged scholarship, with perhaps the added stipulation that it be intelligible to non-philosophers. But if it’s the sort of thing that might appear in Aeon, I wouldn’t really call it scholarship at all–maybe popularized philosophy, or philosophers addressing the public about a pet cause. Splitting the venues for publication in this way invites confusion. I’m also pretty sure it deters people from submitting, because it has deterred me. Not to put too fine a point on it, but why on earth would I risk wasting a paper that might plausibly be good enough for a venue like Phil Imprint, or even a journal a tier or two below, on Aeon? Sure, some interesting and decent work has appeared there, but the average Aeon article is clickbait. There can be value in such articles (and certainly in those that turn out better), but again, I wouldn’t like seeing a paper I spent much time on turned into that.

I have not submitted for this prize, and unless something significant about it changes I don’t think I ever will.Report

Kenny Easwaran
Reply to  Chaz McEnroe
3 years ago

I would think the opposite is also true. Something that would be a great article at Aeon would be wasted if it ended up in Phil Imprint – it’s natural target audience would never think to look for it there, and wouldn’t want to download a .pdf in any case.Report

DJ
DJ
3 years ago

I think it would behoove the committee to explain in more detail what they expect from a winning piece of public philosophy and how, in general, the body of entries fell short.Report

Jean
Jean
3 years ago

Why is it within the rights of the committee to withhold the award? The rules referred to “the winner” and “the winning essay” and said nothing about the possibility of there being no winner. And what’s with promising two prizes next year? If no essays were good enough to receive the prize this year, why think not just one but two will be good enough next year?!

I wonder if the problem is with the committee expecting too much from “public philosophy”. IMHO, the essay they awarded first prize to last year was nothing like the stuff that routinely gets published in public philosophy venues like The Philosophers’ Magazine, Aeon, The Stone, etc. It was an academic paper, but written so as to be very clear and accessible. Possibly there was a paper in the bunch this year that did measure up to the standards that apply in public philosophy venues.Report

Geoff
Geoff
3 years ago

I feel badly for all the general readers who were eagerly anticipating the new issue of Phil Imprint this year!Report

Barry Lam
3 years ago

Jean, when Barry M. called me to let me know the decision of the committee, I had a discussion with the relevant members of the Foundation. We all agreed that, as autonomous committee members as well as the editors of the final venues of publication, if it was the considered opinion of Susan Wolf, David Velleman, Ken Taylor, Barry Maguire, and Brigid Hains that no essay satisfied their standards, it was not in the Foundation’s best interest to push them to award a prize and publish a paper anyway, contrary to their standards of evaluation. I think this is the right decision. As to whether the availability of two prizes will result in better essays next year; of course there is no guarantee and perhaps even evidence to the contrary that this will happen. The hope is that the higher probability of award will incentivize more competitive submissions.Report

Jean
Jean
Reply to  Barry Lam
3 years ago

I would think even an an autonomous committee and a foundation ought to run a contest according to the rules that were published. Those are the rules people were banking on when they made the effort to enter the contest–and every essay did have to be unpublished and written for this occasion. I do hope that next year you will state up front that the number of winners will be between zero and two, if that is the truth.Report

Andrew
Andrew
Reply to  Barry Lam
3 years ago

I’m not sure why anyone would have that hope. How is there a higher probability of award? This year, philosophers who submitted were under the that there was guaranteed to be an award. Now, there is the real possibility that no award will be given (despite two being “available”) because no submission meets some nebulous standard of “good enough.”Report

Another Gopher
Another Gopher
Reply to  Barry Lam
3 years ago

Okay but like others above I’m concerned about what the standards are. In a world full of vital public issues ranging from white nationalism to mass incarceration to North Korea, it’s a bit concerning that last year’s public philosophy prize went to a paper on flipping coins…no disrespect to the author intended, but I wonder whether the committee’s standards may be too conservative for a prize of this nature.Report

DJ
DJ
Reply to  Barry Lam
3 years ago

Again, I think it would help everyone if those standards used to assess the entries were made public.Report

Bob Jones
Bob Jones
Reply to  Barry Lam
3 years ago

Barry Lam says: “We all agreed that, as autonomous committee members as well as the editors of the final venues of publication, if it was the considered opinion of Susan Wolf, David Velleman, Ken Taylor, Barry Maguire, and Brigid Hains that no essay satisfied their standards, it was not in the Foundation’s best interest to push them to award a prize and publish a paper anyway, contrary to their standards of evaluation.”

This is a curious way of putting it.Report

Eric Schwitzgebel
Eric Schwitzgebel
3 years ago

One possibility is to consider granting the award for already-published work. Engaged public philosophers typically want to put their work out there in a timely fashion. Why sit around on an unpublished essay on the off chance that it will win an award, rather than just sending it to Aeon or wherever?Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
Reply to  Eric Schwitzgebel
3 years ago

I can’t agree too much. Anything sent to the committee is the opposite of public philosophy in spirit, because the author isn’t trying to connect to the public with it. It makes much more since to restrict the award to work that has been published than to work that has not been.Report

Barry Maguire
Barry Maguire
Reply to  Eric Schwitzgebel
3 years ago

Hi Eric. I definitely like the idea of awarding already-published work. As you know, some such prizes already exist. But we wanted to explore a different model, for various reasons. We wanted to encourage longer essays than are commonly written for publication. Longer form essays might not need to be as ‘to the minute’ as shorter op ed-style pieces. We also wanted to encourage people to to write public philosophy essays who may not do so otherwise. Finally, we wanted to offer to publish the winning essay(s); and only accepting unpublished submissions made this simpler. We also tried to make the decision as quickly as possible.Report

Joe
Joe
3 years ago

I’m a little confused about the call for clarity in standards, here. Surely the standards are roughly the same as they are for every other publication venue in philosophy, namely, whatever idiosyncratic conception of “quality” the editorial/referee board happens to have at present. This is something that early-career philosophers live and die with every day, something we’ve generally been told to accept. You get desk rejections, nobody tells you why, you move on. Why the sudden concern for transparency here?Report

Andrew
Andrew
Reply to  Joe
3 years ago

(1) As Shane Ralston pointed out, the relevant standards are extra-unclear in light of the lack of clarity regarding what constitutes “public philosophy.” (2) The website doesn’t say it, but I think it was reasonable for persons submitting to assume that one of the submitted essays would be selected — the “best” of the essays. If the prize wants to encourage public philosophy by encouraging submissions, they should be upfront about how the contest is going to work and what philosophers need to do to have a reasonable chance of winning the prize. (3) With Analysis, for instance, I can look at a long publication history to get an idea of the type of papers accepted. Not so for this prize. As a result, guidance would be really helpful. (4) Philosophers who submit to journals often (admittedly, not always) get some feedback about why a paper that was not accepted was not accepted. All these philosophers got was a public announcement that the lot wasn’t up to snuff.Report

DJ
DJ
Reply to  Andrew
3 years ago

Good points. I would add that awards typically have criteria, especially when they are applied for. It would help everyone if those criteria were made clearer. (Philosopher’s Imprint and Aeon are two very different publications with different standards.)Report

Joe
Joe
Reply to  Andrew
3 years ago

Sorry, not at all convinced. McGuire does not say that the esssys were rejected for “not being public philosophy “, so your (1) is irrelevant to my comment. I am speaking specifically about people who are concerned with standards of quality. (2) applies precisely to journal submissions. (3) applies to newer journals with no significant publication record. No one is demanding that those journals publish their standards. And (4) is true but many journals maintain a 50-75% desk rejection policy. I ask again: why the disproportionate concern?Report

John Corvino
3 years ago

Full disclosure: I’m one of the 65 people who submitted this year, and I was indeed surprised by the decision to award no prize (in a way that I would not have been had the prize simply been awarded to someone else). It did make me wonder whether there were important unwritten criteria. The prize page simply advises, “The most important condition is that essays should be written to engage the general reader.”

Chaz M. makes an interesting point above. Papers that would be suitable for Aeon would rarely be suitable for Phil Imprint and vice versa; that the winner goes to Phil Imprint and the runner-up goes to Aeon–in the event that there are two, rather than zero, acceptable papers–does render it somewhat perplexing as to the level at which the paper is to be pitched. I doubt that I will submit next year, but it would indeed be helpful if the committee gave more guidance about what they are looking for.

I also like Eric S.’s suggestion that the prize might be reconfigured in the future so that it is awarded to something already published. Timeliness is frequently a consideration in public philosophy.Report

Ferrum Intellectus
Ferrum Intellectus
Reply to  John Corvino
3 years ago

As someone who also entered this contest with an essay relating the Charlottesville terrorist attack and the debate over Confederate statues with Plato’s critique of the image in The Republic, I was quite deflated that nobody won the prize, even more so than if I had lost outright to someone else. I will be entering again next year, but I absolutely agree with everyone above that clarification is needed on what the Committee defines as public philosophy and what they’re looking for in a paper overall.Report

Jason Burke Murphy
Jason Burke Murphy
3 years ago

I do not like the sound of this at all. This committee should at least acknowledge that they are not using a good method for encouraging public philosophy.

I would not bother submitting to this committee before I submit to the public at large.

This committee could do well to find good stuff out there. This award can bring attention to good writing out there. That seems much better than implying that “no one knows how to do public philosophy anymore” as one commentator here has said.

It would be better to award the “best” essay and then change the method for next year. Committee members also have taken on a responsibility to publish some very impressive public philosophy pieces.Report

Barry Maguire
Barry Maguire
3 years ago

I can only speak for myself, not for the committee. But perhaps a few thoughts will be helpful.

There were sixty five submissions. At the first round of judging, each submission was assessed by one writer (mostly non-fiction writers, but one or two novelists) and one philosopher. They were invited to provide quantitative assessments of philosophical importance, accessibility/clarity, interestingness/pertinence, and aesthetic merit, and to provide an overall score. Each first round judge was also invited to provide a qualitative judgement about the submission. A number of submissions were shortlisted on the basis of these results. Each of these shortlisted essays was assessed by each member of the committee (consisting in Susan Wolf (Chair), David Velleman (NYU, Philosophers’ Imprint), Brigid Hains (Editorial Director, Aeon), Ken Taylor (Stanford, Philosophy Talk), Barry Maguire (Stanford). At length, the negative decision was reached by the committee. (As Barry Lam noted above, we also consulted with MSF.)

I think it is fair to say that two opinions were frequently expressed, and by the writers in particular: that the submissions did not, in general, exemplify expertise in writing for the general reader as such, and that, too often, accessibility was traded off against depth.

One final point: one ambition for the award was to shift incentives in the profession (concerning hiring and tenure, e.g.) towards this kind of important writing. Publication in Philosophers’ Imprint – an excellent publicly accessible journal – was hoped to help this in two ways: by taking advantage of existing incentives, and also by affirming the philosophical bona fides of the best examples of this kind of work.Report

Upstate Upstart
Upstate Upstart
Reply to  Barry Maguire
3 years ago

Thank you. It is helpful to hear the opinions of the writers. We philosophers have been weighed, we have been measured, and we have been found wanting. This should not come as a surprise, but it should come as a challenge.Report

Jean
Jean
Reply to  Barry Maguire
3 years ago

Thanks for the explanation. I’m not 100% convinced that “non fiction writers” and “novelists” can judge philosophical writing, which has its own particular demands, audience, virtues, vices, etc. I know that as a philosophical writer, I certainly wouldn’t be a qualified judge in a fiction contest or even in a science writing contest.

As for Philosophical Imprint–it sounds great to put the winning essay (whenever there is one) there, but there may be a downside. Judges may have trouble envisioning a topical essay being published there, especially considering the time lag. Oddly, I don’t see last year’s winner at the PI website yet. They might also have trouble picturing an autobiographical essay (of the sort often found at The Stone) in such a business-as-usual academic journal. So that prize may have a tendency to exclude some of the forms that public philosophy often takes.Report

David Velleman
David Velleman
Reply to  Jean
3 years ago

Last year’s winning entry should appear in Philosophers’ Imprint within days. Some of the commenters may want to reconsider their comments after seeing what impressed last year’s jury as a model of public philosophy.Report

Nick
Nick
Reply to  David Velleman
3 years ago

I have skimmed through the paper. It’s a fine, accessible paper, but I sincerely hope this is not the model of public philosophy we all should emulate/live up to/strive for.Report

publicphilosopher
publicphilosopher
Reply to  David Velleman
3 years ago

A quote from last year’s winning essay: “Put less formally, the idea that seems to be at work in both of these formal treatments of surprise is that the surprisingness of a conjunction e1 & e2 must be a function of the surprisingness of e1, the surprisingness of e2 and the connection between them.” Is this what we are supposed to take as our model? Really?
Also, I have to point out that although last year’s winning essay starts very engagingly by summarizing a scene from Stoppard’s play, this hook seems to have been stolen from Robert Martin’s great book, There are Two Errors in the the Title of This Book. Here’s how Robert Martin introduces the idea that one should expect to find patterns in any long random series: “In the beginning of Tom Stoppard’s 1967 Play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Rosencrantz has idly been flipping a coin, and it has come up heads ninety-two times in a row . . . “ The start of last year’s winning essay: “When we first meet the title characters of Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, they are betting on coin throws. Rosencrantz has a standing bet on heads, and he keeps winning, pocketing coin after coin. . .” But perhaps originality doesn’t matter in public philosophy? Don’t get me wrong. I liked the essay in many ways. But my guess is that there were plenty of essays that the committee could have chosen from this year that were just as good.Report

DJ
DJ
Reply to  publicphilosopher
3 years ago

That has got to be fake. There is no way the winning piece included such a sentence.Report

Matt
Reply to  DJ
3 years ago

“CRLT-F” seems to suggest that the above sentences, or even fairly small fractions of them, do not in fact appear in the published paper. Whether it’s a joke or not I’ll leave to others with a more subtle sense of humor than mine, I suppose.Report

JDRox
JDRox
Reply to  publicphilosopher
3 years ago

C’mon, that’s pretty much the only sentence like that. They probably should have changed it–you don’t really need variable there–but overall the essay seems like it should be comprehensible to any relatively mathematically/scientifically literate person. That being said, to quote van Inwagen, “This must be one of the most annoyingly obtuse arguments in the history of philosophy”. Smith says it’s rational to be surprised by an event iff it requires an explanation, and seems to take it as a premise that flipping heads 92 times in a row doesn’t require an explanation. It would be nice if we had an account of ‘requiring an explanation’. Strictly speaking, I guess that means ‘couldn’t have happened by chance’. On that view, flipping 92 heads in a row doesn’t require an explanation. But of course, neither does one’s car disappearing: quantum mechanics and whatnot. What we need is a principle that says which highly improbable events require an explanation–really, that’s what the essay is about–and Smith doesn’t give us one. This not being my field, the only such principle of which I’m aware is John Leslie’s “Merchant’s Thumb Principle”, which gives the result that flipping 92 heads in a row is surprising (because it requires explanation). Leslie’s principle isn’t mentioned, much less argued against, in Smith’s paper, however.Report

D.C.
D.C.
Reply to  Jean
3 years ago

“’I’m not 100% convinced that “non fiction writers” and “novelists” can judge philosophical writing, which has its own particular demands, audience, virtues, vices, etc.”

The audience here, as the contest rules clearly state, is the “general reader.”Report

Joel David Hamkins
Joel David Hamkins
3 years ago

I can’t help but think that the committee has blundered. They have squandered their chance to promote this kind of accessible philosophical writing, instead choosing in effect to create confusion and regret concerning the competition. Will the lack of a prize cause a flowering of public philosophy? I doubt it. It seems more likely to cause second thoughts about trying again.

Meanwhile, there seems to be a lot of high-quality public philosophy about, including some by philosophers I know to have contributed essays for the competition.Report

Joel David Hamkins
Reply to  Joel David Hamkins
3 years ago

For example, the committee could have accepted the most promising essay, and then given feedback so that the essay could be editted into the desired nature.Report

Joel David Hamkins
Reply to  Joel David Hamkins
3 years ago

Also, given the procedure that has been described for the selection process, if the committee hadn’t found a winning essay amongst those on their short list, they should have gone back to the main list again. I just can’t believe that amongst the sixty-five essays that they had solicited, there was no acceptable case of public philosophy. It was deletorous to the goal of promoting public philosophy for them to have declined them all.Report

JDH
JDH
Reply to  Joel David Hamkins
3 years ago

*del·e·te·ri·ous*Report

Professor Plum
Professor Plum
3 years ago

Many of the comments here strike me as petulant; of course people who offer prizes can decide that none of the entries meet the standards for the prize. Awarding a prize to someone who doesn’t, according to the judges, deserve it would be counterproductive.

But if the goal is to encourage more public philosophy, I can think of better ways of doing this than offering two prizes next year. Why not distribute the $4,500 to several philosophers as scholarships for seminars geared toward helping academics write for a general audience?Report

Barry Maguire
Barry Maguire
Reply to  Professor Plum
3 years ago

The MSF have provided additional funds (along with the APA and various other places) for one such workshop next May at UNC Chapel Hill. Details of the workshop and the scholarships will be publicized soon. Funding is also being sought for further such workshops.Report

Jack Woods
Jack Woods
3 years ago

I think Jean’s point is off topic. The standards could maybe have been clearer, but it was clearly stated that the essays should be “written to engage the general reader”. Surely that’s part of what having non-philosophy authors read the essays is supposed to capture.Report

Jean
Jean
Reply to  Jack Woods
3 years ago

I was responding to what Barry Maguire said about the process. He didn’t say the role of the writers was simply to determine if the essays would engage the general reader. He said their role was to score the essays, in the first round, on features including “aesthetic merit.” Surely different genres of writing have different kinds of aesthetic merit, so it might be that a novelist or science writer (or whatnot) wouldn’t appreciate some of the aesthetic merits that philosophical writing can have. The relevance to the issue of there being no prize is that it just might be that some good stuff didn’t make it past round one because the expectations of the writers were more relevant to other writing genres. Might be, and might not be. I am trying to explain (to myself) how it can be that none of the 65 essays could be meritorious enough to deserve the prize. I just do find that very surprising.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Jean
3 years ago

A form of “aesthetic merit” that only trained philosophers can appreciate seems a bit rarefied to be relevant to public philosophy.Report

Jean
Jean
Reply to  David Wallace
3 years ago

The experts on philosophical writing sometimes do and sometimes don’t have “training” in the graduate school sense. They include folks who are philosophy editors at publishing companies, who are involved in editing/writing for philosophy magazines or online philosophy websites, etc. In fact, one member of the committee is this sort of expert on philosophical writing, but (I take it) not a trained philosopher. It would be nice if the round one writers all had that sort of expertise. It seems like such people might have a different and more pertinent take on what makes an essay aesthetically pleasing or accessible or at the right level for the general reader. (I say this as someone who has done a lot of editing and writing of philosophy for the general reader.)Report

Jack Woods
Jack Woods
Reply to  Jean
3 years ago

“It would be nice if the round one writers all had that sort of expertise.”

I take it that the worry with this is that such folks are a seriously imperfect barometer to the general educated reading public, whereas a selection of professional writers is a slightly better one. And, as David says, aesthetic merit that’s only accessible to philosophers isn’t going to be perfectly relevant to the general audience. On the other hand, since the philosophers were also asked to comment on aesthetic merit as well as philosophical merit, presumably your worry would and could be addressed by them if they thought that there was sufficient specialized, yet accessible (?), aesthetic merit that would be overlooked by the other reader.

As in any selective evaluation procedure, there are going to be false negatives. It very well might be that there were excellent papers that missed the cut for this or that reason; I’d be surprised if there weren’t. But that’s a danger to any reasonably selective evaluation process.Report

DJ
DJ
3 years ago

So the winner of last year’s contest has not been published yet in the Philosopher’s Imprint. Why is this the case? And is this at all related to this year’s decision?Report

Nick
Nick
3 years ago

Barry, could you please clarify what you mean by “too often, accessibility was traded off against depth”? (I did not submit an essay and am asking just out of curiosity.) Did you mean:
– too often essays went for depth at the expense of accessibility
– too often essays went for accessibility at the expense of depth
or something different from either of those? E.g., that depth and accessibility were treated as opposites to be balanced in some way?
thanksReport

E
E
3 years ago

Weren’t the 65 authors aware that Phil Imprint doesn’t publish “interventions”?Report

David Velleman
David Velleman
3 years ago

The winner has now been published in Philosophers’ Imprint (www.philosophersimprint.org). A Publication announcement will be sent out soon.Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
3 years ago

A further problem with restricting the award to unpublished works is that it rules out so much of the public philosophy that the public purchases. If you go to a bookstore with a philosophy section or check sales on Amazon, you’ll find that a lot of the modern philosophy being sold relates philosophy to some specific niche in popular culture, such as Star Wars or Wonder Woman. Chapters written for such volumes are tailored to the specific volume and would be very difficult to publish anywhere else. Philosophers must offer submissions in time to be considered for the specific volume, or they would effectively be giving up on publishing these works.

I do not think that it is impossible, in principle, that a philosopher might write a genuinely excellent public philosophy work that, say, discusses feminist philosophy by drawing on examples from Wonder Woman. Yet it seems that such a work could never win a public philosophy award, no matter how good it is.Report