Philosophical Writing’s (Lack of?) Appeal to Other Academics


“It would be great for philosophy if more philosophical papers were written in a way that was appealing to scholars from across the academy.”

So says Brian Weatherson, Marshall M. Weinberg Professor of Philosophy at the University of Michigan, in a recent interview at the Blog of the APA.

He continues:

Many philosophers nowadays are trying to write pieces that are accessible to non-academics, and that’s great. But it would also be great to have more scholarly writing that was appealing to historians, and psychologists, and economists, and all our other colleagues in colleges and universities. This was something the great figures of Continental philosophy did very well, but Analytic philosophers who get read across the academy are the exception not the rule. And if more academic hiring moves from the departmental level to the collegiate level (as is starting to happen at Michigan), it will be prudent for individual philosophers to write their academic work in a way that is intelligible to, and even appealing to, their fellow academics.

A few questions:

  1. What makes for scholarly writing that is appealing to historians, psychologists, economists, and others? Is it on specific subjects? Or in a certain style (or not in a certain style)? Or engaging with (and citing) the work of historians, psychologists, economists, etc.? Or…?
  2. What are some examples of philosophical papers that are written in a way that are appealing to academics outside of philosophy departments? Non-philosophers reading this are especially welcome to contribute examples.
  3. How are the “great figures of Continental philosophy” supposed to function as exemplars for us? (Weatherson advises us to write in a way that is “intelligible” to our fellow academics, but I sometimes think that some of the great figures of Continental philosophy get the broad multidisciplinary attention they do in part because of a lack of definitive intelligibility; that is, their writings lend themselves to multiple and diverse understandings, and the obvious lack of a consensus in philosophy on what the Great Figures are saying leaves an opening for nonphilosophers to join the interpretive conversation or make use of their favored interpretation, in a less risky way, for their own work. See this related post on Williams’ line about how philosophy should leave room for the reader to “add his own egg.”)
  4. Are analytic philosophers “who get read across the academy” rarer than economists or historians or psychologists, etc., who get read across the academy?
  5. Is academic hiring at your institution moving from the departmental level to the collegiate level?

Further questions and discussion welcome.

Laura Owens, detail from Ten Paintings installation at the Wattis Institute

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Brian Weatherson
3 years ago

Thanks for posting this! I’m interested in seeing the answers. They will be much more useful than my musings. And I agree entirely that the things I said about Continentals and what I said about intelligibility don’t fit together that well.

One small observation though. It’s possible that asking for philosophical *papers* that are read across the academy is biasing the inquiry. My guess is that books are much more important for inter-disciplinary interaction than papers. For example, I’d bet many more non-philosophers have engaged with Theory of Justice than of any of Rawls’s papers.Report

Rick
Rick
Reply to  Brian Weatherson
3 years ago

I’m not sure I have specific hugely influential philosophical works to suggest, but I think of biologists as rather frequently engaging with philosophers of biology. Ernst Mayr, Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, Mary Jane West-Eberhard all come to mind here. Report

Rick
Rick
3 years ago

I think a more likely explanation for the fondness which (some) other academic disciplines have for Continental philosophy has as much to do with the fact that the Continental philosophers (unlike analytic philosophers, for the most part) went in a post-modern direction with much of the rest of the academy.

Conversely: I suspect that if you look at the hard (and some of the human) sciences, you will find analytic (and/or naturalistic) philosophers drawing far more interest than e.g. Heidegger or Foucault. And actually, the more I think about this (Continental philosophers are read and analytic philosophers are ignored), the less I’m convinced that it’s actually true. It seems more accurate to me to say that *in the humanities* and other Marxist- or postmodern-influenced disciplines, analytic philosophy is less popular.

I also wonder if Continental philosophy, with its obscurity and playfulness, “feels” more like what people expect philosophy to feel like. Report

Aaron Garrett
Aaron Garrett
3 years ago

One of the reasons that Continental philosophers are more widely read by non-philosophers in some other academic departments is that they offer something that is useful to members of these departments. Derrida, Gadamer, Foucault, Heidegger, Freudians of different sorts, etc., can be mined in academic areas focused on literary (and other) texts for ways of reading canonical works that are novel, insightful by disciplinary standards, and controversial — academic desiderata.

Since historians (the real one’s in history departments) tend not to focus on canonical texts in the same way, it is unsurprising that these philosophers made far fewer inroads in that discipline. That’s obviously not all there is to it. Anthropology doesn’t focus on canonical works but had a high theory period that drew on many of the authors above. In that case I think it was due to the participant observer method coming into question and issues connected with interpretation coming to the forefront.
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Hilary Kornblith
Hilary Kornblith
3 years ago

There are, I believe, quite a lot of philosophers who are widely read in at least one discipline outside of philosophy. A very partial list, focused on my own areas of interest, would include Kwame Anthony Appiah, Paul Boghossian, Peter Carruthers, David Chalmers, Daniel Dennett, John Doris, Jerry Fodor, Alvin Goldman, Sally Haslanger, Philip Kitcher, Thomas Nagel, Martha Nussbaum, Jason Stanley, Robert Stalnaker, and Stephen Stich. I’m sure this list could be expanded considerably. I haven’t made any systematic attempt to come up with examples, and my own interests certainly don’t begin to cover the entire field of philosophy. At the same time, many of these philosophers are read primarily by authors in a single field outside philosophy, rather than very broadly across the academy. (Dennett, Kitcher, Nussbaum, and Nagel would certainly be exceptions here, as would Boghossian’s Fear of Knowledge.) And perhaps what Brian had in mind is that there are not many philosophers in the analytic tradition who are read so broadly. I expect that may mark a difference between the analytic and continental traditions.Report

Brian Weatherson
Reply to  Hilary Kornblith
3 years ago

The people in the brackets (Dennett etc) are really good examples of the ‘exceptions’; actually better examples than I had in mind when writing the piece.

But I should have been thinking more about the number of philosophers who are very widely read in one or two other fields. They form a pretty interesting group, and it would be nice if there were more people like them.Report

mrmister
mrmister
Reply to  Brian Weatherson
3 years ago

Should we expect there to be not just some, but lots of philosophical figures that are read broadly across the academy? As far as I can tell, we don’t expect the same from other disciplines–there’s no hematologist or poet that everyone must simply go out & read, let alone a bunch of hematologists and poets that everyone must simply go out & read. If we expect philosophy to be different in this regard, it must be because of something special about Philosophy: it must be that it’s a different kind of discipline, one that should produce lots more universally read figures. I like Philosophy as much as the next person, and could probably even be persuaded that it is at least a little different in this regard, but still don’t ultimately find it very plausible that there’s anything special ~enough~ about it to make it an anchor in the firmament for everyone else. But if it isn’t, it seems that the lack of lots of universally read figures is less a failure state and more an expectable and innocuous state of affairs. Report

Brian Weatherson
Reply to  mrmister
3 years ago

So here are two ways of putting the worry.

1. Historically there were plenty of such figures who were read widely. Kant and Hegel and Mill and Russell were read widely across the academy (and in some cases outside it). Even Wittgenstein mattered to many academics, even if no one could figure out what he was saying. Foucault and Habermas still matter. But Kripke, Lewis, Williamson, etc don’t matter to most academics. (Lewis is in linguistics, so that’s something.) That feels like a shift, and not an entirely happy one.

2. I spend a lot of time around other academics in Ann Arbor. It’s a small town and I have a young child, so I meet a lot of parents from across the academy. They sort of expect that they’d be interested in what philosophers are doing. And they totally are interested in, say, what Liz Anderson is doing. But it’s a little harder to sell them on a lot of what else is happening in analytic philosophy, while they are are much more likely to read either Continental figures, or historical philosophers, in their spare time.

Oddly, some of the other academics, e.g., in the business school or in the technical end of economics, are interested in the technical end of what’s happening in philosophy once I talk to them about work. But they had no idea that philosophers are doing stuff that’s interesting to them.

So we manage (at least in my idiosyncratic experience) to do stuff that’s not interesting to a big chunk of the academy, and without somehow communicating our work to the chunk of the academy that is interested. Both of these seem to be problems.Report

Aaron Garrett
Aaron Garrett
Reply to  Brian Weatherson
3 years ago

This is very well-stated. I wonder if in the case of Kant and Hegel it has as much to do with the German educational system, and German-influenced education systems, as intrinsic interest (not that there isn’t intrinsic interest)? That everyone from Bohr to Heine read Kant is probably due to this in part.

Foucault is the most interesting example (to me). After I wrote the comment above I realized that his influence is truly everywhere, including history departments. As far as I can tell it’s far wider than Habermas. It definitely would be worth thinking about why this is the case other than his intellectual merits.

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M
M
3 years ago

Perhaps part of the answer is that philosophers whose work exhibits deep knowledge of other disciplines are more likely to have that work taken up. Alasdair MacIntyre would be a clear example.Report

Urstoff
Urstoff
3 years ago

Relevance seems like the obvious criterion. Looking at the last few issues of the Philosophical Review, it’s hard to see how any non-philosopher would find any of these topics relevant to their own intellectual project. Report

Brian Weatherson
Reply to  Urstoff
3 years ago

Since one of the articles in the last edition but one of PR was by someone here at UM whose primary appointment is not in philosophy, I rather doubt that’s true. And you think only philosophers are interested in forgiveness?Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
3 years ago

Most philosophy papers are incomprehensible to those who don’t know the jargon and don’t have the appropriate background in philosophy. Often, analytics and continentals can barely understand one another. If we want philosophy to be read by academics who don’t specialize in philosophy, we need to produce work that they can be expected to understand..This won’t happen (much), because we judge productivity by the number of papers philosophers write for other professional philosophers.Report

Michel
Michel
3 years ago

A few names that spring to mind:

Arthur Danto is very well known in the fine arts disciplines, as well as in art history, especially for his book “The Transfiguration of the Commonplace” and the paper “The Artworld”. Many other philosophers of art enjoy reputations in art history or in the artistic disciplines associated with their work: e.g., Lydia Goehr in musicology, Graham McFee in dance, David Carrier in art history and criticism, etc.

Will Kymlicka’s work on multiculturalism gets read in political theory, Charles Taylor is read in political theory and in religious studies (and I think in sociology, too), and H.L.A. Hart and Ronald Dworkin are very well known in both law and political theory.

Also, depending on how we want to classify him: Noam Chomsky.

(Note: I’m not sure how helpful it is to name papers or books for these people, because I think their renown has more to do with their careful, specialist knowledge of and engagement with [and in!] their cognate disciplines. ) Report

Matt
3 years ago

I guess I’m not completely understanding the complaint. In part that’s because I’m not sure if the problem is that people “across the academy” don’t read philosophers (supposedly – more in a minute) _for their professional work_ or don’t read them more generally. I like history, and read a lot of it. I like to read less technical biology (i.e., usually not journals, but well written semi-popularizations for educated people by biologists) and psychology and the like, but that’s only very indirectly for my work. (It sometimes sparks an idea, or helps me think about a topic, but I’m not reading it _for work_ in most cases.) Would this fit into the idea? If so, then looking at “papers” is almost certainly the wrong thing – very few people, even academics, read technical work for enjoyment outside of their fields. But, if we move to books, especially ones written with the idea that a audience larger than philosophers might read them, then I think there are lots of good examples (many noted by Hilary Kornblith, though in my own extra-philosophical field, law, there are lots and lots of others.)

Or, is the idea that people in other disciplines don’t read philosophers _for their own work_? If that’s the case, I am not sure it’s true. (See the examples noted by Hilary Kornblith, but also, lots of less famous people who are read in law schools, political science, business schools, etc.) The examples we’re given of people in the past who were read widely seem misleading to me – they are _huge_ names, so no surprise they were read. (But with Russell, for example, was his technical philosophy so widely read outside of philosophy departments? I’m skeptical. Mill was mostly writing for generally educated public audiences, or else was _himself doing_ economics, or whatever, so I don’t think he’s a great counter-example, either.)

Given all of this, I’m just not sure what the issue is supposed to be – philosophers don’t seem any worse off than, say, most economists, or sociologists, or historians, let alone linguists, physicists, mathematicians, etc. We should be sure that there is a real problem here before we worry about solving it. Report

Rick
Rick
Reply to  Matt
3 years ago

The comparison seems to be specifically to Continental philosophers, not to non-philosophers, and the claim seems to be that Continental philosophers are widely read outside of philosophy and analytic philosophers are largely ignored. My hunch is that this is mostly limited to the humanities, and has more to do with the unfortunate postmodern turn of those parts of academia. Report

Matt
Reply to  Rick
3 years ago

Yes, this is one of the comparisons, but I didn’t take it to be the only one. Even here, though, I wonder if the right comparison is being made – one the one hand, we have current “analytic” philosophers (*), where this is taken to be at least people in departments like Michigan, and maybe most of us here. On the other hand, we have people like Hegel or Heidegger or Foucault or Derrida. But the later are again _huge names_, like Russell or Mill or whatever, not like even well known and respected normal philosophers. If it was the case that, say, a typical faculty member of Stonybrook or Penn State or where ever was being very widely read (and cited?) by lots of people from all over the university, that would be surprising and interesting, but I doubt that that is so much the case, for similar reasons that typical faculty members from most departments _and most disciplines_ are not so read and cited. (Even among “continental” philosophers, I wonder if the more “technical” ones – Husserl or (lots of) Merleu-Ponty, or Canguilhem, or whomever, get read and cited that much. I don’t know.) So again, I’m skeptical that there is actually a problem here, and would want to see more before I started worrying about the solution.

(*) I tend to think that, at this point, the term “analytic philosophy” doesn’t really mean anything, so I’d rather leave it out, but include it only because Weatherson does.Report

Brian Weatherson
Reply to  Matt
3 years ago

I agree that comparing big names to us regular folks is misleading. I was running together two things, both of which I think are interesting, but which are distinct.

1) Chat with non-philosophers around the campus, or around town (not the ones that you meet because of a specific collaboration), and see which philosophers they mention having read, or engaged with. The answer is often none, but it isn’t always. And when they mention some (usually big names of course), the big names are more often ones we associate with the Continental tradition than they are the ones frequently cited in Mind, Phil Review etc.

2) Try to pitch current philosophical research projects for university wide or (especially) humanities wide funding proposals (e.g., for research leave, PhD scholarships, post-docs) etc. This isn’t *impossible*, but it’s hard. This isn’t because philosophy is technical; it’s less technical than economics or psychology or political science and they do fine. But it is a bit because the things that the rest of the academy values are different to what we value. The work that is most valued by our colleagues in other departments is not usually the work that is most valued within philosophy departments. That troubles me more than it used to, and I think it should trouble many folks in philosophy more than it does.

It might be that philosophy of law work doesn’t have this ‘pitch problem’, and the mismatch is because many people in philosophy don’t value philosophy of law highly enough.Report

Sam Duncan
Sam Duncan
3 years ago

Rightly or wrongly I think there’s an impression that contemporary analytic philosophy shares the prejudices of the old logical positivists in classing everything but the “hard” sciences as nonsense at worst and poetry at best. If you work in say theology or even psychology or anthropology that might lead you to not bothering with analytic philosophy. Why spend time wrestling with something if the upshot is going to be nothing more than a dismissal of your field as nonsense? On the other hand you might well expect that Hegel, Heidegger, or even Foucault might have something to offer your discipline, and think it worth the effort even if difficult.
By the same token I do think as a cultural matter there’s a sort of prickly arrogance in contemporary philosophy that’s really off putting. We don’t seem to see the need to speak to other people and have this attitude that if they don’t see that why we’re doing is important that’s on them. I applied for a grant some years ago and the person helping me told me how frustrating it generally was to work with philosophers since they were not only bad at trying to explain their work to others, but often didn’t even see why they ought to. Report

Vivian F. Ford
Vivian F. Ford
3 years ago

As a non-philosopher who hasn’t tried to read many philosophical essays, I’ve found many—perhaps I’d find most—of Richard Rorty’s to be comprehensible. His prose always gives me the striking impression that he can explain anything simply, without caricaturing it. Report

Vivian F. Ford
Vivian F. Ford
Reply to  Vivian F. Ford
3 years ago

I forgot to include Shelly Kagan, who’s also admirably clear, especially in his tome ‘The Geometry of Desert.’ If he can write clear analytic philosophy for 500+ pages—analytic philosophy that is understandable of the masses and that other analytic philosophers still can justifiably call ‘a model of analytic rigor’—then I don’t see what, except an attraction to lazy obscurity, keeps analytic philosophers from writing similarly well. It please me, moreover, to note that Kagan greatly esteems Thomas Nagel, that Derek Parfit thanked Kagan immensely for help with ‘Reasons and Persons,’ and that Gareth Evens inspired Parfit during a car ride—an elegant tetraptych of supremely clear writer-philosophers.Report

agradstudent
agradstudent
3 years ago

I can’t say much about “historians, and psychologists, and economists”, but I engage with linguists and computer scientists on an almost daily basis. Some stray thoughts and observations regarding question 1).

i) I try to write (many of) my philosophy of language papers in a way that linguists can get something out of it. Usually, they confirm that they indeed can, but they find it “funny” how philosophy is written. Many of the distinctions drawn in a philosophy paper do not seem to be particularly relevant to them, and the associated terminology seems odd to them. I don’t mean to judge, I can entirely see why this is the case. Some distinctions we draw are admittedly arcane. Other distinctions are archaic to linguists, who have moved on from certain problems.

ii) When I talk to computer scientists about formal problems, I can oftentimes point to a philosophy paper that addresses (some part of) that formal problem and offers a tractable solution. But they have little appreciation for the prose around the formalisms. Again, I don’t mean to judge. Their goals are different.

I’m inclined to abduce from this scant data that philosophy’s contributions are valuable to others, but also deals with distinctions and problems that are unique to philosophy and only tangential to others [which I take to be a good thing!].

But I don’t think we can expect anyone else to dig through a substantial (and, at times, arcane) philosophical literature. At the same time, we should not compromise our own standards (and valued distinctions) to be more inviting.

It seems that the best option to get philosophical knowledge into another field is to find someone from that field, talk to them, and then publish a joint paper in one of *their* journals. The big barrier to this is that such publications do not net a philosopher any prestige in their own field; if I publish in, say, “Computational Linguistics”*, it won’t count much towards my job applications. The problem pointed out by Sam Duncan (that philosophers can be a bit obnoxious about their unwillingness to “lower” their work to another field) is surely related.

* A journal, by the way, that regularly publishes papers citing Stalnaker (“Assertion”) and Lewis (“Scorekeeping in a language game” among other philosophers.Report

Charles Pigden
Charles Pigden
3 years ago

Here is an except from my introduction to the entry on Imre Lakatos for the Stanford:
‘Lakatos’s influence, particularly in the philosophy of science, has been immense. According to Google Scholar, by the 25th of January 2015, that is, just twenty-five days into the new year, thirty-three papers had been published citing Lakatos in that year alone, a citation rate of over one paper per day … Of the thirty-three papers citing Lakatos published in the first twenty-five days of 2015, at most ten qualify as straight philosophy. The rest are devoted to such topics as educational theory, international relations, public policy research (with special reference to the development of technology), informatics, design science, religious studies, clinical psychology, social economics, political economy, mathematics, the history of physics and the sociology of the family. Thus Imre Lakatos was very much more than a philosophers’ philosopher.’

My guess is that Popper would be even more widely cited.

Moving from the mighty dead to the puny living, my own work has been cited by scholars in the following disciplines: Economics, Sociology, History, Classics, Law, Political Science, Bio-ethics, Business Ethics, Religious Studies, Climate Science, Computer Science (surprisingly), Education, Psychology, Communications, Energy Policy and Literary Theory. So I am just not sure that philosophers, or even analytic philosophers, are as seldom read outside the subject as Brian Weatherson believes them to be.

Supposing however that I am unusual (something that I am inclined to doubt), somebody might ask which of my papers has been cited outside the discipline? Is there some sort of a pattern? Well, my extra-philosophical citations are mostly directed towards two groups of papers, one on a traditional topic, the other on something a bit more out of the common road. My work on Is/Ought and the Naturalistic Fallacy has been widely cited outside the discipline, ditto my work on the philosophy of conspiracy theories. (My work on Bertrand Russell’s ethics has also been cited by non-philosophers though to nowhere near the same extent; also an early paper on Luther and Ought-Implies–Can.) So what’s the secret if there is one? Well, when writing on topics which might be of interest to non-philosophers, I do try to be accessible ( though I have no qualms about getting technical when I write or a mainly philosophical audience.) But I think the real secret of my interdisciplinary success (such as it is) is that with respect to both of these topics I have something to say which goes against the conventional wisdom. 1) It is true that you cannot derive a morally substantive Ought from a non-moral Is via of logic alone. But this provides no support whatsoever for the common belief that there is a deep semantic divide between facts and values, still less for any kind of non-cognitivism or expressivism. 2) The widespread belief that conspiracy theories *as such* are somehow suspect or unbelievable is not just false but utterly idiotic.
So what I am inclined to say is this. If you have something to say that might be of interest to scholars who are not professional philosophers, if it isn’t a variant of what everybody else is saying and if you say it as clearly as you can, there is a decent chance that you will be read by academics in other areas. That’s how it has been for me as one of the puny living, but I think much the same can be said for many of the mighty dead.

Two more points, one in agreement with previous posts.

1) When I write about conspiracy theories I use a wealth of historical examples (so much so that one person who cited me took me for an historian rather than a philosopher). I think that this is part of the secret of (some of ) my papers’ interdisciplinary success. You are more likely to be read by scholars in other disciplines I you read (and show you that have read) the work of scholars in other disciplines.
2) It helps if you are lucky enough to get your work included in a really good ‘Companion’ or anthology that non-philosophers (or people with just a smattering of philosophy) are likely to read. My piece in Peter Singer’s A Companion Ethics’ accounts for about 20% of my total citations, many of them by non-philosophers.
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Holger Leuz
Holger Leuz
3 years ago

One reason why philosophy isn’t read much by scientists may be philosophy’s notorious lack of definitive answers or even majority views among experts. If we want to be read more outside philosophy departments, we should avoid presenting our work as debates, let alone polemics, even if philosophers may love this medium of doing philosophy. Instead we should rather point out how different philosophical views exhaust, or move towards exhausting, the class of possible answers to a given philosophical question. Arrange different positions in a decision tree structure, making explicit which assumptions motivate them and on which assumptions they depend. (Sometimes this is hinted at in textbooks, but not overly explicit.) This could better explain the results of philosophical research. Philosophy better avoid being perceived as an endless, pointless clash of opinions, if it’s to be taken more serious in other departments.Report

Julia
Julia
3 years ago

Thank you for this timely post. John Dewey comes to mind as having influenced the cognate field of education. I guess his being associated with pragmatism lends support to a previous comment in this thread that suggests philosophy becomes relevant to other disciplines when these ‘other disciplines’ discern its relevance. The academic field of Education certainly finds Dewey relevant. Is that because of his prose or his content?Report