Publishing Philosophy One Doesn’t Believe


“Is there anything wrong with publishing philosophical work which one does not believe?”

That is the central question of “Publishing Without Belief,” a recent article in Analysis by Alexandra Plakias, assistant professor of philosophy at Hamilton College.

Salvador Dalí, detail of “The Madonna of Port Lligat” (1950)

Professor Plakias argues that publishing without belief is not wrong: “the practice isn’t intrinsically wrong, nor is there a compelling consequentialist argument against it.”

Here are some of the reasons she offers for her answer:

  1. “requiring philosophers to publish only what is true, or what they know, advantages philosophers with more permissive standards for knowledge or truth, while disadvantaging those with higher standards.”
  2. “biographical information about the author—including his or her personal convictions—should be… irrelevant to assessments of the merits of their argument… we don’t necessarily base our acceptance of an argument on the speaker’s (or author’s) attitude towards it.”
  3. Publishing without belief doesn’t necessarily involve hypocrisy, lack of thoroughness, or insouciance (bullshitting). “The speaker (or writer) who doesn’t believe her argument isn’t telling her audience that she believes what she’s saying—she’s asking the audience to believe it.”
  4. We don’t have sufficient reasons to think that “a philosopher won’t whole-heartedly defend a view she’s put into print, even if she isn’t convinced of its truth.”
  5. “Securing academic employment depends on publishing, usually in a peer-reviewed journal… Suppose, as seems plausible, the position defended in a paper has a bearing on how likely that paper is to be accepted for publication. And suppose the views we end up believing are, in part, beyond our control. I submit that we should do our best to minimize the extent to which the ability to have a philosophical career depends on factors outside an individual’s control. The process of publishing philosophy is subject to so many contingencies that we ought to eliminate them wherever we can, especially where these affect the prospects of early career philosophers whose beliefs are not yet calcified.”

You can read the whole paper here (ungated draft here*)—and don’t miss its last line. Discussion welcome.

(Update Below)


*Two notes. First, Professor Plakias asks people to cite the published version in their written work. Second, if you have trouble viewing the draft, try doing so in a browser in which you are not logged into Google.

UPDATE (10/1/2020): Will Fleisher (Northeastern) responds to Plakias in a reply article in Thought:

Alexandra Plakias has recently argued that philosophers may permissibly publish claims they do not believe. This raises the question: when is it permissible to publish without belief? Is it always? I provide three counterexamples to the idea that it is always permissible to publish without belief. I argue that it is only permissible to publish a certain kind of claim when one does not believe it. I call these advocacy role claims. Another kind of claim is impermissible to publish without belief: what I call evidential role claims. These types are distinguished by their function. Advocacy role claims aim to promote productive debate and disagreement. Evidential role claims aim to add to the common stock of evidence. The resulting theory incorporating the distinction explains the differences between Plakias’ cases and mine. It is applicable to publishing in a wide variety of fields beyond philosophy.

Ungated version here.


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Micah Lewin
Micah Lewin
2 years ago

Low hanging fruit: yes, but does Professor Plakias believe the position she argues for in this paper?Report

Travis Figg
Travis Figg
2 years ago

If I don’t believe the position, I obviously either don’t think the arguments offered for it are compelling, or I think some argument against it is compelling. In either case, why am I trying to publish it?

And aren’t the obvious bad consequences 1) that it risks causing philosophers to believe false claims, or at least be taken in by bad arguments? And 2) that could hurt my reputation if I’m known to publish papers with flawed arguments.

The only situation where I can imagine this making sense is if I’m assuming something that I think may be false and seeing what following hypothetically. But then I’d just say that’s what I’m doing.Report

Robert A Gressis
Robert A Gressis
Reply to  Travis Figg
2 years ago

Hilary Kornblith seems to have the view that he shouldn’t believe any of his philosophical positions. Roughly speaking, it goes like this:

1. Conciliationism is true.
2. If conciliationism is true, then we should be agonistic about almost all philosophical positions, including conciliationism itself.
3. Therefore, we shouldn’t believe any philosophical position, including conciliationism.

Now, he gets to 1 on the basis of an argument. I think he believes the argument, but he’s aware that he shouldn’t. So, he’s at least in this position: I do believe my philosophical positions, but I shouldn’t.

If he’s right that we shouldn’t believe any philosophical position, then I can’t see how there would be anything wrong with publishing philosophy you believe. Indeed, that would be the only good way to do it!

Now, I don’t think conciliationism is true, but a lot of philosophers seem to. So maybe Plakias’s conclusion shouldn’t strike us as all that odd. Report

Lee Scott Vannoy
Lee Scott Vannoy
Reply to  Travis Figg
2 years ago

Indeed.Report

Kenny Easwaran
Reply to  Travis Figg
2 years ago

Most interesting philosophical theses have unrefuted arguments in favor of them as well as unrefuted arguments against them. So there’s no reason to think that arguments are “flawed” in the sense that would be reputation-damaging just because the conclusion is false.

Most individual philosophers generally think it’s valuable for authors to publish new arguments for theses that the individual philosopher considers false, because it’s valuable to have more of the arguments for and against the thesis in question. So most philosophers don’t think the risk of people being taken in by an argument for a false position is overriding.Report

Peter Mandik
2 years ago

Good news for eliminative materialists.Report

driftinCowboy
driftinCowboy
2 years ago

Suppose you believe p, but then a good argument for ~p causes you to suspend judgment about p. It seems obvious that such an argument is worth sharing, even if you don’t believe ~p.
Report

Nicole
Nicole
2 years ago

“1. requiring philosophers to publish only what is true, or what they know, advantages philosophers with more permissive standards for knowledge or truth, while disadvantaging those with higher standards.”

Seems to me that she might be conflating various kinds of “not believing P.”
I can vehemently deny P and actually believe ~P.
I can be agnostic about P.
I might believe P but only with substantial caveats.
P might be the very notion that there is no truth, objective reality, etc etc, in which case one can’t write about P while believing P to be objectively true without getting into an eternal contradiction.

I think there’s actual value in defending a position you don’t believe in: it gives you the chance to create the best possible defense of something you don’t believe, which can only help expand your understanding of P.Report

Sean
Sean
Reply to  Nicole
2 years ago

It can also explore the value of a particular mode of argument. If a can construct an argument in support of a position that I disbelieve, and that argument cannot be clearly refuted within that context, then either I should be revisiting my belief in that topic, or I should be questioning any other beliefs I have arrived at via arguments of similar structure.Report

A very junior person
A very junior person
2 years ago

Perhaps I am showing my ignorance by asking this, but that’s all right, we aim to learn and improve; here’s my question: isn’t it odd to say that we “believe in” philosophical positions in the same way that we talk about regular factual beliefs? Why is it hypocritical to consider beliefs one does not hold, or even beliefs one holds to be implausible? Do we not routinely play “Devil’s Advocate” in philosophical discussions with colleagues and with students? Report

Kenny Easwaran
Reply to  A very junior person
2 years ago

This idea that the attitude we have towards philosophical views (or to academic views more generally) is somehow distinct from belief is shared by many people. (Some say that the fact that all interesting scientific views from the past have eventually been refuted in one way or another gives us reason *not* to believe *any* scientific theory.)Report

BLS Nelson
2 years ago

I endorse this sentiment with respect to some philosophical venues and not for others.

On the one hand, it’s true that in philosophy we need to ‘explore the space of reasons’, which sometimes means making the best possible argument for things we don’t believe or know to be true. That is a productive activity which you can do in good faith (even if there is a sense in which you are being ‘insouciant’). But the exploration doesn’t go far, as many will resent feeling excluded by the peculiarity of the effort. But so it goes. Reason demands creativity, and we are worse off for not venturing out on your own a little to see the lay of the land.

On the other hand, it is also true that subjects related to *public* matters ought to be tightly directed towards knowledge in its strictest sense. For example, if I am reading an argument in ‘Philosophy & Public Affairs’, I am far less interested in the mere exploration of reasons. I expect to hear about provisional convictions that are actually worth defending. We owe each other more when we see each other as equal participants in a common venture.Report

Vincent
Vincent
2 years ago

I find this weird. Likely, if one doesn’t believe that p, this will either be because (i) knows of a convincing argument against p or (ii) because, despite some plausible argument for p, one nevertheless finds p highly implausible. If (i), why publish the argument for p, rather than the one against it (perhaps setting out the case for p along the way)? If (ii), it seems clearly permissible to argue for p; although it might be better to add that one sees the argument as a puzzle to be solved (this happens all the time).

(A third possibility is that, even though one believes p is false, one thinks it would be, say, morally better if p were believed. I don’t find that rationale particularly convincing – whether it would be better if p were believed sounds like a question for sociologists, not philosophers – but I suppose there’s room for reasonable disagreement.)Report

Jared
Jared
2 years ago

I’d say — going out on a limb — lying is wrong, all else equal. And I’d count as lie an assertion in your own name that you know you don’t believe, at least where you give no indication you’re playing a role. So yeah, it seems wrong to me.

That said, I read the author as making a reasonable case that we ought to let this lie slide, given the professional stakes. Put more crudely, he’s saying: we ought to let people sell out, because they have a lot to lose if they don’t. But let’s not pretend it’s something else. (unless we believe it)Report

Brian Weatherson
Brian Weatherson
Reply to  Jared
2 years ago

Does misgendering count as lying as well?Report

Nichi
Reply to  Jared
2 years ago

What if the author argues for a position but notes at some point that they don’t believe the position? Report

Ned Hall
Ned Hall
2 years ago

I may well be missing something, but it seems as though there’s an obvious fallback position. Say I’m agnostic about p. But I’ve thought of an argument for p that I think is really interesting, and that no one has noticed. While the argument has real force, I don’t find it convincing — this is philosophy, after all. Still, the argument seems important enough to alert my colleagues to. Then why don’t I just say (in print) *all that*?? I.e., I could begin the paper disingenuously: “I shall argue that p is true, as follows:…”. Or I could begin it more honestly, at the cost of a few extra words: “I am agnostic as to p. But I have found an interesting and important argument for p, which runs as follows: …” This sure looks like a straightforward and cost-free alternative to publishing what I don’t believe. What are its disadvantages?
Report

Matt Weiner
Reply to  Ned Hall
2 years ago

This seems to me like the position Plakias discusses in the paragraph beginning “Perhaps the norm is something else: state clearly the degree of credence one has in one’s position or claim” and subsequent paragraphs.Report

Marcus Arvan
Reply to  Matt Weiner
2 years ago

I think something even a bit stronger than Ned’s fallback position may make sense. I may find an argument. *convincing* yet still not believe its premises or conclusion. Why? Because even though I find it convincing, I recognize that I am fallible, there are other people who might not find it convincing, and I think epistemic responsibility requires believing things that are not just convincing to me but also convincing to others (my epistemic peers). In other words, the right thing seems to me for one to maybe assign a fairly high credence to what one argues, but not *believe* what argues unless or until one sees that others find one’s argument convincing too. This seems to me an appropriate kind of epistemic humility when doing philosophy—though of course I could be wrong! 😉Report

YAAGS
YAAGS
2 years ago

“Is there anything wrong with publishing philosophical work which one does not believe?”

Given that this is stated so incredibly broadly to apply to the work itself rather than some thesis or position defended within it, the answer is pretty clearly “yes”. Is it okay to publish a paper even if you don’t believe in the paper? To say that someone doesn’t believe in their paper is tantamount to them thinking the paper is faulty. No, you shouldn’t try to publish it if you think it’s faulty. A scientist who doesn’t believe in the study itself–e.g. because they used crap methods and p-hacking–but tries to publish it anyway is clearly guilty of academic malpractice.

If you narrow the scope of the belief to some specific thesis that is supported by the paper but which you don’t believe for other reasons that fall outside the scope of the argument in the paper, then the answer is quite obviously “no”. There is nothing wrong with you publishing that. For instance, one might be a metaethical anti-realist and still want to publish a paper defending act utilitarianism against Nozick’s utility monster objection, just because you find the argument interesting and know moral realist will as well. That’s perfectly fine. You might not believe in act utilitarianism because you’re an anti-realist, but I see absolutely no reason why you would be professionally obligated to disclose this in the introduction of your paper or mention meta-ethics. No intelligent person who reads the paper needs to be told that act utilitarianism might fail if moral anti-realism is true, and it is clearly absurd to demand that every ethics paper start with an overarching defense of moral realism.

Then again, if your thesis is “Nozick’s utility monster thought experiment fails as an objection to act utilitarianism” then you probably believe it. For you to make it so you don’t believe the thesis you’d have to add something like “therefore, utilitarianism is true”. But then you proabably *shouldn’t* say that. Obviously you have no hope of establishing that in the paper, so the referees will make you remove it.

My point being that it’s really hard to find a reasonable example of what Prof. Plakias is talking about. It seems that in most cases where your paper supports a position you don’t believe your actual thesis is probably just going to either be an explicit conditional that you do believe, or will tacitly be read as a such a conditional by most readers. The only example I can think of would be an intuitionist publishing a paper where they use indirect proof where they don’t think it will hold. Then they think the argument itself is faulty and they might not believe the conclusion, but they are nonetheless behaving reasonably because they know that most people don’t share these assumptions and will find the paper both interesting and well-argued by their standards. But those seem like fairly rare and odd sorts of cases.Report

Matt H
Matt H
2 years ago

I’m a bit puzzled by this argument: “requiring philosophers to publish only what is true, or what they know, advantages philosophers with more permissive standards for knowledge or truth, while disadvantaging those with higher standards.”

Compare the following argument for relaxing the prohibition on cheating at cards: “requiring card players to not cheat advantages philosophers with more permissive standards for what constitutes cheating, while disadvantaging those with higher standards.”

It’s true that cheats will have an advantage by their more permissive lights. But it doesn’t obviously follow that we should relax the constraint on playing by the rules. Report

David Velleman
David Velleman
2 years ago

Historical note: David Lewis once published a paper criticizing his own work (in which he still believed) under the pseudonym Bruce Le Catt. The Journal (The Australasian Journal of Philosophy) later identified him as the author. (Lewis’s cat was named Bruce.) https://retractionwatch.com/2017/08/01/35-years-philosophy-journal-corrects-article-cat/ Report

P.D.
P.D.
Reply to  David Velleman
2 years ago

Textual note: Professor Plakias mentions Lewis/Le Catt in her fn 4.Report

Jonathan Westphal
Jonathan Westphal
2 years ago

Perhaps the last line could be improved. How about ‘Or so I believe?’ This could of course be a lie. Report

walreis
2 years ago

A somewhat surreal premise, to start with.
The possibilities for a philosopher to write down a paper or an essay about what he doesn’t believe in are not many, yet almost all of them boil down to not doing philosophy proper at all:
– he can be reviewing the work of others
– he’s doing fiction
– it’s an unfinished article that starts with a proof by contradiction
– what else?Report

Animal Symbolicum
Animal Symbolicum
2 years ago

The “believe” and “believe in” talk is somewhat fuzzy, for sure. To my ear, “believe in” certainly has a different resonance, and, to my mind, is in fact the phenomenon that marks the more important difference in outlooks on the discipline of philosophy.

I can’t stop thinking about something Schopenhauer wrote to Goethe: “Every work has its origin in a happy thought, and the latter gives the joy of conception. The birth, however, the carrying out, is, in my own case at least, not without pain; for then I stand before my own soul, like an inexorable judge before a prisoner lying on his back, and make it answer until there is nothing else to ask.” (This is quoted in Iris Murdoch’s “Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals,” Chapter 6.)

Perhaps it represents some of the excesses of Romanticism, but I think the quote is instructive. Schopenhauer here sounds to me like someone of whom we would say, “He believes in what he writes.” The question is not about which of one’s expressed propositions one would affirm, or about what propositional attitudes one holds toward the propositions one expresses. The question is about the extent to which one sees his philosophical works as revealing his self to himself and to others. In Schopenhauer’s case, he takes himself to be exposing his soul, rendering it vulnerable, making it manifest for scrutiny, giving it an examinable public embodiment.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is one for whom philosophical works are scientific products or experiments. “Hey, I’m just entertaining hypotheses, adducing evidence for them, tracing out their implications, seeing what happens.” Again, the question is not about what propositional attitudes one has toward which expressed propositions; the question is about the extent to which one bares one’s soul in one’s work. Here, on this end of the spectrum, we see almost maximum detachment of ideas from one’s commitments, hopes, fears, beliefs, etc. Nothing (or next to nothing) about your own life, your own soul, is at stake when your ideas are held under scrutiny.

(If we want to debate the boundaries of these different approaches, perhaps Kierkegaard is a good case to discuss.)

I can see intellectual advantages to both ways of practicing this discipline we love (and to their less extreme kin toward the middle of the spectrum). For my part, I’m happy there exists this spectrum, because I get something out of all these different ways of approaching things. But I do tend to find Schopenhauerian philosophers more admirable. Of course, the question about which kind of philosopher is more admirable is different from the question about the moral or ethical rightness or wrongness of not believing in your work. But I think it’s the more apt question.Report