Organizing for Answers


Suppose the main aim of the enterprise of academic philosophy is to generate philosophical knowledge, and that said knowledge is mainly answers to big philosophical questions. How should the discipline be organized so as to best achieve this aim?

The supposition is not unusual.* In his “Why Isn’t There More Progress in Philosophy?David Chalmers (NYU) writes:

I suspect that for the majority of philosophers, the primary motivation in doing philosophy is to figure out the truth about the relevant subject areas: What is the relation between mind and body? What is
the nature of reality and how can we know about it? Certainly this is the primary motivation in my own case… At least pretheoretically, many of us get into philosophy looking for truth and looking for answers. 

If answering its big questions is what philosophy is mainly about, could we say that our current institutions and professional practices are ideally suited to the task? (Beware status quo bias!)

If not, then what should answer-seeking philosophical institutions and practices look like?

How people answer this question may depend on how feasible they think their answers must be. On the conservative end of the feasibility spectrum, one might take the question to be asking, “Which other disciplines, if any, should we take as models for philosophy, and how?” That’s one way to interpret the question, and answers to that version are welcome.

But it might also be instructive to relax the feasibility restrictions quite a bit, and try to imagine arrangements very different from the status quo, or arrangments heretofore untried but that seem possibly promising. Perhaps we could, for instance, wrangle small but feasible steps for reform from some wildly unrealistic grand visions.

We might also learn more about what we think of the aim of philosophy through this exercise. A bold and convincing suggestion for re-organizing philosophy might itself overcome one’s skepticism about philosophy aiming for convergence on answers to big philosophical questions by revealing such skepticism to be a function of philosophy’s current mode of institutionalization. Or one might discover that what would be required for organizing philosophy optimally towards answering its questions is so unappealing as to prompt reconsideration of the worthiness of that aim.

So, philosophers, how should we organize for answers?


* I don’t think much philosophical knowledge takes the form of answers to philosophical questions, as I discuss here.

 

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PhilMath
1 month ago

On the conservative end and something which can be acted on right now (with just a tiny bit of trouble): make it a professional norm in philosophy to upload papers (and pre-prints) on archives and pre-print servers. I can’t underscore enough the importance of the practice — not just to the profession but to students and others who might not have an opportunity to access research. The scientists (e.g. arxiv) and social scientists (e.g. SSRN) have made it a norm, why not the philosophers? (I should note that most (but not all!) philosophers of science make great use of philsci-archive.pitt.edu). We already have the infrastructure of PhilPapers in place, I don’t know what’s stopping us from making it a norm to upload our papers (and preprints) there.Report

Postdoc9
Postdoc9
Reply to  PhilMath
1 month ago

Fear of being scooped: When you work in a field with some kind of empirical component, being scooped requires actually doing some experiments that take money, time, expertise etc. In a field like philosophy, having the idea itself is what really makes most papers valuable. If you post on an archive without some expectation your paper will be out in print in the very near future you run the risk (or at least, this seems like a reasonable fear) that someone will then take your idea and turn it into a published paper faster than you can.Report

David Wallace
Reply to  Postdoc9
1 month ago

Arxiv actually protects scientists from that. If you’ve put your preprint on a permanent archive with a date stamp, you’ve got proof that you had the idea at that time. (It’s worth bearing in mind that arxiv.org was originally developed in the theoretical physics community.)Report

Postdoc9
Postdoc9
Reply to  David Wallace
1 month ago

That might help if the fear is about being able to prove that I had the idea first, but it isn’t. The question is whether I can get a paper published, since having something on the archive is itself not going to help me get a job, tenure, etc. Being able to argue much later on that I had the idea first won’t help me when my paper gets rejected because someone else has just published a similar idea. The time scale that matters to early career people (which is really the first half of a career) is 1-2-3 years, not the decades over which it might matter that I can show I had some idea first after publication.Report

David Wallace
Reply to  Postdoc9
1 month ago

In physics, ‘actually I had this idea first because my preprint was on arxiv first’ would be a completely legitimate response to that referee rejection, and any editor would support appeal on those grounds. I don’t actually know how true that is in philosophy but that’s exactly because of the more uncertain status of online archives in philosophy. (It’s definitely true in philosophy of physics, where archives are very widely accepted.)

I would be interested to know if there are concrete examples where this sort of use of an archive has disadvantaged junior people, or if this is a theoretical concern. My own view is that it is strongly in junior philosophers’ interest to use archives, for the same reason it is in their interest to give talks: making your work as visible as possible, on timescales faster than the journal turnaround time, is good for professional visibility and networking. (And putting the paper on archive is a good screen against having ideas borrowed from talks you give, which I have heard of happening.)Report

E d
E d
Reply to  David Wallace
1 month ago

Being scooped isn’t the problem with posting pre-prints.

Being identified as not affiliated with the right academic social circles (i.e. the prestigious ones) is the problem.

I don’t post pre-prints because I worry that my work will be rejected on the basis of the fact that I’m not affiliated with MIT, Princeton, Oxford, and so on.Report

David Wallace
Reply to  E d
1 month ago

This is, by a large margin, the commonest reason I hear among philosophers for not posting on preprint servers. (That, and the closely-related reason that people will be discriminated against for being junior, even if they are affiliated with some ‘prestigious’ place.)

I am quite skeptical that this is a good policy for people to adopt, though it is admittedly difficult to go beyond dueling impressions. The research on efficacy of double-anonymous reviewing is limited and does not generally show a clear and strong effect (which is not to say that no effects show up, just that they do not appear to be large or consistent). Against that, it is strongly in the advantage of junior philosophers for their research work to be visible: it helps with citation count, networking, and further research into candidates in the middle and later stages of a search.

Put another way: people who are ‘affiliated with MIT, Princeton, Oxford and so on’ already have a visibility advantage against others. Avoiding preprint servers compounds that advantage, especially at an early career stage where your under-submission manuscripts probably outnumber your accepted-for-publication papers. It is not by any means costless to avoid preprint servers, even before considering any motivation you might have to make your work widely accessible for its own sake.Report

E d
E d
Reply to  David Wallace
1 month ago

Coincidentally stumbled upon this study today:

“ Authors’ names have ‘astonishing’ influence on peer reviewers”

https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-022-03256-9Report

P.D.
Reply to  Postdoc9
1 month ago

That only explains why people don’t post works-in-progress. It doesn’t explain why people don’t post papers that are accepted and forthcoming somewhere. In my experience, philosophers are often strangely hesitant about sharing their own work and often just link to the published, closed-access version.Report

Murali
Murali
Reply to  P.D.
1 month ago

This is because when a paper is accepted for publication, unless you have paid for open access, the journal places strong constraints on whether you might make the paper publicly available on your website.

The issue with pre-acceptance is even greater. Journals require you to declare that you have not published your article elsewhere (including on pre-print servers and personal websites) in order to even consider it. Given the already low acceptance rates in philosophy, it is entirely understandable (and maybe even justifiable) for philosophers to be unwilling to risk a desk rejection simply because they posted an earlier version of the argument on a pre-print server.

This leads to a third reason: Anonymisation and peer review. Philosophy is unusual in that all philosophy journals that I have encountered require at least double, if not triple-blinding. This is not the case in the natural sciences. Moreover, there is a sever scarcity of available reviewers. Finally there are too few active philosophers who are willing to review. (There are at least two vicious cycles here).

This matters because putting a paper up on a pre-print server means that all the people who are capable of reviewing your article have read it. If journals didn’t require anonymisation, this wouldn’t be a problem. But since they do, putting up your more or less polished paper on a pre-print server can be a quick route to guaranteeing that it will never be accepted by any journal.Report

Hugh
Hugh
Reply to  Postdoc9
1 month ago

Isn’t that called plagiarism, rather than ‘being scooped ‘?

Seems to happen a lot. Of course, the people that do it see your unpublished paper as fair game or believe they were just about to have that idea, anyway.

Nevertheless. it is plagiarism.

And such a common practice in philosophy we can’t put out drafts without this as a hazard unless we’re the kind of people whose complaints will be a risk to the ‘scooper.’

The other problem, mentioned below, is that one’s affiliations affect how one’s work is read.

What do these problems reveal about our professional culture?

Maybe that’s something to work on.Report

Timothy Sommers
Reply to  PhilMath
1 month ago

I can barely read everything published in the top twenty journals relevant to what I am working on at any given time. A truckload of still more material that has not been peer-reviewed wouldn’t be helpful to me.
I suspect that it’s more helpful in sciences. It’s more clear cut if you are looking at empirical work directly relevant to a specific hypothesis.
I fear an archive of unpublished philosophy papers is as useful to philosophers as an archive of unpublished poems is to a literature professor.Report

David Wallace
Reply to  Timothy Sommers
1 month ago

Again: arxiv was largely developed, and remains widely used, by theoretical physicists. (I believe it comes out of the tradition of organized circulation of preprints in theoretical high-energy physics, a tradition that actually predates the Web.) There was no ’empirical work directly relevant to a specific hypothesis’ in that case, and if you think the philosophy literature is hard to keep up with, try looking at the theoretical physics literature some time!

Arxiv does a certain amount of filtering to remove crank work and, partly as a result, the great majority of papers on arxiv are eventually published. I don’t think arxiv makes much difference to how much work you have to keep up with, but it does facilitate dramatically faster communication and dissemination of ideas, as well as much wider access for people without good library subscription access. I don’t see any obvious reason it couldn’t work similarly in philosophy: it works well in philosophy of physics now (mostly using philsci-archive).Report

Tangent
Reply to  David Wallace
1 month ago

This is a tangent… but are there actually good figures out there for how likely it is that a paper that makes it to arxiv will eventually thereafter be published? Or, nearby (and presumably less model dependent), figures out there on how much of the arxiv repository is composed of pre-prints of published articles?Report

David Wallace
Reply to  Tangent
1 month ago

Good question: I realized when I read it that I wasn’t sure whether I had more than anecdote to go on here.

I don’t think there are official statistics. There is a paper on the topic from 8 years ago (https://asistdl.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdf/10.1002/asi.23044)
that tries to match arxiv papers to articles on Web of Science, which finds about 75%-80% of physics papers eventually make it to a journal (for methodological reasons that’s probably a slight underestimate). There’s a blog discussion from around the same time (https://academia.stackexchange.com/questions/12052/how-many-arxiv-papers-are-uploaded-in-their-final-refereed-versions) that gets a similar number from a very different method (looking at what fraction of arxiv papers have a non-empty journal-ref field).

I should say that arxiv has increasing presence from non-physics areas (mostly CS and math) and those fields have somewhat different arxiv use patterns, so the overall statistics may have changed. Anecdotally that 75% number looks about right for physics.Report

JB(~T)-oriented
1 month ago

Is it just that Chalmers speculated this (empirical) claim about philosophers’ typical psychology on the basis of his own self-reporting, that we should proceed to exhaust effort contemplating how to best organize ourselves collectively toward ‘answer’ generation? Already challenged in the other post linked is the implicit premise that it’s prudent to idealize the “big philosophical questions” as something fixed, in considering the ultimate aims of philosophy. But frankly, Chalmers’s line and self-reporting quoted here baffles me, even granting that idealization. I would have thought that (maybe/at most charitable) philosophical method (broadly) is to work incrementally toward answering such questions, but that this fact meanwhile says almost nothing at all about the aims of employing said method, i.e. the ultimate aims of philosophy.Report

Lex
Lex
1 month ago

As Chalmers noted in his ‘disciplinary speciation’, methods that lead to answers graduate from philosophy. I feel that there is no question (provided by philosophy*1) that is unanswerable given the right kind of data*2.
If you dont believe there are answers then all is already well or like some have done, make the case that there are no answers.

*1 can we even attribute the big questions to philosophy?
*2 obviously ‘data’ is a tricky thing.Report

Last edited 1 month ago by Lex
Rebeka Ferreira
Rebeka Ferreira
1 month ago

I’m with the final asterisk and Russell. It’s all about the questionsReport

Junior Metaphysician
1 month ago

We should have more “specialist” departments. Philosophy is probably the broadest discipline in the academy, with topics ranging from the philosophy of set theory and quantum field theory to Ancient Greek philosophy to AI ethics to aesthetics to the philosophy of race and gender, etc, etc. Many people think it is a virtue of a department to be very “generalist” and have coverage in lots of different areas of philosophy. But there are also lots of advantages to having “specialist” departments (like UC Irvine’s Logic + Philosophy of Science program). It is easier to form like-minded communities to attend reading groups, colloquium talks will more likely be in your area of interest, and you generally have many more like-minded colleagues that you can discuss your research with. There are currently a few “philosophy of science” focused programs, but I would love to see incentives for explicitly metaphysics-oriented programs, or explicitly epistemology-oriented programs, etc. Specialized departments seem much more congenial to doing philosophy research. (Of course, there should be a minimum of general-philosophy-coverage to be able to teach a normal undergraduate curriculum, but you often don’t need a specialist in an area to teach an undergraduate intro class in a subject).Report

Murali
Murali
Reply to  Junior Metaphysician
1 month ago

The problem here is funding and relatedly, the politics of funding and hiring.

Some universities don’t even have a philosophy or an english or a history department. Instead they just a broad humanities department. Having separate departments needs more funding. Having separate departments for metaphysics and for ethics would require even more funding.

This leads to the second part. Suppose you, a department head, wanted to convert a generalist department into a more focused one (e.g. one focused on analytic metaphysics.)

In a generalist department, there will be people doing ethics, political philosophy, a continental guy, a couple of historical guys (one for ancient and one for early modern) a couple of epistemologists and of course maybe 3 or 4 metaphysicians. The numbers might differ from department to department, but you get the picture.

In order to turn your generalist department into a specialist one, you, as the department head, need to replace some of those outside the specialty with those in the specialty, or add a whole bunch of specialists. But the latter requires funding and schools are rarely so generous nowadays.

In the absence of an increase in funding, here are some occasions when you are going to hire someone new:

  1. Tenured faculty retires
  2. Faculty is forced to resign due to sex, academic or political scandal
  3. Tenure-track faculty cannot get tenure and cannot get renewed

For all 3 cases, if they were running a popular specialist course, then you would want to replace them with someone who could also run the same popular course. Why? Because you might end up with someone who can teach only teach courses which are not popular. To illustrate. Suppose the continental guy is retiring and his existentialism course is really popular. Your 4 metaphysicians are each teaching two specialist metaphysics courses (1 per semester). And these 8 courses cover basically most areas of contemporary metaphysics. You could hire a 5th metaphysician or a continental. The 5th metaphysician would have to teach an even narrower course since there is no point duplicating. The narrower the course, the less interest students will have in it. That’s because it is rarely the case that everyone is interested in the same thing for the exact same reason. The more specialised a course is, the range of reasons to be interested in that thing narrows and hence the number of students it draws will be fewer. The continental will be able to take over the existentialism class which you know is popular. The key thing here is that you want to offer popular classes because having a bunch of unpopular courses is a quick way for your department to lose funding. So, you will choose to replace your continental philosopher over getting a fifth analytic metaphysician. Notice that this consideration applies regardless of why your continental philosopher is leaving.

Here is another consideration that might tend to occur primarily in the first scenario. Your continental philosopher will probably want an heir. She think that the kind of philosophy she does is worth doing and she will want to continue to see that kind of philosophy being done. She will definitely not want it to be the case that her sort of philosophy dies out in that department. Hence when choosing between the two, she will choose the continental candidate over the analytic metaphysician. The other analytic metaphysicians do not quite have the same incentive. Getting a fifth metaphysician might at best be a marginal improvement over the status quo. Choosing the continental candidate reverts to the status quo which is not terrible. Assuming that the other faculty have an equal chance of choosing either, there is going to be a slight tendency to for the department to choose the continental.

Of course this assumption need not pan out, but its far from clear that it will break in favour of the metaphysician. Here’s why. There are already 4 metaphysicians. Out of the roughly 10 department seminars held each semester, nearly half of them are already like mini metaphysics workshops. For non-metaphysicians, this might be fun to attend sometimes, but not all the time. So, the historical philosophers will favour the continental candidate, while the moral and political ones may favour the continental one depending on how the job talk worked out.Report

GradAgain
GradAgain
Reply to  Murali
1 month ago

I think these are very good points. In my darkest moments, it seems the solution would be sever the tie between philosophy as a research enterprise and philosophy as a set of courses for undergraduates.

Of course this will never happen, but I think it would be incredible to have more research-only institutions where funding isn’t tied to getting butts in undergrad class seats and faculty time isn’t divided between valuable research and reteaching kids how to read because the public school system failed them.

I don’t know what (if anything at all) could ever be done on the basis of my idle speculation, though.Report

David Wallace
Reply to  GradAgain
1 month ago

I think to a considerable extent this is already true. A department like Rutgers or NYU (or Pitt) is not a research-only institution, but if you look at its faculty’s teaching loads, division of teaching between grads and undergrads, administrative responsibilities, and research allowances, you can see that the department is way more oriented towards research and less towards (UG) teaching than the typical US philosopher’s department.

What is true is that even for these departments, the primary income source is UG teaching. There is probably some cross-subsidy from other sources (universities like high-prestige departments and philosophy is cheap) but it’s very different from science funding, where the research costs are much greater and normally come from external funding bodies rather than from the university. That’s one main reason why specialization is much more common in the sciences. (Put another way, if finding ‘isn’t tied to getting butts in undergrad class seats’ you need to work out where it is coming from.)Report

Cathy Legg
1 month ago

I would like to see us try to organise around making more progress in philosophy, but I don’t think that’s the same goal as trying to get more ‘answers’. In fact, I fear the latter goal can interfere with the former.
I think (contra Junior Metaphysician) that we would be making progress if we could somehow reunify philosophical expertise across our ever-more splintered landscape of niches which rarely or never communicate. We would be making progress if we asked deeper, better questions – about the society in which we find ourselves, and about our own presuppositions in the work that we do.
How might we organise to do those things? To be brief, I think that careful listening – to those who don’t sing to the same songsheet as oneself – is crucial. To this end, we might need to critically examine our own institutional arrangements – for instance, our obesiance to various hierarchies, and the crushing publication treadmill that we we submit to more or less willingly, vomiting semi-digested chunks of thinking into forsaken archives.
In short, I think there’s so much more for us to talk about than whether we upload our papers on arxiv – not that I’m denying that that might be beneficial!Report