How Risk-Averse is Academic Philosophy?


“Philosophical inquiry thrives when it is conducted in a spirit that risks overreaching a bit,” yet “the current incentive structure of academic philosophy in the United States favors cautious and modest research agendas for early career philosophers.”

The journal Axiomathes is becoming Global Philosophy, and in a forthcoming editorial about the change, John Symons (Kansas) discusses a variety of obstacles to global philosophy. “Deglobalization” and the resurgence of nationalism is one kind obstacle, he says, but so is hyperspecialization and the pressure to conform to narrow disciplinary standards. Here’s the passage from which the above quotes were excerpted:

In the decades prior to the financial crisis of 2008, when Anglo-American philosophy departments were relatively financially healthy, a narrowly defined research niche in a fashionable topic could provide easy rewards in the early career of a young philosopher. With cleverness (or a good advisor in graduate school) one’s work could be crafted to satisfy the preferences of a manageably small number of specialists. Their approval was a necessary condition for professional advancement. Securing a tenured position in the traditional American philosophy department was largely a matter of adequately conforming one’s work to the demands of local experts in one’s specialization.

This model of how we certified one another as experts and the incentive structure that resulted, gradually cultivated a risk-averse spirit of caution and conformism among philosophers. In defense of this tendency, we tend to cite notions of increased professionalism, we praise the epistemic humility of modest research agendas, and we note the collective and incremental nature of philosophical progress. But less charitable interpreters might suspect that when young philosophers retreat into narrow niches they are simply adopting a strategy for professional advancement. Either way, the current incentive structure of academic philosophy in the United States favors cautious and modest research agendas for early career philosophers. Philosophical inquiry thrives when it is conducted in a spirit that risks overreaching a bit and welcomes criticism. Philosophy thrives when its creative, skeptical, and self-critical core is not subordinated to excessively cautious American-style professionalism or to equivalent demands from other local elites or traditions.

You can read a pre-publication version of the whole editorial here.

I’m curious if readers agree with Professor Symons’ description of contemporary academic philosophy as having “a risk-averse spirit of caution and conformism,” and whether, as Symons suggests we’re too risk-averse and conformist. These are not necessarily bad characteristics. Any successful discipline has some degree of conformism, for the continued use by subsequent researchers of extant methods on extant topics is one kind of evidence that we’re thinking in fruitful ways about worthwhile matters. Of course, any successful discipline also has some degree of disagreement and change, too. Do we not have a good mix of these? If we’re overly risk averse or conformist, in what ways ought we be less so? And how can we as a discipline encourage that?

[above image created with DALL-E]

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Neil Levy
Neil Levy
1 year ago

I hear this quite a lot. It’s common to say that journals accept only the safest papers – i.e., those which mine well developed seams. I know what the complainants have in mind, but I think the concern is, at minimum, greatly exaggerated. Safe papers get published, but so do a broad array of papers that ask new questions or old questions in new ways. It seems to me that philosophy is dramatically more diverse than it was 20 years ago.

But that’s my impression; others see things differently? There’s a real risk of confirmation bias, salience bias and so on here. We need someone like Eric Schwitzgebel to measure this empirically (hard, because it’s hard to operationalise diversity and especially to operationalise risk taking).

Jason Brennan
Jason Brennan
1 year ago

Philosophy might be risk averse, but I know from experience you can publish all of the following in leading places:

1. Democracy sucks
2. You should feel free to kill cops who try to arrest you for smoking pot and congresspeople who vote for such laws
3. Employers don’t have to pay a living wage
4. Social democracy is right-wing and open borders libertarianism is left-wing
5. Not only don’t you have a duty to vote, but you probably have a duty not to
6. If you may do it for free, you may do it for money

However, what you can’t easily publish, given the gatekeeping of the field, is a criticism of public reason theory. The public reason theorists vote no on every criticism.

Animal Symbolicum
Reply to  Jason Brennan
1 year ago

This made me laugh out loud!

I think it’s a sharp response to one interpretation of the original complaint that philosophers avoid “overreaching a bit,” namely, the interpretation that reads that as a complaint that philosophers avoid trying to publish ideas that break a lot of intellectual china.

But I think it’s off-target — I think this is what Prof L, below, is getting at — if aimed at the other part of the original complaint that philosophers avoid straying from the norms of “professionalism.”

One interpretation of that complaint is that philosophers avoid straying from rarely spoken, widely shared, unmistakably enforced, and inescapably contingent contemporary criteria that outline what counts as acceptable. A smattering: what counts as rigorous argument, what counts as clear prose, what counts as empirical, what counts as antecedently implausible (feel free to convey your idea in terms of such esoterica as propositions and more-and-less-near possible worlds, but God help you if invoke the soul), etc.

E d
E d
Reply to  Jason Brennan
1 year ago

“Philosophy might be risk averse, but I know from experience you can publish all of the following in leading [book presses, for editors who want to see the work published, rather than journals, where refs are instructed to be objectionably selective] places:”

Fixed it. Note this is a critique of our journal system, not JB. Our journals are as “risk-averse” as it gets. Book presses are a different matter.

Patrick S. O'Donnell
1 year ago

I am not qualified to offer a well-informed opinion about contemporary academic philosophy if only because I am on the outside looking in. However, from that vantage point, there is something refreshing if not important about a journal being re-named Global Philosophy, although I know very little about its editor save for the fact that we apparently share an interest in the work (and in my case, remarkable public life and principled activism) of Otto Neurath. I hope this signals a willingness to publish folks working in Indian and Chinese philosophies, Islamic philosophy, and from other geographical points East and South (especially but not only Africa). Academic institutions are not immune from inertia, bias, self-satisfaction, and so forth thus I suspect it cannot help but be true that they are, in contemporary jargon, and to a significant degree, risk-averse, especially when it comes to the possible styles of writing and presentation, as well as the kinds of engagement Amelie O. Rorty wrote about in her essay, “Socrates and Sophia Perform the Philosophical Turn,” in a volume that is probably still quite relevant to issues pertaining to the profession: Avner Cohen and Marcelo Dascal, eds., The Institution of Philosophy: A Discipline in Crisis? (Open Court, 1989). As an anecdotal observation, philosophers, I suppose like many academics, are quite defensive and a bit close-minded when it comes to critiques of this or that feature or characteristic of their profession; and they appear downright obtuse when it comes to the possibility of recognizing that, on occasion, substantive philosophizing takes place outside its precincts.

Malkhaz
Reply to  Patrick S. O'Donnell
1 year ago

Just a thought-at the and of a day, it’s reasonable to stay in some future.🙂

Patrick S. O'Donnell
1 year ago

Although this is not up to the standards of a professional philosophy journal, I think it nonetheless exemplifies one kind of “global philosophy” (it also contains explicit and implicit arguments or at least several premises that should help make the case for same): A Preliminary Introduction to the Materialist Worldview—Cārvāka/Lokāyata—in Indian Philosophy (I plan on a more substantive piece on this materialist philosophy at a later date). Another example, by my lights, is the post I made two days ago at the FB page for the Society for Teaching Comparative Philosophy: “Positive, Negative, and Meta-Atheism (or ‘Metatheism’) in Cross-Cultural or Comparative Terms.”
 

Richard Y Chappell
1 year ago

It’s hard to confidently generalize, since there’s such a broad range of philosophy being done. But I guess it does ring true to me both that (i) more narrow, cautious, detail work is professionally incentivized, and (ii) that’s unfortunate.

At least on the margins, I’d like to see more ambitious, interesting, “big picture” philosophical work. Some things that might help incentivize this would be if:

(1) more search committees prioritized these values when evaluating job candidates, and

(2) referees and editors, especially at top journals, prioritized these values when evaluating papers.

(One sometimes hears people say things like, “Yeah, the paper was utterly uninteresting, but I couldn’t find an objection to it so felt that I had to recommend acceptance.” I think more papers should be rejected for being narrow and boring, and fewer rejected *just* because objections could be raised — unless the objection establishes that the paper detracts from, rather than enhances, our collective understanding of the issues.)

But this is all very contestable stuff, so I expect many will disagree and reasonably give more weight to philosophical modesty, precision, etc. We all disagree immensely about what constitutes good philosophy, and that seems inevitable. So I wistfully invite others to share my preferences here, without any expectation that they’ll necessarily do so 🙂

JDRox
JDRox
Reply to  Richard Y Chappell
1 year ago

I guess I think being utterly uninteresting is a pretty powerful objection to something being published. Is that not normal? If I find a paper I’m reviewing boring–by definition in an area of philosophy I’ve found interesting enough to become competent in–then I make sure to signal that to the editor. I’ve always assumed that that was pretty damning.

Another Philosopher
Another Philosopher
Reply to  Richard Y Chappell
1 year ago

I often feel like reviewers think that their job is to look for objections and if they can find them, the paper should be rejected.

NnES
1 year ago

The following idea is highly speculative, but I suspect that an academic culture that disfavors “cautious and modest research agendas” is more likely to promote the culture of *giants* and *geniuses*, who might find the ‘mediocre literature’ useless. The focal point of major debates gravitates toward the seminar room of the giants; conference presentations and journal publications are deemed secondary (which, from what I’ve heard, is the case in some regions.)

(I speculate that this may also be relevant to the issue of citation in philosophy publications.)

The culture of “cautious and modest research agendas”, I suspect, is the one that resembles the STEM culture (which is also known for having a high standard for extensive citation). Perhaps unironically, non-Anglophone academics seem to thrive better in these areas compared to philosophy. Thus, I speculate that the denouncement of “cautious and modest research agendas” may go against the diversity of philosophy. Of course, whether diversity is a virtue or not is an independent question.

Devin
Devin
1 year ago

It has increasingly seemed to me that specialization, even hyper-specialization, isn’t the problem – it’s specialization without collaboration. We’re still attached to the romantic lone genius conception of philosophical work when it doesn’t really make sense anymore. If we moved in the direction of having a lot more co-authored work I think (hyper)specialization could even be beneficial.

Meme
1 year ago

Because this has come up before (both below and in other threads), I feel like it’s worth distinguishing between the “romantic image of the lone genius” and the negative features associated with that image.

I want more diversity and representation in philosophy. I want more unfamiliar ideas and viewpoints, more equality of opportunity and access, more collaboration, and all that good stuff.

But I also really like the imagery of a singular mind—an Aristotle, a Kant, whoever—and I want more of that, too (suffice it to say that my examples are all personal, and yours can be too). The existence of such geniuses is part (one small part, but still a part!) of the historical lifeblood of philosophy. Their work is inspiring, aggravating, revolutionary, sometimes even sublime in its breadth and systematicity. They contribute to the narrative tradition, characters in a greater story whom we can use to anchor familiar ideas (“that’s Platonic,” “this is Lewisian,” etc.). I also don’t think that a desire for such figures is incompatible with the current professional approach—witness Lewis, IMO—and to the extent that it *is*, then so much for the worse for professionalization.

Of course, none of this is to say that we should engage in hero worship or cults of personality, that we should condone bad behavior on the part of “lone geniuses,” that we should ignore the historical antecedents of their ideas or the thinkers who helped them, that we should encourage everybody to philosophize in such a specific way, or that those who don’t are somehow not “smart” or “good enough” (I think the romantic image is tracking something different than raw intelligence). Diverse collaboration and singular achievement are *both* powerful aspects of philosophy.

Meme
Meme
Reply to  Meme
1 year ago

Oops, remove the first “for” in “so much for the worse for.”

Euro
Euro
Reply to  Meme
1 year ago

I am thinking that the duo of Deleuze & Guattari is a successful exception to your assumption, I don’t think that their collaborative unity did anything to lessen their “contribution to the narrative tradition, characters in a greater story whom we can use to anchor familiar ideas”.

Meme
Reply to  Euro
1 year ago

Oh, I certainly don’t think that *only* singular philosophers can make such a contribution!

Malkhaz
Reply to  Meme
1 year ago

A bit of “ego-sedling” would be beneficiary.

Meme
Reply to  Malkhaz
1 year ago

Not sure what you mean, sorry!

Charles Rykken
1 year ago

When I took the GRE intending to enter a PhD program in mathematics my quant score put me in the 73rd and 74th percentile of math and physics resp. My verbal score put me in the 90.7 percentile among test takers intending to major in philosophy. When I first went to undergraduate school I was totally disgusted with the dominant philosophy in the American academy, namely analytic philosophy. I see it as the handmaiden to reductionist mechanistic materialism and the inevitable nihilism attendant on such a pseudo-philosophy. I abandoned pretty much all Western philosophy except for American pragmatism and a few Europeans like Goethe and Henri Bergson, whom Bertrand Russell savaged while he was having an affair with T. S. Eliot’s wife who was suffering from mental illness. The nihilism embraced by Western philosophy is a moral outrage. It is hardly any wonder that Buddhist philosophy gets short shrift given the middle way specifically excludes nihilism and time invariant principles. I see Western philosophy as a morally corrupt cult that worships the likes of Sheldon Cooper. Being among that crowd should be truly shameful.

J.A.M.
J.A.M.
Reply to  Charles Rykken
1 year ago

Interestingly this hasn’t been my experience with analytic philosophy, what baffles me the most is its opposition to reductionist and instrumentalist accounts. Most professors and students (this is borne out somewhat by the PhilPapers Survey) have tried to convince me that: consciousness is an intrinsic property, moral facts are real and emergent from physical facts, and that it is necessary to accept the existence of mathematical entities.

I love big-picture philosophy, in part because it forces us to revise our naive worldview and question un-earned realism(s). If the motto of philosophy is “avoid nihilism no matter the truth” then it has a bad conscience. One can do philosophy without being committed to more than its usefulness and role in many people’s conception of a ‘good’ life.

JDRox
JDRox
Reply to  Charles Rykken
1 year ago

What do you mean by “the nihilism of western/analytic philosophy?” Most western/analytic philosophers are moral realists, and a quick glance at the PhilPapers Survey suggests that more western/analytic philosophers than non-western philosophers are moral realists.

Prof L
Prof L
1 year ago

What’s taken for ‘incautious’ or ‘risky’ scholarship is typically not at all creative or imaginative in a way that would enrich the discipline.

People are always free to defend “controversial” positions. Defending something implausible or controversial (clever and ambitious analytic philosophers know) is a great way to get attention. People will be indignant, they will reply and cite you, you will make a name for yourself. Some people who do this might imagine that they are doing something “risky” or incautious.

But insularity, a failure to read anything written any earlier than 10 seconds ago, and an uncritical acceptance of certain (contemporary, thoroughly contingent) disciplinary norms are the greater problems in analytic philosophy. And the discipline rewards these.

Rosanna Festa
1 year ago

When Academic Research meets need of Liberalism.

a lecturer on brexit island
1 year ago

I don’t recognise this picture at all, with the possible exception of work that’s likely to get published in the top-5 generalist philosophy journals. If you look at books (including with top presses), edited collections, conferences etc, I don’t see any kind of narrowness or risk-aversion.

And even with journal articles there’s room for a bit of experimentation, if you pick your venues well (eg, the Journal of the APA is good for this).

Grad
Grad
Reply to  a lecturer on brexit island
1 year ago

I just want to hop in a register that I’ve read a lot of recent papers published in top generalist journals that are still novel, exciting, and even risky. I don’t recognize the picture of the discipline being painted by some people in this thread. There’s a lot of cool stuff out there! Even in the “standard” places!

a lecturer on brexit island
a lecturer on brexit island
Reply to  Grad
1 year ago

Yeah that’s fair. I just find (even introspectively, when reviewing) that in the standard/most prestigious places, there is more of a premium on ‘important’ contributions (most easily shown by referencing other recent papers on the same topic in that venue), and on polish and professionalism. I’m less likely to want to wave through papers that don’t seem to really push a watertight case, on the basis that the topic is original and exciting.

Wendy Lochner
Wendy Lochner
1 year ago

Thank you for sharing this article. I agree with its account of the field as I experience it as an editor, and I endorse the goals of John Symons and the new journal *Global Philosophy*. Specialization has historically been used to justify not only the exclusion of philosophers outside the Anglophone space, even in most cases those in the European continental and critical theory traditions, but also women; it has also rigidly defined what counts as philosophy to underscore this exclusion, so that even today most philosophers who work in Asian traditions are limited to religious-studies departments (and many others to literary studies and other areas). I see my editorial role as one of proudly expanding the geographic, temporal, and disciplinary range of what counts as philosophy.
(I salute Clare Carlisle’s “The philosophy of George Eliot ”
in the January 20, 2020, issue of *Prospect*.) It’s telling that so many young Asian philosophers, Buddhist to Daoist and many more, whether based in East or South Asia, Europe, or the US, are also knowledgeable about western schools and comfortably utilize global examples and perspectives in their work. Not so in the West, the US/UK cohort in particular.

Hodgepodge
Hodgepodge
Reply to  Wendy Lochner
1 year ago

It’s ironic that anything originating from any tradition outside of Europe is considered “religious” and therefore not philosophy.

For mysterious reasons, Saint Thomas Aquinas is not excluded by these considerations.

I’m happy to have a chance to remind some actually academic philosophers that this isn’t just a problem with bring too narrow.

It’s nothing more than crass Eurocentric bigotry, and the only reason it passes is because literally no one cares enough about philosophy in the West enough to even notice.

Shape up and hold yourselves to higher and more current intellectual standards or contine to be utterly irrelevant.

Mark
1 year ago

This is extremely accurate. I’ve received high praise from scholars who value equal parts philosophical ambition and rigor, and sharp criticism from Anglo American gatekeepers for the very same ambition. If I would write on a smaller issue, or put forward a more conservative position aligned with existing views instead of aiming to shift the debate, then I would have their approval.

ACG
ACG
1 year ago

I think that characterizing this phenomenon as ‘American’ ignores the rest of the Anglosphere, if not Europe more generally.

It’s certainly the case that the problem is endemic in the US. However, pretending that this attitude isn’t just as prevalent at Oxford or other premier universities is gilding the lily.

I have no idea if it exists in non-European universities, though it wouldn’t surprise me given they are often based on and pull faculty from Anglo-American institutions.

Cathy Legg
Cathy Legg
1 year ago

I think this is an occupational hazard of our discipline’s professionalization – astutely lamented back in 1903 by William James in his essay “The Phd Octopus”.
This is not to say that I’m recommending that we de-professionalize, as no-epistemic-strings-attached public patrons of philosophical research are difficult to find. But I wonder whether we might develop more conscious strategies to mitigate ‘conflicts of philosophical interest’ between certain ‘career-enhancing’ and ‘authentic’ philosophical interests.

Meme
Reply to  Cathy Legg
1 year ago

Damn, that James essay was so good! I hadn’t heard of it before—thank you for mentioning it!

Gordon
Gordon
1 year ago

I would say that at least in Metaphysics and Philosophy of Mind the publishing world is more open to work that goes against the prevailing trend. E.g for a long time physicalism was taken for granted as a research program, and while there a few famous papers that ran counter to this program, almost all work presupposes. But now we have work in idealism, panpsychism, various and sundry not easy to categorize views.
But there is one institutional feature that promotes safe, tame, and less than groundbreaking articles, namely the whole “publish or perish” thing in which quantity of work seems to be sometimes valued over quality of work. It is relatively easy to write a paper commenting on big wig philosopher X’s paper. It takes more time, for most of us mortals, to work out a seriously original position.

Gordon
Gordon
Reply to  Gordon
1 year ago

I misspoke in using the quality vs quantity dichotomy, though that happens. It is not that the safer incremental work can not be of great quality–rigorous, interesting and promoting a particular line of inquiry, it is just easier to do this.

Sam Duncan
Sam Duncan
1 year ago

I’m really surprised that Symons doesn’t look at structural reasons that early career folks adopt the strategy he criticizes. If you’re TT but not tenured at an R1, or even school with R1 pretensions like my previous employer, then you need a minimum of 5 publications in well-ranked journals to get tenure. Given the rejection rate of such journals and their generally abysmal reviewing practices that means you need to get a *lot* of papers under review as quickly as possible. The easiest way to do that is to churn out papers on relatively small questions in the already specialized area you wrote your dissertation on. Maybe you want to write some big interesting book or quirky paper, but you can’t, or at the very least it’s probably a bad strategy. Add to that that a lot of people who are adjuncts or non-TT think that their best way to be competitive for any stable job is to churn out papers as though they were an assistant prof at an R1 and you have a recipe for boring and trivial work (I think this is dead wrong and I’ll return to that point). On top of that, as other people have noted referees find it much easier to recommend rejection if a paper faces some objection the author hasn’t anticipated than they do if it’s simply kind of boring and trivial. And so that’s yet another reason to double down on the above strategy. I dunno I guess some people like churning paper after paper on “Rawls and Blah” or a “Contractualist Reading of Blergh” (to take the most boring types of paper I can think of in my own area) and many more delude themselves into thinking such papers are deeply important work but I’m guessing for most people it’s a just a necessary evil. If more people were just free to take 3 or 4 years post PhD before they had to publish something and then only needed to publish one or two things, I’d bet we’d see a lot more interesting work out there.
I also think that Symons commits the mistake a lot of philosophers at research oriented places commit and assumes the career track of someone in a position like his is typical of all of philosophy. It isn’t. Let’s be honest if you didn’t go to a Leiterrific school you are almost certainly not going to get a job at a school with a PhD program no matter how many papers you publish in the tippy top journals. But you can be very competitive for teaching focused schools. Here’s the thing though those schools don’t care that you publish in Synthese or Nous or whatever. The four years care that you publish somewhere because they want you to get tenure. But you’re free to write creative or even weird papers and send them to journals that are more likely to publish such stuff. CC jobs don’t much care about publishing at all. If more people knew this they’d be able to prepare and market themselves for the kinds of jobs that might hire them, but we’d also probably get more truly interesting stuff from those people.

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
1 year ago

I’d like to see philosophers do a better job of questioning moral and political positions they agree with, and a better job of making the best case for moral and political positions they disagree with.

James Cummings
Reply to  Hey Nonny Mouse
1 year ago

Hey, that’s a good idea!

Cecil Burrow
Cecil Burrow
Reply to  Hey Nonny Mouse
1 year ago

Doesn’t that sort of thing get people cancelled these days?

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
Reply to  Cecil Burrow
1 year ago

Yes. This is why I post things like that anonymously.