“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]