A little joy for your Wednesday:
I've been thinking a lot about Neil Mehta's writing guide for professional philosophers the past few days. In many respects, I think it is an excellent guide. Like some other philosophers I've known, I struggled to learn how to publish. I had several failed revise-and-resubmits at good journals while in graduate school, and felt for a long time like I would never "learn the formula" for publishing. Fortunately, as time went along, I slowly learned how to publish--and a lot of the things I think I learned are contained in Neil's guide! So, I think Neil's guide is an excellent resource: something that people who are struggling to publish can probably learn a lot from. In fact, I hope to write a few follow-up posts investigating some of Neil's suggestions in more detail, in the hope of providing readers a more concrete picture of how to follow up on those suggestions.
Today, though, I want to focus on something else I've been thinking about in connection with Neil's guide: the issue of how to think about and approach tensions between philosophical ideals. Let me briefly explain what I think those tensions might be, and why I think we should probably care about them, both as individual researchers and as a profession. I'll then open things up for discussion, and will be curious to see what you all think!
The authors of the Viśiṣṭādvaita Vedānta school (a philosophical school flourishing in South India from the 10th c. onwards) claim that the whole world is made of God/brahman and that everything else is nothing but a qualification of Him/it. This philosophical concept, it will be immediately evident, crashes against the idea of a rigidly divided ontology, with substances being altogether different from qualities, as upheld in the more ancient school of Nyāya-Vaiśeṣika. In other words, the Nyāya-Vaiśeṣika world if seen from outside is similar to the world of today's folk ontology, the one influenced by scientism, while its structure resembles the one of Aristotle's ontology.
It is populated by subject-independent entities which are ontologically solid and persistent through time and to which qualities accrue which need them as their substrate. It goes without saying that this is a reciprocal distinction (substances are not qualities and qualities can never become substances), since it is grounded in an ontological difference (akin to Aristotle's ουσια). In other words, qualities cannot be further qualified by other qualities, since they cannot be their substrate (this leads to some complications, but I will not focus on the specific Nyāya-Vaiśeṣika answers now).
This scheme can not work if one wants to imagine the world as being constituted by just one reality (the brahman/God) with all the rest being an attribute of Him. In fact, this idea implies that there is one substance (God), which is qualified by further things which, however, cannot be called qualities, such as human beings and other material entities. One of the main authors of Viśiṣṭādvaita Vedānta, Veṅkaṭanātha (1269--1368) is not afraid of stating explicitly that his school does not use the term 'quality' (guṇa) in a technical sense, like Nyāya did (see his Nyāyasiddhāñjana 4.4) and that for Viśiṣṭādvaita Vedānta everything can be considered a quality of something else when it specifies it.*
This, however, does not amount to say that qualities and substances are only subjective constructs. The ontological grounding is provided by God's existence as the world's foundation. The fact that all human beings are qualifications (viśeṣaṇa) of Him is not a subjective construct, since it is rather a state of affairs which exists independently of all subjective minds apart from God's one.
This brings us to the next step, namely, the importance of God's existence to ground the world. Given that Viśiṣṭādvaita authors have given up the subject-independent ontology of Nyāya-Vaiśeṣika, they need another way to ground the objective existence of the world and this cannot be achieved but through God. He is ultimately existent and therefore we can opt for being and avoid plunging into nihilism. But what tells us that the world as we see it is also subject-independent? The fact that it is conceived by God. It is a content within God's knowledge. Thus, the main thing to be analysed for Viśiṣṭādvaita becomes the status of God's knowledge. Knowledge is said, in Nyāyasiddhāñjana 4 and before that in Rāmānuja's Śrībhāṣya ad 2.2.27, to be a substance. This seems a daring statement in a context which was used to the idea that cognitions are rather qualities of the self. Rāmānuja does not want, in fact, to deny that cognitions are qualities of the self, he only wants to state that they are also substances. They are, therefore, not kevalaguṇas 'sheer qualities' but rather dravyātmakaguṇas 'qualifications being substances'.
*As a homage to Veṅkaṭanātha I will also not try to render the Viśiṣṭādvaita guṇas with a term different than the one I use for the Nyāya guṇas. Viśiṣṭādvaita authors are not talking about other types of qualifications, they rather claim that what Nyāya authors call qualities are indeed not necessarily a different class from substances.
(a similar version of this post has been cross-posted on my personal blog)
I received the following request from a Cocoon Reader, and thought it would be a good idea to throw it in the group!
"I am on a search committee this year. I (and at least most) on the search committee are really committed to increasing our attractiveness and odds for hiring a philosopher from an underrepresented group/identity/philosophic point of view. As I have been formulating our job ad and figuring out the process by which we will make it public and how we will assess/pare down/interview, multiple questions have come up, for which, frankly, we are not really well positioned to have answers. Certainly we can and have read about the usual issues (implicit bias, stereotype threat, among others and how to address these). But I still find a need for something more hand-on, in terms of guidance and mentoring.
Which got me thinking: I know you are working on the "supply side"... that is, helping underrepresented philosophers prepare for getting hired. Is there anything available, that you know of, on the demand side: that is, for departments that want to make their hiring as diversity-friendly as possible? I can imagine a consultant who, for example, reads and gives feedback on all of the materials for the ad, as well as for the process and rubric departments use... I could even imagine some departments that might want someone to be a larger part of the process. Does such a thing exist? Is it feasible?”
Neil Mehta (Yale-NUS) has drawn my attention to his writing guide for professional philosophers, which he encouraged me share with our readership, as it is pitched primary for graduate students and early-career folk. It is short but discusses a wide variety of topics ranging from dissertations to writing content and form, and finally, publication strategies and philosophical development. Obviously, Neil is very well-published, so I expect the guide will be of interest to our readers--but I am also curious to see to what extent there is agreement/disagreement with his suggestions.
What do you all think of Neil's guide? Have you found that similar things are helpful, or have you found alternative writing and publishing strategies more beneficial? I'll be curious to see what you all think!
By Joshua Mugg
Research, Teaching, Service. Those are the three areas under consideration when we go up for tenure or promotion, at pretty much any institution. Where does blogging and social media presence fit in? I have benefited from reading blogs and discussing posts with folks online (especially now that I am at an institution where I am the only philosopher!), and I suspect others feel the same way. It is plausible that at least some philosophy blogging should count, but where? I don’t really blog about research, and even for those who do, some reviewers might point out that blogging rarely has any rigorous peer review process (though some blogs do have editors). Most of the blogging that happens here is not direct toward our students. So it is hard to put it into teaching (though those blogging about teaching might be able to). Finally, it is not clear blogging serves our university directly (as being part of a committee does) or can really count as community engagement. So does blogging have to count as a purely extra-curricular activity? Perhaps not.
Yesterday I met with a sociologist colleague (Stephanie Medley-Rath) who is an active blogger (see here) about where blogging should fit on our faculty annual reviews at our institution (which are used to determine raises and, sort of, for promotion and tenure). The American Sociological Association has issued a report on just this issue, which I think philosophers can benefit from (see here and here). The core insight of the review, to my mind, is that all blogging and social media presence need not (an indeed, cannot) be placed into one of above categories. The difficulty is that there are three distinct assessment criteria:
The report adds:
“No single measure of reach or impact is sufficient, but solicitation of letters from affected parties outside of academia can be especially effective in conveying impact.”
Even at a single blog (say, the Philosophers’ Cocoon), there are multiple types of content. Some posts here concern teaching (here, here and here), and so those posts could count as scholarship of teaching and learning. Occasionally, there are posts about research (such as the new Philosophical Discussions series). Of course, most of the blogging here concerns the profession. This, it seems to me, should count in the same category as reviewing papers or conferences: it is service to the profession. The upshot is that ‘blogging’ does not fit into a single category. We have to distinguish post by post depending on its content.
One reason I wince at the idea of blogging going into the same category as research is that it clearly is not as rigorous as a peer-reviewed article (my most recent publication went through two rounds of R&R!). The ASA acknowledges this, but points out that my wincing confuses type of content with rigor of content. A post is not equal to a peer-reviewed article, but neither does a conference presentation, which also counts under research.
Finally, blogging and social media has one nice feature over many traditional journals: we can track impact. We can say exactly how many people and how many views our blog posts received.
I am curious if others are having similar conversations at their institutions. Social media is here to stay, and it seems academics need to carefully think about how it should (or if it should) figure into hiring, tenure, and promotion. Let me know what your thoughts are!
In response to our first, "How can we help you?", post an anonymous European Assistant Professor in North America posed the following query:
I am an European and I am an assistant professor in North America. It was not easy to land this job (or a job at all, for that matter). As many know, Europe is in deep economic troubles and the job market does not offer many opportunities. There are mostly post-docs out there.
This is why many European-trained philosophers try the American job market. Yet, it seems to me that we have a huge disadvantage when we compete with American-trained candidates. Europeans lack pedigree (unless they're from Oxford) and a network. You may come from Very-Prestigious-University-on-the-Continent but barely anybody has ever heard of your institution.
For me it would be useful to discuss these issues:
(a) does it make sense at all for European-trained PhDs to try the American job market, if they are not from Oxford or another highly respected UK institution? Or is it a mere waste of time?
(b) suppose it still make sense to try the job market, is there a way we can address the issue of lack of pedigree and of a network for European candidates?
Presumably, a really good answer to the first question would involve some kind of hard data on how many recent hires in the American philosophy job-market have come from Europe, and how much advantage pedigree does or does not confer in the North American market. Does anyone have such data? In its absence, probably the best we can do is fall back on the self-reports of job-candidates and hiring committees. So, then, let's throw a couple of questions out there for readers:
Perhaps once we get a sense of the answers to these questions, we will be in better position to address our reader's second question!
In response to our first, "How can we help you?", post a reader, Damon P. Suey posed the following query:
I'm not sure if early-grad school counts as early-career, but over the past couple weeks I've found that grad school introduces an entirely new kind of relationship with faculty. As an undergrad, faculty were distant enough to be treated as a kind of authority figure; even if that wasn't weren't strictly their role, you treated them the same way you might have treated your high school principal.
But as a grad student (at least at my school), the faculty want or expect to know you personally, and tend to treat you as something like a colleague rather than a student. As someone who's never really had a professional relationship before, I'm not sure how this is supposed to work. Maybe this isn't as widespread an issue as I'd imagine, but I'd love to see a post with some advice on adjusting to and navigating these new relationships.
I think this is a really important issue. By and large, the people I saw do best in grad school were the ones who had the best professional relationships with faculty: they tended to publish while in grad school, progress through the program well and on time, and do well on the market. Conversely, grad students who struggled to form strong professional relationships (myself among them) seemed to struggle far more. And, is this really surprising? At least offhand, having good professional relationships with grad faculty can be critical in many ways. First, the more one feels supported by faculty, the easier it can be to progress through one's program with confidence. Second, good relationships with faculty can be crucial for one's philosophical development. The more invested faculty are in your development--and the more receptive you are to their guidance--the easier it plausibly is to learn from their expertise. Finally, of course, having grad faculty in your corner can only be a good when it comes to professional prospects (e.g. the job-market).
This is just a quick note that Palgrave MacMillan has a 50% off sale on philosophy e-books running through September 26th. The sale includes my Rightness as Fairness: A Moral and Political Theory for $39.99 (a full book summary can be found here). Still expensive, I know, but a whole lot better than $100 for a hard copy! :)
My posting on the Cocoon has been a bit sparse lately, for several reasons. First, I've been unusually busy--with the beginning of the semester, a bunch of deadlines, etc. I haven't had much free time, and when I have had some, I've been exhausted! Second, I've still been struggling a bit with the blogging trilemma I discussed here a while back. My primary aim at the Cocoon has always been to be helpful to early-career people. However, now that years have gone by and I find myself transitioning to what feels more like a more of a mid-career standpoint--I am no longer in grad school, on the job-market, etc.--I am no longer directly grappling with the early-career struggles I once was. Although I am still grappling with many things, they just don't seem quite as important to me to discuss. As most of us already know--and threads like these and mental health studies like these indicate--grad students, job-marketeers, and other early-career people are in a particularly difficult position. While some people may make it through grad school and the job-market pretty cleanly as it were (without great difficulty), indications are that all too many of us have a rough go of it (to put it mildly). Depending on how things go (and a lot of unexpected things can happen), navigating early-career issues in philosophy--everything from developing and maintaining positive, productive relationships with faculty, to dissertating, publishing, and the job-market--can be a real gauntlet. I know, I went through it myself! Further, as these Daily Nous threads indicate (and I also know from experience), it can be a gauntlet that early-career people suffer alone in silence. This is why I've always wanted the Cocoon to be about and for early-career people. I've known too many early-career people who felt lost and alone in their struggles--and so my hope has always been that the Cocoon might help early-career people in whatever way we can.
Anyway, this brings me to a third main reason my posting has been a bit sparse. Although I am going to sound a bit like a broken record here (as I've given similar lines of encouragement in the past), my feeling is that for the Cocoon to really be helpful to early-career people (or, at least, as helpful as it can be), our early-career readers need to get involved! After all, as the Daily Nous thread I linked to above indicates, the people who know your struggles are you! If you find yourself struggling with things in grad school, or with publishing, the j0b-market, and so on, the Cocoon is a place that can potentially help. But, in order for the community to help, we need to know what you're grappling with! Every once in a while I try to back off of posting so much in the hope that other contributors might post more--and it is has been nice to see Helen, Trevor, and JG contribute some excellent posts lately. But still, we are only a few voices and perspectives.
In the past, when I've discussed these issues, I've issued a new call for contributors--and I'd like to do that again (indeed, I just did!). If you're an early-career philosopher interested in contributing to the Cocoon, either publicly or anonymously, please just let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org. However, since these calls haven't worked incredibly well in the past (though I'm a perennial optimist), I would also like to begin a new feature, "How can we help you?" This feature will be simple, and we'll see how it goes. Each week, I will simply post an open thread asking how our community can help you! Each thread will be chance for you, our readers, to share in the comment's section--in whatever way you feel comfortable (consistent with the blog's mission)--whatever issues you are struggling with and could use help with (viz. grad school, the job-market, whatever!). My hope is that when we receive submissions, our contributors can then pick up and compose posts on those topics for further discussion. My hope, additionally, is that this will be a good way for those of us (such as Helen and I) who are transitioning out of early-career stage to be as helpful as we can. Anyway, we'll see how it goes...starting now!
So then, how can we help you? What are you struggling with as an early-career person? Which early-career issue(s) could use some help navigating right now?
A reader of the Cocoon has drawn my attention to a new podcast at IAI.TV entitled, "Philosophy for Our Times." Here's a little info on the series and initial ten episodes:
The Institute of Art and Ideas (IAI), described as "Europe's answer to TED", has produced over 1000 debates and talks featuring the world's leading thinkers since it was founded in 2009. We distribute our debates on IAI.TV, and through international broadcast, and we're now launching podcasts as a new way for people to engage with cutting edge ideas.
Our launch line-up is an exciting one. Our first ten episodes feature Nobel prize-winner Paul Krugman, eminent philosophers Mary Midgley and John Searle, winner of the MacArthur 'Genius Grant' Fellowship Nancy Cartwright, former leader of the Conservative party Michael Howard and Guardian journalist Owen Jones.
But despite these big names, what we're most proud of is the diversity and depth of our debates. They range from the nature of language to the future of democracy. 'In Search of the Self' questions who we really are, while 'Rethinking Capital' wonders if capitalism is still a viable economic system in the 21st century.
Simon Blackburn, Paul Boghossian, Deirdre McClosky, Julian Barbour, Hannah Dawson, Hilary Lawson, and many others are also in the lineup.
By Trevor Hedberg
If you stay in philosophy long enough, you will eventually have to deal with that paper. It’s a good idea – one that you’re sure deserves to be in print. But for some reason, it keeps getting rejected. You refine your position, clarify ambiguities, respond to new objections – revision, revision, revision – but the rejections only continue. This is the story of my first encounter with that paper and the lessons I learned during the journey that ensued.
Last semester, I taught introduction ethics for the first time. I introduced plenty of interaction in the classroom with focused small discussion groups. Overall, I was satisfied with how it went but there was one big disappointment: I had hoped to make this course more diverse, but I did not succeed in that goal. For one thing, I only had one non-western topic, namely the Confucian concept of jen. We also worked on the topic of the philosophy of disability, with Elizabeth Barnes' excellent article in Ethics (I have now also bought her book and hope to explore this in more depth). I think this was particularly interesting to teach, as we ended this session with the story of the woman who wanted to be blind, and I had students discuss her decision and the decision of the doctor who was willing to help her. The students gave considered, sophisticated responses. Overall, I feel the addition of diverse materials improved the course. I had about 40% readings by women authors.
Still, my overall feeling was that I did not succeed in making this course sufficiently diverse. This made me curious about several things
Reflecting on this last question, for me the obstacles were that, as a non-specialist in ethics, I found it hard where to begin and how to find suitable materials to start teaching. Introductions, handbooks and readers don't have much diverse material. Second, I worried about having a course that was too non-standard (I wonder if others have this worry too). I felt it was my obligation to teach at least Aristotle's virtue ethics, Kantian deontology, Mill's utilitarianism,... Since semesters are only 12 weeks in the UK, this means that at least half the syllabus is already filled with white Western men. I do think my students need to learn this basic stuff, as some of them will go into graduate school or maybe will need ethics in their later career, and it would be odd if they didn't know it.
I will be presenting a paper at this conference in Nottingham in the fall where I will discuss these issues. For that, I would need to gather some data, and I think of doing this through a survey. In the survey, I would focus on a few courses: Ethics, Epistemology, Political Philosophy, Philosophy of Mind (maybe a few more but not too many more) and ask participants for each of these whether they have tried to make their course more diverse, what diversity means, and what obstacles they have faced, perhaps also some examples of things that worked well. I would be interested in hearing suggestions from Cocoon readers on what I could further include in this survey, and I would be glad if people who want to testrun it could e-mail me so I could send them a try-out version to see if everything runs smoothly.
For the survey, which I will circulate as soon as IRB approval is obtained, I am interested in all kinds of responses, ranging from people who don't think we need to specifically aim for a diverse syllabus, to people who would like to but have not yet done so, to teachers who try but face obstacles, to those who have successfully included a wide range of materials.
A lot of my professional-philosopher friends have been talking on social media about the Daily Nous post, "Grad Students: What Do You Wish You Knew?", that I discussed here the other day. In case there's anyone here who hasn't read DN post and comment thread, here's the short story: although some commenters in the thread report good experiences in graduate school, a lot of other comments were overwhelmingly negative. Although again there may well be selection effects (people with bad experiences being more apt to share), there have also been a number of disturbing studies on grad student mental health and well-being, not just in philosophy but for grad students in general. So, it seems, although grad school can be a good time in life for some, the data suggests that, for all too many students, grad school can be a really tough time. And, of course, that's just grad school. Then there's the academic job-market and post-PhD employment (in postdocs, VAPs, adjunct jobs, etc.)--all of which involve trials and tribulations of their own.
I am among those--and I think there are many of us--who believe that when it comes to the decision of whether to attend graduate school, people should make a well-informed decision. But, what does it take to make such a decision? Are "hard facts" enough--for instance, facts about grad program completion rates, average time-to-degree, and academic placement records? Certainly, hard facts can help a person make an informed decision. But, as we all know (and as anyone who does biomedical ethics will tell you), it is one thing for a person to be presented with facts; it is another thing for them to adequately understand and think rationally about them. First, "hard facts" are often abstract, just "numbers" as it were. It is one thing to know, at a factual level, that a good number of people never complete their PhD, or that many people with PhDs never get tenure-track jobs--and one might even understand, at an abstract level, that these are "bad results." But, as L.A. Paul argues, it can be another thing to appreciate what various outcomes are like at a subjective level, in a way that presents one not simply with numbers but the lived reality of different outcomes. This is important, I think, because there are reasons to think that understanding different lived realities may make a difference in the decision a person makes. It can be easy to succumb to irrational optimism with numbers alone. It can be more difficult the more one appreciates the lived experience of different outcomes.
This idea has come out in some of my philosopher-friends' online discussions of the Daily Nous thread. A number of people--including tenured faculty--have noted that it seems very difficult for would-be grad students to fully appreciate "the stakes" of grad school without having lived through it. One can, after all, tell someone all day long: grad school is tough, the job-market brutal, you may never get an academic job, and so on. Getting a person to appreciate the reality those facts describe, however, is a much more difficult thing to do. I should know. My undergrad advisor, Dan Dennett, while being complimentary of my philosophical abilities, advised me in no uncertain terms that I should not attend grad school, thanks to facts about the job market. I took his advice seriously for about five seconds before naively and irresponsibly deciding that wouldn't be me. I've seen and heard of this sort of thing happening all too often.
I've long struggled with how to respond to this problem. On the one hand, I don't like it when tenured faculty tell students not to go to grad school. That not only seems to me overly paternalistic; it also doesn't seem to me to work very well. It doesn't help would-be grad students understand the "stakes" of their decision--and so, again, all too often students just go on their way (as I did when I was told not to go). Truth is, I'm not sure there is an ideal solution to this problem. It's probably an inevitable fact of life that people--particularly young people--will make overly optimistic decisions, in some cases to their own advantage (but in many cases now), whatever we do. Consequently, the best I think we can do is give people the fullest picture we can of the stakes involved. But, how do we do that? The answer, I think, is by telling stories: true stories of different decisions, outcomes, and lived experiences.
Several years ago, I discussed and posted some passages from Ruth Millikan's wonderful Dewey Lecture. While Millikan made some really interesting (and I think important) points about philosophy and our discipline, the most eye-opening and moving part for me was reading Millikan's brief autobiography. As I summarized before, Millikan really went through a lot:
Her early career, as she recounts it, was full of great struggles. She had to walk out of an exam of Stanley Cavell's for personal reasons (p. 4). She entered grad school at Yale as only one of two women in a class of 22 students and one of only two students without a fellowship (pp. 4-5). Her dissertation supervisor (Wilfred Sellars) left her program before she had made any real progress on the dissertation (p. 5). While in grad school, she also had a serious back injury, two children, a divorce, spent a summer in mental hospital, and her dissertation took her 5 years (!) to complete, with basically no supervision (pp. 5-6).
I have been following the recent Daily Nous post, "Grad Students: What Do You Wish You Knew?", since yesterday, and like some commenters over there, I cannot help but be distressed by many of the comments. Although there are a few positive reflections--and there may well be self-selection effects (viz. people being more likely to report negative experiences than positive ones)--the overall picture of philosophy grad school in that thread seems to be extremely negative, to say the least.
I have made no secret of my own grad school struggles, as well as my job-market struggles. I had a very difficult time both in graduate school and the job-market--more difficult than I ever imagined I would. Given that, short of empirical studies, it is hard to know what proportion of people have negative philosophy grad school experiences (though there a number of very disturbing studies on grad-student well-being and mental health in general), we may not be in a very good position to figure these things out here. What me may be in a better position to do, however, is discuss in a constructive manner what should be done--not only by individuals, but institutions--to improve things. Although there is probably only so much we can do, it seems to me a very important conversation to start, and indeed, keep going. In my view, at least, we should not just rest content with the status quo. Yes, grad school is hard, and yes, there are not enough jobs--but many of the concerns that people raise at the Daily Nous thread and elsewhere (e.g. grad school culture, unhelpful faculty, misinformation, etc.) plausibly are things that we can do something about, at least in time and with enough individual and collective will.
So, then, I want to pose several questions: what do you think can and/or should be done to help philosophy grad students have a more positive (or at least not awful) grad school experience? Is there a series of "best practices" that programs should adopt? If so, which ones exactly? Should professional associations (e.g. the APA) have any involvement here, perhaps formulating and recommending some best practices? And what can we do as individuals--as grad students and faculty?