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Jonathan Jenkins Ichikawa

Isn't this all a false dichotomy? Wouldn't the best thing involve both rigor and depth? I'd've thought that ought to be the norm. (And I'd've thought that it is. Journals, for example, sometimes reject papers for being insufficiently interesting, even if sufficiently rigorous.)

Marcus Arvan

Hi Jonathan: I think there is a growing body of people who *don't* think "both rigor and depth" is the norm, and that the norm has swung very far/too far in the direction of rigor over depth. Many people -- among them Mark Lance, Lewis Powell, Tim Scanlon, Sam Scheffler, and apparently some on the board of the Journal of Philosophy -- have suggested that journal articles today trend toward "boring but rigorous" more than "boundary-pushing but not so rigorous" stuff. (see my earlier post "Safe, and a Little Boring" for a recount of some of these remarks http://philosopherscocoon.typepad.com/blog/2012/10/safe-and-a-little-boring.html)

I think I would be apt to agree that in an ideal world, rigor and creativity might go nicely together. But I there's a lot of evidence that don't think we live in that world.

Personality research strongly indicates that personality characteristics associated with rigor (e.g. conscientiousness, etc.) are strongly *negatively* related to characteristics associated with creativity (e.g. openness to new experience, etc.)

Or consider the history of philosophy. The Groundwork is by my lights the single most important piece of work in moral philosophy, and yet it is chock full of bad arguments, is ridiculously unclear, etc. Why? Because Kant had a great idea and ran with it even though he couldn't really work it out that clearly.

I think the same is true of Rawls. Rawls was taken to task in famously scathing review by RM Hare. I actually agree with most of Hare's criticisms that A Theory of Justice isn't rigorous. But so what? Rawls' book is full of important insights and ideas.

I don't think it's absurd to suggest that many, if not most, of the works that have changed the face of philosophy "fail the rigor tests" reviewers regularly apply to journals. This is why the link in my post to "The Greats Get Peer Reviewed" is so funny. It's just not that hard to imagine a contemporary journal reviewer advocating rejecting one the Great Works because the work doesn't conform to our professional standards of rigor.

Or consider Einstein. There have been countless better mathematicians than he, and he was routinely criticized by his math professors as being a lazy dog and was shunned by his physics professors for not following the norms of his profession...which led him to being blackballed by his graduate advisor, which in turn led him to have to take a job in a patent office...where he came up with a couple of *ideas* that changed the world.

In any case, I have no qualms with the idea that both rigor and creativity/depth matter. What I think (and what I think a growing number of others think) is that rigor is prioritized so highly today in our discipline that there are more "boring but rigorous" pieces than interesting but not-so-rigorous ones.

Lewis Powell

I just want to clarify my position on two points:

1) I was talking about riskiness, not depth.

2) I personally don't really think that rigor and riskiness are mutually exclusive. My position was simply that, if someone were to convince me that they are, necessarily or merely practically exclusive of each other, I would prefer a trend of safe rigor to one of sloppy risk-taking.

Marcus Arvan

Lewis: I expect that many in the discipline would side with you. But why wouldn't *both* be even better?

Here's what I prefer myself: safe rigor *and* sloppy risk-taking. Both, as I see it (for broadly Kuhnian reasons), play an important role in philosophical inquiry. Every discipline needs *some* people who take bold, sloppy steps forward (e.g. Kant), and then more safe, rigorous people to clean up the mess (e.g. Kant scholars).

That's really my question: why can't/shouldn't our discipline make more room for both kinds of people? When I look at a lot of the analytic philosophy I studied in graduate school -- the stuff "we grew up on" (in metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, etc.) -- I see a lot of stuff that, by my lights, wouldn't pass muster today.

For instance, when I read Rawls' article "Justice as Fairness", I don't see something that looks publishable in today's standards. There's not so much an argument in the paper as a vague proposal.

The same goes for some famous work in epistemology -- for example, Lehrer's stuff in favor of coherentism. I remember sitting in Bill Alston's (RIP) graduate epistemology class at Syracuse when one not-so-respectful student blurted out to Alston, "How did this ever get published?" I can't for the life of me recall how Alston responded (though I seem to remember it involved a smile!), but the point still resonates: it's stuff we all studied in grad school (Lehrer a leading figure in epistemology!), and yet from *today's* standards it's arguably unpublishable...


I'm not sure I agree with Mark Lance's implication that the incentives don't favor writing PMN type stuff over the "seventh really careful book on contextualism" type stuff. I grant that most work produced is closer to the latter than the former. But is that a problem? Even if you love Kuhnian revolutions, and are bored by "normal science", not every paper/book can spark a revolution, right?

And it seems to me that, in the rare cases where people do produce work that, while perhaps not a model of rigor, is extremely ambitious/interesting, they are often rewarded for it. (In that their work is cited, discussed, people invite them to conferences, there are edited volumes on their work, etc.) For some relatively contemporary examples, take Simon Blackburn and Bernard Williams. Both of them did/do very ambitious work (I think), and neither could be accused of too much rigor (again, imho). Had their work been less interesting/ambitious, they might have been ignored or dismissed as vague/sloppy. But that has not, by and large, been the response to their work, and in my opinion, this fact reflects well on the profession, and suggests that whatever pro-rigor norms we have, they're not running wildly out of control.

Now maybe there are lots of other, similar people who are doing just as interesting/ambitious work, who are being ignored because their work is perceived as insufficiently rigorous. I suppose I can't rule it out. But it strikes me that the incentives we've got now are pretty sensible--most people realize that if they try to write something as ambitious as Kant, they'll be ignored, because it probably won't be any good; most people should try to make smaller, more careful contributions. But if you do try for something very risky and succeed, even if you end up being a bit sloppier or vaguer than is typical for the profession, it's not as if disciplinary norms in favor of rigor are so strong as to prevent you from being recognized/rewarded for your success.

Marcus Arvan

Dan: all very good points. Perhaps I'm being too hard on prevailing norms. We all have our own standards of what is "good" and publishable work. Still, when I read the top journals I tend to get the feeling that a lot of it is *too* safe. It's heartening (to me, at any rate) that some very well-established figures -- Scheffler, Chalmers, etc. -- seem to have similar feelings. Though I don't mean to appeal to authority here, I do think it is notable that a seemingly growing number of established people seem to feel this way too. In any case, I'll admit it: I am a bit of a "heathen" by nature, so I'm glad people are pushing back. I really don't mean to advocate in favor of sloppiness and such -- I aim for rigor myself! It just seems to me there used to better balance between rigor and daring. When I look back at some of the stuff I studied in grad school (e.g. stuff from the 60s and 70s among others) I just have the feeling the discipline was more daring. Maybe hindsight is clouded, though, by history itself (where boring stuff becomes mostly forgotten).

Lewis Powell


The crux of my response is that I don't really think that sloppiness is an essential part of risky/exploratory work. So, my first blush reply is this:
Better than having an environment that encourages safe rigor and *sloppy* exploration, I'd like one that encourages safe rigor and rigorous exploration.

I suspect we have a deep disagreement about whether the sort of valuable risky work in question can avoid sloppiness, but sloppiness, to my mind, is a philosophical vice. Surely we should lament, about Kant's works, that they are obscure and unclear. Am I saying that it would be better for Kant's works not to have been written at all, given that they are unclear and obscure? No. But to switch to an example closer to my own studies: Locke's Essay sorely needed an editor.

Let me, for a moment, grant your background supposition, however, that some ideas are, relative to a given philosophical context, inherently sloppy to express. When someone is about to spark a Kuhnian revolution, their exploratory work outside the dominant paradigm will be, of necessity, messy/vague/etc. I still think the person putting those ideas forward should be trying to maximize the rigor/clarity of the work they are doing. That maximum is, on this supposition, lower than for work within the dominant paradigm, but nevertheless, they should be striving to produce work that is as clear as possible. Since, clarifying these ideas is difficult work, I am wary of elements of the philosophical culture or widespread attitudes that might discourage people from doing that hard (but valuable) work, such as taking for granted that such work is just going to be sloppy. This is because, even if some work is faultlessly sloppy in that way, there are still cases (many more of them, I'd wager) where sloppiness can serve as cover for bad work, creating the illusion of depth, profundity, progress, or creativity, where none exists.

As I mentioned in my comment on NewAPPS, philosophical debates are frequently plagued by miscommunication resulting from the disputants talking past each other. And I think that you agree with me on that point (I just double checked to make sure I was correct in remembering that you were the one who had posted extolling Chalmers's account of verbal disputes, and stating an expectation that we would discover that "a lot of late-twentieth century and twenty-first century philosophical disputes are primarily verbal"). I think that the best method we have for countering this sort of widespread miscommunication consists in two things: a) serious attempts to be thoroughly clear and rigorous in our own work and b) skill at reading the work of our interlocutors with genuine sympathy/charity.

I have never encountered philosophical work that I think would have been diminished by greater clarity and rigor. I have, though, encountered much that would have benefitted from it.

Marcus Arvan

Lewis: I actually think you and I are in substantial agreement. Sloppiness is without a doubt a philosophical vice. The Groundwork would have been a better work if it had been clearer and more rigorous. Etc. And again, I value these things in my own work.

Here's where I think we differ. You grant, on my supposition that rigor and groundbreaking creativity are at inherently at odds, that the maximum level of clarity and rigor will be less with more creative work than with safer, more boring work. You then say (still working on the same supposition) that we should be wary of lowering expectations for clarity and rigor. But this seems to me to be precisely where the problem is. *If* the maximum level of clarity and rigor that can be expected of very creative work is lower than that of safe work, a discipline that prioritized clarity and rigor will prioritize safe, boring work over more creative, insightful work -- which is what I think has arguably happened in our discipline.

So, while I understand your worry about encouraging sloppiness in the profession, I also think you underestimate the extent to which, in reality, increased rigor and clarity come with a huge trade-off: creativity and insight. I think the issue is one of proper balance, and that the discipline has swung too far in one direction (rigor), to the detriment of insight.

In short, I think you and I disagree on the empirical issue. You seem to think that great creativity, insight, rigor, and clarity can all be combined. I say history and human psychology indicate that this is not the case -- and so I think it's an important question for the discipline what the right balance is.

Lewis Powell

Then I think we have discovered a new form of substantial agreement, which translates to a pretty strong practical divergence.

First off, while you tend to describe the dominant vice of the work that you see getting published as "safety", I view the dominant vice as lack of rigor (even for the work you are thinking of as safe, rather than risky). So I don't think we are placing too high a premium on rigor, I think we are placing too low of a premium on rigor, at present.

I also think that there may be a base-rate fallacy lurking here. Of necessity, because we conduct philosophy in conversation with one another, it can't be that most work is groundbreaking in a revolutionary way. For any interesting philosophical system, there is a huge amount of valuable work to do investigating that system. If things are going correctly, there should be a vastly greater amount of what you call "safe" work than what you call "daring" work. If the daring work is valuable, most of its value will be realized by so-called "safe" work investigating the details of the groundbreaking view/system. But then, this means that we should expect the vast majority of the work we encounter to be "safe". The case that there is too much safe work is hard to make, because it is not sufficient to show that it is the grand majority of work being done.

But, there is also a winnowing of works-we-attend-to from the passage of time. We keep the works that were the starting points for good conversations, and some of the best responses to those works (or perhaps, later papers that synthesize much of the intermediate work), resulting in a view of history as relatively over-populated by hugely influential works.

With all this going on, of course it will look like we are paling in comparison to the early 1900s, the late 1700s, the height of the medieval period, etc., without it being the case that we have less than our share of groundbreaking work.

Lastly, I think one could make a strong case for the relative rigorousness of lots of history's truly groundbreaking work. Aristotle, though he may not be as clear and rigorous as we'd always like, was a paragon of systematicity. I would argue (though I am biased) for Hume on this front as well. Certainly Newton meets such a standard, and I would say Russell does as well. Not everyone was comparatively clear and rigorous in relation to their contemporaries, but a great number of those we consider groundbreaking were.

Marcus Arvan

Lewis: Aha! I *now* think I see better how we agree. Funnily enough, I think we've been talking past one another with notions of "rigor" and "insight." I've been using the term to refer (roughly speaking) to "the standards of rigor" that I think are the professional norm -- standards embodied in "chess-piece-moving" papers of the sort Mark Lance refers to (i.e. endless debates about material constitution, moral realism, etc.). By extension, I've been using "insight" to refer to things like Dave Chalmers' piece, where I think he gives a method that can help us see that all this chess-piece moving has been a mistake.

I think *you're* using the terms in the opposite way. You want to say all the "chess-piece-moving" philosophy *isn't* rigorous where clear stuff with insight (stuff like "Verbal Disputes") *is* rigorous.

In other words: (1) I'm working a conventional definition of "rigor" (roughly, how it seems to be understood in the profession/by journal reviewers, etc.), whereas (2) You seem to be working with a more (dare I say) Platonic or ideal notion of "rigor."

So perhaps you and I would *agree* there is a kind of problem in the profession. What often *counts* as "rigor" in the profession isn't the real thing. If this is what you mean to say, then we are in agreement indeed.

And in fact, the more I reflect, the more this seems right to me. My experience when reading many "top" journal articles recently hasn't *just* been "this is boring"; it's also been "I can't believe *this* is what reviewers think good philosophical rigor is."

Lewis Powell

I think we're still not on the same page.

1) When I use the term "rigor", I mean a certain sort of precision, exactness, and clarity that can be manifested in philosophical work. Work that is of a big picture paradigm shifting approach can have this virtue, and work that is of a small scope, more detail-oriented investigation can have this virtue.

2) So, I think the evaluation of rigor is orthogonal to the evaluation of daring vs. safety.

3) Insofar as exploratory work that is aimed towards a paradigm shift, or otherwise rests outside the dominant paradigms and debates is what you have in mind by "daring", and more detail-oriented investigations within a given paradigm are what you have in mind by "safe", it is not only appropriate, but desirable for safe papers to vastly outnumber daring papers.

4) This is because the value of paradigm-shifting work is, in large part, determined by what comes of it. And what comes of it consists in the "safe" work you seem to take such a dim view of.

5) In other words, the value of work of proposing of a new paradigm is a function of the extent to which detailed investigations of that paradigm are productive.

6) So, the proliferation of work that you seem to dislike/find boring/classify as "chess move" pieces is, in and of itself, an indicator of the health of the discipline. (That doesn't mean all such work is contributing equally.)

7) So, while I do think that a lot of work being done isn't sufficiently rigorous, this is completely orthogonal to the issue of daring/safety.

8) Separate from my concerns about rigor, I think you are seriously undervaluing safe work. Figuring out the best way for a Lewisian metaphysician to respond to yet another iteration of objections to counterfactual theories of causation is not glamorous work, but it is important work.

9) Real progress in philosophy is made by careful, rigorous examination of the details of various programmes, not by attempting ex ante assessment of competing programmes based on the big picture articulations of those programmes.

10) A good articulation of a philosophical programme serves as a roadmap for doing the hard, unglamorous detail oriented work required to learn what the achievements and demerits of that programme genuinely are.

11) These two elements, then (i.e. the articulation of novel programmes/paradigms, and the detail oriented investigations of such programmes/paradigms) both strongly benefit from exactness, precision, and care. That is, from being done rigorously.

Marcus Arvan

Lewis: I see. I do value chess-piece-moving work far less than you seem to think is warranted, and I think risky work is inherently sloppy -- though in a more ideal world it wouldn't be. I guess we'll have to agree to disagree on these, and perhaps other, things. But I respect your arguments, however much I disagree.


one possibility for the reduction of eminent philosohpers over time (other than rigor) is dysgenesis, which has an effect on the rates of eminent persons over time - woodleys 2012 paper, attached, is an excellent discussion of the issue


bruce charlton has also done some nice work on peer review - i recommend you check it out


T. Parent

I'm torn on this issue...
On the one hand, I agree that 90% of contemporary philosophy is insignificant, because it is not ambitious enough. On the other hand, I value rigor quite highly. And I appreciate Marcus' empirical point.

I think it may depend on what philosophy is supposed to accomplish. Is the end-goal a variety of broad brush-strokes, breathtaking vistas? Or is the end-goal a highly detail-driven account? The empirical point suggests you can't have both, for all practical purposes.

It may be different for something like moral philosophy, vs. say present-day philosophy of mind...precisely because there are different end-goals. I think there is not NEARLY enough logical rigor in the latter, despite its laudatory increasing concern with empirical matters. But that's because I think phil mind mainly should be doing conceptual ground-clearing, in order to make the study of the mind
more empirically tractable.

On the other hand, a main goal of moral philosophy is to help us lead better lives. And for that purpose, detailed hair-splitting within 7 epicycles of the dialectic may be virtually irrelevant.

So I guess my point is that we should not be thinking of a single, monolithic prescription for all of philosophy.

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