I've made no secret of my feeling that our profession has overfetishized "rigor" (to a sometimes comical extent), to the detriment of other philosophical virtues: particularly, vision and creativity (see especially the comments section here).
Now, it seems a growing number of others are beginning to share the worry. There have been some recent blog posts about the hyperprofessionalization of our profession, where some well-known people (Dave Chalmers, Mark Lance, etc.) have suggested that this makes for "safe" but less interesting philosophy.
Mark Lance's comment here seems to me particularly apt:
There are lots and lots of papers that strike me as grad student exam answers. Really polished, enormously carefully worked out, but for all that, exam answers. So one says "for purposes of this paper I stipulate that I'm endorsing conditions 1 - 7 of Jones's account of knowledge of future tropes. My question is whether condition 8 necessarily follows or is only the most plausible condition to conjoin to these. 50 pages later, we say, 'yep, pretty good argument'. That's one sort of thing that could be fairly called a hyper-professionalized paper. But why would you bother to write it? Part of the answer is your 5. Individualism in authorship is absurdly prominent in philosophy, and that is tied to aspects of professionalization. We give different credit for things that are clearly identifiable as your individual accomplishment. We don't know how to assign professional credit for work that inspires others, or takes lots of us to work out, or skips as an exercise to the reader lots of details, or is subject to tons of objections but nonetheless plays a crucial role in lots of other stuff.
What do you make, for example, of Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature? Lots of false stuff in it. Lots of super sloppy stuff. Surely not anything one would call a work of genius. OK. Fine. But how much 20th c philosophical thought was a response to it? How many other books and ideas were inspired in part by it? Compare it to, say, the 7th really careful book written on how to understand contextualism in epistemology. The latter is probably way better argued, subject to way fewer devastating critiques, etc. But if we are structuring incentives, don't we want to encourage people to think up something like PMN?
In my view, this is all deeply tied up with the adversarial culture that exists in philosophy and training into which is part of our professionalization. How commonly do we react to a rather vaguely put idea with "Hmm, let us explore that together," rather than "Here's 17 reasons why that claim is undefined, incoherent, and false"?
I also love John Cogburn's comment,
I agree with everything you write here, and I also think that they're very important points.
If I could I would press a button to reset all of our minds so that the norm was "Hmm, let us explore that together" instead of "Here's 17 reasons why that claim is undefined, incoherent, and false." I think that different subareas of philosophy are different in this respect. When I present on aesthetics I get tons of helpful comments and discussion, but when I present on philosophy of logic and language at APAs the comments sometimes (not always!) reduce me to a defensive, anxiety riddled, crouch. Some of the APA societies are really supportive too. The meeting of the Schopenhauer Society that I had the privilege to attend a few years ago at the Eastern was pretty amazing in terms of the shared presupposition being that we're all on the same team trying to figure out what's going on.
I also think that you are getting at part of why slickness is philosophically dangerous. The slick person is precisely the person who is expert at not taking real risks. But I think that if you are really open to the muse then you just are going to risk humiliating yourself sometimes. I can write catchy melodies sometimes. But here's the weird thing, the phenomenology of writing a decent song with a catch melody is not as far as I can tell any different from the phenomenology of writing a horrible song (which I can also do well). So you have to be willing to write horrible ones if you want to produce good ones. But this is why it's so important to have an environment that is supportive rather than hypercritical.
A (bit) on the opposite side, Lewis Powell (who often comments here at the Cocoon) writes:
I think it is important to separate the safeness/riskiness dichotomy from the careful/sloppy dichotomy.
I think there are real reasons to be worried about an environment that substantively discourages people from being risky (i.e. from pushing outside of certain dominant paradigms, or from pursuing projects that are difficult to pigeonhole within the context of a pre-existing debate). I am less confident that there is anything wrong with an environment that encourages clarity, care, and precision, and discourages vagueness or sloppiness.
I say all this while agreeing with your point that charitable/sympathetic interpretation of our contemporary interlocutors is valuable, and the proper response to views that are vaguely put is to seek to offer the best understanding of what the vague claim could mean.
One way to put my point is that riskiness is not itself a fault in a given work, but I think that vagueness and sloppiness are genuinely faults.
I suppose one might think that genuinely risky work will necessarily be vague/imprecise (or something along those lines), but I'd want to know why we should think that, before structuring the incentives to encourage both of those features. In all honesty, if they are strongly or inextricably linked, my inclination would be to say that it is better to encourage neither rather than both. Philosophy is already far too plagued by people talking past one another, and encouraging vagueness/sloppiness appears to be a good recipe for compounding that problem.
To address the question Lewis raises at the outset of his last paragraph, I would say: the evidence that genuinely risky work will necessarily be vague and imprecise is...the entire history of our discipline. As Blackburn writes,
Philosophers think of themselves as the guardians of reason, intent beyond other men upon care and accuracy, on following the argument wherever it leads, spotting flaws, rejecting fallacies, insisting on standards. This is how we justify ourselves as educators, and as respectable voices within the academy, or even in public life. But there is a yawning chasm between self-image and practice, and in fact it is a great mistake to think that philosophers ever gain their followings by means of compelling arguments. The truth is the reverse, that when the historical moment is right people fall in love with the conclusions, and any blemish in the argument is quickly forgiven: the most outright fallacy becomes beatified as a bold and imaginative train of thought, obscurity actually befits a deep original exploration of dim and unfamiliar interconnexions, arguments that nobody can follow at all become a brilliant roller-coaster ride towards a shift in the vocabulary, a reformulation of the problem space. Follow the star, and the raw edges will easily be tidied up later.
I was thinking that these might be good issues, Cocooners, to discuss. In particular, what should be done to make our profession less adversarial and less rigor-obsessed? Is everything hunky-dory (as I'm sure some rigor-obsessed people might say!), or are there specific things the profession could do to promote insight and creativity more?
Here are some (halfway-serious) possibilities:
- Change professional norms for recommending papers for journal acceptance from "rigor, rigor, rigor!" to include "this is super interesting and likely to engender discussion, though sloppy." (After all, what is more stimulating: a rigorous essay that generates little or no discussion, or a sloppy but incredibly interesting one that does?)
- Foster co-authorship.
- Create some "top" journals that explicitly focus on insight over rigor? (A proverbial "Journal of Big Ideas")