Ruth Millikan's 2012 Dewey Lecture, which I first posted a link to the other day, has generated quite a stir on other philosophy blogs and social media. I have seen people urging one another to read it, and I've heard some people describe parts of it as "explosive." In this post, I want to follow up on Millikan's claim that encouraging philosophers to publish early and often is "genocidal" -- that it threatens to destroy the vitality and depth of our discipline from within. (p. 11)
When I began graduate school, 300-500 page dissertations systematically developing and defending "one big idea" were the rule. One simply could not receive one's PhD without coming up with "a great idea", and developing something like a systematic theory of that idea. I distinctly remember sitting in our grad lounge at the University of Arizona and reading some of the dissertations that were kept there. I was astonished. "How", I thought to myself, "could I ever climb a mountain like that?" The amount of thought, work, determination, and systematic thought it took to produce dissertations like those, I thought to myself, was truly impressive and important.
And indeed, it seems to me, there are a number of reasons why 300-500 page dissertations systematically developing new theories were once the rule.
The first thought, I think, was simply that the aim of a PhD program should be to create great (rather than merely good) philosophers, and that great philosophy requires the ability to develop new systems of thought. If, for instance, we look at the greatest contributions to philosophy in history -- whether we are talking about Kant's Critiques or whatever -- those contributions, by and large, were not "a handful of papers." They were wide-ranging, systematic theories.
The second thought, I take is, is that unless the ability to think systematically in this kind of way is developed (and incentivized!) early -- in grad school, etc. -- it is unlikely to develop on its own. Habits are habits, and if one is merely taught (by one's mentors--leaders in the field!) to publish papers in grad school and then incentivized to publish papers or books based on papers in the years leading up to tenure, when will one learn how to think deeply, and systematically? Again, if all the incentive is to publish papers in Phil Review and then maybe a book (based on those papers) with OUP, but one is never taught or given any incentive to create something systematic like A Theory of Justice or the Critique of Pure Reason, the likelihood that one will ever learn how to create something like that diminishes.
The third thought, I take it, is that in order to think really systematically about ideas, and to develop new ideas that might "change the philosophical world", one needs to be steeped in philosophical history. The 300-500 page dissertations I read when I started grad school did not just deal with the last 10 years of the literature on, say, practical reasons or whatever. No, they went much farther than this: locating the theories they developed in history, often returning to some idea (from maybe 100 years ago) and attempting to rescue or revitalize it. And knowing the history of philosophy (and science) is profoundly important. As just one example of how not knowing history can lead philosophy astray, consider this recent article by Brogaard and Marlow (in Analysis!) claiming to refute a central element of Einstein's theory of relativity. The kinds of concerns Brogaard and Marlow raise in the paper were raised and definitively refuted almost 100 years ago. It shouldn't have taken these two follow-up articles to refute the worries again, but, unless we pay attention to history, these are precisely the kinds of things that can happen!
So, I say, there are a lot of (good) reasons for 300-500 page, systematic dissertations. These reasons were conveyed to me at one point by my dissertation advisor, Tom Christiano. Yet, as I progressed in grad school, Tom became a lone voice in the wilderness. Budget cuts and concerns about how long grad students were taking to finish their degrees were increasingly leading my, and other grad programs to scrap the requirement for massive dissertations in favor of another alternative: dissertations consisting of several related "star papers", papers which may be closely related, but not necessarily develop any systematic theory of anything. The important thing now was that one's "star papers" were "potentially publishable." And so it went. As time has gone on, I have come across more and more 100-120 page dissertations. Oftentimes, these dissertations consist of several good or great papers. But, is that all we should be demanding of grad students? And to what end? Does it incentivize deeply understanding the history of philosophical ideas, or does it mostly incentivize contributing in some new way to some "hot" trend in the literature? Does it incentivize the development of systematic thought -- the kind of thought that has, historically, led to great philosophical innovation and theorizing? Or, does it incentivize something less?
I leave it to you to think about and discuss. :)