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Elisa Freschi

Marcus, this is a difficult point. I just sent my peer review of an article submitted to the main journal in my AOS and I wrote more or less what "p" said within my comments to the author. He or she uses a peculiar style, with exclamation marks and other colloquialisms and I suggested him or her to avoid them, if they are not an intentional choice but just the result of his or her inexperience. Does this mean that one *needs* to stick at a scholarly style while doing philosophy? No, but avoiding it means that it is harder to be read and accepted, since readers are instinctively repelled. In this sense, I agree that one needs to be saying something really interesting if one wants to overcome this initial repulsion.
As for the more general point of whether one is allowed to do philosophy only if one is doing it "good", that's another story (I, for one, tend to think that the pursue of originality at any cost is a chimera, but I guess we could start a fight here:-)).

Marcus Arvan

Hi Elisa: I take your point very well. But notice: I actually accepted that part of "p's" comment! I don't think one can blame others if they don't see the point of one's attempts to break conventions. Indeed, like you, *I* might be put off a bit by work that flouts conventions.

My point, though, was rather different. It was that the entire line of thought presupposes that the sole or primary *point* of philosophy is to (A) achieve "research success", by (B) publishing papers, (C) in conventional journals, that (D) address reviewers, etc.

Now, to be sure, these are conventional ways of thinking about philosophy. To (some? many?) people in the discipline, they *are* "the point" of academic philosophy. My rejoinder, though, was that perhaps we should be more openminded about what "the point" of philosophy is, leaving it open to different people to define for themselves what they are trying to get out of philosophy.

My point, to put it another way, is: one doesn't have to *agree* with people like Vallabha that time spent exploring alternative modes of discourse is time well spent--but this doesn't mean that one should go right ahead and say, "You had better be good at it and have something important to say", either. For the latter seeks to *impose* a conventional conception of philosophy on the other, downplaying the person's legitimacy as a philosopher and expressing a kind of disdain for the person who tries unconventional things but doesn't do them well. Better to say: "To each their own. I might not agree with Vallabha's approach--and it may be a mistake as far as achieving success in the discipline--but I understand he may be interested in doing philosophy differently than the majority of us, and I respect his right to choose for himself how he does philosophy and his right to express why *he* thinks it has been worthwhile." This expresses disagreement, but also respect rather than disdain.


The idea that there are especially high standards for "non-scholarly" styles of writing is just totally bizarre. If anything, I think there should be higher standards for those who are writing in a conventional "scholarly" way. We already have a LOT of this stuff -- way, way more "scholarly" papers than our culture could possibly need for any purpose. Everyone knows that the vast majority of those papers -- 60%? 80%? -- will never be read by more than a tiny handful of people. Everyone knows that the vast majority will not play any meaningful role in our understanding of anything. And, in addition, these papers tend to be _boring_ simply in virtue of their "scholarly" style. The standard review of the same small set of "relevant literature" with nods to Big Names and Shared Intuitions, the little dialectical move delivered somewhere in the middle, always within the tight little spaces created by whatever bulk of conventional opinion there happens to be in the 5-10 years past. Boring. If you are going to write that kind of thing in that kind of way, you'd better have something interesting to say! At least, that's the advice I'd give people if we weren't under such crushing pressure to accumulate lines on our CVs. If we were writing for more purely philosophical reasons. Given the practical concerns most of us face, it's entirely forgivable that we do it. By contrast, something "non-scholarly" will often have many special virtues that "scholarly" papers typically lack, regardless of whether the content is Big and Important and Good, etc. It will often be FUN or FUNNY, entertaining or interesting or thought-provoking. It might be more aesthetically pleasing.


Ambrose nailed it.

We often forget that the now conventional way of writing philosophy came about due to the conscious *creative* decision of a philosopher or group of philosophers or scholars: "Hey, let's write this way. I started writing this way last night. I think it's neat!" The style itself may not drip creativity, but it did originate in a creative act. Of course, it has now been overcooked, burnt to a crisp. And so wouldn't it be nice if we permitted this type of freedom and gave academics a moment or two to explore new ways for writing and doing philosophy? I for one still much prefer the essay over the article form. Give me something to ruminate about, to put down and come back to later, something I can pick up and start in the middle, work over a particular thought, a single sentence, without having to dig through the details and the same anti-prose. If you pick up a piece of philosophy and demand of it to cough up its argument or else... well, you may be doing the piece a disservice. I don't know. Some musings from a very tired graduate student.


It certainly seems like a good idea to foster the pursuit of new and interesting styles within the profession. I am all for it. But I think the intuition that one should stick with accepted writing conventions until one is more established or has something extraordinarily good and interesting to say can be defended as well.

Writing using the accepted conventions for a discipline immediately signals to the reader that one has the requisite familiarity with the literature to be contributing to it. WRITING OUTSIDE ACCEPTED CONVENTIONS SUGGESTS THAT YOU REALLY HAVE NOT READ AND ABSORBED THE LITERATURE IN A FIELD. YOU HAVE NOT BOTHERED TO TAKE IT SERIOUSLY. IS THERE AN OBVIOUS OBJECTION THAT YOU ARE NOT AWARE OF? HAS SOMEONE SAID THAT BEFORE?
SHOUDN'T I NOW BETER by NOW THEN TO WRITE ON ALLCAPS OR AT LEAST CHEK FOR GRAMMER AND SPEllING? Yes, but I will only appreciate what it means to use proper grammar and standard typological conventions if I have enough experience with the literature. Seeing something wrong in the format (like most of you just did) is an immediate signal that I am missing something (like I have never read a blog before). Maybe I have a great point, but if the format indicates that I am not familiar enough with the disciplinary conventions to initially mimic it, who would invest the time?
Anyone in mathematics will tell you stories about the kooks that send them new formula for circle-squaring and "original short proofs for Fermat's last theorem" or disproofs of the theory of relativity, etc. Inevitably, what gives away the problems with the "proofs" are the idiosyncratic styles and new and unusual symbols in the paper.
So while I do not like our current style and strive to make my own papers more readable, and I strongly suspect that it was the Nineteenth Century German academic pendants that came up with our current "scholarly" style, there is something to be said for scholarly conventions in general.

Marcus Arvan

Hi Karl: Thanks for your comment. I appreciate your general point, but I'm not sure how much it speaks to the point of my original post.

I don't think anyone in their right mind would deny that IF one wants to publish *papers* in conventional journals that address a conventional audience with conventional expectations, then it's a good idea to follow conventions.

But, part of my basic point was that this presupposes a certain conception of what one should be doing in philosophy: namely, publishing conventional papers in conventional journals addressing a conventional audience, etc.

Now look: I don't have a problem with people who have these priorities. If they are your priorities, then that's all well and good. My point, though, is that we shouldn't just assume that conventional priorities are the ones that everyone should have.

Suppose, for instance, that someone like Vallabha just wants to feel like *he* understands philosophy--that he wants to do philosophy in a way that addresses the questions that *he* has, in a way that makes sense to him. Moreover, suppose he thinks the way conventional philosophy is done is deeply mistaken--that too much analytic philosophy, for instance, is based on a wrongheaded conception of analysis. *Must* he publish papers in a conventional way demonstrating this? Why? Why can't he just pursue philosophical questions in his own way?

Another way to put this is as follows. You say in your comment that someone should have to be "established" or have "something extraordinary to say" in order to pursue really unconventional approaches. But look...can you imagine how many professional philosophers would have scoffed with disdain at someone like Nietzsche given his willful disregard for conventions (and scholarship) if he lived today and wrote blog posts about his approach and work? Yes, he had extraordinary things to say, and few of us are geniuses on the order of a Wittgenstein or Nietzsche--but all of this seems obvious only in retrospect. Wittgenstein, for instance, mucked around as soldier and schoolteacher for a number of years, and when he sent his work to Frege, Frege utterly dismissed it...on the grounds that W gave no real argument, laid out no problems, cited no literature, etc.

My point isn't that we can all be Wittgenstein, etc. The point, rather, is: given how...darn conventional so much philosophy is nowadays (in ways Ambrose so nicely expresses), it might be nice if we *encouraged* a little more unconventionality!


S.T. writes:

"Writing using the accepted conventions for a discipline immediately signals to the reader that one has the requisite familiarity with the literature to be contributing to it"

Maybe so. But why is this good, or better than the alternatives? We're not doing math or physics or history. This is philosophy. For any instance of "the literature" that you pick, the mere fact that the writer is "contributing" to THAT doesn't make it especially likely that the writer is doing anything good -- or, anyway, anything better than what can be done by simply starting something new or different (or contributing to something else).


Maybe so. Again, so what? Maybe it's not a necessary condition for being a good philosopher that you "take seriously" the specific "literature" that anglophone analytic journal editors or referees in 2014 take to be Important and Professional, etc. Is it really so clear that someone working on causation must "take seriously" the views of Lewis, for example? And if so, how can one "take seriously" those views but also the views of many other philosophers, past and present, who regard his views as ludicrous or boring or irrelevant? The fact is that taking seriously any particular philosopher or school of thought just is, in practice, to regard others as being hopelessly confused or mistaken (or whatever).

S.T. is taking for granted the legitimacy and authority of the system within which we're working. The whole point of writing outside the conventions of that system might well be to challenge or subvert or question that system.

I think maybe I'm just restating what Marcus said. One more thing though. Marcus: Are you so sure that Wittgenstein or Nietzsche are so much better than the rest of us? I do think some people are much better at philosophy than others. But I don't know that the real philosophical hierarchy has much to do with the one that's handed down to us by our teachers (which they got from theirs, etc.). This was one of the interesting things about B. Vallabha's post. Goldfarb just _knew_ that his student was "no Wittgenstein", since of course he, Goldfarb, was certainly "no Wittgenstein". Rather his authority comes from being able to reverentially interpret these little scraps from the master. I would suggest that this kind of thing is mostly BS. Our reverence for these Great Thinkers is often just an artefact of our acculturation. Many of Wittgenstein's remarks are actually pretty bad -- arrogant, obtuse, obscurantist, pretentious or trivial, pedestrian, unoriginal, etc. Not all of them, of course. Lots of Quine's ideas are actually kind of dumb. He got away with saying things that are simply false, and refutable, because of who he was. His muddles and mistakes are taken to be deep and thought-provoking or whatever; if some philosophical nobody said the same thing it would be dismissed out of hand. So I wouldn't really be all that surprised if Marcus had a few ideas just as good as Wittgenstein's better ones!


S.T. didn't write any of that, Ambrose. You have misquoted me.

Marcus Arvan

S.T.: I think Ambrose meant to attribute that stuff to Karl, and that it was probably an honest mistake!


Right, my mistake! Sorry S.T.

Marcus Arvan

Ambrose: I agree with you wholeheartedly. I think it is disappointing that, in the views of some, philosophy just *has* to "situate itself in the literature" (and such) to be any good. Karl notes that part of the reason one should do this is that, as any mathematician or physicist knows, there seems to be no end to the number of kooks who think they have come up with the next great theory. The problem with this, though, is that some of those "kooks" actually *do* come up with the next great theory. Einstein's 1905 paper on special relativity had no footnotes, and was (as we all know) written by a dude working in a patent office whose graduate school professors were so unimpressed by him that one of them (his dissertation supervisor) actually wrote him a negative recommendation letter, essentially blackballing him from the discipline for about a decade!

I want to be clear that I do appreciate the importance of "standards." I think it is important for any healthy discipline to have some conception of what is good and what's not. At the same time, I think it is possible--and happens often in many disciplines--that those standards are taken too far and imposed on others (and oneself) in stultifying manners. This isn't just true of academic disciplines, by the way; it's true of everything from art, to music, to business. Early rock-and-roll and blues artists, for instance, were commonly chided, "You can't play music that way." George Lucas was apparently chided by many movie studios for thinking that a "space opera" could be successful (we all know how that skepticism turned out). J.K. Rowling was apparently told by many publishers that a book on wizards and witches would never sell. Steve Jobs was evidently told that ordinary people would *never* need computers, and that the only market for computers was the government. Etc.

It's the oldest story in the book. "Standards exist for a reason", but then some/many people take those standards so far that they dismiss a lot of great pieces of work out of hand. I think, to the contrary, that we should (a) have standards, but also (b) *encourage* people to try breaking them from time to time. Why? Well, because, again, whether we are talking art, or music, or philosophy, the best pieces of work tend to deviate significantly from the dominant standards of the time.

Finally, Ambrose, I'm with you as well on the cult of reputation. It's really striking (to me, at any rate) how many of the "greatest philosophical minds" and "most important philosophical debates" of a generation or two ago are now basically ignored/forgotten/regarded as deeply mistaken. We shouldn't just accept that X is a great philosopher because that's what we're told, or just because "everyone is writing on X". When it comes to Wittgenstein and Nietzsche, I just happen to think--on my own judgment, I believe--that they *were* great philosophers, by and large (though I to agree that both of them also wrote some pretty silly stuff from time to time. Russell was apparently never able to convince Wittgenstein that there wasn't a rhinoceros in the classroom--a pretty goofy philosophical move that I've heard really naive students make, much to the bemusement of their professors).

In any case, this is probably a "war that will never end." In just about every area of human life, there are those who like the way things are currently done, and those who like to upset the apple-cart. I just happen to be one of those who thinks (for reasons given above) that we could use a whole lot more of the latter.

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