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Anonymous Grad Student

I can certainly empathize with the commenter's stance, as I find myself similarly disillusioned with current research foci in Philosophy. But aside of wondering whether the researching of minutiae is really worth one's time, one might also turn this disillusionment itself into a new and perhaps more worthwhile and satisfying research area. That, at any rate, is the idea underlying the PhD I'm currently writing (in Metaphilosophy, at a Leiter-ranked non-US university), arguing to the effect that much of this research of minutiae may be discontinued without any epistemic cost to society.

Marcus Arvan

Anonymous Grad Student: Thanks for your comment!

That's a really interesting point. I think you're right. One good thing that might come out of all this--the overprofessionalization of philosophy--is that it might lead to some serious soul-searching and reevaluation of what exactly we're doing. Just yesterday, I was thinking of writing a paper on metaphilosophy myself!


I wonder if this is the condition of all academics, not just philosophers.

Think about scientists. The overwhelming majority of scientists don't make any breakthroughs. They take tiny tiny steps toward solving some big (or often tiny) problem, if they're lucky. Maybe their research will be fruitful. Often it won't. If they publish an article, then if anyone reads it at all, it will be read by a very small number of people interested in that very narrow topic. I can't imagine that it's any better in English, or Math, or Law, or whatever.

This is not to say that what philosophers do is super-worthwhile. It's just to say that if philosophers' work is meaningless--or, at least, not super-valuable--then that's true of pretty much every academic (with maybe a few exceptions).

Expat Grad

I pretty much agree with Eric, but a couple of other comments are in order. First, I do often enjoy working on small detailed questions, and sometimes (often even) these tend to have much wider implications. That said, the freedom to work on big controversial ideas (before tenure-not that I'll have that opportunity) would be great.

I would also like to note that not all of us find teaching as rewarding or enjoyable as the commenter above, making our satisfaction in our research much more important.

Lewis Powell

As usual, I feel like I need to chime in to defend what you are calling work on Small Ideas. Big ideas and bold projects/programmes are research agendas. They give you a roadmap for how to pursue progress. But they are worthless if people don't actually proceed to carry out those research agendas.

And that means you need people (lots of them) working on "small questions", as you dismissively call them.

Marcus Arvan

Lewis: Where did I speak dismissively here of working on small questions? All I said is that for some of us, the pressure to publish on small ideas sucks the joy out of philosophy. I agree that work on small questions is often important and fruitful--and indeed, many people enjoy working on small questions. Some of don't, however, and it is the seemingly increasing emphasis on (and incentives to) focus on small ideas rather than big ones that I object to. I object not to working on small questions, but to disciplinary norms and incentives that promote an overwhelming focus on them to the exclusion of big questions--which I do think has occurred.

Elisa Freschi

I waited a little bit before asking the question, since it is utterly naïve, but why should the initial commenter not do what he or she enjoys doing, i.e., focusing on big ideas? He or she has already tenure, so it seems that only peer pressure is holding him back. Or am I missing something from the US scenario?

Marcus Arvan

Hi Elisa: Good question. Although we can only speculate, here's my feeling. There's a saying in Artificial Intelligence that most of the time, intelligent agents do what they do most of the time. That is, we only tend to do--and be good at--those things that we systematically practice throughout our lives.

For instance, I play the guitar. I've been playing it all of my adult life. But the only kind of music I've ever bothered playing is rock and roll. So, I'm a pretty capable guitarist...in one style of music. But jazz? Or flamenco? I'm utterly hapless. When I try to play anything other than rock-and-roll, my guitar skills seem pretty embarrassing.

Similarly, consider a painter who has painted in a photographic realist style their whole life. Will they be able to paint well in an expressionist style? Probably not--not if the only thing they've ever painted is realism. It will probably take them a long time--and a lot of practice--to do really good, creative expressionism. (For a good example of the opposite, take a look at Salvatore Dali's move from surrealism to more realistic stuff toward the end of his life. Not the most impressive stuff in my view, and not the stuff he was justly famous for!).

So, while I sometimes hear people suggest that in philosophy one should maybe start out with small ideas and work up to bigger ones later--after tenure--I'm skeptical that this is how it works. Indeed, I was at a conference not too long ago talking with a friend who has published lots of journal articles in really good journals. When I asked him whether he's given any thought to writing a book, his answer was more or less, "I wouldn't know how to do that." He's a really great philosopher, by the way--but the point, again, is that most of the time, people tend to do what they do most of the time.

Elisa Freschi

Very interesting point, Marcus, thanks. I have heard this piece of advice several times (often in the form "You should not have said/written that, one can only say/write that after [one has tenure/one has retired [sic!]…]") and I wonder whether one really remembers to achieve one's dreams once the goal has been achieved.
In some cases, I noticed that the struggle to achieve a tenured (or TT*) position was so hard that at the end of it one had forgotten oneself entirely, not to speak of one's juvenile dreams.

*We discussed it already (also here: http://philosopherscocoon.typepad.com/blog/2015/04/understanding-the-european-job-market-for-philosophers.html), but as far as I know, TT positions in Europe tend to become tenures unless in pretty exceptional cases.

Sean Whitton

Here's my take on this worry.

The common defence of the minutiae goes like this. If we think of knowledge and/or understanding as an expanding circle, then we might expect its expansion to slow down as an academic discipline becomes mature because to make it expand we've got to break new ground all around a much larger circumference than previously. This slow pushing out of the circle involves the minutiae under discussion in this thread, and it's admittedly boring work that we've just got to get on and do if we really support the mission of philosophy. I think Timothy Williamson says something like this in "The Philosophy of Philosophy" but I'm not sure that it's there that he says it.

This metaphor of an expanding circle also supports the view that stepping back and having a holistic view of the whole discipline is basically impossible, because of the sheer amount of material one would have to take in. So the minutiae are contributing to a bigger picture, but this bigger picture isn't something any one person can get a grip on.

Now this is fine in the sciences: it's not obviously a reason to question the methodology of physics that no one person can possibly know all of it. Philosophy's different. I think philosophical research might be failing so long as it's contributing to a picture that no one human philosopher is capable of taking a holistic view of. That doesn't damn all specialisation, but it damns the extreme specialisation a lot of philosophers are involved in.

An alternative conclusion is that if the overall picture that current philosophical research is building up is something no one philosopher can get much of a grip on, then current philosophical research isn't asking the right questions/looking at the right topics etc. and we don't need to give up, but just change what we're looking at. I don't think I can do philosophy while giving up the assumption that we're aiming at a view of the world that one (human) philosopher is capable of grasping, even if that world view is much more limited and sceptical than the world view that most researchers are aiming to contribute a small part to.

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