One concern that has repeatedly come up recently--in various forums--is whether contemporary academic philosophy focuses too much on "nuts and bolts" (or "small debates"), and not enough on big ideas (i.e. groundbreaking, paradigm shifting ideas). A number of commenters raised this concern in this Leiter thread. Similarly, several journal editors and "big names" in philosophy raised the concern here. Finally, just this weekend a philosopher on my facebook feed held an informal poll asking philosophers whether it is "too hard" to publish groundbreaking/paradigm shifting work, and--while the poll was admittedly informal--respondents answered overwhelmingly (>70%) in the affirmative, agreeing that it is too hard to publish such work.
Given that so many people seem to think this, the question arises: what could/should be done to address the issue? What could be done to make it not "too hard" to publish ambitious work? I want to tentatively suggest that the answer might lie with referees--that perhaps we should utilize different standards as referees depending on the type of paper one is reviewing. Allow me to explain.
The dominant standards we seem to learn as professional philosophers for what counts as a "publishable article" seem straightforward and reasonable, at least at first glance. They are something like this:
- Does the paper in question significantly advance a philosophical debate?
- Is the paper's argument clear?
- Is the paper's argument deductively valid or inductively cogent?
- Does the paper establish the truth/plausibility of its premises?
Generally speaking, it seems as though, if reviewers answer all four questions in the affirmative, they advocate accepting one's paper--but if the answer to one or more is, "no", they advocate rejecting it. I don't mean to say (or imply) that this is true of all reviewers, just that these seem to be the dominant standards reviewers use. And this seems to me to be the case. Typical reviewer reasons for rejecting papers are (A) the paper doesn't advance an existing debate enough, (B) the paper simply isn't clear, (C) the argument contains some clear or subtle logical fallacy(-ies), or (D) the author hasn't convinced the reviewer of the truth/plausibility of the argument's premises.
Now, on the surface, these standards seem philosophically appropriate, as they seem to define what counts as a "good argument" (good arguments advance debates, are clear, valid, and have plausible/true premises). Yet, are they really appropriate standards for all types of work? I am not convinced. I am not convinced in large part because--or so it seems to me--if these standards were applied to most "Great Works" (e.g. Kant's Groundwork, Locke's Second Treatise, etc.), the work in question would almost certainly be rejected. Indeed, there's even an ongoing joke based on this point: namely, that the rejection-letters of the Greats would probably look like something like these. Most Great Works have fairly obvious (and serious!) problems--problems that a zealous journal reviewer might harp on as a reason to reject the work.
For instance, is Kant's Groundwork clear? No, philosophers have been debating the meaning of just about every passage for a few hundreds of years no. Are its arguments valid/cogent? This too has been debated for hundreds of years--and some of Kant's arguments seem clearly invalid (Kant's argument in Groundwork III has been called perhaps "the most beloved flawed argument in the history of philosophy"). Etc.
Which brings me to a basic point about the nature of groundbreaking/paradigm-shifting work: namely, that it seems almost impossible to do such work in a way that conforms to the reviewing standards mentioned above. There's a reason why the groundbreaking work of The Greats is often unclear, messy, and rife with problems. The reason is that doing groundbreaking work is incredibly difficult, and the more difficult something is, the more difficult it is to do it well. If Kant were able to write the Groundwork more clearly, filling out the arguments more rigorously, establishing each and every premise, that would have been awesome. But, or so it seems, he couldn't--and that's okay. The work, for all its apparent flaws, was interesting, insightful, and creative enough to spur philosophical debate for generations.
Accordingly, it seems to me that if we want to make it less difficult to publish more ambitious/groundbreaking work, we cannot simply insist on the same reviewing standards all around. Reviewing standards reasonable for nuts-and-bolts work prize a kind of rigor that seems all but impossible (even for "the Greats") to achieve in particularly ambitious/groundbreaking work.
So, then, should we consider--as reviewers--two sets of reviewing standards: standards which might differ according to the kind of work under consideration? Standards such as,
- Status quo standards prizing rigor for nuts-and-bolts type work, but
- Reviewing standards for really ambitious work that allow greater lapses in rigor than the first set of standards, provided work has other virtues (creativity, insight, systematicity, explanatory power, etc.) to a very high degree.
Indeed, I'm not sure what other alternative there might be. If indeed it is "too hard" to publish groundbreaking/paradigm-shifting work these days (as again, most people seem to think), there's only one way to change things: one has to make it easier. And there's only one obvious way to make it easier: reviewers adopting different standards than at present.
In short, the following conditional seems true to me: if it is currently too hard to publish groundbreaking/paradigm-shifting work, then reviewing standards should probably change to make it less hard. Notice that I do not assert this conditional's antecedent, nor purport to derive its consequent. That is, I do not mean to assert that we should have different sets of standards. I leave these issues open for debate and discussion! :)