I've been thinking a lot about Neil Mehta's writing guide for professional philosophers the past few days. In many respects, I think it is an excellent guide. Like some other philosophers I've known, I struggled to learn how to publish. I had several failed revise-and-resubmits at good journals while in graduate school, and felt for a long time like I would never "learn the formula" for publishing. Fortunately, as time went along, I slowly learned how to publish--and a lot of the things I think I learned are contained in Neil's guide! So, I think Neil's guide is an excellent resource: something that people who are struggling to publish can probably learn a lot from. In fact, I hope to write a few follow-up posts investigating some of Neil's suggestions in more detail, in the hope of providing readers a more concrete picture of how to follow up on those suggestions.
Today, though, I want to focus on something else I've been thinking about in connection with Neil's guide: the issue of how to think about and approach tensions between philosophical ideals. Let me briefly explain what I think those tensions might be, and why I think we should probably care about them, both as individual researchers and as a profession. I'll then open things up for discussion, and will be curious to see what you all think!
In section 3 of his guide, "Writing: Content and Form", Neil lists the following "virtues that I take to be most worthy of deliberate cultivation – which are not quite the same as those virtues that most contribute to philosophical excellence" (p. 4)--virtues which I have done my best to roughly characterize:
- Ambition: striving for the highest levels of philosophical excellence (even better than Plato, Nāgārjuna, Hume, Kant).
- Authority: regarding and presenting yourself as a master of your topic.
- Systematicity: presenting an illuminating taxonomy of possible positions your topic.
- Rigor: supporting your thesis with "conclusive evidence".
- Significance: emphasizing why your argument matters, highlighting the importance of the problem and your solution.
- Economy: using the right tools for the job, finding the weakest premises to support the strongest conclusion you can.
- Precision: avoiding vagueness and ambiguity-use formal tools if need be.
- Focus: trying to focus on a few central argumentative tasks, stripping away all other material.
- Cohesiveness: trying to fit your argument into a cohesive theory whose explanatory power is stronger than its parts.
- Mastery of the literature: demonstrating knowledge of at least the last 5-10 years of literature on the subject.
- Clarity: providing signposts of what has happened, is happening, and will happen in the paper, and why.
- Concreteness: using concrete examples, not just abstract principles.
- Flair: using keen observations and striking metaphors, but not at a cost of precision.
- Originality: philosophical originality.
Neil seems to suggest that we should always strive to reach all of these ideals simultaneously. Indeed, that seems to be his very first point with respect to ambition, where he says that when it comes to ideals of philosophical excellence, Plato, Nāgārjuna, Hume, and Kant are "not bad...[but] You should aim to do better." (p. 5, my italics) However, while I appreciate the overall sentiment here (viz. we should try to be the best philosophers we can), I think there are plausibly some tensions between these ideals that Neil's discussion elides.
I'd like to focus on a potential tension that originality and significance can plausibly have with many of the other virtues Mehta lists--among them clarity, economy, precision, focus and rigor. One thing that seems rather striking (to me, at any rate) is how few of the "great texts" we teach in philosophy (presenting to our students as among the greatest philosophical texts ever written!) appear to conform to contemporary standards of clarity, economy, precision, focus, and rigor. Consider, for instance, Kant's Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals--a text widely recognized in the Western tradition as one of the most significant and important works ever produced. As significant as it is, I do not think that anyone can reasonably present it as exemplifying anything remotely akin to Mehta's contemporary standards of clarity, economy, precision, focus, and rigor. In a mere 70 pages or so (roughly, the length of two contemporary journal articles), Kant aims to fundamentally transform all of moral philosophy. However, instead of providing one clear, precise, rigorous, focused argument, Kant's arguments in the Groundwork are often startlingly brief, unclear, imprecise, and unfocused. Consider, after all, just a few of the radical conclusions Kant defends:
- The only thing that can be considered good without qualification is a good will.
- Only actions from duty alone have moral worth, actions merely from benevolent motives have done.
- Morality is a system of categorical imperatives.
- The fundamental principle of morality requires acting on maxims one could will as universal laws of nature.
- That same fundamental principle of morality requires respecting humanity as an end-in-itself.
- Both of these principles entail that suicide and lying are immoral, and beneficence and developing one's talents imperfect duties.
- That same fundamental principle of morality requires regarding oneself as legislature and subject of a kingdom of ends, a systematic union of rational ends arrived at by abstracting away from all contingent ends.
- These three ways of stating the moral law are "subjectively" different but "objectively" the same.
- Will is a causality of living beings to determine their own actions according to practical laws, independently of alien causes.
- Beings with wills must act under the idea of freedom as such, and thus are really free from a practical perspective.
Does Kant provide a clear, precise, rigorous argument for any of these propositions using "conclusive evidence" in Mehta's sense? While perhaps there are some Kantians out there who think so, the facts are these: (A) many of Kant's central arguments (e.g. his argument for the humanity formulation) occur in a short paragraph or two, and (B) hundreds of years later, scholars who specialize in the area are still debating what exactly Kant's arguments are and whether they are sound. And of course some of Kant's arguments are widely thought to be unsound (Kant's application of his universal law and humanity formulations to four simple cases are thought to be dubious in a number of respects, as of course is Kant's discussion of freedom in Groundwork III--which has been called "the most beloved flawed argument in the history of philosophy").
Kant's Groundwork is far from alone in this regard. The great works we teach our students seem, as a general rule, to be profoundly flawed--often falling far short of contemporary standards of clarity, focus, rigor, etc. Whether we are talking about Plato's Republic, or Hobbes Leviathan, Rawls' A Theory of Justice, Mills' The Racial Contract, Beauvoir's The Second Sex, the works of Nāgārjuna, and so on--we tend to see similar things: implausible assumptions, difficult distinctions elided, central arguments merely sketched, etc. As just one example here, consider the fact that in the entirety of A Theory of Justice's five-hundred or so pages, Rawls devotes only about 20 pages (sections 28-29) directly defending his principles of justice, and never provides a clear or rigorous analysis of how, if at all, his principles of ideal justice should apply to a nonideal world like ours, merely settling for a sketch thereof (see pp. 215-219, which, for the record, I have argued is entirely inadequate).
Why is this? Why do so many great works seem to involve compromises of clarity, rigor, and precision--often, at absolutely crucial moments of argument (such as Kant's defense of the categorical imperative, the relations between its different formulations, or Rawls' defense of the difference principle)? The answer, it seems to me, is fairly obvious. Great works of philosophy typically involve philosophers struggling with incredibly original, difficult new ideas. New, original ideas--such as Kant's notions of a categorical imperative, good will, etc; and Rawls' notion of the original position--are difficult to get clear on because they are new and original. Consequently, the author just did the best they could at the time. They were, it seems, willing to sacrifice some serious amounts of clarity and rigor for the sake of difficult new ideas. And we followed them. We saw that the ideas defended were interesting and insightful despite the author's failures to meet those other ideals.
It would be nice if we didn't have to make any compromises among philosophical ideals, as we might not if we were philosophical "gods" (as it were). But, of course, we are not gods. If people like Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Rawls, Mills, Beauvoir, and so on, weren't capable of exploring new ideas without in any way compromising clarity, precision, or rigor--and, I think, the historical record shows they weren't--how reasonable is it to expect that of living philosophers, both ourselves and the works we evaluate (as readers, reviewers, etc.)? Given that we are not gods, how should we think about tensions between different philosophical ideals?
...I think the "Rigor" standard is too high. I have difficulty understanding how one would present "conclusive" evidence for one's thesis (p. 6). I understand the description Neil provides, of course, but this is philosophy: theories and positions are virtually never refuted by "conclusive" evidence according to the standards that are presented. Perhaps the idea is that this is the ideal we should strive for rather than one we will actually realize. But I'm not sure such an ideal is always worth pursuing. Sometimes, when one treads uncharted philosophical territory -- e.g., trying to defend a view that no one has yet defended, trying to make a new argument for a familiar view -- it seems appropriate to allow, perhaps even encourage, the presentation of the argument even if it clearly has some controversial premises or other unresolved weaknesses.
Neil then responded:
...I would also disagree with you - both at the purely practical level, as a publication strategy, and at the level of inquiry, as a method of advancing philosophical understanding - about the merit of offering an argument that is only moderately compelling but that is novel, exploratory, etc. Instead of providing a moderately compelling argument for the view that p, I would suggest the following alternative strategy: identify a nearby conclusion q for which you can provide an extremely compelling argument.
Neil's comment here seems to suggest that--both for practical publishing purposes, and one's own philosophical development--that clarity, precision, and rigor should "come first", as it were. Which, it seems to me, is basically the dominant professional standard in force today (journal referees expect clear, rigorous, precise arguments). But again, I have concerns about this--and I think my concern is embedded within Neil's guide. It is interesting, I think, that of all of the suggestions on writing content and form that Neil's guide gives, originality is listed dead last, followed by the following remarks: "Originality, though it is of great importance for excellent writing, requires no separate attention. Just focus on the virtues already discussed and let originality emerge naturally."
Here is the thing, though. Is it true that originality requires no separate attention? Is it true that conforming to the other ideals Neil lists--rigor, clarity, precision, etc.--are consistent with originality; or, does prioritizing rigor, precision, and clarity "stack the deck" against originality? Here is my concern. What if Kant, Rawls, Beauvoir, etc. had followed Neil's advice? Would their great works even exist? How many "great works" in philosophy would exist if, as a rule, philosophers always prioritized clarity, rigor, and precision above other things (such as originality or insight)? Here again we come back to the issues I highlighted earlier: many great philosophical works appear to have compromised clarity, rigor, and precision at many points precisely because their authors were struggling with new, difficult ideas.
This raises two concerns in my mind: one about us as authors of philosophy, and another as evaluators. First, as authors, if we always prioritize clarity, rigor, and precision, we may be unwilling to write and publish the very kinds of imaginative leaps that have historically pushed philosophy forward. Consider Eric Schwitzgebel's recent observation that, "Now, it seems, there are no Greats though a number of Very Goods", which he follows with:
Consider by century: It seems plausible that no philosopher of at least the past 60 years has achieved the kind of huge, broad impact of Locke, Hume, or Kant. Lewis, Quine, Rawls, and Foucault had huge impacts in clusters of areas but not across as broad a range of areas. Others like McDowell and Rorty have had substantial impact in a broad range of areas but not impact of near-Kantian magnitude. Going back another several decades we get perhaps some near misses, including Wittgenstein, Russell, Heidegger, and Nietzsche, who worked ambitiously in a wide range of areas but whose impact across that range was uneven. Going back two centuries brings in Hegel, Mill, Marx, and Comte about whom historical judgment seems to be highly spatiotemporally variable. In contrast, Locke, Hume, and Kant span a bit over a century between them. But still, three within about hundred years followed by a 200 year break with some near misses isn't really anomalous if we're comparing a peak against an ordinary run.
Might it be that contemporary analytic philosophy's obsession with clarity, rigor, and precision has preempted striking works of originality? I'm not sure we can know one way or the other, but this brings my to my second concern, which is how prioritizing clarity, rigor, and precision so highly might lead evaluators of philosophical work (reviewers, etc.) to disincentivize the kinds of messy but imaginative works that have led to great philosophical progress in the past.
To see what my concern here is, consider my earlier post, "The Greats Get Peer-Reviewed", which recounted a few satire pieces on how peer-reviewers today might plausibly judge Plato's and Kant's works. Here's the one on Plato's Euthyphro:
I’m afraid that I cannot recommend the submission ‘Euthyphro, or On piety’ for publication in the Athenian Journal of the Pursuit of Wisdom. I come to this view despite the fact that there are lots of things to like about the submission. For example, there is a neat point here about the possible difficulties in relating ‘what is pious’ to ‘what the gods love’. However, even here at its best the submission is ultimately disappointing. Having raised an interesting question we find only a short and inconclusive discussion before the author moves on to something else. And that is the most important failing of the piece in its current form: no conclusion or positive thesis is advanced at all. This is most infuriating and I imagine your subscribers will find it very frustrating. After all, any philosophical thought worth taking seriously requires the assertion of, preferably, a very striking and surprising positive thesis from a clear standpoint of dogmatic authority. The present submission, on the other hand, neither claims support from divine revelation nor asserts as we would expect at the outset of the submission that every other discussion of this subject is woefully misguided. Indeed, the author makes no personal assertion whatsoever and seems perversely excited at the thought of hiding his (I assume it is a male author) own views.
Indeed, I can see no reason whatsoever for the unnecessary self-indulgence involved in concocting a conversation, at least one of whose participants is a well-known and controversial figure. Such a confusion of real figures and disguised authorship cannot fail to generate all manner of interpretative difficulties for your readers that seem to me to serve no useful purpose whatsoever. If the author would agree to recast his submission in a more usual form (some hundreds of lines of nice direct hexameter poetry perhaps) then he would at least remove some of this unfortunate confusion. But even then it is not clear to me whether the author has any positive view of his own to offer. And until he does he should leave aside this kind of modern literary indulgence.
Hard to know where to begin with this one. Lots of ideas -- too many ideas? -- and bold claims but the result ends up feeling essayistic and sweeping, leaping from one assertion to the next. Interdisciplinarity is one thing, but the author seems to want to invent entire fields of thought willy-nilly! It comes across as frankly arrogant and overreaching.
Not least, the author is almost wilful in neglect of secondary sources. This is a serious lack and the text feels ungrounded for it. One gets the sense that the author is interested in their own posterity than in dialogue with a community of thinkers! This needs redress. I might for example point the author towards some of my own recent work, among various writers.
With all this in mind, it seems pointless to engage too much with specific arguments, but the concept of "the noumenal" I found to be quite ungrounded and free from evidential basis. And I found the whole "categorical imperative" idea a bit..."categorical." Forgive the pun!
In summary: technically lacking, poor use of citation, strident, circuitous, dubious and sweeping. It would be foolhardy to recommend publication.
These pieces are supposed to be funny--they are supposed to be satire--precisely because they are supposed to strike us as uncomfortably close to the truth. And aren't they? Consider R.M. Hare's notoriously brutal two-part review of A Theory of Justice, which concludes:
In concluding this not very sympathetic notice, it must be said that a reviewer with more ample patience and leisure might possibly have done better for Rawls. I have taken a great deal of pains (and it really has been painful) trying to get hold of his ideas, but with the feeling all the time that they were slipping through my fingers...The book is extremely repetitious, and it is seldom clear whether the repetitions really are repetitions, or modifications of previously expressed views. I have drawn attention to some of these difficulties, and there are all too many others. Rawls is not to be blamed for failing to keep the whole of this huge book in his head at the same time (the only way to avoid inconsistencies when writing a book); and still less are his readers. He is to be blamed, if at all, for not attempting something more modest and doing it properly.
Many years ago [Rawls] wrote some extremely promising articles, containing in germ, though without clarity, a most valuable suggestion about the form and nature of moral thought. It might have been possible to work this idea out with concision and rigour (Rawls' disciple Mr Richards has made a tolerably good job of it in his book A Theory of Reasons for Action, which is much clearer than Rawls' own book as an exposition of this type of theory). If Rawls had limited himself to, say, 300 pages, and had resolved to get his main ideas straight and express them with absolute clarity, he could have made a valuable contribution to moral philosophy.
Here's the thing: I actually think a number of Hare's criticisms of Rawls's book are apt. But this just illustrates my concern. If our highest priorities are clarity, rigor, and precision, then all but the most unimaginative pieces of philosophy are likely to fail to meet our philosophical standards. If you take a hard enough look at any great, imaginative work of philosophy, chances are there will be many failures of clarity, rigor, and precision. But so what? Should we follow Hare and reject such work in favor of safer, more precise work? Surely not. We should balance a work's failures against other philosophical virtues--specifically, originality, insight, and yes, boldness (as one thing we tend to see great works do is charge boldly into unfamiliar territory--territory that again, all too often, the author has not fully tamed!).
In short, because we are not philosophical gods, we should--I think--be more open-minded to different ways of doing good philosophy. My own experience--following Neil's guide--is that there is a kind of "formula" for writing publishable articles. But, is that what we should want as a profession? Should we want there to be one "box" that publishable work must fit in to be publishable? As philosophers who are also human beings, our gifts can vary greatly. Some of us enjoy and are good at hammering away on very small technical problems with great clarity, rigor, and precision. But some of us are systematizers, who enjoy and are good at developing broad, interconnected theories--even if, like Kant, we cannot always get clear or precise on every individual piece. Some of us are gifted at seeing old problems in new ways. And so on. This isn't to say that we should "make excuses" for failures of rigor, clarity, or precision (as, indeed, they are failures!). It is simply to say that we should be wary of disciplinary standards--standards we apply to ourselves as authors, and to others as evaluators--that so strongly deter people writing or publishing such failures--for again, as we see all too often in history, it is works with those very failures that push philosophy forward into important new frontiers for future generations to think about more clearly, precisely, and rigorously.
Or so I think. What do you think? How should we--as authors, readers, and evaluators--approach tensions between philosophical ideals?