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09/23/2016

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Trevor Hedberg

I think it's very helpful for grad students and other early career scholars to have access to resources like this. Concise writing guides are very helpful: even if one does not agree with the strategies the author uses, they provide some alternative methods to consider and often raise important questions about what we ought to aim for as philosophical writers. In this respect, I thank Neil for sharing this with us. Nevertheless, I think it's worth voicing a few points of disagreement.

First, I think the "Ambition" standard is too high, though not because I think it is arrogant or too unrealistic. It's because I think it is often perfectly appropriate for philosophical writing to have a more modest goal. Some papers are tightly focused around a specific argument in a relatively niche debate, so they are not likely to be "profoundly significant" (p. 5). Many published reply pieces are even more narrowly focused than this. And so long as these papers advance the philosophical dialogue, I think the their modest aims are appropriate.

Second, 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. Once the argument becomes known, perhaps others can improve and refine it further. I worry that aspiring to the standard Neil advocates might encourage people to forego presenting novel arguments because the author will feel the evidence in their favor is not strong enough.

Third, as a practical concern, I'm not sure the Extreme Quality approach is viable for graduate students in relatively undistinguished programs. There's fairly strong evidence that students from such programs need publications to be competitive on the job market. Following the Extreme Quality approach will, other things equal, result in producing fewer papers that one can submit to journals. Perhaps one of them will hit at a top-tier venue, but the acceptance rates of the best journals are quite low, so for many at these institutions, I expect that either the Extreme Quantity approach or an intermediary between Extreme Quality and Extreme Quantity will be a safer and smarter choice. As Neil acknowledges, it is possible to opt for both Extreme Quality and Extreme Quantity, but I don't think this is a realistic aspiration for many graduate students.

Finally, as a biographical note, I cannot get much of anything done in a single hour of isolated writing time. Neil's approach of reserving one hour every single day to write would be a disaster for me. It takes me too much time for me to warm up and reenter the realm of the paper (or dissertation chapter) -- usually 30-45 minutes to really get into a flow. Thus, my own writing regiment involves blocks of 3-4 hours of uninterrupted time to work, and I try to manage 3 of these blocks per week. (My optimal amount of writing time is 5-6 hours, usually split by a short lunch break, but that much uninterrupted time for writing is almost impossible to secure except on an empty weekend or holiday.) The strategy of writing every day is common in the profession, but I suspect there are some for whom alternative approaches will work better.

Peter Furlong

Thanks for drawing my attention to this. There is much to think about in the guide and much that is certainly of value.

I am curious what others think of the following advice from the guide:

"So as to maintain focus on the ideas, do not even cite any contemporary philosophers in the body of the paper. (That is, absent compelling reasons to do otherwise, as when you are writing a reply article.) Relegate all citations to the footnotes. Those footnotes should, however, be extensive; they should meticulously document the relationships between your philosophical map and the philosophical maps of others."

In my own work, I haven't shied away from discussing the work of others both directly and often in the main body of my articles. After reading the above advice, I was a little surprised. I began reading through Neil's "Knowledge and other norms for assertion, action, and belief" just to get a feel for his writing, and I found it refreshing. I will need to think more about this advice (especially as I read and write, testing it out as I go), but I have moved from skeptical to intrigued.

I am curious what everyone else thinks of this particular piece of advice.

S

This is a very helpful guide. Thanks for writing it and posting it. I found the bit about introducing assumptions to be especially useful.

Neil Mehta

Trevor, thanks for these thoughtful and nuanced comments. I think that we are mostly in agreement. We agree that if someone is not interested in pursuing the extreme quality strategy, then she should drastically scale back her standards regarding ambition, rigor, etc. And we also agree that anyone's writing schedule should be very sensitive to facts about what working conditions are most productive for her. I see that someone reading my guide might misunderstand these points, and it's very helpful that you've made these qualifications explicit.

We do have some remaining disagreements, though. One remaining disagreement is about rigor. While I agree with you that it is unrealistic to expect to find many truly conclusive arguments in philosophy, I do believe that it is perfectly realistic to expect to find plenty of extremely compelling arguments. An argument can be extremely compelling even if no opponents are compelled by it and even if the argument is ultimately unsound. In the guide I cite several arguments that I see as meeting this standard, including some arguments that I believe to be unsound.

And as a purely practical matter, I would note that from what I can gather, lack of rigor is the most common reason for a paper to be rejected. Of course papers might also be rejected for being derivative, uninteresting, and so on, but rarely have I seen a referee report that says, "I find the author's arguments extremely compelling. Still, this paper should be rejected because ...." Rather referees typically reject papers because they think that some of the arguments are poor.

For this reason, 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.

For example, maybe you can show that your original view that p can reconcile a number of claims that no previous view has been able to reconcile. Or maybe you can show that while many have previously rejected the view that p on the basis of a certain objection, that objection can be deflected. Or maybe you can show that p is the best view among those views that share a certain assumption. By being careful in this way to specify your task, and by periodically reminding the reader of the precise task that you earlier specified, you can avoid the immediate response from referees that your initial argument for p is not particularly compelling.

We may also have a disagreement about the purely practical value of ambition. I do agree with you that there is practical (and theoretical) value in writing modest reply papers; I've published two reply papers myself. But when I read an article and form an idea for a reply, my very first instinct is to generalize. I try to identify the broadest class of views (arguments, etc.) that is targeted by my objection. If I find an interesting class of views to target, then I am in a position to write a paper that is no longer a mere reply, but an original article, and that has great practical value. Only if I fail in my initial attempt to generalize my objection will I tend to fall back to writing the reply.

But I should concede that in one way, it can be of greater practical value to write a reply: at least for me, it takes vastly less time than writing an original article. I typically spend 6 months writing an original article. In contrast, my two published replies took me less than 2 weeks each to write from start to finish, including time spent on the revise-and-resubmit. I even wrote one of those replies with a co-author, and co-authoring, though it tends to improve the paper, usually slows the writing process considerably.

For this reason I might recommend that an unpublished graduate student start by trying to publish a reply before moving on to more ambitious work. Precisely because replies are much easier to write than original articles, however, they are not valued nearly as highly. I would therefore not recommend focusing heavily on them.

Scott Clifton

"I am curious what others think of the following advice from the guide:

'So as to maintain focus on the ideas, do not even cite any contemporary philosophers in the body of the paper. (That is, absent compelling reasons to do otherwise, as when you are writing a reply article.) Relegate all citations to the footnotes. Those footnotes should, however, be extensive; they should meticulously document the relationships between your philosophical map and the philosophical maps of others.'"

I was a little surprised by this piece of advice, too, especially since I find most published work does not, in fact, adhere to it. In fact, over the summer, I was reading a couple of books by Shelly Kagan, which do seem to illustrate this way of writing. It struck me as novel, though not necessarily distracting. I could identify most of the concepts and arguments and attribute them without looking at the endnotes, but I also wondered whether this is true of other readers and whether they would find it unhelpful. I guess I'm not sure whether this is anything other than a stylistic choice, since I cannot find a substantive reason why one should choose to write this way rather than the traditional way of attributing views and arguments to individuals in the body of the paper.

Trevor Hedberg

Neil, thanks for replying. I suspect a lot of our disagreement may come down to the issue of whether the "Extreme Quality" approach is preferable to the alternatives. I suspect I am somewhere near the middle of the Extreme Quality and Extreme Quantity poles myself. It would be interesting if someone from the other end of the spectrum -- an Extreme Quantity devotee -- were to write a guide like this. I'd be quite curious to see what the differences would be, both in writing strategy and outlook on the value of philosophical writing.

Jonathan Surovell

This looks good, thanks Neil.

Here's another writing guide, which focuses more narrowly on style, and that's also very helpful. It's intended for undergrad and grad students, but I find it helpful too:

http://philpapers.org/rec/BENIAW

Neil Mehta

Scott, some quick remarks about why I would put citations in footnotes rather than in the main text.

1. The practice has heuristic value. It encourages one to consider the best versions of a view, which may differ from the versions of the view in print.

2. The practice makes it easier for the reader to focus on what matters most. The main text, rather than dragging the reader through issues of mere interpretation, focuses just on the philosophically important views, arguments, objections, etc.

You are of course right that very little published work follows the practice that I suggest. But why imitate the typical, or even the very good? Why not instead imitate the best, or at least the most successful? Consider the works of David Chalmers, Tamar Gendler, and Timothy Williamson. Or notice how many fewer main-text citations you will find in a typical Philosophical Review article than in a typical standard journal article.

Joona Räsänen

I am not sure what you mean Neil, when you say that we should put citations in the footnotes rather than in the main text. I mean, you say that in the main text focus should be "on the philosophical important views". I think this is true, obviously. But if I am writing about contemporary subject (for example the ethics of uterus transplantation) then why would I not put contemporary philosophers in the main text? Sure, I could put all citations in the footnotes, but then again why you say I should put just contemporary philosophers there (should I put Kant or Plato in the main text, why on earth?) Could Neil, or someone else, give an example of some text where citations are in the footnotes (how we should write according to Neil) and some text where citations are in main text (how we should not write), because I am also wondering doesn't that depend on where to submit ones paper? (different journals use different guidelines, don't they?).

Other than that, your guidelines seems helpful to me. Although I think one should lean to (extreme) quantity approach if one is just doing his PhD or recently got his PhD. Extreme quantity approach could lead to no-publicaton-result.

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