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There is no necessary connection between boringness and rigor. It is perfectly possible to do utterly tedious philosophy without any rigor, and perfectly possible to do groundbreaking philosophy with great rigor. In fact, I don't even think there's much of a correlation between boringness and rigor. Or am I simply being tedious?

Marcus Arvan

I agree with the former: it's perfectly possible to do utterly tedious philosophy without rigor. I'm not so sure about the latter. Who's ever done groundbreaking philosophy with great rigor? When I look at the history of philosophy -- at everyone from Aristotle to Kant to Rawls -- I see a lot of bad arguments. A lot of *visionary* arguments, to be sure, but *bad* ones nonetheless -- arguments with outright fallacies, undefended premises, etc. I myself can't find a single good argument anywhere in Kant's Groundwork -- and it's perhaps the most groundbreaking book in all of ethics. How about Rawls? How many people have you met who actually find his argument for the difference principle halfway convincing? A Theory of Justice and Political Liberalism are visionary pieces of work...it's just that their arguments take all kinds of liberties.

Again, I'll quote Blackburn: "Philosophers think of themselves as the guardians of reason, intent beyond other men upon care and accuracy, on following the argument wherever it leads, spotting flaws, rejecting fallacies, insisting on standards. This is how we justify ourselves as educators, and as respectable voices within the academy, or even in public life. But there is a yawning chasm between self-image and practice, and in fact it is a great mistake to think that philosophers ever gain their followings by means of compelling arguments. The truth is the reverse, that when the historical moment is right people fall in love with the conclusions, and any blemish in the argument is quickly forgiven: the most outright fallacy becomes beatified as a bold and imaginative train of thought, obscurity actually befits a deep original exploration of dim and unfamiliar interconnexions, arguments that nobody can follow at all become a brilliant roller-coaster ride towards a shift in the vocabulary, a reformulation of the problem space. Follow the star, and the raw edges will easily be tidied up later."


Thanks for bringing this up Marcus, it's nice to see that editors are starting to think about this. From my limited publishing experience, I've inferred that it's vastly easier to get good results with 'boring' papers. Often it seems to me that the most interesting papers are in fact in anthologies, since they may contain those grand papers that authors have struggled to get published in top journals. I'd be delighted if this changed, but I'm not sure how likely it is...


Marcus: every argument in the Groundwork is good. Read it a few (dozen) more times and you'll see. It is interesting to see editors complaining about how boring most journal articles are; whose fault, exactly, is it that it's so freaking hard to get an article published until you've made it boring? (I'm guessing that's addressed in the discussion, though.) Ryle's citation-adversity is only partly problematic. There is a downside to leaving out citations entirely: (1) for those of us who don't have time to master every field, a nice summary of the work at the beginning of an article is, well, nice, and (2) it's hard to talk to other people without first establishing what you are all talking about, something done through citations these days (I'm not sure there is a better way of doing it when the publication market is this overflowing; in any case, one reason much of 20th century French philosophy is so difficult to read is precisely the lack of citations--a metaphor will spread from Merleau-Ponty to Deleuze to Lyotard, but in the absence of citations every iteration after the first will be lost on someone without the right context). But on the other hand it strikes me as somewhat absurd that "mastery of the relevant literature" is taken to be one of the top criteria by which an the quality of an article is judged; it practically encourages pedantry over creativity.

One way of putting it: the arguments in favor if citations are arguments in favor of readability; they are largely tangential to the philosophical value of the work.

Lee Walters

Of course an emphasis on rigour can lead to logic chopping, and lots of invalid arguments can prove fruitful, but you are being very narrow minded here Marcus.

As for who has done ground-breaking work with great rigour, I take it you have heard of Frege, David Lewis, and Tim Williamson, for example.

Marcus Arvan

Roman: I think we'll have to agree to disagree on the Groundwork. I think I understand it pretty well, and while I agree with just about everyone that it is a visionary piece of work, I still don't think the actual arguments are very good.

Lee: I was trying make a point about trends -- about the fact that a great majority of papers nowadays seem overly safe. I'm happy to agree with you on Frege, Lewis, and Williamson.

Moti Mizrahi

One problem with the discussion so far is this: what is meant by "groundbreaking work"?

I take it that "rigorous work" means work that puts forward sound arguments. But I am not sure what "groundbreaking work" means. Is it work that puts forth novel conclusions? Or work that changes how practitioners in a given field think about certain questions? Or work that raises new problems for practitioners in a specific field to deal with?

Marcus Arvan

Moti: it's hard to say what constitutes groundbreaking work, but I'm inclined to say: all of the above (novel conclusions, changing the way people in a field think about particular questions, and raising new questions altogether). My sense is that there is a lot less of this nowadays than, say, 30 or 50 years ago. 40 years ago Rawls was changing the way people were thinking about justice; Quine, Davidson, Kripke, etc. changing the way people thought about semantics; people like Kripke, Lewis, and Stalnaker opening up entire realms of modal logic, semantics, and metaphysics; and so on. In contrast, a few very notable developments aside -- I would venture that Williamson's "knowledge first" approach has dramatically changed epistemology, at least in the short-term -- things today seem far, far more conservative (at least by my lights). Although again there are exceptions, to a significant extent I see paper after paper in great journals mining similar ground -- interminable debates about reasons internalism/externalism, phenomenal concepts, etc.

Maybe I'm narrow-minded, as Lee suggests (though I don't think so). If I were alone in thinking that journal articles seem increasingly "safe, and a little boring", I would be willing to chalk it up to narrow-mindedness on my part. But I'm not alone. I've heard many, many people voice similar concerns -- and Akeel's presentation seems to bear this out as well. Scanlon and Scheffler have the concern. A senior member of the Journal of Philosophy's editorial board has alluded to stepping down unless things change. Isn't all of this at least some evidence that there is a real problem?


Maybe we've just hit a wall in terms of *large-scale* philosophical innovations. I mean, you can only turn the tables so many times, and the space of philosophical positions one might occupy isn't infinitely large.

Or maybe we've just reached a plateau in many branches of philosophy, and most of us are doing 'normal science', working out the details of the paradigms we live in, till the next revolutionary thinker comes along.

Take the philosophy of causation for instance: Lewis revolutionized the debate with his counterfactual account of token-level causation, and now most people working on the topic are involved in sorting out the details, addressing counterexamples, etc.

Marcus Arvan

Alex: The idea that philosophy has plateaued has been raised many times throughout history, and each time the claim has turned out to be false. Don't you think it's a bit convenient to suggest that, of all the many times philosophy could plateau, it's just happened to plateau right here, right now? Physicists in Newton's time thought physics was all but done. Look how that prediction turned out! Or what about Hume and the British empiricists, who thought they had done away with rationalism once and for all? Just when you think everything's been done, a great new idea comes out of nowhere. For what it's worth, I myself think that the Lewisean counterfactual analysis of causation is one of the worst blind alleys in contemporary metaphysics, right along with the Humean regularity theory. I could go on and on as to why I think this is, but if you want to get the general idea -- in much better detail than I can go into here -- you should check out the second half of Greg Rosenberg's almost criminally neglected book, "A Place for Consciousness: Probing the Deep Structure of the Natural World" (OUP, 2004). Greg was a grad student under Chalmers, and while I find the first half of the book (the part on consciousness) a bit of a retread of previous ground on the subject, the second half (on causation) is brilliant and, I think, quite revolutionary. Although his (very audacious) theory of causation is not without its problems, his general objection to Lewisean and Humean theories of causation seems to me spot-on. Counterfactuals and regularities at most model the *effects* of causation, not causation itself (which, I agree with Rosenberg, has to be primitive, necessitating force in reality of the very sort that Hume and Lewis deny we have any evidence of).

Robert Seddon

@Marcus Arvan

'to a significant extent I see paper after paper in great journals mining similar ground'

Yet you still call them great journals. Why would a great journal change itself?

'Top' journals have practically nowhere left to rise (in relative terms), but an awfully long way to fall; their competition is with each other and with any 'second tier' journals that threaten to challenge them. Since academics are presently obliged to care about the relative prestige implied by journal rankings, it's natural that editors should be risk-averse; and if you're prepared to say that they run great journals, even in the midst of complaining that their journals have got (in absolute terms) rather dull, then risk aversion is paying off for those journals.

Marcus Arvan

Robert: your point is well-taken. I'm one of those who doesn't put too much stock into where an article is published. I've read excellent articles in "bad" journals as well as rather awful articles in "great" journals. For my part, I'd much prefer if people evaluated papers on their own merits more than where they appear. Still, your more general point is undoubtedly right. "Great" journals do have a lot to lose if they change their standards and begin publishing more exciting papers that may have more errors, conceptual leaps, etc. All the same, it sure would be nice to more editors in the mold of Ryle -- editors in a position of power willing to risk their, and their journal's, reputation on a change of philosophy (no pun intended;)

Robert Seddon


'For my part, I'd much prefer if people evaluated papers on their own merits more than where they appear.'

Agreed! But in practice, people write things like http://philosopherscocoon.typepad.com/blog/2012/10/new-contributor-dan-cavedon-taylor.html -- which I point out not in order to have a dig at you, but to illustrate how people end up playing the game even when their preferences lie elsewhere. (You knew how your audience would take that list of journals, right? And journal editors know that their readers are acclimatised to think like that.)

Part of the problem, I suspect, is the fact of low acceptance rates at 'prestigious' journals. What does (say) a Mind paper look like? It doesn't look much like anything, unless you compare it to something decidedly non-Analytic. Which is hardly surprising, because papers are written so that when journal #1 rejects a paper it can swiftly go off to journal #2 with minimal alteration. That looks likely to make life harder for lone hero editors.


Marcus, thanks for the pointer to Rosenberg's book. I had never heard about it, but the part on causation looks very interesting, and I'll make sure to read it (too bad the book's so expensive).


Interesting. I've never heard this before. Is it common?

Ryle was editor of Mind from 1947 to 1971. If Ryle is at all representative, then this problem is not a new one. FWIW, I think Scanlon got his Ph.D. in the 1960's and Scheffler got his in the late-1970's. This problem may be older than their careers.

I am not sure what to make of this sort of complaint. I suspect Scheffler and Scanlon are basing their claims on their impressions. No doubt these impressions have some probative value, but not much, in my opinion. How are they defining their terms? What time frame are we talking about? Are they going year by year, or by decade? And so on.

In fact, this sort of vague stuff makes me wonder if this is a version of "I had to walk to school uphill -- both ways!" (Am I the only one who had this reaction?)

If there really is something new going on, I suspect it's cyclical, and not really new. (Or have we really reached the nadir of the history of philosophy?)

If we are in a down period, creatively or whatever, is there any sympathy for a sort of Kuhnian "revolution vs. normal science" response? I understand that this application abuses Kuhn's notions, but I only mean to be suggestive. I.e., there is ground-breaking work, but there is also good work that works out the details and implications of the ground-breaking work?

Marcus Arvan

Walter: you make a good point. People do tend to regard the past with rose-colored glasses. Still, things do seem to be at a low point, at least in this regard. I'm always told that every paper should make one small point very clearly and rigorously, and I know from experience that reviewers tend to adopt this criterion. One of the most common objections I've gotten from reviewer's on my papers -- and I know others who have gotten it as well -- is: "This paper is too ambitious." This isn't to say that papers can't be overly ambitious (surely they can). Still, I think it's pretty plausible from a look at the literature that this criterion has sort of gotten out of control. This is what I think Scheffler and others have in mind when they say that many papers these days seem like they're moving chess pieces around the board. I also suspect that the "normal science" point is not too far off the mark. When research in a given field reaches a low point, there are inevitably those (of whom I am one) who wish to push things in the other direction: people who want ambitious ideas, and are willing to prioritize ambition and novelty over more conservative criteria. Indeed, I think there probably is just such a pendulum effect. There are always people who rebel against the status quo. Sloppy novelty seeking leads people to prioritize rigor; boring rigor tends to lead people to seek great novelty; rinse and repeat. :)


Well, I hope that senior philosophers with these kinds of concerns have been willing to put their opinions into practise, as editors and reviewers, by refusing to require of authors that they devote huge portions of their papers to literature reviews, long footnotes and citations. Even as a relative newcomer to the field, I cannot but percieve the current situation as anything but absurd. Take, for example, Sarah Buss' fantastic recent article in Ethics. It is nothing short of a game-changing piece, yet, there are literally as many words in footnotes as there are body-text words. Buss is rightly concerned to address potential worries, but in a paper like hers she should have been free to simply explore the ramifications of her new idea.

David Morrow

One of my undergraduate professors, who has a freshly minted PhD from a Leiterrific department, once told me that philosophy goes through "scholastic" periods and creative periods, and that we are currently in a scholastic period. I'm not sure that 'creative' was the word he used, but that was the idea. At any rate, he certainly suggested that the scholasticism of the current age was regrettable.

I tend to be skeptical, though, that things change as much as people think they do. Every generation complains about the music that the next generation writes. Every generation bemoans the next generation's moral decline -- or even its own. Every generation complains about the "fast pace" of "modern life." The author of Ecclesiastes(!) complains that "of making many books there is no end."

My guess is that if you were equally well versed in the philosophical literature of the 1950's and the 21st century, you would find most philosophical articles from each period equally boring. I even wonder whether the shining exemplars of the early modern period (Descartes, Kant, etc.) were as original as we think they are, given how little we know of their contemporaries and forerunners.

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