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03/25/2013

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Marcus Arvan

Hi Moti: Thanks for posting on this. Obviously, these are issues that interest me a great deal.

Anyway, I wouldn't consider your arguments to be "chess-piece-moving." After all, as you point out, you're trying to pose serious challenges to two arguments that have dominated the philosophy of science. Even though the arguments are "negative" -- rather than advancing some positive proposal -- they're not just moving pieces around!

I take to be chess-piece-moving philosophy to roughly include the following:

1. Merely showing that Professor X's argument fails.

2. Merely showing that Professor X's argument can be defended against Professor Y's objection.

Stuff like this makes *a* contribution to philosophy, to be sure, but I think the contribution is very small -- worthy of publication perhaps, but not in a top journal.

In contrast, challenging field-*defining* arguments -- such as the ones you challenge -- doesn't just make a small contribution; it promises to make a large one.

So, I guess that's how I'd put it. If I were designing the norms of our field (and I'm sure that many would thank the heavens I'm not!), I would say (A) only large contributions belong in top journals, whereas (B) smaller contributions belong in lower-ranked journals.

I think this is what frustrates me about the status quo. When I read the journals, my feeling is that this norm is broadly inverted. Most of the things I've read recently which really *interest* me have been in lower-ranked journals. More and more articles in "top journals" seem to me to be of the sort "Defending Professor X's argument against objection Y" -- stuff which makes a contribution, but not a large one.

Moti Mizrahi

Thanks, Marcus!

Do you think that, at least sometimes, those who are engaged in chess-piece moving of the sort you're talking about, i.e., your (1) and (2), might be doing so in order to set the stage for their "Big Ideas"? Since "Big Ideas" usually don't go down smoothly in philosophy, one might have to sweeten the bitter pill, so to speak.

Flaffer

It has been my impression that ground moving certainly sets the stage for "Big Ideas". Philosophers, finding fault with the current theory-du-jour find that they are pushed into a specific direction. I am thinking most recently, for me, was Chalmers' work on consciousness. His ruminations on theories of mind led him to new ways of looking at the issues which could save what he found right while discarding what he thought was wrong. He clears much ground to get there.

Marcus Arvan

Hi Moti: yes, I do think chess-piece-moving can set the stage for big ideas. I should probably emphasize that I don't think chess-piece-moving doesn't belong in philosophy. I think it does -- that it has an important role to play in philosophical progress.

My general worry is that I think it's arguably gotten to play *too* big of a role in the profession (insofar as top journals seem to me to be full of such pieces). Just like I wouldn't give a student an "A" on a paper that just moves stuff around -- I want some original thought! (and I hope we all want this) -- I want to say: to qualify as a "top publication" (in a journal/press of the highest prestige), a piece should have to do more than just move pieces around.

Dan Dennis


[posted this nearly 24 hours ago but it hasn’t appeared yet, and I read that you sometimes have posts disappear, so am posting it again just in case]

I wonder whether it would be helpful to have the following 3 part division of philosophical labour.

One part involves creatively coming up with big new ideas.

Another part, ‘under-labouring’ involves working through the details of ideas, clarifying the conceptual space – establishing exactly what theories make sense, are coherent, and thus *possibly* true.

The third part involves presenting arguments for selecting which of the ‘possibly true’ theories to take to be true, or which to base one’s thought and action upon.

Papers can do a combination of these things.

I guess chess-piece moving most characterises the middle step. It is useful if it helps contribute to the third part – by clarifying what the options are, and eliminating some. But if it is done for the sake of it (eg working out details of a theory that is unlikely to be selected in step three) – and if doing it results in insufficient work being done on the first and third steps – then it is problematic.

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