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Richard Yetter Chappell

Interesting questions. Let me add a few more:

(1) If graduate programs were to aim at creating "great" philosophers, how likely would they be to succeed? Would their graduates be, on the whole, better or worse philosophers than those who are trained to be "merely good"? If most would do worse, but the very best would be better, how should we evaluate such trade-offs?

(2) How does the work of young philosophers today (on the whole) compare with that of their counterparts a generation ago? (I don't know about the comparative claim, but my sense is that there are a lot of really great young philosophers doing excellent work these days. But our philosophical tastes may differ!)

(3) How much of a difference does one's graduate education actually make? If different people have varying dispositions towards doing more or less "systematic" work, is their graduate education all that likely to alter those dispositions? Presumably it makes some difference at the margins, but would a Kant or a Rawls be all that moved by the "incentives" you mention?

Marcus Arvan

Hi Richard: Thanks for your comment. I think those are all great questions. Here are my thoughts.

On (1): I think the question of trade-offs implies a false presupposition (at least in the current context). I would say that we make more good *and* great philosophers by holding graduate students to the highest standards -- and a traditional dissertation is far more difficult than 3-5 related papers. I say this will all respect to people who have done the latter -- but there simply is no comparison. A 300-500 page systematic investigation of something is a far higher hurdle to overcome than a 100-120 page series of 3-5 papers, even if the papers are great. (Just some evidence besides the page differential: the sheer amount of time it takes for people to do traditional dissertations. Constructing a coherent "mountain" and then climbing it is creating and climbing a mountain, rather than a fell smaller hills).

Now, if we *did* have to choose between creating lots of good philosophers or a few great ones, that would be a difficult question of trade-offs. But, again, I don't think that's the issue.

On (2): I'm not sure. But, there have been people who have raised this question seriously. Recently, Eric Schwitzgabel wrote a post on "The Winnowing of the Greats" where he suggests we have a lot of "very goods" but few greats lately. (http://schwitzsplinters.blogspot.com/2007/08/on-winnowing-of-greats.html ). Also see http://schwitzsplinters.blogspot.com/2012/01/base-rate-of-kant.html

Then there are top names in philosophy -- including some top journal editors -- claiming that philosophy has become "safe, and a little boring." http://philosopherscocoon.typepad.com/blog/2012/10/safe-and-a-little-boring.html

On (3): Again, this is just my feeling, but I think it makes ALL the difference. Whatever our own dispositions may be, graduate students are clearly deeply impacted by their grad school professors and the discipline around them. I don't think this can be denied. Anyone who has been in a graduate program knows it. When I was at Syracuse, *everyone* there was a Kripke and Lewis-ite. Why? Because that's what our professors -- Hawthorne, Sider, Weatherson, etc. -- held up as the ideal. And Hawthorne, Sider, Weatherson, etc., were our idols. We all wanted to do what they did. Similar things were true when I went to Arizona. We wanted to be like Paul, or Schmidtz, or Chalmers, or Christiano, or whomever. We did what they did.

No doubt there will always be those who rebel against the norms they are inculcated with. I did! :) But, the point is, the environment one is "philosophically raised in" undoubtedly has a profound impact on the kind of philosopher they are likely to become.

Daniel Brunson

I need to chew on this some more, but I wanted to make the point that Kant was nearly 60 when the 1st Critique came out (his dissertation was a dozen pages). Of course, we can simply substitute the 27 year old Hume and The Treatise, but even he was out of school for nearly 10 years.

Marcus Arvan

Hi Daniel: Thanks for your comment.

Yes, but Kant was not a publishing machine. It took him a *long* time to become what he became. It took patience, and a couple of decades of NOT publishing (his "silent" years) to become the systematic, game-changing thinker he ultimately became.

On the other hand, let's look at more recent figures. Rawls published a handful of papers over the first two decades before "A Theory of Justice." People in his generation were given time and incentives -- in grad school and beyond -- to think beyond publishing paper after paper. And the result, I believe, were far more "game changing" works than we see today.

Daniel Brunson

Sure, but it seems that the drive to publish early and often and requiring c. 400 word dissertations are separate issues. Indeed, the examples suggest that often what makes a great philosopher is time and security, but that says more about the competitiveness of academia than the proper nature of graduate school, perhaps.


Interesting post! A few thoughts:

I'm not sure why what you call "systematic" dissertations need to be 300-500 pages. Based on my own (very anecdotal) perusing of dissertations at my own graduate program, there never was a time when 300-500 page dissertations were the norm. It's true that the "three paper" model is pretty recent, but a lot of the dissertations in the last twenty years are in the ballpark of systematic dissertations - they're just usually 150-250ish pages.

If your beef is with the three paper model, that's fine. But I think that model is still very much a minority. Additionally, the average philosophy graduate program completion time is already terrible enough, and the opportunities post-graduate school are becoming evermore limited. I don't think graduate students should feel like they ought to be producing mammoth tomes before defending.

Anthony Carreras

It seems to me that things like your coursework and your comprehensive exams should serve the purpose developing a "deep understanding of the history of philosophical ideas." I don't see why the dissertation *needs* to serve this purpose.

Also, I think it is silly that you can get a law degree in three years, a medical degree in four years, but a Ph.D. in philosophy takes, on average, eight years or more. That doesn't make any good sense. And the 400 page dissertation (among other things) only exacerbates the problem.

Marcus Arvan

Phil grad: Thanks for your comment! I don't think they *have* to be 300-500 pages to be systematic. One can write something significantly shorter and have it be systematic, too (Wittgenstein's Tractatus is pretty damn systematic, but it is not exactly long!).

The point isn't length; it is that the tradition model of dissertation has been increasingly replaced by "several related papers." This is what I have worries about.

Anyway, I totally get the reasons for the change. You're right: completion rates, limited job opportunities, etc. But, there's a saying, "Don't throw the baby out with the bath water!" I think we could address these other issues without giving up the traditional dissertation -- and I think that would be preferable.

Marcus Arvan

Anthony: Thanks for your comment. Coursework and exams can give you a deep understanding in one sense (exposing you to a history of ideas). What it doesn't do is develop *your* ability to think systematically. It is one thing to read and understand systematic philosophers like Rawls, or Sidgwick, or whomever; it is another thing to learn how to think, and write, systematically oneself! And this takes practice. What kind of practice? Writing a dissertation. This was always the point of a traditional dissertation -- to get you to *do* something you haven't done before: not just write small papers, but come up with a truly wide-ranging, systematic theory of your own.

Anthony Carreras

Marcus - I agree that dissertations should teach you to think systematically. But I agree with philgrad (and with you!) that they need not be so long in order to be systematic. Nor do I think a dissertation that deals mainly with recent literature will, for that reason, fail to be systematic.

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