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10/19/2014

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NoNES Philosophy student

I find this interesting, too. But I have different feelings about it.

First, Frege's advice seems to me just right. Surely, one or two journal articles can't do justice to the whole picture of Tractatus. But there is no harm to publish part of it into some journal papers, and then publish it as a whole book, just like people now do. In this way, the practice of philosophers in the late 19th and early 20th century is very similar to the present day. The difference seems just a matter of degree. Perhaps, philosophy was pretty professionalized then?

Second, Frege is complaining that Tractatus is unclear, which is surely right. Were Wittgenstein forced to publish his ideas in journals, he had to express his ideas as clearly and conventionally as other did. That surely helps people understand him. I don't see why conforming to readers' and editors' expectation is absurd. We're publishing scholarly works, and surely we need to meet scholars' expectation. One expectation is to express oneself clearly. Meeting that is mandatory. The fact that Frege, Russell, and the Vienna circle, a group of great philosophers, failed to understand Tractatus just shows why Frege's advice is good.

I guess that you think that were Tractatus written in the conventional way, the power and beauty of Tractatus would be lost. True, a conventional Tractatus is less beautiful. But I cannot see how the same idea cannot be conveyed in a conventional philosophical work. If a conventional Tractatus would become less powerful, doesn't that just mean that the power of Tractatus exceeds its philosophical merit?

Marcus Arvan

NoNES Philosophy student: Thanks for your comment, but I couldn't disagree more!

I think the Tractatus is challenging to be sure, but for all that, I think it is very clear (far clearer, in fact, than some of the stuff I have read by Frege!). I also think that, as smart as they were, Russell, Frege, and the Vienna Circle were at fault for misinterpreting it. If you actually look at the history of its interpretation, it's clear that (1) Russell misunderstood it because he was obsessed with mathematical logic and wanted to develop a logically precise language, and (2) the positivists (wrongly) interpreted it in a positivist vein because they had theoretical axes to grind (they saw positivism in the Tractatus because...well, that's what they wanted to see!). Neither misinterpretation was Wittgenstein's fault. It was theirs.

I also think Frege's advice is absurd because his idea--that good philosophy takes small steps in journal-length articles--is false...at least when it comes to the proper way to present a large-scale philosophical theory.

When doing Kuhnian "normal science" (i.e. working out theories within existing paradigms), small steps are called for. But, for my part--and I think Wittgenstein saw this, and Kant, etc.--this is *not* the right way to do philosophy when making large, programmatic philosophical advances. (See also Kant's Groundwork!)

The power of a philosophical theory--just like the power of a physical theory--lies in just how *much* it explains...and this is a matter of explanatory power. And how do you motivate a new, massive theory with great explanatory power? Not in a small, piecemeal approach. You need to lay out the *whole* theory, showing just how much it explains. The Tractatus' theoretical motivation is the theory as a *whole*, and this motivation could not be properly demonstrated in a piecemeal approach.

To put it differently, we might say there are roughly two types of philosophical undertakings:

(1) "Normal philosophy" (e.g. carefully working out existing paradigms).

(2) "Revolutionary philosophy" (systematically motivating a new paradigm).

Frege's advice would have been perfectly sensible had Wittgenstein been doing the former. But he clearly wasn't. The Tractatus was a revolutionary piece of work, and it did *exactly* what it should have done--lay out, clearly and precisely, a new framework for understanding the world (including propositions, language, etc.), in a beautiful, unified manner.

NoNES Philosophy student

Thanks, Marcus. Your analogy of Kuhnian revolution is interesting.

But I am not sure where our disagreement lies. I agree with you that the picture in Tractatus must be presented together in order to see its beauty and power. But I don't think that this is incompatible with Frege's advice.

I take Frege's advice as a fairly normal one that one should publish one's ideas as journal papers first and then present the whole picture in a monograph. So I don't read Frege as saying that good philosophy only takes small steps (but surely good philosophy must take steps). The reasons are that it's easier for a junior philosopher to find a decent publisher to publish one's monograph if one has good journal publication record and that it helps one formulate one's ideas clearer. I think that is a good advice. Certainly, the picture of Tractatus should be presented in a single work, but there is no harm to publish some of its ideas into some papers.

So we agree that Tractatus should be published as a monograph. But I disagree that it MUST be presented in such an idiosyncratic way. I take this as Frege's complaint that Tractatus is unclear. And I think that it's not absurd that scholars pose the demand that one should express in a form that they can easily understand. Your Kuhnian analogy doesn't work on this. Surely, a revolutionary work can be presented in a conventional way.

And I doubt that Tractatus is revolutionary, unlike PI, which its style seems justified because of its philosophical stance. But I am not familiar with Wittgenstein enough, so that I won't embarrass myself here.

Lewis Powell

It seems relevant that Wittgenstein had asked about having the Tractatus published in a journal. Frege's response was, effectively, "I don't think that journal publishes monograph length pieces, but if you could break it up into smaller chunks, you might have some luck."

I suspect there is less to read into this about Frege's attitude towards monographs than about his (undoubtedly correct) assessment of that journal's publishing practices.

As to his other concern about the Tractatus, I am inclined to agree that it is not maximally clear.

Marcus Arvan

Hi Lewis: The Tractatus is hardly the length of a normal monograph. As Frege pointed out, it would have only been 50 pages typeface--long for an article to be sure, but not too long for a journal. There is also plenty of evidence that Frege wasn't high on the Tractatus itself. Earlier in Monk's biography, we learn that when Wittgenstein sent Frege the Tractatus, Frege only commented on the first page, suggesting he didn't even read past that. More generally, Frege was notoriously conservative in outlook. This all suggests to me that Frege wasn't just giving Wittgenstein "sensible advice", but that basically he didn't recognize the Tractatus' value. Indeed, if he had, don't you think he would have instead said something like, "Well, I know it's an unconventional piece of work, but it's brilliant--so why not give it a shot at the journal?"?

The passage is also notable to me not just for Frege's response itself, but also in terms of the professional/editorial practices, which were basically, "it doesn't matter how good this is. Since you're an unknown author, the editor will never go for it." I've heard people give similar advice even today, and it always rubs me the wrong way.

Phil H

Minor point on the way the profession works: You say "I've heard people give similar advice even today, and it always rubs me the wrong way." But surely it's always best practice to assume that you're not Wittgenstein? I'm a translator, and the standard practice in my industry is to translate into one's native language. The argument "But Nabokov wrote wonderfully in his second language" has become notorious as a silly excuse, because the answer is always, "Perhaps, but you're not him."

More interestingly, I'd like to push Marcus a bit further on the point made by NoNES: why is the format important? Is philosophy literary in nature? Do we not think that concepts/systems are separable from the linguistic forms in which they are presented? (I know, it's an ironic question to be asking about Wittgenstein, but I think it still holds.) I can't work out if you're making a general plea for more diversity of form, or if you're claiming that certain ideas can best or only be expressed in certain forms, and that the journal article format itself necessarily excludes some kinds of idea. That would be a very strong claim, wouldn't it?

Marcus Arvan

Hi Phil: Thanks for your comment.

(1) While I agree it's generally good practice to assume you're not Wittgenstein (i.e. a philosophical genius), I don't think it's *always* best practice not to. After all, if Wittgenstein hadn't assumed that his work was special, he wouldn't have stuck to his guns and published a special piece of work (the Tractatus).

(2) I am making a more general plea for diversity of form and content--and not being biased against authors simply because they are unknowns. I've expressed similar views on this blog many times. In my view, professional analytic philosophy has become a bit too conservative, and too obsessed with "rigor", to the exclusion of other philosophical virtues (bold creativity, etc.). Of course, I realize not everyone feels the same way, but there seems to be an increasing number of people who think philosophy needs a kind of "reboot" (http://blog.oup.com/2014/07/rebooting-philosophy/ ).

moving on

Marcus,
I want to address a comment you make above, and one that is recurring in your posts on publishing in philosophy.

Here is the passage:

"The passage is also notable to me not just for Frege's response itself, but also in terms of the professional/editorial practices, which were basically, "it doesn't matter how good this is. Since you're an unknown author, the editor will never go for it." I've heard people give similar advice even today, and it always rubs me the wrong way."

Let me address a number of issues simmering below your remark (and in other posts of yours on publishing).

If one does not like the culture of academic publishing for whatever reason, one can have their stuff published by some vanity press. That is why they exist; there is an audience and market for such publishers. Wittgenstein could certainly afford this. You too can find a press that will publish whatever you have.

I have found academic journals remarkably open and fair. I am not at a research school, and I have not been schooled at elite universities, but I have published in some very good journals, and multiple times. Generally, my work has been treated impartially by journals. (I have had rejections and been disappointed, but the fairness of journals outweighs the fairness of other parts of life). I have even published a book with one of the leading university presses.

You seem to have contempt for article publishing, as opposed to book publishing. No one is making you publish articles. Granted, if you want a job at a college then you should probably do it. But that is not unreasonable.

My general concern is that you are giving other junior members of the profession a very distorted view of academic publishing, and its place in contemporary philosophy. I find the system remarkably fair despite its imperfections.

Fro my perspective, you have not been hard done by. You went to very good schools: Tufts and Arizona.

Your time would be better spent trying to publish in highly ranked journals than in complaining about it in this public forum.

Marcus Arvan

moving on: Thanks for your comment.

I'm not sure why you think I've expressed contempt for article publishing. I publish articles myself, think there is great value in it, and have never denigrated it! All I have advocated for is the attitude that articles alone should not the be-all and end-all of professional philosophy, and that we should encourage the development of systematic, book-length philosophy--especially in graduate school. I have advocated for this out of concerns I have about certain trends in graduate education: specifically, replacing traditional book-length dissertations with a handful of related articles, which I think fosters a more narrow vision of philosophical education than I am comfortable with, philosophically speaking (I think there were good reasons why traditional dissertations were once the universal norm).

I also don't think it's right to say that if one has concerns about the culture of academic publishing, one should just leave and turn to vanity publishing. To me, this is akin to the absurd remark, "If you don't like America, then leave!" There is a lot that I like about the peer-review process. Many of my papers have benefited tremendously from it, and I am deeply thankful for the time and thought that many reviewers put into their reviews. Still, for all that, there are well-known problems with the process--Google reviewing, prestige bias, overly conservative reviewers, etc.--that I am far from alone in expressing. I don't see how advocating in favor of certain changes is complaining, or provides a distorted view of academic publishing. I see it more as advocacy, in line with the saying, "Be the kind of change you want to see in the world." But maybe you're right. Maybe my time is better spent elsewhere.

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