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I've always liked the idea of generous reading described here:



I don't think this has been my experience of published work, but maybe I'm lucky to work in a particularly 'creative' subfield.

My experience of publishing, however, has been that referees are much happier with the destructive than the creative side of things. (Both in that that they see their job as primarily destructive, but also because they give the creative side of projects a much harder time.)

Sebastian Lutz

I can't speak to the ratio of destructive articles, but I want to offer a tangential point about the rhetoric of philosophical papers and the teaching of philosophical writing:

Joseph E. Harmon and Alan G. Gross describe in /The Craft of Scientific Communication/ (pp. 3-4) how scientific articles in their introductions typically 1. define a research territory, 2. establish a limited problem in that territory, and 3. suggest or summarize a solution to this problem. It's the simple background-tension-release structure of storytelling (which Randy Ohlson in "Science Communication: Narratively Speaking", Science 342, 2013: 1168, calls the 'and-but-therefore structure').

One way of providing tension is by arguing that some position is wrong, but the release does not have to be that the position must be given up (the destructive conclusion). One can also fix it (the constructive conclusion). Another way of providing tension is by pointing out an as of yet unsolved problem, the release being a (constructive) solution to said problem.

Thus destructive papers almost automatically fulfill a standard rhetorical schema for engaging writing, but there are other ways to fulfill the same schema, and it might be helpful to point out these other ways to students (and ourselves). In that way, we might end up with more constructive but still (according to the standard schema) engaging philosophy.


I think Sebastian's comparison with scientific papers raises two super interesting points.

I read a lot of neuroscience and psychology papers, and it's interesting to note that the "tension" component is usually some unanswered question, set against some broader background theory, with the "release" being a hypothesis they tested in the lab. Curiously, often the tests don't go as planned; but the release isn't to throw out the background theory, but to amend it slightly, complicate it, etc. (You know, just like Kuhn says.) I find it curious that when scientists face challenges to their theories, they amend them, while philosophers have the impulse to throw them out. You might say that this is because scientists usually start with widely shared background theories (a paradigm), while in philosophy there's no settled view (just a bunch of people advocating different positions). But that's not really true. I often see fairly specific competing background theories (e.g., someone affirming, and another denying, that the depictions in the Ebbinghaus illusion engage motion-guiding vision), and yet scientists still seem disposed to search for harmonizing solutions that save the best from their opponents work. Philosophers, in contrast, often want to slash-and-burn.

Second, and relatedly: "Another way of providing tension is by pointing out an as of yet unsolved problem, the release being a (constructive) solution to said problem." This isn't obviously a different approach from the first way of providing tension ("arguing that some position is wrong"). Since *all* unsolved problems are against some background theory, just proposing an unsolved problem requires attacking a theory -- e.g., showing that it can't solve the problem. To turn it around, arguing that some position is wrong is always just equivalent to bringing out an unsolved problem. It's curious that so many philosophers are disposed to always take the negative framing of this situation, and not the equivalent, but positive, one.


I'd like expand a bit on what I was saying.

May claim wasn't (supposed) to just be something like, "there are more destructive than constructive papers." I do think constructive papers are meet much more harsh criticism, and also I think that we need to be more sympathetic toward the inevitable truth Marcus mentioned: all papers have flaws. My bigger point, however, is that (in my experience) even *constructive* papers must be presented as somewhat destructive, i.e., as in not simply, "I have this new and insightful idea", but rather, "I have this new and insightful idea that shows other ideas are a bunch of hogwash and my idea gets things right in a way that so many ideas get things wrong." I somewhat recently had a conversation with two major philosophical figures , and they seemed to think I was completely crazy to suggest a paper could be written presenting a certain idea, but not attempting to show that the idea was better than other ones. Fundamentally, they suggested, ideas *must* bet competitive, i.e., an idea X can't be much good unless you can compare X to Y and show that X is the winner Y is the loser.

Often I've written papers that do not have much precedent in the literature. I find myself forcing citations and comparisons so that my paper looks like "scholarship," when in actuality, I think it would be much better without them.

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