Our books

Become a Fan

« Are grad programs planning to limit admissions? | Main | What we owe our undergraduate students »



Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Peter Furlong

Thanks for the post Marcus,

I think you are clearly correct about #1. There are limits, I think, to how far we can go in guessing how people will respond to our arguments, but we ought to note if there are clear ways in which others in the dialogue will disagree with our approach.

I think the spirit of #2 is correct, and we should be more careful about this than we currently are. Still, this one is more difficult, I think, to see what the ideal practice is. In large part, this is because it covers an enormous range. Some of these cases seem to obviously not call out for comment (but I would be really interested if some disagreed). For example, imagine a philosopher working on some interpretational difficulty in Aristotle. This philosopher might point to various reasons some have given for thinking that a text might not be reliable. Surely (right?), the philosopher need not mention that some argue that we might be boltzmann brains, and if so, we should reject the idea that Aristotle wrote the text we have in mind, since there is no such text to have been written.

Another example of this might be methodological differences. Must every article that appeals to an intuition cite literature arguing that we shouldn't do so? (An aside: we could hack our citation count by writing articles that challenge foundations for most future articles--they would need to cite us just to note that we disagree with them.) Must every article that partakes in armchair metaphysics cite all the lit against doing such a thing? Must every article arguing for the truth of some proposition cite work rejecting one's conception of truth? Must all papers arguing for first order ethical claims cite Ayer's claim "A strictly philosophical treatise on ethics should therefore make no ethical pronouncements"?

These are meant to be extreme cases, but I wonder whether there is any clear line between when we should cite and when we shouldn't concerning cases like #2. In many cases I think it is pretty obvious, but my own intuitions are shaped by the current practices of the discipline, and when these are called into doubt, I am not sure where to go. Here are three questions we might look to in guiding our practices:

1) What would ordinary readers of this article think important to know in order to evaluate the argument?

2) Given the restrictions we face (especially word counts, but also the time and attention of the reader), what additions does the author think would put the reader in a position to best evaluate the value of the argument in question?

3) What practices would best shape the discipline as a whole?

It isn't clear to me that the answers to these three questions would all be the same. It might turn out that noting the many ways people would disagree with the foundations of our arguments would distract readers from the argument, or would not even be wanted by most readers. On the other hand, it might be helpful to the discipline as a whole, since it would bring to light some challenges to dominant views that might otherwise never be noticed.

In any case, this is all to say that although I think we as a discipline should definitely do more to note where people disagree with the foundations of our arguments, this issue brings to light questions concerning our writing that are not easy (for me at least) to answer, since they involve weighing various goods against each other.


I suspect something of a virtue ethics approach is more helpful here than one that seeks to articulate principles. Knowingly authoring a paper that does (1) or (2) seems to involve dishonesty or some other attempt to mislead readers. For example, say one develops their argument against P without realizing that it depends on premise Q widely rejected by P's proponents. It comes out in their discussions of the paper with friends that they need Q, but at that point so much time and effort has been spent on the paper that the person conveniently "forgets" to articulate the dependence on Q, or mentions it only in a short footnote, never drawing attention to it or giving it its due within the dialectical context. While I think we all can see the psychological and developmental trajectory leading to cases like this, it doesn't excuse the end result of someone trying to pull one over on the literature.

In general, I think it's much better to approach these scholarly questions from the perspective of whether or not one is acting like a decent person, or if one's handling the material in a way they'd want their opponents to handle things. Even if we could agree on explicit standards (and I agree with Peter that these would be extremely hard to articulate), a lot of people would be tempted to follow their letter while ignoring their spirit, exploiting loopholes, etc.

I also tend to think that these sorts of cases are fairly self directing. It's not too hard to figure out if we'd accept dialectical moves we're making from our opponents. It's also not too hard to err on the side of caution. If you discover that you need a premise widely rejected by your opponents, just make that explicit and explain (in the introduction) why your argument still advances the discussion. If you are going to presume a view some minority of reasonable experts reject, it only takes a single additional line to acknowledge it and cite 2-3 of the central works of your opponents.

*shrugs* I see Marcus' proposals as pretty low hurdles, not high aspirational standards.

Marcus Arvan

Peter and Mike: Thanks to both of you for your insightful comments.

I agree with you, Peter, that these are complex issues and it is hard to see how to draw a hard and fast standard. Indeed, as the cases you give illustrate (viz. Aristotle and Ayer indicate) I think sorites style problems arise here (viz. if X is problematic, isn't X+1 problematic too?, ad infinitum).

So, I'm not sure we can draw up any clear standards to delineate exactly what our dialectical obligations here. But I think Mike has a really good reaction to that: namely, that in some of these cases, the papers in question don't come anywhere close to meeting what seem like pretty clear requirements of intellectual integrity: namely, at *least* recognizing there is minority position in the contemporary literature contesting your starting points, citing a few representative examples, and moving on. As Mike points out, that seems like a pretty low hurdle--and one that a virtuous (or least decent) scholar should generally aim to cover.

More generally, I think following Mike's virtue-ethical point, I think simply recognizing that there is a problem here, trying to do better, encouraging authors to do better as referees, and teaching our students to recognize the issue and always try to do their best viz. 1 and 2, would all be feasible (if broad) steps in the right direction.


I agree with the virtue ethics point. I don't think that there are general principles along the lines of 1 or 2 because it depends a lot on the details. For instance, re 1, I think it depends how obvious the author makes the rejection of the view. Maybe it is something they would obviously reject because of other commitments. But not everyone is great at connecting the dots. And even if the proponent of the view knows they would reject it, others might not. If so, the point of the paper would, in part, be pointing out that so and so is committed to rejecting this view. That might be a worthy project. On the other hand, if it is very obvious that this view would be rejected, then that kind of paper might not add anything. I still think the most important question to ask when evaluating a paper is, "Does this paper advance discussion on issues that are interesting and important, and does it do so in a way consistent with reasonable, critical, thought?


I agree that both 1 and 2 are problematic. What upsets me even more, though, is when an author presents an objection to a position which, while technically correct, could easily be avoided by adopting some slight variant of the original position. Often, I read papers where I think, ‘sure, you’re right, given what she actually wrote A is committed to stupid conclusion B, but there’s clearly a simple move she could have made, in the spirit of her argument, which would avoid that’. I guess what annoys me about this move is that it seems to reduce philosophy to a kind of game-playing, as if what matters is catching your opponent out, rather than actually figuring out the best position.


I agree Steve. What I also think is really problematic about that is that it shows instead of writing a paper where they point out the problem and suggest a slight modification to improve the view, it is a paper where they point out the problem, ignore the obvious change, and use it as an opportunity to dishonestly suggest the view is worthless. The overall point that I can't stand about philosophy these days is this: it is not a philosophy paper unless you are disagreeing with another philosopher and showing them how they are wrong. The idea that a philosophy paper could be about improving the views of someone else is just a laughable concept (unless you are doing that through the conduct of showing that another critic was wrong.)


Steve and Amanda, I agree that this move is frustrating, but it's also just a specific case of how most people argue (no?). Just browse Facebook or Twitter debates, or the messages implied by memes, and you'll see lots of people raising easily answered objections to the letter of someone's position. The only difference when philosophers do it in journals is that THeY DOnT "tyPE" LIKE ; tHIS or congratulate themselves for "dunking on" or OBLITERATING the other side. I just see it as another example of philosophers as having exactly the same epistemic vices and falling into the same cognitive traps as everyone else, but (probably) not realizing they're doing it.

I'm actually a bit torn over whether I agree with Amanda that this is a matter of socioinstitutional norms in philosophy. While some people (editors, referees, philosophers sitting in a Q&A) may think that "it is not a philosophy paper unless you are disagreeing with another philosopher and showing them how they are wrong", I think there's enough room within the philosophy publishing ecosystem for creative, constructive papers that are "about improving the views of someone else".

While I think the former attitude certainly contributes to the occurrence of shallow and (epistemically) vicious attacks, I suspect it's just as much a matter of these sorts of papers being easier to write, plus cognitive traps keeping us from realizing that we're doing it.

Perhaps relatedly, if you put a drink or two in a lot of us, it often comes out that we think our opponents' views are pretty stupid. So I'm not surprised that we often miss obvious responses to our own attacks, or miss that our attacks are merely technical "gotchas" that leave the spirit of the view intact. Or maybe we see these replies, but shrug them off because deep down we think the view is stupid.

Anyway, I say all this just to emphasize that philosophers are human. Perhaps that's another point in favor of the virtue ethical approach. Getting better dialogue (in journals and elsewhere) will probably take more self awareness on the part of philosophers and concerted effort to avoid these various vices. (Systemic external changes, like journal editors and faculty advisors rewarding constructive projects, is probably required too.)


If that were true Mike, I'd say after spending the time to get a PhD and do this professionally we should do much better that the average person on twitter. And other discipline *do* do much better. Philosophy is the most acrimonious, competitive, non-helpful, not collaborative, discipline in academia I know. That's not to say there aren't worse ones, but I am confident we are petty bad. I have been to other conferences outside of philosophy and the norms are so, so, much better.

I don't by the "we are human." Being a jerk isn't being human. It's being a particular kind of human, namely,.a jerk.


Amanda, my takeaway from your response is that the socioinstitutional norms of philosophy reward and enable philosophers to be jerks, and the combative jerkish approach we encourage invites people to fall into the cognitive traps. If you reward me for attacking the other side indiscriminately, in some sort of game, I'm likely to get lazy at some point and just do whatever comes naturally. Since I'm only human, that means I'll fall into cognitive traps, like hiding that I'm relying on a premise my opponents reject or levelling objections that are easily answered from within the spirit of my opponent's view.

So I think I agree with you that there's something special about philosophy that encourages this bad behavior in a way many disciplines don't, but I still want to hold onto the idea that many of these bad behaviors are just special cases of ways average people argue on twitter. (That part just seems too clear to me: isn't levelling objections easily answered from within the spirit of someone's view, but which do succeed in refuting the precise form, something that happens *all the time* on social media?) I think the PhD training does two things: (1) it refines us all enough that we're not as crass about it as the average twitter user, and (2) it gives us the tools needed to see and understand these bad argumentative manoeuvres. Despite having the tools, I suspect socioinstitutional norms often keep us from bothering to use them as we scramble for that next publication or to get off the best zinger in a Q&A.

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been saved. Comments are moderated and will not appear until approved by the author. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Comments are moderated, and will not appear until the author has approved them.

Your Information

(Name and email address are required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)

Job-market reporting thread

Current Job-Market Discussion Thread

Job ads crowdsourcing thread

Philosophers in Industry Directory

Open thread on hiring timelines

Cocoon Job-Market Mentoring Program