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Long time lurker...

I don't have advice on this yet because I share the question. I am also a PhD student and I see "generating paper ideas" as one of my major weaknesses to address. I'm hoping to see some options to try or at least hear how other people learned to be more idea-productive! Thanks, cocooners!


Part of it is a skill that you develop with experience, and by reading and listening to lots of stuff on different subjects.

One thing you should do is keep a document (or journal) with potential paper ideas. Whenever a question you think is interesting and possibly research-relevant comes up, make a note of it (and of directions you could go, if your thoughts stretch that far). Go back through the list periodically and think through what's there, to see if anything speaks to you and you can imagine a paper coalescing around it.

Very often, I get an idea for a pithy paper title or name for some concept/technique/etc. I write it down. It's only later that I imagine how I might build a paper around that title/name (and by the time I'm done writing, the original title is often nowhere to be seen!).

But you should also pay attention to the CFPs for conferences, workshops, special issues, and prizes. Even if you don't submit to them, they're a gold mine of topics and ideas that are hot now. Very often, they'll even suggest pretty specific topics.

When you attend a conference talk or read a paper that leaves you blustering, that's a good sign that there's a paper in there for you to mine, if you care to. You can write response papers, of course, but it's often easy enough to develop a standalone paper from a response paper. When someone asks you a tough question at a conference, that's another indication of a potential paper.

And, of course, once you start writing on things, you'll start to see more and more connections to other things, and avenues for exploration.


I will echo some of what Marcus shared. I think that idea-generation is something that comes in time. As you read more and become more familiar with the literature in your field, you will come to understand the issues more deeply, and you’ll begin to see nuances that you didn’t see before. You will see possibilities you never noticed, problems that haven’t been explored, and positions that haven’t really been covered.

You will go through a period of struggle where it feels like you only have one idea, if that, and you aren’t sure if it’s good. The time you struggle with that idea and the idea-less situation is an important part of your intellectual development.

Eventually you will start to fill documents with ideas to write about. You’ll have whole lists of paper ideas. Many of these ideas will be terrible and shouldn’t ever see the light of day, but many others will be viable candidates for papers. You’ll get there. Just be patient and try to read and write as much as you can.

When I was in my MA program, several of my fellow students just seemed like absolute fountains of ideas. They were always rattling off things they had been wondering about and almost everything they said seemed like a new idea that could be written about. I, on the other hand, couldn’t even come up with term paper topics, much less real publication ideas. For a long time, even into the start of my PhD, I just sort of assumed that I was the kind of philosopher who could understand material and teach it, but who just didn’t have much to contribute. But eventually I found out I was wrong, and over time I began to develop enough ideas that I started to have to choose which were the most promising out of many, rather than hoping that my only idea would pan out.


I am tempted to say that if you have trouble coming up with paper ideas, you probably shouldn't be in philosophy. Or, to put it less harshly, maybe you are focusing on the wrong area of philosophy. If it doesn't grip you and ideas and questions don't bubble up from within you, then something's gone wrong, I think. And how could you ever hope to write enough and publish enough to get tenure in the future, say?

Marcus Arvan

Yeah T, I think that's *way* too quick. Coming up with good paper ideas is a developed skill. I went through periods in graduate school where I struggled in this regard, and I don't think it's all that uncommon either in grad school or beyond. As just one data-point, I've had recent PhDs pose similar queries on the Cocoon--and during my first year or two after the PhD, I mostly floundered coming up with good ideas.

This brings me to a more general point, which is that I think many people in philosophy are way, way too quick to question people's abilities or promise. I can't tell you how many times I heard "so and so is smart" and "so and so is not smart"...and how little predictive value these and other evaluations of people (particularly early in grad school) had in the long run.

Philosophy is not (in my view, at least) a natural skill that you either have or you don't. It's something one has to *learn* how to do--and it can take otherwise very smart people different amounts of time to develop particular philosophical skills.

Case in point: I can't even begin to imagine how many people in my own grad program probably asked your question about me ("how could you ever hope to write enough and publish enough to get tenure in the future, say?"). And yet, for all that, I did learn how to do it and get tenure. People develop, and for some of us it takes some time. Let's stop preemptively judging people's abilities or promise based on what they are capable of doing in the present. I've experienced and seen others experience the damage these kinds of judgments can cause.

Sebastian Lutz

I sometimes give a talk on writing papers to grad students, and this is what I suggest in the section "coming up with ideas" (although from now on I will also include some or most of what has been suggested here):

• The trick for having lots of good ideas is to have lots of ideas and a heuristic for throwing out the bad ones (retold in a letter from David Harker to Linus Pauling, February 20, 1961)

• "Some years ago the head of the Industrial Engineering Department of Yale University said, 'If I had only one hour to solve a problem, I would spend up to two-thirds of that hour in attempting to define what the problem is.' (cited by Markle, William H. 1966. “The Manufacturing Manager’s Skills.”)

• "It appeared that after first contemplating a book on some subject, and after giving serious preliminary attention to it, I needed a period of subconscious incubation which could not be hurried and was if anything impeded by deliberate thinking. [...] Having, by a time of very intense concentration, planted the problem in my subconsciousness, it would germinate underground until, suddenly, the solution emerged with blinding clarity[.]" (Bertrand Russell, "How I Write")

• These points by John Cleese on the open and closed mode of thinking: youtu.be/Pb5oIIPO62g?t=7m24s

• Reading other people’s papers:
◦ Try to solve the author’s problem on your own.
◦ When reading, ask yourself ‘Is this the only way of doing it?’
◦ When reading, ask yourself ‘Really?’ very often, especially with every ‘therefore’, ‘because’ etc. and every ‘clearly’, ‘obviously’, etc.


Yeah the idea that you should just leave philosophy if you don’t have ideas yet is the old “innate ability” trope just coming back again. Sure, there’s some natural talent involved, and some people are better writers than others, but you can learn to write publishable philosophy, just as you can learn to write publishable fiction. And you can learn to generate lots of interesting ideas for philosophy papers, just as you can learn to generate lots of interesting ideas for stories.

Grad students: there are many reasons to leave philosophy, but “I feel like I don’t have enough ideas” is not a good one. Just work over time and the ideas will come.


Well, my point was not about ability or intelligence. Presumably, someone can be incredibly intelligent, have an interest in philosophy, but just not be suited for it. What's wrong with pointing that out? Happens all the time.

I agree it is a skill you can develop. But that's not the whole story. There is too much push to get away from innate drive (and ability, even though ability was not my original point) these days. If you can't for the life of you come up with an idea for a paper, and this is a consistent problem for you, then why force it? Just because you can get an MA or PhD in philosophy doesn't mean you should.

Also, just think about how many graduate students drop out of PhD programs every year. Is there a stat somewhere? Probably a lot. Doesn't that support my point? Surely, lots of people get themselves into philosophy thinking they will be good at it and enjoy it, only to discover otherwise. I'm suggesting that a consistent inability to come up with interesting paper topics is evidence that you should try something else. Seems reasonable to me.

Marcus Arvan

T: I have so many problems with what you just wrote.

Your write: "Presumably, someone can be incredibly intelligent, have an interest in philosophy, but just not be suited for it. What's wrong with pointing that out?"

Yes, it's possible that someone can "not be suited for philosophy." The problem is that many people in philosophy are far too quick to jump to conclusions. I've seen it happen many, many times. I was in a well-ranked PhD program. I saw very smart students who everyone expected big things of go nowhere, and other students that everyone underestimated go on to have brilliant careers.

What's the harm in pointing out that someone's "not suited for philosophy"? These kinds of comments can destroy a person's confidence. Of course, I've seen people overcome this--but the point is, it's messed up to do that to them. Why? Because, again, people develop. Again, more often than not, I've seen these kinds of judgments about who is "cut out for philosophy" turn out to be exactly wrong.

You write: "If you can't for the life of you come up with an idea for a paper, and this is a consistent problem for you, then why force it? Just because you can get an MA or PhD in philosophy doesn't mean you should."

What do you mean by "consistent problem"? My first few years in grad school, I had trouble coming up with good paper ideas. Part of the problem was that I was struggling with some personal issues and had trouble focusing. A few years later, I got my act together. I forced it...and learned to develop the ability. That's how these things work. It can take hard work and time to develop. On that note, take John Nash. Nash struggled to come up with publishable ideas during graduate school while others in his program published a lot, and faculty in his program almost gave up on...until he pulled the Nash equilibrium out of nowhere and became legendary with a 28-page dissertation that changed his field (and many others, for that matter).

People need to stop judging whether other people are "cut out for philosophy" and going out of their way to encourage other people to raise these questions about themselves. Honestly, this has always been one of the things about the profession that has bothered me the most. I've seen people do it over, and over, and over again...and mostly be wrong about the people they're judging. Some people see obstacles like having trouble coming up with good paper ideas as reasons to consider giving up. I've seen enough people overcome such obstacles with hard work and determination to know that they're not.

On that note, you write: "I'm suggesting that a consistent inability to come up with interesting paper topics is evidence that you should try something else. Seems reasonable to me."

I don't think it's reasonable at all. It's only reasonable if you think these kinds of skills are fixed and unlearnable. Everything I have experienced in my career suggests the opposite. I've seen people overcome these (and many other) obstacles and go on to have brilliant careers. Having trouble doing something--if you are an otherwise talented person--is not a reason to give up or doubt yourself, nor is seeing this in another person a good reason to point out that the person "might not be cut out for it." It is a reason for the person to work their tail off and learn how to do it. Indeed, most success stories in human life seem to be variations on this story: people being told they're "not cut out for" something, and then showing the naysayers wrong. I'm sure there's a lesson here...strange that many people never seem to learn it.


I didn't really have any paper ideas until halfway through my PhD. And at that point, most were total garbage. I struggled to think of topics for term papers. But the more I read, the more conferences I attended, the more people I talked to, etc., the more ideas I started getting. And, honestly, my dissertation was garbage, too, until years 6-7. At that point, I started consistently getting good and workable ideas, and everything improved. That's just one anecdote, but my sense from my friends and acquaintances is that it's a pretty common experience, even if it isn't universal.

Now, I'm a few years out and I can't really keep up with the flood of great paper ideas. I taught twelve courses in the last year, published six papers (several in T15 generalist and the top specialist venues), wrote five from scratch (one of which has an R&R at another top generalist journal), and I expect I'll have another couple pubs before the year is out. I'm doing way, way better than I ever thought I could when I was in grad school. Hell, I'm doing better than I ever thought I could in the first year of my postdoc!

I don't mean to toot my own horn. The point is just that the reason I'm so productive, now, is that I've learned the skill of developing ideas into workable papers (well, that, and my commute on public transit is *quite* long, and I'm not raising any children). I doubt anyone foresaw it of me in those first several years of the PhD--probably, nobody really foresaw it during my whole seven years! It's a skill, and all skills take time to develop. And let's be honest: the more help and guidance you have from an established faculty member, the easier it is to develop publishing skills (including finding and developing ideas).

Perhaps the more charitable rendering of T's suggestion is that if you're struggling to think of paper ideas, you're not yet ready to publish. That's plausibly true, but if it is, it's not forever.


I want to echo Bryce's comment "that idea-generation is something that comes in time." Part of this is just a matter of neurophysiology. To develop original ideas, see connections or a new way to frame an issue, etc., you need to read a lot of stuff, and your brain needs time to make new neural connections and rewire. This is a process that can take years.

Regarding the debate between T and Marcus, there can be different reasons people don't "naturally" have a lot of ideas. I wonder if part of what makes the difference between early graduate students with lots of ideas and those with few is self-censorship. The graduate student who seems to have trouble coming up with ideas may actually come up with just as many as the other, but quickly sees problems with them and self-censors. It's possible the OP is self-censoring without realizing that's what they're doing.

Wrt T, the problem is that the student with "few" ideas may actually be just as fecund as the student with "lots" of ideas, but may actually be more intellectually mature (e.g., seeing that many of these ideas aren't really worth developing, and hence self-censoring). By encouraging this student to leave philosophy, you could be encouraging the more skilled person to leave.


I suspect we are talking past each other on this issue. Let me just say this. I don't disagree with what Marcus is saying, or the others. I do believe philosophy, and all the various aspects of doing philosophy, is a skill that must be learned and developed. It is not fixed. But I am suggesting that this is a matter of degree or probability. I did not say the consistent inability to develop paper ideas is conclusive proof that you suck at philosophy. Only evidence for it. Conclusive evidence? No. There are many exceptions, as Marcus and others rightly point out. So, my point here is not in direct opposition with Marcus' point. More a matter of emphasis. But perhaps I am mistaken.


Like T, I would certainly worry if one is having a hard time coming up with ideas for papers early in one's career. The run to tenure once you get a TT job is so intense and quick that one really cannot afford to be struggling with paper ideas. And - to be sure - I do not think such a skill is innate (indeed, I do not know what I think about such a skill).
But, as Marcus notes, I think people are terrible at predicting who will make it in the long run. Right now, my career is going quite well. But in graduate school I was passed over for scholarships that went to people who long gone, out of the profession.
In my more naive moments, I often think it would be great if people had to pay for their mistakes in predicting success of people in their careers. As a grad students I heard faculty fighting in the halls over which candidate to hire, making claims about who was going to be the star - that is, which job candidate. And the loud mouth asses often picked people who were complete duds, or who ruined the department with very bad toxic stuff. But there is no karma of this kind ... as far as I can see.

Overseas TT

A quick glance at the TOCs of many journals shows that you don't need paper ideas in order to publish papers. (I'm kidding... sort of.)


"I did not say the consistent inability to develop paper ideas is conclusive proof that you suck at philosophy. Only evidence for it."

1. There are other signals that are far more robust signs of "sucking at philosophy". A few: (a) a consistent inability to grasp arguments or distinctions being made in philosophy papers, (b) a consistent inability to understand why philosophers are taking the perspective they do or care about the topics and questions they do, or (c) a preference for doing work typical of an engineer, mathematician, economist, etc, over the work typical of a philosopher.

2. We've all, including T, agreed that the ability to develop paper ideas is a skill that takes years to develop, and that the inability to consistently develop paper ideas early in one's career isn't very predictive of later success.

Having original, publishable paper ideas is like the pinnacle skill for a philosopher, so it seems strange it take early failures at it as a sign against philosophical ability. There are more basic tasks and motivations to consider. I guess T could fall back to saying it's "weak evidence", but at a certain point the claim becomes trivially true.

I do agree that early failures (of developing original paper ideas) may be a sign that you just won't move fast enough in your career development to actually get a job as a philosopher (given the status of the job market). I'm not sure there's any silver lining to that predicament. I think this signals something bad about the long-term health of philosophy, as a market and incentives that only allows precocious publishers to flourish is obviously going to screen out a range of philosophers with talents, skills, ideas, and projects that would, long term, be valuable to have.

William Peden

The most reliable way I know of coming up with ideas is to find some philosopher who says "X presupposes Y" or something similar - these claims are not hard to find - and then disagree. By the time you have worked out what on earth the original claim means, what reasons they might be able to give, and some arguments against the presupposition claim, you'll probably have quite a long paper.

For more positive papers, I think that it's useful to find the philosophical belief you have that is least commonly held in your field, and see what perspectives it gives you on various issues. For example, I have an extremely non-standard view of probability, which makes it relatively easy to find fresh perspectives in the philosophy of science. The disadvantage is that it can be hard to get past referees who are convinced that what I am saying is fundamentally wrong-headed, but if there's a reliable way to be original AND mainstream, I don't know what it is.


From my own experience: read widely, but not too deeply on a single issue, at least not until you have a thesis. Reading too much on a single issue gives me tunnel vision and it makes it too easy to accept the terms of the debate as it's currently laid out. You need to be familiar, obviously, but I don't like being too familiar too early.


You can try doing a “terminological correction” paper. For example, many philosophers argue and agree that “gratitude” is a virtue. But I disagree. “Gratitude” is the proper called for response to a beneficial act from a benefactor while “gratefulness” is the disposition of being disposed to express gratitude and hence should be classified as a virtue instead. Gratitude is the *response* while gratefulness is the *disposition*.

Don’t take my idea! Okay, go ahead; I’m giving you a freebie because I’m not an academic. Just find something (e.g. words, phrases) that many or all philosophers have taken for granted and try to figure out if it needs correction or further clarification.

This is commonsense to me. Unfortunately, almost all virtue ethicists and philosophers in general overlooked this terminological distinction. All in all, there’s always room for corrections in philosophy in terms of terminology and taxonomy. I’m such a linguistic police haha.

Levels of enlightenment varies amongst people. Just be patient and keep trying. ;-)


I would strongly advise *against* trying to write a "terminological correction" paper, unless the terminological "confusion" is actually facilitating some substantive conceptual or argumentative confusion --- in which case, you shouldn't be focused on the terminology, but the underlying substantive confusion.

While I'm not familiar with the virtue ethics lit on gratitude, I assume that the people writing on it are well aware of the distinction Evan makes, and are sensitive to it in their theorizing. If so, then trying to point it out would be an issue of "mere semantics", and most everyone agrees that disputes over mere semantics are pointless.

In general, I've noticed a lot of the recommendations in this thread are along the lines of "look for an intervention you can make in the literature". I'm not sure this is the best advice (for producing good philosophy), although maybe it's okay advice for getting something published. (Still, I know there's a growing movement among referees to push back against papers that merely make some small intervention, especially in good journals.)

Instead, I think you should be looking for questions you can answer. And here I don't mean overly narrow questions that can only be asked by setting up a dozen moves already made in some technical literature. I mean questions halfway between this hyper-specialized position and "grand" philosophical questions (like "what's the meaning of life?" or "can we know anything?"). They should be questions that are (1) framed in a way that's informed by the latest philosophical advances, without devolving merely into some hyper-specialized intervention, and (2) of some intrinsic or immediately obvious interest to some range of professional philosophers, if not of interest to some wider range of interdisciplinary researchers. Here are some examples that fall in the ballpark, although probably need some tweaking (and perhaps could be *slightly* more specialized):

1. What's the rational way to update beliefs when faced with peer disagreement?
2. What makes something an achievement?
3. Is memory a form of imagination?
4. Do we perceptually experience the mental states of people we see?

The hard part, then, coming up with an interesting, plausible, original answer.

The value in reading widely and teaching (as Marcus and others suggest), I think, is that it gives you time and space to appreciate these questions from different perspectives, allows you see all the answers already considered, and gives you an appreciation of the debates around them and the issues in play.

Anyway, advice I've been given (and that's served me well) is that your paper shouldn't start with "Here are the seven moves that so-and-so and these other people have made in the debate over X, and I'm going to correct some small wrinkle in the exchange", but instead just with some interesting, relevant question you're going to answer.

keep at it!

Let me mention what I think is a cheesy (though accurate in my case) distinction that I think gets at part of what T was saying. There's a difference between (a) having an idea for your paper's thesis and (b) an idea for the general subject matter of your paper. (a) is really hard and takes practice. (b) is easier if there are areas of philosophy that you find really interesting, that you are driven to think more about. It should be relatively easy to introspect and identify a few relatively specific issues along the lines of (b).

One of my mistakes early on was focusing so much on (a) that I forgot about (b). I thought I had to 'play the game' based on others' rules, the sorts of things discussed in my graduate classes, and I had a hard time finding good paper topics in this mindset. But when I allowed myself to start with (b), the things in philosophy that I just found deeply fascinating and didn't always correlate as directly with what was going on in class, then (a) started coming much more naturally to me.

The ancient story of Apelles as told by Sextus I think is helpful here. The best way to get (a) is not to obsess about it, but start with something else! The ironic thing is that when I stopped trying to sound like everyone else and actually followed what I found independently interesting I started getting much more recognition from professors and colleagues for having an interesting thesis to defend.


One other source of ideas which I forgot to mention is student questions. Students ask great questions of the sort Mike identified all the time. Often, nobody has really directly answered the question posed; instead, we've all just gestured in different directions. But do credit the student for asking the question in the paper!

One of my recent papers tries to answer a question a student asked me about another paper of mine I was presenting. It was an astute question that allowed me to further develop my position, and which forced me to explore a chunk of literature that I didn't know at all. And, frankly, I think it's one of my better papers.I hope it answers her question!

Current PhD student

I'm still in coursework, my general strategies for cranking out a term paper are typically these. I am also not a fountain of ideas.

1) Pursue a thing that stuck out to me from one week's readings. Practice asking two questions: why does the author bother with this, and why am I bothered by it? Writing out those answers in paragraph form can be a good way toward solidifying a paper idea.

2) Connect two readings from your seminar that are not obviously directly related. Use one reading to draw out underdeveloped conceptual relations in the other. This is a fun exercise. Maybe take one position and show how it is too coarse and can be more finely grained in light of the other reading. Or something like that.

3) If you can't find something interesting to you, pick something completely arbitrary. It's a term paper, the best thing you can do for yourself is finish it.

Lastly, eventually your term papers will probably be things you develop into professional conference papers and publications. But don't sweat that during your first year. In your first year, your job is to figure out how to be in grad school.


Mike: You’d be surprised by just how many semantics articles there are on the just gratitude. Granted, it’s gotten to the point where philosophers need to justify the difference between “appreciation” and “gratitude.” As well as the difference between a “sub-grate” and an “in-grate.”

These all may seem trivial to you. But for others it’s not. Some of us refuse to be imprecise. This may seem trivial to some of you, but it’s not to others. This seems like a matter of taste once again. YOU may not like semantics, but I do and so do others. I’ve always had a passion for semantics, linguistics, and sentence structure and all that jazz.

I would be cautious to avoid telling people what they should and shouldn’t write lest we lose uniqueness and diversity in philosophy. I offered one possibility.

Your stance isn’t surprising to me since you’ve said as a referee you prefer papers that advance things in the literature. If anything, your advice seems to be of a reflection of your taste and bias as a referee than actual genuine concern over “some substantive conceptual or argumentative confusion.”


-keep a “paper ideas” folder
(with files from a sentence to many bullet points or paragraphs long that you write when an idea comes to mind)
-read widely, thinking about how topics/methods from one area of inquiry might apply to another
-*“mindmap” your ideas!
-talk with others about your ideas (before & while writing)


Evan, there's a difference between being precise and being semantically pedantic. The issue you identified in your first post was that people used the term "gratitude" to refer to what you thought should be referred to by "gratefulness". That's a purely semantic complaint about how we use terms. Someone who uses terms in a different way may be no less precise than you; they may simply mark the distinction (which you mark via your particular use of "gratitude" and "gratefulness") in some other way. You, in your original post, offered no evidence that people are any less precise than you, or that they failed to make this distinction; you only complained that they didn't mark the distinction by using your preferred terminology.

As I said, I'm not familiar with that literature, but, to be frank, I would literally be *shocked* if professional philosophers did not understand the difference between (as you call it) gratitude and gratefulness. It's a rather rudimentary distinction. They, presumably, simply use different terminology, or (if the distinction is orthogonal to their work, or overly rudimentary) have no explicit jargon for it. Just because someone doesn't stake out explicit jargon for a distinction does not mean they aren't sensitive to it, or that they trip over the distinction and make some sort of substantive mistake in their argument.

That gets me back to my original point: it's only worth complaining about terminology if someone's use of terminology actually affects the substance of what they say. I don't think this is me being idiosyncratic. I'd be *very* surprised if more than 1/10, or even 1/20, professional philosophers (e.g., who review for journals) were favorable to papers that merely made some sort of terminological complaint without connecting it to an issue of substance.

I mean, maybe I'm misunderstanding, but what you (Evan) seem to describe is literally what just about everyone would deride as a "merely verbal" dispute, so I'm not sure there's really any debate to be had here.

So, as practical advice to graduate students and those looking to publish, I'll repeat: do *not* try to write "terminological corrections", unless that terminological confusion engenders a substantive mistake (and in that case, don't frame your paper as a terminological correction, frame it as about that substantive mistake!). I cannot remember the last time I read a published paper that framed itself as a terminological correction, and I'm pretty sure that's because you won't get this sort of paper published.


It's also worth noting that there's *always* some further regimentation of terms that can be done, or further pieces of jargon which could be introduced to make your meaning "more precise". Obviously you can't continue the process of regimentation forever (at best you get a terribly unreadable paper), so there must be some cutoff. The obvious cutoff is that you introduce just the regimentation and jargon that are needed to capture the substantive contours of the debate.


Mike: I put that kind of paper in quotation marks because I wasn’t sure whether it would actually be a strictly terminological correction per se.

One major criticism of virtue ethics is that people argue that it doesn’t tell us *what to do* and instead just tell us *what to be.* Critics contend that virtue ethics is not really action-guiding.

However, knowing the distinction between responses and dispositions helps defend virtue ethics from these critics. Indeed, I’d even argue that we should distinguish between what I call “Virtue-Response” (gratitude) and “Virtue-Disposition” (gratefulness) to help clarify the distinction between these virtue terms. This is meta-virtue ethics I would say.

Clearly we know what “gratitude” is since it is a response and an expression of “thank you.” While “gratefulness” is the disposition or character trait. They’re not the same thing. This isn’t pedantic.

Second you wrote:

“The issue you identified in your first post was that people used the term "gratitude" to refer to what you thought should be referred to by "gratefulness". That's a purely semantic complaint about how we use terms.”

Oh really? Then why did Tony Manela did just that in his article “Gratitude to Nature”? He wrote:

“If we have reasons to treat nature well, I show, those may be rooted in the appropriateness of attitudes like praise, appreciation or compassion, but not gratitude.”

Clearly some philosophers use the term “gratitude” when they *should* have used the term “appreciation” instead in this realm. Why? Because both are distinct concepts! His article was a critique towards Karen Bardsley who claimed that “gratitude” should be owed to nature. Some claimed that the Dali Lama should express gratitude towards the Chinese government for persecuting him, but Manela once again objected and argued that the Dali Lama at most owes appreciation not gratitude. Manela is indirectly making a “terminological correction.” He justifies it by stating that those two terms mean different things.

Source: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/gratitude/

Shay Logan

I think writing papers that are an appropriate size for you and your writing style is super important. Marcus has written elsewhere in the blog about how important it was for him to work on bigger ideas. I’ve had the opposite experience. I’ve known lots of people on both sides of this as well. But both for me and for other folks I’ve known, one thing that happened was an eventual convergence on the size of ideas that we were
(a) good at identifying,
(b) interested in and
(c) capable of writing, given our personal writing styles.

The only way to get good at these things is by practicing. So write (About basically whatever—it doesn’t even have to be your own idea) until you can judge Whether you’re writing about something too big or too small. Then either look at a smaller piece of whatever you’re looking at or a larger issue it’s a part of. Repeat until you get stuck or bored, then start again on a new idea. Eventually you’ll get good at it.


Evan, I glanced at Manela's article, and he is not at all complaining that "some philosophers use the term 'gratitude' when they *should* have used the term 'appreciation' instead". He's making a substantive distinction between gratitude and (what he calls) "appreciation" (see pp. 10-11), then arguing that appreciation but not gratitude is owed to nature. Of course, to make this point he has to regiment his use of terms (which he does by using the Yorick example to distinguish between gratitude and appreciation). I never claimed that care with terms is not needed, or that regimentation and jargon aren't the main tool to achieving conceptual precision. But note that, as I've been saying all along, he doesn't merely introduce a "terminological correction"; via the Yorick example, he introduces a substantive distinction in attitudes. In fact, he doesn't even *explicitly* regiment his terms. He merely uses the terms "gratitude" and "appreciation" in a circumscribed way, guided by the example, without commenting on that use or defining the terms.

Not only does Manela not get caught up in some (needless) explicit regimentation of his terms, he doesn't engage in anything that looks like "terminological correction". For example, nowhere does he complain that Bardsley *has been using the term "gratitude"* (when she should be using some other term). He's focused on the relevant psychological attitudes and dispositions: Bardsley has missed that there's a more appropriate *attitude* (that he happens to label "appreciation") to take towards nature.

So, I don't think it's really accurate to even say Manela is "indirectly" making a terminological correction, but even if we somehow grant that he is, this still fits my advice: Manela makes an "indirect" terminological correction that engenders a substantive confusion (mistaking one attitude for another), and he (certainly) doesn't frame his paper as a terminological correction, he frames it as about that substantive confusion.

At bottom, I think you're still missing the point that different sets of jargon, or terminological regimentations, can capture the same underlying conceptual distinctions, and thus that the interesting issue is *never* whether someone uses terms according to your deferred definitions, but whether they use them in a way that's sensitive to the relevant conceptual distinctions and (especially) whether their use of terms leads them into fallacious inferences or other conceptual confusion.


Mike: I used the phrase "terminological correction" because I knew (at the time) no other way to phrase what I meant. I too was not completely satisfied with that phrase. It was my ignorance of other alternatives or ways to capture what I meant. Hence why I used parentheticals or quotation marks. Quotation marks served to distinguish a valid and an invalid assertion about things.

In terms of being substantive, of course, I agree. It's commonsense. I'm not saying that one should write an article complaining about *just* term usage. Perhaps I should have advised OP to do a "Re-conceptualization Article" instead.


Evan, that's fair enough. I think the stakes here are pretty high: grad students and early career philosophers have limited time and resources to get papers written, papers which play a substantial part in determining the success of their career. Given the high stakes, I thought it was very important to make sure no one misunderstood you, or wrote something that looked like a (mere) "terminological correction". Even writing in that general style ("People use term X wrong and should use term Y") is dangerous and not likely to get traction in the publishing or conference ecosystem.

long time lurker...

So many great ideas to try!!

As someone who admitted above (long time lurker...) to suffering from the ideas problem, I feel some need to further respond to T. (Many thanks to those who have already pointed out problematic assumptions in T's comments)

First, there are many versions of the "oh my god I have no ideas" problem. Maybe one person has many hazy thoughts and no clear sense how to focus or refine. Maybe one person writes down some starting points but considers none of them to qualify as'ideas'. Maybe another person's idea stream is cut short by anxiety (exacerbated by "am I any good at this" worries.) Maybe another person is so busy with program requirements and other life commitments they rarely have time to quietly reflect and let ideas grow to fruition. Even if "you somehow managed to get this far in a field you're not suited for" is a legitimate explanation of some cases, it hardly seems to apply generally.

Second, on a most charitable reading T is saying something like "Why would you make yourself suffer pushing to do something you find so difficult? There are a million other options out there for happy careers and lives!" To those who have found fulfillment without having to overcome serious challenges: Congratulations! May that wind at your back never let up and never drive you into a brick wall. I'm more inclined to think that overcoming difficulties and shortcomings is an inevitable part of most successful lives and can contribute to fulfillment. Of course mileage may vary: what I decided to work through may prompt another to change course.

Comments like T's, even if well intentioned, and even if true in some narrow number of cases, easily do more harm than good. "Maybe you're just not good at this" echoes the voice many of us already have living in our heads. That voice doesn't need more air time.

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