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03/19/2021

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Ulrich de Balbian

How patronizing. Look at the history of philosophy, many important, original thinkers were not academics or professional philosophers.

elisa freschi

Thanks for this post, Marcus (and OP)!
My 2cents here: Avoid claiming that you have a "novel" approach and you have "finally solved" problem X (typical examples in my experience: the existence of God or the riddle of free will). Claiming it automatically disqualifies you as soon as your readers notice that your approach is not at all novel and that the problem was recognized as an antinomy in Kant etc. etc.

Marcus Arvan

Ulrich: can you explain how the post is patronizing? I tried to make it clear that I am sympathetic with outsiders and underdogs, giving examples of people who made profound contributions to academic disciplines without credentials (and whose stories I deeply admire!). On top of that, I even went so far as to encourage outsiders without credentials to pursue their work. I don't see how it is patronizing to point out the obvious: that without professional training, it is *very* hard to produce high-level work - and that the vast majority of people who try don't turn out to be the next Wittgenstein (or whatever). Heck, it is very hard to produce good, high-level work even with professional training. How is it patronizing to be supportive yet honest about the likelihoods?

notsofast

I think in order to contribute to Phil without a PhD requires one to basically be a genius or have lots of help. Wittgenstein was a genius and had a lot of help.

Michel

One thing to remember is that the audience for *any* philosophy book is painfully small, and uptake takes years (especially if you aren't part of the conference circuit and other dissemination channels). So: adjust you expectations downward, if you haven't already!

Marcus Arvan

notsofast: I'm generally very skeptical about most claims about 'genius.' Nobody thought Wittgenstein or Einstein was a genius...until they actually (and unexpectedly) did great work. Wittgenstein was an ordinary engineering student who was regarded as one of the less talented children in his family...until he became *Wittgenstein*. Similarly, Einstein's professors thought he was lazy, he never scored in the top of his classes, his first published paper was short, on a trivial subject, and had a simple, fatal error - and his professors thought so little of him that they wrote him negative letters of recommendation (which is how he ended up working in a patent office). Further, there are plenty of Mensa-level 'geniuses' with IQs of 180 whose careers never amount to a hill of beans. In most cases, nobody recognizes someone as a 'genius' until they (usually unexpectedly) do genius-level work.

WL

What Marcus wrote was not patronizing at all.

Mike

If you want contemporary academic philosophers to take your book seriously, it would help a lot to first publish articles in some of the top philosophy journals, present at relevant conferences, etc. If a few of the chapters are published in Mind, JPhil, Ethics, or whatever, then probably some people will read your book, take it seriously, and review it. And if enough of them think it's good, they'll probably get others to take it seriously. The same holds but to a lesser degree if you've published in good but not top journals. It would also help if the book is published by a well known academic publisher rather than being self-published or published by some press that academics haven't heard of.

This will be very difficult and maybe impossible, especially if your ideas are well outside the mainstream, but that's just how it is, I'm afraid. Probably best to start trying with conferences, since those are much easier to get things accepted to and you're more likely to get quick and useful feedback from them.

Besides being a lot of work and taking a long time, this process will likely change your ideas and their formulation a great deal. This will likely be an improvement, but there's a chance that it won't be, and that you should accept not being taken seriously by contemporary academics as the cost of sticking to your vision.

There's also a real chance (as others have been suggesting) that what you thought was carefully thought through has many holes, or unavoidably faces damning objections, and that the process of peer review will uncover this. So before taking this path you should brace yourself for that, as well as consider whether you'd really want to find out.

notsofast

Marcus, I don't know what your point is exactly. There are lots of factors at play in whether someone becomes recognized as a genius. For example, if you have 190 IQ but for whatever reason you're not ambitious then you might not ever be recognized. Maybe you just teach math, which is easy for you, and enjoy your family--maybe you think this is a better life than trying to be famous. Smart people don't all want to be part of the system, which probably seems pretty stupid to them, and not all are interested in trying to change the world. What I'm saying is if you're going to teach yourself philosophy and be good enough to contribute to the profession you're probably going to have to be pretty smart. The fact is hardly anyone has an IQ over 130. Harsh realities here!

Marcus Arvan

notsofast, the point is this: many times in discussions like these, people say or imply things like the following, 'People outside of academia shouldn't try to be like Wittgenstein, Einstein, Joule, etc. because these people were geniuses and chances are you're not a genius.' Your comment above ('I think in order to contribute to Phil without a PhD requires one to basically be a genius or have lots of help') does not directly entail this, but comes close--or, at least, might be (erroneously?) interpreted by a non-negligible number of people as supporting the rule above.

The point then, however, is that Wittgenstein, Einstein, Joule, etc., weren't recognized as geniuses prior to doing their great work. So, had they followed the kind of advice often given (or implied) in cases like this, *they* wouldn't have done the genius work they did. For example, if someone told Einstein, 'Don't try to be the next Newton, because Newton was a genius and chances are you're not a genius', and Einstein took this to heart, then Einstein might have been content being a patent clerk and never bothered to have developed or published his 1905 papers on relativity, Brownian motion (establishing the existence of atoms), and the photoelectric effect (establishing quanta). And if Einstein had never published those things, he would never had published the general theory of relativity--which, you know, is the basis for all kinds of modern technology (including GPS) and modern physics. Similarly, if someone had told or implied to Wittgenstein, 'Don't try to be the next Kant, because Kant was a genius and you're probably not, since you're just an undistinguished engineering student who likes kites', then Wittgenstein might have become a kite-maker. No offense to patent clerks or kite-makers here: the world needs them, and I in no way mean to denigrate their work. But still, it would have deprived Einstein and Wittgenstein of remarkable lives--and the human race of their remarkable achievements--had they internalized maxims like those above.

Finally, on the IQ thing: an estimated 4.43% of human beings have IQs above 130. That's 34,554,000 people. So, in terms of absolute numbers, 'hardly anyone has an IQ over 130' is false. Not that IQ is the only or best measure of intelligence there is--but the point is: by any relevant standard, there are a *lot* of very bright people in this world. Sure, they may be comparatively small in terms of percentages, but 4.43 is between 4-5 of every 100 human beings. Given that philosophy and science plausibly self-select for relatively intelligent people, the chances are that someone who works seriously on philosophy in their spare time is pretty smart seems pretty high to me.

Historian

The comparison with the historical figures such as Wittgenstein is not appropriate, in my opinion. Philosophy has become very professionalized and specialized over the last hundred years. This has many consequences, among them a narrowing of publication forms (specialized articles in specialized journals). I do not know how much average academic literature from the early 20th century you have read, Marcus. The gap between academic and non-academic philosophy was not that big in the early 20th century. This is demonstrated by the historical fact that many non-academic philosophers had considerable influence on the philosophical profession at the time of Wittgenstein, especially in the German-speaking world where the Tractatus was first published in a series edited by a scientist who had a considerable public profile (Wilhelm Ostwald). The reception of Nietzsche took off after 1900. The completely forgotten Oswald Spengler was the most read German philosopher of the 1920s, also within academic philosophy (Wittgenstein engages with his thoughts too). He was offered professorships, but declined. Otto Neurath (who wrote an entire book against Spengler [Anti-Spengler]) did not have an academic appointment in Vienna when he was part of the Vienna Circle. And even a "thinker" like Otto Weininger was read in academic circles too. Wittgenstein was thus not a completely exceptional figure, but is an example of a broader outsider-culture in the social context of early 20th-century philosophy. Philosophy has changed a lot since then and has become, I submit, a very closed society. Whether this is good or bad (and what is good or bad about it), is another discussion...

notsofast

I think if Wittgenstein and Einstein were so easily persuaded not to pursue their work by someone saying 'you're probably not a genius,' that probably they'd never have done the work in the first place. People who make major contributions aren't afraid to rock the boat and don't give a damn what others think. Wittgenstein would certainly fit this mold.

Anyway, I'm not giving the OP any advice one way or another. Maybe they are a genius. I'm just cautioning them that it's really hard to make even a small contribution to philosophy. Without formal training the chance you can do this unless you're very very smart is extremely low. I don't see why it's bad for someone to be aware of these facts.

You might say, 'but surely they are aware of them!' Well, maybe they are. But it's my experience that non-academics often drastically underestimate how hard philosophy is. I mean I've talked with narcissistic people who think they've contributed to philosophy by saying the most mundane or clearly confused things.

Marcus Arvan

notsofast: I think we're on the same page then, as I agree with everything you just wrote. :)

Evan

I think it’s important to make some clarifications. I don't think doing great philosophy *necessarily* requires one to obtain a Ph.D. in philosophy. There can be exceptions and rarities in this world. That’s what makes our world more interesting.

Obtaining a Ph.D. can certainly increase one’s chances of becoming a competent philosopher of course. Nobody denies this. As well, obtaining a Ph.D. can increase one’s chances of being *respected* in the profession because the background assumption is that you are familiar with the literature and are not some pretentious “know-it-all” like a lot of philosophy enthusiasts I’ve come across and what nosofast wrote.

However, I agree with Marcus that it’s going to take a lot of work, but it’s not impossible per se. If you have a lot of time and if you’re wealthy to be able to do independent research, then go for it. Try it out. If it’s your passion and if you have the means and time, then I don’t see why not. If not, I would advise you not to pursue this as a full-time job though. You need to take care of yourself as well.

I also agree with Mike: perhaps starting off incrementally by submitting to journals and attending conferences so you can be more competent. Writing a book is a big leap if you haven't even published one article in a journal yet.

The lesson to be learned from what Historian wrote is that OP may need somebody in the profession who believes in them to help them succeed. This is ubiquitous in other fields. For example, legendary producer and songwriter David Foster met Michael Buble when he was singing at a wedding. David loved his voice so much he flew Michael to LA that week and worked on his first album together. Now Buble is a household name. Not too long ago I came across an academic book published by a scholar with a Ph.D. and an independent scholar who only has a BA. I forgot what the name of the book was, but it shows that outsiders can succeed if they have somebody to believe in them.

This means of course that OP must network more so than the average professional philosopher. And make sure that their ideas are worth taking seriously, which bring me to my other advice:

Just know that since you're an independent learner, you’ll have to be 10X harsher to yourself and views than any other professional philosopher since you will lack the guidance of a philosophy teacher. Being an outsider means you must not take for granted one bit of intellectual humility. You have to be extremely vigilant. If you work hard and put the effort in, your thought and thinking may well reach enlightenment as Kant would say.

Another historian

Historian: I don't think this is a trend only in early 20th century Europe, but also well before that. Spinoza also turned down professorships to work as a lens grinder, and most philosophers of the period were also outside of the formal academy (Descartes, Leibniz -- though both did intellectual work for their monarchs). Kant was paid by the class and only achieved a "tenured" position late in life. Elsewhere on the continent, 20th century French philosophers (Sartre, Beauvoir) also did not have either PhDs or non-temporary academic positions. And PhDs only became a requirement in philosophy relatively recently -- Cora Diamond, who only has a BPhil, gave a talk at the APA two years ago on overturning this requirement, since she feels it has contributed to the narrow professionalization of the field many are noting in this thread. From what she says in her talk, many if not most philosophers who got their start in the postwar period (including John McDowell) did not have PhDs. So it seems like the current standards we're talking about here are the exception to the historical norm, whereas Wittgenstein and the Vienna Circle (perhaps also Einstein) are in line with the norm.

Andrew

I strongly agree with Mike that journal articles would be the place to start. They are (for many journals) reviewed anonymously so you can see what philosophers think of your ideas without the person reading knowing whether you have credentials or what they are.

Conversely, books are things that publishers sell. That sell includes every detail about the author that makes it sellable. It also includes the standards of that press. (e.g., an Oxford University Press book tends to lend more prestige because they tend to have more selectivity, better authors and better editing).

There's an interesting recognition problem at work in trying to do books that professional philosophers will recognize as good. Viz., (a) the credential-less person largely wants recognition from an amorphous world of credentialed philosophers (b) but doesn't want to do get this recognition by spending the years to get the credentials. More simply, "I want *these people* to recognize my work is as good as theirs but I don't feel I need to do what they did"

Part of this might be exclusivism, but I personally think a larger part is that professional philosophy is a culture and people who do well in it master its cultural practices. Some of these practices involve ways of arguing; some involve a core of classical arguments; some involve knowing who to cite among the more recent literature

Daniel Weltman

To give a very direct answer to the original question: if the book comes out from a very respected press (e.g. Oxford University Press) then lots of academics are likely to look at it close enough to decide if they want to read it, and if they want to read it, most of them will take your ideas as seriously as they would take a fellow academic's ideas. Once they are reading the book, that is, I suspect there are very few who will care whether the author is in academia.

If the book comes out from a good but not tremendously fancy press (e.g. Routledge) probably the same thing will happen except with fewer people.

In both cases, all it takes is a few book reviews published in venues people read, or a few people liking the book and recommending it to others, for the book to then get taken seriously more broadly.

If the book comes out from a not very well-respected press (or it's self-published), it is unlikely anyone will read it unless you manage to get this to happen proactively. Sending people copies might work - lots of people will ignore them but some might not, at least insofar as they glance through it and it seems interesting.

In any event, getting noticed at all in any of those scenarios entails writing a book that philosophers will find interesting. And the challenge there is in writing the book, not in lacking credentials, for reasons Marcus has pointed out. But, granting you write the book, these at least are my predictions.

This is one reason why Mike's advice above about journal publishing is very good. With the book, you have one shot at getting noticed, and that shot is better if you are published by a great press. You get more shots at being noticed, and you improve your chances of publishing in a great press, if you first publish some of your ideas as journal articles. Publishing one's book ideas as a few journal articles first is how most less-established junior scholars in academia get their ideas out there, and this is a good route for non-academics too.

Mike Barkasi

If you have good ideas, there will be people who listen. Many of us are like Marcus: If you send us something, we'll skim it and see if there's anything there. (If your work is in philosophy of mind or cognitive science, email it to me. I'll tell you if there's something there.) I think it's really as simple as that. Ask an expert. If there's something there, that person can help you strategize about how to get your work out there. They'll know the venues and possible outlets for your ideas.

But ... as Marcus said, brace yourself though, because most likely there are serious problems: e.g., the idea isn't original at all, there are obvious problems, your framing is just incoherent and a reader can't understanding what you're talking about, or there's a huge batch of literature that's related to what you're trying to do, and you just don't know it. The biggest issue I see in amateur work isn't a lack of originality or inconsistency (although there's normally those things, too), it's incoherence. I generally start reading and just don't know what the person is trying to say, see that they're using terms radically differently than professionals, or see that they're conflating basic concepts.

To echo what others said above, trying to just jump in with a book is probably a bad idea. But it's vastly more complicated than just "oh, philosophers are elitist". Does what you have to say really need a whole book? Books aren't the default most of the time. Books take a lot of time to read, so most philosophers don't bother to read most books. Publishers are in it to make money, and won't publish most professional philosophy books because they won't make money, etc. It's complicated in ways you probably won't appreciate until you're immersed in this publishing ecosystem. It's often not even a good idea for philosophers to try to publish a book, let alone an amateur. If your goal is dissemination of your ideas, articles and conferences will be much better than a book.

Evan

I think one cause of why there’s so much misunderstanding of professional philosophy committed by outsiders, at least non-philosophy degree holding outsiders, is that they aren’t familiar with meta philosophy. Even as an undergraduate, meta philosophy was something that most of my philosophy professors neglected. Some have touched upon it, but very superficially.

In fact, the only class that I ever took that was exclusively dedicated to the meta analysis of its own field was my sociology class. It really opened my mind about the presuppositions, norms, history, and evolution of sociological practice. It was required for all sociology majors. Such a shame philosophy neglects this. If philosophy students aren’t given the opportunity to learn about meta philosophy in a formal and explicit way, then how can we even expect outsiders to? Although I am sympathetic to the frustrations of outsiders not knowing much about philosophy, I can’t help but see that such a reality is inevitable given little attempts to teach others on meta philosophy.

Mike Barkasi

I second what Daniel Weltman says, but want to put his "lots of" in "lots of academics are likely to look at it" in perspective. The number is still extremely small, because like I said, most philosophers aren't actually reading most books. Just a few weeks ago I noticed a book from the top press in my area of specialty, OUP, which came out *three years* ago. (I read only 2 chapters carefully.) This isn't rare. I probably miss many books, and I'm certainly not alone. Meaning, even at a top press, lots of people who work directly in the area of the book are going to miss it, or at least take years to read it.

Here's a story. Someone in my AOS, with a reputation, published a very good book about five years ago, with a top press. It was reviewed 2-3 times in big journals and (I think?) even got an author-meets-critic at the APA. But ... in that time the book has been cited less than 20 times, which is probably a good proxy for how many people have sat down and carefully read the book (meaning, not many). Still, this person's ideas have had a big impact. Just, it's not because of the book. The book was more the culmination or final statement of their work on this topic: Years of journal articles, conferences, workshops, and informal chats. They made their mark on the discussion (an important one) through all that other stuff, not the book.

Of course, I'm not saying that nobody writes a book early in a project that goes on to have a big impact in and of itself. Sure, it happens, but just as many books (even from OUP) end up essentially only ever getting sold to research libraries and have virtually no impact on the discussion.

Not to draw out the point, but I guess I'm just trying to give sociological stories to make the point vivid. I'm not sure just saying, without context, "most people don't read most books" actually conveys the reality of how philosophical ideas make their way around the community.

I guess a final idea, drawing on a lot of what's been said. If you can't get a paper explaining in brief your idea (or parts of it) accepted at a conference like the APA, there's no way an editor at OUP will be interested in the book. So, that sort of thing in itself is a nice test for whether you'll get update of your book.

Prof L

Why would you want to write a book for academic philosophers? It’s a small audience, not particularly concerned with truth so much as advancing their own careers. If you can manage to write a book on philosophy that appeals to the non-academic, thoughtful human being, that’s time and effort well spent. That’s no easy feat either, but certainly more rewarding and impactful than trying to get professional philosophers to give a stamp of approval, which is worth nothing.

Paul

I've published, both books and articles, and I don't have a Ph.D, or even a graduate degree. (My undergraduate education was in philosophy, though). I've even been asked to referee, despite my lack of qualifications (I suspect the journal in question wasn't aware of this, however; I hope the editor doesn't read this!).

My work, furthermore, is not of the popular kind at all, it is purely academic, and I don't believe that I am in any way am 'amateur' in the sense indicated by Marcus. One doesn't need to be a genius to contribute either, although if one wants to find contemporary examples it seems that philosophy is not, after all, a good field to consider. But there are some examples from other disciplines, e.g. sociology. Two of the most renowned American sociologists of the last century were Daniel Bell and David Riesman. The first dropped out of a doctoral programme to pursue a career in journalism; the second was trained as a lawyer. Neither had completed their education beyond an undgraduate degree, yet both publised books that became classics. This was a few generations ago (1950s and 60s), however, and I wonder if the same could be possible today.

That being said, I can't say that my work has had much impact. The books were published by lower-tier (but not quite bottom tier, I think!) presses, and have been ignored. I've picked up quite a number of citations for my article, but I can't say that it has yet reached the audience that I had hoped for. I suspect, howvever, this is likely the case for most academics, outside of a very few who are at the top of their particular field.

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