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04/27/2021

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Jen

Marcus, you haven't honed in on Singer's most important reason for engaging the work he engages. The reason is that the work Singer engages has the benefit of being produced in our system. The "insiders," those who contribute to our system as editors, reviewers, teachers, mentors, etc., contribute to the quality of the work produced in the system. Work produced outside this system does not benefit from it (and this work includes much of the work produced in the anglophone west). And the benefit is significant enough that Singer believes outside work is likely not worth engaging. If this is his reason, nothing you have argued speaks against his reason.
Assuming I'm correct about Singer's reason, is his reason any good? It probably is. The "insiders" (editors, reviewers, etc. in our system) very likely receive training very different from the training of "outsiders." It is a difference in content and in quality. For this reason, since there is so much work available to engage, including that of insiders and of outsiders, it makes sense to view the work of outsiders as unlikely to be sufficiently worth engaging.
Is there a problem with this? Maybe so. But Singer's reason is not problematic. And so his decision to engage the work of insiders is not problematic. Instead, the system's being inaccessible to many is a problem. In a more just society, the system would be available to everyone.

Jen

Sorry, that was meant to be addressed to Helen, I guess.

Jen

And for what it's worth, I wouldn't be surprised if readers find dubious the claim that our system tends to produce better work than that produced outside it. But work produced by and because of people like Gideon Rosen tends to be better than work produced by or because of people at unknown colleges/universities. If this is not obviously true to readers, I'm not sure what to say to them. My guess is that understanding why it is better is easier when you've been trained within the system. And those who don't have the training tend to be incapable of understanding. My mother doesn't understand why her way of "knowing" the truth, which involves interpreting insight gleened from her dreams, is not better than mine, which involves scientific methodology. I cannot help her to understand because she doesn't understand scientific methodology and its merits. So I don't try.

Helen De Cruz

Jen, yes should be addressed to me. I want to push back against conflating the fact that people trained at universities like mine (well-funded, well-networked etc), "insiders" can write in such a way that their papers find the way to publication with some sort of quality all things considered. It is tricky to do this well. Grad students at research-oriented universities take years to master this skill, which we already offer building blocks as undergrads.
However, it is also the case that a lot of philosophy produced in these top venues is unoriginal and boring. It's written competently, for sure, but there is little in the way of new ideas, it's basically (to use a tired metaphor) building new epicycles within discussions that already have narrowed considerably all we can say about a given topic. Take any topic you like, you'll see very early in the discussion the tone is set by a few prestigious players, for example, Williamson and Stanley on skill--you can think of so many things re skill and whether it can be reduced to knowledge-that and can be Gettiered is only a tiny aspect of it, but it got a lot of attention in the early 2000s. Because more intrinsically interesting? I do not think so, it's because of dynamics of the credit economy in our system. I say this btw with the greatest respect for both authors. I love their work on this, and have cited it and taught it. But the conversation cannot end there!

So we do have a problem that outsiders lack the resources and skills that would allow them to be part of the conversation. I think once they do (and we need to think together on how to facilitate this--proposals welcome!) we will see that the influx of new ideas will transform academic philosophy, will give us so many new exciting ideas to think about, and will enrich us. For example, if you take ubuntu as a concept, rather than Rawlsian agents behind the veil of ignorance, that is people who are situated, local etc., then you'll find different concepts of justice arise. Such concepts are interesting and worthy of philosophical discussion, and we are missing out that they are not more centrally part of the conversation.

Jen

Helen, thanks for responding. But just to be clear, I'm not claiming that someone's work being published within the system (or that a writer's ability to find a way to publish work within it) is sufficient for the work being of a high quality. The claim implies that any work published within the system is of a high quality. I deny this implication. (I agree with you, lot's of work published within the system is not of a high quality.) Rather, I'm claiming that a work's being published within the system tends to benefit the work, making it more likely to be sufficiently worth engaging.

One way that work produced within the system tends to be benefitted in accord with my suggestion is that its argumentative structure tends to be clearer (in that the underlying logic is clearer) than it otherwise would be. Clear argumentative structure is conducive to the production of knowledge and understanding. In this way, work produced within the system is more likely to be worth my engagement than work produced outside it. Other tendencies toward benefit can be explained. I need not explain them all.

Helen De Cruz

Ah I see, Jen. Yes I don't disagree. Making your work adherent to disciplinary standards is a great benefit. It facilitates discussion and the kind of open forum that allows for transformative criticism as Helen Longino explained it goes two ways--a work in, say, African philosophy that is published in Phil Review has huge potential to transform the field.
One reason that this doesn't happen (or not frequently) is that these journals are genuinely less open to lesser-taught philosophies, even those that adhere to all the standards. But another reason is that people who are in an optimal position to write about lesser-taught philosophies, especially contemporary ones, are not trained in such a way that their papers have any chance at being accepted in these venues.
I know from people in other fields, e.g., mathematics, physics, psychology that is an issue (together with funding, also a factor in philosophy). So one thing one might want to do is facilitate this kind of engagement--the main initiatives I am aware of are sporadic fellowships, PhD positions etc (for instance, King's College I believe is now advertising specifically PhD positions from people who live in African countries to come to the UK and do a PhD), and there is also an initiative by Yujin Nagasawa on training on writing journal articles in the pipeline. But there is generally not much, and I think we have a duty to reach out more actively. I'm not entirely sure how! I hope this blogpost can start a conversation

Jen

I'm glad we seem to be in agreement. But I really don't care about disciplinary standards or norms. I care about what makes sense and about what I can make sense of. I once read some prominent work on race and racism, work outside of philosophy. It was full of nonsense arguments, nonsense definitions, etc. It certainly didn't adhere to our disciplinary standards or norms. And it was not worthy of my engagement, but not because it didn't adhere to those standards or norms. It was because it was nonsense. Maybe I'm arrogant, or rather, maybe I simply value my time and effort.

Anyway, I agree that many of the best journals are not interested in lesser-taught philosophies, and that those in a position to write about those philosophies are not trained in such a way that they can publish in those journals. This is a problem to the extent that those philosophies are worthy of our engagement. With this in mind, I can imagine someone asking: if we cannot know that those philosophies are worthy of engagement because we don't have access to work that demonstrates their worth, what reason could there be to bother actively reaching out? And aren't there so many countervailing reasons to do known-to-be-worthwhile things? What duty to actively reach out could there be?

Mohist

Thanks Helen, this is a great post. I support your call for philosophers in wealthy countries to engage more with philosophers from the global south.

I work in an elite institution in a wealthy Asian country and my career progression requires me to publish in elite venues and engage with scholars at elite institutions. Yet I am also turned off by the elitism and prestige bias at these places. For this reason (and other reasons) I have taken the opportunity to attend several philosophy conferences in various "global south" countries in my region. In each instance I have found attending these conferences to be enriching. It is true that the average standard of scholarship is much lower than at more elite conferences in wealthy countries. But that doesn't stop me getting a lot out of them. I also find that, among the young people I meet, there are many who are intellectually impressive, and seem to have great philosophical potential (by contrast, the older people I meet tend to be less impressive, more stuffy, and more caught up in local hierarchies that elevate their status). This has led me to believe that in the decades to come we will see more and more of these brilliant, intellectually hungry, young people from the global south become significant scholars in philosophy and other academic disciplines.

By the way, I don't understand why you put this blatant straw person against effective altruism in your otherwise excellent and well argued post:

"It will simply not do for western outsiders to make a quick and easy effectively altruist calculation of the ideal dosage and distribution of insecticide, at least not in the long term, as this is a stopgap measure."

This is not the kind of thinking that EA is based on. Go to the main EA websites and you will find extensive, thoughtful, and rigorous discussion of the relative merits of short-term vs. long-term strategies for addressing problems like the one you discuss.

Helen De Cruz

Hi Mohist - yes you're right this is not a nuanced representation of effective altruism, but my general point still stands, that if we want to be effectively altruist that it is important to involve local stakeholders. Moreover, a wide, rich range of philosophical positions also helps us to get a better picture of how well effective altruism fares against these alternatives, much better than if we just looked at the standard western fare. (your pseudonym, for instance, already indicates one such philosophical position, interestingly similar and different to effective altruism!)

pgs

I'd suggest to check the use of conservation and conversation; while it maybe a stupid typo fuckup, it confuses the readers to no end

James

"The sentiment is that philosophers from the global south are not really worth engaging with, because their work would not be at the same level as the more prestigious, well-known (mostly white and male) philosophers from wealthy countries."

Helen with respect I don't believe that it was the sentiment Singer conveyed. The sentiment was that such contributions are not platformed in an accessible way to Singer in his limited circles, which relates to his education and the limitations of the period his career was in.

Do African's or any other cultures have less to contribute? Of course not, Singer was not saying that. What Singer said was he was subordinate to the timeframe in which he lived, the power structures of which facilitated overwhelming white male influence, so the ideas he referenced along the way had those origins. Of course, we might say well the same could be said for the actions of a German working within the Nazi regime - therefore, no excuse. However, this is Peter Singer! Of all people, if any contribution from elsewhere was available surely he would have referenced such ideas. Singer literally identified our ethical obligations to 'non-human animals'... Should Singer have got on a plane in the 1970s and travelled to Africa for years of translation and study to ensure a balance? Surely not, and nor should he now have to at his ripe old age.

I am with your plight, but better care is needed in picking the battles. Whilst a lot of our WW2 grandparents are still very, very racist and there is nothing we can do about changing their minds, Singer was against that tide! At best, this is a bad example of the new left trying to out left the old left. Surely there are bigger fish out there.

Nicolas Delon

What I don't understand is why Singer simply didn't deny the premise. He does work with, cite and engage with non-Western and non-white authors, as well of course as women. Many of the people who are lashing at him don't (and 99% of those people have not suggested a single author they think Singer should have cited but did not). Could he do more? Of course! He doesn't have the most diverse bibliographies in the world. But so could we all do better. At the same time, I haven't launched a global movement to help the global poor and sentient creatures, so I don't feel super comfortable telling him to do more.

Helen De Cruz

James, the piece was--as I point out at the start of it--meant as a broader reflection for us as a field. I think what Singer is saying reflects a broader sentiment, specifically

"If you’re thinking of the work of Africans, for example, I don’t know the work of many of them that is really in the same sort of—I’m not quite sure how to put this—participating in the same discussion as the people you’ve just mentioned."

Now Singer has meanwhile clarified what he means on a Daily Nous post. But this still does not take away from the fact that as a field we are not structured in a way that we can benefit from global philosophical conversation.

Singer says this has to do with his environment and education, and that's fine as it goes, still I think as a field we must do better because it is important to talk to stakeholders in the conversations about issues of global and local concern.

On a related note, I appreciate Peter Singer's engagement on the Daily Nous and I hope we get some conversation going on lesser-taught philosophers.

I am not interested in culture wars, or left against right, so I am not sure what your remark at the end means (I do not feel I fit politically in any of the streams and certainly not in a Manichean culture war as we are seeing in the US and in other western English-speaking countries. I am interested in constructive conversation.)

Helen De Cruz

pgs - thanks! A simple repeat typo (I'm sorry I'm not a great proofreader. I've now corrected it and put at the bottom of the page that the minor edits were made)

Helen De Cruz

Nicolas, as you point out the problem is really part of our field. Indeed, even if Peter Singer cited and collaborated more (than he does already nw) with authors outside of the anglophone west, this would not solve the structural issues I pointed at above namely that the most prestigious venues (journals, conferences, monographs) structurally exclude philosophers working across the globe, who have relevant and interesting things to say, and that could be of benefit to all. Individual efforts to cite etc more will only bring us so far, since the problems in the field reflect broader socio-economic inequities, that would require creative and structural solutions to at least mitigate in the domain of philosophy.

Nicolas Delon

Thanks for the reply, Helen. I agree with most of what you say, in particular with shifting the focus away from Singer personally onto the structural issue.

Patrick S. O'Donnell

I am not able to post at Daily Nous (where there is another thread about this), perhaps because I am not a professional philosopher, but I think Singer, and a few interlocutors to this conversation might find this useful: https://www.academia.edu/46923618/Thinking_about_Comparative_Philosophy_a_short_bibliographic_introduction

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