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cecil burrow

Surely it shows a huge misunderstanding of 'small picture' science to think of it as merely cataloging some small corner of the world. Even the ant cataloger thinks that they are uncovering something important, and not merely about ants, when they practice their craft. So many disparaging comments about 'small-picture' science or philosophy seem to misunderstand what it is to do small-picture work.

Santa Monica

If you are trying to make a living doing philosophy (or theoretical physics, biology, etc.), then you risk a lot—and put a great deal of responsibility on yourself—by purporting to finish off enormous questions. Your reputation and livelihood are on the line, so you had better be pretty darn good if “going big.”

Bill Vanderburgh

I think the point about tenure is crucial. If you already have tenure, and you want to try to "go big," why not? But before tenure, it would be very risky: It is hard to imagine such a project coming to fruition in time, journals would be more likely to reject papers of that kind, and books take a long time to come out. A related issue is that since no one is writing such things these days, no one is reading them, either. There's a general bias, I'd say, to the effect that attempts to "go big" are only by crackpots and so not worth the time.


Just to add to what Bill and others have said - (1) Parfit himself is perhaps a cautionary tale. In his biography of Parfit, Edmonds remarks that after 14 years on research only fellowships at All Souls, Parfit still hadn't published a book. He was due up for a permanent position, which he almost didn't get for that reason. So yeah, make sure you have tenure - even if you are the next Derek Parfit!
(2) There is also the worry that most stuff where someone tries to go "big" without first going "small" ends up pretty crappy. Even Parfit wrote several papers on the topic of Reasons and Persons before writing the book.
(3) One way to go "big" is to avoid doing a lot of secondary work. So, yeah, stay away from writing on Rawls or Plato's Republic etc. (you don't distinguish Rawls himself from the Rawls' commentators - Rawls himself didn't do much "secondary" work.) Pick topics that haven't been overworked, or if it is a well worked topic, have a fresh approach. But then you're probably still better off writing at least a paper version of it, to get feedback and improve the later "big book" if that is your ambition (e.g, both Parfit and Rawls published papers on the relevant work before their big books...)

my two cents

despite a lot of sympathy for some of the ideas the OP raises... it might be helpful to avoid trashing other people's ways of doing philosophy (and/or what they think philosophy is "by its nature"--I mean, there's no agreement about any of the ideas in this post about what the nature of philosophy is!

That being said, something I've found helpful is working on one bigger project (e.g. a book I've been writing for a million years) and lots of related but not by parthood other smaller projects, at least some of which are more likely to be publishable, all at the same time. I had to end up deprioritizing the book the last three years or so leading up to tenure, but having all those projects happening at the same time made that easy: I could see when I really needed to just send a lot of papers out to journals and take a break from the big project. I think it's dangerous to throw all one's eggs in the basket of a big systematic project, but those of us who feel like it's the only thing we're really compelled to do need, I think, to do it anyway. So this has been my compromise and it has actually been really helpful--I think once I ever do finish writing the book it will be much better for me having worked out some related stuff in smaller pieces/papers/etc. and, I have to say, it's also made me much more humble--I think if I had just focused on writing the book straight out of grad school, it... wouldn't have been very good. I do think there is something to be said for spending many, many years letting stuff percolate--the big stuff--while working on somewhat smaller stuff. (But the smaller stuff doesn't have to be boring minutia! You can still do important and interesting and bigger smaller stuff, it just takes persistence with journals and an eye for figuring out how to strip stuff down in ways that will make it publishable.)

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