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The Ruin of Philosophy as a Discipline

When I attended my first philosophy conference in 1969 there were four papers presented each day and everyone attending the conference attended each session. At the last philosophy conference I attended, in 2001, there were about 20 papers presented each day, four or five papers being presented concurrently at each of the four sessions. Attendance at each paper was unpredictable, from zero to perhaps fifteen. I enjoyed the first conference. Everyone attended each paper and everyone understood the ideas being presented in all of the papers. We all benefited from the fact that we spoke a common language, the canon of our discipline. I can't say that I enjoyed the last conference, at least not in the same way. There is no longer a canon that constitutes the discipline, and without a canon a common point of reference in terms of which all discussions are held, the sense of benefiting from the discussions is lost.

Since we do not share the basic assumptions that the canon used to provide it is hard to get that sense of progress which we used to feel when an idea presented in a paper was integrated into the canon. What went wrong? What went wrong happened very slowly. Exactly where and when it began is hard to pinpoint but here is my hypothesis. 

About twenty or perhaps twenty five years ago in the United States, someone looked at the universities and was stuck by the fact that the science faculty was engaged in research which resulted in a continuous addition to the store of knowledge. Every teaching scientist was involved in research that resulted in publications. In the arts faculty it was a very different story. Only a few people published articles and fewer still wrote books. Some never published. The obvious conclusion was drawn: very little research was being done in the Arts faculty and often by only a few people. Clearly it was an unproductive sector of the university. Something should be done to make it more productive. What was done was to introduce incentives to increase production what we now know as "publish or perish". 

The incentives worked beautifully. Arts faculties were full of clever people who enjoyed teaching in their disciplines and it was not long before they were all publishing regularly (just like the scientists) in order to avoid losing their jobs. Thus in 1965, 76 philosophy journals were published world wide whereas in 2003 there were approx 600 journals listed in the Philosopher's Index. The Mistake I believe that the assumption that brought about this change was that those engaged in the arts were actually doing the same thing as those engaged in the sciences. However I believe there is a significant difference. Science investigates the natural world. The disciplines contained within the arts faculties try to understand the human condition. 

Since the Seventeenth Century, Science has made tremendous progress thanks to the discovery of the scientific method. The scientific method allows all scientists to contribute to the growth of knowledge about the natural world. An occasional genius revolutionizes a given scientific field but every worker within that field can contribute by simply following the method: doing what is called 'normal science'. In the disciplines that constitute the Humanities there is no analogue of the scientific method. Each advance in understanding the human condition is dependent upon the insight of a genius and such people are rare. (Schopenhauer thought that a genius occurred once in 200 million.) Since advances in the Humanities depended upon genius there could be no analog to 'normal' science. Thus the work of people in humanities disciplines was to integrate the latest genius into the canon, which itself was made up of the integrated insights of earlier genii. These integrations or commentaries constituted the work that members of such disciplines used to do. In the nature of the case most of the work done was the actual reading of the canon and its famous commentaries. Very few would feel, after absorbing this material, that they had anything to add to it, and this explained why only a few ever published anything. (Everyone understood, as a matter of course, that you would not publish unless you had something to say and given the depth and richness of the canon this was a rare event). The value of such reading was to enable the reader to pass on this history of insights to the next generation with the idea that absorbing a portion of this accumulated wisdom would enable those who acquired it to live an examined life

 Consequences Once 'publish or perish' was in place the only way to survive was to find something to say. The only way for everyone to find something to say was to hyperspecialize. The discipline necessary fragmented. Hundreds of new journals sprang into existence to meet the need to publish within these hyperspecialized areas and people only read the journals in their own area. Intellectual ghettoes sprang up and communicating between ghettoes became very difficult as specialist languages evolved. It was not possible to both absorb and pass on the integrated wisdom of the past and publish a steady stream of articles. Professional philosophers gave up on the 'absorbing and passing on' option to avoid perishing. Since the word 'Philosophy' means 'the love of wisdom' the idea that the discipline has been ruined is not such a drastic claim. Carrying on regardless One of the great events in philosophy is the advent of a new genius. 

A genius in philosophy is defined as a thinker who provides a new perspective on the human condition. However, given the reorganization of professional philosophy (in response to the publish or perish principle) no such genius could arise. The limited horizon of the ghetto precludes the possibility of this type of genius arising. This is because the genius in the ghetto can only revolutionize thinking within the ghetto. But revolutions in philosophy alter everything and can only occur if the genius in question is responding to the integrated canon, i.e., the accumulated wisdom of the discipline. That is why such revolutions are so rare and so interesting when they occur. Is 'the ruin' a good thing or a bad thing? What has been lost and what has been gained? On the plus side everyone now publishes in their specialized area. When I talked to Heather Dyke-a young philosopher in our department-I got a very positive view of the state of the discipline. She felt that the fragmentation of specialities and the huge increase in publishing was a good thing on the grounds that lots of fresh ideas were coming to light on a significantly broader front than in the past and that there was in fact a great deal of cross fertilization between the various specializations. She felt that the specializations were not as narrow as I had implied in that the methods and arguments employed in any specialization within philosophy have a unity that allows for that cross fertilization about whose absence I was complaining. 

Heather agreed that there was some danger of reinventing the wheel if the Canon was not kept in mind as a benchmark for assessing new ideas but she felt that philosophy should be essentially problem-oriented rather than an evolving discipline in which we get our bearing through a constant reassessment of the history of the discipline On the minus side the sense of Philosophy being the only broad discipline among the humanities is now gone. Twenty-five years ago all philosophers spoke the same 'expert' language. Now, philosophers often find they can only talk philosophy with their specialist colleagues - just as perhaps is the case in the History department or the department of English Literature. 

We seldom talk philosophy over tea anymore in our department (we once did nothing but talk philosophy over tea). What is the discipline like for young professional philosophers? They are often stuck in the ghetto of their own PhD for four or five years until they gain tenure. To avoid perishing they have to write a number of articles or a book and their only area of expertise is generally related to their PhD thesis. Their research is thus confined to a specialized area and it is usually the case that only a few other professionals-world-wide-share their expertise. As a consequence in most departments, young professionals might have no one with whom they could discuss their ideas. Before publish or perish began, you were able to discuss your ideas with all of your colleagues since everyone's expertise was always related to the canon directly. As a consequence you could count on the fact that everyone would have read the two or three books that, in the past decade, had been recognized as significant, i.e., worth considering as candidate books to be included in the canon which formed the basis of the discipline. 

Thus, in the sixties, most philosophers would have been familiar with the ideas presented in Quine's Word and Object and Strawson's Individuals. I don't have much luck these days when I ask visiting colleagues what book everyone is currently reading. The present state of the Canon At present and for perhaps the last twenty years, the huge number of 'tenure books' that have been published in the English-speaking world has made it very difficult to sort out the wheat from the chaff. It would be hard to name with any confidence a book published in the eighties or the nineties that you could expect most philosophers to have read. As a consequence the canon taught universally in philosophy departments ends with Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations (1950). If there is a new part of the canon it has come from the continent where perhaps the 'publish or perish' culture never took hold and leading thinkers could be identified and then discussed widely. Solutions I'm presuming that this hyper-specialization of our discipline is a bad thing. 

Can anything be done about it? First and foremost the criteria for promotion would have to be changed. Before the 'publish or perish' era, promotion to senior lecturer was automatic. The rank of senior lecturer was called the 'career grade' and you did not expect any further promotion unless it turned out that you had something to say which would advance the discipline. Academics thus had ten to twelve years to read and reread the canon while advancing to this grade. It was during this time that they completed their education and discovered whether they had anything to say. Coming to grips with the canon is usually quite a humbling experience and under these circumstances only a few would publish. Thus to restore the situation to one in which such new ideas get noticed and widely discussed we have to abandon the insane notion that everyone's ideas should be published. 

The hard part is that every university must adopt this policy if the ruin is to be halted and sanity restored. An alternative view of how the hyper specialization came about: Michael Smith's story Michael Smith is a professor of philosophy from ANU. He was visiting with us last week and in the course of a long chat I put these ideas to him to see what he thought. I was interested in what he would say because Michael is a very successful philosopher that we have all gotten to recently come to know and admire largely thanks to the fact that Charles Pigden was familiar with his work . Michael said that he agreed with me and that he had had much the same conversation with a colleague who is now in the chair at Princeton University. This colleague had suggested that part of the problem of his generation (about 15 years earlier than mine) was that all the big ideas that had been generated by the research programme known as analytic philosophy had all been exploited. There used to be these big nuggets of gold lying about 25 years ago - but nowadays we were up to our knees in the river panning for flecks of gold. In effect, he felt the hyper specialization stemmed from this dialectic, viz., the slow exhaustion of a research programme. 

It occurred to me that perhaps the effect of the natural hyper specialization that results from the exhaustion of a research programme like analytic philosophy plus the external impetus of the publish or perish ethos have produced a unique effect. Talking Michael's story over with James MacLaurin produced a number of interesting takes on what the ' ruin' amounts to for a younger professional at the beginning of their career. In the first place once they get their first appointment they do not have the luxury to spend 10 years completing their education, reading the canon. Second they do not feel unhappy about their situation because they have known since they entered graduate school that this is how the academic game is to be played. They may have the idea in their minds that one day they will be in a position to develop further intellectual interests that lie outside their hyper specialization but it is not obvious to them how they will actually broaden their horizons. The pressure to publish restricts the time available and time spent reading (simply out of curiosity) that does not lead to publications is time wasted so far as progress in their careers is concerned. As I pointed out earlier in this piece, from my perspective that seems like a bad thing though from within the specialization this restriction may not seem irksome. 

We also discussed the missing genius-the idea that among the huge welter of articles and books it is very hard to identify the budding genius that is going to create the new research programme. You might certainly identify the genius within the hyper specialization that is your home but what gets lost here is the scope of that genius. The scope for example of a Wittgenstein whose genius altered every branch of philosophy James also thought that perhaps the push for interdisciplinary projects might stem from the feeling that the fragmentation of the disciplines due to publish or perish hyper specialization was a bad thing and that it need to be countered by looking beyond the barriers of one's own discipline. 

My feeling is that hyper specialization would make it even harder to cooperate with others in another discipline the 'expert language' barriers would be too high on both sides. Michael also mentioned a curious phenomenon he had observed lately in Britain with regard to their version of the PBRF the RAE (research assessment exercise) Universities that had got 3 or less in the rating were not finding it cost effective to participate in the rating exercises any longer. Their research funds were thus cut back - though not entirely. Some money was still available even when they had a default rating of zero. The effect was they were becoming 'old fashioned' institutions dedicated to teaching except that there was still money for research if any of their staff found that in the course of their teaching and reading they had something to say. 

Finally, let me say something briefly about the bell curve and your place on it. I think most professional academics have a good idea about how they rate vis a vis their colleagues. Comparison are odious but we all make them privately and we thus have a reasonable notion of our own capacities. Those who are in the majority under the bell curve recognize the leading lights and the less talented . But most important, those in the majority know that by publishing at an ever more furious pace they will not be doing anything but clogging the works, multiplying journals and decreasing the average readership of the articles published to a vanishingly small number. The majority recognize that all this essentially inconsequential work is just that-inconsequential-and I believe that it is very hard for them not to think in their heart of hearts that their valuable time-time that could have been spent educating themselves and by implication their students-is being wasted foolishly.