Is philosophy self-indulgent?

Thinking about the accusation that recent professional philosophy suffers from self-indulgence. Anyone who pays attention to the cycles of colorful meta-opinions about philosophy will know by now that “X is self-indulgent” is maybe one of a handful of favorite insults that gets tossed around on a pretty regular basis (alongside “X is just logic-chopping”, “Only crazy people would worry about X” and “People who do X are sycophants”). Sometimes with justification, sometimes not, and usually asserted as generic broadside complaints that are conspicuously difficult to refute.

So let’s ask: suppose recent philosophy is self-indulgent. So how can we tell?

Well, since [for the moment] we care about self-indulgence, not sycophancy or whatever other insult, let’s assume that, if something has been published in a prestigious professional journal of philosophy, it contains rational, non-crazy, non credulous argumentation. (Falsely, perhaps.) To do lip-service to those assumptions, let’s consider journal offerings that score quite highly on every impact measure, are generalist (e.g., unlike Bioethics), and are dedicated to original research (unlike, e.g., Philosophical Review). And for the purposes of seeing if things are any better or worse than in the past, let’s find a journal of long-standing. For those purposes, I chose Nous.

Now, for fun, let’s imagine a test, analogous to the Bechdel test, which we use to assess individual works; though, like the Bechdel test it is meant to say something illustrative about the self-indulgence of works *in the aggregate* without necessarily proving anything about individual works. We might call it the Null Test (or, if you prefer, Navel test).

For every article in an issue of a journal, there might be three questions we might ask:
1. Can someone with an education in philosophy state the philosophical problem this article is trying to solve without the use of proper names?
2. Whose problem is it?
3. Did it get solved (by the author’s own lights)?

And now let’s say that the Null Test is failed if, even after charitable reading, one of the following conditions obtains: the answer to (1) is a null answer or cannot be briefly stated (e.g., in one or two English sentences); OR the answer to (2) is “Mine alone”; OR the answer to (3) is “Not at all”.

What do we find, if we try to run the Null Test? Are the results at all illuminating? Or are are they fully unfair? You’ll see my findings below.

The result, amusingly, supports the idea that philosophy is more self-indulgent in the 2016 sample than the others, though it seems like a return to the same pattern as the 1976 sample.

——

Nous 1976 (September): 3/6 PASSSES

TITLE: Reference of Theoretical Terms
PROBLEM: Is semantic externalism suitable to examine theoretical terms in science?
WHOSE: Kripke-Putnam
SOLVED: Yes (No, because some terms are non-ostensible)
STATUS: Pass

TITLE: Sentence, Utterance, and Samesayer
PROBLEM: Does Davidson’s account of indirect discourse mesh with a Tarskian theory of language, and do its part in characterizing the truth-conditions of every sentence in indirect discourse?
WHOSE: Davidson
SOLVED: Yes (No)
STATUS: Fail

TITLE: Truth, Meaning, and Paradox
PROBLEM: Is Davidsonian semantics defeated by the Liar’s Paradox?
WHOSE: Davidson
SOLVED: Yes (No)
STATUS: Fail

TITLE: What Could Have Happened
PROBLEM: Is the freedom to act properly captured by sentences that express possibilities about the conjunction of events?
WHOSE: White
SOLVED: Yes (Yes)
STATUS: Pass

TITLE: When Rational Disagreement is Impossible
PROBLEM: Is it rational to remain steadfast when everyone is searching for truth shares the same information?
WHOSE: Social epistemologists
SOLVED: Yes (No)
STATUS: Pass

TITLE: Identities and Reduction: A Reply
PROBLEM: Have Ager et al. succeeded in creating a model for reductionism in science?
WHOSE: Ager et al.
SOLVED: Yes (No)
STATUS: Fail

Three critical notices omitted

Nous 1986 (September) 4/6 PASSES

TITLE: Revealing Designators and Acquaintance with Universals
PROBLEM: Are universals meaning-like entities?
WHOSE: Quine
SOLVED: Yes (Yes)
STATUS: Pass

TITLE: The Ways of Holism
PROBLEM: What is holism, as far as the philosophy of science is concerned?
WHOSE: Quine, Hegel, Duhem
SOLVED: Yes (Holism is a feature of those theories which occur in specific contexts, insofar as the theories presuppose and are consistent with the existence of other more general theories in those contexts)
STATUS: Pass

TITLE: Persons and Their Micro-Particles
PROBLEM: How can new objects (e.g., persons, basic-level objects) be made up of old objects without destroying the old objects (e.g., particles)?
WHOSE: Aristotle
SOLVED: Yes (By re-engineering Davidson’s anomalous monism)
STATUS: Pass

TITLE: Metaphorese
PROBLEM: What is figurative meaning?
WHOSE: Searle, Black
SOLVED: Yes (Figurative meaning is not semantic meaning belonging to a vernacular, but rather is a kind of passing dialect that emerges from cooperative engagement)
STATUS: Pass

TITLE: Nietzsche’s Perspectivism and the Autonomy of the Master Type
PROBLEM: Is Nietzsche able to reconcile the demand for moral autonomy of the ‘master’ with an account of how the master might come into being?
SOLVED: Not really (Exploratory)
STATUS: Fail

TITLE: Questioning the Basis of Hume’s Empiricism: “Perceptions”, What are They?
PROBLEM: What does Hume mean when he talks about perceptions?
SOLVED: Yes
STATUS: Fail

Eight reviews omitted

Nous 1996 (September) 5/6 PASSES

TITLE: The Function of Consciousness
PROBLEM: Is there any point in arguing about the evolutionary function of consciousness?
WHOSE: Various
SOLVED: Yes (Yes)
STATUS: Pass

TITLE: The Limited Unity of Virtue
PROBLEM: Is there anything we can salvage from the unity of virtue thesis?
WHOSE: Walker, Foot, Flanagan
SOLVED: Yes (Yes)
STATUS: Pass

TITLE: ‘Ought’ and Extensionality
PROBLEM: Are deontic operators (in deontic logic) referentially transparent with respect to singular terms?
WHOSE: Kanger
SOLVED: Yes (Yes)
STATUS: Pass

TITLE: A New Argument from Actualism to Serious Actualism
PROBLEM: Does actualism entail serious actualism?
WHOSE: Fine, Hinchliff, Pollock
SOLVED: Yes (Yes, plus new argument to that effect)
STATUS: Pass

TITLE: Analyticity Reconsidered
PROBLEM: Is there an analytic (a priori)/synthetic distinction?
WHOSE: Quine
SOLVED: Yes (Yes; the epistemic analytic apriori)
STATUS: Pass

TITLE: Analyticity Regained?
PROBLEM: Was Boghossian correct in his reading of Quine?
WHOSE: Boghossian
SOLVED: Yes (No)
STATUS: Fail

1 critical study omitted

Nous 2006 (September) 5/7 PASSES

TITLE: Multiple-Act Consequentialism
PROBLEM: Is act-consequentialism false?
WHOSE: Scheffler
SOLVED: Yes (No — there is an unexplored version of act-consequentialism that meets standard objections)
STATUS: Pass

TITLE: Is Mental Content Prior to Linguistic Meaning?
PROBLEM: See the title
WHOSE: Lewis, Fodor
SOLVED: Not really / it’s complicated
STATUS: Fail

TITLE: Realism and the Meaning of ‘Real’
PROBLEM: What is the meaning of ‘real’ and its cognates?
WHOSE: Various
SOLVED: Yes (It signals a transition between meta-discourse to discourse)
STATUS: Pass

TITLE: Appearance Properties?
PROBLEM: Is there any such thing as appearance properties?
WHOSE: Shoemaker
SOLVED: No (Shoemaker’s appearance properties might exist, but they’re not properties)
STATUS: Fail

TITLE: Does Informational Semantics Commit Euthyphro’s Dilemma?
PROBLEM: See title
WHOSE: Dretske, Fodor
SOLVED: Yes (Yes)
STATUS: Pass

TITLE: The Determinable-Determinate Relation
PROBLEM: What is the nature of the determinables / determinate relationship (e.g., color is determinable related to red, and red determinate related to color)?
WHOSE: Prior, Yablo
SOLVED: Yes (Eight desiderata)
STATUS: Pass

TITLE: The 3D/4D Controversy
PROBLEM: Is there anything of substance to the controversy between three and four-dimensionalists?
WHOSE: Sider
SOLVED: Yes (No)
STATUS: Pass

1 review omitted

Nous 2016 (September): 5/9 PASSES

TITLE: Leibniz on the Modal Status of Absolute Space and Time
PROBLEM: Are absolute space and time impossible?
WHOSE? Leibniz
SOLVED: No (Exploratory, not Leibniz’s view)
STATUS: Fail

TITLE: Causes and Categories
PROBLEM: Must a theory of causation presuppose a specifiable ontology, and especially an ontology that is shared in common by both cause and effect?
WHOSE? Various (too many to list)
SOLVED: Yes (Answer: no)
STATUS: Pass

TITLE: Why Every Theory of Luck Is Wrong
PROBLEM: Do we have any adequate account of luck at all?
WHOSE? Various
SOLVED: Yes (Answer: no)
STATUS: Pass

TITLE: Endurantism vs. Perdurantism? A Debate Reconsidered
PROBLEM: Do objects persist because their parts do, or because their wholes do?
WHOSE? Contemporary metaphysicians
SOLVED: No (Answer: clarification)
STATUS: Fail

TITLE: Triviality for Restrictor Conditionals
PROBLEM: Might restrictor conditionals be trivial?
WHOSE: Kratzer, among others
SOLVED: Yes (Answer: there is some reason to think so)
STATUS: Pass

TITLE: On the Innocence and Determinacy of Plural Quantification
PROBLEM: Does (higher-order) plural logic inherit the ontology established in first-order claims? And is it susceptible to Henkin interpretations?
WHOSE: Plural logicians
SOLVED: Yes (Answer: no to both)
STATUS: Fail (Proper name is essential to problem)

TITLE: Conciliation, Uniqueness, and Rational Toxicity
PROBLEM: Can conciliation be upheld even when our standards for rationality are highly permissible?
WHOSE: Social epistemologists
SOLVED: Yes (Answer: yes, depending on the kind of peer)
STATUS: Pass

TITLE: Self-Reinforcing and Self-Frustrating Decisions
PROBLEM: Is there ever any sense in which ‘shall’ implies ‘ought’?
WHOSE: Unclear; nobody really believes it does
SOLVED: Yes (it doesn’t)
STATUS: Fail

TITLE: Attitude, Inference, Association: On the Propositional Structure of Implicit Bias
PROBLEM: Are implicit biases associative or propositional?
SOLVED: Yes (Not associative, therefore propositional)
STATUS: Pass

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