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)

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)

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

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)

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)

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)

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)

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)

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)

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)

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)

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

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)

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)

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

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)

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

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

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)

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

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)

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)

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

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)

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

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)

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)

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)

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)

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)

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)

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)

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

Journal rankings and prestige bias

If you want to know about the prestige of a journal or school, there is no substitute for subjective rankings. If prestige is something you value, then the (perhaps limited) importance of these evaluations should be pretty clear. For one thing, if all other metrics of philosophical productivity are unavailable, then prestige will matter quite a lot. For another thing, the pursuit of alternative measures can be emotionally exhausting.

As it happens, I do not consider prestige to be a particularly effective sales pitch when selling the value of philosophy. It seems relatively clear to me that evaluating philosophy in terms of prestige is effectively conceding that it is a boutique discipline; as self-images go, it reeks of undignified desperation. And they are not a great reason to keep doing philosophy so long as you think philosophy is a productive activity.

Instead of prestige, people might instead look at citation rates, or ‘impact’. Presumably, those who attend to impact factors believe this idea, embedded in the notion of peer review, that the attention of experts in a discipline towards content ought to be some kind of indication that it is productive.

Impact of a journal can be measured in at least three ways: average citation, average weighted by network centrality, or h-index. Average citation is, importantly, indifferent to the volume of output; so, a journal that publishes a small amount but gets a lot of citations might have an equivalent average to one that publishes a lot but which has a lot more variability. Average weighted by network centrality means (very roughly) if two journals have the same average of citations, but one journal gets cited by a whole variety of different journals, then that journal will be ranked higher — it is more central to the network. The explanation of h-index is unintuitive enough that it resists being expressed in a parenthetical, but maybe we could think of it roughly as a journal’s ‘highest floor’. Which metric do you choose? It depends, really, on what it is that you value about impact: what it is about impact that makes it interesting, philosophically.

That said, the gulf between impact and productivity is wide. Much depends on your choice of scales, which depends on your values. So, some might think that the quality of a journal depends on whether it is willing to take risks on very good content, while others might prefer a relatively conservative approach which only publishes content for which it has absolute faith. And some might want to produce work that is relevant to non-philosophers; others might want to keep philosophy pure.* It makes an enormous difference to how we come up with rankings, and not all systems of rank are a good fit for measures of prestige. And if you don’t believe me, try looking at the h- indices for philosophy journals, and see how they relate to subjective rankings.

*[These values strike me as being about as philosophically significant as musical tastes. So, whether you prefer “alternative rock” as opposed to “classic rock” (high vs. low risk), or “genre music” vs. “pop music” (endogenous vs. exogenous uptake). And of course even the choice to pay attention to impact factors betrays an aesthetic disposition for “radio-friendly” music as opposed to the punk or indie view, but I’ve always been a pop sort of guy.]

Seeing philosophers as people

Originally posted at Talking Philosophy Magazine blog in a three-part series.

Abstract. Philosophers are best understood as people trying to better themselves and the world they are in. As members of a vocation, philosophers direct themselves to the pursuit of intellectual virtues: especially, in striving to be insightful and humble in belief, while being rigorous and cooperative in dialogue. Together, the virtues assemble into rough philosophical archetypes: what I call the ‘programmist’, the ‘lone wolf’, the ‘informalist’, and the ‘syncretist’. Typically, philosophers are both vilified for lacking in these virtues, and lionized when they possess them.

Autobiographical note: Originally published on Talking Philosophy blog, intended for a general audience, and written in a jocular style. It was generally well-received, and is a favorite of mine. Later, I learned that a similar typology was formulated on the basis of a statistical analysis of personality profiles (programmists as “builders”, informalists as “explorers”, lone wolves as “directors”, and syncretists as “negotiators”). That is a happy convergence of opinion.

Continue reading “Seeing philosophers as people”

Using Gephi to model philosophical networks in medieval Christendom

I was playing around with the Gephi beta graph designer, and thought it would be interesting to map out the network of Christian philosophers during the period 1000-1200.

Emphasis on betweenness centrality. Betweenness centrality is a measure of a node’s centrality in a network, equal to the number of shortest paths from all vertices to all others that pass through that node. Lanfranc is hardly a well-known figure in philosophy, but he looms conspicuously large here.


Emphasis on degree of linkage. Nodes are emphasized depending on the number of immediate neighbors they have.

Adapted from Randall Collins’s “Sociology of Philosophies” (p.464).