–Arts and letters for the modern age–

Cathode Ray Zone

–Arts and Letters for the Modern Age–

The Dirty Little Game of Academic Philosophy

by | May 2, 2024

Years ago, over at the Daily Nous, a much read insider philosophy blog, David Velleman, who enjoys digs in the world’s #1 ranked philosophy department, posted his version of a Modest Proposal: Philosophy journals should no longer publish papers written by graduate students, and tenure and promotion committees should stop counting papers produced while the candidate was a graduate student.

The problem, as Velleman described it, is a “publishing arms race” that has flooded philosophy journals with publications that they are not equipped to process properly. (The problem is even worse today than it was when the Modest Proposal was published.) Refereeing philosophy articles and serving on the editorial boards of philosophy journals is almost entirely unpaid work, and it’s hard to get people to do it. Greatly increase the supply, and you either get superficial editorial judgments or greatly increased review times, which already are far too long. Velleman described other negative effects (e.g., encouraging graduate student publishing engenders undesirable specialization and a narrowing of focus in young philosophers before they’ve entered the profession), but it’s the publishing arms race itself and its effects on journals that are the primary issue.

The proposal is a good one, but is actually too modest. For not only are philosophy students publishing too much, but philosophy professors are too, including our most distinguished. Indeed, faculty excesses in this regard far outpace anything graduate students could ever accomplish.

Consider that Thomas Hobbes published six philosophical works. John Locke, eight or so. John Stuart Mill, ten, give or take a few. David Hume published two, a dialogue on religion, and a small essay collection. G.E. Moore published three books and a normal-sized volume’s worth of collected papers. Gilbert Ryle published four philosophical books and papers that fill two average-sized volumes. In contrast, today’s top philosophers publish scores upon scores upon scores of articles and books, and at the highest levels the numbers stretch into the hundreds. Now, ask yourself: Do I really think we need more papers and books from, say, David Chalmers than from Gilbert Ryle? Or from David Velleman than from John Stuart Mill? Or from Jason Stanley than John Locke; or from any of the current crop of philosophical big shots? The answer for anyone who isn’t crazy or cynically invested in the current system is obviously “No.” If Moore and Ryle were dwarfs standing on the shoulders of giants like Hobbes, Locke, and Mill, then our current philosophical royalty are fleas, living in the beards of the dwarfs.

The dirty game into which this all figures quickly becomes evident, when one peruses the discussion thread that followed Velleman’ Modest Proposal, to which graduate students and recent graduates naturally responded with alarm. After all, the reason why doctoral students are feeling greater and greater pressure to publish is because of the hyper-competitiveness of the current job market, which is about the worst it’s ever been, filled as it is not only with newly minted PhDs, but with people who have been out in the wilderness for years, drifting from one temporary job to another. For an impression of the situation, consider that my own small, undistinguished undergraduate degree-program, in a middling university, in a not-particularly-desirable location, received over 200 applications for the last tenure track job we posted. This is not a normal or healthy or situation.

The obvious solution to a grossly oversaturated profession is a moratorium on new PhDs, for as long as it takes for those already in the system to find work, and several people in the discussion – including me – suggested this. In response, Velleman wrote the following:

PhD students are an essential (and inexpensive) source of teaching. Replacing them is bound to raise the already excessive cost of higher education. I’m not saying that I like the arrangement; I’m just saying that I don’t know how to change it. Moratoria on admissions are not a possibility.

One could spend an entire essay on this amazingly un-self-aware comment, but let’s continue to follow the proverbial bread crumbs.

Why are PhD students an “essential source of teaching”? NYU – where Velleman is now Emeritus – has twenty-seven full time philosophy faculty and another eleven faculty that are  “associated and affiliated” with the philosophy department. (And I’m not even counting “NYU Abu-Dhabi.”) Surely, this is enough people to teach the department’s undergraduate curriculum, including general education courses. The department from which I retired has only five full-time faculty members, one full-time instructor and a handful of per-course faculty. The teaching load is four per semester, with a reduction to three, if one keeps up a regular publishing schedule, which in my department is defined as at least one peer reviewed article every two years. It was not uncommon for me to teach 200 undergraduates in a semester. And while NYU’s undergraduate enrollment is larger than ours, it’s not that much larger and certainly not seven times larger. So, again, why are PhD students an “essential source of teaching”?

The answer is that the leading lights in our profession don’t want to do very much undergraduate teaching, and certainly not introductory-level teaching or grading, which is labor intensive and for the Great Minds of philosophy, tedious. (Even as a senior, full professor, two-thirds of my teaching load was introductory-level teaching, and I did all of the grading.) They do not teach 4/4 or 3/3 loads but even smaller ones, and sometimes they do no undergraduate teaching at all. Some of this has to do with snobbery and a sense of entitlement – I was both an undergraduate and graduate student at top programs and saw plenty of this – but it’s mostly because they want to publish those scores upon scores upon scores of papers and books that I talked about earlier. Four books and a volume of articles were enough from Gilbert Ryle, but we are supposed to believe that we need to keep enrolling graduate students who won’t get jobs so that our philosophical royalty can publish several hundred articles and books apiece.  

There is something particularly obnoxious about the initial suggestion, then, given its source. After all, it’s our discipline’s royalty that created this toxic cul-de-sac in the first place. Flooding the market with Ph.D.’s for whom there are no jobs, so that they barely have to teach undergraduates themselves and can endlessly riff on the work of their predecessors and betters – more on this in a minute – and then, when the unpleasant consequences of this cynical exercise begin to play out and graduate students begin publishing articles themselves, so as to eke out some tiny advantage in the desperate race that getting a tenure track job in philosophy has become, the royalty complain about an oversaturation of journal articles and propose banning graduate publishing. It’s the sort of thing that is so outrageous that you either burst out laughing or punch holes in the walls of your house.

Beyond the exploitation of graduate students that the excessive publishing engaged in by today’s professional philosophers both engenders and relies upon, the practice has also had the effect of diminishing the discipline itself, as it represents a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature and value of the humanities and serves no purpose other than that of professional advancement and prestige. This sort of cynical professionalism on the part of people working in the humanities – and it’s not limited to philosophy – is something that the university and broader public will tolerate less and less, as the financial disposition of higher education in its current form becomes more and more stressed, in its decades long transformation from a system designed to educate elites into one of mass education.

The purpose and value of the humanities and of arts and letters lies in the deepening of human experience and the enrichment of human life; the enhancement of our ability to contemplate the significance and meaningfulness of our lives and activities, once the sciences and engineering and medicine and business have attended to our material condition. Philosophy’s role in this is to provide us with a number of cognitive and linguistic tools, as well as a set of distinctive starting-point style questions that will enable those who are reflective and thoughtful to address a number of deep, fundamental issues that occupy a lifetime’s contemplation. What is beauty?  What is knowledge? What is justice? Who are we? What is our purpose? Are we free? Are we responsible? Why does any of this matter to us? And as anyone who hasn’t been stricken blind and stupid by professional concerns should recognize, these are not the sorts of questions that will ever admit of conclusive answers. The value of posing and attempting to answer them lies in the engagement itself and in the life-enriching effects such engagement engenders.

You would never know this, however, from reading contemporary professional literature, much of which is done in a mode that suggests that these are questions that admit of conclusive answers. The endless pushing of the umpteenth version of utilitarianism or deontology or realism or materialism or compatibilism or whatever-the-fuck-ism is nothing but an exercise in ever diminishing returns. [1] An entire field’s worth of philosophers spent decades trying to solve Gettier cases. There is value in the initial round of questions and in enough iterations of formal discussion of that initial round of questions to fully bring out all of their significant dimensions. But to go beyond this point and to increase the level of technical apparatus brought to bear and to engage in an obsessive-compulsive regimen of citation is to change the nature of the activity itself; to turn it from the starting point for individual, personal contemplation of timeless questions into a grotesque mimicry of scientific investigation.  

Discovered a genuinely interesting new question that should be added to the history of great questions that will enrich and endure over the course of peoples’ lives? Write about it. Have the ability to develop an existing question in a way that facilitates its capacity to enrich and endure? Do it. But otherwise? Teach your students. Grade their papers. Venture into or create public forums, in which you bring philosophy’s enriching and enduring questions to your friends and neighbors and fellow citizens. Just stop playing philosopher-scientist. And stop filling your departments with graduate students for whom there are no jobs. You created the publishing arms race that you’re complaining about. You can stop it by ceasing to engage in it yourselves.


[1] I wrote in far greater depth about this in my essay for Philosophy Now: “The Decline and Rebirth of Philosophy.”