Bernard Williams was the rare academic who was also a great writer. In his review of Williams' Essays and Reviews: 1959-2002, Paul Sagar lets academia have it:
We can now see that Williams was not lazy: he spent an immense amount of time reading and thinking, and knew much beyond his own academic arguments. What he chose to do was spend time thinking about things that most interested him, rather than engaging in the Sisyphean task of attempting to stay up to date with the vast and ever-expanding sea of contemporary scholarship, which tirelessly throws out publication after publication in every conceivable niche of enquiry. It is undeniable that the vast majority of present scholarly output in philosophy and attendant disciplines is of a poor standard: it is either unoriginal, original at the expense of being preposterous and tiresomely pointless or trivial, or else diligent and robust but utterly devoid of interest to anybody other than those academics who have made a career out of grinding out points and counterpoints within debates that only exist because of the very professionalization of intellectual pursuits of which their activity is a function. Williams chose to bypass all of this and get on with being original and interesting. It is not at all clear that he was making a mistake.
The present government’s Kafkaesque “Research Excellence Framework” demands that academics churn out publications, regardless of whether they have anything to say. More generally, there has been a pronounced cultural shift in professionalized academia away from teaching and towards measurable ‘outputs’, encouraging academics to translate whatever modest or untenable ideas they have into high ‘impact’ publications. Academia is in danger of ending up moribund via a prolonged case of morbid obesity. Williams’s advice was the exact opposite of all of this: disciplines like philosophy should not encourage, or give incentives for, publishing, unless what one writes is likely to be very good indeed; likely to be both genuinely interesting and original.
Philosophy is not like [science]: in philosophy, you are not only not adding data if you are making bad, or unoriginal, or stupid, or pointlessly banal and repetitive arguments, you are getting in the way of those who are trying to make sense of our world, and who might be able to make more sense of it than those who have tried before.
-- Wes Alwan
Geoff Hughes says
Couldnt agree more…..Thanks Wes.
Think more, write less is a maxim that is hard to argue against… Wes, you rock! Oh, and keep writing.
Geoff Edwards says
Even this comment is superfluous. Thumbs up.
I concede that the academic “publish or perish” mandate (intensified by the diminishing public support for universities) contributes to lots of bad writing and useless scholarship. But don’t blame the scholar who writes. How can philosophy “get in the way”? I don’t understand the metaphor.
Once and awhile a scholar, impelled to publish, might be the next Bernard Williams. But then again, maybe all the “originality” has been used up and there’s nothing left to say. Unless you’re Bernard Williams.
Consider the analogy with fiction (or rock music or poetry or what have you). Lots of bad shit gets published (or more germane to today’s scholarly publication, gets put online). It goes in the bargain bin or gets lost in the ocean of links but it doesn’t “get in the way.” And once and awhile, it might be something great. But trying to decide *if* it is great before it’s even out there seems like putting the cart before the horse to me.
Geoff Edwards says
“How can philosophy “get in the way”? I don’t understand the metaphor.”
It is not philosophy that gets in the way, it is certain kind of philosophy and it’s purveyors that do so. i.e bad, or unoriginal, or stupid, or pointlessly banal and repetitive arguments.
I reccomend reading the original review where the difference between the sciences and phlosophy is addressed. It is asserted that in the sciences even an average scientist can still do research which expands the pool of data aiding future researchers. In Philosophy the same is not neccesarily true. Average philosophers merely expand the volume of words which, unlike the data collected by through research, is of little use – and possibly a hinderance.
I agree with your analogy – you can’t decide in advance of having actually read the argument that the philosophy in question is good or bad. It has to be written and read for that.
But in the context of the article, the advice makes more sense.The discussion is about a man who thought thinking more valuable than reading the literature being turned out by his peers. If you think that is a good way to do philosophy the advice makes sense.
If you think the best way for philosophy to move forward is for everyone to write as much as they can in the hope of finding a few gems in the vast expanse of rough, than the advice will seem a little arrogant.
An example. I have a degree in history with good marks. I certainly had the opportunity to advance to post grad work if I so chose. Ad based on the evidence available to me with respect to published work, if I were interested in jumping through the requisite academic hoops I could probably get something published. But unless I publish something of rare insight, if all I do is publish some minor discussion on much traversed ground about a question that has merelydrifted about according to the prevailing acdamic winds, what have I done other than to add another another little anchor or hindrance.
Is there anything more top be said on the Euthyphro? Do we really expect to find the answers amongst this seasons discussions on Heraclitus?
Does anything I have written here advanced us one bit, or is it more that we must wade through to find the inevitable logical flaws, the discovery of which will allow us to get back to advancing our own agenda with a good conscience.
But hey. These are just moral questions anyway. And as I think morality is bunkum I can safely ignore them. Back to the xbox for me.
Wayne Schroeder says
TJ Downing says
It seems that philosophy isn’t the only institution of academia that is suffering due to this. The sciences certainly deal with it as well (I’m thinking of physics and math here), although maybe not to such an obnoxious degree. There is a lot of administrative pressure to produce publications (or “products” as the NSF sometimes calls them) that some researchers have resorted to writings that take up dozens of pages to present something that could fit on one powerpoint slide. I definitely worry about the future of this practice and how it will affect the notion of academic integrity. I blame the business-oriented administrations (often aren’t specialized of the field they oversee) who use a very obfuscating metric for evaluating academic productivity rather than the more traditional approach of focusing on ideas and encouraging legitimate inquiry.
Kevin Grizzard says
Physics PhD student here. I was thinking pretty much the same thing. The situation is exacerbated by the fact that it has been difficult to test theories simply because of the energy scales (read: money) needed, so we don’t really know who’s way off the mark and who isn’t. But certainly the publish-or-perish mentality (“products!”) is profoundly stupid.
Yes, in sociology we call it the MPU effect (MPU = minimum publishable unit). That is, whatever your findings, carve them up into MPUs in order to produce the most papers.
Daniel Horne says
Good point Wes, and I agree. To make any governmental or institutional support solely a function of current or past “deliverables” (i.e. publishing history) is definitely a sign of the times and makes the problem worse. And what is the problem? Too many damn people in the world with not enough quality. Yet, we humans still manage to progress (intellectually and practically), because there are so many of us that sheer brute force makes some progress possible. To put it bluntly: we are getting dumber; we are getting less original and profound (in all areas of human intellect, mathematics, science, philosophy, etc.) in “what really matters” (i.e. getting to the heart of something). For example: one Descartes is worth at least 1000 modern intellectuals. 1 Leibniz is worth 1000 modern intellectuals…probably even more. I.e. Leibniz, Descartes carries ‘1000 units of awesome insights’ for every ‘1 unit of awesome insight’ that the modern intellectual carries. We just don’t have these giants anymore.
No more uber polymaths like Aristotle, Plato, Leibniz, Newton, Descartes, etc. You just don’t get them anymore…you get super specialists that pale in comparison. I mean most of these bloody modern disciplines these specialists belong to and the tools they use (for example calculus) owe their entire damn existence to these polymaths.
Anyway, aside from this tangent: the point is that the modern approach to actually ‘funding awesomeness” is fucked up and actually promotes the reverse: becoming even more stupid by forcing people to publish banal shit that isn’t usually really worth the energy it took to create it. Just ask yourself this: when was the last time something intellectually impactful like QM, Kant’s work, GR, etc. came around? In the last say 60 years? Nothing really…no theoretical accomplishment of the last 60 or so years is really worth talking about. The best they can come up in physics (to try and better QM/GR) is…string theory, some stupid incredibly abstract piece of convoluted shit; so all theoretical scientists do today is twiddle their thumbs refining 100 year old theories. Together with this they rely more and more on brute force experiments to show them the way (as opposed to intellectual insights), i.e. lazy science; i.e. completely empirical with very little novel theory to shift paradigms.
Anyway: good point Wes.
Kevin Grizzard says
“when was the last time something intellectually impactful like QM, Kant’s work, GR, etc. came around?” I agree with the sentiment but I think you take it too far. One could’ve asked in 1900 when was the last really “impactful” idea that physics produced, and if you’re talking on the truly revolutionary scale, then I think you have to go back to Newton, 150-200 years before. If you’re inclined to count something like Boltzmann’s development of thermodynamics/statistical mechanics or Maxwell’s account of electromagnetism, then I think you have to recognize quantum electrodynamics and the gauge theories of the Standard Model as just as deep. In addition, after the observation of a Higgs-like boson, we have very good reason to believe that we now know how matter got mass! That’s pretty major. And we may have just observed evidence of inflation, which would also be really significant. As someone once said, string theory is a victim of its own hype – what was left off is that other theories (such as Einstein-Cartan gravity, asymptotic safety, or loop quantum gravity) have also been victims off string theory’s hype.
I reject the notion that people were just smarter back in the day – that’s way too easy of an explanation. But I strongly agree that the academic climate (not to mention cultural climate more broadly) and the overspecialization it induces do drastically stunt truly deep, sweeping, original thinking, as well as skewing perspectives.
Kevin Grizzard says
” all theoretical scientists do today is twiddle their thumbs refining 100 year old theories.”
Again, I object to that (maybe that is partly because I am a theoretical scientist), but I addressed that above.
“Together with this they rely more and more on brute force experiments to show them the way (as opposed to intellectual insights)”
Actually, I think quite the opposite is true. The crisis in physics is due to the fact that we don’t have data to discriminate among our many possible theories. Think about it: for hundreds of years in physics, one could test a theory by literally just looking carefully at things. Smash one ball into another ball, stand on a moving ship and throw a ball straight up, drop things from a tall building, hold a prism up to the light. Even GR could be tested almost immediately by its explanation for the anomalous motion for Mercury and by observing eclipses. It’s gotten harder and harder to procure the data we need, to the point where it now takes a 13 billion dollar machine, the largest machine mankind’s ever built, to try to get new data. Many people in physics will tell you (especially the experimentalists) that the problem is not a shortage of clever theories but rather that we are drowning in them. But it’s true, and really frustrating, that the climate of academic physics, at least, allows for very little absorption, digestion, contemplation, and reflection on ideas in the rush to publish something.
Geoff Edwards says
I was thinking along these lines last night, Kevin.
I am not involved in the sciences, but I am an interested observer.
When I stop and consider the work and resources required, the technical challenges that must be overcome to conduct these experiments, I am always left astounded. The idea that people are not as smart, of lesser value, less creative or whatever, seems to me so obviously absurd that It does not warrant serious consideration. In many fields the effort now required to expand the boundaries of human knowledge even by the smallest amount requires a lifetime of specialisation and work.
As much as we might admire figures like Newton, or Aristotle, or Descartes,it is always worth remembering that only small amounts of there work mantain anything beyond historical interest today. Those bits that do remain relevant do not need to be rediscovered. And on many subjects they were in fact wrong to the point of hilarity.
As you say – it is way to easy just to say that people were smarter. It is convenient way to get around the fact that it is likely impossible to be a polymath in the old way anymore. What we “knew” about the world 200 years ago was such almost an infentismal fraction of what we have learnt in the last two centuries of systematic scienctific endeavour. It is much easier to be a know it all, when there is very little to know.
I think it is also a convenient way of denying our own ignorance and limitations with respect to the world of the mind as it stands. Far easier to deny the worth or validity of that work than to admit that we ourselves a possibly not even capable of understanding it.
We can get our heads around the calculus of Newton, but the distance between that and todays work in physics defies the comprehension of most. Co-ordinate geometry is quite simple to understand in terms of the basic concepts. The more mathematically able can even rember a few of the algebraic expressions of curves, maybe a bit of the basic work on conics and the like. But that barely scratches the surface. We can grasp Aristotles syllogisms with out vast intellectual expenditure – But aristotle often represents at most a lecture, often justan historical footnote in any first year logic course.
None of this denies that there may be a problem with the current metrics applied in academia.
But we are not dumber. It is just that scientific work doesn’t get seem to get any easier with more knowledge. The opposite appears to be the case.
Definitely don’t agree. Argument is simple: complexity != nor imply “profundity”. I can counter pretty much all other points with arguments, but I am way too lazy today and the meta-point (of Wes) is not that important to me to expend the energy (it is 42 degrees Celsius here today…lacking energy). The very simple point though for me is that today’s insights are ‘worth less’ than the insights of the old ‘simpletons’ (as you seem to see them today). The only valid argument I see from your side (that at least holds some merit, albeit very little) is that (in the case of science at least) QM/SR/GR and the foundations upon which these were built (such as CM) are so good that a) we simply cannot really get much ‘deeper’ than we are now either as 1) a function of our nature as human beings or 2) the fact that our technology simply cannot advance much further in the foreseeable future to give conclusive answers or (for the prior point) b) that there simply is not much more to discover in the universe. Neither of these are very…compelling arguments, but the way I see these are the best you’ve got (to convince me at least).
Either way, good food for thought.
Geoff Edwards says
“I can counter pretty much all other points with arguments”
Yes, that’s the beauty of language. It can bend many, many ways.
“The very simple point though for me is that today’s insights are ‘worth less’ than the insights of the old ‘simpletons’”
Worth more? Worth less? Value judgements – there’s a great way to arrive at truth 🙂 By the way – I do not see them as simpletons. Being wrong is not the same as being stupid. To paraphrase Nietzsche, the errors of great men are worth more then the ‘truths’ of little men.
“but the way I see these are the best you’ve got (to convince me at least).”
lol. Yes I am sure a few thoughts I jotted down between phone-calls at work accurately represents the best I can do. I should surely retire from the field.
It seems to me that, in a lot of particulars, Williams chose breadth and interest at the expense of depth. He’d make an interesting suggestion, offer a fascinating idea, and skate right along past it, not doing the grinding work of defending it against all comers, or making sure it jibed with other things he wanted to claim or had claimed in the past.
I love Williams’s work, and I basically share with him the preference for breadth and interest over depth. But I wouldn’t want to pretend the others (most scholars), who prefer depth over breadth and interest, are thereby doing bad or useless work–well, maybe if they’re sacrificing interest.
Jason Stable says
Was just reading about Bernard Williams the other day. Powerful philosopher he was. Truth and Truthfulness would be an excellent book for PEL to discuss.
Publish or parish was the old skeme. From what I here from academics I run across nowadays, it is write a grant proposal. What we have is academia unconsciously biased to provide for the needs of the Roman extraction grid or the military banking global corporatoctracy.