Academic philosophers tend to have a narrow view of what is valuable philosophical work. Hiring, tenure, promotion and prestige depend mainly on one’s ability to produce journal articles in a particular theoretical, abstract style, mostly in reaction to a small group of canonical and 20th century figures, for a small readership of specialists. We should broaden our vision.
Consider the historical contingency of the journal article, a late-19th century invention. Even as recently as the middle of the 20th century, leading philosophers in Western Europe and North America did important work in a much broader range of genres: the fictions and difficult-to-classify reflections of Sartre, Camus and Unamuno; Wittgenstein’s cryptic fragments; the peace activism and popular writings of Bertrand Russell; John Dewey’s work on educational reform.
Popular essays, fictions, aphorisms, dialogues, autobiographical reflections and personal letters have historically played a central role in philosophy. So also have public acts of direct confrontation with the structures of one’s society: Socrates’ trial and acceptance of the hemlock; Confucius’ inspiring personal correctness.
It was really only with the generation hired to teach the baby boomers in the 1960s and ‘70s that academic philosophers’ conception of philosophical work became narrowly focused on the technical journal article.
Consider, too, the emergence of new media. Is there reason to think that journal articles are uniformly better for philosophical reflection than videos, interactive demonstrations, blog posts or multi-party conversations on Facebook?
A conversation in social media, if good participants bring their best to the enterprise, has the potential to be a philosophical creation of the highest order, with a depth and breadth beyond the capacity of any individual philosopher to create. A video game could illuminate, critique and advance a vision of worthwhile living, deploying sight, hearing, emotion and personal narrative as well as (why not?) traditional verbal exposition — and it could potentially do so with all the freshness of thinking, all the transformative power and all the expository rigor of Hume, Kant or Nietzsche.
Academic philosophers are paid to develop expertise in philosophy, to bring that expertise into the classroom and to contribute that expertise to society in part by advancing philosophical knowledge. A wide range of activities fit within that job description.
Every topic of human concern is open to philosophical inquiry. This includes not only subjects well represented in journals, such as the structure of propositional attitudes and the nature of moral facts, but also how one ought to raise children and what makes for a good sports team. And the method of writing and responding to journal-article-length expository arguments by fellow philosophers is only one possible method of inquiry.
Engaging with the world, trying out one’s ideas in action, seeing the reactions of non-academics, exploring ideas in fiction and meditation — in these activities we can not only deploy knowledge but cultivate, expand and propagate that knowledge.
Philosophical expertise is not like scientific expertise. Although academic philosophers know certain literatures very well, on questions about the general human condition and what our fundamental values should be, knowledge of the canon gives academic philosophers no especially privileged wisdom. Non-academics can and should be respected partners in the philosophical dialogue. Too exclusive a focus on technical journal articles excludes non-academics from the dialogue — or maybe, better said, excludes us philosophers from non-academics’ more important dialogue.
The academic journal article as it exists today is thus too limited in format, topic, method and audience to deserve so centrally privileged a place in philosophers’ conception of the discipline.
Research-oriented philosophy departments tend to regard writing for popular media as “service,” which is held in less esteem than “research.” I’m not sure service should be held in less esteem, but I would suggest that popular writing can also qualify as research.
If one approaches popular writing only as a means of “dumbing down” preexisting philosophical ideas for an audience of non-experts whose reactions one doesn’t plan to take seriously, then yes, that writing is not really research. If, however, the popular essay is itself a locus of philosophical creativity, in which ideas are explored in hope of discovering new possibilities, advancing (and not just marketing) one’s own thinking in a way that might strike professionals too as interesting rather than as merely familiar rehashing, then it is every bit as much research as is a standard journal article. Analogously for government consulting, Twitter feeds, TED videos and poetry.
A Philosophical Review article can be an amazing thing. But we should see journal articles in that style, in that type of venue, as only one of many possible forms of important, field-shaping philosophical work.
Eric Schwitzgebel is a professor of philosophy at UC Riverside and the author of “Perplexities of Consciousness.” He blogs at The Splintered Mind.