The competition fallacy

“We asked for workers. We got people instead.” Max Frisch


Imagine that you want to buy an album by the composer and singer Caroline Shaw, but they sell you one by Luciano Pavarotti instead, arguing that Pavarotti is clearly the more successful and better singer. Well, philosophers often make similar moves. They will say things like “Lewis was a better philosopher than Arendt” and even make polls to see how the majority sees the matter. Perhaps you agree with me in thinking that something has gone severely wrong in such cases. But what exactly is it? In the following I’d like to suggest that competitive rankings are not applicable when we compare individuals in certain respects. This should have serious repercussions on thinking about the job market in academia.

Ranking two individual philosophers who work in fairly different fields and contexts strikes me as pointless. Of course, you can compare them, see differences and agreements, ask about their respective popularity and so forth. But what would Lewis have said about the banality of evil? Or Arendt about modal realism? – While you might have preferences for one kind of philosophy over another, you would have a hard time explaining who the “better” or more “important” philosopher is (irrespective of said preferences). There are at least three reasons for this: Firstly, Arendt and Lewis have very little point of contact, i.e. a straightforward common ground on which to plot a comparison of their philosophies. Secondly, even if they had more commonalities or overlaps, the respective understandings of what philosophy is and what good philosophy should accomplish can be fairly different. Thirdly and perhaps most importantly, philosophies are always individual and unique accomplishments. Unique creations are not something one can have a competition about. If we assume that there is a philosophical theory T1, T1 is not the kind of thing that you can compete about being better at. Of course, you can refine T1, but then you’ve created a refined theory T2. Now you might want to claim that T2 can be called better than T1. But what would T2 be, were it not for T1? Relatedly, philosophers are unique. The assumption that what one philosopher does can be done better or equally well by another philosopher is an illusion fostered by professionalised environments. People are always unique individuals and their ideas cannot be exchanged salva veritate.*

Now since there are open job searches (sometimes even without a specification of the area of specialisation) you could imagine a philosophy department in 2019 having to decide whether they hire Lewis or Arendt. I can picture the discussions among the committee members quite vividly. But in doing such a search they are doing the same thing as the shop assistant who ends up arguing for Pavarotti over Shaw. Then words like “quality”, “output”, “grant potential”, “teaching evaluations”, “fit” … oh, and “diversity” will be uttered. “Arendt will pull more students!” – “Yeah, but what about her publication record? I don’t see any top journals!” – “Well, she is a woman.” In a good world both of them would be hired, but we live in a world where many departments might rather hire two David Lewises. So what’s going on?

It’s important to note that the competition is not about their philosophies: Despite the word “quality”, for the three reasons given above, the committee members cannot have them compete as philosophers. Rather, the department has certain “needs” that the competition is about.** The competition is about functions in the department, not about philosophy. As I see it, this point generalises: competitions are never about philosophy but always about work and functions in a department.*** Now, the pernicious thing is that departments and search committees and even candidates often pretend that the search is about the quality of their philosophy. But in the majority of cases that cannot be true, simply because the precise shape, task and ends of philosophy are a matter of dispute. What weighs is functions, not philosophy.

Arguably, there can be no competition between philosophers qua philosophers. Neither between Arendt and Lewis, nor between Arendt and Butler, nor between Lewis and Kripke. Philosophers can discuss and disagree but they cannot compete. What should they compete about? If they compete about jobs, it’s the functions in departments that are at stake. (That is also the reason why we allow for prestige as quality indicators.)  If they assume to be competing about who is the better philosopher, they mistake what they are doing. Of course, one philosopher might be preferred over another, but this is subject to change and chance, and owing to the notion of philosophy of the dominant committee member. The idea that there can be genuinely philosophical competition is a fallacy.

Does it follow, then, that there is no such thing as good or better philosophy? Although this seems to follow, it doesn’t. In a given context and group, things will count as good or better philosophy. But here is another confusion lurking. “Good” philosophy is not the property of an individual person. Rather, it is a feature of a discussion or interacting texts. Philosophy is good if the discussion “works well”. It takes good interlocutors on all sides. If I stammer out aphorisms or treatises, they are neither good nor bad. What turns them into something worthwhile is owing to those listening, understanding and responding. To my mind, good quality is resourcefulness of conversations. The more notions and styles of philosophy a conversation can integrate, the more resources it has to tackle what is at stake. In philosophy, there is no competition, just conversation.

Therefore, departments and candidates should stop assuming that the competition is about the quality of philosophy. Moreover, we should stop claiming that competitiveness is an indicator of being a good philosopher.**** Have you ever convinced an interlocutor by shouting that you’re better or more excellent than them?


* At the end of the day, philosophies are either disparate or they are in dialogue. In the former case, rivalry would be pointless; in the latter case, the rivalry is not competitive but a form of (disagreeing or agreeing) refinement. If philosophers take themselves to be competing about something like the better argument, they are actually not competing but discussing and thus depend on one another.

** This does not mean that these needs or their potential fulfillment ultimately decide the outcome of the competition. Often there is disagreement or ignorance about what these needs are or how they are to be prioritised. With regard to committees, I find this article quite interesting.

*** In a recent blog post, Ian James Kidd distinguishes between being good at philosophy vs being good at academic philosophy. It’s a great post. (My only disagreement would be that being good at philosophy is ultimately a feature of groups and discussions, not individuals.) Eric Schliesser made similar points in an older more gloomy post.

**** On FB, Evelina Miteva suggeststhat we need fair trade philosophy, like the fair trade coffee. Fair trade coffee is not necessarily of a better taste or quality, it ‘only’ makes sure that the producers will get something out if their work.” – I think this is exactly right: On some levels, this already seems to be happening, for instance, in the open access movement. Something similar could be applied to recruiting and employment conditions in academia. In fact, something like this seems to be happening, in that some universities are awarded for being family friendly or being forthcoming in other ways (good hiring practice e.g.). – My idea is that we could amend many problems (the so-called mental health crisis etc.), if we were to stop incentivising competitiveness on the wrong levels and promote measures of solidarity instead. – The message should be that the community does no longer tolerate certain forms of wrong competition and exploitation.

Relatedly, this also makes for an argument in favour of affirmative action against discrimination of underrepresented groups: People who believe in meritocracy often say that affirmative action threatens quality. But affirmative action is not about replacing “good” with “underrepresented” philosophers. Why? Because the quality of philososphy is not an issue in competitive hiring in the first place.

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