Ugly ducklings and progress in philosophy

Agnes Callard recently gave an entertaining interview at 3:16 AM. Besides her lovely list of views that should count as much less controversial than they do, she made an intriguing remark about her book:

“I had this talk on weakness of will that people kept refuting, and I was torn between recognizing the correctness of their counter-arguments (especially one by Kate Manne, then a grad student at MIT), and the feeling my theory was right. I realized: it was a bad theory of weakness of will, but a good theory of another thing. That other thing was aspiration. So the topic came last in the order of discovery.”

Changing the framing or framework of an idea might resolve seemingly persisting problems and make it shine in a new and favourable light. Reminded of Andersen’s fairy tale in which a duckling is considered ugly until it turns out that the poor animal is actually a swan, I’d like to call this the ugly duckling effect. In what follows, I’d like to suggest that this might be a good, if underrated, form of making progress in philosophy.

Callard’s description stirred a number of memories. You write and refine a piece, but something feels decidedly off. Then you change the title or topic or tweak the context ever so slightly and, at last, everything falls into place. It might happen in a conversation or during a run, but you’re lucky if it does happen at all. I know all too well that I abandoned many ideas, before I eventually and accidentally stumbled on a change of framework that restored (the reputation of) the idea. As I argued in my last post, all too often criticism in professional settings provides incentives to tone down or give up on the idea. Perhaps unsurprisingly, many criticisms focus on the idea or argument itself, rather than on the framework in which the idea is to function. My hunch is that we should pay more attention to such frameworks. After all, people might stop complaining about the quality of your hammer, if you tell them that it’s actually a screwdriver.

I doubt that there is a precise recipe to do this. I guess what helps most are activities that help you tweaking the context, topic or terminology. This might be achieved by playful conversations or even by diverting your attention to something else. Perhaps a good start is to think of precedents in which this happened. So let’s just look at some ugly duckling effects in history:

  • In my last post I already pointed to Wittgenstein’s picture theory of meaning. Recontextualising this as a theory of representation and connecting it to a use theory or a teleosemantic account restored the picture theory as a component that makes perfect sense.
  • Another precendent might be seen in the reinterpretations of Cartesian substance dualism. If you’re unhappy with the interaction problem, you might see the light when, following Spinoza, you reinterpret the dualism as a difference of aspects or perspectives rather than of substances. All of a sudden you can move from a dualist framework to monism but retain an intuitively plausible distinction.
  • A less well known case are the reinterpretations of Ockham’s theory of mental language, which was seen as a theory of ideal language, a theory of logical deep structure, a theory of angelic speech etc.

I’m sure the list is endless and I’d be curious to hear more examples. What’s perhaps important to note is that we can also reverse this effect and turn swans into ugly ducklings. This means that we use the strategy of recontextualisation also when we want to debunk an idea or expose it as problematic:

  • An obvious example is Wilfried Sellars’ myth of the given: Arguing that reference to sense data or other supposedly immediate elements of perception cannot serve as a foundation or justification of knowledge, Sellars dismissed a whole strand of epistemology.
  • Similarly, Quine’s myth of the museum serves to dismiss theories of meaning invoking the idea that words serve as labels for (mental) objects.
  • Another interesting move can be seen in Nicholas of Cusa’s coincidentia oppositorum, restricting the principle of non-contradiction to the domain of rationality and allowing for the claim that the intellect transcends this domain.

If we want to assess such dismissals in a balanced manner, it might help to look twice at the contexts in which the dismissed accounts used to make sense. I’m not saying that the possibility of recontextualisation restores or relativises all our ideas. Rather I think of this option as a tool for thinking about theories in a playful and constructive manner.

Nevertheless, it is crucial to see that the ugly duckling effect works in both ways, to dismiss and restore ideas. In any case, we should try to consider a framework in which the ideas in question make sense. And sometimes dismissal is the way to go.

At the end of the day, it could be helpful to see that the ugly duckling effect might not be owing to the duck being actually a swan. Rather, we might be confronted with duck-swan or duck-rabbit.

On taking risks. With an afterthought on peer review

Jumping over a puddle is both fun to try and to watch. It’s a small risk to take, but some puddles are too large to cross… There are greater risks, but whatever the stakes, they create excitement. And in the face of possible failure, success feels quite different. If you play a difficult run on the piano, the listeners will equally feel relief when you manage to land on the right note in time. The same goes for academic research and writing. If you start out with a provocative hypothesis, people will get excited about the way you mount the evidence. Although at least some grant agencies ask for risks taken in proposals, risk taking is hardly ever addressed in philosophy or writing guides. Perhaps people think it’s not a serious issue, but I believe it might be one of the crucial elements.

In philosophy, every move worth our time probably involves a risk. Arguing that mistakes or successes depend on their later contextualisation, I already looked at the “the fine line between mistake and innovation.” But how do we get onto that fine line? This, I think, involves taking a risk. Taking a risk in philosophy means saying or doing something that will likely be met with objections. That’s probably why criticising interlocutors is so widespread. But there are many ways of taking risks. Sitting in a seminar, it might already feel risky to just raise your voice and ask a question. You feel you might make a fool of yourself and lose the respect of your fellow students or instructor. But if you make the effort you might also be met with the admiration for going through with an only seemingly trivial point. I guess it’s that oscillation between the possibility of failure and success that also moves the listeners or readers. It’s important to note that risk taking has a decidedly emotional dimension. Jumping across the puddle might land you in the puddle. But even if you don’t make it all the way, you’ll have moved more than yourself.

In designing papers or research projects, risk taking is most of the time rewarded, at least with initial attention. You can make an outrageous sounding claim like “thinking is being” or “panpsychism is true”. You can present a non-canonical interpretation or focus on a historical figure like “Hume was a racist” or “Descartes was an Aristotelian”. You can edit or write on the work of a non-canonical figure or provide an uncommon translation of a technical term. This list is not exhaustive, and depending on the conventions of your audience all sorts of moves might be risky. Of course, then there is work to be done. You’ve got to make your case. But if you’re set to make a leap, people will often listen more diligently than when you merely promise to summarise the state of the art. In other words, taking a risk will be seen as original. That said, the leap has to be well prepared. It has to work from elements that are familiar to your audience. Otherwise the risk cannot be appreciated for what it is. On the other hand, mounting the evidence must be presented as feasible. Otherwise you’ll come across as merely ambitious.

Whatever you do, in taking a risk you’ll certainly antagonise some people. Some will be cheering and applauding your courage and originality. Others will shake their heads and call you weird or other endearing things. What to do? It might feel difficult to live with opposition. But if you have two opposed groups, one positive, one negative, you can be sure you’re onto something. Go for it! It’s important to trust your instincts and intuitions. You might make it across the puddle, even if half of your peers don’t believe it. If you fail, you’ve just attempted what everyone else should attempt, too. Unless it’s part of the job to stick to reinventing the wheel.

Now the fact that risks will be met with much opposition but might indicate innovation should give us pause when it comes to peer review. In view of the enormous competition, journals seem to encourage that authors comply with the demands of two reviewers. (Reviewer #2 is a haunting meme by now.)  A paper that gets one wholly negative review will often be rejected. But if it’s true that risks, while indicative of originality, will incur strong opposition, should we not think that a paper is particularly promising when met with two opposing reviews? Compliance with every possible reviewer seems to encourage risk aversion. Conversely, looking out for opposing reviews would probably change a number of things in our current practice. I guess managing such a process wouldn’t be easier. So it’s not surprising if things won’t change anytime soon. But such change, if considered desirable, is probably best incentivised bottom-up. And this would mean to begin in teaching.

The fact, then, that a claim or move provokes opposition or even refutation should not be seen as a negative trait. Rather it indicates that something is at stake. It is important, I believe, to convey this message, especially to beginners who should learn to enjoy taking risks and listening to others doing it.

How we unlearn to read

Having been busy with grading again, I noticed a strange double standard in our reading practice and posted the following remark on facebook and twitter:

A question for scholars. – How can we spend a lifetime on a chapter in Aristotle and think we’re done with a student essay in two hours? Both can be equally enigmatic.

Although it was initially meant as a joke of sorts, it got others and me thinking about various issues. Some people rightly pointed out that we mainly set essay tasks for the limited purpose of training people to write; others noted that they are expected to take even less than two hours (some take as little as 10 minutes per paper). Why do we go along with such expectations? Although our goals in assigning essays might be limited, the contrast to our critical and historical engagement with past or current texts of philosophers should give us pause. Let me list two reasons.

Firstly, we might overlook great ideas in contributions by students. I am often amazed how some students manage to come up with all crucial objections and replies to certain claims within 20 minutes, while these considerations took perhaps 20 years to evolve in the historical setting. Have them read, say, Putnam’s twin earth thought experiment and listen to all the major objections passing by in less than an hour. If they can do that, it’s equally likely that their work contains real contributions. But we’ll only notice those if we take our time and dissect sometimes clumsy formulations to uncover the ideas behind them. I’m proud to have witnessed quite a number of graduate students who have developed highly original interpretations and advanced discussions in ways that I didn’t dream of.

Secondly, by taking comparably little time we send a certain message both to our students and ourselves. On the one hand, such a practice might suggest that their work doesn’t really matter. If that message is conveyed, then the efforts on part of the students might be equally low. Some students have to write so many essays that they don’t have time to read. And let’s face it, grading essays without proper feedback is equally a waste of time. If we don’t pay attention to detail, we are ultimately undermining the purpose of philosophical education. Students write more and more papers, while we have less and less time to read them properly. Like a machine running blindly, mimicking educational activity. On the other hand, this way of interacting with and about texts will affect our overall reading practice. Instead of trying to appreciate ideas and think them through, we just look for cues of familiarity or failure. Peer review is overburdening many of us in similar ways. Hence, we need our writing to be appropriately formulaic. If we don’t stick to certain patterns, we risk that our peers miss the cues and think badly of our work. We increasingly write for people who have no time to read, undermining engagement with ideas. David Labaree even claims that it’s often enough to produce work that “looks and feels” like a proper dissertation or paper.

The extreme result is an increasing mechanisation of mindless writing and reading. It’s not supring that hoaxes involving automated or merely clichéd writing get through peer review. Of course this is not true across the board. People still write well and read diligently. But the current trend threatens to undermine educational and philosophical purposes. An obvious remedy would be to improve the student-teacher ratio by employing more staff. In any case, students and staff should write less, leaving more time to read carefully.

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Speaking of reading, I’d like to thank all of you who continue reading or even writing for this blog. I hope you enjoy the upcoming holidays, wish you a very happy new year, and look forward to conversing with you again soon.