Bringing Out The Best In Us?

The Philosopher’s Annual website states that the Annual’s aim is “to select the ten best articles published in philosophy each year—an attempt as simple to state as it is admittedly impossible to fulfill”.

I’ve always found such Annual articles as I have read to be excellent, and I’m usually very interested in them. (The work selected for inclusion typically falls in areas close to my own research interests.) I’ve been involved in the selection process in the past, and I am grateful for the work that goes into putting the Annual together, which I think evinces expertise and insight.

However, I do agree with the Annual that its stated aim is impossible to fulfil. As seems to be acknowledged on all sides, there is no methodology which will find the “best” ten papers. So it is worth reflecting on what happens if we employ methods that do not select the best ten papers but then announce the papers thus selected as the best. Some of the upshots of doing this may be relatively harmless or uninteresting, but some of them warrant attention.

In an excellent post at Philosop-HerMeena Krishnamurthy points out that the Philosopher’s Annual has recognised papers in the philosophy of race only twice since 2000, and papers in feminist philosophy only three times. Krishnamurthy invites us to consider whether the methodology used for selection may be resulting in the exclusion of some areas and perspectives, since “[i]t cannot possibly be true that of the very best articles in philosophy since 2000 that only 5 of the best articles are in the area of race and gender”.

In fact, even the count of five inflates the real total: there were only four such articles selected. Sally Haslanger’s “Gender and Race: (What) Are They? (What) Do We Want Them To Be?” was one of the two selected papers in the philosophy of race and one of the three selected papers in feminist philosophy.

I think it’s important for philosophers to consider this kind of question, and I am grateful to Krishnamurthy for raising it (and to the interlocutors she credits in her post for helping to start the conversation). It strikes me as particularly important for us to think about Krishnamurthy’s remarks in the context of philosophy’s current and ongoing work of reflection on possible reasons for the pervasive lack of diversity amongst its practitioners. And I suspect that the more it makes us feel uncomfortable, or reflexively defensive of the status quo [1], the more important it is.

As well as asking questions about which subject matters get represented in the selections, we can ask directly about which practitioners get represented. For example, by the lights of the Philosopher’s Annual selection process, 90% of this year’s best papers are by men. And this is not an unusual gender ratio for Annual volumes. Assuming it is not the case that 90% of the best philosophy in a typical year is by men, what happens when we accept and announce a 90%-male list as the best?

One immediate result is that of making it look as if the best philosophy is (acknowledged to be) mostly work done by men. This can contribute to stereotype threat, reinforce and strengthen implicit gender biases, and so on. Another result is that the kinds of prestige, job prospects, etc. that come along with recognition as best are inequitably distributed by gender. (And of course these things can interact and reinforce one another.)

I also think it’s important for us to recognise that these questions and concerns are not only applicable to the Philosopher’s Annual, although consideration of the Annual happens to have opened up a really useful conversation. Like magicalersatz, I think there are more general issues to consider about our various attempts to rank philosophy and philosophers so as to identify some as the best.

For what it’s worth, I remain unconvinced that there is a univocal notion of bestness in philosophy. Philosophy can be good in many—often conflicting—ways, and it strikes me as plausible that the result is usually massive incommensurability. I am concerned (again like magicalersatz) that, in our current attempts to identify univocal bestness, one thing we really do seem to be achieving is the reproduction and entrenchment of already well-entrenched patterns of bias and exclusion.

Is there some reason why the goal of finding out who and what is univocally best, despite being admittedly impossible to achieve and possibly incoherent, is so important that these kinds of negative consequences are justified? I am sceptical.

[1] It is particularly crucial that we be alert to the risks associated with the kinds of defensive reactions that invoke our own objectivity in such matters. Research indicates that we are especially susceptible to bias when primed with a sense of our own personal objectivity.

Eric Schliesser on the APA journal

Some more from Eric.

Leiter says that “what will actually be crucial to the success of JAPA is that it publish high quality work, not that it represents every “constituency”.” …There is now a huge scientific literature on expert over-confidence, tacit bias, and the role of non-truth-tracking heuristics in our intellectual judgments. So, I would think the real worry goes in the other direction: a journal that publishes more of the (let’s stipulate Leiter approved) high quality same, me-too-research, while welcome in many ways and not to be judged an outright failure, certainly ought not count as a “success” from the point of view of the APA’s membership (and counterfactual would-be memberships). This result would also not count as a ‘success’ from the point of view of the long-term interests of professional philosophy.