But what would Aristotle say? More on journals and diversity

Discussion regarding the difficulty of securing a place for feminist philosophy in non-specialist journals prompts me to echo Kate Manne’s concerns as they refract through the challenges of placing work substantively addressing Asian philosophies in non-specialist journals. First, some rough data on what the historical trajectory of research on Asian philosophies looks like, using entries in the Philosopher’s Index as the focus:


Articles in Asian

in General Journals*

Articles on

Confucianism in PI

Articles on

Buddhism in PI

1940-1949               3            0            4
1950-1959               7            4            9
1960-1969               3            8            31
1970-1979               4             63            129
1980-1989               4             87            139
1990-1999               6            140            171
2000-2009               3            377            303
2010-2014               4            276            232

*Journals canvassed in the first column are: American Philosophical Quarterly, Australasian Journal of Philosophy, Ethical Theory and Moral Practice, Ethics, Journal of Ethics, Journal of Moral Philosophy, Journal of Social Philosophy, Journal of Value Inquiry, Mind, Nous, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Philosophers’ Imprint, Philosophy and Public Affairs

As is evident, work in Asian philosophies has radically expanded over the decades, but there is no change in how frequently it appears in the general journals canvassed here, some among the most prominent journals in the discipline. [NB: I didn’t include here several of the history journals, for despite titles suggesting they cover history of philosophy, they are de facto history of *western* philosophy journals.]

Just a few obvious implications of this:

  • Work on Asian philosophies largely remains confined to specialist journals that few non-specialists read, limiting the audience for this work and keeping the discipline as a whole comically provincial.
  • Insofar as journals measure (both symbolically and materially) what the profession counts as important, the absence of Asian philosophies from the profession’s most prominent general journals implicitly communicates something. At best, we risk suggesting that the philosophies of Asia are simply unimportant or uncompelling relative to what does appear in the journals, relative, that is, to western philosophy. At worst, we risk suggesting that philosophy simply does not include Asian traditions, that what philosophy is includes criteria the traditions of Asia simply fail to meet. Most egregiously, any suggestions of this sort – that Asian philosophies are unimportant or that they are simply not philosophy proper – issue from ignorance: Because Asian philosophies remain woefully underexposed in the discipline at large, the discipline has no sound basis on which to draw any conclusions regarding what they may offer.
  • Insofar as the profession counts publishing one’s work in the most “prominent” or “top” journals as one of the most direct pathways to “prominent” or “top” status for individual philosophers, we should not expect anyone specializing in Asian philosophies to succeed in this way. Much more worrisome, to the extent that hiring and tenure decisions rely on metrics of journal “prominence” for evaluating philosophers, those specializing in Asian philosophies will rank worse than their counterparts who focus exclusively on western philosophy.

Relating this more directly to Kate Manne’s experience in publishing feminist philosophy, my sense is that there are multiple hurdles to publishing for specialists in Asian philosophies. Just a few:

  1. Concerns over terminology and concepts, such as Manne raised, feature here as well. Sometimes this takes the form of reluctance to entertain concepts that have no ready analogues in western philosophy. Sometimes this takes the form of needing to present Asian concepts in western guise, however strained this might be.
  1. The dreaded spectre of western philosopher X, who may once have alluded to something somewhat in the neighborhood of something an Asian philosopher has said and thus should definitely be addressed. Want to talk about Buddhist no self doctrine? Be ready to explain why that’s necessary given that we have Parfit and what Buddhist texts produced millennia ahead of Parfit “add” to Parfit. Want to talk about the Confucian junzi/virtuous person? Be ready to explain why you’re not talking about Aristotle instead. Just to give a greater sense of this for the uninitiated, imagine: You submit an essay on Aristotle to a journal and receive a referee report suggesting that clearly you also should talk about Mengzi and make clear how what you’re saying interlocks with things Mengzi said or, better still, forget the whole Aristotle diversion and just talk about Mengzi instead.
  1. The desk rejection from an editor who has no training much less expertise in Asian philosophy. Desk rejections are of course part of the publishing experience, but the worries about how these are made are amplified where a) the journal has no one on board conversant with non-western philosophy and b) no reasons are given. This can contribute to the sense that specialists in Asian philosophies simply waste time bothering with general journals where their work won’t be evaluated by anyone remotely knowledgeable in their field.

10 thoughts on “But what would Aristotle say? More on journals and diversity

  1. I would be _really_ interested to see more “contemporary” political philosophy coming from an Asian perspective published in philosophy journals. Some of this might be thought of as being part of the Confucian tradition, but I don’t see why it would have to be. There has been some very interesting work along these lines published in books recently. (Princeton University Press in particular has published a lot of it, and at least markets it in its philosophy catalog.) But, not that much has been published in journals. (I expect that at least some of this is due to language issues. There are good philosophers doing “contemporary” work on, say, Chinese political philosophy who speak and write in English, but many of the books in the Princeton catalog are translations, and my impression is that it’s hard to publish a translation in a journal no matter what the topic, though I can’t say I’m an expert.) Another potential issue is that at least some top political philosophers in the US doubt whether much of what comes out of, say, China is “authentic” – that is, whether it’s largely party/government propaganda or not, or at least heavily filtered. I can’t say how serious of a worry this should be, but it was certainly a worry with, say, Soviet philosophy for a long time. But, even ignoring this, I’d be super excited to see more work on “contemporary” political philosophy coming out of Asia in philosophy journals.
    (I put “contemporary” in scare-quotes because applications of work by long-dead philosophers to recent issues can count as “contemporary” in my book.)

  2. Matt, I’m unsure that translation is really the principal reason we don’t see more of this work in non-specialist outlets. There is *lots* of work in political philosophy written in English, by both scholars in the US and in E. Asia, appearing in specialist outlets. That it isn’t showing up elsewhere has less to do with this work than with the outlets who will receive and publish it.

  3. Well, I only said that language issues were “at least some” of the reason why some philosophers doing interesting work in this area were publishing books with great presses (I think Princeton University Press is probably the best press for political philosophy right now, and it’s publishing quite a bit in this area) but not in journals. Many of the books are translated, though of course not all. I’d not want to (and didn’t) say it was “really the principle reason”, since I don’t know that, and also am willing to believe it’s not so. But, it’s surely _a_ reason, at least in some important cases.

  4. Matt, sorry if I overstated what you intended. My worry is just that crafting plausible reasons the work is *not* there can incline some to believe that numbers like this are reasonable and not indicative of a serious problem. So while translation might explain some (very small, I think) subset of what’s not there, it doesn’t explain the crashing overall absence.

  5. This is interesting stuff, and I am 1000% on board with the idea that substantive diversification of journal articles should be taken seriously. But, to quibble:

    “As is evident, work in Asian philosophies has radically expanded over the decades, but there is no change in how frequently it appears in the general journals canvassed here, some among the most prominent journals in the discipline.”

    Without context for these numbers, I worry that what they show is not the contrast suggested here, but rather that as the number of total articles up in PI has itself exploded, the number of journal slots has not. If that’s so, then the ratio of PI mentions to articles would be _expected_ to plummet.

  6. Anon Grad Student, a few things about the numbers.

    The swell of work in PI in Asian philosophies tracks, to some extent, with the appearance of specialist journals. E.g., founding dates for some of the main “older” journals in the field:
    Philosophy East and West, 1951
    Journal of Indian Philosophy, 1971
    Journal of Chinese Philosophy, 1973

    These and newer specialist journals are now the primary home for most work in the area.

    However, the stagnation evident in the general journals cited above is *not* mirrored everywhere. E.g., Both Hypatia and Journal of Religious Ethics show trajectories of increase in the appearance of Asian-focused work in their pages. Both Hypatia and Journal of Religious Ethics have, in other words, patterns that somewhat track with an increase in scholarship, with more articles showing up in their pages as time goes on.

    Some of the journals listed in the OP above have in fact gone backwards in terms of their publishing of Asian work. E.g., PPR was once a veritable hotbed of work addressing or considering Indian philosophy (again, given the numbers here, you get to be a “hotbed” if you’re even close to room temperature!). During the decades of the 1940s to the 1970s, it published 16 articles on Indian thought. But then it published only 2 in the 1980s, one in the 1990s, and none since.

    All of the above suggests that the numbers are not merely an artifact of how PI works.

  7. Work in the field of philosophy has radically expanded since 1940, including the founding of many specialty journals. From this premise one might expect that on average, for all X such that X is a specialty in philosophy, while work on X has radically expanded since 1940, the representation of X in a static list of main comprehensive philosophy journals has not changed at all.

    The table shows us that this is true of Asian philosophy; does it show us anything surprising? That’s a much harder question, I think.

    (And insofar as there are new specialties that had no representation in the earliest period, we would expect the average proportional representation of non-new specialties in the comprehensive journals to decline over time, not stay constant.)

    A further point in explanation of the data in the table might be that the study of Asian philosophy differs from many other philosophical specialties in that it is harder to combine the knowledge and skills needed to do good scholarship in Asian philosophy with the knowledge and skills required to do good philosophy in general, so that it may be harder on the whole for specialists in Asian philosophy to meet the standards of general philosophical quality that the comprehensive journals apply.

    A further point in explanation of the data in the table might be that the comprehensive journals are not quite comprehensive, in that they tend to focus on papers that do philosophy rather than papers that interpret old philosophy.

    One could test some of these explanatory hypotheses by parallel tables looking not at Asian, but looking rather at Hume studies, or Greek or German.

  8. Hi, Bill,
    With respect to the first point, I’m sure that this is correct for any specialty. But my concern is not with the X qua Asian philosophies but X qua “ethics” or “history of philosophy.” Those categories, I insist, should not be defined in ways that produce results like these. And I would have hoped that we would see a move toward more inclusive definitions of these over time, such that an emerging recognition that “ethics” should include Asian ethical systems would show up through an increasingly globalized body of sources. That’s not what we see though. Ethics still largely means value arguments descending through the standard western canon with new additions along the way. History of philosophy still largely means history of western philosophy. If these are taken as the relevant X, it’s a shame to see the stagnation.

    Regarding the interpretation of “old philosophy,” just to take a quick and dirty example, Ethics has published 28 articles on Aristotle in the 1940-2010 decades. And, like Aristotle, many of the Asian sources for ethics permit all kinds of contemporary appropriation (which I why I choose Aristotle as my “old guy” in this example). The point here is that Aristotle is useful for people working in ethics. My underlying assumption is that Asian sources are comparably useful, but because they are not seen as traditionally *part of* what we describe when we say “ethics,” they aren’t likely to be included.

    In case all of this is not as clear as possible, my key contention rides on the assumption that we should *want* philosophy in the 2000s to look different than philosophy in the 1940s with respect to global mindedness and inclusiveness. If that is the assumption, I think these numbers should disappoint.

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