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Fr. 682

November 11, 2015

A recent philosophy blog post opens with an anecdote:

A paper by a junior scholar greatly impressed me. I thought it should be published. A distinguished philosopher did not share my view: ‘It’s warmed-over Rawls,’ he wrote, in a curt letter of rejection. Now, I could see for myself that the central claim of the paper wasn’t completely new. But it was, I thought, completely true. And its case for a familiar truth was different from—though not inconsistent with—other arguments to the same conclusion.  So why the obsession with the new?

Everyday experience in the field lends itself to a similar observation. Where there is a call for cutting-edge research and state-of-the-art, there also proves a call for novelty. This perhaps accounts for the reason why original works, which purport to expose the thinker’s approach, are preferred to the derivative studies, which aim to expose that of another thinker. Although the original poster, Green, undoubtedly had no such case in mind, the works of Deleuze could serve as a point in case insofar as his work divides between original works and studies of other thinkers.

Green calls particular attention to the extent to which the advanced social sciences are beset by such a problem:

This misery has company elsewhere, including in the social sciences […] hardly anyone tries to replicate anything. You can see why. Replication is expensive and unoriginal. Editors do not fight over a paper that argues that the findings of an earlier paper are all correct. Hence, there is a high prior probability that a lot of what finds its way into print is rubbish.

This situation is perhaps worsened by the role played by the media in vulgarizing and distributing scientific findings. We need only consider the way in which various outlets seize upon studies making outlandish, oversized claims in order to draw a bigger audience to arrive at similar conclusions as regards the outlets of diffusion in the academic world. Though these outlets perhaps make their choices more intelligently, they are nonetheless subject to the same impulsions. This much can be seen in the number of studies which later prove to be unverifiable.

The author both likens and differentiates this situation to that in humanities:

In the humanities we do not have the excuse that originality is cheaper than replication. Admittedly, some of our work is not truth-apt, and some that is truth-apt is not truth-oriented […] But I imagine that most of us hope that our claims about things like justice or law are, if not true, then true-ish.   Yet our collective behaviour reveals a strong preference for the new over the (merely) true.

In other words, certain work in the humanities is not susceptible of being replicated in the same way as empirical findings, such as studies on the principles of morality and justice. Although this is not to the field’s detriment, it does preclude the truth-apt quality that verifiability would otherwise lend it. Moreover, other work might perhaps be capable of verifiability, such as studies on different institutional arrangements, but does not require this verification in order to make its point to its reader.

Regardless, in the above, we find the same inclination toward the new over and against the desire to subject to verification, modification and emendation. For just this reason, the reader of philosophical literature will just as often encounter new general theories and schools of thought rather than a carefully considered and adjusted position emerging from the concerted effort of decades. Green recalls how:

In my own fields, the pursuit of novelty has bad effects: one can be pretty sure that the next general theory of law will be more daft than the last one. And in moral and political philosophy writers continually ‘discover’ principles that no one in the history of humanity ever heard of.

Beyond the verifiability of such claims, the damage to academic work and philosophical discussion makes itself felt. Where, to a greater or lesser extent, previous interlocutors responsibly held a position within philosophical discussion so as to examine carefully a given position, whether it be their own, there is perhaps today a greater tendency to jump to unwarranted conclusions and inaugurate new movements within the field. This tendency carries with it further consequences:

The novelty-fetish has further  knock-on effects.   It isn’t enough for ideas to be new; others need to acknowledge that they are new, so small novelties get over-emphasised, and the errors of past writers exaggerated. No longer are others merely mistaken, misguided, or muddled—their claims must be ‘ridiculous’, ‘disgraceful’, or ‘ludicrous’. These epithets have various meanings, but they have a common use. They are all ways of pleading, ‘Don’t read him! Read me, me, ME!’

Thus, this distortion co-opts perspectives on both past and contemporary philosophical work and can lead to considerable bluster over that which merits significantly less. Yet this trend stems from an entirely understandable aspect of human nature, loosely conceived:

Most of us write for a serious audience of a few hundred, of whom maybe a couple of dozen actually engage our work. (Legal and political theorists who imagine they have ‘impact’ in the halls of power, or even literature, mostly live in a hall of mirrors.) To lose a few precious readers to the judgment that our work is warmed-over Rawls (or Mill, or Marx…) feels like an amputation without anaesthetic.

In the end, the only truly novel approach would seem to consist in giving one’s reader the just measure of the new and the old in one’s work from the outset.

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