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Mar 23Liked by Richard Pettigrew

On "referee-proofing", my concern is less the addition of boring epicycles (though I would often prefer greater selectivity here), and more the incentive to *entirely remove interesting content* so as to provide a smaller "target" to referees. As I wrote here - https://rychappell.substack.com/p/evaluating-philosophy -

"Given current norms, we all know that it can make a paper “more publishable” (i.e. referee-proof) to *remove interesting ideas* from it, because more content just creates more of a target for referees to object to. This is messed up. Good-seeking standards instead recognize that adding relevant valuable content is (typically) a good thing. Our evaluative standards should reflect this fact."

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Yes, I definitely see that would be a problem! I find it so hard to evaluate whether current norms *do* have this consequence, though. I haven’t seen any pressure to remove (what I consider to be) interesting asides or footnotes or comments in my papers and I don’t ever pressure people to do this in my referee reports, but maybe I’ve have had an unrepresentative experience. I’ve definitely had referees tell me an idea is too half-baked to legitimately include in a paper, but that just seems like a reasonable criticism. I think this is the sort of tricky case where we’d have to go through particular instances to see what’s going on.

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I wouldn't generally expect referees to explicitly direct an author to remove content. (That would be too transparently silly.) Rather, the worry is that too many referees will simply *reject* a paper on the basis of parts they find unconvincing (perhaps failing to notice the independent virtues of the remaining content, if the disagreement looms too large in their minds). I discuss a concrete example of this from my own recent experience in the footnotes to this post: https://rychappell.substack.com/p/contestable-vs-question-begging-arguments

If such hair-trigger rejections are commonplace, then authors are incentivized to *pre-emptively* try to present a smaller target. And I've heard friends self-report on limiting their papers in light of this sort of incentive. In discussing their paper, they'll say things like, "I would have liked to have explored challenge X, but it would create more opportunities for referee objections." I always find that sad to hear.

I gather it was even worse in the past: there are all those stories of colloquia in the mid-20th century where no-one would say anything interesting at all for fear that the audience would leap on them at the faintest sign of making a (possibly) false claim. At least things aren't that bad anymore! But I think there's room for further improvement, which is why I'm always harping on about how referees should be less focused on "looking for objections" (from a baseline of treating empty papers as acceptable) and more on "looking for value" (from a baseline of treating empty papers as boring).

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I enjoyed this piece. and I think you do an excellent job of making the case for the value of a kind of philosophy. FWIW I think dissatisfaction with philosophy of the sort described here is often best understood as the expression of a desire to do something else, something the value of which is not best explained by analogy to the way in which the natural sciences slowly and patiently assemble bits of knowledge.

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Thanks, Robin! Yes, I think you’re right. I suppose my sense is that this just isn’t really possible in truth-seeking enterprises. It just really underestimates the difficulty of hitting on a profound truth first time out. You’ll nearly always need others to spot problems, make adjustments, ask for further clarification and justification. We do this to the greats of the subject, so I’m not sure why people hope to avoid it themselves.

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This is maybe why the most obvious opposition to the picture you sketch comes from a picture of philosophy that rejects the characterisation as a truth-seeking enterprise, either because there are no truths for it to seek (a sort of anti-realism about philosophy) or (I think more plausibly) because it views the point of philosophy as more akin to the point of art or literature. Even though I very much do the sort of philosophy you are defending in your post, I feel the pull of this sort of characterisation. I enjoy teaching philosophy this way anyway. As a resolute pluralist I think all these things can happily co-exist, albeit perhaps not within the current confines of UK higher education...

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Yes, I think I need to think more about that conception of philosophy. I’m not sure I think it’s as immune to the sorts of thing people complain about in analytic philosophy as its practitioners imagine. Even if its purpose is to persuade one to take up a way of life or stance towards the world, there will be those who wish to persuade one against that, and those who think that way of life or stance towards the world is almost correct but misses something important, and again we’re into epicycles territory. But maybe I’m not taking the analogy with art or literature literally enough or far enough.

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I wonder if you genuinely think that any of these ideas, however okay or even good, are comparable to the great ideas we know from people like Quine and Putnam and Sellars? I wonder if we can find comparable ideas anywhere in contemporary philosophy? Let's not go back to the mighty dead, but only to the great philosophy that was produced a few decades ago and is long gone.

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Thanks for the comment! I think it’s tricky to compare how good ideas are, but here I’m mainly thinking about originality and pushing the subject forward in interesting and important directions, and i think they are comparable when measured like that. Also worth bearing in mind that I’m talking about people at the beginning of their careers and not people with forty years of output behind them.

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