Monday, October 6, 2014

New Feature/Call for Proposals: The Philosophy Spotlight

Since this blog is now officially active, I was thinking of hosting a regular feature on it. It's going to be called "The Philosophy Spotlight". It will consist in a post by a philosopher, X, recommending a paper by another philosopher, Y, and explaining briefly the content of the paper and why they think the paper should be widely read.

The only necessary conditions are:
  1. X is distinct from Y (no self-nominations and no anonymous nominations, sorry!). 
  2. Y does not hold a tenured or tenure-track appointment (or the equivalent) in a Leiterific department. (I hate to have to do so but we are going to rely on the latest PGR ranking to determine whether a department is Leiterific, On this interpretation, D is not a Leiterific Department iff D does not appear on the general "international" top-50 list of the latest PGR.) [Modified on Oct 9, 2014. Thanks to Roy T Cook for suggesting a modification of this condition in the comments] 
  3. Y has agreed for his/her paper to appear on The Philosopher's Spotlight. 
Some further considerations you might want to keep in mind in choosing a paper to nominate (none of them amounts to a necessary condition; nor does their disjunction).
  • Y's paper is not published in a top journal. 
  • Y is a philosopher who belongs to an underrepresented group in philosophy (since this is not a necessary criterion, I'm not going to specify what I mean). 
  • Y's paper is of broad philosophical interest. 
  • ... (I might keep adding optional criteria here. Please feel free to suggest additional optional criteria in the comments!) 
Proposals for guest posts should be sent to me by e-mail at g 'dot' contessa 'at' gmail 'dot' com. Please use "Spotlight Proposal" in the subject line of your message and include Y's name, Y's paper title, a quick blurb (content of the paper, why it's interesting), and a link to the PhilPapers entry for the paper.


Quick Q&A (apparently, misunderstanding is endemic on the internets and any attempt to pre-empt it generates even more misunderstanding but let's give it a try...).

Q1: "Why do you hate philosophers who work in Leiterific departments so much?"

A1: Believe me: I don't! In fact, some of my best friends work in Leiterific departments :-) Moreover, I think that a lot of excellent or interesting work is being done by people who work in those departments. However, I also think that the papers of people who work at Leiterific departments tend to receive much more attention than those written by people who don't work in those departments and, as a result, papers in the former group get more cited, read, discussed, etc, which leads to a sort of Matthew effect, in which works that get attention get more and more attention and works that don't get it get less and less attention. I think that many people who do not work for a Leiterific departments publish many excellent papers that receive too little attention. My hope is that this feature will allow people to come across high-quality papers they might have not come across otherwise. If people read more broadly (i.e. not just what's written by the usual suspects or by their network of philosophical friends), we are all going to be better for it, including people who happen to work in a Leiterific departments. I have come across many wonderful papers who are not as widely read/discussed as they should and the only explanations I have for that are sociological.


Q2: "If these other philosophers are so good why don't they work in a Leiterific department? And why aren't their papers more widely read?"

A2: Oh, c'mon you must joking now! Many excellent philosophers do not work in Leiterific departments! And people don't have time to read everything, so they make decisions and often they do so by using proxies such as affiliation, publication venue, etc., which are not always reliable. (Have you ever read a bad paper in a top journal? I have read a few! Have you ever read a mediocre paper by a superstar philosopher? I have read a few!). (More on the myth of philosophical genius and how it's at odds with the collectivist spirit of analytic philosophy in this post)


Q3: "What's the difference between this and the Philosophy Tag hosted by Daily Nous?"
A3: Good question, Justin! :-P Well, first, here, everyone can nominate a paper they think should get more attention, not just people who have been nominated by someone else. Second, the rules make it impossible for The Philosophy Spotlight to become a game in which the usual suspects end up nominating each other's papers. (To be clear, I'm not saying that this is what's happening in Philosophy Tag but nothing in the rules of that game prevents it from happening). Anyway, even if there were no differences, two games are better than one, right?


Q4: "Is this some sort of Anti-Philosopher's-Annual?"
A4: I think the Philosopher's Annual is an excellent idea, especially in a profession in which it's becoming harder and harder to keep up with the burgeoning numbers of publications. I'm not too convinced by the execution, as, I feel, it ends up encouraging the sort of Matthew effect I was mentioning above.


Q5: "Isn't Leiterific a political term? Is the goal of all this political or epistemic?"
A5: I have talked a bit about Leiterism and its problems in a previous post and, I guess, "Leiterific" is a term that tries to make fun of the Leiterism inherent to the attempt to rank philosophy departments (it is not, however, meant to make fun of people who work in any of the departments I call "Leiterific" (see A1 above), not even of Brian Leiter). As for the second question, I don't think it's an exclusive conjunction. At the risk of sounding Foucauldian, I don't think we can clearly distinguish the political and the epistemic in this context. The two goals are intertwined---I believe that, if the profession were less elitist and more egalitarian, it would be not only more just but more likely to make epistemic progress.

(I would like to thank the many Facebook friends who provided me with feedback/suggestions on the original idea and, particularly, to Alison Reiheld, Dustin Locke, Jason Turner, Justin Weisberg, Kate Norlock, Leigh M. Johnson, Meena Krishnamurthy, P.D. Magnus, Rachel Briggs, Ruth Groff, Sara Bernstein, and Whitney Mutch for their comments!)


  1. I saw this posted on FP and think its a great idea!

    I wonder, however, if it might be better to reformulate condition 2 as:

    Y does not hold a tenured or tenure-track appointment (or the equivalent) in a Leiterific department.

    The current criteria rules out spotlighting people who work at Leiterific departments but who possibly don't directly benefit from the Leiterificness in the way that full-time permanent faculty do (i.e. graduate students, postdocs, adjunct or fixed-term junior visiting positions, etc.)