Wandering Philosophers

Philosophy is the "miscellaneous" academic discipline.  Once upon a time all abstract topics were philosophy, dealt with by a common set of methods, which made it relatively easy to relate any two topics.  Then one by one various academic disciplines broke away, gaining advantages of focus and a topic-specific mix of methods, at the expense of more difficulties relating topics across disciplinary boundaries.   

Philosophy now deals with the hardest topics, that no other discipline wanted to take away, and applies general methods – mostly clarifying claims and identifying the arguments that connect them.  The more ambitious I get intellectually, the more I find myself crossing paths with philosophers.  But as I do so the more puzzled I am to see  philosophical practice mostly avoid a standard general method: concise summary claims.

To me, an ideal paper first clearly and concisely states a claim it will defend, in its title and abstract.  The introduction quickly reviews the context and restates the claim, summarizing its supporting argument.  The body of the paper makes good on those promises, filling out the detail, clearly flagging all required assumptions.  And then the conclusion restates the claim and argument and points to further implications.  This standard approach gives readers full warning, so that they can lookout for rhetorical tricks favoring the claim.

In contrast, most philosophy papers today have no abstract.  They instead start by introducing a topic or question, and then they critique other philosophers’ views on it.  As unsatisfactory views are discarded, new views may be proposed and also discarded, and the question may be rephrased.  The author’s preferred phrasing and answer is usually only described near the end of the paper, and then with only moderate detail or attention to counter arguments. 

I presume there must be important advantages of this style, but still don’t see how the advantages can outweigh the disadvantages.

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  • http://profile.typekey.com/brucekbritton/ Bruce Britton

    I think it is because philosophers are often dealing with the slipperiness of the language used about their topic( the ambiguity of words, syntax, and text-level inferences, etc) and if they just threw the language out there in advance, as in an abstract or pre-summary, they couldn’t get at the points they have to make, because the language, before being pre-clarified, would get in the way. This is connected with the tendency I have noticed in philosophers at conferences to read their papers word-for-word, especially when they are talking to other philosophers. The actual words and their syntax is essential. They are trying to use words with the same lack of ambiguity you get in mathematical or logical notation. I know of no other field where people read their papers at conferences.

  • Urstoff

    As a philosophy graduate student, I have often been annoyed at the lack of abstracts (or the fact that one has to hunt very carefully to find an actual argument). I myself include abstracts on my papers, if nothing else for my own mental clarification. If I can’t summarize my main point in an abstract, then my paper is in trouble.

    The only possible problem I can see is that abstracts are too small to summarize elaborate, multi-stage arguments. After reading plenty of philosophy papers, though, it’s clear that it’s rare that a paper is too complex to be summarized.

  • Rue Des Quatre Vents

    Philosophers love to bury the lead. It stems from a professionally endemic desire to be like a magician. The AHA Conclusion! Pulled like a rabbit from a hat!

    I wonder if the practice of introducing past arguments and claims is really a technique to signal intelligence and due dilligence.

    I don’t believe it has anything to do with competence.

    Nietszchean epigrams are highly underrated. But you’ll never get tenure writing them.

  • levendus

    Socrates envy.

    Who doesn’t secretly enjoy the way he conquered his subjects objections and using their own reason to do it.

    It’s similar to Rue’s suggestion, but more aggressive.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/brucekbritton/ Bruce Britton

    Clearly you need to have philosophers answer this question.

  • http://cob.jmu.edu/rosserjb Barkley Rosser

    It is possible to summarize without giving away the AHA store.
    One can simply describe or list the issues that are being discussed
    without saying in the abstract what the “conclusion” will be (if there
    is one at all). I see plenty of such abstracts in other disciplines,
    including economics, where in fact the conclusions are usually much
    easier to state in a distilled manner than they are in philosophy.

  • TGGP

    Robin, you are thinking about this problem like a normative philosopher rather than a positive economist. What incentives do the authors of philosophy papers have? Or, what are the characteristics of a person who writes philosophy papers? How philosophy papers “ought” to be is an entirely different thing from how they actually are. If you can figure out why they are the way they are, that will be the first step to figuring out how to get them to be how you want them to be.

  • Hopefully Anonymous

    TGGP, maybe it’s not an incentive issue (any more than we have an incentive to have an appendix in 2007). Maybe they are the way they are because it’s sufficiently functional for their environment, rather than optimal. Yup, I learned something from this blog. =)

  • Douglas Knight

    I know of no other field where people read their papers at conferences.

    From what little I’ve seen and heard, it is common in the humanities. It’s certainly mocked more generally than philosophy.

    To excuse this behavior in the name of precision is idiotic. People in easier fields know that there is no hope of communicating subtle details in short talks and don’t try, or at least choose a single subtle detail as focus. Note that I said communicating, not reciting.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/robinhanson/ Robin Hanson

    TGGP and Hopefully, yes the lack of clear summaries might be rewarded by the incentives, but why does not this apply to all fields? That is, why is philosophy different?

  • TGGP

    I’ve already given my opinion earlier on why I think philosophy is different. You strongly disagreed. I admit that you’re certainly more familiar with that field and others within academia. So tell me, in what ways do you think philosophy is different from other fields? Do any of the ways it is different affect the incentives and/or selection effect going on?

  • http://profile.typekey.com/sentience/ Eliezer Yudkowsky

    Philosophy has to work with sparse evidence/argument – if there were massive mountains of solid evidence that topic would break off and become a new science. Thus, avoiding prejudice is key, because if people prejudge you, you may not have sufficiently massive evidence to unconvince them – much harder than convincing them in an open state of mind. Thus, you may not want to present the conclusion until you have presented the arguments with which you wish to back it up. This is doubly true if your conclusion rests on clarifying issues that you think were previously confused – present the conclusion outright, and it will just invoke all previous confusions and cause people to decide that the conclusion is silly.

    I don’t know if it’s truly a net benefit, but I have no trouble at all seeing why philosophers would want to save their answers for last.

  • JMG3Y

    So really this approach is an effort to reduce the bias due to the premature closures of their audience’s minds.

  • http://epicureandealmaker.blogspot.com The Epicurean Dealmaker

    Robin — “Philosophy” itself is a very broad and diverse field, so I want to be careful that my remarks are not taken too broadly themselves. It is highly likely that there are sub-fields within “Philosophy” which could benefit from the argument presentation format you suggest, and in fact some of those areas–or some of the writers in those areas–may already use such techniques.

    However, it is important to note that not all philosophical topics or arguments lend themselves to the “modular thinking” approach which you cite in your post. As someone above noted, philosophy, to a greater or lesser degree, is about language, or at least “thought” and “ideas” “expressed” “through” “language.” (Slippery stuff, this, as you can see.) And a modular argument approach can be accused, in philosophical terms, of “begging the question” in important ways when applied to a particular piece of thinking. One of the important things philosophy commonly asserts is that the form of your argument is itself a part (or perhaps the whole) of your argument.

    In this way–without getting too arty-farty about it–philosophy is like poetry, or literature, or other artistic works, where the component elements gain meaning and power from their placement, emphasis, and internal relation to each other and the piece as a whole. This is not simply an argument from holism, either.

    In other words, yes, a particular piece of philosophy that does not possess the clear, modular structure which you prefer may simply reflect laziness, sloppiness, or incompetence on the part of the author. However, it may not, and it is one of the key points of reading philosophy to determine your answer to that question.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/brucekbritton/ Bruce Britton

    To the Epicurian Dealmaker: Could we also say that in some other cases, philosophy (instead of being like ‘…poetry, or literature…’) is like trying to use natural language to do things as mathematics/logic would do them, except we don’t have the notational tools to do them in math/logic? So we have to do them in a modified form of natural language.

    This means we have to start by fixing up the language to get it in shape for our purpose, limiting certain words, distinguishing between others, setting up shorthand terms, etc.

    That is, we have to create a special-purpose language for purposes of what we are trying to say, ordinary language being inadequate because of being ambiguous, vague, misleading, etc.

    But if we just put the unmodified natural language in the abstract at the beginning, that fix-up would not have occurred yet, and so the language would be misleading.

  • http://amnap.blogspot.com/ Matthew C

    Epicurean Dealmaker has a very good point.

    Those of us who build up conceptual edifices often forget the nature of the building blocks of our mental frameworks.

    Ultimately, words encode sound utterances, providing a symbolic shorthand for elements of our experiences. And those experiences are different for each of us. We should remember this when we are tempted to place an extraordinary amount of faith in any particular conceptual edifice: how very contingent is the foundation of any of our beliefs. I feel a radical agnosticism towards all claims of absolute truth in any of these edifices is warranted.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/robinhanson/ Robin Hanson

    Eliezer, other fields are suspicious of the “avoid premature mind closing” argument – they prefer to be upfront about conclusions, even though premature mind closings are very common there as well.

    Many of you have suggested that philosophy is somehow intrinscially less modular than other fields, and thus summaries are less possible there. This doesn’t seem to be my impression – are there any professional philosophers who make this “its less modular” argument?

  • Michael Rooney

    Colin McGinn takes basically that stance: see this paper, which is an abstract of his book Problems in Philosophy.

    I would add, however, that some philosophy papers proceed in the way Robin would prefer: articles by the Churchlands, or Dan Dennett, or classics such as Gettier’s “Is Justified True Belief Knowledge?“, or Russell’s “On Denoting” resemble scientific papers.

  • http://cob.jmu.edu/rosserjb Barkley Rosser


    Presumably what is really involved are the practices of the journals, as determined by their editors, which in turn reflect established social norms among philosophers. Clearly it is possible to write an abstract of any paper: one can just describe what is discussed without saying what the conclusions are, as I already noted, and many abstracts for many papers in many fields do exactly that, even when it is easier to state conclusions than it is in much of philosophy.

  • Thomas Leahey

    As a psychologist who also publishes in history and philosophy, I think the presence or absence of abstracts is a measure of a field’s “hardness,” and has a long history (I just finished reading the excellent Charisma and the origins of the research university).

    Let me begin with an anecdote. The American Psychological Association includes psychologists ranging from “soft” areas such as History of Psychology and Philosophical Psychology, to ‘hard” areas such as learning theory and cognitive neuroscience. Some years ago I was asked to chair a session of animal learners. Used to chairing sessions of softer psychologists–who often have to be almost dragged from the podium when their time was up–I was surprised to find the animal learning folks basically just put up their data slides, let everyone look and ask a few questions, and then sat down well before their alloted time had expired. Thus my personal introduction to C. P. Snow’s Two Cultures.

    In the harder sciences, one often publishes sometimes — and receives credit for — abstracts by themselves. As we move toward the humanities we find abstracts with papers (the norm accepted here), then papers without abstracts (the norm you find puzzling) and finally books. In history, for example. articles typically count for nearly nothing toward tenure and promotion: One must have a book or books. I recall a physicist in the National Academy of Sciences wanting Samuel Huntington thrown out of the NAS in part because he published books, which the physicist regarded as an unacceptably inefficient means of communication.

    The humanities have remained close to the old oral tradition in European universities, in which all papers were read and defended in person (as at humanities meetings today)–no abstracts, no figures. The sciences only entered the (German) universities in the second half of the 19th century and had a hard time fitting in, in part because they are so far from the oral tradition. Interestingly, at least one German journal, the Journal of Military History, does have abstracts, but at the end of the article; German publishers put tables of contents at the end, too, or at least they did.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/robinhanson/ Robin Hanson

    Thomas, yes, I guess I’m asking about the difference between the “oral tradition” and the “hard” tradition – is one better than the other and if so why, or is each better for particular topics?

  • http://profile.typekey.com/sentience/ Eliezer Yudkowsky

    Robin, other fields may be suspicious of the argument from closing minds – as JMG3Y very nicely abstracted my argument – but it seems to me like the closed-mind problem has a very strong case for it from cognitive psychology! Lots and lots of studies showing that the first-half-second judgment dominates far more than people think it does. If the field isn’t emotionally charged or if the evidence is overwhelming, then it’s another story. I would suspect this was the difference between the softer psychologists and the animal learning session of which Leahey speaks. Cold confirmation bias is very real, but it can be overcome by evidence. Hot confirmation bias – you’ll have a hard enough time overcoming that even if you present your evidence in order! It seems to me that the evidence from cognitive psychology is on the side of the nonabstracting philosophers; you’d have a very hard time arguing that their fear is unjustified. (You might still be able to present a greater benefit from writing abstracts, and thus carry the case.)

    I’m also sympathetic to Epicurean Dealmaker. Can you imagine trying to abstract the Twelve Virtues of Rationality? You can’t even renumber the virtues without destroying the carefully crafted links between them. “The seventh virtue is the void” – I think not.

  • TGGP

    Thoman Leahey, I believe you are referring to this. In it Jared Diamond discusses Huntington (it was a mathematician rather than a physicist that was upset about him) and “hard” (which he calls “easy”) science and “soft” (which he calls “hard”) science.

  • TGGP

    Eliezer, would you say that one of the goals of philosophy is to grasp a concept well enough that it can “break off and become a new science”?

  • http://profile.typekey.com/sentience/ Eliezer Yudkowsky

    TGGP: Yep. In that sense it’s a lot like “AI”.

  • Keith Elis

    Are ideas more or less likely to be thought of as interesting or important when summarized concisely or expounded with literary flourish? If, other things being equal, the same idea is thought to be less interesting or important when written as a concise summary claim than when written as an engaging literary exploration, then we would expect influence-seeking philosophers to adjust their writing style accordingly.