Does anybody remember the now unknown names of the Dijon academy that awarded the prize to Rousseau's first Discourse (and, later, his now less famous Letter on French Music)? History is unfair to the discerning judges, who launched the greatest career in public philosophy of the eighteenth century (which has quite a few contenders). Perhaps, if one believes in inductive risk, it is better this way because the train of Rousseau's ideas did not only have noble consequences and so one could judge the prize committee harshly. The point is that whatever the petty or elevated motives of the Academy were to institute their prize, or merely following European fashion, it translated its prestige into recognition of the essential task for philosophy: to give us systematic ideas and programs to live by or, at least, to challenge those we are currently accepting too easily. That means a willingness to take a chance on dangerous ideas.
Public philosophy (recall this post on my analysis)** is, ever since Socrates turned away from the heavens and to his contemporaries, the very justification of philosophy. Revelation agrees, Ye shall know them by their fruits. To forestall misunderstanding: this is not a rejection of professional philosophy and the intrinsic wonder-occasioned, often scholastic pursuit of puzzles and problems that characterizes so many of our professional activities. The by-products and sometimes even the intended results of attempted puzzle solving is to provide one of the main sources of fuel that drives innovation in public philosophy. (I do not share in the neurotic fear among my peers that we are not progressing; who cares as long as we're innovating and suppling the conceptual architecture of the public philosophy needed by humanity?)*
As an aside, such a consequentialist justification for the practice of philosophy is written into the DNA of analytic philosophy, especially those of us that embrace formal methods (recall here on Carnap vs Quine; here on Williamson; on Ernest Nagel). That's easy to see because analytic philosophy is substance-free: it's a sponge-like enterprise, characterized by if not topic neutral than generalist (that is empty-ish) methods and argumentative rigor.
Okay, so much for prelude.
The occasion for today's J'accuse is the simultaneous refusal by the Marc Sanders Foundation to award a cash prize ($4500) and publication in Philosopher's Imprint as its annual Public Philosophy Award because "no essay satisfied their standards," and the (personal) insistence of this year's committee member David Velleman, in remarks in a Dailynous thread that last year's prize, "Why Throwing 92 Heads in a Row is not Surprising," fully merited the award.+ Now, I really don't want to take a piss on a junior colleague, who writes well, has wide learning, and a keen interest in big issues. Let's encourage that (writing well, wide learning, etc)! I am happy that Philosopher's Imprint published his essay. But you ought to know something has gone wrong if you give a prize for this sentence, "Put less formally, the idea that seems to be at work in both of these formal treatments of surprise is that the surprisingness of a conjunction e1 & e2 must be a function of the surprisingness of e1, the surprisingness of e2 and the connection between them." The whole art if not beauty of public philosophy is that you can convey the most exacting and (sure) formal ideas without such clunky prose or ever having to introduce (this is a symptom/example) such notation!** The main problem of the winning piece (to repeat as public philosophy) is not that it tries to convey technical material somewhat less technically, the main problem is that it is hard to say what it ultimately wishes to convey. (It is something about 'surprise and belief;' about 'rational belief;' or about the difference between the mathematics of surprise and the mathematics of probability?) The piece has other, more stylistic problems: including the repeated use of italics to convey emphasis. (I am a sinner, too!) I could go on. You may think I hate the piece, I don't. Except for not sticking to one main issue, it conveys very nicely the kind of things we try to teach all the time: clean prose, relevance, underlying argumentative rigor, etc.++ But the virtues we teach are not the virtues of public philosophy. This is why I register my protest!
So, before I continue I should mention that this year's committee involved, Susan Wolf (UNC Chapel Hill), Ken Taylor (Stanford University and Philosophy Talk), Barry Maguire (Stanford University), David Velleman (NYU and Editor of Philosophers’ Imprint), and Brigid Hains (Editorial Director, Aeon Magazine). What they (the philosophers on the committee) have in common is that they have (a) high institutional prestige; (b) are (at their best) excellent philosophical prose-stylists; and (c) have experience in (organizing) what I'll call philosophical outreach (philosophy cafe, philosophy talk, etc.) The more senior of these are influential in professional philosophy with distinguished positions and students all over the profession. However, none of them have produced a single memorable instance of long form public philosophy which they define as "(minimum 3,000 words, maximum 10,000) with significant philosophical content or method written by someone with significant philosophical training primarily for an audience of non-academics." (Okay, that's a defeasible claim.) That's because writing stylish philosophical prose that we write for other philosophers is distinct from producing excellent public philosophy. (Dan Dennett and Martha Nussbaum may be the contemporay exceptions to the rule.)
Nor have the members of this committee shown themselves champions of long form philosophy before. (Of course, their conversion to the cause is to be welcomed. And they may think that this blog post attacking them is just evidence that all good deeds go punished.) Even so, their main qualifications seem to be prestige, the ability to recognize philosophical content produced by somebody with philosophical training, and editorial access to the Philosopher's Imprint. You may think I am being so unfair here. But remember the committee's talents were wasted because they launched no long form essay into the world this year and promote the wrong exemplar.
Who [the Fxxx] are you, Schliesser?
Well, I don't think I am disclosing anything confidential, but I had, in fact, been approached to submit to this year's contest by the committee. So at least somebody thinks I may have skill in the matter. (I declined cause I really need not produce more stuff.) More important, when I left NewAPPS in November 2013, I wrote in self-serving, but sincere, fashion: "I take great pride in the fact that we have revived the art of the philosophical essay; when I feel melancholic, I turn to the 'NewAPPS back-lists' of Bell, Des Chene, Matthen, Brogaard, and Cogburn." (Before you think I am only self-serving, notice I did not include Schliesser.) So, at least I have a track-record of saying I care greatly about the fate of long-form philosophy (including opportunity costs, being the subject of anonymous mockery, etc.) I am not claiming my blogging buddies produced the best or only long form essays of the period. But it is indisputable that prior to NewAPPS, no group of philosophers was so devoted to producing long form philosophy since (haha) the Berlin Enlightenment. (Okay that was over the top.)
Yes, you could argue, more soberly, that Simon Critchley's The Stone and his more famous contributors reached a wider audience and were more influential leveraged by the authority of the New York Times. I won't argue you with you, except to note that because NewAPPS could ignore marketing (no advertising dollars) and the relevance of the news cycle, our essays were untainted by extrinsic factors. Either way, between Critchley's line up and the NewAPPS crowd I mentioned you could have an award committee that grasps the nature and substance of public philosophy by way of the long form essay. (Since those halcyon days, Helen de Cruz, Lisa Guenther, Eric Schwitzgebel, Omri Boehm, Amia Srinivasan, have been quite notable producers of public long form essays [apologies to the many i leave out].)
So here's my best case scenario suggestion, ask world class practitioners of the philosophical long form essay to be judges for the Sanders Public Philosophy Award.** Worst case scenario, this crowd may have slightly less prestige, on average, than the present committee (and undoubtedly quite a few will find it annoying that I have name-dropped them into this controversy). And just maybe this committee will allow itself the privilege to give the money and attention to somebody who has no professional philosophical training at all. Cause generous souls recognize that the way to protect philosophy's public future is not to run a disciplinary cartel.
Given that the present Sanders foundation is -- unlike the original and rather quirky (philosophy-wise) Marc Sanders -- risk averse and primarily giving money to inside-the-philosophical-beltway people/projects,** the suggestion to dramatically change the composition of the jury is silly. To be sure, the foundation can do whatever it wants with its money and has every right to ignore my unsolicited suggestions. But because it is shaping the future of philosophy along multiple dimensions (for my argument see here), we should judge it by its foreseeable effects. As is, this Prize should not be allowed to define how we think of the long form essay and/or public philosophy.
You may grant my larger complaints and still think that the committee may well have been right to award no prize this year. Shouldn't we trust our peers? As my regular readers now know, from the start of my blogging career, I have been a critic of all behind-closed-doors-editorial decisions of our profession, so I am not a fan of such professional deference. But, as it happens, I have now read some of the contributions to this year's prize; I can't say they were the best of the crop. But they were prize-worthy.
Because I do not want to criticize only, let me offer a modest, second-best suggestion: it would be far more fruitful if the Public Philosophy Prize became an annual, retrospective award for published long form essays. (Apologies to the person who first suggested this to me!) That way, given that the discipline's gate-keepers are not trying to anoint the next Rousseau, they need not play too many other roles here (setting standards, judging what should be published in a leading philosophical outlet, handing out cash prizes). Rather the committee could thereby express it sincere thanks, perhaps even on behalf of the rest of us, to the noble editors and curators who made hearing public philosophy's voice(s) possible. It could even republish the best piece in Philosopher's Imprint and so give it a professional seal of approval that (let's be practical) will count to tenure.
*Perhaps all sentient beings and robots (see below).
+Unless Prof. Velleman is being very sarcastic.
++Regina Rini's second prize essay (drawing on some of Velleman's ideas, in fact), by contrast, leads us to an important point, "If we want a world in which we are neither fighting the independent will of our machine progeny nor inflicting existential trauma upon them, we’ll have to think about what it means to share the present with the future." While I disagree with it, I love her essay. But that's because one may see it as the first, crucial step toward a new systematic vision for the future.
**Do you need not to be good at X to award prizes in X? No, of course, not cf. the Dijon Academy.
***I see no need to reinforce the philosophical status quo with prizes/awards.Full disclosure: in 2011 I treated Eric Sanders to some fine sushi in Santa Barbara and urged him not to take this course.
***What about Raymond M. Smullyan or Martin Gardner? Well, when they are doing math puzzles, sure. But in their better philosophical stuff they dispense with it.