Last week I received an email from a foreign MA student unknown to me. He had a query about the relationship between two of my papers to Newton's Principia and along the way it asked for clarification of a cryptic footnote. In our ensuing exchange it became clear that the student was really interested in one of my distinctions. So, as the exchange unfolded I asked what the student's interest in that distinction was. In writing that email to him I tacitly assumed that he had found a problem in my approach during his research on Newton and that before he would complete the thesis, informed by the spirit of fairness, he was checking with me whether he had got my position right. To my amazement he wrote back that (and now I am simplifying what he said) he was using my distinction in order to solve a problem in Lakatos's treatment of scientific research programs. Now, I am not unfamiliar with Lakatos's writings, but while I know that an author's memories should not be trusted, I am very confident that the application of my distinction to Lakatos was the farthest thing from my mind when I developed and published the distinction.+
If I were a cartoon character (yeah, I know!), my feelings could be captured as follows with a thought-balloon (with me gliding along in my shades in a balloon):
I'll be darned, somebody found one of my ideas useful.
I want to understand my amazement.
I get more than my fair of attention. By this I do not just mean my common trope in these Impressions of the felt incongruity between the number of readers these Digressions attract on a daily basis as opposed to the relative obscurity of much of my scholarship. In fact, some of these posts generate more careful scrutiny and serious engagement than most of my scholarship. Without pretending to modesty, I am pleased that my blogs even have become points of reference in other people's scholarship. (My favorite example of this is Nancy Bauer's careful treatment of magisterialism in professional philosophy while using one of my old NewAPPS pieces.)
But blogs are not scholarship. In the fifteen years since I obtained my PhD (I am of the generation that really did not publish much before then), I published about sixty scholarly papers and six edited volumes. While there is some overlap in a number of these papers and a few may be fairly described as salami-publication, the vast majority of them are quite substantial efforts at scholarship--the effort of many years of research, reflection, multiple drafts, and try outs on a wide diversity of audiences. (The previous sentence is not a claim about the quality of that scholarship.) For the first decade of my career, it was pretty obvious that I was not just the only one citing any of these papers, but also that most of them were going unread even by people who kind of knew of me and of my work.
Now, search engines were invented during my PhD. (Something I am reminded of daily because I continue to use the same Yahoo email address for two decades now.) And before the invention of the search engine it was really quite easy to overlook relevant scholarship even if you were looking really hard for it in a world class research library. (In fact, if other scholars failed to cite an older paper it was pretty clear it could easily be overlooked--given that other people's bibliographies were the easiest source of relevant scholarship.) So, that one's work could be overlooked by others was, in general, nothing personal (it could of course also be something very personal). But the search engine did not end the practice of being ignored in professional philosophy. (That's different for fields with different citation practices.) For as I later came to recognize a good chunk of citation in professional philosophy is a form of (aspirational) status signaling.
But even with scholar.google, for the first ten years of my career, I got used to the fact that my papers would be ignored even in fields where everybody pretty much knows each other and that the vast majority of the citations to my work would be self-citation. For example, my first publication is, in part, on the significance of Adam Smith's obituary of Hume; it was published (in 2003) in Hume Studies after lengthy review and much help from the editors. It is not an earth shattering topic, but as it happens quite a few studies dealing with the circumstances of Hume's death and/or Smith's response to it (as well as papers on friendship and/or magnanimity in Hume or Smith) have since appeared that make no mention of it at all (including works by people that I think of as academic friends). I honestly think the piece simply got ignored by my some of my peers. That happens. And this is a piece that has more citations than my respectable enough (15) H-score! Anyway, regular readers know that I think that academic papers that go unread is not such a big deal as such (recall this post).
Even so, it has been gratifying to see some of my work being taken seriously in some scholarly debates. In addition, during the last few years, at least two of my papers have attracted serious attempts at constructive and careful refutation (see this piece by Katherine Brading and this one by Dan Kervick). This was especially pleasing because the two papers that were being criticized by Brading and Kervick had, in fact, been scholarly sleepers. To be the target of sustained and intelligent scholarly criticism by people that one admires is taken as a fantastic compliment. And I have to admit that I experienced it as the highest possible, scholarly achievement.
Part of me wonders if the previous sentence is an expression of Stockholm syndrome.
But last week, as I reflected on the fact that some of my distinctions were turning out to be fruitful to an unknown other,* I recognized a different kind of joy. At one point I had received a decent-size grant to develop the distinction so it's not like this student was the first to see promise in it. (That is to say, the distinction had helped my career and job-prospects at one point.) It added to the pleasure that the use seems fruitful (even promising) and unforeseen by me. I doubt I would have been as pleased if the use of my ideas did not strike me as fruitful and interesting; but I think I would have been just as pleased if the application had been foreseen by me. And, in fact, I believe that I could have foreseen this particular use, but I simply did not. That's okay, of course.
When we sign up for the scholarly life we know -- if we pay attention to the facts -- that we participate in an enterprise that often will go in directions we can barely glimpse. Because I sometimes write about and engage seriously with the ideas of long-forgotten scholars, I know that I participate in a practice whose effects may be foreseeable felt some centuries down the road (if humanity still exists), that my ideas may be re-animated as a passing reference in an argument that I can't foresee. And that thought has its own sublime pleasure sometimes. But it is a faint shadow compared to burst of light when one learns about the creative application and, thus, re-interpretation and extension of a distinction developed by a self that can receive credit but is now little more than traces of memory and reflected words on mostly forgotten pages.