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The deadly dangers of peer review

By Charles Foster

I’m just reading Michael Rosen’s (very good) book, ‘Dignity: Its history and meaning’ (Harvard University Press, 2012). He robustly questions the use of peer review in philosophy. Of course it is an essential part of science, but philosophy is rather different. He writes: ‘If [as he argues] the idea of completeness in philosophical arguments is unattainable, the attempt to be ‘rigorous’ can lead to a defensive tendency to reduce ambitions and to protect some tiny piece of ground against the possible objections of those closest to oneself in background and outlook (one’s natural peer reviewers). What is lost is not just accessibility but also the willingness to call into questions basic assumptions (one’s own and others’), which is precisely what, for many of, the point of doing philosophy was in the first place. Much contemporary philosophy takes place in an atmosphere of what can only be called (however historically unfair that label may be) scholasticism.’  (p. xiv)

Hear, hear. There’s a philosophical culture of scared, paralysed conservatism. (Of course not in Oxford). Much philosophical writing is simple reiteration of old ideas with, at best, some tentative suggestions as to how a footnote to an old paper might be slightly redrafted. Philosophical progress is regarded as necessarily incremental rather than revolutionary. There’s far too much reverence. Nothing should be unthinkable, but almost everything is. All the philosophical emperors are devoutly assumed to be fully and gorgeously clothed. They’re not.  Being creative is assumed to be incompatible with rigour. It’s not.

The academic zeitgeist makes a lot of philosophical writing very boring, very unattractive and wholly inaccessible to anyone who isn’t a creature and acolyte of the conservative ethos. Potential philosophical iconoclasts go off and do other things. And so the timorous conservatism becomes self-perpetuating. It’s a shame.

All that said, there plainly needs to be some sort of academic review before publication. It’s not enough for the editor simply to check for readability and grammar – important though those are. But at the moment the wrong criteria are applied. I suggest two criteria:

1. Nerve: is the paper sufficiently audacious?

2. Familiarity with the existing literature: does the author demonstrate sufficient knowledge of the state of the art to indicate that her radical departure from it is intentional?


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14 Comment on this post

  1. Hello Charles. I sympathise generally with your argument.
    I haven’t read Michael Rosen, so perhaps I’m way off beam, but I find it hard to accept that « rigour » is essentially conservative or defensive. Perhaps he has a different conception of what it is to be rigorous, but my view is that rigour includes, negatively, not commiting logical fallacies and, positively, it comprises the duty to outline and treat seriously the possible objections to one’s propositions. Which virtues I would add to your two criteria.

    1. Thanks Anthony. Rosen says this, and I agree: ‘….just because we can’t reach a mathematical ideal of proof, we shouldn’t throw up our hands and conclude that philosophy is no more than personal preference. We can give reasons for and against positions, reasons that carry weight even if they’re not conclusive.’ Now, as Rosen demonstrates, we can’t reach a ‘mathematical ideal of proof’ in philosophy. What tends to stand in for mathematical proof is concordance with some canonical ideas. So to be ‘rigorous’ is often construed as not straying off the well-beaten tracks.

    1. Elisa: many thanks. It sounds as if we’re not too far apart. Indeed, if by ‘having a point’ you mean it says something audaciously new, we agree.

      1. Yes, I mean saying something audacious, but I would not go for “newness” for its own sake. After all, there is so much interesting and thought-provoking which has already been said and forgotten and needs to be retrieved and repeated.

  2. This is interesting. What do you think, Charles, about someone like Slavoj Zizek and his approach? I am used to so called ‘analytic’ philosophers dismissing him for a ‘lack of rigor’.

    No doubt, Zizek has become an ‘intellectual superstar’ in recent years; that, while his writing is definitely not in line with most philosophers today. He sticks to Lacan and Hegel (thinkers seen as largely irrelevant) but is considered by many to be more relevant, at least in more ‘pop’ philosophy circles, when it comes to a critique of capitalism and the nature of ideology.

  3. Hear, hear. There’s a philosophical culture of scared, paralysed conservatism. (Of course not in Oxford)

    Oxford isn’t noted for its philosophy, or rather: it wasn’t even the locus of one particular school of philosophy (hello Bertrand and Wittgenstein), and apart from some rather ugly species of political philosophers, I can’t think of many historical examples. This might not be true today, but even the Undergrad level isn’t even offered as a pure discipline, and the PPE course is… ahem. Rather narrow focused.

    [disclosure: have studied at Oxford and have a philosophy parchment from one of the actual top #5]

    1. Sorry, forgot to note something so obvious to my worldview that (on re-reading the main article) I probably should have:

      Continental philosophy is about the maximal diametric opposite of your claims that is possible. While you’ve an argument on the American sphere, even within Ethics there’s radicalism all over the place ~ although I personally find writers such as Savulescu and so forth highly conservative in that they’re measuring their output against the normative ‘culturally acceptable’ base line in their work, you can’t say that they’re at least trying.

      Nick Bostrom ain’t so bad either 😉

  4. Dimitris: many thanks. But I’m afraid that I don’t know the work of Zizek sufficiently well to comment meaningfully. He’s on my list.

  5. Ajax: thank you. Delighted to hear that things are happier on the Continent.
    It’s not my brief to defend Oxford philosophy. I don’t think it needs to be defended, in fact. But I doubt that many would level the allegation ‘conservative’ at what’s going on at, for instance, Uehiro or Ethox.
    I’d have thought that the historical non-association with a particular school is a thoroughly good thing. ‘Schools’ – after the initial burst of innovation that creates them, tend to be straitjackets.

    1. Witty pun ~ straitjackets being binding and also a synonym for madness. Foucault is proud of you!

      Ok, cut to the chase time: the [main] piece is thin, we both know it, and we both know it was snark; there’s an entire school where rigorous peer review is both meaningful and expected. This is the field of logic, as I was (not so subtly) suggesting with my reference to Russell and the issues with Wittgenstein that occurred. Ahem, political discourse there. Then there’s an entire field more of American philosophy which claimed such rigorous peer review, but was in fact a rather… politicised field. Behaviorism and so forth is not something I think anyone should be proud of. Continental stuff does include scholasticism [in fact, Deleuze specifically and famously references some Scottish sources on that one] but the peer review process has also been a bit… more wiggly.

      But I doubt that many would level the allegation ‘conservative’ at what’s going on at, for instance, Uehiro or Ethox.

      Could I genuinely ask for some links, please? My earlier reference to Savulescu or Bostrom wasn’t snarky: most of what I’ve been reading out of library sources / non-pay walled sources is depressingly normative and explicitly designed not to offend the normative Conservative bias towards vanilla humanity. See if you can pick up the recent Guardian reference to a paper published by an Oxford Ethics philosopher where he admits “trolling the American right” over future predictions. Hint: he’s only “trolling” because he knows the straitjacket / conspiracy responses he’ll get; when his paper (collaboration? don’t have time for the link search) is pathetically vanilla. [Memory serves that it was a silly “future thought in the next 20 years” type affair, and something you’d knock out on a Sunday afternoon at the pub].

      Comment: it’s past time to get radical. We have (fairly conclusive as these things go) proof that there’s a major shift in global weather now [ ~ I’ve cut out the obvious Arctic blogs for you, I suspect you have them, they’re more mainstream, we can include the Methane in there as well]. These directly feed into certain Oxford projects in your field – notably the whole FHI thing [].

      My take is simple: the current ‘Ethical debates’ over transhumanism, enhancing human capabilities, homo sapiens 2.0/5 and so forth are witless, and stuck in the 1950’s. William Gibson and so forth were writing (!!) nearly 30 years ago. We have the Americans stuck in a culture war, the Russians stuck in a non-progressive time warp and the Chinese stuck in a forward plan for Africa.

      We don’t have time for peer review. The “deadly dangers” aren’t really about peer review anymore ~ or are you all so comfortable over there? Especially since the UK is now the epicenter of a new low pressure zone? We get the “ethical issues” with futurity ~ but you gals / guys seem to be stuck in the land that time forgot.

      “It has become appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity.”

      This can be taken two ways.

      There was a time when our intellectual elite were “literally” (sorry, bad joke) reinventing the world. Now, now… now we have American politics based on Reddit.

  6. Interesting article. I agree with Anthony Drinkwaters two additional criteria, and with your first. However I am not sure I see the need for

    ‘2. Familiarity with the existing literature: does the author demonstrate sufficient knowledge of the state of the art to indicate that her radical departure from it is intentional?’

    Surely if the work is valuable, and is a radical departure, this is what counts. Whether the individual knows that her departure is radical is neither here nor there.

    Besides, papers which are radically different have trouble citing the literature anyway. What are such papers supposed to say – ‘here is a list of papers on this topic which have no substantial connection with the approach taken by this paper’, or ‘Here is a list of things I have read. Now here is my new idea’?

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