Brilliance and Merit in Philosophy

January 6, 2018 by Charlespermalink

Happy new year, everyone! Back at the blog writing after a lovely long break for the holidays. I’ve decided to try what is likely an ill-advised new area for some of my posts this year. Some of the best professional reading I’ve done lately hasn’t been about particular research topics, but rather people trying to offer honest, unvarnished ruminations on what work in professional philosophy is like. I’m hoping to contribute a few things in that vein myself in the new year.

To give you an idea of what I mean, Mark Alfano’s timeline of the job market was crucial for me during graduate school. Multiple posts over at Liam Kofi Bright’s blog (along with the always fantastic discussion on his Facebook threads) have been phenomenal reading and thinking in the last couple of months. I’ll at best be a pale imitation of these better, actually useful exemplars.

One thing’s been on my mind lately, though. A few weeks ago, I read this interesting piece on two ways to approach UK politics – the dueling cultures of “merit” and “brilliance.” It dawned on me that this maps onto something interesting in philosophy, or at least I think it might. (I should note right away that I don’t know anywhere near enough about UK politics to know whether or not any of the analogies drawn in the original piece are sound. I’m riffing on the idea with pretty heavy modification.)

I often see two contrasting ways in which we think about philosophical work (and, even more problematically, philosophers ourselves). Caveat: I know that these are extremes, into which almost nothing and no one fits cleanly, about which more later.

On the one hand is the philosophical analogue of the Culture of Brilliance. Philosophy advances through singular, brilliant, novel insights. Insightful papers can and should be in Analysis-sized single bites, because that should be enough to solve a compact and clearly stated problem. After all, Gettier only needed to write that one paper to cement his status as an important figure in epistemology.

On the other hand lies the philosophical analogue of the Culture of Merit. Grind. Continue to grind. Philosophy is a grind. The literature is a vast, complex network of well defended, nearly fully formed positions, perturbed primarily on its edges by applying interesting thought experiments, case studies, or episodes from history or alternative traditions to push debate forward or offer challenges. This is all that we can and should hope to do.1

And both sides tend to have standard critiques of the other. Partisans of Merit tend to complain that the Brilliance school fetishizes reputation over content, the appearance of profundity over utility, and cruelty in the guise of incisiveness. Partisans of Brilliance reply that Merit has turned philosophy into an extensive chess match, an arid neo-Scholasticism that offers arguments only within its previously ossified channels of meaningless debates without any exciting or new ideas.2

Now, it’s time to lay my cards on the table: I am a card-carrying Merit Party member. I daresay that Notre Dame HPS trained me as such, and that HPS as a community more broadly is Merit-driven rather than Brilliance-driven (and may well be why I like HPS most of all of the philosophical communities in which I find myself). I worry that many of the influences of the Brilliance Party are deleterious – they lead to a distrust of co-authoring, an overreliance on the armchair, a rejection of the good in pursuit of the perfect.

But before I get too extreme, back to something I mentioned earlier. Liam describes in a recent post the diversity of ways in which we might visualize the landscape of philosophy, and by extension the action of doing philosophy. I have to confess that I’ve always seen the structure of the field in much the way that Liam’s foil, Peter Wolfendale does – something like a directed graph of propositions, to be modified or tweaked around its edges, some paths perhaps, if we are lucky, to be foreclosed by a high quality argument. A Brilliance partisan would, I hazard, see philosophy more like a rugged fitness landscape, pocked with many local minima in which the majority of philosophers spend their time, waiting to be pulled out by the next stroke of genius. (For his part, Liam offers a much calmer, peaceful, more collaborative vision of the doing of philosophy, probably a good indication that he’s transcending the binary that I’m describing here.)

I think that a focus on the structure of the problem space, though, might be able to offer us a way to talk about what is, I take it, the truth of the matter – nobody (not even me) is a genuine exclusive inhabitant of the worlds of Brilliance or Merit. I resonate more with the Merit idea because, as Liam puts it, I really do experience philosophy in such a way that “the ideas being interacted with come with independent structure – one starts from somewhere in the network of paths, and follows where they lead.” That leads to me thinking about interacting with them in this big directed-graph kind of way that Wolfendale talks about, and thinking about modifying them in the classic Merit kind of way around the edges.

The trick, I think, is to figure out two things. First, how do we divorce our understandings of the problem landscape from our understandings of what it is to be a philosopher? That is, it seems to me that there ought be no a priori connection between seeing the conceptual landscape as a rugged fitness landscape with many local minima, and thinking that only Brilliant ideas will advance philosophy. (Why not climb out of a local minimum through a coordinated effort consisting of small steps?) Similarly, there ought be no such connection between seeing philosophy as a finely interwoven directed graph and grinding out small contributions around the edges. (Why not seriously perturb the network, if that’s what it needs?) How do we separate conceptual structure from claims of fruitfulness and self-worth?

And second, how do we move fluidly between these different modes of thinking? I think it’s entirely reasonable to guess that for those of us trained in one of these modes, the lens through which we think about the structure of the literature and the arguments carried within can quickly become a straitjacket. What can we do to cultivate the kind of mental flexibility that would allow us to make these domain- or problem-specific mental structures? Perhaps all of the rest of you are already good at context-switching in this way, and I’m the only one who always views the structure of the field in the same way? (Tell me your secrets!)

In any event, while these thoughts are somewhat half-baked, I’m interested to see if folks resonate with anything here. Drop me an e-mail, comment here, or find me on Facebook!

  1. As brought to my attention by Liam, check out Peter Wolfendale’s really fantastic metaphor for this, which you can find in section 3.2 of a really wonderful, powerful blog post which you should read in its entirety at your first opportunity. ↩︎

  2. As an aside, I also don’t think this maps cleanly onto the continental/analytic distinction, as weak as that distinction is: there are, I think, good examples of both Brilliance and Merit cultures in “classical” continental and analytic work. ↩︎