Why won’t I read your work?

To whom it may concern,

I’m sorry to address you in such an impersonal way, but I get quite a few letters and emails of the kind you sent me, and I thought I should take the time to explain at length, once and for all, why it won’t be getting the reply you hope for.

You are someone who thinks and writes about philosophy outside of academe. You have produced a book or some essays which you think are of wider interest. You may be quite modest about how important your work is, but more typically, you think that you have solved many big problems once and for all. Either way, you believe you have a worthwhile contribution to make.

The trouble is, few people will even read your work, let alone publish it. You’re understandably frustrated by this. You probably think that you are being ignored because you are working outside of the universities, that snobbery is at work here.

There may be some truth in this. It is much easier to have your work read if you have an academic position than not. But although this may be partly to do with snobbery that isn’t the whole story. The truth is that there is just too much philosophy being produced in the world, and anyone interested in it has to apply some crude filters to decide what to look at, let alone seriously read. If someone has got an academic position, that does not guarantee their ability, but it does show they have at least met some kind of minimal standard. Working to get a PhD and a job in a university thus earns people the right to have their peers at least pay attention to them. It is not therefore unfair to those who haven’t put in this work and made this progress that they have to work harder to get noticed. And remember even academic find it hard to get noticed: most books recommended to me by academic authors don’t get read either.

It is not the case, however, that academe is so closed that it won’t take on anything from outside. Most journals blind review papers. If your work is good, it can be published in a journal, whether you are in a university or not. You do, however, have to make sure you get familiar with the conventions and literatures surrounding issues, but the same constraint applies to people within academe. Book publishers will also be open to work by independent scholars.

So there is no institutional block to your work being received and understood. It’s just that there are hoops you have to jump through, procedures to get acquainted with and so on. You cannot expect that these hoops should be removed for you alone. You can read for a PhD, submit papers to journals and conferences. Just go to some conferences, for that matter, and get a feel to how things work. Talk to people about your ideas, listening to theirs at the same time.

But, you might say, the problem is that established academic philosophy works within certain paradigms that are flawed. It won’t listen to you because you do not share some of its core assumptions. You are too radical for them, and they are to blame for their conservatism.

If this is true, then you can only but do one of two things. First, you could decide that this is a club not worth joining. Why crave the attention and affirmation of professional philosophers if you think they’re all so wrong? The alternative is to accept that shifting paradigms is hard work, and you have to get within the system to change it. Again, that means no short cut to putting in the work, getting the PhD, or whatever it takes.

You might, however, just say this is all irrelevant. You have good work and all you are asking is that I read it. Why won’t I just do that? But what you have to realise is that countless people claim this, all the time. I can’t read all their work, and I have no way of knowing which are right. On the evidence of work I have looked at, virtually none are right. It’s hard to be boldly original and good in philosophy, and most people who claim those achievements for themselves are just wrong. If I do give work I’m sent a quick glance, there is rarely anything there that leaps out at me and demands that I hold my attention. What’s more, I’m often not an expert on the particular subject you are writing about, so I wouldn’t know if you were onto something or not.

Based on work I have looked at, most people who write to me claiming significant new work are intelligent, thoughtful people who know a lot about philosophy. But they have not had their own arguments tested thoroughly by well-informed peers, which is the real advantage university gives you. As a result, they have run too far, too fast with ideas, building up systems before the foundations have been secured. You could be the exception, of course. But if you are, the tragedy is that I can’t be expected to know that. And nor can others. So there really is no short cut.

If it is any consolation, I am in not such a dissimilar situation. I have no academic affiliation, and if I want to submit to academic journals or conferences, I have to do what everyone else has to do. Indeed, I can give you one example which shows you how hard it is. I once came up with a thought, an argument, which I believed could be interesting. The problem was – and I knew it – I have been outside of academe since my PhD and I just didn’t know if this was already old hat. So I sent the paper to a journal, It was rejected as well argued, but not original. Better for me to have found that out than to have worked it up into a book and then got annoyed when people didn’t read it.

I have no reason to think that independent scholars are any less talented than ones in universities. You may indeed have valuable contributions to make. I hope, however, you can understand why, even if you do, I am justified in passing by on the opportunity of reading them.

Good luck

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41 Comments.

  1. Nice…

    Receiving crazy unsolicited manuscripts seems to be an especially large occupational hazard for mathematicians (squared circle!), philosophers (life, the universe, and everything!) and cosmologists (Einstein is wrong!).

    I wonder whether there’s hard data on how much this kind of thing goes on, and how it varies by discipline.

  2. Thanks Michael, but I want to stress that not all unsolicited manuscripts are crazy! This isn’t just about fobbing off loons, it’s about explaining to perfectly sane people why I’m not being rude or snooty if I don’t read their work. I mean, I’ve already got a huge pile of books I’ve chosen to buy that I haven’t read yet!

  3. I take some solace from this. It’s pretty liberating being able to write what you like secure in the knowledge that nobody will read it.

    I used to offer my students the same (undeclared) consolation. I can admit this because…..etc

  4. Maybe those who have original thoughts worth publishing and lack academic credentials might do better writing them in a form that the general cultured reading public (I for instance) can understand and trying to publish them either online, in a blog for instance or in numerous magazines for a non-specialized but intellectually aware public.

  5. It seems to me that Julian’s argument succeeds as consolation for the dilettente only insofar as it effectively condemns the profession. As I mentioned in another thread, rumor has it that the average philosophy article is cited 1.2 times. If this is true, it reflects an astonishing level of professional apathy.

    Julian gave the institutional radical a choice in how to proceed. “[Y]ou could decide that this is a club not worth joining. Why crave the attention and affirmation of professional philosophers if you think they’re all so wrong? The alternative is to accept that shifting paradigms is hard work…” Now suppose the institutional radical chooses the first option. Would they be justified?

    If aloofness is the norm, then it seems to be a Sisyphusian task to try.

    This isn’t just a matter of sour grapes. Suppose that Person X were to succeed regardless of the odds some time down the road. What pride are they supposed to have in work that is recognized, if they know that they’ve succeeded in spite of the system, and not because of it? One might as well be proud of winning the lottery, or being part of an elite social club. Success, in that case, would actually be embarrassing. To argue that the resources required for robust peer review are absent in a discipline, is to present a disincentive for the institutional radical to proceed. On the face of things, it makes the choice of sticking around difficult to justify.

  6. I’ve just sent a 300 page, superbly crafted reply to you in the mail.

  7. >> I wonder whether there’s hard data on how much this kind of thing goes on, and how it varies by discipline.

    English or Literature professors have the pleasure of receiving unpublished novels.

  8. Benjamin,
    The 1.2 average citings per philosophy article doesn’t sound that bad to me. Consider all the stuff that’s published strictly to satisfy the publish or perish policy of all university departments and the number will make a lot more sense to you.

    Julian,
    I don’t suppose you meant this to be enjoyed, but I did.
    I’m reminded of the story (not meant as a counterexample or some such) about Hardy, the mathematician, receiving a bundle of papers to read from an unknown Indian. He deposited it on a shelf to be forgotten, except he happened to have glimpsed something when ridding himself of the papers that caught his interest. From that glimpse Ramanujan, went on to be one of the best known mathematicians of his time.

  9. Ralph, I don’t think so. Quite the opposite. The reality of “publish or perish” in academia is grist for the radical’s mill. For all you’ve done is point to a feature of the institution that causes the publication of reams upon reams of irrelevant nonsense. As critiques go, that’s quite a bit worse than mere aloofness. For aloofness could be fixed by changing the citation practices of the discipline.

  10. Benjamin,
    For god’s sake let me in on what you’re saying. Why is pp grist for the radical’s mill? What critiques are you talking about when you say
    “As critiques go, that’s quite a bit worse than mere aloofness?”
    Maybe I wasn’t clear (or am I too transparent?)If you have a million articles published that are just so many meaningless and unworthy- of-being-read contributions to a ridiculous institution then they will dilute the citing average.

  11. From my perspective, the comments of Amos above are most relevant. As a regular writer, who isn’t a philosopher but is interested in many of the same issues as philosophers, I would never send an MS to a professional philosopher – that’s the last person I would think of sending it to. As a total outsider, I’m thankful for the rise of the blog, though I recognise its limitations – no outside editorship, etc. I’m also so hopeless at networking that nobody reads my blog either.
    I also find philosophical and science blogs more interesting and rewarding to read than academic papers and books. They’re informally written, generally up to date, and potentially interactive [though I rarely comment]. They’re also free – and this is a major consideration for poor folks like me.

  12. Ralph,

    You wrote, “The 1.2 average citings per philosophy article doesn’t sound that bad to me.” I interpreted you as meaning that the Publish or Perish system is a mitigating factor, of sorts, that in some way “makes sense” of the citation rates. The upshot of the argument, as I read it, was that we shouldn’t be worried about the institutional critic.

    My reply on behalf of the institutional critic was that the reality of publish-or-perish is not at all mitigating. Rather, it is actually perfect condemnation of the institution. For the very fact that dross is publishable is an additional indication that the institution is dysfunctional. The fact that this dysfunction leads to another dysfunction (low citation rates), is damning.

    Shorter. Here are the two criticisms over consideration. One: citation rates are abysmal and unfair. Two: the publish or perish system contributes to the low citation rates. The latter criticism suggests that the system of ignoring publications is actually fair, due to the low quality of the product — that the bulk of the work done in the field is of little to no worth. Hence, the second criticism is even more potent than the first.

  13. Like Wittgenstein, I am inventive and unique. My philosophy smashes through familiar doctrine and my conceptual ability is unsurpassed. I am not a scholar. Wittgenstein was accepted as a philosopher purely on the say-so of Russell.

    Knowledge is tied to date and author in a vast, complex, epistemologically vacuous text held by the universities. Unless you are an item in that text, or a mystic or poet, your work will never get read.

  14. Benjamin,
    I’m really curious. Why in the world would you get upset with the average cites statistic? When one reads the number, as I did, the fact that 99% of the articles written are by non-scholars for pp. is or should be factored in. I suggest it’s similar in other fields. If you insist on taking such numbers as meaningful, focus on the top journals where severe standards are the rule.

  15. I didn’t get upset. I made an argument on behalf of a position that contrasts and supplements the topmost post. I didn’t say I held the position. I just argued for it.

    It’s true that the institutional critic would have to compare other fields. What I’ve said so far on their behalf would make some difference. But my understanding is that other fields have very different citation practices and less arbitrary standards, which makes all the difference.

  16. Lucian Nerwinski

    I admire Julian’s writing and am the happy owner of The Philosopher’s Toolkit. I must, however, point out that the present essay contains an illiterate usage, in the third paragraph from the end (the one beginning “Based on work I have looked at…”), in the second-to-last sentence of that paragraph, “And nor can others.”
    The word nor is a conjunction meaning “and not.” There is no need for and in the sentence. Corrected to “Nor can others” the sentence conveys exactly what the author means. The sentence as written is equivalent to saying “And but can others” or “And for can others.”
    Please don’t do this anymore. It is distracting.

    “And I shall not forget all that you have done for us.
    Nor will I fail to praise your work.”

  17. Benjamin,
    Sorry about the personal remark.
    I missed something. You keep mentioning critiques and critics, and I can only guess of what you’re writing. There appear to be influences of which I’m totally innocent who use these citation numbers to denigrate philosophy. If this is correct then I can understand the importance of these statistics.

  18. No problemo.

    In this case, while I’m ultimately playing devil’s advocate, I’m also working with intuitions that I find compelling and plausible, which give life and color to the interlocutor in Julian’s post. The “institutional critic” is a fictional character that I’ve created to fulfill those ends.

    There may be complications in the analysis that would make the institutional critic’s case less convincing. But what we ought to notice, at least for the purpose of the present thread, is that the institutional critic’s perspective is bolstered by almost everything that has been said here. That’s worrisome.

  19. Someone following Julian’s guidance would miss out, not only on their own work, but on that of Socrates, Montaigne, Descartes, Leibniz, Spinoza, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and a few others, so they would be in good company. They could always share their thoughts online like me!

  20. I’m on a roll here: they would also miss out on Hegel for much of his life, Karl Marx, Max Stirner, Ludwig Feuerbach, CS Pierce, Ralph Waldo Emerson…

    Any other suggestions for non-tenured thinkers of merit?

  21. Non-tenured thinkers: Buddha,
    Jesus, Epictetus, Machiavelli,
    Kierkegaard, Sartre…..

  22. My history is a touch rusty, but as far as I recall, Socrates never spammed people with unsolicited manuscripts…

    With the (notable) exception of Ramanujan, few people have made great intellectual contributions and were only recognized because they sent out spam. I’m sure there must be some, but I’m guessing it’s a touch rare.

  23. Well Michael, Socrates did collar people in the agora, which was an unsolicited attempt to engage with his fellow citizens! On the other hand, he did adapt what he said to his interlocutor, so perhaps he was not an ancient Athenian spammer. I do agree that one should make an effort to fit in, raise standards and whatnot, and I do that, but there are two sides to everything.

  24. The stuff about non-tenured philosophers in history is a red herring. My advice applies to now, not to when times were different. It’s also not the case that I am simply saying “don’t read non-academic thinkers.” Far from it – I read a lot of good books by non-academics.
    The closest I could get to an ahistorical version of the general principle is: when there are far too many people with ideas clamouring for attention, so that it is not possible to check if each is worth listening to one by one, you have to be prepared to do whatever it takes to get into the smaller subclass of thinkers who others would have some reason to single out. That could be done, for example, by being published by a good publisher or by building up a following on a blog. It can’t be done by simply announcing you have good stuff that others should read. Also, as I think someone mentioned, being a tenured academic is actually a poor way of trying to get your ideas widely read.

  25. Sorry, I was being a touch flippant…

    I am genuinely interested though. How many big contributions or important thinkers have been recognized only because they contacted some academic?

  26. Benjamin Nelson

    Good question Michael. I’m wondering that myself. Does philosophy have any “Good Will Hunting” stand-ins?

    Ludwig Wittgenstein is an obvious case. He contacted Frege, who pawned Ludwig off on Russell. It was through Russell’s insistence that the Tractatus received the audience that it did. And it isn’t at all clear that Wittgenstein would have been noticed without him.

  27. “…you think that you have solved many big problems once and for all.”

    Well that’s their problem right there.

  28. I’m glad to have helped provoke such an insightful response from Julian. For myself, I think I look out for contributions to debates I’m interested in rather than interesting thinkers as such. I find myself doing that through email groups where new books or articles tend to be discussed, by online searches, review journals or by chance encounters.

  29. There is no consolation for people whose work will not be read: their ambitions can’t root themselves; their self-esteem will wither. Still, as Julian points it, no one’s at fault for that. It’s just the universe is a harsh and callous place!

    (Not an original thought, but I won’t be sending it to journals…)

  30. I think this reply is very well written, thorough and fair. Good to read it.

  31. I will not live to see it. I’m already 82. But sometime in the future a Kant may stumble on my work and find it shocking him out of his dogmatic slumber and I’d be as firmly established as Hume. And if that doesn’t happen, it’s just too bad for future generations. Will you hazard having a look at my blog? Not much to lose anyway. http://khashaba.blogspot.com

  32. this was a great article.
    One day soon, IT ontology will make it much easier to consumer large sums of high quality philosophy across many disciplines…by making assumptions (via software) on what is deemed high and low quality.

    I will state that I myself an a non-PhD holding philosopher in under the analytic philosophy genre and academic at multiple universities have made my new book “Integrationalism: Essays on the rationale of abundance” a recommended reading for their classes. I do however, participate as a non-lecturing research faculty at multiple institutions…it has lowered barriers by giving me access to some of the audience that my work desires….just my 2 cents…lol

  33. “One day soon, IT ontology will make it much easier to consumer large sums of high quality philosophy across many disciplines…by making assumptions (via software) on what is deemed high and low quality.”

    As someone who has worked in this area directly at research level, this some way off happening, akin to hoping for an artificial intelligence that can function as a mind. Speculate all you can as to when this might happen.

  34. “Like Wittgenstein, I am inventive and unique. My philosophy smashes through familiar doctrine and my conceptual ability is unsurpassed. I am not a scholar. Wittgenstein was accepted as a philosopher purely on the say-so of Russell.” John Jones

    Philosopher is a gift title. Like artist, or poet. You can’t give it too yourself. It has to be gifted to you.

    An academic qualification as a philosopher is also a little soi disant in itself. An institution of priests sets some hoops for the seminarian to jump through. They jump the hoops successfully. Then the wizard, just like in Oz, hands the Scarecrow his Thd – A diploma in thinkology.

    Good philosophy doesn’t necessarily originate from the universities. A philosophy department did not make the Wizard of Oz. Or Tarkovsky’s Stalker or Solaris; two films based not academic texts but on pulp science fiction novels. It’s not important either, if the ideas within the works were not rigorously original. Their readings and presentations trump the need for absolute originality. Philosophy isn’t physics. It’s origin is not specifically important. Really only if you’re building a career within a university. Some real idiots get their Phds and through political manoeuvring (or marriage and social connections), head up philosophy departments. The authority of the institution can give credibility where no credibility is due. If the man looks like an idiot, writes like an idiot, talks like an idiot – do not be fooled; the man is an idiot.

    It’s arguable if there is much merit in institutional philosophy at all. If we already have too much of it and not enough where it may be needed more; in art, in cinema, in media, in business, in politics. In everyday life.

    Who really wants to get their “work” published in a pompous journal more than half full of gibberish. Is professional philosophy just another priestly scam.

    Despite his qualifications, I don’t rate Julian Baggini as a philosopher. He lacks any grand idea. His writing and speaking is wishy washy and sometimes annoying. I don’t rate myself as a philosopher either. Philospher is a gift word. It’s up to me whether I think Julian’s earned it. I don’t think he has.

    I don’t care if Julian reads me or not. I don’t care. I’ll continue to read him, not because I think he’s good, but because he entertains me. It gives me an intellectual exercise. And I think I’m gaining a valuable insight into a very specific and pompous form of narcissism.

  35. Sixteen links « Evolving Thoughts - pingback on August 8, 2010 at 4:24 am
  36. Playing by the rules doesn’t necessarily help.

    I’ve been published in a prestigious peer-reviewed journal, had my book reviewed in Nature and then cited by research scientists.

    But most scientists in the field I address are unaware of my idea’s existence.

  37. Well stated and well thought out article, and I understand your point of view having been sent so much garbage, but I think your article ignores the “best” argument that the best “partially examined” philosophers have in their favor. (I steal the phrase from The Partially Examined Life blog and podcast, meaning a philosopher who was good enough to do some Ph.D. work, usually on scholarship, but decided not to finish). The argument is simply that academic philosophy is a huge beast of a thing and the methods that it uses, which follow the example of the sciences and focus on peer reviewing, may not be the best way of doing philosophy. I have created my own publishing company and my first self-published philosophy book is already on Amazon and will be “in stock” in two weeks. After reading this, I wouldn’t dream of offering you a copy because why would I waste money sending someone a copy who has no time or desire to read it? I know that no one reads philosophy journal articles that you don’t get paid for because I can buy a full page ad for my book in the most distinguished philosophy journal around for 250 bucks. On the other hand, I’m making fully eight dollars on every book sold by my own imprint and laughing all the way to the bank.

  38. Thank god the digital age has given us self-publishing!

  39. Julian,

    Re Ego trick book (i.e bundle theory)

    I’m sorry to address you in such an impersonal way, but I get quite a few adverts of the kind your publishers have released to the press and R4 and I thought I should take the time to explain at length, once and for all, why it won’t be getting the reply you hope for.(I won’t be buying your book)

    Apart from the fact that parfitt’s ego bundle theory is old hat…

    You are someone who thinks and writes about philosophy outside of academe. You have produced a book or some essays which you think are of wider interest. You may be quite modest about how important your work is, but more typically, you think that you have solved many big problems once and for all. Either way, you believe you have a worthwhile contribution to make.

    The trouble is, few people will even read your work, let alone publish it. You’re understandably frustrated by this. You probably think that you are being ignored because you are working outside of the universities, that snobbery is at work here.

    There may be some truth in this. It is much easier to have your work read if you have an academic position than not. But although this may be partly to do with snobbery that isn’t the whole story. The truth is that there is just too much philosophy being produced in the world, and anyone interested in it has to apply some crude filters to decide what to look at, let alone seriously read. If someone has got an academic position, that does not guarantee their ability, but it does show they have at least met some kind of minimal standard. Working to get a PhD and a job in a university thus earns people the right to have their peers at least pay attention to them. It is not therefore unfair to those who haven’t put in this work and made this progress that they have to work harder to get noticed. And remember even academic find it hard to get noticed: most books recommended to me by academic authors don’t get read either.

    It is not the case, however, that academe is so closed that it won’t take on anything from outside. Most journals blind review papers. If your work is good, it can be published in a journal, whether you are in a university or not. You do, however, have to make sure you get familiar with the conventions and literatures surrounding issues, but the same constraint applies to people within academe. Book publishers will also be open to work by independent scholars.

    So there is no institutional block to your work being received and understood. It’s just that there are hoops you have to jump through, procedures to get acquainted with and so on. You cannot expect that these hoops should be removed for you alone. You can read for a PhD, submit papers to journals and conferences. Just go to some conferences, for that matter, and get a feel to how things work. Talk to people about your ideas, listening to theirs at the same time.

    But, you might say, the problem is that established academic philosophy works within certain paradigms that are flawed. It won’t listen to you because you do not share some of its core assumptions. You are too radical for them, and they are to blame for their conservatism.

    If this is true, then you can only but do one of two things. First, you could decide that this is a club not worth joining. Why crave the attention and affirmation of professional philosophers if you think they’re all so wrong? The alternative is to accept that shifting paradigms is hard work, and you have to get within the system to change it. Again, that means no short cut to putting in the work, getting the PhD, or whatever it takes.

    You might, however, just say this is all irrelevant. You have good work and all you are asking is that I read it. Why won’t I just do that? But what you have to realise is that countless people claim this, all the time. I can’t read all their work, and I have no way of knowing which are right. On the evidence of work I have looked at, virtually none are right. It’s hard to be boldly original and good in philosophy, and most people who claim those achievements for themselves are just wrong. If I do give work I’m sent a quick glance, there is rarely anything there that leaps out at me and demands that I hold my attention. What’s more, I’m often not an expert on the particular subject you are writing about, so I wouldn’t know if you were onto something or not.

    Based on work I have looked at, most people who write to me claiming significant new work are intelligent, thoughtful people who know a lot about philosophy. But they have not had their own arguments tested thoroughly by well-informed peers, which is the real advantage university gives you. As a result, they have run too far, too fast with ideas, building up systems before the foundations have been secured. You could be the exception, of course. But if you are, the tragedy is that I can’t be expected to know that. And nor can others. So there really is no short cut.

    If it is any consolation, I am in not such a dissimilar situation. I have no academic affiliation, and if I want to submit to academic journals or conferences, I have to do what everyone else has to do. Indeed, I can give you one example which shows you how hard it is. I once came up with a thought, an argument, which I believed could be interesting. The problem was – and I knew it – I have been outside of academe since my PhD and I just didn’t know if this was already old hat. So I sent the paper to a journal, It was rejected as well argued, but not original. Better for me to have found that out than to have worked it up into a book and then got annoyed when people didn’t read it.

    I have no reason to think that independent scholars are any less talented than ones in universities. You may indeed have valuable contributions to make. I hope, however, you can understand why, even if you do, I am justified in passing by on the opportunity of reading them.

    Good luck

  40. David Findley

    Julian,

    However the fact that there must be a lot of undesirable work being passed around, I think it is wrong to group the potentially gifted in with them.

    If you’re in a position wherein it is your duty to sift through submissions, perhaps it is your obligation, not only to the author but to society as well, to be receptive to the truly original.

    Otherwise, I think you’re an excellent example of the corrupt in academia. And perhaps you should go over your logical fallacies, again, and see how many are present in your kind letter.

  41. Philosophy isn’t about ‘publishing success’, it’s about thought and it’s personal; first subjective, and then objective. Studying the ancients means parroting and being influenced by them and the lecturers that teach them; therefore it can never be original thought – it’s conforming.

    Everyone starts somewhere at the bottom of the ladder.

    Tradition, which actually means ‘betrayal’, has never solved humanities problems and never will. Philosophy should not be about pleasing others.

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