[Reflections] Some Misgivings about the 2020 PhilPapers Survey

A couple weeks ago, David Bourget and David Chalmers published the results of the 2020 PhilPapers survey, a sequel to their 2009 survey. I didn’t have the time to write my reaction to it then and now my hot take is cooling rapidly. But here it is.

First, a few words about the survey. It consists of 40 “main” questions as well as 60 “additional” questions of a more specialized nature. The questions ask where respondents stand with regard to familiar philosophical questions and debates. They usually offer two or three options, allowing respondents to state that they accept, lean toward, are neutral about, lean against, or reject each option. For instance, respondents can state their preference for physicalism or non-physicalism concerning the mind, for communitarianism, libertarianism, or egalitarianism in political philosophy, or for classical or non-classical logic. Some survey questions ask about particular philosophical dilemmas, like whether you should take one or both boxes in Newcomb’s Problem. Others ask in a more general way about philosophical methods or philosophical progress. All of the questions allow for “Other” as a possible response and leave space to add an alternative answer. The survey collates responses from 1785 philosophers working in BA-granting departments and who publish in English.

I have misgivings about this project but I should begin by acknowledging its virtues. The survey is a part of a broader project represented by PhilPapers and its associated websites. These websites are a tremendously valuable asset to the profession and the work that Bourget and Chalmers have put into establishing and maintaining them deserves everyone’s gratitude. The survey itself is an interesting document even though I have issues with it. As the authors note, “today’s sociology is tomorrow’s history, and these results may be of some use to future historians of philosophy.” To that I would only add that this document itself is an interesting record of the sociology of philosophy in the early 21st century. That the survey exists, and that it exists in the form that it does, is revealing, as are the ways that the 2020 survey differs from the 2009 survey. For instance, the addition of questions concerning gender and race show a shift in what questions have the attention of the philosophical mainstream.

The survey makes some strong suppositions about what philosophy is and how it’s conducted. What philosophy is and how it should be conducted are of course themselves perennial philosophical questions, and the survey polls philosophers on these questions. But the very nature of the polling already encodes certain ideas about philosophical practice. Philosophy, the survey seems to imply, consists of a set of clear questions whose answers can usually be bundled into two or three options. The correct answers to these questions are hard enough to discern that professional philosophers disagree. But that, the survey suggests, is where the philosophical action lies. Philosophers are in the business of developing arguments in support of one or another answer to a set question.

A lot of the philosophical work that I find most meaningful doesn’t take this form. Instead, it challenges the questions themselves. Wittgenstein maintains that this-or-that disputes over philosophical isms fall apart under pressure. For example, in both the Tractatus (5.64) and the Philosophical Investigations (§402), he argues that the attempt to articulate a thesis of solipsism doesn’t end up saying anything that distinguishes it from realism. Heidegger, especially in his later work, suggests that the impulse to grasp hold of answers bespeaks a lack of patience that inhibits genuine questioning. Imagine Wittgenstein or Heidegger being asked to fill out the PhilPapers survey and you get some idea of my misgivings.

This picture of philosophy as formulating definite answers to set questions has critics closer to the Anglophone mainstream. Cora Diamond’s “Eating Meat and Eating People” doesn’t offer a novel answer to the question of whether it’s permissible to eat animals or animal products. It’s pretty clear that Diamond is deeply troubled by the eating of animals. But the main thrust of her paper is that the most familiar arguments against eating animals grossly misconstrue what’s at issue. John McDowell’s “Non-Cognitivism and Rule-Following” attacks ethical non-cognitivism, but the paper is hardly a call to vote for cognitivism instead. The paper tries to show that this way of framing the question is misguided. And a number of philosophers have challenged the very idea of thinking about ethics through the sorts of abstract decision procedures you find in the trolley problem. For instance, Martha Nussbaum and Iris Murdoch both insist that ethics is more a matter of perception than decision. Our ethical options aren’t laid out in advance for us like a fixed decision tree. The real ethical work, as they see it, lies in seeing a situation sensitively and responsively. On this view ethics demands something more like a creative act than a selection from a fixed menu of options.

The authors of the survey at least acknowledge the issue. They report: “Respondents from non-analytic philosophical traditions often reported feeling somewhat alienated by the questions, and even respondents from analytic traditions sometimes reported that the questions reflected a fairly traditional conception of philosophy that did not fully represent philosophy as it is done in 2020.” They add that they’re “especially sorry for bringing about feelings of alienation” and pledge to do better next time.

But it’s not clear to me that they grasp the nature of that alienation. They write, “We made some attempt to find questions from non-analytic traditions, but it was difficult to find candidates that enough of our target group would be familiar with.” To begin with, if your reason for excluding questions about marginalized traditions is, essentially, that they’re marginalized, the apology rings a little hollow. But the key issue, to my mind, is that this way of asking questions creates a skewed picture of what philosophy is. You won’t fix that issue by asking different questions.

Am I just misunderstanding the exercise here? The survey isn’t trying to characterize philosophical practice so how can it mischaracterize it? I don’t think the authors mean to be characterizing philosophical practice in a certain way. But that’s precisely what’s interesting, and troubling, about the survey. The questions prod respondents to think about philosophy in a certain way that many people—the authors presumably included—so take for granted that they don’t even notice that there’s prodding going on.

That prodding aligns with other forces acting on philosophy as a profession within the modern university. In order to find work and keep working, philosophers are strongly pressured to have a “brand.” They should be able to articulate clearly what sub-fields they work in and what approaches to what questions in those sub-fields they’re most engaged by. Some very good philosophers can do this comfortably so I don’t mean to suggest that there’s something wrong in itself with this orientation to your own work. But I doubt that the sort of self-presentation that makes you easily readable to hiring committees and grant committees correlates in any strong way with being a good philosopher.

All of this risks sounding like sour grapes coming from someone who’s struggled to find a firm footing in the profession. And I suppose to some extent it is. But looking at the survey gives me the same queasy feeling I get when I look at the prompts on online dating apps. There’s this tremendously complex thing that matters a lot to me—and whose mattering is intimately tied to its complexity—and I see it reduced to a few neat data points.

10 Comments on “[Reflections] Some Misgivings about the 2020 PhilPapers Survey”

  1. Neat unpacking of problems many of us don’t even see. As in, “Which washes whiter, Persil or Brand X?” when we need to ask what washing white means?

  2. david — thanks for this very thoughtful blog post. your misgivings seem fair and understandable to me. i take the point that the survey threatens to flatten out complex philosophical issues and ideas in a way that robs them of much of their richness and complexity. you’re right that good philosophy can’t be and shouldn’t be reduced to multiple choice between isms. we shouldn’t be promulgating a picture of philosophy where that’s what it’s all about.

    in defense of the survey, i’ll just say something i’ve said before: that the survey isn’t trying to define what’s important in philosophy and shouldn’t be understood that way. it’s just trying to understand one little corner of the sociology of philosophy (roughly, how many people identify with certain philosophical positions) through the crude tools of multiple choice. that little corner is far from exhausting what’s of interest in the sociology of philosophy, let alone in philosophy itself. it just happens to be a corner that we’re able to study given the crude tools we have available.

    we don’t expect the survey to be interesting or valuable to everybody. we understand that for many people it’s comical or distasteful to cast philosophical questions in the way we do. and yes, the survey does prod people to think in a dichotomous way that isn’t everybody’s style. but the results do seem to be of interest to a lot of people inside and outside philosophy. in recent weeks since the survey has been released, we’ve seen it prompt all sorts of fascinating reflections on the results. isms aren’t all of philosophy, but they’re one important part of philosophy and their uptake is of interest to many people. (dating apps may flatten out what’s important in relationships, but plenty of people find them useful all the same.) we’ve taken this interest to be enough to justify doing the survey.

    now, maybe your misgivings go further. one possible thought is that the survey isn’t just distasteful but damaging — perhaps so damaging that we shouldn’t do the survey, despite all the interest. i mentioned one sort of damage in the document you linked to, regarding feelings of alienation in people whose style of philosophy is not represented in the survey. we take that sort of damage seriously. we don’t want to generate those feelings, and we’re thinking about ways to reflect more philosophical traditions and styles in future surveys.

    another potential sort of damage is that the kind of philosophy represented on the survey could end up influencing the kind of philosophy taken seriously in the future. perhaps appearing on the philpapers survey issues could tend to encourage people to work on those questions, or perhaps the survey itself could tend to perpetuate a sense that the true core of philosophy lies in figuring out which isms one accepts. i agree that this would be unfortunate. i’d just add that i haven’t seen any evidence that the 2009 survey had effects like this within the philosophical profession. i’d be surprised if it had those effects, and likewise i’d be surprised if the 2020 philpapers survey had those effects. the survey just doesn’t set the agenda in that way. but if you or other think that the surveys are having those or other damaging effects, i’d be interested to hear about them.

    anyway, i really hope that the survey doesn’t discourage young wittgensteins — and other complex thinkers whose thoughts aren’t reducible to an ism — from going in to philosophy, or from succeeding in philosophy. for what it’s worth, my own sense is that there is still a great deal of room in philosophy for thinkers who appreciate of the complexity and subtlety of philosophical issues. your own post here is a marvelous example of how philosophical reflection on tangled complexities can be rewarding whether or not it comes to a clear verdict. i hope that in the end you find a firm footing.

    • Thanks for this kind and thoughtful reply, David. Something I didn’t say explicitly in my post but maybe should have done is that there’s no question in my mind that the survey was created in good faith and with good will. If it’s harmful in some way, it’s clear to me that this result is very much contrary to its intent.

      In terms of potential harms, I’m really not sure whether the survey itself has that kind of influence on the profession. But I think it reflects a particular way of thinking about philosophy that seems fairly dominant in the profession and that I don’t feel super great about. Maybe it’s more an effect than a cause. Although there’s a danger that the prominence of the survey will amplify the dominance of this way of thinking about philosophy.

      Like I said in my post, I agree with you that the survey is an interesting document in the sociology of the profession and just want to add that how the survey is structured also reflects something of the sociology of the profession. To stick with this meta-level theme, you say it’s prompted all sorts of fascinating reflections on the results. I hope my post can count among those reflections.

      • thanks for this, david! it’s a fair point about the survey potentially perpetuating and amplifying dominant philosophical styles and methods. the same is true of all sorts of philosophical institutions, of course, from classes to conferences. it’s something we need to keep thinking about. if there’s a 2030 survey, maybe we can think about ways to make it more forward-looking and more methodologically inclusive (however imperfectly). in the meantime, i’m grateful for your reflections, which i’d certainly count among the survey’s benefits!

  3. Thanks for the thoughtful reflections on the survey. I full agree with David C’s comment. I want to stress that if the survey comes across as suggesting or presupposing that philosophy should mostly be done by choosing among well-known isms, that’s really not the intent. Personally, I reject the dichotomy in a large number of questions. And if I accept a specific answer, usually that is with important qualifications I’d like to add.

    So why ask these imperfect, overly simplistic questions? Personally, I think of them as starting points in a larger dialogue to be continued. When you meet a new philosopher and want to learn about their work, it’s often useful as a starting point to ask whether they agree with X-ism—even if you think X-ism doesn’t quite carve things out in the right way. You can only use so many words on any given occasion, so you start with a compact query using the language you share. I personally expected even more ‘other’ answers than we’ve gotten, and I wanted (still want) to create a system for contributors to refine the questions/theses until they carve things out to their satisfaction. This may require a lot of iterations. This may prove impractical. In any case, I think it’s an interesting experiment to try this out.

    • Thanks for this reply, David–and for all the great work you’ve done setting up PhilPapers and its kin. I suppose what it comes down to is that there’s no neutral way of posing a question in philosophy. As I put it in the post, the survey as it’s presented prods people to think about the discipline along certain lines. I don’t think there’s some alternative survey that wouldn’t prod people in some way. And like I said in response to David C, I very much agree that the survey serves to prompt a larger dialogue. I hope you’ll accept my post as one contribution to that dialogue, even if it’s critical of the overall project.

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