[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.

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