February 14, 2007

Are You Competent in Your Research Areas? (Frances)

Here’s a theory about how most philosophers are working in the wrong areas. I came up with it when I was a graduate student. I don’t believe it, but I wonder how much truth there is to it.

As a graduate student one attends a bunch of classes, encounters a bunch of philosophical problems and questions, and encounters a bunch of favored responses to those problems and questions. For instance, in epistemology one hears about skepticism and the favored responses; in metaphysics one hears about the statue-clay problem and the favored responses. The students with “good sense” regarding that topic will see that none of the offered responses is very good. The students don’t have anything to offer themselves, but they see that the favored responses stink. As a result, they won’t do research in that topic, as they will find the literature a turn-off (since (a) nearly everyone in the literature is working on the favored responses, which she thinks stink, and (b) there are no known responses to work through that she thinks have a prayer of being right).

Who are the students who do end up researching the topic? Answer: the ones who got excited by it. And why did they get excited by it? Answer: in many cases, they got excited by it because they found one of the favored responses quite plausible. “Here is the solution to a philosophical issue that’s been around for centuries!” Due to this excitement, they research that topic. But they didn’t have the good sense to see that the response was lousy.

The upshot is that the people doing research on topic X are the ones who didn’t have good sense regarding X. Pretty depressing.

Clearly, this theory, competence pessimism, is overblown. For instance, one might research a topic merely because one thinks it’s a great topic, and not because one is enamored with any favored response to it. And of course one could argue that many of favored responses are really quite plausible but only appear, at first sight, to be defective. Only the people with insight into the topic can see the misleading nature of the initially apparent deficiencies of some of the favored responses. So it actually goes this way: the pessimist is right to say that the people who end up researching the topic are the ones who got excited about the topic, but the ones who got excited are the ones who correctly realized that one of the favored responses is on the right track despite its misleading appearance. That’s the opposite extreme, competence optimism, which says that the people working on topic X are the rare ones who saw that the apparent deficiencies were merely apparent. Is the truth closer to competence pessimism or competence optimism? Do you want victory for us or the terrorists?

1 comment:

Aidan said...

One would hope that at least sometimes the people who end up researching topic X are those who see the faults with the existing solutions, but are driven enough by the question that they want to invest their time and energy into trying to develop an alternative solution that doesn't have the faults of the existing competitors.