In a recent tweet, I expressed frustration with the following situation. Academic publications, especially in philosophy, are replete with arguments that aim to show that Author X is wrong, paper Y fails in this and that, the Literature doesn’t achieve much. The phenomenon is macroscopic. I observe it as editor, as reviewer, as reader, and also as a teacher / examiner / supervisor. You can see the twitter thread here.

There are a number of reasons why I think this is wrong and counterproductive. Let me elaborate.

In reading texts that spend most of their time and efforts in showing others wrong, I am frustrated and annoyed by the negative tone. They are boring to read. This, you may think, is an aesthetic issue. Sure, but there is more: your original and positive ideas are watered in negative comments about others. So it is detrimental to your own work.

But also, in spending so much time (all of your time?) in showing others wrong, you still don’t explain what the problem is, why should we care, and why it is relevant that Author X, Paper Y, the Literature hasn’t solved it.

Another issue is that, as the majority of our publications go through peer review, you are implicitly saying that the peer review failed to block this piece to get published. Actually, you have no idea of what happened behind the scenes, and it may be the case that the flaws you find in Paper Y are (also) due to changes to accommodate reviewers requests. Yes. That happens, and you don’t know. Of course peer review has its own share of problems, but that’s another discussion.

There is also a question of politeness. You really can’t keep saying that others are wrong. Each one of us deserves respect. We should express our ideas in a respectful way, and in return critical assessment ought to be respectful as well.

So what can you do instead of (just) showing that other people are wrong? Here is a (brief) positive and constructive proposal.

  • Shape your argument around a problem. What is the problem? Why does it matter? Why should we care?
  • Acknowledge others’ attempts to address it. Some attempts will be more successful than others. Sure. You have to be critical. But do acknowledge the struggle to address the problem. Do it for us, we will do it for you when discussing your paper.
  • Critical assessment doesn’t mean proving others wrong. It means to clarify what we achieved, what we didn’t, and what needs to be done next.
  • DO WHAT NEEDS TO BE DONE NEXT. This should be the most important part of your contribution. If there is a problem, and the problem is still there after other people tried to address it, DO something with it. It is too easy to criticize and not to give it a try.

Let me be clear: I don’t think the issue reduces to politeness and etiquette. What is really behind is how we conceive of knowledge. If we start (again?) to conceive of knowledge production as a collective enterprise, in which knowledge is distributed (embodied, etc.) then you will see why all of the above matters. (If you are unfamiliar with these ideas, go to the library, do some googling, you’ll see they exist.)

If you can afford writing a piece criticizing Author X, Paper Y, the Literature, well, you are building, directly or indirectly, on other people’s work. So you are not the lonely owner of your ideas, you have them also because they belong to a shared conceptual space. Next time, please acknowledge that something has been done.

Practice what you preach. I try to change these negative attitudes as much as I can. I care about these issues, I speak up, and I give advice in all of my academic roles: as editor, reviewer, author, examiner, teacher, …

Please join me in making philosophy a better place.