Advice on construing empirically-based arguments for a “generalist” audience?

A reader of the Brains blog wrote me the other day concerning a referee report he’d received on a submission to a top “generalist” journal. (See here if you don’t understand the rationale for my punctuation practices.)

Despite praising the article overall and saying that it probably warranted publication, the referee advised rejection, partly on the ground that the author’s argument was too heavily reliant on “contentious (somewhat empirical) theories which belong to cognitive science as much as to philosophy of mind”. According to the referee, whereas the kind of detailed defense of these theories required for a generalist philosophical audience would have made the paper too long, the only place where it would be appropriate to “just acknowledge the reliance and get on with it” would be in a specialist journal like Philosophical Psychology or the Journal of Consciousness Studies.

The author adds, however, that (1) “given that the arguments I target in the paper were themselves published in generalist journals, it seems that an attempt to block them (if successful) belongs in a generalist journals as well, regardless of whether or not it utilizes cog-sci theories”; and (2) “it is common to utilize, without argument, contentious *philosophical* views in order to defend or attack other views. So why should things be different with respect to contentious *scientific* views?”

As I wrote in reply to the e-mail, I don’t think this report should be read as evidence of bias against empirically-informed work per se in journals like this one, but it does raise some interesting questions, among them whether others have had similar experiences, and what strategies you have for avoiding this sort of objection to your own work. I also wonder:

  • Is this kind of problem more likely to crop up for work that appeals to large-scale empirical theories than work that appeals to specific empirical findings to support or undermine a philosophical position?
  • Is it true that there’s more latitude given in top “generalist” journals to “just acknowledge the reliance and get on with it” when what’s being utilized without argument is a philosophical theory rather than a scientific one?
  • As a rule, to the extent that empirically-focused work has trouble finding a home in top “generalist” journals, should philosophers writing in this tradition simply to give up on publishing in them? Or is the luster of those journals too great (and that of the specialist alternatives too dim, perhaps) for this to be a good strategy?

I’m happy of course to have others raise questions as well.

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4 Comments

  1. Josh

    In response to the three interesting issues you raise…

    I imagine appealing to empirical theories is more problematic in Phil mind just because most of us have our opinions about the quality of these theories. Particular results can seem to stand on their own, while appeal to a theory may raise hackles. Of course if a referee likes the theory in question you could be in the clear.

    Generally, I think yes, there’s more latitude to cite well-known philosophical theories. These will be defended in detail elsewhere, and readers will likely be more familiar with them. Also, it is easier to phrase the argument conditionally – if theory x is right, then y. Doing this with an empirical theory puts one’s view in a position of empirical risk (hostage to empirical fortune it is sometimes said). I like views like this, but isn’t there a general negative take on doing this in philosophy?

    Top generalist journals are pretty lustery, especially for early career folk. There aren’t a ton of empirical Phil mind journals that compete with, say, the ‘top 15’ in terms of luster. I love a BBS or Neuropsychologia or M&L piece, but for the field as a whole the significance of these might be downgraded from what I think they should be.

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    • Assaf

      Josh, you say that “Doing this with an empirical theory puts one’s view in a position of empirical risk”. But is it clear that mainstream philosophical views in the philosophy of mind(e.g., representationalism, psychological functionalism, covariational psychosemantics, etc.) do not involve an empirical risk? After all, usually proponents of such views often do not argue for them merely on a priori grounds.

      You suspect that there is a “general negative take on doing this in philosophy”. I don’t know if there is, but if there is, I find it unjustified. For, many philosophical theory involves some risk. For example, given the fierce debate between content externalists and internalists, we should probably be somewhat skeptical about both views (see http://schwitzsplinters.blogspot.co.il/2013/11/disagreement-among-experts-as-reason.html). So relying on empirical theories is not more risky than relying on philosophical ones.

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  2. Josh

    Assaf,

    I wasn’t trying to state a normative position, just reflecting on how things might be viewed at generalist journals. One might think that most theories in philosophy of mind are empirically risky (some might wear the risk on the sleeve more). Part of this will depend, I think, on just how one sets out one’s view, and how one uses empirical evidence in doing so.

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  3. Liz Schier

    I don’t think there is necessarily anything unfair about being able to assume a philosophical theory but not an empirical one. It all comes down to the nature of the debate and the assumptions of those on opposite sides. So in a philosophical debate it is ok to assume a theory if it is held by people on both sides of the debate. E.g. in the standard debate in philosophy of mind re reduction scientific realism is assumed. But if disagreement about a theory is part of what is at stake in the debate (or happens to be a background assumption only of those on one side of the debate) then the theory needs to be justified in order to avoid question begging

    So if the philosophers you are arguing about all (implicitly) assume that the empirical theory you endorse is true, then you should be able to publish in a philosophical journal without going into the empirical details

    But if your philosophical opponents seem to agree with your empirical opponents then you need to do the detailed work (first perhaps in an empirical journal) and then do the philosophical work in a second paper

    This is why naturalistic philosophy of mind is harder (because you are constantly trying to unite two very disparate literatures) but it is also why I think it is fun 🙂

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