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Why won’t I read your work?

To whom it may concern,

I’m sorry to address you in such an impersonal way, but I get quite a few letters and emails of the kind you sent me, and I thought I should take the time to explain at length, once and for all, why it won’t be getting the reply you hope for.

You are someone who thinks and writes about philosophy outside of academe. You have produced a book or some essays which you think are of wider interest. You may be quite modest about how important your work is, but more typically, you think that you have solved many big problems once and for all. Either way, you believe you have a worthwhile contribution to make.

The trouble is, few people will even read your work, let alone publish it. You’re understandably frustrated by this. You probably think that you are being ignored because you are working outside of the universities, that snobbery is at work here.

There may be some truth in this. It is much easier to have your work read if you have an academic position than not. But although this may be partly to do with snobbery that isn’t the whole story. The truth is that there is just too much philosophy being produced in the world, and anyone interested in it has to apply some crude filters to decide what to look at, let alone seriously read. If someone has got an academic position, that does not guarantee their ability, but it does show they have at least met some kind of minimal standard. Working to get a PhD and a job in a university thus earns people the right to have their peers at least pay attention to them. It is not therefore unfair to those who haven’t put in this work and made this progress that they have to work harder to get noticed. And remember even academic find it hard to get noticed: most books recommended to me by academic authors don’t get read either.

It is not the case, however, that academe is so closed that it won’t take on anything from outside. Most journals blind review papers. If your work is good, it can be published in a journal, whether you are in a university or not. You do, however, have to make sure you get familiar with the conventions and literatures surrounding issues, but the same constraint applies to people within academe. Book publishers will also be open to work by independent scholars.

So there is no institutional block to your work being received and understood. It’s just that there are hoops you have to jump through, procedures to get acquainted with and so on. You cannot expect that these hoops should be removed for you alone. You can read for a PhD, submit papers to journals and conferences. Just go to some conferences, for that matter, and get a feel to how things work. Talk to people about your ideas, listening to theirs at the same time.

But, you might say, the problem is that established academic philosophy works within certain paradigms that are flawed. It won’t listen to you because you do not share some of its core assumptions. You are too radical for them, and they are to blame for their conservatism.

If this is true, then you can only but do one of two things. First, you could decide that this is a club not worth joining. Why crave the attention and affirmation of professional philosophers if you think they’re all so wrong? The alternative is to accept that shifting paradigms is hard work, and you have to get within the system to change it. Again, that means no short cut to putting in the work, getting the PhD, or whatever it takes.

You might, however, just say this is all irrelevant. You have good work and all you are asking is that I read it. Why won’t I just do that? But what you have to realise is that countless people claim this, all the time. I can’t read all their work, and I have no way of knowing which are right. On the evidence of work I have looked at, virtually none are right. It’s hard to be boldly original and good in philosophy, and most people who claim those achievements for themselves are just wrong. If I do give work I’m sent a quick glance, there is rarely anything there that leaps out at me and demands that I hold my attention. What’s more, I’m often not an expert on the particular subject you are writing about, so I wouldn’t know if you were onto something or not.

Based on work I have looked at, most people who write to me claiming significant new work are intelligent, thoughtful people who know a lot about philosophy. But they have not had their own arguments tested thoroughly by well-informed peers, which is the real advantage university gives you. As a result, they have run too far, too fast with ideas, building up systems before the foundations have been secured. You could be the exception, of course. But if you are, the tragedy is that I can’t be expected to know that. And nor can others. So there really is no short cut.

If it is any consolation, I am in not such a dissimilar situation. I have no academic affiliation, and if I want to submit to academic journals or conferences, I have to do what everyone else has to do. Indeed, I can give you one example which shows you how hard it is. I once came up with a thought, an argument, which I believed could be interesting. The problem was – and I knew it – I have been outside of academe since my PhD and I just didn’t know if this was already old hat. So I sent the paper to a journal, It was rejected as well argued, but not original. Better for me to have found that out than to have worked it up into a book and then got annoyed when people didn’t read it.

I have no reason to think that independent scholars are any less talented than ones in universities. You may indeed have valuable contributions to make. I hope, however, you can understand why, even if you do, I am justified in passing by on the opportunity of reading them.

Good luck

Originally published at Talking Philosophy on August 2, 2010


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