Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Smart Enough

A few years ago, as part of my charge as the philosophy department's teaching mentor, I observed one of our graduate student instructors. As I wrote up my comments on the class, I remember one comment that I didn't write. The pedagogy for the class had been close to flawless, but one fairly significant problem with the class remained: the student instructor simply needed to be smarter.

That's how I felt about myself this morning as I worked on revisions for a philosophy paper that is going to be published in an edited volume on the concept of manipulation, coming out from Oxford University Press some time next year. One of the editors of the volume sent me editorial comments on the paper, so that I could revise the paper in response to the comments. But the fairly significant problem in my doing so was this: I simply needed to be smarter.

For those of you who are non-philosophers, let me tell you how academic philosophy works. We write papers in which we defend some original thesis supported by our best arguments. Then other people read our work and come up with devastating counter-examples to our thesis and point out fatal flaws in our arguments. Then we are supposed to come up with some ingenious re-statement of our thesis that will avoid the counter-examples and fix the arguments so that all the premises are true and the logical structure of the argument is valid.

What I'm good at is coming up with interesting and thought-provoking things to write about. So in this volume on manipulation, I think I chose the freshest and most novel topic. Almost everybody else wrote about ordinary interpersonal manipulation of one person by another, trying to come up with a workable definition of what counts as manipulation and a persuasive account of what, if anything, makes manipulation morally wrong. I wrote about aesthetic manipulation, manipulation as an aesthetic flaw in an art work. In the course of my discussion I had occasion to mention art works as diverse as the film Slumdog Millionaire, Beverly Cleary's children's novel Ramona the Pest, and the song "MacArthur Park." The style of the paper was lively and engaging. It gave the reader a lot to think about.

But then I got the comments from the editor. While generally positive, he posed a devastating counter-example to my thesis and pointed out various fatal flaws in my arguments. I read over his comments, impressed by how agile his brain is compared to mine at this kind of thing. I had no idea how to reply. I simply needed to be smarter.

Oh, well. One can get smarter with enough time: that grad student instructor became plenty smart over the course of her time in our doctoral program and wrote a splendid dissertation. But it takes a lot of work over a long stretch of time to get smarter, and I didn't have the time to get smarter between now and when these revisions were due, nor the inclination to do the hard intellectual work that would make me smarter.

So I did what I could. I made an attempt. I fixed a couple of small fatal flaws. I tweaked my thesis a bit. And you know what? My paper is still interesting, thought-provoking, lively, and engaging, despite a devastating counter-example and fatal flaw or two or three. Yes, it would help if I were smarter, but there are lots of ways of being smart. The paper is done, to the best of my not-so-smart abilities, and I think it makes a good addition to the volume, warts and all.

In the end, I was smart enough. And smart enough to know when smart enough is good enough.


  1. I would rather be a good thinker than a good arguer any day! XOS

  2. Claudia, I'm sorry for the lateness of this comment. I'm behind in my blog reading these days. I'm sure that this "not smart enough" fear is common among academics, especially among the more abstract fields like philosophy and mathematics. Although I am pretty smart (and a good arguer, as evidenced by the mutterings that slip past my lips while listening to sermons), I have a fear of not being creative enough. I find it difficult to invent interesting, thought-provoking, lively, and engaging ideas. However when such ideas are given to me, I have some skill in exploring their details, and defending or refuting them as necessary. Unfortunately, refereeing journal articles isn't a paying job. To help with this problem, I look for creative collaborators -- those people who are full of lively ideas but who can benefit from help sorting the good from the bad and supporting and exploring the good. Maybe what you need is a collaborator like me.

  3. Claudia wrote:
    > [We] are supposed to come up with some ingenious
    > re-statement of our thesis that will avoid the counter-examples
    > and fix the arguments so that all the premises are true and the
    > logical structure of the argument is valid.

    And yet, Friedrich Nietzsche and Ayn Rand are two of the worlds
    most famous philosophers. How do they get away with it?

  4. Thanks for your comments, Scott! To reply to the second one first, there is NO WAY that Nietzsche or Ayn Rand would get tenure in my department - they wouldn't even get an interview! And in regard to the second, it would be the dream of a philosopher like me to be paired with one like you.

  5. Rereading my first comment above, I notice that it ends with an awfully arrogant tone. I should have said something like "Maybe we all need good collaborators who compliment our skills.".

    I have the impression that most philosophy papers have only one author. Do you have any thoughts on why there isn't more collaboration in philosophy?