Where are the baby boomer philosophers?

by Brian on December 8, 2011

Eric Schwitzgebel has a fascinating post about how little influence baby boomers have had in philosophy. He uses a nice objective measure; looking at which philosophers are most cited in the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy. He finds that of the 25 most cited philosophers, 15 were born between 1931 and 1945, and just 2 were born between 1946 and 1960.

Now to be sure some of this could be due to philosophers who were born in 1960 having not yet produced their best work – lots of great philosophical work is published after one’s 51st birthday. And it could be because those philosophers have produced great work that hasn’t yet dissipated widely enough to be cited.

But I don’t believe either explanation. For one thing, Eric notes that if anything, the boomers are at the age where philosophers’ influence typically peaks. For another, the stats Eric posts back up something I’ve heard talked about in conversation a bit independently.

There are lots of very prominent, and ground-breaking, philosophers in my generation. (I’m defining generations in a way that my generation includes roughly people born between 1965 and 1980.) And looking at the current crops of grad students, the next generation looks fairly spectacular too. But between the generation of Lewis, Kripke, Fodor, Jackson etc, and my generation, there aren’t as many prominent, field-defining figures. It’s not like there are none; Timothy Williamson alone would refute that claim. But I didn’t think there were as many, and Eric’s figures go some way to confirming that impression.

Eric also makes a suggestion about why this strange state of affairs – strange because you’d expect boomers to be overrepresented in any category like this – may have come about.

College enrollment grew explosively in the 1960s and then flattened out. The pre-baby-boomers were hired in large numbers in the 1960s to teach the baby boomers. The pre-baby boomers rose quickly to prominence in the 1960s and 1970s and set the agenda for philosophy during that period. Through the 1980s and into the 1990s, the pre-baby-boomers remained dominant. During the 1980s, when the baby boomers should have been exploding onto the philosophical scene, they instead struggled to find faculty positions, journal space, and professional attention in a field still dominated by the depression-era and World War II babies.

That’s an interesting hypothesis, though it seems that if it is true, it should generalise to other disciplines. And I’m wondering whether it does. Are baby boomers underrepresented among the leading figures in other fields such as political science, history, sociology, English literature and so on? If not, I think we need another explanation for philosophy’s recent history.

{ 71 comments }

1

HP 12.08.11 at 11:48 pm

As an aside, I note that you have one generation ending in 1960 and the next one starting in 1965. As a person born in 1963, this strikes me as entirely accurate and consistent with my personal experience. I’m glad someone else finally noticed.

2

Kieran 12.09.11 at 1:11 am

I blame fluoridation.

3

Barry 12.09.11 at 1:19 am

Sorry, HP, but that’s the way the cookie crumbles. Somebody from the Adjustment Bureau is probably lurking outside your house right now :(

4

garymar 12.09.11 at 2:03 am

You’re talking about influence inside analytical philosophy, right? Because as a layman, I looked through that list of philosophers and could only recognize Daniel Dennett.

5

John Quiggin 12.09.11 at 2:59 am

In economics, I’d say that the big names (Samuelson, Arrow, Friedman, and going back even further Keynes and Hayek) were born before 1925 . It doesn’t strike me that the 1930-45 birth cohort is obviously more influential than the baby boomers, though I haven’t really checked

6

Alan 12.09.11 at 3:08 am

As anyone with a fresh PhD can appreciate these days, at least part of the explanation of generational representation in a discipline as assessed over time must be economic. Plenty of smart and even gifted young philosophers today will never have the opportunity to show their stuff that way–they won’t get a job. And many today who otherwise would be contributory and even influential through published work will be hired into mainly teaching positions that prevent them from having the leisure to produce that work.

I’m a philosophical nobody boomer, PhD from a non-Leiter university (which meant nothing then but was informally recognized in terms of rankings) hired in 1981. The job picture at that time was as bad as now because we were in a very bad economic downturn: my present job was listed on a mailed two-sided one-page listing of Spring jobs that started with one at Harvard and ended with the one I applied for. I had this one interview out of 70+ apps and thus I’m here after 30 years of 4/4 loads. I should add happily so. I love teaching–even got a few awards for it. No complaints. But I also had and have a passion about research, and managed a couple of pieces in Analysis and Philosophy over the years (none of Gettier’s stature obviously), among others. Had I secured a “better” research position would I have made a more significant contribution? Nah–I probably would not have gotten tenure, and would have become a nurse as in my back-up plan. But what I suspect is that most of my generation in very good programs were as good and probably much better than I was, and simply never got the chance to show it in print, because they never got jobs or were thrust into teaching-emphasis positions that shut down time to develop their research interests.

On the other hand some of the boomers who survived those adaptive pressures developed into good instructors at “lesser” institutions, and became the inspiration of many of the younger philosophers who rode the economic good times of the late 90s to earn positions and become the names we all know now. I would argue that part of the explanation of the failure of the published contribution of boomers is due to the fact that economics forced much of our generational contribution to be instructional: we inspired the present generation of recognised philosophers by doing what we do best in the classroom instead of the printed page.

Well, that’s an attempt to offer an Apology for my generation FWIW. I wonder if that explanation would apply to a potential paucity of influential philosophers from the present generation in the future of the profession.

7

Timothy Scriven 12.09.11 at 3:08 am

Daniel Dennett is largely a popularizer so it’s not suprising that you recognize his name.

8

marcel 12.09.11 at 3:58 am

JQ wrote:

In economics, I’d say that the big names (Samuelson, Arrow, Friedman, and going back even further Keynes and Hayek) were born before 1925 . It doesn’t strike me that the 1930-45 birth cohort is obviously more influential than the baby boomers, though I haven’t really checked

1) So you decided to wade into this week’s controversy about Hayek, eh?

2) I cannot think of anyone in the baby boom generation (or half generation) who has had as large an impact as the early Ratex proponents:

Tom Sargent: 1943
Chris Sims: 1942
Robert Lucas: 1937
Ed Prescott: 1940
Robert Barro: 1944

or the efficient markets types:

Fischer Black: 1938
a href=”http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eugene_Fama”>Eugene Fama: 1939

How about the early assymetric information developers?

Ned Phelps: 1933
George Akerlof: 1940
Joe Stiglitz: 1943

Econometricians?
Clive Granger: 1934
James Heckman: 1944

Decision theory?
Kahneman and Tversky: 1934 & 1937

There are others you could add to the list, and perhaps I’m more out of the loop than I realize, but I think you’d be hard pressed to come up with as many among baby boomers.

a href=”http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_Romer”>Paul Romer (1955) comes to mind for endogenous growth, and Card (c. 1955) and Krueger (1960) , especially but not only, for their empirical analysis of the minimum wage.

I’m not sure how you measure influence (in contrast with what is merely a great contribution), and I assume you mean within the profession. I think the one’s I’ve named have all been influential, even if many have done their part to resuscitate zombie ideas. Obviously, much of the influence is a combination of luck, opportunity and opportunism; being present when the wave crests and understanding how to ride it. And between, say, 1981 and 2008, there were not many waves coming along that could upset reigning orthodoxies, nor were there any obvious inconsistencies or anomalies that both indicated a need for significant revision and had not already been seriously attempted by someone.

9

G. McThornbody 12.09.11 at 5:39 am

I accidentally got a degree in philosophy and realized my mistake when my philosophy store failed miserably. Not really though. I knew it was worthless at the outset but I did it anyway. No one pays money to hear some unkempt bloke pontificate, and people only buy his books if he’s hip, with it, and fashionable. What you are left with is people who produce graphs and essays that the public cannot read or interpret correctly, much like the graphs and essays of economists. It amounts to a marketing and educational problem. Outside of a classroom, mentioning Marx will get you suspicious stares even though there’s plenty of his ideas worth discussing. (This problem is easily solved by pointing out you meant the famed Jewish Groucho Marx).

My first proposal is that the failure of modern philosophers to “show up” is not about that age required for important work, or even the uniqueness of it, but the relative meaningfulness philosophical ideas have in contemporary times.

My second proposal is that ideas are diluted from a source based on the ease of communication. In a much more populated and communicative world, ideas are common and more easily spread, and there is much less of an emphasis on some dogmatic founder of an idea. There is also a lot more competition in the amount of published works or journal articles. On the other hand, there is a common recollection of the symbol of a successful idea, i.e., we remember MLK although he was obviously not the person who invented or had the idea of civil rights.

I still read works by a few professors, but I’m still going back in time for books by authors such as Thorsten Veblen and John Dewey. Of course, Dewey’s last book was in 1949. Looks like I’m stuck reading books from a century ago while you guys are playing with your ipads.

grismcthorn

10

Meredith 12.09.11 at 6:26 am

Wow. This post should be the beginning of something big.
I’ll start small by noticing that Rorty was supposed to change everything, but what has actually happened? Analytic philosophy is more powerful than ever, sharing space curiously with things like animal and disability rights.
Cf. literary studies, where critical theory was supposed to change everything, but what has actually happened? Serious critical theory has almost disappeared, displaced by thin versions of “cultural studies” and the like. Meanwhile, the few people who still worry about “how to read a poem” are about to retire.
I could go on. Much good has certainly come out of the strange turns taken out of the efforts of late 70’s and 80’s young academics to transform things, but also much that is not. Relatively few of that generation who fought the battles actually got tenure (pace, e.g., Camille Paglia), which might have something to do with the citation stats. But the powers-that-be were also great co-opters, the other part of the story. I’ll stop here. Too much to say, and I want to hear from others.

11

Kenny Easwaran 12.09.11 at 7:25 am

One way to test the effect of the academic job markets of the ’60s-’70s would be to look up the distribution of ages among the members of the APA. Is the baby boom generation largely underrepresented there too? Or is there a further underrepresentation of the baby boom generation in the most widely-cited ranks, beyond a possible underrepresentation in the profession as a whole?

12

Phil 12.09.11 at 7:40 am

I was at an Open Day the other afternoon, representing criminology; I shared a stall with people from most of the rest of the Humanities, including not one but two philosophers. When they were dealing with the one inquiry they had while I was there, one of them used the phrase “twentieth-century philosophy” and immediately tripped up on it – what about this century? did we do any twenty-first century philosophy? After some reflection they concluded (semi-seriously) that there wasn’t any twenty-first century philosophy, possibly because so many philosophers had died towards the end of the twentieth.

13

Chris Bertram 12.09.11 at 8:59 am

This somewhat tracks the endless discussions people used to have at conferences etc about who would succeed Jerry Cohen as Chichele Chair at Oxford. Waldron (who eventually got the job), Van Parijs, David Miller, Jerry Gaus (only ever suggested by me I think). All very smart and very good political philosophers, but none doing the kind of paradigm-defining stuff that their predecessors did, rather working within the terms of debate set by Rawls, Nozick, Dworkin, Barry (and to a lesser extent Walzer, Macintyre and Taylor).

14

Andrew Fisher 12.09.11 at 9:03 am

A problem with the college enrolment story is that it tries to explain a feature of anglophone philosophy in terms of US college enrolments. Other English-speaking countries are smaller than the US, but there are quite a few of them and they tend to have made the transition to mass HE enrolment later.

15

Neil 12.09.11 at 9:45 am

“Daniel Dennett is largely a popularizer so it’s not suprising that you recognize his name”.

That seems very unfair to Dennett, or at least to Dennett prior to this century. Multiple drafts theory, the intentional stance, the personal/subpersonal distinction: all original contributions. Multiple drafts was defended at length in a book that was accessible to laypeople, but wasn’t a popularization of something developed by someone else.

16

dsquared 12.09.11 at 10:00 am

I would take an actuarial approach to the question and suggest that the underrepresentation of baby boomers in political philosophy has a similar reason to the under-representation of baby boomers in European royalty; the previous generation didn’t die off at anything like the rate expected. Brian’s generations are the Prince Williams to the older generation’s Prince Charles.

17

Scott Martens 12.09.11 at 10:07 am

I watched my father struggle in academia in the 80s and I think there’s something to the idea of blaming the demographics of universities. It’s part of what kept me from pushing through in the late 90s and getting a job instead.

But… the Reagan and Thatcher years were not really… a reflective era. An explanation that’s a little more Zeitgeisty might be appropriate too.

18

Z 12.09.11 at 10:09 am

He uses a nice objective measure; looking at which philosophers are most cited in the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy.

Using this nice objective measure, it also appears that no philosophy written in another language than English has had any influence. Now that may or may not be true, and it may or may not be relevant to the general thesis of the post. Also, in fairness to Eric Schwitzgebel, he does detail and points out the shortcomings of his methodology in his original post. Yet, I cannot help but think that this ranking measures something, to be sure, but something probably so terribly parochial that it is quite uninteresting.

Again, this does not touch on the general question of the relative influence of the baby-boomers.

Are baby boomers underrepresented among the leading figures in other fields such as political science, history, sociology, English literature and so on?

In m own professional field (mathematics), they do not seem to be. Perhaps this hinges on the fact that one of the most prestigious awards given to mathematicians is given to people under 40, so that people of each generations are mechanically put to the forefront, at least in term of general recognition inside the profession.

19

Neil 12.09.11 at 10:17 am

” it also appears that no philosophy written in another language than English has had any influence”.

Tarski?

20

Brett Bellmore 12.09.11 at 11:03 am

The really powerful, deep thinkers, who wanted to be useful went into programing, where they’d actually be paid for it. The powerful, deep thinkers who didn’t care to be useful went into string theory, and still managed to be paid for it.

21

nmd 12.09.11 at 11:08 am

Other economists:

Summers (1954)
Krugman (1953)
Delong (1960)
Mankiw (1958)
C. Romer (1958)
Sachs (1954)
Eichengreen (1952)
Rogoff (1953)
Shleifer (1961)
Acemoglu (1967)
Blanchard (1948)

Looks like all the baby boomers became economists.

22

Chris Bertram 12.09.11 at 11:51 am

nmd: Well not really, you could argue that that generation of economists have been scuttling around conceptual frameworks set by Keynes, Friedman, Hayek (maybe) etc. in a similar manner to the baby-boomer philosophers re Quine, Davidson, Rawls, etc. (Besides, that list of yours takes us quite a long way down the food chain.)

23

Neil 12.09.11 at 11:58 am

I think Neal Tognazzini, commening on Eric’s initial post, has at least part of the explanation. One thing that has happened in philosophy over the past 30 years or so is fragmentation. In part this is due to a naturalistic turn. If you work in philosophy of biology, then you require extensive knowledge about biology and evolutionary theory; if you work in philosophy of mind, down one end at any rate, you need to know a lot about brains. And so so. The result is that philosophers increasingly produce work that can’t be read by people outside their speciality. That affects citation patterns: it ensures that a philosopher who is influential in area A may be quite obscure outside A, and therefore little cited outside A. Result: a democratization of citation.

24

spyder 12.09.11 at 12:25 pm

As a classic baby-boomer (born in early ’47, university in the 60s), with a PhD in philosophy, my first thought was that the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is an online data base. It took me a long time (30 years) to just catch up with the technology.

25

Scott Martens 12.09.11 at 12:35 pm

@Brett: “The really powerful, deep thinkers, who wanted to be useful went into programing”

That made me and my colleagues (all programmers) laugh really hard.

26

Brian Weatherson 12.09.11 at 12:44 pm

Comparing Marcel and nmd’s list of economists makes me think Econ is similar to philosophy in this respect. Lots of great thinkers among the boomers, and they’ve advanced their fields substantially, but fewer field defining, changing the space of possible answers figures.

27

Brian Weatherson 12.09.11 at 12:47 pm

I do think Brett’s claim @20 is implausible. But I think a lot of philosophers worry that the reason we aren’t seeing the new Kripke or new Lewis appear more regularly is that s/he went into another field. That seems like a plausible explnation schema to me.

28

Barry 12.09.11 at 1:07 pm

I’m replying generally, for clarity:

1) There was an enormous academic boom in the 1945-73 era (at least in the States). Any high-level (white, male) scholar could ride a wave into a research position. After that, it’d be much harder, and I’d guess with far fewer second chances. Late bloomers and people doing unrecognized-at-the-time work would be kicked down to 4-4 land, *if* they were even allowed to try out at the research level.

2) In economics, commenters are sort of groping for the concept that crises help to produce ‘great’ economists, if for no other reason than that original ideas will be taken more seriously (albeit more by the younger professors). Take away/minimze the Great
Depression, and Keynes becomes an obscure Brit. Take away the Oil Shock, and the whole Chicago School stays cranks, rather than people who brought about a major economic boom (that is, for the 1%).

3) I’ve seen some list (at CT?) of peak ages for scholarship in various fields. Math is a young man’s field; IIRC the peak age is in the 20’s. Philosophy was an older man’s school (with history, IIRC, being the only one older).

4) Another factor, which I’m even more ignorant of, is the intellectual freedom and openness in different fields. Which fields are more accepting of contributions from people who aren’t already in the elites? Which fields are dominated by gatekeepers who can happily squelch new ideas for decades?

29

Matt 12.09.11 at 1:22 pm

Building on Barry’s # 1 above, if you look at the career paths of people like, say, Donald Davidson or Nelson Goodman (they involved things like studying business, writing radio dramas, running an art dealership, etc., all while not formally working in philosophy but after doing their graduate work) you see a path that would, today, be very, very unlikely to happen. Of course, I don’t mean that all the Davidsons and Goodmans of the baby-boom generation are now TV writers and art dealers, but only that the immediate post-war period was one that was much more open, in many ways, for people going into academic life than the tighter years that followed, and that this surely has some impact on the matter.

30

Jacob T. Levy 12.09.11 at 2:05 pm

The charts starting on p. 36 of this Goodin piece for the OUP Handbook of Political Science

http://fds.oup.com/www.oup.com/pdf/13/9780199562954.pdf

provide a comparabale metric for political science. Within political theory, Waldron Young, Kymlicka, Benhabib, Miller, Dryzek, make up a respectable boomer group– though, strikingly to me, these are mainly trained philosophers. But still: more born prewar than post, and the gap between the top three (born prewar) and everyone else is substantial.

In the discipline-wide rankings found on 39: Barry Weingast is #1, but then (I think– I’m eyeballing, not googling names) Cox is the only other boomer in the top 10. In 10-20, we have Skocpol, McCubbins, King, Ferejohn, Shepsle. 7/20 is still less than the size of the generation would lead you to expect, but it’s pretty different from the philosophy ratio.

31

ajay 12.09.11 at 2:06 pm

looks like all the baby boomers became economists.

This may be just pushing the question one level back, but maybe the people who were interested in coming up with answers about the nature of consciousness or the nature of reality went into the experimental sciences – physics, neurology, that kind of thing – because scientific advances in the 70s and 80s meant that these questions became far more accessible to experimental input than they were back in the 30s.

Also, it became much more reasonable to think of that sort of question as being accessible to scientific experiment post-war than it had been in the 1930s- the whole white heat of technology idea – while philosophy was still firmly in the humanities and thus cut off from the interesting stuff.

And I like dsquared’s point too – especially if you think that a field dominated by the Philosophical Struldbruggs would also be fairly static and unexciting, and so the bright young thinkers might go elsewhere.

32

Tom Hurka 12.09.11 at 2:13 pm

Very interesting post that makes me, as a boomer, a) defensive and b) curious as to possible explanations.

1. Brian’s remark about the many “ground-breaking” philosophers in his own generation is surely premature. He, like all of us, is attuned specially to work by those in his own age cohort. Let’s wait 20 years and see if everyone then has the same high opinion he has of them now. (If they don’t, that will suggest a long-term trend than just one about boomers.)

2. A commenter on Schwitzgebel’s site notes, correctly, that taking the ranking from citations in the Stanford Encyclopedia favours those who wote on many topics, which people before the 70s/80s tended to do: Williams, for example, wrote on personal identity, Descartes, ethics, ancient philosophy, willing to believe, and more. They could do that because they taught all those subjects, especially at Oxbridge, and there wasn’t much literature to master on any of them. It got much harder to do that later.

3. The SEP aside, philosophical writing has got much more specialized. In my field of ethics/political philosophy Rawls and Nozick could write books with tremendous sweep, covering many aspects of the field. Now the books people are write are much more focussed: they’re on just equality or just desert or just virtue or even something more specific. They go much more deeply into these subjects than Rawls or Nozick did and in that respect are more philosophically sophisticated. But because of their narrowness they’ll never have the same influence.

4. Philosophy has become more democratic. Fifty years ago the people who counted were basically only those in a few name departments, so if one of them had a new idea it would get a lot of attention and have a lot of influence. Now there are just many more smart people who are in the game and are recognized as players. (This may also be a demographic effect, i.e. there are so many boomers.) If you’d asked in the 1970s who the main players in political philosophy are, you’d have got two names. Now if you ask who the main players are on equality or desert or whatever you’ll get a long list. With so many good people working on a given topic it’s harder for any one of them to stand out. (This isn’t to deny that, if one did stand out, he or she would still have less influence than Rawls or Nozick because of the comparative narrowness of his or her work.)

5. That said, it’s curious that so many of the boomer (my) generation attached themselves to one of the stars of the previous group — Kripke, Davidson, Rawls — and devoted themselves to promoting, interpreting, and applying that star’s ideas. In my field the outstanding example is the dozens — or is it hundreds? — of political philosophers who worship at the church of Rawls. It’s ironic that in philosophy so many of what was supposed to be the generation of rebellion and counterculture chose careers as followers. Where was the taste for rebellion in graduate programs of the 1979s? Or did everyone assume the rebellion had already happened?

6. What dsquared said: those pre-1945s just aren’t dying off fast enough!

33

Andrew F. 12.09.11 at 2:23 pm

Wouldn’t a better measure be the number of citations, in total, to baby-boomer philosophers as compared to the number of citations, in total, to philosophers from other generations?

That Generation A produced the most influential 15 or so philosophers does not necessarily imply that Generation B lacks expected influence. Generation B’s influence may simply be spread among a greater number of philosophers than Generation A’s.

Or perhaps philosophy suffers from an obsessive disorder and can’t… quite… stop… citing to and researching the same arguments. Tongue in cheek.

34

AcademicLurker 12.09.11 at 2:32 pm

looks like all the baby boomers became economists.

Maybe that explains why they f*cked everything up?

35

Brett Bellmore 12.09.11 at 3:12 pm

Brian: I was being somewhat facetious, but I really think that people with the mental atributes to be great philosophers have more paying career options today than they might have in the past.

36

Guido Nius 12.09.11 at 3:46 pm

It is a lot like with the headliners of major rock festivals.

37

Jeffrey Davis 12.09.11 at 3:57 pm

A guy from my class in college helped foment the AOL-Time Warner deal.

That’s a form of analytic philosophy.

38

Mike Otsuka 12.09.11 at 7:02 pm

“But I think a lot of philosophers worry that the reason we aren’t seeing the new Kripke or new Lewis appear more regularly is that s/he went into another field.”

Maybe those who would have been the next Kripke and Lewis went into Economics, where they mislaid their talents and are toiling in obscurity.

And those who would have been the next Samuelson and Arrow went into Philosophy, where they mislaid their talents and are toiling in obscurity.

39

JanieM 12.09.11 at 7:21 pm

Barry: There was an enormous academic boom in the 1945-73 era (at least in the States). Any high-level (white, male) scholar could ride a wave into a research position.

Related factoid: … the size of the faculty grew from about 620 in 1960 to about 950 (near its present size of 983) in 1970. ((From The Tech, the MIT student newspaper, in 2006.)

That’s more than 50% growth in the 1960s, and almost none in the four decades afterwards.

When I got my Ph.D. in English in 1977, my job search was only half-hearted. Some of the reasons were personal, but the timing sure didn’t help: the prospects were dismal. I ended up earning my living in a completely different (and technical) field. To whatever extent my experience with the timing is typical of baby boomers, it’s not surprising that there are fewer influential scholars from a certain era if there were fewer people able to get the relevant jobs in the first place.

40

Chris Brooke 12.09.11 at 8:03 pm

The history of political thought has a remarkable cluster of people born in the 1940s who (along with the older J. G. A. Pocock, b. 1924) made a not insignificant contribution: the names of Quentin Skinner (1940), John Dunn (1940), Robert Wokler (1942-2006), Gareth Stedman Jones (1942), James Tully (1946), Istvan Hont (1947), Emma Rothschild (1948), and Richard Tuck (1949) all leap to mind–I may have missed some others.

41

mds 12.09.11 at 8:14 pm

So you decided to wade into this week’s controversy about Hayek, eh?

Not at all. Hayek is certainly a big name, whether one considers him an overrated one or not.

but I really think that people with the mental atributes to be great philosophers have more paying career options today than they might have in the past.

Oh, good lord. Is there a philosopher in the house? Because I find myself in agreement with Mr. Bellmore. Granted, I was at university in a post-boomer era, but even at my liberal-arts-and-sciences college, philosophy tended to be paired with another major, and provided support classes for other majors (e.g., elementary logic and symbolic logic were Philosophy department offerings taken largely by math majors). So even if one were interested in it, a great deal of bet hedging was going on.

I also think ajay @ 31 makes the excellent point that there has been a proliferation of other fields addressing many of the “traditional areas” of philosophy. Those who would otherwise be philosophy superstars are drawn to, e.g., neurobiology instead, while those who would otherwise be philosophy or theology mediocrities are drawn to evolutionary psychology instead.

42

lindsay waters 12.09.11 at 8:22 pm

gloom,doom, death, peril–if you like those kinds of stories–americans seem trapped in negative stories now–but really there are some great new things happening in philosophy and they have been in works for a while–i publish, so i am promoting my line to some extent–but there is a switch happening, i believe from 20th century atomism to holism–happy to tell you more–have an essay about this forthcoming in CHRONICLE OF HIGHER ED

43

Donald A. Coffin 12.09.11 at 8:30 pm

I think we’re doing OK in economics, with at least four Royal Swedish Bank/Nobel prizes to economists born 1948 or later…

44

John Quiggin 12.09.11 at 8:32 pm

What’s essentially bogus is the “Keynes v Hayek” aspect. Hayek’s business cycle theory was an important step forward, in my view, but was superseded by Keynes and was in any case inconsistent with his extreme liquidationist position during the Depression. His big contribution really started with the “calculation debate”, where he and Mises were the clear winners, and which formed the basis of most of what he did after 1945 (I’ll pass over the embarrassment of Road to Serfdom)
As Krugman said, Hayek wasn’t important as an opponent of Keynes, and the idea of the two of them debating the big issues is a retrospective anachronism.

45

lindsay waters 12.09.11 at 8:43 pm

I think it is possible to get a very inaccurate sense of what is going on in philosophy now from reading this post. The old guard is passing away, and a new guard is rising, but you don’t know who they are, do you, Mr. Jones? Seriously, there is a shift happening now, and it is very exciting.

46

marcel 12.09.11 at 9:09 pm

In re Keynes vs. Hayek, Google n-grams to the rescue!

Keynes roolz!

47

bianca steele 12.09.11 at 9:36 pm

A quick look thru Wikipedia strengthened my hunch that the big figures in computer science were born within five years of 1930. There’s a smattering of big names born in the 1950s, but often not following on directly from the work of the previous generation. Computer science is obviously very different from pretty much any other field, not least in its newness, but it isn’t obvious that the departments of computer science are producing the innovators–and not just because it’s so closely associated with industry–innovators are coming from other academic departments.

Even in physics, it’s only within the past 100 years or so that all the great ideas have come from within universities. Einstein did his most important work without a university position. So did Clerk Maxwell. And, in a different branch of science, so did Darwin. (I’m sure some historian of science will pop up to say this is not quite right, but I feel it’s fairly easily arguable.)

48

Anderson 12.09.11 at 10:35 pm

Serious critical theory has almost disappeared, displaced by thin versions of “cultural studies” and the like. Meanwhile, the few people who still worry about “how to read a poem” are about to retire.

A nice summary of why I dropped out of my English Ph.D. program and went to law school.

49

Bill Benzon 12.10.11 at 12:21 am

In the past few years I’ve read two or three articles claiming that Judith Butler is the last major ‘star’ in literary studies. She was born in 1956, making her a boomer. But if she IS the last major star, then it does look like pre-boomers take literary studies.

50

johnw 12.10.11 at 3:41 am

I’m a boomer, and the head of the philosophy department at my university tried to recruit me to do a degree in his department. I thought it over, decided I wasn’t a good enough waiter to make a living with a philosophy degree, and passed.

But I do remember learning that philosophy was the mother of the sciences, and much that was once the province of philosophy is now the province of science. In a sense, those people doing string theory are doing one of the things philosophy used to do: Highly ornamental theory of no practical use about the natural world.

51

Meredith 12.10.11 at 7:02 am

Anderson, my daughter just lost her first real case in court (criminal defense). Transference upward? downward? outward? nowhere? Don’t know, though the nowhere is not an option worth entertaining. We all just keep at it, don’t we, hoping. (Not sure whether to put a period or question mark. I guess some degree of optimism is registered my choice of a period.)

52

Tim Wilkinson 12.10.11 at 9:10 am

JQ – the “calculation debate”, where [Hayek] and Mises were the clear winners

Without wishing to invite a derailment, I have to ask – are we to take this as implying that they were right?

53

Guido Nius 12.10.11 at 10:50 am

It could also be of course that philosophy is about the discovery of truth. Said discovery not merely being the expression of a purely individualistic type of effort.

This would account for philosophy not being able to be measured by the standards of the modern speed of celebrity production. It would account for some slowness, as well as for some unevenness in progress (the speed of discovery is not only a function of those who are doing the discovering but also of the allowances that the terrain offers) and finally for a gradual movement away from ‘big names’.

Maybe.

54

Brian Weatherson 12.10.11 at 12:59 pm

Tom Hurka’s point about my overvaluing my generatio is probably right. I actually agree with a lot of his diagnosis; lots of boomers attached themselves to a philosophical school, and made great strides in advancing those projects. Nothing wrong with that; it’s exactly how I hope to do philosophy. But we don’t regard those phiosophers as being as historically significant as the founders of the schools in question.

From this perspective, my generation and the boomers look very similar, and it is probably that I’m not thinking objectively about my own group that makes me overvalue my cohort.

I’m disturbed that I’m ending up agreeing with Brett on this, so let me note one small point of disagreement. Some people, including me, earn muchore in philosophy than they could have been lawyers or whatever else we would have done. But that is unpredictable enoug that it can’t affect expectations and hence field choice. Maybe the recent boom in philosophy salaries will lead to a golden generation in tw next couple of decades!

55

novakant 12.10.11 at 2:49 pm

I think this list is simply not very useful in measuring philosophical influence. It seems quite strange to me that e.g. these philosophers aren’t even in the top 100:

Rorty
MacIntyre
Sartre
Butler
Walzer
Pogge
Austin
Habermas
Chomsky
Singer

56

John Quiggin 12.10.11 at 3:14 pm

@Tim Wilkinson, and with apologies for threadjacking

In my view, Hayek and Mises, at least if we frame the debate as ” (given similar endowments) can a centrally planned economy outperform one in which markets play a large role”.

OTOH, their own arguments can be turned around to say that an economy in which everything is left to markets will not perform well, and in fact won’t be sustainable. In particular, even in the absence of government intervention, private corporations will rely heavily on planning and centralised control. Coase made this point about the same time as the calculation debate was going on.

At a more theoretical level again, the fact that information is an almost pure public good means that, the greater the importance you attach to information, the weaker the standard case for unfettered free markets. There’s no reason to think that either centralised command or free markets will elicit information optimally.

57

tomslee 12.10.11 at 6:34 pm

@Meredith: Serious critical theory has almost disappeared.

Typical. For years I dismissed “theory” as junk. Then I finally change my mind and think there’s something there, only to find they no longer make it.

58

ScentOfViolets 12.10.11 at 7:56 pm

That seems very unfair to Dennett, or at least to Dennett prior to this century. Multiple drafts theory, the intentional stance, the personal/subpersonal distinction: all original contributions. Multiple drafts was defended at length in a book that was accessible to laypeople, but wasn’t a popularization of something developed by someone else.

Looking over the wiki’s bibliography I see that I’ve about half his stuff – The Mind’s I, Consciousness Explained, Freedom Evolves, etc.

My question is – what’s the market like for pop expositions on the latest in philosophy? Dennett isn’t doing that bad, but otoh, that’s just about the only sort of pop philosophy I’ve read in the last ten to twenty years. Unless you count the “spinoffs”, that is, neurobiology and evolutionary psych stuff puporting to explain the origin of ethics in humans, say. But that sort of thing can’t really be properly filed under the heading of philosophy, can it?

Does it all come down to vocabulary?

59

mike 12.10.11 at 10:18 pm

“Even in physics, it’s only within the past 100 years or so that all the great ideas have come from within universities”

Surely you jest. I can’t think of a very many great thinkers or great ideas that have come out of the universities, at least since the end of the war if not in the last 100 years. Not just in philosophy, but in the sciences, arts, business, etc. From Picasso to Steve Jobs, virtually all of the original thinking has come outside of academia. Even in the technical fields that one would think universities would excel at. Creative people and thinkers simply aren’t interested in academia. College is solely for people who wish to write about the ideas and accomplishments of those who didn’t go to college. No disrespect intended, that’s just the way it is. The academic atmosphere simply isn’t conducive to creative or original work. It is a stifling atmosphere where the ability to do original thinking is systematically suppressed. It only rewards those who are skilled at summarizing and regurgitating previous accomplishments. To take one prominent example, look at the infantilism and absurdity in the work of Paul Krugman, who is incapable of original thought, but can only parrot the ideas of the 1930s. In the face of a changing world where his obsolete ideas have no meaning or bearing he is quite helpless, and can only insult truly original thinkers.

As far as baby boomer philosophers goes, there have been plenty. Bob Dylan and John Lennon come to mind. They have been infinitely more influential on modern thought than all those mentioned here combined, but because they don’t have PhDs they aren’t considered.

60

Substance McGravitas 12.10.11 at 10:48 pm

From Picasso to Steve Jobs, virtually all of the original thinking

Give your originality meter a tap. The needle’s stuck.

61

bob mcmanus 12.10.11 at 11:09 pm

“what’s the market like for pop expositions on the latest in philosophy?”

I have no idea what academics think of the Blackwell Series, but they sure keep churning them out. Fun and a small check, I suppose.

62

hellblazer 12.10.11 at 11:22 pm

The academic atmosphere simply isn’t conducive to creative or original work. It is a stifling atmosphere where the ability to do original thinking is systematically suppressed. It only rewards those who are skilled at summarizing and regurgitating previous accomplishments.

Off the top of my head? Thom. Gromov. Connes. R. Hamilton. Milnor. (W.) Thurston. Arnol’d. Lawvere. Shelah. Bourgain. Naor. (S.) Popa. If you wanted more “applied”, “this will help The Man In The Street”, then I admit that after (F.) Kelly I can no longer do this off the top of my head, and would have to start looking things up.

(Yes, I know the original topic was “philosophers”, broadly construed, but since Picasso and Jobs and Krugman were mentioned…)

63

RAM 12.11.11 at 1:58 am

I know a fair number of philosophy majors who graduated in 1968. Most of ’em went into personnel management, especially after they got back from Vietnam.

64

Meredith 12.11.11 at 6:37 am

My take on things (at least in part) is a lot like Schwitzgebel’s “alternative diagnosis.” And with apologies for the length of this comment.

I recently had my own reasons for checking how many people either currently on my college’s faculty, or retired from it and still living, had taught here between about 1972 and 1983, a period in which the faculty size expanded here by about a third. I was struck by how very, very few of those who were hired even between 1975 and 1983 (and who, of course, were baby boomers) actually got tenure (lots of people were hired who didn’t get tenure — god, the turnover then!). The generational resentments were very real in those days: the New Critics were exulting in the recent retirements of the last remnants of the anti-NC historicists, the social historians were battling the remaining grand-narrative folks, the political scientists were just fighting with each other, per usual, and young scientists were bringing a view and practice of “the lab” that was challengingly dynamic for many “normal scientists.” Into this mix, enter boomer Ph.D.’s. Civil rights (minorities, women) and Vietnam united the WWII and Korean War-era faculty if not against, then in a curious competition, sometimes friendly, sometime hostile, with the young they were busily hiring. Meanwhile, none of the procedures was in place that today assure a moderate degree of fairness in reappointment and tenure decisions. And the excess of fresh Ph.D.s (helped along by draft-avoidance) led departments (still being led by that combo of those WWII generation and Korean War era people) to feel confident that they’d easily find strong alternatives if they didn’t tenure this brilliant but troublesome young man or (that new phenomenon) woman. (And people in tenure-track positions tended to be younger then than now: fewer years in grad school and, for scientists, in post-doc positions, and more people hired right out of grad school in tenure-track positions.) Those were very tumultuous days in academia. I hope all my parenthetical bits convey that helpfully.

I haven’t calculated the number of boomers who joined the faculty here after 1983 (and got tenure), but I am sure there were not many since new hiring didn’t get underway here in a big way till the 90’s (another expansion of the faculty, plus a wave of retirements), and I’m aware of few people hired in the 90’s who were boomers (and if they were boomers, most would have been very close to the 1964 Census Bureau cut-off — which, btw, always seems laughable to me in cultural terms). Virtually all the tenure-track hiring since has been of post-boomers, of course, who now completely overwhelm our faculty’s numbers.

If I am even roughly correct about my college’s demographics, and if they’re not much different from those of other colleges and universities, then maybe one reason more boomers haven’t made the mark one might have expected: their actual numbers in academia may be much lower than the percentage of the population they constitute would lead one to expect. Especially the earlier end of the boomer genus.

Something else to notice — no, not just notice, but make a big deal of: the time and energy devoted by boomer faculty in the 70’s and 80’s to making institutional changes, from divestiture and minority hiring/admissions to clear and fair reappointment and promotion procedures, maternity leaves, and daycare centers…. I don’t think this factor should be underestimated. It’s huge. (I speak as one who knows.)

All that said, I’m not ready to concede inadequacy in the intellectual achievements of boomer academics. Whether most CT readers would agree, an Eve Sedgwick or Judith Butler, say, is a major, transformative thinker by the sites of many. Martha Nussbaum, Josh Ober, Leslie Kurke, Philip Hardie, Simon Goldhill, Mary Beard, Richard Seaford…. Well, the list would be far too long of classicists born between 1943 and 1960 whose work has been transformative, certainly within Classics. These scholars do not work in narrow areas for tiny, specialized audiences. If scholars of their caliber do not gain as wide an audience as they deserve, I think the problem lies not with them but with the difficulty any learned, creative thinker faces in reaching a wider audience these days, even within academia: how many younger academics read widely anymore? (Okay, so people don’t have to read classicists. But I’m talking bigger.) For all the talk of interdisciplinarity, more and more academics with the resources of time for serious research seem content to be cogs in some kind of giant machine (indeed, that’s the only world most of them know or seem able to imagine). But I would guess that relatively few boomers in academics are part of that trend.

Maybe more to the point: the boomers have been somewhat successful at dislodging the “great (white) (man,)” the architect of history and time, the grand arbiter, the American Adam. I don’t think we anticipated how fragmented the resulting world would be (or how much the Karl Rove’s would exploit it). But that few individual “great thinkers” emerge, and that collaborative efforts, individual “bits” that contribute to some large whole, is the result: well, that’s all to the good. What’s frustrating is the persistence of the cog-in-the-machine mentality — that, more than anything, was what we were trying to dislodge. There has to be something that is truly collaborative and not so damned mechanistic.

65

js. 12.11.11 at 8:06 am

Several good points above, and I think the increasing democratization and specialization within philosophy (mentioned by Tom Hurka and others) is especially important. But I wanted to also point to Hilary Kornblith’s comment on Schwitzgebel’s post. There may really be a problem with using the SEP as an objective metric. What the SEP represents (as any encyclopedia should) is—to use too strong a word—a slightly ossified version of received wisdom. (Of course it mentions disputes, etc., but these themselves have to be well established.) If you couple this with this:

the boomers are at the age where philosophers’ influence typically peaks

it seems reasonable to expect that it’ll take another decade or so for the SEP to accurately reflect the contribution of the “boomers”.

And this bit is purely anecdotal I suppose, but I certainly find that when my references are not to people born in the 18th century they’re almost always to people born post 1945. (Rawls being an exception, but it’s worth remembering that he taught a remarkable number of people who have become quite prominent in at least a few areas within philosophy.)

66

Tim Wilkinson 12.11.11 at 3:50 pm

JQ @56 re pa 1: ‘outperform’ depends very much on the metric. Pareto ‘efficiency’ is one, specially developed for the purpose of path-dependent s look efficient). Your version is quite a climbdown from ‘socialism is impossible because [inaudible] price mechanism’, but even so the key idea has ever really been clearly established so far as I’m concerned.

There’s a bit too much of the ‘we’ll use Darwininian selection to avoid waste’, quite a lot of the ‘whatever happens is optimal’, and a lethal dose of the ‘imagine we had a magic infallible utility/choice/desire measuring thing which could also act like rationing ticket and productivity incentive’.

Evident in that last item, price fetishism – accroding to which prices somehow express all subjective value ratios* without any need for haggling or other arcane and open-ended price-discrimination methods, nor questionnaires, etc., indeed with no human input at all – everyone’s a price taker†.

(Any protestations about reluctance to hijack would lack any credibility at this stage I think).

*well, not all – see second draw from the bottom, file marked ‘consumer and producer surplus’.
†A rummage in the bottom drawer will reveal a declaration to the effect that no-one really believes in perfect competition – obviously!

67

Tim Wilkinson 12.11.11 at 6:26 pm

In case anyone might ever stumble this way again,

‘path-dependent s look efficient)’

should be

‘making path dependent outcomes of cumulative binary exchanges look efficient’

or something like that.

68

bjk 12.12.11 at 12:14 am

If you were born in 1930, you arrived at a university in 1946, you narrowly avoided the war, entered the university with a cohort of serious older students, met a famous old German emigre, and were inducted in the club. The next generation was smoking pot.

69

ogmb 12.12.11 at 12:15 am

Johnny Rotten, b. 1956
Joe Strummer, 1952–2002
Paul Weller, b. 1958
Elvis Costello, b. 1954

You just need to know where to look.

70

LFC 12.12.11 at 3:03 pm

@59
To take one prominent example, look at the infantilism and absurdity in the work of Paul Krugman, who is incapable of original thought, but can only parrot the ideas of the 1930s. In the face of a changing world where his obsolete ideas have no meaning or bearing he is quite helpless, and can only insult truly original thinkers.

Do they usually hand out Nobel Prizes for “parroting”?

71

Barry 12.12.11 at 4:03 pm

I doubt that he/she even knows what Krugman’s Nobel was for. Probably thinks it was for his NYT columns.

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