In praise of plodders

by Micah on July 25, 2003

There was an article a couple days back in the “Chronicle of Higher Education”: called “What People Just Don’t Understand About Academic Fields.” (Unfortunately, I can’t link to it because apparently you have to be a subscriber–but it doesn’t really matter for this post.) The article included a few paragraphs from a handful of professors in different fields each talking about what most people don’t seem to understand about what they do or why they do it. None of the entries struck me as all that interesting, but they did remind me of an essay by Isaiah which has been bothering me for awhile. The essay is called “Philosophy and Government Repressession” (1954) and was printed in “The Sense of Reality”: In trying to correct what he thinks is a common “misunderstanding of what philosophy is and what it can do,” argues that second- and third- rate philosophers are essentially worthless, except as obstacles to be overcome by truly great thinkers.

Here’s the passage, sort of cobbled together, that really gets me:

bq. third-rate historians, fourth-rate chemists, even fifth-rate artists, painters, composers, architects, may be of some value; for all these subjects have their own techniques and operate at their own proper level, which may be low, but remains a level. But there is no such thing as third-rate or fourth-rate rebellion, there is no such thing as a trivial effort to cause a major upheaval. That is why the third-and fourth-rate philosophers, who are really engaged in applying techniques of their predecessors who are dead and gone, as if they were practicing a science, as if they were being chemists or engineers, are not so much unsuccessful or unimportant, or unncessary or superfluous, as positively obstructive . . . In philosophy alone the plodding, competent, solid workers who cling to accepted methods, and half-consciously seek to preserve familiar landmarks, and work within a system of inherited concepts and categories, are a positive obstruction and a menace–the most formidable of all obstacles to progress. The world, one likes to think, has been created for some given purpose and everything in it plays some necessary part. If you ask what necessary part the second- and third- and fourth-rate philosophers, and those, even, below that line, can have been created to play, perhaps the answer is that, if they did not exist, the possibility of those great creative rebellions which mark the stages of human thought would never have occurred.

The story goes that gave up philosophy and became an intellectual historian because he thought he wasn’t good enough to make a serious contribution to philosophy. (Whether the story is right or not, I leave to the biographers out there.) I read the passage above, more by chance than anything else, when I first arrived at Oxford to study political theory. And I have to say, at the time, I found it rather depressing. I mean, how would you know if you had a revolutionary idea? And, anyway, who sets out on a career in philosophy, or a related subfield like political theory, thinking: I’ll just be one of those third-rate (or worse) hacks whose only real purpose in life is to make things so bad that some true genius will come along to fix them? I suppose if you sit around with A.J. Ayer, J.L. Austin, and Stuart Hampshire, trying to keep up gets a little depressing after while. But I think turned that bit of intellectual anxiety into a real downer. If you’re expectations are that high–if the only point of doing philosophy is to revolutionize the field–then maybe it would make sense to jump ship early on.

There are probably lots of reasons to complain about ‘s romantic image of philosophy. But for my part, I think his image is neither helpful nor accurate. It’s not helpful because it encourages beginners to give up before they ever really get going–and perhaps was guilty of this himself. It isn’t accurate because it denigrates intellectual virtues that are actually very important in great philosophy. Patience, persistance, and plodding–not to mention a “cool name”: –may sometimes be necessary, even if they aren’t sufficient. No wonder never commented (or did he?) on _A Theory of Justice_. Must not have been rebellious enough for his tastes. Some first-rate philosophical plodding, indeed!



nameless 07.25.03 at 2:29 am

Dude. In my universe it is still July.


Brian Weatherson 07.25.03 at 2:38 am

I think the problem is with Berlin’s presuppositions. Why should we measure philosophers by how big a rebellion they create? Why not measure them by the incremental progress they make on a variety of areas?

This is a little bit of special pleading on my part, since I’ve never had a revolutionary thought in my life, but I think I’m doing a fair job at helping tidy up loose ends at various places where they appear. Maybe there’ll be a revolution tomorrow and it will turn out the whole structure was useless and whether there are loose ends will be irrelevant. But maybe not.

The quote from Berlin reminded me, in a roundabout way, of a cute story Geoff Nunberg tells in Notes from Section Z, a 1996 Topic…Comment column from NLLT.

bq. I went once to a syntax-semantics workshop organized as part of a summer program at the University of Urbino. There were only a few of us linguists there, interlopers; the hillsides were thick with Lacanians, poststructuralists, and deconstructionists. I was having lunch under the cypresses with a clutch of semioticists. My friend Patrizia told me she wanted to come to hear our session. I said: “Well, really I don’t think you’d find it very interesting. It’s technical, it’s science.”
“Eh, and you don’t think semiotics is a science?”
“I don’t know,” I said, “I guess I think it’s only a science if second-rate researchers can make a contribution to it.”
“Umberto says that science is when you number the paragraphs.”
“It comes to the same thing,” said Umberto.


Michael C 07.25.03 at 4:11 am

As someone who is, in all likelihood, one of Berlin’s third-rate philosophers, I can confidently say that our role is: (1) to help others (students mostly) understand just how great the great ones are, and (2) to write the reviews, critical commentaries, and derivative articles that effectively anoint the first-rate ones as first-rate.

Seriously, though, philosophy has become more like the sciences, with many competent and intelligent practitioners making piecemeal contributions to the field. If you ask most philosophers who the best philosophers today are, I think you’d get wide disagreement, which suggests that there are many excellent philosophers but because of the professionalization of the field, few great ones. In other words, if there are X number of important philosophical advances to be made wthin any particular era, X is now divided more widely than ever before.

Also: Berlin assumes we know which philosophers are great when they are alive and actively writing. Rarely so, I’d guess. So how is any of us to be sure we won’t turn out to have been great, albeit posthumously?


Chris Bertram 07.25.03 at 8:32 am

Berlin’s is a very romantic conception isn’t it? And as such, the obvious point of comparison is with artists. A romantic might well think (or say, anyway) that a second rate painter or composer was worthless, but that neglects the fact that such people provide the sea in which greatness can swim. The legions of hack renaissance church painters and the many who toiled in “workshop of X” or “school of X” weren’t worthless: they made Giotto or Bellini or Titian possible. Ditto, I suggest for nth rate philosophers.

Mind you, a lot of nth rate philosophical writing is a waste of time and wouldn’t exist but for institutional pressures. Listening to people working out the 99th epicycle of the moons of twin earth makes me want to impale my head on a spike.


dsquared 07.25.03 at 1:50 pm

Philosophy is a form of literature, and second rate philosophers fill the same role as second-rate novelists; they all have their own fans, and they fill in the time while we’re waiting for one of the great ones to bring a book out. I don’t really like Iain Banks, but it beats having to wait another three years for the next Michael Frayn.


Ross 07.25.03 at 2:50 pm

Following up on Michael C’s point:

As I am not a philosopher, I must ask,

Are Great Philosophers born, or are they made? Can a second- or third-rate philosopher develop into or rise up to become a Great Philosopher, or are they destined to toil forever on a lower echelon? Can a Great Philosopher arise out of the tutelage of a lower-rate philosopher? It’s my assumption from this passage (not having read much Berlin) that he believes Great Philosophers are, in essence, born fully formed in their greatness.


Matthew 07.25.03 at 2:59 pm

Think of all the philosophers, such as Hans-Georg Gadamer, who would not have gotten started on Berlin’s premise.


dsquared 07.25.03 at 3:26 pm

Ross (and Michael C): Gottlob Frege comes to mind as somebody who was very definitely a second-rater before being turned into a Great Philosopher by becoming a predecessor of Russell.


The Philosophical Cowboy 07.25.03 at 9:08 pm

Those of us of an excessively Wittgensteinian bent might argue that some of the Greatest of Philosophers were the ones who’d gone most spectacularly awry. Cf Frege…

(Structure of comments:
1) A young plodder’s view
2) Wittgenstein’s little plodders
3) Plodding and Plodderabilia)

A young plodder’s view
I left the academy, in part, because of the difficulty of making a sensible contribution. Or, at least, what I’d been doing was really heading that way.

It certainly seemed that until a DPhil’s out the way, you’re quite constrained in what you’ve “got” to knock out. I think I had two ideas at the time to work through that would take less than half a thesis to work through, but rather more than you can knock out in a hurry. The need for long incremental contributions (or very short, non-contributory pieces) is a bane for a young plodder…

Wittgenstein’s little plodders
Of course, in my own little area, there’s been some pretty useful work in bringing out anything resembling a sensible account of Wittgenstein’s views, and, given the diversity of the topics his slips of paper cover, plenty of room for a little plodding.

But a lot the debates around philosophy of mind (and language) over the last 50 years, say, seem like a step by trip to sillier and sillier view before the paradigm is abandoned (though there have been some great thought experiments along the way). I think of Central State Materialism et seq, in particular (perhaps unfairly, it’s been a while since I did any real mind)

Plodding and plodderabilia
However, within a broadly Wittgensteinian perspective, there would still seem to be room for plodders taking a J.L.Austin approach of working though individual (or sharply delineated) concepts. Or correspondingly in critique through limited proposals rather than the grand Ghost in the Machine.

Apologies for vagary, arrogant dismissal of approaches, and sheer nonsense….

(PS – not my “real” e-mail address BTW – a pseudonymous private joke)


Unlearned Hand 07.26.03 at 1:10 am

Micah, is that why you came to law school?


micah 07.26.03 at 3:33 am

No, naturally I did it for the money.


mitch 07.26.03 at 4:10 am

See The Sociology of Philosophies by Randall Collins for ideas on this subject.


Harry 07.26.03 at 6:29 pm

Thank God Kant never read Berlin. Or Russell for that matter. I agree with Chris on the moons of twin earth. But even the greats sometimes learn from the plodders, who can, themselves, contribute to major projects by being realistic about their own capabilities and turning them to problems that the philosophical community needs productive work on.
Since I, too, am a confirmed plodder, I can be accused f special pleading too, and have no response.
But most of all I envy nameless.


Roger 07.26.03 at 7:38 pm

I think Berlin’s remark can’t be true if, indeed, you read the great philosophers.

After all, who was Molyneaux? I doubt one person in a hundred — one person who is philosophically educated — could tell you about the man, but his problem engaged Locke, Condillac, Diderot and in a sense defined the way the senses were talked about in the Enlightenment.

Who was Fechner? I know very little about him. But I know about William James, and I know that much of William James’ Psychology is a response to Fechner — as well as various second rate French metaphysicians.

Who was Samuel Clarke? Yet the letters he wrote to Leibnitz, and the replies, are one of the classic texts of rationalism.

Who was Tarski? Has anybody ever read more than one paper of Tarski’s? And yet we all know Tarski’s position on truth, and it shaped the whole analytic discourse on truth.

Actually, the second rate in philosophy has a better chance of being remembered than the second rate in, say, painting. Who remembers who won the academy’s painting contest from which Manet was excluded? Who remembers the minor surrealists — or even the major ones, mostly?

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