Philosophy and Smarts

by John Holbo on June 22, 2016

Interesting interview with Joshua Knobe (via Daily Nous).

At present, you are appointed in both the cognitive science program and philosophy department at Yale. Your office is located in the Yale psychology department and you work with psychology students. How do the values of these different academic cultures differ?

It has been fascinating to experience these two quite different cultures up close. The two disciplines differ in numerous ways; and I think that each of them has a lot to learn from the other. I’ll focus here on just one difference that strikes me as especially important.

Within philosophy, there is an almost absurd value placed on intelligence. Just imagine what might happen if a philosophy department were faced with a choice between (a) a job candidate who has consistently made valuable contributions in research and teaching and (b) a candidate who has not made any valuable contributions in either of these domains but who is universally believed to be extraordinarily smart. In such a case, I fear that many philosophy departments would actually choose the latter candidate.

In psychology, it is exactly the opposite. When people are trying to decide whether to hire a given candidate, the question is never, “How smart is she?” Instead, the question is always, “What has she actually discovered?” If you haven’t contributed anything of value, there is basically no chance at all that you will be hired just for having a high I.Q.

This cultural difference results in a quite radical difference in the atmosphere that one finds in graduate education. Philosophy students experience constant anxiety about whether they are smart enough. Psychology students also experience a lot of anxiety, but it is about a completely different topic. They have this ever-present sense that they absolutely must find some way to make a concrete contribution to the field.

There is a lot of truth to this critique, I think. The title of the linked article – “Expectations of brilliance underlie gender distributions across academic disciplines” – gives some indication of how this relates to other issues. Being a philosopher, I have to come up with something smart to say in response – and quick! – so I pick: it depends what ‘smart’ means! But I’ll let you take it from there.

I’m working on another Kierkegaard-on-anxiety post. I’ll try to get that up soon. What a writer! I really enjoy reading Kierkegaard. But he’s definitely trying too hard to be smart.



Maz 06.22.16 at 3:24 pm

A counterpoint to the linked study.


John Holbo 06.22.16 at 3:31 pm

One thing I’ll mention before someone else does: no one is going to be hired for being ‘smart’ without a publication track record. You can’t pull a Dreben in 2016. Still, there’s definitely something to what he says.


Brett 06.22.16 at 3:31 pm

Well, that explains why Psychology research has a massive research replication crisis.


AcademicLurker 06.22.16 at 3:31 pm

I like to think that the areas of science that I work in have largely avoided this. You do stuff and publish it. And if the stuff you do is impressive enough, then you’re retroactively pronounced “smart”.


M Caswell 06.22.16 at 4:54 pm

In what sense is this a ‘critique’? Are philosophy departments better in so far as there are no Drebens left?


Yankee 06.22.16 at 4:54 pm

Smart: in flashy good order, as a marching band. Also, a sharp biting pain, as being hit with a stick.


bruce wilder 06.22.16 at 5:06 pm

I just saw this lovely phrase in an article about pharma research and it seemed relevant here:

these publications are routinely biased for marketing effect

So much of a career resting on reputation must be built by good PR, eh?


mdc 06.22.16 at 5:54 pm

In what sense is this a ‘critique’? Are philosophy departments better in so far as there are no Drebens left?


Bob Costas 06.22.16 at 7:01 pm

>Expectations of brilliance underlie gender distributions across academic disciplines

See Scott Alexander’s “Perceptions Of Required Ability Act As A Proxy For Actual Required Ability In Explaining The Gender Gap”.


oldster 06.22.16 at 7:23 pm

So in the one case we get smarts-inflation, where glib facility with the latest jargon is treated as “smarts”; and in the other case we get discovery-inflation, where p-hacking, tiny samples of cookie-cutter undergraduates, and irreproducible results are treated as “discoveries”.

I don’t know; is one of these obviously better?


awy 06.22.16 at 7:47 pm

well for a theory dominated field like logic or math it may be okay to value the ability to solve hard problems over an aggregator that may produce high quality, empirically grounded studies in a data/empirics driven science.

importance of the publishing game is directly related to personnel decisions at the departments. maybe people thought basing tenure/hiring on quantifiable publications is more fair or open than just letting the senior faculty mull over who is smart. it’s an interesting issue.


burritoboy 06.22.16 at 9:02 pm

In my philosophy education, the smarts perception was so ludicrous that underhanded jokes were often made about who would be inevitably be perceived as “smart” for each new class. It was always the same: a loud-mouthed, “logic” chopping, male son of an attorney or professor who had to dominate every conversation. And yes, that class background was incredibly important. And the department fell for this persona for decades – and still does, so far as I know. It produced a bunch of nonentities who ended up mouldering, some in named chairs at tier 1 institutions, pretending to work on the conventional analytic questions, and never getting anywhere with them.

The people actually committed to philosophy often ended up going to theology or political science graduate programs.


Ebenezer Scrooge 06.23.16 at 12:15 am

I did my scholarly work in chemistry. It was a lot more like psychology than philosophy. The smart people who got interesting results were the most respected, but it was more important to get interesting results than to be smart. And the distinction between the two was pretty sharp. Smart people were the ones you wanted to bounce your ideas off of. The merely productive people had a superb nose for their own problems, but weren’t that useful for your problems. Smart unproductive people were viewed as only good for writing review articles, which wasn’t a particularly respected endeavor.
I’m wondering if this is the case for natural science in general. AcademicLurker @4 seems to think it is not.


John Holbo 06.23.16 at 1:12 am

“In what sense is this a ‘critique’? Are philosophy departments better in so far as there are no Drebens left?”

I mentioned Dreben not because he was obviously good or bad for philosophy but because Knobe’s critique implied that departments are probably full of them – i.e. incandescently ‘smart’ figures who don’t publish much! Since it’s obviously false that the profession looks pan-Drebenized in 2016, it might seem we can dismiss Knobe’s critique as wildly off, just empirically. I think we shouldn’t do that. His basic point seems to me sound.

As to whether it is bad or good that philosophers valorize smarts: this is obviously pretty complicated. As I said: it depends what ‘smart’ means. Philosophers are not the only ones, after all. In English departments, just for example, different styles of personality and self-presentation are taken as markers of achievement and excellence. Across the humanities, you have to seem ‘smart’ – or personally excellent – by local disciplinary standards. This is part of what the liberal arts is about: forming people. It isn’t so surprising that a formed person would come to seem the hallmark of all that. But, as Nietzsche remarks somewhere: every craft makes crooked. (Kant may have had a similar thought. See blog header.) There is also the not-small issue of: philosophers can hardly stop valorizing the knack for socratic thrust and parry, logical quick wits. We actually think that there is intellectual value in doing the things that make you seem smart. Yes, we do. (I do.) So it’s not like we could just stop valuing that. Someone who seems ‘smart’ like that seems like someone who is likely to produce good things. It’s a non-arbitrary link. Still, there is a sense in which we end up ‘teaching to the test’, as they say.


Layman 06.23.16 at 2:17 am

‘Instead, the question is always, “What has she actually discovered?”’

I confess that when I read this, speaking of psychology, I thought it was a trick question…


Phil Koop 06.23.16 at 11:43 am

“Expectations of brilliance underlie gender distributions across academic disciplines”

I once asked a friend of mine what it was like being a female mathematics PhD candidate at Princeton in the 80’s. She did not answer directly; instead, she remarked that one of her fellow candidates was kicked out for setting a message board in a common room on fire. She said that this demonstrated he was not considered a first-rate talent, for in that case, starting a fire in a public space would have been viewed as acceptable behavior.


ezra abrams 06.23.16 at 12:48 pm

am i the only one, sees this as a giant put down of philosophy ?
philosophers are smart useless arrogant jerks
psychologists get stuff done
surely everyone here knows the punchline:
a philosopher and a psychologist are at a party, and see two attractive people of the appropriate gender across the room
the psychologist says, those guys are cute, lets walk over there and chat em up
the philosopher says it is no use, after we walk half the way, half remains….

maybe cause i’m a science major ?


ezra abrams 06.23.16 at 12:53 pm

phil koop at 16
That perceived excellence excuses you from the rules is still the SOP of universities, far as i can tell, from both personal experience and anecdote
anecdote, told to me by someone who had second hand knowledge:
MIT hired a world famous professor, who went on to win a nobel
another mit professor, admitting that the first one had thrown a chair at someone in his lab, said, we made a bargain with the devil when we hired him


ezra abrams 06.23.16 at 12:55 pm

ebenezer @13
what you say holds true for molecular biology/genetics/biochem: killer experiments that “change the textbook” are way way more important then being “smart”


AcademicLurker 06.23.16 at 1:42 pm

Ebenezer Scrooge@13:

In my field(s) someone who seems smart in an exam passing sense or in a impresses-people-in-face-to-face-conversation sense, but hasn’t yet done anything, will be considered promising. But you’re only allowed to be promising for so long before people start saying “So-and-so really seemed like they would go far. What happened?”

The OP appears to be saying that a certain sort of presentation as a “smart” person will, sans tangible achievements, get you further along the career path in Philosophy than in some other fields.


prasad 06.23.16 at 1:58 pm

> “Expectations of brilliance underlie gender distributions across academic disciplines”

This is a paper which is consistent with a bloody obvious alternate interpretation, one that it rather blithely dismisses even though there’s a fair amount of evidence for it. The speed and unanimity with which the media endorsed the paper’s message and studiously ignored the alternate interpretation reveals quite a lot about it. Scott Alexander’s rebuttal mentioned above is a must read if you want to go around citing this result.


rogger johnson 06.24.16 at 2:49 pm

Kary Mullis was a biochem PhD student at Berkeley (one of the top depts in the world in this field)

at his thesis defense, he presented something about Galaxy formation and cosmology
as the story goes, the committee said, well he is to smart to fail….

A few years later, the Nobel committee said, regarding Kary’s invention of PCR, why don’t you come and say “thank you very much , your Majesty”


rogger johnson 06.24.16 at 2:52 pm

AL @17
as a world famous Harvard biochem prof once said, potential means you haven’t done anything yet.
of course, Harvard is famously snotty, but the informal standard for tenure is, “have you changed the textbook” eg have undergraduate textbooks been rewritten to reflect the knowledge that you have contributed.
like i said, snotty, but it does make the point

(as my dad, an English major at Brooklyn college in the 50s said, the SENIOR poetry prize at Brooklyn was a25 dollar gift certificate to the campus bookstore; the JUNIOR prize at Yale was a year abroad fellowship)


burritoboy 06.24.16 at 6:10 pm

“There is also the not-small issue of: philosophers can hardly stop valorizing the knack for socratic thrust and parry, logical quick wits.”

Well, that description actually tells us what the problem is. That’s simply not a true characterization of the Socratic dialogues written by the people in the first Socratic circle (we have dialogues from Plato and Xenophon, and fragments of one from Aeschines of Sphettus). Socrates will always modulate his dialectic to the person or persons he’s talking to. When he meets venerable, traditionalist characters (Cephalus in the Republic, for instance), he will often go easy on them. In other cases, like Nicias in the Laches, Socrates seems to be trying to pressure Nicias (an older traditionalist but still very important in Athens’ politics) to change his generalship style, so Socrates starts out fairly soft on Nicias but then gets more intense. When Socrates meets really promising young people, he will try to lure them in and pretend that his goal is helping them get power (when his ultimate goal is often to try to convince them to avoid power lust, the exact opposite of what his interlocutors initially think he might help him with). When he meets young potential philosophers (as opposed to young potential statesmen), his approach is again totally different (Phaedrus in the Phaedrus, for one example).

What you are valorizing is really prominent primarily when Socrates confronts radical intellectuals who are very outspoken. The best-known example is Thrasymachus in the Republic. But we note that Socrates undertakes different tactics in the very same dialogue with Cephalus, but also with Glaucon and Adeimantus and Polemarchus, who are youngish intellectuals, but seem to already be at least partially followers of Socrates or at least somewhat more moderate than Thrasymachus.

What this says about analytic philosophy is that it’s discarded almost entirely the example of Socrates precisely in the area that Socrates knew best. Let me try to explain: the uniqueness of Socrates is not only in his philosophic theories qua theories, but also how Socrates birthed philosophy into the city through his life, his education of his circle, and so on.

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