New paper: The monadothergy

Today, I’m presenting an abridged version of the linked paper at the annual meeting of the North American Levinas Society, which I’m also posting in the My papers section of the website. Here is an abstract:

Abstract: This paper approaches the question of Levinas’ relation to philosophy by situating his understanding of transcendence next to that of Leibniz. After offering some preliminary examples, I detail the structure of transcendence in the philosophies of Leibniz and Levinas, focusing on Leibniz’s Principles of Nature and Grace and Levinas’ Essence and Disinterestedness. From here, I return to the question of whether Levinas’ thinking can be regarded as moving beyond philosophy as such. I conclude with some thoughts on what it would take for a thinking of transcendence to genuinely move past the maneuvers so characteristic of philosophical thinking.

***

The paper is in certain respects more offbeat than most of my other work, and doesn’t easily fit the content or tenor of many journal discussions. It is also one of the works I’m most proud of, mostly because it attempts to state something of lasting importance, and I think states it well. If the paper is read primarily as a comparative exegesis of two thinkers, then the reader may be disappointed. Rather, the aim is to open up an understanding of transcendence, and with it, of the nature of philosophy itself, through a comparative reading of Leibniz’s and Levinas’ texts. Approach this one in the first place as a philosopher asking philosophical questions, not as a scholar with scholar’s concerns, and you may benefit from reading it, as I have from writing it.

The Monadothergy

The Monadothergy figures

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On blind review

1 Gaps and generics in the blind review process

Journals intend reviews of submissions be blind in order to ensure non-biased treatment of the material under consideration. The main assumption supporting this approach is that when work is presented anonymously, reviewers will set aside judgments concerning the race, gender, age, professional status etc. of the author considered. To provide an image of the reviewer’s mind on this model, it is as if one found an empty space where one previously found opinions about such matters. Call this the gappy thoughts model of blind review.

Blind reviewers do not have gappy thoughts. The content that otherwise would have been associated with an author remains filled. But it is filled generically.

Suppose a professor teaching a mixed graduate and upper-level undergraduate course grades course materials anonymously. Suppose further that in this class, upper-level undergraduates outnumber graduates by a factor of roughly 2 to 1. In this situation, for any given paper, the professor will be somewhat more likely to assume the work he is grading was written by an undergraduate, unless content strongly suggests otherwise. And so, for instance, sentential ambiguities will be more liable to be understood in a way that assumes less, rather than more understanding on the part of the student.

Similarly, if a reviewer assumes that most submissions to the journal requesting her feedback are term papers written by graduate students, she will be more apt to suppose grad student authorship in ambiguous cases. Conversely, if the reviewer assumes that only established scholars contribute to the same journal, she will be more apt to assume – perhaps consciously, perhaps not – that the paper written on topic x by so-and-so’s doctoral student was written by his mentor.

More generally, the practice of blind review doesn’t essentially contribute to the diversity of philosophy, if by this we understand something more than the adoption of majority standards by non-dominant groups. Instead, it encourages non-dominant groups to conform to the style and substance of the dominant group: it encourages conformity to the generic. Thus, blind review tends toward a stronger kind of equality than its intended aim would suggest: sameness.[1]

2 The situation of blind review with respect to the author and authorship

Anonymity tends toward irreverence. For proof of this, see the internet. Therefore, work encountered anonymously that does not conform to the standards of the philosophical community is more likely to be judged as failing to meet those standards than challenging or surpassing them. This is part of why authors try to subvert the blind review process in all the ways listed here. Established scholars may do so, for instance, via conspicuous self-citation. Less established scholars may do so by circulating their work among more established scholars, or by publishing drafts on sites like academia.edu, where they can get feedback from interested readers.

Two likely consequences follow.

First, to the degree that it is flouted, blind review may end up hurting the very people it intends to help: less established or otherwise marginalized scholars without strong connections to others in their field, given that such people are the most likely victims of the irreverence frequently accompanying anonymity.

Second, assuming that the values of a group are more likely to be internalized by those on the margins seeking its acceptance than those squarely in it, marginalized members would be less likely to do things that might undermine the egalitarian ideals the process of blind review intends to support. And so, for instance, they would be less likely to do some of the very things that would help them – for instance, sharing their work with others – for fear of undermining the aims of the blind review process. In this way, we witness a tension between two growing aspects of both academic philosophy and culture at large: the strong egalitarianism embodied in western liberal notions of fairness, and the strong communitarianism present in the ever-increasing connectedness of our world.

The hidden link tying together the whole process may well be this: the ideal of the scholar as solitary genius. This is likely the background assumption without which it makes little sense: to discourage interaction, rather than encourage it; to assume that reviewers will take a positive, reverent attitude toward an author, rather than a more vulgar stance; to expect inspired but remarkably different viewpoints to traditional questions to be celebrated rather than denigrated.

[1] This isn’t to say that blind review should be abandoned. It may still be the best viable alternative among many bad options.

New paper: Leibnizian intelligibility

I’ve added a new paper to the My Papers section of the site. Here is a PDF. Comments welcome. Here is an abstract.

Abstract: It is well-known that Leibniz rejected the accounts of gravitation offered by Newton and his followers. But literature on the topic up to present has been content either i) to explain this rejection as a consequence of Leibniz’s rejection of the intelligibility of action at a distance; or ii) to regard Leibniz’s rejection, given his acceptance of his own notion of force, as unjustified. This article provides a fuller account of why Leibniz regarded Newtonian gravitation as unintelligible. The paper divides into two parts. The first part shows that neither of the above explanations suffices to explain Leibniz’s rejection of Newtonian gravitation. The second part explicates the notion of intelligibility standing behind Leibniz’s charge against the Newtonians. In this part, I begin by cataloguing a list of physical hypotheses that Leibniz takes to be unintelligible. I then move to the positive account of intelligibility Leibniz gives in his correspondence with Christian Wolff. Thereby, I show that the different Newtonian accounts of gravitation each undermine the Leibnizian theological tenet that this is the best of all possible worlds.