World-class again

I got the very good news eight or nine days ago of an award under the AHRC Research Leave scheme, to complete a book on Gentzen’s proof(s) of the consistency of arithmetic (how the best versions work — not obvious — and what their philosophical significance is — not at all obvious). As quite a few people have said to me, there’s a very real need for such a book, and I hope I can make a decent job of it. I’m aiming to write something that is as accessible as my Gödel book as far as the technicalities are concerned (why is it that books on proof theory can be such tough going?); in other words, I want at least beginning grad students in philosophy who’ve done an intro math logic course to be able to follow it. And as for the philosophical commentary and critical discussion as we go along, well again I hope that will be accessible to the same audience too. (As my Explaining Chaos and Gödel books should show, I’m all for maximum accessibility: there’s no point in trying to write a book for a readership of eleven, if only because no publisher these days would touch it.)

Now, I posted here a week ago, saying that I’d got the grant (and praising the AHRC for a conspicuous lack of ageism). But I added a remark — in what was supposed to be tone of world-weary amusement — about the fact that my research proposal was ranked “an outstanding proposal meeting world-class standards of scholarship, originality, quality and significance”, suggesting that “world-class” was going it a bit.

Where two or three philosopher are gathered together these days, we often bemoan the exaggerations that have become routine in writing references, commenting on grant proposals, etc. etc. A student, to get into a US grad school, has to be the best you’ve taught in a dozen years; a planned piece of work has to be of ground-breaking originality, with the world waiting breathlessly. (In fact, I wrote here about reference inflation just a few weeks ago: we all know the phenomenon only too well).

Well, I don’t know about you, but to me “world-class” means really, really, outstanding. How many world-class philosophers are there active in the UK? How many would you put into your world first eleven? Ok, let’s be generous, your world first twenty-five all-stars? The fingers of one hand would be enough to count them, surely.

And one thing is for certain, by my lights most of us who get AHRC grants are not “world-class”. We are trying to usefully move things on just a bit; we hope our stuff might get onto reading lists and get talked about a bit in its area. In other words, we try to be decently interesting and make some good new points. But in my idiolect, as in that of most philosophers, that hardly makes the work discipline-changing world-class stuff.

So, I said I was amused by the seeming gap between “world-class” and the useful, pushing-things-on-a-bit book that I’m writing. And I lamented the way that exaggerations of that kind have become rife in political and management discourse (ok, I used that philosopher’s term of art “bullshit”).

Well, what was supposed to be a weary old lag’s comment on a linguistic decline has apparently caused serious offence. In particular, it has been suggested that describing my planned book as doing for Gentzen what I tried to do for Gödel, i.e. “explain clearly and make a few philosophical comments along the way” was inconsistent with its being proper research, with the implication that I shouldn’t be getting the grant and had been deceiving the AHRC. But “making a few philosophical comments along the way” was of course exaggerating in that understated Cambridge way, to counterbalance the “world-class” exaggeration in the opposite direction. So I do apologize if someone got the wrong end of the stick. Of course what I’m doing is serious business, pushing things on as best I can. That should go without saying: but it seems that I need to say it.

Ok, back to thinking about provably terminating computations …

6 thoughts on “World-class again”

  1. First, a distinction: the most egregious of reference exaggerations are out and out lies, as evidenced by multiple students of Prof. N being the best ever. (One imagines a cascade of superlative graduate students being presented to him with just enough time to write them a reference before being whisked away and another, yet better student is presented.)

    On the other hand, the very phrase 'world-class' smacks of management-speak. The OED gives us 'persons or things regarded as outstanding throughout the world', which falls back on the evaluative 'outstanding'. What proportion of work that goes on in philosophy is outstanding? The top third? The top 10%? The to 0.5%?

    The thought that only great works of philosophy should be funded by the AHRC is absurd: I know of no Great Philosopher alive today. But I said it before and I'll say it again: clear, accessible, explanation of something obscure and philosophically important (as Gentzen's proofs are) is precisely what ought to be funded by the AHRC — and after all, that's the real syntactic content of the AHRC's verbiage: `This deserves funding.'

  2. Twenty years past, a touch of skepticism would have been read without offense. However plus ça change, who pays the piper…
    Even sharp-tongued Horace was solicitous not to ruffle Maecenas' feathers.

  3. I'm not sure how "world class" is defined, but:

    RAE 2008 proves UK research is world class, Zoë Corbyn, Times Higher Education, 18 Dec 08:

    More than half of all the research produced by some 52,400 academics whose work was rated as part of the 2008 research assessment exercise (RAE) is at least "internationally excellent".

    The results of the RAE, published this week, show that 17 per cent of all research submitted is "world leading" – meriting the highest possible grade (4*) – while 37 per cent is judged to be "internationally excellent" (3*).

  4. Re Brian's "But I said it before and I'll say it again: clear, accessible, explanation of something obscure and philosophically important (as Gentzen's proofs are) is precisely what ought to be funded by the AHRC" —

    I agree; and perhaps those who complained about a lack of research were confusing mathematical research with philosophical. There could easily be a significant amount of philosophical research in such a book.

  5. Brian: I agree — the exaggeration "world class" is not an out-and-out lie, perhaps, but loose talk without proper concern for carefully accuracy and truth, with words chosen to make an impression. We are getting near the territory, then, that Harry Frankfurt discusses in his admirable essay Bullshit.

    I agree too that a "clear, accessible, explanation of something obscure and philosophically important" can be really worth having. I'm no out-and-out Wittgensteinian. But I do think that patient clarity about basics can often dissove philosophical befuddlement. (I think my Explaining Chaos illustrates what I mean: there isn't anything techie in that book that those who know about such things won't already know — but the explanations are put together in such a way as to demystify and make broadly philosophical worries disappear. Or so I hope!)

    Clark: yes, indeed!

    A.c.: Well yes: '17 per cent of all research submitted is "world leading"' grates horribly with me too! What words are left to describe what really is world leading? And of course I agree with you that we mustn't confuse mathematical with philosophical research: though to take up the point I was making above, I'd stress that some philosophical "research" exploring technical matters just involves dispelling fog, not revealing unexpected further truths. Those who haven't been fog bound might think not much is going on.

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