Not that smart …

An exhortation, repeated with rather surprising approval on various philosophy blogs: “We’re all smart. Distinguish yourself by being kind.”

I’m all for being kind, and hope that — when I was in the business — I mostly was (and of course regret the times I knowingly wasn’t). But if you didn’t realize it before, then one thing you would learn by editing a philosophy journal, as I did for a dozen years (reading each and every submission that Analysis received in that time), is just how many philosophers aren’t smart. Honest plodders, no doubt: but quite capable of sending off for publication dull-witted, uncomprehending, point-missing, or thumpingly fallacious offerings. And we are just kidding ourselves if we suppose otherwise.

Of course, there’s a lot of public bullshit about this, for understandable and not wholly disreputable reasons. We often rate each other’s works as “world-class” to help colleagues get grants; we rate someone as outstanding to aid accelerated promotion so that they get paid a tolerable wage. But that doesn’t mean that we really are often world-class, or outstanding, or even smart.

Mathematicians aren’t under much illusion about this sort of thing. Some really are smart, and get to prove important stuff, push off in new directions, make new connections. Many plod, tinkering at the margins, or adding a few little stones to a mosaic according to a pattern designed by others. (I was brought up in that hard school, and in part left it because I didn’t think that continuing to be a plodding mathematician was very likely to be as much fun as becoming a plodding philosopher: I was probably wrong about that, but such is the folly of youth!)

And it surely isn’t really very different for philosophers, is it? Plodders abound. Extra kindness is called for exactly because quite a few of us lots of the time, and no doubt all of us some of the time, aren’t smart — and it does hurt to have it rubbed in.

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