A few separate pieces that I read today came together thematically for me in an odd confluence. First, an article in The Straits Times repeats the shocking statistics about the nature of modern academic intellectual production, Prof, no one is reading you, that you may be aware of. Here’s the important data:
Even debates among scholars do not seem to function properly. Up to 1.5 million peer-reviewed articles are published annually. However, many are ignored even within scientific communities – 82 per cent of articles published in humanities are not even cited once. No one ever refers to 32 per cent of the peer-reviewed articles in the social and 27 per cent in the natural sciences.
If a paper is cited, this does not imply it has actually been read. According to one estimate, only 20 per cent of papers cited have actually been read. We estimate that an average paper in a peer-reviewed journal is read completely by no more than 10 people. Hence, impacts of most peer-reviewed publications even within the scientific community are minuscule.
What ever happened to the “republic of letters”? Are humanists reading, but not citing, each other? Or is it that humanistic production has basically become a matter of adding a line to one’s c.v.? So the scholar writes the monograph which is read by their editor, and then published to collect dust somewhere in the back recesses of an academic library.
Second, an article in The New York Times, Philosophy Returns to the Real World, declares the bright new world in the wake of the Dark Ages of post-modernism. Through a personal intellectual biography the piece charts the turn away from the hyper-solipsistic tendencies in philosophy exemplified by Stanley Fish in the 1980s, down to the modern post-post-modern age. Operationally I believe that Fish is a human who reconstitutes the characteristics of the tyrannical pig Napoleon in Animal Farm. Despite all the grand talk about subjectivism and a skepticism about reality which would make Pyrrho blanch, Fish did very well for himself personally in terms of power, status, and fame by promoting his de facto nihilism. Money and fame are not social constructs for him, they are concrete realities. Like a eunuch in the Forbidden City ignoring the exigencies of the outside world, all Fish and his fellow travelers truly care about are clever turns of the phrase, verbal gymnastics, and social influence and power. As the walls of the city collapse all around them they sit atop their golden thrones, declaring that they are the Emperors of the World, but like Jean-Bédel Bokassa are clearly only addled fools to all the world outside of the circle of their sycophants. After all, in their world if they say it is, is it not so? Their empire is but one of naked illusions.
Finally, via Rod Dreher, a profile of David Brooks in The Guardian. He has a new book out, The Road To Character. I doubt I’ll read it, because from what I can tell and have seen in the domain of personal self-cultivation of the contemplative sort our species basically hit upon some innovations in the centuries around 500 B.C., and has been repackaging those insights through progressively more exotic marketing ploys ever since. Xunzi and Marcus Aurelius have said what needs to be said. No more needed for me.
But this section jumped out:
“I started out as a writer, fresh out of college, thinking that if I could make my living at it – write for an airline magazine – I’d be happy,” says Brooks over coffee in downtown Washington, DC; at 53, he is ageing into the amiably fogeyish appearance he has cultivated since his youth. “I’ve far exceeded my expectations. But then you learn the elemental truth that every college student should know: career success doesn’t make you happy.” In midlife, it struck him that he’d spent too much time cultivating what he calls “the résumé virtues” – racking up impressive accomplishments – and too little on “the eulogy virtues”, the character strengths for which we’d like to be remembered. Brooks builds a convincing case that this isn’t just his personal problem but a societal one: that our market-driven meritocracy, even when functioning at its fairest, rewards outer success while discouraging the development of the soul. Though this is inevitably a conservative argument – we have lost a “moral vocabulary” we once possessed, he says – many of the exemplary figures around whom Brooks builds the book were leftists: labour activists, civil rights leaders, anti-poverty campaigners. (St Augustine and George Eliot feature prominently, too.) What unites them, in his telling, is the inner confrontation they had to endure, setting aside whatever plans they had for life when it became clear that life had other plans for them.
Many of the ancients argued for the importance of inner reflection and mindful introspection. Arguably, the strand of Indian philosophical thought represented by the Bhagavad Gita was swallowed up by this cognitive involution, as one folds in upon one’s own mind.
But let me tell a different story, one of the outer world, but not one of social engagement, but sensory experience of the material domain in an analytic sense. Science. A friend of mine happens to be the first using next-generation sequencing technologies to study a particularly charismatic mammal. I reflected to her recently that she was the first person in the history of the world to gaze upon this particular sequence, to analyze it, to reflect upon the natural historical insights that were yielded up for her by the intersection of biology and computation. It is highly unlikely that my friend will ever become a person of such eminence, such prominence, as David Brooks or Stanley Fish. Feted by her fellow man. But my friend will know truth in a manner innocent of aspirational esteem totally alien to the meritocratic professionals David Brooks references. On the day that you expire, would you rather be remembered for a law review article, or discovering something real, shedding light on some deep truth (as opposed to “truth”)?
This perhaps offers up a possibility for why humanists don’t cite each other. Too many have been poisoned by the nihilism of the likes of Stanley Fish. They do not see any purpose in the scholarship of their peers, because humanistic scholarship of the solipsistic sort is primarily an interior monologue with oneself. The experiments of English professors always support their hypotheses. Their struggle is to feed their egos, they wrestle with themselves, Jacob’s own angel as a distillation of their self-essence. The limits of their minds are the limits of their world.
Finally, this filament threaded through, of a reality out there, the possibility of being made aware of it, even through the mirror darkly, is why I continue to do what I do, and aspire to what I aspire to. The truth is out there. It does not give consideration to our preferences. But it is, and we can grasp it in our comprehension. Over the past ten years in the domain of my personal interest, and now professional focus, genomics, we’ve seen a sea change. That which we did not even imagine has become naked to us. Before the next ten years is out who knows what else we’ll discover?