September 20, 2005

Godzilla meets King Kong

Having the big guys fight is a constant temptation for monster makers. Each monster is the big guy in his own domain. They evolved separately; one has scales, the other has fur. Who knows what will happen when they meet. The Romans used to bring animals from different corners of their empire into the arena, just to see what would happen: “Big bear, meet big lion.”

The richness of almost any sort of development depends on there being lots of competitions, lots of little, isolated ponds in which somebody gets to be the big fish. Combine all the ponds, and one standard of big-fish-hood will come to dominate the competition. All sorts of promising lines of development will be cut off.

I was treated yesterday to a characterization of the philosophy job market: everybody sane applies for everything in sight, so every search has hundreds of applicants. In such a context, considerations of fairness and efficiency will guide the development of common standards, for the most part. The whole operation will become increasingly conventional. That’s stage 1.

Stage 2 is that people will publicize the conventions, and job applicants will tailor their applications to those conventions and, to a considerable extent, enforce those conventions on colleges and universities. Gradually, there will be less and less discernible difference among applicants.

If philosophy lives on fresh ideas, on new metaphors, on new experience coming into the discussion, this development will be a kind of disaster for the discipline, especially as the standards for hiring begin to inform the selection of graduate students and the teaching of classes.

Freeman Dyson writes in From Eros to Gaia that it was crucial for the development of science in England that science was for a long time held in contempt, was practiced after school by not-quite-respectable kids. One understands why.

Posted by shea0017 at September 20, 2005 1:45 PM