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Vol. 10, No. 6, 2011
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why there are

Michael Ruse


Michael Ruse is a philosopher of biology at Florida State University and is well known for his work on the creationism/evolution controversy and the demarcation problem in science. He is the author of many articles and books including Darwin and its Discontents (2006).

Quick. Take my temperature. I must be sick. I am in danger of agreeing with Naomi Schaefer Riley!

If you can peer through the thick fog of animus towards university professors and what they do, she has an important point about academics and books. There are too many books being published, or at least there are too many of the wrong kind.

Frankly, speaking now of my own field of philosophy, there really are way too many technical monographs, read by vanishingly few. We philosophers think that to be profound we must be prolix and complicated – think Immanuel Kant – and we rather revel in it. It is not so much that our topics are inherently boring, but that we fear that unless what we write is boring, no one will think us deep and thoughtful.

There is a possibly apocryphal story (but one of those stories that, even if it isn’t true, ought to be true) about the important, American, 20th-century philosopher Wilfred Sellars. Talking to him, he was fun and interesting and comprehensible. But then he would put pen to paper. He would start with a first draft that anyone could understand, and (this completed) set to again. At length he would be faced with a manuscript comprehensible only to God. Happily, he would set out for one final set of revisions.

Actually, speaking now as one who has edited books for Cambridge University Press for 20 years, the market is starting to rectify this situation. (Is this the Invisible Hand at work? Tell the New Atheists. Ruse has a new proof for the existence of God). When I started editing a series in the philosophy of biology around 1990, we could expect to sell around 2,000 copies. Not God Delusion numbers, but respectable in academic circles.

Over the next 15 years, this drifted down and down to about 500 copies. I am told that it was nothing personal, but a general trend of philosophy books. So now we have revanched, and launched a new series aimed more at students and the general reader. The initial books strike me as just as deep and thoughtful as the older books (in some cases written by the same authors) but much more interesting and fun to read. I am going to be seriously cheesed off if we don’t sell 3,000 copies a shot.

But the place where I really agree with my fellow Brainstormer is over books by young academics. It is not a disease that affects people in the sciences. No serious, untenured faculty member in physics is going to write a book. Get on with the articles and show your mettle. I am glad to say that this is also the way in philosophy. I don’t think I am alone in distrusting books by young philosophers. It is almost invariably a warmed-over dissertation and as such not a real book. Much better to cut your teeth on articles. Apart from anything else, it is here that you start to get the real feedback on your work. Up to now, everyone from your mom to your supervisor has been telling you how great you are and then some nasty, little, unwashed, anonymous referee rips you up. If you have any good sense, you will get drunk, swear at the referee – obviously just out of grad school, doesn’t know the literature, jealous at what you have written – and then settle down and take the criticisms seriously.

(Actually, as one who has also founded and edited a journal for 15 years, I am being very unfair to referees. My experience was that senior scholars particularly would spend hours on the work of the most junior authors. I, for one, think blind refereeing is stupid. I want to know the background against which a piece is being written and I found that people worked really hard to see merit in unknown people. Remember, an editor or referee gets much more credit for finding the new Immanuel Kant than for publishing the established Immanuel Kant’s latest piece on the Categorical Imperative).

Unfortunately, in many areas of the humanities – English and history are the big sinners – the demand is for a book for tenure. And so we get volume after volume that would have made one or two good articles, and put the rest of the material on the Net if it is worth knowing about. Readers get cheated because they are not getting value for money and authors get cheated because they are not getting the right feedback (and the discipline of writing clearly and concisely) at the very time they need it most.

My suspicion is that the Invisible Hand is moving in here too. Presses, particularly academic presses, are under huge monetary constraints and less and less will be able to publish a monograph that sells 300 copies. Universities won’t buy them. And a young author can only afford so many copies to give to relatives. So the opportunities to publish these unneeded books will fade and humanities departments will simply have to make other demands for tenure.

Who says the market is always a bad thing? Not me or Ms. Riley, I am sure!

PS: I am being atypically modest. With a topic like this, even despite the somewhat chilly and mystifying cover, if I don’t sell 10,000 copies I am going to be very cross. Keeping things in perspective, when I last heard, The God Delusion had sold over three million copies.



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