How To Impose on People Better (first draft)

Another entry in my series of posts on “things they didn’t teach us in graduate school, because it wasn’t the wonderful art of crafting an argument” is: how to make everyone’s life better when asking people for things. The tl:dr of this post is that you should start from what you want to receive from people, and then ask them for it in a way that makes it easy for them to give that to you.

The point of this post is to help us all be more efficient and less burdensome when we harangue each other for favors. We are a discipline built on imposing on each other, more than we like to admit, so I think this has the potential to help out a lot. I am going to focus on one case, the most familiar case for most of us. But the point generalizes. Sadly, with the case I am going to focus on, the haranguers are a very small class of people: the editors of journals. So while I think it will be instructive as a case study, the only people who can take direct action on this recommendation are people who formulate referee requests (there is a tangent in the middle with more general applicability).

Suppose you get asked to referee for a journal. I’d say many journals ask you for your report in the following fashion (I’ve included a lot of the subtext and/or context, to be helpful):

  • Thanks so much for agreeing to read this manuscript! We truly value your advice (though we will frequently opt to follow the other referee’s advice in ways that will not make sense to you, and probably won’t notify you of what happens anyway). Please recommend one of the four official options below, and provide comments for the author. If you have separate comments for the editors’ eyes only, indicate those in the separate area provided. We get a lot of submissions (i.e. when in doubt, recommend rejection). We try to avoid Qualified Rejections that won’t lead to publication, so…(please don’t recommend 3 just because you can’t make up your mind). We appreciate if you can do this within a month (but we are so desperate for people to agree to do this, that as long as you can provide *some* date by which you will do it, we will give you any amount of time you ask for):
    1. Unconditional Acceptance
    2. Conditional Acceptance
    3. Rejection with the Possibility of Resubmission
    4. Total Rejection

And: this is the sum total of the guidance you are given on how to advise them on whether to accept the paper, because, I guess, we all “know” what a “good” paper “looks like”. Pause for a moment. Reflect on how many people in the discipline complain about receiving bad referee reports. Just really pause.

In addition to all the other obvious reasons we have for why this system misfires, it is hard for me to see these two facts juxtaposed, and not draw some sort of conclusion.

Perhaps we can also reflect on how widely we teach people in the discipline how to write referee reports. This here is the tangent promised above with more wide applicability: Ask yourself whether, even setting aside that people are trying to write such reports as a volunteer task when they are overworked and busy and hurried and such, it would, perhaps, help if the thing they were trying to smush into their busy schedule as a favor to journals was a skill for which we had widely agreed upon norms, and whose norms were routinely taught to students across the discipline, and they were given feedback on their performance, so that, at least, everyone was doing the same thing which they were well trained to do, albeit in a hurried and sometimes haphazard matter? Maybe that would help? I’m just spitballing here.

Anyway, back to what this post is actually about: this request is awful (no offense to journal editors intended, though I am sure that some will likely accrue), because unless the job of an editor is just to tally votes (it is not), this process is designed very poorly to get useful feedback. The only thing it uniformly tells people to provide is the 1-4 verdict, and nothing about what kind of information is desired in the comments! Suppose a referee report is supposed to tell you:

  • What is the paper’s main thesis?
  • How does it seek to establish this? Is it successful relative to its aims?
  • Does it engage sufficiently with existing literature?
  • Is there something novel/intriguing about its approach?

Well, then the editor should ask you those four questions instead of asking “for some comments” (or maybe five, with the last one being “any other comments?”). Maybe those aren’t the exact things the editors want to know from you. The thing is: they should figure that out. Because it’s both easier for you to write a report, and the report is more useful to them, if it’s divided up that way (it’s also more useful to the author). Note that in this case—referee reports—doing it this way, literally helps prevent/block off, some of the cardinal referee sins. You can’t sneak your response paper into these questions as easily as you can into a request for an unstructured block of comments.

No most people aren’t journal editors. But this isn’t just for journals. I know “rubrics are exciting, actually” is a hard sell, but, it is absolutely wild how much we don’t think about mutually making each others lives easier/better when we are trying to ask each other to help out.

Does your department have a form that distills all of the department specific requirements and timeline for degree to a single checklist? (if yes, and you aren’t in my department: go thank the person who made it, if not: I promise you it would be useful unless you have very few requirements). When you ask someone for feedback on a paper, do you tell them what kind of feedback you want? I know that this is a hard topic to get jazzed about (unless you are me), reducing cognitive and administrative burdens for requests we make on each other, making your own and each other’s lives easier by structuring your requests so they know what you actually want and you get what you actually want is a cause I can get behind (you can tell because I am currently behind it right this minute)!

In general, when you are asking people to give you feedback, to do something for you, when you are creating a task for someone: Think about what you want the end result to look like. Then think about what you can do to so that your request facilitates them getting you to that end result.

I almost titled this post “the art of asking” but there is a book by that name written by someone whose approach, as I understand it was “get rich and famous, have a super successful kickstarter and raise a ton of money, but then get people to volunteer their labor for you for free anyway, and offer to pay them in hugs/beer” which is not the approach I recommend; my approach is to constantly remind people that service work and undercompensated administrative work is a crucial component of how we are able to keep things functioning, and every part of the job that we enjoy depends on it. It is inordinately valuable to us, and so, we ought, therefore, to value it accordingly.

as long as you are still paying attention, I also recommend reading this piece by Rachel Anne McKinney

Some things you always wanted to know about CVs and weren’t afraid to ask

Justin asked me if he could cross-post this at Daily Nous, so, given the broader exposure, I want to emphasize that I am not an expert, this is really just reflective of one perspective on this. However, I generally think it is good to have more open discussion and advice about these sorts of implicit norms (especially when the norms are somewhat sketchy or admit of a lot of variation in the first place), so that people have a clearer sense of how to figure out what they can do without running afoul of them. Also, I did not do a survey of other advice posts or guidance that had already been written, before writing this, so I apologize in advance if I am duplicating things that have been said better by others, or other good perspectives, and would appreciate seeing links to any such pieces. It is probably most valuable for commenting to be concentrated in one place, so that disagreements are easier to spot. Please comment at the Daily Nous post.

At the start, I want to mention briefly not why you should listen to me, but how you should contextualize my advice: I’m an associate professor, so I’ve made and updated my share of CVs, I’ve done grad admissions many times, I’ve sat on a fair number of search committees, and I’m on a college-wide committee in which some philosophers’ (and non-philosophers’) CVs are reviewed by colleagues across many disciplines, and so I’ve seen a lot of CVs in a lot of different contexts, and I’ve heard a lot of opinions about CVs.

The very short answer to most questions about your CV is that it should be clear, accurate, and relevantly complete, and if it is, you don’t need to stress. Of course, the devil is in the details, and you’ll notice that this post is more than one short paragraph, but it seemed worth giving you some version of the “TL;DR” up front.

Very often, I see people asking questions about their CVs—is it okay to list this thing I did on my CV? Does this important thing I did go under research or service, or somewhere else? etc.—and one interesting feature of this is that the people I see asking are at all stages of their careers. I think this happens because one of the many things we don’t usually teach people how to do in our profession is construct a CV. That’s because constructing a CV isn’t doing philosophy, and we mostly like to focus on teaching people how to do philosophy (or sometimes the teaching part even drops out, and we just like to do philosophy). Also, for obvious reasons of recursion, the people doing the training often don’t really know how to teach people things like “how to make a CV” since they were only ever trained in how to do philosophy and, well, you see where this is going (I imagine that I am overgeneralizing a bit about the sociology of the discipline based on the parts I have been exposed to, and I am fortunate that we had some (extracurricular) training in my grad program from our diligent director of graduate studies about these things).

Sometimes we tell people to go look at a handful of examples and then make a CV that looks sort of like that. This isn’t an entirely horrible way for people to start working out some of what works and doesn’t for themselves (it’s a slight improvement on everyone deducing CV-ology from first principles). Basically it is a haphazard way for people to observe and internalize some existing CV norms (presuming they looked at a fortunate sample of CVs), but it’s not a great process for understanding what we are doing or why, or helping us answer questions like “what do I do if I have an unusual item to include”?

So I am going to offer a more general account of CVs, which can help answer the specific questions from above. People in the comments and on twitter will, hopefully, let us all know if my perspective is wildly off base, but you should take it with a healthy quantity of salt regardless. I am, after all, just one person. If this account is correct, it will, ultimately make answering the questions above both easier and harder: Often you can make a lot of different choices, depending on what impression you want people to take away from reading your CV. This is because beyond a handful of specific genre conventions, the primary constraints are: clarity, accuracy, relevant completeness.

My general account begins with this:

  1. a cv tells a story about your professional accomplishments
  2. but it can’t say everything
  3. you have to (get to?) organize the information on it
  4. you will (usually) be giving it to specific people (or groups of people)
  5. different audiences care about different information
  6. organizing information in different ways tells different stories about you
  7. what should be on it and how to organize it depends on who it is for and why they want it
  8. whatever else, your story needs to be accurate and relevantly complete

Genre Conventions and Making Information Easy To Find:

There are fewer hard-and-fast genre conventions than you’d think for CVs. Many things which seem like good candidates are actually just extremely sensible things to do for a very wide range of purposes you might have in making a CV. By genre conventions, I guess I mean things so widely established that you should think of violating them as something that would generally overwhelmingly flabbergast or dumbfound pretty much any reader. The easiest example of this is where to put your name and contact information. I’d find any CV that didn’t have that information as the first thing, front and center, utterly flabbergasting. I will discuss the others at the very end alongside “Serif/Sans Serif” questions.

A good reason this is an immutable genre convention is that there is no purpose and no audience for whom it would make any sense not to have the information “who does this CV belong to?” the easiest information for them to get from your CV (you probably even want your name to be in a footer or a header so that it’s easy for them to know it’s your CV no matter what page they are looking at). But this follows from a more general principle: audience attention is a scarce resource. Once you get past the realm of hard-and-fast conventions your choice of ordering impacts how likely someone is to see information, and that’s why it tells the reader how important you think it is (the same goes within sub-sections).

Beyond the very few immutable conventions, I think the remaining conventions are either a) specific to the purpose for which the CV is being used, or b) have more to do with issues of how easy or clear it is for the reader to find information or c) are largely better understood as being about what you want to communicate about yourself with the choices you make. Which is why it is actually hard to give clear rules that apply across the board for anyone on how to make a CV and lots of stuff is going to vary a bunch case-by-case, and maybe even for the same person depending on whether the CV is for a fellowship or a job application or just to put on their website so people can see what they’ve been up to.

On my proposal: once we are outside the world of immutable, hard-and-fast rules about where to always to put/find information on the CV, the way to know where you should put something is to ask yourself questions like:

  • “What places on my CV would the person/people I am giving it to expect to find it?”
  • “What would putting it in one of those places or the other suggest about me/my priorities?”

Similarly, the way to determine whether you should put something on your CV is to ask yourself questions like:

  • “Would the person/people I am giving my CV to be surprised/annoyed/disappointed that this information wasn’t included?”
  • “What would including this information suggest about me/my priorities?”

Similarly the way to answer questions about how to organize the information on your CV is to ask yourself questions like:

  • “Would the person/people I am giving my CV to have an easy time finding the information they want to know, if I group things in this way?”
  • “Will the person/people I am giving my CV to be able to easily tell the difference between times I was the main contributor and times I was not the main contributor, if I present the information this way?”
  • “What would presenting the information this way suggest about me/my priorities?”

That’s why I think the basic account can help you answer almost any question you might have about what to put on your CV, where it would go, and how to organize it. Let’s assume you have a comprehensive record somewhere of literally every professional thing you’ve ever done, neatly organized and sorted (that might be a useful thing to have, though I assume most of us don’t). You obviously don’t need to tell everyone you are giving a CV about everything on that list all the time. No one needs to hear about every reading group you attended or every time you guest lectured for a professor when you were their TA and so on. But: there might be times where some of that information is relevant to include, or valuable to find a way to include. Any CV you make is going to be some compressed presentation of that Comprehensive Record of Everything You’ve Done. It will omit some things, highlight others, make choices about how to group things together and label them, etc. If everything you do is very easy to pigeonhole, you will never have any questions about where to put things on a CV, because you can just steal someone else’s CV template and go wild. But what’s happened there is that a bunch of choices got made, and they may well be fine for you, but they got made. That CV tells a story. And probably, eventually, you’ll have something that doesn’t quite fit, or raises some questions.

Some questions:

A. Maybe you are early career or a grad student and you presented one paper four times, and two other papers one time. How should you list your presentations? The short answer is that you have options. You actually have more than two, but the two most straightforward are to list the events chronologically, which emphasizes the amount of conference activity you’ve had but risks de-emphasizing the variety in your focus, or you can list the papers as the major items, and put sub-heads on each for the times they have been presented. This way fore-fronts that you have three different papers that you’ve presented, but makes it less immediately obvious that you’ve presented seven times! Both ways are fine, they just highlight the information differently.

B. Maybe you had some papers published that were more public-facing and you also have a public-facing column on a blog. How do you list your public-facing work? Again, it depends! You can list all of your publications under “Research: Publications”, and then put the Blog under “Other Professional Activity”, or you can pull those out and have a separate “Public Philosophy” section of your CV. It seems like different recipients of the CV might respond differently to that depending on what the goal is (are you submitting for a job or fellowship aimed at public facing philosophy?). One note about this is that for clarity sake, if you have publications that aren’t being listed in Research: Publications”, and you think “someone may wonder why my papers aren’t all listed there!”, you could have a note (just one small italicized line under the section header) that says: “Public Philosophy papers are listed in section D”. Just subtly answer the question for them.

C. Maybe you have a paper under review and it is really good, but it hasn’t been accepted yet. Can you list it in the section labeled “Publications”? No. That section is for papers that are published or (in our field) past all of the relevant editorial barriers to publication (i.e. at least “forthcoming”). You can have a section labeled “Research”, which has subsections like “Publications” and “Works in Progress & Under Review” and you can list your works in progress and your works under review in that latter section (because that is accurate/not misleading). But there is a very high chance that you will rub people the wrong way by listing things that are under review among your publications (even if you disagree with me about whether it is inaccurate, I think you should defer to me on whether my view is sufficiently widely held).

D. Maybe some of your papers were invited and some were refereed (or some were both!). Do you list them together or separately or how to you indicate that? As with all of my answers, this is one of those things where it depends. If you are early career, people you are giving your CV to care a lot more about these distinctions, so it is important to make sure you make it easier for them to tell at a glance and don’t seem like you’re trying to sneak anything past them. You can make it super-duper obvious by separating them into different lists. Or you can keep them in one list and make sure there is very clear marking of which ones are “less” significant in the eyes of your audience, for easy discounting. Why do the latter? Looking back at question (A), maybe you want to show that you’ve been shifting from one area to another, and it’s easier to do that with the work all in one place than in two separate lists. But you still don’t want to look like you’re trying to pull a fast one. If you are later in your career where, the general process seems like it would be the same: ask yourself who is this for, and how much will they care, about this distinction, and what are you are saying presenting the information one way rather than another.

Serif vs. Sans Serif

There are lots of questions about CVs that this doesn’t answer: they turn on fully idiosyncratic and unpredictable features of the people reading them. That is, they have nothing to do with the purpose for which the CV is being evaluated or what they say about you, they have to do with whether the person reading the CVs objects to, e.g., certain types of fonts. It used to be about whether to staple or paperclip your CV. You cannot productively predict people’s preferences on this front. If someone is going to dislike your CV because you didn’t know their favorite font, or because you used the wrong sort of bullets to itemize lists or whatever, that wasn’t something you could do anything about, and no advice I could offer would have helped. I don’t think this happens all that often. If you want to know which fonts and formatting look nicest, you can either form your own personal judgments so that you like how your CV looks, or look into literature on font readability and such. The only thing I would say is very important is to make sure that whatever PDF is you produce is searchable, because some people will want to see if something is on the CV by using ctrl-F, and you might as well make their life easier.

I said I would come back to hard-and-fast CV genre conventions. I am having trouble thinking of a purpose for which you would submit an academic CV where the first few blocks of information following your name are not some arrangement of the following (if applicable, and I’m not even 100% sure about the third one): a) your relevant employment history (including at least start and end years), b) your relevant education history (including at least conferral years), c) your areas of focus/specialization/competence/teaching interest. The fact that this is a conditionally applicable, disjunctive list, some of whose members I am not entirely sure of, reflects something about the flexibility of CV formats, and yet, I want to stress: these are the things where when they are supposed to be present and they aren’t: the CV seems ill-formed (whereas, the things people frequently stress over, like, “can I list a talk that was canceled due to covid?” are the things with, to me, very easy answers like “yes, probably, depending on who it is for, but make sure it’s clear that it was canceled due to covid.”).

My very last note is that you will notice (if what I’ve said is right) you don’t really have a single correct snapshot CV at any given time. There are lots of different CVs that could be appropriate for you at a given time, depending on your specific purpose is and who it would be for. None of them should conflict with each other, because they are all constrained by accuracy. But they might emphasize different things. Maybe one would include your course history and reading groups, and on another that would just be clutter. This is only seems a weird way to talk because we normally act like there is a single thing—”your current CV”—and you just update it when you have something significant to add. And I think that’s one reason why can be so hard to answer some of the questions: they don’t have answers that make sense outside the context of specific things you would be using a CV for. Should you list your public-facing papers together with your academic work, or in a separate section? It depends who’s asking for your story.

Hume Studies Essay Prize Competition

Announcement Here: https://www.humesociety.org/ojs/index.php/hs/announcement/view/1

Not sure if this has been posted anywhere official, but it was sent out over Dan Garber’s mailing list, and there is no website to link to with an announcement so, I figured I would post here about it, and then link to this:

The Hume Society invites submissions for the first Hume Studies Essay Prize, to be awarded in 2022. The biennial competition is open to those ten or fewer years from the Ph.D., including those currently enrolled in a Ph.D. program. The winning paper will be published with acknowledgment in Hume Studies, and the prize author will receive $1,000.  

Hume Studies, the interdisciplinary journal of the Hume Society, publishes work on all aspects of Hume and his world. To be eligible for the first prize, papers must be submitted any time before and including August 1, 2021 (11:59 Eastern Daylight Savings time). To enter the competition, authors should submit their papers to the journal for publication at https://www.humesociety.org/ojs/index.php/hs/information/authors. They will be asked as a step in the submission process whether they qualify. Papers will undergo the regular anonymized referee review process and a separate anonymous review by a subset of members of the Editorial Board, who will decide the competition winner. Papers not selected for the award may still be accepted for publication. The editors can decide not to move submissions on to the Board review if referee reports indicate they would not be competitive. The Editorial Board reserves the right not to award a prize in any given competition.  

The first winning essay will appear next year in an updated April or November 2022 issue of Hume Studies. Please direct questions to forthcoming editors, Elizabeth Radcliffe (eradcliffe@wm.edu) or Mark Spencer (mspencer@brocku.ca). 

via MWSeminar@Princeton.edu

The Evidential Value of Bad Referee Reports

The following assumes that the referee report in question in fact misreads your paper. Often this is not the case, and the advice below will not apply. Other times, this advice will apply in a restricted or qualified form. And of course, your mileage may vary. Also, this advice is descended from advice helpfully given to me as a graduate student by Mark Schroeder.

The Prologue: You have sent your paper off to a journal and the fools, the damnable fools, did not recommend accepting your paper. If you are fortunate, you got referee reports, though it may not feel fortunate, as some of the comments seem like they did not even read your paper, or perhaps like they read another paper entirely. They certainly misunderstood what was going on in your paper. Ugh!

If you are like me, you will have many emotional reactions to this rejection. You may think it makes sense to barrel through those emotions by sending the paper off immediately to another journal, or you may become avoidant and focus on another paper, which does not have this frustration and feeling of insecurity attached. I don’t necessarily have have great advice on how to deal with the emotional element here, except that it is worth recognizing that you probably care a lot about the paper and the reactions to it, and your emotions are real, and important. What I have is advice on a stance that can sometimes be helpful to adopt when reading the referee reports, in order to get more out of them when they are tragically misguided.

The Problem: Referees are extremely non-ideal readers of your papers. They are often hurried, harried, or hostile. They cannot talk to you about their questions, or get clarification. They have been given instructions on what threshold to use when recommending acceptance (which may or may not have been clear, and which they may or may not have attended to, and which often induces them to look for problems which may not exist). They may be less expert on the topic than you would like, because the journal just asked the referees who would be better fits to read other papers quite recently (or for any of thirty other reasons). And they may just be grumpy/distracted while reading it for entirely unrelated reasons.

The False Dilemma: Some people seem to think there are only two options for how to read a bad referee report, and since neither is worth doing, by inference, they seem to think that you should not pay them any mind. Either (a), you take the report at face value, and consider each objection or concern as having prima facie merit or (b), you stew about the referee’s ulterior motives or speculate about why they had such hostility to your paper. Of course, (a) is rejected since the overwhelming evidence of your paper itself clearly makes the case against taking the substance of their objections seriously. And (b) is not worth spending your time on, because you have better things to do with your time: don’t let the haters live rent free in your head (this not only makes you landlord, but a bad landlord, so it is foolish on any accounting). There is, however, a third way.

The Third Way: As stated above, referees are readers, and since they documented their impressions of your paper, that means a referee report is some evidence about how your paper reads. Now, it is not comprehensive evidence, and it is not systematic, and it reflects one member from a potentially weird group of your potential readership. But it is evidence about how your paper reads nonetheless, and, oddly, it does have some virtues. Lots of people who might read your paper will share some of the relevant features of the above mentioned referee. Whether they are quickly skimming your paper, whether they are antecedently hostile to your view, whether they are being sloppy because they are in a hurry, whether they are grumpy because they are just having a terrible horrible, no good, very bad day: very few of us can expect our papers to mostly get ideal readers, most of the time. Also, it is a very good example of how people from the potential referee pool may respond to it. So I think there is some value that can be gained from learning what a hurried/harried/hostile reader got out of your paper. Note, that unlike option (a) in the above dilemma, this does not mean that we take the report at face value, but neither does it mean that we spend any time worrying about the exact motives, mindset, or malevolence of the referee.

Instead, treat this bad referee report as data. Say to yourself: “huh! it was easier than I expected for someone to misread my paper this way.” If it helps refer to them as someone hurried/harried/hostile/horrible. And rather than asking yourself questions like “Should I make the specific changes they recommend?” (you already know the answer is no) or “From hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee.” (this is not technically a question, but rather, a dying curse from Star Trek II and Moby Dick), instead ask: “What can I change about my paper to make it harder for H3-Referees to misread it this way?”

What Can I Change About My Paper to Make it Harder for H3-Referees to Misread It This Way?: This is a good question, and obviously depends a lot on the specific ways the paper is being misread. But I think there are three major categories of mistaken advice worth going over.

1) They want me to talk about X, but X has nothing to do with my paper.

2) They don’t think my point is interesting/major, but my point is interesting/major.

3) They think I am saying/defending Y, but I am not saying/defending Y.

As to item (1), I think this is the most common type of bad advice I’ve seen, and it is also the most dangerous because it is the easiest to accommodate and as a result, people frequently do, and it makes many papers much worse. It’s the result of a bad referee mistaking what your paper is about, or what some part of your paper is about, and so thinking that X is relevant. Now, again, it often comes down to the details. This could always just be because X is that referee’s hobby horse, or they tend to see X as relevant to everything. But some possible things that could be behind it other than this are that you are talking about whatever your paper is about in a way that makes it too easy for someone to get confused, especially if they are reading quickly. Your disadvantage, as an author, is that “the debate”, which pre-exists you, shapes a lot of people’s assumptions and associations, and can lead people to draw conclusions, especially if they aren’t being careful, from one thing you say. You say “counterfactuals” and they fill in all sorts of things. You say “laws of nature” they fill in other things. You put them in sentences near each other, they may assume they know exactly what you are talking about, even if they don’t read the other nearby sentences. Your advantage, as an author, is that you get to control the order you present the words in, what you say about those things, and you can put those words farther apart, or put “notably not related to David Lewis’s account” in bold or what have you. So, instead of adding a section about X, you ask yourself “what would lead someone to think X is relevant to my paper?” Again, maybe there isn’t something. Sometimes referees just project their own nonsense on your paper. But other times that lens is helpful for you to see that, while you knew X was irrelevant, someone skimming your paper might naturally expect section 2 to discuss X, because section 2 seems (when skimmed quickly) like it’s about something other than what it’s really about.

The remaining two points involve applying the same basic observation to slightly different problems. But there is one major important twist for (2): Lots of people never seem to know how to set the expectations correctly early on in their papers. I don’t know why this is, other than that lots of times we don’t really teach people how to write papers; we teach people how to write arguments, and then just assume that if you do that for the length of a paper, it’s a paper. But a paper length argument with an interesting conclusion is not the same thing as a paper whose introduction makes it clear why anyone would or should care about its conclusion. Part of the role of the introduction is expectation setting. Maybe all you are doing in the paper is showing that one way of defending an argument against View R doesn’t work. If you frame this the wrong way, you will get referee reports that tell you all about the fifty other ways of defending View R. You, of course, do not care about the fifty other ways of defending View R, because they were not the point of your paper. Your paper matters because lots of people defended View R in that way, and you want to show that it’s bad for them to not be able to! But somehow, you didn’t write the first page your paper, or the abstract, in such a way that the referee would feel silly listing those as problems with your paper. So, in a case like that, the framing issue is key. Maybe you said why this was crucial later in the paper? Maybe you forgot to explain why. Maybe you explained in detail but the referee missed/ignored it. Again, it’s also possible that there is nothing you can do to the paper to make this improvement. But what you should ask is: “how can I make it harder for a referee to write a report where they both a) paraphrase my description of what my paper is doing, and then b) also say that this is not a worthwhile thing to do?”

Paired with this is the situation where they misdescribe what you are doing, in which case, you need to ask: “how can I make it harder for them to mistake what I am doing?” You might think the relevant standard of clarity is something like “would a reasonable reader be able to understand what I am saying, if they wish to?” This is a great standard for cooperative communication among friends in some glorious hypothetical state of leisurely discourse. In academic journal articles, you want to employ a standard that is something more like, “how can I make it difficult for a recalcitrant reader to misinterpret me, when they are hurried/harried/hostile, having a bad day or distracted, and potentially bringing their own assumptions or baggage to the paper?” These are different standards. The former is like laying your meaning out in the middle of the yard for anyone who wants it to grab. The other is like placing thirty copies of your meaning around the reader, like so many rakes for them to step on, and ensuring that there is no path they can follow that does not end with your meaning hitting them square in the face.

This might sound like a lot of time and energy to put into bad referee reports, but what’s more accurate is that I’ve over-written the blog post a fair bit. The key idea is that you should use their bad report to identify where your manuscript was too easy to misread, and take that as a basis for revision, so that readers have a harder time mistaking what you are doing and why. This way, even the bad feedback can be useful feedback (though, it is not always useful feedback), and the changes you make improve your paper, rather than merely mollifying referees.

Advanced/masochistic authors can even sometimes simulate hostile referees for themselves before sending things off to save time (though this is not recommended for perfectionist/anxious authors).

My other blog has a very narrowly circumscribed purpose (using modern philosophers’ attempts to understand humanity to help me try to understand humanity), and a very broad intended audience (everyone), so this post is not appropriate to write there, because it is advice for professional philosophers on how to deal with bad referee reports. It is advice that I have given out several times, usually verbally or on twitter, and it seemed to make sense to put it all in one place, longform.

Practical Ethics Anecdote

I was told a story once by a philosopher I know, about a friend of theirs who was taking business ethics.

After the first day of the class, this business ethics student told their philosopher friend “today in class we learned the difference between right and wrong!”

“Oh, really? What is that?”

“What’s wrong” they replied, “is what’s in your short term interest, and what’s right is what’s in your long term interest.”

I think about that story a lot.

Believing What You Publish

Alexandra Plakias has an interesting piece, titled “Publishing Without Belief“, that I think I agree with in spirit, but not in the details.

Plakias examines some cases where a paper is published that the author doesn’t believe, and defends against charges of impermissibility.  Notably, she says:

In looking for the norm that PWB violates, we might begin with the thought that publication is a subspecies of assertion, and is therefore subject to the norms of assertion. Williamson (19962000) defends an account of knowledge as the norm of assertion; others have offered truth (Weiner 2005), justified belief and (the weakest of these) belief. But all of these are too strong to serve as norms of philosophical publishing.

And:

Furthermore if it is ‘platitudinous’ that ‘asserting something is … claiming that it is true’ (Wright 1992: 23), the link between assertion and truth is stronger than the link between philosophical publishing and truth ought to be: it should not be a platitudethat publication is a claim to truth.

The line of thinking Plakias rejects here is one that I am sympathetic to.  I think that we largely write papers in an assertoric mode, when we publish them we are taking steps to widely disseminate a set of our assertions, and I think that there is no difference in this sort of case between asserting “parthood is antisymmetric” and “it is true that parthood is antisymmetric”.  There are historical modes of publication that are not essentially assertoric (such as dialogues, meditations, etc.) but we are far less diverse in our genres and forms of writing than we once were, and so, most papers are best understood as a series of claims made by the author.

At this point it probably sounds like I am in strong disagreement with Plakias, but I don’t think that I am.  I think that having first order philosophical views is overrated, and I think people without such views can and should make contributions to the ongoing discussions in the field.  My position is that one should be asserting the “higher order” position to which they are actually committed.  For example, if one writes a paper defending expressivism about moral terms from the Frege-Geach problem, the paper should, I think, include sentences asserting things like “this response to the Frege-Geach problem overcomes the worry”.  I don’t think the person writing this paper should say “moral terms express non-cognitive attitudes, rather than beliefs” if that isn’t something they wish to assert.

Is this quibbling? I don’t think so.  We have a clear, dominant genre of philosophical writing. It is first person prose exposition in an assertoric mode.  If someone writes a paper in which the sentence “externalists about epistemology cannot answer the generality problem” and this isn’t part of a quote being attributed to someone else, or otherwise couched as not being asserted, I should be licensed to say “that author said that externalists about epistemology cannot answer the generality problem”.

So my stance is that you should believe what you publish, but that it is fine to publish “higher order” conclusions like x is worth investigating or y is not very promising as a response to z.

Graduate Dissertation Seminar / Structure and Reflections

This term, I have been teaching the Graduate Dissertation Seminar at UB for the first time.  It is a course designed by my colleague Neil Williams which aims to give students who are nearing the end of their coursework or who are at the ABD stage experience presenting their work, give them some feedback on the substance of their work, and—perhaps most importantly—give them feedback and instruction on their presentation skills.  While I tweaked some aspects of Neil’s course, most of the course structure is due directly to his design (my main tweak was to have APA-style presentations with commenters in the mix).  I am going to talk a bit about the structure of the class first, and then offer some reflections from this midway point of teaching it.

Course Structure:

In the class, we talk about a variety of issues that fall broadly under the heading of “professionalization”, and since a big part of being in the class is giving feedback to each other, I’ve been integrating discussions of our service roles in the profession as well.  Each student in the class has to do the each of the following discrete tasks during the term, in addition to attending the seminar and being an active participant in the discussion sessions after other students’ presentations:

  • One 45 minute paper presentation (ideally on material related to their planned dissertation topic)
  • One 25 minute APA-style presentation
  • Serve as a commenter on another student’s presentation
  • Two times during the term: write a referee report on another student’s longer paper

The initial scheduling of all the presentations and commenting and deadlines was a bit involved to sort out, but not all that painful.  The main things i had to try to make sure of were that people’s various tasks were spaced out reasonably and no student had all their tasks coming due at the same time.

For the time-tables, the short-paper must be sent to the commenter two weeks in advance of the week it will be presented, an the comments must be sent back one week in advance of the presentation.  This is more compressed than the time-tables we usually face for conferences, but not unreasonable for this exercise for our class.  Students presenting long papers have to distribute the long papers to the entire class the day before their presentation (in part to ensure that they are presenting a paper that exists in draft form, and not “winging it”), and referee reports are due to me one week after the paper has been distributed.  I don’t monitor the reports for accuracy of feedback or insight of criticisms or the like. I review them to ensure that students have followed the correct form of the referee report, conducted a good faith effort to write a report on the paper, and monitor for (presumably unintentional) problems with tone.  I pass those reports along, quasi-anonymized, to the author of the paper, with the instructions to not only take the feedback into account, but also to think about what the reports are doing that are more or less helpful to them as an author, so that when they are giving people feedback on work, they can craft their feedback in a way that is easier to take advantage of.

Each class meeting—after we address any logistics issues and make sure everyone is on the same page about upcoming deadlines—begins with the APA style presentation and comments and reply, followed by Q&A, and then feedback on their presentation. Then, we take a short break, and when we return, we have the longer “Job talk” style presentation, with Q&A, and then feedback.  Students must use a handout, (limited to one side of one page for APA-style presentation, allowing an optional second side for listing cases or for diagrams or quotes, and limited to two sides of one page for the longer presentation).  The time limits are strictly enforced (students are cut off, possibly mid-sentence, when the allotted time is reached). All students are expected to generally participate in Q&A, whether or not the topic of the paper is one they work on, or have antecedent interest in or familiarity with. This doesn’t mean they have to have a question every time for every paper, but, in general, everyone needs to do their part to make sure that no presentation encounters crickets during the Q&A session. Typically no follow-up questions are allowed.

After we conclude the presentation and discussion, we transition into feedback (on their handout, the structure of their presentation, their tone, their pacing, etc.). I offer my feedback first, before opening things up to their peers to provide feedback.  The watchword for this feedback is to “try to be Hufflepuff”.  Which is to say, keep in mind that getting feedback on a presentation one has just given in front of one’s peers is daunting and and nerve-wracking, and so, when you are criticizing someone in that situation, make sure you are speaking from a place of kindness and empathy.

Reflections on the Course So Far:

I am really happy with how the course has been going so far.  First off, I am learning a lot about what the students are working on, which is interesting in and of itself.  But more to the point of the course, I think getting students to think explicitly about some of these issues is really helpful for them.  I am often frustrated that the structure of graduate curricula is not simply reverse engineered from an enumeration of the skillsets our students will need to be deploying in their future employment.  For instance, if you built the graduate curriculum around the skills called for in the jobs we are preparing our students for, you would simply expect to see a much larger explicit focus on pedagogical training in graduate programs than we do in fact see on the whole.  You would expect to see at least some training in the skills required for doing a good job at the main sorts of service work we are expected to do (e.g. some explicit training in how to write a helpful referee report). And, you might expect to see some training in things like how to be effective at presenting your papers.  What makes a handout a useful complement to your talk, rather than a distraction from it. And so on.  So one thing I really like about this course, and am really happy with my department for adding it to our curriculum and with Neil for developing it the way he did, is that it just seems like the sort of thing that we ought to be doing for our students as part of their graduate educations

Some more pointed thoughts:

  • The fact that we have nine students working on pretty disparate topics was prima facie worrisome, but turns out to be a boon.  It is really, really, helpful to have an audience that includes people without much background on a topic, when you want to be giving someone feedback on how clearly they were able to cover the exposition of a debate or position. And while some presentation contexts will consist of mostly specialists (APA colloquia sessions and topical conferences tend to have audiences who are mostly already interested in the topic of the talk), lots of other contexts (job talks, regional conferences, grad conferences, etc.) often have pretty diverse audiences in terms of background and interests, and being able to pitch your talk to smart people who just aren’t familiar with the background of your talk is a really important skill.
  • Different sub-areas each seem to have their own set of hazards that people working in those areas need to be aware of.  For some areas, the material is very technical, and the risk is losing any non-technicians in the audience if you can’t ground your talk in something concrete pretty early on. For others, it is a distinctive set of jargon or vocabulary that needs to be unpacked for audiences that don’t have familiarity with it. For some it is alternative methodologies that need to be repackaged for audiences that don’t know how to understand them.  As noted, this class really helps draw out these things, since logic specialists are presenting to a room with historians, continental philosophers, aestheticians, ethicists, philosophers of science, etc. and vice versa.  The dissertation phase is often a phase where one principally interacts only with other specialists in their area, and can easily lose track of how to present their ideas to people outside that sub-discipline.
  • Talking to students about tone seems like something that is really important, and not done frequently enough.  People have a tendency to form snap judgments about people based on the tone in which they, say, ask a question at a conference, and more or less the same question asked one way can prompt someone to think “oh, that jerk has such a high opinion of themselves, and they think they know everything, ugh” while asked a different way would simply prompt the thought, “that was an interesting question, maybe I’ll follow up with them about it after the talk.”  So, I’ve been pointing out to students when, e.g. their referee report reads like they are writing comments for an undergraduate in their class, rather than providing feedback to a presumed peer.
  • The students have been pretty good on the whole at being Hufflepuff about their feedback to each other.  They often highlight what they thought was particularly well done in the presentations, rather than simply focusing on criticisms. I could probably stand to take some lessons from them on this.
  • One thing I haven’t been doing, but would like to do, is focusing on how to ask good questions during Q&A.  Ideally, I’d like to come up with some guidelines for what sorts of questions to ask during Q&A.  I know that I don’t like when questions seem to be about “point-scoring”, but this is something that I need to think more about before I have really worked out views on all this.  I do think it is important for people to appreciate the importance of constructive questions (which are going to be questions that share at least some key presuppositions of the person giving the talk), as opposed to simply questions that challenge the position of the paper, but this is something I need to think more about.
  • I am giving people a lot of feedback on these things, but its not like i got a lot of explicit training about this stuff. Nor do I think I am some sort of savant who just magically knows all of it.  So, do I know what I am talking about? Maybe? A bit? I mean, I have been thinking about these issues a lot, and I do encourage the students to take my feedback with a grain of salt, and balance it against the feedback they are getting from other students.  Mostly, I think getting the students to think about these issues is valuable, and I hope that the advice i am giving is useful above and beyond that, but I don’t think I have some perfect insights into all of these issues.

Lastly, here are some of the things that have come up a bunch that I am trying to instill into my students in this class:

Cardinal Sins for Presentations in Graduate Dissertation Seminar (partial list):

  1. Running over your allotted time. I think this is disrespectful to the audience, as it typically requires cutting into the Q&A, which is sort of like telling the audience that you don’t care about getting their feedback on your work, you just wanted them to listen to you talk.  No one will be upset about a good talk that ends a few minutes early, but a great talk that goes long could easily leave you with angry audience members.
  2. Reading your paper (rather than presenting your paper).  Reading a paper out loud so that it is easy to follow and engaging for the audience is a difficult skill that very few people have.  Most of us are far, far better at talking extemporaneously (even if it feels more comfortable to us to read).  While I don’t have a blanket condemnation of this practice in the wild, I do forbid it for the students’ presentations in this class, and think presenting rather than reading will serve most of them much better overall.
  3. Undermining your commenter (e.g. by omitting or correcting things that are addressed in the comments). This is disrespectful to the commenter, and contrary to the norms of presentations, but a surprising number of people in the profession don’t realize this, and think that if the point made in the comments is a good one, they should *correct* the paper when they present it.  Of course, then the commenter looks silly talking about an issue in the paper that doesn’t exist.  This is easy to avoid if you are reading your paper, because then you can just read the version you gave to the commenter. But if you present the paper rather than reading, it means you have to make a note to present in a way that ensures your commenter’s comments will still make sense.
  4. Not having a handout (this might be somewhat controversial).  If your talk is longer than five minutes, then, even people with very good memories will not be able to recall the beginning of your talk in sufficient detail when your talk is over.  Even if you are using a powerpoint, it is not helpful to the audience member who wants to compare the claim made on slide 4 and slide 15, because they can only see slide 4 again once they have already been called on to ask their question.  So, I think one should always remember that your handout is not just for following along during the talk, but for helping the audience remember how the beginning and middle of the talk proceeded, when they are thinking back on the talk.
  5. Cramming too much on your handout.  Distracts the audience, leads you to omit addressing things on the handout, and prevents the handout from doing a good job of conveying the relative importance of the things you are covering in your talk (which is signaled in part by which things were important enough to be included on the handout).

Two Pieces of Really General Advice:

  1. Begin your talk by stating the goals/objectives of the talk.  Lots of talks go off the rails simply because of mismatched understanding of what the speaker is up to.  The audience thinks the speaker is trying to show that a given view is untenable, the speaker just means to be showing that one argument for the view is unpersuasive (but happens to also think the view is untenable), this confusion bleeds into the talk and the Q&A, and so, instead of focusing on the speaker’s interesting challenge to the argument for that view, everything gets bogged down into a discussion of some other argument for that view.  That can be avoided if the speaker opens with explicitly telling the audience where the goalposts are being set, so that they audience knows how to determine if the speaker’s argument has been successful.
  2. Clearly demarcate your contributions. When you are entrenched in a debate, you are so familiar with which problems/solutions/etc. are “out there” in the literature, that you don’t always think to make explicit “this is the part that I came up with”, because your advisor or another specialist would spot it in an instant. But for any talk where your audience isn’t just specialists, it is really important that you signal to them which parts of your talk are you catching them up on a debate that was already happening, and which parts are your contributions to the debate.

An Open Letter to Neil deGrasse Tyson

Dear Dr. Tyson,

Like many philosophers, I was very disheartened by some of your recent remarks about the study of philosophy.  I don’t think your views about the worth of philosophy are especially unusual, but since you are one of the world’s foremost public intellectuals, and a committed champion of inquiry, I hope I can persuade you to rethink things a bit.  Because I don’t think valuing philosophical inquiry is at odds with valuing scientific inquiry.  Firstly, the whole idea of even treating them as distinct from each other is a fairly recent shift.  As an early modernist, the list of philosophers I study has pretty striking overlap with lists of early modern chemists, physicists, and biologists.  That’s not to say I think we were wrong to start distinguishing between the two forms of inquiry; it is just to point out that figures like Newton and Leibniz, were scientists, mathematicians and philosophers.  I would like to think that you and I should be, in some broad sense, partners against a rising tide of anti-intellectualism.

There’s a passage from John Stuart Mill that I love.  In a work laying out his picture of the scientific method, and outlining the proper approach to inquiry, he starts with a discussion of language.  And he feels the need to explain to the reader why he would begin that way.  So he defends himself by saying this:

It is so much the established practice of writers on logic to commence their treatises by a few general observations (in most cases, it is true, rather meagre) on Terms and their varieties, that it will, perhaps, scarcely be required from me in merely following the common usage, to be as particular in assigning my reasons, as it is usually expected those who deviate from it.

The practice, indeed, is recommended by considerations far too obvious to require a formal justification. Logic is a portion of the Art of Thinking: Language is evidently, and by the admission of all philosophers, one of the principal instruments or helps of thought; and any imperfection in the instrument, or in the mode of employing it, is confessedly liable, still more than in almost any other art, to confuse and impede the process, and destroy all ground of confidence in the result. For a mind not previously versed in the meaning and right use of the various kinds of words, to attempt the study of methods of philosophizing, would be as if some one should attempt to become an astronomical observer, having never learned to adjust the focal distance of his optical instruments so as to see distinctly.

It is almost as if John Stuart Mill knew that I might one day try to defend the value of focused philosophical investigation of words to an astrophysicist.  Just as an astronomer can be led into error by failing to appreciate the way their telescope works, inquirers in general, who think and reason through the medium of language, can be led into error by failing to appreciate the way that language works.  Now, I am not saying that every philosophical question about the workings of language or the meaning of ‘meaning’ is going to clarify inquiry in the same way that understanding the theory of optics helps someone know what their telescope is actually telling them, but I hope you can appreciate why philosophers would think that there are cases where it can and does help clarify inquiry.

So that was my all-too-brief sketch of how philosophy can help with scientific inquiry.  Of course, the far easier case to make for the value of philosophical inquiry is on the value side, rather than the inquiry side of the equation.  You care about raising public consciousness about science.  You believe that the developments of modern science have been a tremendous boon to humankind, and you think that the inquiry itself enriches those who engage in it.  Here are some philosophical questions prompted by all that: What determines whether some activity improves or enriches you?  What makes something a boon to humankind?  Why should you (or anyone) care about one outcome over another?  Or put more generally: which things in the world are fundamentally valuable, and worthy of pursuit?

The study of ethics or morality—inquiry into the nature of value—is a core area of philosophy, and has been since its inception.  And while scientific discoveries can reveal to us things like, how to build bridges, the methods for transplanting organs, or the psychological mechanisms of human persuasion, a practicing scientist implicitly takes stands on the normative questions of which bridges are worth building, which patients ought to get the organs that are in short supply, or which means of persuasion are morally permissible to use when trying to convince people of important truths.  I think these questions are worth asking, and I’m sure you do too.  My point isn’t that philosophers have all the answers to these questions, and so you should go ask them.  Rather, my point is that we’ve been asking these questions for a long time, and might have some insights on how you should go about trying to answer them.

As I said above, I’d love to talk more with you about the value of philosophical inquiry.

Best,

Lewis Powell

 

EDITED TO ADD:

The brief examples I offered in this letter only scrape the surface of the enormous range of topics and approaches that go on in philosophy.  I didn’t mean to be providing a snapshot of the discipline, but just to point out a couple of aspects of philosophy that seemed especially relevant to Dr. Tyson’s remarks.

 

EDITED TO ADD:

Dr. Tyson has responded to this letter in the comments below, directing those of us interested in his views on philosophy to view this exchange.

Young Philosophers Talk Series

I recently gave two talks for the Young Philosophers Series at SUNY Fredonia (or, more accurately, the “Philosophers who have been credentialed in the last six years or are about to be credentialed” Series).  One talk is intended to be an introductory talk presupposing no background, the other is a research oriented talk.  Here are the talks I gave:

Intro Talk: “Why Look to the Past: Historical Philosophy and the Virtue of Being Wrong”

Research Talk: “Adam Smith on Sympathy for the Deceased”

Having Views is Overrated

In this post, I am going to advocate for the position that having (first-order) philosophical views is overrated.  I am going to take for granted that philosophical inquiry involves the pursuit of knowledge and understanding.

There is a model of inquiry, which I think I remember being articulated by Robert Stalnaker, where we start with a figurative sack full of all the possibilities there are, and proceed by trying to empty the sack down to the single possibility that is actually the case.  This model is often described in terms of “locating” oneself in the space of possibilities, and progress in inquiry, on this model, is understood in terms of culling one’s options or ruling out possibilities.

Thinking about inquiry this way tends to suggest that our focus should be on the set of currently live options, and our strategy should be to seek out direct reasons to further narrow that set.  If the set includes rival possibilities A through Z, we should seek out a reason to exclude A from the set, or a reason to exclude B from the set, etc. and once we exclude A from the set, we are done with A: our focus will be on possibilities B through Z.  After all, if we were proceeding correctly in our attempts to winnow down possibilities, A is false.  Why waste our time thinking further about it?

I think that everything I am about to say is, strictly speaking, compatible with this model of inquiry itself.  That is, I don’t think that what I say will require us to jettison this model.  But, what I am going to say is not compatible with the “live option” focus that I just outlined as “suggested” by the model.  This is because I think the best chances for solid philosophical progress will involve rigorous focus on possibilities that are outside the live option set, as well as those within it.

One of the nicest side-effects of specializing in historical philosophy is the requirement that one spend a great deal of one’s time seeking out charitable and/or sympathetic readings of views that one would ordinarily be tempted to dismiss out of hand.  For me, this side-effect has so far been manifested most with respect to interpreting David Hume’s account of cognition and John Locke’s philosophy of language.  These are a pair of views that are routinely dismissed in contemporary discussions of those topics.  So, it is natural to ask why this would be a worthwhile endeavor.

Now, I want to be clear: it is definitely not that I harbor the secret hope that, for example, Hume’s theory of mind is actually correct.  This isn’t about thinking we removed possibilities from the sack prematurely.  Rather, it is that, more valuable than simply knowing that an option is to be culled is acquiring an understanding of why it is to be culled.  What is it that we need from a theory of X, that the culled theory can’t give us?  What features of the culled theory are preventing it from meeting that need?  What amendments or revisions to the theory would be sufficient to meet that need?

Now, David Hume’s theory of cognition is notorious for the sparsity of its resources.  The ambitions of Hume’s theory outstrip those resources to such a degree that it is entirely reasonable, prior to detailed investigation, to judge that Hume’s theory will obviously fall far short of its aims.  But, far from being a reason to dismiss Hume’s theory, this mismatch between ambitions and resources is precisely what makes Hume’s theory a promising target for inquiry. Or, at least, that is part of what I am hoping to argue in this post.

One way in which parsimony can be a theoretical virtue is this: simpler systems/theories are easier to investigate.  For example, if one proposes that all the variety of chemical interactions we observe can be explained by appeal to a single feature of the chemicals in question, which can take any of 3 values, it is far easier for us to exhaust the possibilities covered by such a theory than one which invokes 100 features, each of which can take any of 40 values.  Now antecedently, the former of those theories is far less likely to be right, but it is also far easier to learn about.  We will encounter problems with that theory far sooner, and we will be able to design experiments that could show the theory to be wrong more easily.

For example, Hume’s theory (from the Treatise) treats perceptual experience and cognition as being mental occurrences that are fundamentally of the same kind, and differing only with respect to their degree of “force and vivacity”.  This is a serious constraint on how Hume can attempt to account for the differing features of perceptual experience and cognition.  Which means we should be able to identify potential challenges for his view more easily, and find out which aspects of cognition that we’d like to have an account of Hume’s account is unable to satisfy.

Learning which challenges Hume’s account can’t meet will help us identify the minimal set of resources needed to render his account adequate.  Now, I’ve been writing as though the conditions of adequacy are somehow a given, or something we can take as granted.  But the point remains even if we defer settling that question as well.  What we learn is simply conditional:  If a theory of X needs to account for Y, then it needs to have such-and-such resources. Or, put another way: we learn claims about the consistency or inconsistency of different theses, rather than first order claims about topic X.

I think that learning such things can ground our interest in investigating theories, independent of our attitude towards their truth.  Investigation of Hume’s theory is instrumentally valuable for our ultimate goal of determining the correct theory of cognition.  It can teach us about the range of theories of cognition in relation to particular tasks that one might set out for a theory of cognition.

It is, of course, incidental that Hume is a historical figure.  Contemporary theories that one regards likely to be false can play this same role.  I have never found cognitivism about intention to be an appealing view, but it has a very nice relationship between its ambitions (to explain the norms of practical rationality) and it resources (to draw only on the norms of theoretical rationality).  To me, this means that we should expect to learn a great deal from investigating the view, irrespective of our attitude towards its truth.  In fact, the more skeptical one is about the view, the more they should expect investigations of the view to be informative about what work is really being done by the postulation of intention as a distinctively practical attitude.

Perhaps a briefer way to make my point is this:  One need not have first-order views to discover/produce philosophical positions worth investigating. Neither does one need to have first-order views in order to evaluate the success of those philosophical positions relative to specific aims.  For much of what needs to be done in the course of philosophical inquiry, then, one has no need for first-order views.

There is an interesting question about whether we can do as good of a job defending views that we don’t accept, but I will leave that for another post (to lay my cards on the table, though, I actually suspect that having first order views is, if anything, a hindrance to our capacity for sympathetic interpretation of the alternative positions).