A (Half-Assed) Plea for Half-Assedness

PEA Soup was founded as a place where people would try out new ideas, posting about an idea for a paper and not a completed, fully armored, paper. We don’t want to discourage discussion of completed work. Indeed, we have partnered with many great journals, whose recently published papers are commented on and discussed here at quite a sophisticated level. We love those discussions. But we miss and feel the need to especially encourage the more half-assed posts about papers that are still just a twinkle in the author’s eye.

It seems clear that three things help explain the drying up of the unguarded, exploratory posts that used to be the Soup’s bread and butter, if you will. First, Facebook happened. Now people informally try out ideas with their friends on Facebook and this, we fear, feels like a more low stakes way of testing the waters. Second, our friends (and our friends of friends) who have joined PEA Soup have aged and become more decrepit, er, we mean reputable. And perhaps, as a result, a little less adventurous and willing to try out publicly ideas that have not been vetted by those we let see our warts. For a while now we have resisted adding new contributors out of fear that there would be too much posting. We have now decided that that fear was misguided and will again be open to inviting new contributors. Third, Soup itself has perhaps become somewhat reputable and now feels like a more high-stakes venue to post on than it once did. Consequently, younger folks likely feel rather intimidated about posting what they view as less-than-stellar ideas or comments.

While the rise of Facebook has much to be said for it (just consider all the adorable pix of Shoe’s grandkids!), we see a downside as well. Many philosophers are not on Facebook and so discussions there are missed by many people who would otherwise be interested in thinking along with one. This seems to us especially troubling when general issues about the profession, such as the recent discussions about the PGR, take place primarily out of earshot of most of the profession.

There are too few venues where we can quickly get feedback from the profession at large of our nascent ideas. Such feedback can be vital—saving us months of toil working on a hopeless idea or pointing us to key literature or shaping our paper early on so as to deal with key concerns. We philosophers are a bit reluctant to expose our ideas to the well honed critical skillz of our fellows before we are sure the howlers are mostly eliminated. But this seems to us something to bemoan and try to overcome. Something akin to an unwillingness to show the doctor where it hurts.

We would like PEA Soup to once again be part of the solution to this problem. We strongly encourage people to post about ideas they have in areas where they have not yet read widely, or they are unsure how promising some new idea is, or they have not yet thought through all the endless ramifications of their idea. Let us hear your provocative idea before it is hedged beyond all recognition. Let us hear that harebrained thought experiment you thought up over beers last weekend. Let us hear that cool idea you shelved because you didn’t have the time to survey all the relevant literature. Let us celebrate the kind-of-thought-through, the considered-sort-of-closely, the this-could-be-good-maybe. Let us celebrate the half-assed!

14 Replies to “A (Half-Assed) Plea for Half-Assedness

  1. Okay, I’m game. I’ve got lots of half baked ideas. But there are other issues with sharing “thoughts that might become papers” in this venue. First, I found it hard to keep up with all the smart commentators. It was a bit overwhelming. Second, and this isn’t so much my worry, but I know some junior people have it, there’s someone else running with your half baked idea. It’s just a thought so you don’t really have enough invested to lay claim to it. (Kind of like the Lockean theory of intellectual property.)
    But I’ll sort through the drawer of half baked ideas and share one in the next week.

  2. I use Facebook as a public sketch pad for ideas and because of the subject matter I work with it’s extremely useful. Then post whatever I want to take further in my blog. People follow me there.
    Contemporary philosophy is not exactly a treasure trove of new ideas. And other disciplines have converted most ism’s into linguistic diminutives. Which is one of the reasons it’s hard to run a philosophy blog. And why departmental funding for the discipline
    is going the way of theological departments.
    So here is my working thesis: the scientific method, including empiricism, instrumentalist, and operationalism, is not specific to the hard sciences. Just the opposite: the success of that method lies entirely in its requirement that we speak truthfully (performatively) and all other utterances are obscurantist deceptions.
    Now I hardly think such an argument would be met with welcome.
    And this is my concern. That such reformation in the discipline that would resurrect it from further decline is prevented by incentives not to reform the discipline.
    (I am serious, despite appearances. 🙂 )

  3. “Many philosophers are not on Facebook and so discussions there are missed by many people who would otherwise be interested in thinking along with one.”
    It seems though, that a greater number of philosophers don’t keep track of what’s being posted on different blogs spread throughout the internet.

  4. Mike Otsuka: True. But it is not really a question of either/or (as your saying this both on Facebook and on PEA Soup highlights!) Also, stuff on Facebook is unavailable to many (admittedly, keeping their Facebook status fixed) while the blog posts are available to all and anyone could call X or Y’s attention to a post on a topic of their interest and they could then comment on it. To me, stuff on blogs seems more available to everyone than stuff on Facebook. But again, admittedly, this will be a somewhat complicated sense of “available” given that anyone can get on Facebook. Perhaps the thought is that one should not need to get on Facebook, there are security worries etc., to be able to be exposed to and comment on other people’s pre-published work.

  5. I think that it’s more realistic to expect some people to share half-assed ideas here than others. Here, you have to assume that your posts are going to be read by lots of people whom you don’t know personally. If you’re a full professor in a Ph.D. program and you post a clunker of an idea on here then you can probably feel pretty confident that people whom you don’t know won’t conclude that that’s the best you can do. They’ve probably read your published work, and even if not then they’ll still give you the benefit of the doubt based on your position. If you’re in a less prominent position, though, then you’re probably going to be more reticent about posting ideas that you haven’t thought through somewhat carefully. The probability that someone’s going to decide that that’s who you are as a philosopher is much higher.

  6. I wish I had stressed this more relaxed, low-stakes attitude towards commenting on posts as well. I understand the concerns Dale mentions above and do not think them unreasonable. But such concerns keep grad students from talking in class too and I wish we could find a way to fight the perception that everything is going on people’s permanent record and create more spaces where we get to have a relaxed exchange of ideas without feeling like we put our career in danger by saying something we have not thought about for weeks. Clearly it is not good for philosophy if we all, or many of us, have this attitude. What might be done to lower the stakes?

  7. Hi David,
    I’m sympathetic with these concerns–I miss the wild west early days of the blog, too. One idea I’ve always liked, in large part to “fight the perception [and reality!] that everything is going on people’s permanent record,” especially given Dale’s insight about career threat, is to make it explicit PEA Soup policy that contributors can, at their discretion, delete old posts from the archive. (I know that this won’t get around Web cache-ing, but there are barriers to tracking down cached pages.)
    This would be harder to implement with comments than with posts, of course, but anything that would help could be tried piecemeal.
    A variation on this would be to allow deletions only after some set time has passed–six months, three years, whatever.
    Of course, the downside is that we’d not be able to easily go back and revisit old, productive conversations. But then, we can’t do that with old-fashioned verbal conversations, either. So if the goal is to restore the more informal, conversational feel to the blog, that might be an acceptable cost. More generally, lowering the stakes, as you put it, probably is going to mean changing some features somewhere.

  8. Some of the most read and taught dialogues of Plato read like super fun discussions of half-baked paper ideas, replete with belligerent argument trolls. I think this would be a great return to what blogging provides. Sometimes you do, but you don’t always get the dynamic quality of philosophy in person at conferences or in seminars, much less in finished essays, that contributes to collaborated creativity. For a few reasons — professional progress chief among them — people are sometimes reluctant actually to test their ideas with people who are not already familiar to them. But I think there are rewards to be had for doing that.

  9. It looks like Academia.edu may have a new feature that allows someone to start a discussion and invite specific participants. I’m not sure I have this right… I was invited to and joined some sort of group on there today, but I can’t get the blasted page to load correctly and so I’m not sure what I’ve gotten myself into. Something like that may be the best model for creating a “safe space” online in which anyone could feel secure in trying out new ideas, though. It’s one thing to say to graduate students that the seminar room is a safe space; it’s another to say that a blog that can be read by anyone in the philosophical world is. But I don’t mean to argue against David’s post; there’s no reason not to encourage people who are so inclined to use the blog in the way that he suggests. And Josh’s proposal would help matters for those who are more reticent.

  10. Allowing anonymous posts with the potential for the poster to later reveal their identity might solve this problem. As a grad student, I would feel much more confident throwing out an idea I was toying with if I could hide my name. While it strikes me as relatively unlikely that a dimwitted post could ultimately hamper my ability to acquire a position in the future, the chance of it doing so is significant enough to discourage my posting regularly. Perhaps I should instead reason that, given the current scarcity of good jobs, the potential benefits of a post being remembered (for good reasons) are significant enough to warrant my occcasional posting. This reasoning combined with the fear of dimwitted posts is widespread and significant enough that grad students at my university have created a PEA Soup reading group, where we toss about our ideas amongst ourselves before tossing them to the wolves. But, even so, it is with trepidation that I hit post. If I could post anonymously, with the ability to eventually change the post from anonymous to otherwise (if the idea is not deemed crazy by other posters!), I would feel much more confident.
    Of course, there are worries with allowing anonymous posts. Perhaps (admittedly, I don’t know about the feasibility of this suggestion) some of these could be mitigated if anonymous posts were only permitted by people with verified university email addreses, or if there was special membership for verified graduate students that allowed us to post anonymously.

  11. As expected, our half-assed post yielded full-assed responses. Wait, no-assed responses? Uh, good responses. Thanks to everyone for your suggestions. Just a couple of thoughts in response to Josh and Dallas.
    First, Sobel and I have great, perhaps maximal, discretion with the blog. We can delete and alter posts and comments to our heart’s content. We have exercised this power very infrequently, occasionally deleting dotty comments and spam, as well as altering posts to break them up over the fold or delay them for a day or two so as not to crowd out some other substantive post. So we are obviously in a position to delete comments (or posts) authors might want deleted. We have not advertised this ability, but people are certainly welcome to make a case for such deletion (of their own work) if they want. (Authors of posts also have power to delete their previous posts.) So perhaps consider this a manual, piecemeal method for effecting Josh’s thought.
    And this relates to Dallas’s remarks. We have a few times in the past considered allowing anonymous comments, and we have rejected it. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about PEA Soup is that, for all the content published over 10 years now (and with over 2,000,000 hits), the tone has remained, with very few exceptions, pleasant, welcoming, and supportive. I think this is due in large part to our policy strongly discouraging anonymous comments, which can obviously gin up the drunken courage in people to post nasty remarks. We have largely avoided that scene, and we’d like to continue doing so. Of course, as Dallas notes, that policy may also shake the confidence of people with noble intentions, preventing them from commenting too. This is the relevant trade-off, but as Sobel notes, it is a problem in many other more official arenas as well, and it is something we should generally try to overcome. It is of course impossible to request of readers that they not remember the names of those who have posted lame comments. But for my own part (the purest of anecdotal evidence), I tend to remember only those non-regulars who consistently make strong, insightful points, and I suspect this is true of others as well. So I would (tentatively) suggest that the risk/reward ratio favors commenting over not.

  12. Dave, I’m glad to hear that you and Sobel will license contributors to use their technical power to delete their posts and subsequent threads. I hope that loosens things up a bit in the spirit of the post!

  13. My own contributions to this blog have diminished over the years not because of anxiety about my ideas being half-assed but because posting material assumes an obligation to engage with commenters — and I simply don’t have the time to do so. On a few occasions in the past, the comments accumulated so rapidly that I could not keep up. I too like the ‘casualness’ of blogs, but as time has gone on, I’ve realized that academic blogging is far easier for those with light teaching loads, support for their research, other forms of support, etc. So long as blogging is a kind of academic leisure, it will better serve the interests of those with more academic leisure time.

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