Navel-Gazing on the Occasion of PEA Soup’s 15th Anniversary!

Amazingly, our cute little blog PEA Soup turns 15 today. On June 15, 2004, four tiny and unprepossessing philosophers flicked the site onto an unsuspecting world. This was our “Welcome” message:

Thanks for visiting PEA Soup, a blog dedicated to philosophy, ethics, and academia (the focus being on ethics). The principals involved are Dan Boisvert (California State University, Bakersfield), Josh Glasgow (Occidental College), Dave Shoemaker (Bowling Green State University), and myself, Doug Portmore (California State University, Northridge). Along with issues in moral philosophy (including metaethics, normative ethics, and applied ethics), we’ll address ethical issues relating to academia and the philosophical profession. Please check back periodically, as we expect to post new entries on a regular basis.

Doug Portmore, seen here about to beat up a defenseless laptop.

Our first official contentual post appeared later that day by Doug Portmore as well, the first of three parts on “Consequentializing.” Here is what Doug recalls about it:

[M]y most vivid memory is getting schooled by Jamie Dreier and Campbell Brown with regards to my three-part series on consequentializing in June of 2004, which is when the blog started. I think that this helped set the tone for the blog for years to come. PEA Soup was a place for serious philosophy, indeed. It certainly helped to make me a better philosopher, though it was nerve-wracking at times.

(Doug later went on to fame and glory by utterly rejecting the hard-heartededness of consequentialism in favor of the snug embrace of Kantian deontology. Our thoughts and prayers go out to him.)

Dan Boisvert, seen here supplementing his PEA Soup income as a wrestling coach.

Dan Boisvert (pronounced totally counterintuitively and incorrectly in my opinion as “Bwah-vai”) recalls those early “Dreier-cleaner” exchanges (of which we were all terrified) as follows:

My favorite philosophical memories as a whole were the incredibly good philosophical discussions. That was definitely something immeasurably valuable for me, since I came from a PhD program that did not at the time specialize specifically in metaethics. All of sudden Dreier was commenting on my posts in very Dreier-like ways: “Hmmm,” “Uh, no.”  Yikes!

Josh Glasgow, evidently pleased with himself, likely beyond reason.

A quick version of our Origin Story: The four of us had become fast friends in SoCal of the early “oughts,” listening to the best of the Eagles in the back of a beat-up Chevy truck, panhandling for gold at the Beverly Center, and letting our surfing shorts grow fungi. Doug and I were colleagues at CSU-Northridge, and Dan and Josh had been colleagues at CSU-Bakersfield. Josh had been a grad student at Memphis a few years earlier when I was there as a VAP, so we were able to bridge the vast and hot Northridge/Bakersfield gulf and get together to form a reading group in 2000. Dan came in a year or two later. After our groups, we’d get together for riotous poker games. One of these “crazy old nights,” Josh broached the subject of starting an ethics blog. It was in the early wild west days of blogs, and there were hardly any philosophy blogs (I may be wrong, but I remember only Experimental Philosophy and Flickers of Freedom as philosophical-content blogs at the time). Josh, always peering ahead into the horizon, saw the future, and the future was apparently in posts about the embedding objection.  Here’s what Josh says about those days:

When I think about the early days of PEA Soup, I think about how it emerged, starting with the CSUN ethics reading group that I, and then Dan, joined.  In hindsight it seems like a pretty seamless transition from the reading group to continued discussion and debate over dinner (and cards) to, eventually, the blog.  With the philosophical blogosphere being born right around the same time, it was nerve-wracking but still made a ton of sense to try to move those conversations on line and expand the circle of participants.  Not coincidentally, the casual early years of the blog mirrored casual conversation with colleagues.  And it was pivotal for my growth as a new PhD to have that friendship and professional community.  And it has been amazing to see the community evolve and the blog mature.

So we mustered up $150 and started up our little site on Typepad, contacting everyone in our email contacts to alert them to what was about to occur and shake the discipline to its core. At the beginning, it was just the four of us posting our own ideas, but we were able to develop a crew of commentators that really made the blog sharp, a place for genuine (and fun!) philosophical discussion. And early on Brad Hooker actually responded to one of our posts!

But we also quickly realized that running a blog with serious intellectual exchanges like this was going to be very tough, especially given that the other three weren’t that smart. (Actually, I was the first to run out of ideas by a mile, after 3 posts, I think; the others were the true and brilliant Energizer bunnies in the early days.) And so we invited some of our commentators to join as official contributors to the blog, and away it went. (The first to join were, as I recall, Michael Cholbi and Troy Jollimore. Jamie Dreier had things to do.)

On those early posts, Dan says:

My strangest memory was being contacted by a publisher asking if I would consent to including in an upcoming “reader” for high school students my post in which I tried to show the difficulties of coherently arguing for the impermissibility of steroid use by professional athletes. Instantly and utterly terrified that kids would think I was giving them cover to use steroids themselves, I said ‘No!’ in less than half a second.

The early days also saw the beginning of our absolutely hilarious PEA and Soup jokes, which never, ever grow stale or moldy. Contributors were known as “PEA Brains,” we often went “Soup to Nuts,” and many were invited to “partake of the Soup,” or were told, after making a bad point, “No more Soup for you!!” Perhaps these are the source of my greatest pride.

We were our own technical staff in those days, and it didn’t often go well. We eventually found ourselves relying more and more on Dan, who had at least some of the skills the rest of us lacked, and he also had the patience to deal with the early Typepad platform.

I’m not sure they are my favorite memories, but I very well remember, with no website experience, trying to figure out how to do certain things in the sidebars, like embed links to some of our contributors’ books, and to figure out some sort of template that would look like … well, I wasn’t sure what it was supposed to look like, but was at least supposed to be in some way relevant to PEA Soup. Clearly didn’t succeed. 🙂

Au contraire, mon frere! It’s that look on the landing page that I think most people still associate with PEA Soup, and that was almost all Dan the Man’s doing!

In 2008, Soup joined forces with Ethics to host discussions of brand-new articles in the journal that were also made open access . We considered this a real coup, and we’ve been partnered with Ethics ever since, hosting four high-powered discussions per year, with the best of the best kicking them off with a critical precis. We have since expanded our partnerships to include nearly all of the major specialty journals and OUP series in moral and political philosophy, and we have an outstanding crew of dedicated associated editors for those various partnerships.

The original PEA Soup Editors, from left to right: Josh Glasgow, Dan Boisvert, David Shoemaker, and Doug Portmore

In 2011 or so, the original four — The Fantastic Four, as you are surely tempted to call us — got a bit overwhelmed with our own work. We also were getting discouraged at the lack of original posts, also noting how our formerly large numbers of commenters were dropping. This was a shaky time for blogs generally, and several philosophy blogs fell by the wayside, having become either dead zones or simply locations for conference announcements. The four of us felt real fatigue as well, but we didn’t want the Soup to get cold or tossed out, so we asked one of our leading contributors and all-around bon vivant David Sobel to take over the reins. He agreed to do so on only one condition: That I remain as co-editor with him and, more importantly, as the blog’s eye candy. Who could resist such honest flattery? Sobel and I had been colleagues at Bowling Green State University for 4 years (he actually got me hired there), so we knew each other’s strengths and weaknesses well (or, in Sobel’s case, his weaknesses and weaker weaknesses).

David Sobel, seen here in his dog Ellie’s haunted eyes
[Seriously, though, just this once: I’ve never known a better philosophical conversationalist and companion than my old pal Sobel, and I was nervous as hell that I’d just embarrass him. Given that that has happened repeatedly, he must simply not care. Which is embarrassing.]

Sobel had this memory to share:

I’m the new guy at Soup. It was up and running and great before I started co-editing it with Shoe in 2012. I’m really happy that Soup has always been and remains a space for serious philosophical discussion and has not turned into a place for posturing and yelling. Back in the day people would seriously just try out an idea they had recently thought of and generate a serious discussion. Now we fear Soup has become perceived as more serious and people don’t let their unguarded ideas fly. Soup has changed into a place where well-worked out ideas are presented. Nothing wrong with that, but we miss the carefree aspect that it used to also have. We tried to keep the thing less serious. One of my favorite posts Shoe and I worked on together was called something like “In Defense of Half-Assedness” where we seriously advocated for people to post their half-baked ideas on Soup.

That was indeed fun. But it was increasingly shouting into the wind. The winds of change. Rippling through our Soupy blog. Changing our world windily. (Do you get the imagery? Isn’t it a wonder I haven’t yet been scooped up by Simon & Schuster?) Sobel and I tried various things to spice up the Soup (boom!!!) over a few years thereafter, but nothing much caught on. So we finally decided to let it all go: the money, the fame, the 73 posts on the embedding objection. And in this post from December 2015, we tapped out.

Fortunately, few believed us, and in spring 2016, we worked out a deal with Andy Cullison, the director of the Janet Prindle Institute for Ethics, to continue the blog, but migrate it to a new (and much better) platform, get a ton of new tech support, and have ways of advertising and spreading the word we’d never thought possible. We launched in September 2016, and we haven’t looked back.

Some notes from over the last three years. First, the contentful posts have increased 10-fold, and there have been some real doozies. The Prindle Institute hands out over $5,000 annually in prizes for people contributing excellent content to the blog. We continue to be the best on-line reading and discussion zone for genuine and sophisticated moral and political philosophy, and I could not be more proud of helping to keep that tradition alive.

Second, while the comments haven’t really increased, our readership has gone way up. So we have come to terms with the fact that this has become more a site just for really good philosophy, and less a site to play and try out the half-assed ideas and kick in your two cents. That’s a loss; but there are a lot of compensating benefits (like really great philosophy!).

Third, what comments we get have always been — and remain to this day — a model for the philosophical community, a sharp and exhilarating forum for nevertheless respectful philosophical exchange. We have no doubt why this has been accomplished: we don’t allow anonymous or pseudonymous comments, simple as that. If you want to make a point, you have to own it. So the trolls don’t bother. Except for spam, we haven’t had to moderate a comment in years.

All of the founders and editors on this blog over the years have expressed their fondness for having worked with one another, and I’m grateful to them for sharing their memories of the early years with us. We had some really great times. On this general point, I’ll let Sobel have the penultimate word:

But surely my favorite thing about Soup has been working with Shoe (or more accurately, shirking work until Shoe will do it). I really like that we have similar hopes for what Soup might be, that both of us are totally happy to run with the other person’s ideas, and that Shoe bites back hard on his anger each time I am absurdly slow to catch on to even the most minor technical adjustment needed. I like that we have never taken Soup too seriously yet always thought it had potential, and been serious about nurturing that potential, to be an important contributor to the philosophical landscape.

I’ve had the great good fortune to be associated with Soup from its very humble beginnings 15 years ago. Working with Dan, Josh, and Doug in those days was a joyous and exhilarating affair, and I’ll be ever grateful to them for the opportunity and the friendship. And now, having worked with Sobel on this ongoing project for the last 7 years, my gratitude to them has only increased, as I didn’t realize how good I used to have it.

[Alright, one second totally serious note: Sobel is awesome, a genius with a quip, and a moral and political sensibility and capacity second to none in this business. Working with him has been a total joy, and I’m grateful to have had the opportunity.]

Thanks for sticking with this rambling set of memories all the way to the end. What is your problem? Don’t you have better things to do?

5 Replies to “Navel-Gazing on the Occasion of PEA Soup’s 15th Anniversary!

  1. I’ve know Dan Boisvert since he was a grad student in 98-99, and I only now realize how his last name is to be pronounced. If that were the only good to have come from this blog, it would be enough.

  2. When I was in grad school, I was one of the only people into contemporary metaethics and normative ethics in my program and the soup was an intellectual lifeline – and welcome temptation to procrastination too! Thanks so much for starting it. I also miss the freewheeling discussions, but its good that the soup has evolved to survive in these more competitive, professionalized times.

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