The Academic Battery Cage

The purpose of this article is to record a couple of paragraphs by Mary Midgley about academia today and its judging of people according to numbers of papers published. I have become something of a fan of Midgley. Her field is philosophy, though I think her complaint applies to mathematics or anything else:

I have myself been exceptionally lucky here in having the chance to work in this area during a long and disorganized life, before the present battery-egg system of academic production was brought in. Future historians will surely find it hard to believe that this system was actually accepted in practice—that, in this highly sophisticated age, academic work was assessed essentially in quantitative terms, by number of publications and sometimes even by number of pages published.

The point is not just that this arrangement encourages industrious mediocrity. It is that anyone, however gifted and original, who has to keep publishing at this rate is forced to choose small topics—usually negative ones—and to treat them at disproportionate length. Quality is indeed supposed to be kept up by requiring publication in “reputable journals.” But the sheer mass of print flooding out is such that most of it cannot hope to find readers anyway. Nobody has time for such endless reading, even if it were likely to be useful. Many journals are therefore bound to be merely reputable cold-stores for eggs that everybody knows will never be eaten.

One might say, in defense of The System, that at least paper counts are objective and are thus better than nothing as a way to prevent nepotism or cronyism. I have no clear alternative to propose for a country like Turkey, where there are rumors that the ruling party wants to eliminate the civil service examination, to be able to serve its own purposes (which in their rhetoric they will identify with the country’s good).

Mary Midgley, by Gary Calton for the Observer, Sunday 23 March 2014

Mary Midgley, by Gary Calton for the Observer, Sunday 23 March 2014

Born in 1919, Mary Midgley was one of several women in philosophy at Oxford after World War Two, and according to a letter by her in the Guardian for Thursday 28 November 2013,

the reason was indeed that there were fewer men about then. The trouble is not, of course, men as such—men have done good enough philosophy in the past. What is wrong is a particular style of philosophising that results from encouraging a lot of clever young men to compete in winning arguments. These people then quickly build up a set of games out of simple oppositions and elaborate them until, in the end, nobody else can see what they are talking about … By contrast, in those wartime classes—which were small—men (conscientious objectors etc) were present as well as women, but they weren’t keen on arguing.

It was clear that we were all more interested in understanding this deeply puzzling world than in putting each other down. That was how Elizabeth Anscombe, Philippa Foot, Iris Murdoch, Mary Warnock and I, in our various ways, all came to think out alternatives to the brash, unreal style of philosophising—based essentially on logical positivism—that was current at the time.

Also at Oxford, Collingwood worked outside this current of positivism; but he was thirty years older than Midgley, and died when she was 23.

Something I have learned to notice from Midgley is that nature is not an endless struggle for survival. Here for example is something she says in Evolution as a Religion (revised edition, Routledge, 2002; page 139):

But the particular mistake of treating all animal life as a matter of individual cut-throat competition was one which it was out of the question for Darwin to make, because he was a serious, full-time naturalist. He knew a great deal about the life of (for instance) birds, about parental care, warning cries and loyalty to the family and flock. ‘The social instincts’ were a central interest of his. In his mind they were always present in proper balance against the waste and cruelty of natural life.

In an overbuilt city like Istanbul, one can still see a lot of birds, as I reported in “The Swift.” When an Istanbul seagull finds a morsel, the bird must sometimes be wary, lest another gull snatch the morsel away. Usually though, birds are just sitting or soaring, with no obvious care in the world. Here again is Midley (op. cit., page 3):

Imagination, which guides thought, is directed by our attitudes. For instance, predatory and competitive motives tend to produce a picture dominated by competition and predation – one in which these elements do not only play their part, as they did for Darwin, but are arbitrarily and dogmatically isolated as sole rulers. Thus, in a familiar distortion which will concern us repeatedly, the sociobiologist M. T. Ghiselin flatly declares:

The evolution of society fits the Darwinian paradigm in its most individualistic form. The economy of nature is competitive from beginning to end. Understand that economy, and how it works, and the underlying reasons for social phenomena are manifest. They are the means by which one organism gains some advantage to the detriment of another. No hint of genuine charity ameliorates our vision of society, once sentimentalism has been laid aside. What passes for co-operation turns out to be a mixture of opportunism and exploitation …

As we shall see, this claim is essentially pure fantasy, not only unsupported by the empirical facts which are supposed to be its grounds, but actually contrary to them, such as they are …

If you say that the gulls just sitting on the roof that I see from my window are nonetheless in some kind of competition, this may reflect your own ideology more than anything else.

I added the quotations from Evolution as a Religion on November 16, 2019; apparently I had not felt like looking them up when first writing this post. Concerning the civil service exam—which was apparently not eliminated—the link was to Today’s Zaman, which was a Gülenist paper and no longer exists.

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