When Blogging Makes a Fine Albatross Necklace, Composing, 19/07/2013

Not every experiment works. Not every idea pans out. Sometimes an inventive thought is a dead end. That’s basically how I feel after getting some feedback from yesterday’s post. 

I made George Zimmerman a central focus of an idea I had about the importance of empathy in moral philosophy. The general philosophical goal of that post was to express my feeling, after several years working in moral philosophy, that matters like empathy don’t always get a fair shake in many of its major theoretical camps. And I briefly wondered what kind of principles a moral philosophy for whom empathy and remorse was paramount would produce. 

But I got burned. I had a dedicated follower of the Zimmerman trial call me out on my oversimplifications, stereotypes of Zimmerman himself, mistakes in analysis of the court’s judgment, and presumptions about Zimmerman’s thoughts. I had a medical doctor tell me that if he wasn’t able to tune down his remorse when he loses patients, he’d collapse and be unable to do his genuinely beneficial work. This last point is an especially egregious ball-drop for me, because I've taught medical ethics on and off since 2010, but I didn't think of this angle when I was just thinking in the context of street crime and state-administered executions.

I wrote a bad post. I departed from the facts of a real-world case in a way that I thought would be philosophically interesting, but wasn’t. I thought of an idea that I myself don’t actually have any time to pursue in detail. It was a post that discussed part of how I’ve engaged with moral philosophy over the last few years. I chose a notable example that I had been paying attention to in my real life, but used it in such a way that I did a disservice to the facts of a very sensitive matter.

It’s dangerous for me to put these little thoughts, semi-random conjectures, and ideas I come up with in my research or my memory on the internet. I’m going to apply for a spate of tenure track jobs over this Fall, and every one of those hiring committees will be able to find this blog. And if they happen to read it in a week where my posts include a higher frequency of dead ends or a couple of conceptual duds, I will likely be passed over and face another year as an unemployed academic. If someone on that hypothetical hiring committee reads a post he doesn’t like, or that is a dead end, or that considers a point that he finds easy to refute, then I don’t get any work. 

This is why many young academics are tempted keep their mouth shut and don’t publicize their publications, stay off the internet, and never risk saying anything philosophically controversial. At risk of upsetting someone who may be in charge of hiring them, they never say anything at all. It’s for this reason that on Thursday afternoon, I seriously considered deleting this blog, all the tweets and facebook posts that linked to it, and forgetting that the entire thing happened. 

But even the peer-reviewed publications, which we have to write if we want to secure a permanent position, will contain ideas that a hiring committee doesn’t agree with. Someone on the hiring committee might read an article included with my application as a writing sample and absolutely hate it. And enough academics today are familiar enough with personal and professional blogging that they know not every post will be conceptual manna raining from Wordpress. 

One danger of a blog with daily updates about philosophical ideas will be posting ideas that are, at the time, little more than suggestions and brief speculations. Not all of them will work. Some of them might turn out to be a little silly. But I’d ask you to turn to my July 17 post, and remember that while a new idea has some problems, that doesn’t mean that it consists only of problems and that the idea has nothing of value. 

I’ve seen professors who talk down to students and belittle them for a speculation that isn’t of the best quality in a discussion. In contrast, I’ve seen good professors tactfully point out the limitations of a mediocre expression, knowing that not everything said in an improvised discussion or a brief daily blog is going to be meticulously researched, impeccably defended against every possible counter-argument. And the student might just have made a mistake. Anyone can make a mistake. I did in Thursday morning’s post.


  1. I agree completely with what you say here of junior people becoming more risk adverse and as a result limiting their public engagement -- and the bigger macro-societal issue being that academics become less involved or more frightened of such forums. Rumor has it Juan Cole was rejected by a Yale hiring board because of his quite excellent blog (just a rumor, mind you). On the other hand, Henry Jenkins has made a great career from very earnest and deep public engagement through blogging. Tough decisions for you -- but then, this tension raises moral issues and who better to contemplate them than a moral philosopher?

    I've got to say, Adam, I'm impressed with your change of tack here but also the fact that you actually write these every day! I had assumed you just had a pile of writings that you were uploading daily, but it's great to see how dynamic and response you are making this venue. I'm reminded of something David Thompson used to say of Husserl -- that he was one of the few philosophers brave enough to reconsider every aspect of his own thought and start anew.

    (But I do take you concern seriously and I guess would like to offer the suggestion that you more clearly distinguish between ideas-in-progress and more developed work -- even putting one title in italics or something. With the point being to make it clear enough even for a hiring committee to understand! This could be in addition to the existing labeling you do.)

  2. That's a good idea to include that distinction. Maybe I'll call those posts Jamming.