Diversity in Philosophy Journals: A Discussion

This morning at the APA Pacific there was a wide-ranging discussion on the topic of diversity in philosophy journals. The session was chaired by Eric Schwitzgebel, who introduced it as possibly the largest panel ever at the Pacific APA, featuring 7 presenters including Manyul Im, and 15 journal editor-panelists including Franklin Perkins. The audience was also substantial.

While lots of informative data was presented on the topic of representation of various groups in prominent philosophical journals (some of it available here ), here I will stick mostly to issues directly concerning Chinese/non-Western/Comparative philosophy.

In a brief piece titled “Philosophy, Diversity, Shared Inquiry,” Im distinguished between “Silo-sophy,” in which our publications aim at addressing only those who share our AOS, and the broader ideal of “philosophy as shared space” that attracted him to philosophy as an undergraduate student. He called on those working in philosophy to try speak the same language, rekindling a spirit of shared inquiry in which we gain in insight from one another without requiring that we know everything there is to know about each other’s fields.

Perkins in turn noted that for many people working in non-Western philosophy, the importance of creating dialogue with mainstream Western philosophy can exert a kind of pressure. He reported that about 40% of submissions to Philosophy East and West engage in this kind of dialogue. Pointing to a statistic cited by one of the earlier presenters that implied that 3% of existing philosophers are Asian-American, he remarked that if we are considering philosophy as it exists on a global scale, probably well over half of philosophers are Asian.

One distinction that came up several times throughout the discussion was that between identity- and content-based forms of diversity. Even if we have proportionate representation of currently under-represented groups in top journal publications, this would not necessarily mean we have total diversity of content; nor would the latter imply the former. But in the overall project of diversifying mainstream philosophy journals, it seems the fates of both forms are tied together.

Many of the editors focused on things like the difficulty of finding good referees, the length of review times, and the merits of triple-blind vs. double-blind review. Several mentioned that they would welcome more submissions that contribute to diversity. One said, “I would encourage you to just send out your stuff because that’s the only way we can do our job as well in making things better.” Another, “You just need to be bold, and step up and submit stuff, and you can lead the culture change.”

However, a number of audience members maintained that it is impossible to address the problem of journal diversity without reforming the standards of philosophy as a whole. Fair procedures for review, as one participant said, will mean nothing if they are built on top of a castle made of sand. Several pushed back against the editors’ proposed solution that members of under-represented groups should just be bold and submit. Many members of these groups aren’t in positions where they can afford to be bold, and there is also a lack of trust that their papers will be reviewed fairly. Another participant worried that top journals in political philosophy continue to publish dozens of papers on “Rawls, p. 47,” while all around us the world is crumbling.

Anand Vaidya, director of the Center for Comparative Philosophy at San Jose State, argued that the problem consists in thinking that we have defined once and for all the “central problems of philosophy.” If the human condition is always changing, why are central problems thought to be timeless and eternal? And why are these problems limited to the Western tradition? People need not only to listen to other traditions, but persevere in doing so. If potential referees don’t put in the time to learn about these traditions, of course they will think there is something deficient about the papers they are reviewing.

At the end of the session, Im also commented in his capacity as a dean, reminding the audience that when it comes to potential program cuts, philosophy is constantly on the chopping block. While some university administrators may do this out of ignorance, many of them in fact understand all too well what academic philosophy is, and that is why they do not feel bad about cutting it. Journals may be the gatekeepers of what gets published in philosophy, but they will not be the ones who determine which disciplines survive in higher education in the coming years.

3 thoughts on “Diversity in Philosophy Journals: A Discussion

  1. Thanks for that nice summary of a very lively session, Tim. That last comment of mine about the place of philosophy in higher education may seem a little obscure. I was mostly trying to point out the risk that journals put the profession of philosophy in if they “drive” the field by determining professional success with a very narrow, academic bandwidth of topics that are considered interesting and serious. That may keep moving the field in a direction that can easily be construed by students and administrators as irrelevant — “academic” in a pejorative sense.

  2. 1) The problem of lack of diversity in journal content seems related to the lack of non-Western specialists in Ph.D. programs. It’s hard to see how the former gets permanently resolved without the latter being resolved.

    2) A stop-gap solution may be to create a database of potential reviewers for journals–a database of multicultural specialists. It could list:
    cultural tradition studied
    time period(s) studied
    names of specific philosophers studied
    relevant traditional Western categories/topics
    button for uploading one’s publication record

    Would journal editors make use of such a database? If so, where would be a good home for it?

  3. During this session, I was struck by how strange it seems, taking a step back from the journal editing process as it currently operates, to be favorably impressed by very high rejection rates. Is that the best way to move philosophical discussion forward? As one audience member put it, why are we looking to publish only the near-perfect work of philosophers? Why isn’t it sufficient to contribute something substantive to the ongoing dialogue that really is philosophical inquiry?

    As I currently have two referee reports overdue, this also caused me to wonder if the work that goes into refereeing was itself part of potentially useful philosophical dialogue that is, by design, left hidden and ultimately, lost and wasted in the anonymity of a blind-refereeing process. To my luck, I stumbled onto this innovative format for journal refereeing by the Public Philosophy Journal, as reported at the Daily Nous blog. Here is the flowchart for the “formative review” process — and for my concerns, note in the fourth stage, that a response of the peer reviewer is actually written as a potential published response along with the submission, assuming it is accepted for publication. I, for one, would like to seem more of this in philosophy journals.

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