Wednesday, January 10, 2007


Dummett on "Completion Rates"

I've been able to go check my copy of Dummett's Frege: Philosophy of Mathematics to see what he actually wrote, rather than just relying on my all too fallible memory. In light of this, I need to reconsider somewhat Dummett's intentions. But once the remark is set in its proper context, I submit Dummett is clearly not making the "Wittgenstein Fallacy". Here's the quote in full, since it's worth taking in its entirety:

'For those who think in terms of completion rates, mine is disgraceful. 'Completion rates' - the very phrase is like a bell. British universities are in the course of being transformed by idealogues who misunderstand everything about academic work. The transformation is of course merely part of a transformation of society as a whole. The official stance of the idealogues is that they do not believe that there is any such thing as society; in point of fact, however, they do not believe in anything else. They are concerned, for example, with the performance of 'the economy': not with whether individual people are propering, but with the economy as a distinguishable system of its own. The successful performance of the economy will grossly enrich some, and deprice others of all hope or comfort: but the aim, if one is not to take a cynical view of it, cannot be either to reward those who scramble to the top of the economic mountain or to punish those who are cast on to the scrapheap. The vision which the idealogues have of the successful functioning of the economy or of any other social mechanism is that it works well only if operated by human beings engaged in ruthless biting and clawing their way to the top, where they will be able to obtain a disproportionate share of limited rewards. For this purpose, the people so competing with one another should not be encouraged to believe in the good of anything but themselves as individuals; if they were to believe in society as a whole, they might form ideas about protecting the weak or unfortunate that would clog the efficiency of the system. A glance at the universities as they used to be revealed a social sector not functioning in this manner; it therefore obviously could not be functioning efficiently, or justifying the money spent on it, and hence must be transformed in accordance with the model decreed by ideology.

The plan of the idealogues is to increase academic productivity by creating conditions of intense competition. Those who compose what is known, in today's unlovely jargon, as academic and academic-related staff are now to be lured by the hope of gaining, and goaded by the shame of missing, extra payments and newly invented titular status. Their output is monitored by the use of performance indicators, measuring the number of words published per year. Wittgenstein, who died in 1951 having published only one short article after the Tractatus of 1922, would plainly not have survived such a system. Those most savagely affected by the new regime are, as always, the ones on the bottom rung of the ladder: the graduate students working for their doctorates. The degree of Ph.D (in Oxford, D.Phil.) fitted rather awkwardly into the system of doctorates as it had evolved in Britain out of the medieval one, and was originally instituted here to satisfy the needs of foreign students, for whom it was a necessary professional qualification. Only in recent years has it become an indispensable minimum qualification for British academic posts in arts subjects: candidates for them stand little chance if they cannot also show, at the start of their careers, an impressive list of publications. Relentless pressure is applied to students and their universities by the Government and its agencies - the research councils and the British Academy - to force them to complete their doctoral theses within three years of graduating; but it is hardly needed. Nervously conscious from the start that they must jostle one another for the diminished number of posts, they are anxious to jump the first hurdle of the Ph.D degree as quickly as possible, and then rush to submit their unrevised theses for publishers to turn into books.

The universities have no option but to co-operate in organising the squalid scramble that graduate study has become, in introducing the new 'incentives' for their professors and lecturers and in supplying the data for the evaluation process. The question is to what extent they will absorb the values of their overlords and jettison those they used to have. Once more, it is the graduate students who are the most at risk, for they are in effect being taught that the rat-race operates as ferociously in the academic as in the commercial world, and that what matters is not the quality of what you write but the speed at which you write it and get it into print. It is obviously as objectionable in a capitalist as in a communist country that politicians should decide how the universities are to be run; but it is catastrophic when those politicians display total ignorance of the need to judge academic productivity on principles quite different from those applicable to industry. Our masters show some small awareness that, as in industry, quality is relevant as well as quantity: their performance indicators are sometimes modified by the use of more sophisticated criteria, such as counting the number of references made by other writers to a given article. Frege would never have survived such a test: his writings were very seldom referred to in his lifetime. It is not, however, that quantity is not the only criterion, but that it is positively harmful. The reason is that overproduction defeats the very purpose of academic publication. It long ago became impossible to keep pace with the spate of books and of professional journals, whose number increases every year; once this happens, their production becomes an irrelevance to the working academic, save for the occasional book or article he happens to stumble on. This applies particularly to philosophy. Historians may be able to ignore much of their colleagues' work as irrelevant to their periods; but philosophers are seldom so specialised that there is anything they can afford to disregard in virtue of its subject-matter. Given their need for time to teach, to study the classics of philosophy and to think, they cannot afford to plough through the plethora of not bad, not good books and articles in the hope of hitting the one that will truly cast light upon the problems with which they are grappling; hence, if they are sensible, they ignore them altogether.'
(Dummett, M. 1991. Frege: Philosophy of Mathematics. Duckworth: pp. viii-x)

Several things are clear from these paragraphs. Firstly, Dummett didn't commit the "Wittgenstein fallacy"; the claim is restricted to how Wittgenstein might have fared under a system which takes number of words as its performance indicator, rather than being a general claim about how he would fare in something like the present climate. (Something similar should be said about the later remark about Frege.) Secondly, Dummett's concerns are probably more narrow than myself and others have tended to present them; he's talking about a specific place and time, and a particular system. That said, I think the passages still raise more general worries one might have: about the pressure on graduate students and others at the beginning of their careers to publish (even if that's nowhere near as bad as Dummett perceived it to be in Britain during the 80's); about the quantity of material being published and its effects on the profession, and so on. I'm sure most of us, Jason no doubt included, will want to take a much more positive perspective on these issues than Dummett did, but I think there are at least questions being raised here which are recognizably worth discussing.

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May I point out that Wittgenstein published a *book* out of graduate school, one that was a huge hit? Assuming the typical equation of 1 book = 5-6 articles, and adding on that the book he published was a huge success, the point is that around tenure time Wittgenstein would have had a CV that was enviably impressive, by any standards (a huge hit book, and an extra article). There are plenty of philosophers in top fifteen departments who have received tenure with far thinner CVS.
As I recall, the Tractatus was published before grad school; it had already been in print for several years when Wittgenstein submitted it as his thesis, so it's actually even more impressive.

But look Jason, I think you're not reading the passage I quoted carefully enough. Here's the relevant sentences:

'Their output is monitored by the use of performance indicators, measuring the number of words published per year. Wittgenstein, who died in 1951 having published only one short article after the Tractatus of 1922, would plainly not have survived such a system.'

I take it on the most salient reading of the second sentence, Dummett is simply pointing out that Wittgenstein only published one short article in the 29 year period between the Tractatus and his death. The claim is just that within a system which took word count per annum as its performance criterion, this wouldn't go down too well. It's reading way too much into Dummett's actual words to turn it into a suggestion that Wittgenstein wouldn't have been employed out of grad school because, despite the publication and success of the Tractatus, his CV wasn't impressive enough.

I've probably been as guilty as anyone in the recent round of this debate of representing Dummett as making a much more general point of this form, but my point in this post was that this just isn't true to what Dummett actually wrote.
At least it's clear from Dummett's comparison of industry and academia that I was right in taking the issue to be partly about the homogeneity of professional philosophy. (See my comment on the earlier thread.)
"Our masters show some small awareness that, as in industry, quality is relevant as well as quantity: their performance indicators are sometimes modified by the use of more sophisticated criteria, such as counting the number of references made by other writers to a given article."

With all due respect to Prof. Dummett, I think the citation indices -- this is what I take he is talking about -- are very useful. They help save any academic discipline -- including philosophy -- from simply becoming a write-only activity.
Interested readers may find the remarks of Keith Devlin in his 1991 gem "Logic and Information" (CUP) also useful (pp. vii-viii).

I must state that I fully agree with Prof. Devlin -- and Prof. Dummett -- that "judging any intellectual pursuit in terms of its immediate cash value" (Devlin's words) is wrong.
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