The Winners of the 3 Quarks Daily 2009 Prize in Philosophy

3qd-logo_Jaffer 3quarks-logo-SHEHERANDALIA 3quarks-logo-Jennifer

Professor Daniel C. Dennett has picked the three winners:

  1. Top Quark, $1000: Tomkow: Blackburn, Truth and other Hot Topics
  2. Strange Quark, $300: PEA Soup: Scanlon on Moral Responsibility and Blame
  3. Charm Quark, $200: 3 Quarks Daily: Penne For Your Thought

Here is Professor Dennett's judging essay:

I wish philosophy blog postings were more like the best science blog postings: short, jargon-free, and lively (if wit is too much to hope for, as apparently it is). Philosophers emerge from a training in which their writing efforts are almost always addressed to a captive audience: the grader is obliged to read the student’s essay, however turgid and ungainly, because that is the student’s right; then later, the others in the field with whom one is engaged in intellectual combat are obliged to read one’s latest sally simply because scholarship demands it. “You don’t know the literature” if you haven’t managed to claw your way through the books and articles of the competition. Moreover, writing something that is somewhat challenging to read, or even unpleasantly difficult to slog through, is seen by some as an enviable sign of depth. It is, I fear, the only way many philosophers can prove to colleagues and students–and to themselves–that they are doing hard work worth a professor’s salary.

Blogs, one might think, would be the ideal antidote, since nobody has to read your blog (not yet–the day will soon come when keeping up with the latest blog debates is the first rule for aspiring philosophical quidnuncs.) Alas, however, it seems that there is a countervailing pressure–or absence of pressure–that dissipates the effect: the blog genre is celebrated as a casual, self-indulgent form of self-expression. Easy to write, but not always delicious reading. (Remember, I tell my students, it is the reader, not the writer, who is supposed to have the fun.)

It is hard to see how blogs could survive without Google. If you are interested in the problem of reference in property dualism, or Buddhist anticipations of virtue ethics, or whatever, you can swiftly find the small gang who share your interest, and join the conversation without having to go through the long initiation process that introduces the outside reader to the terms, the state of the art, the current controversy. That means, however, that those who don’t share that interest will find nothing to appeal to them on those websites. Tastes in philosophy are deeply idiosyncratic, of course, and one conviction driven home to me by reading through the finalists is that my own taste in philosophy marks me as an outlier, far from the mean, if these nine entries represent the cream of the crop as determined by some suitably diverse judges. Most of them did not draw me in—but then they were not meant for my eyes. So one must bear in mind that my choices may well tell much more about the vector of my eccentricity than about the relative merits of the candidates. Still, I’ve agreed to judge the finalists, and here are my decisions.

All three winners exhibit the sort of calm clarity that philosophers pride themselves in providing and so seldom do. They are well-organized, explicit and–unlike most of the also-rans–efficient in the use of language. (My estimate is that a good editor could compress each of the others by close to 50 percent without any loss of content, and a considerable gain in memorability.)

Third Place: 3 Quarks Daily: “Penne For Your Thought”

A good example of philosophical perspective broadening, taking a proposition that at first blush seems hyperbolic–cuisine is an art form, alongside music and poetry and sculpture, for instance–and using it to explore the unexamined corners of our presuppositions and attitudes about art, about food, about language. Not particularly deep or life-changing, but it puts some big ideas into clearer focus.

Second Place: PEA Soup: “Scanlon on Moral Responsibility and Blame”

What I particularly liked about this piece was its constructive tone, which is echoed by the commentators. They all seem to understand that philosophy isn’t about scoring points and refuting each other, but about getting the best view out in the open for all to see.

First Place: Tomkow , “Blackburn, Truth and other Hot Topics”

The idea that Global Warming skepticism could be seen as an instance of Quinian indeterminism is provocative, and the case is very deftly constructed, introduced in terms accessible to readers who aren’t already steeped in the lore. I’m not persuaded by the argument, but it is the one blog post that I am seriously considering assigning to my students, since it is an excellent introduction to this very important and counterintuitive idea, particularly valuable because it shows that Quine is not talking about an idle or merely philosophical possibility (like grue and bleen, or Twin Earth) but a real world quandary that might have actual examples. Actual examples, I have argued, are apt to be unstable, like a tossed coin landing on its edge instead of falling heads or tails, and I suspect that Global Warming will eventually tumble one way or another, but that doesn’t prevent it from being a nicely worrisome phenomenon in the meantime. And Quine’s point–that there is no guarantee of a resolution in such cases–is untouched by the likelihood that there will be one, sooner or later.

Congratulations to the winners (please contact me by email, I will send the prize money later today. And feel free to leave your acceptance speech as a comment here!), and thanks to everyone who participated. Thanks also, of course, to Professor Dennett for doing the final judging.

The three prize logos at the top of this post were designed, respectively, by Jaffer Kolb, Alia Raza & Sheherzad Preisler, and Jennifer Prevatt. Our thanks to each of them. I hope the winners will display them with pride on their own blogs!

Details about how the 3QD prizes work, here.