The Winners of the 3QD Philosophy Prize 2012

PhilTop2012 PhilStrange2012V2 PhilCharm2012

Justin E. H. Smith has picked the three winners:

  1. Top Quark, $1000: Wesley Buckwalter, Factive Verbs and Protagonist Projection
  2. Strange Quark, $300: Elizabeth Anderson, Recharting the Map of Social and Political Theory: Where is Government? Where is Conservatism?
  3. Charm Quark, $200: Thomas Rodham, Democracy is not a truth machine

Here is what Justin had to say about them:

This was a very good year to be chosen as judge for the 3QD Philosophy Prize, for there were many worthy entries and all of the pieces that made the final round were, to my mind, eminently worth reading. Of course, the consistently high quality of the entries made selecting the winners a very difficult task, and even if my choices were somewhat more based in shareable reasons than those of, say, Paul the Octopus (RIP), they were in the end, admittedly, my choices, based on my own views about what matters in philosophy blogging, and about the direction I would like to see this activity take in the future.

Now before I get to these choices, some preliminary thoughts on the current state of this new genre of philosophical writing. There are plenty of jokes going around these days about bloggers haughtily claiming to have 'published' what they have in fact only 'posted', or calling their posts 'pieces'. A number of the finalists here go so far as to call their posts 'essays'. At the same time, many academic philosophers (and presumably academics in other disciplines too), not a few of whom have taken to projecting their own views throughout the blogospheric ether, have been intent to draw a sharp distinction between real philosophical writing on the one hand –rigorous, exhaustive, footnoted, peer-reviewed, consequential for the shaping of debates within the discipline– and the blog-based letting-off of steam on the other.

The facts about the sociology of knowledge in the Internet age are making this distinction ever harder to maintain, however. Many of the finalist entries here are in fact rigorous and exhaustive, some are footnoted. They are not peer-reviewed in the same way that articles submitted to journals are, but arguably being invited to contribute to an academic group blog, in recognition of one's scholarly achievement, is not in principle different from the vetting process involved in scholarly publication. It is true that such an invitation is explicitly based on personality and reputation, while journals are in principle based on anonymous, merit-based selection. But this is only how things work in principle, while in reality personality and reputation do take a person a long way in the peer-review process, and, conversely, merit takes a person a long way in the project of becoming a blogger deemed worth listening to. As for shaping debates within the discipline, finally, there is no doubt that blogs are already doing this. Whether this is good for philosophy or not is another question, but it is a fact that it is happening.

Increasingly, though, I am finding it difficult to say what counts as a blog post, and in this respect I do not think that the substitution of older, more familiar terms such as 'piece' or 'essay' should always be met with derision. Surely, it cannot just be that a piece of writing is disseminated by electronic means, to screens rather than paper, since if this were the case then it would follow that (probably) within the next decade or so, all philosophy writing will be philosophy blogging. So then we must search for other, narrower criteria for identifying a 'piece' as a 'blog piece': non-password-protected, perhaps, or smattered with hyperlinks. One common criterion for identifying a piece of writing as a piece of blog writing is that it be relatively informal, conversational, or fun. Relatedly, it is often supposed that blog writing should be unpolished, cranked out at a rapid-fire pace, unedited. Finally, blogging is often held to be relatively ephemeral, to be launched out there like some quasi-utterance, and then to fade as the days pass and it slides further down the blog wall (or whatever that's called).

But these are neither necessary nor sufficient criteria for being a blog piece, and most of the finalists here do not meet them. Some of the entries were in fact heavily edited by people other than the author, such as the piece from the New York Times Opinionator series, which this bellwether newspaper is trying to promote as its blogging arm. How exactly we are supposed to distinguish between the online edition of the Times and a Times-related blog, or between Stanley Fish's 'posts' and David Brooks' 'columns', is something we are left on our own to figure out. In the present contest, even where the entries are likely not edited by committee, there is still nothing informal about most of them. In many cases, the entries are explicitly presented as drafts of academic 'pieces' properly speaking. I have tried, nonetheless, to stay fairly close to the current accepted meaning of 'blogging', even if this meaning is, as I believe, untenable in the long run, and to prefer entries that are relatively informal, that experiment with images and links rather than just delivering text, and that in other ways seize onto and celebrate the opportunities that online, non-peer-reviewed, spontaneous writing opens up. I have, namely, chosen the following three finalists for the first, second, and third prizes:

1. Experimental Philosophy: Factive Verbs and Protagonist Projection This is a very well written piece, and it might serve as a model for how to address important philosophical issues while still staying true to the free and informal spirit of the blogging genre. More importantly, it is a fine example of what I take to be an important, if still adolescent, movement in contemporary philosophy, which takes empirical research on the way actual human beings reason exactly as seriously as it deserves to be taken. This is a movement that is particularly well adapted to the blog medium, and it is no coincidence that so many experimental-philosophy supporters have jumped into this medium so avidly. I am not completely convinced that we can answer the philosophical question of whether only true things can be known by going out and learning what ordinary people say about the matter. But then I am not convinced that we can answer the philosophical question at all, and I suppose, at least, that learning what ordinary people think about truth and knowledge will help us to take a measure of the difficulty of the problem.

2. Bleeding Heart Libertarians: Recharting the Map of Social and Political Theory: Where is Government? Where is Conservatism? Along with the other contributions to the symposium of which it is a part, this piece provides a very nice example of the sort of serious and high-level exchange that is facilitated by the blog medium. Blogging is not always about the solitary emission of individual opinions; sometimes, as in the web symposium, it is also about building intellectual community. In her contribution, Elizabeth Anderson offers a lucid and substantive critique of John Tomasi's book, Free Market Fairness, pointing up the limitations of a libertarian conception of justice, but also compelling the non-libertarian reader to appreciate and take seriously the possibility of a morally well-founded vision of free markets.

3. The Philosopher's Beard: Democracy is not a truth machine. This piece is a very lively engagement with J. S. Mill's defence of the freedom of opinion, and its failure to distinguish between two very different domains in which human beings might have opinions: the ethical and religious domain on the one hand, and the domain of facts on the other. The author goes on to show how a failure to distinguish between these threatens to hamper democracy, by opening up the possibility of democratic debate about rational truths and facts that in fact require a very different sort of treatment. The argument seemed fairly obvious to me, but the author succeeds very well at that other task often held to be distinctive of philosophical blogging, as opposed to properly academic philosophical writing: he engages with important issues in the current news cycle, and shows how philosophy can help us to make sense of them.

Congratulations also from 3QD to the winners (remember, you must claim the money within one month from today–just send me an email). And feel free, in fact we encourage you, to leave your acceptance speech as a comment here! And thanks to everyone who participated. Many thanks also, of course, to Justin E. H. Smith for doing the final judging and for his charming judging essay.

The three prize logos at the top of this post were designed by Sughra Raza, Carla Goller, and me. The photograph used in the charm quark logo was taken by Margit Oberrauch. I hope the winners will display them with pride on their own blogs!

Details about the prize here.