Give that philosophical master a big brown star

June 30, 2006

Simon Blackburn counts his blessings that Plato isn't a colleague - his outputs just wouldn't cut it with the RAE sub-panel

More years ago than I care to remember, I edited the famous philosophy journal Mind . With the arrogance of relative youth, a colleague and I did most of the refereeing ourselves. I expect we made mistakes: unjust rejections, certainly, since 90 per cent of submissions were rejected. Perhaps occasional inept acceptances, but then we only had to determine whether something was publishable or not. Getting that right was hard enough.

Now we live in braver or brasher times. Behold the philosophy criteria for the upcoming research assessment exercise. Work that has passed editors and referees is to be divided into no fewer than five categories of merit. The best four get stars, since, as in infant school, even poor marks come with a star, perhaps in different colours, from gold to brown.

The heroic sub-panel will tell, for instance, whether work "is or ought to be a primary point of reference in its field" (4*, the top) or whether it merely "is or ought to be a point of reference in its field" (3*, poor enough to lose your department funding). Since the deletion of the word "primary" does not tell us very much, 4* and 3* are further explained as, first, "a contribution of which every serious worker in that field is or ought to be aware" and, second, "a contribution of which serious workers in that field are or ought to be aware". Look again if you did not spot the difference. It is that between "a tail is something of which every serious dog should be possessed (4*)" and "a tail is something of which serious dogs should be possessed (3*)". Subtle, no? Imagine the argument: "We are agreed that serious workers ought to know of this. But every serious worker? I think not, Mr Chairman: I believe it is permissible for Professor X not to know of this, since, although he is indeed a serious worker, he is also excused by being blind/too poor to afford the journal/web illiterate/dying/a genius/working on different problems/a monolingual Basque."

"I agree, Dr Youngturk; it's only 3*. Pity about the department's cash."J Myself, I am lost in amazement at the nose, the palate, the infinitely sensitive proboscis, not to mention the gift of prophecy, that each of these sub-panellists must boast. Then there is the speed with which their taste buds have to work. Given the avalanche that will fall on them, I imagine they will have about ten minutes to perform these exquisite discriminations on each submission, although doubters are earnestly assured that everything will be read.

In fact, our sub-panel is generous with reassurances, no doubt through a very natural desire to expiate the guilt of collaborating with this lunacy.

It also reassures us all that "4* is a realistic and attainable grade", so it is official - words cannot really mean what they say. Among the 4* management-speak encomia for team-building and research environments, we also find with gratitude that "the sub-panel is aware that research of high quality is very often carried out by individual scholars". Phew! A close call then for Plato, Leibniz, Hume, Kant, Wittgenstein and the rest. They just squeak in, although whether in their own time they would have done so at the 1*, 2*, 3* or 4* level might puzzle us to say. Well, actually it would not, since most of them fail the requirement to show four "outputs"

every six years, perhaps because they had better things to think about and would therefore have come in unclassified, right at the bottom, without even a brown star. Of course, you can argue that with some version of the RAE in place they would have produced a constant stream of masterpieces, one every 18 months, regular like nanny says. But it does not seem very likely. And, even if they had, their contemporaries might still have stuck them with those brown stars, because, like creative art, as often as not great and even good philosophy only slowly creates the sensibilities by which it gets recognised.

So here we are, rewarded on how well we fit whichever shape of bed Dr Youngturk thinks appropriate. A strange place to end up for an activity whose only true practitioners, according to Socrates in the Phaedrus, are those sincerely able to argue that their own writings are of little worth. But then, what colour star would Socrates have got? He never wrote a thing. No measurable output at all. Rubbish.

Simon Blackburn is professor of philosophy at Cambridge University.

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