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‘Area of Specialization’ Makes No Sense in Philosophy

© Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia CommonsJob advertisements in philosophy invariably use the phrases “Area of Specialization” and/or “Area of Competence,” or sometimes “Open Area,” meaning, respectively, that the recruiter is looking for candidates who specialize in particular areas and/or are competent in those, or who specialize in some area or other. It is so standard that in our CVs we just write “AOS: …” and “AOC …” at the very top, after our contact details.

Here is a little thought experiment. Suppose young Plato is on the job market. He has just published a few dialogues: Euthyphro, Crito, Charmides, and Ion. His prospects look acceptable for jobs with ethics as AOS, as he has been dealing with concepts like piety, temperance, and justice, although Ion is a bit wacky, dealing with divine inspiration for poetry. No chance he could get a job in metaphysics, epistemology, logic, or philosophy of mind. Yet, as we know, Plato’s work left an indelible trace in all of those “Areas of Specialization” within philosophy. No better place to look for those specialties than his mature dialogues, such as The Republic, Meno, Theaetetus, Parmenides, and Phaedo.

One might think that my example is irrelevant because Plato is, horribile dictu, too old—one of those “great dead philosophers.” So let’s change the example to a great living philosopher. Young Ph.D. Hilary Putnam would look promising for jobs in philosophy of mathematics and some more formal philosophy of language, but not yet for philosophy of mind, philosophy of science, epistemology, or any subfield of history of philosophy.

There are many other similar examples. The point is that a good philosopher is able, if she so decides, to offer important contributions to any “Area of Specialization.” I am quite confident that if, say, Saul Kripke (with seminal contributions in modal logic, philosophy of language and of mind, and metaphysics) wanted to write something in the field of ethics, it would be a great contribution.

Turning back to the “great dead,” it is in effect ridiculous to even ask questions like “what was Immanuel Kant’s AOS?” or “was political philosophy merely an AOC for Thomas Aquinas?” And the reason is not that they are long dead.

The reason we should stop talking as though philosophy had genuine specialties is that genuine specialties are born out of necessity, namely, when human limitations relative to the difficulty and time-consuming character of becoming familiar with a field of knowledge make it totally inefficient for one person to try to deal with more than one or two such fields. Each field would fail to exhibit acceptable levels of progress if there weren’t enough people dedicated exclusively to it.

But philosophy is not supposed to progress like scientific disciplines. In the sciences one is busy experimenting, integrating new empirical data into one’s theorizing, replacing hypotheses that have been disconfirmed, etc. That ultimately requires the specialist to “stay online” indefinitely, that is, to constantly follow and contribute to the new findings. If one were to suddenly switch from solid-state physics to astrophysics, there would be no guarantee that one’s background would be relevant to the new research agenda.

There is nothing similar in philosophy. Studying any subfield of philosophy requires a set of methods and skills that are common to all subfields. Knowledge of some logic and argumentation is all you need in order to successfully switch at any time from, say, ontology to philosophy of mind, or from ethics to philosophy of sport.

Acquiring the content of a subfield in philosophy is not as difficult and time-consuming as it would be in the sciences. Take medical science. I have recently read through a massive treatise dedicated to vestibular disorders. Beside its volume, the kind of research reported involves knowledge of a series of procedures (imaging techniques, diagnostic methods, surgical methods, etc.) that must take many years to master. And this is only the vestibular component of the ear-nose-throat specialty. How many years do we need in philosophy in order to master all the techniques that make us able to write and publish a philosophy paper in a good journal, in any subfield? Two, maybe three for the slower of us?

The choice we, philosophers, make when we opt for an area of specialization is quite arbitrary, and so is the respective choice of the medical student. The difference is that, after the choice is made, our option of staying within that area forever is still arbitrary, but for the medical student it is not, as in her case leaving the area would be tantamount to starting school over again.

In some other fields of the humanities the situation is close to that in philosophy. For instance, it does not make much sense for English speakers to say that 19th-century English literature is an area of specialization since one could easily and quickly switch to 20th-century or 18th-century English literature and publish important work in those.

My point is not that there are no well-circumscribed areas within philosophy; that would be absurd to claim. Neither is it, contrary to what my hypothetical job advertisement might have suggested, that recruiters should stop mentioning the well-known areas within philosophy when advertising. My points are the following:

  1. We should use the phrase “area of research interest” instead of the old AOS, meaning that what the recruiter is looking for is someone who is willing to work in that area within philosophy, if hired.
  2. Not having worked/published so far in the respective area should have no bearing whatsoever on whether the candidate is eligible or viable for the position.

If I advertised a position in ethics, I would be more than glad to hire the young Kripke, who has not published anything in ethics, rather than a mediocre “specialist in ethics.”

Similar considerations hold for the AOC. It should rather be called “area of teaching interest,” roughly meaning that the recruiter is looking for someone who is happy to teach whatever the recruiter states as the teaching needs of the department. Again, not having taught that class before should not matter. What should matter is whether the candidate is likely to be a good teacher, and that can be ascertained by looking at measures like student success in Ph.D. programs and jobs or teaching-evaluation reports.

We should stop pretending that the notion of an area of specialization makes sense in philosophy.

István Aranyosi is an assistant professor of philosophy at Bilkent University, in Ankara, Turkey. His latest publications include The Peripheral Mind: Philosophy of Mind and the Peripheral Nervous System (Oxford University Press, 2013) and God, Mind, and, Logical Space: A Revisionary Approach to Divinity (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).

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