In November 2018, three moral philosophers announced the birth of a new peer-reviewed academic publication: the Journal of Controversial Ideas (JCI). The first volume was published in 2021; two numbers came out in 2022; and the latest (volume 3, number 1) appeared at the end of April of this year.
It is well worth reading. Views that buck the orthodoxy warrant a fair hearing, but articles in a journal that is academic and general and contentious—an unusual trio—may not receive it. In the hopes that others, too, will engage with them, I offer here some reflections on three of the ten articles, as well as on the mission of the journal itself.
The quality of the papers in the new issue is high, and everyone should pay particular attention to the lead article: “In Defense of Merit in Science.” No reasonable person could deny that abandoning the ideals of merit and excellence is already having serious deleterious effects on American schools, academia, business, government, cultural institutions, and society generally. We should deplore the denigration of excellence in all areas (for the academic field of Classics, I told an anecdote at a recent Zoom event: 21:43), but it is obvious that the effect in certain areas could be quick and catastrophic. Conservatives sometimes use throwaway lines like “Wait till the bridges start falling down” and “Wait till your heart surgeon is someone who couldn’t have gotten into medical school a decade ago,” but these are not jokes anymore. You should be afraid, if not for yourself, then for coming generations.
The corresponding author of the paper defending merit is the warrior chemist Anna Krylov, who published a heartfelt paper in the Journal of Physical Chemical Letters in 2021 that received widespread notice, “The Peril of Politicizing Science”; since then, she has continued her crusade. Now, together with 28 other scholars—many very distinguished (e.g., Glenn Loury and Arieh Warshel) and some I’m proud to call friends—Krylov has issued a clarion call against the DEI juggernaut that has already corrupted Nature, Science, the National Academy of Sciences, the National Science Foundation, and department after department in nearly every college and university in the country.
You may ask why so important a paper is not being published in a conventional scientific journal. To quote the authors, “Perhaps the grandest irony of them all, and the saddest commentary on the state of academia, is that this article, defending merit, could only be published in a journal devoted to airing ‘controversial’ ideas.” The long footnote to this sentence notes that the editorial board of “a prominent interdisciplinary science journal” to which the authors first submitted the manuscript “advised [them] to remove the word ‘merit’ from the title” because the “concept . . . has been widely and legitimately attacked as hollow”; the article was ultimately “rejected largely on ideological grounds,” one of them being its supposed “hurtfulness.” Sic transit gloria scientiae.
The story behind another article, Alex Byrne’s “Pronoun Problems,” is possibly even more preposterous. Until recently, Byrne, a philosopher at MIT, was known especially for his work on epistemology, consciousness, and the metaphysics of color (as in “What does it mean for something to be green?”); he is also one of the editors of The Norton Introduction to Philosophy, a plum assignment that would hardly have been given to someone who might rock the boat. In the past few years, however, he has written regularly about the philosophy of sex and gender. His 2020 paper in Philosophical Studies, “Are Women Adult Human Females?,” which argued in favor of the thesis, “S is a woman iff S is an adult human female,” ignited a firestorm.
Not long ago, most people would, I wager, have been astonished to learn that philosophers are paid to write and defend the truth of sentences that seem perfectly obvious, even if they do contain the academic word “iff” (shorthand for “if and only if”). Now, however, most would be even more astonished to learn that this particular sentence is not just controversial but an active source of harm. In a vicious response by Yale’s Robin Dembroff that Philosophical Studies published in 2021, Dembroff accused Byrne of defending “a political slogan” and suggested that he may be engaged in “rhetorical bullying.” This resulted, among much else, in a series of papers in JCI: a response to Dembroff by Byrne in the first issue (Philosophical Studies had rejected it); a response to Byrne (both his original article and his response to Dembroff) by the pseudonymous Maggie Heartsilver in that same issue; and Byrne’s response to Heartsilver in the next one.
In the latest issue of JCI, Byrne moves from the definition of “woman” to pronouns, noting how “surprisingly little philosophical work” has been done at the “white-hot interface between language and social and political issues.” I am not a philosopher, but pronouns are a subject dear to my heart: besides my Ph.D. dissertation on personal pronouns in languages like Ancient Greek, Gothic, and Armenian plus a few scholarly articles from long ago, I published two general pieces earlier this year, one on pronouns and the law and another, much briefer, on pronouns and journalistic practice.
No stranger to JCI, Byrne nonetheless had every expectation that “Pronoun Problems”—in my eyes, an outstanding contribution to the scholarly literature—would appear not in this odd venue but rather as a chapter in the (still-forthcoming) Oxford Handbook of Applied Philosophy of Language, for which it was commissioned. Why is it not appearing there? Read Byrne’s own account, “Philosophy’s No-go Zone,” which he published in Quillette last month. The tale Byrne tells of what happened to his paper, to a book titled Trouble with Gender that he had under contract with Oxford University Press but is now set to be published by Polity Press, and to Holly Lawford-Smith’s 2022 Oxford book Gender-critical Feminism is essential reading—a vivid indictment of academia.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Byrne has now been pilloried anew, as the pseudonymous Thomas Palmer describes in another article in Quillette. Palmer’s “What Is a Woman? Many Philosophers Know, but aren’t Allowed to Say” was published on May 2, one day after the hyper-woke Scientific American published a patently absurd piece by a Princeton anthropologist with the title “Here’s Why Human Sex is not Binary.” Among those who have denounced this assault on reality is University of Chicago biologist Jerry Coyne—one of the authors, as it happens, of “In Defense of Merit in Science.”
Consider a third article: Erika T. Hermanowicz and Joseph C. Hermanowicz’s “The Perversion of Virtue—Causes and Consequences of Threats to Academic Freedom in the Contemporary University.” Husband and wife, ETH and JCH are professors at the University of Georgia, where he is a sociologist who specializes in higher education and she is a classicist and expert on late antiquity.
If you are interested in academic freedom—the subject of two pieces of mine in these pages—then you may know JCH’s 2021 edited volume on the subject. And you are unlikely to be surprised by the Hermanowiczes’ conclusions about the corrosive power of university-internal moralism—that’s moralism, not morality—on academic freedom:
While moralism portends righteousness, there is, ultimately, no “salvation.” Those who espouse a moralism can never exhaust injustice and suffering on which the rhetoric depends. It is an empty cause invested with ample feeling. To the extent that moralism possesses power, moralism is a power that exacts censorship, canceling, silencing, inhibiting, restraining. Moralism calls forth more irony still: for all its cloaking in virtue—martyrs doing good on behalf of us all—its practices facilitate a community’s self-destruction.
Note the words “salvation” (in scare quotes) and “martyrs.” These come, no doubt, from ETH, whose influence is probably strongest in the section titled “Understanding the Present by Way of the Past,” which compares what is happening today with “the Catholic church’s regulation of correct belief in the early medieval era.” This is a fascinating subject, and I wish only that the authors had spent even more time exploring it.
Aside from the deep history, the Hermanowiczes deserve credit for describing two “macro-societal developments which escalated across the second half of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first” and how the interplay between them has led to the extraordinary censoriousness that characterizes campus life in 2023. These developments they call, in sociological jargon, “massification” and “standardization.” As is well known, the business of higher education has expanded massively, with both positive and negative consequences. At the same time, almost all colleges and universities now display corporate homogeneity—it is not a metaphor to speak of higher education as a business—with resulting “unprecedented power and consequent moral authority” that has been described as “quasi-religious.”
An unfortunate consequence of massification and standardization is the merciless moralism that the authors describe in the block quotation above. Here is their interesting definition of moralism: “evaluative acts and attitudes toward others’ speech, writing, and behavior, where the judgments rendered are predicated principally on an evaluator’s personal emotions or feelings.” As Ben Shapiro might put it, at universities, feelings don’t care about facts—or not much, anyway. And this leads to terrible trouble inside institutions that are, after all, supposed to be about the search for truth: if you express a controversial idea, God help you—except He may not. The mob has supplanted God.
Considerations of space and competence prevent me from commenting on the other seven articles. But their content and slant makes me worried for the future of JCI, which explicitly “welcomes articles on a wide range of topics, and from a variety of disciplines” and is “neutral with respect to moral, political, philosophical, religious, and social views,” such that “[p]apers defending ideas commonly considered controversial by liberals or progressives, and those defending ideas considered controversial by conservatives or libertarians, are equally welcome.”
Does JCI actually address “a wide range of topics”? Yes, in a way. The ten papers in the latest issue concern sex/gender, race, and other buzzwords in identity politics; free speech and academic freedom; and medical ethics (including vaccine hesitancy). Indeed, many take on more than one of these topics, in a way that may as well be called intersectional. These topics are all important. But every one of them is prominent in the culture wars. It would be nice to see papers that are fundamentally about other things as well: for example, economic policy, global warming, the death penalty, and the efficacy of the United Nations. Furthermore, none of the papers leans left.
Previous issues have contained contributions by progressives, and other subjects have occasionally been addressed. But it is a real concern that JCI will increasingly be viewed as an easily ignorable repository of a few reactionary ideas. It is, in my view, a pity that people in our troubled times thought it necessary to found a journal of this kind. But since the journal now exists, and since serious scholars are contributing articles, it would be an even greater pity if it gained the unfair reputation of being a mouthpiece of the right.
When the enterprise was announced almost five years ago, Tyler Cowen wrote that he was “skeptical though not hostile,” suggesting that JCI was “unlikely to elevate the status or persuasiveness of controversial ideas” and might “to some extent … ghettoize them.” I suppose it is a controversial pronouncement for me to state that I am hopeful that more people, from across the sociopolitical spectrum, will send their best heterodox work to the journal. But remember: advancements in knowledge never come without controversy.