Incubating ideas

Thu 28 Oct 2010 03:20 PM

Part of life at the Center is the weekly reading group, where a fellow offers a work-in-progress paper for discussion. I have found this to be rewarding, both when my paper was discussed and when we have discussed others. This week, nobody who was yet to present had anything to offer. So John Norton suggested that we discuss our creative methods - how we get ideas for papers.

His motivation, it turns out, was two-fold. First, he wanted to think about how organized life at the Center might better support the creative life of visiting fellows. It can be tempting to think that the best thing to do is hide in the office and work, but there are diminishing returns on such a method. Second, he wanted to think about how one might help graduate students in the early days of dissertation writing.

In preparing for the meeting, I wrote up some of my thoughts. Here they are, slightly revised in light of discussion.

The following are several things that nudge me along toward writing a paper. Often, they work in combination.


Material I teach can sometimes tangentially become material I am ready to write about. Being forced to sketch something for undergrads makes me think through the issue myself.

Examples: My recent paper on Kyle Stanford's New Induction grew out of teaching the book. I formed views about homeostatic property cluster kinds (HPCs) years ago when I was teaching a Boyd in my phil sci survey; now I have a paper about them (not on-line yet).

Conference themes and invitations

Sometimes there will be a conference that I want to attend even though I don't have a paper for it yet, so I search for a topic. Taking the superposition of my interests and the conference theme can sometimes point in new and interesting directions. A conference paper can be somewhat sketchy, so this allows me try out something new.

Invitations to volumes and special issues can be similar. There is some career incentive to accept the invitation, but it is rarely for exactly the thing I would otherwise be working on. The caveat to this is that sometimes the career incentive and tantalizing novelty are not enough. Sometimes a conference or volume theme is a bridge too far, and so I decline.

Examples: I originally wrote about the epistemology of life on-line so that I would get free admission to MacHack. I subsequently extended that discussion to concerns about Wikipedia first because I wanted to attend the North American Computing and Philosophy Conference (which was local) and later because I was invited to submit to a special issue of Episteme.


A few of my papers have been proximally motivated by specific other papers. As Kareem pointed out at this weeks meeting, reaction papers can be criticism or elaboration. Criticism is easiest, because it is clear that you aren't just repeating what was in the paper that inspired you. Criticism can also be cheap, however, and it is not always worth going out of your way just to say that someone is wrong; nobody ever stopped the press for the headline Philosopher Errs.

Examples: My paper on the Galilean Strategy was a direct reaction to Philip Kitcher's 'Real Realism' paper. It is the only paper of mine that has been so successful as to be plagiarized verbatim in a foreign journal. My two papers about Kyle's NI are also pretty much reactive. My paper about HPCs was, proximally, a reaction to some recent papers.


I often find paper ideas by drawing analogies between different things going on in different literature. Any two things are alike in some respects, so there is the danger in such a paper that it will just point to the inevitable homologies. Pick the right two things, however, and a paper gets written.

Examples: My paper with Craig resulted from pointing out how the same fallacy underwrites both realism and anti-realism; the fallacy in each direction had been pointed out separately, but the combination put us in position to say something synthetic. My paper on demonstrative induction began as material theory of induction meets Achilles and the tortoise. My paper on art concept pluralism is explicitly an analogy between one debate in philosophy and another.


A number of papers have grown out of blogging, he typed self-referentially.

I have some small idea that I want to sort through, so I write a blog post about it. Often it's a thought that could be summarized in a sentence or two. To explain it in a blog post, though, I have to sketch the background of the idea so that a blog reader could understand what I meant by the sentence or two. This requires me to get clear on the background myself.

If I just wrote down the short version on a sheet of paper and filed it away, it probably wouldn't lead anywhere. For one thing, I would lose it. The paper is apt disappear into a file cabinet and not see light again until I retire and clean out my office. For another thing, I would not take the time to fill out the context in the note to myself. Even if I did look at it later, I wouldn't be able to reconstruct what I had in mind when writing it.

Often I blog in response to some specific thing that I have read or heard. I summarize the argument, but not just in the order that it was presented. I end up thinking it through for myself and offering a reconstruction of how the argument ought to go. So I start to have a view about the philosophical terrain surrounding the thing to which I am reacting. This is valuable, because often the initial reaction would not carry a paper on its own. The point arises later, and I am ready to write about because I've already written about it, at a lower level, here.

Feedback in the form of blog comments is also sometimes helpful.

Examples: Again, the paper on HPCs illustrates the point. I am also writing on natural kinds more generally. I remembered just this week how much my present view was formed several years ago in interaction with Matt, Greg, and Jay.

Update: John posted his take on the meeting as a donut page.