Can We Just Hand Our Work over to AI?

There’s been so much news about developments in AI that I thought I’d pose a query to our field: Is AI in a position to contribute anything to the study of medieval philosophy?

I’m not interested in hand-wringing about how our students might use AI to cheat. That strikes me as their problem, not mine. I’m interested in how we might use AI for our own benefit, in our research.

  • Has anyone experimented with ChatGPT?
  • Has anyone set up a program that would translate scholastic Latin into English? This seems like it should be relatively easy to do, but so far as I know it hasn’t yet been done.
  • What else might modern technology be doing for us?

Send in your replies, and maybe we can all take an extra week’s vacation this summer.

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September’s News

Clelia Crialesi is organizing a series of four online workshops on premodern mathematical thought. Each is devoted to a century, from the 13th to the 16th. The first workshop is this Friday, September 16th, 2022. Details about the whole project can be found at mathematicalia.com.

There’s a major conference on Peter Auriol in Rome at the end of the month, in honor of the seventh centenary of his death (September 29-30, 2022). Details here.

The fourth meeting of Divergent Scholasticism, on zoom, is coming on October 7, 2022. The focus of these workshops is the scholastic tradition between Europe and Americas, from 1500 to 1700. The talks for this meeting are in Spanish.

Jenny Pelletier (Gothenburg) and colleagues are organizing a conference for next June on Rewriting the History of Political Thought from the Margins (Berlin, June 8-9, 2023). The cfp deadline is October 17, 2022.

Solmsen Fellowships at the University of Wisconsin are again being advertised, for junior and senior scholars working on Europe pre-1700. The application deadline is October 27, 2022.

James Dominic Rooney tells me that his Hong Kong-based medieval philosophy reading group is continuing this year, and plans to focus on Aquinas and Anselm. It’s on Zoom. If you’re interested in joining, contact Father Rooney directly.

Lenn Goodman (Vanderbilt) is working on a new translation/commentary of the Guide to the Perplexed. You can listen to him talk about Maimonides’ Guide on the Judaism Demystified podcast. The video is here. Audio versions are available through Spotify, Apple, etc.

Claus Andersen (South Bohemia) has compiled a list of the 19 volumes of Henry of Ghent’s Opera omnia (Leuven) that are available online at the Internet Archive.

Congratulations to Juan Carlos Flores (Detroit Mercy), who has won a major NEH grant for work on the critical edition of Henry’s Summa art. 73-75.

Another major NEH grant has gone to Todd Buras (Baylor), who will be running a summer institute for primary and secondary-school educators “exploring the disputatio, or disputed questions, as a tool for discussing the nature of wisdom.”

The Journal of the History of Philosophy seeks a new book review editor, to replace Jean-Luc Solère (Boston College). There is an announcement here.

The July issue of IPM Monthly features an interesting video interview with Tianyue Wu (Peking University).

Spring deadlines and summer events

The Sorbonne’s annual Journée Incipit has been scheduled for April 9, 2022. It will feature a talk by Dominik Perler on conscience in Aquinas.

Lydia Schumacher (King’s College London) has organized one final conference related to her ERC grant: “The Powers of the Soul in Medieval Franciscan Thought” (London, May 27-29, 2022)

The Università della Svizzera italiana (Lugano) is sponsoring a summer school on the metaphysics of relations in ancient and medieval philosophy, featuring John Marenbon and Anna Marmodoro (June 6-10, 2022; application deadline January 31, 2022).

KU Leuven is sponsoring an international conference this coming June, Later Medieval Hylomorphism: Matter and Form, 1300-1600 (June 9-11, 2022, hybrid format). The cfp deadline is January 31, 2022.

Thomas Aquinas College (California) is hosting a summer conference (rescheduled from 2021) on “Faith and Reason” (June 16-19, 2022). The cfp deadline is January 31, 2022.

The sixteenth annual Marquette summer seminar on Aristotle and the Aristotelian tradition will be on the topic “Intellect, Divinity, and the Good in Aristotle and the Aristotelian Traditions” (Milwaukee, June 20-22, 2022). The cfp deadline is February 15, 2022.

Notre Dame’s History of Philosophy Forum is inviting applications for small grants (covering travel and accommodations) for scholars who wish to do research in South Bend. The application deadline is March 15, 2022. Details here.

The wonderful SOFIME newsletter, Iberica Philosophica Mediaevalia, is hoping to expand its scope and become a forum for more substantive discussions of issues relating to our field (see the discussion at the top of the latest issue of the newsletter). They’re looking to assemble a new editorial committee, and are particularly interested in recruiting younger scholars. If interested, contact Nicola Polloni (Leuven).

OUP’s Prestige Monopoly

In reading through the 2020 volume of The Philosophical Review, I noticed a funny thing: every book they reviewed was published by Oxford University Press. Well, not every book but, to be exact, 23 out of 25. That’s not how I remember things being back when I was a student, so I went back and looked. In 1990, OUP was also the leading recipient of reviews in The Philosophical Review, but accounted for just 12 of the 61 reviews. Books from 21 other presses were also reviewed, and Blackwell and Cambridge were tied for runner-up, with 7 entries apiece.

I asked my own student, Colton Kunzeman, to go through the intervening years, and he produced this illuminating chart:

A quick look at some other philosophy journals that publish a significant number of book reviews turned up these numbers for 2020:

  • Mind: 23 of 36 reviews (64%)
  • Australasian Journal of Philosophy: 13 of 15 (87%)
  • Analysis: 24 of 26 (92%)
  • Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews: 70 of 167 (42%)

The NDPR rate is significantly lower, I think, because they review so many books. They can in effect review all of OUP’s philosophy monographs and still have room for a lot of other presses. As for Mind’s rate of 64%, if that seems comparatively unimpressive, bear in mind that the remaining 36% is split among all other presses. To put that in perspective, Mind in 2020 reviewed roughly 10 times more OUP books than books from any other publisher.

What’s going on here?

What these numbers suggest, and what anyone who’s paying attention will have noticed to some degree already, is the extent to which OUP is increasingly the dominant publisher in philosophy. It’s not the case, to be sure, that OUP dominates all parts of philosophy publishing. With regard to textbooks, guidebooks, and translations, they have lots of competition. But when it comes to scholarly monographs, OUP has secured for itself a near monopoly on the field: not a monopoly in terms of absolute numbers, since plenty of other presses are publishing monographs in philosophy, but a prestige monopoly. If you aspire to publish the sort of book that will get reviewed in a top journal, you had better get your book accepted at OUP.

Part of the reason for this, perhaps, is that there’s been a steadily smaller market for monographs in recent years, and as a result academic presses generally devote fewer resources to this than they used to. (On that subject my colleague at Norlin Library, Frederick Carey, recommends this article and this book, esp. ch. 5.) Still, obviously, there are plenty of presses that are publishing monographs in philosophy, and the reality seems to be that OUP is just outcompeting them, at least in this segment of the market. I asked Peter Momtchiloff, the OUP-UK editor for philosophy, if he was willing to comment on this situation, and he responded: “I think we have worked hard on philosophy publishing for a long time, aiming to cover all the areas that are typically covered in research-oriented philosophy departments, and responding to what philosophers think is good rather than trying to impose external ideas of what philosophy research publishing should be like. Apologies if this sounds boastful or ingratiating.” To me that sounds excessively modest. For decades now, Peter has worked like no other editor in the field to cultivate relationships with both young and established scholars. He makes people feel as if OUP really wants their books, and over time these relationships have paid off. (Peter Ohlin, the OUP-US editor, has a similarly longstanding presence in the field and receives rave reviews from those who work with him.)

Yet although this story is in part one of triumph for OUP, it also should leave philosophers feeling a certain amount of concern. Even if OUP’s monopoly is benevolent and well-earned, we should ask ourselves whether it is in the interests of the field. One way in which it would not be is if OUP were doing an inferior job editing and publishing its books. To gauge this situation, I reached out to 10 senior scholars in the field who recently published books with OUP and asked them for their impressions. All were kind enough to reply, and most were wholly enthusiastic. Typical responses were “wonderful experience,” “really excellent,” “always been really happy,” “extraordinary positive,” “uniformly good experiences.” So this perhaps can be added to the story of why OUP has become so dominant: that they do very good work publishing books. And to this it might be added that their books are reasonably priced and generally available in paperback.

To the extent that the scholars surveyed had reservations, those concerned the process of copy editing, proofreading, and typesetting.  One scholar spoke of the “train wreck” of the typeset page proofs that had to be straightened out over a “bazillion hours.” I myself have noticed that OUP books are not always edited as carefully as one would like. In one short but prominent recent OUP book, I managed to find—simply by reading through the book in the usual way—51 typos, as well as countless stylistic infelicities of the sort that any decent copy editor ought to have fixed. I asked Peter Momtchiloff whether there might have been some decline in OUP’s production standards, and he passed this query on to the production department and got the response one would hope for, that “our quality standards haven’t changed.”

Be that as it may, the production process has certainly changed. A decade ago, books went through a multi-stage production process: copy editing, which was then reviewed by the author, followed by typesetting, which was then proofread by the author and the press. Of late, however, those stages have been compressed into one. Books are copy edited and typeset and then sent to the author, who is expected at that point to cope with any difficulties that have arisen in either the copy editing or the typesetting stage. The scholar quoted in the previous paragraph blamed the “train wreck” on this compression of stages. As for proof reading, that same scholar was frankly perplexed by the question, having seen no sign of any proofreading. This, too, was how the other author responded when I forwarded my list of 51 typos: not by blaming OUP for the mess, but with self-blame for being terrible at proofreading.

With these thoughts in mind, last month I asked the production manager of the latest volume of Oxford Studies in Medieval Philosophy whether this book would be proofread. Writing from India, he replied: “We do have the service for proofreading and I can check with editorial for the possibility on this if you prefer to hire one…. Kindly note inclusion of this new service could have an impact on the overall schedule and incurs additional cost for proofreading.” When I expressed surprise to him that OUP itself wouldn’t proofread the book, he replied, “We do the in-house proofread by default for all OUP books at our end.” Now, I’ve had generally excellent experiences with the people to whom OUP outsources their production, and with this production manager in particular. Even so, this exchange left me not altogether confident in the ongoing rigor of OUP’s quality standards.

I asked Peter M. a few more questions. He told me that the OUP philosophy editors publish around 200 academic books a year, split fairly evenly between the UK and US offices. He said they do not keep statistics on acceptance rates, but that “most unsolicited proposals are rejected.” (It would be interesting to know more about this, since, notoriously, acceptance rates at the top journals in the field are now under 5%.) To a query about whether it might be desirable to evaluate submissions blind (as do most good journals), he replied that while, like other publishers, they do not judge submissions anonymously, still “decisions about publication are based on expert review of material submitted, not on the author’s standing or track record.” (Perhaps one should add that with a monograph, unlike with a single paper, it’s not likely that an expert in the field would be unable to discern the author’s identity.)

One recent very positive development at OUP is an upgrade at Oxford Scholarship Online. In the past, as I’ve bitterly complained, Oxford books have been available online only in a fairly wretched reformatted version, unpleasant to read and full of errors. Those bad old versions are still there, but new books, at long last, are appearing in OSO as glorious digital images of the typeset book. Here is the first page of Peter Adamson’s new book on al-Rāzī, downloaded from OSO:

Yay! No one I’ve queried knows anything about this change, but it’s something to celebrate. OUP’s previous way of making material available electronically was amateurish in the extreme.

I remarked a while back that philosophers might be concerned by OUP’s dominance in the field, and that led to these reflections on the quality of OUP as a publisher. Despite my criticisms, I think the overall news there is quite good. As a profession, we’ve benefited quite a lot from OUP’s consistently high-quality presence in the field. Still, one might think that this line of inquiry misses what is most concerning in all of this. One of the scholars I surveyed wrote: “The thing that seems bad about the monopoly to me is that people have only one shot at publishing their books with a prestigious publisher.  It would be like if there was only one prestigious journal.” Here’s how I would elaborate on that remark. It may be that OUP’s prestige monopoly has progressed to such a point that to publish a book with any other press is immediately a mark against it. It’s easy to imagine, for instance, that when the editors at The Philosophical Review or Analysis look at an OUP book, they immediately lean toward reviewing it, whereas for any other book they immediately lean away (pending further considerations)? What about hiring and tenure decisions? Will a book published anywhere other than OUP immediately look second-rate on a CV? Well, one might say, that’s just how reputational judgments get made all the time, in all sorts of ways. OK, but if OUP is the only high-prestige publisher, and if so much accordingly rides upon its publication decisions, then this is concerning. Even though they publish a lot every year, and even though the scholars I surveyed are enthusiastic about their editorial procedures, it’s problematic if a career can be made or unmade on the report of just a single reader for a press.

I myself don’t think the situation, as it stands, is quite so dire. In the fields I work in, there’s important work coming out from all sorts of presses, and I don’t feel any sense that one must either publish with OUP or perish. But I do wonder whether, in parts of philosophy closer to what’s perceived as the mainstream, the field could be coming close to this sort of alarming situation. Philosophy would benefit, at any rate, from a frank discussion of this issue.

More of What We’ve Come to Expect from 2020

Silvia di Donato (CNRS Paris) has organized, this Thursday, a daylong conference on La prophétie et la révélation dans les traditions philosophiques arabo-islamique et juive. It’s a mix of French and English papers, all online of course (December 10, 2020).

Antoine Côté (Ottawa) has organized a great series of online talks for this spring, starting with Scott MacDonald (Cornell) on January 15, 2021. Details here.

Next fall, the Sociedad de Filosofía Medieval will hold its 8th International Congress on the subject De cognitione (Porto, September 6-8, 2021). The cfp deadline is March 15, 2021.

Schabel and Duba have concluded their editorship at Vivarium with an issue that seems perfectly suited to 2020. When I unwrapped my hard copy yesterday, I swear that a little smoke came off the thing. It begins with a series of Retraction Notices and ends with an extended review by Mark Thakkar (St. Andrews) that forecasts “a gathering crisis in medieval studies.” I won’t be publishing reader comments here—this isn’t that sort of blog—but suffice it to say that volume 58:4 is a memorable read.

A Week of Virtual Bob

I don’t know about how things are in your corners of the world, but around here morale is pretty low and, as the semester grinds on, it seems to be getting lower.

Since I’m on sabbatical this year, I’ve been happily saved at least from the burden of online teaching, but alas that just gives me more time to tune into other kinds of unhappiness around the globe. So I’ve come up with a plan both to distract myself from the news for a week and, at the same time, to contribute a little bit during the COVID era.  I’d like to offer my services as a virtual professor.

So as to put reasonable limits on this offer, it’s confined only to the week of October 26-30, but within those five days the offer is pretty much unlimited. I am prepared to meet with any group of any size at any level, anywhere on the planet: undergraduate, graduate, faculty, high-school students, 11-year-olds — anyone who is interested in the sorts of issues I am interested in. I am, moreover, interested in lots of things — pretty much any area of philosophy and any period in the history of Western philosophy, plus long stretches of the history of science, Christian theology, medieval history, and medieval literature. My idea is that I would try to teach whatever you’re supposed to teach on a given day. Try me!

If you want to book my time during this week, email me as soon as possible and describe what you have in mind. First come, first serve. And don’t hesitate to get in touch, even if we’ve never met, no matter how modest your circumstances. For that week, I’m ready to go anywhere, virtually.

End of Summer News

Lots of useful information has been piling up in my inbox. Many of the deadlines are soon!

  • The 42nd Kölner Mediaevistentagung, on the topic ‘Curiositas,’ is online this year, and so accessible to everyone (September 7-10, 2020). It’s a wonderfully international program, with lots of talks in English. Registration and general information here.
  • Leuven is hosting, virtually, a conference on “Essence and Existence in the 13th and 14th Centuries.” (September 11-13, 2020).
  • The University of Jyväskylä is advertising a three-year postdoc to work on the project “Vicious, Antisocial and Sinful: The Social and Political Dimension of Moral Vices from Medieval to Early Modern Philosophy.” Application deadline is September 15, 2020. Details here.
  • Filipe Silva (University of Helsinki) is advertising a 46-month postdoc to research Augustinian Natural Philosophy ca. 1277. Application deadline September 15, 2020. Details here.
  • NYU Abu Dhabi is advertising research fellowships for junior and senior scholars focusing on “the study of the Arab world.” Application deadline is October 1, 2020. Details here.
  • Christina Thomsen Thörnqvist (Gothenburg) is advertising a multi-year postdoc as part the project on Medieval Aristotelian Logic 1240-1360. Application deadline is September 24, 2020. Details here.
  • The Schindler Foundation is advertising a 3-6 month grant for junior scholars focusing on “Medieval Latin Studies,” in honor of Claudio Leonardi. Application deadline is September 15, 2020. Details here.
  • UCLA is advertising the Wellman Chair in medieval European history. Review of applications begins November 1, 2020.
  • Western University (Ontario) is organizing a weekly online Latin study group, aimed at students who are just beginning their Latin studies, and who wish to concentrate on philosophical texts. Application deadline is September 5, 2020.
  • The New Narratives Project is organizing a work-in-progress seminar for early-career scholars. Officially the deadline passed yesterday to submit a proposal, but it might not be too late to get involved!
  • The SMRP has issued a call for papers, on any medieval topic, from scholars of any rank, for the APA Central meeting in February 2021 (which will be online). Deadline is September 15, 2020. Details here.
  • Reginald Lynch is organizing a session at Kalamazoo (May 13-15, 2021) on “Scholasticism and the Sacraments.” Cfp deadline is September 15. Details here.
  • The Paris Institute for Advanced Studies is accepting applicants for visiting fellowships during 2021-22. Having spent a year there myself, I can report that they are enthusiastic about the history of philosophy. The deadline is September 15, 2020.
  • The Aquinas Institute has begun an online masters program in theology. Details here.
  • Congratulations to Michiel Streijger, who has won a three-year German Research Foundation grant: “Digitale Edition von Walter Burleys zwei frühen Kommentaren zur Physik des Aristoteles.”
  • Congratulations to Gordon Wilson and to Rega Wood for each receiving a National Endowment for the Humanities grant for their editions of Henry of Ghent and Richard Rufus.
  • Congratulations to Gaston LeNotre (Dominican University College), who won the annual SMRP Founder’s Award for the best paper by a younger scholar. Honorable mention went to Milo Crimi (UCLA).

Edward Grant (1926-2020)

Edward Grant, the distinguished historian of science and longtime professor at Indiana University, died earlier this week. Information about Professor Grant’s career, and a guide to the large archive of his papers at Indiana University, is available here. (Thanks to Rega Wood for announcing this information at today’s virtual colloquium.)

Virtual Colloquium 9, Scott MacDonald

The next Virtual Medieval Colloquium features Scott MacDonald (Cornell University).

When: Thursday, May 21, 12 noon in Brooklyn / 18h à Paris

A recording is available here.

The handout is available here.

Title: “Augustine’s Early, Abandoned Proof for the Immortality of the Soul”

Abstract: In three texts composed within a year of each other (386-87), Augustine presents several versions of an argument for the immortality of the soul. Despite his initial enthusiasm for it, Augustine abandons the argument almost immediately and without comment; after 387 we never see it again. The argument is deeply flawed in ways that make Augustine’s abandonment of it entirely understandable. But for all its difficulties, it provides an illuminating glimpse into Augustine’s early thinking about issues that will come, over the span of his career, to define his own philosophical system and his relation to his Platonist forebears. What must be the nature of mind, reality, and cognition if we are to know intelligible objects and truths? How are we to account for our cognitive contact with things eternal and immutable? Perhaps the mind must be immortal?

This talk, like previous ones, will be recorded. You can find a link to each recording on the original announcement page for each talk.

Sponsored by the Institut d’Etudes Avancées de Paris.