Scholarly Work, Scholarly Qualifications:
Over at Prawfsblawg, Dan Solove takes issue with a recent post by Brian Leiter on the credentials needed to do "competent, cutting edge work in interdisciplinary areas like law and economics, or law and philosophy, or law and psychology." Brian contends that a Ph.D. is essential training; Dan strongly disagrees; and a long and interesting comment thread has ensued.
Eric (mail) (www):
Isn't there an important difference between "competent" work and "cutting edge" work? Surely one does not need a Ph.D. to do "competent" interdisciplinary work.

I am, by the way, deeply mistrustful of the value of the kind of work that some like to describe as "cutting edge." I often (not invariably, but often) find that this "cutting edge" work is the work that most successfully manages to limit its audience to three or four other "cutting edge" scholars rather than speaking broadly and comprehensibly to a potentially wide audience. For this sort of rarefied (and often largely pointless) work, I can see how a Ph.D might be essential, both as a signal to those three or four others to take the author seriously, and as a multi-year crash course in the intricacies of the work of those three or four people.
9.12.2005 11:18am

The thing about cutting edge work is that it's one in a thousand (or similar smallish fraction) that becomes mainstream and important. So while much of it _is_ pointless, we place considerable value on that which becomes important, and, so far, we don't have any mechanism for determining ahead of time which will fall by the wayside and which will be valuable other than the ability to gather adherents and to stand up to increasing scrutiny over time.

So we continue to support cutting edge research which, generally, only a handful of folks care about with the hope and expectation that some of it will become valuable at some later date.
9.12.2005 11:44am
AppSocREs (mail):
I have an Ivy League Ph.D. in a discipline where my department ranked fairly high. I've conducted research in a variety of areas since then and kept up at least marginally in all the fields I've studied or worked in. During that time I've worked with a lot of researchers, freshly-minted Ph.D.s, older Ph.D.s, and others. On that basis I'd like to make several observations:

(1) With a proper grounding in the basics, access to appropriate resources, and a lively mind, it is easy for any intelligent and intellectually-inclined person to master "cutting edge" knowledge/research. The most difficult areas for this are the "squishiest", e.g., the arts, literature, the "soft" social sciences, and philosophy where "cutting edge" is just a code for newest fashion.

(2) Many Ph.D.s -- new and old -- that I've met and worked with have been morons. Their analyses are cant, their research the misuse of techniques they understand poorly, if at all. One tenured professor at Harvard for whom I worked had an international reputation as a methodologist in political science. His ignorance was such that he could not write out the specifications for the statistical models he used -- an exercise requiring nothing much more than a knowledge of high school algebra.

(3) I've known many non-Ph.D.s whose research and thought are at the cutting edge of the disciplines they work in and far exceed in quality that of Ph.D.s and tenured faculty in the field.

I'd rather read Posner on economics and the law than any other person I can think of. If there are persons doing better work in this area, please supply their names, so I can read them.
9.12.2005 1:24pm
AppSocREs, it's really interesting that you rank the "squishy" subjects as *harder* for a generalist to figure out. My intuition was otherwise, but you might have a point that such subjects require more of a literature review than others.
9.12.2005 2:05pm
I don't often agree with Brian Leiter, and am not about to start now. But his assertion contains within it a kernel of truth as to at least two of the three disciplines he identifies. A philosophy Ph.D. carries with it no special value that an intelligent, curious person can't make up for with time and self-discipline. I recognize that philosophy is Leiter's hobby horse, but if he thinks philosophy is so impenetrable to the average intelligent person that it requires a five-year course of study before one should be allowed to comment on "cross-disciplinary" matters involving law and philosophy, well, I disagree, although a good course or two in elementary logic and a survey philosophy course would probably be worthwhile.

This is less true with respect to economics/psychology/sociology, at least in one significant respect: it is necessary for folks writing in "law and [those areas]" to have a solid working knowledge of quantitative methods, preferably beyond the one-semester survey course most undergraduates take. And it is far more difficult for most folks to self-educate on methods of statistical analysis than it is to check out a couple of introductory philosophy tomes and eventually work one's way up to Also sprach Zarathustra.

Don't think the Ph.D. is necessary at all, but it helps to be able to at least read (and preferably create) a multiple regression model. But then again, isn't that what co-authors are for?
9.12.2005 2:30pm
In my PhD program, without fail the brightest students dropped out to get real jobs. The people who finished were the most stubborn and persistent, not the smartest, and the people who got academic jobs were an even more stubborn subset of the finishers.

My field was Computer Science, not Philosophy, and I doubt that bright philosophy students have as many job opportunities as bright computer science students, but, my experience makes me very suspicious of people like Brian Leiter who think a PhD has some correlation with intelligence.
9.12.2005 3:29pm
Quarterican (mail):
Brian Leiter says (at some point) that he's not saying a PhD is *necessary*, but serves as a useful proxy for the necessary training/knowledge. If you have a PhD, it's reasonable to hope you also have the necessary training/knowledge to do good work; if not, it's possible, but less likely. This seems perfectly reasonable, and I don't quite understand why people take issue with it.

As someone who recently completed undergraduate work in philosophy and is taking time off from further schooling while contemplating a future of: (a) law school (b) grad school in philosophy, or (c) both (?!), I have a few other comments to add:

(1) I agree with Pablo that an intelligent, curious, and disciplined person could embark upon a self-directed study of philosophy which would leave them more than prepared to intelligently discuss, and even do work in, the matters of the field. But the amount of time and discipline would be considerable.

(2) AppSocREs: I'm insulted that you think philosophy is as squishy as literature. No, but seriously, I take your point about the fashionability of "the cutting edge," but when applied to philosophy, most of these sorts of snarks seem misplaced to me. I'm not sure I could place a finger on what the cutting edge is right now, but I'll tell you what it definitely *isn't*: Foucault, et al., which is usually what people have in mind re: squishy philosophy. (And Foucault, in my opinion, has many flaws but gets a bad rap.)

(3) In my last term as an undergraduate, I (and about eight other undergrads, mostly in philosophy) took a course in the law school on Religion and the First Amendment which frequently (by design) veered into philosophy, and included readings of Locke, Rousseau, and Rawls; everyone in the class was either a junior or senior in the college or a 2L or 3L in the law school. This was not a scientific sample by any means, but I - and, I'd wager, the other philosophy students in the course - were pretty underwhelmed by the philosophical contributions of (most of) the law students to class discussion. From my perspective, a lot of what was said rested on faulty logic and poor reading of the material, and the discussion simply took place at a lower level than an undergraduate philosophy course would have. I imagine the law students felt the same way about our attempts to discuss Wisconsin v. Yoder.
9.12.2005 3:51pm
Stephen M (Ethesis) (mail) (www):
everyone in the class was either a junior or senior in the college or a 2L or 3L in the law school. This was not a scientific sample by any means, but I - and, I'd wager, the other philosophy students in the course - were pretty underwhelmed by the philosophical contributions of (most of) the law students to class discussion.

The problem is that many people do not pick up enough context and make the same impression that a pro se litigant makes in court.

I don't often agree with Brian Leiter, and am not about to start now.

I know the feeling, though I find him convincing more and more, when I'm not blocked by his invective from being able to understand him.

I still question whether or not Freud belongs on the cutting edge in Philosophy (I studied him in Philosophy classes in the mid 70s ...) or whether Marx really is the universal master ( ;) ), but he makes good points.

Too often people come across as sophomores when they think they are cutting edge.
9.12.2005 9:17pm
Bezuhov (mail):
"Brian Leiter says (at some point) that he's not saying a PhD is *necessary*, but serves as a useful proxy for the necessary training/knowledge."

And I believe several folks here (and at prawfsblawg)are questioning the validity of that very claim, for the same reason that being on top of the latest pin-head-angel-capacity scholastic debates was a poor correlate with the very real cutting-edge thought taking place in the Renaissance.
9.12.2005 9:35pm
Paul Gowder (mail):
Here now, this Foucault slander is too much! :-) I think part of the problem is that anyone who buys the analysis of e.g. Foucault is automatically classified as trying to be "cutting edge," instead of trying to apply the analysis of someone who they find convincing...
9.12.2005 9:44pm
M (mail):
Perhaps people here didn't read the original post or some of Leiter's further clairifications. Eithe that's the case or they suffer from a serious defficiency in reading comprehension. The point was not about "being allowed to comment" on cross disciplinary work, or understanding Nietszche (Harder than you think, I suspect) but rather about being able to producse quality scholarly work. That's a much harder thing to do and the number of amatures who can do it are vanishingly small. It is also extremely hard to learn to do on one's own- a large part of such training is having one's ideas and understanding critiqued by experts in the field. Without this one is more than a little likely to be highly confused without knowing it. This should not be controversial, I'd think.
9.12.2005 10:18pm
cmn (mail) (www):
By the end of the thread, I realized that Leiter's point essentially collapses to the following near-tautology:

The people with Ph.D's in philosophy who decide what constitutes a significant contribution to the field of philosophy are likely to regard as significant only things written by people who have been trained to write the kinds of things that people with Ph.D's in philosophy regard as significant.

I regard this statement as pretty nearly unassailably true. I think a few of the commenters though, were attempting to point toward other questions that are perhaps more important, though I don't think the good Prof. Leiter was purporting to address them. Namely, what is the purpose of attempting to integrate some form of philosophy into the curriculum of a law school, and what, if any, is the connection between achieving this purpose and fostering the kind of academic writing that qualifies as "cutting edge" philosophy?
9.13.2005 12:55am
Quarterican (mail):
Stephen M. -

I must, shamefully, admit that your first comment confused me greatly. Who isn't/wasn't picking up enough context in my quote? Is it me? The law students? Foucault?

Paul Gowder -

Not to get too off topic, but yes, exactly. For one thing, as I said, it's simply inaccurate to think that MF is cutting edge. I asked a professor of mine where I might want to apply to school if I were interested in Foucault's last writings (arguing that we should return to a Classical concept of ethics), and he said. "Nowhere. France. Maybe the University of Michigan. No one seems very interested in that right now." There's been a knee-jerk decision that any French person who wrote between the 60s and the 80s is a postmodern devil and must be dismissed out of hand, and it's those people that keep getting referenced for a drubbing when someone wants to badmouth modern philosophy.

Bezuhov -

I was trying to type a comprehensive response, but I'll just defer to M's above. The comments thread over at Prawfsblawg has developed to encompass most of the other points I might've raised; in particular this post:

Posted by: CVW | Sep 12, 2005 12:27:59 PM

(so anyone interested can find it). I think whomever drew the distinction between "interesting work in two fields" and "interesting work in one field w/reference to another" was pretty spot on as well. The likelihood that w/out both PhD and JD training anyone could write articles at a level worthy of being published in scholarly journals of both philosophy and law is extremely rare; the likelihood that someone might have something interesting to say in applying, oh I don't know, Kierkegaard to jurisprudence w/out a PhD is higher - although philosophers might laugh at the results (which isn't necessarily anything to be bothered about). I think the points about the "cutting edge" miss the mark - it's not fetishism for the latest fad, it's simply about quality of work.
9.13.2005 1:27am
In very defense of my earlier comment:

I find myself guilty of the very thing that so annoys me about Leiter's work -- rhetorical excess leading to imprecision. I should not have said "allowed to comment" when the original thread (and the discussions it has spawned elsewhere) did indeed focus on "cutting edge" work.

That said, I still disagree with the assertion that those without doctoral degrees are incapable of doing "cutting edge" interdisciplinary work, unless as one commenter above suggests, "cutting edge" is defined as "work done by those with Ph.D.s." Larry Ribstein suggests that Coase- and Tullock-style theoretical work remains to be done in the law and economics field, and I agree.

Though Kate Litvak is, like Brian Leiter, overly in love with her talent for dismissive criticism of those she considers her intellectual inferiors, she does make a good point in the PrawfsBlawg thread regarding the need for serious L&E scholars to be really good at either math, statistics, or micro. To the extent a Ph.D. proxies for those things, fine, but 'tis not necessary to have a Ph.D. to do cutting edge work, unless "cutting edge" is self-referentially defined as "work requiring the peculiar mix of mathematical, statistical, and microeconomic skills that an Econ. Ph.D. acquires by dint of her formal economics education."

I do tend to agree with Kate, Larry, and others that there's a glut of very bad L&E writing out there (both weak non-quantitative work that gets the economics wrong and weak purportedly "quantitative" work that isn't), but as Larry suggests, we should not harry the good nonmathematical work into extinction in the name of driving out the bad. Something about babies and bathwater?

Quarterican: Hope you didn't take my thoughts about self-education in philosophy the wrong way -- I didn't mean to downplay the difficulty of the project. I've spent my years since college backing and filling the holes in my philosophical education, and it's tough sledding. Doing the Big Boys on your own is no picnic without the basic philosophical vocabulary one acquires in undergraduate courses. We didn't use words like "hermeneutics" and "dialectic" in my econ major.
9.13.2005 11:07am
Robert Schwartz (mail):
I agree with AppSocRES above. As near as I can tell, a Ph.D. signifies nothing more than membership in the union, and indeed probably means that the holder has voluntarily expunged all creativity and adopted a mentality of passive conformity to the existing orthodoxy. As Pablo said: "The people who finished [the PhD program] were the most stubborn and persistent, not the smartest, and the people who got academic jobs were an even more stubborn subset of the finishers.

I think the more interesting question is not whether a person who does not have a PhD can do "competent, cutting edge work," but whether Ph.D.'s ever do any thing that is at all creative or interesting to anybody outside of their coterie.
9.13.2005 1:08pm
Robert Schwartz (mail):
Sorry Pablo, that was DK. The link is correct.
9.13.2005 1:10pm
Stephen M (Ethesis):
The problem is that many people do not pick up enough context and make the same impression that a pro se litigant makes in court

I meant that many times law &banana writers do not have enough context in the banana field and so they, and the editors who work with them, come across with the same authority that a pro se litigant comes across with in court.

Some do very well. Most think they are doing well, and they've convinced their friends, but they aren't.

On the other thread at the other blog I've also noted that many of the article writers are at the same level as a second year associate in a law firm and that writing an article should be considered on par with writing an appellate brief. How many practicing attorneys would really trust even a bright second year associate to take an important appeal without serious supervision?

Oh, Foucault always lacks sufficient context ;)

Hope that clears it up. I think that many writers just do not have enough context in the banana subject, enough knowledge, to avoid context based mistakes.
9.14.2005 12:46pm