Tuesday, June 01, 2021

Frank P. Ramsey on research and publication rates

Spurred by the excellent 1978 radio programme 'Better than the Stars' by D. H. Mellor about Frank Ramsey and by the Philosophy Bites interview with Cheryl Misak on Frank Ramsey and Ludwig Wittgenstein, I started reading Cheryl Misak's biography of Frank Ramsey. (FWIW, I strongly recommend the radio programme, the podcast and the book.)

The following quote from pages 169-170 of Cheryl Misak's book describes Ramsey's views on publications and research, as stated in a letter to his father Arthur:

Arthur tried a different tack, suggesting that Frank was going to be in trouble for wasting all this time on analysis, rather than on his career. On 24 September, in what seems to be his last letter home before he left Vienna, Frank wrote:
I don’t see how there can be any such inquisition into my conduct in Vienna as you suppose seem to want to guard against.... No one can suppose that you can’t research for six months without having a paper ready by the end. If everyone wrote a paper every six months the amount of trivial literature would swell beyond all bounds. Given time I shall produce a good paper. But if I hurry it will be ill written and unintelligible and unconvincing.
It seems to me perfectly proper to spend a scholarship being analysed, as it is likely to make me cleverer in the future, and discoveries of importance are made by remarkable people not by remarkable diligence.
While it may not be persuasive that psychoanalysis makes one cleverer, Frank was prescient that the numbers of journal articles would eventually swell and he was right that diligence isn't enough to produce discoveries of importance.
Of course, academia has changed since those times and I do value "remarkable diligence". However, I will try to remember Ramsey's words next time someone proposes to make academic hirings and promotions conditional to having a certain number of papers or citations or whatever per year on average.

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