Everyone is risk-averse; and not

Over at Daily Nous, there’s discussion of an argument by John Symons that academic philosophy has become more risk-averse. Symons writes that

…the current incentive structure of academic philosophy in the United States favors cautious and modest research agendas for early career philosophers. Philosophical inquiry thrives when it is conducted in a spirit that risks overreaching a bit and welcomes criticism. Philosophy thrives when its creative, skeptical, and self-critical core is not subordinated to excessively cautious American-style professionalism…

The trick, though, is that any system where there are more researchers than jobs must hire some of them but not others. This creates an incentive structure for scholars to do work that tends to get people hired.

In a system which rewards provocative overreaching, a risk-averse young scholar who wanted to maximize their chance of a job would portray their work as provocative overreach. This would probably mean not citing too much other work (so as not to make one’s project look too in-the-box) and, when citing things, doing so only with disapproval (so as to suggest that one is against the system). Someone who is genuinely interested in formalizing the context sensitivity of epistemic modals would have to include a fiery introduction that explains why their work sticks it to the man.

Ultimately, risk-aversion can arise in any incentive structure.

Moreover, no young philosophers are truly risk-averse. They have spent years of their life pursuing a PhD in Philosophy, which is a risky proposition regardless of the research topic. The genuinely risk averse young adults didn’t become philosophers.

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