Where are the philosophical baby boomers?

Eric Schwitzgebel has a fascinating post about how little influence baby boomers have had in philosophy. He uses a nice objective measure; looking at which philosophers are most cited in the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy. He finds that of the 25 most cited philosophers, 15 were born between 1931 and 1945, and just 2 were born between 1946 and 1960.

Now to be sure some of this could be due to philosophers who were born in 1960 having not yet produced their best work – lots of great philosophical work is published after one’s 51st birthday. And it could be because those philosophers have produced great work that hasn’t yet dissipated widely enough to be cited.

But I don’t believe either explanation. For one thing, Eric notes that if anything, the boomers are at the age where philosophers’ influence typically peaks. For another, the stats Eric posts back up something I’ve heard talked about in conversation a bit independently.

There are lots of very prominent, and ground-breaking, philosophers in my generation. (I’m defining generations in a way that my generation includes roughly people born between 1965 and 1980.) And looking at the current crops of grad students, the next generation looks fairly spectacular too. But between the generation of Lewis, Kripke, Fodor, Jackson etc, and my generation, there aren’t as many prominent, field-defining figures. It’s not like there are none; Timothy Williamson alone would refute that claim. But I didn’t think there were as many, and neither did a number of people I’ve talked about this with over the years, and Eric’s figures go some way to confirming that impression.

Eric also makes a suggestion about why this strange state of affairs – strange because you’d expect boomers to be overrepresented in any category like this – may have come about.

College enrollment grew explosively in the 1960s and then flattened out. The pre-baby-boomers were hired in large numbers in the 1960s to teach the baby boomers. The pre-baby boomers rose quickly to prominence in the 1960s and 1970s and set the agenda for philosophy during that period. Through the 1980s and into the 1990s, the pre-baby-boomers remained dominant. During the 1980s, when the baby boomers should have been exploding onto the philosophical scene, they instead struggled to find faculty positions, journal space, and professional attention in a field still dominated by the depression-era and World War II babies.

That’s an interesting hypothesis, though it seems that if it is true, it should generalise to other disciplines. And I’m wondering whether it does. Are baby boomers underrepresented among the leading figures in other fields such as political science, history, sociology, English literature and so on? If not, I think we need another explanation for philosophy’s recent history.

4 Replies to “Where are the philosophical baby boomers?”

  1. Interesting thought, Brian. It does seem like if my conjecture is correct it should generalize to other fields that had explosive enrollment growth in the 1960s, followed by flattening into the 1990s (presumably most fields). I’m somewhat unsure about how to operationalize that generalization, however, because citation patterns and threads of influence are so different in different fields. For example, I think most fields have much greater a recency bias in citation than philosophy does.

  2. How about this?: Large parts of philosophy fell out of favor in the decades immediately preceding Lewis, Nagel, etc. — everything from normative ethics to metaphysics to political philosophy to empirically-informed philosophy of mind to…well a lot of other stuff that’s not so easily labelled. The pre-boomers, then, were responsible for rejuvenating these very sexy areas of the field and were lauded for this rejuvenation. By the time the boomers rolled around, there was less to rejuvenate. This explanation has the example of being (as far as I know) discipline-specific.

    It’s notable, though, that the pre-boomer generation, sometimes called the “Silent Generation” by social historians, failed to produce a single U.S. president. I guess all the would-be presidents were writing about possible worlds and side-constraints.

    -Andrew Sepielli

  3. Interesting thought, Andrew! Any ideas for a quantitative measure? Maybe some choice keywords in a “discussion arc” analysis? (Search “The Splintered Mind” blog for “discussion arcs” and you’ll see what I mean.)

    One really broad methodological problem: What we think of as “major” is partly conditioned by what those folks choose to render major. It would be even nicer if there were a measure of “sexy” or “major” that could be quantified from the 18th-19th century in a forward-looking way.

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