Monday, May 26, 2008

Scholarly priority

I am sitting on more or less complete drafts of several projects, including book-length ones. Suppose there comes out a publication that does everything I wanted to do in one of my drafts, and does it at least as well as I would have. One of my first feelings is likely to be of disappointment. Moreover, I am likely to put some effort into finding a subtle way in which the publication has gone wrong, and if I fail to find it, I am not going to be too happy.

This attitude is likely to be sinful. The primary good served in the scholarly life is the good of truth (or, more precisely, ordered truth—but more on that in a later post, perhaps). But in regard to truth, I should be most glad that someone else has written this up. After all, this means two things: (a) someone else has independently come to the same conclusion, which makes it more probable that the apparent discoveries are in fact true, and (b) the mere fact that someone else believes this truth is surely a truth-based good.

Granted, there are times when certain material goods, such as those associated with tenure or with salary increases tied to performance measures, depended on the now-lost opportunity for publishing. But surely, someone who loves his neighbor as himself will also be glad that his neighbor gained these material goods. then one has a truth-based reason to be glad of that publication. There may be a sadness, particularly if one's family's welfare is to some extent compromised, but it should be balanced by a truth-oriented joy. However for an already tenured faculty member like myself, the effect on family welfare is small.

Having the right kind of attitude in these kinds of cases is hard for a person as vain as myself. I think I have found a strategy for when these cases come up—I don't know whether it'll work, but I have some reason it will. I will use vice to fight vice (we must, after all, be as clever as serpents), in this case using the laziness-enhanced joy at not having to finish my own project to destroy the vanity-based sadness at someone else having stolen my thunder. (I say the joy is laziness-enhanced, because the joy is not entirely disordered, it being a genuine good that one not have to finish a project, so that one can do something else that is valuable.)


Anonymous said...


Trent D has a similar short post at


Mike Almeida said...


This seems almost certainly not the way to go. There are times when ideas are "scooped" but it seems never true that the initial idea cannot be advanced in other ways, or moved in other directions. Having done all of the work in writing up the paper, it seems silly not to pursue it further. On further consideration, it might turn out to be badly mistaken (there is good inductive evidence for this: 99% of interesting idea turn out to be mistaken in interesting ways). That would be good to know, too.