Tuesday, 29 April 2008

Kith selection?

Catching up with Radio 4 podcasts whilst out jogging recently, I was delighted to hear a discussion of Isaac Newton with Simon Schaffer (scarily pictured!) and Rob Iliffe, both of whom taught me in Cambridge in the 1980s. It prompted me to do a Google search of past colleagues which revealed how successful the Cambridge sociologists of science have been in getting on, landing good academic posts and shaping their field. Part of this, I’m sure, has been an active approach to supporting colleagues in part also to support the discipline.

I also came across another ex-colleague, one link for whom was to a book review in which they had attempted to give the book’s author a good kicking and the author, in a right of reply, had returned the favour. I’ve not read the original book so I do not know who really had the better argument. But, in the published exchange, the injured author clearly gets the best of things and hence my ex-colleague is rather left, with egg on face, looking both unscholarly and rather mean-spirited. This prompted me to wonder about whether writing reviews within one’s own field is really a good idea. (And if not within one’s own field, what right has one outside?)

It might be tempting, especially within the tradition of analytic philosophy of the last few decades, to enjoy the rough and tumble of writing negative reviews amongst the positive (though if the tradition is to be followed: largely negative). And perhaps within philosophy as a whole, there’s no danger of diminishing interest in the broader field. Even so, however, it would surely be unfortunate to acquire a reputation for gratuitous floccinaucinihilipilification. But the converse, whilst perhaps polite, would lack any specifically academic virtue.

Given that the next two books on my shelf for review are by authors whose still minority fields I very much support, there’s an obvious lesson to be learnt from Cambridge sociology of science.