As some readers may know, Carrie-Ann and I are, in addition to what we do at IOS, the co-editors of the journal Reason Papers (RP), a “job” we took on in January 2011. We laid out our vision for the journal in an editorial essay we wrote for our first issue, and one of the things we stressed in it was that—contrary to popular belief—Reason Papers is not a libertarian or Objectivist journal. In truth, it had never been either of those things under any of our predecessors, but we thought we’d be more emphatic about the point than they’d been. So we put things as follows:
It’s worth stressing…that while Reason Papers has often published work from an Objectivist or libertarian perspective, Reason Papers is not an Objectivist or libertarian journal, or for that matter, a journal edited for conformity with any particular philosophical or ideological perspective. We think of the journal as a forum for inquiry and debate across a wide spectrum of views rather than as the instrument of any one ideology, party, or camp.
Evidently, some people have found that hard to believe. One well-known philosopher, invited to write something for RP, took one look at the journal’s Editorial Board, found it “troubling,” and declined to write for us. (I find our Editorial Board troubling too, but that’s because I have to deal with it.*) I don’t really know what “troubling” means in this context, but if I had to guess, I’d guess it has something to do with Ayn Rand. Others have just thought it obvious that given (a) the Objectivist commitments of the editors, and (b) the sheer frequency with which RP “has…published work from an Objectivist or libertarian perspective,” it must follow that RP is an Objectivist-libertarian journal. What else could it be?
Well, it could be what we said it is. To repeat ourselves: we simply don’t think of RP as an Objectivist-libertarian journal, and since we edit the journal—and no one else does—we’d like to think that our opinion on the matter is essentially conclusive. So our response to the rhetorical question at the end of the preceding paragraph is a rhetorical question of our own: If we say that RP isn’t a libertarian-Objectivist journal, and it’s our journal, then on what grounds could anyone else (short of accusing us of lying) insist that it is one? I suppose the Editorial Board might object to our conception of the journal and demand that it be made more libertarian or Objectivist, but they haven’t objected, we don’t expect them to object, and we wouldn’t acquiesce in such a demand if they made one. QED.
A critic might grant our sincerity but nonetheless dispute our claim, wondering whether our aspiration was, given our presumed commitments, conceptually possible or practically feasible. A pair of Objectivists might think that they were being impartial or non-ideological about their editorial procedures (the criticism might go), but they’d have to be fooling themselves. Objectivism is an inherently ideological doctrine, so its adherents must be fundamentally ideologically people. If the editors of RP are adherents of Objectivism (and they say they are), they are fundamentally ideological people, and no ideologue would pass up the opportunity to instrumentalize a whole journal for his or her own ideological purposes. So how can RP not be an Objectivist journal?
In one attenuated sense, we have to plead guilty to this charge: we are Objectivists, and at some level our Objectivism is an ideological doctrine, at least on our own understanding of that term, though not necessarily a critic’s. RP is our journal, and the task of editing it is one of our purposes. We’re even willing to concede that it’s one of our ideological purposes, provided our critic is willing to concede that an Objectivist editor can have ideological purposes of the sort described in John Stuart Mill’s account of “thought and discussion” in On Liberty: “the only way in which a human being can make some approach to knowing the whole of a subject, is by hearing [or publishing] what can be said about it by persons of every variety of opinion, and studying all modes in which it can be looked at by every character of mind.” In that sense, RP is edited in an ideological fashion. Of course, a critic who granted that conception of an ideological purpose wouldn’t, in calling us “ideological,” be making what we see as a criticism.
We think that the journal’s track record bears out our quasi-Millian, nonpartisan approach to journal editing. We have, no doubt, published plenty of Objectivist/libertarian stuff in RP, in part as the result of a form of path-dependency: since RP has published Objectivist/libertarian stuff in the past, people associate it with Objectivism and libertarianism, and if they are themselves Objectivist or libertarian, they submit us Objectivist/libertarian manuscripts; if not, they keep their “troubled” distance from the journal. Be that as it may, we’ve also published work critical of Objectivism and libertarianism, and work on topics totally unrelated either to Objectivism or libertarianism. Of the six symposia that we’ve run or are planning to run between 2011 and the end of 2013, two of them focus on the work of figures completely outside of Objectivist-libertarian circles (Sari Nusseibeh, Robert Talisse), and one focuses on the work of a libertarian hostile to Objectivism (Jason Brennan). A fourth symposium discusses an event of interest to (some) Objectivists and libertarians—the Waco/Branch Davidian crisis of 1993—but does so from a variety of perspectives, most of them well outside of the Objectivist/libertarian camp. Two further symposia discuss Objectivism, but each symposium proceeds by discussing its topic from divergent points of view, one Objectivist and one critical of Objectivism. Though most of the specifically political writing in the journal has come from the Objectivist-libertarian side of the spectrum, some of it has come from conservatives, and some has come from the left (some of that pretty far out on the left). (And if our current manuscript pipeline is any indication, the preceding ratio of left- to right-leaning writing published in the journal is apt to change over the next few issues). Meanwhile, the non-political material published in the journal is all over the map, and bears no clear connection at all to either Objectivism or libertarianism.
To get some perspective on all this, it’s worth comparing the ideological complexion of RP’s publishing profile with that of some mainstream journals covering the same or similar topics. I subscribe to and keep fairly close tabs on three mainstream journals whose subject-matter overlaps with RP’s—Ethics, Public Affairs Quarterly, and Critical Review. I try to keep track of what’s going on at mainstream (or mainstreamish) philosophy blogs like PEA Soup, Public Reason, and Bleeding Heart Libertarians as well. Between the two of us, Carrie-Ann and I have a library of hundreds of back issues of philosophy journals here in our office, from The Monist to Philosophy and Public Affairs to Social Philosophy and Policy to the Proceedings of the American Philosophical Association. As an assistant editor for the Philosopher’s Index, Carrie-Ann gets a box of several dozen journals every month or so, and is obliged to go through every article in every one of them in order to index them for the database of the Philosopher’s Index. When she’s done with the indexing, I take a look through the indexes to get a sense of what’s going on out there in the world of philosophy publishing. Taken together, the preceding is a sufficiently large and representative sample by which to make the following generalization: The vast majority of the published work on ethics, politics, and law in professional philosophy/political theory journals promotes the political agenda of the left.
I doubt that that claim would come as a surprise to—or be contested by—anyone who pays attention to what’s published in mainstream philosophy journals. It doesn’t follow, however, and isn’t true, that mainstream journals like Ethics, Public Affairs Quarterly, or Political Theory etc. are “left-wing journals.” That conclusion wouldn’t follow even if their editors were all politically on the left. Nor would it follow if virtually every article such journals published took left-wing positions (as they mostly end up doing). There is a clear difference between, say, the editorial agenda of Ethics or Public Affairs Quarterly on the one hand, and that of say, Dissent, New Left Review, or Democracy on the other. Articles in Ethics (the journal’s mission statement tells us) “present new theories, apply theory to contemporary moral issues, or focus on historical works that have significant implications for contemporary theory.” Public Affairs Quarterly (it tells us) “specializes in contributions that examine matters on the current agenda of public policy in light of philosophical reflections and assessments.” Meanwhile, Dissent’s website proudly quotes a description of it as “a pillar of leftist intellectual provocation.” The name “New Left Review” tells you what you need to know about its ideological stance, and Democracy describes itself explicitly as a Progressive journal. The difference between those two conceptions of a journal’s mission makes a difference, even if one is hard-pressed to find non-left-wing scholarship in Ethics or right-wing policy recommendations in Public Affairs Quarterly.
By parity of reasoning: I would insist that there is an equally clear difference between the editorial agenda of Reason Papers on the one hand, and that of, say, The Independent Review, Libertarian Papers, and The Objective Standard on the other. The latter three journals are edited so as to promote libertarianism or Objectivism; Reason Papers is not. Libertarian Papers and Objective Standard make that purpose plain by their names; Independent Review is a little cagier about its ideological orientation, but uses the code phrase “free society” in its mission statement to indicate its basically libertarian commitments. There’s a different kind of difference—and an equally clear one—between the editorial agenda of Reason Papers and that of, say, The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies (JARS). JARS is (in its own words) “a nonpartisan journal devoted to the study of Ayn Rand and her times.” Like JARS, Reason Papers is nonpartisan, but unlike JARS, Reason Papers in no sense devoted to Rand. We’d as soon publish a sympathetic study of the work of Iris Murdoch, Rosa Luxemberg, or Andrea Dworkin as we would of Ayn Rand—which is to say that we’re open to manuscripts on any one of the four.
I make these points at such tedious length in order, from the outset, to distinguish IOS’s agenda from that of Reason Papers, and IOS itself from Reason Papers. Carrie-Ann and I founded IOS together, and we edit Reason Papers together, but Reason Papers and IOS are separate enterprises, and the agenda of the one ought not to be conflated with that of the other. IOS is, as its name makes clear, an Objectivist organization; Reason Papers is, as its full name makes clear, a general-interest interdisciplinary journal. It’s decidedly not an Objectivist journal, and we have no plans for ever making it one.
Irfan (and Carrie-Ann)
PS. I wrote the preceding post. Carrie-Ann read it but only endorsed it on condition that I specify that the parenthetical sentence before the * was intended as a joke. It was. So much for the joke now….