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On Writing Seriously Good Philosophy

The APA Blog and Aeon magazine have launched a partnership for cross-publishing ideas.  I spoke with Aeon editor Sam Dresser about writing seriously good philosophy for broad audiences, the sort of philosophy articles that Aeon wants to publish, rainbow cake controversies, and more.   

Sam, we’re excited to announce our Aeon-APA partnership! For those who aren’t familiar with Aeon, could you talk a little about the publication? 

I’m excited as well, and we at Aeon are huge fans of the APA, so thank you very much for all the hard work you put in! And I’m especially happy to say that our inaugural partnership piece is yours on Simone de Beauvoir!  She’s one of my favorite philosophers, I’m so glad we’ve now got such an excellent piece on her up on the site.  A little introduction: Aeon is a non-profit digital-only magazine for serious thinking and seriously good writing. We publish four long essays per week, and four short ones, which we call Ideas. Aeon also has a terrific video channel, where we stream short documentaries and some original stuff too. The magazine was founded in 2012, in London, by two wonderful people, Paul and Brigid Hains. We started publishing that September. Today we’re headquartered in Melbourne, with offices in New York and London. From the beginning, we intended Aeon to be a space for critical thinking and open, intentional conversation. Ideas matter a hell of a lot, and we hope for Aeon to be a conduit to understanding and challenging them.

Can you tell me a little about you – your background and interest in philosophy, how you came to work with Aeon, and your role?

Like most people that are involved with philosophy, I became interested when I started to question religion. I sometimes like to think of religion as a bit like your metaphysical starting pack. It introduces you to deep questions about the universe while also offering incredibly unsatisfying answers. I’m not from a religious family (far from it: lapsed Quakers) but I did like to challenge religion from an early age in a sort of boring know-it-all adolescent way. My father had bought the Great Books when I was about ten and they remained unopened until I was maybe seventeen, when I read the ‘God’ entry in the Synopticon. I was floored by how little I knew and how much there was to learn. I was know-it-all no longer. From there I read Bryan Magee’s Story of Philosophy – a great book for anyone getting started – and Frederick Copleston’s History of Philosophy, which is excellent, but maddeningly he doesn’t translate the quotes from non-English speaking philosophers. I’ve often wondered at that editorial decision.  I also listened to our very own Nigel Warburton’s podcast Philosophy Bites a good deal –  and I still love it!

I’ve actually been at Aeon since the beginning, before we started publishing, and it’s the greatest job in the world. I found Aeon in the jobs section of the Guardian, I believe, and the founders–Paul and Brigid Hains–were looking for someone with a philosophy background. I was then in my final year at the University of Edinburgh finishing up an unbelievably awful dissertation on Dennett and Nietzsche that I sincerely hope no one ever reads. I couldn’t believe that there was actually an opening in London for a philosophy grad so I quickly applied and they invited me for an interview shortly thereafter. It was pretty short notice, so I hurriedly took the ten hour bus down to London, changed into a suit at the Victoria bus depot, and made it just five minutes late to the interview. I was lucky. Right place, right time, I guess. I’m a commissioning editor now, who sometimes does auxiliary projects like I Hope This Helps.

What sorts of readers visit Aeon’s site on a regular basis?

One of the great things about Aeon is that we have readers from all over the world. It’s a very cosmopolitan readership, I’d say. I don’t have very good numbers on our demographics, but I would expect that a lot of our readers also read the New Yorker, the New York Review of Books, Times Literary Supplement, that sort of thing. To get a better sense of our readers, I’d take a look at the conversations that play out on the site (we created a bespoke commenting section). The level of dialogue on the site is high – I’m always impressed by how serious and inquiring our readers are.

Do philosophy articles at Aeon overlap with your other beats? 

They do. Aeon is a very interdisciplinary magazine, as you can see from how the magazine is divided up, so there is frequent overlap between the philosophy section and the other sections. This is probably too broad, but I’d say that Aeon’s general emphasis on ideas (rather than, say, reportage) means that even pieces that are ostensibly not about philosophy at all have a philosophical component, even if glancingly.

How popular are philosophical articles on Aeon compared to the other beats that Aeon covers, that is, psychology, science, health, society, culture, and technology?

I think the philosophy section has an advantage over the others in that there aren’t as many other publications out there that focus so intently on philosophy. There are tons of technology publications, tons of psychology articles, and so on, but not as much in philosophy. That means that there’s less competition. Combine that with a real public appetite for good, clear, honest philosophy and that means our philosophy pieces end up doing quite well. You might not expect a piece on parsimony to get a lot of hits, but it did.

What unique challenges do philosophy articles on Aeon face if any as compared to the other beats?

I don’t think there are many challenges that are unique to the philosophy articles. All the essays on the site have to be clear, concise, relevant and gripping. Perhaps philosophy has a particular challenge in that it’s easy to get especially muddled, highly theoretical writing (the sort of writing that is deeply in love with itself) than other topics, but I don’t think that’s very fair. Bad writing is not confined to philosophy.

In your view, what makes for a good philosophy article?

First off, there needs to be a clear and compelling raison d’être. Why does this piece exist? To do this, to convince the reader quickly that it’s worth reading, there needs to be a propulsive question that pushes the piece forward – and this question needs to be boldly if not provocatively answered. What is the intellectual question that the piece is going to tackle? And why should the reader care? Academics need to particularly take note of the second question: what’s relevant within academia doesn’t necessarily translate to a lay audience, so writers need to be mindful of that more general relevance. (But not too relevant: we don’t publishing anything on day-to-day politics and we rarely directly reference he who must not be named.) The other thing that helps is for there to be nice tangible examples to bring the argument back to earth, something that readers can grasp onto. These pieces also shouldn’t try to do too much. It’s hard enough saying one thing clearly – don’t make it too complicated. Last, and this goes without saying, but the writing must be clear and simple. The reader isn’t going to be impressed by fancy academese.

What’s the most popular philosophy piece that you’ve published? And why do you think it was popular?

Of the Ideas, it’s probably Gordon Pennycook’s piece on bullshit. It’s got an obvious relevance considering the mountains of bullshit we’re wading through daily, it’s got a really nice, funny hook, and it’s answer is bold and persuasive (at least to me). Those are the components necessary for a successful piece. That and a bit of luck: a popular piece has got to be picked up by the right aggregators or tweeted out by folks with lots of followers. So, sometimes the number of readers is a good metric for its success, but there are also some truly outstanding pieces on the site that for whatever reason didn’t get a lot of love. That’s just part of the game.

Can you say what your favorite philosophy piece on Aeon is?

There are so many wonderful essays to choose from! Without at all denigrating the others, I would say that Eric Schwitzgebel’s Theory of jerks is among my favorites. It’s funny, beautifully written, and incisively edited by my esteemed former colleague Ed Lake. If you haven’t read it yet, I highly recommend you do.

Can you talk a little about the sorts of philosophy pieces that work well on Aeon?

I think perhaps it’s easier to say what doesn’t work. We mostly stay away from really heavily theoretical pieces. There are certain continental philosophers I can think of whose writing, no matter how popular, would never appear on Aeon because it’s just too obscure and too inscrutable. That certainly doesn’t mean we eschew the Continental tradition – not at all – but that clarity is important to us, and sometimes Continental thinkers can fall short in that regard. We also don’t publish pieces that are only of interest to academic philosophers. But I need to be careful here, because some of our pieces are quite academic and quite demanding and that in itself wouldn’t preclude publication. For instance, we published this great piece by Catarina Novaes on the history of logic that I edited. There’s definitely an academic quality to it, but I think it works in its favor. It ended up doing quite well.

You have conversations attached to all your articles with a key question – what’s your thinking behind this, and how does it work differently from a standard comments section as we see in other publications?

Comments sections are a tough one for magazines. You’ve got great content that a bunch of people have spent a lot of time trying to make work. Then below that, you’ve got anonymous folks fighting over politics when the piece was about, for example, how to bake a rainbow cake.  At the same time, Aeon is all about conversation and we deeply believe in the value of open debate. Getting rid of comments altogether was out of the question. What we’ve tried to do instead is create a space on the site for sincere conversation that doesn’t descend into typical internet chaos. The idea behind having a question to jumpstart the conversation is that it will drive it in a more productive direction, and that’s often what happens. (Also, a good test for prospective writers: if you were to publish you’re piece right now, what would the attendant question be? I find that if I have trouble coming up with one, then the piece isn’t working as well as it could.) The conversations on Aeon are typically rigorous and are conducted with good intent, which is wonderful to see. We also police the comments, so folks that think they can act like they do on 4chan get the boot pretty fast. It seems to be a system that works.

Why should philosophers be writing for public audiences, such as Aeon?

For one, I think a lot of philosophers would be surprised by the popular appetite for philosophy. There really is a desire for serious, unpretentious philosophy, so I think that philosophers should strive to meet that desire and not remain shuttered on the hundredth floor of the ivory tower. And I don’t want to get into a debate about the instrumental use of philosophy or its social worth, but I will say that the world really needs a hearty dose of critical thinking and philosophy by its nature provides that. Lastly, writing for the public is fun. The engagement you get with your ideas from a huge number of people spanning the globe is exhilarating and touching. If any philosophers out there are thinking about trying it, I’d say go for it.

What are your top tips for philosophers wanting to write for Aeon?

The first is a selfish one. Being edited, sometimes quite heavily, can be a bit of a bummer for academics that aren’t used to the process. So I’d be prepared for that: it’s just part of the deal. Second, read a lot of Aeon articles. It’s important to get a sense of what we’re after and what we don’t do. There are hundreds and hundreds of articles on the site now, and checking out what’s popular and what we’ve been doing lately is going to be invaluable for getting published. The last is don’t get too fancy. We want a tangible idea that can be explained clearly without resorting to obscurities.

Are there any common faux pas that writers make when pitching to or writing for you?

In terms of pitching, it’s two things. One is that the idea is just too academic, too insider-y, that the lay reader is just not going to care. The second is sort of the opposite: it’s been done before, it feels stale. We want new ideas, something that will really stick out. A pitch on free will would have to be quite creative and fresh since free will is very well covered ground. In terms of the actual writing, perhaps the most common thing I work on is giving the piece a sense of propulsion. What I mean by that is that the piece has to pull the reader along and keep her interested. If the structure of the piece doesn’t do that, something’s not working. The second is a lack of tangibility. Sometimes pieces come in and it’s all theoretical without a single reference to the real world and that tends to give pieces an ethereal, out-of-touch quality. The last recommendation is the famous line from Strunk and White: omit needless words.

What sort of philosophy pieces are you looking for? 

Most days we publish a long essay and a short essay (an Idea). The essays are perhaps 3,500 words, but that number varies. The Ideas are about 1,000 words. That’s not a lot of words to say something provocative, something developed. It’s really hard to do, believe me. But that’s precisely what we’re looking for right now: crisply written, persuasively argued Ideas.

Last question: Is it pronounced “ay-on” or “ee-on”?

Now this is controversial territory. Most say ‘ee-on’, but a few say ‘ay-on’. It’s incredibly divisive. I know of at least one marriage that has been devastated by the issue. I happen to believe it’s the former pronunciation, so I’ve severed ties with everyone that slavishly submits to the wretched ‘ay-on’ dogma. Well…. maybe it’s not that divisive. I think the pronunciation of ‘Aeon’ is mostly a matter of mood, interpretation, and the weather, like so many things.

Sam Dresser studied philosophy at the University of Edinburgh. He is interested in political philosophy and the history of atheism, and likes to take long walks to places he doesn’t particularly want to be.  He can be found on Twitter @SmDrssr.

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Check out Aeon’s philosophy articles here and if you’d like to write for the APA-Aeon partnership, let us know here!

 

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