I’m often asked why we need another online entity publishing survey style articles? After all, say the questioners, there are already so many excellent guides to philosophy, both in print (such as Blackwell’s Companion series) and online (such as the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).
The answer is that Compass fills an important gap left by many of these guides by focussing on what is happening right now in philosophy. In so many areas of philosophy it is difficult for someone, even someone with a solid background in the subject, to pick up a journal and figure out where the papers it prints fit into larger debates. That can be because the field has moved so far that it is hard to easily see what the locus of debate is, or because the field has developed specialised terminology that isn’t always transparent to non-experts. (See the debates over contextualism in philosophy of language and epistemology for examples of both of these phenomena.)
A similar view about what has happened to philosophy is given by Scott Soames at the end of his recent book on the history of 20th Century philosophy. He’s writing about why he ended his story in 1972 rather than writing about what has happened since then.
[T]here has been so much philosophical achievement, of so many different sorts, that I doubt that it can be encompassed in the kind of history that I have tried to write. In my opinion, philosophy has changed substantially in the last thirty or so years. Gone are the days of large, central figures, whose work is accessible and relevant to, as well as read by, nearly all analytic philosophers. Philosophy has become a highly organized discipline, done by specialists primarily for other specialists … Not only is the broad field of philosophy today far too vast to be embraced by one mind, something similar is true even of many highly specialised subfields. (463)
This kind of specialisation has benefits, but it also has costs. It is a good thing for professional philosophers to be able to keep up with the work of their colleagues, for faculty and graduate students to know something about the debates that visiting speakers address, and for undergraduates without much specialist training to be able to further their own education through philosophy journals. And specialisation of the kind we’ve seen recently threatens that.
Obviously we don’t want to turn back the clock, but we would like to mollify these effects. And that’s what Compass can do. A well written piece explaining what the important debates are in a field, what the important arguments are on each side, and who is endorsing the various sides, might be all that a student (or a faculty member) needs in order to be able to follow a debate. Compass articles will never replace the original research in traditional journals (though of course the opinionated surveys we print do contribute at least incidentally to those debates). But someone who reads a Compass article will be able to know which journal articles to read, and what to look for in those articles, if they want to learn more about a subject matter.
Thirty years ago, as Scott Soames says, this kind of venture may have been unnecessary. Anyone who knew enough about philosophy to pick up the latest journals knew enough to understand the debates they found inside them. But that’s no longer always the case. Now even someone who wants to learn about what is happening in research about metaphysics, or the history of modern philosophy, can use pointers suggesting where to look for the best research, and how to interpret what they find. That’s what Philosophy Compass will continue to provide over the years.