9.3 Buzzwords

One of the methods I used for building the model was to run repeated refinements of the model, to try to make it better track actual philosophical topics. At the time I did this, I was worried that this would have bad consequences. It felt like tightening the strings. And while this is generally a good idea, if you make things too tight, they snap. After a few refinements, I started to think this was a silly bit of reasoning by analogy. These aren’t actually strings, so they can’t actually snap, right? Well, after 100 iterations of the refinement script, I got a topic whose distribution looked like this.

Number of articles in Norms topic in the Bad LDA

Figure 9.7: Number of articles in Norms topic in the Bad LDA

Those are remarkable graphs - it seems that this topic is getting to be a bigger and bigger deal in all the journals. I had not seen anything like this; after 1970 it’s almost impossible to get the ‘generalist’ journals, the philosophy of science journals, and the ethics journals moving in the same direction. Maybe it’s a function of the journals publishing more articles over time. We could check this by looking at what proportion of the journals are made up by this topic, not the absolute number of (expected) articles.22

Proportion of articles in Norms topic in the Bad LDA

Figure 9.8: Proportion of articles in Norms topic in the Bad LDA

It’s slightly less steep, especially in Philosophy of Science. But the generalist journals - except Analysis - and British Journal for the Philosophy of Science are still rising rapidly. So let’s look at what articles are primarily in this topic.

Table 9.16: Top Articles in Norms in Bad LDA
Article Topic Probability
Gershon Weiler (1962) “On Relevance” Mind 71:487-493. 0.4531
Rahul Kumar (2003) "Reasonable Reasons In Contractualist Moral Argument*" Ethics 114:6-37. 0.3851
Jay F. Rosenberg (1997) “Brandom’s Making It Explicit: A First Encounter” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 57:179-187. 0.3749
Sven Rosenkranz (2001) “Farewell To Objectivity: A Critique Of Brandom” The Philosophical Quarterly 51:232-237. 0.3619
David Enoch (2005) "Why Idealize?*" Ethics 115:759-787. 0.3433
Robert Brandom (1997) “Replies” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 57:189-204. 0.3433
Mark Couch†‡ (2009) "Functional Explanation In Context*" Philosophy of Science 76:253-269. 0.3422
David J. Chalmers (2011) “Verbal Disputes” Philosophical Review 120:515-566. 0.3385
Joshua Gert (2010) "Color Constancy And The Color/Value Analogy*" Ethics 121:58-87. 0.3368
Paul Weiss (1934) “A Home For Logic” Philosophy of Science 1:238-238. 0.3301

This is very confusing in three different ways.

  1. Although the topic seems concentrated in the twenty-first century, two of the top ten articles are from a fair way ago - including the top one.
  2. If you exclude that top article, no article has a topic probability of over 0.4. This is true even though for some journal-year pairs, the average topic probability is over 0.1. It feels like every article must get a reasonable probability of being in this topic.
  3. Relatedly, there doesn’t seem to be any thematic unity to the articles here. What would you even call the ‘topic’ which has these ten articles as paradigm? I’m calling it Norms because it looks from the graphs like the counterpart of our topic Norms, but this is hardly a perfect name.

For comparison, the original topic 90 had a top 10 list that looked a little more sensible.

Table 9.17: Top Articles in Norms in Good LDA
Article Topic Probability
Gideon Rosen (1997) “Who Makes The Rules Around Here?” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 57:163-171. 0.6952
Jay F. Rosenberg (1997) “Brandom’s Making It Explicit: A First Encounter” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 57:179-187. 0.6807
Sven Rosenkranz (2001) “Farewell To Objectivity: A Critique Of Brandom” The Philosophical Quarterly 51:232-237. 0.6364
Michael Pendlebury (2010) “How To Be A Normative Expressivist” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 80:182-207. 0.5925
Anandi Hattiangadi (2003) “Making It Implicit: Brandom On Rule Following” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 66:419-431. 0.5834
Macalester Bell (2011) “Globalist Attitudes And The Fittingness Objection” The Philosophical Quarterly 61:449-472. 0.5758
Neil Sinclair (2009) “Recent Work : Recent Work In Expressivism” Analysis 69:136-147. 0.5690
Allan Gibbard (1996) “Review Essays: Thought, Norms, And Discursive Practice: Commentary On Robert Brandom, Making It Explicit” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 56:699-717. 0.5306
Pekka Väyrynen (2013) “Grounding And Normative Explanation” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society (Supplementary Volume) 87:155-178. 0.5234
R. Jay Wallace (2007) "Reasons, Relations, And Commands: Reflections On Darwall*" Ethics 118:24-36. 0.5198

The papers are more recent, the probabilities are higher, and there is some more unity to the topic. It’s about normativity and objectivity, very broadly construed, with a bit of a focus on Brandm. And you can still see hints of that in the new top 10 list, but it’s gotten blurrier. The Rosen article that’s at nearly 70% in the original topic has dropped to around 20% in the new topic, reflecting the lack of thematic unity.

Maybe we can get a bit better look at this new weird topic by looking at its keywords. Remember that an LDA model assigns each word a probability of being in a paradigm article in the topic. We can compare that to the frequency of that word in the whole data set to get a sense of what’s characteristic of the topic. (Again, it’s necessary to restrict attention to the 5000 most common words here to prevent too much focus on words that appear just a handful of times.) And here’s what we get. The second column here is the ratio of the probability of the word being in a (paradigm) article in this topic to the word’s overall frequency.

Table 9.18: Top Words in Norms in the Bad LDA
Word Ratio
accounts 15.2
role 14.7
commitment 13.8
commitments 13.4
account 12.9
proposal 11.6
constitutive 11.2
practices 10.9
challenge 10.8
typically 10.6
claims 10.2
worry 10.1
approach 9.9
relevant 9.9
project 9.6
focus 9.4
features 9.4
issue 9.2
appeal 9.0
provide 9.0

This I think is the clue to what’s happened. The ‘topic’ here is just the distinctive vocabulary of twenty-first century philosophy. The topic appears in all journals because these words have become more and more prevalent in all journals.

I’ll come back to direct evidence for this hypothesis in a minute, but first I wanted to show you what a table like this looks like for normal topics. Here’s the same table for topic 90 in the original model.

Table 9.19: Top Words in Norms in the Good LDA
Word Ratio
norms 54.4
norm 52.7
normative 46.4
gibbard 45.2
normativity 39.6
practices 37.0
attitudes 36.3
commitments 35.3
commitment 33.3
constitutive 29.2
resentment 27.7
disagreement 26.9
attitude 23.2
blackburn 22.0
practice 18.5
evaluative 17.1
correctness 17.0
disagreements 16.0
challenge 15.7
accounts 14.9

You can see some of the twenty-first century vocabulary, like ‘challenge’ and ‘accounts’ turning up at the bottom. But this is what things mostly should look like for a topic about normativity and objectivity.

Just to get a sense of the appropriate scale for what’s being measured here, here’s what the top of the table for the Kant topic looks like.

Table 9.20: Top Words in Kant in the Good LDA
Word Ratio
kant 163.9
kantian 110.9
maxim 107.8
maxims 104.7
transcendental 103.7
intuition 86.7
berkeley 79.7
critique 63.2
categorical 61.0
sensibility 48.0

That makes sense; the word ‘Kant’ is 163 times more likely to appear in a paradigm Kant article than in philosophy in general. A ratio like this of 163 is high, but having the highest ratio be 15 is a sign something has gone wrong. The only topic that is really like this in the original model is ordinary language philosophy.

Table 9.21: Top Words in Ordinary Language Philosophy in the Bad LDA
Word Ratio
think 10.9
really 10.0
answer 9.4
something 9.3
perhaps 9.1
quite 9.0
sort 8.5
anything 8.1
ask 7.9
course 7.6
want 7.5
certainly 7.4
seem 7.3
saying 7.3
said 7.3
thing 7.2
question 7.2
get 7.1
things 7.1
much 7.0

Like the new topic 90, this topic in the original model really tracked a style not a content. It’s really striking that the distinctive words in ordinary language philosophy are so much shorter than the distinctive words in contemporary philosophy.23 But it’s probably time to start actually proving that words like ‘commitment’, ‘challange’ and ‘approach’ are distinctively twenty-first century words. So rather than just look at the outputs of complicated models, I’m going to end with some simple graphs of word frequency over time.

The data set I’m using for the graphs to follow is the word lists as provided by JSTOR. So that excludes some stop words, and all one and two letter words, but not all the other words that I filtered out before building the LDA. I’ll start with some graphs of the keywords from this new topic 90.

Words about theories

Figure 9.9: Words about theories

Words about plans

Figure 9.10: Words about plans

Words about views

Figure 9.11: Words about views

Words about objections

Figure 9.12: Words about objections

Words about what's common

Figure 9.13: Words about what’s common

Not all of these words are shooting upwards, but many of them are. It’s striking to me that you don’t really need trendlines here to see a trend. At this rate we’ll soon see articles made up of just the words ‘account’, ‘typically’, ‘relevant’ and ‘challenge’, plus perhaps their plurals.

So this is why I just used 15 refinements of the model rather than 100. The language of early twenty-first century philosophy is distinctive enough that if you push a text-based analysis too hard, it ends up just tracking form rather than content.

But didn’t we have this already back in ordinary language philosophy? We did, though fortunately the binary sort helped find a couple of natural topics within it. Still, it would be nice to confirm that these words really were being used more frequently in mid-century. So let’s look at the same graphs for the keywords from ordinary language philosophy.

Words about speech acts

Figure 9.14: Words about speech acts

Words about epistemic modality

Figure 9.15: Words about epistemic modality

Words about quantity

Figure 9.16: Words about quantity

Words about mental state attribution

Figure 9.17: Words about mental state attribution

Words about quantification

Figure 9.18: Words about quantification

The first three have roughly the pattern I was expecting, but the last two don’t. I think there is a sense in which some of the stylistic changes that the ordinary language philosophers brought in persisted. And there is also a sense in which they were the last holdouts against the move to a more scientific philosophy. As is so often the case, it helps to look at a distinctive era as both the end of what came before it, and the start of what came after it.

There is another puzzle that I left open above that I want to return to. How could we square the low ratio between the maximal and average topic probabilities for some journal-year pairs? The obvious answer is that every article is in the topic to some non-trivial degree. Let’s see how true that is. So for a few journal-year pairs, I’m going to go through every article and list the probability that it is in this new topic. I’ll start with Philosophical Review in 2004.

Table 9.22: Philosophical Review, 2004 - probability that each article is in the bad topic
Article Topic Probability
Abraham Sesshu Roth (2004) “Shared Agency And Contralateral Commitments” Philosophical Review 113:359-410. 0.2733
Jonathan Cohen (2004) “Color Properties And Color Ascriptions: A Relationalist Manifesto” Philosophical Review 113:451-506. 0.2178
Sebastian Gardner (2004) “Critical Notice Of Richard Moran, Authority And Estrangement: An Essay On Self-Knowledge” Philosophical Review 113:249-267. 0.1906
Sukjae Lee (2004) “Leibniz On Divine Concurrence” Philosophical Review 113:203-248. 0.1868
Eric Lormand (2004) “The Explanatory Stopgap” Philosophical Review 113:303-357. 0.1602
Richard Holton (2004) “Rational Resolve” Philosophical Review 113:507-535. 0.1402
Robert Pasnau (2004) “Form, Substance, And Mechanism” Philosophical Review 113:31-88. 0.1301
Lex Newman (2004) “Rocking The Foundations Of Cartesian Knowledge: Critical Notice Of Janet Broughton,”Descartes’s Method Of Doubt"" Philosophical Review 113:101-125. 0.1292
Frederick Kroon (2004) “Descriptivism, Pretense, And The Frege-Russell Problems” Philosophical Review 113:1-30. 0.1089
Daniel Sutherland (2004) “Kant’s Philosophy Of Mathematics And The Greek Mathematical Tradition” Philosophical Review 113:157-201. 0.0975
Janet Broughton (2004) “The Inquiry In Hume’s Treatise” Philosophical Review 113:537-556. 0.0739
David Barnett (2004) “Some Stuffs Are Not Sums Of Stuff” Philosophical Review 113:89-100. 0.0403
Michael Huemer (2004) “Elusive Freedom? A Reply To Helen Beebee” Philosophical Review 113:411-416. 0.0001

The Roth paper really is about commitments, so it isn’t surprising that it’s a little higher than the others. But look how much this spreads around other articles. The model thinks there is something that all but one of these articles have seriously in common. And I think there isn’t anything substantive (as opposed to stylistic) this could be. Let’s move on to Ethics in 2010.

Table 9.23: Ethics 2010 - probability that each article is in the bad topic
Article Topic Probability
Joshua Gert (2010) "Color Constancy And The Color/Value Analogy*" Ethics 121:58-87. 0.3368
Japa Pallikkathayil (2010) "Deriving Morality From Politics: Rethinking The Formula Of Humanity*" Ethics 121:116-147. 0.2149
John Tasioulas (2010) "Taking Rights Out Of Human Rights*" Ethics 120:647-678. 0.1951
Mark Van Roojen (2010) "A Fork In The Road For Expressivism*" Ethics 120:357-381. 0.1901
Edward S. Hinchman (2010) "Conspiracy, Commitment, And The Self*" Ethics 120:526-556. 0.1756
Allen Buchanan (2010) “The Egalitarianism Of Human Rights” Ethics 120:679-710. 0.1623
Louis‐Philippe Hodgson (2010) "Kant On The Right To Freedom: A Defense*" Ethics 120:791-819. 0.1596
Gunnar Björnsson And and Stephen Finlay (2010) "Metaethical Contextualism Defended*" Ethics 121:7-36. 0.1520
Leslie Green (2010) "Two Worries About Respect For Persons*" Ethics 120:212-231. 0.1519
Mark Van Roojen (2010) "Moral Rationalism And Rational Amoralism*" Ethics 120:495-525. 0.1372
Rebecca Stangl (2010) "Asymmetrical Virtue Particularism*" Ethics 121:37-57. 0.1353
James Griffin (2010) “Human Rights: Questions Of Aim And Approach” Ethics 120:741-760. 0.1309
Joseph Raz (2010) “On Respect, Authority, And Neutrality: A Response” Ethics 120:279-301. 0.1025
Mikhail Valdman (2010) "Outsourcing Self‐Government*" Ethics 120:761-790. 0.0949
Gopal Sreenivasan (2010) "Duties And Their Direction*" Ethics 120:465-494. 0.0908
Stephen Darwall (2010) "Authority And Reasons: Exclusionary And Second‐Personal*" Ethics 120:257-278. 0.0849
Rainer Forst (2010) "The Justification Of Human Rights And The Basic Right To Justification: A Reflexive Approach*" Ethics 120:711-740. 0.0808
Steven Wall (2010) "Neutralism For Perfectionists: The Case Of Restricted State Neutrality*" Ethics 120:232-256. 0.0726
Erik J. Wielenberg (2010) "On The Evolutionary Debunking Of Morality*" Ethics 120:441-464. 0.0687
Elizabeth Brake (2010) "Minimal Marriage: What Political Liberalism Implies For Marriage Law*" Ethics 120:302-337. 0.0494
Peter A. Graham (2010) "In Defense Of Objectivism About Moral Obligation*" Ethics 121:88-115. 0.0340
Judith Lichtenberg (2010) “Negative Duties, Positive Duties, And The “New Harms”*" Ethics 120:557-578. 0.0267
John Brunero (2010) "Self‐Governance, Means‐Ends Coherence, And Unalterable Ends*" Ethics 120:579-591. 0.0138
Sarah Fine (2010) "Freedom Of Association Is Not The Answer*" Ethics 120:338-356. 0.0000
Ben Saunders (2010) "Democracy, Political Equality, And Majority Rule*" Ethics 121:148-177. 0.0000

I don’t know why all the stars are there in the title; that’s just what came from JSTOR. And we get the same pattern; almost all the articles are in the topic at a 5% probability or higher. To the extent that there was anything substantive in the topic, it was in normative ethics, so maybe that’s not too surprising. But let’s see what happens when we do the same thing for British Journal for the Philosophy of Science in 2011.

Table 9.24: BJPS 2011 - probability that each article is in the bad topic
Article Topic Probability
Otávio Bueno and Steven French (2011) “How Theories Represent” British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 62:857-894. 0.2681
Steven French and Peter Vickers (2011) “Are There No Things That Are Scientific Theories?” British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 62:771-804. 0.2114
Steven Gross and Jennifer Culbertson (2011) “Revisited Linguistic Intuitions” British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 62:639-656. 0.1848
Agustín Vicente (2011) “Current Physics And ‘The Physical’” British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 62:393-416. 0.1663
Jonah N. Schupbach (2011) “New Hope For Shogenji’s Coherence Measure” British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 62:125-142. 0.1166
Christopher Pincock (2011) “On Batterman’s ‘On The Explanatory Role Of Mathematics In Empirical Science’” British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 62:211-217. 0.1039
Cristian Saborido, Matteo Mossio and Alvaro Moreno (2011) “Biological Organization And Cross-Generation Functions” British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 62:583-606. 0.1020
Juha Saatsi and Peter Vickers (2011) “Miraculous Success? Inconsistency And Untruth In Kirchhoff’s Diffraction Theory” British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 62:29-46. 0.0995
William Demopoulos (2011) “Three Views Of Theoretical Knowledge” British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 62:177-205. 0.0978
Daniel Greco (2011) “Significance Testing In Theory And Practice” British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 62:607-637. 0.0970
Daniel Parker (2011) “Information-Theoretic Statistical Mechanics Without Landauer’s Principle” British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 62:831-856. 0.0954
Luke Glynn (2011) “A Probabilistic Analysis Of Causation” British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 62:343-392. 0.0942
Jeffrey Dunn (2011) “Fried Eggs, Thermodynamics, And The Special Sciences” British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 62:71-98. 0.0828
Alan Chalmers (2011) “Drawing Philosophical Lessons From Perrin’s Experiments On Brownian Motion: A Response To Van Fraassen” British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 62:711-732. 0.0786
Daniel A. Weiskopf (2011) “The Functional Unity Of Special Science Kinds” British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 62:233-258. 0.0779
Paul Tappenden (2011) “Evidence And Uncertainty In Everett’s Multiverse” British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 62:99-123. 0.0748
Bryan W. Roberts (2011) “Group Structural Realism” British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 62:47-69. 0.0665
J. Brian Pitts (2011) “Permanent Underdetermination From Approximate Empirical Equivalence In Field Theory: Massless And Massive Scalar Gravity, Neutrino, Electromagnetic, Yang-Mills And Gravitational Theories” British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 62:259-299. 0.0646
Gualtiero Piccinini (2011) “The Physical Church–Turing Thesis: Modest Or Bold?” British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 62:733-769. 0.0578
Jeffrey A. Barrett (2011) “On The Faithful Interpretation Of Pure Wave Mechanics” British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 62:693-709. 0.0544
Carol E. Cleland (2011) “Prediction And Explanation In Historical Natural Science” British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 62:551-582. 0.0463
Dennis Lehmkuhl (2011) “Mass–Energy-Momentum: Only There Because Of Spacetime?” British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 62:453-488. 0.0348
Andreas Hüttemann and Alan C. Love (2011) “Aspects Of Reductive Explanation In Biological Science: Intrinsicality, Fundamentally, And Temporality” British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 62:519-549. 0.0224
Wayne C. Myrvold (2011) “Nonseparability, Classical, And Quantum” British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 62:417-432. 0.0223
Catherine Driscoll (2011) “Fatal Attraction? Why Sperber’s Attractors Do Not Prevent Cumulative Cultural Evolution” British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 62:301-322. 0.0156
Juha Saatsi (2011) “The Enhanced Indispensability Argument: Representational Versus Explanatory Role Of Mathematics In Science” British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 62:143-154. 0.0096
István Aranyosi (2011) “A New Argument For Mind-Brain Identity” British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 62:489-517. 0.0030
Franz Huber (2011) “Lewis Causation Is A Special Case Of Spohn Causation” British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 62:207-210. 0.0001
Daniel M. Hausman (2011) “Is An Overdose Of Paracetamol Bad For One’s Health?” British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 62:657-668. 0.0000
D. J. Bradley (2011) “Confirmation In A Branching World: The Everett Interpretation And Sleeping Beauty” British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 62:323-342. 0.0000
Valia Allori et al (2011) “Many Worlds And Schrödinger’s First Quantum Theory” British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 62:1-27. 0.0000
Warren J. Ewens (2011) “What Is The Gene Trying To Do?” British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 62:155-176. 0.0000
Aviezer Tucker (2011) “Historical Science, Over- And Underdetermined: A Study Of Darwin’s Inference Of Origins” British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 62:805-829. 0.0000

Here we do get more articles that are clearly excluded. The difference between the last six articles is unimportant. Once you get below 0.1%, the probabilities are functions of how confident the model is in its central classifications. But it’s still striking how many of these are above 1.1%. There are 90 topics, so if the model had no idea it would put each probability at 1.1%. The vast majority of the articles here are above that.

There is another study I could imagine running here, but it would take so long that I’m going to leave it to later work. Repeatedly refining the model broke because of the distinctive language of twenty-first century philosophy. There are two possible explanations for that.

  1. There has been a linguistic revolution over the last generation, and philosophers now write in a very different style to how they wrote a generation ago.
  2. This is an artifact of model building, and if you stopped the model at any time, and ran the same study I did, you’d get results like this. That is, doing what I did will get you weird results whenever there is linguistic drift, and there is always linguistic drift.

I actually could test these by running the study I did for this book but stopping in, say, 1993. But I don’t think spending several hundred hours processing time on teasing apart these two explanations would be worthwhile.

That’s in part because this question will resolve itself over time naturally. Hopefully more studies like mine (or preferably better designed studies than mine) will be run on data that goes through 2020 and beyond. Those will tell us even more about where philosophy is going, and answer several questions that I’ve left open as pleasant side-effects.


  1. Most of the graphs in chapter 2 are proportional, not the absolute graph I just showed you.↩︎

  2. I wanted to include here some graphs about average word lengths over time, but they don’t really show very much. There is a very gentle increase, focussed on the philosophy of science journals, but the distinctively short keywords don’t really track anything about average word length.↩︎