Thursday, December 23, 2010

Celebrating British Metaphysics

EDITED 26/12/2010 to add some more highly-cited figures.

I grew up, philosophically speaking, with the view that there was not much metaphysics done in the UK. Between ordinary language philosophy, Wittgensteinianism, and left-over positivism and Popperianism, I thought metaphysics was out of favour. Of course, everyone knew of some holdouts doing straight-down-the-line metaphysics: Hugh Mellor deserves mentioning in this connection. But I guess I thought that philosophy in the UK in the late twentieth century had been much more concerned with words and thoughts than things.

Even if that was so, I think metaphysics has flourished in the UK in the last ten years or so. There are a lot of exciting new metaphysicians in the UK, particularly in the Midlands and the North: the crew of young guns including Ross Cameron, Elizabeth Barnes, Robbie Williams and Jason Turner at Leeds, but also figures like Jonathan Tallant at Nottingham, David Liggins at Manchester, and Nikk Effingham at Birmingham. (There are lots of other good metaphysicians in the region - many I didn’t mention only because I think of them as the older more established figures.)

But looking back on the earlier history of metaphysics in the UK, I think it has been punching above its weight for a long time in this area. True, many of the people interested in metaphysical issues approached them from a more language/mind angle than I would be entirely comfortable with (a primary example here is Dummett). But anti-realist metaphysics is metaphysics too. One way to estimate influence is to look at citations, and one handy way of getting a sense of both strength and breadth of influence is to look at h-numbers. So I thought I’d offer a list of the 14 UK metaphysicians with the highest h-numbers, as measured from Google Scholar using Publish or Perish Version 3. I’m not sure all of the people on my list would self-identify as metaphysicians, but they seem to have been doing a lot of metaphysics, whatever they saw themselves as doing.

Usual caveats: amount of citation is not the same as quality of work - there could of course be people doing fantastic work in disregarded areas or who are unjustly neglected, and likewise the winds of fashion no doubt increase citations for some less deserving work. H-numbers are not the perfect way even of measuring the kind of impact citation can measure, especially as it’s not clear how to compare citations of books to citations of journal articles. And Google Scholar is arguably not the best source, since it counts some non-peer-reviewed stuff and leaves out some peer-reviewed stuff. But it’s a feasible measuring device, and there’s some evidence that it’s well-correlated with more careful measures, at least in other fields. (One of the most annoying drawbacks is that it counts the same cited piece several times under slightly different titles - I have not tried to correct for that here.) Finally, my evidence gathering even from this source is fallible - I may have missed some people, or some cited papers. I would welcome corrections if there’s someone outside my list with a higher h-number than those within it.

So I’m not saying the following people are the best UK metaphysicians, nor even the most influential. Just among the most influential according to one fallible indicator. It’s mainly meant to get at a measure of influence other than how things seem to me, and which tells us something about the uptake of the work of UK metaphysicians.

Definitions: I’ll count someone as a UK metaphysician for these purposes if they are (i) alive, (ii) employed in, or retired from, a UK department, (iii) substantially published in metaphysics (though it needn’t be a majority of their work). In calculating their h-number, I’ll take into account all their published work, not just their metaphysics pieces. I will leave out edited collections (except their own collected papers) when they are only cited as editors. (Citations of introductions and papers in their own edited collections still count.) The h-numbers are as at December 24th 2010 or December 26th 2010: they do change!

[NOTE: this list has been edited from an earlier inaccurate top-10. I realised I had been forgetting some British philosophers who have done influential metaphysics despite styling themselves philosophers of science.]

Metaphysician, H-number
Michael Dummett, 37
Crispin Wright, 34
Peter Geach, 28
Timothy Williamson, 27
Nancy Cartwright, 24
E.J. Lowe, 23
David Wiggins, 22
Steven French, 22
John Hawthorne, 20
Jeremy Butterfield, 19
John Dupre, 18
Bob Hale, 18
Galen Strawson, 17
Simon Saunders, 16

Honourable Mentions

Next would be Hugh Mellor and Harold Noonan, with h-numbers of 14 each.

If we counted Simon Blackburn as a metaphysician (and I’m somewhat inclined to), he would be equal third with an h-number of 28.

The second highest-ranking female metaphysician by h-number in the UK is Dorothy Edgington, with an h-number of 11. I hope and expect that the younger generations will have more success in producing highly-cited female metaphysicians.

As far as I can tell, to be in the top-20 of metaphysicians in the UK by h-number (as I calculate them), one needs an h-number of 11.


  1. Call me an Anglophile, but, come on, what would contemporary analytic metaphysics be without P.F. Strawson, Sir Peter Geach, Elizabeth Anscombe, David Wiggins, Peter Simons, E.J. Lowe, Harold Noonan, Derek Parfit, and Ted Honderich? Many of us cut our philosophical teeth on their works (while listening to The Animals, The Who, and The Rolling Stones) and I for one still love pulling them off the shelves. Individuals, Parts, and Sameness and Substance are absolute classics in the field.

  2. I have heard of the rolling stones, but not these other people.