On Academic Criticism

Over at Balkinization, Brian Tamanaha (law, St. John’s) writes:

A few months ago I found myself in a fix over a book review I had committed to. When the Editor asked me to do the review, I readily agreed because I have known the author (in a collegial way) for many years, and I admire his work. I expected that the book, which I had not yet seen, would be excellent. Unfortunately, after reading the book, I had very serious reservations about the argument. . . .

From now on, to avoid being in these situations, I have resolved to only write reviews for books that I truly like (which I have done with pleasure a number of times). I feel like a coward, shirking my responsibility as an academic.

I haven’t always been reluctant to offer pointed criticisms of academic work, and I still do so—as I recently did in a post about the “judicial politics” field—if I think that a useful point would come of it. But I am becoming increasingly gun shy about the whole “honest academic debate” enterprise.

One reason for my reluctance is that I know I have offended people in the past—people I like and admire—by giving my honest critical opinion on an academic matter, an opinion which I meant as a part of an intellectual exchange but which they took personally. Although I was careful to not articulate my objections in personal terms, we all take our own ideas seriously, and thus it is easy to be put off personally by criticisms of the ideas. . . .

It’s not as much fun as it used to be to have a frank exchange of ideas, at least for me. More importantly, if we all start censoring our critical thoughts out of a desire not to offend others, or to avoid provoking a backlash, academic discourse will suffer. For this reason, I hope others do not share in my cowardice.

Brian’s candor is certainly to be admired. He is right that all too often academics take criticism way too personally. This is a shame. I respect Brian’s unwillingness to be critical of others, yet I will not try to emulate it. I do not, however, have much respect for academics who get too easily offended by criticism.

In sports, they say that records are made to be broken. In academia, works are made to be criticized.

Of course, there are different kinds of criticism. I never like unforgiving or uncharitable criticism. Nor do I like criticism that is not constructive. It is much easier to tear a theory apart than to develop one, so I’m not too appreciative of criticism that merely tears down a theory without offering at least some discussion of an alternative. I also don’t appreciate critics who make strawmen out of my arguments; at least take on my arguments at their full strength.

But respectful criticism that engages with my work yet disagrees is exactly the kind of response I welcome. I certainly enjoy when others have nothing but accolades for my work. But I also appreciate thoughtful criticism.

I’ve been critical of many works, even works by great thinkers. What makes these works great is not that I agree with them but that they are fruitful to engage with. I learn and grow as a thinker by grappling with them and criticizing them.


Of course, the degree of criticism I express for others’ work depends upon the context. If in an article or a book review in a law journal, I try not to pull punches. Yet I also try my best to acknowledge where the work I’m criticizing is strong and avoid a mere hatchet job.

For other contexts, however, I’d be more circumspect. For example, if I were to write a book review for a newspaper (I haven’t done so yet), I’d be reluctant to do a review of a book that I wanted to vigorously attack. Perhaps this is because I see the purpose of a newspaper book review as somewhat different — it is to help a potential reader decide whether or not to read the book. Hearing my barrage of criticisms might give the reader the idea that the book isn’t worth reading, which isn’t my goal. I’ve often read newspaper book reviews where one academic uses it as means to engage in an all-out academic exchange. This strikes me as a bit inappropriate for such a forum. I see newspaper book reviews as giving the reader a synopsis of the book and pointing out some of the book’s strengths and weaknesses. It is about whether the book is worth engaging with. For book reviews in law journals, the purpose is different. These book reviews are typically a lot longer, and the norm is to engage in a lengthy academic exchange.

So I sure hope that vigorous academic criticism lives on. As Jonathan Adler aptly notes over at the Volokh Conspiracy: “Indeed, far too many academics pretend to engage in serious discourse when doing little more than mutual back-scratching. This may advance careers but it is corrosive of serious academic standards. It is the professional equivalent of grade inflation.”

The worst fate for an academic work, I believe, is to be ignored. Good works will provoke responses. If somebody writes a critical piece about my scholarship, I’m at least glad it was worth the scholar’s time to do so. I don’t bother to criticize works that I find bad; I criticize works that I find wrong. There’s a difference. A bad work is a waste of my time. It does not make me think or get me to engage. A work I find wrong is different. There are many works that I find very wrong yet I think that they are the epitome of excellent scholarship. I’d rather read good works that are wrong than bad works that are right. [Unfortunately, there are some scholars who don’t make this distinction and view every work they find wrong as bad.]

So if I’m criticizing your work, you should be flattered that I find it worth a significant amount of time to discuss and engage with. And for critics who feel the same way about my work, I welcome the critique.

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