Philosophy and Ethics

This blog follows up issues and ideas from my website: Philosophy and Ethics.

Sunday, 31 August 2014

Academic referencing nonsense for new students (Thompson, 2014)

I’ve just been reading another well written, clear and helpful article for A-level students taking papers in Philosophy and Religious Studies, only to find myself getting irritated by the use of conventional academic referencing for the works cited.  You know how it is; the text simply says (Kant, 2007) or (Aristotle, 2011), and the student then looks up the relevant title at the end of the piece, but that too gives only the English translation and date of publication.  So many otherwise helpful articles give absolutely no clue about when the authors cited actually lived.  For all I know, given these academic references, Aristotle could have been a younger contemporary of Kant!  

And I’m frustrated because students are sometimes happy to explain that Aristotle criticized Kant, or that Hume agreed with Wittgenstein.  Knowing the historical context of an argument is an important element in appreciating it, and we do students disservice if we unwittingly put obstacles in the way of  grasping that historical perspective.

Now, I can quite understand why such a referencing system has developed. For academic and particularly scientific research, where it is important to trace the gradual building up of a body of evidence and to know the provenance of each argument, academic references need to specify the author and the year in which each paper was published. A quick glance at those references then allows the researcher or advanced student to get a chronological perspective. In that context, to give the name of the author, followed by the date of publication, makes perfect sense.

But it does NOT make sense to give only author and publication date - at least for new students, or those taking A-level - if you are describing a general topic in philosophy that has been debated for a couple of thousand years, unless you specify the date at which a work was written as well as the publication date of the translation or edition being used.  Hence, (Kant, 1781, trans. 2007) would be unambiguous and helpful for the novice student, but without the hint that we’re dealing with an 18th century thinker here, a significant part of the argument is lost.

I know writers want to appear to be academically respectable, but such respectability should be tempered with commonsense. For general articles aimed at students, whether undergraduate or A-level, let’s drop the standard method of referencing in favour of giving the date at which a work was written, as well as the edition used. Come on; let’s have no more of this academic nonsense!