Continuing my cursory exploration of semiotics and post-modern thought, I'm struck by the similarity between writing in those traditions, and picking up women.  The most-important traits for practitioners of both are energy, enthusiasm, and confidence.  In support of this proposition, here is a photo of Slavoj Zizek at his 2006 wedding:

Having philosophical or logical rigor, or demonstrating the usefulness of your ideas using empirical data, does not seem to provide a similar advantage, despite taking a lot of time.

I speculate that semiotics and post-modernism (which often go hand-in-hand) became popular by natural selection.  They provide specialized terminologies which give the impression of rigorous thought without requiring actual rigor. People who use them can thus out-publish their more-careful competitors. So post-modernism tends to drive rigorous thought out of any field it enters.

(It's possible to combine post-modern ideas and a time-consuming empirical approach, as Thomas Kuhn did in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.  But it's uncommon.)

If rigorous thought significantly reduces publication rate, we should find that the rigor of a field or a person correlates inversely with words per person-year.  Establishing that fact alone, combined with the emphasis on publication in academics, would lead us to expect that any approach that allowed one to fake or dispense with intellectual rigor in a field would rapidly take over that field.

We should also then suspect that any supposedly rigorous field, or school within a field, which has a markedly high WPY, is bullshit.

I listed some prominent names from various fields under two categories, "rigorous" and "not rigorous".  Then I counted the number of books and articles they published per year.  I stop the year count at min(last year of publication, year of their death) because some people slow down in their last years.  I estimate average page count for articles when they're given, and count 300 pages as 1 book.  Sometimes I threw out the first publication when it appeared to be a thesis or other very early work written many years before anything else. I tried not to count patents, talks, letters, notes, reports, unpublished papers, translations, or republications.  I counted autobiographies if they wrote them during their productive years, but not if they wrote them at the ends of their lives.

Some people also wrote poetry or fiction.  I counted one book of poetry as equal to one book of scientific output (in the time it takes to produce), one novel as 1/3 of an academic book, one play as 1/9 of a book, and a book of plays as 1/3 of a book. (Yes, I pulled those numbers out of my somewhat-informed ass.)  I divided by number of co-authors for multiple-author books.

Comparisons of publication rates across different time periods may not be fair, but I did them anyway.

It is important to note that I AM NOT SAYING POST-MODERNIST THOUGHT IS GARBAGE. Derrida had some good points to make.

I'm not even saying that everyone should be rigorous.  Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche probably wouldn't have been able to make their great imaginative leaps if they had been rigorous.

I am saying that, if a particular approach to a discipline enables someone to write more books per year, we should expect to find people in that discipline adopting that approach, just as novelists adopted typewriters and then computers.  I'm hypothesizing that a lack of rigor enables someone to write more books per year.  If this is true, we should expect any school of thought that can falsely signal rigor, or that can justify a lack of rigor, to have a strong evolutionary advantage in academic disciplines.

People I consider non-rigorous and their Books Per Year (BPY):

Dane Rudhyar (astrology): BPY = 1.05: 57 books, 1 article, 1 book of poetry, and 3 novels over 57 years (1929-1985).  This was hard to count because there is almost no overlap between her bibliography on Wikipedia and on goodreads.  I'm suspicious that many of these might be very short, poor-quality, or repetitive, because many of them were published long after her death.

Georg Hegel (philosophy): .57, 18 "books" in 31 years (1801-1831).  I arrived at the number 18 by dividing the 5,314 pages in his collected works by 300.

Nietzsche (philosophy): .95, 18 books in 19 years (1870-1888).  I think Nietzsche's works are great, just not what I'd call "rigorous". Nietzsche was often very ill, which reduced his productivity.

Sigmund Freud (psychology): .49, 24 books in 49 years (1891-1939).  I'm counting the number of volumes in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud.

Slavoj Zizek (semiotic philosophy and social criticism):  1.56, 39 books in 25 years (1989-2014). Disclaimer: I haven't read his work, just some critiques of it. ADDED: OMG, I read the first few pages of On Belief and "How did Marx invent the symptom?" He is a genuine Marxist-Leninist, who believes in the labor theory of value and the necessity of secret police and of violent oppression of non-Marxist beliefs. Also, extremely non-rigorous, but insightful, except when it comes to Marxism. His books are short, though.

Jacques Derrida (post-modern philosophy): .85, 28 books over 33 years (1967-1999). (I'm unable to tell if a 2003 book is by him or some kind of anthology, since it has editors listed, so I'm stopping my count at 1999. He has several posthumous works, which I didn't count.)

Jacques Lacan (post-structuralism): ??, 65 publications but zero books over 36 years (1945-1980). I ignored his pre-war publications because he was a practicing M.D. and a soldier most of that time. This is a useless count because most of these appear to be articles, but possibly very long ones, no page lengths given.  Probably a low words per year, though. His publications appear to be transcriptions of his lectures. The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy says "Lacan was famously ambivalent about publication."

Gertrude Stein (neo-modernist poetry and literary theory): .72, 24 books of poetry or non-fiction, 7 novels, 4 plays, 2 collections of plays over 38 years (1909-1946).

George Steiner (post-modern literary theory): .79, 41 books and 2 articles over 52 years (1960-2011).

Trofim Lysenko (evolutionary biology): Unfortunately, I can't find a list of his publications.

Janet Evanovich (fiction): .62, 49.5 novels and 1 book over 28 years (1987-2014).  By "not rigorous" I mean she doesn't worry about anything beyond the surface meaning in her books, and I didn't think she thought very deeply about that.  This is based on her book on writing rather than on actually reading her novels.  I included her to test my "divide by 3" factor for novels.

Karl Marx (economics): .70, 24 books over 34 years (1842-1875).

Average BPY: .83

People I expect to be acceptably rigorous:

Sam Harris (atheistic morality & philosophy): .58, 7 books in 12 years.

Benedict Spinoza (philosophy): .39, 7 books in 18 years (1660-1677).

Robert Penn Warren (literary theory): .56, 15 books, 1 article, 11 novels, 10 poetry collections over 51 years (1938-1988).  I didn't count poetry collections that appeared to be mainly reprintings of earlier collections.

I. A. Richards (empirical literary theory?): .46, 18 books over 39 years (1922-1960).  I haven't read him directly, but he's a key figure in New Criticism, which is the main alternative to modernist and post-modernist literary theory in the 20th century.

Charles Darwin (evolutionary biology): .46, 20 books over 43 years (1839-1881).  Some are monographs, and may be short.

Donald Knuth (computer science): .28, 13 books and 156 articles over 54 years (1959-2012).  This is problematic, because the median page count for his articles is either 1 or 2, and many are just practice math problems.  I knocked off 6 publications for sounding trivial, and took average length as 4.  I'm hesitant to include him since his most famous work is not original, but review.

Alan Turing (math, computer science, biology, philosophy): .16, 3.17 "books" over 20 years (1935-1954). Many articles, collected into 4 books with 228 + 132 + 286 + 306 = 952 pages.

Marvin Minsky (AI): .12, 4 books and 42 articles over 45 years (1950-1995), but this list of articles says it is "selected".  (It can't be very selective, because it includes a preface and an introduction, which I did not count.)  Average page count appears to be around 10.

Jon von Neumann (mostly math, also economics, computer science, AI): .31, 113 articles over 37 years (1923-1959).  I stopped at 1959 because I was tired of counting. Wildly varying page counts, perhaps averaging 30.

Andrew Wiles (math): .075, 24 articles over 32 years (1977-2008), average page count ~ 30.

Albert Einstein (physics): .69, 28 books and 498 articles over 55 years (1901-1955).  Taking average article length as 6 pages based on sparse data.

Kenneth Arrow (economics): .27, 86 articles, 8 chapters, 11 books over 53 years (1962-2014). Average article length ~ 10 pages, average chapter 18 pages.

Robert Frost (poetry): .22, 8 short books of poetry in 35 years (1913-1947).  (But note that all of Frost's poems fit in one 607-page book.)  I believe he wrote some articles, but I don't have a list of them.

Average BPY: .37
Average BPY excluding math, physics, + comp sci: .44

I couldn't think of any famous and notably non-rigorous mathematicians, physicists, or computer scientists.

I'm not going to draw graphs or do statistical analysis, because these numbers are just exploratory.  I'd want more data, and more accurate data, from more comparable writers.  I'd want at least to know number of words per year (not books per year), to refine my constants, and perhaps to build a predictive model from training data that used year of publication and age of author.

But it seems that people in more-rigorous fields write fewer books per year, although the difference is not as great as I expected.  The people I think of as more rigorous wrote on average fewer books per year.  More than .7 books per year is suspicious in any field.

I expect that words per year (WPY) correlates with academic success. If nothing else, it must correlate with health, motivation, and spare time. Sometimes success comes from taking many years to produce one major work, though--Darwin's theory of evolution, James Joyce's Ulysses, Wiles' proof of Fermat's last theorem. So I suppose that, to be rigorous, the idea would have to be tested.  I'm not sure what the control set should be.

To test the notion that post-modernism is a meme that drives out others by increasing words per year, rather than by being a more useful theory, we'd have to quantify the career advantage provided by WPY itself across all types of academics, the advantage provided by being a post-modernist, and the correlation between WPY and post-modernism, and then show that the resulting WPY advantage accounted for most of the success of post-modernists.  We'd probably also have to factor out the predicted advantage provided by the fraction of practitioners in the field who are your intellectual allies, because having post-modern content should become more of an advantage when more people in the field are post-modernists.

If the average career advantage of post-modernists were less than that predicted from their WPY and intellectual-allies advantages alone, that would suggest that the content of post-modern thinking correlates negatively with success.  I don't predict that would be the result, but it would be an interesting outcome.

(Doing that experiment would be possible, but it's probably easier just to argue that post-modernism is a totalizing metanarrative whose privileging of negative capability pathologizes the construction of stable paradigms.)

If you have some favorite rational or irrational thinkers, and can find out how many words per year they published, feel free to post below.


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26 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 6:08 PM

I suspect that your model has been built to serve the hypothesis you started with.

First of all, I'm not sure what measure you're using for "rigorous thought". Is it a binary classification? Are there degrees of rigor? I can infer from some of your examples what kind of pattern you might be picking up on, but if we're going to try and say things like "there's a correlation between rigor and volume of publication", I'd like to at least see a rough operational definition of what you mean by rigor. It may seem obvious to you what you mean, and it may seem like a subject many people on this site devoted to refining human rationality will have opinions on. That makes it more important to define your terms rigorously, not less, because your results shouldn't explain variation in everyone's definition of rigor.

For the sake of argument, we could use something like "ratio of bits of information implied by factual claims to bits of information contained in presented evidence supporting factual claims" if we want something vaguely quantifiable. It seems your initial set of examples uses a more heuristic approach, with the rigorous group consisting mostly of well-known scientists, artists, and philosophers who are well-liked and whose findings/writings are considered well-founded/meaningful/influential in our current era, and your non-rigorous group consisting of mostly philosophers and some scientists who are at least partially discredited in our current era. I suspect that this might not be a very predictive heuristic, as I think it implicitly relies on some hindsight and also would be vulnerable to exactly the effect you claim if your claim turns out to be true.

Also, I suspect that academic publication and publication of e.g. novels, self-help books, poetry, philosophical treatises, etc. would follow very different rules with respect to rigor versus volume of publication; there are structures in place to make them do exactly that. While journal publication and peer review rules are obviously far from perfect, I suspect that producing a large volume of non-rigorous work is a much better strategy for a fiction writer, philosopher, or artist than it is for a scientist who, if unable to sufficiently hide their non-rigor, will not get their paper published at all, and might start becoming discredited and losing grant money to do further research. In particular, I think the use of a wide temporal range of publishers is going to confound you a lot, because standards have changed and publication rates in general have gone way up in the last ~150 years.

Actually, I'm not even sure how a definition of "rigorous thought" that applies to scientific literature could apply cleanly to fiction-writing, unless it's the "General Degree of Socially-Accepted Credibility" heuristic discussed earlier.

First of all, I'm not sure what measure you're using for "rigorous thought". Is it a binary classification? Are there degrees of rigor? I can infer from some of your examples what kind of pattern you might be picking up on, but if we're going to try and say things like "there's a correlation between rigor and volume of publication", I'd like to at least see a rough operational definition of what you mean by rigor.

The important thing is that I categorized people as rigorous or non-rigorous first, then found a difference between the groups. That suggests there's some relevant distinction in my mental model

If I'd made an operational definition, I'd have been testing the operational definition, not my mental model, and the definition might not have matched very well. Better to consult the oracle in my head.

I agree that what I'm saying would be more clear to you if I'd tried to define rigor afterwards. Certainly not being well-liked or influential. Zizek, Derrida, and Lacan are all well-liked and very influential today. Spinoza is not as influential as Nietzsche.

I consider Nietzsche not rigorous because he's upfront about not being rigorous, about not even considering it an issue. The Superman doesn't stop and try to figure out if he's correct. Nietzsche does philosophy by telling stories, not by defending propositions.

I consider Freud not rigorous because he made hypothesis but didn't test them (AFAIK). He told a lot of just-so stories, without contrasting them with alternative explanations. Similar thing with Marx. More a storyteller than a scientist.

I consider Lysenko not rigorous because instead of arguing with his opponents, he had them sent to Siberia and got a law passed saying it was illegal to argue with him.

I consider Hegel not rigorous because nobody can figure out what a lot of the stuff he wrote means, or if it means anything.

I also consider Stein not rigorous because nobody can figure out what she meant. She wrote like a stroke victim. Her book How to Write begins with 3 untranslated sentences in French, then says:

When he will see When he will see When he will see the land of liberty. The scene changes it is a stone high up against with a hill and there is and above where they will have time.

George Steiner is a curious case. He's very rigorous in considering the meanings and connotations of his words. But he doesn't believe reality is knowable, so he has no interest in whether anything he says is true.

I consider Spinoza rigorous because he wrote in the 17th century, and yet confined himself to meaningful statements and inferences that he could draw based on evidence. His reputation is not very high IMHO because he was so rigorous that he said mainly things we now take for granted and consider obvious.

I consider Robert Penn Warren rigorous because he looks at a story as something that communicates the author's opinions about life through the logical relationships between the different components of the story, and he illustrates this by going through dozens of stories and showing what the intended communication is and how the components interact to support it.

I consider I. A. Richards rigorous because he took stories, showed them to students, asked them to interpret them, and astounded everybody by demonstrating that university literature students understood much less of what was generally thought to be meant in those stories than literary critics believed the general public did.

Jon von Neumann was either rigorous in his thought, or magical.

I don't think I had any good justification for listing Minsky. I think I meant to contrast him with somebody else from MIT from some of the sloppy "look how cool my robot / simulation is" work done there, but was too lazy to put in the time to justify a choice.

Wiles wrote a humongous proof that has withstood (with some provisos that I don't understand) the scrutiny of many mathematicians.

Robert Frost is probably the most controversial. I listed him because his work is very tight. His poems have a surface meaning and one or more deeper meanings, and they communicate clearly enough to bring you to contemplate that deeper meaning, rather than (as most modernist poetry does) merely enough to let you contemplate what that deeper meaning might be.

How does this not come down to saying that people you consider rigorous, on average did more work on their texts than people you don't consider rigorous, and therefore they wrote less as a whole?

If we take a random (educated) person, and ask him to classify authors into rigorous and non-rigorous, something similar should be true on average, and we should find similar statistics. I can't see how that shows some deep truth about the nature of rigorous thought, except that it means doing more work in your thinking.

I agree that it does mean at least that, so that e.g. some author has written more than 100 books, that is a pretty good sign that he is not worth reading, even if it is not a conclusive one.

How does this not come down to saying that people you consider rigorous, on average did more work on their texts than people you don't consider rigorous, and therefore they wrote less as a whole?

That is what it comes down to. I'm not trying to show any truth about the nature of rigorous thought.

Ok. In that sense I agree that this is likely to be the case, and would be the case more often than not with any educated person's assessment of who does rigorous work.

If rigorous thought significantly reduces publication rate, we should find that the rigor of a field or a person correlates inversely with words per person-year. Establishing that fact alone, combined with the emphasis on publication in academics, would lead us to expect that any approach that allowed one to fake or dispense with intellectual rigor in a field would rapidly take over that field.

This is an excellent observation and model-fragment. There are many other things going on which also influence WPY, messing up any naive strategy for assessing things this way, but this is clearly a thing that happens. Well spotted!

I don't get the pertinence of the photo. Was it ironic? It doesn't bring out his possession of the attributes you mentioned, and moreover one of his eyes is half-shut - it seems like it was selected to be a bad moment.

If I had the habit of publishing my photos, that particular one would be bound for the trash. If I were professional and released that one without specific instructions to do so, I would expect a reputation hit.

Literally all photos of Zizek look like this.

Literally all photos of Zizek look like this.

Not literally literally, but close.

Truly, the face is the picture of the soul. I clicked on a rare cheerful picture and found an article headlined "Humanity is OK, but 99% of people are boring idiots."

I don't get the pertinence of the photo

Seems rather obvious to me, illustrating the very first sentence of the post.

If I had the habit of publishing my photos, that particular one would be bound for the trash

Nah, I disagree :-) It's a good image. There's more to photography than making well-exposed pictures of smiling faces.

I was more concerned with the second sentence than the first. He may be ace at getting the girl (photo did establish that decently well), but that photo didn't exactly exude energy, enthusiasm, and confidence.

A fair point. I would guess that Žižek is well supplied with confidence, is noticeably lacking in enthusiasm, and I have no idea about energy :-)

Just watch some videos of him on YouTube. He seems like a pretty energetic guy, and charming in his own way. And he can speak very simply and clearly when he wants to, which surprised me a lot.

People I expect to be acceptably rigorous:

Sam Harris (atheistic morality & philosophy): .58, 7 books in 12 years.


What about Simonton's old 'equal-odds rule' where chance of success does not decline with output, or the observation that publication rates tend to be extremely skewed with the most eminent often publishing the most and most researchers or whatever only publishing one or two papers or books? This would seem to suggest that success and depth comes from trying as much as possible and seeing whether it sticks.


I've been reading his Practical Criticism, which is interesting and short, if maybe a bit tedious. He makes a lot of good points about a lot of people just not understanding the poems they're reading, and dramatically demonstrates how taste differs and the big problem for one reader is the poems' greatest virtue for others. I'm not sure this is new to anyone's who spent more than a few minutes reading clashing book or music reviews, but he does demonstrate it at length.

You've drawn a significant distinction, but I don't think degree of rigor defines it. I'm not sufficiently familiar with many of these thinkers to assess their rigorousness, but I am familiar with several, the ones who would often be deemed most important: Einstein, Darwin on the side you describe as rigorous; Freud and Marx on the side you describe as less rigorous. I can't agree that Freud and Marx are less rigorous. Marx makes a argument for his theory of capitalism in three tightly reasoned volumes of capital, none of the arguments formulaic. Freud develops the basics of his psychology in "The Interpretation of Dreams," a rigorous study of numerous dreams, his own and his patients, extracting principles of dream interpretation.

Let me offer an alternative hypothesis. The distinction doesn't regard rigor but rather elegance. Einstein and Darwin developed elegant explanations; Freud and Marx developed systems of insights, supported by argument and evidence, but less reducible to a central, crisp insight. I haven't considered a term for the latter, but for the moment, I'll call them systematic theories.

An elegant theory must be accepted as a whole or not at all. A systematic theory contains numerous insights that despite their integration can often be separated from one another, one idea accepted and another rejected.

With that distinction, it can readily be explained why systematic theorists produce a greater total bulk of work. It takes more words, and more working through, to explain a system than an elegant principle.

I think you may be confusing "rigorous" with "elaborate" or "detailed". (Or maybe not, in which case you might like to say a few words about why the former, and not only the latter, applies to Marx and Freud.)

Elaborate or detailed are characteristics neither necessary nor sufficient for rigor. The first describe characteristics of the theory; the second of the argument for the theory. To say a theory is rigorous is neither more or less than to say it is well argued (with particular emphasis on the argument's tightness).

Whether Freud and Marx argued well may be hard to agree on when we examine their arguments. [Agreement or disagreement on conclusions have a way of grossly interfering with evaluation of argument, with the added complication that evaluation must be relative to a historical state of play.] And we ignore what could be called holes in Einstein and Darwin because the theories are the consensus - holes like the absence of the Mendelian mechanism in Darwin or the (still-unresolved, at least philosophically) problem of infinities in general relativity. [I'm sure that's controversial, however.]

But I would suggest that a theories that have sustained the agreement of even a large minority of serious intellectuals and academics for more than a century should be presumed rigorous. Rigor is what establishes lasting intellectual success. It is what primarily defines whether a work is "impressive" (to use Robin Hanson's as-always useful term).

On the other hand, I agree that third-rate minds use formulaic methods to generate a huge number of publications, and by their nature, such works will never be rigorous (or lastingly impressive).

I agree with your first paragraph, and (in case it was unclear) my point was that the only support you offered for "well argued" over merely "elaborate and detailed" as a description of Marx and Freud was (1) to say that they wrote a lot of intricately-argued stuff and (2) to reiterate the claim that it was rigorous.

I don't have the impression that Freud's theories have sustained the agreement of a large minority of serious intellectuals and academics for more than a century. I could agree with half a century, maybe a little more, and that's certainly more influence than most of us will ever have -- but I don't see why it constitutes strong evidence of rigour.

Likewise, I think, for Marx. His theories have of course been widely endorsed by people in countries where they formed a quasi-religious orthodoxy, but outside those countries it's been only a small minority (hasn't it?) who have accepted Marxism as a whole. Plenty more have agreed that he got some things right, but getting some things right is another achievement that surely isn't very strong evidence of rigour.

Since the best you can show with this is a loose correlation, you're going to run into troubles across different fields. For example, the Intelligent Design people aren't rigorous in their methodologies and don't produce a lot of academic writing. So they don't fit your model. Maybe if you add all non-academic sources, like the propaganda they produce?

Yes, and Zizek has also made movies. Wittgenstein never published anything but his dissertation, but left 20,000 pages of manuscripts behind. Some people are known largely thru the publication of notes taken by students. There are many difficulties.

Just figuring out how much time a person had to write seems pretty important. Einstein was at the Princeton institute for advanced studies, so he had no teaching duties. Nietzsche was sick a lot of the time. Wittgenstein spent years working as a gardener.

Number of journals in a field is also probably important. Reputation of journals may or may not be worth factoring in. And now we have blog posts to count.

Also, if you add in some of the hyper-productive people, like Bach and maybe Noam Chomsky, I think that would skew the results even more. How do you evaluate Bach? He was clearly productive - or does this not count b/c it's in music?

Specifically WRT Bach, he couldn't be used as a datapoint because his fame was not achieved in an environment in which number of publications were counted and used in hiring/promotion decisions, or had any other impact on his success. Bach was before recorded music, so most of his compositions were (I think?) heard once in his life time, by a few people who were not influential. And he didn't achieve fame until later.

Bach also has the complication that his job required him to write new music each week.

Consider Beethoven vs. Mozart. Beethoven is in the "rigorous" camp; he revised for months or years, building complex structures into his music. Mozart was not rigorous. Mozart liked to say that he didn't need to revise; he just sat down and wrote music as it came to him, "like a cow pisses." So how valuable is rigor in music?

Personally, I don't consider Mozart to be on the level of Beethoven. The Mozart that rises to the level of Beethoven, maybe his Requiem, are ones he spent more time on and did revise. (And he wrote only half of the Requieum!) But that's a minority opinion, and I'm not a music scholar at all.

Math is more info dense than words.

I'm surprised no one mentioned that Eliezer Yudkowsky used to write a lot of words.

Upvoted, but mostly for the first paragraph and photo. :)

What is your measure? Does it stem from the lack of satisfaction in their work? Their lack of analysis? I feel like word count is not necessary. Zizek is also very accessible because he works in Lacanian psychoanalysis....I need more data!