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Epistemai: An Undergraduate Journal of Philosophy

December 15, 2017

Philosophy students conversing on couch

Philosophy students conversing on couch
Photo by Matthew Weber, CLAgency student

Ten years ago, a group of undergraduate philosophy students at the University of Minnesota edited and published an annual journal to which fellow undergraduate philosophers from across the United States could submit their papers. Though the journal has been defunct for nearly a decade, over the last year a new cohort of undergraduate philosophy students at the University of Minnesota, of which the author is a part, have been working to start up the journal again. “The idea to revive the undergraduate journal came out of a discussion with Professor Sarah Holtman,” explains undergraduate philosophy student Maddy Brighouse Glueck. “We were talking about how philosophy majors, though brilliant and interesting people, don’t end up hanging out together that often. While brainstorming ways to get undergraduate students who are passionate about philosophy to come together in a more systematic manner, Professor Holtman noted that there had once been an undergraduate journal for the department, and that it would be really cool to revive it.”

At the beginning of spring semester 2017, Maddy and a group of five other undergraduate philosophy students (and one graduate student) formed the “Argument Group”—primarily a reading group with aspirations of reviving the University’s undergraduate philosophy journal. The Argument Group met on a fortnightly basis to discuss a significant article in twentieth-century philosophy, exchanging and criticizing each other’s written responses in the process. “We would discuss the merits of various papers and their implications in other areas of philosophy,” explains journal editor Christian Borgen.

At this point, starting up the journal was still little more than an aspiration—nobody seemed quite sure how to make the transition from a mere reading group to an actual editorial team. But the early experience reading philosophical works, consolidating our thoughts, objections, and counter-arguments in the form of written responses, and subjecting these responses to the criticism of our fellow interlocutors would prove a valuable one in preparing us for the editorial duties required for a full-fledged philosophical journal. Indeed, sometimes being an editor for Epistemai doesn’t feel too far removed from those early Argument Group days spent reading Grice’s “Logic and Conversation” and arguing about conversational implicature at the Hard Times Cafe.

But, as the spring semester progressed, those of us in the Argument Group managed to recruit more students, mostly from our philosophy courses. “We slowly convinced people to join us,” says Maddy, “and now this year we have a great crew as an editing team for the journal.”  However, recruitment did not come without its challenges. “It was initially difficult to get a group of people together,” Maddy explains. “Sometimes philosophy majors can be a bit shy, and take a little bit of cajoling to convince them to add another thing to their plate, but with persistence and a positive group atmosphere we have managed to maintain consistent membership.”

With new members—and with them new skills and experiences—the Argument Group transitioned from a reading group to an editorial board. The team sent out a call-for-papers, and the first wave of submissions was received shortly thereafter. It was then time to choose a name for the journal. The team decided that we wanted the journal’s name to be an ancient Greek word or phrase with philosophical connotations. The burden of finding such a name was placed on the two classics majors in the group, Jenny Phillips and Christian Borgen. We considered ‘ἡ κάλη ἐπιτηδευμάτη’ (‘the beautiful/noble pursuit’) and ‘ἡ κάλη ἐπιστεμή’ (‘the beautiful/noble knowledge’), opting for the latter, which was ultimately shortened to simply ‘ἐπιστῆμαι’, transliterated as Epistemai. “Epistemai comes from ἐπιστῆμαι, an Ancient Greek word for knowledge,” Christian explains. “As Western philosophy has its roots in ancient Greece, and because several members of our journal are also classics majors, we felt that incorporating such a background into our journal’s title would be fitting.”

Over the summer, as submissions continued to come in, editors reached out to faculty members for advice on reviving the journal. “The philosophy department was and has been nothing but supportive,” says editor Will Marsolek, “Both Professor Jessica Gordon-Roth and Professor Bennett McNulty gave me some suggestions that ended up being implemented by the editorial board, and Professor Stavrou of the history department, drawing on his thirty-two years of experience in editing a journal he himself founded, also proved to be an indispensable resource.”

Maddy too cites the help of the Department of Philosophy in reviving the journal: “The department has been very supportive,” she says, “especially Judy Grandbois, who helped with setting up the website and providing administrative advice. She took the effort to find some previous iterations of the journal and has always greeted me with kindness and excitement. Every professor I have mentioned the journal to has been excited and supportive, and Professors Sarah Holtman and Valerie Tiberius have, of course, played a pivotal role in getting this whole process off the ground.”

Once fall semester began, the Epistemai team began meeting on a weekly basis. Rather than discussing major works in twentieth-century philosophy as the Argument Group had done, we were now concerning ourselves with hashing out an editorial process, dividing the journal submissions roughly by topic, and assessing the logistics of publishing the journal in the following spring. “It’s so exciting to be around a group of people who are into talking about philosophical issues in a systematic way.” says Maddy. “It’s a bit of an eclectic group, but we all get along quite well, and there is fun camaraderie. Additionally, it’s been really cool to look at other people’s work and see all of the things people are thinking about across the country.”

After much discussion, we opted for a two-phase editorial process. First, we divided the forty-odd submissions among three teams: Team Sublime was responsible for reviewing the papers on aesthetics, philosophy of art, and logic; Team Mind for those on epistemology, metaphysics, and philosophy of mind; and Team Right for those on ethics and political/social philosophy. Each team selected what they judged to be the best submissions in their respective category and sent them back to their authors for revision. “We’re getting into the nitty-gritty details of each paper and discussing their flaws and merits,” explains Will. “If we find important flaws, we’re sending the submission back to its author with our suggestions and criticisms for her to use as a guide to make her paper better.”

Upon resubmission, the revised papers were reviewed by the entire editorial board, which voted on which submissions would be published. After the members of the editorial board made and consolidated their proposed revisions, these to-be-published papers were distributed among UMN philosophy graduate students for further review. Finally, the proposed revisions of the editorial board and graduate students were sent to the authors of the papers for a second round of revision and resubmission.

Though extensive, the editorial process ensures that only the very best work will appear in the journal. “We’re modelling ourselves after professional peer-reviewed journals,” says Will. “This means we are going to take the time to do this right. The result is going to be nice cluster of articles that, like in a professional journal, are more polished, more philosophically sound, and more interesting to read than they were when first submitted.”
But the efforts of the editorial board pale in comparison to those who submitted their papers to Epistemai. And it is these young philosophers, rather than us editors, who are the real protagonists of this story. “The people who submit their best work to criticism have tremendous courage,” says Will. “If they make the cut to the final publication, then that shows years of hard, character-building work. If they don’t, then they’re already well on their way to producing top-tier work, because they’ve already showed willingness to subject their best work to the critical eyes of others. It’s an outstanding achievement to write a good philosophy paper, and what we’re doing with this journal is rewarding this achievement.” As editors, we get the opportunity to recognize, admire, and reward such achievements firsthand. And for that reason, we at Epistemai are, as Will puts it, “just lucky to be an appendage to the process.”

This story was written by an undergraduate student account executive in CLAgency. Meet the team.