Received wisdom on the use of footnotes in academic writing has shifted decisively during the course of my career. As a budding scholar, it was expected of me that I would use them. This was one of the markers of proper academic writing, I was told. Footnotes made it look scholarly such that an academic piece was visibly distinguishable from, say, a short story. In any draft paper, then, I had to make sure that I included footnotes. Preferably these would be more than just references, since there would be other ways of making those. Rather, you would have to think of some demi-substantial points so that your footnotes had content, though content the main argument of your paper could do without.
As we all now know, footnotes are a bit of a pain to read: a distraction that diverts us from the flow of the argument; an interruption, often for no more than a minor, orthogonal point.1 I realised that I rarely got something out of reading a footnote, though there were always tales of very important points made in footnotes,2 meaning that you could never just assume they added no value. I did eventually realise, however, that my favourite philosophy books were the ones that contained no footnotes, and barely any references, such as Gilbert Ryle’s The Concept of Mind.3 Such books allowed me, the reader, greater immersion in the argument, with which it was then easier to sympathise.
My rule now is to never use footnotes under any circumstances.4 I have a number of authored books under my belt that are entirely footnote-free. What is more, I think that the challenge of writing without footnotes has really helped my thinking. It forces me to order my thoughts in a strictly sequential form, to think hard about what really does, and really doesn’t, matter to my argument. It obliges me not to disappear down any rabbit holes, which, after all, are quite likely only to interest me rather than my reader.
Journal articles are a slightly different matter. I have seen practices change even here, though. Some journals were good, early on, at discouraging the use of footnotes to make substantial points. But practice still puzzles me since I still find some journals that like to use footnotes for the references, leading to scores of distracting footnotes per article. This means that some of my own work does still appear with footnotes, as is the editor’s choice. Why we can’t all just use Harvard referencing, I’ll never know.6
There remains a crucial test that I think is always decisive. Is it really worth saying what you want to say? If it is, then you should include it in the main text of your article or chapter. If not, then it’s not worth bothering your reader to go hunt for it in a footnote. It follows from this that we really should do without footnotes altogether.7 I used to think of footnotes as adding credibility to my work, since they were a way of showing that I understood the rules of the game.9 10 11 Now I feel confident enough to think the opposite. Footnotes detract credibility since I take them as an indicator that the author was not able to un-jumble their thinking at that point and order it sequentially. We are sometimes dealing with very difficult matters in our work, so I understand how it happens, but I do also think that footnotes might have been better just left as the author’s personal annotations and seen by no one else.12
1. We all know the problem. You’re following the train of argument, see the footnote, and then have to look to the bottom of the page and read what is essentially, a diversion and dead end. Then you have to find your way back to the main text and try to remember your previous place in the thread. Even worse is if the footnotes are relegated to endnotes, meaning that you have to go hunting in the back of the book, often for scant reward, and then recall where you had first come from.
2. Such as Bishop Butler’s devastating refutation of Hobbes.
3. Hutchinson, 1949.
4. The only possible exception I would make to this would be to credit an idea to someone who had given me it in discussion.5
5. Though even this can usually be accommodated in the main text (perhaps in a bracket).
6. Apologies to Chicago and Vancouver, but you just don’t cut it.
7. There really is only one exception I make to this rule, which is to give a list of acknowledgments at the end of the paper, since these are clearly not a part of the paper itself.8
8. There really is only one exception I make to this rule, which is to give a list of acknowledgments at the start of the paper, since these are clearly not a part of the paper itself.7
9. Obviously this raises questions of unequal power dynamics as early career academics feel they have to conform to the accepted practices of their field to be taken seriously.
10. I increasingly see the power of viewing such issues as Wittgensteinian language games: in this case a written language game rather than a spoken one.
11. Are we allowed multiple footnotes on the same point? That’s where it leads.
12. Maybe take this point out. I’m not sure it’s the right note on which to end.