Why Philosophers (and Everybody Else) Should Stop Using Footnotes

When I sent out submission instructions to the invited contributors of The Bloomsbury Guide to Philosophy of Disability, I informed them that the book would use endnotes rather than footnotes and instructed them that their use of endnotes must be kept to a minimum.

Extensive use of footnotes and endnotes usually indicates that the writing of the body of the work in question requires more attention: sentences should be rewritten more succinctly, terms of reference need to be clarified, paragraphs should be reorganized, arguments need to be more adequately substantiated in the body of the text itself, etc.

Sometimes philosophers use footnotes or endnotes as a way to hastily circumvent a possible objection to their argument rather than offer an explanation of the objection and in turn adequately respond to it. Editors should flag this sort of practice.

In my own work, which typically involves a variety of argumentative threads advanced simultaneously, I use very little material to supplement the body of the main text itself. My thinking is that if a statement or paragraph seems to require some kind of supplementary clarification, then I probably need to rewrite the statement itself more clearly, reorganize and rewrite the paragraph, think more about what I want a statement/paragraph to capture, and so on.

In addition, I am cognizant that inclusion of supplementary material, that is, text and other material not located in the main body of a given piece of writing would make engagement with my work unduly complicated: the movement between the main text of a given piece of writing and the supplementary material that footnotes and endnotes comprises introduces gratuitous inaccessibility to documents for a range of disabled philosophers.

Footnotes, especially, should be avoided for this very reason. Indeed, philosophers should call for an indefinite moratorium on the use of footnotes in philosophy journals, monographs, and edited collections. In short, footnotes should never be used to supplement a philosophy text due to the obstacles that they pose to philosophers who use screen readers and text-to-speech devices in general.

Philosopher Nick Byrd has provided a detailed and readily understandable explanation for why footnotes make documents inaccessible and an argument for why you should no longer use them when you compose your own philosophical writing or when you edit a journal. You can find Nick Byrd’s “The Moral Argument Against Footnotes and PDF” and a link to an updated version of it here.

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