Idiosyncratic Articles of Faith and Tea Party Discourse

I am still finding this story from last week’s New York Times really disturbing.

JASPER, Ind. — At a candidate forum here last week, Representative Baron P. Hill, a threatened Democratic incumbent in a largely conservative southern Indiana district, was endeavoring to explain his unpopular vote for the House cap-and-trade energy bill.

It will create jobs in Indiana, reduce foreign oil imports and address global warming, Mr. Hill said at a debate with Todd Young, a novice Republican candidate who is supported by an array of Indiana Tea Party groups and is a climate change skeptic.

“Climate change is real, and man is causing it,” Mr. Hill said, echoing most climate scientists. “That is indisputable. And we have to do something about it.”

A rain of boos showered Mr. Hill, including a hearty growl from Norman Dennison, a 50-year-old electrician and founder of the Corydon Tea Party.

“It’s a flat-out lie,” Mr. Dennison said in an interview after the debate, adding that he had based his view on the preaching of Rush Limbaugh and the teaching of Scripture. “I read my Bible,” Mr. Dennison said. “He made this earth for us to utilize.” read more

Thumping the Bible or even Rush Limbaugh (no matter how much we’d like to thump him) is no way to engage in public discourse and a really bad way to back up one’s views. Is there any dispute over that? In this public setting of a political debate—on matters of common interest—Mr. Dennison metaphorically reaches for his Bible, his idiosyncratically-read Bible (why “utilize” rather than “steward,” Genesis 1.28), to a text that is not recognized publicly as an authority.  But now we are in a vicious circle, for certainly Mr. Dennison wants us to recognize his idiosyncratic reading, his sacred (dare I say “private”) text, as a public adjudicator.

Nor was Mr. Dennison the least bit interested in civic discourse, not in either sense of the word “civic,” neither polite (he growled at the speaker) nor interested in helping to develop a shared sense of things.  It is his way or the highway, whereas civic discourse, in the political sense requires some civility in the manners sense. In all this, he certainly seems to be a good representative of the Tea Party. For a reflective kind of public opinion to emerge from any public, political conversation, participants need to present themselves as willing, at least in principle, to the possibility that they might learn something from each other, that the other might bring forward a new perspective on the matter.  I don’t see any signs of such comportment in this new “civic” movement today.

I am very disturbed.  Not just by Mr. Dennison but by an increasingly venomous public discourse in this country along with increasing hatred and discrimination against gays and Muslims. This is all worse now than it was a year ago, and it wasn’t good then. Certainly there is much that is objectively wrong in this country that might spur vitriol against political leaders who seem to have done relatively little about the economy (or pick any issue), but why is this manifesting itself as extreme bigotry?  In times of trouble, is it necessary to hold tight to one’s own idiosyncratic view of things, to “one’s own,” and denounce all things, orientations, faiths that call into question one’s own self-sovereignty?  Where is the strength in that?

Search the NRC Data on Grad Programs

To continue the theme of philosophy ranking on a positive note, it is indeed easy to see how different programs rank in terms of placement and grad student support.  The website has the NRC data on its website in an easily searchable form. (NRC for the National Research Council which has released its pre-publication report to be published by the National Academies press.) In addition to student success, you can rank by repuational quality, research productivity, diversity, and student resources.  Here’s a link to the philosophy grad programs rankings.  Under “choose your own priorities” you can find get the rankings by whatever criteria you select.

Ranking Continental Philosophy Programs

I just noticed Brian Leiter’s list of what he deems to be the top continental philosophy programs. Save for a few that obviously belong, the list is bizarre. The ones that seem most to belong here are those with asterisks or pound signs, meaning ones that had to be ad-hoc’d into the list.

Group 1 (1-3) (rounded mean of 4.0) (median, mode)

Georgetown University (4, 4.5)
University of California, Riverside (4, 4)
University of Chicago (4, 5)

Group 2 (4-10)  (rounded mean of 3.5) (median, mode)

Cambridge University (3.75, 3)
Columbia University (4, 4.25)
#University at Stony Brook, State University of New York
*University College Dublin
#University of Essex
University of Notre Dame (4, 4.5)
University of Warwick (3.5, 4)

Group 3 (11-31) (rounded mean of 3.0) (median, mode)

*Boston College
Boston University (3, 3)
Harvard University (3, 3)
*Loyola University, Chicago
*New School University
New York University (3, 3)
Northwestern University (3, 3)
Oxford University (3.5, 3)
#Pennsylvania State University
Stanford University (3, 3)
Syracuse University (3.25, 3)
University College London (3, 3)
University of Auckland (3, 3)
University of California, Berkeley (3, 3)
University of California, Santa Cruz (3, 3.25)
*University of Kentucky
*University of New Mexico
University of South Florida (3, 2)
*University of Sussex
University of Toronto (3, 3)
*Vanderbilt University

* inserted by Board
# based on 2004 results, in some cases with modest adjustments by the Advisory Board to reflect changes in staff in the interim

It’s easy to understand why the list is so strange.  For years I have noted that the problem with Leiter’s methodology is that it is based on reputational rankings from a group of rankers he has self-selected.  Here is the list of rankers for this continental philosophy ranking:

Evaluators: Kenneth Baynes, James Bohman, Taylor Carman, David Dudrick, Gary Gutting, Beatrice Han-Pile, Pierre Keller, Sean Kelly, Michelle Kosch, Brian Leiter, Stephen Mulhall, Brian O’Connor, Peter Poellner, Bernard Reginster, Michael Rosen, Iain Thomson, Georgia Warnke, Robert Wicks, Mark Wrathall, Julian Young.

I have been involved in continental philosophy circles for over many  years, but I only recognize four of these philosophers as in any way qualified to assess continental philosophy overall. Others may be familiar enough with the field to recognize which programs have individuals doing work in continental philosophy (from a certain bent). But it would be a huge stretch to say that as a whole they are deeply familiar with what is going on in the field.

Objectively speaking, the best measures for success in any given area of philosophy are these: getting published in the major journals of the field and by the major publishing houses of that field, getting papers accepted at the major conferences in that field, and excelling at  job placement.  Data on the 3d point is lacking because of lack of will or coordination, but the first two are simple enough to assess.  For continental philosophy just look at the programs of the past years’ meetings of the major societies, e.g. SPEP, which is the second largest philosophical society in the U.S. and identify the leaders of these organizations, whose papers are getting accepted, and which doctoral programs are training emerging scholars. For publications, look to who is getting published in the leading journals in continental philosophy (such as Continental Philosophy Review, Philosophy Today, Constellations, and Philosophy and Social Criticism) and by the academic publishing houses that have lists in the field.

Any student serious about going into continental philosophy would be wise to dismiss this obviously biased ranking. Any reputational ranking has serious limitations, but at the very least a reputational ranking of a field should consult those who know the field well: for continental philosophy this would include the leaders of SPEP and other continental societies; the authors and editors of series published by Columbia, Indiana, SUNY, Routledge, Rowman & Littlefield; and the editors of the main journals in the field.

Otherwise the report just confirms the reporter’s preconceived ideas about what counts as philosophy. And if continental doesn’t count to him, despite the fact that continental philosophy is one of the most vibrant and innovative fields in the humanities today, then the results are bound to be twisted.


For what it’s worth, of U.S. doctoral programs in continental philosophy I’d easily recommend these to my students (in alphabetical order): CUNY grad program, DePaul, Emory, the New School, Penn State, Stonybrook, Vanderbilt, and perhaps Boston College, Boston University, Loyola, Memphis, Northwestern, and Syracuse. No doubt there are other good and emerging programs that I’ve missed, so please post a comment if you notice any such omission.

Edit: I’ve subsequently found that the reason so many continental programs aren’t ranked (at least without an asterisk or pound sign) is that they have opted out of the rankings by not submitting a list of faculty to the PGR. Nonetheless, the basic problem remains (and this may be why so many continental programs have opted out.)

On Being Drawn to Philosophy (as a job)

People are drawn to philosophy possibly for fame but never for fortune. Perhaps the most famous philosopher of all time in the West was Socrates, and he left his family drachma-less (or whatever the equivalent of pennies were in those days), having been sentenced to death for the work that he did.  Another highly famous philosopher, Marx, relied on his friend Engels for sustenance, whiling away his days in the library in London as his family starved.

But at least these two philosophers became famous, more than anyone on any reality show ever will.

No philosopher today  would be mobbed by throngs in an airport and few, if any, invited to the Sunday morning news programs.  In the wider world they are mostly obscure figures, save for the occasional op-ed in the New York Times.

Fame-seeking is not, I hope, why anyone goes into philosophy. And I don’t think it is why Socrates or Marx did.  If fame is the aim, especially long-term fame, then note that in philosophy the odds are just really bad.

Moreover, most Really Famous Philosophers did not have academic gigs. So trying to become a Really Famous Philosopher by getting an academic job isn’t a sure route.

So if you are in the midst of thinking about a job in philosophy and where to go to study to get one, think about this: why do you want to do this? If not for fame or fortune, then what?

But we haven’t really dispensed with fame or fortune.  In the little corners of the universe we might inhabit, there is ample opportunity to reap a decent living and become well respected, good-enough analogues of fortune and fame. If you are inclined toward philosophy, it might be very tempting to lean toward graduate programs that  promise more rather than less remuneration and respect from the profession as a whole. So you might be inclined to consult the whatever-ific rankings that are out there.

But again, if what you really want is fame you should go to film school or if it is fortune go to business school. The odds are surely much better. But if (more likely, if you’re reading this) you are captivated by certain deep problems or promises, and if these things keep you up at night, go to a program where you will be guided well. (If you can sleep well even as  these problems somewhat niggle at you, then you probably don’t need to be doing this.)

The whatever-ific rankings that are out there will not help you find the right program.  If you are to become a philosopher in the deep sense, then reputational rankings (such as the Leiter reports) will just tell you what faculty and institutions are well-regarded (/famous in this little corner of the universe) not which faculty and institutions are conducive to your particular interests.  Instead of consulting rankings, consult the library. Find out who out there is approaching the questions you want to approach.  Then look for what programs teach these texts, or even better have faculty who wrote those texts.

If you know you like philosophy but you are not sure what particular area you want to study, much less with whom to study, then find a program that is pluralist and strongly connected to other humanities programs in its university. In general, the higher it is on the reputational rankings, the fewer areas of specialization it might offer.

There is little worse than arriving at a program and realizing that you will not learn there what you want to learn, having just packed up and moved half way across the country.

If you want to do philosophy, attend to your own voice first. What is it you care about? What do you want to pursue? It is very likely that what is on the tip of your tongue is what the rest of us need to hear and engage next.  So find the place that will help you find your voice. It is that voice that might inadvertently be the one that achieves some fame for having spoken something that actually speaks to us.

Political Cultures and the Culture of Poverty

“‘Culture of Poverty,’ Once an Academic Slur, Makes a Comeback” reports the New York Times this morning, referring to the debate that started with Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s 1965 report that described “the urban black family as caught in an inescapable ‘tangle of pathology’ of unmarried mothers and welfare dependency.” According to the story, written by Patricia Cohen, while the idea had lots of traction politically up through Clinton’s war on welfare “as we know it,” many on the left in academia took offense at the suggestions that blacks were somehow to blame for poverty and that the situation was next to hopeless. And so discussing it became verbotten for decades.

I was just a tot when all that happened, but I grew up hearing references to the “culture of poverty” notion, and I never found it offensive, at least not prima facie. To say that one is born into a culture that is disempowering and hence helps explain inequity makes sense to me, especially if we don’t then blame the victim.  This country is in toto to blame for a history that has never been recognized, wrongs that have never been righted, legacies that are harmful all around.

As Cohen reports, economists, sociologists and others are returning to the idea now, shorn of some of the baggage, able to actually look at the situation of unwed parents, absent fathers, and continuing poverty as a problem of culture.  The new crop of academics are looking at the effects of shared understandings and perceptions. Positive ones help communities flourish; negative ones seem to doom communities to perpetual dysfunction. Paraphrasing Harvard sociologist Robert Sampson, Cohen writes,

The shared perception of a neighborhood — is it on the rise or stagnant? — does a better job of predicting a community’s future than the actual level of poverty.

I applaud all the work that Cohen points to in using the rubric of culture to understand poverty.

But I think we should take this much further.  Even more widespread and endemic than a culture of poverty is a culture of powerlessness. Maybe five percent of the population is exempt from this problem, those with the money and / or connections and / or sense of efficacy to think that what they care about matters and that they can make a difference. So many more think that what they think about on issues of common, political concern just doesn’t matter and that little they do will make any discernible difference. It’s a wonder that as many people vote as do.

Our culture of powerlessness tells us that politics is what governments do, not what civil societies, publics, or public spheres do. It pays attention to administrative and economic power, not what Habermas calls, following Dewey’s lead,  communicative power or what Arendt calls the power of acting and speaking in the presence of others. This is the culture we need to cultivate.

What it’s like to be a woman in philosophy

A new blog with a novel concept has started. WHAT IS IT LIKE TO BE A WOMAN IN PHILOSOPHY? collects and posts a few anecdotes per day on the question. As the editors put it,

This blog is devoted to short observations (generally fewer than 300 words) sent in by readers, about life as a woman in philosophy. Some of these will undoubtedly be tales of the sexism, conscious and unconscious, that remains. But we hope that others will be tales of ways that improvements have been (or are being) made. Many will be written by women in philosophy. But we hope that not all will be– for others in philosophy also know some important things relevant to what it’s like to be a woman in philosophy. They know, for example, what men in philosophy say to each other when the women aren’t there.

The other day I read all the posts through in one sitting, starting with the earliest ones.  There’s something hilarious about the horrible gaffes made, but at the same time it’s really sad.  There is something about this discipline of philosophy that is just not friendly to women.  Perhaps it is the argumentative / combative style that is prevalent in some schools of thought (but thankfully not in the ones I work in, nor at my new home, Emory’s philosophy department). Philosophers are conventionally trained in “gotcha” methodology.  Look, ma, how I can take him down! At least that was my experience in some seminars in grad school, where the prof would lean across the table and practically jab his finger into your chest.  But other seminars, in other genres of philosophy, were sites of respect, decorum, and civility.  There really is no need to one up each other much less to belittle each other to make a point. To honor our own philosophical interests we don’t need to disparage others. Women working in philosophy, especially those who claim some interest in feminist thought, have often been told that their work “isn’t philosophy,” as if there is any settled idea of what philosophy has to be. (And aren’t all the philosophers we think of now as “great” ones who have overturned conventional ideas of philosophy?)

So read the new blog and listen to what is being said about what counts and think about how to count things — and people — differently.