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.)

By Noelle McAfee

I am professor of philosophy at Emory University and editor of the Kettering Review. My latest book, Fear of Breakdown: Politics and Psychoanalysis, explores what is behind the upsurge of virulent nationalism and intransigent politics across the world today. My other writings include Democracy and the Political Unconscious; Habermas, Kristeva, and Citizenship; Julia Kristeva; and numerous articles and book chapters. Edited volumes include Standing with the Public: the Humanities and Democratic Practice and a special issue of the philosophy journal Hypatia on feminist engagements in democratic theory. I am also the author of the entry on feminist political philosophy in the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and well into my next book project on democratic public life.


  1. You might be interested in this analysis of the 2009 overall rankings, which I wrote last Spring. I conclude, among other things, that excellence in Continental philosophy (as measured by its ranking) doesn’t contribute to its overall ranking. Though, perhaps, this is due to the problems with the Continental philosophy ranking that you point out.

  2. Hi, Noelle. As a graduate of the Duquesne PhD, I would certainly nominate it as one of the top continental programs. The faculty and graduate students are vibrant and diverse, and many figures in the continental tradition are represented in their research, especially Kant and Hegel, Nietzsche, Husserl, Merleau-Ponty, Foucault, Habermas, and Deleuze. The program has just hired Michael Marder, who works on Heidegger, phenomenology, Carl Schmitt. Jessica Wiskus in the music department has published on papers on Merleau-Ponty and music; Bruce Fink in the psychology department is a leading figure on the psychoanalysis of Lacan. Duquesne also houses the Simon Silverman phenomenology center. It’s also a great place to study the history of philosophy. Here’s a link: http://www.duq.edu/philosophy/index.cfm

    Thanks for considering endorsement of our program!

    -Tom Sparrow

  3. Of course! By the way, Leiter today re-posted, with no commentary, his piece on ‘party line continentalists’. It follows a, perhaps helpful, clarification about the Penn State program.

  4. Americanists, too, have concerns (which I won’t reproduce here). I wonder if you think it would be a step in the right direction for him to put their Ph.D. school and their employment school after their name? Not that that would be the kind of fix you’re arguing is needed, but perhaps it would *at least* move the reader toward making a more informed judgment about the selection criteria at play in the Important List of Approved Continental Programs.

  5. You write: “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.”

    It would be more accurate to say that you’ve been involved in SPEP circles for many years, but SPEP represents a decided minority of philosophers who work on Continental philosophy. And the breathtaking admission that you “only recognize four of these philosophers” who participated in the PGR evaluations as “qualified to assess continental philosophy” would support a reasonable inference that you are not competent to evaluate work in the field, since you’re apparently unfamiliar with many of the best scholars in the field.

    On a factual point, evaluators are nominated sometimes by me, but more often by members of the Advisory Board.

  6. The Good Dr. Leiter:

    I think all this talk about rankings is a remarkable case of omphaloskeptic nonsense and unhelpful to anyone. Evidence of the navel-gazing is that you have just made the absurd argument that McAfee’s “breathtaking admission” that she only recognizes a few names on the list as proof that she is not competent. In other words: because *you* recognize the names on the list as “best scholars”, they are the “best scholars” and if someone else objects, this is prima facie evidence that they are incompetent to make such a judgment. It couldn’t be possible that it is you who are mistaken about who the “best scholars” are! (What does it even mean to be the best scholar? Is philosophy a popularity contest?)

    Yes, this is the clear thinking, rigor and fidelity to argument we look for in Anglo-american philosophy.

    Does it help philosophy to continually ghettoize excellent schools, like DePaul Duquesne or Emory, where smart people say intelligent things and publish good books? Even to rank them, as though you could quantify thinking, would be an insult. You do injustice to philosophy itself, you do injustice to those brave souls who dared throw their lives away in this decaying profession because they were rare enough to find thinking a virtue on its own and to commit themselves to thinking for its own sake. By insulting such people you do injustice to the truth. By instituting these rankings you help no-one, and only perpetuate the pettiness and parochialness of this absurd profession, which holds the reputation of one’s institution to be more valuable than the quality of one’s thought. You ought to be ashamed of yourself.

    Please, just stop. Apologize to everyone, get rid of your rankings, and go back to the real work of philosophy: thinking and teaching others to do so.

    –Anonymous, since I could only respect professional reprisal in the face of such pettiness.

  7. I’m no great fan of rankings, but can we please admit they have uses and values for people who want to choose what to do? The reason I take it worth Noelle’s time to make her criticism is that she recognizes that there are many who need guidance and she recognizes that they are using the Report to get it. I take her critique as constructively motivated. It is, I think, just inevitable that there is personal friction involved in this debate, because we identify so closely with this vocation.

    So, I confess: I have directed many students asking about graduate school toward Leiter’s report. Why? There’s not much else out there that competes. Yes, I have given them what caveats I feel are warranted (e.g. about the areas I have some countervailing knowledge), but I have always ended by telling students that whatever the charges of bias there are which stand up, there is simply a lot of data there, too, and that’s a *huge percentage* of what they need.

    Rankings won’t go away because they’re too just too useful for decision making. In my view, it’s better not to curse the darkness; if you want to make an argument against rankings, make the argument against the whole enterprise of ranking; if you think that Leiter’s rankings are misdirecting people or misinforming them, write critiques, collect signature, or–better yet–create another set of rankings which will create more choice in the marketplace of rankings. That will take effort, but that’s what competition here entails.

  8. Thank you, anonymous.

    Brian Leiter, please substantiate your claim that “SPEP represents a decided minority of philosophers who work on Continental philosophy” in the face of the fact that it is the 2d largest philosophic society in the U.S. (next to the APA). At the moment I am in Montreal at the 49th annual meeting and there are gathered here about 684 philosophers working in this area. As anonymous asks, how on earth do you back up your claims that those you think are best are in fact best? This is the kind of circular thinking that we try to help our undergrad logic students see is so ridiculous.

  9. There are not 684 philosophers at the SPEP meeting, since as you know as well as I do, large contingents of participants at SPEP events are not philosophers (judging from typical programs, it looks like only 2/3rds are from philosophy departments). SPEP participants (faculty and grad students) come overwhelming from roughly a dozen philosophy departments, notably the ones you deem (surprise, surprise) to be the good places to study the Continental traditions in philosophy. I obviously was not maintaining that my deeming someone a strong scholar makes it so: my judgment is responsive to, not constitutive of, the relevant attributes. (Really, Noelle, did you make such an obvious mistake?) It also isn’t just my judgment, as you also well know. The justification for such a judgment turns on the evaluation of scholarship. Blog comments aren’t a particularly good forum for that, but I’ve done plenty of that work in print over the years.

    Iny any case, when you comment on the PGR, try to get the facts right. And please also acknowledge that large numbers of scholars of Continental philosophy have nothing to do with, and want nothing to do with, the SPEP clique.


  10. Brian, are you suggesting that we limit the name “philosophers” to those who teach in philosophy departments as opposed to, say, law schools?

    Edit: Just to be clear, I would never want to limit the term “philosopher” to only those in philosophy departments!

  11. Looking back over the SPEP program, I do indeed see faculty from many well known philosophy departments (some with grad programs, others not) including (in the order I find them on the program) the New School, DePaul, Clemson, Emory, Boston College, University of Alberta, Vassar, Penn State, Northwestern, Purdue, Duquesne, UCLA, Buffalo, Loyola Marymount, Stony Brook, Universidad de los Andes, Chicago, U of New South Wales, McGill, Rice, the London School of Economics, USD, U of Kentucky, Case Western, Ohio State, U of Montreal, Rutgers, Seattle U, Texas A&M, Villanova, American U, Miami U, Wisconsin, Toronto, Creighton, Le Moyne, Queen’s, Utrecht, UNC, U of Hong Kong, U of South Florida, U of San Francisco, Guelph, U of Dundee, U of Oregon, Fordham, U of Tokyo, Michigan State, U of Geneva, U of Calgary, Monash U, Williams College, U of Memphis, U of Copenhagen, SIU-Carbondale, Goucher College, Syracuse, Hunter/CUNY, Earlham, oh and so many more but I’m stopping now.

    The point is that these meetings are anything but cliquish. If Brian were to come to these meetings he would see first-hand that they are a rich and vibrant intellectual community that the Philosophical Gourmet Report just doesn’t get..

    So I hereby challenge Brian Leiter to actually attend a SPEP meeting so that he might have a clue about that of which he is so quick to judge.

  12. Calling SPEP a clique does not make it so. I recommend persons interested in Continental philosophy who are considering grad school, or emerging, read PGR so that they are aware of both the valuable data Leiter presents along with the biases, pettiness and prejudices they will face when they enter the field.

    For anyone who has actually attended a conference, SPEP is anything but a clique. There is a large effort to welcome new members, unlike the APA. Second, all SPEP attendees have a real possibility of meeting and exchanging ideas with some of the most vibrant writers in the field. The conferences are vibrant, diverse and inspiring for anyone who likes to explore a broader range of topics in philosophy.

    To be fair to Leiter those on the PGR list are fine philosophers, but not representative of the field as a whole. The fact that so many “mainstream” Continental philosophers are considered authorities while SPEP members are excluded is telling. McAfee’s points are well made and evidence of the “split” that threatens our field as a whole.

    Can’t we all just get along? Smaller departments have much to offer and students shouldn’t make major life decisions based on rankings alone. There are many reasons to choose the life of the mind and the myriad possibilities for choosing a school are not represented solely by quantitative measures.

  13. I’m a big fan of the PGR despite is complete failure to account for the kind of philosophy that I’m most interested in. It is a fantastic sociological experiment. We need more PGR’s. Once it gets a little bit of competition Leiter’s own biases as to what counts and what doesn’t count as good continental work will be neutralized.

  14. Noelle,

    Someone told me you were discussing SPEP on your website, and I’ve read your exchanges. I went to one SPEP conference, in Eugene, and never had any desire to go back due to the unworldly nature of the discussions. Example: I looked at the conference website for both last year and this year, and could not find a single talk on the current wars in Afghanistan or Iraq; nor could I find one on the current global economic crisis. I found endless talks on the “body”, sex, etc. You’ve said that you had a great time at the conference; it does not seem that this included talking about the problems of real people.

  15. I’m not a Continental philosopher in any sense, but a look over SPEP’s most recent program (available at http://luciddesigns.brinkster.net/wp-content/uploads/2010/09/SPEP2010ProgramNoAds.pdf) suggests plenty of talking about the problems of real people:
    * `Racism and sexual oppression in Anglo-America’
    * `In the shadow of Du Bois: Afro-Modern political thought in America’
    * `Quelle égalité aujourd’hui? Autour des travaux de Jean-Michel Salanskis’
    * `Philosophical tensions: The ghettoization of feminist, race, and queer theory within the Cotinental tradition’
    * `Communism without teleology: Marx and Continental philosophy’
    * `Reassigning ambiguity: Critical perspectives on intersex’
    * `Advocacy session: Continental philosophy as public philosophy’
    * `Ethics and ecology in the thought of Elizabeth Gros’
    * `Schmitt, the state and the new world order’
    * `Eros and pornography in the thought of Judith Butler’
    * `Rethinking violence: Foucault on terror and political spirituality’
    * `Social justice’
    * `Toward a political philosophy of race’

    Perhaps some of these titles are somewhat misleading here — perhaps the Schmitt session dealt with some abstract issues in political theory rather than things like the war in Afghanistan, for example. Your criticism would still seem to be off.

    1. In other words, there were no papers on the two wars and current global economic crisis.

      This was in a conference that, as I estimate it, involved about 700 papers, totaling about 1400 hours, or 58 days of non-stop talking.

      They did have time for the papers on intersex, eros, pornography that you mention, and on the Nazi apologist Schmitt.

  16. Thanks, Cheyney, for visiting my blog. And thanks, Dan, for your reply to Cheyney, which I think is very helpful.

    Cheyney, SPEP is clearly not to your taste, and that’s fine. But much of the discussion is not at all “other worldly,” certainly not the issue of intersex, which involves the very real harm (in my opinion) done to babies born with indeterminate genitalia when the doctor decides to “assign” the baby a sex by surgically changing altering the child’s genitals. This isn’t abstract, It’s very real and appalling. So the term “intersex” may sound like some pomo construct, but it’s a very real this-worldly issue taken up at this meeting.

    Other sessions, I’m happy to skip, like any that involve Schmitt.

    But the public philosophy session is right up my alley and I encourage you to check out the network that is forming around that: http://publicphilosophynetwork.ning.com/

    1. Noelle,

      I don’t think that regarding America’s wars and the current economic crisis as matters of great importance is a matter of “taste”. Reducing the issue to one of aesthetic preference strikes me as pomo thinking par excellence.

      There is nothing wrong with talking about intersex.
      There is something unworldly about an organization that talks only about such issues, but has nothing to say about America’s two wars–the longest in our history–and a global economic crisis that is imposing untold economic hardship on much of the world.

      By the way, the Radical Philosophy Organization recently devoted its whole meeting to these issues.

      one’s different tastes.

      To dismiss it as such is to trivialize the issue. Analytic philosophy is constantly criticized for ignoring the important issues;

      I do think there is something unworldly about an organization that says nothing about these issues in its hundreds of hours of deliberation.

  17. Cheyney, by “not to your taste” I meant the WAY these issues are talked about not WHAT the issues were. War and social justice are in fact discussed throughout the program– but not in the WAY that you like. For example, you probably wouldn’t like my last book, Democracy and the Political Unconscious, which was the subject of a book session last spring. I’m guessing you wouldn’t like it because it addresses the war on terror using ideas from psychoanalysis and critical theory. Maybe this is too speppy for you? Maybe not to your taste? ( Or maybe I’m wrong?) But if you read it I don’t think you could say for a minute that the book is not about real world issues.

    I think you can make your point that SPEP does not address these issues head on as much as the RPA does without having to dismiss SPEP entirely as saying “nothing about these issues.” Cause that’s just not true.

  18. In the recent dialogue there is an underlying assumption that SPEP *must* talk about contemporary moral problems to be a worthwhile enterprise. This kind of utilitarian assumption has good motives, but the way it is being asserted makes me worried.

    Groups like SPEP, including those in Analytic and American philosophy and many others as well, are organizations devoted to discussion and debate about philosophical issues–and not all of these issues are “directly” relevant to moral problems. I think that’s fine. We don’t ask all physicists, musicians, poets, art historians, et al. to justify everything they do based on how relevant it is to immediate problems.

    In other words, it’s part of being human to discuss the things that interest us just because they interest us. It’s human to “play” with ideas, and it’s not immoral to do so despite the fact that all problems haven’t been solved. Let’s give each other some space, shall we?

  19. I have to say that when I read Cheyney’s first post, I was convinced it was an undergraduate student who checked out SPEP on the suggestion of a philosophy professor, simply out of curiosity or a budding interest in the profession, only to find that philosophy isn’t public policy research (which is not to say that the relation does not exist). This is because the comment was so pointed, so confident, and yet so short on subtlety. It read as a precise attack, rather than an attempt at dialogue. The follow up comments by the author, which insist on the ‘unworldly’ character of SPEP, sound utterly dismissive. The grand irony of this is that they are–if I’m right about the author–a philosopher’s comments!

    Noelle and David sufficiently answer the charges by pointing out the obvious distinctions to be drawn between philosophy, politics, and policy, while at the same time suggesting some relevant literature.

  20. I should qualify my comment about the hypothetical undergraduate student: I did not mean to suggest that undergraduates are not subtle thinkers. I was imagining a student attending their first academic conference with a certain impression of what philosophers of the SPEP variety do, but then finding out firsthand that social and political philosophy are not always as ‘concrete’ or ‘relevant’ as one might expect. I had in mind all of those students that attend talks by invited speakers on campus simply to earn extra credit. When a brave student from this lot dares to ask a question, it often very direct and sometimes bears a concern for ‘practical’ issues.

  21. @plasticbodies: I think your comment didn’t impugn undergraduates at all. I took you as identifying–using one typical clue–a kind of “gotcha” comment that criticizes a position for not living up to the specific expectations of a reader. Part of that “gotcha” is a morally righteous tone, often found in undergraduates, but not restricted to them at all. One also finds it in highly educated folks, especially those who come from “top tier” places (which often have quite questionable investments in their portfolios, by the way).

  22. I know Cheyney to be a very committed philosopher with a strong social conscience. And I think he expects the same of me. So I suspect he was surprised I like SPEP so much when he found it to be of little value. So let’s leave it at that. And have a great Thanksgiving, all!

  23. I maintain a webpage called Philosophy Graduate Schools Friendly to Continental Philosophy (http://legacy.earlham.edu/~guvenfe/gradsch.htm). I have worked on what in the US is called “Continental Philosophy” which I find increasingly ridiculous as a label. What Americans call Continental Philosophy is simply philosophy and what is called Analytic Philosophy is equally a useless label. However, It is pretty obvious to me that SPEP is a clique. Just look at the names of the presenters over the years.

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