The favorites’ favorites — another round of PGR rankings of continental philosophy

I see that Brian Leiter has posted a preview of the five 20th century continental programs that his reviewers like best, certainly all fine programs: Columbia University; Georgetown University; University of California, Riverside; University of Chicago; and University of Notre Dame. I wasn’t surprised by the absence of “spep-ish” departments, as the bleiterites are wont to put it, for it is rare that a “spep-ish” continental philosopher serves as an evaluator. (Never mind that the big tent called the Society for Phenomenology and Existentialist Philosophy is the second largest philosophical society in North America, next to the American Philosophical Association, and, I would hazard, the largest continental philosophy society in the world. So to call a program with strengths in continental philosophy “spep-ish” is like calling any program in philosophy “apa-ish”  —  it’s practically trivial.)

(Also, I am not at all surprised by the omission of the Emory University program for we simply do not participate in the rankings.)

I have long argued that the fatal flaw of these reports is that the evaluators do not represent a cross-section of the field.  So, to try to make this point a bit more pointedly, take a look at the names of the 24 evaluators for 20th Century Continental Philosophy programs:

James Bohman, Steven Crowell, Maudemarie Clark, David Dudrick, Gordon Finlayson, Max de Gaynesford, Charles Guignon, Gary Gutting, Beatrice Han-Pile, Scott Jenkins, Pierre Keller, Michelle Kosch, Brian Leiter, Dean Moyar, Stephen Mulhall, Brian O’Connor, Peter Poellner, Bernard Reginster, Michael Rosen, Joseph Schear, Iain Thomson, Georgia Warnke, Mark Wrathall, Julian Young.

This is a great group, including many I personally know and admire.  But let me explain how it does not at all represent a cross-section of philosophers doing work in 20th Century Continental Philosophy.  I took a couple hours this evening to consult the websites and phil papers sites, etc. of members of this group, and made notes of what areas they worked in — in their own words.

Only three-quarters specialize in any area of 20th Century Continental Philosophy. (Unless I am mistaken, Maudemarie Clark, Max de Gaynesford, Scott Jenkins, Michelle Kosch, Brian Leiter, and Dean Moyar have specialties elsewhere, but not here.)

There is a solid group doing work in existentialism, phenomenology, and critical theory, but only four of the 24 specialize in post-1968 French philosophy.  Of those four, only two of the 24 evaluators (Stephen Crowell and Charles Guignon) profess to have any expertise on any of the major thinkers of French poststructuralism after Foucault.

Nietzsche scholars were very well represented (nine of 24), including many who have been published by or with the author of the reports.

So for students interested in the full range of important work in 20th Century Continental Philosophy, especially work post-1968, I encourage a trip to the library, not to the PGR.

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. I agree with you that a student interested in recent French philosophy (say, of the last 25 years or so) will not be well-served by the PGR.

    I would like, however, to correct one error and two slightly misleading impressions a reader might have from your remarks.

    The error concerns Emory: Emory did ask to be included in the 2006 surveys, and was, and got an overall score of 1.7, putting it well outside the top 50. It did, however, rank in some of the specialty areas, including 19th-century Continental philosophy.

    Evaluators are asked to rank several different specialty areas, not all of which might qualitya s their AOS, but surely most philosophers can evaluate areas that are not their primary area of specialization. I’ll use my own case as the example: I do not view 20th-century Continental philosophy as one of my primary, yet I’ve taught Foucault and the Frankfurt School at the graduate level, and published essays on Foucault and Heidegger. Similar things are true of all the evaluators whom you singled out for not having an AOS in 20th-century Continental philosophy.

    Your point about SPEP is also a bit misleading. Many leading scholars of post-Kantian German and French philosophy have nothing to do with SPEP–off the top of my head, Michael Rosen, Michael Forster, Raymond Geuss, Allen Wood, Robert Stern, Maude Clark, Pierre Keller, among many others. SPEP’s membership, as we have discussedd bedfore, is limited to about a dozen PhD programs and their graduates.

  2. Brian, it is simply false to say that SPEP’s membership “is limited to about a dozen PhD programs and their graduates.” I spent another precious hour of my life looking through a past program and identified the following PhD granting philosophy programs that many SPEP members either studied at or are now teaching at. The following is the list I generated in an hour of research. There are many other programs I didn’t have time to look up. I invite others to add to this list.

    Philosophy PhD Programs where many current SPEP members trained or teach:

    US Schools

    1. Boston College
    2. Boston U
    3. City University of New York
    4. Columbia University
    5. DePaul
    6. Duquesne
    7. Emory
    8. Fordham
    9. Loyola Chicago
    10. Michigan State University
    11. The New School
    12. Northwestern
    13. Ohio State University
    14. Penn State
    15. Purdue
    16. Rice University
    17. Rutgers
    18. Southern Illinois University-Carbondale
    19. Stanford
    20. Stony Brook University
    21. Syracuse
    22. Tulane
    23. University of Chicago
    24. University of Memphis
    25. U of Oregon
    26. U of South Florida
    27. UT Austin
    28. Vanderbilt
    29. Villanova
    30. Yale

    Outside the U.S.

    1. McGill University
    2. Sussex University
    3. University of Essex
    4. University of Guelph
    5. University of Montreal
    6. University of Paris
    7. University of Toronto
    8. University of Warwick

    So, as anyone can see, the claim that Brian Leiter repeatedly makes about SPEP membership is simply false.

  3. As for the supposed error that Brian points to, Emory does not participate in the PGR. That is did in the past is unfortunate. But at present it does not. So there is no error here.

    As for why it is okay to have people without an AOS in an area evaluating that area, this goes back to the entire methodology of the report. For a reputational ranking to have any value — which I doubt is at all possible no matter what — at the very least those who are doing the evaluating should represent a cross-section of the area being ranked. So why include any evaluators without specialty in that area?

  4. Sorry for my unclarity in the original post: the bulk of the membership derives from a dozen philosophy PhD-granting programs in the US, either their current faculty or graduates. I realize there are other members from other fields and one or two here and there from other PhD programs in philosophy.

    On the other point, I assume you can’t really believe that only someone with an AOS in a field can offer informed opinions about the field. All the evaluators at least teach and many also write in 20th-century Continental philosophy.

  5. Yes many at SPEP studied at the 30 (not 12) or so programs world-wide that have strengths in continental philosophy, but I would wager that many hundreds of members of SPEP studied elsewhere. And there are indeed continental philosophers in disciplines outside of philosophy (just as Brian Leiter professes to be a continental philosopher who has long been affiliated with law schools), but I don’t think that is more than about 5-10% of SPEP members, nor does it matter at all. Nietzsche got his degree in philology.

    Before Brian Leiter continues making the claim that the bulk of SPEP come form just 12 programs, I’d ask him to do some empirical research, starting by consulting the last SPEP program. And define “bulk.”

    As for the other point, yes, indeed, I believe that only someone who specializes in a field is in any position to evaluate others in that field. The difference between having competence and specialty is having a good sense of the scholarship in that field. Moreover, it’s hard enough for someone who specializes in a field to keep abreast — in addition to his or her own work — to all the work that all the other people in their field are doing year by year, especially if given a list of 90 programs to evaluate.

    So, again, for anyone considering studying continental philosophy in grad school (and perhaps for anyone else as well), better a trip to the library than the PGR.

  6. You’re not really being responsive any longer. The bulk of SPEP membership–i.e., two-thirds to three-quarters–derives from about a dozen PhD programs (Boston College, DePaul, Stony Brook, Penn State, Emory, New School, Dusquesne, Northwestern, Villanova, Oregon, Memphis, Southern Illinois) and their graduates. My evidence is precisely SPEP programs. Who is the SPEP member at Yale? I’m guessing Seyla Benhabib, a Stony Brook PhD. One person. How many others on your list have just one person? I’m guessing several. Rutgers? One emeritus professor, Bruce Wilshire. Really, this is just silly. If SPEP folks wouldn’t trot out the “we’re the second biggest philosophical association” meme so often, it wouudln’t be necessary to point out what a fake claim that is. And many of the SPEP members aren’t even philosophers, i.e., unlike me, they don’t have degrees in philosophy, they don’t publish in peer-reviewed philosophy journals, they don’t teach graduate seminars in philosophy, and they don’t supervise PhD dissertations in philosophy. That’s what I meant by saying some of the SPEP membership is bloated by non-philosophers: they really are non-philosophers. You knew what I meant, I’m sure.

    The one point on which I agree with you is that someone interested in French philosophy over the last generation or so shouldn’t consult the PGR. But someone wanting a serious scholarly educatino in the Continental traditions in philosophy–and *in philosophy*–should use the PGR.

  7. In addition to these 12 — Boston College, DePaul, Stony Brook, Penn State, Emory, New School, Dusquesne, Northwestern, Villanova, Oregon, Memphis, Southern Illinois — there are a substantial number of members of SPEP who are teaching in or got their doctorates from these PhD programs in philosophy:

    Purdue (namely Dan Smith and his many students)
    University of Guelph
    Catholic U
    Loyola U Chicago
    U of KY

    So that’s 23 programs with substantial involvement with SPEP, and I’m probably missing some, especially abroad. Note that I am not including non-philosophy programs.

    I included Yale in the other list because Ofelia Schutte and Tom Flynn got their doctorates there. Remember I did only an hour of research to come up with that previous list. There are no doubt many more members of SPEP who got their PhD’s at Yale back in the day. Paul Taylor got his doctorate at Rutgers. Again, I was doing just a quick search to refute the claim you were making.

    As for what percent teach in a non-philosophy program today, especially of those who are regular members, I’d say maybe 10 percent. This includes people with philosophy PhDs who felt run out of their old programs as many formerly pluralist programs become less welcoming, shall we say, to continental philosophy.

  8. RANKING (in all dimensions of life) is somehow a deep-seated HABIT in American society. That is something that many that come from some other culture have noticed. For sure, it is something that is hardly ever questioned.

    I concede that ranking can (in some situations) be a good “tool” but I have seen it so many times (especially in education) to be nothing but a VICE.

    I would say the same thing about the overemphasis in education on outcome-assesment and grades. I have become (perhaps as a reaction) anti-ranking, period. I refuse to play the ranking game.

  9. @Professor Leiter.

    You have written (twice now) that, “I agree with you that a student interested in recent French philosophy (say, of the last 25 years or so) will not be well-served by the PGR” and that, “someone interested in French philosophy over the last generation or so shouldn’t consult the PGR”.

    Given this, I am wondering if you would be willing to put an official note to this effect on the published version of the next round of the PGR Rankings for Continental Philosophy? I think this would be especially helpful for potential grad students who are in fact interested in working on such figures as Foucault or Deleuze or Derrida or Nancy or Badiou or Zizek or Laclau. These students might think it reasonable at first blush to consult your PGR Continental rankings for advice on where to pursue their studies of these figures. If your page offered an explicit disclaimer that it is has no intention on advising these students on their choice of programs for pursuing studies in this vein, then I think you will have avoided doing them a massive disservice.

    If you are willing, then it might also be worth considering the extent to which your PGR Continental rankings are meant to inform students looking to pursue graduate research in the Frankfurt critical theory tradition.

    Thanks for your consideration of this suggestion.

  10. You folks should have a look at how Leiter is unraveling on this thread over at the New Apps blog:

    Leiter thinks that he can occupy the fence between your intellectual traditions and our intellectual traditions. We represent the part of philosophy that is most in tune with science. You represent the part of philosophy that is most in touch with the humanities. We both represent a commitment to keeping philosophy in serious contact with the rest of academia. Join us, oh sisters and brothers from the more humanistic side of the academy, in toppling the PGR, which we can both recognize as little more than a concession to the bean-counting mentality that is threatening to destroy the academy.

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