What Counts as Philosophy?

Apart from the question of “Who has the rights to the lands of Palestine?” little can be more contentious than the question, “What counts as philosophy?” What are the bounds of this discipline of ours? I like to think that there aren’t any clear and proper boundaries but that there is a roughly common approach (but don’t ask me to define it) and, delightfully, a common canon (at least for what is understood as pre-20th century western philosophy, though lamentably white, male philosophy). Anyone of any persuasion teaching an intro to philosophy class is likely to include some of the philosophers Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Bentham, Locke, Hume, Kant, Mill, Rousseau, and maybe some selection from Marx, Nietsche, and James. With texts of the twentieth century all bets are off. But what’s one century in a discipline that goes back 25? Given our long history, we’ve had nothing like the canon wars that tore apart English departments in the 1980s. The common canon saves us, but it doesn’t give us a way to define or set bounds to what philosophy is. Philosophy has a way of undermining boundaries, like the boundary between what is properly philosophical and what is not. Just try to set up a fence and see how long it stands.

Even to the extent that we have a common canon, the question of what counts as philosophy is desperately unclear, at least once one strays from a “view-from-nowhere” approach to metaphysics, epistemology, value theory, logic, or any of the many philosophy-of-x arenas. Once the approach becomes more specific and situated, the border wars arise. And the lines are usually drawn between what is hegemonically understood as proper philosophy and what is not. Philosophy that is not in fashion in “the best” schools, not “prestigious,” not hard and clear and rigorous, not properly erected — including today American pragmatism, critical theory, post-Kantian European philosophy, and, oh, certainly feminist philosophy — doesn’t seem to count as philosophy at all, at least by those who are counting and protecting a certain definition of proper philosophy.

Just look (and you’ll have to scroll down and then scan the rigt-hand column) at the specialities of the list of evaluators who were invited to rank graduate programs in philosophy for the 2006 Philosophical Gourmet Report. I am told by a defender of the report that this is a “remarkably diverse” group of good philosophers and so it is truly able to gauge what are, objectively, the outstanding graduate programs in philosophy. Any program that doesn’t end up on the list, I’m told, simply isn’t a good program.


Who defines what counts as good philosophy and hence who counts as the good philosophers? Isn’t this kind of counting tantamount to defining philosophy itself, to saying that M&E (metaphysics and epistemology) counts, but feminist philosophy doesn’t? Or if it’s feminist, it isn’t M&E? Or if it’s concerned with Derrida and not Tarski, or the late Wittgenstein but not the early Wittgenstein, it just ain’t philosophy?

Is that very philosophical?

GIGO or the new rankings of philosophy journals

It was a philosopher, Charles Babbage, who first coined the term “garbage in, garbage out,” a term invaluable in understanding that computers only work as well as what is plugged into them. And now the term is coming back full circle to philosophy, at least if one wants to make sense of the latest misbegotten ranking in philosophy: the recent ranking of philosophy journals put out by the European Science Foundation.

I found these guidelines for how the index was compiled.  It doesn’t look like a straightforward A to C grading scale. To get on the list at all, a journal has to meet the “normal international academic standards” like being peer-reviewed, etc.  C is for local regional journals. A and B are for international journals. A is reserved for “high ranking” international journals and B is for “standard” internaltional journals. That difference is worth worrying over.  Hypatia, the leading journal of feminist philosophy in the English-speaking world,  gets a B.  How the hell can that be? Also, the rankings are based upon the judgments of a small select group of “experts” and I’m sure the philosopher experts aren’t expert in continental or feminist philosophy.
John McCumber is terribly wary of this ranking, as am I. See his recent post to this effect. I have additional concerns. I think that any ranking based on the input of a select group of philosophers will only tell what that select group thinks. So it is entirelly bogus to think that this one group’s rankings say anthing beyond what that group thinks. Or, as statisticians put it, the results are not generalizable. In other words, it’s just X in, X out. As to whether X is garbage or gourmet findings, the index itself is silent.

As to who were the “inputs” for the study, note the following and think about how much they may, or may not, represent philosophy today, especiallly the burgeoning work going on in continental, pragmatist, and feminist philosophy. I thank John McCumber for compiling this list

François Recanati (Chair), Institut Jean Nicod, CNRS/EHESS, Paris (FR) (Barrry Smith,below, is also associated with the institute Nicold)


Après des études de philosophie à Paris (agrégation 1974), Récanati a poursuivi son apprentissage philosophique à Oxford, et il a étudié la linguistique à l’EHESS. Lui-même chargé de conférences à l’EHESS, il y a enseigné la pragmatique linguistique et la philosophie du langage de 1975 à 1990. En 1990 il a participé à la création du DEA de Sciences cognitives (EHESS/Paris VI/Ecole Polytechnique), dans le cadre duquel il enseigne toujours aujourd’hui.

Manuel Garcia-Carpintero, Universitat de Barcelona (SP)


Doctor in Philosophy by the Universitat de Barcelona (1988), and professor in the Departament de Lògica, Història i Filosofia de la Ciència of this university since 1984.

I am currently working on a book on reference, defending a certain form of a neo-Fregean picture from the criticism of new theorist of reference. That picture takes modes of presentation prototypically to be components of semantic presuppositions in the ordinary speech acts, like assertions, on which singular reference is involved. The book will make use of and elaborate on views which I have presented in already published papers, including views on the nature of the logical properties, on the semantics/pragmatics divide, and on the nature of phenomenal consciousness. It will also argue for the historical appropriateness of describing the view as Fregean.

Diego Marconi, Universitá degli Studi di Torino (IT)


Diego Marconi was born in Torino in 1947. He graduated under Luigi Pareyson in 1969, writing a thesis on Wittgenstein. At that time, he shared the existential-hermeneutic orientation of Pareyson’s philosophy. Later, he did graduate work at the University of Pittsburgh with Nicholas Rescher, Wilfrid Sellars, Richmond H.Thomason and others. He wrote his Ph.D. thesis (1979) on Hegel. The thesis was an attempt at tracing the origin of so called “dialectical contradictions” in Hegel’s use of language. Afterwards, Marconi has been working within analytic philosophy, which he conceives not as a doctrinal body but as a philosophical style. He wrote or edited four books on Wittgenstein (1971, 1987, 1988, 1997), edited a reader on the formalization of Hegelian dialectics (1979), and published many articles in logic and philosophy of language.

Kevin Mulligan, Université de Genève (CH)


“Born eighty years ago, Continental philosophy is on its last legs. Its extraordinary career has been helped along by an almost total absence of interest on the part of analytical or other exact philosophers in what the Australian philosopher David Stove calls “the nosology of philosophy,” the explanation of the manifold forms taken by bad philosophy….The Gallic gallimaufry and galimatias alluded to in ¶1 are symptoms of sickness from the point of view of philosophy as a theoretical enterprise.”

Barry Smith, Birkbeck College, University of London (UK)


Barry Smith’s central interests are in language and mind. His particular focus is on knowledge of language and its relation to other aspects of the mind. He has been developing a position which can do justice to both the interpretationist (Davidsonian) view of the normative nature of belief, desire and meaning and the theoretical (Chomskyan) account of our knowledge of grammar even while it accommodates first-personal knowledge of meaning and mind.

In Gender Studies, though I am unfamiliar with their work:

Gender Studies

Gregory Woods (Chair), Nottingham Trent University (UK)
Ülle Must, Archimedes Foundation, Tartu (EE)

Harriet Bjerrum Nielsen, Universitetet i Oslo (NO)
Jens Rydström, Stockholms Universitet (SE)

Continental Kantianism

Is the following secret or common knowledge? Many continental philosophers (including Levinas, Foucault, Derrida, Lyotard) are Kantians, at least with respect to morality. This may be surprising given that none of them cares much for concepts such as autonomy and reason, two concepts that seem central to Kant’s moral philosophy. But I think they all care deeply about the principle of humanity as a regulative ideal, about ethics as a call, a command, as something that exceeds the world as it is here and now. I’ve been tinkering with a paper on Levinas and Kant for a while on this point. And now I’m re-reading Lyotard and finding the same kind of thing there (see Just Gaming). To make sure that I am not inventing all this, I am reading Christine Korsgaard’s decidedly un-continental work on Kant. And having read so much Levinas in the past few years, I am struck by the resonance of her reading of Kant and Levinas’s ethics, and now even Derrida and Lyotard. Here’s the first paragraph of Korsgaard’s prologue to her book, The Sources of Normativity. It could have been a prologue to Levinas’s Otherwise than Being:

It is the most striking fact about human life that we have values. We think of ways that things could be better, more perfect, and so of course different, than they are; and of ways that we ourselves could be better, more perfect, and so of course different, than we are. Why should this be? Where do we get these ideas that outstrip the world we experience and seem to call into question, to render judgment on it, to say that it does not measure up, that it is not what it ought to be? Clearly we do not get them from experience, at least not by any simple route. And it is puzzling too that these ideas of a world different from our own call out to us, telling us that things should be like them rather than the way they are, and that we should make them so.

Isn’t that beautiful?

This paragraph follows a quote from Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals, which Korsgaard uses to set up her “very concise history of western metaphysics.” But it also shows how those who might have spurned Kant ought to take another look:

One should guard against thinking lightly of [the bad conscience] merely on account of its initial painfulness and ugliness. For fundamentally it is the same active force that is at work on a grander scale in those artists of violence and organizers who build states . . . only here the material upon which the form-giving and ravishing nature of this force vents itself is man himself, his whole ancient animal self . . . This secret self-ravishment, this artists’ cruelty, this delight in imposing a form upon oneself as a hard, recalcitrant, suffering material and of burning in a will . . . as the womb of all ideal and imaginative phenomena, also brought to light an abundance of strange new beauty and affirmation.

Analytic and continental philosophers each have their own hurdles in coming to terms with Kant. For example, analytic philosophers seem to feel a need to do more to overcome the metaphysical foundations in Kant’s theory in order to get to a more commonsensical understanding of reason as a source of normativity; continental philosophers seem to need to find a way of conceiving of autonomy that avoids the binary logic of heteronymy/autonomy. But once they make it through such difficulties I think they share a kind of awe at the “strange beauty” of a command to make the world otherwise than it is, of the power this “other world” holds over us here in this one that is full of so much injustice.

Shortcomings of the FSP Index

I’ve learned this morning,  from a comment to my last post and from an e-mail from a friend, about a problem with Academic Analytics’ Faculty Scholarly Productivity Index.  In putting together the data for the index, Academic Analytics used the database company, SCOPUS, which bills itself primarily as covering life science, health science, physical science and social science. I looked through their spreadsheet of journals and databases, and it did include the Philosophy Documentation Center, but this is not as much as one would hope for.  So I contacted Bill Savage at Academic Analytics and asked him about this.  He told me that they knew of the issue but thought it would be ameliorated because people in the humanities primarily publish books.  I told him that this was not at all the case in the dominant strand of philosophy in the States, analytic philosophy, though it was true of other strands (continental, critical race theory, feminism, critical theory).  So in effect, the FSPI, which gives significantly more weight to books than journal articles, does not accurately gauge the productivity of all philosophy programs in the U.S.  Savage said that SCOPUS is working on adding more and more journals to their database, so future rankings should be more accurate.

So, dear readers, the jury is still out.  I’m glad that the index, even with its weaknesses, shows the good work that under-recognized departments are doing.  Based on two and a half years of studying and applying survey research methodology (more than a decade ago), I still think the Philosophical Gourmet is a poor indicator of anything beyond what the people who are asked to respond to the survey happen to think. The findings are not generalizable. In other words, if you want to know how 270 people in high-brow departments gauge their colleagues, read the Leiter report.  But if you want a real gauge of what the profession as a whole thinks or of the quality of various institutions in the English speaking world, look elsewhere.

In the end, I think the best gauge of a graduate program is to be had by talking with search committees at the hundreds of colleges and universities who hire new faculty year after year.  In the end, it’s not how we rate the faculty as much as what kind of teachers and scholars emerge from a program.