20th century philwiki rocks a sinking boat

Even as I try to ignore those mean spirits, today I went to a certain blog and found this delightful bit:

More PhD program wikis!

Now we have 20th-century Continental philosophy, started by (brace yourselves) Noelle McAfee.  Fortunately, since a wiki is just as good as its contributors it does not matter who started it.  As with Philosophical Logic, it’s purely informational (who works on what, links to pages etc.), and devoid of crucial qualitative information.  Again, students can start with the PGR results on the latter front.

[please avoid clicking here but here’s the source: http://leiterreports.typepad.com/blog/2015/01/more-program-wikis.html%5D

Ummm — devoid of crucial qualitative information?  Oh, let’s see, you could go to the 20th century continental philosophy wiki and quickly see the strengths of PhD programs around the world, see faculty professional webages and PhilPages profiles listing all their publications, or you could go to the PGR listing of 20th century continental philosophy and see what a handful of mostly Nietzsche scholars and hardly any who do work in contemporary French theory think. You’ll find 13 programs listed without any detail on who is doing what. Some of these programs show up well on the 20th Century Philosophy wiki.  But many who look really great from info on the wiki don’t show up at all on the PGR — perhaps because the evaluators don’t have expertise in the wide range of work going on in 20th century continental philosophy.

As for the wiki, much more work is needed, especially in listing programs outside the US.  So please help pitch in.

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?

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.