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.

On Being a Woman in Philosophy

No doubt, in just a few months the blog “What is it like to be a woman philosophy” has done more to wake up the field about sexism in the profession than anything in the past few decades.  It’s just about impossible now to ignore or deny. (Just see this gawker story.)  So the questions that have been on my mind lately are these:  What is it about philosophy that makes it prone to this problem? What makes it different from comp lit or other humanities?  It seems, in general, that the humanities are more hospitable to women than engineering and the sciences.  (Though I don’t know what it’s like in the sciences these days.) Does philosophy, at least when it tries to be as “rigorous” as the sciences, become less welcoming to women?  Is there something about women that just unsettles men in the field? Do the old binaries about

reason / emotion

culture / nature

logos / pathos

etc. etc.

have a stranglehold on philosophy?

Are there differences from one sort of philosophy to another?

My own anecdotal take:  Among feminist philosophy circles, women are quite welcome. (Of course!)  Same goes in continental, pragmatist, and much political philosophy. In grad school in a class on early Wittgenstein, I didn’t feel so good about the professor’s aggressive and hostile attitude, but otherwise he was okay. My other seminars were exemplars of civility and welcoming. And my colleagues since have been great.  The truth is, I have had a fabulous time being a woman in philosophy. I have been hugely supported by male mentors and colleagues.  I have no complaints.

But, I can’t help but noticing (and I have been hesitating for many weeks to point this out here), many of the complaints about being a woman in philosophy emanate from “top” programs, “top” not meaning truly exceptional but “top” meaning highly ranked by the circularly produced Philosophy Gourmet  / Leiter reports.  I say circular because the rankings are based on the opinions of a group of philosophers chosen because they have been deemed to be “top” philosophers. The input produces the output.  There’s nothing objective or representative about the rankings, though they have transfixed the discipline, causing many who otherwise know their logic to stay silent about their concerns.  I have blogged on this more than I care to blog on anything. (To see these posts just type “Leiter” into the search field of this blog.)

The point here is that there seems to be an overlap between the style of philosophy favored by the Leiter reports and the style of philosophy that’s unwelcoming to women.  This is not a blanket statement about fields of philosophy or the people in them. There are some absolutely wonderful and welcoming people doing, say, philosophy of language (like Al Martinich, a friend and prof back at Texas). And no doubt there is some sexist pig out there who does Foucault  (though I can’t name one off the top of my head). But it’s hard to ignore so many posts by women in “top” programs complaining of sexism and sexual harassment.

So here’s another question: What is it like to be a department that is trying to increase its ranking — that is trying to be known for its rigor and precision? Who is it going to purge or make unwelcome? What is it going to aspire to?   Sexism long preceded the sad excursion into self-ranking, but the ranking game seems to have made more manifest certain stakes and tendencies.

Finally, note that the rankings game can be easily ended.  If you are at a Ph.D. granting program in philosophy (or an M.A. one, for that matter), simply ask your chair to not turn over the list of faculty to those who come knocking. Those who do not turn over their list are not included in the rankings.  It’s that simple.   We need not participate.  Thankfully, my program doesn’t.  And we are the better for it.

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.

Perplexing Percentages: Women, Philosophy Faculties, and the Rankings

Last summer Julie Van Camp put up a list of the percentage of women tenured/tenure-track faculty in 98 U.S. doctoral programs. The range is from 50 percent at Penn State and the University of Georgia (brava!) down to six percent at the University of Florida and the University of Texas, five percent at the University of Michigan, and zero percent at the University of Dallas. Dallas has only eight people on the faculty so maybe it is just going through a bad spell. But Florida, Michigan, and Texas have no such excuse. Only one out of 17 faculty at Florida are women, only one out of 22 at Michigan, and an appalling two out of 32 at Texas. Shame, shame, shame. On top of it all, the 90 percent-male evaluators of the Leiter report ranked Michigan 3d and Texas 13th among Ph.D. granting universities, while the five universities with the most women on their faculty don’t even make the list. Surprised?

[Correction: I’ve learned that Julie Van Camp first started tracking the percentage of tenured/tenure track women in Ph.D. granting philosophy programs beginning in 2004 and updates the list a couple of times a year.]

The Deciders and Philosophy Rankings

Many people regularly visit this blog of mine to see what’s being said here about philosophy rankings, namely, the infamous Leiter report. Some say that if a philosophy Ph.D. program isn’t “Leiterrific” — if it doesn’t score well on the Leiter report — then it’s objectively not a terrific program. I beg to differ. The best evidence for objecting to the report’s credibility is the narrowness of the specialties of those who conduct the rankings. The evaluators simply do not represent the profession as a whole and so could hardly speak for what’s best in the profession as a whole. Look here to see the list of evaluators who filled out the reputational rankings for Leiter’s 2006-2008 report. It looks like fully half the rankers specialize in metaphysics and epistemology (M&E). Ninety percent of the rankers are male. And few, if any, work in continental philosophy, pragmatist theory, feminist philosophy, or Africana philosophy. And for the most part, the rankers are from the very same set of schools that are ranked at the top. True, they’re not allowed to pick their own institutions or alma mater, but they certainly pick their kissing cousins. Calling all you philosophers of science out there: does this look like good methodology? Doesn’t it assume what it’s supposedly trying to prove?

The day that deans and provosts stop taking the Leiter report seriously is the day that I’ll stop writing about it.

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.

Shocking.

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?