Monday, July 25, 2011

Philosophers Anonymous Thread

My blog has been quoted as touching upon the Leiterite/Pluralism issue, "albeit badly." Posters are encouraged to post more about where I went wrong. The common device might be actual arguments.

From the main thread,
My biggest surprise, though, is the relative silence of some of the more vocal opponents of the Leiter Report. The Pluralist's Guide actually and overtly manifests all of the methodological flaws that critics of the PGR typically (though mistakenly) claim undermine the PGR and render it pernicious. So anyone who (misguidedly) objects to the PGR on methodological grounds has especially strong reason to object to the Pluralist's Guide-- the Pluralist's Guide really is what Leiter's ignorant critics say the PGR is

Someone care to explain?
Now, my criticisms of the PGR have always been twofold. First, 250 or so (depending on the year) people cannot speak for more than 10,000 + philosophers in the United States. That's pretty simple, and the methods simply reify attitudes of institutional pedigree that seem to result in silliness. Consider the following quote from Leiter,
The quality of philosophy and scholarship at the recommended SPEP Guide programs in continental philosophy is generally inferior to that at programs either ignored or not recommended that have offerings in the same areas.  This is a judgment on the merits of work, a judgment based on considerations like argumentative and dialectical sophistication and perspicuousnes, historical and cultural erudition, and knowledge of the history of philosophy.
We're putting our faith in those that have faith in pedigree before substance, even to the point where we exclude others that are clearly doing excellent work. Let me point you to an example. Would I want Sean Kelly to supervise my dissertation if I wanted to work on Husserl, or Memphis with Thomas Nenon? I think the choice of the latter over the former an obvious one for supervisory reasons alone.
I think Memphis has a top-notch PhD program. Leiter has used it as an example of what he called Party-Line Continentalism some time ago. 
The good news here is that Party Line Continentalism is, ironically enough, increasingly just an Anglophone phenomenon, confined to a handful of departments in the U.S. (e.g., Penn State, Stony Brook, DePaul, Memphis, Vanderbilt, the New School, Dusquesne), the U.K. (e.g., Middlesex and Dundee), and Australia (e.g., New South Wales). (Even these Party Line Continentalist departments are increasingly diverse, which is a welcome development!) On the European Continent itself, Party Line Continentalism is in retreat almost everywhere, as rigorous historical scholarship, that transcends national boundaries, and Anglophone-style philosophical work is increasingly dominant.
So, we have two examples of Leiter thinking such a program as lesser than a PGR ranked school. Why not, however, see Memphis as a place that just does things differently? Certainly, it is impossible for a single man to render judgment on all these programs and their collective work given that nobody could sample all their work, yet he does. The philosophical reason to call Leiter out on his attitude comes from the tremendous power exercised on behalf of his blog and position in the profession. I think having such a polemical attitude towards other philosophers is dangerous, and downright wrong.

Those that agree with him have a self-interest in the perception of their program being maintained. These are the very same people enacting the surveys, though it should be clear that a surveyor cannot render judgment about their own department. Even more to the point, these same people have now had the favor of Leiter's rankings to the point that undergraduate students of placed PhDs are sending those undergraduates back to the same resource they consulted. Thus, the reification of pedigree continues.

In my eyes, such reification is bad because it divides up the professional community in ways that do not benefit the whole of the community. With that said, Leiter is at least exemplary when any department of philosophy comes under attack. His blogging during the Middlesex fiasco supported philosophy, even though they were Party-Line Continentals.

The same reification would happen eventually to the Pluralist Guide. That's just the danger of ranking. It shores up our biases.

This isn't to say that Leiter is wrong about everything. His concerns about how exactly the women section was reported has some merit.

In conclusion, the criticism of PGR is that it reifies institutional pedigree over and above what actually might be prudent for a student to choose. I've used the example of Nenon vs. Kelly. If your interests were to use phenomenological method in conjunction with analytic discourses in the philosophy of mind, you'd go to Harvard (but then again, Memphis just got Shaun Gallagher whose work is very comparable). Again, we are only talking about supervisory reasons and the quality of work scholars produce that motivate those reasons for applicants. Therefore, the applicant should decide where they would receive the best supervision from the quality of work actually done. The point is that there will be times where a highly ranked program cannot supervise what an applicant wants to work on, and the reification prevents a solid evaluation of someone's work simply because they work at an under-valued department.

I don't know if any ranking could prevent this reification. As such, it might be better to have more than just Leiter's rankings out there, but the danger of reification would rear its ugly head conceivably in that way. As such, I firmly accept that the APA's statement on rankings. Then again, that's just me.


Anonymous said...

I have always been puzzled by the idea that you can judge the merits of a supervisor based on the quality of their philosophical work. These seem to be very different things to me.

Here is a non-philosophy example to illustrate my point: Dick Gould is considered the best tennis coach (winning the Intercollegiate Tennis Association coach of the decade two decades in a row '80s & '90s). He was not a great tennis player. He knows how to work with his players to bring out their skills and make them better. Now take Pete Sampras, one of the all time greats. Would he be a good coach? Would he give his players the time they need, tell them what they need to hear, make them the best player they could be? This is unclear at best.

So my point is that maybe somebody writes mediocre articles and books but instead spends his/her time working endlessly with students. Making their work better, bringing out what is best in them, creating opportunities to do great work. It is not clear to me that someone who produces great work is necessarily a great supervisor or a great lecturer or even interested in doing either.

Carbondale Chasmite said...

Obviously, I don't think that the quality of a supervisor's work means that you'd get a good supervisor, but it is one of the desirable things. All things being equal, if they do match up, then you'll want to work with that person. For instance, if I want to study Kant, perhaps, I'd get better supervision at Pitt than working with Korsgaard. It still doesn't change the fact that if your supervisor is Korsgaard, you're two steps away from Rawls and the social capital working under Korsgaard will benefit you in different ways.

The point of my original point is if it is propagated that such and such a school produces bad scholarship when there are clear counterexamples that defeat such a notion, then we need to revisit the mechanism that causes such perceptions. Clearly, I think that reification of such attitudes comes from rankings themselves. I only used the example of phenomenology and Husserl since it is an area of scholarship I know better than others.

Roman Altshuler said...

A quick addition: I think Leiter often mixes two considerations. One, is that the rankings measure quality, and I mostly agree with your views on this. But second, that the rankings are supposed to tell you not just where a grad student can do good philosophy, but where a grad student should study in order to get a good job afterwards.

Actually, Leiter I think pretty clearly has trouble distinguishing these--he seems to think that high quality work and good jobs go hand in hand (which is questionable, and hard to determine, considering how many top schools place graduates with no publications).

But, if you are giving grad students advice on where to study in order to get a top job afterwards, then pedigree and prestige are *all* that matter. So in this regard, the PGR may be great! One problem, though: the PGR has had a massive influence on hiring, and has if anything made the obsession with pedigree and prestige in hiring worse--it's become a self-fulfilling prophecy.