December 24, 2014

Silence at the Top

If you ask academic philosophers who are some of the most important contemporary philosophers, you will get names like: Derek Parfit, Tim Scanlon, Martha Nussbaum, Jerry Fodor, Thomas Nagel, Timothy Williamson, Christine Korsgaard, John McDowell, Robert Brandom, Peter Singer, Anthony Appiah, Ned Block, David Kaplan, John Searle and so on.

If one goes to academic philosophy blogs, one sees discussion of some of the pressing issues in the profession: should there be philosophy rankings, the under-representation of women and other minorities, how to make the discipline more open to non-Western philosophical traditions, whether there are enough jobs for all, or even most, philosophy PhDs, how to improve the conditions for adjunct professors, and so on.

If I ask myself what do the most well known philosophers think about these pressing issues, it is amazing that I am forced to admit: I have no idea. For the most part, the academic philosophy superstars have been silent on hot button issues in the profession. What is one to make of this fact?

One option is: it is a generational thing. Perhaps someone like Parfit or McDowell dosn't even read  philosophy blogs. Maybe. But that doesn't explain their silence on the hot button professional topics. After all, they are very familiar with the concept of publishing. And in virtue of their recognition, they have a great platform to be heard. They could write editorials, organize APA sessions, conferences, and so on. Where are all of these activities? Since 1994, when Mind and World, came out, McDowell has no doubt given innumerable talks on the myth of the Given, on second nature, on enculturation. Has he published a single essay on what kind of enculturation the philosophy profession is fostering, and what he thinks are the prospects for improving the profession? Not that I am aware of. Why is this? How come the most well known philosophy professors are so silent about the most pressing issues in the profession?

Another option is: they don't have to speak up, because they don't have anything special to contribute. On this view, the philosophical expertise the best academic philosophers have concerns just the subject matter they write on. On ethics, philosophy of mind, political philosophy, and so on. They have things to say on moral skepticism, or the mind-body problem, or the state of nature, and that is where their expertise ends. What can be done about the lack of non-European philosophy in most philosophy departments? On this view, there is no reason Nagel or Scanlon or Kaplan would have anything interesting to say about that issue. After all, that is not what they specialize in. The trouble with this view: ok, if not the people who are thought to be best at philosophy, who else can have anything interesting and important to say on the hot button topics? The people who speak the loudest? Or the brashest? And what kind of an expertise is required to speak up for working conditions for adjuncts or the need for a better culture for women in the profession? This seems like nothing more than a cop out.

A third option: the well known philosophers don't speak up because the moment they do, they would come across as hypocrites. We can imagine Parfit speaking eloquently, even passionately, about helping fellow human beings, and about the foundations of ethics. But can we imagine Parfit speak so eloquently about the hardships of the adjunct professor who has to teach five classes in three universities in a semester just to make ends meet? Or about the sense of alienation which might creep into a Latino student's mind as she hears for the umpteenth time about the same European philosophers? This is much harder to imagine. For Parfit is not a neutral observer in the current state of affairs. Parfit can stand up and speak on behalf of that adjunct professor, but not without first acknowledging how his own professional career has been made possible by the very institutional structures which propagate situations like that of that adjunct professor. If Parfit tries to speak about the injustice of the adjunct professor's situation, without first acknowledging how he has benefited from the way the institution is set up, then it would seem as if Parfit is being two-faced, duplicitous, trying to have it both ways. But given that he has benefited from the institutional set up, how can Parfit distance himself from the institution without seeming ungrateful?

December 23, 2014

Out of the Fly Bottle

"Don't think, but look!" This is one of Wittgenstein's main exhortations. It is a recurring theme in the Investigations, where Wittgenstein in case after case tries to highlight how often in philosophy what we tend to think reflects a picture we have become captive to rather than a reflection of how things actually are.

One way Wittgenstein himself failed to live up to this idea is his general ahistoricism. For someone who emphasized so much looking to the use of sentences, it is striking that he let himself make claims about the nature of philosophy without looking to see how philosophy actually functioned in the past. Or in different traditions. When Socrates in 5th century BC Greece asked, "What is justice?", in what ways was such a question used? When Shankara in 8th century India asserted that our ordinary experience of objects in an illusion, what was the use of that assertion? When Descartes in 17th century France asked himself if he was being deceived by a malicious demon, what was the use of that question?
Imagine Socrates asking, "What is justice?" Now imagine a contemporary philosophy professor raising in class the question "What is justice?" What are the differences in use between these two instances of the question? Are the two uses different? Wittgenstein seemed to assume they were the same, that he could dismiss in the same breath Russell, Descartes and Socrates altogether. As if there was some one bad thing all of them did. That philosophers throughout history have done. It is an amazing to see Wittgenstein essentialize philosophers, treating them as if there was some one thing they all have in common.
Wittgenstein's ahistoricism, together with his idea that much contemporary philosophy was confused, lead him to a dead end. It led him to the idea that all there was to do was to get rid of our confusions, and then move blissfully on. It led him to give up the idea of positive projects in philosophy. After all, if philosophers through out history have been making the same mistakes, then how can there be any positive philosophy?
But Wittgenstein was in the grips of a picture, and it held him captive.

December 21, 2014

A Dialogue

Having submitted this prospectus a few weeks ago to his dissertation advisor Krishna Rama Rao, Bharath is seated in his advisor's office. They are meeting to talk about the prospectus.

Krishna: This is a very interesting piece of writing. Clearly you put a lot of thought and effort into it, and it seems to mean a lot to you. I respect that. There is much in it to talk about, content wise, and I would like to do that another time. But today let's talk about if this can be a thesis. I don't think this can be accepted as a prospectus. I don't say this easily, but we can talk about the reasons why.

Bharath: Is it that what I wrote isn't good enough? That I am not as good a philosopher as Wittgenstein?

Krishna: No, that's not it. I don't know how one can make such a claim about someone who is still a student. Or even later for that matter. Your talent as a philosopher isn't the relevant issue. We can set it aside.

Bharath: So, Krishna, what is it then? Why can't I write like this if it was good enough for Wittgenstein?

Krishna: Well, let's also set aside the issue of what was good enough for Wittgenstein. Frankly, the academia he was a part of is no more. And that is a good thing. If any one benefited from the old-boys-club framework, it was Wittgenstein. This is not a claim on his character, or Russell's, or any one else. But they didn't have to deal with the issues of academia opening up to most people in society the way we in the 21st century have to. Let's focus instead on the question: Assuming that the Investigations is good philosophy, and it is so in part because of its form of writing, why can't you write like that for your thesis? Ok?

Bharath: Ok.

Krishna: Let me start by asking you a question: are you getting this PhD in order to become a philosophy professor? Or are you doing it just as a way to do philosophy without thinking about your career or your future?

Bharath: I am not sure. I haven't decided about that.

Krishna: If you are in this graduate program just to do philosophy for five to seven years without thinking about your future career, then in principle you can write your thesis in the Wittgensteinian way. Because then, as I see it, you are sacrificing thinking about your career in order to write however you want right now. But, let me say, I don't recommend this, unless you happen to be independently wealthy. A few years from now, you will need a job, something that can give you stability so that you can take other risks in your life. No point taking such a big risk right now without a safety net, just because Wittgenstein did it. He did have a safety net, both in terms of his family wealth and the prestige he had as a thinker. Without either, it would be fool hardy to emulate Wittgenstein.

Bharath: Ok, yes, let's say I do want to be a philosophy professor. So I am not sure I want to burn all my bridges right now just to write however I want to. But if I want to be a professor, why can't I write like Wittgenstein? After all, you are a professor, and you teach the Investigations, and you say how important it is to take the manner of writing of that text seriously. If you can teach the text as a professor, why can't I write in that manner in order to become a professor?

Krishna: Good question. In order to answer that, let's start a few steps back. You want to be a philosophy professor. So let me ask you, how do you think the philosophy profession should be structured? In particular, do you think that the profession should value being inclusive to a diversity of ways of doing philosophy, say bringing together different traditions, histories, texts and so on?

Bharath: Yes, certainly. I think the profession right now is pretty insular. It needs to open up more, and be more inclusive.

Krishna: Do you think professors writing like Wittgenstein will help the profession be more pluralistic and inclusive?

Bharath: Definitely. Why should everyone have to write in the journal format, in the same cookie cutter way? That is not diversity. That is one-dimensional thinking. The more ways of writing we can foster, the better.

December 18, 2014

Past Blog

I had a blog from April to November of 2002. It was my first blog. In it I was trying to make sense of my leaving academia, and in particular, to figure out what kind of a positive philosophy project I can have outside academia. Not that different from this blog.
Though at a certain point while writing that blog I came upon a familiar feeling: the sense that what I was doing was somehow problematic, that it is better if I didn't write this way, that maybe it is a form of self-indulgence. That I need to let go of it if I am to move forward. So I closed the blog. Made it private. Then deleted it. Nonetheless, luckily, I kept copies of the posts in my email.
Seeing again my old prospectus from a dozen years ago, I was reminded of my blog from two years ago. It made me wonder: why in my life have I had this inclination to keep deleting or throwing things away? Why do I at those moments have the feeling that if I am to grow I need to destroy any semblance of that past? Is this pathological? Or is there some other explanation?
One kind of explanation is that I am a perfectionist. But this doesn't ring true to me. I never had a problem letting others see what I was writing, even when they were in draft form. Nor did I have any worries that others would steal my ideas. It always seemed to me that ideas are communal property, and it doesn't matter who publishes what, or who gets where first. Sharing the ideas, acting on them, collaborating is what matters.
Another explanation, which seems more true to me, is that I have lived my life so far with a slew of schisms. American/Indian. Religious/Secular. Professional/non-professional. Eastern/Western. Schisms which have often felt so sharp and so deep that it seemed impossible to reconcile the divisions or to bring them together into a unified whole. Most of my intellectual life has been an attempt at trying to bridge these gaps, heal the schisms. Not primarily to help the world or to do good. But mainly, and firstly, to help myself. To heal myself from these schisms. To find a voice I can claim as my own, which can sound with the unity of my being, rather than just as an expression of this or that side of the divide.

December 15, 2014


In the previous post I talked about the Wittgenstein prospectus I wrote in 2002. After I decided back then not to pursue that prospectus I got rid of the copies I had of it. Seeing my recent post on that prospectus, my brother sent me an email with a draft of that prospectus attached. It turned out I had sent it to him back then and he now found it in an archive he kept from that time.

The prospectus is here.

December 3, 2014

Stepping into the Future

I left academic philosophy three and a half years ago in order to pursue philosophy from outside academia. I started this blog two months ago in order to think through in a public way what philosophy from outside academia can look like.

But much of my thinking of the last three years, like much of my writing on this blog so far, has been focused on academic philosophy and its current limitations. Though I want to think about the possibilities outside academia, I keep coming back over and over again to what currently feels impossible within academia. Why is this?

It is because even though I am out of academia, I can feel how much of a grip academia has on my mind. On my habits of thought. On my sense of myself and who I see as my interlocutors. I crossed the line. Stepped over the abyss. I am here now outside academia. It's been three years, but the shock of finding myself on this side of the line is still vivid for me. A part of me asks myself, "What I am doing here? Shouldn't I be over there, with them, the professors? Wasn't I one of them? Shouldn't I still be one of them?" In the last year I have regularly read the philosophy blogs - DailyNous, Feminist Philosophers, NewApps, Leiter Reports, Digressions and Impressions, Up@Night, Philosophymetablog - and I imagine I am still talking to them, that perhaps I haven't really crossed the line, that maybe the line doesn't matter.

But, of course, it does matter. It is one thing to blog about improving academic philosophy from within. Even the harshest such critic is committed to improving it form within. This means what that person is helping build is something they are already a part of, and so even their criticism is a part of something constructive. But if one is outside of academia, in a day to day sense one is not a part of something constructive in the same way. For me, academia is in the rear view mirror, and no matter how much my blogging might contribute to improving academia, it doesn't have the feeling of improving structures within which I currently exist.

It is intrinsic to training to be an academic philosopher that one feels that it is within academic philosophy that the future of philosophy lies. I want to start accepting a basic fact: I left academic philosophy because I don't believe this anymore. I believe rather that the future of philosophy is outside academia. 

When I imagine the future, I see a strong, diverse institution of academic philosophy. But I see that future is only made possible by there being even stronger structures of non-academic philosophy. I sense within myself that academic philosophy, left to itself, will collapse into itself. It is trapped within academic structures which, more and more, will become part of the day to day hub of life, not set apart from everyday society, but at the very center of it. And this will happen not because academia is selling its soul, but because in an information and technological society, academia cannot stand part from society, but must be at its heart. But this comes at a cost. And that is that the contrarian, gadfly vocation of philosophy will become harder and harder to flourish within academia. The specialization of academic philosophy is just the beginning of this. Over time more and more people will leave academic philosophy, not only because the jobs will diminish, but because people's desire to think for themselves will find an outlet only outside academia.

I don't bemoan this future, or the difficulties academic philosophy is going to have in the future. It will get worse before it gets better. But it is necessary. As it is now, academic philosophy in America is insular, Eurocentric and disconnected from most of society. The idea that changes will happen in due course from within itself is an illusion, a fantasy. Why should I still be beholden to that fantasy when academic philosophy makes clear over and over again that it cares so little for my experiences in academia? Should I fight to get recognized in academic philosophy, to be taken seriously, only to meet the same blinkered look of indifference time and time again? No. Not me. I prefer venturing out of academia, and helping to create new communities, new structures, ones which are not so beholden to the past, not so weighed down by history and momentum. Academic philosophy is the past. The future lies out there, beyond all current institutions.

November 17, 2014

The Magical Water

It is a Friday night in the spring of my sophomore year in college, a few months after my struggles with writing the essay on "On What There Is." There is a bustling energy through the campus which signifies it is time for a break from studying, and for new friendships and experiences to be discovered. As I walk through Collegetown, I am aware of my usual voyueristic curiosity about the students who are dressed up for the night, who move in groups with a laughing rebelliousness and who seem set to penerate that night into some mystery at the heart of being social creatures. I circle through the streets, seeing if there might be a space where I can park myself, and eventually leave Collegetown. A part of me wishes that I could just go to my room and sleep, but I live in an attic room in a house near the center of Collegetown, and it feels too painful to accept being alone for the night; going to my room so soon, when others are just heading out into the world, evokes in me a feeling of failure which I would like to keep at arm’s length for a little longer.

Sensing the youthful energy receding into the distance behind me, I start to walk back towards Uris, the undergraduate library which is my second home and which is near the main academic quad. I usually spend my free time there watching two or three movies at a stretch, a form of binging on American culture. But this night I don’t feel like watching a movie, as if even that reenforces for me my disconnect from the people around me. So I walk past Uris and turn towards one of the gorges which surround the campus and give it a pristine, natural beauty. I walk on a nature trial under the moon light. What am I thinking about? Nothing in particular: perhaps the scene at Collegetown, or the argument about moral objectivity we discussed in class, or what I am doing here in Ithaca and what it means. There are no particular thoughts I hold to. It is more the feeling of being I am having which captivates my attention; the feeling of walking in the wilderness seperated from all people, all life and all civilization; the feeling of being draw into the essence of the world and finding myself there alone and forlorn.

As I walk I come to a suspension bridge and walk across it lost within my own feeling of myself. There is no one else around, and I position myself at the center of the bridge and stare out at the nature around me. I look down to see the moving water, so serene and peaceful, so fluid and sure of itself. The water – what is its relation to Collegetown or to discussions of moral objectivity? What is its relation even to Ithaca and to the very land it flows over? It flows on the land, but it appears to me magical, as if it were really flying over the land, unhindered by the obstacles of the rocks here or the crevices there. And still it moves on. Still it continues. Endlessly, without hesistation and without pause.

Slowly, and as if there was starting to be a magnetic field enveloping me at one end and the water at the other end, my attention begins to be drawn to the water as it is flowing underneath me, and I start to sense that the water is not in a different world from me but that it and I are connected: I am standing a few hundred feet above it. What does it mean that I am in the same physical space as it? That I am just a little above it? As I stare more and more the flowing water seems more and more beautiful, more and more alluring, and that in fact it is not at all a distant, selfish water. It is an open, giving, welcoming water which is happy to share its peace and joy with anyone who comes to it humbly as a friend. The water offers solace to any soul, no matter how much of a failure they might feel like, no matter how much they might seem lost in the human world. I stand entranced: the magnetic field between me and the water seems to be gaining power as it merges with the gravitational field between me and it, and the water seems to me to become grander than anything I have seen in my life before. Within the water I see the course of human history and the struggles of people of all backgrounds, and that even all of that pain is borne by the water with an ease which is mezmerizing and awe-inspiring. “Really Water, have you been here since the beginning of time? Can you accept all that pain and still move on with the same fluidity and grace? Can that be possible?”

November 14, 2014


It occurred to me yesterday I have been thinking of this PGR issue in too limited a way. I have been thinking, as has much of the recent online discussion, about whether evaluators should fill out the PGR surveys. Some evaluators have said they are not going to. And some have said they will. As usual, Leiter is up to his transparent rhetoric: after listing a bunch of well known people in the profession who filled out the survey, he continues, "If you were nominated as an evaluator, please try to make time between now and Friday to join this distinguished group of philosophers in contributing to the 2014-15 PGR."

In the midst of debate about the 2014 PGR, it can feel as if it will make a big difference if it is one way or another. That the profession is choosing its future, and what it decides to do will determine that future. But how much of the future of the profession is actually in the profession's hands? Much less than one might think. Or at least not in the way one thinks.

Imagine if PGR was now stopped and it no longer existed. What would happen? Would the philosophy profession no longer be hierarchical, or no longer be narrow in its focus? Would it suddenly become all-inclusive and become pluralistic in a way it isn't now? Not quite.

What PGR fundamentally tracks is money -- which departments have it more and which have it less. Why is NYU ranked #1? Because its philosophy department got a bunch of money which it could use to lure lots of big shots, and so lure the prestige of those thinkers to NYU. How did Rutgers get to be ranked #2? Because, even though it is a state school, it got a bunch of money for philosophy, and so it was able to make great financial offers to its faculty.

I remember once a Rutgers faculty member giving a talk at Harvard, and at the dinner afterwards mentioning a particularly high offer Rutgers had just made to a philosopher. Some of the people at the table gasped. One Harvard faculty member said in disbelief, "Even we don't make that much." It was a telling scene. The same philosophers who bemoan the commercialization of academia are nonetheless perfectly happy, when thinking of their positions as jobs, to benefit from that commercialization.

But for most academics money is not an end in itself. What money buys is research time and intellectual autonomy. The more financially well off a department is, the more it can get out of the way of its faculty. The less the faculty then have to teach. Less they need to feel as if they have to fight day in and day out to create spaces for themselves to pursue their interests. The dream of academics is to be given some money and then asked to go think. The richer one's department, the more this dream can feel like a reality.

Hence the power of prestige: it brings together a sense of material and intellectual flourishing into a halo of overall well being. Of course, Jerry Fodor isn't as materially well off as Bill Gates or even a high end doctor or lawyer. But as far as philosophers go, I imagine he is up there. Just like Parfit or Dreyfus or McDowell. They have prestige, which means that not only do they have material well being, but they also have the luxury of seeming as if that the material well being is incidental to the intellectual well being. Prestige enables material well being, but then also brackets it, sets it off to the side, as if it were something irrelevant or uncouth to mention. Even as it is obvious that it is those very material benefits which provide one with the time and the resources to focus on one's intellectual interests.

November 11, 2014

1979 and 2014

In a previous post I suggested that discussion of the PGR is best seen in the context of changes in the profession from the 70s which lead to the current institutional structures for job placement. Prior to the 70s, for the most part job placement happened through personal connections one's advisors had. This started to be replaced in the 70s by a "neutral" system of applying for jobs.

A positive of this new system was that presumably anyone could apply for any jobs and so the profession became more open. A downside of this new system was that the departments which controlled the institutional structure which oversaw the job placement process - namely, the American Philosophical Association (APA) - had a built in advantage when it came to placing their graduate students. If the APA positions and meetings were dominated by philosophers at Princeton, Pittsburgh and Berkeley, then it would suggest, or reinforce the idea, that those were the best departments in the country, and that their graduate students were the best candidates on the job market. Naturally, departments which were not well represented at the APA would see their lack of inclusion as cause of concern, and worry that their mode of philosophy and their graduate students were being marginalized under the very rubric of "neutrality" which was being used by other departments to position themselves as the best.

It is amazing how similar this is to the current issues regarding plurality and the PGR. The main thing that has changed in the past 35 years is that whereas in 1979 the locus of the "neutral" evaluation of the profession was a physical organization (the APA), now in 2014 it is an online organization (the PGR). But the concerns regarding insularism and lack of plurality in the self-representation of the profession, especially as concerns the institutional structures most closely connected to the job market, are strikingly the same. 

In this light, Chapter 8 of Neil Gross's Richard Rorty: The Making of an American Philosopher (published in 2008) is very interesting. Gross describes how in 1979, when Rorty was president of the Eastern APA, tensions regarding power dynamics in the APA came to a head at the eastern division meeting. Here are some snippets from that chapter:
"Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature was a successful and controversial book almost as soon as it was published. In 1979, however, the year of its release, the main controversy to occupy Rorty’s attention involved not the book but the APA. The year before, Rorty had been elected president of the prestigious Eastern Division of the Association, a testament to his standing in the profession. No sooner did he take the helm than he found himself embroiled in a major challenge to the APA’s leadership: the so-called pluralist revolt. The pluralist revolt centered around the demand of nonanalytic philosophers that analysts relinquish their control of the APA and allow philosophers associated with other intellectual orientations and traditions the chance to serve in leadership capacities and present papers at the organization’s annual meetings. These demands were not without justification." 
"Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, graduate departments where analysts predominated ranked highest on reputational surveys, journals devoted to analytic work were the most well regarded, and nonanalysts felt looked down upon by their analytic colleagues. Analysts parlayed their intellectual influence into control over the APA. Between 1960 and 1979, nearly all the presidents of the Eastern Division were analytic philosophers. Because analysts held top positions in the APA, they could appropriate for themselves one of the organization’s key resources—slots for papers at the annual meetings. In a report drafted in 1979, Rorty observed that 'many ‘non-analytic’ people feel that the chances of their papers getting on the program are so small that they don’t bother to submit them. . . . Some such feelings may be exaggerated. But I don’t think all such feelings are. . . . [Analytic philosophers], who make up most of the membership of the Program Committees, tend to have . . . suspicions about Whiteheadians, Deweyans, or phenomenologists, not to mention bright young admirers of Deleuze or Gadamer.'"

November 9, 2014

PGR's Supposed Altruism

The main defense of the Philosophical Gourmet Report (PGR) is that it helps students. But which students does it help? And how does it help them?

Does PGR help all students of philosophy? There are at least three groups of students PGR does not help.

1. Given that PGR has limitations in the forms of philosophy that it evaluates, PGR does not help students who want to pursue graduate studies in those forms of philosophy. For example, if you want to study Latin American philosophy, PGR would not be much help to you.

2. Even assuming that a prospective student is interested in the kinds of philosophy evaluated in PGR, it is not much help to students who do not get into the ranked programs for graduate school. If you are a graduate student at an unranked program, you might benefit from PGR in knowing who some people think are the best philosophers in this or that sub-field. But there is no way to have this benefit without the implication that you, in virtue at being at an unranked programs, are not getting educated by the best philosophers. Hence, in order for a student at an unranked program to benefit from PGR, they have to disassociate from the department they are actually at, and be always mindful of where they are in the hierarchy. A student at an unranked department has to always have their heads tilted up to where the supreme scholars in the profession reside. No doubt for some students this kind of head titling doesn't feel bad, and can seem like nothing other than having standards, with the hope that one day they could be part of the elite group. But given that the majority of the students at the unranked programs can never be part of the limited positions in ranked programs, "standards" have the practical effect of making one feel second rate, and having to fight through that feeling in order to  thrive as a philosopher.

3. Even for students who are at ranked programs, PGR doesn't help them if they do not identify with PGR. Perhaps a student doesn't think philosophy can be neatly divided into sub-fields. Or perhaps they are ambivalent about whether philosophy departments can be ranked. Or they have worries about the ways that PGR might reinforce implicit biases. Here it is paternalistic to say that in spite of these students' own concerns, PGR is nonetheless of benefit to them.

It cannot be denied that PGR is of benefit to some students. People testify to this. But this cannot be taken as a blanket statement of how PGR helps, or can help, all students. In effect, PGR helps the students who want to do philosophy in the way that the editors, Board and evaluators of PGR think of philosophy. The phrase "PGR helps students" really means:  if you want to be like us, and like that we use these rankings a way to understand the profession, then this will be helpful to you

In a way, this is perfectly understandable. Some philosophers want to pass on how they conceive of the discipline to some students who are inclined to see the discipline that way. That is, PGR is the way that some philosophers pass on their image of philosophy to younger versions of themselves.

However, this is no defense at all against objections to PGR. Imagine someone defending racism by saying it is beneficial to some people and that those people deeply identify with, and are able to succeed within, it. Of course this would be true: young people who identify with racist structures will find racism is beneficial to them and they would be affronted with the idea of dismantling racist structures. But what does this tell us about whether one ought to support the structures themselves? Not much. Pointing to the younger generation is just a way of saying, When I was young I found it helpful, and, by Golly, I am a good person and I turned out well and I didn't do anything wrong, so the structures must be fine! It is a way of refusing to hear the objections to the structures by just saying, I was a good person when I was younger and liked these structures, I am still a good person, so they didn't corrupt me in any way, and so the structures must be good!

November 7, 2014

Placement Data

In order to better understand the departments ranked in the Philosophical Gourmet Report (PGR) and how they are connected to non-ranked departments, in the past few weeks I went to the placement webpages of PGR ranked departments and tabulated the information on those websites.

I broke down the placements into five categories: 
  • Tenure track positions at PGR departments ranked in the top 25 (including US, UK, Canada and Australia).
  • Tenure track positions at the other PGR ranked departments (25-75).
  • Tenure track positions at non-ranked departments (including research universities, liberal arts colleges, community colleges, departments in other countries and so on).
  • Non-tenure track positions (including visiting assistant professors, adjunts, lecturers, post-docs and so on).
  • Positions outside of academic philosophy.

A few notes:

1) I am not as familiar with how positions are categorized in other countries, and so I focused only on the placements of the fifty ranked programs in the US.

2) For a given student as listed on a placement webpage, I only counted the "highest" position they had. So if a person first had an adjunct position and then two years later had a tenure-track position, for that person I only counted the tenure-track position. If the person went from a non-ranked tenure track position to a ranked tenure-track position, I only counted the latter. And so on.

3) The information provided on departments' placement webpages differ greatly in terms of how many years back they go. Some go just 5-10 years back, and others go 30 years back. So what is tabulated are not all of the placements made by these departments, but rather just what they have listed on their placement webpage.

4) My sense is that departments are often adding or otherwise changing information to the placement pages. So what follows is based just on the data on departments' webpages in October 2014.

The main fact that jumps out from the data is that only 13% of the graduates from US PGR ranked programs obtained tenure track positions in PGR ranked programs. Meaning that in order to place their graduate students in jobs, the ranked departments are undeniably dependent on the unranked programs. Not just a little dependent, but mostly dependent.

Overall on the US ranked departments' placement websites there were 3,573 placements listed. 217 got TT positions in the top 25. 256 got TT positions in the other ranked programs. 1,772 got TT positions in unranked programs. 936 got non-TT positions. And 392 pursed non-academic philosophy positions.

In terms of percentages, it is as follows.

October 20, 2014

It's Not Just Implicit Bias

According to a recent study, African-Americans make up less than 1.5% of the people (faculty or graduate students) in U.S. philosophy departments. According to another report, there are only five black philosophers in faculty positions in England.

Why are there so few black academic philosophers?

There are three flat-footed options:

1) Academic philosophers are racist.

2) The ideas in academic philosophy are racist.

3) The structures of academic philosophy are racist.

None of these are quite right. At least in my experience, (1) is not true , not in an explicit, ordinary sense of racism. In fact, many white academic philosophers have enormous white guilt. [Note: this paragraph has been changed in response to helpful comments here and here.]

(2) suggests that academic philosophy is too rational and so is somehow basically white. That reasoning and logic as activities are themselves too white, kind of like ice hockey. Proponents of this view draw broad distinctions between reason and intuition, or the mind and the body, and claim that the intuition or bodyness of blacks (the complex rhythms of jazz, etc.) is disvalued by philosophy. Stated bluntly like this, (2) is absurd. It pegs non-whites into a permanent state of otherness and fails to recognize rationality as a mode of all human beings.

(3) says the problem is institutional, such as the hiring practices or the syllabi, which create a feedback loop. If blacks students don't see or read black philosophers, then they stay away or struggle to stay in academic philosophy. There is something to (3), but as stated it isn't enough. For it leads to the question: if neither philosophers nor the ideas they value are racist, why aren't they able to change the structures? It is funny to treat the structures as an independent force which are much stronger than the good will and ideals of the philosophers themselves. What makes the structures so resistant to change? More needs to be said than that in time, a few generations from now, it will all get resolved.

A sharper version of the original question is: Given that neither philosophers nor philosophy is racist, why are there so few black academic philosophers?

A popular answer, which has become prevalent recently, rests on the idea of implicit bias.

October 17, 2014

Function of the Analytic-Continental Divide

Imagine you are a philosophy professor in Europe in 1920. You have just been through a gut wrenching war. In your livelihood as a professor you emphasize the power of rational discussion, but you have also just witnessed a war which almost obliterated the world. How do you reconcile your job as a philosopher with the horror of the war?

You have three options.
1) You can say that philosophy failed in its task, that reasoning is nothing but a veneer over the underlying irrational impulses of humankind.

2) You can say that the war, for all its horror, was rational and perfectly reasonable, that this is what reason in action looks like.
3) You can say that it is not philosophy in general that failed, but a particular kind of philosophy, the kind which is irresponsible and horrible, and which you will fight to overcome.

October 16, 2014

The illusion of Separation

By The Academic Philosopher’s Vision, I mean the combination of the following three ideas:
1) Separation: Academic philosophy is set apart from the mundane aspects of our society. If you have a 9-6 office job, you just have to go by the norms of society and be a cog in the machine. One of the herd. But by becoming an academic you get to be separate from this. The normal rules don’t apply.
2) Reflection: Separation enables academic philosophers to gain reflective distance from the general impulses in society. Because an ordinary person is just a cog in the machine, she doesn’t have the ability to reflect on the machine as a whole. But the academic philosopher does have such distance, and that enables her to think new thoughts and be creative.
3) Change: By reflecting on society without the normal constraints, the academic philosopher is able to think more clearly than most about the direction of society, and so suggest and lead regarding how society can be improved.
Separation by itself suggests a person might become an academic philosophy just to not be a cog in the machine; and there are academics like that. Separation and reflection together suggest that a person wants to be an academic so that she can think freely for herself or for gaining knowledge and nothing more; and there are academics like that. Separation, reflection and change together suggest that there is a normative and communal dimension to separation and reflection: that they are not just benefits for oneself but lead to benefits for everyone.

But what if there isn’t really much separation at all? What if academic philosophy is itself becoming more and more part of the mainstream of society? Not in the sense that society is becoming more philosophical, but in the sense that academic philosophy is becoming more like any job, just with its special perks and struggles?

October 10, 2014

Spectrum of Public Philosophy

What is it for a philosopher to engage with the public? Here are a spectrum of options.

A. Academic philosopher not addressing the public

1. Scholar. Does her research and teaching, meant for fellow academics and students. Effect on the public is downstream and not immediate. Example: most academics.

B. Academic philosopher addressing the public in a way they can't directly speak back

2. Public professor. In addition to her research and teaching meant academics, writes for and engages with the general public in order to introduce them to what is happening in academic philosophy. Examples: Simon Blackburn, Thomas Nagel, Philosophy TV.

3. Public intellectual. In addition to her research and teaching, writes for the public arguing for particular views. Fosters debate among the public by creating public discussion of the view the public intellectual defends. Examples: Peter Singer, Martha Nussbaum, Anthony Appiah, Dan Dennett.

October 9, 2014

Function of the Gourmet Report

Essay about the relation between the Philosophical Gourmet Report and the job market: here.

The main point of the essay is that while the standard narrative about the PGR is how it helps students get into higher ranked departments, the function of the PGR is to expand the range of departments where the graduate students from the ranked programs can be placed in jobs. PGR is the way that the higher ranked departments unconsciously dealt with the problem of placing their graduate students in a tough job market.

But why then would unranked departments go along with the PGR? For the same reason why many poor people in America buy into the narrative that the rich getting richer helps everyone. If the "lower tiers" look to the "higher tiers" as better versions of themselves, then the former will assume that the interests of the latter are actually their own interests. This is a recipe for institutional stagnation: the forces at the top resist change in the name of quality, and others, in identifying with the forces at the top, embrace such resistance even at their own cost.

October 4, 2014