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.