I was on the job market in the Fall of 2007, and so was part of a weekly group meant for discussing the writing samples and job talks of the graduate students going on the market. The meetings were led by the placement director, who that year at Harvard was Susanna Siegel. One day, as the job openings were becoming known, a graduate student said near the beginning of the meeting, to no one in particular, "There don't seem to be that many good jobs opening up. A lot of the jobs are at places I am not sure I want to live." Siegel, seemingly half irked by what she felt to be a thoughtless comment and half feeling that she can't just dismiss it, replied, "Comrade, that's not important. No matter where you are, you can publish and look for other jobs." More than what she said, it was the way she said it that stayed with me. She seemed to communicate in her demeanor and her general attitude something like, "Don't be so arrogant as to assume there are the good jobs and the bad jobs. All jobs are jobs, a way to contribute to the good of all, and to fight the power structures. Some people, like some of you, will have to do it at lower tier schools. Some people, like me, will have to do it from the higher tier schools. Who is at what school is mainly a matter of luck and chance. But we are all in it together, fighting the old privileges together."
I was reminded of this when I saw the 2014 PGR philosophy of mind rankings. 3 of the 42 evaluators were members of my dissertation committee: Susanna Siegel, Peter Godfrey-Smith and Sean Kelly (the fourth member of my committee was Richard Moran). When I think of them I think of good philosophers who are good people. In particular, as with most people I met in academia, I think of people who seemed to insist when I was talking with them that we are simply a couple of people discussing philosophy, and that the hierarchical power structures within which our relationship existed were not that important.
As someone raised in a Indian family context in which teachers were gurus, more important and more revered in fact than parents, when dealing with my professors, such as my committee members, I often found myself looking up to them. Not in the sense of putting myself down, but in the sense of always being mindful of the difference in where we were in the hierarchy. I see now this was implicitly annoying to my professors. For it was central to their self-understanding, as with most academics after the 60s, that they were rebels, comrades, friends, equals, but not the professors on high, sitting at the high table, talking down to the common folk. The Indian sense of being respectful of one's gurus, which I brought with me to my education, seemed to many of my teachers as if I were pegging them into the role of the Ivy League professors who were floating above the rest of the common academic folk, precisely the kind of narrative they were trying to distance themselves from.
In a way I felt it was more straightforward to engage with academics like Warren Goldfarb, Christine Korsgaard and Gisela Striker, who exuded a sense that of course there is a hierarchy in academic philosophy. When I interacted with Goldfarb it was hard not to think of Quine and Dreben, and the sense that I was talking with someone who is an intellectual hier of those seeming giants. It was hard not to think this because Goldfarb himself seemed to think it. Similarly with Korsgaard and Rawls. With these philosophers I had a sense that they were good people and good professionals. But what I never had was the sense that we were equals, not yet anyway, not just in virtue of being a graduate student. If there was an equality to be found, it had to be earned by oneself going up the ladder in due course. I didn't mind it, since it seemed to me perfectly natural that a tenured professor and a graduate student were not institutional equals.
But with philosophers such as those on my committee, I felt a confusion of how exactly I was supposed to interact with them. They seemed hipper, cooler, as if they had moved beyond all hierarchies and divisions, such as between teachers and students, prestigious and non-prestigious schools, analytic and continental, or Western and Eastern philosophy. As if they were engaging with everyone as complete equals, as nothing more than comrades in a common cause, and that if I seemed to still feel remnants of these hierarchies and divisions in our interactions, then it must be my misunderstanding and my fault; I must still be holding onto these outdated notions and not embracing the revolution enough, not seeing that we are already all in it together.
Seeing the PGR philosophy of mind rankings, the main reaction I have is not whether in fact NYU is the top department, or if Rutgers is better than CUNY. It is mild disbelief that people I knew in academia, such as Susanna, PGS and Sean, think in terms of rankings at all. I imagine them sitting in front of their computer and deciding which philosophers of mind are more significant than other philosophers of mind, and so which departments are better than others, and I wonder to myself, "Are these the same philosophers who exuded the happy, positive sense that academia as a community could move beyond its traditional hierarchies and all that matters is good philosophical dialogue leading to good ideas? What happened to the idea that it doesn't matter what department one is at as long as one just focuses on contributing to philosophy?" Seeing their names in the list of evaluators makes me wonder if perhaps I had misunderstood them, that they are not as radical as they seemed to me to be, that they also see the world in the same hierarchical way everyone else does, that behind the friendly demeanor and the smiles and the sense that we are all equals, that they might have the feeling that they are better than others, that they deserve privileges like being evaluators that most members of the profession don't have, as if it were an objective fact that they are near the top of the philosophy of mind pyramid.