November 23, 2014

Email from Leiter

A few days ago I got the following email from Brian Leiter. He was emailing me regarding this post. Though I have written a fair amount about him and PGR on this blog, I have never met him nor had any correspondence with him prior to this exchange.

I responded to his email as follows.

The following back and forth ensued.





  1. Thoughts on Leiter's (undoubtedly raced) silence re: Ferguson? Silence, that is, with the exception of this short mention (, which could easily be read as playing easily into narratives of justification for the injust outcome.

  2. I'll add that, meanwhile, his numerous posts on PGR "updates" (by which he really just means a minimum, if any, reshuffling of "top" programs) evaluator lists reads as a venerable who's who among white professional philosophers.

  3. Cynic, I don't have any problem with Leiter's post about Ferguson; he made a legal point which is relevant to understanding what happened. It could read into a narrative of justification, though to me that seems a stretch based on the one post.

    Still, your connection between Ferguson and the PGR updates is great, and very illuminating. Most academic philosophers might bemoan what is happening in Ferguson, but as long as they don't change their curriculum and become more inclusive, it is empty gesturing. To me what Ferguson shows is the grip of implicit bias. If academic philosophers don't acknowledge their own implicit biases and find ways to change them, whatever they might say about Ferguson is easy moralizing on their part. The way to help with Ferguson isn't to just say what should happen there; one has to start with the institutions closest to one, and change them, so that in the long run they can lead to changing the harder cases. If financially well off intellectuals can't change their implicit biases, how can they expect people less well off to do it? This is the reason academic philosophy has a marginal voice in public discourse. The disparity between its own ideals and its reality is so vast that it can't presume to speak to the public from a higher ground.

  4. Bharath,

    Your last two sentences really resound with me. I'm reminded of the recent interview on The Stone with Charles Mills, where he makes a similar point about professional philosophy's valorization of ideal theory. Ideality, which has merits in its own right, nevertheless becomes problematic when it becomes an end all too itself. As you say, if philosophers, especially the privileged tenured, aren't willing to deal with messy realities -- perhaps having become too comfortable nestled in privileged positions, a gluttony of its own! -- by incorporating such realities into the theorization of problems (true metaphysics!), how can they claim intellectual authority without coming off as academic eggheads?

  5. Cynic, yes, absolutely. What is the point of having tenure if one can think about whatever one wants, but one still acts as if one has to follow the set norms? A reason why academics come off as eggheads is that they act as if having academic freedom is necessary to being able to change things. This seems to me backwards. Change happens when one pushes against the freedoms one doesn't have in order to create more freedom. If academics say that in order to change things they must be guaranteed complete academic freedom, they are positioning themselves in a way that most people can't even identify with. I don't deny there should be academic freedom. But the point is that often the very privileges they want to rely on are the ones which render them mute in the broader culture. Often the academic's focus on treating academia as the most ideal space in society and their being free to think about ideal reality seem just a way of buffering themselves against struggle, rather than a way of embracing struggle.

  6. He seems almost incapable of addressing the content of a disagreement. I admire your patience.