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.

All this is a way to say: PGR or no PGR, there will be a hierarchy in the profession because there will be a hierarchy in terms of which departments are financially better off than others. And the financially better off ones accrue more benefits because they are able to leverage that material well being into intellectual commodities (books, journal articles) and so gain more benefits. Even if there were no PGR and ranking were based purely on metrics such as publications, what those rankings will track is where the money is. The distribution might be somewhat different than with the PGR, but still what will be implictly tracked is where the money is.

This has long been the main argument of proponents of PGR: it is a service to students because it improves the chances of students to get to the places where the money is. PGR is seen as a way to spread the wealth. Of course, not by giving away the wealth, since it doesn't really belong to the prestigious philosophers or even to the philosophy departments. The money belongs rather to the universities. And what PGR tracks is which universities are investing in their philosophy departments, and so where people can go to for the most secure positions in academic philosophy.

My main feeling about this defense of PGR was: "But the process of letting people in to where the money is is actually helping to spread those structures and so is leading to less well off departments becoming even less well off. The wealth "at the top" is being spread at the cost of the well off institutional structures using the less well off institutions as departments where the graduate students from the former can be placed. The spreading of the wealth is coming at the cost of a general homoginization of the profession, and the reaches of the well off departments increasing into domains where it previously didn't need to engage with." And I used to think of PGR as a main mechanism of this homoginization process.

Now I am thinking: that homoginization process is happening anyhow, and PGR is not creating it, but is rather a reflection of it and one contributor to it. The issue of whether there should be PGR or not is an important one, but also ultimately one which keeps up the sense that the philosophy profession as it is now is in control of its future. But this is an illusion. The philosophy profession isn't in control of its future because it is not in control of where its funding comes from. The profession has to accommodate into the spaces created for it in the university setting. That means the broader institutional forces of universities and their place in the economy dictate what philosophy departments can look like.

What are these broader institutional forces among universities as a whole? It is a patently top-down system with the institutions with the most money trying to reach out into every corner of society and the world to get more and more students in order to be able to finance and maintain their institutional structures. A hundred years ago, when there were explicit class structures, the universities themselves replicated those class structures. Hence Harvard didn't aim to reach the students of less prestigious schools; it was happy to reside on its perch, and let the common folk go to the common schools. But now this division is getting blurred, and it is a real question whether universities can function while simply waiting for students to come to them. Now universities, as with any corporations, are in the business of reaching out to expand their customer base, for fear that otherwise in a changing world in a decade a university might become second rate or obsolete.

What this means for academic philosophy is what I always felt had to be avoided somehow, but which now I am thinking is the inevitable future: there will some high end departments where most of the  wealth will be, and as a result those will be the research centers. The less well off departments, not being autonomous of the well off departments anymore, will basically become teaching centers of the research programs being pursued at the well off departments. The financial crunch being felt by less well off departments will make them more beholden to the ideas and culture of the well off departments. And the well off departments will seek to replicate themselves as a way to buttress their own standing and influence so that they can continue to be well off. What will disappear in the process is the idea of a pluralistic profession which is able to foster a healthy disagreement among itself.

This was brought home to me through the discussion section of this post. In response to the worry that PGR was making it easier for the well off departments to dictate what happens at the less well off departments, one commentator there, JDRox, wrote:
"Yes, the PGR makes things harder for programs that are not ranked...but that would be true even if the PGR was infallibly tracking the Platonic ranking of philosophy programs (supposing there were one). I mean: if, fairly often, the best students go to the best schools, and if, fairly often, the best schools provide the best training, then why wouldn't we want these initially better and better trained students to get most of the jobs--even jobs at unranked programs? Or do you deny that the philosophers produced by, say, Princeton are, fairly often, significantly better than the philosophers produced by [pick an unranked school with a Ph.D. program]? Look, I think there are some very fine unranked programs. But being very fine isn't necessarily good enough to justify having a grad program, if there are enough even better programs to fill all the jobs. Just so, being very good at philosophy isn't necessarily good enough to get a job, if there are enough better people to take all the jobs."
At first this struck me as exactly what is wrong with PGR. But then it occurred to me that JDRox is exactly right. Not in the sense that what he is describing is what ought to happen. But in the sense that this is what will happen. As the resources for philosophy become harder to come by for the less well off schools, they are going to depend precisely on the well off schools as a way to bolster their sense of security. That means that they will want to hire graduates from the well off schools. But as the majority of graduates of ranked PGR departments are hired at unranked programs, as noted here, the graduates of unranked programs will not have jobs. Which will means that the graduate programs at those unranked schools will be cut. Which will mean that for the most part unranked schools will become teaching schools where the professors are not doing "cutting edge research" but are teaching the cutting edge stuff, or the perennial classics.

There is thus forming in the philosophy profession a two tier system: the well off places where the research is done, and the less well off places which are mainly for teaching, and which do the research as set by the well off places.
In the 1950s, when there were more ecosystems in the philosophy profession, there were different centers of philosophy, structured around different research projects, methodologies and interests. The philosophy pursued at the New School could have a different orientation than that pursued at Harvard, and this was made possible by the fact that they weren't institutionally bound to each other. That is, Harvard or Princeton didn't necessarily need the New School or Penn State to place its graduate students. So they were happy to live and let live, and forget about these other programs. But as graduate programs took in more students and the jobs become less, now the well off departments need to claim any and all departments as places where their students can be placed. This means that there is now claimed to be a universal mode of doing philosophy, such that the well off departments are seen be exemplifying that. Therefore it is seen as not mere wealth which is winning out, the well off departments using their resources to dictate to the less well off departments, but rather just the better way of doing philosophy rightly winning over less good ways of doing philosophy. 

PGR is simply the tail end of this process, which has been happening since the professionalization of Anglo-American academic philosophy at the end of the second world war. There is something inevitable seeming about PGR. That whether it as a written document exists, what it is capturing will continue to exist and exert influence on the profession. Yes, that is true. It is the grip of philosophers flocking to where the money is in the hopes that it will buy them the security to be able to simply reflect on the world independently of worrying about one's material concerns.
The most pressing question now isn't: how can this process be stopped? Since it cannot be stopped. 

It is rather: given that this process cannot be stopped, and academic philosophy is going to be driven by where the money is, are there modes of philosophy which cannot be pursued within such institutional structures? That is, are there modes of philosophy which can only be pursued from out academia? And if so, what are those modes of philosophy and how can they be pursued?


  1. Another very sobering and fearless post, Bharath - thank you.

    I understand that given the tendency to 'follow the money' that you outline, attempting to develop and pursue modes of philosophy outside the academy might seem the best option, and I salute those who do pursue it, at the cost of considerable career uncertainty.

    At the same time, I wonder if there is a third option over and above: i) following the money and ii) leaving. This would be to find an out-of the way corner of the current institutional structure, hide there, and write for the future. Because it seems to me that all the best philosophers are writing for the future.

  2. Cathy, I definitely agree that there is the third option you mention. As I see it, whether one is in academia or not depends mainly on one's psychological, biographical and sociology factors. I am happy to be doing philosophy outside academia. But I can imagine myself in academia and trying to improve it from within. Ultimately I think a thriving philosophical society requires both non-academic and academic philosophy.

    I am very sympathetic to the "out-of-the-way corner in academia" idea, and especially writing for the future. That's great. I am also all for someone trying to deeply change academic from its epicenter, while being at the "top" places. So far I don't think we have seen anyone like that. There are some smart and well-intentioned philosophers at the prestiguous departments, but so far my sense is that they are holding back from publically reflecting on the limitations of the circles they move in; probably out of a kind of institutional gluttony. But in principle I think it is possible. I think anyone, no matter where they are inside or outside academia, can contribute equally to building the future together.