November 3, 2014

Structures of Prestige

Imagine that in 2005 the Princeton philosophy department made an offer to Brian Leiter as a full professor and Leiter accepted. Could he then have continued to be the editor of the Philosophical Gourmet Report (PGR)? It is hard to imagine he could have. If such an offer was made, I would think it would be conditional on Leiter no longer being editor of the PGR. Then there would have been a magnanimous "I have carried this torch a long while and it is time to pass it on" post on Leiter's blog, he would have hand-picked his successor, himself remained on the board and moved on to the higher calling of being one of the uber-eminent senior scholars in the profession.

This simple thought experiment illustrates a fundamental fact: It is intrinsic to the highest regions of prestige in a democratic society that the people occupying those regions appear publicly to be uninterested in the prestige they have. That they are so focused on the essential tasks at hand that they seem almost unaware of, or at the very least to downplay, the prestige they are accorded. I say here "in a democratic society" because one can easily imagine a dictator reveling in the adulation and prestige given to him, in fact to demand it. It is easy enough to think of Kim Jong-un, like a narcissistic emperor, having someone constantly walk around with a mirror for him, so that he can bask in, as he sees it, his just glory. But it is hard to think of Obama this way, for any energy he spends publicly on basking in his own glory will seem like energy diverted from his true task of serving the people's needs.

It is sometimes said that the American Philosophical Association should not take over the PGR. This seems right, since the APA's commitment to the entire profession would be at odds with putting a handful of departments on the pedestal.

For the same kind of reason it is hard to imagine Derek Parfit or Jerry Fodor as the editor of the PGR. For even though Parfit in no explicit institutional sense speaks for the whole profession, the perceived quality of the work is as being so exceptionally high that it seems as if any philosopher from any tradition should at least recognize Parfit's work as brilliant (even if one disagrees with it). Implicit in this evaluation of brilliance is a kind of public responsibility. That if someone is as brilliant as Parfit is claimed to be, if, that is, his talent is so enormous as to dwarf that of mere mortals, then that talent is seen as a public good and so not something that Parfit can take personal pride in. Parfit might be well aware personally of the enormous prestige he has in the profession, but precisely because the prestige is so over the top in his case, it would seem uncouth for him to claim it as something he deserves.

In this way, as unfair as it would be for the APA to endorse particular rankings, it would be equally unfair if Parfit or Tim Scanlon or Judith Jarvis Thompson were to endorse particular rankings. Everyone knows that the APA is an administrative structure; that is nothing to look down upon and it is essential to the profession. But still, for philosophers what evokes awe is great philosophy and that is what binds them together. If the contemporary great philosophers were themselves to highlight publicly that they, and the departments they reside in, are the best, that would be akin to them walking around with a mirror so that they can constantly appreciate their own brilliant glow. This seems more than just uncouth. It feels like a betrayal. For though Reasons and Persons was written in Oxford, that too in the most privileged setting even within Oxford (with Parfit being at All Souls College, which requires no teaching), and though no doubt Parfit has the copyright to his book and he has the right to, the very brilliance of the book suggests that in an important sense it belongs to neither Parfit nor Oxford, but to everyone interested in philosophy. It would be to undercut that important sense if Parfit were to be obsessed with where Oxford ranks in PGR. For what is best in Parfit as a philosopher speaks to philosophy in a much broader sense than just which departments have the most money and so are able to accumulate the most high priced stars.


If Leiter could not have been a professor at Princeton and been the editor of PGR, then how is it that professors at NYU, Princeton, Harvard and Yale can be on the board of the PGR without seeming narcissistic?

In my time in academia I came to know some of the people who are now, or have been in the past, on the board of the PGR: Susanna Siegel, Peter Godfrey-Smith, Jason Stanley as my teachers, and David Chalmers as someone whose work I engaged with in my thesis and who I talked to a few times. These philosophers don't strike me as narcissists who just want to pat themselves on their back for how great their departments are, and in fact, they seem to see being on the board as a responsibility rather than as a self-indulgence. Since these philosophers are at some of the "top" departments, if any one of them were the editor of the PGR, I think it would seem like the PGR were nothing but a prop for keeping up the status quo. So how is it any less narcissistic for them to be on the board of the PGR?

To answer this question, we need to go back to Parfit. The fact that Parfit isn't on the board of the PGR doesn't mean that he is not a part of the prestige game. Rather, what is striking is how much prestige Parfit has even independent of anything to do with PGR. After all, prestige in the philosophy profession didn't began with the PGR.

I remember seeing Parfit in Emerson hall during the semesters he was visiting at Harvard. What I was often struck by in my own experience was how attentive I would become to him, his movements, his dress and his speech, as if everything in the hallway or the seminar room were pointing in his direction. It is no doubt how it would feel if Obama or Brad Pitt were to walk into the room. I had a great desire to just stare at Parfit, as if an exotic bird had flown in from heaven and was using the very same mundane coffee machine or water cooler as the rest of us mortals. This desire to stare, to take it all in, was made stronger by the fact that of course I could not just stare at him. That would be rude, boorish, sophmoric. So at best what was possible were side long glances, a glimpse here and there, as if he were the sun and I could not look directly at him.

What often puzzled me when I reflected on this kind of experience was that for the most part I didn't even agree with Parfit's views. I generally found them too individualistic and reductionist, in fact highlighting a way of doing philosophy which I found mainly boring. But what I couldn't deny was that he is an exceptional philosopher, someone whose work one has to engage with if only to articulate an alternate view. But did this acknowledgment of the quality of his philosophy require all this sidelong glancing and acting as if I were a groupie and he was a rock star? Why was I feeling within myself this pull to see him as if he were on a pedestal? Prestige -- he had it, and I knew he had it by how I felt being around him.

So what enables this prestige that Parfit has, this magical glow of celebrity? Well, what are the things I think of immediately and almost unconsciously when I think of Parfit? Oxford. All Souls. The kind of position in Oxford that even Strawson and Dummett didn't have. That he was buddies with Gareth Evans and they drove around Europe talking philosophy (oh! to be a fly in that car.). The word "genius" attached to Reasons and Persons. Dresses the same everyday. Quirky. Eccentric. He doesn't have to apologize for or change his quirks; as if he can be purely himself, as he is in his living room. He doesn't have to worry about putting on a good appearance (though he might still worry about it). Late night conversations with Scanlon, Raz, Nagel. At the center of the hub in moral philosophy. Even his throw away comments being analyzed by others as if they were treasures. One of the living Pantheon.

At the root of these thoughts is the physical institution of Oxford. The gothic buildings, the fame, the money, the sense that it is the center of intellectual life, and that Parfit resides at the very center of that life. Beyond the general prestige of Oxford as an university, there is the awe that was generated about it in my mind as a student of philosophy. By the fact that many of the philosophers I was reading in classes -- whose thoughts were to become the fertile ground for my own thoughts, and whose thoughts felt as if they were part of the eternal conversation of philosophy -- were at Oxford: Strawson, Anscombe, Dummett, Ryle, Austin, Berlin, and so on. This Oxford was part of a small network of other philosophy departments which kept popping up over and over again as the main places where the people who seemed to be the best philosophers of the century were at.

If I think of Anglo-American philosophy by decades, my mind automatically orients itself around one or two departments for each decade as the very best departments in the world at that time. 1920s: Cambridge with Russell, Moore, Wittgenstein, Ramsey. 1940s: Oxford with Anscombe, Ryle, Austin, Strawson. 1960s: Harvard with Quine, Rawls, Putnam, Cavell. And so on. This is the kind of thing Leiter articulates when he says, for example:
"Rutgers has been a top program for about 20 years, NYU for about 15 years; after them, the youngest top PhD programs on the list are MIT and Pittsburgh, which date from the 1960s.  Harvard and Princeton were the top two departments from the 1960s until the rise of Rutgers and NYU in the 1990s.  Cornell had a solidly top ten PhD program for much of the last fifty years, as did Berkeley and UCLA; Michigan has been in the top ten, often the top five, that entire time.  Chicago's was a top ten program during much of the 1960s, 70s and perhaps 80s (Donald Davidson left Chicago in 1981, Christine Korsgaard in the early 1990s).  Columbia and Yale have fluctuated from the top ten to well outside the top 25 during this half-century period."
Here Leiter is not creating this impression just by blogging about it. He is giving voice to the kind of narrative prevalent in the profession as a way of understanding its own history.

When I got an email from Christine Korgaard in March of 1999 saying I was admitted to Harvard for graduate school, I was euphoric for a couple of days. I didn't sleep the night I got the email, spending the whole night in a Cornell computer room looking up the Harvard philosophy department and its history. I felt as if I had won a lottery ticket, that I was being let into one of the most exclusive philosophy clubs on the planet. I spent the night reading up on anything I could find about famous philosopher after famous philosopher who had been associated with Harvard. And everytime I saw the word "Harvard" on the screen I felt a buzz of elation, which was my mind's way of grappling with the thought that I too now could belong to the department of Quine and Rawls.

I doubt I am alone in feeling something like this. Anyone who hears Warren Goldfarb tell story after story of Harvard's illustrious past, with the twinkle in his eye as someone who never left Harvard since he arrived there as an undergraduate and who tells the stories with the conviction that they are interesting because for him they are stories of the best department in the world at the time, can have the sense that Goldfarb has an implicit ranking of philosophy departments of just the kind that Leiter articulated above. It was the same sense I had when I heard Christine Korsgaard talk of being a student of Rawls, giving the sense that Harvard in the 70s and 80s was undoubtedly the best department for political philosophy in the world.

Given that there were no explicit rankings in the 20s or the 70s, what is guiding Leiter's, Goldfarb's, and for that matter, my own unreflective sense, of the ordering of the departments of those times?

It is the fact that prior to the internet, the philosophy profession had an oral tradition of ranking departments. One picked up the layout of the land from casual comments professors made in classes, office hours, or at department parties. And as a professor one participated in it in casual conversations with fellow professors, ordering and reordering departments based on this or that faculty move ("Stuart Hampshire is moving from Oxford to Princeton," "Now he is back", etc.). At one point in his remarks at an event celebrating John Searle's 50th year at Berkeley, Thomas Nagel says how when Nagel moved from Berkeley to Princeton, he and Searle were
"linked in the larger philosophical world through conferences and conventions, and even more recently by a common love for Paris, where we often find ourselves together in June and where it is always a pleasure to take up again our extended pursuit of the higher gossip." (Here at the 34 minute mark.)
In my time as a graduate student and professor, I didn't know any philosopher who did not engage in this "pursuit of the higher gossip", though no doubt the gossip between Nagel and Searle is bound to be several orders of magnitude more interesting than that of most philosophers. The prevalence of this practice is not primarily a shameful fact as much as it is just a fact; something akin to the inevitable exchange of information regarding acquaintances which happens even with one's family and friends.

The implicit rankings are formed not just through the gossip, but also primarily through who one can gossip with. Part of the reason Parfit seemed to me to be on an elevated plane was because he was not someone with whom I could engage in the higher gossip. I couldn't walk into his office, the way Scanlon or Korsgaard could, and say to him, "Derek, did you hear about ...". In their drive through Europe, did Parfit and Evans just talk the whole time about philosophical ideas? Of course not. Did Evans and McDowell as buddies only talk about the Theatetus or the context principle in Frege? Of course not.

What would have happened if I had walked up to Parfit and said, "So, do you think Williamson should have come to Harvard instead of going to Oxford?" Of course, I could not say this given the energy flow between me and Parfit. But if I did, if I transgressed that energy flow and asked such a question, then no doubt Parfit would have been disoriented and treated my remark as me trying to engage in mere, silly gossip, the kind which is utterly unbecoming of philosophers. Higher gossip exists only between people of equal stature, and between people of vastly different statures there is only mere gossip, the kind which, one is tempted to say, has to be shunned to protect the sanctity of philosophy.


With the rise of the internet this oral tradition acquired a written form. And in the process, with PGR and Leiter Reports, the boundary between higher and lower gossip got a little more blurred. As a blogger Leiter was writting into his computer as if his reader, whoever that maybe, was someone of equal stature just by having the insight to read Leiter's blog. In this way what was implicit was becoming explicit.

This explains two facts. First, why Leiter could not be a professor at Princeton and be editor of PGR. For it is one thing to blur the boundary between higher and lower gossip, but another thing to obliterate the distinction altogether. And that is what would have happen if the editor of PGR was at the very "top" of the profession. It would be like Parfit willing to engage in gossip with every student that came to office hours. The power, and the practical effect, of gossip consists precisely in the fact that it is not equally distributed. Except for people at the very top, for everyone there is (a) someone with whom they would love to gossip but can't, (b) someone with whom they can gossip, and (c) someone with whom they will refuse to gossip. For the people at the very top, there is a small circle of (b) and the vast majority fall into (c). The lower one is on the chain, the bigger (a) becomes.

This is evident even with Leiter himself. For all the ways in which PGR aims to make explicit the implicit rankings, and for all the insider information of faculty moves Leiter "reports" on his blog, it is evident to any reader that there is much more of the higher gossip happening behind the scenes by Leiter and his interlocutors to which the reader is not privy, and regarding which Leiter, in his purported Enlightened awareness, is choosing not to blog. Leiter Reports is not a space where Leiter and his readers engage in higher gossip. It is rather a space where Leiter gives a sense to the general public of the higher gossip which takes places behind the scenes, away from the riff raff, among the upper echelon. It is some kind of talent Leiter has that he has been able to sustain for so long the contradictory senses that he is bringing everything out into the open and yet that he has the requisite discretion needed to know what can be made public and what he ought not to disclose from his email correspondence and conversations with the people in the know.

The oral tradition of ranking transitioning into a written tradition also explains why though  philosophers at the top departments can't themselves be editors of PGR, they can nonetheless be on the board. It is because the making explicit of the implicit rankings is itself seen as a way of undermining the privileges inherent in the oral tradition.

Early in grad school I remember once sitting next to Susanna Siegel at a talk being given at a particularly ornate room on the Harvard campus. Siegel seemed miffed and said, "I really dislike this kind of room." This sentiment seemed to me to gel with my general impression of her at the time, as a junior faculty member in the department: she could be seen talking in Spanish with Hispanic janitors, taking an active role in the Living Wage campaign, suggesting through her dress and demeanor that she aims to take a stand against the traditional privileges of Harvard.

So how can she be on the board of the PGR? Because PGR is seen as undermining the oral tradition of ranking, a tradition which keeps the privileges of the profession in the hands of just a few departments. Walking in Emerson hall I often had the sense that in these hallways and faculty offices, and maybe a dozen such buildings in America, is where much of the power of the philosophy profession is concentrated. It is these physical structures themselves which are seen as an emblem of the quality of the philosophy being there, and which enable the oral tradition of rankings. Making the rankings explicit in cyberspace has the palpable effect of diminishing to some extent the grip of the physical spaces of power.

Still, if one wants to undermine the traditional privileges in the philosophy profession, it isn't helpful to take a stand on behalf of the PGR. If the implicit rankings as ensconced in the oral tradition are problematic, making them explicit doesn't itself necessarily undermine them. To the contrary, simply making them explicit can give the impression that the only thing wrong with the oral tradition is that they were implicit, and in this way the explicit rankings can reaffirm and strengthen the more pernicious aspects of the oral tradition of rankings.

In this light what is striking is just how much the PGR rankings have in common with the oral tradition of ranking. The oral rankings are governed by norms of who can gossip with whom, and so therefore which forms of gossip are the higher gossip essential to the profession and which are merely silly gossip that is unphilosophical. In the oral tradition these norms flow from the top down, so that departments which are seen to be the best lay claim to their right to not engage in the higher gossip with philosophers who they think are not in their group. For example, whereas at a departmental social event Goldfarb can be the life of the party while recounting stories of Harvard's past, in a public space such as a talk he might appear tight-lipped and oh so dignified, as if he is a stand for the pure philosophy which has to be guarded from the unprofessionalism of the riff raff.

PGR replicates this kind of structure by determining from within itself who gets to have a say in the rankings and whose opinions can be ignored or even in fact actively avoided. It suggests that the evaluators filling out the survey are engaged in the higher gossip essential to the well being of the profession and the future of the students, and that anyone who might be upset that they are not among the evaluators are showing their undignified interest in gossip simply for the sake of gossip. It suggests that the conversations had among the board members among themselves in private is high end philosophical discourse about the future of the profession, but that the opinions of the vast majority of the profession are just mere opinions of mediocre philosophers which don't have to count for anything. Or that those mediocre philosophers can share their opinions with each other, but they just can't expect to have such conversations with more sophisticated philosophers such as the board of the PGR.

If the oral tradition of implicit rankings is to be undermined, something has to be made explicit. But that something isn't the ranking themselves. Rather, what has to be made explicit are the implicit structures and social norms of the philosophy profession, especially, but certainly not only, as they operate in the departments normally considered to be the best within the oral tradition. For that to happen, philosophers at the top departments have to reflect publicly about their own practices and departmental culture, and be willing to break taboos of what about the departmental and professional culture can be merely talked about in private with some friends and what can be talked about publicly. To break the stranglehold of the traditional physical spaces in the profession, it isn't enough to create an online space which one hopes will magically not have any of the problems of the physical spaces. What is needed is the hard work of facing the pressure of group think in one's own circles in the profession, and being willing to speak out about how the circles one is a part of can be improved, and to be willing to have that conversation publicly.

Strikingly, that kind of self-reflective honesty is absent for the most part from how PGR functions. It gives the false sense that just through its very online presence progress is being made and the traditional, oral structures are being undermined. But as is often the case, a false sense of progress is the first obstacle to making real progress. 


  1. Very interestingly put, thank you. There's little doubt that having the content of high level gossip quantified in an online ranking is useful for prospective grad students who want to have a ceteris paribus sense of the likelihood of landing a job after grad school. This democratises knowledge at the same time as it forces elite opinion onto everyone. Tricky.

  2. See link below for a similar discussion in the context of economists, who appear to see themselves at the top of the heap in the perhaps the same way that philosophers see themselves:

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