Concerns About the Necessity of Philosophy Rankings

There is a lot of news about Leiter’s recent treatment of those on the periphery of the profession. Even the articulation of the fact that there is a periphery accepts the already apparent inscribed exclusion this post concerns.

I am worried about reinstating rankings, and think we should just give up on the idea completely. Let’s just be honest. Ranking is a political activity even if the ranking is not obviously political and meant more to inform “prospective students” about graduate study. The norms of ranking cannot help but be anything more than transforming of philosophy as a discipline into marketing campaigns in which graduate departments worry about how they are perceived by prospective consumers. The politics of listing and ranking involve the very type of instrumental thinking some of us on the Left actively resist in other areas of our lives. So, when Leiter would blog about party-line Continentalism, his blog was connected to his rankings concerning what Continental philosophy was, and his activities regretfully unethical behavior may be connected to the idiocy of not wanting to be perceived in such and such a way like a company exec worried about the perception of consumers viewing their product. When the Pluralist Guide to Philosophy came out, such a ranking was in response to the perceptive effects that Leiter’s ranking had on the perception of “outlier” and “periphery” schools like competitive companies wanting to make inroads with consumers that their departments (and analogously their products like myself from SIU) weren’t so bad either. I wonder if this market-based thinking didn’t remain implicit when it combined with power and ego in Leiter’s vicious e-mail to Noelle Mcafee of Emory. He called her department, Emory’s Philosophy Department, “a shit department.”

As an implicit effect of power’s working behind the scenes, a Foucauldian worry is still very adamant. The fact of ranking will reinscribe the same power relations in more muted but similar (if not identical forms) that govern the perceptions and inform gatekeepers of the profession. The fact that such a ranking is shared with an editorial board, even if they are more pluralistic (and I admit I don’t know exactly what it might mean to even count as “pluralistic”), there will be a power differential that will give rise to exclusion. Some departments with really great philosophers will be devalued in any such ranking. The power differential will be their lurking implicitly and never acknowledged, but operating in some way. This claim would be true even if Continental departments acquired power over analytics; the same exclusion, I fear, would be present. I have always had a hard time with that since the necessity of ranking permeates everybody’s perception about what truly constitutes philosophy, and this will not change even if people are nicer about it (and by “nicer” I mean taking the rankings away from Leiter and instituting a board, even if the content of the board changes to a more inclusive approach). The PGR divided philosophy along the lines of Leiter’s bias to the point that the organization of SPEP, the very organization that has some of the world’s leading specialists in Husserl and Heidegger in constant attendance from North American and Europe, was portrayed as a constant outlier–even though the organization has been running for the last 50 years. The same will be true of American philosophers as much as will be true of Indian and Chinese specialists, that is, if the status-quo continued with a predominant analytic gatekeepers remain.

Leiter is not critical of his own enterprise. Even now, he negotiates this topic on his blog by calling his critics a campaign. He is not apologetic about how he negotiates that power, but leverages everything against those that disagree with him. That’s not very virtuous and unbecoming of anyone that thinks they are philosopher.


One Reply to “Concerns About the Necessity of Philosophy Rankings”

  1. Leiter’s decades-long monopoly and appeal to the dominant philosophy has indeed pushed everyone else to the side. The most pernicious effect has been to allow non-specialists to rate specialists in the absence of expertise, which still occurs because analytic philosophy considers itself to be all (or almost all) of philosophy rather than a particular tradition. I have written this many times in quiet and in loud public (internet) places, but few acknowledge how important this is. Mostly because the audience’s hegemony depends upon denying it.

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