December 30, 2014

Cultural Reflective Distance

My introduction to philosophy was through conversations with my father about The Bhagavad Gita and the Upanishads. During my high school years we would have conversations about the nature of the self, consciousness, dharma, mind and body, science and religion, the meaning of life, and so on. When I started studying philosophy academically in college, a basic mode of life started to develop for me, something analogous to W.E.B. DuBois' idea of double consciousness. This was the separation of my home philosophy from my school philosophy; the separation of the conversations I would have with my father from the conversations I would have in my classes in college.

Often the topics were the same, or at least similar, but the texts, the cultural context, sometimes the language and the intonations were quite different. Even when the words used were the same ("the self", "consciousness", "material world", etc.), I often had the feeling that in the two contexts these words were being used in different ways, sometimes with the hint that they were being used in even contrary ways. As if when my father spoke of consciousness he was doing something called religion or spirituality, but when my teachers spoke of consciousness they were doing something called philosophy or meta-psychology or a version of science.

Sitting in class I would wonder to myself about the meaning and nature of this developing schism within myself, a schism which seemed partly a figment of my imagination since it was hardly mentioned by my teachers. In class there was a sense that the Gita is not philosophy, and that part of being attuned to philosophy was learning that the Gita is a different kind of text than Plato's Apology. That whereas the former was somehow parochial or communal, the later was universal. That while the former was part of religion, and so deemed to be generally dogmatic, the latter encouraged thinking for oneself. Repeatedly in class there was the sense that part of being a philosopher meant questioning one's own family, culture and community.

I took this to mean that the answer for why we were not studying the Gita in class was readily apparent: because my teachers were enabling my questioning my culture, and my taking a step back from it. The assumption in class seemed to be that it was the very difference between my father's mode of philosophy and my classes which enabled me to grow as a thinker, and to thereby grow into philosophy. Call this cultural reflective distance, as in the kind of thinking that enables one to gain distance from one's upbringing and so question its deepest assumptions. Anyone who has taken an introductory philosophy course can attest that this is how philosophy is often portrayed in the classroom: that it enables cultural reflective distance.

***

When I was in graduate school at Harvard, once in a while, at this or that event, I would see Elizabeth Harman. She was then a graduate student at MIT, having finished her undergraduate degree at Harvard. We were minimal acquaintances, the way graduates students in nearby departments can tend to be. I remember exchanging a few pleasantries at this or that gathering, never quite talking about philosophy. My sense was that she was a nice person, friendly and smart.

Given my sense of a schism, of keeping always my conversations with my father segregated from the conversations I was having in academia, naturally what was most intriguing to my mind about Harman was that she was the daughter of the Princeton philosopher Gilbert Harman. What I found interesting wasn't any issues of nepotism, as if she maybe got into MIT because of her connections. It seemed evident enough that the younger Harman possessed the skills valued by professional philosophy. Rather, what was much more interesting to me was the fact that here was someone who was being acknowledged as a philosopher, and a good one, even though, at least based on outward facts, she didn't have to break with her upbringing in the way in which I had to in order to be a philosopher.

December 24, 2014

Silence at the Top

If you ask academic philosophers who are some of the most important contemporary philosophers, you will get names like: Derek Parfit, Tim Scanlon, Martha Nussbaum, Jerry Fodor, Thomas Nagel, Timothy Williamson, Christine Korsgaard, John McDowell, Robert Brandom, Peter Singer, Anthony Appiah, Ned Block, David Kaplan, John Searle and so on.

If one goes to academic philosophy blogs, one sees discussion of some of the pressing issues in the profession: should there be philosophy rankings, the under-representation of women and other minorities, how to make the discipline more open to non-Western philosophical traditions, whether there are enough jobs for all, or even most, philosophy PhDs, how to improve the conditions for adjunct professors, and so on.

If I ask myself what do the most well known philosophers think about these pressing issues, it is amazing that I am forced to admit: I have no idea. For the most part, the academic philosophy superstars have been silent on hot button issues in the profession. What is one to make of this fact?

One option is: it is a generational thing. Perhaps someone like Parfit or McDowell dosn't even read  philosophy blogs. Maybe. But that doesn't explain their silence on the hot button professional topics. After all, they are very familiar with the concept of publishing. And in virtue of their recognition, they have a great platform to be heard. They could write editorials, organize APA sessions, conferences, and so on. Where are all of these activities? Since 1994, when Mind and World, came out, McDowell has no doubt given innumerable talks on the myth of the Given, on second nature, on enculturation. Has he published a single essay on what kind of enculturation the philosophy profession is fostering, and what he thinks are the prospects for improving the profession? Not that I am aware of. Why is this? How come the most well known philosophy professors are so silent about the most pressing issues in the profession?

Another option is: they don't have to speak up, because they don't have anything special to contribute. On this view, the philosophical expertise the best academic philosophers have concerns just the subject matter they write on. On ethics, philosophy of mind, political philosophy, and so on. They have things to say on moral skepticism, or the mind-body problem, or the state of nature, and that is where their expertise ends. What can be done about the lack of non-European philosophy in most philosophy departments? On this view, there is no reason Nagel or Scanlon or Kaplan would have anything interesting to say about that issue. After all, that is not what they specialize in. The trouble with this view: ok, if not the people who are thought to be best at philosophy, who else can have anything interesting and important to say on the hot button topics? The people who speak the loudest? Or the brashest? And what kind of an expertise is required to speak up for working conditions for adjuncts or the need for a better culture for women in the profession? This seems like nothing more than a cop out.

A third option: the well known philosophers don't speak up because the moment they do, they would come across as hypocrites. We can imagine Parfit speaking eloquently, even passionately, about helping fellow human beings, and about the foundations of ethics. But can we imagine Parfit speak so eloquently about the hardships of the adjunct professor who has to teach five classes in three universities in a semester just to make ends meet? Or about the sense of alienation which might creep into a Latino student's mind as she hears for the umpteenth time about the same European philosophers? This is much harder to imagine. For Parfit is not a neutral observer in the current state of affairs. Parfit can stand up and speak on behalf of that adjunct professor, but not without first acknowledging how his own professional career has been made possible by the very institutional structures which propagate situations like that of that adjunct professor. If Parfit tries to speak about the injustice of the adjunct professor's situation, without first acknowledging how he has benefited from the way the institution is set up, then it would seem as if Parfit is being two-faced, duplicitous, trying to have it both ways. But given that he has benefited from the institutional set up, how can Parfit distance himself from the institution without seeming ungrateful?

December 23, 2014

Out of the Fly Bottle

"Don't think, but look!" This is one of Wittgenstein's main exhortations. It is a recurring theme in the Investigations, where Wittgenstein in case after case tries to highlight how often in philosophy what we tend to think reflects a picture we have become captive to rather than a reflection of how things actually are.

One way Wittgenstein himself failed to live up to this idea is his general ahistoricism. For someone who emphasized so much looking to the use of sentences, it is striking that he let himself make claims about the nature of philosophy without looking to see how philosophy actually functioned in the past. Or in different traditions. When Socrates in 5th century BC Greece asked, "What is justice?", in what ways was such a question used? When Shankara in 8th century India asserted that our ordinary experience of objects in an illusion, what was the use of that assertion? When Descartes in 17th century France asked himself if he was being deceived by a malicious demon, what was the use of that question?
 
Imagine Socrates asking, "What is justice?" Now imagine a contemporary philosophy professor raising in class the question "What is justice?" What are the differences in use between these two instances of the question? Are the two uses different? Wittgenstein seemed to assume they were the same, that he could dismiss in the same breath Russell, Descartes and Socrates altogether. As if there was some one bad thing all of them did. That philosophers throughout history have done. It is an amazing to see Wittgenstein essentialize philosophers, treating them as if there was some one thing they all have in common.
 
Wittgenstein's ahistoricism, together with his idea that much contemporary philosophy was confused, lead him to a dead end. It led him to the idea that all there was to do was to get rid of our confusions, and then move blissfully on. It led him to give up the idea of positive projects in philosophy. After all, if philosophers through out history have been making the same mistakes, then how can there be any positive philosophy?
 
But Wittgenstein was in the grips of a picture, and it held him captive.

December 21, 2014

A Dialogue

Having submitted this prospectus a few weeks ago to his dissertation advisor Krishna Rama Rao, Bharath is seated in his advisor's office. They are meeting to talk about the prospectus.

Krishna: This is a very interesting piece of writing. Clearly you put a lot of thought and effort into it, and it seems to mean a lot to you. I respect that. There is much in it to talk about, content wise, and I would like to do that another time. But today let's talk about if this can be a thesis. I don't think this can be accepted as a prospectus. I don't say this easily, but we can talk about the reasons why.

Bharath: Is it that what I wrote isn't good enough? That I am not as good a philosopher as Wittgenstein?

Krishna: No, that's not it. I don't know how one can make such a claim about someone who is still a student. Or even later for that matter. Your talent as a philosopher isn't the relevant issue. We can set it aside.

Bharath: So, Krishna, what is it then? Why can't I write like this if it was good enough for Wittgenstein?

Krishna: Well, let's also set aside the issue of what was good enough for Wittgenstein. Frankly, the academia he was a part of is no more. And that is a good thing. If any one benefited from the old-boys-club framework, it was Wittgenstein. This is not a claim on his character, or Russell's, or any one else. But they didn't have to deal with the issues of academia opening up to most people in society the way we in the 21st century have to. Let's focus instead on the question: Assuming that the Investigations is good philosophy, and it is so in part because of its form of writing, why can't you write like that for your thesis? Ok?

Bharath: Ok.

Krishna: Let me start by asking you a question: are you getting this PhD in order to become a philosophy professor? Or are you doing it just as a way to do philosophy without thinking about your career or your future?

Bharath: I am not sure. I haven't decided about that.

Krishna: If you are in this graduate program just to do philosophy for five to seven years without thinking about your future career, then in principle you can write your thesis in the Wittgensteinian way. Because then, as I see it, you are sacrificing thinking about your career in order to write however you want right now. But, let me say, I don't recommend this, unless you happen to be independently wealthy. A few years from now, you will need a job, something that can give you stability so that you can take other risks in your life. No point taking such a big risk right now without a safety net, just because Wittgenstein did it. He did have a safety net, both in terms of his family wealth and the prestige he had as a thinker. Without either, it would be fool hardy to emulate Wittgenstein.

Bharath: Ok, yes, let's say I do want to be a philosophy professor. So I am not sure I want to burn all my bridges right now just to write however I want to. But if I want to be a professor, why can't I write like Wittgenstein? After all, you are a professor, and you teach the Investigations, and you say how important it is to take the manner of writing of that text seriously. If you can teach the text as a professor, why can't I write in that manner in order to become a professor?

Krishna: Good question. In order to answer that, let's start a few steps back. You want to be a philosophy professor. So let me ask you, how do you think the philosophy profession should be structured? In particular, do you think that the profession should value being inclusive to a diversity of ways of doing philosophy, say bringing together different traditions, histories, texts and so on?

Bharath: Yes, certainly. I think the profession right now is pretty insular. It needs to open up more, and be more inclusive.

Krishna: Do you think professors writing like Wittgenstein will help the profession be more pluralistic and inclusive?

Bharath: Definitely. Why should everyone have to write in the journal format, in the same cookie cutter way? That is not diversity. That is one-dimensional thinking. The more ways of writing we can foster, the better.


December 18, 2014

Past Blog

I had a blog from April to November of 2002. It was my first blog. In it I was trying to make sense of my leaving academia, and in particular, to figure out what kind of a positive philosophy project I can have outside academia. Not that different from this blog.
 
Though at a certain point while writing that blog I came upon a familiar feeling: the sense that what I was doing was somehow problematic, that it is better if I didn't write this way, that maybe it is a form of self-indulgence. That I need to let go of it if I am to move forward. So I closed the blog. Made it private. Then deleted it. Nonetheless, luckily, I kept copies of the posts in my email.
 
Seeing again my old prospectus from a dozen years ago, I was reminded of my blog from two years ago. It made me wonder: why in my life have I had this inclination to keep deleting or throwing things away? Why do I at those moments have the feeling that if I am to grow I need to destroy any semblance of that past? Is this pathological? Or is there some other explanation?
 
One kind of explanation is that I am a perfectionist. But this doesn't ring true to me. I never had a problem letting others see what I was writing, even when they were in draft form. Nor did I have any worries that others would steal my ideas. It always seemed to me that ideas are communal property, and it doesn't matter who publishes what, or who gets where first. Sharing the ideas, acting on them, collaborating is what matters.
 
Another explanation, which seems more true to me, is that I have lived my life so far with a slew of schisms. American/Indian. Religious/Secular. Professional/non-professional. Eastern/Western. Schisms which have often felt so sharp and so deep that it seemed impossible to reconcile the divisions or to bring them together into a unified whole. Most of my intellectual life has been an attempt at trying to bridge these gaps, heal the schisms. Not primarily to help the world or to do good. But mainly, and firstly, to help myself. To heal myself from these schisms. To find a voice I can claim as my own, which can sound with the unity of my being, rather than just as an expression of this or that side of the divide.
 

December 15, 2014

Prospectus

In the previous post I talked about the Wittgenstein prospectus I wrote in 2002. After I decided back then not to pursue that prospectus I got rid of the copies I had of it. Seeing my recent post on that prospectus, my brother sent me an email with a draft of that prospectus attached. It turned out I had sent it to him back then and he now found it in an archive he kept from that time.

The prospectus is here.

December 12, 2014

What is a Dissertation?

The first time I was a teaching assistant was in the Fall of 2001 for Warren Goldfarb's course on the Later Wittgenstein. The experience blew my mind.

At Cornell a few years earlier I had tried to write a senior thesis with Sydney Shoemaker on Kripke's interpretation of Wittgenstein's private language argument. Like my essay on Quine, the senior thesis didn't make it to completion, as I abandoned it after the Fall semester. I couldn't put my finger on it, but something about Kripke's reading seemed off, as if it almost willfully ignored Wittgenstein's meta-philosophy and his mode of writing. Combining what I liked about Wittgenstein with engaging with Kripke's text seemed too hard at the time.

My first year at Harvard was Hilary Putnam's last year before retirement, and Stanley Cavell was retired, though still teaching once in a while. As it happened, Harvard was the only graduate program I had gotten into, but I felt it was the best choice for me as I was excited to take courses with Putnam and Cavell. The excitement soon wore off. In my first year I audited a course on Wittgenstein being given by Putnam, and there was no syllabus to speak of other than a list of topics Putnam had written down on a piece of paper. It soon became clear the course was more on Putnam than on Wittgenstein, and that too with Putnam mostly speaking off the top of his head. There were the usual oppositions of how Kripke was wrong and Cora Diamond was amazing, but it didn't seem to me much insight was being generated as much as generalizations being drawn in broad strokes of who is misguided and who is deep. I dropped the course after a few weeks.

In my second year Cavell was offering a course on, if I recall correctly, Austin and Derrida. I was excited to audit the class. But when I started attending the class, the feeling I was mostly left with was that what was happening in the class was passé. In one of the early weeks, at the beginning of the class, Cavell described how when he was a graduate student at Harvard one day he got a call out of the blue with a job offer from Berkeley. He took it, and several years later while at Berkeley, he again got a call out of the blue with a tenured offer from Harvard. He took it again. He said he had never had a job interview in his life, and that perhaps that kind of freedom was essential to do the kind of work he does. To the class filled mostly with graduate students from philosophy, literature and other departments, he offered a somewhat sympathetic sigh and wondered what his career might have been if he was a graduate student now. It seemed to me that the graduate students listened to Cavell's job trajectory, how it happened, with disbelief, as if we were watching a mermaid come to shore. Some seemed to find Cavell's bemoaning the current state of affairs heroic. I found it evasive. If his kind of philosophy could only be done with the freedom he was given, what were the rest of us supposed to do? Since he was silent on this question, it seemed to me he was basically saying: "Tough luck." Soon I stopped auditing the course.

Against this background, being a teaching assistant for Goldfarb's course was a revelation. Cleared of all the clutter and hand waving which Putnam and Cavell seemed to do in class, Goldfarb gave meticulous, pointed, crisp lectures. (You can listen to a talk by Goldfarb here to get a sense for his lectures.) Goldfarb seemed to bring the precision of a logician to a text as unruly as the Investigations without, unlike Kripke, ignoring Wittgenstein's metaphilosophy. If anything, the main thing that excited me about Goldfarb's lectures was how, like Cavell, he insisted on taking the mode of writing of the Investigations seriously. Why was this paragraph next to that paragraph? Why did Wittgenstein write as he did rather than in an essay form? Goldfarb seemed to take these questions seriously, and he integrated them seamlessly into questions of what Wittgenstein believed, or didn't believe, or refused to believe, or allowed himself to believe, on topics such as consciousness, rule following and reference. Goldfarb's Wittgenstein class was the first time I remember feeling I really belonged in academic philosophy.
 
Which is not to say I completely agreed with Goldfarb or followed him to a tee. No doubt one of the reasons I enjoyed the class was that, being the first time I was a teaching assistant, it was the first time I got to get in front of a bunch of people and in sections express what I thought. If I was simply a student I might have been disgruntled by the overly analytic focus of the course. But as a teaching assistant I was able to integrate into the sections things which I felt were important, probably in a way which Goldfarb himself would have deemed misguided. Whereas Goldfarb connected Wittgenstein in the standard way to Frege, Russell and Moore, in section I gave myself the freedom to think out loud about how Wittgenstein connected to Socrates, Kierkegaard or Heidegger. Whereas Goldfarb seemed to ignore Wittgenstein's ascetic life style, I raised questions in section of how Wittgenstein sought to live his life and what he made of academia and philosophy professors. At the time I used to walk around with a small copy of the Tao Te Ching in my pocket, and I remember in one section opening the Tao and connecting it to something Wittgenstein was saying his text. This might seem disconnected from discussions of mind, meaning and rule following. But what was amazing was how easily with Wittgenstein one could go from talking about the Augustinian conception of language to talking about the human condition. Allowing Wittgenstein's mode of writing to be taken seriously was a breath of fresh air, and it seemed to open everything up. It was glorious.

December 3, 2014

Stepping into the Future

I left academic philosophy three and a half years ago in order to pursue philosophy from outside academia. I started this blog two months ago in order to think through in a public way what philosophy from outside academia can look like.

But much of my thinking of the last three years, like much of my writing on this blog so far, has been focused on academic philosophy and its current limitations. Though I want to think about the possibilities outside academia, I keep coming back over and over again to what currently feels impossible within academia. Why is this?

It is because even though I am out of academia, I can feel how much of a grip academia has on my mind. On my habits of thought. On my sense of myself and who I see as my interlocutors. I crossed the line. Stepped over the abyss. I am here now outside academia. It's been three years, but the shock of finding myself on this side of the line is still vivid for me. A part of me asks myself, "What I am doing here? Shouldn't I be over there, with them, the professors? Wasn't I one of them? Shouldn't I still be one of them?" In the last year I have regularly read the philosophy blogs - DailyNous, Feminist Philosophers, NewApps, Leiter Reports, Digressions and Impressions, Up@Night, Philosophymetablog - and I imagine I am still talking to them, that perhaps I haven't really crossed the line, that maybe the line doesn't matter.

But, of course, it does matter. It is one thing to blog about improving academic philosophy from within. Even the harshest such critic is committed to improving it form within. This means what that person is helping build is something they are already a part of, and so even their criticism is a part of something constructive. But if one is outside of academia, in a day to day sense one is not a part of something constructive in the same way. For me, academia is in the rear view mirror, and no matter how much my blogging might contribute to improving academia, it doesn't have the feeling of improving structures within which I currently exist.

It is intrinsic to training to be an academic philosopher that one feels that it is within academic philosophy that the future of philosophy lies. I want to start accepting a basic fact: I left academic philosophy because I don't believe this anymore. I believe rather that the future of philosophy is outside academia. 

When I imagine the future, I see a strong, diverse institution of academic philosophy. But I see that future is only made possible by there being even stronger structures of non-academic philosophy. I sense within myself that academic philosophy, left to itself, will collapse into itself. It is trapped within academic structures which, more and more, will become part of the day to day hub of life, not set apart from everyday society, but at the very center of it. And this will happen not because academia is selling its soul, but because in an information and technological society, academia cannot stand part from society, but must be at its heart. But this comes at a cost. And that is that the contrarian, gadfly vocation of philosophy will become harder and harder to flourish within academia. The specialization of academic philosophy is just the beginning of this. Over time more and more people will leave academic philosophy, not only because the jobs will diminish, but because people's desire to think for themselves will find an outlet only outside academia.

I don't bemoan this future, or the difficulties academic philosophy is going to have in the future. It will get worse before it gets better. But it is necessary. As it is now, academic philosophy in America is insular, Eurocentric and disconnected from most of society. The idea that changes will happen in due course from within itself is an illusion, a fantasy. Why should I still be beholden to that fantasy when academic philosophy makes clear over and over again that it cares so little for my experiences in academia? Should I fight to get recognized in academic philosophy, to be taken seriously, only to meet the same blinkered look of indifference time and time again? No. Not me. I prefer venturing out of academia, and helping to create new communities, new structures, ones which are not so beholden to the past, not so weighed down by history and momentum. Academic philosophy is the past. The future lies out there, beyond all current institutions.

November 30, 2014

Poses of Rebellion

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.

November 27, 2014

2014 PGR Phil Mind Evaluators

For the 2014 PGR philosophy of mind rankings, there are 42 evaluators. Of these, in a colloquial sense, 34 are white men, 5 white women, and 3 minority men. 0 African-Americans. 0 minority women.


Does it matter what the breakdown of the evaluators is? If so, how does it matter? Here are some options.

1) It doesn't matter in any way. The rankings are meant to track which departments are best for philosophy of mind, and all that matters is whether the rankings track the right content. The skin color, race or gender of the evaluators is irrelevant to that.

2) It doesn't matter philosophically, but it matters non-philosophically. The lack of diversity in the evaluators doesn't impugn the rankings, since the rankings only capture what is relevant to philosophical content. But sociologically speaking, it matters that mainly white males are in the position of judging where the best philosophy of mind is happening. To be able to evaluate is a privilege and it would be better if that privilege was more distributed.

3) It matters philosophically. The lack of diversity in the evaluators brings into question the philosophy itself that they are evaluating. It suggests that the conception of philosophy of mind the rankings is tracking is implictly, and unintentionally, reaffirming structures which make it hard for women and minorities to thrive in the philosophy profession. The philosophy of mind content assumed by the evaluators is not independent of problematic institutional structures, and the rankings' implication that it is tracking pure philosophical content independent of issues of race or gender is an illusion which perpetuates the problematic structures.

I believe (3). Understanding what it means and why it might be true requires more careful thought than can be done in one blog post. In order to elaborate on it and think it through more, on this blog I will keep coming back to this theme from time to time.

November 26, 2014

"The Barbarians at the Gates"

In a previous post I considered the idea of institutional gluttony in academic philosophy by reference to Brian Leiter. But in order to see the wider structures of institutional gluttony, we need to look beyond any one individual. We need to see how similar moves take place in different contexts among different philosophers.

Consider, for instance, MM McCabe's talk on the event of her retirement from the philosophy department at King's College London (it begins at 9:00 in the video below). The speech is an impassioned plea for academics to resist the commercialization being "imposed" on them by academic administrators. McCabe exudes moral indignation in every phrase and gesture, as if barely able to contain her righteous anger against those who are seeking to destroy academia, and thereby to destroy civilization itself. It is a powerful performance. Honest. Passionate. Yet, in the end, a bit hollow. For it is a performance of institutional gluttony, which can beget nothing other than more gluttony, both from those she sees as her allies and her opponents.




At the heart of McCabe's argument is a simple idea: Just as Socrates was killed by the Athenians, so too academic administrators who are giving in to market forces are killing academia. McCabe articulates this idea in some choice language:
"[Socrates] confers a public good in allowing the Athenians to understand just how much they don't know. To develop critical reflection of what they think and do, and to make dissent possible and politically functional. The barbarians were at the gates then and for this the historical Socrates was executed by poison in 399 BC. As we defend ourselves from the barbarians now, we might think why Socrates thinks these conversations [i.e. philosophy] matter so much."(At 13:10)  
The key move in this line of thought is one which McCabe hardly highlights. And this is the assumption that contemporary academic philosophers are doing what Socrates did 2,500 years ago. It is this idea of the similarity between Socrates and current philosophy professors that fuels McCabe's indignation. What is at stake is not just her vision of academia, but rather the very history and meaning of philosophy, since what is happening now is a reenactment of what happened with Socrates. Back then the Athenians gave Socrates the hemlock. Now the administrators and the know nothing business suits controlling the finances are giving the hemlock to the philosophy profession. She is putting the question to her colleagues, They killed Socrates then. Are we going to let it happen again?

At first sight, this is a strange argument, for the differences between Socrates and philosophy professors seem all too obvious. After all, it wasn't Socrates' profession to go around questioning Athenians. Nor did he expect people to come to his classes in order to learn from him. Whether or not one takes it at face value, Socrates claimed to not know anything and that he was asking questions so that he could learn; hardly a form of conversation that we see philosophy professors engaging with their students, and even less so when they step out of their classrooms. Moreover, at least as depicted by Plato, when he says to the Athenians that their putting him to death will harm them more than him, he seems to mean this. The wrongness of killing Socrates isn't mainly that it harms Socrates, and so Socrates doesn't speak from moral indignation. And yet, that is the main tone taken by McCabe, as if her and her kind are being oppressed by the barbarians. Would Socrates have given the speech McCabe did? Seems unlikely.

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.


November 17, 2014

The Magical Water

It is a Friday night in the spring of my sophomore year in college, a few months after my struggles with writing the essay on "On What There Is." There is a bustling energy through the campus which signifies it is time for a break from studying, and for new friendships and experiences to be discovered. As I walk through Collegetown, I am aware of my usual voyueristic curiosity about the students who are dressed up for the night, who move in groups with a laughing rebelliousness and who seem set to penerate that night into some mystery at the heart of being social creatures. I circle through the streets, seeing if there might be a space where I can park myself, and eventually leave Collegetown. A part of me wishes that I could just go to my room and sleep, but I live in an attic room in a house near the center of Collegetown, and it feels too painful to accept being alone for the night; going to my room so soon, when others are just heading out into the world, evokes in me a feeling of failure which I would like to keep at arm’s length for a little longer.

Sensing the youthful energy receding into the distance behind me, I start to walk back towards Uris, the undergraduate library which is my second home and which is near the main academic quad. I usually spend my free time there watching two or three movies at a stretch, a form of binging on American culture. But this night I don’t feel like watching a movie, as if even that reenforces for me my disconnect from the people around me. So I walk past Uris and turn towards one of the gorges which surround the campus and give it a pristine, natural beauty. I walk on a nature trial under the moon light. What am I thinking about? Nothing in particular: perhaps the scene at Collegetown, or the argument about moral objectivity we discussed in class, or what I am doing here in Ithaca and what it means. There are no particular thoughts I hold to. It is more the feeling of being I am having which captivates my attention; the feeling of walking in the wilderness seperated from all people, all life and all civilization; the feeling of being draw into the essence of the world and finding myself there alone and forlorn.

As I walk I come to a suspension bridge and walk across it lost within my own feeling of myself. There is no one else around, and I position myself at the center of the bridge and stare out at the nature around me. I look down to see the moving water, so serene and peaceful, so fluid and sure of itself. The water – what is its relation to Collegetown or to discussions of moral objectivity? What is its relation even to Ithaca and to the very land it flows over? It flows on the land, but it appears to me magical, as if it were really flying over the land, unhindered by the obstacles of the rocks here or the crevices there. And still it moves on. Still it continues. Endlessly, without hesistation and without pause.

Slowly, and as if there was starting to be a magnetic field enveloping me at one end and the water at the other end, my attention begins to be drawn to the water as it is flowing underneath me, and I start to sense that the water is not in a different world from me but that it and I are connected: I am standing a few hundred feet above it. What does it mean that I am in the same physical space as it? That I am just a little above it? As I stare more and more the flowing water seems more and more beautiful, more and more alluring, and that in fact it is not at all a distant, selfish water. It is an open, giving, welcoming water which is happy to share its peace and joy with anyone who comes to it humbly as a friend. The water offers solace to any soul, no matter how much of a failure they might feel like, no matter how much they might seem lost in the human world. I stand entranced: the magnetic field between me and the water seems to be gaining power as it merges with the gravitational field between me and it, and the water seems to me to become grander than anything I have seen in my life before. Within the water I see the course of human history and the struggles of people of all backgrounds, and that even all of that pain is borne by the water with an ease which is mezmerizing and awe-inspiring. “Really Water, have you been here since the beginning of time? Can you accept all that pain and still move on with the same fluidity and grace? Can that be possible?”

November 15, 2014

Institutional Gluttony

There is a skill which I value tremendously, which I wish I possessed more and which I think is essential for the world becoming a better place. I will call this skill critical institutional self-awareness.

A person who has this skill possesses an awareness of how the very institutions one belongs to are perpetuating conflict and violence in the world, even as one is aware that this is a feature of all institutions and that one always lives within some institutional structures or the other. A person with critical institutional self-awareness is someone who sees that the way to change the world is to start from the institutions one is a part of and to thereby enable the ripple effects that would have in the broader society. Such a person develops a healthy detachment from the institutions one is a part of, so that they are able to see the contingencies of oneself being in this or that institutional structures, and is able to view all institutional structures with an equally critical gaze.

Someone who lacks critical institutional self-awareness is an institutional glutton. For this person the institution one belongs to and with which one identifies is the light of the world, the best of the best, the hope of humankind, the only pearl in the midst of general decay and backwardness. The institutional glutton transposes right and wrong onto existing institutional structures, and identifies the institution one belongs to as the beacon of the right and "opposing" institutions as the army of the wicked. He thereby treats institutional fights as the necessary and inevitable way for the right to defeat the wrong. He identifies himself, his well being, the well being of those close to him, and in fact the well being of the world as a whole with the well being of the particular institutional structures he belongs to. For the institutional glutton there is no divide between where he ends and the institution begins, so deeply as he merged his own will with that of the institution, assuming that thereby he is morphing his individual identity into that of something greater and steadfast and eternal. Of course, all that is needed for  the world to remain perpetually at war is for there to be institutional gluttons identifying with different institutions set against each other.

Institutional gluttony is all around us, and everyone partakes of it in some fashion or the other. But some people are so gluttonous that they stand out as examples of what we should avoid. And some kind of institutional gluttony is particularly ironic, as when one is a glutton regarding institutions which trumpet precisely the virtues of overcoming institutional gluttony. A church inquisitor, such as Bernado Gui as depicted in The Name of the Rose, is an example of this. Gui sees the world divided into the Church he is protecting and the heathens he is trying to conquer, and yet at the root of the Church is a figure, Christ, who never belonged to any institutions and who in fact argued that institutional gluttony is the primary vice which keeps us locked in battle against each other. In this sense, one can naturally say that Bernado Gui is not really a Christian. For all the things he upholds of Christianity, in an important way he has misunderstood the core value of the institution he is fighting for.

Brian Leiter is the Bernado Gui of the philosophy profession, and a prominent institutional glutton of academia in general. If philosophy is a way of cultivating critical institutional self-awareness and so a way of fighting one's own tendencies towards institutional gluttony, then Leiter is not a philosopher. There is no big paradox in what I mean by this: Leiter is not a philosopher just in the way that someone like Gui is not a Christian. This isn't to deny that Leiter is a philosopher of law or a Nietzsche scholar, anymore than one can deny that Gui was a Christian in that he was a Bishop and a member of the Church. But it is to say that aside from the job or the social identity Leiter has as a philosopher, he is not a philosopher in the more colloquial sense of someone who aims to rid oneself of institutional gluttony. To the contrary, Leiter doubles down on the gluttony, almost as if he is proud of it and as if to try to be a philosopher in the more colloquial sense, other than the merely professional sense, is a delusion of the masses. The way that Dostoevsky's Grand Inquisitor says that the stuff about Christ is all well and good for the masses, but when the rubber hits the road, what really matters is keeping the Church going.

November 14, 2014

Money

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.

November 11, 2014

1979 and 2014

In a previous post I suggested that discussion of the PGR is best seen in the context of changes in the profession from the 70s which lead to the current institutional structures for job placement. Prior to the 70s, for the most part job placement happened through personal connections one's advisors had. This started to be replaced in the 70s by a "neutral" system of applying for jobs.

A positive of this new system was that presumably anyone could apply for any jobs and so the profession became more open. A downside of this new system was that the departments which controlled the institutional structure which oversaw the job placement process - namely, the American Philosophical Association (APA) - had a built in advantage when it came to placing their graduate students. If the APA positions and meetings were dominated by philosophers at Princeton, Pittsburgh and Berkeley, then it would suggest, or reinforce the idea, that those were the best departments in the country, and that their graduate students were the best candidates on the job market. Naturally, departments which were not well represented at the APA would see their lack of inclusion as cause of concern, and worry that their mode of philosophy and their graduate students were being marginalized under the very rubric of "neutrality" which was being used by other departments to position themselves as the best.

It is amazing how similar this is to the current issues regarding plurality and the PGR. The main thing that has changed in the past 35 years is that whereas in 1979 the locus of the "neutral" evaluation of the profession was a physical organization (the APA), now in 2014 it is an online organization (the PGR). But the concerns regarding insularism and lack of plurality in the self-representation of the profession, especially as concerns the institutional structures most closely connected to the job market, are strikingly the same. 

In this light, Chapter 8 of Neil Gross's Richard Rorty: The Making of an American Philosopher (published in 2008) is very interesting. Gross describes how in 1979, when Rorty was president of the Eastern APA, tensions regarding power dynamics in the APA came to a head at the eastern division meeting. Here are some snippets from that chapter:
"Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature was a successful and controversial book almost as soon as it was published. In 1979, however, the year of its release, the main controversy to occupy Rorty’s attention involved not the book but the APA. The year before, Rorty had been elected president of the prestigious Eastern Division of the Association, a testament to his standing in the profession. No sooner did he take the helm than he found himself embroiled in a major challenge to the APA’s leadership: the so-called pluralist revolt. The pluralist revolt centered around the demand of nonanalytic philosophers that analysts relinquish their control of the APA and allow philosophers associated with other intellectual orientations and traditions the chance to serve in leadership capacities and present papers at the organization’s annual meetings. These demands were not without justification." 
"Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, graduate departments where analysts predominated ranked highest on reputational surveys, journals devoted to analytic work were the most well regarded, and nonanalysts felt looked down upon by their analytic colleagues. Analysts parlayed their intellectual influence into control over the APA. Between 1960 and 1979, nearly all the presidents of the Eastern Division were analytic philosophers. Because analysts held top positions in the APA, they could appropriate for themselves one of the organization’s key resources—slots for papers at the annual meetings. In a report drafted in 1979, Rorty observed that 'many ‘non-analytic’ people feel that the chances of their papers getting on the program are so small that they don’t bother to submit them. . . . Some such feelings may be exaggerated. But I don’t think all such feelings are. . . . [Analytic philosophers], who make up most of the membership of the Program Committees, tend to have . . . suspicions about Whiteheadians, Deweyans, or phenomenologists, not to mention bright young admirers of Deleuze or Gadamer.'"

November 9, 2014

PGR's Supposed Altruism

The main defense of the Philosophical Gourmet Report (PGR) is that it helps students. But which students does it help? And how does it help them?

Does PGR help all students of philosophy? There are at least three groups of students PGR does not help.

1. Given that PGR has limitations in the forms of philosophy that it evaluates, PGR does not help students who want to pursue graduate studies in those forms of philosophy. For example, if you want to study Latin American philosophy, PGR would not be much help to you.

2. Even assuming that a prospective student is interested in the kinds of philosophy evaluated in PGR, it is not much help to students who do not get into the ranked programs for graduate school. If you are a graduate student at an unranked program, you might benefit from PGR in knowing who some people think are the best philosophers in this or that sub-field. But there is no way to have this benefit without the implication that you, in virtue at being at an unranked programs, are not getting educated by the best philosophers. Hence, in order for a student at an unranked program to benefit from PGR, they have to disassociate from the department they are actually at, and be always mindful of where they are in the hierarchy. A student at an unranked department has to always have their heads tilted up to where the supreme scholars in the profession reside. No doubt for some students this kind of head titling doesn't feel bad, and can seem like nothing other than having standards, with the hope that one day they could be part of the elite group. But given that the majority of the students at the unranked programs can never be part of the limited positions in ranked programs, "standards" have the practical effect of making one feel second rate, and having to fight through that feeling in order to  thrive as a philosopher.

3. Even for students who are at ranked programs, PGR doesn't help them if they do not identify with PGR. Perhaps a student doesn't think philosophy can be neatly divided into sub-fields. Or perhaps they are ambivalent about whether philosophy departments can be ranked. Or they have worries about the ways that PGR might reinforce implicit biases. Here it is paternalistic to say that in spite of these students' own concerns, PGR is nonetheless of benefit to them.

It cannot be denied that PGR is of benefit to some students. People testify to this. But this cannot be taken as a blanket statement of how PGR helps, or can help, all students. In effect, PGR helps the students who want to do philosophy in the way that the editors, Board and evaluators of PGR think of philosophy. The phrase "PGR helps students" really means:  if you want to be like us, and like that we use these rankings a way to understand the profession, then this will be helpful to you

In a way, this is perfectly understandable. Some philosophers want to pass on how they conceive of the discipline to some students who are inclined to see the discipline that way. That is, PGR is the way that some philosophers pass on their image of philosophy to younger versions of themselves.

However, this is no defense at all against objections to PGR. Imagine someone defending racism by saying it is beneficial to some people and that those people deeply identify with, and are able to succeed within, it. Of course this would be true: young people who identify with racist structures will find racism is beneficial to them and they would be affronted with the idea of dismantling racist structures. But what does this tell us about whether one ought to support the structures themselves? Not much. Pointing to the younger generation is just a way of saying, When I was young I found it helpful, and, by Golly, I am a good person and I turned out well and I didn't do anything wrong, so the structures must be fine! It is a way of refusing to hear the objections to the structures by just saying, I was a good person when I was younger and liked these structures, I am still a good person, so they didn't corrupt me in any way, and so the structures must be good!

November 7, 2014

Placement Data

In order to better understand the departments ranked in the Philosophical Gourmet Report (PGR) and how they are connected to non-ranked departments, in the past few weeks I went to the placement webpages of PGR ranked departments and tabulated the information on those websites.

I broke down the placements into five categories: 
  • Tenure track positions at PGR departments ranked in the top 25 (including US, UK, Canada and Australia).
  • Tenure track positions at the other PGR ranked departments (25-75).
  • Tenure track positions at non-ranked departments (including research universities, liberal arts colleges, community colleges, departments in other countries and so on).
  • Non-tenure track positions (including visiting assistant professors, adjunts, lecturers, post-docs and so on).
  • Positions outside of academic philosophy.

A few notes:

1) I am not as familiar with how positions are categorized in other countries, and so I focused only on the placements of the fifty ranked programs in the US.

2) For a given student as listed on a placement webpage, I only counted the "highest" position they had. So if a person first had an adjunct position and then two years later had a tenure-track position, for that person I only counted the tenure-track position. If the person went from a non-ranked tenure track position to a ranked tenure-track position, I only counted the latter. And so on.

3) The information provided on departments' placement webpages differ greatly in terms of how many years back they go. Some go just 5-10 years back, and others go 30 years back. So what is tabulated are not all of the placements made by these departments, but rather just what they have listed on their placement webpage.

4) My sense is that departments are often adding or otherwise changing information to the placement pages. So what follows is based just on the data on departments' webpages in October 2014.

The main fact that jumps out from the data is that only 13% of the graduates from US PGR ranked programs obtained tenure track positions in PGR ranked programs. Meaning that in order to place their graduate students in jobs, the ranked departments are undeniably dependent on the unranked programs. Not just a little dependent, but mostly dependent.

Overall on the US ranked departments' placement websites there were 3,573 placements listed. 217 got TT positions in the top 25. 256 got TT positions in the other ranked programs. 1,772 got TT positions in unranked programs. 936 got non-TT positions. And 392 pursed non-academic philosophy positions.

In terms of percentages, it is as follows.


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.

October 29, 2014

What is Being?

In my sophomore year at Cornell in the Fall of 1996 I took a class with Zoltan Szabo on the philosophy of math. For the final essay in the class I decided to write on Quine's classic paper "On What There Is". As with any normal essay, the topic was straight-forward: explain Quine's view, state what I think, consider an objection to my view and respond. 10-15 pgs. But as I was working on my final paper, I found that I hit a wall. I just couldn't write it. I read Quine's paper over and over again, trying to figure out what I think. I felt I disagreed with Quine, but where in the essay exactly did I disagree? I wasn't able to pin down my objection, and after struggling for a few weeks, and as the deadline to hand in the essay approached, I went to Szabo's office hours to talk to him.

Feeling defeated, I told Szabo that I wasn't able to write the paper, that I won't be handing it in, and that I was willing to take an F for the course. Thinking that my decision to not hand in a paper seemed extreme, Szabo was trying to see what the matter was exactly. And then suddenly, to my own amazement and embarrassment, I started crying. Not just a few tears. But sobbing. Uncontrollably. Whatever it was I was struggling with in writing the paper finally broke through, and I gave vent to my utter exhaustion and, as I sensed it, my failure. In between my crying, I told Szabo that I thought Quine was wrong, but I just didn't know how to show it, and that it was all too hard.

Sensing that my emotional state seemed all out of proportion to writing an essay on ontological commitment, Szabo leaned forward, resting his arms on his knees, and asked me if I was ok. I was a sophomore, after all, new to college, and he seemed to think that maybe I was having problems adjusting to college. He asked me, "Did something happen with any of your friends? Did someone say anything?" A perfectly fine, understandable, sensitive question to ask in that situation. But upon hearing the question, I started crying more, harder. Szabo seemed to think that my crying must have a non-philosophical origin, something outside the realm of talking about Quine. It was that implication which pained me further and which made me cry harder. And which then, suddenly, made me angry. Bringing my tears to a stop, I sat up straight and said, "No, it's nothing like that. That's all fine." Puzzled by my angry response to his considerate question, it seemed to me Szabo didn't know what to do. He waited to see what I would say. Unsure what to do, I didn't say anything either.

After a minute or so, sensing that the emotional space which had suddenly opened had just as suddenly closed, Szabo said that there was no need for me to get an F since I had already done the other work for the course. I looked at him, as if to say please don't make me write this paper, I can't do it. He said that the paper could be mainly an exegesis of Quine with just a page or two of my thoughts at the end. Grateful for this suggestion, and thinking there might not be a better solution, I thanked him and left.

I ended up writing the essay. It was mostly exegetical, with me saying as little as possible of what I thought. When over the holidays I saw a B- for the course on my report card, I was grateful for what I felt to be Szabo's kindness. But deeper within me, the pain of not really writing the paper stayed with me. Why couldn't I write the essay? What happened? I couldn't say.

October 25, 2014

Yes, I was Addicted to "Leiter Reports"

Seeing this post on Brian Leiter's blog, I realized something: I have wasted so much of my life staring at that blog.

It feels embarrassing to say, but I see now there is no better way to put it: I was addicted to Leiter Reports. In grad school, as an assistant professor, and even after I left academia, I kept going back to that blog, over and over again. Unendingly. Unfailingly. Even when I felt upset by it, felt abused by it, felt powerless to say or do anything in response, I knew in the back of my mind that the next day or the next hour I would go back to it. Maybe the next time it would be a nicer experience. Maybe.

How silly of me, right? To be addicted to a blog. That too a professional blog. I must have pretty low self-confidence, right? Be pretty gullible? I must be a fool. A moron. A degenerate. There must be something wrong with me. I must be over-sensitive. Right?

No. Wrong.

And this is important to tell not primarily to Leiter. Or to his supporters. Or to the philosophy profession. But to myself of ten years ago. Five years ago. Even six months ago. To myself right now. Bharath, it's not your fault.

I don't remember the first time I read Leiter Reports. Must have been sometime in the early 2000s, more than a decade ago. But what I do remember is that I would go to the blog when I felt dissatisfied about how grad school was going. I often had bouts of feeling alienated from my classes and my dissertation. I would write a draft of a thesis chapter, my advisers would give comments, and I would stare at the draft as if it were written by someone else, as if it had nothing to do with me or my thoughts. I felt a general numbness, a general disinterestedness. I knew I was interested in philosophy, and yet that interest didn't seem to materialize into tangible achievements I identified with. Being distant from my own writing, I felt distant from professional activities as well. I felt stymied. That the way professional growth was defined in the normal, physical spaces of classes, conferences and departmental events wasn't working for me. But why not? I wasn't sure.

Enter a virtual space of philosophy. Something that didn't have many of the old triggers of the physical spaces. Something which seemed fresh and open with possibility. Where many of the old formalities were dropped, and a heady sense of possibility permeated from the screen. That was the way I was initially drawn into Leiter Reports. A new space. With new possibilities.

October 20, 2014

It's Not Just Implicit Bias

According to a recent study, African-Americans make up less than 1.5% of the people (faculty or graduate students) in U.S. philosophy departments. According to another report, there are only five black philosophers in faculty positions in England.

Why are there so few black academic philosophers?

There are three flat-footed options:

1) Academic philosophers are racist.

2) The ideas in academic philosophy are racist.

3) The structures of academic philosophy are racist.

None of these are quite right. At least in my experience, (1) is not true , not in an explicit, ordinary sense of racism. In fact, many white academic philosophers have enormous white guilt. [Note: this paragraph has been changed in response to helpful comments here and here.]

(2) suggests that academic philosophy is too rational and so is somehow basically white. That reasoning and logic as activities are themselves too white, kind of like ice hockey. Proponents of this view draw broad distinctions between reason and intuition, or the mind and the body, and claim that the intuition or bodyness of blacks (the complex rhythms of jazz, etc.) is disvalued by philosophy. Stated bluntly like this, (2) is absurd. It pegs non-whites into a permanent state of otherness and fails to recognize rationality as a mode of all human beings.

(3) says the problem is institutional, such as the hiring practices or the syllabi, which create a feedback loop. If blacks students don't see or read black philosophers, then they stay away or struggle to stay in academic philosophy. There is something to (3), but as stated it isn't enough. For it leads to the question: if neither philosophers nor the ideas they value are racist, why aren't they able to change the structures? It is funny to treat the structures as an independent force which are much stronger than the good will and ideals of the philosophers themselves. What makes the structures so resistant to change? More needs to be said than that in time, a few generations from now, it will all get resolved.

A sharper version of the original question is: Given that neither philosophers nor philosophy is racist, why are there so few black academic philosophers?

A popular answer, which has become prevalent recently, rests on the idea of implicit bias.

October 17, 2014

Function of the Analytic-Continental Divide

Imagine you are a philosophy professor in Europe in 1920. You have just been through a gut wrenching war. In your livelihood as a professor you emphasize the power of rational discussion, but you have also just witnessed a war which almost obliterated the world. How do you reconcile your job as a philosopher with the horror of the war?

You have three options.
1) You can say that philosophy failed in its task, that reasoning is nothing but a veneer over the underlying irrational impulses of humankind.

2) You can say that the war, for all its horror, was rational and perfectly reasonable, that this is what reason in action looks like.
3) You can say that it is not philosophy in general that failed, but a particular kind of philosophy, the kind which is irresponsible and horrible, and which you will fight to overcome.