Why The Leiter Report’s Professional Academic Philosophy Rankings Are Misguided, Misleading, And Mistaken.
An edgy essay by Matthew Andersson
Genuine philosophical problems are always rooted in urgent problems outside philosophy, and they die if these roots decay (Karl Popper, Conjectures and Refutations)
Philosophy itself never begins anything. This beginning has already happened elsewhere. That is why the theme of the beginning, seen purely and simply from within the realm of philosophy, provides us with a false window. Not only is there no strictly philosophical beginning, except precisely from an idealist viewpoint, but a materialist philosophy must also accept the fact that its beginning has already occurred elsewhere, in practices that lie outside it. (Alain Badiou, Logics of Worlds: Being and Event)
To practice philosophy, then, is a matter not just of inventing concepts with demonstrative rigor but of drawing lines of demarcation and taking a stand, particularly by means of theses. A thesis, as position, can be just or deviated, but it is never exactly true or false. There are no real mistakes in philosophy because its propositions are never strictly theoretical but theoretical and practical at the same time. (Alain Badiou, Logics of Worlds)
Philosophy long sought to set knowledge on a firm foundation, through derivation of indubitable truths by infallible rules. For want of such truths and rules, the enterprise foundered. Certainty is not to be had. Nevertheless, foundationalism’s heirs continue their forebears’ quest, seeking security against epistemic misfortune. Their detractors typically espouse unbridled coherentism or a facile cultural relativism. Neither stance is tenable. To devise a via media between the absolute and the arbitrary requires reconceiving the nature, goals, and methods of epistemology. ‘Considered Judgment’ develops and argues for a reconception that takes reflective equilibrium as the standard of rational acceptability. A system of thought is in reflective equilibrium when its components are reasonable in light of one another, and the account they comprise is reasonable in light of our antecedent convictions about the subject at hand. Such a system affords no guarantees. It is rationally acceptable, I contend, not because it is certainly true but because it is reasonable in the epistemic circumstances. Such a position forsakes the goals of certainty and permanent credibility. Those goals cannot, in any case, be met. Many epistemologists now concede that certainty is a chimerical goal. But they continue to accept the traditional conception of epistemology’s problematic. For them, the question remains how to justify literal, factual beliefs. I suggest that in abandoning the quest for certainty we gain opportunities for a broader epistemological purview — one that comprehends the arts and does justice to the sciences. The position I advocate thus recognizes that metaphor, fiction, emotion, and exemplification often advance understanding in science as well as in art. The range of epistemology turns out to be broader and more variegated than is usually recognized. Tenable systems of thought are neither absolute nor arbitrary. But even though they are subject to revision, they are good in the way of belief. (Catherine Elgin, Introduction to Considered Judgment)
Philosophy has a very long history, so long, and with contributions by so many indisputable world-historical geniuses, that anyone serious about philosophy has to ask: Why no progress? We have instead, still, after two thousand years, no consensus, various camps and schools, and extremely unusual geographical categorizations (“European” or “Continental” versus “Anglo-American”) more appropriate to food than to any common and distinctive search for knowledge. (Robert Pippin, Interanimations: Receiving Modern German Philosophy)
(1) A Précis For Busy Readers[i]
Contemporary professional academic philosophy is in fact a commodity, and therefore it cannot be ordinally ranked. More precisely, contemporary professional philosophy is an undifferentiated academic system that rankings try to differentiate. But any such rankings are nothing but artificially-sustaining peer judgments for suppressed purposes that guarantee the perpetuation of closed academic-institutional labor markets functioning as effective trusts that in turn are deemed influential to professional and cultural reinforcement, as defined by tenured senior faculty all trained in Analytic philosophy, working in an implicit or explicit consensus. Rankings are based on peer perceptions involving institutional counter-party research interest areas, and consensus judgements as to their impact within professional academic society. In other words, rankings inherently sustain academic institutionalism through their resultant faculty authority mythologies that highly influence student choice, and thereby also department intake, yield, and financialization. They are fundamentally, a demand-management tool borrowed from traditional business-economic scarcity and inventory concepts, that target perception, belief and choice, especially in creating simplified decision heuristics. Alternative, non-academic, arms-length external market employment opportunities exist for philosophy graduates, but they must be combined with other disciplines, such as psychology, mathematics, languages, marine science, business, literature, engineering, education, or law, for example. In other words, academic philosophy could and should be paired with other disciplines. According to this model, if you want to study philosophy at a university, you should first decide what other discipline and department you want to pair it with, and then from that second discipline, make your own assessments of institutional or other fit, and “rank” them accordingly. In this way, the forced rankings may thereby be inverted: Wyoming might outscore NYU. There are other complications, opportunities, and resultant effects flowing from radical higher education reform more broadly, including the dissolution of the current institutional and conceptual scaffolding[ii] altogether, via borderless philosophy, a form of real philosophy that critically undermines and also transcends contemporary professional academic philosophy, and thereby fundamentally discredits the latter’s ranking criteria and motivations alike.
Some things in life, like consensus opinions or purported reputations of people, objects and institutions, can make sense, or are more readily accepted, if you’re an “insider” to a particular industry, practice or profession: you will buy into your own industry’s culture, folklore, standards and assumptions. Usually these actual or implied hierarchies of status and prestige are taken seriously. Rarely are they deeply questioned, if they are questioned at all: Rolls Royce is an elite icon; Rolex doesn’t tell time, it tells history; Harvard is the most iconic university; or Fiji is the purest water. But when you “look under the hood” at a lot of these claims, they not only can produce disappointment, but they can be hilariously fraudulent and meaningless. So are the Brian-Leiter-created professional academic philosophy program rankings, aka The Philosophical Gourmet Report, aka The PGR, aka The Leiter Report (as opposed to Leiter’s own blog, aka Leiter Reports). Here’s why.[iii]
(3) The Concept Of Product And Service Hierarchy
Ordinal Rankings are used in many areas to signify quality. On-time performance of airlines is an example. The data are plentiful, objective and accurate. The Department of Transportation, as well as several consumer and industry groups maintain them, and they are openly distributed and easily verified. Rankings of restaurants is another example. The criteria include more objective ones like average wait time and pricing, to qualitative ones like service and food preparation. Car ratings are another example and include huge sample sizes, sophisticated survey methods and multi-party assessments that test and evaluate features, performance, costs, residual value and efficiency, among other parameters. In service versus product sectors, hospitals are subject to many different kinds of assessments, and develop very important reputations that effect their ability to attract patients, receive referrals from medical professionals, solicit new health care professionals as employees, and even manage their room and bed inventory not unlike a hotel.
In other services like education and technical training, survey methods are culled from a mix of consumer or student evaluations and include measurements of perception concerning teaching and communication effectiveness, the quality of facilities, applicability and the degree of a skill capture (say, a foreign language, software programming, or surgery methods), and of course preparation for professional exams such as accounting or the state law bar. Teachers and professors are also regularly ranked. Like most populations, it follows a fairly normal distribution: at each compressed tail are the outliers (incompetent on the left, and superstar on the right) with everybody else pretty much in the middle.
But in all the above examples, including education, your willingness to play along with the rankings game is based in part on your status as a buyer, or as someone making competitive judgments surrounding choice. You are also subject to a calculus of expected utility, or even payoffs. That includes in the case of education, even or especially for graduate school, expectations about employment, or employability (two separate things) and of course wages and lifetimes earnings potential.
In professional graduate schools such as law and business, the rankings are fairly meaningful but only in the context of specific applications, and, because they have a large network effect in employment. If you desire to work for a consulting firm or go to Wall Street, then one of America’s “elite” MBA programs (from West to East) are de rigueur: Stanford, Chicago, Wharton or Harvard. In law it’s the same line-up, plus Yale if you’re headed to the State Department. But all of what I just asserted is nonsense if you’re outside the consensus “beltway”; if you’re an entrepreneur or inventor; a business owner, a corporate raider, or an aspiring political revolutionary. And I would include the medical school ranking hierarchy, but in my view they’re a “cookbook” commodity and it makes no difference whether you studied in Costa Rica, Cuba, Canada or Cambridge. Law is a different problem: law schools are merely ABA bar exam prep centers with completely uniform, and externally governed and regulated curriculum that is mandated and identical. Moreover, American law schools are sold as “JD” programs, or a graduate credential, when in fact they are merely inflated undergraduate LLB degrees: does it really take seven years of college to write a sales contract or buy-sell agreement, but an undergraduate engineer can build an airliner, skyscraper, bridge, or nuclear power plant?.
(4) A Few More Thoughts on the Business School Model as a Philosophy Benchmark
As a brute matter of fact, theoretical philosophy as we know it is essentially a struggle with philosophical pictures. (Eugen Fischer, Philosophical Delusion and its Therapy: Outline of a Philosophical Revolution[iv])
The “rankings” culture is very deeply anchored in the freshman-parent calculus for undergraduate college admissions and selection, because it is an apperceptive activity centered in very strong life cycle and economic motivations, and also in social competitive terms defined by class hierarchy. Branding is not only an important adjunct but it is a carefully managed university corporate function. This might be argued as a classic American market success, and certainly the world-over is attracted to US universities and colleges.
The business school and the MBA degree program, both American inventions, are somewhat similar in pedigree; but more so, they may be instructive in understanding the particularly quizzical nature of ranking a philosophy department, and perhaps instructive as an organizational model. MBA programs naturally thrive on competitive rankings due to their cultural and curricular fit with market segmentation and of course, financial motivations: the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, long ranked in first place, is not only the entire “economic engine” of the larger university vis-à-vis intra-university transfer payments that subsidize the larger institution, but it also hosts several segmented degree formats (full-time, part-time, evening, weekend, executive) and several campuses (Chicago, London and Hong Kong) and several Centers (Paris, among others) and a large, highly organized alumni network and institutional infrastructure. But MBA (and undergraduate business ) rankings are also embedded in a large network effect of external factors and structural linkages in employment, and in confirming “evidence” and feedback from a wide range of constituents — students, professors, employers, investors, government, banks, major industry and US venture sectors.
There is another dynamic however, that may help explain the difference in ranking a business school versus ranking a philosophy department:[v] it is outward facing and “rooted” in external problems and opportunities (even law is a distant second in this regard as it is merely one functional adjunct to business, among many others). But a business school format does more: in its most central theoretical platform — economics — it constantly puts theory on trial.[vi]
Business schools also draw fundamentally on other disciplines — several of them — that make up what is known as an “MBA” program. These include economics, psychology, sociology, mathematics, computer science, advanced expository writing, law, history — and even philosophy of mind (perception and judgment) and ethics (organizational culture and design; business practice standards and others). In this way, an MBA program may be exactly what a “new” philosophy program should be: a node linked to several other disciplines, and externally facing in its discernment and engagement with problems and opportunities. This satisfies exactly the “full-utility model” I am suggesting –i.e., philosophy drawing on the larger university and related external issues–and it puts philosophy in an “equilibrium state” concerning intellectual growth, demand and inter-university supply.
Last, the business school model also depends heavily, especially in Chicago’s case, on a very wide, global opinion population concerning its most important underlying discipline: economics. And economics captures about as wide a swath of social, political, industrial and even existential considerations as one could fathom. Moreover, it is reinforced with a de-rigueur “ranking” consensus, The Nobel Prize: Chicago lines them up like trophies in a football club. Compared to contemporary philosophy departments, I do not believe any host even one Nobel Prize winner, or any consistent external recognition of invention, discovery or problem resolution, and with those, the “vital substrate” to problems outside philosophy proper. Philosophy has been stalled as a discipline, as both Pippin, and especially Hanna observe, because it is not engaged with actual, real problems that demand actual tangible solutions (for example, education policy) and so instead has become more an isolated factious discipline instead of a networked, interdependent practice. Is business an organizational “benchmark” model and opportunity?[vii]
Economics, much like philosophy, was, beginning in the later 18th century, largely political economy and moral philosophy (represented by Locke, Smith, Hume, Ricardo, Malthus, Mill and Marx) and developed into a much more “analytic” positivist practice (with Edgeworth, Jevons, Marshall, and various “schools” including Austrian, Stockholm, Keynesian and Chicago. But unlike philosophy generally, economics was constantly put into practice, generating data, and receiving feedback from applications outside its discipline proper (including, not infrequently from an unfortunate application to government policy). This helped, to some degree, the economics profession avoid a predicament asserted by Bertrand Russel: “The point of philosophy is to start with something so simple as not to seem worth stating, and to end with something so paradoxical that no one will believe it.” What I’m saying is that business schools are multi-disciplinary centers: there is no such thing as a “business professor.” They come from economics, psychology, sociology, mathematics, law, engineering or even English. Philosophy too must become “multi-disciplinary” by branching out to other disciplines, and like business, to other external problems. That gives it power both in its own domain (the vital substrate) and multi-lateral feedback from many other constituents which affect “real rankings” in a positive, more constructive way.
(5) So, What About Professional Academic Philosophy?
There are three moving parts to the problem (and the answer). First, you shouldn’t even study academic philosophy. By itself that is. In my experience, there really isn’t anything called “academic philosophy” that exists anymore, and that qualifies as a profession or research undertaking. All the applications have been subsumed by history, literature, science, law, business, psychology, economics, linguistics (and languages) and political science (with perhaps anthropology, divinity and sociology thrown in). Two, there aren’t otherwise any jobs. Real ones that is. Unless you care to pursue an academic teaching and/or so-called research career in a university academy (or college). Those are slim pickings and not terribly remunerative (but that shouldn’t stop you if your heart is set on it, and they will and should attract certain aspirants). Three, if you’re going to study professional philosophy proper, you can quite readily, and logically, combine it with some other discipline that actually “bakes bread”–unlike philosophy, as Novalis put it (“philosophy bakes no bread”), or at least unlike university philosophy, as Schopenhauer rightly pointed out, according to whom university philosophy is not only irrelevant but also bought-by, paid-for, and more generally mind-manacled to the government:
I am increasingly inclined to the view that it would be more beneficial for philosophy if it stopped being a trade and no longer appeared in civil life, represented by professors. It is a plant that, like alpine rose and edelweiss, thrives only in free mountain air, but gets out of control with artificial cultivation.
If that is the case, then the philosophy “ratings game” is completely upended and in that respect, re-defined on a proper basis (versus mere opinion or suppressed correlatives like academic-labor special interests). And rightly so.
(6) The Inherent Problem
But first, let me discuss briefly the inherent logical fallacy of the Leiter Report and other such reports. They do indeed follow a pretty organized methodology and are carefully tabulated and considered. But they are considered over all the wrong metrics, and often, over illusions. Without getting into a detailed, and unnecessary, line-item consideration of its methodology, let’s state that, at its core, these rankings are for the most part, based on peer perceptions involving institutional counter-party research interest areas; consensus judgements as to their impact within academic society; and some opinions as to the professional academic philosophy department’s overall configuration concerning staffing, facilities, budget, and of course, as former University of Texas at Austin president Peter Flawn called it, “ The Widget Theory of Higher Education.” That is, its general production function of degrees, post-doc programs, publishing and conferences, and academic philosophy culture (such as catchy branding and marketing like “Analytic Kantianism,” identitarian/multi-culturalist philosophy, or solid allegiance to professional philosophy’s venerated traditions, like “Continental,” or “Classical,” or “German Idealism”). All of this is very interesting, humanistically important, can be very satisfying intellectually, and is even an awful lot of fun. But meaningless. Meaningless if you are looking to rankings to help guide your rational judgment and choice under uncertainty, or maximize your rational utility (or even quasi-rational discernments).
(7) Some Complications And Opportunities
So, what if professional academic philosophy were to be looked at, not as a pure stand-alone subject, but as a useful, even necessary, preparation, component or tool of a larger undertaking or discipline? Engineering is an example. It draws on mathematics from arithmetic and algebra to differential equations and finite mathematics like statistics and linear programing (and several other, not insignificant demands in natural science including especially physics and chemistry). So should academic philosophy be taken to be a professional discipline that’s essentially like the discipline of mathematics? Maybe even part of a “core” curriculum in general education foundations? Like mathematics, it is a tool; a mental discipline; a problem-solving aid; a way to communicate. But by itself, mathematics for example isn’t of much use outside pure research, and certain forms of modeling (and at a particular level, is really more philosophical than strictly mathematical per se). If mathematics isn’t your thing, then another good analogy is English composition. The number-one cited weakness in college graduates is their command of language, and their facility in writing. But a pure English degree has few uses, nor is it really necessary (some of the finest writers I ever encountered, outside literature, were statisticians).
So if you accept my argument that there is no longer any such discipline as professional academic philosophy, and that what does make up the corpus of professional philosophical thought is directly subject to Novalis’s and Schopenhauer’s critical assessment as an irrelevant, bought-and-paid-for, ideologically obedient enterprise, or infinitely better, could and should be combined with another discipline that actually bakes some bread, then what would the professional academic philosophy rankings look like then?
I’ll play along a bit with the ranking game and suggest that Yale’s new PhD in Philosophy and Psychology is the future (for PhDs anyway). The University of Edinburgh’s embedding of philosophy within a language, psychology and AI/robotics school, is also right-on. At Stanford, its symbolic systems options (linking computer science, psychology and linguistics), along with its at least nascent option to mix in several of its excellent engineering, science or professional school programs, makes it a leader in my view. The University of Chicago, one of the most storied academic philosophy departments in the world, can with some hustle and initiative, be more formally extended into its premier professional schools; its economics department; or its sciences (its link to law is good but not robust programmatically, and its law and economics tradition mostly innocuous, and under the influences of a single academic). That puts Chicago potentially in the lead pack as well. Harvard, no slouch in the academic philosophy tradition, is ripe to do the same, as is the University of Texas, Michigan, Illinois at Urbana Champaign, Berkeley, or Minnesota. None of these institutions are in the very top of Leiter’s rankings, however, but favored instead are some quizzical although certainly just fine institutions like NYU, or Rutgers. And his MA program recommendations are even more bizarre in my view, and by “bizarre” I mean strictly isolated assessments without consideration of any other discipline opportunities, and from that, any logical consideration of institutional strengths, weakness, or opportunities. He would just as likely send a young MA student to The College of Hopes and Dreams in Burbank, or The Tony Packo School of Amazing Hot Dogs in East Toledo, as long as it had a “famous” and tenured philosopher on staff.
A few like The College of New Jersey (Princeton) or MIT make his upper league list, but in Princeton’s case, its real reputation that he notionally draws on, is as an undergraduate institution, and in engineering for example, it doesn’t really rank compared to the engineering power schools. MIT is great and has all the necessary available links to other disciplines, but its philosophy department doesn’t really matter and their inclusion in his upper ranking, an effective statistical error otherwise. The same for Berkeley or Stanford: They happened to make Leiter’s list, but strictly through evaluation of professional academic philosophy departments, with no thought at all about the larger institution, while schools like Brown make his top 20, but Brown doesn’t compete really, outside the Humanities in much of anything (except identitarianism). Then he has a university like Minnesota ranked at 44, based again, strictly on an “inside baseball” peer review of one department, when its breadth and quality across all disciplines and professional schools is outstanding, and even its philosophy department, one of the few with a science pedigree, and a “full-service” menu.
But again, all the philosophy departments at all these schools really are not of any significant variance and therefore of any per se relevance (to most individuals contemplating them that is, and I want to reiterate that there is, and must be, a vital role for “real philosophy” and real-philosophical research — and who am I to say what anyone else does — but it is a pretty narrow functional opportunity for young adults trying to discern through The Leiter Report, et al, how to navigate a career). The Leiter Report is therefore in my educational model, very old, outdated, misleading, misguided, and mistaken counsel — and most of all it is unimaginative and profoundly Establishment. Part of a young philosopher’s ambition — a real philosopher — should be radical thinking, if not outright revolution; or as Ezra Pound put it, “the essential thing in a poet [read: real philosopher] is that he builds us his world.”
(8) Professional Academic Philosophy Departments Don’t Matter
Why do I say that? Because, as philosopher, author, Kant scholar and education entrepreneur Robert Hanna pointed out, no professional academic philosophy department has produced any new knowledge in almost half a century. Moreover, in my view, they are all doing nearly exactly the same things: the classics (Aristotle, Plato and Socrates with a few pre-Socratics thrown in, usually in conjunction with a Classics department); an Analytic survey, usually using an “old standby” like Alberto Coffa’s Semantic Tradition From Kant to Carnap; some Continental, usually heavily weighted in German Idealism (Hegel especially, and Kant to some extent, with Wittgenstein thrown in for good measure); a little bit of science (usually just physics); linguistics (with a linguistics department); a touch of existentialism, and maybe the French writers like Badiou or Ricoeur (with Comparative Literature, Divinity, and Political Science), and that’s about it (good luck finding American Pragmatism, probably the most important “philosophy” one could undertake in my view, but not surprising that the academy largely ignores it: Richard Rorty wonderfully describes that ideological bias in a 1996 New York Times, op-ed, “The Unpatriotic Academy”). There are also a few eccentrics, but I would consider them insufferable, such as the NYU’s Avital Ronell; and if he could perpetually cough, twitch and pull on his nose at the same time, Chicago’s Irad Kimhi could probably pass for Slavoj Žižek. But what else is there? I leave out the UK and German philosophy departments as they are very traditional; however, many could certainly expand (and some have) into paired degree programs. I also leave out Canada, whose higher education I particularly admire in general; and Australia, as I simply like the country too much.
So, since American professional academic philosophy departments are largely all doing the same things, and all of the same things aren’t producing anything new, then not only does academic philosophy logically “not matter” as far as any ordinal ranking, but it also doesn’t matter as far as career prospects, because they are currently isolated, by themselves, departmentally. After all, isn’t that exactly why Leiter, or anyone, even bothers to “rank” if not for careerism? If one’s educational philosophy, in contradistinction, were propter se ipsam appetenda sapientia, or “wisdom for its own sake” as Lupus Servatus asserted, then studying anything, anywhere, on your terms, would be ranked “Number 1,” including studying real philosophy outside the borders of academia (the Leiter rankings falsely imply rank economic payoffs, when none exist except to the extent that the Academy is a closed, internal labor market — but with one fundamental, problem: that market is more a small lottery — or occasional auction — with very unfavorable odds, rather than an open, arms-length free market of numerous buyers and sellers forming even a partial equilibrium through price discovery).
Back within those borders in the meantime, I would “rank” the University of Wyoming, Montana, Miami, or North Dakota for example, no less (in some cases higher) than, Rutgers, NYU, Princeton, Tufts, Harvard or Columbia, if you combine philosophy with another bread-baking discipline that has a particular strength (including for some, cultural) in those particular institutions.[viii] If a student wanted to combine environmental science, for example, with various areas of academic philosophy, Laramie or Coral Gables beats Cambridge or New York hands down. And moreover, when you graduate, then you will be in a much stronger position to become a real philosopher with your own authority and sovereignty, as opposed to being a mind-manacled lackey of the military-industrial-university-digital complex. As it were.
(9) To Sum Up
Since there is no longer any such thing as professional academic philosophy proper, then picking a university or college for any degree — undergrad, academic masters, PhD, or professional — is a matter of an utterly different calculus than The Leiter Report portrays. The PGR rankings are framed strictly within the perspective of academic philosophers thinking about professional academic philosophy, and academic philosophy careers, as per The Daily Nous and other card-carrying professional blogs. But professional, academic philosophy is probably the worst training ground imaginable for real philosophy and the real world of work alike. And in that world, “mens et manus” (mind and hand) or “learning and labor” are the vital substrate pairing, along with the opportunity to unite and unify them.
By pushing down to much more refined detail than just “academic philosophy,” you will find out what kind of university (or other arrangement even, outside it) is precisely the right fit: you can’t even stop at saying “Philosophy and Physics” for example, as there are many options depending on the area of physics you are interested in. And some are more applied, some more theoretical. The same would go for “Philosophy and Computer Science” as the nation’s leading CS departments like Illinois at Urbana or Texas at Austin, are differently focused and organized. In engineering, it gets even more detailed and the options wider (Purdue doesn’t “rank” in philosophy, but has outstanding engineering, so if you majored in combined civil engineering and with certain of its academic philosophy, you would not only be more employable, and qualify for the PE designation, but might even — for most, probably certainly — have a better basis for understanding philosophical problems). And if paired with the Humanities, including the performing and fine arts, the options explode: imagine studying philosophy and music at Johns Hopkins and its Peabody Conservatory, for example, or film studies and philosophy at Wesleyan (Connecticut). This draws on the true strengths of a university or college, rather than just one (very outdated) department, and also is radical and even revolutionary: by linking academic philosophy proper, as if it were more a mathematical or language tool, the very nature of that kind of philosophy is transformed, and transformed into what it should be: a more creative, especially problem-solving enterprise. And those problems are all outside professional philosophy and outside the walls of the university. Then professional academic philosophy as we know it, disappears, and with that, the walls of The Ivory Bunker that we have so mindlessly built up begin to crumble, the professional code of conduct we habitually obey begins to unwind and disentangle, and our true philosophical power is finally emancipated by borderless philosophy, which incorporates the truth of existentialism, and therefore also fully falls under Walter Kaufmann’s thumbnail sketch of the latter, slightly edited as follows:
The refusal to belong to any [professional academic] school of thought, the repudiation of the adequacy of any body of beliefs whatever [that is irrelevant, bought-and-paid-for, and ideologically obedient], and especially systems [that aren’t grounded in human rationality, human creativity, and human freedom] and a marked dissatisfaction with traditional [professional] philosophy as superficial, academic, and remote from life–that is the heart of existentialism [and borderless philosophy].
(10) Brief Curriculum Vitae, By Way of Full Disclosure
Matt Andersson is an aerospace entrepreneur, jet pilot, author, and management consultant. He is the Founder and former CEO of Indigo Airlines, backed by the American Express Corporation and McKinsey & Company, and worked in banking with Merrill Lynch, international strategic investments with AT&T and aerospace and defense consulting with Booz Allen Hamilton. He has been featured in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, The Economist, The Guardian, Fortune and Time Magazine, and also in the Pulitzer Prize winning reports on transportation by the Chicago Tribune. Since 2005 has been a regular contributing author to the peer-reviewed journal Issues in Aviation Law and Policy, published by DePaul University College of Law. He attended Yale College, the University of Texas at Austin, and the University of Chicago, where he received an MBA from the Graduate School of Business. And he loves borderless philosophy.
[i] Actually this essay isn’t essentially about the Leiter Report, per se: it’s about academic philosophy first, and only second and derivatively, the relevance of rankings. Throughout this essay I refer to a specific “species” of philosophy, known generally as “academic,” (as opposed to other institutions, formats or domains), and “professional” (as opposed to so-called amateur). Together the two adjectives may form the label “professional academic philosophy,” which means philosophy pursued by university or college professors (of various stripes), and can also signify others in that domain including graduate students, post-docs, and often though not always, adjuncts and lecturers. For a thorough discussion of this issue, including the public philosophy dimension, see Robert Hanna’s “How to Escape Irrelevance: Performance Philosophy, Public Philosophy, and Borderless Philosophy,” also available online, HERE. From my dual standpoint as a business and technology entrepreneur, and an “amateur” philosopher, Hanna has done more than any other recent philosopher (especially since Rorty, who only stuck one foot [or toe] in the water while keeping the other firmly and safely planted on shore) coherently to identify an institutional problem, and articulate and disseminate a fully-framed, developmental solution. I also subscribe (with some bias acknowledged) to the way historian Bruce Kuklick has reported and put into context, the nature of American philosophical development, in his classic A History of Philosophy in America: 1720–2000, especially the section “Speculative Thought in America: Innovative Amateurs.” Those two unique perspectives inform some key components of my view on the “philosophic enterprise.” Moreover, those perspectives, and my view, are also bound up with larger frictions (and opportunities) in higher education, and the nature of the modern university of which philosophy is one part. Readers may appreciate two current media viewpoints in this regard, that address structural challenges in university education. Some of the problems discussed in this essay may be partly relieved, but not inherently solved, by some reforms in higher education; see, e.g., my “The University Goes Corporate,” Chicago Maroon (7 June 2019), available online at URL = <https://www.chicagomaroon.com/article/2019/6/7/university-goes-corporate/>; and “Overhaul Likely Means Business as Usual at the University of Chicago,” Financial Times, available online at URL = <https://www.ft.com/content/2676282a-70f1-11e9-bf5c-6eeb837566c5>. The present essay formulates its argument partly within the framework of professional academic philosophy convention, while ultimately pointing outside its confines towards a structural, versus curricular, resolution. Otherwise, to paraphrase Hans-George Gadamer in his “Heidelberg Interview,” I prefer not to have to hit readers over the head with my argument: some consideration, imagination and of course criticism is necessary.
[ii] Here I’m thinking partly in reference to philosopher and evolutionary biologist William Wimsatt. See L. Caporael, J. Griesemer, and W. Wimsatt (eds.), Developing Scaffolds in Evolution, Culture and Cognition (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2014), especially Wimsatt’s chapter “Entrenchment and Scaffolding: An Architecture for a Theory of Cultural Change:”
Entrenched features commonly act as scaffolding (though scaffolding is not always entrenched), but in this case we see that the emergence of such a constructional or generative alphabet requires the coevolution of a number of other entities or processes that scaffold it. Such supporting structures and processes seem likely to be universal and necessary features of combinatorial generative systems — a paradigmatic instance of a heterogeneous and distributed hybrid structure. Thus the emergence of…interchangeable parts, required substantial changes in and the evolution of standards, and their use in a way that facilitated the production of parts made to the high standards required for interchangeability. These innovations propagated into other manufacturing sectors and spread a broader methodology of mass manufacture. This example provides a variety of instances of the reticulate complexity that accompanies the emergence of scaffolding in the production of an adaptive radiation of artifacts.
With some extension of Wimsatt’s argument, one could, in my view, be just as well discussing higher education, the modern university and professional academic philosophy industry (and it is an industry), especially in reference to University of Texas at Austin president Peter Flawn’s “Widget Theory of Higher Education,” available online, HERE.
[iii] I am not criticizing The Leiter Report, and others like them, because I disagree with their methodology per se. Nor do I have a “pony in the race” as a member of a less-favored-nation department. Nor do would I seek to re-order the rankings, or re-calibrate it (others have done that, for example: https://philosophyrankings.com/). Instead I am addressing more the nature — and distortions — of the professional academic philosophical enterprise, than ranking, which is resting on a flawed foundation and therefore ipso facto mistaken. My argument is that rankings currently don’t inherently (versus professionally or emotively) matter. But more, it doesn’t matter as a result of the more fundamental underlying mis-judgments of what philosophy even really is, beyond its enterprise configuration. In that regard, not in the content of the ordinal judgements, I find such advice to young adults (the primary audience) to be misguided (in intent); misleading (in lack of discernment and effective guidance); and mistaken (in expected utility). I also happen to find the PGR/Leiter Report and Leiter’s blog, or The Daily Nous, for example, to be more driven by a common opportunism in careerism and commercial ambitions (modest though they are) or a perpetuation of academic institutionalism, and in those regards, among others, there is a kind of problematic ethical posture from these rankings from what may be an effective breach in fiduciary responsibility to an impressionable audience. Moreover, as Leiter himself stated when the whole enterprise got underway decades ago, the ranking is centered in a purported judgment of tenured, senior faculty working in the Analytic tradition. In that regard, I view the rankings project as an effective labor trust, tenure lobby, or an AAUP marketing “PAC.” It is especially important moreover to student intake, yield, and finance that such faculty mythologies (or as Derrida might have said, the mystical foundations of authority) are created, sustained and reinforced. Rankings help do that (like Academy Awards get you to buy movie tickets). There is a standard-of-care issue otherwise in these rankings, if you accept my arguments in this essay, but that is more normative, ethical or moral, than structural, and certainly has no basis in common or civil law or even guideline professional conduct, although it would be an interesting exercise to entertain conformity to the AALS (American Association of Law Professors) ‘Law Professors in the Discharge of Ethical and Professional Responsibilities,’ as Leiter for example is a law professor. There is also a fascinating potential cause of action in antitrust from university marketing and labor collusion in ranking, admissions, and price discrimination, but I digress. Otherwise: Caveat emptor.
[iv] In some manner, I am generally suggesting in this essay that much professional academic philosophy, and within its institutional construct, a “rankings” concept, is, effectively a kind of philosophical mental illness flowing, in part, from “non-‐intentional analogical inferences” (Fischer, 30).
[v] –Which is obviously not a School, professional or academic, nor rarely a Center or an Institute even, with critical mass. Some Philosophy of Science (and Technology) centers may be a relative exception, such as Pittsburgh, Minnesota, Toronto, Cambridge and Edinburgh, or at least have some pedigree in earlier social, industrial or even State-military factors. In the US, those factors include Cold War competitive science and technology development motivations. See George Reich, How the Cold War Transformed Philosophy of Science: To the Icy Slopes of Logic (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2005).
[vi] Economics, much like philosophy, was, beginning in the later 18th century, largely political economy and moral philosophy (represented by Locke, Smith, Hume, Ricardo, Malthus, Mill and Marx) and developed into a much more “analytic” positivist practice (with Edgeworth, Jevons, Marshall, and various “schools” including Austrian, Stockholm, Keynesian, and Chicago). But unlike philosophy generally, economics was constantly put into practice, generating data, and receiving feedback from applications outside its discipline proper (including, not infrequently from an unfortunate application to government policy). This helped the economics profession, to some degree, to avoid the predicament described by Bertrand Russell: “The point of philosophy is to start with something so simple as not to seem worth stating, and to end with something so paradoxical that no one will believe it.”
[vii] What I’m saying is that business schools are multi-disciplinary centers: there is no such thing as a “business professor.” They come from economics, psychology, sociology, mathematics, law, engineering or even English. And from outside academia as well–adjunct business owners; entrepreneur lecturers, for example (the business school is more an open society. Imagine, by sharp contrast, an academic philosophy department hosting a non-academic philosophy researcher or lecturer–it is effectively unheard of in that closed society. Philosophy too must become “multi-disciplinary” by branching out to other disciplines, and like business, to other external problems. That gives it power both in its own domain (the vital substrate) and multi-lateral feedback from many other constituents, which affect “real rankings” in a positive, more constructive way.
[viii] Let me state it another way: if you want to study philosophy at a university, you should first decide what other discipline and department (or committee) you want to pair it with, and then from that second discipline — marine science, film and acting, psychology, business or law for example — make your own assessments of institutional or other fit, and “rank” accordingly. Academic philosophy is a commodity that rankings try to mask. Let me add one other interesting complication: knowledge delivery channels. That is, since nearly all philosophy professors publish their work, and teach from it, and since other universities use those same books and also teach from them; and since all course content is managed and delivered on-line, how can a “bordered” philosophy department actually stay bordered such that it can make claims to differentiation? (and the Internet has had two primary impacts: one on pedagogic methods of delivery and commodification, and the other on behavior. While the student’s body may be on campus, their minds are effectively wired into an ethernet, and their hands and fingers effectively cybernetically integrated into a computer and iPhone keyboard). This is like an airline telling you that their product is differentiated fundamentally, when in fact all airlines (read all academic philosophy departments) all sell their ticket through the same channel (admissions and the Internet); operate the same planes (classrooms) from the same airports (campuses) that travel in the same airspace (intellectual realm) and arrive at the same destination (a degree). Some may get you there faster: 3 years by a “British carrier” (Cambridge or the LSE for example), versus 8 years by “US flag carriers” (Harvard or Berkeley), but the ride is the same (bumpy); the seat is the same (cramped and uncomfortable, in student “steerage”); and the service sour and inefficient (university bureaucracy), all while the union pilots (professors) and co-pilots (associates) operate up front in comfort, and the company executives (college administrators) gather their salaries and rewards in their corner offices. This is why airlines spend so much money and effort on branding (and ranking): to persuade you to treat a commodity as a specialty. But this is also why every business that becomes a commodity is a public utility, or has flat low pricing. Some might argue in the context of the modern university (I do) that they are more commodities than differentiated services, and therefore there may not be any such thing as a private university (for financial reasons as well): and that progressive proposals for open, free higher education finds a certain logic. This is a separate issue from finding a paired discipline degree program with appropriate fit, but it also eventually points to why open, borderless philosophy is at least a conceptual inevitability in logic.
AGAINST PROFESSIONAL PHILOSOPHY REDUX 295
Mr Nemo, W, X, Y, & Z, Tuesday 9 July 2019
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