Why The Leiter Report’s Professional Academic Philosophy Rankings Are Misguided, Misleading, And Mistaken.

An edgy essay by Matthew Andersson

(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.

(2) Introduction

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.

(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])

(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:

(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).

(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.

(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.

(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.



Formerly Captain Nemo. A not-so-very-angry, but still unemployed, full-time philosopher-nobody.

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