March 6, 2007

Against the Philosophical Gourmet

Posted in Academia at 11:14 pm by ndsmith

Though Brian Leiter‘s ranking of PhD programs in philosophy is a useful tool, it would be nice to have other sorts of “relatively objective” methods for determining the credentials of various faculty of philosophy. The Leiter report is based on a survey of about 250 faculty who are largely from the “top” Universities. As I understand it, the survey asks these scholars to rate various departments on the basis of the qualifications of the faculty there. So there is clearly a question of the tool itself being self-reinforced by an unrepresentative sample. Nonetheless, as one very respected scholar once told me, “It’s the only game in town.”

Given the nature of the twentieth century distinction between what was termed “analytic philosophy” and everything else (which by default came to be called “continental philosophy,” in contradistinction to what was being done at Oxford and Cambridge, though admittedly there was an important strand of analytic philosophy in Vienna and Germany), I think one ought to be careful when appealing to samples of faculty members–there is good reason to suspect prevalent biases in any selective population. There must be better methods available to rank PhD faculty. And since I think it would be panglossian in the extreme to dream of a world without college rankings. Shouldn’t we employ these?

For instance, I just googled DePaul University–a well-respected school specializing in the History of Philosophy and Continental philosophy. The second option, after the university’s main page, is the philosophy department. I wonder how many other schools are known for their philosophy departments, at least as far as the set of google users extends (which is probably a pretty large sampling)? Another possible candidate for survey would be the selectivity of admissions. And I have always wondered if there could be some automated ranking of the number of times a scholar is cited in a selected sample of contemporary publications as a function of contemporary scholars.

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1 Comment »

  1. Brian said,

    I concur whole-heartedly. The Leiter Report is exceptionally awful at listing what schools are well regarded in the continental tradition. Depaul is an exceptional program if you’re interested in phenomenology, social philosophy, feminism, and the history of philosophy (among other things), one of the few best, really – and it doesn’t appear.

    I don’t have a problem with a study that is unobjective in its dislike of continental philosophy, and subsequent refusal to solicit the opinion of any authoratative figures in the field (Leiter’s claim is that analytic studies of continental figures are the only way continental work should be taught, since “you can’t train the next Nietzsche” (paraphrasing)). I do, however, have a problem with the fact that he sees fit to pass judgment on a type of philosophy in an area that isn’t deemed fit to be actually represented. I was lucky enough to have professors who were able to fill me in on the larger picture, but I feel very bad for those looking for guidance on applying to continental programs and relying on the absurd lists of the Leiter Report.

    I also agree that the reaction to eliminate all attempts at school rankings is juvenile. The best situation would be if there were a plurality of rankings, with full disclosure of their biases, specializing in giving information about programs in different areas. Then we wouldn’t have the problem of a biased monothilic ranking system without any visible dissenting voices.


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