Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Some thoughts about the PGR and Brian Leiter

In academic year 2002/03, I was finishing my undergraduate degree at Rice University, and I decided I was interested in applying to grad school in philosophy. Like many undergraduate philosophy majors, I knew next to nothing about the discipline of philosophy—I just knew that I'd enjoyed my philosophy courses, and done well in them, and I wanted more. The ideal circumstance, of course, would have been if someone with intimate knowledge of a wide variety of philosophy departments sat down with me for many hours and helped me to select a number of possible good fits. That was impossible, in my case and in most cases, for many reasons. I was exactly the kind of person the Philosophical Gourmet Report was meant to help. One of my professors pointed me to it, and I used it as a starting point for my research into grad school. It was an extremely useful resource, and I would have been worse off without it. So I agree with the people who have recently written to Brian Leiter, thanking him for creating what is a useful professional service.

Since then, as I have gotten to know the profession more intimately, I have become aware of many concerns about the PGR. Some of them, I think, like the weirdly strategic aspect with which some departments make hire in an attempt to raise themselves in the rankings, are an accidental result of the PGR's large success and influence. I also recognise that there are appropriate concerns about the PGR's methodology, and that it has a tendency to amplify problematic biases about who is and isn't a good philosopher, and what is and isn't a 'core' area of philosophy. I understand why some philosophers think that the PGR does more harm than good. But I do think that it fills what continues to be a genuine need in the profession. I don't really have better advice for a student trying to take the first steps to think about where to apply to grad school than to look at the PGR. Unless and until there is a better source of information available, the PGR remains useful and important.

But the other thing that I have come to realise, as I have gotten to understand the workings of professional philosophy better, is that Brian Leiter has a tremendous influence in the profession, in significant part because of his role as founder and editor of the PGR. And while he often channels his influence in what I consider to be positive directions, he also has engaged in a harmful pattern of bullying and silencing of those who disagree with him. If he were 'just any' philosopher saying mean things about people, this would be rude (and, in my view, unacceptable) but only marginally harmful. But in a culture in which philosophers are afraid to voice dissent against such a powerful individual, the harm is magnified tremendously. I do not think that Leiter himself understands the stifling and silencing effect that his words have on the less powerful people in the profession. In the most recent high-profile instance I have in mind, as most readers will already know, the target was my wife, Carrie Jenkins. Carrie wrote a widely celebrated statement, in wholly general terms, about the importance of philosophers treating each other respectfully. Brian Leiter—who had not previously been in correspondence with Carrie—interpreted this as a criticism of him personally, and wrote Carrie an insulting email, which had significant stifling and intimidating effects. In my opinion, this is not only unacceptable behaviour, but an abuse of the powerful position that Leiter finds himself in. And although the situation with Carrie is the one I am the most familiar with, it seems clear from discussions with others that this kind of bullying, silencing behaviour represents a pattern. That is why I have signed on to this statement (update: here), publicly declaring that I will not assist in the production of the PGR while it is under Brian Leiter's control. I am an untenured junior member of the profession, and have never been asked to contribute to the PGR, but I consider public statements like this important, especially in this context where fear of becoming the object of a negative Leiter campaign is so prevalent. It is important that other philosophers see that if they take a stand, they will not be alone. I am happy to see that many much more prominent philosophers than I—including at least one person who was on the PGR advisory board last week—have also signed.

I remain ambivalent about the PGR itself. As indicated above, I think it plays an important role. Perhaps something else could play that role in a better way, but unless and until such something exists, I think that the PGR itself does good. But in the status quo, where it makes everyone afraid of Brian Leiter, there is serious harm that comes along with that good. It is time for that harm to stop. The best solution for now would be for the PGR to proceed without its founder.