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.


  1. Thanks for this, Johanthan. For what it's worth, I agree with you that something like PGR is needed. But I also think there are real problems with it, besides its current leadership, and I hope that, whoever takes control once Leiter is gone (and it now seems almost certain that he is done), they will take a hard look at what it is trying to measure and how it is trying to measure it.
    As you said, it is difficult to see how any such survey could fail to reflect systemic biases in the profession. For example, since PGR is a reputational survey, and reputation is a gendered commodity, PGR is inherently gender biased. Moreover, since PGR is both a measure and a source of reputation (Oh, X is at a top 10 department, must be pretty good!), we have a feedback loop, and so PGR not only reflects but also reinforces gender bias.

  2. I find it pretty difficult to take seriously claims that "in a culture in which philosophers are afraid to voice dissent against such a powerful individual" Leiter's criticism of others has "a stifling and silencing effect ... on the less powerful people in the profession" when I see almost uniform criticism of him online.

    1. True enough, Anon, but the critique is not suggesting that any criticism of Leiter that does exist is not uniform, but rather, the critique is suggesting that the volume of criticism that Leiter deserves is reduced significantly precisely because of his position of power. In the Wizard of Oz, the critique against the witch was uniform, insofar as Dorothy and her companions were uniformly in opposition of the old hag. But it was only when she was struck by the water and began to melt did Dorothy et al acquire the assistance of the flying monkeys who had been under the witch's spell. Once the witch melted, the flying monkeys were liberated.

    2. I think that a lot has changed in the past week, precisely because there is safety in numbers. I was one of the initial signatories to the September Statement; before it was published, fear of retaliation by Leiter -- either in the form of being singled out and publicly abused, or of having him punish dissenters by taking steps to hurt them in the rankings -- was by far one of the most significant factors dissuading people from signing. (I did not think the latter fear grounded -- I don't think it credible that he'd manipulate the rankings in that way -- but some people really were afraid of that effect. I even spoke to some philosophers who said they'd be willing to sign on to a statement, but not until after the new version of the rankings were complete!)

      When it was clear that there was broad support for a statement of this kind, and that signatories weren't sticking out their necks alone, it became much easier for people to sign. And now, as you say, it has the mainstream position, and people are willing to express it.

  3. While I appreciate all of the concerns, we must not forget that some people rely more heavily on the report than others. I think that the report is less important to people at ivy-league institutions than people at non-ivy-league private universities (and less important to people at non-ivy-league private universities than people at public/state schools). I wonder how Rutgers would fare over time without the PGR. Some of the greatest philosophers in the profession (in my opinion) are at Rutgers. But would undergraduates know that without the PGR? Would faculty members at various liberal arts colleges know that without the PGR? Would we be creating a profession driven by the halo effect without it? Just some questions to consider (this obviously is primarily a reply to Richard).

  4. Good on you. It's insulting to look back at the academic profession which has added so much joy and value to my life, and see this kind of bullying and intimidation happening. Leiter needed to be exposed, and the PGR needs to be compiled by someone else.

  5. Jonathan, you wrote this : "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. "

    From it, one can clearly understand that the PGR is helpful.
    isnt it the PGR about showing who are the best univeristies in the world?
    can you prove that the top universities shown in the PGR aren't the best universities?
    wouldnt be that ridiculous?

    can you make another PGR parallel to the one done by Brian Leiter and his team of philosophers with whom he is working with ( he does not do it by himself ) and in time to be proven that the one done by you is better?
    what is wrong with this?
    what do you want from Brian Leiter?
    to admit what? that his PGR is awfully wrong and to stop the damn shit?
    because nobody else did anything better before him? or something similar?
    you admitted in your post as I cited that you would had been far worser without Brian Lieter PGR.
    do your own PGR, make it better, grow your audience, if it is fair and better, do not worry, it will stand by itself as being better than Brian Leiter's PGR.
    does this sound fair?

  6. also, when you will make the new PGR, who will be your teach of philosophers to work with?
    all i could see in that PGR team of collaborators are big names in philosophy. they are stupid and wrong in doing that PGR? or corrupt?
    then take each one of them and judge them, why they are wrong, where did they do wrong and make no mistake.
    everybody needs to know who did wrong for that PGR, because certainly Brian Leiter does not do it by himself. He can not just disregard what the other philosophers say about x or y department, right?

  7. if there is nothing better than the PGR made by Brian Leiter and his advisory team, for the time being, then it is better to be left as it is until something better will be available.
    other than that, however Brian Leiter acted toward Carrie, is an indication of him doing wrong the PGR? what this has to do with his capacity of producing the best PGR available?
    can someone see a difference here?

  8. None of this looks very germane to what I wrote here, Anonymous. I suggested in this post that the PGR should continue, with Leiter stepping down. Your observation that there is some value to the PGR is irrelevant to that claim.

    In the months since I posted this, I've become less sure that there is any value to the PGR, but I remain somewhat ambivalent.