Philosophy Leiterized: How We Reduce Vermeers to Cow Plops, and How A Measure Colonizes Our Behavior.

No, I’m NOT going to attack Brian Leiter—

That’s been done many times before.

What I’m interested in are these two paragraphs from Leiter’s Wikipedia article:

Philosophical Gourmet Report

Brian LeiterIn 1989, while he was a graduate student, Leiter made a list of what he believed, initially based on his own impressions and research, to be the top 25 graduate philosophy programs in the United States. Called the Philosophical Gourmet Report, this list came to be known as “the Leiter Report” and has been circulated since the early 1990s by philosophy departments and individuals. It is circulated biannually, and according to Above the Law became internationally recognized. Published by Wiley-Blackwell, they are a controversial ranking of graduate programs in philosophy in the English-speaking world.

The PGR was described by David L. Kirp in a 2003 New York Times op-ed as “the bible for prospective [philosophy] graduate students.” George Yancy, in Reframing the Practice of Philosophy: Bodies of Color, Bodies of Knowledge, opined that Philosophical Gourmet Report ranking: “is, of course, very controversial. However, as is often pointed out, there is no real alternative.” Carlin Romano, in America the Philosophical, referred to the PGR rankings as “often-criticized” and “biased towards mainstream analytic departments.”

Of course there is much of interest here to those critically interested in professional academic philosophy.

But here is what interests me. Think more about Yancy’s observation that “there is no real alternative.” He’s saying that it is generally agreed that there is no real alternative measuring and ranking system to the PGR, yes? So this presupposes that, as much as the PGR has been criticized for bias or whatever, NO ONE is challenging the idea that philosophy departments, graduate programs, and philosophers NEED to be measured and ranked.

But why is that? Why should philosophy, like those stupid painting sets I used to buy when I was a child, be done by the numbers?

In Two Cheers for Anarchism, and other books, especially Seeing Like a State, James C. Scott brilliantly criticizes the very idea of imposing lifeless formalisms and especially quantitative standards, grid-wise, onto creative, vital, human intentional activity:

Beneath the apparently objective metric of [rigidly applying quantitative standards to intentional behavior] lies a long series of “accounting conventions” smuggled into measurements that are deeply political and deeply consequential…. Take the apparently reasonable “two-book” standard often applied in some departments at Yale in tenure decisions. How many scholars are there whose single book has generated more intellectual energy than the collected works of other, quantitatively far more “productive,” scholars? The commensurating device known as the “tape measure” may tell us that a Vermeer interior and a cow plop are both twenty inches across; there, however, the similarity ends.

The second flaw is that even if the measure, when first devised, was a valid measure, its very existence typically sets in motion a train of events that undermines its validity. Let’s call this a process by which “a measure colonizes behavior,” thereby negating whatever validity it once had…. Matthew Light clarifies: “An authority sets some quantitative standard responsible for meeting that standard, so so, but not in the way in which it was intended.” (J.C. Scott, Two Cheers for Anarchism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press, 2012), pp. 114-115)

In other words, rigidly applied quantitative standards (i) wrongly substitute quantity for quality (the reducing Vermeers to cow plops problem), and (ii) turn the people who are required to meet the standard into mindless slaves of the standard itself, thereby effectively undermining whatever normative point or value the standards may have originally had (the problem of how a measure colonizes behavior).

Now both of these truly unfortunate effects have been visited like a plague upon professional academic philosophy since 1989, as a direct consequence of the PGR rankings.

Since then, increasingly, we have obsessively wrongly substituted publication numbers (or numbers of pages or words in published articles or books) for real philosophical quality, and we have obsessively conformed our philosophical activities to the standards of the PGR rankings, to the detriment, and even to the death, of real philosophy.

But the problem is not Brian Leiter per se and the PGR per se—it could just as easily have been, or be, Ryan Blighter and the Philosophical Cow Plop Report, or whatever:

the problem is Leiterization, the idea that philosophical behavior should be governed by publication numbers and by the rankings.

And therefore there IS a “real alternative” to the PGR and it is this: Fuck Leiterization!

Now granting that, here is the real paradox.

Everyone in professional academic philosophy KNOWS that since 1989 and the advent of Leiterization, we have increasingly obsessively wrongly substituted publication numbers for real philosophical quality,

and also that we have increasingly obsessively conformed our philosophical activities to the standards of the PGR rankings, to the detriment, and even to the death, of real philosophy.

Everyone KNOWS this, and yet we keep on doing it and doing it and doing it, with increasing fervor, like complete fucking idiots. Why?

The answer has got to be: we keep on doing it and doing it and doing it—

(i) because of heavy social pressures coming from inside and outside the profession to prove that we’re “productive,” i.e., that we’re operating smiley-face-wise according to the corporate capitalist business model that now drives the larger Professional Academic State,

(ii) because departmental and university administrators can thereby control us more effectively and completely,

(iii) because we’re getting increased professional status levels and increased bonuses and salary from having high publication numbers and high rankings, and

(iv) because even if in our hearts we truly hate what’s happening, we’re scared shitless of what will happen to us if we overtly rebel against Leiterization.

Am I right, or am I right?

Now, how can we change this situation?

Boycotting the PGR, on its own, will NOT do it, provided that we continue to allow our behavior to be colonized by other sets of measures—that is, provided that we continue to allow ourselves to be increasingly Leiterized.

So, first, we need to boycott ALL Leiterizing mechanisms imposed on us by corporate capitalist social pressures coming from inside and outside the profession, and by departmental and university administrators, especially including the fetishization and valorization of publication numbering and rankings.

And second, we need to live philosophically as if it were the form and content of real philosophy that really mattered, and NOT quantitative standards.

Of course, and sadly, this also raises the deeper, huger question that I keep coming back to in APP, again, and again, and again:

can contemporary philosophers bring about these changes WITHOUT leaving the Professional Academic State altogether?

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About Z

Z is a 50-something cosmopolitan anarcho-philosopher, and previously was a tenured full professor of philosophy at a public university somewhere in North America, but still managed to escape with his life.