The Unbearable Leiter of Being. By V.

APP Editors’ Note: V is a full professor of philosophy at a research university–and a star gazer.

The stars. There are so very many stars. And we are so small. Yet, some would make us smaller still. To have been given a fine brain and to use it for petty and ignoble ends is bad enough. (I don’t say “mind,” since assessing that involves the moral employment of “brain.”) But to use one’s human brain to insure that others must not think grand thoughts, well, this is the work of tyrants who exert themselves to quiet even the imagination of man and, in this special case, especially, of woman. Why would a person with excellent cognitive powers do such a thing?

Should we set him on the psychoanalyst’s couch, discuss his daddy-issues, whoever in his past led to this cathexis of anal control? Nay. We’d learn nothing new. We all had someone mistreat us, love us not enough, or too much, and we didn’t become the tyrannical beast that just is Brian Leiter. Only he did. Harsh toilet training is a constant. Leiter is an exception. Exceptions call for close attention and serious thought.

So, as much as I would like to rave on about how Leiter is an abomination before Socrates, which is to say, he is a consummate professional, I believe in this case we must look deeper (and I am conscious that you will fear the smell, but let us press forward with upper lips stiffened in proportion to the noxiousness of the task).

I happened upon a fine book by one of our esteemed colleagues, Aaron James, who teaches at UC Irvine. You may have heard of it. It is called Assholes: A Theory. Its warm reception by the public might mark out Professor James as something more than a professional philosopher, but before he became a rising brand name, James took the trouble to apologize to his colleagues for writing the book he knew they’d scoff at. He said:

I share the reluctance about pop philosophy widely felt among professional philosophers, and it has been uncomfortable to relax (some might say abandon) the usual professional standards of rigor and decorum in favor of much tomfoolery. The risk of transgression, of doing bad work, and of forgoing important projects, even if temporarily, has seemed tolerable only given my hopes of offering a different kind of contribution: a book that shares all the fun conversations I’ve been having; that gives succor to those afflicted by an asshole; that offers a glimpse into philosophy through a basic human concern: and draws together standard philosophical themes in a new way. I thank the many people who encouraged me in this. I also thank those who urged caution, for caring enough to say something. (Assholes, p. 205)

This passage is followed by a game-theoretical model endorsed by “Oxford-trained” game theorist Jean-Paul Carvalho. (Wow, Oxford trained, and from an Economics Department to boot! A twofer! We can indulge our science-envy and our Anglofetish all at once. Glad he’s not from around here. Sheesh. How would we know whether he was right? Am I being an asshole? I hope not.)

It is hard to know where to begin with our friend Aaron James. But I think we here witness in his apologia what is most appropriately called the “Leiterization” of philosophy. That is, we see the fitting of the philosophy to our anticipations of Leiter’s tastes, sort of like the “Parkerization” of Bordeaux wines to fit the taste of the arch-critic who sinks or sells the Chateaux, with his rating system and his idiosyncrasies.

Somewhere behind this paragraph of apology resides a fear that UC Irvine will be lowered in the Leiter Report (no one calls it the “Philosophical Gourmet Report” except Leiter) because Professor James has been trifling with . . . well . . . with the actual world of people who have problems and ideas about them. This, he knows, is “unprofessional,” and he is very sorry, Brian. James has definitely shed some of his hesitance since the book hit the bestseller list, imagining himself beyond Leiter’s long arm. But is he? Apparently. Irvine has moved from 29th to 24th on the Leiter Report since Assholes appeared.

But maybe Leiter’s army was impressed with Carvalho’s formal model in the Appendix. Or maybe the deferential words were all Leiter needed? Hard to tell. But it would be fun to search for his response to the book, if he made one. I would do it, but I’m currently at the university and Big Brother is watching for searches of forbidden words. This matter is not important enough to take up later, when the surveillance is less immediate.

Now I am the one who has a theory. After giving the matter some serious thought, I realized that, by the terms set out in Assholes, Leiter isn’t one. An asshole is someone who consciously excuses himself from the rules that apply to other people, according to James (there are subtleties, of course, but that is the spirit of it). Brian Leiter tries very, very hard never to do that. Instead, he insists on universal conformity to his rules through bullying, threats of legal action, and encouraging and inspiring his sycophants to ridicule and shun and abuse anyone who doesn’t bow before the being of Leiter, unbearable as it may be. He has a tool belt full of handy tactics and strategies to insure our compliance with his version of the rules.

In order to be acceptable in Leiter-world, one of the first things I would have to do is pretend that he is a Nietzsche scholar. But Leiter is exactly the sort of bloated self-important windbag whom Nietzsche hated most –hated enough to abandon the academy and live as a vagrant on the doorstep of non-being rather than to be in the way Leiter is, if such it can be called.

That requirement, that this human must be acknowledged as an authority on the person in the history of our field who would despise him the most, well, that is pretty much where I have to declare myself also unable to live in Leiterland. I find it more than ironic that the name begins with the phoneme “lī.” I’m not much of a believer in phonemes, but if the shoe fits, you know? I just don’t even have to hang around for the rest of the story. Admission to this theme park is just too dear. I can’t lī.

But outside the park, well, at least if you get far enough away from it, there are stars. Lots of them. “Watchers” they were once called, and thought to be citizens of a cosmos to which we, too, belonged. Even the assholes. But not the tyrants of the mind. No, they must dwell in a land all their own, where stars don’t dare watch without first holding up an hand and saying “please, Master Leiter, don’t punish my constellation.”

Thus thinking, I have decided to initiate my own Report, the “V Report.” It surveys professional philosophers, according to a very strict statistical method, about which constellations we ought to look at in the evening skies, depending on how their reputations are perceived by people, chosen by Leiter, whose principal qualification is that they can bear the being of Leiter. While the decision about which constellations to view is surely personal, here are some results from my survey so that you can choose wisely. After all, you’ll want to be paid for looking at constellations later.

Orion: the survey finds that this is for people who believe that p, regardless of whether it is justified or true that p. Clearly not a wise choice. It is messy and not likely to gain the respect of professionals at any point in the future.

The Big Dipper (called Ursa Major in the Ivy Leagues): the main value here is supposed to reside in helping one find Polaris. Leave this one for ethnic philosophies that are obsessed with freedom, equality and other ethical ideas. This is for people who believe it is possible that p in the actual world, but who are confused about the difference between justification and truth. After all, we know that in another 14K years, Vega will be the pole star. Those who view the Big Dipper for guidance to freedom fail to consider the long range value of physics and why compatibilism is as close to freedom as the stars will permit. We cannot recommend this constellation, or those who view it regularly, as having the best prospects for serious professionals.

The Pleiades: Definitely an up and comer, in spite of popularity. You would need a medium quality telescope to get a glimpse here, but it isn’t necessary. The last ten years of literature in the best journals will tell you what you have to know to get something published on this much-studied subject. The advantage here is the exclusive admission policy –which one can discover by the tight and exclusive configuration of the constellation itself. We find good prospects among those who read about this constellation. Only the few think about this group, rarefied and removed as it is most of the time –indeed, quite invisible on the East coast at any time of year. This constellation is for people who believe that there is a possible world in which p is true and justified, but who don’t actually intend to check.

The Grasshopper: This we rank first. It is only visible, as a constellation, from the standpoint of an imaginary planet orbiting Vega. We have modeled it quite precisely and can confirm that if there were such a planet, and if it had beings like us, and if they estimated the stars, and if they were professionals concerned for their profession, they would surely spend most of their evenings discussing the grasshopper. Thus, we see that through such discussion they could design a curriculum in the metaphysics, epistemology, and trolley-examples that relates to the Grasshopper. This constellation is for people who believe that P!

And here, then, we return to the tyranny of the mind. Assholes are almost like the rest of us. And even Leiter is right, for the wrong reasons, about the APA’s silly statement on bullying. But his version of a policy is a threat to sue. The assholes who fear or follow (or both) Leiter may be reclaimable to us under certain circumstances. But those who would control the possibilities of thought, itself, by a survey of reputation? Those are not “people,” properly speaking, but biological humans who have banished themselves from society and from solitude before the cosmos. There is no help for them, and even less reason to help them.

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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.