Monday, September 05, 2011

Leiter v. Alcoff, Part Two: The Context (or, Why This Isn't Simply A "He Said, She Said" Story)

Okay, if you haven't read Part One of this series, you should go back and do so. Otherwise, the following won't make much sense.

If you have read Part One, and if you don't already have a dog in this fight, you may be wondering: what exactly is the big deal here? So what, two philosophers disagree about the merits of two surveys about philosophy (and both of them obviously have vested interests in the surveys they support)? Both sides accuse the other of being partial and unfair? Sounds like a classic he said/she said, right?

As a matter of fact, this is a fairly typical case of "he said/she said"... as long as one understands that all those conflicts that traditionally get characterized as "he said/she said" are really about much more than whatever it is that he or she said.

[Again, consider the following "preliminary" information. Without pointing any evaluative fingers (yet), I just want to clarify the context in which this conflict is taking place.]

Professional philosophy in the United States is, for the most part, dominated by a particular tradition that we call Analytic, or "Anglo-American," philosophy. (FULL DISCLOSURE: I do not work in, nor was I primarily trained in, the analytic tradition. In fact, I received my PhD from the Pennsylvania State University, which is consistently considered one of the "top" graduate programs in Continental philosophy. That said, I have tremendous respect for my colleagues in analytic philosophy and hope that they will find my following remarks fair.) "Analytic philosophy," as a category, only came to mean something significant in the 20th century, when it was distinguished from the more historically-oriented tradition that subsequently came to be known as "Continental" philosophy. Typically, Analytic philosophy is characterized as the kind of philosophy that focuses on philosophical problems (as opposed to texts, figures or traditions), that primarily proceeds by way of the scientific method of analysis, that emphasizes clarity and rigor in its arguments (a la formal logic and the natural sciences), that de-emphasizes the particularities of historical, individual, cultural and ideological identities, and that aims to locate universalizable, axiomatic truths about the issues under its consideration. As a rule, the sub-fields of philosophy practiced within the Analytic tradition tend to be metaphysics, epistemology, logic, philosophy of language, philosophy of science, philosophy of mind and other cognate areas... although there are many, well-established and well-respected, analytic philosophers who work in ethics, social/political philosophy, feminist philosophy and philosophies of race. About 50 years ago, there was something like a schism in the APA (the American Philosophical Association, which is the primary organization representing professional academics working in philosophy in the United States), and a separate organization called SPEP (the Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy) was formed as a result. Today, SPEP primarily represents those professional philosophers working in the so-called "Continental" tradition, which is, for the most part, a broad field of traditions focusing on (1) the history of philosophy, (2) the various European traditions that grew out of post-Kantian and post-Hegelian philosophies, (3) the late-20thC. newcomer "critical studies" fields like feminism, queer theory, critical race studies, deconstruction, poststructuralism, and pop-culture analysis/aesthetics, and (4) mostly post-Cold-War political and ethical theories like those found in postcolonialism, globalization theories, late-capitalism critiques, posthumanism and neo-Marxism, For reasons that far exceed the space I have here for explanation, the analytic and Continental traditions within professional Philosophy have been at odds for the last half-century or so, and their disagreements have been neither friendly nor productive.

In terms of the profession, Analytic Philosophy is the big dog. It is the tradition that dominates R1 (i.e., research-oriented) universities in the United States and, consequently, determines the sorts of people who get hired for those jobs. That is to say, if you're good at philosophy and you're aiming to have a career in it, your time and money are best placed on Analytic philosophy. On the other hand, Continental philosophy (and its siblings) tend to dominate in liberal-arts institutions in the United States. If you happen to be an undergraduate in a Catholic school or any other top-tier SLAC (small liberal arts college), chances are that you're being educated by those who have been thoroughly trained in the History of Philosophy, which means (effectively) those who have been trained in the Continental tradition. There are a few well-respected graduate programs who specialize in Continental philosophy (Penn State, U.Memphis, StonyBrook, Emory, Vanderbilt, DePaul, Villanova, New School, etc,), but the fact of the matter is that none of them carry the heft on the job market that even second-tier Analytic programs do. It's a tilted field, really.

[I pause here to give thanks, again, that I have a job.]

And if Analytic philosophy is the big dog in the profession, then Brian Leiter is the 800-lb. gorilla. Leiter, a philosopher of law at the University of Chicago Law School, who has also published somewhat extensively on one of the Continental tradition's pets (Friedrich Nietzsche), is probably THE single most influential living philosopher today. Although he is well-respected and well-published as a philosopher, I think that even Leiter would admit that his tremendous influence in the field is not the consequence of his academic contributions, but rather of his precocious internet savvy. Several years ago, Leiter began what has come to be known as the "Philosophical Gourmet Report" (also known as the "Leiter Report"), a ranking of the best graduate programs in Philosophy, which he organizes and promotes via his blog, the Leiter Reports. Whatever else one may think of the PGR or Leiter's copious positions and pronouncements, one simply MUST admire him for planting his flag first and claiming our little area of the philosophical internet as his own. The truth is, when it comes to Philosophy on the Internet, it's Leiter's sandbox. The rest of us are just playing in it.

This is the power-asymmetry context that makes the kerfuffle between Leiter and Alcoff complicated. Leiter is not only on the side of power in terms of the profession, dominated as it is both by men (who have not, intentionally or unintentionally, given much attention to the under-representation of women in their field) and by analytic philosophy (which has not, intentionally or unintentionally, given much attention to the philosophical proletariat doing the laborious work of maintaining an educational standard with regard to the history of philosophy), but he's also on the side of power in terms of the medium of this dispute. (For the record, I don't blame Leiter for the latter. I blame the Continentalists for being too cool-- read: backwards-- to engage in the new medium of communication.) The point is that when Leiter says something like "Alcoff is making unsubstantiated claims about philosophy graduate programs," he has an army of philosophers ready to come to his defense, whether Alcoff's claims are substantiated or not. (More on that in the next post.) Alcoff simply doesn't have the same army, partly because her tradition of philosophy has elected to remain behind the times in terms of tech-savvy (John Protevi not withstanding), but also because she is herself a representative of the underrepresented class under dispute!! That is to say, this is not simply a "he said/ she said" fight with regard to the climate for women studying philosophy, because ANY "he said/ she said" in this context is not a fair fight from the start.

Both Leiter and Alcoff have their supporters, but the fact is that Leiter has cultivated his crew on the web over the last several years in a way that Alcoff simply hasn't. Leiter's army is bigger, more numerous, more powerful. Every single demographic account of the profession shows that Alcoff's army is smaller, less powerful, more vulnerable. Anyone who has followed the comment-streams of late can easily see that the Alcoff-supporters have clearly brought a pillow to a knife-fight. As a self-identified Continentalist, and as a web-savvy one, I'm quite frankly embarrassed that what I'd like to count as "my" side has come off as so ill-equipped to handle a web-based battle like this one, but even I waited until all the vitriol died down to enter the fray, which ought to demonstrate (at least to me) that it's not as easy to man up as one might think.

Here's the thing that will be a pro forma insight for those who do feminist philosophy, and probably a total shocker for those who don't: the playing field is not even for women in Philosophy, even very powerful women like Linda Alcoff. Women in philosophy, especially when they're discussing the problem of "women in philosophy," are at a disadvantage. The skills of analysis that are heralded in our field-- impartiality, objectivity, universalizability, disinterestedness-- are, in fact, disadvantageous for women in this debate. And so, the "he said/she said" paradigm is perhaps more apropos that I originally intended here, inasmuch as it represents the paradigm most appealed to in cases where vacating the contestants in the debate of any particularity is of advantage to one side.

Of course, that doesn't mean that there's not a lot still to say about what "he said" and what "she said.' Stay tuned.

Leiter v. Alcoff, Part One: The Basics

Now that things have quieted down a bit, and in response to readers who've been asking me to do this for a while, I've decided to offer a few reflections on the recent (and very public) kerfuffle between Brian Leiter and Linda Alcoff. I expect that most of you who aren't professional philosophers don't have any idea what I'm talking about-- and likely won't care much even after you do-- but for those of us working in the field, it's been a pretty big deal. Actually, a VERY big deal. So big, in fact, that there's no way for me to address it all in one post. I'll try to recount (as disinterestedly as possible) what actually happened, in order to set the stage for my follow-up evaluative posts. Apologies in advance to my readers outside the Academy, who may see this as indulgent airing-of-the-family-laundry, but it really is my hope that I can relay this in a way that magnifies the importance of these sorts of conflicts to everyone.

First, a short recap of events:
The Philosophy blogosphere, such that it is, was afire this past July and August concerning a new addition to its ranks, the "Pluralists Guide to Philosophy Programs" (PGPP)-- and, more specifically, its supplemental report on the "Climate for Women Studying Philosophy" at some graduate programs in the U.S.. The Pluralists Guide's focus was primarily on graduate programs specializing in areas of philosophy other than analytic philosophy, like Continental (European) philosophy, American Philosophy, Critical Race Theory, Feminist philosophy and LGBT studies. For the uninitiated, it's important to know that, before the appearance of the Pluralists Guide, there was only one other guide to (in this case, a ranking of) philosophy graduate programs in the United States, namely, the Philosophical Gourmet Report (PGR) produced by Brian Leiter (Professor, University of Chicago Law School). It's difficult to say whether or not the Pluralists Guide was intended this way, but it was most certainly taken to be a challenge to what has been widely recognized as Leiter's turf. Shortly after the release of the Pluralists Guide, Leiter called its methodology, its prejudice and therefore its legitimacy into question on his blog (Leiter Reports), dubbing it the "SPEP/SAAP Guide to Philosophy Programs." (SPEP, or the Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy, is the professional organization that represents philosophers working in Continental philosophy, as well as many of those working in the ares of Critical Race Theory, Feminist Philosophy and LGBT studies. SAAP is the Society for the Advancement of American Philosophy, which represents philosophers working in that area. Graduate programs that are primarily represented by faculty working in SPEP- or SAAP-related areas are traditionally underrepresented in Leiter's rankings and were, by the nature of its organization, overrepresented in the Pluralists Guide.) So, in sum, the authors of the Pluralists Guide claimed that they were attempting to balance out the unmerited authority accorded to Leiter's rankings (in the PGR) by giving due consideration to programs other than analytic programs. Leiter, in response, accused the Pluralists Guide of using the adjective "pluralist" inappropriately to disguise what was, in reality, a self-interested campaign on behalf of SPEP- and SAAP-affiliated philosophers and programs.

That's basically the "he said"/"she said." But wait, you may ask, why is the Pluralists Guide a "she" in this disagreement?

The vitriol soon concentrated around one particular element of the Pluralists Guide, namely, its Climate for Women Studying Philosophy. In that climate evaluation, several graduate programs were listed as "strongly recommended" and (considerably fewer) as "need[ing] improvement." The "strongly recommended" list includes many, if not all, of the programs that are generally recognized as the strongest in Continental philosophy and its cognate ares, while the "needs improvement" list included three programs (NYU, Princeton and Rutgers) which regularly appear in the top-10 of Leiter's PGR rankings. Consequently, it appeared as if the "Climate for Women Studying Philosophy" list constituted an accusation on the part of the Pluralists Guide that analytic philosophy programs (which represent the overwhelming majority of graduate programs in the United States) were either the cause of, or at least complicit in, the well-documented under-representation of women in professional philosophy. (NB: Less than 2 out of 10 tenured or tenure-track philosophers working in the U.S. are female, well below the average of other fields in the humanities, and FAR below the averages in the natural sciences, social sciences or fine arts.) Of the three identified authors behind the Pluralists Guide-- Linda Alcoff (Professor of Philosophy, Hunter College), Paul Taylor (Professor of Philosophy and Head of African-American and Diaspora Studies, Penn State University) and William Wilkerson (Professor of Philosophy, University of Alabama-Hunstville)-- only one of them was both a woman and a scholar of feminist philosophy, so Leiter naturally directed his questioning of the Climate for Women Studying Philosophy survey at Alcoff.

And this is where things got ugly...

Once Leiter squared-off with Alcoff, the battle lines were drawn. Leiter's (and his compatriots') position was that Alcoff was hiding under the cover of the "so-called Pluralists" Guide to grind her own personal axe about women in philosophy, that she was intentionally occluding whatever methodology she used to generate the "Climate for Women Studying Philosophy" as a cover for her own Continentalist prejudice, and that she was doing real harm to legitimate graduate programs in philosophy with her accusations. Alcoff's (and her compatriots') position was that they were merely making public (and/or "official") what was already known (or needed to be known) about the systemic sexist prejudice of professional and pre-professional philosophy, that Leiter's objections were just a cover for what was really his wounded turf-battle hubris, and that her own SPEP- or feminist-sympathies were ultimately irrelevant in the face of this ad oculos problem in the profession.

In other words: He said. She said.

5 Years, 100K Hits

Five years ago this month, I began this blog. At the time, I was in the final stretch of writing my dissertation and entering the job market. The title that I gave to the blog had been a personal mantra of mine for a long time, something I had scribbled down on a piece of paper my sophomore year in college as a way to motivate myself. (I've somehow managed to hang on to that piece of paper all these years. It's now tacked on the bulletin board by my office desk.) I didn't have a clear idea then what this blog would be, and I had NO idea what it would become, but I was spending a lot of time, alone, in front of my laptop, and I needed to write about something other than truth commissions, crimes against humanity, and deconstruction on occasion. There have definitely been periods when this site has seen a lot of activity (most recently, during my 30 Day Song Challenge in June) and other times when it has laid dormant (like, the last couple of months), but over the years it has come to be a rather important part of my identity. When I neglect it, I miss it and feel guilty about it, and when it's active, I feel more active.

I've definitely been neglecting it of late, so I was pleasantly surprised to see, upon returning, that this blog passed 100,000 hits while I was gone. In the grand scheme of things, 100K hits over 5 years is a pretty paltry number. There are something like 50 million tweets everyday, almost 34,000 Google searches per second, and 100 billion Facebook hits per day. Still, I'm not complaining. 100K people have passed by here at some point, and I'm glad to have served as their host.

So, thank you again, readers.