Connected to all this is this post by Brian Leiter asking why "these people just make things up." Leiter does not make anything up in his post, but he does spin things quite a lot. Is it really reasonable to think that Graham Harman invented the reader he quotes? (And if not, why bother to call the reader "alleged"?) Is it reasonable to take "becoming a medium for a dismissive model" to mean "being himself dismissive"? I find myself a) tempted to say That's why these people just make things up, b) afraid to say anything lest I be publicly humiliated on Leiter's blog, and c) tempted to suggest the addition "...when you can just distort the truth" to the title of Leiter's post. What stands out is b, which is a symptom of a general problem in philosophy. (The good news for me is that I'm too insignificant for Leiter to be likely to bother with me, but of course that's bad news for me too. These power differences are differences in significance too, and so not only potentially unjust (if the power is not rightly distributed) but potentially painful too. I can imagine references to our all being grown-ups or big boys at this point, which would just add to the insult.) The problem is often associated with Leiter, perhaps unfairly, and comes out also in all this stuff. The discipline is not a straightforward meritocracy, but things like Leiter's rankings (which are useful) promote, intentionally or not, the view that it is a straightforward meritocracy. It is in this way (at least in part), I take it, that Leiter is seen to be part of the problem. His rankings encourage the view that not only are some departments better bets than others for prospective graduate students who hope to get an academic job after their PhDs but also (and there are varying degrees of truth in the following propositions) that some people are simply better philosophers than others, that some journals are simply better than others, that some areas of philosophy are simply better or more important than others, and that standard ideas about pedigree and ranking reflect these realities fairly (and) accurately. It doesn't help that when people mention Leiter in association with criticisms of some or all of this picture he uses the weight of his status in the profession to belittle the already relatively little (in terms of power). So that's another way in which Leiter is seen by some to be problematic.
What's the connection between the two previous paragraphs? It has to do with bias, power, and critical thinking. As Wittgenstein asked:
what is the use of studying philosophy if all that it does for you is to enable you to talk with some plausibility about some abstruse questions of logic, etc., & if it does not improve your thinking about the important questions of everyday life, if it does not make you more conscientious than any . . . journalist in the use of the DANGEROUS phrases such people use for their own ends.It seems fairly clear that the most prestigious journals in philosophy don't simply publish the best work in philosophy: they prefer work done in certain areas of philosophy, done in a certain kind of way, and it may well help if this work cites certain people rather than others (whose work may be equally good), it may help if the author is male, it may help if the author works in a select group of departments, and so on. There is no escaping some bias, but that doesn't make it all OK. And that's why I'm hopeful that the new journal from the APA will be a useful addition to the journals already out there. These are laudable aims:
[UPDATE: Aaargh! Jon Cogburn has kindly linked to this post from New APPS, and now far more people are likely to read it than would have otherwise. Which prompts me to try to clarify a few things in the second paragraph.The APA sees a niche for a truly general philosophy journal, one that includes scholarship from all specializations and fields of study, from analytic to continental and beyond. J-APA aims to be just such a journal.Further, as a top philosophy journal with excellent editors, J-APA will help to improve the current publishing environment in which it is exceptionally challenging for young scholars to publish at the levels necessary to secure a job or earn tenure.
Leiter quotes Harman quoting a reader's email, according to which: "[Leiter has] also become a medium for a very specific model of anglophone philosophy that is dismissive of all forms of history of philosophy, metaphysics, pragmatism, continental philosophy, philosophy of art, etc." Leiter responds, in part, by saying that he doesn't write, teach, or believe anything so dismissive. It seems to me that this misses the point of the complaint. There are philosophers who are dismissive of the things listed, and they seem to feel entitled to their contempt because of a certain culture within the discipline, a culture according to which there are insiders and outsiders, and a definite hierarchy of the more and the less respectable/contemptible. Leiter's rankings and the various polls he conducts largely reflect the views of this culture (partly perhaps because this culture is right about who/what deserves respect and who/what deserves contempt, but also partly perhaps because it is mostly those who belong to this culture who participate in the ranking process and the polls). Whatever caveats Leiter might attach to the rankings and the polls, I think they are regarded by many as supporting a certain view, based partly on prejudice, of who/what is good and who/what is not.
Why does this matter? Let's not count the ways, but here are a few. 1) It is contrary to the ideals of philosophy to dismiss a view on the basis of anything but careful thought (and yet I, for example, was told from day one of my philosophical education that continental philosophy is not really philosophy--this prejudice is widespread and often really seems to be nothing more than a prejudice), 2) it is contrary to the ideals of philosophy to dismiss a person on the basis of what they find interesting or worthwhile (it isn't very nice to do this either), 3) the dismissive attitude is not only contrary to things like wonder and open-mindedness, often thought to be vital to philosophy, but also has a narrowing effect on the discipline. More and better philosophers are likely to be drawn into respected areas of the subject simply because of the associated prestige (which, I take it, is not a good reason), and departments that care about their PGR ranking are likely to want to hire in these areas, even if they themselves regard other candidates as superior (which is also not good). In short, Leiter's rankings, polls, etc., without meaning to, contribute to a dismissive (and therefore unphilosophical) culture within philosophy. Those dismissive of continental philosophy (even Leiter's own) are likely to be drawn to his blog for this reason. And that goes double when he personally dismisses people like Harman (and now Cogburn). Leiter may be a Nietzsche scholar, believers in the model complained about might say, but my enemy's enemy is my friend. He can, of course, get away with a certain amount of dismissiveness if he chooses to precisely because he works on continental philosophy and the history of philosophy.
This is related to the kind of fear that I said was a symptom of a general problem in philosophy. Because so many ideas, fields of study, kinds of people, and individuals are dismissed and/or insulted (sometimes with accompanying justifications for the contempt shown them, sometimes not), there is a chilly climate in philosophy, not an open or welcoming one. You must think like the people at the top of the hierarchy. And they do not usually bother to explain (what can certainly often seem to be merely) their prejudices. This is not racism, sexism, classism, or homophobia, but it has something of the same flavor: differences in power, status, job security, pay (these are all related) are used to silence or humiliate dissenters from the status quo. I don't mean that people like Leiter have not earned their salaries, status, etc. I mean that differences in status play more of a role in the life of the profession than they should (according to a certain ideal of rational discourse that I think/hope is widespread in philosophy).
What about my talk of things being painful, and of insulting references to our all being grown-ups? I meant that if I were Harman (or Cogburn) I would be hurt by Leiter's comments. Let's imagine I'm Harman. I probably feel pretty good about my leading role in the speculative realism movement. But I probably have moments of doubt too. It's not as if this work has been universally embraced by philosophers. And then one of the biggest names in the discipline implies that I'm a crank who just makes things up! Harman is probably made of stronger stuff than me, but that would be a bad day at the office for me if I were in his shoes. And then I was imagining someone telling Harman, as some have said about the student allegedly harassed by Colin McGinn, that we are all grown-ups and should learn to take such hits on the chin. And it seemed to me that this would be like telling someone who has just been hit to grow up. Which is adding insult to injury. As I write this I have a strong sense that it is embarrassing or wrong, a deviation from disciplinary norms, to talk about people's feelings like this, and to believe that it is wrong to hurt them. But I do believe that, and I'm mystified by the apparent unconcern for others' feelings (to say nothing of the desire sometimes apparent to cause pain) in some of these exchanges.
Finally, why did I just mention salaries and job security? I think these are relevant in two ways. For one thing, tenure and a big salary confer prestige, which in turn makes it easier (and more obnoxious) for those who have them to beat up on those who have less of them. For another, philosophy, the humanities, and higher education generally are on the ropes at the moment. With employment prospects within the discipline so bleak there is bound to be an increased desire to conform to the norms of those in a position to hand out jobs, tenure, invitations to speak at conferences, reputation, etc. The more prevailing prejudices are confirmed the more anyone who cares about being able to get a job (which includes not only graduate students and the un-tenured but anyone whose job is not 100% secure) will be inclined to conform and the more these people will be disinclined to, say, dabble in speculative realism. That is not necessarily bad, but I take it that it is bad to the extent that it happens because of prejudice and power-plays rather than the careful employment of reason.]