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.


Scu said...

I keep wanting to make comments, but I think I will wait till you finish your series of posts.

This one was particularly good for the giving the lay of the land for those who don't know what is going on.

Emma said...

Like Scu I think you've done a wonderful service in laying out the issues. Thank you! Again, though, I want to question some of your arguments and language. Have continentalists really not done enough to inhabit the blogosphere? In addition to Protevi's work, what about the, or Chris Long's, or this very space? I think you (somewhat) give us short shrift and concede too much ground to Leiter.

But what I really want to question is this notion that we are not organized enough and not enough of an "army." Such a "martial" or "combative" model of doing philosophy is one that most of us spend our professional lives avoiding if not actively critiquing. That's not to say that we aren't committed to participating in productive agon, conflict, or dialectic, but rather that *winning a war* is not one of the things at the top of our political or philosophical agenda, and nor should it be. Rather, we tend to seek dialogical models in which the objective is not to smash your opponent but to seek insights through listening and generous engagement and response. (This too is mirrored in the party politics in which the U.S. is currently mired, where obviously the right-wing goal is power/winning at all costs; whereas the liberal position tends to foreground the importance of ethical engagement and truth.) Again, I fear your analysis concedes far too much ground in advance by accepting the martial terms of engagement determined by analytic philosophy's paradigm.

Scu said...

While I was reading your comment, Emma, I was reminded of recent discussion of the 'hack gap' between liberals and conservatives. Basically there exists any number of semi-credentialed conservative talking heads willing to support whatever policy idea helps them politically. Meanwhile the left has smart people like Krugman, Drum, etc. that simply are going to call bad policies bad policies.

But I would like to add, I don't think that this parallels well with contemporary American philosophy. Basically, I know plenty of analytic philosophers that are not engaged in any martial paradigm, and certainly are not hacks. Now, I think some of people who hang out at Leiter's place clearly have that sort of partisan hackery, especially when it comes to Continental philosophy. But I am uncomfortable in anything that presents analytic philosophy and continental philosophy as engaged in some sort of existential power struggle. I just don't think that spirit really captures the state of philosophy for most philosophers. I do think it characterizes Leiter, and I think his influence allows it to play a larger role. But it certainly isn't: "the martial terms of engagement determined by analytic philosophy's paradigm". And analytic philosophers certainly are not like the contemporary Republican party.

Emma said...

Thanks Scu, that's a really helpful comment. I see where I was too quick to "draw battlelines" by allowing Leiter to stand in for analytic philosophy as a whole (which much as he might desire it is certainly not the case)! Accordingly I shall rephrase my last sentence:
"Again, I fear your analysis concedes far too much ground in advance by accepting the martial terms of engagement determined by Leiter's paradigm."

Scu said...

Haha, I like the rephrasing of the comment, Emma.

CBR said...

I'm chilling for the next episode, but I want to interject that I have yet to see a reasonable justification for Alcoff et al.'s methodology. Leiter seems to be simply right in this case.

Emma said...

CBR: I think the point that Alcoff et al. were getting at in their statement about methodology was that any attempt at "scientific objectivity" on the matter of ratings is doomed in advance and that any method will be necessarily inexact and unscientific. I don't think anyone would argue that it would be preferable to have somehow included grad students in the evaluation process, but whether the fact that they were not constitutes a massive violation of something-or-other is not at all clear.

I'm thinking back to my own grad school experience. Where I went to grad school I think a number of fellow students would have said things were fine for women, and a number would have said things were terrible. There was at least one professor who was rumored to be a repeated sexual harasser. There was the wife of one of the longtime adjunct faculty who was (and still is) an avowed anti-feminist and exerted a ridiculously disproportionate effect on the climate there, succeeding in de-legimitizing feminist philosophy in the minds of many of the (mostly male) students she casually chatted with. Some (not all) of the female professors were also anti- or a-feminist and claimed they had never encountered gender discrimination at any time during their careers. I myself did not find that my feminist interests were discouraged, even I had to spend a lot of time arguing for their legitimacy. (Maybe I was particularly dogged. In fact I know I was.) Climate for women? In some ways fine (some of the professors would have said so, probably many of the students would have agreed). In some ways absolutely terrible.

However, I would hope that Alcoff et al.'s methodology would have determined that the department "could do better" insofar as any feminist philosophy professor with even a vague acquaintance with the department would know that "in some ways absolutely terrible" is certainly not good enough. It's pretty safe to say that in order for any philosophy department to provide a good climate for women it has to have made explicit in many registers its commitment to women (in terms of hiring, offering courses crosslisted with Women's and Gender studies, actively recruiting and retaining women students, and so on). Whether a department does this will be known primarily by its professors. Whether it does so effectively can probably be best judged by its graduate students, but is certainly known by its professors, especially those attuned to such issues by dint of their feminist proclivities.

bzfgt said...

Next episode?