Monday, September 05, 2011

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.

3 comments:

Emma said...

In a profession where analytic philosophy has a massive hegemony, rules the roost, and expends a huge amount of energy policing its boundaries ("that's not philosophy"), I'm not sure characterizing this fracas as simply competing versions of a neutral series of events (as is implied by "he said, she said") is remotely adequate. Actually, give that "he said, she said" is most usually invoked in cases of rape, sexual harassment, or other sexual violence (as any SVU watcher knows), where it too erases the context of a massively uneven field of power, I actually find the invocation of this saw in this context somewhat disturbing!

DOCTOR J said...

Fair enough, Emma. In my defense, I'll just repeat that this is the FIRST installment. I haven't said the last on this yet...

Emma said...

I look forward to seeing how you develop this. I guess that the gesture of "as disinterestedly as possible" never works for me, because it always ends up serving the hegemony and therefore being "on its side" and most determinately interested. Though as a rhetorical step whose inherent "interestedness" is later exposed I guess it may have some value! Yikes!