The Pluralist’s Guide to Philosophy

There is now a new guide to graduate programmes, The Pluralist’s Guide, and Leiter has been very critical.  I’m not going to weigh in on the debate over whether Leiter’s or the The Pluralist’s views on continental philosophy are right, because I just don’t know enough.  But it does give a very different picture from Leiter’s report on where one should go to study feminist philosophy.  My own view, in this case, is that it’s very much a matter of one’s taste in feminist philosophy: there are great scholars at the programmes listed by both reports. One thing that’s incredibly important about the report is that it, unlike the Gourmet Report, has a category for Philosophy of Race.  This is, to my knowledge, the only place that prospective grad students in this area can get guidance.

Leiter is also very harsh about the discussion of women friendliness. Personally, I’d like to know more about the methodology of the report, especially for this section.  Having run the SWIP women-friendliness awards for several years, I’ve learned how tricky this is to judge.  Every year we have some departments nominated for women-friendliness that fail to get the awards because when we contact all staff and students we get a picture which casts considerable doubt on the original claim of women-friendliness.  And in some instances it’s been a feminist woman making the nomination.  Sadly, such people can be unaware of what goes on in their own departments. So before I’d want to make a judgment on these lists, I’d like to know more about how they were compiled.

Still, I think it’s fantastic to have a report that is trying to offer a different vantage point from Leiter: rankings of departments look very different depending on one’s methodological starting points, and this report helps to make that clear.  There isn’t just *one* canonical ranking, and now we have an alternative to look to and compare: this has to help the bewildered student trying to make choices.  It’s also great to have a report which tries to give some guidance on women-friendliness.   The report is under development, and my hope is that a future development will be similar attention to friendliness to other under-represented groups.


(Revised slightly in light of Elijah’s comments)

37 thoughts on “The Pluralist’s Guide to Philosophy

  1. I also think it’s great that the rankings in this report draw on answers to questions about whether one will receive good mentoring in a certain area at a department. Leiter just goes on research reputation, and it sometimes feels awkward doing rankings for him in the knowledge that, say, X has a top research reputation but can’t be bothered to read their student’s work. (He always emphasises the fact that students should *only* take his report as a guide to research reputation, but one can’t help worrying that they’ll take it as more than that.)

  2. Thank you, professor Saul.

    I think the SPEP methodology is not really different from Leiter’s. The real difference is that SPEP asks different raters in their survey, and the ratings are in a different dimension (Continental and American history).

    There is one feature of the SPEP report that I find objectionable. It should not list (without specifics) four programs as having “indications that there are causes for concern about gender equality for graduate students.” The report should aim to incorporate the best and most useful aspects of professional gossip, not the worst aspects.

  3. Jamie, I feel a bit torn on that. I did feel instinctively disturbed by seeing that list. But then I started wondering what the alternative is. It’s obviously useful to warn women about places that are problematic, and there may be very good legal reasons for not being specific. However, I am also in a position to know– for a variety of reasons– about the vast variety of places with big problems for women in philosophy, and further concerns are that (a) I’m not so sure these places deserve *special* singling out; and (b) it may give a false impression that other places are just fine.

    On your other point: The methodology is different in that they ask about things like mentoring, rather than just research reputation.

  4. I find it amusing that in his criticism of SPEP Leiter claims to be a pluralist, but then lists as proof of pluralism only white male philosophers. The plurality discussed on the opening page of SPEP seems to be of a different sort…

  5. Two major points:

    1) Leiter’s discussion is misleading — in certain sections, willfully so.

    2) The Pluralist Guide has serious limitations.

    Let me flesh out each of these two points:

    i) Leiter in his title and in his discussion chooses to call this the SPEP Guide. But as he acknowledges later in the discussion, “the SPEP folks have also allied with philosophers involved with the Society for American Philosophy.” So why does he choose to call it the SPEP Guide? His attacks mainly reiterate his previous criticisms of the SPEP (criticisms that I, in the main, tend to agree with). But he is working hard here to reduce the guide to the SPEP, because he well knows that this does not touch many other philosophers who are not part of SPEP.

    ii) Leiter states: “This alliance is political, not intellectual: like the SPEPPies, the SAPies, feel marginalized from the dominant tendencies in the profession.” That a person with a modicum of knowledge in the hermeneutics of suspicion can say this with a straight face is simply astounding. Leiter wants people to latch on to the vulgar definition of politics here. But this dichotomy breaks down if we consider that politics is entangled in the practice of philosophy. There are many ways this is so, but to pick a vulgar example: if certain groups — such as women — are harassed and can’t therefore participate in philosophy, or if feminist philosophy is a priori dismissed as lightweight, then of course, this is an example where a neat separation can’t be sustained.

    iii) Leiter’s discussion labors very hard to claim that the SPEP is intellectually inferior. But again, he knows very well that this is a reduction of the guide to the SPEP. In that sense, his discussion is misleading if he wants to pass off the the marginalization as justifiable because of intellectual inferiority. This is patently not so for many other streams of philosophy that are marginalized (such as feminist philosophy, critical race philosophy, and social theory).

    iv) This is not the first time that Leiter has made incendiary dismissals of certain philosophers work. But his examples are cherry-picked and not of much use. At best, they are of use in his area of study (Nietzsche). But that’s it. I know that because Leiter of course does not know many other areas of philosophy and can’t speak knowledgeably about who is good and who isn’t in those areas. His examples of inferior work done by others is therefore irresponsible because his extremely few examples (limited to his narrow area) can be used by students to infer that this speaks to other areas (of which he knows nothing about). He is relying here on the ol’ boy network fellow feeling. “We just know that our work is better, don’t we old chap?” Here is an example: at one time, John Protevi or Jon Cogburn over at the NEW APPS blog praised Graham Harman. Leiter, who knows nothing about Harman’s work, instantly lashed out that he isn’t a good philosopher. Now, my purpose here is not to defend Harman’s work. But Cogburn knows quite a bit about areas that Harman works in and it was quite clear that Leiter’s prejudices guide many of his knee-jerk reactions.

    v) Leiter’s contempt for some disciplines is extremely problematic. There are many, of course, who ended up in other disciplines partly because of the philosophy discipline’s intellectual and ethical blindspots. Also, English, for instance, is a large discipline and Leiter’s knowledge of it appears to be lifted from the popular press. Lastly, Leiter’s pluralist credentials are not convincing if by that he means that he teaches a wide range of Great Men in philosophy. But: a) It is telling that all the figures that Leiter mentions are men. Even by his own standards of “cultural and historical erudition,” he woefully falls short b) Yes, pluralism involves a healthy humility toward other areas of knowledge. Such humility does not mean a lack of intellectual rigor. It means allowing for the possibility that we may not know and it means a certain open, nuanced stance. Leiter’s combative voice is often refreshing, but he needs to learn something about what contexts require nuance and subtlety.

    2. That said, the Pluralist Guide does have problems;

    i) If one is going to document departments that are ethical in their treatment of students (women included), then yes, a great deal of care has to be taken. One has to be careful here. I said “care,” but I know that the kind of “evidence” which would be demanded by those accused cannot be adduced short of having graduate students testify in a court of law (and retaliation would swiftly follow). In any case, it was irresponsible of the Guide to put this up before a thorough vetting and careful documentation.

    ii) Leiter is wrong to reduce this Guide to the SPEP, but it does look skewed or tilted to the SPEP. It would have been helpful to conduct a more open, thorough survey and announced it in all forums (including Leiter’s). I’m not sure why there was a rush. I think the list ought to be withdrawn and a year-long survey conducted. Leiter’s report has many limitations, but it simply won’t do to have a report that “counters” it with a different tilt.

    iii) The roll-out of the Guide was seriously botched.

  6. Yes, I see that point, Jenny. Somehow it doesn’t seem as invidious when an individual professor tells her student, “I’ve heard that Brown* women have had serious problems recently” than when a report posts what is in effect the same content.

    Good point about the mentoring question. On the whole I think I prefer Leiter’s methodology, but it’s definitely good to have both types of report out there.

    * Just for the sake of an example!

  7. The Gourmet Report converts its scores in each specialty area into “Group 1”, “Group 2”, etc., divisions. The Pluralist Guide oddly converts its scores into, in the first tier, places were one is encouraged and supported and can write a state of the art dissertation, and, in the second tier, places where one is encouraged and supported but allegedly can’t write a state of the art dissertation. This explanation of what the survey rankings indicate is surely at best poorly chosen.

    And isn’t Leiter right that it’s amazingly convenient that only SPEP departments plus MIT show indications of being good places for women and that 3 of the 4 places that the report says show indications of being problematic for women are the top overall programs in the Gourmet Report? Like Jenny Saul I now know a fair bit about alleged problems at these and other schools. I agree with Jenny that the problems at these places are not unique to them. Indeed, MIT has certainly had issues of the same sort that some have found problematic at Princeton and Rutgers. But perhaps there are additional issues? Strangely, the report does not say. The report’s authors are willing to come right out and say that one can’t write a state of the art dissertation on feminist philosophy at Michigan or Chicago, but they aren’t willing to say what problems exist in the climate for women at NYU, Princeton or Rutgers. Strange. There are no “very good legal reasons” for failing to indicate at least the general nature of the indications that lead to these claims in the SPEP report.

  8. With respect to Jamie’s points 2ii and 2iii– if we look here:, I don’t think this was rushed. It looks like this has been in the works for two years or so– and nor was it really rolled out. The URL says that this is a test site, and the test site was up and running when this post went up on FP. I think if they intended us to see it like this, Linda would have just sent the link. Of course, the test site is publicly accessible and lots of folks had seen it before Leiter posted anything… but you never know what they might have intended to edit before finalizing things.

  9. One thing that I found so odd that I wonder if it’s just a mistake is not listing Stanford _at all_ as a place to do feminist philosophy. Given that Stanford has, at least, Helen Longino and Deborah Satz (and maybe others doing work on feminism- I don’t know for sure), this seemed very strange. If it’s a mistake, I hope it will be fixed. If it’s not a mistake it makes me wonder about the evaluations.

  10. Hello Kathryn, I think you meant me, not Jamie. It seems to me that there needed to be extensive publicizing at all major fora out there (blogs, newsletters, etc) that there was a survey out. Was this done?

    ii) It seems to me that this is not the kind of information that you want to put up in dribs and drabs. A test site it may be, but there are ways of protecting the information and making sure that what it is in the public domain is fully vetted.

  11. Elijah, whom I do not know, makes a false and defamatory statement when he says: “I know that because Leiter of course does not know many other areas of philosophy and can’t speak knowledgeably about who is good and who isn’t in those areas. His examples of inferior work done by others is therefore irresponsible because his extremely few examples (limited to his narrow area) can be used by students to infer that this speaks to other areas (of which he knows nothing about).” Elijah does not know this, he has just made it up out of whole cloth. (The same goes for his putative knowledge of what I have read by Harman.) What he means to say is that he does not share my judgment on the merits. He should retract the false statements about my professional knowledge promptly.

  12. Brian,
    Here is my point: It seems an obvious thing, one that isn’t at all defamatory, to say that you do not know everything about all areas of philosophy. Nobody does! By “not know,” I don’t mean you are absolutely or completely ignorant of. It simply means that your knowledge of the area is almost completely dependent on the testimony of someone else. So for example: you surely can’t say, that you can competently judge the best work in the deepest areas of feminist philosophy, or aesthetics, or metaphysics (and yes, I realize that these categories overlap). Can you speak to all the areas that, say, people in SPEP work in? Note that you may not even know all that there is worth knowing about the areas you specialize in. I am astounded that this is even debated. Here is what I meant about humility. It is obviously true that no one on earth can speak competently about every single point in their area of competence (assuming their area of competence is of any intellectual depth), let alone other areas.

  13. Let me first commend Rebecca Kukla’s excellent and useful comment, linked above. It’s certainly worth looking at. Also, while we’re in the process of fixing distortion, the idea that Leiter’s area of expertise is limited to Nietzsche is clearly wrong. He’s written useful stuff on most of so-called “continental” philosophy, on naturalism, meta-ethics, legal philosophy (of course), and has recently been doing important work on toleration, among others. If one is going to criticize, it’s important to get the facts and arguments right. By doing that, we can avoid making this a commentary on whether one likes or doesn’t like Brian Leiter (surely one of the most boring topics on the internet), and hopefully make it a useful discussion of the subject in question.

  14. Matt, I was not trying to be exhaustive about Leiter’s areas of expertise. But it is simply obvious, is it not, that he does not have exhaustive knowledge of all areas of Continental Philosophy, let alone other areas of philosophy.

    Like or not like Leiter? Whoever said this was about liking or not liking Leiter? I do not care about this at all and I am surprised you even mentioned it.

  15. Commenters should know that this blog prizes civility. Comments that seem problematic in this regard may be held for further consideration. Markedly uncivil comments may be removed. Since there is no simple formula, some things get through that shouldn’t, and sometimes ok comments are removed. These are mistakes, not the products of ill will.

  16. In lieu of retracting his actual false statement about my professional competence (which I quoted), Elijah has shifted gears to make an entirely different and irrelevant point, which was never in dispute. So be it. I trust the moderators will keep the discussion focussed on the merits of the new SPEP Guide to philosophy programs and not permit anonymous slurs and falsehoods about me or anyone else.

  17. I can’t find any place to make comments on the initial post on Leiter’s blog, so I’ll raise this here: Leiter writes,
    “Even more ridiculous, the only departments deemed to have a suitable “climate” for women are SPEP departments, with one striking exception of a top ten PGR department.”

    I’m confused by this. What does he think makes a department a “SPEP” department? At least one school–Michigan State–is not even included under the recommended category for continental philosophy. Is it nonetheless a “SPEP department”?

    In effect, Leiter’s remarks about this new guide seem to lump together (and discredit) many different types of philosophy under the SPEP label. I think that’s unfair and very misleading.

  18. I pointed out what I meant, which is that the few examples of inferior philosophy Brian mentioned do not speak to many other areas of philosophy. If you told me today that I cannot speak to the deepest questions in, say, Chinese philosophy, I would not regard that as a slur. Neither should you.

    In any case, to reiterate my points. Please use the correct name for the Guide. It is the Pluralist Guide, not the SPEP guide. Second, I think the Pluralist Guide has serious limitations. We should all work to make it better.

  19. helenesch, I am assuming that “SPEP departments” are those listed on SPEP’s Graduate Programs page:

    You are correct that not all the schools on the “Strongly Recommended” list on the Pluralist’s climate page are on the SPEP list. But I don’t think his statements necessarily lump things. I think his statements identify a correlation between the two web pages. The correlation is not perfect, though. Hawaii, for instance, is on the climate page but not the SPEP page. OF course, I may be completey off about all this.

  20. it seems to me that elijah’s follow-up was entirely consistent with the point that he was making in comment 6.
    i am suspicious of the value of pluralism in the first place. that is, i don’t know what it “means” to be a pluralist or to value pluralism. while linda alcoff’s introductory piece on the site is really interesting, it doesn’t necessarily define pluralism. or am i missing something?

  21. Good point, sk. I would encourage the organizers to use a different title other than “pluralist.” Unfortunately, the contextual implication may be that it is being posed as a “counter” to another guide that is not pluralist. And that may be problematic; a) problematic because the guide ought not limit itself to reacting against another guide but rather should aim to be as comprehensive and in-depth as possible. b) The Leiter report in its way is pluralist, though obviously, there is room for improvement.

  22. I think the SPEP has a great idea here, and I really hope they work through the problems and issues before releasing the final version. I didn’t find anything wrong with B. Leiter’s criticism of it, at least in the sense that I think he raised some good issues for students to think through. There was *one* issue in B. Leiter’s post that was a bit off-putting, though, and it was his reprinting of an e-mail that snipes at the SPEP report’s ranking of MIT above Michigan. The e-mail charges that MIT must be ranked “because of Sally Haslanger’s presence”. Unless I’m mistaken, Rae Langton is another big name in feminist philosophy at MIT.

    I just found that reprinting that part of the e-mail didn’t really advance any discussion.

  23. but is it correct to say that “pluralist” means “spep”? that is the charge on the table, it seems to me, and i think that given, e.g., helenesch’s comment at 20 there are reasons to think that these are not, and are not meant to be, identical categories.

  24. Also, if the folks who do the Pluralist’s Guide are reading this: why not include links to the program websites on your page (unless you already have and I’ve missed it…)? It’s easy to do and people reading the Guide will appreciate it!

  25. No, it does not seem that anyone has said that ‘pluralist’ actually means ‘SPEP.’ Statements such as Matt Drabek’s that SPEP has a great idea, and Brian Leiter’s that we focus discussion on the new SPEP guide, are somewhat exaggerated misstatements since the Pluralist’s Guide is not a SPEP product. But I don’t believe Matt, Brian, or anyone else really thinks that SPEP means pluralist, or vice versa. Attention has centered on Linda Martin Alcoff’s role in both, but less attention has been paid to Paul Taylor’s role in developing the Pluralist’s Guide. Note that Paul Taylor is neither a SPEPper nor a Continentalist.

  26. Ah, well, in light of Brian’s reiteration of his view, in comments over on his blog, that he has noted “reasons for thinking the ‘SPEP Guide to Philosophy Program’ is a more apt label”, I retract my speculation as to what he may mean or not mean.

    So, let’s talk about the Pluralist’s Guide. The actual guide.

  27. Oh, I had the impression from the discussion that the SPEP founded the project (hence why I complimented ‘their idea’). Apologies if it wasn’t the SPEP that founded it. Either way, I think it’s pretty irrelevant. Whether or not it was founded by the SPEP isn’t going to affect what I think about it.

  28. Understood, Matt Drabek, and thanks for adding your quick reply. Indeed, I gather that helenesch‘s concern in even bringing her question up was precisely this, that people would get the impression SPEP founded the project from the very way that the conversations about the Pluralist’s Guide are being framed. Hence her concern that Leiter’s original post could be misleading. (Indeed, helenesch, Matt Drabek’s last comment confirms that at least he was briefly misled! So you are right.)

  29. Elijah is right, and so is this person from the other thread who put it better than I could:

    When you ask experts where to go to do solid research on a particular topic such as Continental or American philosophy, I’m sorry, but you won’t pick an analytic department that has the one expert on French feminism and psychoanalysis, nor the one expert on Heidegger in light of a department whose strengths really are epistemology, metaphysics and philosophy of mind. You’ll pick a department with four or five Continentals and has a solid history of both researching and supervising these given areas. That’s why this list is needed. It is, indeed, a welcomed effort.

    I have always been confused that the Leiter report dismissed what it called SPEP affiliated schools from being on the top of the Continental list despite the very real fact that if one attended a top PGR school, the background literature one would be reading is produced by faculty at SPEP related schools. This is especially true for Heidegger scholarship. Leiter has always maintained that the scholarship of these schools is inferior to top Continental schools on his list. Puzzling, truly puzzling.

    Then again, we should probably stick to Gadamer’s insight that our prejudices are the very prejudgments necessary in order to understand the world, including where to go if someone wants to do solid work on, say, Dewey, Heidegger or Kristeva.

  30. “[T]he very real fact that if one attended a top PGR school, the background literature one would be reading is produced by faculty at SPEP related schools.” This is not a fact, it’s utter fiction. Occasionally this might be true, but mostly it is not. Many syllabi are on-line, this is quite easy to verify.

  31. I am sorry to say two comments contained language sufficiently demeaning to run afoul of our ‘be nice’ rule. Rewordings of those posts are invited.

  32. I’ve deleted a comment as well. This is not a thread about the PGR’s methodology or its author. Those who’d like to discuss those topics to the exclusion of all other topics are encouraged to go start their own blogs.

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