Ranking Philosophers – Follow up

A few days ago I posted on a question posed to Philos – L, to rank our favourite philosophers. I encouraged you to mentione some women! [that encouragements still stands!].

The organiser has now reported back with some voluntary information on this [after a debate started about whether question 3, about rising stars, was a good question): “Incidentally, more respondents have named female philosophers in their answers to Q3 than to either Q1 or Q2, though the proportion was still only a little over 25 percent.”

Hm. On the upside, really pleased this shows awareness!!!! At least someone noticed!

In the discussion on Q3, the comment below by Steven Methven was particularly good, and I don’t want to withold it [last paragraph particulalry good]:

” My point is not that someone might be upset by being left off of the list. My point is that what you are asking people to do is to think about young philosophers as though they were mere objects to be ranked and compared. There are several reasons why this strikes me as offensive.

1. There is an asymmetry of power which makes such objectification problematic. The desire seems to be that individuals who may be in secure positions, at least relative to the mostly very insecure positions of those being judged, should contemplate them in a manner which is dehumanising. And hard-luck if people don’t want to be thought about in that way, perhaps by their colleagues or mentors, since it’s all good fun.

2. Young academics (but not only young academics) are already ranked and compared, both as graduate students and in the job market. Many people who are on short-term contracts – increasingly the norm – will have to endure this on an annual basis. It is often a trial and a torment, but at least, or so one can reassure oneself, it serves some purpose. If the end is a job, one might choose voluntarily to subject oneself to the process. But here, there is no end, other than someone’s fun, and no voluntary aspect.  

3. We do, of course, sometimes think of each other and ourselves in this kind of way. But the existence of a practice is no argument for its being a good one. As it happens, I think that the practice is potentially harmful, and probably harmful when it becomes institutionalised in the way which seems to be increasingly common across our discipline. Encouraging people to participate in it on their downtime and for fun only serves to normalise a practice which there may be good reasons to regard with suspicion.

I’m going to stop there, though there are things to be said about how such one-dimensional thinking serves to mask genuine inequalities in our discipline by pretending that the playing field is even. I end by, once again, urging you to remove the question.”

24 thoughts on “Ranking Philosophers – Follow up

  1. Neither this post nor the last has links to the discussion or survey – can you add them please?

    (Also hear hear to the quote in this post!)

  2. I find this part to be problematic: “Please name the rising star among younger philosophers (under 40) who you consider the most worth watching.” The question seems to call on us to assume that all younger gifted philosophers are all equally free and able to become rising stars and be recognized as such by the professional philosophers’ community. It really depends on what area of philosophy they concentrate on, their social situatedness, their social-political perspectives, etc. I know of some younger (and older) gifted philosophers who because of these kinds of factors have little chance of becoming rising stars.

  3. The complaint seems very weak to me. I don’t understand what is supposed to be dehumanizing about the activity.
    The main mistake comes here, I think:

    “My point is that what you are asking people to do is to think about young philosophers as though they were mere objects to be ranked and compared. ”

    That is not true. Ranking young philosophers does not mean thinking about them as if they were mere objects to be ranked and compared, any more than tipping a waiter means thinking about the waiter as a mere object to be tipped, or admiring a cellist means thinking of the cellist as a mere object of admiration.

  4. @kat:

    I don’t know that ‘dehumanizing’ is the best term, but I do find the ranking – in public –of young philosophers a bit disturbing. In fact, I think there are many problems with this exercise.

    1) Senior colleagues at some schools might pay attention to this while others do not. This would mean that our junior colleagues who are not promoted by their senior colleagues will appear to be/feel that they are not doing as well as they ought to do.

    2) The whole ‘rising stars’ meme plays to RI/scholarship heavy institutions. I have junior colleagues who are doing excellent work, but who cannot ‘compete’ with those at institutions that support scholarly work more intentionally and materially.

    3) The very idea of ranking – by some inadequate and partialism-susceptible means – young, living philosophers strikes me as potentially damaging, on very thin grounds. The room for bias is enormous. The effects of ignorance might be significant. The real harm, from uninformed but credulous administrators and/or malevolent senior department members is incalculable.

  5. I want to jump on the anti-ranking bandwagon. I agree with much of what’s been said. One further thing on the “harm to young scholars” front: these “rising young stars” (RYSs) judgments can become self-fulfilling, thanks to various cognitive biases and so on. (Fictional example: Senior philosopher McX thinks well of me and some colleagues. Invited to make a YRS judgment, he picks me (perhaps on a whim). Confirmation bias kicks in, reinforcing his belief that I’m better than colleagues. McX has editorial clout, and since he think’s I’m a RYS, he tends to invite me more than my colleagues. As a result, I get more high-profile talks and invited publications than colleagues, making me more visible in prestigious venues, contributing to the perception that I’m a RYS and my colleages not.) Given what we know about cognitive biases the and the profession’s old-boys dynamic , I don’t think this is at all a farfetched description of what happens.

    But really, I think the problem with ranking runs deeper than just “certain practical barriers for young philosophers get thrown up”. The ranking culture is already pervasive throughout Anglo-American philosophy: the Leiter report in the US; the REF and its uses in the UK; the Philosophers’ Annual so-called “Top Ten” papers of year YYYY; Leiter’s occasional “Best philosopher of the XXth century” surveys; …That culture feeds into the myth that there’s this certain kind of stuff — “Philosophical Quality” — and practitioners (and institutions) can be rank-ordered by how much of it they have. And this feeds into a mentality that makes philosophy essentially competitive. Asking “who’s the best philosopher” (out of some category) is essentially just asking who’s got the most Philosophical Quality — who’s “winning philosophy”. The discipline becomes competitive and antagonistic, rather than cooperative and constructive. Others’ successes become my failures, because every publication of or accolade for a colleague puts me behind on the scorecard. Those who aren’t at the top of the perceived ranking feel like second-class citizens, and those who aret the top feel they must be constantly vigilant so as not to lose their status. It’s very difficult to feel confident or fulfilled in a profession with this kind of dynamic, and we should resist contributing to it.

    (And apologies if this sounds rant-like. I promise I’m not a cranky curmudgeon who flew into a rage at the e-mail posted to Philos-L; to be honest, I didn’t really even notice it. But now that it’s discussed explicitly, I think it’s worth raising awareness of the effect rankings have on the discipline.)

  6. The “under 40” qualification for rising stars is also troubling, as if someone who dares to get a Ph.D. after age 28 or 32 or whatever must be too long in the tooth to contribute to the field.

  7. I’d just like to register a big giant “Well said!” to Euthyphronics’ comment above.

  8. Me too. Well said, Euthyphronics!

    And the under 40 thing bothered me too. There’s an obvious and familiar point that hasn’t been made: it’s not just about when you get your PhD, it’s about the family clock for many. I got my PhD quite young, but had my son at 31, and I was a much slower publisher from 31-37, right during my prime hypothetical ‘rising star’ years. I still did fine but my energies were very divided. Now I am just a bit on the wrong side of the magical 40 mark, my son is much more independent, and my productivity has picked up enormously over the last few years, but too late for me to ever be a ‘rising young star’, even though I still feel pretty young. Obviously this is not a new point I am making but maybe my specific illustration of it helps.

    I went out of my way not to make this a gender point – many of my male friends in their thirties have also slowed down considerably while they have had very young kids at home.

    (And I would still like a link, someone, please?)

  9. ChrisTS, I agree with all three points.
    I didn’t mean to come off “pro-ranking”. I just thought the particular complaint was a bad one.

    I only partly agree with Euthyphronics, though. For one thing, I don’t believe the Philosophers’ Annual “Top Ten” makes philosophy a competitive game any more than Nobel prizes, Field medals, or Pulitzer prizes make peace, math, or journalism into competitive games. (It would be nice if the Annual recognition came with money on the order of those other prizes, wouldn’t it?)
    More important (I think — I will have to mull it over to be confident), I definitely do not agree that picking top ten *papers* contributes to (what I agree is pernicious) the idea that there is a Philosophical Quality stuff. Some papers are much better than other papers. That does not imply that the authors of those papers have or lack Right Stuff.

    We should resist the idea of the ineffable, essentialist Philosophical Quality, but we should not do so by disparaging the comparison of philosophical work as better or worse.

  10. Hmm, I have to think about the papers point. I am not against admitting that some work is better than other work, but it is not like the papers are chosen blind. I am not sure I don’t have the same qualms about some of these other prizes. But something like the Pulitzer serves an important other function – it lets laypeople know about great literature they might then go read. But no one but us cares about academic philosophy articles, and presumably we go find the papers we need to do our own research regardless of whether they won a prize. I might in fact read a cool paper I otherwise wouldn’t have looked at because it gets a prize, I guess. (Realistically, not so much – I barely manage to read the articles I *have* to read.) But there doesn’t seem to be the same public service dimension to it – it seems like a raw insiders’ ranking game to me.

  11. Interesting — I have read at least half of the Annual papers in the past few years, and I’m pretty sure I would have read only a handful were it not for the ‘award’.
    I have not read even one novel because it won a Pulitzer.

    It’s true that choosing them blind would be much preferable, but obviously that’s not feasible.

    Looking over my earlier comments I would like to add:

    1. I don’t have anything to do with the Philosophers Annual!
    2. I did not mean to intimate (and never believed) that others were saying no papers are better than others — I understand that the point is about a public culture of ranking, which is quite distinct.

    Let me put it this way. If a friend asked me, “What are a few really great papers in your area I should read?”, I would have no hesitation in giving that advice, and in adding that these are much better than these other ones. If a friend asked, “Who are the best philosophers in your area?”, I would at least hesitate, wondering if there were something defective in the question, or some untoward implications in answering it.

  12. Since I was the one who drug the Philosophers’ Annual into the conversation I should probably explain myself. As with Rebecca Kukla, I’m not entirely convinced that (say) the effect on the sciences of the Nobel Prize is entirely salutary. But I included the PA in particular for its use of the phrase “Top Ten”. It suggests that in Plato’s heaven there’s a list of papers from best to worst, and I can meaningfully ask where mine are on the list. I think that’s a dangerous picture of a piece with the similar picture of philosophers. Sure, we know some papers are better than others — we know some philosophers are better than others, too. (Kant is a better philosopher than I am.) But some papers (or philosophers) can be better than some others without there being a rank ordering putting each in its place. My complaint with PA is mainly that it plays into, if indirectly, the professions obsession with ranking, not that it makes some comparative judgments.

  13. (Sorry kat — it looks like I was typing while you were posting. I agree there can be a useful function for the PA. But I’d be happier with it if it had a different name — say “The Philosophers’ Annual 20yy Picks”, or something.)

  14. It doesn’t seem to me that we disagree very much on the big stuff, but I guess I don’t see the difference between comparative judgments and ranking. Those seem to me to be the same thing.

    There being such a thing as hotter and colder is the same as there being a ranking of things from hottest to coldest. There’s no question of platonic heaven, I don’t think.

    Anyway, sure, “PA Picks for 2012” would be superior. Oops! I mean more to my liking too :-)

  15. I’d be interested in seeing a poll of under-40 philosophers on the question, “What do you think of releasing the answers to Q3 in a public forum?” I’m not certain what the answers would be, but my *guess* is that most people in this group would not want such a thing. Suppose that’s so. Then claims to the effect of “Oh, it’s just for fun” or “I can’t see what the problem is” start to look, frankly, a little obnoxious. Might Feminist Philosophers do such poll?

    The more we see of this public ranking of younger philosophers, the more they’ll opt for the more conservative path of reverent, “normal science” philosophy, and disingenuous ass-kissing. Why would we want to incentivise such things?

  16. Kat, you do know that’s not technically true, right? Not all orderings are total orderings. I am not just being a pedant; it seems totally plausible to me that there is better and worse philosophy but that as a whole, philosophy articles don’t have commensurable quality in a way that would allow them to be rank-ordered. There’s certainly no a priori argument against this.

    Mozzer I love your comment too. I am really enjoying this thread – thank you!

  17. Thanks, Rebecca. I thought there were also incomplete rankings, so I am glad to be straightened out.

    There can be a top ten even if a preorder is incomplete. But I think the set theory is over-kill in this case, since even if there is a top ten of philosophy papers each year, it would be pretty silly to think the Philosophers’ Annual had managed to identify it! I assume nobody is really tempted to think so.

  18. Right, which is part of why claiming there is one is problematic, even if one does so with a wink…

  19. But, Rebecca, they don’t really claim there is one.

    “Our goal is to select the ten best articles published in philosophy each year—an attempt as simple to state as it is admittedly impossible to fulfill.”

  20. Dear Rebecca,

    sorry for lack of link, but there is none. There was only an email to Philos-L. I suppose you could try their digest site?

    The philosophy now website does not give any info as far as I can see.


  21. Another vote of support for Euthyphronics’ comments… Rankings may have a useful or important role to play in certain areas of our profession. Fine, so be it. There seems to me, however, to be a real eagerness in certain quarters to rank people, departments, papers, journals, etc., beyond whatever useful purpose such rankings serve. If nothing else, this eagerness strikes me as kind of juvenile (a bit like all those ‘top 100 songs of all time’ lists in magazines and on websites); and all the more so given that these things are often just based on reputation surveys. Sure, reputation is some sort of indicator of quality. But surely, as philosophers, we think a better guide to quality is reading people’s work closely and judging for oneself. And in any situation where the judgement matters, that’s what all of us (let’s hope) would actually do. Again, this is not an argument against reputation surveys in the areas where they are legitimately useful. It is a criticism of people’s eagerness to have access to a written-down pecking-order, even where that serves no discernible purpose. (Other than ‘fun’.)

  22. American is in the grip of a celebrity culture. Why not academia? Then we can stop pretending to care more about truth, beauty, goodness, etc.

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