Bringing Out The Best In Us?

The Philosopher’s Annual website states that the Annual’s aim 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”.

I’ve always found such Annual articles as I have read to be excellent, and I’m usually very interested in them. (The work selected for inclusion typically falls in areas close to my own research interests.) I’ve been involved in the selection process in the past, and I am grateful for the work that goes into putting the Annual together, which I think evinces expertise and insight.

However, I do agree with the Annual that its stated aim is impossible to fulfil. As seems to be acknowledged on all sides, there is no methodology which will find the “best” ten papers. So it is worth reflecting on what happens if we employ methods that do not select the best ten papers but then announce the papers thus selected as the best. Some of the upshots of doing this may be relatively harmless or uninteresting, but some of them warrant attention.

In an excellent post at Philosop-HerMeena Krishnamurthy points out that the Philosopher’s Annual has recognised papers in the philosophy of race only twice since 2000, and papers in feminist philosophy only three times. Krishnamurthy invites us to consider whether the methodology used for selection may be resulting in the exclusion of some areas and perspectives, since “[i]t cannot possibly be true that of the very best articles in philosophy since 2000 that only 5 of the best articles are in the area of race and gender”.

In fact, even the count of five inflates the real total: there were only four such articles selected. Sally Haslanger’s “Gender and Race: (What) Are They? (What) Do We Want Them To Be?” was one of the two selected papers in the philosophy of race and one of the three selected papers in feminist philosophy.

I think it’s important for philosophers to consider this kind of question, and I am grateful to Krishnamurthy for raising it (and to the interlocutors she credits in her post for helping to start the conversation). It strikes me as particularly important for us to think about Krishnamurthy’s remarks in the context of philosophy’s current and ongoing work of reflection on possible reasons for the pervasive lack of diversity amongst its practitioners. And I suspect that the more it makes us feel uncomfortable, or reflexively defensive of the status quo [1], the more important it is.

As well as asking questions about which subject matters get represented in the selections, we can ask directly about which practitioners get represented. For example, by the lights of the Philosopher’s Annual selection process, 90% of this year’s best papers are by men. And this is not an unusual gender ratio for Annual volumes. Assuming it is not the case that 90% of the best philosophy in a typical year is by men, what happens when we accept and announce a 90%-male list as the best?

One immediate result is that of making it look as if the best philosophy is (acknowledged to be) mostly work done by men. This can contribute to stereotype threat, reinforce and strengthen implicit gender biases, and so on. Another result is that the kinds of prestige, job prospects, etc. that come along with recognition as best are inequitably distributed by gender. (And of course these things can interact and reinforce one another.)

I also think it’s important for us to recognise that these questions and concerns are not only applicable to the Philosopher’s Annual, although consideration of the Annual happens to have opened up a really useful conversation. Like magicalersatz, I think there are more general issues to consider about our various attempts to rank philosophy and philosophers so as to identify some as the best.

For what it’s worth, I remain unconvinced that there is a univocal notion of bestness in philosophy. Philosophy can be good in many—often conflicting—ways, and it strikes me as plausible that the result is usually massive incommensurability. I am concerned (again like magicalersatz) that, in our current attempts to identify univocal bestness, one thing we really do seem to be achieving is the reproduction and entrenchment of already well-entrenched patterns of bias and exclusion.

Is there some reason why the goal of finding out who and what is univocally best, despite being admittedly impossible to achieve and possibly incoherent, is so important that these kinds of negative consequences are justified? I am sceptical.

[1] It is particularly crucial that we be alert to the risks associated with the kinds of defensive reactions that invoke our own objectivity in such matters. Research indicates that we are especially susceptible to bias when primed with a sense of our own personal objectivity.

Eric Schliesser on the APA journal

Some more from Eric.

Leiter says that “what will actually be crucial to the success of JAPA is that it publish high quality work, not that it represents every “constituency”.” …There is now a huge scientific literature on expert over-confidence, tacit bias, and the role of non-truth-tracking heuristics in our intellectual judgments. So, I would think the real worry goes in the other direction: a journal that publishes more of the (let’s stipulate Leiter approved) high quality same, me-too-research, while welcome in many ways and not to be judged an outright failure, certainly ought not count as a “success” from the point of view of the APA’s membership (and counterfactual would-be memberships). This result would also not count as a ‘success’ from the point of view of the long-term interests of professional philosophy.

Louise Antony (Guest Post) on Hilde Lindemann’s comments

Louise Antony writes:

In light of the discussion on Brian Leiter’s blog, I want to say something in support of Hilde Lindemann’s comments in the recent Chronicle of Higher Education article on the East Carolina U/Colin McGinn incident. Many commenters are incensed that Prof. Lindemann seemed to endorse the use of “unofficial information” (as Daily Nous put it) in decisions such as the ECU Phil. Department’s vote to offer a distinguished visiting position to Colin McGinn. I’m baffled by this. Is there anyone out there in Bloggo-land who wants to say that scholarly achievement is the only consideration that should count in deciding whether or not to offer someone a position? (Anyone who says that it is the only thing that counts is simply wrong.) Every department I’ve ever been affiliated with has always – and quite rightly — taken into account both the candidate’s likely collegiality and his or her potential as a teacher and mentor. So now the question is: what kind of evidence can one use in assessing a candidate’s collegiality and potential as a teacher and mentor? Postings on a public blog can provide evidence. Disciplinary actions taken by a candidate’s previous employer can also provide evidence. What about the appropriate standard? Bearing in mind that a hiring meeting is not a criminal trial, that there is no “presumption of innocence” to be overcome, and that an individual’s being brought up for consideration does not engender any presumptive right to the position, it’s clear that the appropriate standard is the one typically used in normal hiring deliberations: what, given the evidence, is it reasonable to believe about how this colleague will behave toward his or her colleagues and students? An official finding that a person has engaged in sexual harassment is certainly very strong evidence that that person is untrustworthy – but it’s not the only evidence that can support that conclusion.
I understand that there’s tremendous concern about false accusation and innuendo – at least when the case at hand involves men and sex. So yes, the evidence needs to be looked at carefully in any particular instance. But are hiring committees supposed to ignore the evidence that exists? Are they supposed to disregard the fact of disciplinary actions taken by a previous employer? Are they supposed to ignore what the candidate has to say about the matter on a public blog? A decision not to offer a position to someone because there’s good reason to think the person is a danger to students is not a violation of anyone’s rights. A decision to go ahead and appoint such a person despite the evidence is reprehensible.

Parenting and careers in philosophy

At NewApps, Helen de Cruz has interviewed seven parents (six mothers and one fathers) who have tenured or permanent jobs in philosophy on various aspects of how parenting has and continues to affect their careers. Many of these stories are familiar – but it’s good to know that one is not alone!

CFP: Journal of the APA

Sally Haslanger writes:

The Journal of the APA will be launching this coming spring. It is crucial to the success of the journal that it represent research done by the many different intellectual constituencies of the APA. The editorial board is highly sensitive to this fact. Those working in philosophy of race/ethnicity, gender, sexuality, disability, class, those doing Continental philosophy, history of philosophy, those doing innovative philosophy outside the mainstream, PLEASE submit your work, and sooner rather than later. The APA is changing and it will change for the better only if we all make an effort to move it in the right direction. This is a chance to do so.


Sally adds:  Find more information about the journal here:
Find submission link here:


She put this in comments, but I’m closing comments because I don’t have the time or energy to moderate and I think it’s about to get ugly.

Women’s representation in ethics

People frequently suggest, at least in conversation, that there are more women in ethics than in other fields; and even that the relatively dearth of women in other fields may be explained by their large numbers in ethics. We still don’t know whether either of these things are true.  But thanks to Kate Norlock’s excellent work with splendid Trent University student Cole Murdoch, we do know a bit more about how well represented women are in two leading ethics journals.

Philosop-her on the Philosophers’ Annual

Philosop-her has a great post up about trends in the Philosophers’ Annual:

Despite the fact that the Philosophers Annual (PA) is doing better on the political philosophy front, I have a few worries that were prompted by discussions on Facebook (thanks to J.D. and E.B. and others for bringing my attention to these issues). It seems that the PA has recognized papers in philosophy of race only twice since the year 2000: from the literature of 2001, Robert Bernasconi, “Who Invented the Concept of Race?”; and from the literature of 2000, Sally Haslanger, “Gender and Race: (What) Are They? (What) Do We Want Them To Be?” Something similar seems to be true of feminist philosophy as well. There have been three papers recognized in the area of feminist philosophy since 2000: from the literature of 2007, Sally Haslanger, “Gender and Race: (What) Are They? (What) Do We Want Them To Be?”; from the literature of 2001, Karen Jones, “The Politics of Credibility”; from the literature of 2000, Sally Haslanger, “Gender and Race: (What) Are They? (What) Do We Want Them To Be?” Admittedly, I did a quick and incomplete survey (considering only up to the year 2000). If anyone has determined the exact numbers of entries in these two areas since the beginning of the PA, I would be grateful if you could share that information with me.

It cannot possibly be true that of the very best articles in philosophy since 2000 that only 5 of the best articles are in the area of race and gender. That we are led to this conclusion by the PA may suggest that there is something wrong with the methodology behind the PA.

We can and should have a conversation about the specifics of the PA methodology. But personally, I’m of the opinion that any attempt to rank and codify what is ‘best’ in our discipline is going to be subject to – and more worryingly, is going to reinforce – the sorts of oversights and biases our discipline is plagued by. 



Daily Nous has opened a thread inviting suggestions of great philosophy of race and philosophy of gender/feminist philosophy that have been written during the relevant time period (i.e., 2000-2013). 


Study Raises Questions About Why Women Are Less Likely than Men to Earn Tenure Research

You can read the article here


“Not only are men more likely than women to earn tenure, but in computer science and sociology, they are significantly more likely to earn tenure than are women who have the same research productivity.”


““It’s not that we need to make women more productive. It’s that we need to change the processes,” said Kate Weisshaar, a graduate student at Stanford University who did the study.”

McGinn hiring blocked

Administrators at East Carolina University have turned down the philosophy department’s request to award a one-year endowed professorship to Colin McGinn—a prominent philosopher who resigned from the University of Miami in December following allegations of sexual harassment by a female graduate student.

For the Chronicle story, go here.

For words of wisdom from Eric Schliesser, go here.

For a discussion about use of unofficial information in hiring go to the Daily Nous.