“We’re all smart. Distinguish yourself by being kind.”
October 17, 2014 2:47 PM   Subscribe

Philosopher Brian Leiter announced that he will be stepping down as editor of the Philosophical Gourmet Report, a highly influential reputational ranking of philosophy Ph.D. programs he created in 1989 while he was a graduate student, and which has been published on the Internet since 1996.

Leiter’s agreement to resign from the editorship was negotiated with the PGR’s advisory board after a majority of the board, in a letter drafted by David Chalmers (NYU), Jonathan Schaffer (Rutgers), Susanna Siegel (Harvard), and Jason Stanley (Yale), requested that he turn over the rankings to new management. This letter was delivered to Leiter shortly after the posting of what has come to be called the “September Statement,” an open letter from philosophers “declining to volunteer our services to the PGR while it is under the control of Brian Leiter.” The September Statement currently has over 620 signatures.

The 2014 PGR Controversy timeline

Archive of The Meltdown
posted by standardasparagus (74 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
 
Professor Jenkins is a casual friend of mine. Although I have only the barest connections to the academic world, I've been following this story with some interest and am happy to see this victory.
posted by WaylandSmith at 2:54 PM on October 17, 2014 [2 favorites]


Furthermore, I can attest that she is indeed a "civilized person" in "real life".
posted by WaylandSmith at 3:16 PM on October 17, 2014


This is the first I've heard of this (not a philosopher), but Leiter's responses to criticism are fascinating. I know that academics are no less flawed than other people, but wow, the emotional immaturity Leiter displays took me by surprise.

The legal threats are bizarre, and I can only assume that as a professional Leiter knew that they were empty when he made them, which, ... wow.

Today, completely unrelated, I asked a colleague who took some philosophy courses why she thinks women are so underrepresented. Some of the comments on these posts (from people other than Leiter) are enlightening.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 3:20 PM on October 17, 2014 [4 favorites]


I have no idea what Leiter has done or is alleged to have done - I don't follow his blog - when I was in Grad school I read some of his work and it was always extremely clear and intemperate - it is bizarre to see the "fall" of a cleary top philosopher comes from some political correctness debate. If you want good evidence for the cathedral surely this is it.
posted by Another Fine Product From The Nonsense Factory at 3:21 PM on October 17, 2014 [2 favorites]


So the whole controversy kicked off because his advisory board was 15%ish Female as compared to 23% in tenure track roles across the discipline?
posted by JPD at 3:28 PM on October 17, 2014


That of course does not excuse his response s or his behavior
posted by JPD at 3:33 PM on October 17, 2014


What a bizarre comment. Leiter has been a grade A asshole for a long time now. Everyone knows it.

There is no political correctness debate here. Leiter acted unprofessionally. He threatened to sue a bunch of philosophers for defamation. That many of those he threatened were women doesn't make it better, it makes it worse.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 3:33 PM on October 17, 2014 [11 favorites]


There is also the whole "Peter Aduren" thing from last year.
posted by Elementary Penguin at 3:40 PM on October 17, 2014 [1 favorite]


>"Another Fine Product From the Nonsense Factory"

Indeed!
posted by DGStieber at 3:43 PM on October 17, 2014 [3 favorites]


Ya, I don't know where that comment comes from either.

Jenkins posted this blog post and Leiter lost his shit, even though she explicitly states that these are HER intentions as a professor, and her purpose in posting them is to be held accountable to them by others. Was this a thinly-veiled statement by her indicating that she finds the behaviours of others in her profession to need improvement? (I don't actually know, but) Who cares?! The fact is that Leiter used that as the basis to accuse her of a personal attack against him, which would be absurd, unless he both:

A) Held himself in such high regard as to assume that a general criticism about the state of that academic discipline equated an attack against him personally

B) Felt threatened by a statement that, in effect, said, "People should be nicer to each other."
posted by WaylandSmith at 3:48 PM on October 17, 2014 [4 favorites]


So, Caroline Jenkins writes this blog post that basically boils down (IMHO) to: 1) I'll try to be nice, 2) I won't give a pass to others who aren't being nice, and 3) I'll try to help out people who are being picked on. It doesn't mention Brian Leiter at all, but someone else infers that it's really about a recent, messy fight that Leiter had picked with Carolyn Dicey.

In response, Brian Leiter goes fucking bananas. He interprets the lines "I will not accept or treat those whose behaviour regularly fails to meet these standards as normal or representative members of my profession." as a threat intimating that she might "spit at me if I see you at the APA or chase me from the room with a bat?". Of course, he's probably being deliberately hyperbolic. But seriously? This is his reaction? To a blog post about trying to be nice and that doesn't even refer to him in particular, not even obliquely?

Trying to pin this on some kind of "political correctness" (and, by the way, who even says that?) is, I think, at best a misinterpretation.
posted by mhum at 3:50 PM on October 17, 2014 [8 favorites]


I wonder if Leiter plays video games and is a big fan of Firefly.
posted by Poldo at 4:04 PM on October 17, 2014 [5 favorites]


Clearly, Political Correctness broke into his house, kicked his dog, drank all his liquor, and then held a gun to his head to make him behave like this. It's the only explanation.
posted by rtha at 4:08 PM on October 17, 2014 [6 favorites]


What is wrong with threatening to sue for defamation? That is a usual precursor to actually suing. or did he neither put up nor shut up? I.e was he still claiming he is right and refusing to sue X months later?
posted by Another Fine Product From The Nonsense Factory at 4:11 PM on October 17, 2014


The comment section here (taken from a link in the timeline) is fascinating.
posted by rtha at 4:12 PM on October 17, 2014 [1 favorite]


You're being willfully obtuse.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 4:13 PM on October 17, 2014 [1 favorite]


This is what happens when you have a discipline about nothing.
posted by spitbull at 4:14 PM on October 17, 2014


[ranking] philosophy Ph.D. programs by job placement record as an additional source of information for prospective graduate students

Lol. If you rank PhD pretty programs by ANY other metric you're lying.
posted by spitbull at 4:19 PM on October 17, 2014 [6 favorites]


What is wrong with threatening to sue for defamation?

Threats of lawsuit look like he is attempting to silence and bully people he perceives as critics.

That is a usual precursor to actually suing. or did he neither put up nor shut up? I.e was he still claiming he is right and refusing to sue X months later?

Do you honestly believe that Professor Leiter is going to sue anyone for the contents of a blog post?

Someone once tried to sue me for for saying that they should get psychological help (they believed that aliens were communicating with them through crop circles, I think). That sort of proved my point, don't you think?
posted by muddgirl at 4:26 PM on October 17, 2014


Do you honestly believe that Professor Leiter is going to sue anyone for the contents of a blog post?

And not just any blog post — a blog post that doesn't mention him at all, or even contain anything that a casual reader would interpret as an allusion to him!
posted by nebulawindphone at 4:36 PM on October 17, 2014 [3 favorites]


This is what happens when you have a discipline about nothing

Doesn't really matter what subject it is. These geysers of academic rancor can erupt anywhere. I read an NYT article, long ago, about the Columbia English Department. There were two factions, basically traditional English literature scholars and people who were doing deconstruction and other new critical theory stuff, in high 1980's style. The division between these groups became very bitter, and factional politics deadlocked hires, tenure, and things like that, for years. I suppose they eventually had to cut deals, to just operate the department, but the article said that there were full professors on the department who had not spoken to each other for 10 years. Romance Language departments also seem to summon the drama llama with some regularity.
posted by thelonius at 4:47 PM on October 17, 2014 [3 favorites]


These geysers of academic rancor can erupt anywhere.

They can, but for some reason, philosophy is just the worst. In particular, the misogyny is just soooo much more vile and visible and undeniable.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 4:50 PM on October 17, 2014 [2 favorites]


Good luck in the War On Assholes.
posted by echocollate at 5:10 PM on October 17, 2014 [2 favorites]


What is wrong with threatening to sue for defamation?

Is this a serious question?

Any reasonable person can see that no defamation took place; his threats have as much credibility as those from a random internet troll. And, furthermore, since he's a legal scholar, we have good reason to believe that he knew better--i.e. that he knew those are empty threats. He was attempting to intimidate people he believes are critics.

Likewise, you can ask "What's wrong with honking your car horn?" Nothing's wrong with honking your car horn when it's called for, but if you do it to scare or harass people you're an asshole.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 5:11 PM on October 17, 2014 [2 favorites]


Leiter is famous mostly for being singularly obsessed with law school and philosophy grad programs rankings. He is obviously very intelligent, but his choice of focus is stupefyingly bizarre. Arguments over whether or not U of Michigan is in the top six, whether UT rightfully belongs in the top 14, that sort of thing. You might think I'm joking, but this is what he spent a huge amount of time on. For years.
posted by skewed at 5:26 PM on October 17, 2014 [2 favorites]


Any reasonable person can see that no defamation took place; his threats have as much credibility as those from a random internet troll. And, furthermore, since he's a legal scholar, we have good reason to believe that he knew better--i.e. that he knew those are empty threats. He was attempting to intimidate people he believes are critics.

If everyone knows the threats are empty, how are they intimidating? Isn't that like the kid on the playground who turns purple and threatens to Destroy You All? Does this guy have influence over the careers of any of these people? Can he, for example, stymie efforts to publish or block tenure and the like? Is his total crime being a really smart crybaby/brat, or does he wield actual power over Jenkins and co.? Serious inquiry, I have no idea.
posted by echocollate at 5:27 PM on October 17, 2014


Leiter's a big name and has a lot of sway. Less so because he's a big ol baby.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 5:33 PM on October 17, 2014 [1 favorite]


If everyone knows the threats are empty, how are they intimidating?

It's not the content of the threat, it's the attack from one of the most recognizable and professionally influential people in your field. And there's also the fact that baseless litigation can be time-consuming, expensive, and damaging to your reputation.
posted by fatbird at 5:34 PM on October 17, 2014 [3 favorites]


Yeah, I'm not in the "discipline about nothing" camp at all here — there's some super important stuff that's come out of academic philosophy — but it really is much shittier than any other academic field I know of when it comes to sexism, racism, and all-around unprofessional BS. Other academic fields have plenty of assholes, and philosophy has plenty of lovely people (including a bunch of really great feminist philosophers, and at least a few people doing good stuff about racism) but the average level of decency in philosophy is a lot lower, and the field as a whole has been a lot slower to come around to the idea that something needs to be done about that shit.

Does this guy have influence over the careers of any of these people? Can he, for example, stymie efforts to publish or block tenure and the like?

I'm not a philosopher, but my sense is that a lot of his power and influence came from the fact that he was running the PGR. He'd basically gotten himself into a position where he was the public arbiter of which departments (and even which individual philosophers) were doing Good Important Work and which ones were Just Fucking Around. A lot of people said "Fuck, just don't read the PGR" — but if you cared about getting a job in philosophy, or being able to place your students once you'd gotten a job, you couldn't really afford to ignore it entirely. So yeah, the fact that the guy playing that role was also a huge asshole was kind of a big deal.
posted by nebulawindphone at 5:35 PM on October 17, 2014 [9 favorites]


If everyone knows the threats are empty, how are they intimidating?

Dealing with an actual lawsuit, even if meritless, is no fun, and is not cheap, and who the hell knows what he'll do? He is, also, fairly influential.
posted by kenko at 5:35 PM on October 17, 2014 [1 favorite]


If everyone knows the threats are empty, how are they intimidating? Isn't that like the kid on the playground who turns purple and threatens to Destroy You All? Does this guy have influence over the careers of any of these people? Can he, for example, stymie efforts to publish or block tenure and the like? Is his total crime being a really smart crybaby/brat, or does he wield actual power over Jenkins and co.? Serious inquiry, I have no idea.

Imagine that this person was in charge of the equivalent of the US News and World Report rankings for your specific field, and is going around announcing to anyone who will listen that yours is a "shit department" and you begin to see the problem.
posted by firechicago at 5:36 PM on October 17, 2014 [2 favorites]


Yea, I guess I imagine that that kind of behavior is self-ostracizing but maybe not. Like, a lot of people have beef with Harlan Ellison because he's a raging dickhole, and though he remains influential and respected for his work, it doesn't stop other people from pointing out what a raging dickhole he is. Nobody writes a personal civility manifesto obliquely aimed at Harlan Ellison because he got a little rage spittle on them. I'm having trouble understanding how this is different, but IANAP, so maybe I'm missing some crucial context.
posted by echocollate at 5:37 PM on October 17, 2014


Imagine that this person was in charge of the equivalent of the US News and World Report rankings for your specific field, and is going around announcing to anyone who will listen that yours is a "shit department" and you begin to see the problem.

Thanks, that answers the question about wielding actual power/influence.
posted by echocollate at 5:38 PM on October 17, 2014


Dealing with an actual lawsuit, even if meritless, is no fun, and is not cheap, and who the hell knows what he'll do? He is, also, fairly influential.

I question the intellectual bona fides of anybody who would waste money filing a suit he knows he can't win. I presumed nobody actual believed he would and that the whole "threat" was the kind of transparent temper tantrum one wouldn't take seriously.

On reflection, this guy reminds me a lot of my high school Dungeon Master. I wonder if he games.
posted by echocollate at 5:43 PM on October 17, 2014 [1 favorite]


echocollate, IANAPE, but I've read the blog post that supposedly started this whole thing and therefore don't go around saying stuff like it was "obliquely aimed" at someone in particular. That comes from Leiter and no place else.
posted by tigrrrlily at 5:47 PM on October 17, 2014 [2 favorites]


He is obviously very intelligent

I don't see that that necessarily follows from the available evidence. (I will note that the email exchange linked in mhum's post, wherein our hero, now the possesser of a @uchicago.edu address after spending most of his career in Austin, tells the Emory professor that she is a member of "a shit department", is a wonderful little fable about academia).
posted by junco at 5:50 PM on October 17, 2014 [1 favorite]


Yea, I guess I imagine that that kind of behavior is self-ostracizing but maybe not. Like, a lot of people have beef with Harlan Ellison because he's a raging dickhole, and though he remains influential and respected for his work, it doesn't stop other people from pointing out what a raging dickhole he is. Nobody writes a personal civility manifesto obliquely aimed at Harlan Ellison because he got a little rage spittle on them. I'm having trouble understanding how this is different, but IANAP, so maybe I'm missing some crucial context.

Imagine if any time you tried to publish something, no matter which publisher you submitted it to, there was a nontrivial chance that you'd get Harlan Ellison as the guy reading your manuscript.

And imagine that small presses basically didn't count — that publications in minor venues were seen as adding nothing to your reputation or prestige, even if they were total runaway successes in terms of sales or readership or whatever.

And imagine that if you didn't publish enough stuff in major venues during the first few years when you were writing, you could get denied tenure banished for life from fandom.

Tenure and peer review are good and important things, but they're also hella fragile. They really really strongly depend on not having raging dickholes in positions of power and influence. And they also make it difficult to dislodge raging dickholes who have gotten themselves into that sort of position.
posted by nebulawindphone at 5:54 PM on October 17, 2014 [11 favorites]


Yeah, for those not familiar with him, Leiter's in a unique position in (anglophone academic) philosophy. I don't even know if other fields have anyone remotely equivalent. He is the Grand Central Station of professional news/gossip/etc in what is basically a very small world. He initiated the current ranking system twenty? years ago, and has been the single person running the rankings (with input from many others, and he's been transparent about the process, but still it has all gone through him). He has probably the most widely read philosophy-profession-news blog. He is incredibly well-connected, etc. For him to threaten that "things will get around" about a younger philosopher that he has a disagreement with is, it would seem to me, reasonably interpretable as a genuine threat that he has the power to actually damage their career.

He combines this hugely influential position with extemely strong expressions of his own opinions on, for example, which projects in philosophy are worth pursuing. This has led to pushback from various quarters over years and years. Some of those pushers-back have been more reasonable than others, and Leiter has reacted sometimes reasonably and sometimes with outsized rhetoric against them.

Setting up the rankings and compiling the information over the years has been valuable, and serving as a central clearinghouse of info on faculty moves, etc, is also useful. But threatening junior people is out of bounds, as the guy who runs the rankings. Maybe he doesn't realize how threatening he comes across, I don't know; he's certainly spoken out against bullying behaviors in other cases, so it's not as simple as him thinking powerful people in the field should have no limits on what they can say to less-powerful people. He's taken a lot of flak over the years and maybe he sees it as more of a level playing field where he's just giving as good as he gets -- but it seems to me that is unrealistic, and he is in a much, much more powerful position to threaten retaliation than the person he was fighting with here.

It's good that he has decided to step down from running the PGR and hand it over to Brogaard and a board. Hats off to Seigel et al for sending a letter that gave him a graceful out. (And hats off maybe to Haslanger et al for publicizing the original messages, although I should say I haven't looked into the exact circumstances there.) I'm hopeful this will end up having been a bad situation with a good outcome.
posted by LobsterMitten at 5:54 PM on October 17, 2014 [18 favorites]


it doesn't stop other people from pointing out what a raging dickhole [Harlan Ellison] is

I could be wrong, but I think Harlan Ellison wasn't punitive about the observation, he was welcoming of it. He kind of embraced his "I'm a dickhole" persona. Leiter, OTOH, lost his shit over what he perceived was an oblique attack.
posted by fatbird at 5:59 PM on October 17, 2014 [2 favorites]


echocollate, IANAPE, but I've read the blog post that supposedly started this whole thing and therefore don't go around saying stuff like it was "obliquely aimed" at someone in particular. That comes from Leiter and no place else.

Pardon. I amend. The allegedly oblique attack. Clearly IANAL either. And, yes, I read the blog post too (and the comments), and I don't believe it's unreasonable speculation to think that the post was aimed at Leiter.
posted by echocollate at 6:03 PM on October 17, 2014


Good point, fatbird. Harlan was the first comparison that came to mind. Ob not a perfect analogy.
posted by echocollate at 6:05 PM on October 17, 2014


Thanks, LobsterMitten, that's exactly the context I was missing.
posted by echocollate at 6:06 PM on October 17, 2014 [2 favorites]


Leiter generally seems to me to reflect philosophy's own status obsession, which, in my opinion, there's something really sad about.
posted by batfish at 6:16 PM on October 17, 2014


It's very interesting to think about Leiter's effect on the field. Because both of his big projects - the rankings and the blog - are sort of status-conscious and gossipy in a way that we might think isn't great... BUT they have the effect of making information available to a lot of smaller or poorly-connected undergrad programs that otherwise would have just nothing to go on. It really serves a pretty egalitarian purpose, making it so that you can keep up on major professional news (who's moving where, what are the best-regarded departments in some specific subfield) without needing to be hooked in to the old-boys network. It's important, I think.

Of course, it can be taken too seriously -- enshrining, as conventional wisdom, certain judgments about which subfields or which projects are the "best" that aren't necessarily the correct/only reasonable judgments. Even having rankings at all has various effects that we might not really endorse if we fully understood them. (E.g., I've seen it speculated, attracting people who are hyper status conscious to the field, whereas before those people might have gone to eg law school where they could know for sure they got into the #1 school.)

But I think distributing the information is helpful, and distributing information about judgments (what kinds of things are valued by people in the field) is too. So I hope this doesn't mean he will stop posting news of faculty moves on his blog, and I hope it will mean the PGR becomes a more robust institution.
posted by LobsterMitten at 6:23 PM on October 17, 2014 [5 favorites]


I'm kind of surprised this is on Metafilter. It's taken up an enormous part of my social network's time and energy, but I'd kind of thought that was silly.

One thing a lot of us have argued about is whether there should be rankings at all. It's weird to treat philosophy departments like March Madness, especially when the metrics are reputation surveys and not publications or grants or placement rates. But it looks like there will be rankings in philosophy for the foreseeable future.
posted by anotherpanacea at 7:07 PM on October 17, 2014


Leiter's also a big opponent of the law school scam blog movement.

Last year, he allowed Michael Simkovic, who published a study claiming that a law degree adds a million dollars to a person's lifetime earnings, a large forum from which to take potshots at pro-scamblog professors like Brian Tamanaha and Paul Campos.

He is also widely believed to have been behind Nancy Leong filing a disciplinary complaint against a lawyer who wrote critical and somewhat sexist comments about her on JD Underground and Outside the Law School Scam.

He is obsessed with his online critics and will stop at nothing to unmask them. It is not a surprise that he reacted this way to Jenkins' comment.
posted by reenum at 7:48 PM on October 17, 2014 [1 favorite]


He is also widely believed to have been behind Nancy Leong filing a disciplinary complaint against a lawyer who wrote critical and somewhat sexist comments about her on JD Underground and Outside the Law School Scam.

Just dug up some of Leiter's writing on this. I read Leong's blog and essays quite a bit, and the comments she filed a complaint about, IMO, were beyond somewhat sexist. However, comparing Leong's four part analysis of the online harassment of women bloggers and Leiter's take is pretty interesting. The results of the ethics probe and Prof. Leong's response are here.
posted by muddgirl at 8:15 PM on October 17, 2014 [1 favorite]


someone should say this better than me, but philosophy is absolutely not about nothing, it's totally all about everything - really
posted by nikoniko at 1:20 AM on October 18, 2014 [3 favorites]


"The nothing itself noths."
- Martin Heidegger

Yes this is an actual quote and not a joke.
posted by Pyrogenesis at 3:49 AM on October 18, 2014 [1 favorite]


Metafilter 2014: I'm kind of surprised this is on Metafilter.
posted by spock at 6:14 AM on October 18, 2014


Maybe he doesn't realize how threatening he comes across, I don't know; he's certainly spoken out against bullying behaviors in other cases, so it's not as simple as him thinking powerful people in the field should have no limits on what they can say to less-powerful people.

The only way he could not be aware of the effect his comments gave is pure willful ignorance of how power works. Or about the bleed of horrific stories, especially about the treatment and harassment of women, from philosophy. At this point of the recent paroxysms the field has been going through, the men tossing up their hands at astonishment that their behaviour is problematic are about one remove from GamerGate trolls pretending astonishment that their behaviour is found offensive.

He's a smart man. He knows both how academia and academic reputation work and the power of influential voices in small areas. It may be convenient for him to pretend otherwise, but that's neither here nor there.
posted by lesbiassparrow at 6:22 AM on October 18, 2014 [4 favorites]


"Das Nichts selbst nichtet." I am no Heidegger scholar, but he seems to be taking potshots at the idea that nothing is a meaningful concept. Hegel before him and Sartre afterwards tried to get a lot out of nothing as an idea, so he may actually not be doing something stupid in this sentence.

(You can't just say "The nothing is nothing" because it implies that the nothing "is," that is, that nothing is a thing that exists and is then negated. So he invents the neologism "nichtet" to suggest that nothing isn't even a thing that can be nothing. Or maybe not; I'm no Heidegger scholar.)
posted by anotherpanacea at 6:22 AM on October 18, 2014 [2 favorites]


He is also widely believed to have been behind Nancy Leong filing a disciplinary complaint against a lawyer who wrote critical and somewhat sexist comments about her on JD Underground and Outside the Law School Scam.

"Somewhat"?!? No, I'd say they were pretty well completely sexist. See, the thing about Leiter is that in many, many respects he's a good guy with good politics and good scholarship.

But in other respects, he's combined things that shouldn't be combined and taken a really wrong-headed approach to methodological issues with education and rankings. But no one should assume he's all bad; he's very much not. I think both he and the PGR will be stronger and happier when they are separated.
posted by anotherpanacea at 6:26 AM on October 18, 2014 [1 favorite]


For a very eloquent answer to the "why was she intimidated by an empty threat?" question, see LGM commenter Aimai's post in the "Update" here:

"Her [Prof. Jenkins'] original post, which essentially celebrated her happy ascension to being a professor in a treasured field, was instantly stalked and trolled and attacked by a prominent professional in her field who put her on notice that nothing she wrote or published would happen without his eye falling on it, that whatever she wrote could be construed as legally actionable, that he would be watching her to make sure that she steered clear of the sin of ever impinging on his gaping wound of an ego. In other words: she’s minding her own business and an important, touchy, asshole turns out to be stalking her and turning her private and professional life into a legal cause of action."

The whole discussion there is well worth reading.
posted by Eyebeams at 6:27 AM on October 18, 2014 [2 favorites]


someone should say this better than me, but philosophy is absolutely not about nothing, it's totally all about everything - really

Ehhh... I guess so but then it becomes really diluted. Lemme put it this way: my research/career can benefit a lot from readings in other disciplines, like sociology, history, stat, etc. I think I can be safely ignorant of everything published by academic philosophers in the past 20 years and I won't be significantly worse off.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 6:40 AM on October 18, 2014


How would you know, if you don't read it? I think disciplinary philosophers have done quite a lot of important work on race and gender, on moral psychology, on political economy, on method and explanation in the social sciences, and on democratic theory in the last twenty years.

I don't know your field, but it's unlikely that it's been completely philosophy-free during that time period. Like economics, we have a somewhat imperial tendency to intervene fruitfully elsewhere.
posted by anotherpanacea at 8:07 AM on October 18, 2014 [1 favorite]


Oh I do read it! and I find a lot of it very interesting, or rather some of the books that philosophers have written have been interesting.

I'm in poli sci, and we have political theory, which has a lot of overlap with philosophy. But its also invariably the least useful articles/sections at conferences.

Let me put it this way: David Lewis is the most important academic philosopher of the 20th century, no? How influential has he been outside of philosophy?

And I think its true that disciplinary philosophers have brought their skills to other fields and improved them. But IMHO that only speaks to the utility and skills gained to studying philosophy, not to the research that academic philosophers produce.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 9:44 AM on October 18, 2014


Lemme put it this way: my research/career can benefit a lot from readings in other disciplines, like sociology, history, stat, etc. I think I can be safely ignorant of everything published by academic philosophers in the past 20 years and I won't be significantly worse off.

Philosophy is not about nothing, nor is it about everything whatsoever. It's the self-interpretation of the human being, and so potentially includes everything that falls under human experience.

Whatever your field is, if philosophical reflection no longer seems useful to it, that's probably because the philosophical issues at its core -- for example, problems relating to its epistemological standards (what counts as knowledge in the field in question), and problems of ontology (what counts as a thing in the field in question, e.g., the species-problem in biology) -- have already been more or less settled. The philosophical heavy lifting having been accomplished already, the work of science can proceed in a more business like manner.

I think one can say without exaggeration that there is not a single scientific discipline in existence today that did not begin as something that would better have been called philosophy than science.
posted by dis_integration at 9:56 AM on October 18, 2014 [1 favorite]


David Lewis is the most important academic philosopher of the 20th century, no?

No.
posted by batfish at 12:05 PM on October 18, 2014 [2 favorites]


If you disagree, then put in 'one of the most important' and my point is the same.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 12:15 PM on October 18, 2014


Let me put it this way: David Lewis is the most important academic philosopher of the 20th century, no? How influential has he been outside of philosophy?

I agree with the above, that "most important" is too strong. Russell, Wittgenstein, Carnap, Quine, and others have probably much better claims. I suspect you are influenced by Kieran Healy's work, which shows that Lewis is the most-cited philosopher, over a couple recent decades, in a handful of prestigious journals -- definitely a meaningful statistic, but not strong enough to support your claims.

I think Lewis's work on convention is regularly cited in evolutionary biology (although it's not always obvious to me when an evolution paper has been written by a philosopher, so maybe it's usually cited by philosophers).

Lewis also appears 10(!!) times in the index of Judea Pearl's seminal Causality. Judea Pearl is not a philosopher, and Causality is a math book. But Lewis turns up a bunch because Lewis wrote on causality. I suspect there are many similar examples out there; I just opened this book because I thought he might be there.

So actually I think Lewis does very well in the relevance stakes. He wrote in areas that were not yet formalized (some signaling problems in game theory; the analysis of causation), and his work continues to have influence as those areas are formalized. It's hard to see what more you can hope for as a philosopher. And it also shows resoundingly that his work is not "about nothing."

But Lewis is also a "philosopher's philosopher," because nobody outside of philosophy cares about modal realism (except possibly to make fun of it). So you are right that he played a lot of inside baseball, and philosophers taken as a whole play a lot of inside baseball.

So the answer to, "How influential has he been outside of philosophy?" is: pretty influential actually. But maybe not quite as influential as he's been inside philosophy. (Inside of a dog, it's too dark to read!)
posted by grobstein at 2:05 PM on October 18, 2014 [8 favorites]


Lewis's stuff has also been hugely influential in linguistics. And it's not just armchair linguists who are using his stuff: at this point, there's a decent number of field linguists working on meaning and discourse structure in other languages who are using models that he (and Stalnaker, and to some extent Kripke) made possible. I'm thinking here not just about Lewis and Kripke's possible worlds stuff, but also about the stuff they and Stalnaker did on the conventions that govern language use. Convention and Scorekeeping in a Language Game are the things of Lewis's that are most relevant. And probably most field linguists aren't reading those things directly, but they're definitely reading other things that use Lewis's work in crucial ways.

And that stuff in turn was building on work by Wittgenstein that looks on first glance like total navel-gazing pointlessness if you're not a philosopher — and also on stuff by all the other people that grobstein mentions, Carnap and Russell and Quine and so on.

One of the things with philosophy is that it's a lot like pure math in that you can't tell ahead of time what's going to be useful. Prime numbers were useless for thousands of years until suddenly they weren't. Wittgenstein's stuff on language games looked pretty disconnected from the day-to-day business of language documentation until some guys came along who were inspired by his work to strike off in another direction and build those connections.
posted by nebulawindphone at 2:25 PM on October 18, 2014 [2 favorites]


MisantropicPainforest, I would have thought that an important political philosopher for the 20th century would be Rawls or Habermas, or even Levinas, who gets used a lot even by the commonfolk in Europe.

David Lewis is certainly at the top of a particular pyramid, but as nebulawindphone points out, it's a pyramid that's well away from, say, military application, or whatever our metrics of relevance are likely to be. That doesn't make it useless.

Sorry for the derail. I do philosophy of race and gender myself, and I like to think that, with the UN and other projects going on, folks in my neighborhood have been having an impact on lots of the thinking that's going one around the world.

On topic: Hooray for the end of Leiter's power. Not nearly as smart as he thinks he is, or as benevolent. A fine move all around.
posted by allthinky at 6:37 PM on October 18, 2014


If you disagree, then put in 'one of the most important' and my point is the same.

Actually it's pretty unclear what your point is. Is it just that David Lewis isn't widely read outside of philosophy?
posted by batfish at 6:52 PM on October 18, 2014


there are a lot of huge egos in philosophy
but that's an empirical inquiry, and need not concern us here
posted by thelonius at 3:08 AM on October 19, 2014 [6 favorites]


I'm in poli sci, and we have political theory, which has a lot of overlap with philosophy. But its also invariably the least useful articles/sections at conferences.

That's cool. We should have a meetup at the next APSA! I don't really have a good response to this, because I realize that even in political science there's a lot of diversity of research programs. But it's possible you're just attending the wrong sections: at the last APSA, Jenny Mansbridge stood up and told us that the panel we had organized was the most important session of the conference, in her opinion. (She may have said it was one of the TWO most important panels: I was kind of stunned that she was even there so I didn't quite catch the whole thing.) Of course, Mansbridge is a little bit of a theorist, but she also used to be APSA President.

I agree with other commenters that while David Lewis was ingenius and prolific, he is probably not the best person for you to be reading, especially if you're looking for recent work. (He died in 2001.)

But in the last 20 years, it seems like this list probably includes some folks you've read or should read. Not all of them, necessarily, but depending on your sub-speciality at least some of them will be relevant:

Elizabeth Anderson, Phillip Pettit, Martha Nussbaum, David Estlund, Robert Talisse, Jerry Gauss, Peter Levine, Daniel Levine, Michael Walzer, Tommie Shelby, R.A. Duff, Christopher Bennett, Derek Parfit, G.A. Cohen, Laurie Paul, Jason Stanley, Michael Huemer, Angela Davis, Tamler Sommers, Charles Larmore, Josh Cohen, Nancy Cartwright, Jerry Fodor, Charles Mills, Christine Korsgaard, Frances Kamm, and Carol Pateman.

It'd be a much longer list if I included political theorists who are doing philosophical work. But of course, much depends on how we draw these lines in the first place so I didn't want to beg that question. I believe these are all academic philosophers. It gets weirder because I believe Amartya Sen actually has an appointment in philosophy at Harvard, but if I got to count him I think this whole question would just explode into absurdity. (Most of John Rawls' Law of Peoples stuff was published in the last 20 years, too, but again that feels like cheating, plus the original article was 21 years ago.)

I should mention I run a small journal in political theory, but have a PhD and job in philosophy. I, too, sometimes feel the pull of political science as I get tired of the incessant emphasis on Metaphysics, Epistemology, Logic, and Language in my field. But we do have a lot of good folks doing good work of relevance to political science while still being (more than just nominal) philosophers.
posted by anotherpanacea at 8:24 AM on October 19, 2014 [2 favorites]


OK: looking back I think I included a couple of people who don't have philosophy appointments right now. Apologies. But if I have to give up Angela Davis, I should get to count Amartya Sen. (If only I paid closer attention to Leiter's updates on big moves!)
posted by anotherpanacea at 8:31 AM on October 19, 2014


nobody outside of philosophy cares about modal realism

I care.
posted by mikelieman at 3:44 AM on October 20, 2014 [1 favorite]


Thanks for the responses! What's interesting is that someone mentioned Judea Pearl, which I read two weeks ago. And last night I'm reading some research on the Libyan intervention, and they cite Lewis. So the fault lies with me. Turns out I had my blinders on!
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 4:14 AM on October 21, 2014


I'd sure love a cite to the piece on Libya that uses Lewis.

I was thinking that we had an argument in another thread about causality and taxation and that INUS conditions would be relevant to that discussion. So maybe add J L Mackie to the list. (And Nancy Cartwright's work on randomized controlled trials is pretty smart!)
posted by anotherpanacea at 4:59 AM on October 21, 2014


its Power in Practice: Negotiating the International Intervention in Libya in the European Journal of International Relations.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 5:45 AM on October 21, 2014


Hmm. That's PAUL Lewis, who is apparently a Management Professor at Kings College London. Seems like a pretty good defense of philosophy, though:

"The notion of emergence originates in physics and philosophy but is now also a key concept in social theory (Archer, 1995; for an overview, see Sawyer, 2001). Today, it refers to the complex patterns evolving from multiple interactions among units, rendering the system more than the sum of its parts. Canonical examples of emergence include traffic jams, ant colonies, and bird flocks. However, the types of emergence that are observed in human social interaction result from the unique fact that the participating entities are symbol-generating and interpreting agents (Sawyer, 2001: 561). Crucially, emergent properties are not individual attributes. As Lewis (2010: 210) writes: ‘Emergent properties are structural or relational in the sense that their existence depends [on] parts being organized or arranged into a particular structure that involves them standing in specific relations to one another.’ Emergent power resources, then, originate from, and belong to, specific interaction settings. Consequently, an emergent effect is not additive or predictable from our knowledge of its component."
posted by anotherpanacea at 5:57 AM on October 21, 2014


Oh look, this thread is still open!

Today I learned that David Lewis was the first to formulate the "common knowledge" assumption in game theory.

So overall a not-very-good choice for philosophical celebrity with no relevance to the rest of the world (academy).
posted by grobstein at 7:59 AM on November 14, 2014 [2 favorites]


(Anyone who's taken a game theory course will appreciate that this is extremely important. Common knowledge is generally taught as the key ingredient that makes the Nash equilibrium individually rational -- I know you're going to choose the best response, you know I know, I know you know I know, etc. This apparently is not strictly right, but the weaker conditions were not discovered till 1995.)
posted by grobstein at 8:32 AM on November 14, 2014


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