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Critical Faculties

The philosopher kingmaker

With one simple list, Brian Leiter is changing an entire field


(Globe Photo / Pam Berry )
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Mark Oppenheimer
April 20, 2008

IN 1989, BRIAN Leiter, then a graduate student at the University of Michigan, compiled a list of the best philosophy departments in American universities. He did no formal research or polls; his list was just based on his "gestalt sense" of what the top 25 programs were. He left the list in the library, and some friends passed photocopies to college students applying to graduate schools.

Soon the list - which Leiter updated regularly - became popular among philosophy grad students, who circulated it "like samizdat in the Soviet Union," Leiter says. In 1996, New York University asked his permission to post it on the World Wide Web. The school had just moved up in the rankings and wanted to publicize its achievement. Today Leiter's rankings, now based on a survey of hundreds of professional philosophers and posted online, are awaited in philosophy departments the way the World Cup brackets are awaited in Brazil. Applicants consult them, rising departments crow about them, programs past their prime fear them.

Twenty years after that first photocopied list, it's safe to say that Leiter, a professor at the University of Texas Law School, is the most powerful man in academic philosophy. His site, PhilosophicalGourmet.com, has recorded more than 320,000 hits since 2006, caustic manner with all his opinions has turned him into even more of a celebrity - an accidental celebrity, he would say, but one who does not seem to be running from the spotlight.

. . .

Leiter's passion for philosophy began in high school in Garden City, N.Y., on Long Island, where in his AP French class he read Jean-Paul Sartre. "I got into Princeton early admission, and I wanted to go there because I heard they had the number one philosophy department," Leiter says. "Little did I know most faculty there didn't think Sartre was a real philosopher!"

At Princeton he studied the philosophers Richard Rorty and Raymond Geuss, and after graduation he got degrees from the law school and philosophy department at the University of Michigan. After a short stint at the University of San Diego, he went to Texas and has been there ever since. This fall he is leaving, hired away by the law faculty at the University of Chicago.

Leiter, now 45 and a father of three, insists that his rankings did not help him get the job at Chicago, and he's probably right - especially since he ranks Chicago's philosophy program only 20th, and, he notes, any future improvements in Chicago's rankings could now be dismissed as in-house favoritism. (Leiter also produces a less influential list of law school rankings, on which Chicago fares much better.) The stars in Leiter's rankings include NYU, Rutgers, Princeton, and Michigan (those two tied at number three), and, at five, the University of Pittsburgh. The ascent of NYU, a familiar story in the philosophy world, has been tracked in Leiter's rankings, from 14 in 1995 to two the next year, after some major hires; the department hit number one in 2001. Other departments, like Cornell and Berkeley, have seen their perceived declines become very public.

Leiter's rankings have changed what was once a gentleman's culture - in which prestigious names mattered, word of mouth was important, and gossip was relatively private - into something cruder, but also more democratic. Students curious about graduate school used to have one main source of information, their undergraduate professors, which gave a huge advantage to those who took their bachelor's degrees at elite colleges.

Jon Cotton, a Gordon College graduate who was in his late 30s when he decided to apply to graduate school, was not one of those lucky few. "I always wanted to go to grad school in philosophy, but I didn't have the confidence to apply for a long time," he said. Then he found Leiter's rankings, which also include master's programs - and which told him that Tufts is a good choice for later-life students hoping to land in a top PhD program. "It helped me understand the terrain," said Cotton, who enrolled at Tufts.

Leiter is particularly proud of yet another effect of his rankings: Since philosophy departments can now show quantifiable improvements to college administrators, they can make more effective pleas for money. "There's a big advantage when you deal with your dean, who has 10 different departments saying, 'Give us money and we'll be excellent,"' says Leiter. "How's the dean to know? But here a department can say, 'We want to do the following things,' and two years later, 'We're [ranked] 34 instead of 49,' or, 'Now we're listed as a place to do medieval and ancient philosophy.' "

A 2005 article in the Chronicle of Higher Education about Leiter's rankings backed up his claim: At Tulane, for instance, it found the dean well aware that the school's philosophy department was close to making Leiter's top 50. "It is one of the things I keep in mind in terms of the budget," dean Michael F. Herman told the Chronicle's Robin Wilson. (Although, as of the latest report, Tulane still hasn't cracked the top 50.)

As a result, many top philosophers openly embrace his rankings, even as they despair at the influence of rankings in general. Very few deans of undergraduate colleges have kind words for, say, the US News & World Report survey, which they think is a crude tool, insufficiently precise. But dozens of philosophers speak up for Leiter.

Leiter does have detractors. In 2002, the Harvard philosopher Richard Heck (now at Brown) started a petition against the rankings, accusing them of being methodologically flawed and harmful to the profession; he got close to 300 signatories.

Heck now says that the report has improved, although not enough (his recent views are online at frege.brown.edu/heck/philosophy/aboutpgr.php). Other philosophers make various charges, saying, for instance, that the report measures the quality of a school's faculty but not the quality of student life, or that there is a bias against what's known as continental philosophy and in favor of analytic philosophy.

Some philosophers argue that Leiter's rankings skew faculty hirings toward some subfields, and away from others. For example, "It is well understood in the profession," Heck writes on his website, "that hiring someone pretty good who works in philosophy of mind will have more influence on a department's overall ranking than will hiring someone much better who works on logic, let alone on ancient or medieval philosophy. I have been told that this fact has actually influenced hiring decisions - told, that is, by people who were present at meetings where such decisions were made."

. . .

Leiter may have begun as the accidental appraiser, but as the Web made him more famous, he was drawn to its stage, and now he sits in his own spotlight, typing, a lot. He started Leiter Reports, a philosophy blog, in 2003, and he now writes two blogs regularly, Leiter Reports and a blog about law schools, and two more sporadically, on legal philosophy and on Nietzsche.

On Leiter Reports he challenges, in what can be lengthy and minutiae-obsessed posts, those who criticize his rankings, his left-wing politics, or his philosophical naturalism (the belief that everything can be explained by nature without recourse to metaphysics). There's a whole category of posts called "The Less They Know, The Less They Know It," under which one finds headlines like, "Carlin Romano: Total Ignorance of Philosophy Is No Obstacle to Opining About Richard Rorty." (Romano writes for the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Chronicle of Higher Education.)

Those whom Leiter finds wanting are deemed "morons" or "zombies" or "demonstrably incompetent." Peers then treat him in kind: University of Wisconsin legal blogger Ann Althouse called Brian Leiter a "jackass," to take a famous example. (She also called him a "nerd.")

If you look closely, his thrice-divided personality - scholar, surveyor, blogger - is unified in its argument: philosophy matters. (The reason to be harsh with Carlin Romano is because he gets Rorty wrong. And some idiots give Leo Strauss too much credit.) And academic freedom matters because without it people are encumbered in their search for truth.

But in another sense, the various Leiters seem to be at war. If the stakes are really this high - and they are, because, to take one example from Leiter's blog, philosophy must help us defeat intelligent design - then it's surprising that Leiter would act so low, being the man of higher thinking in the classroom, and a shepherd who helps grad students around the world find the best possible home, but then the troglodyte in cyberspace.

Looked at that way, Leiter's rankings may be more worrisome than he would admit. By increasing competition in the profession, by promoting envy or Schadenfreude, by writing a blog that alternates philosophy with verbal soccer hooliganism, Leiter runs a great risk: He may be demeaning the very profession he rightly wants to democratize.

Mark Oppenheimer writes Critical Faculties every month. He can be reached at meoppenheimer@yahoo.com.

Correction: Because of reporting errors, an article about American philosophy in the April 20 Ideas section incorrectly identified the university affiliation of legal blogger Ann Althouse. She is a professor at the University of Wisconsin. It also misidentified the writer of a 2005 Chronicle of Higher Education story about philosophy-department rankings. The writer was Robin Wilson.

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