We are not last…

Last week, Brian Leiter hosted a poll of readers of his blog, asking “What areas are most important for a strong PhD program in philosophy?” The results are discussed here, but one has to go to the full listing to see anything related to Chinese or comparative philosophy. “History of Non-Western Philosophy” came in 26th out of 27. I suppose that we can hope for different results one day in the future!

14 thoughts on “We are not last…

  1. I was little worried when I first saw this that Asian philosophy wouldn’t even be considered, and as it is it only makes the list under the rubric of ‘non-Western’ philosophy, and the history of that as well. Overall it seems that people trained in the most typical kinds of programs liked what they learn and continue to see it as important. In the long term what we need is to for these folks to come to appreciate that they’ve also missed out on some good philosophy along the way.

  2. It hardly needs to be said that these polls are suspect, but this one is particularly bad. In general a Leiter poll only tells us about the opinions of whoever reads the Leiter blog, but in this case it is even unclear what they are being asked to opine about. ‘What makes for a strong PhD program?’ Strong in what way? The breadth of philosophical education it imparts to its students? Or perhaps its placement record? Let me conjecture that most of the people who took this poll are probably reading the prompt in the second way. If so, they should double-check the JFP for all of those jobs in epistemology. Oh but I guess that would be looking at actual data rather than polling random people’s opinions.

    • Thanks, Colin. You’re right that the question could mean a lot of different things, including “likely to fare well in the Gourmet rankings.” Insofar as it is read that way, it confirms the unfortunate fact that rankings-sensitive departments are thereby less likely to choose to have a position in “non-Western philosophy,” as they fear it would do less for their ranking than some alternative. (I know from direct reports that this kind of reasoning takes place at least sometimes.)

  3. So, the last three on the list are:

    25. Feminist Philosophy
    26. History of non-Western philosophy
    27. Philosophy of Race

    That’s awfully damning, given that the sample is 1087 people who follow Leiter’s blog. That’s depressing.

    • Manyul, I really like your comment on Leiter’s blog, somewhat similar to this one, although effectively a challenge to the ratings. I’d like to see the responses to your comment. I like the ones here, but we are among the ‘converted’ here, so to speak.

  4. To defend the poll just a little… It’s true that the sampling is drawn from Leiter’s blog, but since his readership is enormous, arguably the results are at least fairly representative of the profession. This is maybe confirmed a bit by how unsurprising the results are, particularly in the top ten. While “important” is certainly vague, it’s safe to say most respondents included prominently concern for hiring, as that is a prominent measure of a Ph.D. program’s success. And of course the common wisdom has it that ranking highly on the Leiter report is a key indicator in that regard. So what this mostly does is confirm that “analytic” philosophy in its various guises remains dominant in English speaking philosophy world and that a sizable proportion of the profession expects someone coming out of a good department to know analytic philosophy whatever else they do. Not at all surprising, but still important in highlighting the difficulty in affecting any significant change. I would guess a lot of departments would love to have people working in feminist philosophy, Asian philosophy or race, but see these as luxuries they can’t afford given the limited number of positions they enjoy and the tightness of the job market for their graduates.

  5. I am a big fan of non-western philosophy and would be interested in hearing more about how to explain the value of including it in a program

    When I did the poll I had things like this (roughly as I can remember): I had a ranked group of areas down to something like 10 or 12 and then most of the rest lumped together in a big tied-ranking pile (I was thinking of them as all worthy of inclusion and of roughly equal value). Hist of Non-western Phil was in this tied-non-core-area pile.

    (1) I would be curious to hear someone say which specific areas they would rank below History of Non-Western Philosophy, and why.

    (2) Would anyone argue that Non-Western Phil should be in the top 10? Why or why not?

    Just curious!

  6. Agreed that this is disappointing. Though here are some encouraging comments about non-Western philosophy from prominent philosophers that I’ve stumbled upon in the last few months:

    “[Having spent the last week thinking about Buddhist philosophy of mind — an enormously rich tradition that anticipates numerous key ideas in contemporary analytic philosophy of mind — it’s a little stunning that hardly any of the leading research departments of philosophy in the anglophone world employ anyone who specializes in Buddhist philosophy, or indeed in any area of non-western philosophy. How hard would it be to change the conventions so that every department would be expected to have at least one specialist in non-western philosophy?”

    –David Chalmers, on Facebook via NewApps (http://www.newappsblog.com/2012/06/can-we-make-philosophy-a-little-less-provincial.html)

    “Far too often philosophical debates have taken place in traditions largely isolated from others. In our pursuit of the most compelling philosophical view, there is much potential promise in greater engagement with different philosophical traditions. The purpose is not to compare how different traditions have addressed similar issues, but rather to gain new insights into how major issues may be better understood. Raghuramaraju has demonstrated that such an account is possible and yields rewards. This book is a model for how philosophy might build new bridges between traditions for real benefits. As our world shrinks, this model may well shed light on our common future. And the future looks bright.”

    –Thom Brooks, in an NDPR review (http://ndpr.nd.edu/news/31626-modernity-in-indian-social-theory/)

    “I have always been a fan of comparative philosophy, long convinced that there are certifiably great non-Western traditions . . . about which most Westerners, philosophers included, are ignorant. I’ve always thought that the study of these traditions might disabuse us of several related blind spots: ethical chauvinism, the view that non-Western traditions are esoteric in a bad way, for reasons beyond their unfamiliarity; the idea that Religion (with a big “R”) is inevitable for psychological reasons; and that it is required, true or false, to shore up meaning and morals.”

    –Owen Flanagan, in “The Boddhisattva’s Brain”

    • P.S. I think Thom Brooks’ argument in the passage quoted above is a compelling reply to Brad Cokelet’s second question.

    • Hi Tim,

      Interesting. I take it you are thinking that non-western philosophy is more important than, say, philosophy of physics because study of the former can yield new insights in a wide variety of philosophic domains, while the later is more narrowly focused.

      Two worries about this argument:

      First, I agree that this can happen when someone really gets to know non-western and western work and is able to see, for example, what blindspots and opportunities this reveals in each tradition. But it is less clear to me that this is something that graduate students can take away from a single course. A possible response is that in teaching grad students some will get bitten by the cross-tradition bug and they may go one to “gain new insights into how major issues may be better understood.” This leads to the second worry.

      Second, I imagine skeptics asking for examples of how study of a non-western tradition has allowed us to “gain new insights into how major issues may be better understood.” There seem to be some areas where this is a hard sell (phil science, phil language, epistemology?), some where it is possible but in need of major argument (phil mind, metaphysics), and some where is looks doable (ethics, social-political). It is worth noting here that Brooks is thinking of a book on modernity. It is no surprise that there is something to contribute here.

      Neither of these worries is decisive, of course, and perhaps they can both be assuaged.

    • Thanks for these comments, Brad!

      My own experience as a grad student was that while I was writing a dissertation on Greek Phil I happened (for no good, thought-out reason) to sit in on a course in Chinese Philosophy (taught by my dissertation director). There was no opportunity to incorporate anything in CP into my dissertation (on Plato’s middle-period metaphysics!), and in this sense I guess it wasn’t directly helpful at all to study CP as a grad student. But after I got my Phd and a job, I found myself doing more and more CP, both in what I teach and in what I write about. So I guess my thought, based purely on my own experience, is that one course in grad school can have lots of implications for what one does down the road (though it may have no immediate pay-off).

      Regarding your hypothetical skeptic, I don’t know how he/she would know what new insights could be gained, and in which areas, without making some sort of study of non-Western traditions in the first place. Otherwise it seems like it is just “ignorance justifying ignorance” (a phrase I steal from an article by Eric Schwitzgebel): we don’t know anything about what non-Western epistemology looks like, nor is there any need to know anything because there are no new insights it can give us. Maybe the best remedy for this would be some success stories to offer the skeptic?

  7. I guess I could only see a poll issue in jamming two distinct methods of categorization (geographical/historical v. topical/problem-set) together.

    It seems plausible for plenty of non-Western philosophers to say, “While I am entrenched in non-Western traditions in my research, I primarily see myself as a specialist in topic x.”

    What do you all say? Do you see yourselves first as Chinese philosophers, then as ethicists, historians, epistemologists, philosophers of language, logicians, et al, or vice versa?

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