Some thoughts on program rankings and philosophical method

Philosophical method – not as a parochial habit of professors, but as a force that has given shape to much of the western world as we know it today – is underwritten by a quite radical spirit of charity: it takes the ownmost aim of its interlocutor and adopts it as its own, occasionally to the point of imploding that aim. For all their violence, this is essentially what happened in Leibniz’s critique of Descartes, Heidegger’s of Husserl, and even Kierkegaard’s of Hegel. (This is also the reason, I think, that non-mathematical approaches to solving liar-like paradoxes don’t get as much traction in the literature on the topic). It is this spirit that so easily leads us to think of Socrates as the intellectual father of the whole discipline

Apply this point to the questions of whether and/or how the PGR should continue, and what it should be replaced/supplemented by.

For the above reason, the idea that rankings can be altogether eliminated must, for the present moment, fail. Dissatisfaction with qualitative metrics is grounded in antipathy to the aim of these rankings; and thus, for all my sympathy with the reasons behind that stance, I do not think it can provide the ground for progress on the issue at present.

On the other hand, there is a very real movement that this antipathy is generating, one that seems not to have been fully appreciated. The move away from quantitative measures of quality, in the form it is taking at present, is simultaneously a further entrenchment of consumerism in philosophy, and the corresponding tendency to see everything – in this case, a philosophical education – as a product: the move is apt to become one from unified measures developed by experts to measures customizable by the potential-grad student-turned-consumer.

I am surprised that no one, as far as to my knowledge, has made the connection from the rankings question to this post at DailyNous on teacher rankings, and the article it links to. Though the parallel is not exact, the phrase “Summary items such as ‘overall effectiveness’ seem most susceptible to extraneous factors” is likely true in the case of the PGR as well. Hence, it seems that if a reputation-based overall rank were to be preserved, if it were to be reliable, it would be best to arrive at it in a more mediated fashion.

Here are two suggestions for how to do this. Neither is perfect. But they aim to be constructive in their own way.

  1. One way would be to cut out the human observer altogether, and simply set up an algorithm (perhaps several) for approximating this. For example, citations (or weighted citation,) per document per person per department over a fixed period of time. Ideally, the method would be one that doesn’t encourage quantity of work over quality, and one that doesn’t automatically privilege larger departments.
  2. Another way would be to do specialty rankings (since I think these tend to be much more reliable), and develop an overall ranking on the assumption that, ceteris paribus, strength in more areas is better than strength in fewer. I wonder whether something useful for this aim could be developed following lines similar to those followed by an analysis Kieran Healy did a few years ago on the PGR here.

Does this blog post rest on a mistake?

I received a journal alert today for the latest issue of Phil Studies, and saw that one of the articles in the issue is titled “Does empirical moral psychology rest on a mistake?” The author thinks so, and I don’t really work on the topic. So, being a collegial philosopher working diligently on his plot of philosophical space, and recognizing the need for specialized division of labor in philosophy if any decent work is to get done on a given question, I figured the most reasonable thing to do on this matter was to trust that the author is probably right.

After thinking about this for a bit, I realized that there might be scores of topics that I care about to some degree, which have also been shown to rest on a mistake – in which case, I’m wasting needless emotional energy on these matters, which probably makes me a less efficient philosopher overall. So to rid myself of this anxiety, I did a Philosophers’ Index search on “rests on a mistake?” to find out where this energy was being expended, and have, since this morning, purged myself of any interest in these topics. Here, then, for your benefit, is a list of fields and topics we can all safely stop working on.

  • Metaethics
  • Kelsen’s notion of legal normativity
  • The defense of free speech
  • Naturalism
  • Higher-order music ontologies
  • Theories of consciousness
  • Origins of life research
  • Non-cognitivism
  • Modern moral philosophy
  • Twin earth[1]
  • The Husserl/Heidegger feud
  • Philosophy of action
  • Epistemology
  • Moral subjectivism
  • Business ethics
  • The idea of niskama karma
  • The traditional treatment of enthymemes
  • Ontology (twice!)
  • The free will debate
  • An inferential role semantics (which one?)
  • Environmental ethics
  • The Grisez-Finnis-Boyle moral philosophy
  • Moral education
  • Analytic aesthetics
  • Action theory
  • Foundationalism (did you catch the irony in this one?)
  • American philosophy (should we stop, then? Or just expatriate?)
  • Liberalism
  • The Gettier problem
  • Applied ethics
  • The philosophy of induction
  • Cognitive psychology
  • The logic of preference
  • Moral philosophy (also twice! Guess the second article ought not to have been written)
  • Recent moral philosophy
  • The principle of substitutivity
  • The analysis of religious language
  • James’ ethics of belief
  • Negation
  • Modal logic
  • Traditional aesthetics
  • The neo-intuitionist theory of obligation
  • Christology

Man, I feel like a Turing machine.

[1] Note: not ‘the twin earth thought experiment’, but twin earth. So either XYZ was a really bad idea, or we’re in some trouble.

On what it is to prove a prejudice

There are two senses of prejudice: one, non-value laden, that simply refers to a tendency, even the necessity, of pre-judging certain matters. This concept, for instance, has been ably addressed in the writings of, among others, Hans-Georg Gadamer. A more restricted sense refers to prejudice in the value-laden sense, i.e. a prejudice in the first sense that is, in addition, irrational or otherwise harmful. This post is about prejudice in this latter sense.

What is a prejudice? A habit: a tendency to judge before one has adequate evidence; a tendency to judge based on non-rational motives.

How is a prejudice proven? Strictly speaking, a prejudice can rarely be proven; it usually can only be indicated (the only exceptions to this case generally being outright admissions of prejudice by the accused party himself), because a prejudice is a habit, and habits are by definition not phenomena, but the sources thereof. In other words, I cannot see someone’s habitual dispositions, but infer them as the simplest explanation for said person’s behavior. To ask for demonstrative proof, then, is to trivialize the very notion of prejudice, such that the only people who can be brandished as such are outspoken bigots. Prejudices are usually more subtle than that.

Showing that a person has a strongly negative evaluation of an individual, or even a whole class of individuals, is not enough to show prejudice. One must further show that this evaluation is mistaken. A necessary condition for evincing this latter claim is that the investigator into the charge of prejudice be able to come to an independent evaluation of the work in question, or at the very least is able to come to an independent evaluation of the validity and pertinence of the accused’s critiques thereof. When remarks against a position or concept are gravely deficient, they point to a deficiency in the one who makes those remarks.   This deficiency can be either intellectual or volitional, or (as is perhaps more usually the case) a combination of both. If the deficiency is intellectual, the one who makes the remarks is thereby shown to lack the capacity to judge the thesis that he attacks; if the deficiency is volitional, then the capacity for right judgment is usually impeded by some emotional or non-rational pull in the opposite direction, by impatience, or by the intrusion of irrelevant cares that prevent the point being made from being adequately grasped. In all of these latter cases, the judgment consequent upon said intrusions is considered to be prejudiced because it is consequent upon a failure of understanding; in other words, prejudices intrude where and only where understanding fails: either when a) adequate understanding of the position under scrutiny is not reached, and one’s natural inclinations serve as a “fall-back” option in lieu of said understanding, or b) adequate understanding of the content of the position under scrutiny is reached, but the position itself is deemed unpalatable, or irrational motives overpower those consequent upon rational understanding.

This should prompt the question, ‘what exactly are we doing when, for instance, we institutionalize mechanisms for the detection of prejudice, e.g. in simple cases like formal complaints about a grade brought by a student’, wherein the obligation to come to an independent evaluation the act or work in question is forfeited from the start? I don’t think the immediate alternative (i.e. having colleagues breathing down each others necks to create a kind of forcedly homogenous grading system) is particularly good, but the present method is clearly and essentially deficient in achieving its end. I, for one, have been struck by how insulated I am by these mechanisms from genuine complaints having any impact on me. This is surely comfortable in a rather unsatisfactory immediate sense, but ultimately, I find it deeply unsettling. Thoughts?