Friday, November 30, 2007

Greatest American Philosopher?

A student recently asked me who I thought was the Greatest American Philosopher. Of course I didn't have an answer -- how could there be? -- but it did get me thinking.

First, what counts as an American philosopher? Would it have to be someone working in the American Philosophical Tradition? Or could it be someone who is simply American and a philosopher?

And who counts as a philosopher? What about Benjamin Franklin, e.g.? Or Jefferson? Or Elizabeth Cady Stanton?

And what about living vs. dead? Or contemporary vs. classical?

My favorite American philosopher is Dewey, and I think he is pretty "great", too.

Among contemporary philosophers, I'm just not sure.

But if I had to put money on who I think will be read 400 years from now*, I'd bet on William James.

Who else: which American philosophers will our great great great great great great grandchildren still be reading?

*Avrum Stroll makes a claim somewhere that Wittgenstein is probably the only 20th century philosopher who'll still be read 400 years from now.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Women Ph.D.s in Philosophy

Evelyn Brister has some new figures on the number of women receiving Ph.D.s in Philosophy each year in the U.S.

A couple of years ago the number cracked 30% for the first time (that is, of the Ph.D.s in philosophy awarded that year, 30% went to women).

But now that looks like an aberration, and the number has slipped back into the high 20s, where it's been since at least the early 1990s.

This is bad news on a number of levels. But what makes it especially distressing is that I can't think of a single initiative to increase the number of women in philosophy. I certainly can't think of any high profile initiative.

In other fields this would be a cause for grave concern. Look at what computer science and engineering programs do to attract women. Look at what professional organizations in the sciences, e.g., do to increase women's participation. But what has the American Philosophical Association done to address this problem?

The problem isn't just at the Ph.D. level -- it's also a problem, obviously, at the undergraduate level where women students aren't choosing to be philosophy majors. But, again, I wonder what has been done--either at the level of the APA or at the level of particular departments--to address this problem.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

The Purpose of Rankings

So what purpose do rankings of philosophy departments serve?

As I mentioned earlier, I don't think they do a whole lot of good for students choosing graduate schools.

I can imagine, in some cases, that they can help particular departments bargain with university administration.

I can also imagine, in some cases, that they might help individuals bargain with administrators.

But, for the rest of us, the purpose is, I think, a lot more obvious and a lot less high-minded.

The main purpose, as far as I can see, is that the rankings give us a little secret thrill when we professional philosophers look to see where our graduate department is ranked. (If you're teaching at a graduate department, then you get an additional little secret thrill -- but most of us aren't.) I'll admit that I get that thrill, though I'm not proud of it.

It's like looking at the polls for college football and basketball teams. Who's moved up? Who's moved down? Who's higher? Your university or mine?

And, of course, the philosophy rankings share some of the same weaknesses of football rankings. Some universities will get a boost even if their team (or department) isn't that strong. Other universities won't ever be able to crack the top 10, no matter how good they are.

Fans of college football often argue that the AP and Harris polls are flawed. That's why there are computer models that are supposedly more objective. That's also why some fans call for a playoff to determine who is #1.

Maybe there's a lesson here for how the philosophy rankings could be improved. It's easy to imagine a computer ranking that would take into account, say, number of books/faculty member over a given year along with a lot of other data. Maybe in place of one team beating another, it could look at faculty members who leave one university for another. It could also measure citations. There's lots of that data out there.

If that fails there's always the playoff option.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Philosophy Department Rankings

Noelle McAfee has been raising questions recently about the methodology of the Leiter Report ranking graduate departments of philosophy.

I think a more basic question is: what is the purpose of the Leiter Report? Its stated purpose is to provide undergrads with information so they can make informed decisions about where to apply and attend graduate school. But Leiter, to his credit, admits that the information it provides is incomplete: while the rankings are about faculty "reputation" and "quality" they don't say anything about the climate or education in these departments.

So how does this incomplete information help undergrads? Well, I can imagine it would help undergrads who are debating about whether to apply or attend Pitt or NYU or Rutgers or Princeton, say, but aren't getting good advising from their undergraduate professors.

But how many of those students are there? I certainly wasn't one of those students. Like a lot of people, I think (and hope!), I was praying to get just one acceptance. Two or more would have been hopelessly confusing. Having to choose between Princeton or Rutgers? Well, I can't imagine how hard that must be.

The simple fact is that most of the people who attend the top graduate departments come from the top undergraduate departments -- undergraduate departments stocked with recent Ph.D.s from the top graduate departments. For that reason I have a hard time believing that these students don't have access to good advising.

And that brings me back to my question: what purpose does the Leiter report really serve?