27 February 2006

Against Method

I was talking with a friend the other day about the absurd grip that the Leiter rankings now have over the profession and students, which seemed to us much the same as U.S. New and World Report becoming the arbiter of academic excellence. We lamented that Richard Heck's sometime objections had been, as it seemed, not well articulated--and of course they appeared motivated, since their provenance was an institution that was declining in the Leiter rankings.

So I've been giving the matter some thought and have devised this alternative argument.

First, I would ask everyone who participates in formulating the Leiter rankings to produce together a ranking of the 100 greatest philosophers of all time. Place in order, from 1 to 100: Hume, Rawls, Aquinas, Austin, Epicurus, Russell, Malebranche, Carnap, Scotus, Reid, Heraclitus, Spencer, Ferrier, Meinong, Bergson, Plato, Husserl, Plotinus, Abelard, Scheler, Quine, Maimonides, Parmenides, Brentano, et al.

The reason for requiring this, is that surely it is easier to rank figures from history, where time has clarified their thought and importance, than to rank contemporaries; and someone cannot claim competence to do the latter, if he cannot do the former.

Of course, anyone who did attempt such a thing, would show himself incompetent to do so, because, in the first place, he couldn't possibly have sufficient knowledge to make good judgments, since what he would need to know would be so vast, and, secondly, a reasonable person, to the extent that he knew anything about these philosophers, would be disposed to deny that any such ranking could be meaningful.

Let us, however, waive this difficulty, and suppose that those philosophers who participate in the Leiter rankings agree to give us their ranking of philosophers from history.

Next we ask: Would they agree on this ranking, or disagree?

Surely they would disagree. But lack of agreement is a sign of absence of knowledge. So their lack of agreement would show that, collectively, they lack reliable knowledge about philosophical merit, and thus their judgments about philosophical merit today, also, could not be trusted.

But let us waive this difficulty also and suppose that they agree on a ranking. Then: either they rank near the top figures who are the most influential for contemporary anglophone philosophy, such as Frege, Russell, Kripke, Davidson, and Quine, or they rank near the top figures such as Plato and Aristotle, who are not thus influential.

But, if the former, then, once again, we have grounds for doubting that they have sound judgment. And, if the latter, then we may wonder why they rank highly programs in which philosophical attention is focused primarily on philosophers who are not of the highest rank.

Oh, I forgot to say: I would put Feyerabend first.


Laura said...

I agree and would add that participants have to rank the worth of all of these philosophers not only as philosophers, but as advisers and teachers of graduate students. The two kinds of greatness often go together, but not always.