15 November 2006

An End (for me) to Pointless Wastings of Time

I want to say something about Keith DeRose's criticism of my post, "A Pointless Waste of Time", but then I will move on to other topics, since this is a blog in ancient philosophy, and discussions of PGR are off the point. (The discussion may, for those who wish, be continued in a new blog started for just that purpose.) In fact, it disturbs me that many of my colleagues seem much more interested in this kind of discussion than in anything philosophical or scholarly.

I note two things.

1. If you read my post carefully, you see that it is a statement of my own practice, and of how I find PGR useless for my purposes. So it may stand. For me, time spent on PGR is a waste of time. And, as far as I am concerned, if others spent long hours filling out surveys to help provide this service, then I want to say, to them (many of whom are my friends): as this pertains to me, you have wasted your time. --Now it may be that I feel that way because the students I have responsibility for will neither need to consult PGR, nor wish to do so.

De Rose thus overreaches in criticizing my post, as I think he recognizes. He explains and justifies his criticism by saying that he is solicitous about protecting "potential graduate students" who may read my post and walk away sad, concluding that they must be unsuited to go on in philosophy. Needless to say, that is absurd. And then he also has to personalize my comment, turning it into an attack on himself and everyone else on the PGR Advisory Board. Believe me: I cannot understand his or their support of the project, but I certainly do prescind from making any judgments about them. All I will say, and all that I do say about these individuals, is that, as far as I am concerned, they are wasting their time.

2. There is an interesting conflation in DeRose's argument. In his reaction against my phrase, "a good philosophical mind", it becomes clear that he regards "belonging in the profession" and "having a good philosophical mind" as equivalent, or nearly so. Now I do not. In fact, I might sum up my discomfort with PGR in a nutshell by saying that it treats philosophy as a profession, when philosophy is not like that. Or, alternatively: it is just as likely that someone with a good philosophical mind will not "belong in the profession", as that he will.

What is it that we all profess--as we must, if we are a single profession? Commitment to the truth? Devotion to wisdom? So nominal a thing as rejection of relativism? Or perhaps a commitment to clear thinking? --But we have no special stake to that, and many of us have even turned away from it (think Wittgenstein, not only Heidegger). The truth is, there is no common 'profession' of philosophy. But start supposing that philosophy is a 'profession', and you may act to make it as though it is such, imposing by grades a homogeneity upon it that simply does not belong, and which is 'unphilosophical' in every sense of the term. (I don't deny, of course, that philosophers in their teaching and writing should display 'professionalism', that is, seriousness and adherence to standards, just like any other worker.)

Here is another way to put this point. Suppose you live in 18th c. Scotland, and you have the choice of studying philosophy with David Hume, or with Thomas Reid. Now, is this a choice between two offerings of a single professional education, like the choice between studying at the Glasgow or the Edinburgh medical school? (Not that we couldn't make it like that: simply count Hume in the rankings but not Reid, or vice versa.) Or could there be any scale ranking Hume and Reid (on which, say, Hume gets 4.5 and Reid 4.0) that should play even a tiny role in your making up your mind? (You might however think: "If I study with Reid, I'll also learn Hume; but if I study with Hume, I'll never learn about Reid"--and you'd be right.) What would you say to a student who knew so little that he didn't know what the difference was between studying with Hume and studying with Reid? Would you say that "a ranking is better than nothing"? --No, it would be worse than nothing. And what would be the point of giving him a ranking and then saying that he should "take it with many grains of salt"? (I guess the point is that you get credit for any good that comes and he gets credit for anything bad.)

But exactly the same sort of choice really does confront students today (it always has in philosophy), even if this is either masked or muted by the narrow professionalism fostered by PGR.


Anonymous said...

Hi Michael,

You've given me the opportunity for a two-fer.

When I was at St. John's College (Annapolis), there was an underlying sense that pursuing a Ph.D. in philosophy was the last place to go if you wanted to pursue the love of wisdom precisely because a Ph.D. in philosophy was basically an apprenticeship for becoming a member of the professoriate. So a lot of Johnnies—I think wisely—stayed out of philosophy graduate schools because they felt no call to the professoriate, viz. the ranks of teaching and reaching (which may at times have to do with the love of wisdom, but there's hardly a necessary connection).

My sense is that for better or for worse, PGR is a valid guide (although heaven forbid a prospective graduate student's ONLY guide) to the entrance to the professoriate. It IS a valid concern for graduate students to know the consequences of their decisions in a very tight job market, and PGR gives non-specialists some insight there.

But in your criticisms, you seem to fault it for being an inadequate guide to essentially a sage. But can't these two things be usefully distinguished, viz. guidance about entrance to the professoriate and guidance about the pursuit of wisdom? And could any procedure—dialectic, Cartesian doubt, set theory, much less a survey of faculty members—unfailingly accomplish the latter?



Michael Pakaluk said...


Thanks. If the PGR could successfully be kept in place as 'what some influential people regard as influential', then there would be no difficulty; but, human nature being as it is, it cannot. And, for that measure, or other practical purposes, placement data and informal testimonials would suffice.

By the way, I think you and I at least are in agreement that the goal of the professoriate is not "teaching and reaching" but "teaching and researching"!


Anonymous said...

On the PGR: I think you're quite right that provisos and disclaimers cannot keep it from having unintended effects on the profession. That's why your rhetorical question in the original post, "do you know anyone who has consulted the Leiter rankings in hiring a candidate?" seemed irrelevant to me. People bring to the hiring process internalized conceptions of what institutions are good, and our honor-loving motivations treat those internalized conceptions as highly salient, even if only because the like motivations of our peers will effect how they perceive that hire. The PGR tends to standardize the specific effects of this process, but it would take place regardless of whether or not there were a PGR.

On the professionalization of philosophy, I recommend the introduction of Jonathan Lear's Open Minded.

Michael Pakaluk said...

Thanks for that reference to Lear's book, which I am not familiar with. I generally find Lear very illuminating.

Someone also recommended, as regards professionalization, remarks by Alasdair MacIntyre in Edith Stein: A Philosophical Prologue, where he is trying to explain why Stein, a profound philosopher (I agree with MacIntyre in thinking she is), is not even mentioned in many authoritative guides to 'continental' philosophy.

I think that that original remark your refer to was incorrect: people do keep the Leiter rankings in mind when hiring, but not for judging the qualities of a candidate. But I don't agree with you that PGR is 'irrelevant', since it tends to consolidate, and make authoritative and uniform, something within us that should be more provisional, and lead naturally to our recognizing a variety of sources of 'distinction'.


Anonymous said...

Sorry, I should have been more clear about what I meant by 'irrelevant'. As far as I know people do not, CVs in hand, consult the report in order to determine which applications to take seriously. I was trying to say that the failure to do so does not preclude the Report's having a deep influence on hiring practices. It looks to me like we agree on both points.

papabear said...

Given the sorry state of American education I would ask those who defend the PGR what they actually have to offer for educational reform.

If the PGR is just one more tool for enfocring academic orthodoxy I don't see what else those who care about Catholic higher education can do but to look for alternatives to current arrangements.

"For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places."

Anonymous said...

"If you read my post carefully, you see that it is a statement of my own practice, and of how I find PGR useless for my purposes... And, as far as I am concerned, if others spent long hours filling out surveys to help provide this service, then I want to say, to them (many of whom are my friends): as this pertains to me, you have wasted your time."

Could you elaborate on this? If you only want to say that the report doesn't serve your purposes, why say to others who have different purposes that they're wasting their time (as "this" [?] pertains to you)?

I'm guessing that the limitation to your own purposes isn't really much of a limitation, given that I'm guessing both you and PGR people both claim as your purpose to help potential graduate students reach their potential. I take it you recognize this when you say, "so far as I am concerned [the PGR advisory board] is wasting their time". But how is any of this relevant to what DeRose said to begin with?

I do agree though that no one considering graduate school will be put off by your arguments. 

Posted by PFD

Michael Pakaluk said...

Dear PFD,

My understanding of a blog is that it is a public journal. I write my thoughts and then share them for anyone interested. If someone does not wish to read what I write, he's free, naturally, not to read it. I'm not interested in starting a crusade against PGR. However, it is entirely appropriate that I express in my own blog my reactions upon seeing what PGR has to say about ancient philosophy.

Keith DeRose's response to what I wrote struck me as, to say the least, excessive. I have wondered why he seems intent on hunting down, and 'refuting', any expression of disenchantment, or any note of criticism, of PGR. Why should anyone be surprised by an expression of disagreement or dissent? Shouldn't we rather be surprised if a couple of thousand intelligent persons all agreed that PGR is a fine thing? Given that the rankings and numbers can have no coherent, rational significance, would it be strange for someone, somewhere, to suppose that their use must be deleterious?

The first post on the PGR Critique Blog says something about how no one has yet replied to DeRose's challenge--viz. not simply to criticize PGR but also to come up with some better alternative.

I'll tell you my remarkable, earth-shaking alternative! Here it is: Professors should fulfill their professional responsibility (i.e. in the mundane sense of 'professional') and remain informed about their field; they should take pains to advise students accordingly; and they should refer students, as regards questions they cannot answer, to trustworthy colleagues who can.

Now here's my challenge: tell me why anyone who did this would have a use for PGR.


Anonymous said...

I wonder whether a slightly different formulation would suffice:

If people find spending time and effort on writing the PGR, then they should "knock themselves out." But, a professor who doesn't explain to a student the limitations and dangers of actually using the PGR's ranking to make these choices would surely be failing in their professional duties.

It is a step above "rateyour professor.com"---though the addition of the chili pepper rating would make the PGR perhaps more interesting and certainly more useful.

What amazes me is the amount of effort that goes into this thing.

Michael Pakaluk said...


If I understand you correctly, your argument it is that, by the admission of those who advocate the thing, PGR should be used by a student in the context of personalized advice coming from an informed supervisor (or the department), but that sort of advice would make the consulting of PGR otiose. Yes, I agree entirely. That's an excellent way of stating the objection.