Leiter & Philosophy: A Surely Much Too Early Post-Mortem

Some thoughts that are something like an entirely too early post-mortem on professional philosophy’s great harasser: Brian Leiter. Thanks to Leigh Johnson for playing the role of collector of the major pieces out about Leiter and, hopefully, his final stumble and fall. This recent stuff about him – sending harassing emails meant to intimidate – should be no surprise. No surprise at all. He’s been at it a long time. Perhaps it’s worth stopping and reflecting on what it says about philosophy as a profession.

Leiter is famous, really, only for his “ranking” of philosophy graduate programs. I put “ranking” between quotation marks because what he does is so much more complex than, as he imagines it (in a self-indulgent fantasy), simply offering a service to undergraduates. That said, it’s a lot of work, this thing he does. But I don’t think he needs to be commended on those terms. Sometimes, and this is one of those cases, the harm that one does so exceeds the supposed virtue of “hard work” that commendation seems almost an affront to the targets (maybe we can say victims, but I don’t want to speak that strongly for them) of his various obsessions and tirades.

The intellectual geography of professional philosophy in the United States is simple: Anglo-American philosophy runs everything, at every level, with only the most random and occasional exceptions. You can say something very strange about philosophy in this country: it hasn’t even yet gone through a Eurocentric phase (!) and has the race and gender politics to match that stunted growth. European philosophy, studied as a tradition (so not just a figure here and there), is relegated to marginal schools in the U.S., evidenced by the fact that one cannot study that tradition in any depth in an Ivy League philosophy department. Nor can you at many of the Ivy-compatriots like Stanford, Berkeley, Michigan, and so on.

It should be no surprise, then, that Leiter’s rankings were really always all about Anglo-American philosophy departments. Now that he’s probably going to lose control over those rankings, there is a chance to reevaluate all that, but I doubt it will be much different in terms of emphasis, categorization (apparently European philosophy doesn’t do metaphysics, epistemology, or ethics), and result. I think this needs to be said: these rankings, with their unself-conscious exclusion of any variety of non-Anglo-American traditions, amount to little more than bragging about resource and reputation privilege – privilege being that thing you have without effort, just because, in this case, your school’s name carries with it the suggestion of seriousness and greatness. And money.

I’ll give this to Leiter: he was at least honest about such privilege. His twenty year polemic against “party-line” European philosophers was as epic as it was disgusting. This piece from the New School’s philosophy department blog is instructive. Whatever one thinks of Simon’s work (I like it, generally), Critchley is a serious guy with real ideas. It is possible to disagree without destroying. I believe that.

Or his attempt to destroy Linda Alcoff’s character and reputation because she dared assume a leadership role in the American Philosophical Association (this is a particularly shameful part of Leiter’s harassment).

Or his harassment of a number of women in blog comments and over email.

Or his obsession with a fucking book review he didn’t like!

Or, and this one didn’t get much attention, his shrugging off of arguments for diversification of the discipline as conceding to “neoliberalism,” “the student as consumer,” and “mere identity politics” (as if the all-white canon isn’t it’s own identity politics).

I don’t list out all of this just to shame Leiter once again – though he deserves every word and every bit of shaming that comes to him, that’s just true – but to instead put the question to the larger profession: why has this person not only gone largely uncontested, but been actively supported and encouraged, when his harassing and intimidation is and has always been entirely public?

This question is important to ask at any time, but especially now after the Colin McGinn case, the Peter Ludlow (whom Leiter largely defended) example at Northwestern, and then the two genuinely gruesome cases at University of Colorado (sexual harassment and misogynistic retaliation). These cases put the profession under the microscope. Rightly so. It has shown how comfortable philosophers have been with harassment for a long, long time (no surprise to women, in these cases, as the blogosphere, social media, and everyday conversations have made clear).

Why has this profession ignored Brian Leiter’s harassing and intimidation for so long? 

I’ll leave that as an open question, with only this comment (I’d love to have other people comment on the question in the Comments section below). The profession of philosophy in the United States has always been a version of FoxNews when it comes to diverse views. That is, the response to difference – yes, we are in the absurd position where German and French philosophy counts as “difference” – has always been to destroy what is other through ridicule, but also, in the Gourmet Report, through doing all that can be done to drag down the careers of those who study the German and French traditions (and other traditions, though with less venom). It’s imperial and cruel. Leiter has always been very open about his cruel imperialism. When I wonder how all these people could collaborate with him for so long, knowing plenty about his misogyny and harassment, the best answer I come up with is just that: he embodies something about our professional ethos as FoxNews-style attack. Destroy difference. God forbid someone like Simon Critchley’s work!

That leads to the question in front of a lot of people right now, namely, whether or not to continue with “ranking” philosophy departments. I think there are reasonable arguments to be made for – Eric Schliesser gives one here – and against – Ed Kazarian gives a sketch of one here. Let me voice a severe and real concern: I wonder how a new board of Anglo-American philosopher rankers will produce less hostile, destructive results. After all, it took two decades for anyone to step in and say something about Leiter’s hateful bullshit. That means the whole environment, the whole atmosphere, is already poisoned and poisonous – how else to explain the happy encouragement of Brian Leiter for the past two decades? Alongside the discussion of whether or not to go forward with the Gourmet Report, there should be a real question of whether or not this climate – a climate that made it possible for Brian Leiter to flourish, not just survive – can sustain anything like fair, considered, and helpful reflection on graduate study. If the project is to be anything other than a reiteration of privilege and resource bragging, then it has to be radically reconceived. I mean, pulled up by its roots and aimed, for the first time, at transforming the atmosphere of the profession, not reproducing it. What sorts of collaboration are necessary for that transformation? I’d say that such collaboration is all but unprecedented.

It’s probably clear that my all-too-early post-mortem on the rank and ranking public career of Brian Leiter suggests no, not these people, not under these conditions, not with this track-record of accommodation. Since the Gourmet Report will likely live to see another day, I do hope I’m wrong. I’m hoping that the new directors get that distance from Leiter, not just as an individual, but as an embodiment of an old institution whose cruelty is now out in the open.