Insults and Obnoxiousness

On the second day of this blog’s existence, I wrote a post answering some questions I had received from readers, including this:

Is this blog an attack on Brian Leiter? Nope. Like many in philosophy, I have a sincere appreciation for Professor Leiter’s efforts over the years to disseminate information about the profession that had typically been known to and controlled by relative elites. It is in that same spirit that I created Daily Nous.

Really? Yes, really. Still, some people wanted to know more about my motives. After all, this blog was created at time of fairly high tension in the profession (we are still in that period, as far as I can tell), owing to a combination of scandals and social change. During this time, Leiter made remarks on his very widely-read blog that some took to be unfair or hostile, and in the comments thread on another blog he threatened legal action against another commentator. This was not the first time in the history of his long-running blog that junior members of the profession had been the targets of his hostile writings and legal threats. And I recall a protracted discussion on when an insult is and is not an ad hominem which led to me submitting this entry to the Philosophical Lexicon:

Sleiter (SLY-ter) – (1) v. to attack an interlocutor’s views with an ambiguous combination of substantive criticism and an attempt to undermine the credibility or standing of the interlocutor. Thought to be derived from a combination of slaughter and slighted.  “Did you see how Brian completely sleiterred that philosopher who defended intelligent design on his blog this morning?” (2) n. a criticism that seems like it commits an ad hominem fallacy but technically does not. “I can understand why Tom is upset after having that sleiter thrown at him in that review of his book.”

It wasn’t accepted. In any event, people were calling for a boycott of his blog when I created Daily Nous. Was I part of a pitchfork-wielding mob out to get him? This may come as a disappointment to some of my readers, but the answer is no. I don’t even own a pitchfork. And I am not out to get Brian Leiter. But I do want to understand him, and what he does.*

The occasion of these remarks of mine is a recent post by Leiter on the job-market analyses that Carolyn Dicey Jennings has published at NewApps recently, particularly this post of hers, which shows some differences between Leiter’s Philosophical Gourmet Report rankings and the job-placement percentage rankings that Jennings calculated. Jennings, who received her PhD just two years ago, and is an assistant professor at UC Merced, a school which only started offering courses nine years ago (so not exactly a powerful person at a powerful institution), has used a lot of her time in service to the profession, gathering and analysing data about the philosophy job market. As she tells us in her posts, this is work-in-progress, currently built with incomplete data, and she is open to suggestions about how to improve her analyses.

To these efforts, about which everyone in the profession should be appreciative and supportive, Leiter responds by calling her work “nonsense” that is characterized by “perverse ingenuity” and insinuates that she is not “smart enough” to be a philosopher. He adds that he is “mystified” why anyone would think her work is relevant to evaluating philosophy departments. He repeats the nonsense charge, saying she “really ought to withdraw this nonsense from the web.” He tops this off by saying that her refusal to remove her analysis from the internet raises “a serious question about her judgment.”**

It is one thing to criticize someone. Hell, that is what we sign up for when we sign up for philosophy—to criticize and be criticized. We all know that. Leiter’s criticisms may be correct—I leave that aside. What I am concerned with is what is packed in alongside these criticisms. Leiter is a successful philosopher and legal academic at a great university in a great city, with a lot of power and influence in the profession of philosophy. Why are some of his posts so insulting and obnoxious to people so junior in the profession? Is this how we want discourse between the more and less powerful in our profession to be?

In the end, it is Leiter’s blog to write as he sees fit. And it is our precious time to spend reading it or doing something else. Again, I don’t object to criticism, nor to rigor, nor to high expectations and demanding standards—things which I, as a philosopher who grew up in the profession over the past dozen years or so, saw Leiter Reports as standing for, despite the occasional nastiness. But as I have learned more about the different professional and personal challenges different people face in this profession, and as I have learned to appreciate the diversity of approaches to philosophy, I now have less of a taste for this obnoxiousness from on high. It isn’t good for us.

I’ll end with the following words that sociologist Anne Galloway reports getting as advice when she entered academia, and which I have come to take rather seriously: “We’re all smart. Distinguish yourself by being kind.”

I look forward to the day when that would be impossible.


* Comments are open but speculations as to Brian Leiter’s motivations and mental states will not be approved.
**BL has since edited his post to eliminate some of this language.

Update 1: BL has responded to my remarks in an update to this post here (this is a “do not link” link, which I am using since he does not name or link to my blog in his response).

Update 2 (7/3/14): I thought I should reply to Brian Leiter’s response, noted above.

Leiter writes that I object to his “criticizing” Jennings. No I don’t. I am in favor of criticism, as I say explicitly in my post. What I object to is his being insulting and obnoxious while criticizing her.

Leiter writes that I imply that he is “particularly critical of junior philosophers.” No I don’t. It is true that I draw attention to and object to Leiter’s insulting junior philosophers, but nothing in what I have written suggests or depends on the claim that he is less insulting and obnoxious to more established members of the profession. He says that in such matters he is an “egalitarian.” My objection, however, was to the obnoxiousness, not to an inegalitarian distribution of the obnoxiousness.

Leiter writes that he and I have a “substantive disagreement” over the value of Jennings’ work. This is true. I favor efforts towards developing a variety of tools for helping prospective graduate students in their decisions, and I believe that Jennings work constitutes a promising, good faith example of such an effort. It is clear Leiter disagrees with me on the claim about Jennings. Perhaps he disagrees on the more general point, too.

Update 3 (7/3/14): Leiter responds to my remarks in “Update 2” above in his “sur-reply“.

He notes that we disagree about substance, as if I had not realized this. I don’t know why he feels the need to point this out, as I acknowledge two possible versions of such substantive disagreement just above. He also continues to insist that an adequate response to the criticism that he sometimes publicly speaks in an unnecessarily hostile and insulting manner about junior members of the profession is for him to say that he does this to everyone. I neither deny that he does this to others, nor think it a particularly effective defense. The charge was never that he is hostile exclusively to junior folks. Rather, it was that his brand of hostility towards junior folks is particularly objectionable. Leiter concludes his reply by engaging in a little paralipsis, mentioning a possible cynical interpretation of Jenning’s intentions for everyone to read while staying “agnostic on whether that is the correct interpretation”—in short, doubling down on the kind of hostility I am objecting to here. I suppose one could say that Leiter is just intending to rhetorically bulldoze the criticisms raised about him in this post, rather than engage with them constructively. I’m agnostic on whether that is the correct interpretation.

Update 4 (7/4/14): Carolyn Dicey Jennings hosts a discussion of graduate program rankings here.

Update 5 (7/4/14): I remind readers of the comments policy. I also ask that if you are going to make accusations or disparaging remarks, even ones you think are well-supported or obvious, you at least include your real email address. This is to allow me to follow up with you and prevent anonymous, unsubstantiated attacks. Your email address will not appear with your blog post or be linked to your handle.

Update 6 (7/7/14): “Maybe it’s because I do some research on social scientific measures, but I do not find the Jennings rankings nonsense.” Eric Schliesser discusses Jennings and the PGR here.


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