Thoughts on the PGR and the Recent Controversy (Guest Post by Alex Rosenberg)

Alex Rosenberg is the R. Taylor Cole Professor of Philosophy at Duke University. He is known for his work in philosophy of science, particularly philosophy of biology, as well as the philosophy of social science and metaphysics. In the following guest post* he discusses the current controversy regarding the Philosophical Gourmet Report, defending its accuracy, value, and Brian Leiter’s management and ownership of it.

 Some Thoughts on the PGR and the Recent Controversy Regarding It

Let me begin by noting that the grad program I am associated with is very much in the middle of the pack (number 24 in the most recent PGR) and some of us at Duke think that we are a better program than that. We’ll quote citation Hirsh-scores and Stanford Encyclopedia citations, and whatever else we can get our hands on to prove different. So I have no particular motive to defend the status quo in regard to management of the PGR.

A little history
A decade or more ago Brian Leiter and the PGR were subjected to an attack, complete with petitions, from programs at the higher reaches of the Ivy League, claiming that the PGR rankings, then very much reflecting Brian’s personal opinions, were defective and did a disservice to grad students, sending them away from these hallowed institutions. The partisans of this attack were prompted by complaints from their administrators that unlike all other grad programs at the “best” universities, their philosophy departments were regularly turned down by grad students going to less prestigious universities, owing to Brian’s rankings.

Brian responded to these self-serving objections to his rankings by inviting dozens, then scores, and by now several hundred philosophers to provide reputational rankings that would test, and perhaps displace, his own purely personal ones. To the surprise of few, the rankings provided by a several hundred person panel of philosophers were indistinguishable from Brian’s own personal ones.  Nevertheless, in the interests of reliability, Brian continued at considerable logistical cost to involve increasingly many philosophers in the rankings, annually refreshing the panels through nomination (unvetted by Brian) of new participants.

If several score or even a hundred or so raters now decline to participate, the result will probably be much the same, equally reliable, and perhaps provide a further test of the “construct validity” of the rankings (see immediately below). 

The PGR and the structure of our discipline
About five years ago, Kieran Healy, a sociologist married to Laurie Paul, subjected the PRG rankings to an analysis. The most striking finding of his analysis was that the rankings of the top 20 departments by philosophers from the top 20 departments was almost identical to the ranking of the top 20 departments by philosophers from the bottom 20 departments. Our discipline is more like mathematics in its social structure than it is like other humanities or social sciences. What’s more, Kieran’s findings revealed what sort of weightings philosophers give to the various subspecialties in their reputational rankings (alas, I learned, the philosophy of science is not in the top three—phil of mind, phil of language and metaphysics).

All this means that Brian Leiter has provided us with a reliable picture of our discipline, one we can use, to advise our students, our junior colleagues, and even to correct myths about our discipline cherished by our administrators.

Over several decades now he has done our profession a singular service.

The PGR as intellectual property
Locke famously offered an account of the justification of private property, one that Nozick brought to our attention in Anarchy, State and Utopia. The account worked like this: morally permissible private property begins with original acquisition, and that happens when you mix your labor with nature, and leave as good and as much for others. Alas, this “Lockean” proviso is impossible to satisfy. Or at least it is in every original acquisition other than the case of intellectual property. Here one mixes one mental labor with nature—empirical facts about reality, including social reality. Since there are an infinite number of good ideas, the creator of intellectual property leaves as much and as good for others, and therefore has an unqualified right to what he has created.

Brian Leiter’s ownership of the PGR satisfies the most stringent test of private property I know. It’s his creation and he excluded no one else from mixing his or her labor with nature to produce a substitute for or for that matter a complement to his creation.

In light of this fact, the effort to separate him from his intellectual property owing to disapproval of his emails and posts seems rather preposterous.

Free speech
It is open to disapprove of Brian’s emails, to consider his adverting to the laws of libel as un-collegial, to deprecate the tone of his responses to accusations. But the notion that he should be deprived of his intellectual property as some sort of sanction for the expression of opinions whose substance and tone many disagree with, strikes me as a species of confiscation without due compensation that has been seen a couple of times before, in 20th European history.

Our community’s strong and unequivocal commitment to free speech should make such proposals literally out of bounds. Let us by all means reply to views we reject, and even do so in language as intemperate, if needs be, as the terms in which the views we repudiate are expressed.

Let’s remember Hume’s observation that mistakes in religion are dangerous, but mistakes in philosophy are merely ridiculous. That goes for mistakes by philosophers too.

Alex Rosenberg


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