Open Letter to Professional Philosophical Associations (Guest Post by Alan Richardson)

Open Letter to Professional Philosophical Associations (Guest Post by Alan Richardson)

Alan Richardson is professor of philosophy at the University of British Columbia. He works mainly in the history of philosophy of science and analytic philosophy. He has written an open letter to the leadership of the American Philosophical Association, the Canadian Philosophical Association, the British Philosophical Association, and the Australian Association of Philosophy regarding the Philosophical Gourmet Report and its function in the profession of philosophy, which is posted below.

Dear Colleagues:

Recent events  have forced me to think more, and more clearly, about the place of the Philosophical Gourmet Report (PGR) in the professional life of philosophers than I had, I regret to say, done heretofore.  I have, in consequence, come to a new diagnosis about the core problem with the PGR.

In line with many others, I always took myself to have mainly methodological worries about the PGR.  I now understand that my principal concern is, rather, one of governance.  Here is my concern:

My understanding is that the editor, the advisory board, and the evaluators compile the PGR in order to serve the interests of academic philosophers and their students.  Thus, the profession of academic philosophy is at least one of the groups whose interests are, it is claimed, being served by the PGR.  My trouble is that I, as a member of the profession, have no effective voice in the governance of the PGR—I cannot, in particular, affect any change to that governance structure if I feel that the interests of the profession (or of philosophy students) are not in fact being served as well as they might be.  (I cannot see any description on the PGR site of how the editor or advisory board members are chosen; the masthead suggests, meanwhile, that the PGR is the work of an individual.  Unlike many groups organized for the greater good, the PGR does not provide any constitution or other governance documents on its website.)

In effect, under the current governance of the PGR, some members of the profession have declared themselves to be the group who will look after these interests of the profession, while the profession has no rights of sovereignty in how the PGR is governed.  It is a deeply paternalistic and authoritarian model of governance.  It is a governance structure that, lacking accountability to the groups whose interests it is meant to serve, lends itself to precisely the sort of behaviour we have seen.

The central groups that look after the interests of the philosophical profession and that members of the profession have a say in the governance of are the national learned societies.  I would be much more comfortable—if a ranking serves our professional interests at all—if the learned societies of Anglophone philosophy would take a leadership role in constructing a more democratic governance structure for the rankings of record of Anglophone departments of philosophy.  That would make the governance structure transparent to the profession and give the profession a way to alter that governance structure should it see fit.  If we do not solve this problem of governance, all other problems are solvable only through acts of grace from within the PGR.

One governance model that comes to mind would be for the main learned societies in the Anglophone world to appoint an editor and approve the editor’s choice of an advisory board, much as is done for society journals but jointly so that no one nation is seen as pre-eminently involved.  Another would be for the learned societies to form an advisory committee and to hire a professional organization to handle the survey—there is no need for the survey to be run by a professional philosopher, but the committee would help craft the wording, the recipient lists, etc. for the survey.

The largest of the Anglophone national societies—the APA—has a statement in which it declares it does not undertake and does not sponsor or endorse any rankings of departments.  That is fine; but it does undertake to serve the interests of its members.  There are ways to take a leadership role in altering the way rankings are governed without taking on the doing of them oneself.  The APA might consider explicitly condemning rankings edited by people who act abusively toward members of the profession; it might consider distancing itself from any ranking system that has no democratic input from within the profession in the choice of editor or advisory board.  Without some such action I have a hard time seeing that the APA is fulfilling its mission statement, which reads in part:  “The APA is active in the defense of professional rights of philosophers”.

The time has come for the profession to make sure that the conduct of the rankings of departments reflects the interests of the profession as a whole.  The only way to assure that is to give the profession as a whole—either through its national learned societies or, should they be unable to take a leadership role in this, through some other route—a genuine say in the conduct of rankings.

Alan Richardson
Department of Philosophy
University of British Columbia
Member, APA
Member, CPA

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