The Chronicle on this Week’s Controversies


The Chronicle of Higher Education has a story on the recent events involving Brian Leiter’s emails to certain members of the profession and the future of the Philosophical Gourmet Report. According to the article, Leiter has appointed Berit Brogaard (Miami) as “co-editor” of the report.

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Thomas
Thomas
6 years ago

Very worried about the damage all this is going to cause for academic philosophy (at least in the US). Our already problematic public image is going to deteriorate infinitely with that.Report

senior fac
senior fac
6 years ago

I suspect I’m not the only one who has noticed that a disproportionate number (for our sorry discipline) of philosophers signing the September statement are women.

I have also spoken to several more female philosophers who would like to sign it but are reluctant to do so. Even as the number of signees continues to grow, it is still not easy to stand up against someone who is so influential in the profession and so well known for settling scores.

One take away from this? Creating a positive climate in philosophy is about a lot more than cracking down on (Leiter’s words) “sexual predators,” as important as that is. It is also about treating other philosophers and viewpoints with respect, and not perpetuating an atmosphere of threats, fear, put-downs, and intimidation.

If the PGR is to have legitimacy in our discipline, it needs a new start, or we should start looking for other alternatives.Report

Jennifer Frey
6 years ago

It seems that Brian Leiter will continue with the line of a three pronged, unapologetic defense of his behavior: he is just a no-holds barred New Yorker who shoots straight from the hip; he is the one being bullied by a “cyber mob” of goody-two-shoes, busy clutching their pearls and heading for their fainting couches in response to his abrasive but justified critiques of bad philosophy and ranking methodology; he is the unwitting victim of a “co-ordinated smear campaign”, consisting, by and large, of jealous folks indignant at their lack of representation in the PGR. The Chronicle has now given him a platform to put this story out to the public.

All this is run-up, of course, to the claim that he is uncertain whether or not to give up control of the PGR, because that would be to capitulate to the mob, who are exploiting a mere moment of private “intemperance” to bring him down at last. Contrast this group with the “good philosophers,” who have asked Leiter to give up control of the PGR. These “good philosophers” are merely concerned, by contrast to the “cyber-mob,” that this mess has cast a pall over the report, and that this, and only this, is the reason for Leiter to step down from its charge.

So, I suppose we losers must wait for the “good philosophers” (the only ones that matter) to clarify if this is in fact their motive, and if this is the way we want these issues to be framed for the general public.Report

Max
Max
6 years ago

Is his power that big? I mean, by the end of the week, so it seems, half the NYU faculty will have signed the September statement and each one of them is so much more influential and well-known than Leiter! Hell, even famous people outside the profession like Angelika Kratzer have signed.

Looks like the “good philosophers” are way too polite in dealing with Leiter. I suspect that they fear that what they see as the valuable work of the PGR could be completely lost if Leiter receives the treatment he deserves (By the way, people have been incredibly charitable in dealing with his statements, unlike Leiter usually is with his interlocutors).Report

DC
DC
6 years ago

Speaking as a New Yorker, I’m kind of offended. Yes, we can be good-naturedly argumentative but I don’t think it’s part of our general character to be vindictive. Judging by some of the posts I’ve seen here and other places he will persecute people for years over disagreements and actively try to hurt them. Causing someone pain, wanting to permanently damage their careers is not joking behavior; it’s frightening.Report

anonymous prof
anonymous prof
6 years ago

is there a reason why anyone is still advertising on his website? I can’t imagine financially backing his blog. Perhaps all of us who are concerned about his behavior should contact these presses and departments and make it known what it is they are associating themselves with and effectively endorsing.Report

mdickson
6 years ago

I long ago reused to have anything to do with the PGR, for a variety of reasons. And yes, I was asked.

Well, I cannot resist. Here is a song that I wrote, occasioned by an incident that will remain private, though the sentiment is, now, I suppose, public… The song sums up how I feel about the PGR too, though the occasion of its writing had nothing to do with the PGR.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=erdcyIz-izAReport

Kathleen Lowrey
Kathleen Lowrey
6 years ago

I’m not a philosopher but I’ve been thinking about the ways that the Leiter case brings together two current trends in academia. On the one hand, there is the longer-standing one, motivated by feminist theory and practice, to identify and end non-explicit patterns of interaction that tend to undermine the possibility of a gender-egalitarian academy. On the other, there is the more recent one, of bad-faith invocations of “civility” as a means of squelching politically inconvenient opinions and attitudes in the academy.

Leiter has been on the side of the angels with respect to the latter (thinking of Salaita, or the Berkeley statement from the chancellor). So it’s not a totally preposterous leap for him to claim that his own case makes him a sort of Salaita before the feminist civility inquisition.

Here it seems relevant that what Salaita was being robbed of was something that has explicit contractual rules around it (a tenured faculty position). What Leiter may be robbed of is something much more ambiguous: a collective level of esteem from his colleagues that makes him a credible editor of a big evaluative exercise of their shared discipline.

This actually puts him a position to know, in some sense, “what it’s like to be a woman in philosophy” (or the academy). If people just don’t respect you, and just don’t take you seriously, and shun you, and even when they don’t know you as a person approach you with skepticism and a sense that they already know what you are all about and actually have a ready stock of second-hand ridicule at hand to lob at you, that’s an awful feeling. No doubt he is experiencing a combination of sadness and discouragement and outrage.

Now, we are slowly moving toward recognition that being a woman, or gay, or disabled, or a person of color, or what have you, actually are not good grounds for this kind of treatment and it’s bad for the collective enterprise when people behave as though they were. I don’t think the same holds for the grounds on which Brian Leiter is being so treated. And, in spite of his readiness to invoke the legal system I think he is smacking up against the very real frustrations of that non-contractual grey area of reputation and hearsay and access to opportunities and acclaim and comradely solidarity distributed on their bases. The law can help with these, but it can’t fully replace them.Report

Bill
6 years ago

I think this is preposterous.

The reason it was outrageous to discipline Salaita for his so-called incivility is that it’s not unreasonable to think that things like bombing hospitals merit anger rather than dispassionate and reasonable discussion. (You could think this while thinking that these actions were, in the end justified, though in fact I don’t.)

While there’s room for disagreement about which issues one might reasonably think merit that kind of anger, it seems fairly clear that the suggestion that our professional lives might be improved if senior members of the profession could bring themselves to be a bit nicer to their junior colleagues isn’t one of them. Nor is a less than complimentary book review

Furthermore – and while there could be room for confusion here – nobody’s suggesting Leiter should lose his livelihood. He’s a tenured professor at Chicago. I don’t know whether Wiley Blackwell pay him anything for the PGR, but it’s not his main paying gig.

Finally, there’s an obvious disanalogy between refusing someone intellectual respect on the grounds of their colour or their gender and doing so on the basis of their behavior. People get to choose how they conduct themselves. They don’t choose their race or gender (I’m not, by the way, impressed by Leiter’s suggestion that it’s ‘just part of his culture’ as a New Yorker to behave like this.)

This probably comes across as a bit abrasive. I’m not from New York, so I don’t have much of an excuse for it, but I did get married there, so perhaps some of it rubbed off on me.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Bill
6 years ago

To reiterate something that came up at NewAPPS – and putting Leiter entirely aside – it is extremely dangerous to condition any defence of Steven Salaita on the reasonableness or understandableness of his comments. Unlike a content-neutral defence on First Amendment or general-academic-freedom grounds, such a defence is wide open to attack on the grounds that the University of Illinois disagrees as to the politics of the case and the degree to which Salaita’s remarks are sympathetic.

The mainstream defences of Salaita, by Brian Leiter and others, have so far been very careful on this point. I’m very troubled by signs of a drift towards a content-based rather than a principle-based criticism of Salaita’s treatment.Report

anonphil
anonphil
Reply to  David Wallace
6 years ago

A truly content-neutral defense might hardly be plausible, regardless of whether purists would be “very troubled.” For instance, had Salaita’s tweets flatly called for the destruction of Israel and the Jews inhabiting it, one might reasonably think that terminating his de facto contract could be legitimate or even advisable–given the nature of work as a teaching academic.

In fact, quite a few reasonable commentators have pointed out that Salaita’s tweets, while perhaps intemperate in style, were well within the bounds of reasonableness in content. How such a view could be “extremely dangerous” is far from obvious.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  David Wallace
6 years ago

(I think this will appear above, rather than below, the comment it’s a reply to; apologies.)

There are indeed things Salaita could have said that legitimately have got him dehired. But they aren’t (as I understand the law) defined by some subjective standard of “reasonableness” but by the quite specific sorts of speech that First Amendment jurisprudence treats as unprotected. (If Salaita’s lawyers make any appeal to the reasonableness of his remarks, I’ll stand corrected.)

This is not a matter of purism; it is a matter of what kind of academic freedom is legally defensible, and so is a matter of prudence as much as anything. I actually *don’t* think all of Salaita’s remarks were reasonable; that’s irrelevant to my view that he was mistreated.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  David Wallace
6 years ago

(I retract the apology, and instead offer one to this website’s software!)Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  David Wallace
6 years ago

With apologies for double (triple?) posting, on reflection I could have made the point more clearly. It’s this: a construal of academic freedom as protecting only *reasonable* speech is no protection at all. (Is there anyone at all who finds *both* Ward Churchill’s description of 9/11 victims as “little Eichmann’s”, *and* John Yoo’s advocacy of the legality of torture, to be reasonable?)

In practice, freedom to say reasonable things collapses pretty quickly into freedom to say things that I more or less agree with, or which at least come from a framework I find sympathetic. That’s not a freedom worth speaking of.Report

anonphil
anonphil
Reply to  David Wallace
6 years ago

“There are indeed things Salaita could have said that legitimately have got him dehired. But they aren’t (as I understand the law) defined by some subjective standard of ‘reasonableness’ but by the quite specific sorts of speech that First Amendment jurisprudence treats as unprotected.”

Whether or not you understand American law (which does recognize “reasonableness” norms you’d evidently find troublingly “subjective”), you don’t seem to understand its qualified relevance to the particular issue in question. Or maybe you do — which would explain why you didn’t address the straightforward example given.

You seem to think that the Salaita campaign has been or should be motivated by whatever the law strictly is supposed to allow and protect, which is supposed to set the boundaries of academic freedom that people should care enough to mobilize in defense of. That is what I took to be a hardly plausible, legalistic, “purist” position. But I work in related areas of philosophy and live in the States, so perhaps my view isn’t sufficiently informed or objective.Report

Dale Miller
Dale Miller
Reply to  David Wallace
6 years ago

Perhaps the issue isn’t so much the reasonableness of the comments as it is their compatibility with his being able to do his job. Suppose that a faculty member were to claim that the members of some racial or ethnic group are massively inferior to others, intellectually or even morally. That’s protected speech, from a First Amendment standpoint, but it simply might be impossible to use that person in the classroom if students of the group in question would reasonably fear that they couldn’t receive fair treatment from this person. Comments might be unreasonable without rising to the level of raising this type of worry.Report

billwringe
billwringe
Reply to  David Wallace
6 years ago

David: You’re right. Anyone who thinks Salaita shouldn’t be fired for what he said should think that Leiter shouldn’t be fired for what he said.

It’s really important to affirm this, given the number of people who are calling for Leiter to be fired.

Oh, wait. No-one has called for that. (And even if they had, there’s zero chance of it happening.)

If we’re talking about whether it’s reasonable to support Salaita and yet be critical of Leiter – as Kathlees Lowrey was – then I don’t see the same need for content neutral principles.

It’s also a bit misleading to suggest that Leiter’s case is simply a matter of ‘having unpopular opinions’. Intimating to someone that you’re planning to sue them because you didn’t like what they said about how academics should conduct themselves, to intimating that you might share confidential information that came into your possession while you were in a position of authority is not the same as ‘calling it as you see it’. (It’s interesting that this aspect of the controversy isn’t mentioned in the Leiter piece.)

Finally, it’s somewhat ironic to see the defence of ‘academic freedom’ used in defense of someone’s right to call on the coercive powers of the state in order to stop someone saying that it mightn’t be a bad thing for professional philosophers to be a bit nicer to one another.

(And finally – to take up something you’ve mentioned elsewhere: one can think it’s inappropriate for a senior philosopher to go to law to stop someone saying this without thinking that no philosopher should ever have recourse to law ever.)Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  David Wallace
6 years ago

Bill: My post doesn’t actually mention Leiter. But insofar as there’s a connection, I think it’s this: some of the (mostly-via-comments) criticism of Leiter is on grounds so broad that they do have academic-freedom implications. To avoid those implications either (as in the comment I was responding to) on the grounds that only reasonable content is protected by academic freedom, or (as in your post) on the grounds that academic freedom is relevant only to hiring and firing, is to construct a dangerously narrow conception of academic freedom. (To reprise my NewAPPS comment on this, you would infringe my academic freedom by locking me out of conferences and boycotting my lectures and talks on the grounds of my political beliefs, even if I am comfortably tenured.)

Intelligent criticisms of Leiter do not need to take that form. Bullying or harassment, if present, is not protected by academic freedom. Nor is demonstrated inability, if present, to properly carry out a service task like editing the PGR. Indeed, plausibly carrying out of service tasks per se gets no academic-freedom protection. I’m not concerned (at least on academic-freedom or first-amendment grounds) about those initial criticisms, but about the way some of the subsequent discussion has gone.

Dale: agreed. (And I think that’s roughly what the First Amendment jurisprudence says, though as I’ve said I’m no expert.)Report

Kathleen Lowrey
Kathleen Lowrey
6 years ago

Finally, there’s an obvious disanalogy between refusing someone intellectual respect on the grounds of their colour or their gender and doing so on the basis of their behavior. People get to choose how they conduct themselves.

?

that was my point (“I don’t think the same holds…”). I am sorry if it was unclear, or the “don’t” was somehow ambiguous.Report

anonphil
anonphil
6 years ago

“Perhaps the issue isn’t so much the reasonableness of the comments as it is their compatibility with his being able to do his job.”

Thanks for this. It more clearly expresses the thought behind the qualification “given the nature of work as a teaching academic” in 4:17.Report