Philosophy Cliques Revisited

A graduate student who prefers to remain anonymous writes in:

Is it a step in the right direction towards abolishing white male supremacy when the mansions of Hollywood are opened to millionaire actors from minority groups or when the children of the global elite are allowed behind the gates of the Ivy League? Some say we have to start somewhere and we might as well start at the top. Others worry that such changes actually serve to reinforce the structural problems in our society because in slightly amending the male whiteness of the most visible parts of the country, we end up occluding the lack of positive change in other parts. A related worry is that in affording some members of underrepresented groups entry into old boys’ clubs, these changes only address the boys part of the problem with old boys’ clubs. The broader problem is that these are clubs, bastions of exclusion that afford their members unfair and unearned privileges.

Old boys’ clubs in philosophy have recently undergone similar changes. The Bellingham Summer Philosophy Conference, the Philosophy Mountain Workshop, the Ranch Metaphysics Workshop, and some of the Oxford Studies workshops come to mind as examples of workshops that are either wholly invite-only or that have highly intransparent selection procedures that evidently favor attendees who have attended the same event in previous years. The organizers of these events often serve as de facto gatekeepers for the most prestigious jobs in the discipline. The lineups of these workshops in any given year are impressively diverse, but everything else about them suggests that they are mere continuations of the problematic old boys’ clubs of the past. While it’s hard to fault anyone from attending these events, especially graduate students and junior faculty, and especially in today’s dire job market, those who return to these events year after year should not kid themselves into thinking that they are part of some positive social transformation. If they are serious about making the discipline more inclusive, fair, and pleasant, they should discourage these events from happening, or at the very least decline invitations from the events’ organizers and make room for people who haven’t had the same professional opportunities.

More generally, we all should ask ourselves why funding sources should support such exclusive clubs. Is there any reason to have high-profile conferences and workshops where people are invited as a result of some intransparent, non-anonymous selection process? If the rationale for hand-picking attendees is to ensure that the organizers end up with a group of friends who can do philosophy together in a safe environment, why don’t these friends just go on vacation together? After all, most attendees of such events hold quite secure, high-paying jobs. This would free up scarce resources to put towards, say, defraying the cost of attending conferences for adjuncts, graduate students, and junior faculty from institutions that don’t offer sufficient travel funds.

We should also ask similar questions about the abundance of edited volumes, special issues of journals, and even some journals as a whole. At the very least, edited volumes and special issues of journals should be clearly marked if they are put together through a process that didn’t involve fully anonymous refereeing. In the long run though, we should ask why there should be any need for such publications. We should also demand more transparency from some high-prestige journals, such as the Journal of the American Philosophical Association. Among the first twenty-one articles published by this new journal were articles written by Robert Audi, Simon Blackburn, Kit Fine, Alvin Goldman, C. S. I. Jenkins, Martha Nussbaum, Robert Pasnau, Hilary Putnam, and Galen Strawson. So, 43% of the articles published so far were written by extremely well-known philosophers. How did the triple-anonymous review process touted by the editor lead to this result? An excellent example of how to do things right is the journal Ergo, whose editors have given us an extremely detailed—and refreshingly self-critical—overview of what went into making the first issue.

On the whole, instead of simply replacing old hierarchies with new, nominally more diverse ones, we should collectively strive to abolish the power structures that exist within philosophy and the clubby atmosphere that reigns in many of its corners.

I recognize that this post is a bit provocative and accusatory. I gave the relevant parties a heads-up about its appearance here, and I hope that they will write in to join the conversation and, if necessary, clear up any misconceptions. Of course, everyone is welcome to join in. As it is a kind of touchy subject, let me remind everyone of the Daily Nous comments policy.

Some of these issues were discussed in a previous post here at Daily Nous. My view, expressed there, is that

when it comes to conferences, all that is needed is a sufficient number of high quality conferences so that everyone has a decent shot at going to ‘enough.’ This can be accomplished by having some conferences that operate largely according to anonymous review, such as the American Philosophical Association (APA) meetings and others, but can also be accomplished by increasing the number of conferences, even ones that are invite-only or do not use anonymous review.

I also suggested, in comment 6 on that post, a “quasi-libertarian” defense of invite-only conferences:

if, through my hard work and successes, I am able to acquire funding that allows me to put on a small conference each year (say, I win a grant, or negotiate it as part of a job or retention offer), and I will be the one to go to the trouble of organizing it, isn’t there something to the thought that I should be allowed to invite whomever I want, provided that they are qualified? If I couldn’t do that, maybe I would be less inclined to put the conference on at all. It’s not as if I am required to put on conferences! I think that this line of thinking has some appeal, and in practice gets thrown into the mix along with other considerations, such as balance and fairness. Allowing such discretion might indeed result in a greater and more diverse set of conferences, and that could be good for the profession overall, even if some of the conferences are invite-only.

I know that not everyone agrees. Even if I’m right, though, conference organizers and journal editors should be clear about their selection processes, and I think that our anonymous graduate student correspondent raises concerns and questions that are shared by a good number of people in the philosophy profession.

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