Philosophy: “Not A Meritocracy”


The latest edition of What Is It Like To Be A Philosopher? is out, with Clifford Sosis (Coastal Carolina) interviewing Sally Haslanger (MIT). 

As usual, there is a lot of interesting material in the interview.

Here’s one bit that stuck out. Haslanger says:

There have been many highs and lows in my career. And a lot of the time has been very mixed. I have considered leaving the field over and over. But somehow I was offered a path that made it worth staying. I know there are many people who deserve more than they get in philosophy, and I’ve been lucky in so many ways. I believe that recognizing the luck in it all is extremely important, and doing what I can to open paths for others is the least I can do. Philosophy is not a meritocracy. Life is not a meritocracy. Yet some are treated much worse than others by life, by chance, by individuals, by structures. I hate that unfairness; I just hate it.

Anyone who has been in the profession for a while recognizes that philosophy is not a meritocracy, but I sometimes find that younger graduate students don’t quite recognize this or take it seriously, believing instead that the quality of their work alone will bring them professional success.

Of course the quality of their work matters, and yes there are certain meritocratic aspects of the profession. But other things make a difference, too. Luck, yes, but not just that. Being able to get a job and do well as a professional philosopher involves professional and social skills. Graduate programs need to be sure their students know this from early on and, to some reasonable extent, take steps to help them cultivate these skills. That won’t make philosophy more of a meritocracy (leaving aside the ethics and epistemology of that), but it may help students better understand what they’re getting into, and how to better get through it.

The whole interview is here.

haslanger-sally

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David Wallace
David Wallace
4 years ago

I think this is substantively good advice but I don’t think it bears on whether philosophy is a meritocracy; rather, the point is that graduate students (but not just graduate students) often have too narrow a view of what counts as merit in professional academic philosophy. Social and professional skills are *appropriately* important in philosophy. Hardly anyone has a pure research job that doesn’t require them to interact with colleagues and students. And even in the world of research, the ability to network, learn about other people’s work, get them to learn about yours, set up collaborations, organise and get invited to conferences, etc., is an important part of being in a research *community*.

Now it might be (indeed, obviously *is*, at least to some degree) that these skills are acquired, and/or assessed and appreciated, in a non-meritocratic way, e.g. because of racial bias or the networking head start given by being at certain institutions. And in that sense philosophy falls short of meritocracy. But that’s equally true for more “traditional” philosophical skills.Report

Postdoc
Postdoc
Reply to  David Wallace
4 years ago

‘Social and professional skills are *appropriately* important in philosophy.’

This depends on how we understand the scope of ‘philosophy’ and how we understand ‘social and professional skills.’ In the narrow sense, of ‘philosophy’ social and professional skills have little to do with it. Many famous philosophers lacked strong social and professional skills, yet they are regarded as some of the best philosophers (think Wittgenstein, Kripke, Kant, etc). If ‘philosophy’ is understood broadly, then social and professional skills have something to do with it. But here we’re understanding philosophy as a profession, not as the love of knowledge or whatever.

On the other end, there is the question of how to understand ‘social and professional skills.’ It’s reasonable to expect employees to be able to communicate about philosophy, teach, use a computer, not harass women, etc. For the profession, social and professional skills in this sense are important. However, there is another sense of ‘social and professional skills’ whereby we mean being affable, a good networker, popular, getting people to notice you and like you, and so on. None of these skills are relevant to the profession really. They aren’t relevant to being able to teach and publish research, the two main aspects of being a professional philosopher.

So, when people say philosophy is not a meritocracy, they could be talking about either the fact that how good of a philosopher you are, in the narrow sense, has a small role in your success, or they could be talking about how being the kind of person who is very good at appearing cool, smart, affable, etc has too much of a role to play.Report

Ghost
Ghost
4 years ago

Yasss! Thank you! Why is this so hard for people to admit to themselves?Report

Carnap
Carnap
4 years ago

I am often in disagreement with Prof. Haslanger’s views regarding what philosophy and the profession should be. However, I found that interview extremely interesting and, to be honest, moving. Thanks to Prof. Haslanger for sharing a picture of her life and upbringing and to Clifford Sosis for conducting the interview (and others in the series).Report

mhl
mhl
4 years ago

Why is this (“life is not fair in Philosophy”) worth a post here if it is simultaneously acknowledged that life is not fair in other professions as well? This is not a rhetorical question – I am interested in why the non-meritocratic nature of life rubs philosophers especially the wrong way.

Is it because in other professions (e.g., medicine, law, finance), running into a little bad luck can still get you a job making good money? Something else?Report

Derek Bowman
Reply to  mhl
4 years ago

MHL,

I think it’s partly that we’re philosophers, and so we’re especially concerned about the nature of our own profession, in the same way that as an American I’m especially concerned with my own government’s human rights violations even if other nations are engaged in the same or worse.

But I also think it’s because of the hopes and dispositions about many of the people who choose to pursue philosophy as a profession. Many of us were attracted to philosophy as students in part because of the ways that it seemed to be detached from, or even critical of, common views of success and achievement. This is in part because of many of our standard philosophical exemplars – e.g. Socrates – really did this. And it is in part because of the ways in which – when we are successful – our classrooms create an environment that at least approximates the ideals of free and open inquiry.

Many of us chose philosophy because we found something special in it – and so it is understandable that we might feel disappointed when we find that it isn’t special in many of the ways we thought it was or hoped it could be. This is so, even if we can see in retrospect why those hopes or expectations were bound to be disappointed.Report

mhl
mhl
Reply to  Derek Bowman
4 years ago

Thank you for the thoughtful response, Derek.Report