The Philosophical Gourmet Report — A “Pointless Waste of Time”? (updated 11/15)

The new (2006-08) Philosophical Gourmet Report has been out for a few days now; it’s available here. Especially relevant to this blog is the PGR’s rankings of programs in the area of epistemology.

In the near future, I hope to be able to post some thoughts on how I think the the PGR can best be used by prospective graduate students. For now I just have a few words about a recently blogged argument that the PGR is a “Pointless Waste of Time”….

The critic is Prof. Michael Pakaluk of Clark University; whose recent blog post begins as follows:

A Pointless Waste of Time

The latest “Philosophical Gourmet” report has appeared. I should say that I find the “ancient philosophy ranking” useless and will not use it for advising students. Why?

1. Any student who wished to consult such a list, in order to decide where or with whom to study, should probably not pursue graduate studies in philosophy. His taking such lists seriously would show that he lacks a good philosophical mind. I would advise him to choose a career in law, accounting, or something similar instead.

2. Any student who did not already have an idea of the scholars, or kind of scholar, he would wish to study with, should probably also not pursue graduate studies in philosophy. His undergraduate studies have clearly not advanced to a sufficient level of maturity. But if he did have such an idea, then that would suffice to help discover where he might suitably apply.

Prof. Pakaluk goes on to give four further reasons for his conclusion, for a total of six. I should note that he is especially targeting the rankings in his own area of specialization, ancient philosophy, though, given the nature of the reasons he gives, one cannot help but think he thinks the whole PGR is worthless.

The PGR has been attacked before, and I won’t go into that whole story again. Brian Leiter, the editor of the PGR, has responded to many of the main criticisms here.

But I do want to quickly address Pakaluk’s first two considerations, above. My concern is potential graduate students for whom graduate school in philosophy might be a wise choice, but who might fall into the categories of students that Pakaluk deems unsuited for graduate studies.

As for (1), I take it Pakaluk isn’t speaking only of those who would use only the PGR in deciding which programs to apply to, perhaps by applying to the top 10 or so programs in the PGR rankings, and then going to the highest ranked program that takes them, without consulting any other sources of information. The PGR itself advises against such a silly procedure. So I think we really must read Pakaluk as writing of all students who would be so dumb as to even use the PGR as one source of information among others in deciding on graduate programs when he absurdly declares: “His taking such lists seriously would show that he lacks a good philosophical mind. I would advise him to choose a career in law, accounting, or something similar instead.” One wonders, then, about the philosophers who advise students to use the PGR — taken with the appropriate “grains of salt” that the PGR itself counsels — in their search for a suitable graduate program. Does this show that these philosophers also lack “good philosophical minds” and belong in some other profession? (It seems to me that many of us would make terrible accountants!) I’m tempted to take this personally, because I’d be among those outed by Prof. Pakaluk as unsuitably philosophical for the profession. But whatever one thinks of me, apparently there are a lot of philosophers who would be targeted. Presumably this would include the philosophers on the PGR’s Advisory Board (listed on the PGR’s opening page) and the others who spent the considerable amount of time it takes to fill out the surveys (see the long list here, scrolling down just a bit to get to the list). I take it Prof. Pakaluk thinks that he himself has a “good philosophical mind” — or at least good enough that he belongs in the profession. I wonder whether he would look at the lists I just linked to and conclude that the philosophers listed there don’t measure up the way he does? Or is it somehow just the prospective students who would think just as these philosophers do about the matter in question who are shown to be unsuitable?

(Please note that I’m not saying or hinting in any way that Prof. Pakaluk doesn’t have a “good philosophical mind” and doesn’t belong in the profession.)

Now, Pakaluk’s (2). As I’ve admitted in this letter that I wrote to the then Executive Director of the APA in defense of rankings, when I was applying to graduate schools, I was among those prospective students who needed rankings because I didn’t know enough about the state of the profession. So, again, I find myself among Pakaluk’s targets. But this time it’s a bit easier to take: Here he’s not declaring that I’m among those who don’t have a suitably philosophical mind to belong in the profession, but just that when I was a prospective student, I wasn’t ready for graduate school. And maybe he has a point there. My own relative ignorance of the then-current state of philosophy was due to my having gone to a college where I was taught philosophy mainly through studying the works of long-dead philosophers. And I did feel a bit disadvantaged by that at times during my first year of graduate school at UCLA. But, then again, I did have an extremely successful first year, anyway. I’m very glad there was nobody like Prof. Pakaluk around at the time telling me I didn’t belong in graduate school. When I made my letter public as part of a defense of the PGR, several philosophers took the opportunity to e-mail me and tell me that they, too, were in a similar state of relative ignorance when they were choosing graduate programs. Some of these are philosophers I very much respect and admire. I’m very glad there was nobody like Pakaluk around telling them they “should probably not pursue graduate studies in philosophy.” (I don’t feel at liberty to name names, so I guess I’m asking readers to just believe me here that there are some extremely good philosophers didn’t belong in graduate school by Prof. Pakaluk’s criterion.)

I just thought it was worth to telling prospective students whom Prof. Pakaluk deems unsuited for graduate school that they have plenty of company.

Update, 11/15: Prof. Pakaluk has now responded to this post here. A quick response:

— As for this:

There is an interesting conflation in DeRose’s argument. In his reaction against my phrase, “a good philosophical mind”, it becomes clear that he regards “belonging in the profession” and “having a good philosophical mind” as equivalent, or nearly so. Now I do not.

I of course don’t think those two phrases are anything close to equivalent. I did read Pakaluk as using his (extremely strong) claim that any student who would consult something like the PGR would thereby be shown to lack a good philosophical mind to support his (also extremely strong) claim that any such student “should probably not pursue graduate studies in philosophy,” and as committing himself to both of these (distinct) strong claims. The reader can look again at Pakaluk’s reason #1 above to determine whether this was a fair reading.

–As for this:

And then he [DeRose] also has to personalize my comment, turning it into an attack on himself and everyone else on the PGR Advisory Board. Believe me: I cannot understand his or their support of the project, but I certainly do prescind from making any judgments about them.

I realize Pakaluk doesn’t explicitly state any judgments about me or the philosophers I cite. What he does do is make a couple of overly strong general claims about “Any student who…”: First, that any student who would think a certain way about the PGR would thereby show herself to lack a good philosophical mind and should probably not pursue graduate studies in philosophy (look up above, I’m really not making this up!). Second that any student who doesn’t already know enough to decide where to apply w/o such rankings “should probably also not pursue graduate studies in philosophy.” I thought it was relevant and worth pointing out that many excellent philosophers apparently think about the PGR in the same way that Pakaluk thinks (in reason #1) would show a student to be unfit, and that many, when they were students, would have fallen in a class of those that Pakaluk (#2) again deems ill-suited.

–Finally, I don’t find it at all “absurd” that a student whose background in current philosophy is shaky enough that they may have a pressing need for guidance of the type the PGR gives (though I think even very well-trained and well-advised undergraduates would benefit from using the PGR along with their other sources of information) might be discouraged from pursuing graduate studies if they heard apparently very knowledgeable professors of philosophy making pronouncements like Prof. Pakaluk’s. (On this, see my comment #4, below.) But if Prof. Pakaluk is right here, then my whole reason for responding to his original post vanishes.

As for the rest of Pakaluk’s response, I’ll just leave it to interested readers to reach a judgement for themselves.


The Philosophical Gourmet Report — A “Pointless Waste of Time”? (updated 11/15) — 10 Comments

  1. For myself, without the PGR, I would have had no idea where to study. Although Indian philosophy is no longer ranked, the PGR at the time (2003) provided a useful resource for determining where it was even possible to do graduate work in Indian philosophy. Then again, maybe this only goes to prove that people who do Indian philosophy really aren’t philosophers . . .

  2. The problem of what graduate program to attend isn’t really (or isn’t purely) a philosophical problem. So it’s not clear to me how the sorts of information one consults in solving that problem could indicate that one does not have “a good philosophical mind.”

    It’s also not clear to me why one’s inclination to consult rankings such as Leiter’s would indicate that one is better suited to a career in, say, law than a career in philosophy. What is it exactly about the “good legal mind” that makes it susceptible to the influence of rankings in a way that the good philosophical mind is not?

  3. Professor Pakaluk says ‘taking lists seriously’ implies an unphilosophical mind. I wonder if this applies to grocery lists. Does it apply to other forms of recorded information, like maps? Philosophers should know where to go before consulting a map, damn it!

    Professor DeRose, why do you bother responding to such a claim?

  4. The “Waste of Time” blog post was showing up on Google Blog Search (that’s how I found it), and it was by a reputable professor of philosophy, so, like I said, I was concerned about students who might believe him — esp. about not being ready for graduate school, in connection with reason #2. That’s a real concern for some. It was for me. If I had heard some professor stating with such assurance that “Any student who did not already have an idea of the scholars, or kind of scholar, he would wish to study with, should probably also not pursue graduate studies in philosophy,” I might well have believed him. Some students, of course, aren’t ready for graduate school — and perhaps I was a borderline case of that. But the blanket statement went way too far.

  5. I appreciate your comments, Prof. DeRose, and the defense of the PGR you offer here and elsewhere. But I would like to take exception to one point you make: that undergraduates who are in a state of extreme ignorance about the state of philosophy programs are well-served by the PGR. I was in such a state as an undergraduate, and my reliance on the PGR was a serious mistake. Since I didn’t know what specialty I wanted to pursue, I relied mostly on the overall rankings. And though, as many have noted, the PGR explicitly recommends against this procedure, I simply applied to most of the top-ranked departments. This was not only a waste of time and money, but, more importantly, it freed me (or so I thought) from doing any actual research on the departments. Without a ranking like the PGR I would have had no choice but to find out more about the programs and actually try to find one that was right for me. Since my professors were in a similar state of ignorance about the (then-) current state of the profession, I felt free to let the PGR make my decisions for me. It was only through sheer luck that my experience in graduate school has turned out well.

    Of course, it may be a mistake to draw any conclusions from such a blatant misuse of the PGR. But I suspect that misuses such as mine are much more prevalent than some might think, especially among very ignorant undergrads. (One need only look at the bad effects of the U.S. News ranking to get an idea.)

  6. I’ll just add that I suspect the number of undergraduate philosophy departments in which one *could* graduate with a sufficiently good grasp of contemporary philosophy to know where one wanted to study in graduate school is probably quite small. Most departments are small; most professors do not keep up with the latest developments in every field of interest; most do not publish much. Nevertheless, using a lot of history of philosophy they can graduate fairly well-educated and talented young philosophers. Such graduates should certainly have a chance at graduate school.

  7. Three cheers for Professor DeRose, for denouncing this nonsense. I mean, we can’t all afford to go to school at Clark University, where apparently the philosophy students who are allowed to go to grad school all “have an idea of the scholars, or kind of scholar, he would wish to study with” by their senior year (and don’t consult lists). I’d love to meet one of these geniuses. For the rest of us confused, list-consulting morons, who didn’t have any idea what we wanted to study in grad school, much less who the top scholars were (possibly because we were more interested in Aristotle and Plato than the contemporary historians who study them), there’s the Gourmet Report.

  8. What’s a bit funny about E. Keeling’s remark above is that one thing that’s very useful about the PGR is that it makes _doing your own research of departments_ vastly more easy than it otherwise would be. If you were like me when I first applied to grad school not only did I not know what departments were good in various areas of philosophy, I didn’t even know which universities had graduate programs in philosophy except for a fairly small amount. (At my undergrad university at the time ‘contemporary’ philosophy stopped somewhere around 1960, I believe.) But the PGR gives links to all these departments, and the departments now nearly all have good faculty web pages w/ lists of papers and the like by the members. Even if you don’t take the rankings seriously (and I think they are generally pretty good) you can easily get an idea of what people at various departments are working on. If you don’t bother to do this I might worry that you’re too lazy to go to grad school in philosophy, even if it doesn’t say anything interesting about the quality of one’s ‘philosophical mind’. It does seem that even if one doesn’t give much cedence to the rankings, the mere fact of putting together a lot of useful information is very, very valuable.

  9. Even someone like myself who had a long list of people with whom I was interested in studying when I applied for PhD programmes, and knew with which sort of scholar I wished to study, found the information in the PGR invaluable. It turned out that many of the people whose work I was interested in were at schools without English language PhD programmes, or were at schools that did not have large enough programmes to support my other interests. I used the PGR to reduce to a reasonable number the programmes to which I could afford to apply, and would support my interests. These tasks, it is true, were much less like doing philosophy than they were like more practical activities (such as accounting perhaps) but in my judgement choosing a PhD programme is a much more pragmatic activity than doing philosophy itself.

    Even if you reject the overall ratings (or even the area ratings) the PGR is a great source of faculty listings, and links to programmes. It was looking at the faculty listings that made me realize that many highly regarded programmes had nobody with whom I could work. I could have gotten all this information on my own, but why should I reduplicate the work that the editors of the PGR have already done?

  10. Two comments. First, though based on his replies to Keith, Pakaluk would probably dispute this, there is undisguised contempt in the claim for those in the professions that “I would advise him to choose a career in law, accounting, or something similar instead.” I think this view is unworthy of someone who has written a textbook on accounting ethics, and should perhaps be brought to the attention of his publishers and the poor undergraduates forced to buy and be examined on his book.

    Second, another personal anecdote to add to those above. I applied to grad schools pre-PGR, and can attest that the PGR, if used as it recommends, is a wonderful resource for undergraduates, one that I wish I had access to back then. By luck I ended up in the ancient philosophy program at Pittsburgh, but only by luck.

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