[UPDATED 12/23/14 @11:36 EST: In the interest of giving readers easier access to Leiter’s version of events, I’ve added a link to the blog post in which Leiter calls certain criticisms of him a “smear campaign.”]
This fall, one of the most powerful institutions in the field of philosophy in this country began to collapse. In 1989, the philosopher Brian Leiter put together a ranked list of what he saw as the top twenty-five philosophy departments. Punning off the name of the Gourman Report – which ranked academic programs at universities and colleges, Leiter called his list the Philosophical Gourmet Report. Over the next several years, Leiter’s list became more elaborate and significant. Although Leiter retained editorial control over the PGR, the lists for the field as a whole and the various subfields were assembled with the help of panels of other philosophers. By the end of the 1990s, the PGR had gone online and was being distributed by Blackwell’s.
Leiter and his list have always been controversial. In addition to the general issues about objectivity that tend to arise whenever such rankings are assembled, the PGR was perceived to have certain biases – especially against Continental Philosophy – that matched those of its founder. Leiter himself developed a reputation for personal combativeness that added to the controversy. Just in the last year, The Chronicle of Higher Education reported back in October,
he told one fellow philosopher that she is “a disgrace” who works for “a shit department,” has threatened to sue another he dismissed on Twitter as a “sanctimonious arse,” and has suggested on one of his three blogs that still another professor should leave the profession “and perhaps find a field where nonsense is permitted.”
In part as a result of such behavior, pressure mounted on Leiter to step aside. Though he called the movement to oust him a “smear campaign,” Leiter appointed a co-editor for his 2014-15 report and announced that he would be leaving his position as editor following this year. But as far as I can tell, the future of the PGR remains in doubt.
Throughout the drama of this fall, philosophers online have written extensively about PGR, the possibility (or impossibility) and the importance (or unimportance) of such rankings, what Leiter and his list have meant in their profession, and what, if anything, ought to replace them. Mitchell Aboulafia, Chair of Philosophy at Manhattan College, has blogged extensively about the PGR as have a number of other philosophers (I found John Protevi’s typology of critiques of PGR particularly interesting).
Throughout the fight over the PGR, I had wanted to write something about it for the blog. But I never felt that I really understood the details well enough to add anything interesting to the conversation you’ll find on philosophy blogs. But before the year is up, I wanted to post something on the controversy, because I think that the rise and fall of the PGR will be a wonderful future topic for U.S. intellectual historians. The appeal of such a ranked list tells us interesting things about the field of philosophy in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, as do the specific philosophical preferences of Leiter and the PGR. And the timing of the PGR’s collapse is also interesting, as it comes in the midst of a moment in which the philosophical profession is doing serious soul-searching over the problem of (often gendered) bullying within it. And these are just some of the interesting – and important – aspects of this story. It’s obviously much too soon to write this history, but I hope that somebody does once the dust has settled.