party line continentalists

Brian Leiter’s Philosophical Gourmet Report (PGR) has always been controversial. Some see the report as providing an evenhanded and systematic ranking of philosophy departments in the English speaking world. Others see it as a partisan evaluation that hides its systematic undervaluation of certain departments – and thus of certain styles of philosophy – under guise of objectivity. Nevertheless, academic philosophers, whether critics or supporters, tend to take a look at the PGR and Leiter’s blog every once in a while.

Recently, however, Leiter himself has become the subject of controversy. It seems that he sent some rather nasty emails to his critics, including one in which he suggested that Emory University had a “shit department” and told a highly published full professor that she was “lucky to have any academic job.” Paul Campos, a professor of law at University of Colorado, has suggested that Leiter is a serial cyber-harasser of his critics. A number of prominent academic philosophers have refused to participate in the PGR as long as Leiter is in charge. At the time of this writing, Leiter has posted a poll to determine whether PGR should be continued in 2014.

Since evidence is still coming in and debate is still raging on, I don’t want to pass judgment on whether Leiter has behaved professionally and ethically. Rather I want to point out how in his blog Leiter has systematically defamed the New School’s philosophy department and others like it. I may deal with what I see as some methodological problems with PGR in a later post. For now I want to focus on story of Leiter and the New School

The Stone is a New York Times blog moderated by Simon Critchley, the Hans Jonas Professor of Philosophy at the New School. Like other NYT blogs such as Paul Krugman’s blog or Stanley Fish’s blog it’s not a work of scholarship. Sometimes it has very good articles (such as Craig Callender’s memorable article on the philosophical uses and abuses of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle) but basically, it is forum in which prominent academics (Critchley and others) write about philosophy for a popular audience. In a society in which they are often regarded as obscure or useless, the creation of the blog in 2010 could be considered a nod to professional philosophers by the biggest newspaper in the country.

One might expect Leiter, the most widely read philosophy blogger in the country, to celebrate the blog as a triumph for the profession. Leiter and Critchley even specialize in the same thing: “continental” philosophy. Leiter’s response?

What is the NY Times Thinking?

They create a blog forum related to philosophy (“The Stone”), and then choose a complete hack as its moderator.  Simon Critchley?  Even among scholars of Continental philosophy (his purported area of expertise), he’s not taken seriously, let alone among philosophers in any other part of the discipline.  (When Michael Rosen [Harvard] and I edited The Oxford Handbook of Continental Philosophy, the idea of inviting Critchley never came up–how could it?)  If the APA weren’t fatally compromised by its need to pander to everyone, it would launch a formal protest.  Unbelievable.

I would urge readers to send a short note to the public editor, Clark Hoyt, stating, roughly, that you are pleased to see increased attention to philosophy in the NY Times, but are concerned that someone who is not taken seriously as a philosopher or scholar has been invited to serve as “moderator.”  Keep it short and sweet.  If they get a couple thousand e-mails to that effect, maybe they will wake up to the spectacular mistake they’ve made.

Leiter casts aspersions on Critchley’s competence (Critchley has, according to Leiter, only a “purported” area of expertise,  the idea of inviting Critchley to contribute to the Oxford Handbook “never came up”, etc). And of course he suggests that Critchley is not taken seriously in the discipline. But notice that Leiter does not stop there. He actually calls on his own readers to contact the editor of Times to try to get Critchley fired from the job.

If this appears as a vindictive jab at a colleague, Leiter goes much farther in other posts. As early as 2007, Leiter characterizes Critchley as a “philosophical used car salesman”:

Critchley, alas, represents that “other” kind of academic too often attracted to Continental philosophy, the intellectual lightweight and philosophical tourist who can’t read a text carefully or follow a philosophical argument.  One of our hopes is that The Oxford Handbook, by treating post-Kantian Continental figures as philosophers–and not as museum pieces from the history of ideas–will increase the number of intellectually and philosophically serious scholars drawn to their study.  But until that happens, I fear, philosophical used car salesmen like Critchley will, too often, pose as spokesman for non-Anglophone traditions in philosophy.

Leiter holds that “shut the fuck up” is the proper response to Critchley’s arguments:

“STFU” (to use the rude blog lingo) may be the right response to a bullshit artist like Critchley, but it is important to remember that he has essentially nothing to do with the best Continental traditions in philosophy.

Anyone who speaks with Critchley knows that he embodies a rare combination of erudition, kindness, and passion for philosophical work. But even if that were not the case – that is even if Critchley were the charlatan that Leiter imagines – what could justify such venomous denunciation? Is there something more at stake than a disagreement about how to go about doing good philosophy? Does Leiter have some personal resentment towards Critchley?

The short answer is “no.” Critchley is under attack merely because he is a visible representative of a style of philosophy Leiter hates. Hence Leiter is ready to lash out at other representatives of that style:

“Armchair bullshit, masquerading as philosophy”

So tweets Joshua Cohen (Stanford) about the latest installment in the New York Times‘s new philosophy blog, Jay Bernstein’s “analysis” of the Tea Party movement.  (Bernstein is a colleague and former teacher of Simon Critchley [also the New School], and was no doubt invited by Critchley.)  Bernstein wants to explain,

“the passionate anger of the Tea Party movement, or, the flip-side of that anger, the ease with which it succumbs to the most egregious of fear-mongering falsehoods.  What has gripped everyone’s attention is the exorbitant character of the anger Tea Party members express.  Where do such anger and such passionate attachment to wildly fantastic beliefs come from?”

and although he has presumably read Marx (and Freud), proposes this Hegelian explanation, apparently in seriousness:

“My hypothesis is that what all the events precipitating the Tea Party movement share is that they demonstrated, emphatically and unconditionally, the depths of the absolute dependence of us all on government action, and in so doing they undermined the deeply held fiction of individual autonomy and self-sufficiency that are intrinsic parts of Americans’ collective self-understanding”.

One hopes even Lukács would be embarrassed.  “Armchair bullshit” seems kind (but Josh is a very nice guy).

I am not sure that Bernstein’s explanation is correct but not is it clear why the lines quoted by Leiter are obviously wrong. Rather Leiter’s criticism consists in a number of statements: Bernstein works at the New School (he is in fact the University Distinguished Professor of Philosophy), Bernstein hangs out with Simon Critchley, and Bernstein is a -gasp- Hegelian. The last line in particular – “…even Lukács would be embarrassed” is all innuendo: it is meant to elicit a laugh at the comparison of Bernstein’s explanation with of Lukács’ (presumably weak) arguments.

Leiter does not offer a counterargument against Bernstein’s explanation but simply declares him guilty by association. This is, of course, fallacious. But then again, Leiter is also claiming that calling someone’s reasoned argument “armchair bullshit” is an act of kindness. Leiter nowhere allows reason to cloud his views.

At root of these views is a rabid hatred of what Leiter calls “Party Line Continentalist” philosophy, a kind of bullshitting that is strictly speaking neither continental nor philosophy. According to Leiter, Critchley is part of the group of Party Line Continentalists who “strongly identify with a certain conception of philosophy, most traceable to Heidegger” and who identify “philosophy more closely with the kind of stuff that goes on in English Departments and cultural studies, than with the natural sciences, linguistics, history or psychology.” In other words party-liners stand in opposition to their forward-looking colleagues. Leiter uses illustrative language to describe this turning away from reason and the broader community: “It is those in the “Continental ghetto,” like Critchley, who have isolated themselves from almost all other intellectual fields, certain segments of English and Comparative Literature Departments excepted.” Party-liners, by Leiter’s lights, are a people unto themselves within academic philosophy, and have been rightly consigned to the ghettos.

Indeed Leiter’s ultimate hope is that this group is eradicated within professional philosophy. This eradication will not be achieved by refuting the arguments of Party Line Contitnentalists nor even by exposing their flaws. That would require a descent into the ghetto, an attempt to understand what is at base nonsense. Rather, the strategy is to discredit the Party Line Continentalists whenever possible, to laugh away their claims as “bullshit,” to tell them to “STFU.” Leiter is hopeful about this approach:

The good news here is that Party Line Continentalism is, ironically enough, increasingly just an Anglophone phenomenon, confined to a handful of departments in the U.S. (e.g., Penn State, Stony Brook, DePaul, Memphis, Vanderbilt, the New School, Dusquesne), the U.K. (e.g., Middlesex and Dundee), and Australia (e.g., New South Wales). (Even these Party Line Continentalist departments are increasingly diverse, which is a welcome development!) On the European Continent itself, Party Line Continentalism is in retreat almost everywhere, as rigorous historical scholarship, that transcends national boundaries, and Anglophone-style philosophical work is increasingly dominant.

I am genuinely hopeful that over the next generation Party Line Continentalists will be exiled entirely to literature departments, where lack of real depth in philosophy and its history does not matter.

Leiter’s goal, to engage his own metaphors, is to drive the Party Line Continentalists, who are already confined to ghettos such at the New School, out of philosophy altogether, to put them into “exile” in literature departments where anything goes.

Perhaps there is more to be said about Leiter’s crusade against what is essentially an intellectual minority within academic philosophy. Leiter argues in the little essay on “‘Analytic’ and ‘Continental’ Philosophy” that accompanies the PGR that the continental tradition should provide most of the content, while the analytic tradition should provide the form for new research in philosophy. Yet there is nothing in that essay to indicate what separates good and bad research on continental philosophy. Whether on purpose or out of carelessness, he leaves the demarcation criteria of Party Line Continentalism vague. Rather it is defined by associations and innuendo. We know that it has something to do with Heidegger. That is happens in literature departments. That it’s not real philosophy. That it’s associated with Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy. That Simon Critchley does it. That the proper response to it is “STFU.” What we never find out is what these philosophical charlatans are selling, why we should be so angry that they are selling it, or why we should try to drive them out of the profession.

It’s unfortunate that Leiter may be responsible for sending alternately rude and threatening emails to several of his critics. But it’s far worse that almost nobody in the world of mainstream Anglo-American philosophy has spoken out against his strangely vague yet shockingly systematic vilification of a group of passionate and dedicated philosophers.

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