Philosophy and Normal Science: The Rankings Debate

There has been much discussion lately about the ranking of graduate programs in philosophy: Ed Kazarian writes “Maybe the Best Rankings are No Rankings at All,” and Eric Schliesser replies with “Yes, but, we do need rankings.”Noelle McAfee suggests a search engine that allows prospective students and administrators to create their own rankings based on whatever critera are important to them.

“Only when they must choose between competing theories do scientists behave like philosophers.” -Thomas Kuhn

When you think about rankings, you should worry about pluralism. When you think about the pluralism debate in philosophy, I think it makes sense to start with a conception of what paradigmatic research or “normal science” looks like. How much pluralism can there be within a discipline? Here’s Thomas Kuhn’s formulation:

“‘Normal science’ means research firmly based upon one or more past scientific achievements, achievements that some particular scientific community acknowledges for a time as supplying the foundation for its further practice.”

“Normal” science is paradigmatic, non-revolutionary research: plodding, accretionist, and useful. It assumes that a basic disciplinary picture of the world is true and tries to get the details into sharper focus like an art restorer cleaning off the muck of ages. In practice, this means that there’s wide-spread agreement on what’s known and what’s unknown, and widespread agreement about which things it’s okay to disagree about! It doesn’t really make sense to be a “pluralist” about the natural sciences: the disagreements among professional scientists should necessarily be pretty small and well-understood. You can’t stage a debate or frame research questions on climate change if some of the participants are still arguing about phlogiston.vlcsnap-2009-10-02-20h20m11s4

This also means that under conditions of normal science, important research results are often discarded as irrelevant. Later, these results may prove more interesting, but for the purposes of normal scientists they’re just noise. Innovation may be an important philosophical goal, but it’s anathema in normal science. Perhaps, then, we are not normal scientists? Here’s Kuhn again:

“Normal science, the activity in which most scientists inevitably spend most all their time, is predicated on the assumption that the scientific community knows what the world is like. Normal science often suppresses fundamental novelties because they are necessarily subversive of its basic commitments. As a puzzle-solving activity, normal science does not aim at novelties of fact or theory and, when successful, finds none.”

Kuhn’s theory of “normal science” has always seemed like a refreshing bit of sociology for philosophers. I suspect many philosophers believe that the discipline of philosophy doesn’t have a “normal science” problem, perhaps because it is constantly revolutionizing itself or because it is characterized by disagreement. This is largely what is at stake in arguments about whether philosophers “make progress.” Kuhn’s account of the role of textbooks captures this conception of revolutionary non-progress pretty clearly:

“An increasing reliance on textbooks or their equivalent was an invariable concomitant of the emergence of a first paradigm in any field of science. …The domination of a mature science by such texts significantly differentiates its developmental pattern from that of other fields. For the moment let us simply take it for granted that, to an extent unprecedented in other fields, both the layman’s and the practitioner’s knowledge of science is based on textbooks and a few other types of literature derived from them. Textbooks, however, being pedagogic vehicles for the perpetuation of normal science, have to be rewritten in whole or in part whenever the language, problem-structure, or standards of normal science change. In short, they have to be rewritten in the aftermath of each scientific revolution….”

But serious reflection points up many fields where paradigmatic research rules: analytic logic, philosophy of language, and philosophy of mind all have relatively circumscribed projects. Developments in continental ontology and phenomenology follow a fairly well-recognized pattern. Political philosophy has pretty clear set of questions and concerns and progress on these issues proceeds exactly the kind of plodding, accretive manner as normal science. There is widespread agreement among our textbooks about what counts and doesn’t count as an important philosophical text, and challenges to this canonicity follow predictable (you might say paradigmatic) forms. This is largely true within the sub-disciplines and within the major “camps” of philosophy as well. In that sense, I’d claim that normal science predominates quite a bit, and that there are sub-disciplinary standards of quality that percolate among the major camps. If there were not such standards, there could not be textbooks.

Those groups already agree on what counts as a good contribution to continental political philosophy, or critical race theory of aesthetics, or American pragmatism-inflected history of philosophy or feminist philosophy or language. We don’t have to decide, up front or really ever, which of these approaches ought to rule the discipline: that was the flaw in the analytic takeover by Metaphysics & Epistemology, to think that analytic M&E should trump value theory and continental M&E and American pragmatism and feminist philosophy and the history of philosophy. The people doing the best work in any sub-field seemed to run roughshod over those divisions, so it was obvious to most that this dominance was (is) unsustainable.

The bigger challenge, I think, comes from folks like Kristie Dotson, Tommie Curry, the bloggers at xcphilosophy, etc. These folks argue that “normal science” views of philosophical research will always be exclusive. Even my claim that the folks doing the best work tend to bridge divides is itself a claim that there is a consensus about what it means to do the “best” work and about “what the world is like.” If this kind of research is discovering novelties that can and ought to disrupt the whole way our textbooks are written, then clearly the old standards are in need of constant revision and the rankings must be continually re-written, right? So you might as well give up on rankings completely.

I think those critiques are important, but I think they can be included within a normal science view of philosophy, My claim would be the following: we don’t all share anything like a foundational sense of past philosophical achievements, and so in that sense we are not a part of a discipline. Yet we do have a fairly narrow sense of how these disagreements should be articulated, how claims about inclusions and exclusion are best adjudicated, and about the goals of our research. It’s common to claim otherwise, but I think these protestations are mostly performances in the name of those shared goals. Folks who really don’t want to do philosophy stop; they leave the discipline entirely. (And that happens.) What it means to still consider oneself a philosopher seems to involve a very loose shared methodology. As I’ve said before: I don’t know any philosophers who ignore and avoid interlocutors and dissenters. (Perhaps they avoid me?) In our profession, a good disagreement is the greatest gift we have to give to each other, and that’s what keeps us together.

Now, I say all that despite the fact that I once saw someone dance a critique of Derrida. I’ve seen scholars end their papers with a song. But still, these were meant to be arguments and in the best sense both the dance and the song acted as an argument. These are perfomative refutations, little different in function than the analytic philosopher Syndey Morgenbesser’s reply to the other analytic philosopher J.L. Austin’s claim that while a double negative is a positive, a double positive is not a negative: “Yeah, Yeah.” We already have the tools within the discipline to allow for challenges to the canon, for challenges to the strict methodology of proofs and counterexamples. We even have shared standards for evaluating research contributions. The question is whether that makes ratings and rankings possible.

On my view, there will almost certainly be some sort of rankings, so the best we can hope for is that they’re governed in a way that includes diverse practitioners and values justice. I’m mindful of the conservatism of my “there is no alternative” concerns, here: it’s a willingness to accept a second-best institution for fear of how the pursuit of a perfect institution will lead to something worse, another version of the seemingly eternal debate over meliorism and abolition

I think of the rankings issue in classical liberal terms: will the proposed remedies succeed in the first place? Will they have unintended consequences? On those grounds it seems preferable to improve the existing rankings and proliferate the ranking criteria rather than to leave a void for an even less sympathetic force to fill.

But maybe we must risk the vaccuum for pluralism to proliferate.

Other disciplines have rankings, tacit or explicit. Prospective students have a right to know whether the program they’re considering can give them a good education and place them in a job. I think it’s best to separate a program’s research ratings from its placement ratings. (So what we need are robust placement data like Carolyn Dicey Jennings tried to put together.) But they’re likely to be linked, in most cases, because productive scholars will have their pick of students, and this choosiness, itself, will introduce considerations of merit and exclusivity.

The best argument I’ve heard against rankings is that they play into the logic of exclusivity and and competition for finite resources that plagues the university. As evidence, we see that the ranked departments are a subset of graduate programs, and that the best-ranked departments tend to be strong in M&E, specifically philosophy mind and language. This is intimately tied to the depoliticization of Anglo-American philosophy, the creation of programs of research meant to suck every last possible scintilla of communist propaganda out of our methods.

Still, there are many possibilities. Perhaps we should only rank sub-specialties on the basis of faculty research quality and leave generalized ranking alone. Perhaps we should rank graduate programs on another basis, like placement. Perhaps we should just put all these statistics into a centralized database and let students and administrators decide what to do with the numbers. Notice that this will disempower philosophy practitioners compared to the administrations that govern us and the market for labor. It’s surprising, then, that the most progressive members of the profession seem to prefer the rule of bureaucrats and markets to measures that could be democratic, simply because the current measures are not democratic. Rhetorically, the argument seems to be a Luddite demand to smash the esteem machines rather than a Marxist strategy to seize the means of meritocratic production.

“My point is not that everything is bad, but that everything is dangerous, which is not exactly the same as bad.  If everything is dangerous, then we always have something to do. So my position leads not to apathy but to a hyper- and pessimistic activism.  I think that the ethico-political choice we have to make very day is to determine which is the main danger.” –Michel Foucault

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