We’re #n

I think Brian Leiter should have left comments open on this post so people could lobby publicly in advance of him “post[ing] a few thoughts on the “hierarchy,” as it were, in a bit, in light of the various moves.”

We had a little debate in the TAR offices about where we should claim Cornell now stands. After some heated debate, we agreed that Peacocke leaving for Columbia probably didn’t mean we’d moved above NYU. Funnily enough, those who thought Cornell was now better than NYU were exactly the same people who thought Tampa Bay’s one game lead over the Yankees could hold up over the final 161 games. So if the D-Rays are ahead of the Yankees come October, we might be in a position to claim we’re the best department in New York state.

Given that we aren’t #1 in the state yet, let alone the country, where should Cornell be ranked?

In the category I most care about, philosophical strength of the department members in their 30s, Cornell is presumably about #2 in the world right now, just behind Rutgers. I think Charles, Andrew, Mike, Tamar, Delia, Benj, Zoltan and moi provide as good a young foundation for a department as you’ll find anywhere outside New Jersey. Obviously that group is a little biased towards MME&L, but that means there’s more chance for joint work, collaborative seminars and the like which are good for students. And since Cornell is already a world-class department in history and ethics/political philosophy, a bit of specialisation at the youth end won’t harm the department’s breadth. (In this context it’s worth noting the breadth of interest of Cornell’s grad students, something that probably reflects the department’s across-the-board strengths.)

It’s an interesting question whether young departments are systematically undervalued in a reputational survey. A priori it would seem they would be, since for most philosophers the value of the variable actual quality minus perceived quality will be steadily declining from sometime in their 30s until retirement. Having many young philosophers among those surveyed will help correct this a little, since many people are familiar with the work of their contemporaries. But it can’t correct the entirity of this bias unless you suppose that young philosophers are as (un)familiar with the work of their more senior colleagues as senior philosophers are with the work of people who have only recently appeared on the scene. Ultimately this is an empirical question, so a priori speculation can only go so far, but there’s some reason to think reputational surveys will undervalue young departments, so one of Cornell’s big strengths may go a little undercounted in the gourmet reports surveys.

As for what difference adding me makes, it’s probably easiest to start with the speciality rankings. The biggest differences between the current rankings and how good Cornell now is don’t come primarily from adding me, but I help in each case.

In Philosophical Logic and Philosophy of Logic and Language, defined as “such topics as identity, truth, vagueness, reference, negation, logical form, paradoxes, etc.”, Cornell is listed as Notable, although by now I think we’re plausibly in ‘Excellent’, though the discrepancy is as much due to undervaluing Delia’s and Zoltan’s work in the past as to adding me.

In epistemology we probably move from off the board to Good. As well as hiring me, Cornell has added Tamar and Andrew (who were both hired since the previous rankings were compiled) to a program that already had Dick Miller and Dick Boyd in epistemology and Gail Fine and Charles Brittain doing important work in history of epistemology. And that makes for a solidly Good program.

(Now that I look at it, we’re probably a little better than Good in history of epistemology. Like most people, Brian breaks down history of philosophy by era in his speciality rankings, so history of epistemology is not a category, but if you break down history by subject matter so it existed as a category, we’d look pretty strong in it. As an undergraduate I took a two-semester course in history of political philosophy from the pre-Socratics to the present day, but all the other history courses I remember were organised by period not subject matter. I presume that if I knew more history of philosophy I’d understand the reason for this.)

In metaphysics we move from off the board to either Good or Notable, though again that’s because we were undervalued in the past. And in decision theory we arguably move from off the board to Notable.

Just for kicks, I went through the speciality rankings for each department, and gave each department a score using the following metric – 5 points for Excellent, 3 points for Good, 1 point for Notable. Currently Cornell comes in 21st by that measure, which seems quite low. We’re ranked 16th overall right now, so this metric isn’t doing us any favours. (We aren’t the only ones it undervalues. Rutgers is 7th, only a point ahead of Texas, which says something bad either about the method or the rankings.) But if we make the changes in the previous paragraph, Cornell vaults to 12th, which seems a lot closer to being correct.

Having done that, it seems it leaves something out. Which of the ‘traditional’ categories does the stuff Tamar and I have been doing on imaginative resistance and related topics fit in? From Tamar’s perspective, it’s sort of Mind and Cognitive Science with some epistemology tossed in. In my perspective it’s sort of Mind and Language, crossed with metaphysics. And we’re both presenting papers on it at the American Society for Aesthetics conference in October. So who knows? This is reflective of the fact that Cornell people are generalists. And I think because of this breadth, Cornell is producing interesting work across-the-board. Cornell’s going to be one of the more interesting places to be in the next few years.

7 Replies to “We’re #n

  1. Well, Rutgers’ ranking is probably due to your method of having the same point scale for all categories equally. While Rutgers is pretty strong in the “core” stuff, it is pretty lacking in some more specialized stuff. It’s easier to vault to top of Buddhism, than Metaphysics, for example, because it is a less competitive (in terms of number of people working on it) field, so one hiring would make a greater difference. The area that Rutgers really needs, though, is Kant.

  2. Hi Brian,

    The Cornell department has certainly done some fine hiring [did you hear about that Weatherson appointment…] and obviously has a strong group of “30-something” philosophers. Your main, claims, however, were comparative claims and those can’t be defended only by pointing to strength at Cornell. But perhaps your claims are correct and you merely meant to assert them, not defend them — I don’t pretend to be well positioned or inclined this morning to assess the Cornell department’s comparative standing in the profession. [The Shoemaker / Ginet retirements and a few other key changes surely justifiably sent the departmetn down a few notches – maybe you think the list of new hires relevantly compensates? — I don’t know]

    I also don’t know if either of the following mistakes are involved in your mini-arguments/lobbying for Gourmet position for Cornell, but let me mention a couple of frequently encountered errors that pop up in arguments for conclusions like “department A —[usually the speaker’s department] — is underranked” and arguments concluding that such and such a department [again, usually the speaker’s own] is underranked in a particular area.

    1. Knowing that one has colleagues who “know lots about” an area but don’t publish in the area, one
    might assign undue weight to such colleagues. Having colleagues of this sort “relevant to” certain subareas is important in the overall life of a department and the training of graduate students (eg, filling out committees). But what people complaining about Gourmet rankings often overlook is that many (or even most) departments are just like the speaker’s in this respect, including the departments with faculty members who do have significant senior figures in the area under discussion.

    Take epistemology for example. No doubt it’s true that many unranked departments in “epistemology” have faculty members who “know lots of epistemology” and have maybe even published a paper or two in the field, but this doesn’t mean that such departments are underranked. Most of the departments ranked ahead of such departments will have recognizable strong senior epistemologists in it and will also have others who “know the field” (or parts of it) and have published a bit in the area. Example — if anyone thinks that Rochester has only two faculty members who “are relevant to epistemology” he is badly mistaken. My point: people tend to overestimate the importance their colleagues who don’t really do much in an area should have on the department’s comparative ranking in that area. This consideration is unlikely a significant difference maker in doing comparative assessments of departmental strength in an area.

    2. I’ve heard many people complain about “generalists” being improperly discriminated against in Gourmet specialty rankings. I doubt that this is the case. I think, to the contrary, that what I’d think of as two distinct kinds of generalists are given adequate credit by those helping compile specialty rankings. One kind of generalist, presumably, is someone who works and contributes in multiple areas (eg, Ernie Sosa and Bill Lycan, to name only two of many, work at the highest level in distinct but traditionally “related” areas of philosophy; others work in distinct and not traditionally connected areas of philosophy —eg, Barry Loewer working on mind and physics among other things). A 2nd kind of generalist does more “interdisciplinary” work — work at the intersection of, eg, mind and epistemology, or metaphysics and logic, or ethics and cognitive science, or whatever. I think generalists of both kinds are given at least their full due in Gourmet specialty considerations. For example, in helping to compile philosophy of action specialty rankings, one doesn’t penalize John Fischer for working on topics outside of action theory — we simply recognize his important contributions to the field. One doesn’t penalize Notre Dame in this same sub-area because Peter van Inwagen and Robert Audi also work in areas outside of philosophy of action. Pittsburgh does not suffer because Anil Gupta is so well respected both when doing more formal work and less formal work. The examples could continue for a very long time. I think the same is true for those generalists of the more “interdisciplinary” sort but won’t trot out examples unless the point is challenged.

    I do think that the following claim about “generalists” is true: many people tend to overestimate the extent to which their colleagues are “generalists” but faculty in competing departments are not. This is partly related to the phenomena of overvaluing one’s colleagues who “know about a field” by tacitly assuming that other departments lack such people. The more one travels the more one learns, or so it seems to me, that there are far more generalists around than specialists.

  3. From my little perch atop SF, I couldn’t give a rat’s ass about rankings (I agree with Chun the Unavoidable). What turns me on about philosophy today is how many really good (and fun) young philosophers there are out there, wherever they are — especially those whose work isn’t driven by the tiresome agendas of senior philosophers oblivious to this work. Thanks a bundle to Brian’s papers blog for making this work so easy to find!

    Brian writes that “for most philosophers the value of the variable actual quality minus perceived quality will be steadily declining from some time in their 30s until retirement.” Unfortunately, the increasing number and productivity of really good 30-something philosophers is making it much tougher for the best work to get read, much less appreciated. That makes it harder for the value of the variable perceived quality to go up. Also unfortunately, the inevitable decline in the value of the variable actual quality will ensure that for most philosophers the value of Brian’s differential variable (talent – reputation) will decrease anyway.

  4. I spend 3 years in the second best philosophy department in the UK. I suppose that now I know what all those professors and grad students were doing when not teaching or writing – they were trying to get to number 1!

    Why not just enjoy learning…

  5. I spend 3 years in the second best philosophy department in the UK. I suppose that now I know what all those professors and grad students were doing when not teaching or writing – they were trying to get to number 1!

    Why not just enjoy learning…

  6. Just a bit on how “history” is taught-
    In my experience (it’s not that small) history of philosophy classes are almost always broken up in to ethics and, roughly, M&E components. This seems to be true whether one is studying a particular philosopher or a range (“British Empiricims”, say). I’m not sure this is fully satisfactory, as there’s some reason to think that most philosophers in the past thought of their views to be much more of a whole than is often the case now, but time-wise I just don’t see how many of the people could otherwise be approached.

    As for the PGR specialty rankings, I was sorry to see the ranking for History of Ethics go by the wayside, as this seems to me a more legitimate specialty than does, say, history of epistemology. But, this might well just be my institutional bias.

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