Last Gasps of the Decadent, A History Boy, 27/09/2014

Yesterday, I came across another controversy blowing up in the world of academic philosophy. Brian Leiter is facing public pressure to abandon his stewardship of the departmental ranking program he invented himself, the Philosophical Gourmet Report. As the controversy’s temperature has risen, Leigh Johnson has compiled the major online essays from various members of various philosophical disciplines about the controversy. 

This post will only report my personal perspective on the issue, and not attempt to summarize the mess or give a comprehensive account. For that, visit Johnson’s compilation post, which I’ve linked above, or this post by John Drabinski, which first alerted me to this latest explosion.

The Gourmet has come to be considered, if not a definitive, then a remarkably influential source of departmental standards. It is, essentially, the paramount source explicitly designed to guide undergraduates in picking the best graduate programs to pursue in philosophy.

Many people have problems with Leiter’s Gourmet, accusing it of a disciplinary bias. Most Continental leaning departments receive notably low marks, as do departments with heavy focuses in feminist philosophy, race studies, and other radical critical theories. Leiter’s perspective, which he often gives, is that these departments do bad philosophy. Representatives of those departments claim that it is a baseless disciplinary bias, that Leiter prefers to define ‘good philosophy’ as doctrinaire analytic philosophy according to the Anglo-American models. 

Its partisanship has always been clear to me: the top departments vary in their particular order, but they all correspond to the Ivy League and their younger compatriot universities of similar prestige. The Gourmet’s priority is to reinforce the established hierarchy of prestige in American university-based philosophy. 

Whatever you may say about Brian Leiter, and I can say a
lot, he does a damn good lecture.
Before I describe the charges that, now that they are reaching critical mass in the online discourse, could constitute Leiter’s fall from grace, I want to clarify my own relationship with him. Leiter has had a relationship with the university where I did my doctorate, McMaster, for several years now. He’s a leading legal theorist with a side specialty in Nietzsche studies, a perfect fit for visiting McMaster, home of another leading North American legal theorist Wil Waluchow and host of a regular and thriving legal theory conference, and home of my supervisor Barry Allen, one of the most insightful scholars of European philosophy, and who made his early career on his studies of Nietzsche.

I find Leiter an engaging speaker on the subject of philosophy. He’s clear and witty, and he doesn’t suffer fools. I find his interpretations of Nietzsche a little conservative, but I’m the first to admit that I find that true even of the radical destabilizers of truth itself. My friend and McMaster colleague The Wiz spent a year at University of Chicago working under Leiter, who was one of the few professors to understand precisely what Wiz was on about in his project (seriously — it was fascinating). The night after one of his first talks at McMaster, we all partied together. Yeah, he made fun of the fact that I studied Deleuze and Guattari, but it was good natured ribbing, given the circumstances.

Yet Leiter’s online behaviour is quite often little more than a peculiarly prestigious troll. The tone of some of his comments about scholars like Simon Critchley and Babette Babich is more appropriate to 4chan than philosophical discourse. He has also mounted a defence of Peter Ludlow against sexual harassment allegations based on the necessity of due process that is at best ill-conceived and at worst a blind defence of sexual assault. 

I feel safe saying, "Seriously. Fuck this guy."
My own thoughts on the subject of Ludlow? He’s already had his due process. It was called his Title IX investigation, which found him incredibly guilty. The only reason he never faced any kind of censure is because Title IX doesn’t have any teeth to punish offenders. At my most charitable, I’d call defending Ludlow at this point blind and stupid. Laying mercy aside, he sexually assaulted a student less than half his age. If Leiter is dumb enough to defend him, he deserves what he gets.

So I have no problem with Leiter as a person, but I get the feeling that the only reason I do is that I’m not a big enough fish in university philosophy for him to attack me. And if my philosophical books eventually do well enough to be noticed, he probably will attack me for publishing philosophical books that don’t conform to the standards of academic philosophical writing. Frankly, I’ll relish the attention, as it will only result in more instances of my name being spoken in public forums, which means more sales and popularity.

Yet the fall of Leiter from leading scholar and university tastemaker to bitter old troll can still teach us something about philosophy, what precisely constitutes progress. Leiter began his career when analytic and Continental philosophy were especially polarized. It had become a conflict without any real substance behind it, analytic philosophy having now returned to the topics like metaphysics that it had once renounced as nonsense. The only real difference between the two sides of the discipline were in emphasis and style. Of course, that means the conflict was more heated than ever.

Brian Leiter appeared in this venue peddling a reading of Nietzsche, one of the paragon Continental philosophical geniuses, that could fit the style and perspective of analytic thought. He introduced a way to talk about Continental philosophy that could survive the most heated partisanship. In that sense, he was a figure of progress.

But as he grew older and more established in the university institution, Leiter became just as partisan as the people he made his name criticizing. He came to believe that his way of dealing with Continental philosophy was the only legitimate way to do so; any other approach was, just as the bitter old partisans used to say when Leiter first fought them, charlatanism. Leiter the progressive rebel became Leiter the troll.

He was the same regarding the university institution. As his position in the university system gained more prestige, his Gourmet Report conformed increasingly closely to the traditional lines of prestige in university-based philosophy. He became so institutionalized that he would defend any institutional figure, like Peter Ludlow, despite the many reasons not to do so. 

I write as I do because I’ve thought today about whether I would ever need a positive opinion from Leiter to help my own non-fiction writing career. I decided that I do not, so I can safely write something that would risk pissing him off. I would become just another fool for him to troll. Fair enough. What progress he once brought to the field, he now uses the same energy to hold philosophy back. 

Leiter is embedded too deeply in the university institution to properly progress the tradition of philosophy where it needs to go to survive and thrive in the future, as universities become fully Thatcherized. Leiter has become a walking definition of the conservative for the sake of conservation, who defends the old order because it is the old order. We don’t need people like him.


  1. Full marks for a sober assessment of someone who in the future historians might outright blame for enabling the analytic/continental divide in philosophy to go on as long as it has.

    1. Thanks, Steve, I really appreciate that.

      I should say, though, that I think Leiter's attitudes about the A/C divide are an expression of a wider tendency across a generation, and that the fault lies on both sides. Petty figures on both sides, but present nonetheless.

      Here are a couple of examples from my old department.

      There was one professor, who failed his last tenure review in 2012 and is now working a one-year contract in BC after two years of unemployment, who was openly abusive toward anyone who was not already a professor and was interested in the traditions called Continental. He would mock students who were interested in philosophers like Derrida, Kristeva, and Levinas, who he considered charlatans.

      There's a tenured professor there who specializes in C-leaning feminist philosophy, in her own venues a very intelligent and insightful woman. She's never really made the biggest of the big leagues, but she's a fine professor and thinker. Whenever curriculum decisions are being made, she immediately gets her spikes up in defence of Continental philosophy, coming across as if any choice that doesn't enshrine it at the centre of the program is an attack to marginalize and whittle away Continentalism.

      Empty, hostile attacks from A and desperate paranoid defences from C. I think this is a generational issue, as otherwise solid but disciplinarily doctrinaire philosophers who came of age in the wake of the Derrida/Searle fight settle uncritically into these rules of engagement. If people with attitudes like these form the rank and file of a generation of teaching professors, they'll perpetuate these attitudes among the following generation as they influence the undergrads they teach.

    2. I think things may change in my generation, provided a big enough percentage of us survive the PhD glut into new careers and continue to be involved in the tradition of philosophical discourse outside the university sector.

      The less original practitioners of philosophy will either get some of the same mediocre teaching positions they did before, or fall into perpetual underemployment, whether in the lifelong adjunct racket or the obscurity of a bitter ex-academic who can't bring himself to work anywhere other than a call centre if he can't find a university post.

      The more original people who may not have the prestigious pedigrees and Ivy League social networks to secure posts at research universities will be pursuing careers like mine. Having already given an increasingly neo-liberal university system the heave-ho, we'll be even less constrained by its rules of acceptable writing and subject matter, and probably create some far more interesting work than comes out of what today are the most prestigious centres.