I recall as a graduate student hearing a distinguished philosopher muse about our crazy profession.  Very few individuals become great, world historical philosophers, but people often hope to become one of these giants, in spite of the impossible odds.  I raised the issue years later in conversation with a very well-known figure in American academia and he said, “Yes, true, but by about 40 years old people typically grow out of it.”

I wish he were right, but the evidence suggests that many philosophers suffer from a great minds syndrome well past 40, although they don’t dare publicly compare themselves to the giants.  Instead, many would be satisfied with what we might call surrogate greatness, or what might look like a step on the way to greatness: the label of ‘star’ or ‘superstar’.  (Short of this there is nonetheless another way: hire one or more ‘stars’ for your department.  Identification has its rewards.)  This great minds syndrome is damaging to philosophy as a collective enterprise.  This is a big claim.  Here I want to concentrate on one of the ways that the syndrome is harmful to philosophy.

About a week ago the Daily Nous asked readers to comment on high enrollment courses in the context of addressing declines in the number of students taking philosophy classes.  The previous day a post appeared on Leiter Reports that announced the lateral moves of several faculty members (“Lateral moves since the fall 2014 PGR survey”).  In the LR post we were offered an analysis of the repercussions of these faculty moves:

In addition to affecting the programs involved in the specialty area rankings, these moves would likely have some effects on the “overall” rankings:  Rutgers, I would expect, to be at #2 by itself, rather than tied with Princeton; Cornell would likely drop out of the top 20 (but will remain in the top 25 and will still be strong in metaphysics); the hiring of Wallace will solidify USC’s “top 10” status; Wash U will move closer to the top 20; among others.

For the time being let’s set aside the silliness of talking about philosophers as if they were college or major league ball players being traded between teams. (Yes, it’s all quite silly but also insidious, because it suggests that the presence of a specific individual can tell us how well a team/department will do in relationship to other teams, without considering the organic composition of the team.  More on this in a moment.)  What I’m calling the Great Minds Syndrome is reflected in the relentless tracking of individual faculty moves, and the way the PGR uses them to supplement its ranking of departments based primarily on the presence of stars.  It’s not simply that the PGR itself works this way (among its other issues; see here).  It’s that much of the profession is trained up to see its accomplishments through the lens of stardom, itself formed under a hyper-romantic conception of genius, backed by years of studying the great minds (or the latest on-trend stand-ins for them).  As a recent study has shown, philosophers value native brilliance or genius more than people in most other disciplines, an assumption that correlates with the participation of fewer women and members of underrepresented groups in a field.  But this way of viewing philosophy–in terms of the location of stars, mini-great minds or great minds-in-chrysalis–warps our sense of how we should be doing business in philosophy, in particular with regard to attracting new students to the discipline, which was part of the concern reflected in the Daily Nous post.

Although I don’t have figures that corroborate the concern that enrollments are down in philosophy, I have no doubt that we can increase them.  There are various techniques to accomplish this; I have seen them employed successfully in several departments for over thirty-five years.  The most effective approach, however, is not a technique or gimmick.  If you hire excellent teachers, who share a common end and are willing to work toward it—namely, the teaching and promotion of philosophy at their schools—students will respond.  Hiring stars is at best irrelevant here.  No doubt we often focus attention on the majors who want to go to graduate school in philosophy, but the vast majority of majors will never do so. Hopefully, having studied philosophy will make them better thinkers, citizens, and people.  The presence of research stars at their institutions is virtually meaningless to these students, unless these stars also happen to be excellent teachers, who are excited to be teaching undergraduate students.  But as we all know, another of the reasons academics wish to be stars is to reduce course loads and in many cases to avoid teaching entry-level students.

But even for those majors who go on to graduate school in philosophy there’s no evidence that they will receive a better education, or be better prepared for the profession, if they attend a school with more stars on its philosophy faculty.  Assuming the stars like them and are willing to work with them, they will have more opportunities to make connections in specific networks.  This, however, says nothing about the quality of the education they receive, for not only might the star (or stars) be a poor mentor(s), the star’s reputation tells us little about the supporting cast’s pedagogical and interpersonal skills or the effect of these on students’ educations.

There is a lot at stake here.  Will we continue the cult of the individual in philosophy—pretty Randian, if you think about it—in which the worth of a department is measured in terms of how many stars it has, and in which the movement of one or two people can change a department’s rankings?  Or will we try an alternative: judge departments as collective entities, that is, as teams?  If we are judging the department or team in terms of a mission to expose new generations of undergraduates to philosophy, then having stars is, as I’ve already suggested, at best irrelevant to the quality of the team.  Determination of success here is not rocket science–you count heads: how many majors and minors? how many women and members of other underrepresented groups? and how successful are they all in their studies? (One indicator: GPA, but by no means is this the only one. The quality of senior theses, for example, could be another indicator, as well as success in professional schools.)

So, whose interests is the star system, along with the concomitant obsession with hyperspecialization, serving?  Clearly not students who are philosophy majors and minors but don’t plan to do graduate work in philosophy.  They would be better served by departments hiring master teachers.  (The star system requires tremendous resources.  You could probably appoint at least two master teachers for the price of one star.)  Nor is it serving all of those graduate students who are going into a job market with fewer positions available, because, well, philosophy as a whole is not adding enough majors and minors to warrant more full-time positions.  But perhaps it’s good for philosophy, because the work these stars are doing is so valuable that we run the risk of losing great ideas and great arguments if the stars are not at top-ranked programs.  However, looking at the history of philosophy and the circumstances under which great ideas and works have been produced, I find it exceedingly difficult to believe that truly remarkable minds require appointments at so-called top-ranked schools to produce great work.  And even if there were some loss on the great ideas and arguments front, wouldn’t the price be worth it if it meant bringing philosophy to more students, who will, after all, be our fellow citizens?

Departments are not merely aggregates of individuals with varying degrees of star quality.  They are collections of human beings who work more or less well with each other, which in turn creates different kinds of climates.  Departments in which the faculty functions well together, in part because they have a shared mission—one that may require some sacrifice in terms of personal career aspirations—are more congenial places for students.  Undergraduates are attracted to different disciplines not only for their content but also for the way faculty conduct themselves in word and deed.  Students respond overwhelmingly to a sense of community.  Adherents of the star system telegraph to prospective majors and graduate students that a star-studded faculty is the place to be for aspiring stars in philosophy.  Not only does this presentation play into undesirable stereotypes about philosophers (see push-back here), but undergraduates generally, unless they already see themselves in these terms, find the entire culture off-putting (‘those guys are in their own world’ and ‘they’re hard to talk to’ and ‘they’re hard to relate to’), and choose something else to major in, something more congenial in any number of ways.

By casting philosophy as a discipline of great minds or stars, who are elevated for their specialness, we don’t actually get the most bang for our buck.  Instead, we are sabotaging our discipline’s impact on future generations of undergraduates.  We are also misleading students by seducing them into our star-studded graduate programs, only to have them discover that good positions in philosophy are relatively scarce, often in small to mid-size departments, and typically require significant teaching experience.  The names of their star mentors will only go so far in this job market.

For those not interested in lighting up the heavens with their megawatt intellects, our preoccupation with great minds and prestige is not helping to promote philosophy.  We can do better.  We can have more students studying philosophy, which, we can hope, will help create more positions in the field.

4 thoughts

  1. Yes, which leads me to a follow up question. Why do seemingly few philosophers use their rational capabilities to note such obvious points? For all our claims to intellectual greatness, I haven’t seen philosophers as any less likely to commit hubris or any of the other vices that great intellect is supposed to resolve.

  2. In my experience as a mathematical logician, philosophy isn’t a very meritocratic field. It’s who you know, not what you know. Most philosophy papers amount to 40 pages of rambling about a basic idea that could be dealt with in 2 pages if you’d just get to the point. But then, I guess you’re kind of forced into that, since if you did it any other way, us math guys would cross the street, disassemble your whole field, and then go for lunch.

  3. Well said, sir.

    It’s worth mentioning that this “great minds problem” has polluted the general study of the history of ideas, including the sciences and humanities more broadly. The history of ideas (philosophy included) is dominated by a kind of `euhemerism` of re-imagined ‘great’ historical figures, whereby the said great are regarded as the “first” to have ever come up with idea x. This is often at the eclipse of prerequisite communal attitudes, achievements, technological and economic conditions that make for the possibility of a society to recognize the legitimacy of the thinker’s work in the *first place*, and preserve the memory of it.

    Yet, when historical context is treated, it’s done more like a mythic genealogy out of the pages of Hesiod, asserting that figure y is the sole mythic founder of x, than as what’s probably more the case: “a bunch of people had these ideas, and these people here were saying something extremely similar, but for arbitrary reasons, and because of how text books have been written to underscore the career of just a handful of rich dead white men.” There’s a bias in academia that seems to assume that human ingenuity is extremely rare and reducible to only a few historical figures who happened to make it into the historical record.

    Obviously, it’s easier for a society to remember personalities than abstract ideas; that’s why religions preserve their prophets, saints and gods, and states their founding fathers and folk heroes — and only *then* imbue them with the ideas they’re supposed to stand for. That said, this Euhemerist behaviour one would expect from the layman, not the professional. But “great minds” is indeed strong in the academia — not just philosophy, but also the humanities and the sciences.

    Now, I’m not denying that there are indeed people with highly prolific careers that do carry weight in a community, but it’s the bottom-up dissemination of these ideas — and the preconditions for their possibility — that even make this particular thinker to be able to be recognized.

  4. Wow. As a non-philosopher, I agree with you wholeheartedly. It seems to me that a Philosophy Department would do well to attract students generally because of the quality of the teaching. Let’s face it: Philosophy shouldn’t be highbrow. In fact, its ideas should involve the lowest common denominator so as to be easily understood by the masses and widely accepted and incorporated into the way they live their lives. Philosophy should excite students. It should be interesting and ignite new ideas in their own minds. By my definition, the only way a philosopher could be a “star” would be by being a great teacher. Was not that Aristotle’s claim to fame? I’m not the brightest bulb in any room, so I’ll readily admit that I find most philosophical writings boring as hell. If I have to diagram your sentence to figure out what you are saying, you have failed. I love “The Prince,” which I consider to be philosophical, for its “simplicity.” Oddly, I fear most people misunderstand that publication. I can’t even imagine a philosopher being a star without being a teacher great enough to inspire, if not the masses, at least those who take his or her classes. Further, I find those who prefer ivory tower musings, rather than classroom teachings, to be asses.

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