Philosophy rises in rankings

While national rankings say that Yale’s Philosophy Department is on the rise, some faculty and students question whether these evaluations are at all credible.

Next Wednesday, the 2014 Philosophical Gourmet Report — hailed by professors and graduate students as the definitive ranking of philosophy departments in the English-speaking world — will name Yale fifth in the country and first in the category of “Early Modern Philosophy: 17th Century.” This overall rank is a remarkable improvement, continuing Yale’s rise in the past two decades — from ranking 24th in 2004, 16th in 2006, eighth in 2009 and seventh in 2011.

“[Yale’s rise] was a lengthy process,” founder and editor of the PGR, University of Chicago philosophy professor Brian Leiter said. “The main factor in recent years has been a number of lateral hires … A particularly smart thing Yale has done is to develop excellence in both the main contemporary areas of research, as well as in the history of philosophy. That gives the department both depth and breadth.”

However, some professors, citing methodological concerns, question the value and accuracy of PGR. Despite near unanimous recognition of the rankings’ importance in the field, several faculty members and graduate students interviewed said the PGR has been under fire for years, with many even calling for the end of the rankings altogether.

Leiter declined to respond to criticisms of the rankings.

Sarah Braasch GRD ’20 said her expectation that Yale would make a significant jump in the rankings played a major role in her decision to come to Yale.

“In a job market as competitive as philosophy academia, you are simply not in a position to dismiss rankings,” Braasch said.

Philosophy department chair Stephen Darwall said that the PGR is the only ranking system of its type for the field. However, despite agreeing on the report’s importance, six professors and graduate students say that the rankings are flawed.

According to Justin D’Ambrosio GRD ’17, a major flaw is that the evaluation system, compiled by asking several hundred leading philosophers to rank their colleagues at other schools, does not consider a school’s intellectual or social climate, or any factors related to teaching. Despite the report’s effort to eliminate personal biases — evaluators are not, for example, allowed to rank the universities where they teach or where they received their Ph.D.s — D’Ambrosio added that assessors often have a stake in the rankings and their perceived importance.

Manhattan College professor and philosophy blogger Mitchell Aboulafia said the ranking system as it currently stands does more harm than good.

Citing methodological problems, the potential for cheating and an overemphasis on the analytic tradition of philosophy, Aboulafia said it would be better for the field to rely on more objective measures of departmental quality — such as faculty publications and graduate student job placement.

However, Yale philosophy professor Shelly Kagan, who is on the advisory board for the report, said opinion-based rankings are very valuable. When he applied to graduate school, he said, he looked to several of his professors for guidance on where to apply. Having the combined opinions of several hundred leading philosophers would have been more helpful, he said.

“Like any such thing, it should be taken with a grain of salt, but I think there’s a fairly large consensus among most professional American philosophers that it’s a highly reliable sense of which the strongest departments are,” he said.

Still, other professors and graduate students were less enthusiastic about the PGR.

Zachary Gartenberg GRD ’19 said the rankings can be helpful when put to the right kind of use, such as investigating the quality of a certain field within philosophy across various universities. But, he said, they are taken far too seriously given their limited usefulness. Aboulafia added that the rankings of specific areas of philosophy are unreliable, as there are often few evaluators ranking professors, and he thinks these evaluators are not always experts in the field they rank.

A good departmental reputation among peers can be extremely helpful in recruiting graduate students, Darwell said. But according to Harvard philosophy professor Jeffrey McDonough, while the PGR is most important for graduate students, it is less influential on undergraduates and professors.

Philosophy professor David Charles — hailed by Leiter as one of Yale’s newly hired faculty members who contributed to the department’s increasing strength — said that although the rankings are “somewhat impressionistic,” they demonstrate the field’s general sense of the current standing of Yale and other departments.

Likewise, University of Pittsburgh philosophy professor John McDowell, whose department ranked sixth in this year’s ranking, said that while he used to be skeptical of the rankings, he thinks they are as well done as could be, explaining that having many evaluators helps to cancel out blind spots and biases.

Philosophy major Beatrice Beressi ’16 said that rankings do not matter to her and that she does not expect Yale’s reputation to help her find a job after graduation, as rankings are arbitrary and subject to change. Instead, she said she values professors who are engaged in teaching and care deeply about their students.

Philosophy professor Michael Della Rocca,who served as Yale’s department chair for nearly a decade, said there is in general a tendency to focus too much on rankings.

“What’s really important is what kind of job a department does in providing students a good education,” he said. “That’s really a great thing about [Yale’s] department — it has given a good education to so many students.”

The Philosophy Department has 17 faculty members.

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