Thursday, 1 December 2016

Philosophy: 'Not A Meritocracy' - Daily Nous

In an interview with Daily Nous, Philosopher Sally Haslanger has lamented the dynamics of the philosophical academy...

From Daily Nous:

Philosophy: 'Not A Meritocracy' - Daily Nous: The latest edition of What Is It Like To Be A Philosopher? is out, with Clifford Sosis (Coastal Carolina) interviewing Sally Haslanger (MIT).  As usual, there is a lot of interesting material in the interview. Here’s one bit that stuck out. Haslanger says: There have been many highs and lows in my career. And a lot of the time has been very mixed. I have considered leaving the field over and over. But somehow I was offered a path that made it worth staying. I know there are many people who deserve more than they get in philosophy, and I’ve been lucky in so many ways. I believe that recognizing the luck in it all is extremely important, and doing what I can to open paths for others is the least I can do. Philosophy is not a meritocracy. Life is not a meritocracy. Yet some are treated much worse than others by life, by chance, by individuals, by structures. I hate that unfairness; I just hate it. Anyone who has been in the profession for a while recognizes that philosophy is not a meritocracy, but I sometimes find that younger graduate students don’t quite recognize this or take it seriously, believing instead that the quality of their work alone will bring them professional success. Of course the quality of their work matters, and yes there are certain meritocratic aspects of the profession. But other things make a difference, too. Luck, yes, but not just that. Being able to get a job and do well as a professional philosopher involves professional and social skills. Graduate programs need to be sure their students know this from early on and, to some reasonable extent, take steps to help them cultivate these skills. That won’t make philosophy more of a meritocracy (leaving aside the ethics and epistemology of that), but it may help students better understand what they’re getting into, and how to better get through it. The whole interview is here.
Some comments in response to Haslanger embodied the usual disappointing academic fascisms. Attitudes of impenetrably density exemplified by statements like  "buck up and live with it" and "that's life" and of course the classic "if you are getting pilloried you must have done something wrong or it's your own fault for not being the right kind of social animal". But of course these ideas art transparently childish.

The point is precisely that social and professional skills are NOT *appropriately* important in philosophy: not the right ones anyway. The academy in philosophy is nepotistic, frequently puerile, and fraught with precious egos that take out their petty angst on others and amplify the outcomes through academic departmental influence and power. This requires postgraduates to negotiate and navigate exclusion, character assassination, cliques, in groups, ad-hominem bias, and a host of other influences and obstacles that cannot be excused as some kind of 'preparation for or engagement with the realities of society'.



Your head of department's opinion that you are not a 'nice' person is not a valid determiner of your career outcomes (and if they are broadcasting that view - they are arguably a child, and the question of who exactly it is the not 'nice' one is wholly open).

That some rock star did not like your questioning of their attitude is also not an appropriate measure of whether you deserve to prosper in the academy. These principles are not a nice to have: they are requisite for the academy to deserve support from the larger society in which it is seated such that it does not become simply a parasite, rather than a paragon of learning and intellectual upward mobility.
Who's your Daddy - or your buddy - or your Lover, or you  Political Suckup, or whatever. Who is your definition of  'nice',  which definition might not be very nice, and which ascription might be even less nice, and it's real intention even less nice still.

Such impositions are artificial and wholly inappropriate impediments that mean more than 'life was not meant to be easy': they mean that the immaturity of the social sphere of academia is such that the enterprise is worth it for some, but not for others, due to ironically degraded social dynamics that in a civilised, healthy academia we should exactly endeavor to mitigate and eliminate precisely because it is academia and philosophy. Just because it's philosophy, it does not follow that academics should be impossible on an inappropriate basis because 'social Darwinism' or 'life is tough'. The whole point of the academy is to ensure with fairness that people are free from such idiot impositions so that they can acheive on an equal basis in a level playing field.