Thursday, March 18, 2010

The Best

Anglo-Saxon philosophers seem to be pretty keen on rankings. They rank everything: the best x-year graduate student, the best x-term paper, the best graduate project, the best faculty teaching, the best student-teaching, the best junior, the best senior, the best x-area department, the best department, the best area, the best student, the best philosopher. But that’s not all. The ranking is not useless. A great number of philosophers guide their behavior according to the rankings.

This attitude seems surprising once we sit down and think about it. Rankings are based on opinions, perhaps well-thought-of opinions; but still, opinions. There is, I believe, only one reason why one would take these opinions as trustworthy evidence: they are the experts’ opinions. But even that, to my mind, is very poor evidence to let one’s behavior be directed by it.

There is, to begin with, the peculiar fact that the set of “experts” is determined itself by the rankings that the experts are meant to fix. This, to my mind, already shows that the evidence is not trustworthy. Imagine a political party claiming to be the best party based on its own rankings.

But suppose this is not a problem. Let us grant that there are “experts” without a doubt. Why should we trust their opinion about their own discipline? Why should we be so Cartesian? Given the way things are, these “experts” will surely be properly said to be experts in a given field, which means, I take it, that they know a lot about the things that are included in that field. But philosophy is not the field they are experts on. Philosophy is a human social (believe it or not) activity. One would have thought that the real experts on this are, say, sociologists, not philosophers. Why should we simply accept that counting votes is all there is to determining what philosophy is? Once again, why should we be so Cartesian? We need some humility here.

Philosophy, I take it, is a matter of theory construction. The “best” philosophers are those capable of producing the “best” theories. But, may I ask, how is it that we pick among theories? Because they work or because those who produce them take them to be “the best”? I take the latter to be unacceptable. So we are left picking among philosophers in virtue of their theories being the right ones to pick. And how do the right philosophical theories end up being distinguished? The answer, I think, is simple: through time. It is not before a great deal of evidence and discussion has taken place that some or other theory is highlighted. And by “time” and “a great deal of evidence” I’m thinking of decades, if not centuries. Things that term by term, or even year by year, rankings simply cannot compute.

What are we left with, then? There’s something rankings do seem to be sensitive to: the current state of opinions of the humans constituting the relevant group. Things might look a little bit better if we modify what we take “the best” to mean. Perhaps once we form our beliefs upon rankings all we are doing, and all we claim to be doing, is to be aiming at “what the voting group elected upon”. This seems less controversial: “the best philosopher” seems to mean little more than “the person that the voting elite voted for.” That seems fine, but still fails to be good enough to guide my actions and planning, unless, of course, I am drawn into behaving aristocratically.

One should be careful even here. In less than a week I have had the unfortunate opportunity to personally meet two of “the best” philosophers. One of them wanted to do some metaphysics after some ethical pushups. He ended up claiming there was nothing particularly explanatory about normative reasons. The other one decided that his conjectures and hunches about a field he claims to ignore where interesting enough for him to lecture a group of professional philosophers that included experts in the field. After an hour-long literature survey only one thing was clear: he was not an expert in the field.

Philosophers should stop worrying about being “the best” philosophers and focus on doing the best they can to come up with serious, rigorous, properly supported theories. Doing otherwise seems to me to be little more than another vanity fair. I am afraid, however, that these “rankings” are atheistic props, allowing academics to satisfy that well-known human need to believe in gods and other super-humans.