Philosophy’s Comeback Kids

Tao Tao Holmes
Tao Tao Holmes // WEEKEND

It’s 3 a.m., and Professor Jason Stanley is surprised to find himself in bed with his wife.

Indeed, since moving to New Haven in August, Stanley has been going to bed earlier than usual. It’s a sad fate for a man who says that, until last year, he would regularly find himself partying in Brooklyn until the early morning.

“I miss New York terribly,” the philosopher says, reminiscing of the days when he’d commute from Harlem to his academic post at Rutgers, in New Jersey. “But I’m 43. It’s time to stop monkeying around.”

A wunderkind philosopher of language, Stanley left Rutgers for Yale earlier this year — marking the most recent in a string of high-profile hires by the Philosophy Department. In many disciplines, the move might go relatively unnoticed: It seems natural for the more promising of academic careers to eventually take their perch among Yale’s elite. Few Yalies doubt that their departments are anything less than the crème de la crème. And if Yale is the academic crème, then public institutions like Rutgers might strike the complacent snob as a lesser dairy product.

But the national rankings of philosophy departments tell a different story, in which a cartel of public institutions like Rutgers and the University of Pittsburgh have traditionally trounced their wealthier, private counterparts. In the most recent Leiter Report — the gold standard of philosophy rankings — which came out in 2011, Rutgers ranked second only to New York University. The University of Pittsburgh tied for fifth place with Harvard. Yale came in seventh.

In 2004, Rutgers still came in second. Yale? Twenty-fourth.

Incidentally, that was the year Stanley and two other rising stars in the philosophy world turned down offers from Yale. All of them ended up at Rutgers.

Now, nine years later, with Yale 17 steps up in the rankings, Stanley hasn’t only traded in his hipster youth for the grind of New Haven. He’s also left the Goliath of departments for a veritable David — a much smaller department, but one he firmly believes is on the upswing.

“Rutgers is a great, great philosophy department,” Stanley says. “But Yale is going to be.

***

Maybe it’s only appropriate that Yale’s philosophers have to dwell on the question of the chicken or the egg. Which came first: the academic decline of Yale’s Philosophy Department or the decline of its reputation?

Back in the ’60s, Yale boasted one of the top philosophy programs in the country. When Professor Karsten Harries GRD ’62 came to Yale as a graduate student, the department’s pull was so strong that he didn’t seriously consider other programs. “I had no doubt that I should go to Yale,” he says. “It wasn’t even a question.”

The problem is that little consensus emerges as to what happened to implode the glory.

Some 20 years stretch between the department’s Golden Years and its darkest days. The tricky part with narrating the fall and rise of the Philosophy Department is deciding where the epic begins. According to Professor Michael Della Rocca, the department’s melting point came around 1990, when the administration lost so much faith in the department’s governance that it put the department in “receivership” — effectively limiting its powers to make senior faculty appointments. A committee appointed by the administration, in consultation with distinguished philosophers from outside Yale, would instead be the ones to make recommendations for tenure.

Traditionally, the ability to make such hiring recommendations is a department’s crowning responsibility. Professor Shelly Kagan says the department was “robbed of its ability to govern itself.”

So if that was the crisis point, how did we get there?

In the romanticized retelling, which still percolates through to the occasional undergrad, a fiercely intellectual rift underwrote the drama. D.S.’ers might fancy that what ultimately toppled Yale’s program from its great heights was an Olympian squabble between two intellectual camps, the Continentals and Analytics (or, roughly, philosophers within the French and German tradition of asking larger questions of theory versus Anglophones directing their attention to the finer points of logic).

In other words, just as superpowers were waging a proxy war in Vietnam, so were the titans of ideas at Yale.

Still, faculty members are quick to deflate the notion that the overriding conflict was intellectual. Professor Tamar Gendler ’87 recalls from her undergraduate days in the department that the problem was decidedly more petty, far from a strictly academic chasm. The “personal animosities of the faculty made it difficult for people to recognize points of intellectual overlap,” she says. “even when there were some.”

His feet crossed in his trademark Indian style, Kagan recalls secondhand how the University of Pittsburgh raided the Yale Philosophy Department throughout the ’60s. But that exodus of talent was both cause and symptom of the discord to which Gentler is referring.

Ultimately, it was persistent, often inexplicable, infighting that plagued the department. “A lot of it had to do with personality,” says Harries. “One shouldn’t underestimate the personal side in the life of the department.”

“People came in who had no side and got caught up,” Kagan says. “Sometimes it was personalities, sometimes ideology, sometimes differing opinions of where the department should go.”

Kagan said the Chronicle of Higher Education once asked the departing philosopher Harry Frankfurt why there was so much friction in Yale’s department. His answer, apparently, was “demonic possession.”

It may be more accurate to say that a different war — over a string of contested faculty appointments — more fully expressed the reigning animosities. Harries recalls a faculty appointment, sometime around 1974, that was derailed by a small coalition of professors who overruled the majority’s decision to approve the hire.

It seems intuitive to bracket this incident as part of the department’s intellectual tribalism. The appointment under consideration was of a continental philosopher, while the professor who led the charge against him, Ruth Marcus, was firmly analytic. Nevertheless, Harries finds himself in Gendler’s camp, pointing once more to thorny personalities — not ideological conflict — as the more tangible source of the department’s decline.

Regardless of the reason, he says, senior faculty appointments had long been a flashpoint of the department’s internal war.

In fact, Professor Stephen Darwall ’68 traces the slow collapse of the Philosophy Department to his own undergraduate days, when the University’s decision to deny tenure to philosopher Richard Bernstein PhD ’58 — popular with undergraduates for his creative methods of teaching — made headlines and provoked a national outcry over the University’s “publish or perish” mentality. The student protests that followed eventually led to tenure reform at Yale more broadly, but in Darwall’s estimation the department took longer to recover.

***

Today’s Philosophy Department is a museum of its own comeback story. The faculty roster alone tells the history of gradual recovery.

Harries is the only remaining faculty member from those tumultuous days. And Michael Della Rocca, the second-most veteran member of the philosophy department, is the man largely credited with its rebuilding, his strategy rooted in poaching even more top professors from elsewhere.

Kagan nods towards former department chair Bob Adams as the man who turned the department around back in the early 1990s, but acknowledges that Adams’s department was fragile. “We had momentum on our side, but still our numbers were sufficiently small that if a couple of people left that would do us in,” Kagan says.

To compete, the department just had to bulk up.

Della Rocca faced the challenge of convincing world-class scholars to put their faith in a struggling department. There he had one weapon: the loyalty of Yale alums like Gendler and Darwall.

Gendler uses a Harry Potter reference to explain what drew her from Cornell to Yale in 2006. “My joke was then when President Levin touched the ‘Y’ on his arm, the ‘Y’ on mine lit up and I thought, ‘New Haven is calling.’”

“Because I had been an undergrad here and I knew the community, I was certain it was a place that could thrive,” Gendler says.

Though Kagan says the administration has offered unstinting support during the rebuilding process, the department has naturally had to contend with limited resources such as hiring quotas.

As department chair, Della Rocca was “extremely creative” about finessing appointments past the department’s quotas, Kagan says.

“The keyword about academic recruitment is you have to be opportunistic,” says Della Rocca. “You have to look for the opportunities and be flexible as to what appointments to pursue.” The creation of a joint position in philosophy and classics made room for the coveted appointment of Professor Verity Harte, while Gendler’s appointment was finagled with the help of the Cognitive Science program and the Psychology Department.

Looking back, Gendler divides the appointments into three waves. The first, around the early ’90s, brought in professors like Shelly Kagan and Keith DeRose and gave the department “world-class status” in certain areas like ethics and epistemology. Between 2003 and 2008, a second wave brought in “the heart of the department as it’s currently configured.” The third wave is ongoing, says Gendler, who chaired the department from 2010 until last year and is responsible for recruiting much of that third wave of hires.

To borrow Gendler’s paradigm, it’s fair to say that Della Rocca’s skilled use of hiring quotas stabilized the department during the first two waves. But the current wave — which is reeling in scholars like Joshua Knobe, Jason Stanley and, as of next summer, Oxford’s David Charles — is doing something different.

Della Rocca’s elastic hiring methods had the side effect of giving Yale’s department more interface with other disciplines, lending it a distinctly collaborative profile. A renowned ancient philosopher, David Charles cited the opportunity for “high level collaborative research” as one of the considerations that drew him to Yale.

It was this very spirit that attracted Stanley from Rutgers as well.

Stanley comes from a background in the philosophy of language, but has recently spread into political theory to explore the relationship between speech and democracy. He also makes occasional forays into cognitive science, discussing skill and rationality—a topic on which he often finds himself debating Gendler.

At Yale, Stanley hoped the dragnet of his interests could pull inspiration from the many top-notch colleagues the University offers. “I wanted to be an academic in an academic community,” Stanley said, noting that while Rutgers had an excellent philosophy department, others were not so luminous. At Yale, the consistently high quality of departments facilitates interdisciplinary transaction. Not to mention, Stanley says, that at Rutgers many professors commute from New York, rendering campus itself a less robust hub for intellectual exchange.

Philosophy doctoral candidate Daniel Putnam GRD ’16 says that people in the department are “just very eager to talk to each other and read each other’s stuff.” Anecdotally, Putnam says, higher-ranked departments at Rutgers and New York University have reputations as more intellectually combative environments. “I think the tenor of philosophical conversation here is more constructive,” Putnam says, “and less adversarial.”

Oh, how the tides have turned.

 

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