November 22, 2017

Someone Mailed Feces to Four Philosophers: A Disquisition


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The package received by Carolyn Jennings, one of four academic philosophers who received mailings containing feces. Credit Carolyn Jennings

Philosophy is generally concerned with higher truths. But this week, conversation in the profession turned to decidedly lower-order functions, after word emerged that four philosophers loosely connected through a long-running, multisided argument with one of the field’s most vocal figures had been sent packages filled with excrement.

The mailings, which were received over the summer, were reported on Thursday by BuzzFeed. They involved three professors in the United States and one in Canada, all of whom have pushed back against what they and many others see as the field’s hostility to women and minorities as well as its overly brutal style of argument.

Within hours, comments — and more than a few unprintable jokes — were flying, along with speculation about who was responsible, as well whether the fecal mailings were symbolic, or merely redolent of, the broader controversies roiling the field.

“Some people were like, ‘This is as bad as it can get, hopefully,’” said Justin Weinberg, an associate professor of philosophy at the University of South Carolina and the editor of Daily Nous, a philosophy blog. “Others were like, ‘This just sums up how bad things are.’”

For his part, Mr. Weinberg took a rigorously empirical stance.

“What’s likely happened is that one person who has problems sent their feces to other philosophers,” he said.

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Those philosophers include Sally Haslanger at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, J. David Velleman of New York University, Carolyn Dicey Jennings of the University of California at Merced and Carrie Ichikawa Jenkins of the University of British Columbia.

While the sender of the packages remains unknown, speculation quickly centered on Brian Leiter, a legal philosopher at the University of Chicago Law School and a famously hard-charging voice in the field, whose return address was on one of the packages. All four philosophers who received the packages have tangled with him over the boundary between intellectual combat and bullying, as well as his own influence. A few hours before the BuzzFeed article appeared, he posted on his blog, denying that he was involved and noting that he had been aware of some mailings since August, but had declined to write about them, since “publicity tends to encourage lunatics.”

“There is no pleasure for me in knowing there is someone out there so obsessed with me and so deranged that they would pull a vile stunt like this,” he added in an email.

It can be difficult to get disinterested comments on Mr. Leiter, a longtime academic kingmaker thanks to Philosophical Gourmet Report, a website that ranks philosophy departments. Two years ago, Mr. Leiter agreed to step down as editor of the report after more than 600 philosophers signed a statement protesting what were characterized as his “derogatory and intimidating remarks about Ms. Jenkins” after she posted online a pledge not to treat other philosophers and their work “in ways that are belittling, trivializing and/or exclusionary.’”

(On his post about the mailings, Mr. Leiter called that petition part of a “smear campaign.”)

Ms. Haslanger, who signed the statement, and Mr. Velleman, who did not sign, also posted online some of Mr. Leiter’s email correspondence with Ms. Jenkins and others, as part of a “statement of concern” over what they called “serious and credible threats aimed at silencing the recipients.”

Ms. Jennings, for her part, had posted online a critique of the Gourmet Report’s methodology, which she said Mr. Leiter insisted she take down. (She did not.)

Some in the field have come to Mr. Leiter’s defense against accusations that he was involved with the mailings. David Wallace, a philosopher of science at the University of Southern California, in a long comment thread on Daily Nous disputed the suggestion in that thread that Mr. Leiter may have sent the feces.

“I don’t really see any plausible way of interpreting this as anything other than third-party malice,” he wrote. (In an email, Mr. Wallace declined to comment further.)

In an interview, Ms. Jennings said she couldn’t be sure that Mr. Leiter was involved but that the incident still reflected on him.

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“It’s another thing coming from his direction, whether it’s from him or another person supporting him or an enemy of his,” she said. “The only reason I would be getting this is because he’s decided to make a mockery of my work.”

Mr. Weinberg echoed that view. “I don’t think he did it. But the fact that a not-trivial number of people are entertaining the idea tells you something about him and the kind of culture he’s fostered in the discipline, more than it tells us something about philosophy as a whole,” he said.

Asked to respond to that sentiment, Mr. Leiter said by email, “I’m appalled that these academics have received these vile packages, and if my disputes with others outside philosophy played a role in their being targeted, I’m truly sorry about that.”

Ms. Haslanger said that while she had no idea who had sent the feces, the packages were intended to send a very distinct message.

“It’s clearly directed at people who are trying to improve the profession,” she said. “For me, it just shows that our profession is totally unwilling to be corrected.”

Correction: October 7, 2016

An earlier version of this article misidentified the university where Justin Weinberg teaches; it is the University of South Carolina, not the University of Southern California.

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Article source: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/08/books/someone-mailed-feces-to-four-philosophers-a-disquisition.html?partner=rss&emc=rss

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