PGR Advisory Board

In the previous post I suggested that Stanley’s How Propaganda Works is filled with double-talk. On the one hand, Stanley argues that in order to have a thriving democracy we have to be wary of technicism, the view that we as the citizens have to kowtow to scientific expertise in all domains of human life. He cautions that epistemic inequalities undermine democracy.

But on the other hand, in arguing for this view Stanley relies on some of the most technical areas of analytic philosophy, regarding which the lay reader is not in an epistemic position to think critically and can only take Stanley’s expertise on trust. There is the persistent feeling in the text that when Stanley argues against technicism, what he means is: Don’t trust those experts, who aim to take away your critical thinking skills; trust experts like me, who will teach you how you can think for yourself.

One way this double-talk is achieved in the book is that Stanley is completely silent about the institutional structures from within which he is writing. Some institutional facts are apparent just from the book cover: the publisher is Princeton University Press, the quotes on the back are from professors at MIT, Harvard and Cambridge, and that Stanley teaches at Yale. There is the air that the text is arriving into the public’s hands from the most upper echelons of academia. By the time a lay reader starts reading, he has already been unconsciously reminded in a dozen ways of how he as the reader ought to trust the expertise of the author. Of who in this context is the expert and who is but a novice in need of guidance.

This preliminary, stage-setting of the epistemic inequality between Stanley and his readers lays the groundwork for the background sense in the text that if Stanley as the author doesn’t talk about the insitutional framework from which he writes, it must be because there is nothing there to write about. After all, he is the expert on double-talk, and he is oh-so-ernest in fostering democracy. As the author, Stanley points the public in one direction, and in doing so he suggests that there is nothing worth looking at in the same way where he is standing. Any gaze of the reader turned towards Stanley is redirected through affirmations of his expertise and good will away from his institutional context and in the direction of the they who are deemed the real culprits.

This brings out a central feature of double-talk: the appearance of talking about everything, of putting it all out in the open is itself the guise under which some things are not talked about. Some of the very things which go to the heart of the issue are rendered insignificant and irrelevant, as if only those who are obtuse and self-aggrandizing would focus on unnecessary side issues rather than focus on the main issues which the author himself with his epistemic authority and moral virtue is focusing on. This the hypocrisy central to double-talk.

It is obvious why Stanley doesn’t talk about the institutional structures from within which he writes. Stanley’s aim in the text is to elucidate how double-talk and ideology work so that the enlightened reader can use that knowledge to see double-talk better and so change how things are. If the book brings up academic philosophy itself as an institutional structure, the question comes up for the lay reader: So how did Stanley use his expertise regarding double-talk to change the structures he is a part of? Is academic philosophy itself free of double-talk? If not, why should we as the lay readers listen to Stanley? If he cannot improve the conditions of inequality in his institutional setting, how can what he help to change things in the broader society?

There is no way for the lay reader to know this – and that is what Stanley is banking on – but the problem is even bigger. If the issue was only that academic philosophy is rife with inequality, one can’t put that on Stanley. After all, inequality is everywhere, and one does the best one can. But it is another thing when one is actively affirming and contributing to the inequality by being a part of the biggest institutional form of double-talk in philosophy: Stanley is a member of the advisory board of the Philosophical Gourmet Report (PGR).

If the lay readers knew this fact, no doubt they would be puzzled. In Chapter 5, Stanley argues that the cause of double-talk is that those in power, unable to let go of the social identities connected to that power, assume that the inequalities reflect not injustice but a meritocracy. That those in power rightfully earned and deserve that power.

There is no better description of the Gourmet report. Why should we think that Yale is a better philosophy department than the Penn State department? According to PGR, it is because that is just an objective fact about the quality of the philosophers at the two departments. And who is the position to know that is objective true? Turns out it’s people who are affiliated more with departments like Yale than with departments like Penn State.

The question arises: How can Stanley write a book arguing against double-talk even as he is on the board of the Gourmet report?

One view is that PGR isn’t a form of double-talk at all. It is an honest and open reflection of what the Board members and the people filling out the survey think is the ranking of the quality of departments. On this view, PGR isn’t a reflection of the social and institutional identities of the Board members and the people who fill out the surveys. It is rather just an opinion of what they earnestly think is the hierarchy of quality among philosophy departments. It is not about institutional power, but about the quality of the philosophy itself.

The problem with this view is that, as Stanley himself suggests in Chapter 5, the way double-talk functions is that the people whose social identities are tied up with structures of power don’t believe that they are defined by those structures. Rather, they think that they deserve to be in those structures because they earned it by tracking something true and good and real beyond the power structures themselves.

In a totalitarian state, might makes right. Those in power don’t have to tell themselves they deserve the power for the greater good. They can affirm that whoever manages to grab the throne is thereby entitled to the throne; being able to topple the ruler is reason enough why the next person gets to be in power.

But in a democratic state, that is not true. Here those in power have to justify their power by recourse to something beyond the power structures themselves, and this is what opens up the possibility of double-talk. People in positions of power in a democracy are thus liable to a form of self-deception, where they assume that what is motivating them are the ideals of democracy rather than the privileges of the power structures they are a part of. The self-deceptive narrative is what they have to tell themselves to bridge the gap between their ideals and the reality.

One kind of self-deceptive narrative goes as follows. Yes, the power structures we are a part of are not ideal, but they have to be maintained for the greater good of democracy. Because those other power structures are the greater enemy of democracy, and in order to defeat those structures, we have to tolerate the structures that we are a part of. The idea is: the double-talk of those structures over there are more pernicious than the double-talk of our structures. So once we overcome and defeat those structures, then we can improve our own structures, and then true democracy can come about.

In Stanley’s book, those other more pernicious power structures are those of conservatives. In academic philosophy, those other more pernicious power structures are those of religious institutions. If you put these two together, there arises the over-arching narrative that the power structures of academic philosophy as they are have to be maintained to some extent at least until the power structures of the conservatives who rely on religious institutions are thwarted. The worry is that if academic philosophy destroys itself through self-criticism, then the public discourse will sway even more towards conservatives and their use of technicism, and so democracy will be even more harmed.

On this view, Stanley’s work on double-talk is consistent with him being on the PGR board, because the double-talk of PGR is minimal compared to the double-talk of the conservatives in the broader society. Stanley can agree that in an ideal world there would be no need for a PGR, but given that academia is itself under attack by conservatives, PGR is needed for academic philosophy to hold its own ground and to resist technicism. PGR is an instrumental necessity.

There is no way for a lay reader to pick up on this, but this is one of the main functions of How Propaganda Works: to justify some the contemporary power structures in academic philosophy. In particular, to justify the institutional circles that Stanley himself is a part of. To suggest that, for instance, Stanley’s career trajectory is not one of him simply moving up in the power structures, but that a career trajectory like his, where he was able to go from getting a BA from Stony Brook to being a tenured professor at Yale, is compatible with contributing to the greater good and is not merely about achieving personal success.

From this point of view, being on the board of PGR is a way of affirming that yes, going from Stony Brook to Yale is in fact and objectively a matter of progressing in one’s career. And writing a book like How Propaganda Works is a way of suggesting that a career progression from the bottom of the PGR rankings to its top can be justified as long as the work one is doing plays a role in the greater good of fostering democracy.

For academic philosophers, one of the things that is bound to stand out about Stanley’s book is the change in which authors are referenced and quotes. No more is it just white males writing about ideal political theory. Stanley instead focuses on work from feminist philosophy and critical race theory, referencing women and minority philosophers. There is a persistent feeling that the tide is turning, and that real, deep change is afoot. No doubt, to some extent this is true.

But a closer look at the people Stanley references suggests something more, and different, happening. In the book, Stanley cites 44 contemporary academic philosophers. Of these philosophers, 27 have an institutional connection to departments at which Stanley either studied or taught, and which are in the top 20 of the Gourmet rankings (in particular: MIT, Oxford, Cornell, Michigan, Rutgers and Yale). Another 16 have institutional connections to departments ranked in the Gourmet report, and most of these 16 are connected to departments ranked in the top 10. Meaning: 45 of the 46 contemporary, living philosophers Stanley mentions studied or teach in the same academic circles as Stanley himself. (The tally of these citations can be found here.)

The lay reader is bound to get the feeling from the book that academic philosophers are really doing their job and contributing to society. Why look at all these insights they are discovering to make this a better democracy! The reader familiar with academic philosophy gets a similar, but different, sense in reading the book: Jason Stanley and the philosophers in the circles he moves in are really doing a great job! By not once mentioning academic philosophy as an institution, or making explicit his own professional ties with the philosophers he cites, Stanley conveys the sense that there is no reason for the reader to turn the critical gaze which Stanley is arguing for towards the institutional structures Stanley is a part of.

In this Stanley loses a great opportunity to exhibit to the reader what critical thinking regarding double-talk can look like. More than an abstract theory of double-talk, what the reader needs is practice at how to be critical of the double-talk of the very institutions they are a part of. How can one be in an institution and yet be critical of it? That is a foundational question of a democracy. Regarding this question, it would have been more helpful for the public to see Stanley being critical of the double-talk in academic philosophy itself.

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