PGR-Medieval 2

My previous post offered a few thoughts of my own about the medieval rankings at the Philosophical Gourmet Report.

This post features some remarks by Russell Friedman. Russ seems to me well-positioned to address the subject. He’s an American, with a PhD from the University of Iowa, whose career has been entirely in Europe. He is now professor of philosophy at the De Wulf-Mansion Centre for Ancient, Medieval and Renaissance Philosophy at KU-Leuven.

He writes:

One thing I like about the Leiter rankings of graduate programs in philosophy is Brian Leiter’s clear descriptions of the manner in which the ranking is compiled; these make the compilation process and its results relatively transparent. For my purposes here, probably the most important fact that is communicated about the compiling of the 2012 report is:

“The survey [sent to the prospective evaluators] presented 88 faculty lists, from the United States, Canada, United Kingdom, and Australia and New Zealand”.

The rankings, then, concern departments in the “English-speaking world”, defined here more specifically as the US, Canada, UK, Australia and New Zealand. Leiter even explains in a parenthetical statement why the rankings are focused in this way:

“Lack of reliable information leads me to exclude the non-English-speaking world, though there are thriving philosophical communities in, e.g., the Scandinavian countries, Israel, Germany, parts of Asia, etc., but they are beyond the scope of this Report.”

Fair enough. One can’t complain about false advertising, since it’s clear not only that this is a ranking of departments in the English-speaking world but also what that means in practice. And yet, in a real sense this may be misleading to prospective graduate students in at least (although not uniquely) medieval philosophy. The fact is that there are a lot of graduate programs in what Leiter is defining as the “non-English-speaking world” where someone whose only spoken language is English can get a PhD in medieval philosophy; there are even quite a few places where such a student can obtain an MA and sometimes even a BA.

Let me start with what I know best: philosophy at the University of Leuven. This isn’t meant to be an advertisement, but just to give a first impression of some of the possibilities that a student looking just at the Leiter rankings might find surprising. In Leuven, located in the Dutch-speaking part of Belgium, a philosophy student, able to speak nothing but English, can obtain a 3-year BA degree (that’s standard in Europe), a 1-year initial MA, a 1-year Research MA (= MPhil), and/or a PhD. In fact, the Research MA is only offered in English (not in Dutch), most curricular and extra-curricular research-related activities (e.g., lectures, conferences) are conducted in English, and there are more doctoral dissertations written and defended in English than in Dutch. In short, there’s a thriving English-language philosophy program here.

And it’s not only in Leuven. Since the range of degrees offered in philosophy vary from institution to institution – some institutions, e.g., don’t offer the BA or the MA in English – I’ll concentrate on opportunities for English-speaking-only students to pursue a PhD in (medieval) philosophy in the “non-English-speaking world”. In general, wherever a PhD in medieval philosophy is a possibility in the Nordic countries (Denmark, Finland, Norway, and Sweden), in Germany, in Benelux, and in Switzerland, a student from the English-speaking world would encounter in her or his professional life no linguistic barriers to speak of. In France, Greece, Italy, Portugal, and Spain, I think it’s fair to say that, although professors would be comfortable with supervising in English, the type of full integration just mentioned is less likely, although with every passing year this becomes less of an issue as facility in spoken English in these countries improves. (I’m going to plead ignorance about the situation outside of Western Europe, although I suspect that similar statements can be made about studying (medieval) philosophy at some universities in, e.g. Eastern Europe, Israel, and parts of Asia). Of course, there are lots of local differences when it comes to cost, length of program, admission and completion requirements, and possibility of financial aid; all of that would have to be investigated by the student on a case-by-case basis. But the fact is that, speaking only English, you can successfully obtain a PhD at quite a number of philosophy departments outside of the English-speaking world. And it is often the case that in these philosophy departments there are specialists in medieval philosophy, often with strong research teams around them, working as part of fine overall faculties of philosophy (here’s where rankings might be helpful!) And once that’s been realized, it becomes much more a question of what you (the student) are interested in and who is best suited to help you with that interest in an appropriate philosophical environment, than it is a question of English-speaking world vs. non-English-speaking world. Thinking about things that way might well benefit the student.

There’s something else that a prospective student of (medieval) philosophy might be missing if she were unaware of the fact that English is not really a barrier to pursuing doctoral education in much of continental Europe. This may go beyond the Leiter rankings as such, but I think it’s worth touching on nonetheless. For some prospective students of medieval philosophy, moving to continental Europe for three or four years to do a PhD just might not be in the cards. But it might work during doctoral studies to travel to Europe for a month or a semester or even a year to work with a particular professor or as part of a particular research group. In doing this the student would gain international contacts, extra input on her research, the use of different library resources, and the possibility to, e.g., consult manuscripts at European libraries. I’ll mention, as examples only, just a couple of programs that come immediately to mind as places doctoral students might consider visiting during their studies (this is not meant as any sort of ranking, but off-the-cuff illustrations). If your interest is in medieval natural philosophy, then Nijmegen (the Netherlands) is a truly important research center. If medieval logic is your thing, then look into a stay in Copenhagen or Helsinki (albeit neither of them at philosophy departments), Gothenburg (Sweden), or Groningen (Netherlands). Medieval Arabic philosophy? How about Munich or Paris (OK, Paris is good for just about everything) or Pisa? And, if you’re simply looking for fabulous library resources with solid research teams in medieval philosophy, then Cologne or (yes) Leuven might be for you. Again: those are just examples. But the point is that, even if you aren’t interested in going outside of the English-speaking world for your PhD, you should know that the English language isn’t going to get in the way of your having a fruitful research stay at many philosophy programs on the continent. All that really matters is your finding a fit between the work you’re doing and the expertise and resources of the team in the place you’re thinking of visiting. And keep in mind that there are often competitive funding opportunities associated precisely with study in continental Europe (the Fulbright, the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), the American-Scandinavian Foundation, the Belgian-American Education Foundation, etc).

So, I admire the diligence with which Leiter and his collaborators have constructed their rankings to help the prospective philosophy student to more effectively find a suitable program of study. And, again, there can be no complaint that Leiter is engaging in false advertising when it comes to the issues I’ve raised. But I think that certainly (although not exclusively) the prospective student in medieval philosophy could benefit by being made aware of the available programs in the so-called non-English-speaking world. There’s a lot of English being spoken there, after all.


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