Why the dearth of female philosophers?
August 11, 2006 7:03 PM   Subscribe

I have yet to figure out why there is a paucity of female philosophers. Any definitive works on this topic?

I have had a vague theory that it is one of the basic difference between the sexes: men complicate, women simplify. However that maybe too simplistic and grossly incorrect, not to mention it not being apparently PC. Other reasons could be that they were never taken too seriously by the male dominated societies, and that the analytical process that is philosophy is such a strong and powerful profession, women were never given entry, or they didn't take interest enough.
Or maybe the reasons are similar to why there is less female presence in engineering and sciences?
posted by raheel to Religion & Philosophy (134 answers total) 33 users marked this as a favorite
The standard politically correct theory is women are oppressed by men. Hopefully someone has something additional to offer.
posted by scheptech at 7:16 PM on August 11, 2006

There's also a question of what gets considered "philosophy." Men ruminate on mankind and it's philosophy; women ruminate on womankind and it's shoved into the special interest section.
posted by occhiblu at 7:18 PM on August 11, 2006 [5 favorites]

Women make up 10 percent of doctors of the Church, those Catholic philosophers whose works are considered most important. Not a huge percentage, but enough to confound any "all women are this way, all men are that way" theories. Being a nun was probably easier for a woman in earlier eras than getting someone to pay for her schooling and take care of her kids while she pondered abstract thoughts.
posted by transona5 at 7:22 PM on August 11, 2006

Best answer: And it's not written about philosophy, but A Room of One's Own might start to answer some of your questions.
posted by occhiblu at 7:25 PM on August 11, 2006 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Yikes, scheptech.
It's been a while since I've been in a philosophy class, but I believe Julia Kristeva has something to say about the manner in which men and women differ in their subjective perceptions. Sorry for the generic link, but that's the best I can find at this hour.
posted by Gilbert at 7:27 PM on August 11, 2006

Response by poster: Just want to throw this in: there maybe a difference between good philosophers and influential ones (right?). The latter seems exclusively male (right?).
posted by raheel at 7:32 PM on August 11, 2006

i thought the stereotype was that "men simplify, women complicate".
i was also going to suggest reading A Room of One's Own. in it virginia woolf suggests that the reason there are not as many women writers was because (at the time she was writing) the default occupation for most women (wife and mother) is a 24 hour job. it is a really interesting essay, she was a smart lady.

another reason may be that traditionally women didn't have as much access to academic pursuits as their brothers (besides teaching/nursing which probably didn't go much into the non-practical stuff). i think virginia woolf discusses this too, didn't she write a thing about "Shakespeare's Sister"?

but this has been changing and there have been a few right? for example laura mulvey etc.
posted by amethysts at 7:45 PM on August 11, 2006

Perhaps a less controversial way of stating the "men oppress women" POV is as follows:

"Who, throughout history, has been willing to listen to what a woman has to say about the Big Questions?"

Not to mention write down what they say...

This is a huge shame, IMO
posted by scarabic at 7:45 PM on August 11, 2006

Off the top of my head and referring to Gilbert's comment, even just Kristeva and de Beauvoir would refute the "exclusively" part of that, so no.
posted by occhiblu at 7:46 PM on August 11, 2006

Women didn't have access to the academy in the sense that they were actively barred from it, and until extremely recently women were not allowed to own their own property in large parts of the world.
posted by occhiblu at 7:47 PM on August 11, 2006

(what i meant to say was that it has less to do with differences between men and women and more to do with differences in what culture allows men and women to do.)
posted by amethysts at 7:49 PM on August 11, 2006

I have had a vague theory that it is one of the basic difference between the sexes: men complicate, women simplify.

You know, I would have said the exact opposite; to me, philosophy looks like simplification, not complication. You isolate one thing from the complexity of human interactions, give it a name, and ascribe it some importance. Then the next guy comes along, nitpicks your simplifications, and introduces his own terminology.

I'd guess that it's the same reason that most comedians are male: men like showing off.
posted by equalpants at 7:50 PM on August 11, 2006 [2 favorites]

Best answer: The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy explores answers to your questions in their entry on Feminist History of Philosophy.
posted by extrabox at 7:51 PM on August 11, 2006 [1 favorite]

How many famous writers can you think of from ancient Greece, philosophers or otherwise? I know that in a lot of other subjects the first day of a course will cover what Plato or Aristotle said about it, but Philosophers tend to have a longer shelf-life than practitioners of other disciplines. Maybe more people realize there are few women philosophers, taken across all history, compared to the equally skewed numbers in disciplines with a shorter popular memory?
posted by maledictory at 7:52 PM on August 11, 2006

Response by poster: amethysts and equalpants: I meant simplification/complication in terms of the how far you are going to go in the pursuit of peeling the layers of the onion when you "don't necessarily have to". So yeah, we may be both saying the same thing.
Seems like most people agree here on the possibly similar General-Suppression and Disinterest-in-What-Wome-Have-To-Say theories. But I am still looking for more in depth analytical works on this topic.
posted by raheel at 8:03 PM on August 11, 2006

I appreciate the honest question, but the assumptions underlying it are pretty shocking in their ignorance. Some of the most powerful and mind-blowing philosophers I've read have been women: Hannah Arendt, Gayatri Spivak, Mary Shelley, just off the top of my head. It doesn't take much digging *at all* to create a list of female philosophers that includes some of the most pointed and brilliant thinkers...well, ever. They're at least as brilliant as some of the lunatic males - like Heidegger, to name just one - who've sat at the top of the Male Philosphers Pantheon for decades.

posted by mediareport at 8:03 PM on August 11, 2006

I think it depends on what you mean. Ayn Rand is one of the most important philosophers in modern times, because all the cool kids are reading her!

Perhaps we don't know about all of the philosophers... Aren't they just "great thinkers"? Men are traditionally more "famous".
posted by sindas at 8:06 PM on August 11, 2006

Response by poster: Also, I do believe that there is more to this than just the above two theories: after all, women have been decently active in literature and arts much more than philosophy, although they are all intellectual pursuits in terms of their apparent view by society. So Woolf's reasons although make sense (very obviously) but they do not explain the great gap in numbers of the female writers and philosophers.
Which again makes me think that this is more of either of these two reasons: a) there is something very powerful about the profession of philosophy b) there is a stronger gender difference issue at play here than people have explored.
posted by raheel at 8:09 PM on August 11, 2006

Best answer: How many folks, when thinking about this question, thought of Hypatia of Alexandria?

Perhaps a better question than "Why is there a dearth of female philosophers?" would be "Why is there such a dearth in mainstream awareness of prominent female philosophers?"
posted by mediareport at 8:14 PM on August 11, 2006

Do you me current active philosophers or historically important philosophers? Your question only has any real meaning for the present day (cause of past disenfranchisement of women).

On the issue of modern simplification/complication I would go with complex. I've basically given up trying to read the latest papers. The basic approach seems to be "here is a fairly simple issue" but I am so smart that I can think of all sorts of complications that I address in a really complicated manner such that only a true genius can follow me, even though all these epicycles are mostly besides the point but they do look pretty.

Are any modern philosophers saying anything? Or are they just engaged in games of "my rhetoric is bigger than yours". Similar to the way that PoMo's leading lights spent much of their time validating themselves by coining new words.
posted by MonkeySaltedNuts at 8:15 PM on August 11, 2006

Response by poster: Thank you for reminding me of Ayn Rand - now that is someone who has clearly had a great influence on 20th century Western thought.
mediareport: you should look a little deeper in my quesion then - I am not a student of philosophy, and to me there is definitely a dearth of known, famous, influential female philosophers. I can make a similar list of female computer scientists that most non-CS people may not have heard of. But yes, it is an honest question, and I am still looking for definitive work on this topic.
posted by raheel at 8:17 PM on August 11, 2006

Thanks, mediareport. On a better day, I would hope to get that same point across. And yeah, Shelley.
posted by Gilbert at 8:19 PM on August 11, 2006

Response by poster: Perhaps a better question than "Why is there a dearth of female philosophers?" would be "Why is there such a dearth in mainstream awareness of prominent female philosophers?"

Nicely put, although that would be actually one of the answers to my Q.: that there is actually a lack of awareness rather than a lack of number.
posted by raheel at 8:20 PM on August 11, 2006

One of my first exposures to philosophy was through courses with then 80-year-old Marjorie Grene [wish I had a better link], who studied at Harvard in the 1930s, took the Ph.D. nominally from Radcliff since Harvard at the time did not admit women, and went on to develop a...um...relationship with Heidegger (and may have been tangentially involved in the untimely demise of Imre Lakatos).

Although I'm not the one to consult for details, I understand that she lived in Ireland and raised a family there, spending the nights after feeding the family re-reading the ancients and writing dozens of articles, some of them [imo] among the most prescient articles on topics that later became important in the specialty of Phil. of Biology. We're talking about articles published in the 60's and 70's, long before the Phil of Bio was understood as a field of its own.

I second the notion that there's a significant difference between "influential" and "well-known" philosophers. Heck most Americans don't even know what philosophy is, much less who has been doing it (well) in the last century. I believe if you talk to active philosophers themselves, they can point to serious and influential female philosophers in the last couple of decades that mirror the proportion of women you'd find in other massively technical / logical pursuits (sci & engineering, etc). wish I had some stats for that, though.
posted by garfy3 at 8:28 PM on August 11, 2006

I think maledictory has it. Women in academics are a pretty recent phenomenon (from the last century). In other disciplines (eg. sociology, biology, economics) recent works are covered extensively and actually considered more relevant than older works because of their current view on things. In philosophy, older works are still heavily relied on, which were mostly written in a time when women just didn't do anything academic.
posted by easternblot at 8:29 PM on August 11, 2006

that there is actually a lack of awareness rather than a lack of number

Well, there's your answer, raheel. Odd that the possibilty wasn't considered in the way you framed the question, isn't it? Again, I respect the honest inquiry, but if you take anything from this discussion at all, let's hope it's the realization that mainstream understandings of "known, famous, influential female philosophers" are often limited by casual ingrained sexism, either in our own sources or in the sources used by our teachers.
posted by mediareport at 8:35 PM on August 11, 2006

and I am still looking for definitive work on this topic.

Come on, read the links folks are providing you. Mary Ellen Waithe's A History of Women Philosophers is mentioned in the 2nd paragraph of the 2nd section of the link extrabox gave you above. The question has been well explored.

"These women are not women on the fringes of philosophy, but philosophers on the fringes of history."
posted by mediareport at 8:41 PM on August 11, 2006

"Why is there such a dearth in mainstream awareness of prominent female philosophers?"

I wouldn't claim that NO women have participated in the philosophical academy, nor that NO women have risen to the top of the pile on the strength of their work.

But come on, mediareport. There is an inequity in the field. Perhaps the question is not precisely phrased to represent this inequity to the appropriate scale, but don't get caught up correcting that.

Offering examples of great female philosophers does not make the underrepresentation of females in this field go away. I applaud you for knowing enough about the published field to be able to name many greats who had vaginas. But how many more cock-bearers could you name without a second thought?
posted by scarabic at 9:02 PM on August 11, 2006

Thank you for reminding me of Ayn Rand - now that is someone who has clearly had a great influence on 20th century Western thought.
Please don't dismiss the contributions of Rand on thought. While "real" philosophers ignore her, it seems the Bush administration totally buys into the notion of her muscular selfishness. And she has the support to vote her the best thinker.

I'm horribly sorry but I think that given the US ignorance on philosophy and the College Republican fixation on Rand, I think that if there was a popular vote then Rand would win.
posted by MonkeySaltedNuts at 9:03 PM on August 11, 2006

But how many more cock-bearers could you name without a second thought?

How many more cock-bearers *whose thoughts are worth two shits when compared to their lesser-known female counterparts* is a better question.
posted by mediareport at 9:32 PM on August 11, 2006

(Ok, that was the beer talking. Strike that.)
posted by mediareport at 9:33 PM on August 11, 2006

mediareport - Excellent job of flipping out, not answering the question, and then attacking the poster.

So you have a list of a few women who have contributed significantly to philosophy. That's great, but that's not what the poster actually asked. Why is it that there's a massive difference between the contributions of women and men in philosophy (and math, for that matter)?

Scarabic makes this point better that I, though.
posted by bshort at 9:34 PM on August 11, 2006

Excellent job of flipping out, not answering the question, and then attacking the poster.

Oh, please. My first comments were polite enough, thanks. Later, I pointed out that raheel didn't seem to be reading the links folks were providing. If you don't like my tone, well, life's rough. But I damn sure answered the question, focusing not on the obvious historical factors that have for centuries worked against women's education (since raheel was clearly aware of those from the start), but on the hypothesis that the "dearth" raheel sees is as much a question of male awareness as female achievement. Pointing out that flaw in the framing of the question is hardly "attacking" the poster.

scarabic: Again, that Hypatia of Alexandria, Mary Shelly, Hannah Arendt and others don't leap as immediately to mind as Plato, Kierkegaard and ridiculously inflated dead-enders like Heidegger is hardly a problem of women underachieving in philosophy.

In short, there is no "dearth" of brilliant female philosophers. One could certainly argue, however, that there is an *excess* of overhyped male ones.
posted by mediareport at 9:59 PM on August 11, 2006

Response by poster: Alright, this is *exactly* what I was afraid of - posting something that would turn too argumentative without being informative, so let's stop it right there.
In defence of mediareport, you did have good input, but: the answer that you gave was something that I proposed in the first place (that they were never given importance by the male dominated societies). But again, putting up a list of female philosophers is not what I want and doesn't help much. I just wanted to get pointers to any analytical research done on this.
And no, I haven't started reading the links just yet - I came here to first collect some starting points.
To me, Ayn Rand is exactly who I was looking for - a female famous, influential, brilliant thinker. Any more examples like her that I have been missing?
posted by raheel at 10:25 PM on August 11, 2006

I'm a recent graduate of a large state university, where I majored in philosophy. I (a dude) was struck by how few girls there were in my philosophy classes. While I don't doubt that the historical oppression of women plays a huge role in why the great majority of prominent philosophers have been men, it also seems to me to be the case that, these days, college girls just aren't as likely to be interested in taking philosophy as college guys are. I often pondered why that was (joking to my friends that I had picked the wrong major). My theory is that it's similar to the science/engineering situation - philosophy is perceived as being an arcane, difficult, nerdy-guy topic. So, despite the fact that the student body at my university was about 50/50 male/female (probably slightly more female), philosophy class seemed to be more along the lines of 80/20. The gender disparity was especially noticeable in the two 400-level classes I took (i.e., the classes that one might take when considering graduate study in philosophy). In each of these, out of maybe 15 or 20 students, there was just one girl in each class.
posted by Burns Ave. at 10:29 PM on August 11, 2006

I'm confused. You do want examples of famous female philosophers? If that's the case, I'll give you a few. In ethics there's Christine Korsgaard, and in political philosophy there's Martha Nussbaum. Both are famous and influential within the field right now, especially Nussbaum. Elizabeth Anscombe is another one in ethics. But none of these are all that famous outside of philosophy. On the other hand, how many contemporary philosophers, male or female, are all that famous outside of the field?

(Ayn Rand is a lot of things, but she's not a brilliant thinker.)
posted by smorange at 10:49 PM on August 11, 2006

I'm surprised nobody's mentioned Betty-Muriel Sartre or the (relatively) recently departed Susie Sunday.
posted by rob511 at 11:11 PM on August 11, 2006

Best answer: I am a woman and a philosophy teacher. There are a number of issues you are asking about all at once. Let's separate them.

1. Who are the great women philosophers?

Here are several lists.
Medieval era, 500-1600
Modern era, 1600-1900
Geocities page that covers 600 BCE - 1500 CE
Wikipedia has a mixed list of historical and contemporary women philosophers
A page with photos and portraits of some historical and some contemporary women philosophers

2. Why does the common person know of so few great historical female philosophers?

As in pretty much all fields, the active and passive barriers to women's intellectual contributions have been enormous. For most of Western history (which is the only history I can speak about with any authority) at least these five factors have played an important role:

a. Lack of education. Girls were not only not encouraged to get an education, but they were prevented from getting even basic educations -- sometimes by having too much domestic work and practical training to do, sometimes by lack of willing teachers, sometimes by legal penalties

b. Lack of access. Adult women were prevented from joining the relevant professions, or were "frozen out" of men's intellectual circles, even if they had the education, inclination, and independent wealth to do the work.

c. Social penalties. In many societies, women faced severe social penalties for engaging in intellectual work. At the extreme, they could be banished or burnt as a witch, or they could be considered unmarriageable -- which could spell a fall from the middle class into dire poverty, etc. (Think of the kind of social penalties a man might face in a very conservative community today if he were thought to be gay, and multiply them a hundredfold. Even when these penalties are not death or anything like it, they are still strong enough to enforce a certain code of behavior, to make people suppress their passions in favor of their practical interests.)

d. Continual pregnancy and child-rearing is extemely demanding, and even money doesn't relieve you of it fully. Consider traditional "men's work" like farming. The more wealth a man has, the more he can hire others to take on the physically demanding parts of that work. The same is not true of child-bearing (although it is to some extent true of child-rearing): for most of history you couldn't hire someone else to be pregnant for you, and even if you hired someone to help with raising your kids you would still have been much more heavily involved than the father. So women, even wealthy women, had a special drain on their energies that men didn't have. If most historically-important philosophers came from middle-class or better backgrounds, it's partly because they were relieved of the work of farming etc. and had personal space and quiet time to work. Women in these middle-class and better families did not get as much relief as the men did. They would have borne and raised a lot of kids, and even if they didn't die in childbirth that is still a huge chunk out of the middle of your productive life.

e. Filtering by later generations. Women's contributions, even when they managed to make them and they were appreciated at the time, were often suppressed or ignored, or passed over in favor of a man who had made a similar contribution, by later historians. So if one time period had gender norms that allowed a woman to contribute, some later time period might find that unacceptable and leave her work out of the record they transmitted to us.

I think the influence of these five factors is enough to completely swamp any evidence of supposed natural differences between men and women, in aptitude for or interest in philosophy. That is, the fact that there are not a lot of household-name female philosophers indicates nothing at all about whether women are better or worse philosophers than men. It can be accounted for purely by historical conditions, so there's nothing left to explain. The same is true, I think, of differences in famous chemists, or artists, or politicians, or whatever field.

It is very easy to underestimate the extent of the historical subordination of women. It is also easy to underestimate the influence of social norms on women today. As you'll see below, I think the differences today can also be accounted for by social conditions too, and so give no evidence about any innate differences.

3. Why are there so few female philosophy professors today?

Well, there are not as few as there used to be.

In present-day Anglo-American university philosophy departments the faculty gap is closing steadily. Today, I believe women make up just over 1/3 of the current philosophy grad students in top analytic-philosophy PhD programs in the US. It will take time for this fraction to work its way up to the tenured faculty level. At a rough guess I would say that between 1/8 and 1/10 of current tenured or tenure-track faculty are women. Remember that women only began being admitted to graduate programs in philosophy in any numbers in the 1970s.

That being said, women are still underrepresented in philosophy, in a way similar to their representation in math and physics, rather than in English or history. Even within the profession, women are rarer in the more "prestigious" and "technical" sub-fields like logic and metaphysics, while they are much more common in fields like ethics and political philosophy. The sudden jump in women in graduate programs happened in many fields which are now more gender-balanced. So women do have a harder time remaining in academic philosophy jobs than in some other academic careers. Why? This is a topic of real debate within the field.

Here's a blog post with a discussion of the issue, and with some numbers. Here's another, the beginning of a several-part discussion of why women students would want to be philosophers (given that it's hard and not rewarding in a lot of ways), moderated by a female philosopher. Wikipedia has some numbers about the underrepresentation of women in philosophy.

Linda Alcoff's book Singing in the Fire contains short memoir pieces from prominent contemporary female philosophers, some of which address the difficulties of being a woman in the profession in the late 20th century. I think to be a female grad student now is very, very different from what it was like to be a female grad student in 1975, though, thank goodness, so these stories can't be taken to mirror today's grad school experience.

Here is a link to the major professional organization for female philosophy professors in the US.
Society for Women In Philosophy

4. Why do fewer women than men major in philosophy as undergraduates?

When I have taught philosophy 101, there are as many female as male students. When I teach upper-level clases, though, often there are many more men than women. This was also my experience as an undergrad -- many more men than women pursue advanced coursework or a major in philosophy.

Again I think the main explanation is social factors. For one thing, the tone in the philosophy classroom can be adversarial, and women are socialized to avoid openly adversarial situations (where you say to someone "I think you're wrong about that, and here's why"). The adversarial approach can be really counterproductive, and it would be interesting to see what would happen if a cooperative problem-solving approach were used in its stead -- but the culture of the classroom is hard to change.

5. Why do fewer women than men successfully go from the beginning of graduate school to a tenure-track job in philosophy?

This is a huge question in philosophy departments today. Here are some possibilities:

a. Again, the way women are socialized gives them a handicap in the grad school environment. They are quicker to take criticism to heart, less likely to be very assertive or aggressive (which can be a big advantage in philosophy), more prone to depression, etc. That is, their ideas are every bit as good as the male students', but these other parts of the way they handle situations may hurt them.

b. Women tend toward, or are encouraged toward, less-prestigious sub-fields. When they then publish in these sub-fields, the hiring or tenure committee may say "what she's doing isn't real philosophy, it's feminism" or otherwise downgrade the significance of the work because of the field it's in. (The problem is, of course, they have to make some judgments about what projects are worth pursuing, so we can't just keep them from judging at all.)

c. In person, for example in job interviews and talks, men -- especially very assertive men -- are more often perceived as intangibly "brilliant", as having "that special something". Women are less often perceived this way. In my experience, this does not reliably have to do with the quality of work. Because hiring and promotion decisions are made based on people's judgments of brilliance, this makes a big difference for women's career prospects.

d. The burdens of parenting disproportionately fall on women. (This is true in other disciplines too of course.) Women are more likely than men to take on part-time and adjunct work, right at the point in their career when they should be building a tenure case.

e. It's stressful to constantly be in an environment where you are in the minority.

6. Are men just innately better at philosophy than women?

As I said above, I don't think we have any evidence of that at all.

A useful general book: Myths of Gender by Anne Fausto-Sterling. It explains why common scientific claims about how men and women are "wired differently" are often baloney. Not everything in the book is entirely correct, but it is an excellent place to start for a critical view of these common and scientifically sloppy claims.

Whether there are inborn and/or socially-conditioned differences in how men and women think and reason, and in what they're interested in (eg, some say men are interested in abstract thought and women are interested in practical matters) is an open scholarly debate within feminism. A good place to start with this debate would be to look at the "Six Ways of Doing Feminist Theory" section of this course syllabus (it's not mine). It offers 3 readings on each of seven competing views on the topic. "Difference feminism" might be of particular interest; it claims that men and women have different ways of knowing and interacting with the world. It contrasts most sharply with "liberal feminism I", which claims that men and women are fundamentally the same and so deserve political equality.

Finally, here's a brief answer to a question similar to yours, at the askphilosophers.org site. (You can ask questions directly to a panel of professional philosophers there. They answered another question about why philosophy professors don't take Ayn Rand seriously that might be relevant to earlier comments in this thread.)
posted by LobsterMitten at 1:03 AM on August 12, 2006 [167 favorites]

Sadly, philosophy is one of the academic fields most rife with systemic sexism. People are aware of the problem and are trying to correct it, but change is slow. Part of the problem is that, unlike the sciences, you can't point to an empiricial result in philosophy that shows that you're making progress. You have to convince other people that you're doing good work. The other humanities, on the other hand, have been more aware that sexism has had an effect on their disciplines. Because philosophers often aspire to the rationality and certainty of the sciences, they dislike admitting that the gender of an author could have any affect on their reading of an argument. So, philosophy has been stuck in this place where the author's work is supposed to speak for itself, regardless of the person's sex, but lacks any hard criteria for what makes a philosopher worth listening to, which allows sexism to creep in. Couple this with a lot of good ol' boy egocentric know-it-alls who really are blatantly sexist, and you get a highly male discipline.

That being said, there a lot of brilliant female philosophers out there. The past century has given us Simone de Beauvoir, Elizabeth Anscombe, J. J. Thompson, Philippa Foot, Christine Korsgaard, Martha Nussbaum, Ruth Garrett Millikan, Ruth Barkan Marcus, etc. And the current younger generation also looks to be great. Of the philosophers today who will be read in generations to come, many will be women.

You may want to look at this report on female-friendly philosophy departments (and a discussion here).
posted by painquale at 1:48 AM on August 12, 2006 [1 favorite]

Great comment, LobsterMitten.
posted by painquale at 1:59 AM on August 12, 2006

women didn't have as much access to academic pursuits

Women didn't have access to the academy in the sense that they were actively barred from it

Why is there such a dearth in mainstream awareness of prominent female philosophers

Women in academics are a pretty recent phenomenon

casual ingrained sexism

the active and passive barriers to women's intellectual contributions have been enormous

Women's contributions, even when they managed to make them and they were appreciated at the time, were often suppressed or ignored, or passed over in favor of a man who had made a similar contribution, by later historians

It is very easy to underestimate the extent of the historical subordination of women

rife with systemic sexism.

What'd I say? Women are oppressed by men. The orthodoxy has been stated as it must... of course.

But dig deeper, surely this begs the question: why have women been oppressed by men since the beginning of recorded time and across virtually all cultures around the world? What regulates this undeniably consistent state of affairs?

The posters question relates to a form of leadership. I'm not suggesting something as trivially ignorant as 'women are incapable of being leaders' but rather that something else is going on.

Is it possible women and men differ in how they relate to leaders or the concerns of larger groups? Perhaps a natural consituency of women thought leaders, other women, are just not as interested in them or their causes as men might be in other men, in general? Perhaps for their part men are hardwired to disregard female leadership, preferring to follow other men?

Possibly, as-born, women are more able to happily follow men than men are to follow women and so, by default, acceptable leaders are usually men. And the root of it all might be hardwired gender differences influencing personal relationships and culture in any number of ways.
posted by scheptech at 3:05 AM on August 12, 2006

Great comment, LobsterMitten.


You, scheptech, are not only not answering the question, you're revealing a frame of mind that should be deeply embarrassing to you but clearly isn't.
posted by languagehat at 5:51 AM on August 12, 2006

Scheptach, with all due respect, to reach so shakily for something biological or hereditary, when we have right in front of us LobsterMitten's rather thorough accounting of the social and practical obstacles to women in philosophy, seems a bit unnecessary. Occam's razor and all that...
posted by garfy3 at 6:02 AM on August 12, 2006

scheptech: Yawn. What a bold and original thesis you have there, and how much it flies in the face of the powerful orthodoxy. Possibly the earth is indeed flat, and the recent rise of the spherical orthodoxy is just evidence of PC groupthink.

What I meant to suggest is that, to seek an explanation of the lack of historical female scholars based on innate differences, when that lack is readily explained by social facts, can only be motivated by sexism. Yes, an explanation based on innate differences is possible. Just as an explanation based on magic woman-hating elves is possible. There doesn't seem to be any reason to believe either of these explanations, though.
posted by LobsterMitten at 6:44 AM on August 12, 2006 [6 favorites]

Thanks LobsterMitten.

...and well done with the 'truthiness' scheptech.
posted by anglophiliated at 8:36 AM on August 12, 2006

LobsterMitten - that was a brilliant comment. Thank you. Much of what you describe has been made quantitative in Why so slow? by Viriginia Valian. She is a psycholinguist not a philosopher but she very carefully documents the kinds of pressures that keep women from achieving success in academia.
posted by bluesky43 at 9:35 AM on August 12, 2006

My favorite philosophy professors were both women. And one of my favorite philosophers.
posted by rafter at 10:26 AM on August 12, 2006

lobstermitten- thanks for all that! is the aura of brilliance part a personal observation, or is there writing about that? because I have noticed it and am really curious about where it comes from. (I have some ideas, but I'd like to read some more if they're available)
posted by lgyre at 11:11 AM on August 12, 2006

Response by poster: Lobstermitten - thank you for the great work. That is exactly what I was looking for: opinion from a person in the field who understands the views of the larger population of the field.
Though it still doesn't answer my Q. about why there is apparently a more female presence (or acceptance) in other intellectual fields than in philosophy. Is it really so, or is it because other intellectual fields (such as literature) are more accessible to the general populace, so in general we know more authors than philosophers? Most of the issues in your comments regarding the social oppression I am aware of, and are applicable to most professions, including academia, where men have taken (forced) centerstage. I wasn't looking for a reiteration or confirmation of those points. I am concerned with philosophy in particular.

And I think, as mentioned by other people also, that there is a difference between great female philosophers (which again I don't want a list of) and influential and famous ones.
posted by raheel at 11:13 AM on August 12, 2006

Response by poster: LobsterMitten: this was a nice post; some comments specially were informative.
scheptech: good point.Sometimes we need to dig deeper into the Why of history than to just recount it.
posted by raheel at 11:22 AM on August 12, 2006

LobsterMitten - for me your answer is not incorrect but incomplete. I apologize for any frustratrion on my part with it but you're only stating (albeit in interesting detail) what is, not why it is. You say in many words what I said in three at the top.

languagehat et al, you seem satifisfied to examine history, to observe in detail that men oppress women and go no further, which is fine. But the original question was 'why'. It wasn't 'what's been happening', but why has it been happening. I'm quite sure there's fertile ground here for investigation that goes well beyond simply recounting the historical facts.

to seek an explanation of the lack of historical female scholars based on innate differences, when that lack is readily explained by social facts, can only be motivated by sexism

Well, no. Motivated by a desire to understand and provoke discussion beyond the usual. The facts are as they are - I'm interested in the 'why' they are. You don't like my offered explanation because of the obvious problem: a belief in differences easily leads to more oppression. More than understandable, but as an aside I'd ask if concern for resulting negative social consequences is any way to decide what the facts are?

Anyhow, if there's any generally accepted alternate explanation to gender differences or happenstance, what is it? Why have men have generally oppressed women, including women scholars, the world over since the beginning of time? Does the question need rewording? Perhaps 'why have women allowed this to happen'. Or 'what is evolutionarily or socially advantageous in it' or?
posted by scheptech at 11:34 AM on August 12, 2006

Best answer: As a personal anecdote: I took one course in philosophy in college. The readings were often extremely sexist, and when they weren't sexist, they often spoke of a man's view of the world as if it were a human's view of the world. I didn't connect with a single thing I read, because it all just felt like boys discussing what being a man means. Nothing I read spoke to my experience of the world at all.

Obviously, other women have found philosophy more engaging, but to me, the entire discipline just seemed to self-congratulatorily male that I wrote it off. With science and math, at least, there are objective facts to research, and those facts don't really change if the researcher is male or female (though the interpretations might). But philosophy is looking at subjective interpretations of how the world works, and those interpretations are going to be HUGELY influenced by gender. But we live in a society where men's experiences are considered "normal" while women's are considered a special-interest topic, and so I was being presented male view after male view after male view and told that this somehow represented me. It just didn't.

Obviously there's some of the same bias on an English course reading list (I was an English major), but most fiction authors are saying "This is how I see my experiences" rather than "This is how I see your experiences," and for me, the difference is profound.

And also, yes, I found the philosophy students some of the most seriously annoying men in the entire university, and did not want to pursue any more interactions with them than necessary.
posted by occhiblu at 12:08 PM on August 12, 2006 [4 favorites]

I meant to add: I love reading works in gender studies, and am still confused as to why men's interpretation of men and women gets to be "philosophy" and women's intrepretation of men and women is called "gender studies." I think if you were to combine Women's Studies reading lists into your philosophy reading lists, you'd see a more equal distribution of people who are thinking about and interpreting the world.
posted by occhiblu at 12:11 PM on August 12, 2006

Brilliant and illuminating post LobsterMitten, wow. Thank you very much!
posted by nickyskye at 12:28 PM on August 12, 2006

Response by poster: Thanks occiblu: that is the best answer I have had here yet.

Obviously there's some of the same bias on an English course reading list (I was an English major), but most fiction authors are saying "This is how I see my experiences" rather than "This is how I see your experiences," and for me, the difference is profound. Nice.

I think this is what is true beyond anything else: that philosophy, the act of defining the varieties of truth and our perceptions of reality, is such a strong and influential power that it has been hugely a male dominated domain.

I am interested in pointers to discussions (hopefully balanced) to scheptech's last post's questions (LobsterMitten had a couple). Too often I have seen people (specially in current world issues) recounting the events, with an at best superficial look at the Whys (I hate TV news).
posted by raheel at 12:29 PM on August 12, 2006

scheptech? Um... ok. In my nicest, most reasoned answer: Women have had access to reliable birth control that they themselves can control for only the past 40 years. And we still seem a bit unclear as to how bad having sex with a woman against her will really is. And that whole "safe and legal and available" abortion thing is new, and tenuous.

And I'm just talking about the first world, mainly the US, here.

Imagine that you're a stay-at-home dad. Imagine that you are 100% dependent on your wife for your household income, because you're not allowed to own property. Imagine that you have three children under the age of five. Imagine that you are responsible for all the cooking, cleaning, shopping, clothes-mending/making, and child-rearing of your household, and imagine that your wife would get seriously pissed off if you thought she had the slightest interest in hearing about any of it. Imagine that you have no say about when your wife will have another child, but it's likely there will be more babies on the way in the near future. Now take away the internet, the television, and your car. I'll leave you the telephone, and I'll assume that someone was nice enough to teach you how to read and write at some point during your life, but you're not allowed to go to any libraries because you migth be a distraction to the women actually studying there.

Now! Go produce a body of work that will stand the test of time! Go run for political office! Go organize an army and invade neighboring countries to create a lasting empire! Go do something important and lasting that will wow generations for centuries to come!

Just also make sure dinner's ready at 6pm.
posted by occhiblu at 1:15 PM on August 12, 2006 [16 favorites]

I was just going to run in and trumpet exactly the same points that occhiblu made, but her comment needs no further explication. Well done.

Well, maybe one thing. In addition to all the material circumstances described, add this: you have been taught from your earliest years to believe that men are inferior to women in myriad ways, and everywhere you look you see nothing but what appears to be evidence supporting this: no men in positions of power, no men scientists or great thinkers, no men who receive the all important currency of social respect, let alone reverence, if they do attempt to essay into literature or philosophy or science.

On the other hand, the only kind of social approval going-- and it's pretty thin stuff-- it's what's doled out to men who do what you are doing: trying to run the household as best they can. It's your lot, and you try to do your best, between the constant pregnancies, and miscarriages, the infant mortality rate, and so on.

So yeah! Go out there, and swim against the tide! (Women did.) Publish and novel or a long poem! (Women did.) Watch it be forgotten, declared immoral, or deemed trivial and shallow and "feminine". (Too many examples to count.) Devote yourself to science! (Yes, women did.) Watch your male peers ignore or co-opt your work. Etcetera, etcetera.
posted by jokeefe at 1:46 PM on August 12, 2006 [1 favorite]

Oh, and one more time:

I have had a vague theory that it is one of the basic difference between the sexes: men complicate, women simplify.

The differences between individuals is bigger than the differences between groups.

One last thing. The answer to the question about the lack of general knowledge of the contributions made by female scientists can be illustrated by this: why everybody knows who Albert Einstein was, but not too many know who Mileva Maric was, or what part she played in the history of 20th century physics.
posted by jokeefe at 1:56 PM on August 12, 2006 [1 favorite]

occhiblu: As a personal anecdote: I took one course in philosophy in college. The readings were often extremely sexist, and when they weren't sexist, they often spoke of a man's view of the world as if it were a human's view of the world. I didn't connect with a single thing I read, because it all just felt like boys discussing what being a man means.

I'm kind of curious what the course you took was and what readings you found extremely sexist. There are definitely some philosophers who try to describe experience and end up focussing on male experience (cf. Sartre on the phenomenology of seducing a woman at a cafe). But most philosophy isn't about describing people's experiences. Most philosophy courses are about things like formal logic, the mind/body problem, etc., and these topics don't seem to me to be particularly gendered in content any more than science is gendered in content.
posted by painquale at 2:15 PM on August 12, 2006

And also, yes, I found the philosophy students some of the most seriously annoying men in the entire university, and did not want to pursue any more interactions with them than necessary.

Heh, well maybe most of us can agree with that.

occhiblu - on you last comment (excellent description btw), I may understand more about that than you think: all I have to think about is my grandmothers experience raising children thru the depression, or my mothers need to divorce my father to gain her freedom in life, a frightening and risky decsion for her especially at the time. Trust me, she looked and acted 10 years younger after managing to get free, a reality I will never forget. She went on to run her own business for years after. There is no way that could have happened in the traditional relationship she had previously.

I have functioning relationships with numerous female relatives and friends, I've worked reasonably closely with I dunno, a couple hundred different women of all cultural, economic, and religious backgrounds. I've seen 'em come to work with poorly disguised black eyes due to spousal abuse. I've seen 'em support husbands thru school and then get dumped once they have their educations. I've been to family court and watched people tear each other apart over differences in opinion about just how much freedom a wife should have in a marriage (different incident from my parents situation). I've attended shot-gun weddings, I know folks in arranged marriages, I've watched friends get divorced 6 months after getting married due to incompatible expectations regarding children. I've been to family court and watched a deadbeat dad make a complete idiot of himself and fail ultimately to take responsibility leaving it all with his girlfriend. I've seen women I'm personally connected to fall into and recover from serious life-threatening drug addiction. I haven't been afraid to talk to women about their lives, how they see things, how they figure the world works.

So I think I understand as well as I can without being a women but the question remains: why. Why has the state of affairs you describe so well been the case. You subscribe to the idea that it all hangs on reproductive control? There's nothing else in additition to understand about human nature?

Meanwhile we have two tracks going here. Myself and occhiblu are talking about generalities while raheel wants us to focus on a particular case. If I understand correctly he thinks there may be something especially interesting or instructive to be found in looking at philosphy.

I'm starting to think he may be on something significant, to appreciate that culturally speaking, philosophy is indeed a particularly important and evidently male-dominated sphere and worthy of particular attention. I don't think we're actually answering his question but I hope he gets it figured out and writes a book.
posted by scheptech at 2:55 PM on August 12, 2006 [1 favorite]

You subscribe to the idea that it all hangs on reproductive control? There's nothing else in additition to understand about human nature?

If we're talking from the beginning of time till now, yes. I would say that reproductive control and physical safety (in the sense that men can, for the most part, easily control women with force or the threat of force, and women cannot threaten men in the same way, especially before the invention of firearms). Things are obviously changing now, and I think the problem is getting more nuanced, but if we're arguing from ancient Greece or earlier, then yes.

painquale, I would say, I guess, that things like the "mind/body problem" are inherently gendered. Taking that as an example: I don't have a male body. A man writing about his body has not experienced things like menstruation, or (probably) penetrative intercourse; he doesn't have the ability to become pregnant, people don't look at his body the same way they look at mine. His body cannot produce food. He hasn't been told since he was born that his body's functions are defective (think, PMS); he hasn't been told since he was born that his body can accomplish what we give lip service to as the highest thing on earth, creating life.

My body cannot (or at least doesn't) ejaculate. I haven't gotten erections at inopportune times; I haven't penetrated anyone with my body during sex. I haven't been told that my body is worth sacrificing for the good of my country. I haven't been judged on my body's ability to accomplish things like lifting heavy objects or running fast or catching a ball in motion.

A man's "mind/body experience" is just different from mine, and I feel like most people pretend like the male experience is standard, what everyone goes thorugh, while the female experience is just a variation on the standard.

I was also thinking this: If we split things along stereotyped gender lines and say women are interested in children and relationships, and therefore all writing about children and relationships isn't "philosophy" that can be applied across gender lines but instead "women's studies," then why don't we filter out men's writing about war or conflict or hierarchies or power? Those are the stereotypical "male" things, right? And yet they're not considered "men's studies," they're considered non-gendered human truths. And I'm *not* all that interested in reading about them; like I said, it feels like it's boys talking on the playground. That's an example of what I mean by gendered or sexist works -- works that assume that we all experience the world in the same way, with the same assumptions, as men.

And as for my course.... yeah, I don't know. We spent one week on "Women," and the reading was Freud and Simone de Beauvoir -- not her interesting take on "woman" as a social construct, but instead her descriptions of how disgusting and abnormal the female body is. The rest of the course seemed to focus on whether people (that is, men) would attack each other in a state of nature or live in paradise (see? War and conflict and other boy things).

So I would assume (or at least hope) that other philosophy classes might be a little less overtly misogynist, and I'm sure that the discipline as a whole is a bit more balanced, at least now, but I do think that when we're talking about the "big names" in philosophy, we're talking about those men who wrote about being men and assumed women felt the same way (or didn't really give a shit about women's experiences at all), and that's what annoys me.

Trivial example: I was out with a bunch of philosophy grads (against my will!), and they were going on about why humans are obsessed with (literal) shit. They were pulling out quotes from Jesus and Buddha and ancient Greek philosophers about the body and its products, about the inevitability of death and how shit reminds of that, yadda yadda yadda. They were joking, kinda, but in that pretentious "Oh, we're creating grand theories" sort of way. I said that No, in fact, humans are not obsessed with shit, men are obsessed with shit, and I think it's because their inability to give birth means that shit is the only tangible thing their bodies will ever produce, and the inferiority complex that having such a useless body must produce creates the obsession.

It hadn't occured to them that women's bodies were different from the bodies they were discussing. It probably hadn't occurred to any of the people they were quoting that women's bodies were different from the bodies they were discussing. It was just assumed there was one construct called "a body" and we could theorize from that. Conveniently, that abstract body matches the body of the male philosophy students, but it doesn't match mine.
posted by occhiblu at 3:46 PM on August 12, 2006 [10 favorites]

And because I didn't ramble quite long enough:

There was a study recently showing that businesses with a 50/50 gender split among top management were something like 60% more profitable than businesses with a more heavily male management team. Some of that probably gets explained away because of other progressive policies those businesses have in place, but some of it is just that, even on topics that aren't traditionally women's topics, women have new and different and varying -- and valuable -- perspectives to add to the debate. Even outside discussions of bodies, pretending that men have all the answers and have even beguan to address all the relevant questions is a problem.
posted by occhiblu at 3:56 PM on August 12, 2006

Why has the state of affairs you describe so well been the case. You subscribe to the idea that it all hangs on reproductive control? There's nothing else in additition to understand about human nature?

Well... why. Why do human beings live in societies? Why are these societies invariably (more or less) heirarchical? Why do some members of that society have more status than others (as chiefs, shamans, priests, royalty)? There's that, for one thing: human societies tend to organize themselves in certain ways (to varying degrees, to lesser [the Mongols] or greater [the Aztecs]). Asking "why" is what people have been doing for millenia, puzzling over human nature, trying to figure out what human nature consists of. You're in good company there.

This is going to be really reductive, but it's one form of explanation. So bear with me: biology is in fact relevant here. Men tend to be bigger and stronger, but that's not all. Women bear children, and women with small children need help and protection. (Women past the age of child-bearing tend to be helping their daughters with their grandchildren.) Men father children, and unless you subscribe to the theory that conception occurs through the influence of spirits, men want to know that those children are biologically theirs. Hence controls, to a greater or lesser degree, on female sexual freedoms ranging from the harem to the cult of virginity.

So if you have a heirarchical society, where men call most of the shots and limit women's freedoms in order to ensure that their property passes to their own children-- and where high-status men have more property and social power than anyone else-- you wind up with women who have no social status outside of their capacity to bear children and the social status of the man to whom they may be unwillingly attached (as has been historically standard). It's about ownership, and passing genes down the line, and fighting over degrees of status that would do credit to a troupe of chimpanzees. Female fertility has historically been a commodity: for most of human history, the death rate was so high, the expectation of life so low, that tribes and nations had to maintain high birth rates to survive, and this was done, more or less, by social coercion. Obviously the control over women's fertility isn't the only form of social control that has existed: how much of human history has consisted of masses of peasantry supporting an artistocratic elite? Your question could just as easily be rephrased to "why is there class in human society" or "why is there war"? All good questions, most certainly, but you may want to be careful extrapolating from the way things are and have been to level of the individual, which is where these generalizations break down.

At any rate, these are the historical societal backgrounds from which ours has formed. Here in Canada, it was still illegal to prescribe birth control to an unmarried woman at the time that I hit puberty. Also, as you must know from reading history, women went to prison in the early part of the 20th century for making contraceptive information available. It's a long, long fight towards equal legal and social status for women, and it's ongoing. It's also very recent, and is by no means world-wide.
posted by jokeefe at 3:57 PM on August 12, 2006 [2 favorites]

I'm starting to think he may be on something significant, to appreciate that culturally speaking, philosophy is indeed a particularly important and evidently male-dominated sphere and worthy of particular attention

The quick answer to this: No, he's not, and no, it isn't.
posted by jokeefe at 3:59 PM on August 12, 2006

Thanks back to everyone who said thanks to me!

Scheptech, the question "why men have historically oppressed women?" is an interesting one but I think it is quite separate from the question about philosophy in particular. (Obviously the fact that they have is relevant for understanding the history of women in philosophy, as I said above and as it seems everyone acknowledges. But the question you think is so pressing, why they have, is no more relevant to the question about philosophy than the question "why did sexual dimorphism evolve in the first place?" An interesting question but not one we need to answer to understand why there aren't a lot of famous female philosophers.)

Occhiblu, I'm sorry that was your experience, unfortunately it's a common one. I went to both an all-women's school and a co-ed school, and was amazed at the difference in tone in the philosophy courses, so I know what you're talking about. The success of philosophy classes depend to a huge extent on how well the professor is able to guide the discussion, to prevent showing-off and other derailing behaviors -- but there is little or no explicit training in philosophy graduate school for how to do this well. The standards of the discipline (as it is today in most American universities) do not place a high priority on classroom excellence, but on the excellence of one's scholarly work. There are a number of counterproductive standards of that sort in academic philosophy (eg, the standard that the best work is solo work, not collaborative), and it's a deep and interesting question how to fix the discipline to bring in the best people and make their lives livable while they're in it.

Raheel, you ask for women who were influential or well-known in their time, not necessarily the best thinkers but the most famous.
For historical women who were influential in their time, you might look at medieval Catholic women, now saints, who lived cloistered lives (ie did not have childbearing and -rearing responsibilities, and had some quiet space for contemplation on their own). Many of them wrote impressive theological treatises and some were quite influential or at least controversial and well-known at the time -- among people who were equipped to read theological treatises, at least.

Another place to look for women thinkers who were very influential is to the suffrage movements, the social justice movements of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and the civil rights and feminist movements of the late 20th century. I.e., they are political thinkers, who often don't get classified as philosophers. But they are very influential, often controversial, people you should have heard of by any measure: Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Emma Goldman, Dorothea Dix, Jane Addams, Dorothy Day, Hannah Arendt, Simone Weil, Simone de Beauvoir, Angela Davis, Andrea Dworkin, Catherine MacKinnon.

There are a number of "famous" women philosophy professors today, who are famous only within the academy -- this is mainly a result of the fact that academic philosophy does not (for the most part) reward people who are writing for a popular (non-specialist) audience. The work of popularizers is usually viewed with some disdain, because to be accessible it often makes shortcuts and ends up being less rigorous than academic philosophical writing is.

I should note there's a division between three types of philosophy being done in universities today:
1. "Analytic" philosophy. The mainstream of Ango-American university philosophy departments focus on this strand. As a cartoon version: it tends to be very concerned with logic and clear argument; it tries to act like a science and narrow problems down until they are very small and manageable. That is what I am discussing when I discuss professional philosophy today, that's what all the stats and blog articles I linked are about. (Bertrand Russell, A.J. Ayer, W.V.O. Quine, David Lewis)
2. "Continental" philosophy. Supposedly, European philosophy departments do this more; I don't have my own evidence about that. As a cartoon version: it tends to be concerned with the "big picture" more than finding a narrow little problem to focus on; it tends to use literary devices like metaphor a lot, preferring allusion, richness, hidden meanings over explicitness and rigor. (Hegel, Heidegger, Sartre, Gadamer, Foucault, Lacan, Derrida) I don't know the situation for women in this area at all.
3. Literary Theory. This is done in comparative literature departments, some English departments, and some women's/gender studies departments. It focuses on being able to interpret anything at all (a book, a TV ad, a pop song, even the story you tell yourself about who you are) as a "text" that contains traces of the time and place it was made, etc. The terms "deconstruction", "narrative", "interrogating", "bodies", "performative", etc are used in this area. I think there are some deep insights here that are connected to radical feminism, but there's also a lot of baloney. Study this stuff, but keep your critical thinking hat on. (Foucault, Derrida, Lacan, Irigaray, Butler, Zizek) Most analytic philosophers do not have high regard for most literary theory. (Probably the reverse is true too!)

There are more hugely famous women in literary theory than in analytic philosophy. So, how many women there are depends on where you draw the lines of the discipline. (There are feminists of different stripes in all three schools of thought.)

You also ask why there are more famous women writers (eg novelists) than there are famous women philosophers. Part of this is because novels etc have been regarded mainly as entertainment, not as serious scholarship. So you don't need to respect the person who's writing a novel. (Does Pride and Prejudice make Jane Austen a towering intellectual figure? I definitely think she was, but it's easy to see why someone might not. Might say, it's a very fun book, but it's no Moby Dick. We don't have to think of Austen as an intellectual, we just love the book without judging its author to be a leading thinker. So she can be famous, but still easily be fitted into a social expectation that women are never towering intellectual figures.)

There are a number, though not a huge number, of famous women novelists up until the early 20th century, then the number increases greatly. Why does the number of "serious"/influential women novelists increase so much, but the number of influential women philosophers doesn't?

In the early 20th century, philosophy in the English-speaking world was run out of Oxford and Cambridge, whose philosophy departments as I understand it were quite misogynist. It only took a few powerful misogynist men to set that tone, and then all the male students adapted to it and exported it with them when they took up new jobs. The world of professional philosophy was so small at that time that it was easy to keep it uniform. They decided how philosophy was to be done, what was to count as proper classroom conduct, a proper style of argument, praiseworthy scholarship, and those decisions are still with us in some of the trappings of contemporary philosophy department norms and behaviors. (I am not making a point against logic and rigor here, but against trappings that are incidental to them but that we still maintain because we have internalized a sense that it would be somehow "unphilosophical" not to.)

painquale, here are two stabs at what occhiblu's course might have covered that left her with the sense that her experience of the world was not included. Some students are alienated by courses that begin with the mind-body distinction (eg if they begin by reading Descartes' Meditations). Some philosophers have argued that the focus of modern philosophy was "sexed" in the sense that it is easier for men to pretend that they are not essentially connected to their bodies than women, because women's bodies are much more demanding and harder (for their inhabitants) to ignore. I'm not sure that I believe this, but it is a prominent view. If one believes this, it makes sense that the mind/body split laid down by the moderns, and the subsequent agenda this set for western philosophy, makes for an unappealing topic for undergraduate women. Along the same lines, some difference feminists assert that women are more caring and situational, whereas men are more drawn to abstract rules of justice -- again I don't fully believe this, but if this were right, then studying Plato's Republic could alienate female students.

Rafter - Nomy Arpaly rules.

Lgyre - The "brilliance" thing is just my own observation and that of a very large number of other philosophers that I've talked to. I'm sure I've read something about it somewhere, but have no clue where. Some yahoo or other will often float the "men are either geniuses or morons, women are always in the middle" theory whenever a question like this is raised (also comes up in the old favorite, why are there so few Great Women Artists?). My sense of this -- having seen, repeatedly, brilliant women get written off as not having "that special something" while men who are smart but mainly just really assertive and unresponsive to the concerns/needs of others are hailed as the next big thing -- is that people (men and women both) just aren't prepared to see a woman as a genius. They will go to great lengths not to do it, not realizing that this is what they're doing; just try to think of whether you are ever guilty of this.

Consider the example of how blind auditions for orchestras influence how many women are hired. When judges can see the musicians, they judge the women to have "small technique" and to be unsuitable for the orchestra in other ways too. When judges can't see the musicians, women are hired at a much higher rate.
Summary of the paper demonstrating this. PDF of the paper
posted by LobsterMitten at 4:46 PM on August 12, 2006 [17 favorites]

occhiblu, the mind/body problem doesn't have much of anything to do with any of the things you talk about. The mind/body problem concerns the supposed difference between "mind" and "body" as separate and distinct "substances" and the interaction between them. It focuses on the phenomenon of consciousness, not the objects thereof. Actual experiences like the ones you talk about rarely figure into the discussion because they're rarely relevant. The mind/body problem is not what you think it is.

Frankly, I'm dumbfounded by your characterization of the field. Have you read Descartes? Plato? John Stuart Mill?
posted by smorange at 4:53 PM on August 12, 2006

smorange, you're missing my point (which I probably could have made better). The experience that one has in one's body is going to influence how one views the interaction of the physical with the spiritual. Men and women have different bodily experiences, so saying that the interaction that men experience or theorize between the physical and the spiritual/intellectual automatically applies to women can be problematic. That was my point.
posted by occhiblu at 5:01 PM on August 12, 2006

And actually, the fact that none of those things are discussed is part of the problem I'm talking about -- there's an assumption that all human beings experience the world in the same way, so the assumptions of what "human being" are don't need to be discussed or delineated, because they're just assumed to be the male experience.
posted by occhiblu at 5:06 PM on August 12, 2006

My previous comment was responding to occhiblu's comment-before-her-last-comment. And occhiblu, sorry for putting words in your mouth with my comment to painquale; you obviously don't need it since you made the point much better than I. I think that quite a few undergrad women leave philosophy after taking 101 for reasons in that ballpark, though. (If your course had a section on "Women" with two readings, the most recent in 1950, it sounds like it was exceptionally bad!)

The person way, way upthread who said that in philosophy, we read more of the old stuff than in some other disciplines also had a good point. The level of misogyny, ignorance about women, and hubris (to say that the white upperclass male experience/body/etc is the standard human experience/body/etc) is very high through a lot of the philosophical canon. I think the canon has a lot of value, but this (its parochialism) is a feature of it that needs to be addressed head-on in intro courses.
posted by LobsterMitten at 5:09 PM on August 12, 2006

(Not a problem, LobsterMitten, I'm very much enjoying your comments, and you may entice me back into reading philosophy yet!)
posted by occhiblu at 5:18 PM on August 12, 2006

A quick digression to address smorange's comment. The mind/body problem begins with Descartes' dualistic framework. He says there are two separate substances, mind and body; which one of these are we really? His answer is, in cartoon version, that what people really are is just their minds, and their bodies are a separate thing, a kind of disposable container.

(Then there is a problem about how minds and bodies can interact, if they are really so different. Saying that our minds drive our bodies around is like saying an immaterial ghost can drive a car; one wants to know, how? Incidentally, this objection is first put by one of Descartes's female philosophy students, Princess Elizabeth of Bohemia. It's a devastating objection that eventually brings down Cartesian dualism. But set this aside for the moment. Occhiblu has a different objection to the dualist framework.)

The objection I take it occhiblu is making is this:
For men -- given the way they experience their bodies -- it may be plausible that they really are only their minds, and their bodies are separable from their minds. But for women this will not be as plausible. Women are more likely to be strongly identified with their bodies, for the reasons occhiblu mentioned. (Again, I'm not sure that I agree, but I definitely think there is a case to be made here.) Someone who thinks of their body as inextricably bound up with their mind (experiences, will, memories, emotions, etc), with who they are, will not find it plausible that there are two different kinds of substance. (I swear there are philosophy articles on this, but I'm drawing a blank at the moment.)

A propos of this, to get a sense of what some philosophers think would be a more balanced, or female-centered (depending whose theory we're talking about), view of core topics in philosophy, look at the SEP on feminism, which discusses feminist approaches in several core areas like epistemology and ethics.

Incidentally, I meant to post this in my earlier comment: Mind Body Problem is a novel written by a woman who was a philosophy grad student at Princeton in the late 1980s I think, which supposedly recreates the politics and harrassment etc of that department from her point of view. I haven't read it; might be of interest to some in this thread.

posted by LobsterMitten at 5:56 PM on August 12, 2006

D'oh. Italics run amok.
posted by LobsterMitten at 5:56 PM on August 12, 2006

Along the same lines, some difference feminists assert that women are more caring and situational, whereas men are more drawn to abstract rules of justice

Hmm, maybe future generations won't make either mistake, to discount women entirely or to deny gender differences and so fail to learn from them.
posted by scheptech at 6:31 PM on August 12, 2006

LobsterMitten, I understand your point. But I don't think those gender issues are good objections to Descartes. Which is not to say that I'm a dualist. But as I'm sure you know, Descartes' dualism in the Meditations grows out of the cogito, which grows out of his radical (Pyrrhonian) skepticism. The evil genius forces him to doubt everything, even his own existence. Then he gets to the cogito argument to prove that he exists, which in this context has a great deal of importance. His skepticism and the cogito argument together lead him in the direction of dualism. But the cogito itself is not gendered and neither is the skepticism in the Meditations. Descartes' skepticism would be total, if not for the cogito (and, later, God). Maybe women are less likely to fall for it because they are more connected to their bodies (although I'm, er, skeptical), but they need good reasons to defend their anti-skepticism, just as men do.
posted by smorange at 6:51 PM on August 12, 2006

Smorange, I meant only to rough out what this kind of objection might look like, and why it might be more to-the-point than you were allowing in your earlier comment. I tend to agree that skeptical concerns and the cogito are not gendered, but then I'm one of the women who wasn't turned off philosophy by the way the issues are framed. Serious and knowledgable people, who are not just missing Descartes' point in a simple way, have argued against me on both points. Especially with respect to the way Descartes sets up the discussion about mind and body, I think there is a reasonable case to be made that the framework is gendered (or just unduly ignores the ways minds and selves are intimately connected with bodies). I think these questions are live and fruitful ones in philosophy, and that it's very useful to consider the ways in which we depart from the specific-identity-less, perfectly rational ideal we philosophers set for ourselves. (Which, again, is not to say that I am skeptical about logic or rationality at all. I just think it's too easy to dismiss these embodiment/genderedness arguments out of hand, and we should avoid doing that.)
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:09 PM on August 12, 2006


Could you elaborate on this points:

a. Again, the way women are socialized gives them a handicap in the grad school environment. They are quicker to take criticism to heart, less likely to be very assertive or aggressive (which can be a big advantage in philosophy), more prone to depression, etc. That is, their ideas are every bit as good as the male students', but these other parts of the way they handle situations may hurt them.

My significant other is a philosophy student in her undergraduate program, (she wants to get a PhD and teach Continental Philosophy) and I would like to help her with these kind of issues. I was thinking something along the lines of Toastmasters. You think that would be good? Any other suggestions to help?

I would've emailed you this question but it's not in your profile.
posted by bigmusic at 10:37 PM on August 12, 2006

I think it's both interesting and revealing that LobsterMitten's and occhiblu's arguments are essentially contrary yet they minimize this conflict.

Occhiblu's are smug and insultingly reductive. Given that she's admitted that her familiarity with philosophy is minimal and her response nearly viscerally opposed, it's hard to see her comments as anything more than personal experience pretending to be analysis.

LobsterMitten is surely correct in her analysis of current and historical distortions—I wholeheartedly agree with her argument when applied to the whole of human scholarship. Particular and specialized academic fields, I'm not so certain about.

Research in the field of sexual cognitive differences is still mostly immature, shaky, and quite often biased. That doesn't mean that these differences don't exist. I think they certainly do—though what they are, and how important they are, are completely different matters.

With regard to philosophy, the adversarial factor in the philosophy classroom mentioned by LobsterMitten may be relevant—she asserts that a female aversion to open adversarial relationship exists, but that it's socialized and not innate. But it well may be innate, the well-known and indisputable relationship between testosterone and aggression is suggestive but certainly not conclusive. LobsterMitten chose her words carefully, she included "open" in "open adversarial relationships" for good reasons.

And if you do take as credible assertions of cognitive differences between the sexes, as I do, then one of the most common tropes—that women are more verbal than men—would seem to suggest there would be a female preference for philosophy (among analytical disciplines) and not an aversion. That this doesn't seem to be the case is a nice example of how treacherous such reasoning really is. The danger, I think, is in vast over-simplification.

So let's put aside the question of whether or not such differences are innate or socialized. And, hell, why don't we put aside entirely any strong objective assertions about what women and men are "like".

My personal impression is that most people have little tolerance for philosophy because they think it is a bunch of bullshitters bullshitting. And that women are even more inclined to feel this way than men are. A common complaint is that it's disconnected to the point of being sterile. This complaint could apply to many analytical fields, but I think it's frequently applied to philosophy because, after all, philosophy is usually in some nominal way about people. Frequently it's very deeply, earnestly about people.

Which brings me to something that's not yet been mentioned. These days, there is a growing chasm between anglophone philosophy and continental philosophy. Philosophy in the US and Britain is increasingly analytical philosophy which is on the razor's edge of language use and symbolic abstraction. In contrast, philosophy in Europe is more like text theory these days. In other words, philosophy in the US and Britain has begun to look more and more like science, or at the very least it is infected with a big dose of "scientism" while, in contrast, continental philosophy very much is not and the temperament kinship there is with literature and political theory. Because of this, I think you'll find greater female participation in philosophy in Europe than in the US and Britain. My suspicion is that the sort of mind that is inclined to think philosophy "useless" in general is even more inclined to find analytical philosophy so. I think the female experience of the subject of philosophy is probably essentially different between analytical and continental. However, the social forces that influence women's academic choices are probably notably different in Europe than in the US—I have no experience of knowledge of them so I can't say whether they might make continental philosophy even more welcoming to women, or whether they counteract the difference I've already noted.

One view of philosophy—Nietzsche thought this—is that it's merely immature science. I think this view with a spin on it might be that philosophy is highly abstracted, unconsciously adversarial reasoning about things which are little understood and therefore poor candidates for such abstraction. This is a good environment for dominance games and ego-stroking. The spin added to this would be to speculate that this is essentially male, and the more repugnant part of maleness, at that. In this view, too, philosophy could be seen as kin to theology, and we might investigate sex differences with regard to an attraction to theology.

Finally, philosophy as an intellectual discipline as we know it in the west unquestionably began with Plato and Aristotle, if for no other reason than institutional reasons, which are important in themselves. And I think they were both very great philosophers. Because of this, academic introductions to philosophy rightly include big doses of both. However, Aristotle was strongly misogynist by even yesterday's standards and it is extremely difficult for women to stomach what Aristotle had to say about women. When a person is investigating their intellectual interests, to encounter a thinker who is so well-regarded (even in our modern disdain of Aristotle we demonstrate his importance to us) who so thoroughly denies one's particular value as a person because one is a woman...well, that'll put a lot of people off philosophy right there. Understandably so.

And this misogyny continues through the subsequent centuries. It is hard to overstate how thoroughly misogynist western intelligentsia was from the beginnings of our shared culture (and still is). It's only some (or most?) of the sciences among academic disciplines which have the luxury of being ahistorical1. Most of the rest are forced to carry their histories around with them because those histories are functioning parts of an organic whole2. Historical philosophy is absolutely essential for the study of philosophy for similar reasons as historical literature is essential to the study of literature. So for the female student, the very subject matter is often uncomfortably personally hostile. This is also the case, though to a lesser extent, to all the various non-white-male groups.

1. I should mention that my education, which included large amounts of philosophy, also included large amounts of science, historical science, and the philosophy of science; and I, for one, think that the history of science is more important to many of the sciences and their pedagogy than they typically suppose. But not necessary, at least for most.

2. That this is the case, by the way, strongly suggests how little philosophy has in common with science no matter how much analytical philosophy tries to resemble mathematics. Indeed, I think this is suggestive with regard to some disciplines thought to be sciences: the degree to which the history of the science is pedagogically indispensable is perhaps the degree to which the science is immature.

posted by Ethereal Bligh at 3:23 AM on August 13, 2006 [1 favorite]

"I have had a vague theory that it is one of the basic difference between the sexes: men complicate, women simplify."

By the way, I strongly disagree with that statement. Both as it applies to real people and as it applies to any notions of inherent nature. I don't see evidence for this, nor can I see any reasons why this might be the case on an inherent basis.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 3:26 AM on August 13, 2006

Obviously, other women have found philosophy more engaging, but to me, the entire discipline just seemed to self-congratulatorily male that I wrote it off..

And also, yes, I found the philosophy students some of the most seriously annoying men in the entire university, and did not want to pursue any more interactions with them than necessary.

I think this is interesting because I gave up pursuit of a PhD in English for reasons similar to these, except that it wasn't analyrtic philosophy but literary theory/continental philosophy that turned me off. I found that I could "do theory" very well (so much so that I passed my comprehnsive exams with honors) but often I found the subject matter either uninteresting or too tempest-in-a-teapot. It's not, for example, that I don't think the problem of racism isn't important, but rather that I never could figure out how examining just how racist Shakespeare may or may not have been based on his plays to be a bit pointless. It was as if we weren't there to read and discuss book/plays/poetry, but rather the books/plays/poetry had become merely another occasion to talk about the same political topics that set of people always liked to talk about.
(Ironically, one of the things I think I got out of the program that I still value was reading a lot of angry vitriol directed by lit theorists against Richard Rorty and Stanley Fish that encouraged me to go pick up books by those writers, which in turn turned me on to Dewey and William James and pragmatism in general.)

Reading this thread, I'm remembering back that as a male student in the department, I was a minority, so I wonder if it wasn't a situation similar to occhiblu's in the philosophy department.
posted by eustacescrubb at 6:02 AM on August 13, 2006 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks everyone who has joined this till now. Thanks specially to LobsterMitten, occhiblu, scheptech, Ethereal Bligh, jokeefe for all your posts - quite informative.
I would have liked the discussion to go in a different direction most of the time, but this has given me a lot of new starting points to explore.
posted by raheel at 7:36 AM on August 13, 2006

EB, I've made every effort to point out that I'm explaining why philosophy turns me off, in response to various questions about why women may not pursue the field, and not trying to bring down the entire disciple with a well-researched inside attack. Chill out on the name-calling.
posted by occhiblu at 10:22 AM on August 13, 2006

LobsterMitten said that I may be thinking: For men -- given the way they experience their bodies -- it may be plausible that they really are only their minds, and their bodies are separable from their minds. But for women this will not be as plausible. Women are more likely to be strongly identified with their bodies, for the reasons occhiblu mentioned.

Which is true, but I'm also talking less totally than that. It's more just that the way in which we are incarnated, the way we physically experience the universe, is going to shape how we see that universe. Even when we're not specifically talking about bodies, the simple fact that I have had certain experiences due to my body is going to influence how I think about how the universe works. (And I'm not talking cognitive differences, to anyone who was trying to ascribe that to me.)

It's like the difference between saying the point of existence is to rise up, fight to put as many ideas into the universe as possible, and know that one of them will be so strong as to overcome all obstacles and, riding a wave of victory, you will bring forth change! versus, The point of existence is to embrace as many ideas as possible, take them into you and let each one fill you and give you pleasure, hide them away from the world, nurture those that have potential and flush out those that don't, stay in tune with natural rhythms, and soon one idea will take hold and when it's fully formed it will burst out into the universe ready to go.

Does that make any sense? I mean the language and ideas and metaphors we use to explain the world are going to come out of our own physical experiences of the world, and some of them are of course going to be gender-neutral, but I think the deeper you go and the more honest you are about examining the world, the more you're going to rely on your own body to give you clues as to how it works.
posted by occhiblu at 10:32 AM on August 13, 2006

"EB, I've made every effort to point out that I'm explaining why philosophy turns me off, in response to various questions about why women may not pursue the field, and not trying to bring down the entire disciple with a well-researched inside attack. Chill out on the name-calling."

There was no name-calling. Just my characterization of your comments.

If you really and truly are trying to decsribe your own reactions and not philosophy, then try harder to describe your own reactions, and not philosophy.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 1:01 PM on August 13, 2006

Ethereal Bligh, as you acknowledge there are strong social pressures on women (and men) to act in certain ways, and these pressures start very early on in development. I think these social pressures are probably sufficient to explain a lot of the differences in behavior between women and men that we see. I agree that it's possible there are innate cognitive differences too, and that these may even explain some facts about why social structures are set up the way they are.

But until there is evidence that compels me to believe in specific cognitive differences, my default assumption will be that males and females are born with the exact same cognitive potentials. I recommend this default assumption for two big reasons:

The political reason....
Belief in various innate cognitive differences between sexes and races, usually supported by the "science" of the time (whether phrenology, eugenics, or pseudoscientific evolutionary psychology), has for at least 150 years almost always been a tool to reinforce the status quo, to make it seem "natural" and inevitable that the groups who are powerful are powerful and the groups who are oppressed are oppressed. If we believe the differences between groups are natural we may be less inclined to fight the social structures that keep some people down. (See the debates over whether blacks are naturally dumber than whites; if we really believed this, would there be less pressure to give black students a first-rate education?) That is, scientific debates about IQ differences and the like are not conducted in a neutral environment of free inquiry. They are influenced by the current power structure in the society they're conducted in, and they have an influence on that society (most often a pernicious hierarchy-reinforcing influence).

The scientific reason...
I will be very skeptical about all research that supports cognitive differences -- I will examine it with my critical thinking hat on -- because I think there's a huge danger of confirmation bias in evaluating such research. Most studies that supposedly show cognitive differences between men and women can't possibly distinguish between the effects of socialization and of inborn structures, so they do not give me any evidence to believe in innate differences. So I continue to use my default assumption, that the observed differences in behavior and attitudes result from socialization.

I think occhiblu and I don't fully agree about the influence of bodily experience; I've noted that before though. I think we agree that the "genderedness" of some philosophical canonical questions turns off some women. (And a number of feminist scholars have made this point, though again I don't have a good linkable paper on it right now.) So we agree about the issue that is relevant to raheel's question.

The difference between analytic and continental philosophy has been noted before in this thread, in the second of my giant comments (though, it's easy to see how it would get lost).

Philosophy in the west began with Thales. Although you're certainly right that Plato and Aristotle are the first big guys whose ideas we still study seriously today. And yes, Aristotle is insanely misogynistic even for his time. But no intro class should be having students read the misogynist parts of Aristotle without giving them proper context!

And I agree that many people see philosophy as too removed from practical concerns to be of interest. As to whether this will make more women dislike it than men, maybe so.

Raheel, I'm glad you asked the question, but I think the way you asked it was quite general, and may have led to you not getting the answers you were interested in. There are a lot of different issues tied together here.
posted by LobsterMitten at 2:10 PM on August 13, 2006

Big Music, I will answer your question either here or by email later tonight.
posted by LobsterMitten at 2:11 PM on August 13, 2006

LobsterMitten, I agree with you about much you said and that's why I'm careful about assumptions and judgments of sexual cognitive differences. And I should mention that as a middle-aged person, I came of age and embraced feminism during the periof of time when your point-of-view was dogmatic and unquestioned. Those were my views for a great many years.

However, my thinking has changed in the last decade or so as there's too much hard biological science about brain anatomy and functioning that indicates widespread physiological sexual differentiation. As I reluctantly was forced to accept this evidence which I disfavored, I was pushed into reevaluating the rational basis upon for absolutist or near-absolutist socialization argument for gender differences. Being as I'm emphatically not a dualist and, more specifically, a materialist, I suddenly saw a profound inconsistency in my thought regarding human sexual differentiation. For example, it strikes me as profoundly odd that a context could exist where occhiblu can speculate about how men and women think as a function of their reproductive biology yet a complete lack of innate differentiation in the brain and thus cognition is taken as an article of faith. Frankly, this now seems profoundly foolish to me and indisputably driven by ideology. And, as I've said elsewhere, as a feminist and anti-sexist I no longer find the possibility of such differentiation threatening to the feminist enterprise, nor to the larger enterprise of creating a just society. Indeed, my current perspective is that dogmatically holding to the assumption of the identity of the male and female mind is now hurtful to those endeavors. It's a noble lie which should be retired.

Also, incidentally, about this:

But no intro class should be having students read the misogynist parts of Aristotle without giving them proper context!

I have to strongly disagree. I think you're giving students too little credit. Either they don't need cushioning from distasteful/difficult ideas or they aren't ready for college.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 3:49 PM on August 13, 2006

EB, I accept that difference feminism is a reasonable view. But as a default, I will continue to place a much higher burden of proof on every claim of cognitive difference than on claims of cognitive similarity.

And I don't at all think students should be shielded from distasteful or difficult ideas. What I meant was that students should read the things Aristotle has to say about women, and then be given a chance to explicitly discuss those views -- rather than reading those views in among his other views and never having any discussion in class that highlights how misogynist the views were, and how influential they were on later thinkers. His views on women are actually quite historically important, I think, and require a real discussion when they come up. Some profs think they are a sidelight and don't merit any real class time other than to note that he held them.
posted by LobsterMitten at 4:15 PM on August 13, 2006

Ah, with that (about discussion) I completely agree.

I don't think of the feminism I espouse as "difference feminism" because, for better or worse, I internalized that term (coined by its opponents both within and outside of feminism, I believe) to mean the very essentialist variety of feminism of the mid-80s that merely took a lot of sexist essentialist tropes and ran with them. Of course my views could quite literally be called "difference feminism". But my view only assumes that some differences exist but is agnostic on both how important those differences are and what they are (pending evidence). In other words, I have no ideological axe to grind with regard to my acceptance of the likliehood of differences. I really have no pre-determined idea of what these differences might mean, other than being confident that we can clear any sexist hurdles, or otherwise inadvertently reifying sexism, along the way.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 4:31 PM on August 13, 2006

This was a very good discussion. Thanks for answering my question, occhiblu. I have to admit that I'm really struggling with your responses, and I don't know quite what I think about them yet. I come from a branch of philosophy that sees itself akin to a science, and many of your complaints don't grip me because they don't seem to be true of the things I see philosophers around me talking about. When reading your comments, I sometimes thought, "does she think that mathematics and the sciences are boy stuff too?" If not, what's the difference between philosophy and the sciences? It sounds like you want to say that philosophy is (and should be?) more like English Lit, capturing individual experiences and describing them. But this isn't what I see the people around me trying to do. (This isn't a disparagement of English Lit, by the way -- I was an English major too and I loved it.) It sounds like you had a bad experience with philosophy that colored your view of what philosophy is.

So, I don't know what to make of vague references to philosophy neglecting the female experience. Maybe it does, but I'm really invested in this line of work, so I really want to know specifically how it does so if it does. The mind/body problem being gendered is an interesting suggestion, and I'm not sure what I think of it. Maybe it's because I've seen many women grapple with the mind/body problem and feel the force of it -- I'm having trouble seeing it as very gendered. But I'm male, and I recognize that I may just be blind to the male nature of the problem. It's definitely something I'll think about and talk to people about in the future. I will say this: the two types of experience (qualia) most often talked about in philosophy of mind are, hands down, color vision and pain (hence my nick). Emotions were neglected for a long, long time. That is changing.
posted by painquale at 7:30 PM on August 13, 2006

However, my thinking has changed in the last decade or so as there's too much hard biological science about brain anatomy and functioning that indicates widespread physiological sexual differentiation.

Perhaps, but there is a significant body of findings indicating the brain is plastic in response to its environment. This brings up at least two issues:

- What is the evidence of sexual differentiation in the brains of newborns?
- Given plasticity of brain structure, how much meaning can observed sexual differentiation have when it is a function of the situations which sampled individuals have encountered?

But my view only assumes that some differences exist but is agnostic on both how important those differences are and what they are (pending evidence).

These differences could indeed be trivial, or immaterial to relations between individuals of one classification and those of another.

In any case, how are we to characterise these differences? If you want to understand them you can't go by science published for general readers. Statements like "gender A was found to be more impulsive than gender B" are not sufficient. How was this study conducted? How was "impulsiveness" quantified? As exhibition of popularly conceived examples of non-calculative, non-rational thinking, or of propensity to engage in physical altercation, or of something else? Was the study done mostly on middle and upper-middle class Caucasian Americans? What other confounds were or were not addressed? How were the prompts constructed? How could the demeanor of the researchers or the environment of the testing facility have affected outcomes? What was the variance in the distribution of the dependent variable? Was there significant skewing in the distribution? And so on.
posted by halonine at 7:30 PM on August 13, 2006

painquale, I'm not quite saying that the study of philosophy should be more like English lit, in terms of just capturing individual experiences. I think that would be a loss.

And I think what I'm talking about is subtle enough that I'm having a hard time condensing it into internet comments, so bear with me a bit.

I do see a parallel with what I mean in science, and the recent book called (I think) "Nature's Rainbow" gets at similar points in biology. For hundreds of years scientists have known that male animals have sex with other male animals. But they also "knew" that homosexuality was unnatural, so those animals couldn't be engaging in homosexual sex, so they noted that the animals in question were engaged in "dominance play." The fact -- male animals having sex -- is objective; how we describe it can be extremely gendered/homophobic/biased in whatever way.

So I can believe the "facts" of philosophy could be objective -- we live, we die, we have societies, we develop ethics, whatever -- but what we choose to focus on, what we call important life-improving behavior and what we dismiss as "dominance play" is based on our own interpretations of those facts. And when men, historically, and rich white men at that, have been the only ones doing the interpreting, we're going to get a lot of experiences that might be important to my life dismissed as not important while other things get prioritized. And then the things that some rich white guy said were important a couple thousand years ago become the basis for the debate, and more rich white guys debate the same points, and then the academy opens a bit and more women are participating, but the points being debated, and the assumption that those points are important, are still those put into play by rich white guys.

And when that happens in science, you can kind of say, "Oh, well, big deal, it's not like goats knew we weren't throwing them gay pride parades." But with philosophy, people and their systems are the focus of the study. So I as the reader am also the subject of study, and it's a lot harder to ignore statements and assumptions about what I am when it's obvious that the person they're talking about looks, acts, and thinks nothing like me.

It would be like asking the gay goats to read analyses of dominance play among ruminants. Any self-respecting goat would find the cultural assumptions of the writer so distracting that he'd probably throw the study aside in disgust.

I assume that this is less of an issue with work being done now. But these are the issues that are put in front of students in intro courses, and these are the issues that the general public thinks of when it hears "philosophy."
posted by occhiblu at 8:46 PM on August 13, 2006

occhiblu, I don't think that's true of all, or even most, intro courses. It sounds like it was true of yours, but I don't think your experience is representative. Your experience is definitley not large enough to justify the kinds of generalizations you're making.

Yes, most of the people you read in intro classes are dead white men. But so what? Shall we not bother to read great works because of the people who wrote them? If so, there goes almost all of Ancient Greek, Roman, and Medieval philosophy.

Several years ago in one of my intro classes we read three major works in their entirety: Kant's Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals and JSM's Utilitarianism and On Liberty. We read some Plato, Aristotle, Hobbes, Locke, and a few others as well. Anyway, that's hardly a recipe for misogyny. (Quite the opposite. JSM was one of, if not the, most progressive feminist of his time. He'd probably pass for a feminist today. Yeah, he used male pronouns to refer to the human race. So did everyone else. He also wrote The Subjection of Women, and he tabled a bill to give women the vote.) Even if it was, the point of philosophy is to build strong arguments and criticize weak ones. You don't accept Aristotle's views as true because he's Aristotle. You look at his arguments and test them yourself.

Finally, there are all sorts of problems in philosophy that simply do not fit into your generalizations and criticism. It doesn't matter whose views you read because these problems are universal and exist for all human beings who live in our world. Just in epistemology I can think of several: the problem of induction, internalism vs. externalism, skepticism, the analytic/synthetic distinction, and the problem of other minds. Gender almost never enters into these debates because it's (almost always) irrelevant.
posted by smorange at 11:56 PM on August 13, 2006

I've been following this discussion all weekend, wondering whether or not to contribute. I'm not an expert in this field, but there are a few points I'd like to throw into the conversation. I must admit that the original question rather surprised me, because I'd always thought there were quite a lot of women philosophers out there. Rather than starting with a presumption of failure ("why are there so few women philosophers?") it might be helpful to turn the question round, and look at some of the women who have succeeded in philosophy, and the reasons for their success.

As a case-study, one might look at the remarkable group of women philosophers who studied at Oxford University during and after the Second World War -- Mary Warnock, Mary Midgley, Philippa Foot, Iris Murdoch, Elizabeth Anscombe, et al. I can't think of any other university which has produced so many outstanding female philosophers in such a short space of time. Oxford must have been doing something right; but what?

Two of these women have written autobiographies describing their time at Oxford (Mary Warnock, People and Places; Mary Midgley, The Owl of Minerva), while Iris Murdoch's life at Oxford has been intensively studied by biographers (Peter Conradi, John Bayley, and others), so there is plenty of first-hand evidence. With the help of these accounts, I think one can identify at least three reasons why Oxford provided such a stimulating intellectual environment for women philosophers.

First, most of these women had grown up in upper-class intellectual households which attached great importance to women's education. So they arrived at Oxford already well-educated and brimming with intellectual confidence.

Secondly, they were members of women's colleges which provided them with strong female communities and a lot of extra-curricular support. (Mary Midgley: 'People had time to help each other. I remember a lot of casual talk in the evenings in people's rooms that brought things into perspective. Today, when most of the colleges are mixed, I hear that the girls spend a good deal of their time looking after their boyfriends and washing their socks. I'm sure this is educational too, but I think there was something to be said for not having to do it.')

Thirdly, they were at Oxford at a time when most of the male undergraduates were away fighting in the war, and this made it easier for them to be heard in discussion. (Midgley again: 'I think that in normal times a lot of good female thinking is wasted because it simply doesn't get heard. Perhaps women ought to shout louder, but of course there is still the question whether men are going to listen.')

The conclusion I draw from all this is that women can succeed in philosophy as long as the intellectual and cultural conditions are right. Given the importance that has traditionally been attached to face-to-face discussion as a means of philosophical training -- going back to the Platonic idea of the spark of fire passed from soul to soul -- I think it is crucial to set up the right conditions for small-group teaching and discussion. (It worries me slightly that feminists today seem to be less concerned with fine-tuning the teaching and learning procedures for the benefit of women students, than with fine-tuning the university hiring procedures for the benefit of women academics.)

One more point, which again I borrow from Mary Midgley. She quotes a passage from Colin McGinn about the 'cut and thrust of philosophical debate' that he experienced as a student -- 'a clashing of analytically honed intellects, with pulsing egos attached to them .. a kind of intellectual blood-sport, in which egos get bruised and buckled, even impaled' etc etc. McGinn regards this as an excellent thing; Midgley -- rightly, in my view -- regards it as a very bad thing. In my own discipline (history) I have witnessed the same sort of blood-sport, the same clash of mighty egos, that McGinn describes in philosophy. There is no doubt that women students are repelled by it -- not necessarily because they are intimidated by it, but because they feel, very reasonably, that they have better things to do with their time.

One of the great frustrations of my time as a university teacher was leading seminars where the male students monopolised the discussion while the women sat quietly taking notes. In such circumstances, it's easy to see why many women might fail to make it through the system into the top flights of philosophy. It doesn't have to be like this -- but overcoming the ingrained habits of deference that many girls learn from an early age in mixed-sex classrooms at school is extremely difficult, even for the most gifted university teacher (which I certainly was not). It is for this reason that I am a strong supporter of single-sex education, and why I regret the fact that so many of the women's colleges and halls of residence at Oxford, Cambridge and elsewhere have now chosen to admit men. But that's a discussion for another day.
posted by verstegan at 3:07 AM on August 14, 2006 [10 favorites]

smorange, I guess, imagine this: You are going to study the major problems of the world, and you are going to read the great thinkers and their take on these problems. The course you are taking has a reading list that spans centuries. Your professor is female. Every single reading on the list is written by a woman. At no point does anyone talk about how the writers' experiences or views might have differed from their male counterparts; these women's writing is considered to be universally applicable. This is not considered a "Women's History" course; it's going down on your transcript as an intro history/philosophy course, and supposed to prepare you for future work in the field. One week, your reading might cover "men," but even those works would be written by women.

Would that strike you as a bit strange? Wouldn't you feel like something was missing?

I'm not saying that we shouldn't read classic authors, just that their presentation as universal and ungendered can be problematic.
posted by occhiblu at 8:22 AM on August 14, 2006


What's interesting is that your response to occhiblu is an example of what she's trying to describe. She's making statments grounded in her own experience, statements which ring true for me because though I'm not a woman, I had similar experiences in academia. So her experiences are not merely generalizations, even though they're presented as a personal narrative rather than as a set of abstracted propositions. Your (and EB's) basic contention with her narrative is that if you try to make abstract propositions out of what the narrative describes, it's no longer universally applicable.
But that doesn't make what she's saying untrue. It merely means what she's saying can't be proven true with the langauge game analytic philosophers like to use. One would have to shift perspective and think about her narrative as offering truth that isn't universal, but still probably frequently true (since, after all, I had a similar experience in a somewhat related discipline). But the inability to or lack of interest in shifting perspective is the very thing she's talking about: a philosophy whose epistemology is at least partly grounded in the body would fous less on unviersals, and wouldn't assume that personal observation/narrative/experience can be turned into a unviersal abstract. At the very least, it would take the differences between bodies into account -- it would, to borrow some religious terminology, not value "spirit" over "flesh".

So, in response to someone remarking that they were turned off to philosophy because they felt the discourse had rules that disqualified her from speaking, you reply by pointing out that her account doesn't follow the rules. Ironic, but illustrative.
posted by eustacescrubb at 9:16 AM on August 14, 2006 [2 favorites]

Also, to clarify again, I'm not just talking about outright misogynist writers. I'm not saying we're asking gay goats to read a treatise on why homosexuality among ruminants is abnormal and wrong. I'm saying that the assumption that homosexuality does not exist, its interpretation as "dominance play," would lead to a total absence in the ruminant discourse about homosexuality. All works would start with the assumption that all male goats engage in dominance play, and then from there discuss the implications of this. It's not that the work itself would be homophobic, just that its assumptions about what goatdom means would be coming out of biased or limited assumptions about what goats naturally do.
posted by occhiblu at 11:53 AM on August 14, 2006

I apologize in advance for the length. But I'd like to thank occhiblu for talking about this stuff, even if in the end we disagree.

occhiblu, to answer your question, as always, it depends on what you read and whether gender is relevant to the discourse. If your hypothetical all-female philosophy class dealt with the problems I listed above, as my intro classes did, then I don't think I'd care. I can't know for certain, of course. But I think the power and allure of those problems is universal, at least for the kind of people who are interested in philosophical issues. In your hypothetical world, if a woman had written Plato's Euthyphro, it wouldn't be any less interesting to me. More to the point, in that hypothetical world, would a woman have written Euthyphro? That is, would philosophy be philosophy as it is today if it was dominated by women from the start? In large part, yes, I think so.

In other contexts, in other disciplines, I might agree with you. And in certain subdisciplines in philosophy, I think your complaints are valid -- and so do lots of philosophers. But it's a big field, and I think the core of it is mostly unaffected by gender issues, especially in today's academic environment where "problems" are favored over history and texts. The best, most illustrative analogy I can think of goes like this: no one, I don't think, would argue that mathematics is gendered. Mathematics is what it is. Numbers are abstractions drawn from the world and our experience of it. Now, historically, mathematics has been done by men, and so you might say it's "about male experience," but isn't there something silly about saying that and using it as an objection to mathematics?

EB said that philosophy is often "about people," and while I wouldn't disagree with that, I think it can be misleading. Psychology is "about people." So is sociology. In some sense, so are the "hard" sciences and even mathematics. Philosophy, for its part, is less about people in particular and more about people (or, better, humans and their relation to the world) in abstract. This abstraction means that sometimes you'll see male experience pretending to be human experience. But because human experience is, to a large extent, universal, and because the kinds of problems dealt with by philosophy are, to a large extent, human (even transcendental!) problems, often that won't matter. Sometimes it will, but not usually. We are all more or less the same kinds of animals in the same world with the same laws of nature.

eusacescrubb, I didn't say that occhiblu's experience is untrue of her experience with philosophy in her academic environment. I said that it's unrepresentative of most academic environments. And it's not a good characterization of what philosophy is. To the extent that she simply dislikes philosophy -- to repeat, I don't think she got a good intro to it -- I would suggest that this might be less about gender and more about her interests.

You wrote: a philosophy whose epistemology is at least partly grounded in the body would fous less on unviersals, and wouldn't assume that personal observation/narrative/experience can be turned into a unviersal abstract.

I don't know what this means. First of all, I'm not convinced that women are more "connected" to their bodies in any relevant sense to epistemology. Second, I don't know what this epistemology would look like. If it's an epistemology that starts with empiricism, well, there are epistemologies like that. Third, and I don't know if this is what either of you are getting at but I'll throw it out there because I sometimes hear criticism of philosophy to this effect. Sometimes people will complain about how it privaleges arguments over feelings, reason over intuition. If that's the problem, then philosophy is guilty as charged, and I'm quite happy about it.
posted by smorange at 12:09 PM on August 14, 2006

To clarify a bit, I don't mean to suggest that philosophy is totally analogous to mathematics. Some of it is, certainly. But I want to say that it's not just social science with more hand-waving and abstraction. Some of it is. Most isn't.
posted by smorange at 12:28 PM on August 14, 2006

I'm still not quite buying it -- mathematics, while obviously a human invention, is still seeking to understand non-human phenomena, while philosophy is looking to understand systems created and maintained by humans (unless I'm way off-base in what I'm thinking philosophy is). Gender is probably not even close to being the most important aspect of how those systems develop and persist, but I think it's certainly a part of it. And while I don't think there's any bad intent, in my experience any time someone says "Gender doesn't enter into it at all!" it's because they're not seeing how gender might enter into it.

In other words, you may be right, but your insistence on it makes me nervous. :-)

When I see statements like We are all more or less the same kinds of animals in the same world with the same laws of nature, I think that it's pretty easy to agree with that when you've never had to consider how you differ from what's considered the biological norm. To me, the question of whether men would be comfortable reading only women authors is interesting because most men (at least those I've asked about it) would find it uncomfortable, "feminist," some sort of weird indoctrination. But we ask women to do it all the time, to take men's experiences as if they were our own, and so there's a consciousness that can develop of being different, of being gendered.

I guess the best personal analogy I can give, which actually flips me into the other role, is spending a year abroad. There were all these things I grew up thinking were universally human, and then I spent a year among Italians who valued completely different things, and had completely different priorities, than I did, and I had to admit to my travel-loving redneck-hating liberal-socialist self that despite everything, I was extremely American in my views of how the world works, and I always would be. I had absorbed this country's belief in change and progress even while disagreeing with much of its politics, and that belief would always influence my views of the world.

But before that experience, I certainly wouldn't have believed that assuming you can find a good solution if you try hard enough is an American trait; I would have said it was un-countried (for lack of a better word). I didn't realize how American I was until I was surrounded by non-Americans, in the same way that I get reminded that I'm a woman really only when surrounded by men. And I don't think men often get that same experience, being asked to confront women's discourse on a regular basis and really engage with it.

And since for the most part you haven't had to see your gender as an influence on you, the gendered-ness of your thinking may not be readily apparent, in the same way that the American-ness of my thinking (and, I'm sure, the whiteness, the straightness, the college-educatedness, etc.) isn't usually very apparent to me. It's the fish-in-water thing; you're so used to swimming in it that you don't notice it.

I do realize I'm oversimplifying, and I do realize that the more abstract the philosophical endeavor, the more likely it may be that these concerns mean less. But I'm not sure we can ever say they're totally irrelevant, or absent.
posted by occhiblu at 1:11 PM on August 14, 2006

I think the problem arises from the way in which Philosophy is taught in most programs. That is, classically. While there is certainly some discussion, the curriculum is generally confined to, "This is Philosopher X. This is what he thought. This is Philosopher Y. This is what he thought. Here's your exam. Compare and contrast X and Y." Given this, plus how male the field has been in the past, is it any wonder that most entering freshmen women will opt instead for English, where the program is almost identical, the thinking is just as rich and far less dry, and they won't be in the minority?

Maybe it's just me, but I find classical philosophy programs to be kind of bullshit. Then again, I went to NYU's program, which is not only still ranked #1 (yay, though I honestly didn't know that until I was out of school) but also the model of an analytic philosophy program. In this set-up, you learn the different philosophers and their ideas by ripping them apart. Then you put something of your own in it's place, and set to ripping it apart again.

This didn't lead to anger or bitterness, however. Since everybody was up for the same scrutiny, everyone was treated fairly, and you didn't just attack an idea because it wasn't your own. You tried to improve it, and if your claims were illogical, you'd look like an idiot, so everybody stayed civil, because everybody was fascinated with what the next idea might be.

This fairness applied to the professors as well. When Ned Block taught his "Mind and Machines" class, we all walked in knowing that we would be expected to refute him at every turn. Likewise, when one of those classes was to focus on Daniel Dennett (Block's main "rival") Block had his assistant teach the material so that our thinking on it wouldn't be stunted.

Incidentally, the assistant also taught several other of my courses herself, and was the greatest treasure of the department. The point I'm trying to get to (albeit slowly) is that there really wasn't a gender gap to speak of in NYU's department, at least not when I was there for undergrad four years ago. LobsterMitten's argument is a good one, though I doubt the premise that women are turned off by being confrontational. In my experience, in a program deliberately designed to be confrontational, women were not only well-represented, but also the more vocal sex in the discussions.

I believe that, as more and more women enter law, we'll see women grabbign more chairs in the philosophy departments across America, which will be better for having them.
posted by Navelgazer at 2:30 PM on August 14, 2006

What I disagree with occhiblu about is what seems to me to be an extreme reduction of men and women to their reproductive biologies.

But I do agree strongly with whateustacescrubb calls to our attention.

I mistrust abstraction, most especially about what it means to be a human, when it forgets to stay grounded in particular experience. When I was in college, in tutorial and seminar I would always, at every major step of abstraction, pull the discussion back to a particular personal experience, usually mine because those are what I primarily have to draw upon, but when other people used their anecdotes in the discussion I'd work with theirs as the conversation progressed.

I'm pretty certain that I first became convinced this was vitally important when the material concerned ethics. I eventually came to believe it was important most everywhere.

This sort of academic culture, and philosophy certainly, dislikes anecdotes because there's a presumption that only the abstract is universal and the particular often misleading. But abstractions are always in some sense elisions and it is with abstractions that a majority (or powerful) viewpoint can subtly sweep particulars under the rug that complicate or contradict their assertions. When people provide anecdotes they reveal the great mass of fertile, organic, messy soil in which these abstractions rest. The specifics of experience are harder to ignore.

Perhaps I've been hypocritical. After all, occhiblu has primarily provided anecdotes to support her larger claims and musings. But her claims are so far-reaching, the swath of her criticism so wide and indiscriminate that I think I felt that her anecdotes were there more as cover, a subjective variety of plausible deniability, than as a means to help illuminate her thinking to the rest of us. But her most recent comment doesn't seem this way at all to me, and I found a lot in it I agree with, especially this part:

"And since for the most part you haven't had to see your gender as an influence on you, the gendered-ness of your thinking may not be readily apparent, in the same way that the American-ness of my thinking (and, I'm sure, the whiteness, the straightness, the college-educatedness, etc.) isn't usually very apparent to me. It's the fish-in-water thing; you're so used to swimming in it that you don't notice it."

I am not willing to agree with this to the point that I'll agree that philosophy as a whole, or even most or all major philosophical schools of thought throughout history, have been essentially masculine in nature. But there's so many ways in which this masculine-is-normative blindness has been proven to exist that it's a point that cannot be denied and deserves a lot of consideration. One example that comes to mind is how blind men are to the different group conversational styles of men and women and how strong a role the tendency to male dominance distorts things. Most men are completely unaware that they frequently interrupt women. And all this other stuff that most of us here in this discussion are already aware of.

But back to my point about the personal and anecdotal. I often find that as I provide an anecdote to illustrate a point I'm trying to make, the anecdote forces me to re-examine just how well my derived abstraction fits with my experience.

Anyway, I guess what I'm trying to say is that while I believe that men and women are more alike than different, both innately and experientially (and indeed I believe this is true of all people) such that I don't believe all such discussions and abstraction founder upon the rocks of relativism, I do feel that relativism, even between individuals, is true enough that our philosophical abstractions about human nature and experience always require constant grounding in the particular. And I believe that were more philosophy classes to be more in accordance with this, then they'd be much less likely to put-off students such as occhiblu's younger self.

Also, there is the interesting fact of my experience everywhere that men eschew the personal and the anecdotal while women are much more friendly to them. My anecdotes in college rubbed a lot of people the wrong way (and I think puzzled them because I'm a notably strong abstract thinker) but it was always women who supported me in this and made a point of doing it themselves. And, of course, we can see this here on MeFi. The discussion is often impassioned, but it's more often than not abstracted away from personal experience. If you ask a typical mefi male why they care about some issue so strongly to use such strong language, such often moralistic language, they'll be unlikely to offer up any piece of themselves as an answer—instead, they'll give you another abstraction.

Given my educational background, of course I prefer seminar-style classrooms. But I was reminded while I wrote this comment of LobsterMitten's point that Aristotle's misogynist writings on women should occur in the context of a discussion. What I noticed from the women that I went to school with was that most of them weren't shy (or they learned not to be shy) about bringing into the discussion where they had difficulty with the text because they felt it was off-puttingly male-specific. And that forced all of us to deal with the issue. I won't deny that at that school there's an institutional and cultural ethos to pretend that these problems don't exist, and that there's subtle pressure in each individual situation applied against a woman (or man) who attempts to address sexism in the text. (Of course, this was 16 years ago. Is it better now, or worse? I fear it might be worse, actually.) But as the instructors, for the most part, only wield advisory influence on the class, if enough people want to discuss something, it gets discussed. Right off the bat I encouraged my classmates (well, universally they were female classmates) who wanted to bring sexism into the discussion when it was warranted. Certainly it was warranted with Aristotle.

Anyway, I digressed, but my point was that discussion can go a long way toward working through this problem of sexism in these texts. Many of most of the women in the class will be aware of it, and talking about it will help them work through it and find a way to discuss the text in spite of it, and at least some of the men in the class will learn something they didn't previously realize. Eventually, I think, some of the men will become aware of it without prompting.

On Preview: "I think the problem arises from the way in which Philosophy is taught in most programs. That is, classically." I'm having a bit of trouble with your use of the word "classically". I think you mean "conventionally", which is quite different. I don't really know what "classically" would mean in this context, but I doubt there were multiple-choice exams in Plato's Academy. :)

I'm pretty sure that what you're describing is conventional for undergraduate programs in the US today. I'm much less sure how this varies worldwide and historically. I suspect that there's always been competing rote vs. discursive/critical pedagogies.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 2:45 PM on August 14, 2006

But her claims are so far-reaching, the swath of her criticism so wide and indiscriminate that I think I felt that her anecdotes were there more as cover, a subjective variety of plausible deniability, than as a means to help illuminate her thinking to the rest of us.

Nope. I'm pretty anecdotal. No plausible deniability intended.
posted by occhiblu at 3:09 PM on August 14, 2006

I don't know why I'm so fascinated by this discussion, since I don't care about philosophy, but there you go. Thanks for sparking it off, raheel.
posted by languagehat at 3:25 PM on August 14, 2006

As per my above comment, and occhiblu's experience, I should add the caveat that we were taught the Mind/Body problem by that same female Grad Assitant (who taught it brilliantly, by the way) but for that specific issue, I can't see where the male-vs-female bodies changes the problem of dualism. But I'm male, so there you go.

Where it did come in, wonderfully, was when she was going over the knowledge/experience problem (Mary in the Black & White Room, What it it Like to be a Bat and all that) where she illustrated the problem best by stating how men could never truly comprehend the female orgasm. This, of course, led to the women in the class giving us jokey, pitying glances for the resty of the class.

Still, I'm not convinced that the writings are as gendered as has been claimed, but I simply might not notice it. As a similar question to the original one posed, we might ask why there are so few blacks in philosophy. The answer would be largely the same (that they have been oppressed and kept out of higher education until modern history) but it raises another question that I feel applies here:

If we had more famous Philosphers of African descent, would we expect their work to focus on the "philosphy of race"? I would hope not, just as I would hope that female philosophers wouldn't focus on what it means to be female. Philosophy should be universal in order to be worthwhile, and while issues such as race, gender, and sexuality (and notably, religion) certainly have their place within it, they are barely a fraction of that universe. If people are to make lasting, influential works, they do themselves a disservice by defining themselves and their work by how they are different from the power structure, instead of using their unique perspective in order to better illuminate the picture at hand. I think.
posted by Navelgazer at 3:35 PM on August 14, 2006

So, you're saying that white men have "universal" concerns and only by addressing those same concerns would an African philosopher count as universal.

I know that's not your intent, but that's really the underlying attitude that I've been talking about.
posted by occhiblu at 4:27 PM on August 14, 2006

That is, "These historically oppressed groups are welcome to the debate, as long as they write about topics that are important to me as a white man" is a statement that's so steeped in the idea that the concerns of white men are universal, while those of others are special interests of concern to no one but those who share the "difference." It's placing you directly in the center of "normal" and assuming that you get to set the terms of the debate. It's very easy as a white person to say that race doesn't matter, just as it's very easy as a man to say that gender doesn't matter.

Like I said, I know you didn't mean it badly or aggressively, it's just such a perfect example of the kinds of statements that I'm talking about.
posted by occhiblu at 4:35 PM on August 14, 2006

Navelgazer: If we had more famous Philosphers of African descent, would we expect their work to focus on the "philosphy of race"? I would hope not, just as I would hope that female philosophers wouldn't focus on what it means to be female. Philosophy should be universal in order to be worthwhile, and while issues such as race, gender, and sexuality (and notably, religion) certainly have their place within it, they are barely a fraction of that universe. If people are to make lasting, influential works, they do themselves a disservice by defining themselves and their work by how they are different from the power structure, instead of using their unique perspective in order to better illuminate the picture at hand. I think.

What occhiblu said, and consider that if philosophy were not dominated by any one race,* or any one race's ideas, wouldn't it seem very reasonable that the different races participating in philosophy be interested in discussing the differences among themselves? Certainly there are differences.

Fundamentally speaking, isn't there an intellectual duty to examine them? Imagine if one's department consisted of exactly two people from each continent: Africa, Asia, South America, Europe, and North America. The world contains many different traditions of phenomenology and epistemology, all of which have different ideas of what the important questions are and what their answers might be. Furthermore, all are couched within different social, political, economic, and physical realities. What kind of intellectual negligence might it be if all ten faculty decided that the two Europeans and the two North Americans were going to decide the entire department's research agenda, and the Africans, Asians, and South Americans were to spend their careers arguing only on terms that the Europeans and North Americans liked, only on the subjects that they liked, and only according to the assumptions that they held?

What kind of intellectual negligence might it be if the faculty were five Europeans and five North Americans, but that they knew that Africans, Asians, and South Americans existed?

Consider this in the light of gender.

Consider that difference is a universality.

Also consider that investigation of "the picture at hand" is facilitated by better understanding one's personal relation to it. How much weaker might arguments be if the arguers had only vague understandings of themselves, ones which have never been systematically examined? You are after all suggesting that this systematic examination should not be conducted, that the arguers should not spend time conversing with their peers about themselves.

* Putting aside the issue of race being a historically contingent construct often created and used in order to facilitate the dominance of some individuals over others, and also that what "races" there are and who is in each differs from country to country, and that it there is a strong case that one conception of race is probably not commensurable to any other at all. Cf. Wittgenstein, Foucault, Gramsci.
posted by halonine at 5:25 PM on August 14, 2006

I didn't mean that at all, occhiblu, though I can definitely see where one would get that idea.

I was admitting that I'm of the same group that is presently (and always has been, really) in the majority in Philosophy. I don't think the body of work has been in "male" issues, or "white" or "straight" issues. I think the problem is not the under-representation of those issues, though of course we could stand to hear more about them. I think the problem is that philosophy suffers from a lack of perspective from minorities (in the field) such as women and blacks (and gays, and hispanics, and on and on) in areas of discussion that don't deal directly with what is different about being a member of a specific group, separate from the mainstream.

Despite your claims (which are valid) about how philosophy has been a caucasian men's club, and how that has been enforced by thousands of years of subjugation (also true, and deeply regrettable) I don't think the philosophers of the past were ever trying to speak only of the white male experience, and how that relates to the other mysteries of the univers. If they were, their theories would be immediately debunkable, for, as I said above, philosophy doesn't hold water if it isn't universally applicable.

Defining yourself, and your work, can be admirable, to be sure, if the goal is to be an iconoclast opening up the doors of a field to all, but it also marginalizes the practitioner, limiting her (or his) potential brilliance by preaching to the choir.

If the Mind/Body problem is sexist (which I don't think it is, but again, I'm male) than we need women to write their own papers from their own perspectives giving their own solutions, and we'll see how well they hold up with everything else. But to think of the different perspectives as wholly different fields of study (which I doubt was your idea, really) just compartmentalizes the field, which is the opposite of the point.

When I see films about African-Americans, they are generally about racism. This is a sad reminder of how much this issue is ignored, and how much it still affects black America, and I need to see it, as does the rest of white America, but the fact still remains that there's more to the African-American experience than that, and I rarely see it expressed, however much I want to. Likewise, when I see "Chick-flicks" thay all have to deal with troubles with sisters, troubles with mothers, and troubles with getting a man. I know there's more to the experience of being a woman than that, but I rarely see it expressed.

Philosophy desperately needs to be innundated with those who have heretofor been unrepresented, but not because it is lacking in women's studies, or African-American studies, or whatever else. It's because it strives to be universal, but lacks universal input into the discussion. When minoirties restrict their work to discussing their minority, it's useful as far as that goes, but does nothing for a field which ideally shouldn't care about race/class/gender/sexuality anyway.
posted by Navelgazer at 5:39 PM on August 14, 2006

Also, halonine, my problem is that too often the hypothetical professors from South America, Asia (which is actually quite well represented in current philosophy) Africa and Austrailia are letting the profs from Europe and North America determine the subjects and how they were debated, by only discussing their thoughts in the explicit context of the European and North American professors.

I think we're actually arguing for the same thing, but I'll agree that my statement above could be easily misinterpreted.
posted by Navelgazer at 5:53 PM on August 14, 2006

I'm gonna assume the chick-lit comment above was an example and not your description of the entirety of work produced by women, because I'm working at keeping my blood pressure down. (If it wasn't, (1) action films are just men blowing each other up, and I would assume the male experience was a bit more interesting that that, and (2) start with some Margaret Atwood and Sofia Coppola, and we'll get the rest of the reading/watching list together in the meantime.)

But let's take one of those examples: Women having problems with their mothers. Presumably, then, at least half the world's population has a conflicted relationship with their mothers. Why, then, wouldn't that be a fertile ground for analysis or thought? A guy having problems with his father give us Hamlet, after all, which seems to have given us half of Freud's theories. Why is "woman has problem with other woman" shoved off to the side as "chick lit," while "man has problem with other man" held up as a universal struggle?

What I'm trying to get at is that you still seem to be limiting the debate to what you deem "important topics," without taking into account that other people might find other topics just as important and think that your important topics aren't all that important. And that doesn't necessarily mean that they don't "get" philosophy, but it might instead mean that philosophy is not as universal as its students would like to think it is.
posted by occhiblu at 6:06 PM on August 14, 2006

I don't think the body of work has been in "male" issues, or "white" or "straight" issues.

Navelgazer, how could one possibly know this unless one entertained the idea that it might be otherwise and tried to find out?
posted by eustacescrubb at 6:11 PM on August 14, 2006

we need women to write their own papers from their own perspectives giving their own solutions, and we'll see how well they hold up with everything else.

But, women do this and then get ghettoized with the "Women's Studies" label.
posted by eustacescrubb at 6:14 PM on August 14, 2006

(I made the reference to "Chick-Flicks" above because it's the term commonly used for such films. I know that it's offensive, but that's the genre, which is used to describe films for a female audience. I find it a useful analogy to see that mainstream films feature a white male lead, and that black films or chick flicks feature stories of exclusive interest to those groups, as if the mainstream is unready to see human drama on a broad, universal scale unless the main player is white and male. This upsets me, maybe more than it should, but I guess it goes to show how far we have yet to go in terms of justice and equality.)

And still, I'm getting misinterpreted, but probably from my own inability to express myself clearly.

halonine made a great argument above about the idea of a department made up of two professors from each continent, and whether I'd be okay with the four professors from Europe and North America deciding what was studied.

I would not.

My point is that I think that studies are going in this direction in the name of diversity, without giving us meaningful diversity, or meaningful discussion, of the topics at hand. In a sense, the professors from Europe and North America are saying, "Here are the subjects that we'll teach, and the rest of you can teach refutations to those."

The Black/Hispanic/Asian/Native American/Arab experience and viewpoint isn't defined by it's difference from the white viewpoint, nor is the female experience or viewpoint defined by it's difference from the male. To do so cheapens that experience and knowledge, which is as valuable as anyone elses, and likely more so due to how little of it we have in the field of philosophy.

What I've been trying to say is that philosophy is about the questions. What is the meaning of life? How does my mind, my soul, relate to the flesh that I'm familiar with? Why do I express myself in the way that I do, and why do people understand me in the way that they do? How do I identify myself as unique from all others - what makes me me? How may I live my life in an ethical way?

The field has been dominated throughout it's recorded history by white men, which makes the perpective limited, but unless I'm greatly mistaken, these questions aren't limited to white men, and now we are finally at a point where all people (in America, at least) may offer up their thoughts. This is a glorious time.

So, given that, is it more benificial (for the field of philosophy) for a female philospher to say, "This is how it is," or for her to say, "This is how it is for a woman?" Is it more benificial for an African American to say, "This is how it should be," or "This is how it should be for an African American?" Should a lesbian say, "This is the underlying structure of logic," or "this is the underlying structure for a lesbian?"

Gender, Race, and Sexuality are issues that need to be far more addressed in not just this country, but the world, but as far as philosophy is concerned, the general questions remain largely the same. And if there are questions that the white men haven't thought of (and srely theere are many) then please, bring them up, so that a fully representative field may, for the first time in history, be able to answer them. But if those questions can only be answered by a man, or a woman, or a white man, or a black man, or a white woman, or a black woman, or a gay man, or a lesbian, or a straight man or straight woman, or a Chritian or Muslim or Jew or Jainist or Zoroastrian or Athiest or Budhist, then they're not of the same field of study. They're something else.

Philosophy only works if it's universal. Right now, as far as input is concerned, it isn't. But it solves nothing to compartmentalize the groups who would contribute.
posted by Navelgazer at 6:54 PM on August 14, 2006

I think I'm understanding you better, and I agree with what you're saying. But then I think that goes back to the fact that when women do address those questions, using their experiences as women to come to conclusions about what it means to be human, people categorize that as women's studies or feminism or chick lit. Not all the time, of course, but more often than you seem to be acknowledging.
posted by occhiblu at 6:59 PM on August 14, 2006

Fair enough, and that probably happens a lot more than I realize, but from what I understand of women's studies, it has to do exclusively with what it means to be a woman in the world, instead of a woman's perspective of what it means to be a human in the world. I'm largely uninformed there, though.

As I've said too many times to count, I'm a straight male, with no transgendered qualities. I'm also a writer, and I usually find myself writing my scripts from the point of view of a female main character. Some women find it insightful, and others question why I would do that, but it's naturally how I write my characters. I take both points of view, and try to find out how I may do better, but I'm not trying for a stunt by writing women as my leads. I know that I don't understand the experience of being specifically feminine, but I think that the human experience takes precedence.

Incidentally, my scripts and other writings are very philosophical, and women tend to react to them far more positively than men. There might be prejudice in the field, and if so it should be fought tooth and nail, but I think, more than anything, we're more alike than we are different.
posted by Navelgazer at 7:22 PM on August 14, 2006

"...using their experiences as women to come to conclusions about what it means to be human, people categorize that as women's studies or feminism or chick lit."

Yes, but it's not always the white men running the university that do that. I recall a very disillusioning "Aha!" moment duing a women's studies class I took. During a discussion I mentioned how perverse it was that this class and this department was within the humanities department as I thought it ought to be. I also pointed out how, at this large state university, all the so-called minorities studies departments were clustered together in a seperate complex of buildings.

The instructor looked at me and asked "what makes you think we would want to be in the humanities department?"

I think a lot of what Navelgazer is saying is problematic but well-intentioned, but insofar as what he may be saying reflects the point of my anecdote I think he's onto something. It's not just that the prevailing power structure ghettoizes the academic study of the perspectives of women and minorities, it's that too-often these scholars are complicit in this ghettoization.

One way I think this happens is that it's the natural end-point of strong relativism. One way of interpreting occhiblu's arguments is that the problem isn't that conventional philosophy excludes non-white-male viewpoints, it's that the departments and the field aren't explicitly called "white male philosophy". That is to say, dor some the underlying assumption is that there are no universal subjects, at least within the humanities.

I disagree with that, strongly. After all, the lesson occhiblu took from her Italian experience was that her own understanding of herself and other people was limited and that she was able to go beyond it once she had the opportunity to move beyond her comfortable horizon. The lesson wasn't that Americans and Italians are incomprehensible to each other and that people who don't think most problems can be solved with hard work are incomprehensible. It made her question the assumptions underlying her American point-of-view.

Just so, I think, with regard to the way in which many conventional academic fields like philosophy and literature and others are currently male and eurocentric. The answer is to bring in all perspectives so that the discipline can be as universal as it aspires to be. It's not to dismantle the whole notion of universalism.

In that sense, then, the narrative of mother-daughter conflicts, to use occhiblu's example, belongs right alongside the narrative of father-daughter conflicts. Certainly we expect those with particular experience in something to have some practical expertise with the subject, such as facing mortality in the context of having been diagnosed with a terminal illness, but we expect the subject to have univeral application and interest. We expect people without that particular experience to be able to contemplate it and synthesize new things from the idea, and we don't expect those who have experienced this to only think and write about it to the exclusion of all things where they lack a perspective borne of personal experience.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 8:06 PM on August 14, 2006

You can probably figure this out from context, but "and this department was within the humanities department" should have used the word "wasn't" instead of "was".
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 8:07 PM on August 14, 2006

Navelgazer, that then goes right back to my original point, which is that I think a lot of at least intro-level philosophy is not actually men writing about what it means to be human, but men writing about what it means to be men. We're just so used to taking "men" to equal "human" that, for the most part, we don't notice that.

To EB's point, I certainly think there are universals, but I think we're all rather limited in how much of those universals we can experience. And I think I think the terminal illness example is great; many of us may not experience that firsthand, but it enriches us all to hear about it. But in my experience, men are awfully reluctant to admit that studying the "terminal illness" moments that women have can enrich their own lives, even when those narratives or ideas help the writer reach a more ungendered conclusion about life. The subject matter simply relegates them into the chick-lit category.
posted by occhiblu at 8:19 PM on August 14, 2006

Incidentally, this opinion of mine...

"Just so, I think, with regard to the way in which many conventional academic fields like philosophy and literature and others are currently male and eurocentric. The answer is to bring in all perspectives so that the discipline can be as universal as it aspires to be. It's not to dismantle the whole notion of universalism."

...may be very surprising coming from a "johnnie"—that is someone who's alma mater is St. John's College. But there's a lot more of us with this point-of-view than most people expect. I'd say at least a third of the student body felt this when I was there in the early 90s. The possible inclusion of Eastern classics, the possible inclusion of more minority and more works by women, are perennial matters of discussion and controversy at the College. On the first question, I don't feel that it is practically possible given that the four years of the Program is inadequate to the task it's already set for itself with regard to the Western Classics. The exceptions, however, are those Eastern works which directly bear upon works in the program, such as the classic texts on algebra, which are not read. There are other examples here and there scattered through the subject matter of the Program. East and West are not so distinct as some imagine.

But on the matter of more works by women and minorities, I'm definitely in the camp that believes there's a great deal of room for improvement.

Anyway, as a devout johnnie, I do strongly believe that a lot of the themes encountered throughout the classic western works are indeed universal. And I think that in many cases, perhaps even most (though I'm very hesitant to make that claim) these themes are adequately developed in a universal matter in spite of their handicap of arising from a very narrow point-of-view which excludes women and non-Europeans. Nevertheless, I still see their narrow context as a serious flaw that requires correction, if for no other reasons (though there are other numerous reasons) than to make it clear that even if these so-called "great book" manage universalism, the very obvious limited context within which they've achieved this isn't the exclusive context within which such universalism could be achieved. If one doesn't realize this, one is unconsciously tempted to identify this limited context and what these works achieve as equivalent. That is, just what occhblu is repeatedly warning against: that it is only natural that white, male europeans would achieve such universality and those starting from other contexts are destined to achieve less lofty results. A lot of people believe this implicitly, some explicitly. And, in a way, that's missing the whole damn point.

On Preview: "men are awfully reluctant to admit that studying the 'terminal illness' moments that women have can enrich their own lives, even when those narratives or ideas help the writer reach a more ungendered conclusion about life. The subject matter simply relegates them into the chick-lit category." I agree. But it doesn't have be that way. I'd like to believe that we're seeing in our lifetimes the first generations of men less inclined to their chauvinism and prejudices.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 8:28 PM on August 14, 2006

Response by poster: Woah! What a thread.. I am having trouble reading and following through all the posts in my busy schedule right now, so would be reading this up later in the week. Right now there is no way I can add to the discussion with my cursory glances, and although the discussion has strayed sometimes from what I wanted discussed, this is something that will give me more than enough to get started with what I wanted to explore.

I must say that although I now dislike the way I framed the question (some people took mild offence apparently) it did spark some interesting discussions.

Thank you again.
posted by raheel at 10:11 PM on August 14, 2006

Response by poster: By the way, there is no sense in marking "best answers" by now. I would be left-clicking for hours.
posted by raheel at 10:12 PM on August 14, 2006

Thanks EB. I agree that my comments were problematic, but again, I think that was probably due to my not explaining them in the best way.

I was trying to say that the efforts of the old (and new) philosophers was to reach for the universal, but that they are constrained by their limited perspective, that greater degrees of perspective were what was needed in the field, and that self-ghettoization doesn't make sense within these confines any more than eurocentric, male exclusivity does.

So thanks again.
posted by Navelgazer at 10:18 PM on August 14, 2006

Great comments, EB and occhiblu.

Navelgazer, I think where I'm differing from you is that I think this self-ghettoization is useful now and will be useful for a while longer. I also think it will be useful for it to exist in some form forever. From a distance academics seems pure and cleanly logical, the way it ideally should be. But in reality it's made of individuals who want validation and recognition and who are trying to juggle family and financial responsibilities and not ruin their chance at tenure (=financial stability), among other things. There are a lot of aggressive, driven people and there are war stories about people getting into shouting matches, being shouted down, leaving in tears, being banned for bad behavior, etc. There are only so many bad days, shouting matches, and tense passes in the hallway with antagonistic colleagues that a person can take, right? :) Given this, a ghetto is nice when it offers shelter. It is unfortunate that it is also sheltering and isolating--it is hard for ideas to get in or get out. But based on the human and historical sides of the story, I'm inclined to go easy on the lack of convergence.

In any case, the burden of effecting convergence should not fall (completely or even mostly) on those outside of the establishment, but that's my personal, moral take.
posted by halonine at 11:58 AM on August 15, 2006

occhiblu, I agree with almost all your comments in response to me. I strongly agree with your assertion that gender and sexism (ideology, really) often influences things from the shadows. It's not always noticed because it influences behavior and attitudes in subtle ways. It doesn't help that we're so used to it. Actually, for the most part, you can copy and paste a lot of your and EB's comments and put my name on them. But seeing sexism everywhere in the subject matter of philosophy strikes me as misguided. As was mentioned upthread, there are fewer women in philosopy in the more prestigious and objective subdisciplines, like logic, whereas there are more in the "softer" areas, like ethics. You'd think the opposite would be the case if it was the sexism of the subject matter that turned women off.

Anyway, I'll say a bit about women/gender studies departments based on my own experience with one of them. I'm not sure I agree with EB that they ought to be in the humanities department. A lot of what I saw in a women's studies class I took looked most like sociology to me. Mind you, I'm not sure it matters all that much. I think my university's women/gender studies department is set up well in this respect. Most of the classes are usable as electives for either humanities or social science credits, depending on what the student needs to fulfill his of her degree requirements. And those who decide to major in it have to take specific classes in other departments (philosophy of sexuality, gender and sociology, etc.).

Thinking about this, my experience with one of these departments mirrors occhiblu's experience with philosophy. I'm a feminist but this class made me very uncomfortable in its dogmatic and wholesale acceptance of social constructivism and its outright hostility to all biology-based arguments. Every single reading took for granted social constructivist ideology and attacked sociobiological/EP explanations as a priori preposterous. Some didn't bother with fairness and accuracy, either. For example, one writer, criticizing sociobiology/EP in general and Dawkins specifically, claimed that sociobiology assumes we're all slaves to our genes, and that sociobiology falls apart because "genes don't have intentional states." Unfortunately for the writer, I've read Dawkins and he doesn't say either of those things; quite the opposite. Dishonesty like that drives me batty.

So, even though I agreed with almost everything written in this thread by occhiblu and Ethereal Bligh about sexism and gender, my experience with women/gender studies was not positive. The ideology lying behind the readings struck me as well-intentioned in its political motivations but probably false. As a result, I had a difficult time engaging with the course material. I often found myself saying, "Yes, good conclusion; bad argument!" I assume, though, that not all women/gender studies classes are like that. I know that you can be a feminist and you can reject the idea that human behavior is somehow immune to biological-evolutionary forces. (The other big assumption I wasn't comfortable with was an implicit acceptance of a very strong version of Sapir-Whorf, again driven by good intentions. languagehat may or may not sympathize with me there). Anyway, I thought the parallel was interesting enough to note.
posted by smorange at 12:22 PM on August 15, 2006

Well, I'm only going to add fuel to the fire, but I think the problems you describe exist and are the product of the combination of the ghettoization of these fields and how many people involved confuse scholarship with working as part of a political action committee. They're not really weaknesses of the disciplines inherently, only of individual people working within them.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 1:57 PM on August 15, 2006

But seeing sexism everywhere in the subject matter of philosophy strikes me as misguided.

While I don't necessarily see sexism everywhere, I do see... um, sex? Sexing? (I'm now totally turning into the stereotypical English major who sees phallic symbols everywhere...)

A text can be sexed without being sexist (and most are). Presenting those texts are unsexed is what starts tilting things toward sexism. Presenting men's texts as unsexed while claiming that almost all women's texts are sexed would tilt things even more.

Obviously, the teachers and syllabi will help determine where the program falls on the spectrum.
posted by occhiblu at 3:28 PM on August 15, 2006

EB, that's my perspective as well.

occhiblu, you caught me using sloppy language there. But I understand and agree with you about the distinction and I meant to include both in my argument. Bottom line, I don't agree that most texts in philosophy are sexist or sexed, except in obvious ways, like with pronouns. More importantly, I don't think most problems in philosophy are sexist or sexed. Anyway, thanks to all for this thread. It was a good one, even if it wondered a bit too much for an AskMe question ;)
posted by smorange at 4:15 PM on August 15, 2006

It was a good one, even if it wondered a bit too much for an AskMe question

wondered = wandered
posted by smorange at 4:15 PM on August 15, 2006

LobsterMitten, shouting down scientific inquiry in the name of social cohesion is hardly a good approach to take. You needn't be a difference feminist to accept statistical cognitive variation between men and women—you can accept the inquiry and yet put your foot down and say men and women are to be treated equally. (I'm disdainful of difference feminism because it can sometimes veer off the cliff in saying things like, "whoa, the world would be totally different if it was run by women! There'd be no capitalism or war!" etc.)

Blind acceptance of gender-is-totally-constructed stuff can lead to horrific horrific experiments.

And as somebody else mentioned, the variation between individuals far outstrips gender variations, so the current state of the science isn't particularly foreboding anyway.

Here's a relevant recent article from The Economist.
posted by Firas at 6:23 AM on August 16, 2006

While I agree pretty much with that Economist article, the problem is that it's a conservative magazine (with, as far as I'm concerned, tremendous credibility on business, finance, and economics reporting but not so much on other topics) and referring to it in an discussion with anyone who takes the strong social constructivism position isn't going to do anything but further entrench them.

There are strong long-term and recent cultural forces in contention in this argument and, frankly, those who take the strong social constructivism position have good reasons for doing so. I believe that their position is extreme and has become dogmatic and reactionary—but in the context within which this particular cultural group took that position they were right. You have to keep in mind that the great majority of human history and still today the vast majority of people believe that gender differences are almost exclusively innate and, furthermore, that those differences just happen to correspond to conventions and institutions that make women second-class people. The ascendence of the idea that male and female cognition are innately identical was revolutionary in every sense. From that perspective, any retreat from that position and certainly anyone insisting that feminists and others should retreat from that position looks an awful lot like reactionary forces trying to put the genie back in the bottle and women back in the kitchen, barefoot.

As a feminist and as someone who's thought seriously about these issues for most of my adult life, as someone who has moved from the social constructivist position toward the biological determinist position, and especially as someone who feels that the feminist and anti-sexist way forward will eventually require that we accomodate the differences which I believe exist...well, all I can say is that the majority of popular commentators and media that weigh in on the biology side are in fact regressive in intent and theirs is not help I want arguing this position.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 8:25 AM on August 16, 2006 [1 favorite]

Firas, there is no sense in which I am shouting down scientific inquiry. I'm not sure how I could have made my position plainer, but here's another shot.

As I said, it seems to me that the default assumption of a lot of people is that various observed differences between adult men and women result from innate differences. I think that's the wrong default assumption to have -- my default assumption is that those differences result from socialization. I am prepared to give up that default assumption in the face of good scientific evidence.

In fact, I think having that default assumption puts me in a better position to ensure that good scientific standards are being followed -- a lot of the research that concludes "it turns out that men and women are innately different" is scientifically poor, but often people who accept the results don't see much need to question the methods or inference patterns.

I do not dogmatically insist that all differences result from socialization, and that no evidence could possibly show otherwise. I don't even know anyone who holds that position. You have confused my position for that of a straw feminist.

(If you disagree with someone, the first step is to NOT make a straw-man of their position, but to make the best, most plausible, case for their view. Then when you give arguments against it, you will have accomplished something.)

I mentioned difference feminism partly as a way to bring it into the discussion, since its adherents (who vary a lot in their positions) have had a lot to say about women's perspectives and philosophy, which is what raheel was interested in. Certainly one can think men and women have innately different brains and not be a difference feminist. One could think that and take just about any political position one liked.

As I said far, far above, it's easy to underestimate the extent of women's historical oppression, and the lingering effects of this on our present-day thinking. Especially if one lives in a privileged community of some kind, where girls are raised from day one with the expectation that they will become astronauts, it's very hard to believe that there are actually still a lot of barriers, still a lot of people who believe that women aren't really up to the same intellectual work as men. So it's easy to downplay the political importance of one's default position on these issues. I think much of what Ethereal Bligh in the immediately preceding comment is quite true.
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:47 AM on August 16, 2006 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: (If you disagree with someone, the first step is to NOT make a straw-man of their position, but to make the best, most plausible, case for their view. Then when you give arguments against it, you will have accomplished something.)

I will remember that.
posted by raheel at 10:08 AM on August 17, 2006

LobsterMitten, you're right that used your statement as a prompt to deliver my opinion on witch-hunt types rather than on what you actually said. But you articulated the real point I was trying to make, which is that what is 'natural' does not necessarily influence what 'should be'—if men and women are predisposed differently, discrimination doesn't logically follow. After all, every human being is not born equal, but pretty much everybody today espouses that as a cornerstone of their ideological systems.

Also, I should mention that I'm not 'disdainful' of difference feminism, just skeptical of some positions.

Etheral Bligh, The Economist is also pretty good at geopolitical reporting, not just financial stuff, but I agree it's basically conservative.
posted by Firas at 1:41 PM on August 17, 2006

"The Economist is also pretty good at geopolitical reporting..."

Oh, yeah. So much better than most anything in the US.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 2:06 PM on August 17, 2006

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