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September 11, 2007


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One of the most uncomfortable things I've witnessed as a PHIL MA is the way in which (a few) male students treat their female peers in discussions. I'd bet everything I own that a careful study would show that male philosophers are more likely to interrupt, disagree with or speak condescendingly to female philosophers in discussions with those at their level. This absolutely has to change.

However, when it comes to actually changing the style of the discipline itself (away from the combativeness, the attacking, etc.) I'm suspicious. Tons of female undegrads in my courses relish the opportunity to engage in this kind of dialogue, as it's exciting and novel. The trick is not to conduct an overhaul of the way philosophers work in general, the trick is to show women that it is not "unladylike" to engage in it, and many respond to this quite well, at least in my experience.

The alternative is a kind of essentialism about gender that I don't think we should be too comfortable with.

The article is interesting and troubling but there's one thing I think worth questioning about vis a vis Sally's reported comments (the link to her paper doesn't seem to work) as well as David Schrader's quoted remarks.

Here are two questions:

1. How friendly is academia to people of working class social origin? Are they underrepresented? Do they face discrimination? Are they treated with snobbish disrespect epecially perhaps in certain institutions?

2. How highly regarded in the profession is Marxist philosophy?

And two questions about these two questions:

A. How relevant to question 1 to the answer to question 2?
B. How sound is the analogy between this and the parallel issue vis a vis feminist philosophy and the position of women in academia?

I stress that these are questions, not rhetorical questions, but I think they are good questions. After some of the critics of feminist philosophy include feminist philosophers (Radcliffe Richards for example). And surely being "skeptical about postmodern feminism" is extremely inconclusive evidence of sexism. Many people after all, myself included, are distinctly skeptical about postmodern X for all values of X...

(A different analogy. Surely there is no tension at all in someone who, on the one hand, believes that environmental political and economic issues and concerns are of the first order of importance and urgency but who is also, on the other hand, decidedly sceptical about the field of environmental philosophy or at least large parts of it.)

The concern is partly as it were just as it were logical about the relevance of 1-type questions to 2-type questions. But there is an ethical/political dimension too. If I were to read of an academic being subject to disciplinary action for showing egregious disrepect to female colleagues or students I would think nothing more proper. If I read of an academic being disciplined for being skeptical about or disrespectful towards some area of or approach (*any* area or approach) to philosophy I would be very alarmed. So I think care is in order in running these sorts of behaviour to be too closely together.

(After all some people are decidedly skeptical about moral philosophy which I and most of my fellow pea-soupers do for a living - think of Richard Posner. Indeed some *moral philosophers* are decidely skeptical about moral philosophy - think of Bernard Williams. But of course we would be silly to mind much about that - indeed it makes our lives a lot more interesting.)

Typographical ineptitude made my question A above gibberish. It should of course read:

A. How relevant to question 1 is the answer to question 2?

Do you mind if I ask from where you sought/are seeking your MA? I don't mean to be insulting, but it might just be the institution. I haven't read the Haslinger paper yet, so my opinion might change; but I've found that women in top Chicago area universities (Northwestern, Loyola, and my own UChi) are as well respected as men, by both men and women.

The correct URL for Haslanger's paper is It's worth reading.

Jimmy, your point about the difference between those two questions is a good one. I think that Haslanger wants both fair treatment of women and a fair hearing for feminism, and while those are both important issues, they are more separate than she suggests.

Nick & Jared, I would also be curious to learn more about how much this problem varies from place to place. To be honest, I was a bit surprised--not skeptical, just surprised--at how widespread and serious Haslanger says the problem still is. Maybe I've just been at particularly female-friendly schools; or maybe (though I'm ashamed to admit the possibility) I just haven't noticed.

I don't think I ever confused the question of how women are treated in philosophy and how feminist philosophers are treated. They are clearly two separate questions. Not all women, after all, are feminists; and not all feminists are women. And not all feminists are feminist philosophers (though I believe all feminist philosophers are feminists). There are (at least) two problems, though they are related.

The parallel with classism/Marxism is not apt, however. Marxism is a particular theory of class exploitation. Feminist philosophy is not a particular theory of sexism. As I see it, feminist philosophy can be construed as having two branches (though this isn't the only way to construe it). One branch studies sexism and develops concepts and theories that help us understand and undermine it. This is an interdisciplinary effort to which philosophers make important contributions. Another branch brings concepts and theories developed in exploring sexism to philosophy, both to challenge and develop mainstream philosophical ideas. Neither branch is doctrinal. Both branches are extremely diverse and the issues are all hotly contested.

If someone is opposed in a general way to feminist philosophy, i.e. opposed both to inquiries into the nature of sexism, and to considering whether mainstream philosophy is or has been sexist, I would be wary of their claim to be feminist. Of course feminists need not themselves want to invest in such inquiries: there is much important feminist work to be done besides theorizing about sexism. And of course there is lots of room for disagreement about what concepts and theories are adequate. But I myself don't trust philosophers who are opposed in a general way to feminist philosophy, and I suspect them to be sexist. It seems suspicious, for example, if a philosopher opposes an inquiry into the concepts needed to understand and alleviate sexism. A plausible hypthesis in such a case, I think, is that such a philosopher doesn't really take sexism seriously. However, I'd be happy in cases where this hypothesis is proven wrong.

Jimmy –

Totally fair comment. I think much of what you say is actually grist for Haslanger’s mill. Scepticism about, say, moral philosophy, or metaphysics (my main field), does indeed make our lives more interesting. In the metaphysics case, for example, it puts the onus on us to say something about what it is, exactly, we are doing when we are doing metaphysics, and why, if at all, it matters. (Indeed, this is a hotly debated topic at the moment !) As you say, there is a similar onus on those doing feminist philosophy. So fair enough; there’s a debate to be had.

However, there's a striking asymmetry between say, the moral and metaphysics cases and the feminist philosophy case. The top journals are crammed with papers on metaphysics and ethics – goodness knows how many papers there have been in the past ten years on supervenience and co-incident entities (!) And I’m sure you can think of analogous cases in ethics. Now, one explanation for this asymmetry might be the disparity in numbers between those doing metaphysics and moral philosophy on the one hand and those doing feminist philosophy on the other: there may be far fewer people doing feminist philosophy (I’ve no idea whether that’s true) or it may be that there are far fewer feminist philosophy papers being submitted to the so-called top journals. If the latter is true, then the question is why. One possibility is that many feminist philosophers have the impression that their work is not going to be taken seriously by these journals and that’s why they don’t bother submitting to them. They may be wrong about this, in which case, editors should make it clear that they are. Another possibility is that they are right to think what they think: perhaps it’s true that the majority of feminist papers don’t even get to the review stage. (I’m thinking in particular of cases like Saul’s which Haslanger mentions.) Now if that’s right, one very simple explanation is just that the editor(s) in question have assumed a particular answer to an interesting philosophical question. They’ve just assumed that feminist philosophy is not important, that it doesn’t matter, that it has nothing to contribute to philosophy. But since when did editors make substantive philosophical decisions like that? If an editor made a similar decision about papers in metaphysics or ethics there would be uproar – and rightly so.

Depending on what the answers to the empirical questions are, it may be that your point supports much of what Haslanger is saying.

And of course one reason an editor may make such a substantive philosophical decision in the feminist philosophy case but not in the ethics or metaphysics cases is that they are simply, consciously or unconsiously, sexist.

Hi Sally - Your comments are helpful and interesting. I don't think we are really disagreeing about a whole lot. You are certainly right that feminist philosophy is a much broader and more pluralistic affair than Marxism.

You write:

"It seems suspicious, for example, if a philosopher opposes an inquiry into the concepts needed to understand and alleviate sexism. A plausible hypthesis in such a case, I think, is that such a philosopher doesn't really take sexism seriously."

Here I'm not sure I quite agree. Let's distinguish two stances. The first is one that opposes the broad practical and political project of understanding and alleviating sexism. The second is one of scepticism about how much by way of a distinctive contribution *philosophy* has to make to that project. Apropos anyone espousing the first stance, your hypothesis would be plausible indeed. Apopros anyone espousing the second I’m not so sure. I stress that it is not my intention to defend the second stance – I think there is probably a very great deal to be said against it – but simply to contest the idea that there is something sinister about it.

(I do think in general there is a tendency sometimes for us philosophers to think, X is very important so there must be a branch of philosophy that is about X that is very important too. So if you don’t take philosophy of X seriously you can’t be - or at least you very plausibly aren't - taking X seriously either. And that seems to me to be a fallacy. Just as it is a fallacy to think: Y is extremely interesting so there must be a branch of philosophy, the philosophy of Y, that is extremely interesting. (I adore good movies. However, strictly between ourselves, I have absolutely no interest whatever in the philosophy of film. These two attitudes are in no tension.)

Hi AC - These are indeed, exactly as you say, empirical questions.

Brian Weatherson wrote this over at his blog:

"It really is important to get some data on what is happening at the undergraduate level. In my experience, lower level undergraduate courses are whiter and maler than the student body, and upper level undergrad classes are demographically much more similar to the demographics of the philosophy faculty than they are to the undergraduate community as a whole. I suspect that if we fixed this problem, and had more non-(white males) majoring in philosophy and going on to grad school, a lot of other problems would look a lot more tractable. Compiling this data will cost money, but I think it is a worthwhile expense."

This seems to me to be right. It also seems to me that compiling this data would be a worthwhile thing for the APA to do. Now for the very naive question: how do we go about getting the APA to do this?

HI Jimmy:
Yes, we're not disagreeing about much. It just seems odd to me for a philosopher to object to inquiry into the concepts needed to understand sexism (or racism, etc). Of course it isn't going to be positively interesting to everyone, but I would think that there should be a broad acceptance of philosophers looking into the concepts and presuppositions of just about any subject matter (even film). And also, insofar as injustice is a central concern of moral and political philosophy, particular forms of injustice should fall squarely within it. For these reasons I would think that there is a presumption in favor of accepting feminist philosophy as a fully legitimate part of our field.

My concern is not lack of interest, but opposition to feminist philosophy (broadly construed) that is not based on any real knowledge of the sub-field. Such opposition takes the form of, e.g., rejecting feminist work submitted to journals or conferences without due consideration; not counting towards tenure feminist work or work that has been published in feminist journals; dismissing philosophers who specialize in feminist philosophy as not really doing philosophy; refusing to hire a feminist philosopher into a tenure-track position and using sort-term lecturers instead, even though there is substantial and long-term demand for feminist philosophy in the curriculum; making fun of feminist philosophy or feminist philosophers in public settings; discouraging students from forming or attending feminist philosophy reading groups; caricaturing feminist views in ways that make them look ridiculous while being utterly ignorant of the literature. I've seen all of this and more.

Given that there should be a presumption in favor of the legitimacy of feminist philosophy (if you agree with my first paragraph), I would think that such active opposition would be justified only based on real knowledge of the area. But more often than not, it is a kind of knee-jerk reaction; and this raises my suspicion that its source lies in some form of sexism. But you're right, such objections may stem from underlying views about philosophy, or politics, etc that aren't sexist. I tried to indicate in my earlier post that the suspicion is defeasible.

Thanks for this conversation!

Thanks to the person who started this thread -- I've found the conversation between Sally and Jimmy quite interesting. My comment is about a few previous posts, though. A couple of people wrote earlier to say that they thought their graduate programs were quite respectful of women and female-friendly. It might be that things look this way if what we're looking for are instances of blatant disrespect and outright sexism. Some of the things that create a discouraging environment for women are not (or not necessarily) the result of sexist intentions.

Having just taken on the role of director of undergraduate studies I have recently been in a position to hear women undergraduate majors talk about their experiences. To take one small example, one student told me about how she felt like a second class citizen in the grad/undergrad student lounge because the male grad students would talk to male undergrads about philosophy but would not talk to her. She knew the scene well enough to know that the undergrads who would get grad student attention were not better known to the grad students than she herself was, nor were they farther along in the program, conspicuously older, or otherwise more worthy of conversation. The grad students this student was talking about are not sexist. And their not talking to her is not exactly disrespectful. But I think it's not hard to see how not being engaged in philosophical conversation (when similar male students are) would make one feel unwelcome.

I noticed that in one of the threads that followed up on Sally's paper, Brian Weatherson openly wondered about the wisdom of affirmative action in the acceptance of articles at journals, esp. top journals.

This got me to thinking about the following: suppose one accepts affirmative action. How should one determine in which spheres it is appropriate and in which it is not? My own intuitions balk at affirmative action in the acceptance of submitted (as opposed to commishioned) papers, while finding it justified in other cases.

There does seem a danger of "double-counting" in affirmative action and I wonder how people who are generally attracted to AA, such as myself, think this can best be avoided?


I have only skimmed over what has been said above to get the general jist of it, so what I would like to post is not a direct response to a particular person but a general experience-sharing :-)

I am a 3rd year undergraduate philosophy student in a British University and I feel so horrible about going into tutorials at the moment because of how much I am talked down to. I think that I get talked down to because I communicate in a more feminine way and also because I have a working class accent and vocabulary.

My examples and ideas are actually laughed at by the lecturers or simply dismissed, even though somebody else (usually a middle class man) can say the same thing in a different way and be taken seriously. It is really horrible.

I want to try and change things but it seems like undergraduates do not have the channels available to them to make any complaints, and the problem is so fundamental that I am not sure what they could do about it anyway.

Most of the women in my classes simply don't talk and so they don't see the problem (they don't seem to understand that the very fact that they don't talk is a problem!), and so it is difficult to get together a group of people who feel the same way. I am also a bit isolated because I am northern and working class and there are hardly any others who are (other than a couple of men, but they seem to get by ok). And on the subject, there are absolutely no black or asian people on single honours philosophy..

All of this really bothers me and is stopping me being able to learn properly. I can't undertand the experience of the world that my lecturers and classmates are speaking from (this even affects being able to understand the "everyday" examples that they give). Is there any movement I can become engaged with that will help me to make a difference?

Sorry to use this academic discussion to launch a personal enquiry.

Sam x

Dear Sam,

In the U.S. too, philosophy faculty are predominantly white, male, and upper-middle class. The relative lack of class (gender and ethnic) diversity in philosophy department faculty contributes to the unfriendly atmosphere that students from working class backgrounds often find. Due, in part, to the lack of diverse perspectives and experiences, prejudice and inappropriate remarks and behavior by faculty often go unchallenged. As a student, you have the right to be treated with respect, and to have your educational needs equitably addressed. If this is not happening in your Philosophy program, you should consider requesting a meeting with the Department Chair, or possibly with another College administrator. Philosophy is a great field to study, and it is a shame when students are driven away by the elitist, sexist, or simply insensitive and rude remarks of their professors. I wish you luck in continuing your philosophical studies.

I'd like to add a more general point to my comment above. Academia is notoriously elitist, after all, it is our job to credential future social elites. Yet, I think there is a subtle way that elitism shapes Philosophy and perhaps other fields. Very often we hear our colleagues say that they discourage students from pursuing Philosophy because of the tight academic job market. Or they say that they only encourage the very best, those who can survive in the profession. "Survival" often means to these faculty getting a job at a "good" institution, often defined in somewhat elitist ways. Yet, when I'm advising students, I find that their career goals are more modest--to find enjoyable work with relative security and decent compensation. For many of my students, landing a permanent teaching job at a community college is viewed quite positively. Yet often faculty perceive students who are not as professionally ambitious as they were (or are) as not potentially competitive for the best jobs in our field, and then convey to such students that Philosophy is not a good field for them. I have heard from some students that the message they've gotten is that they shouldn't pursue Philosophy if they want to teach, but perhaps because they are a minority or a woman, they might get a teaching job. I think we need to be more careful about discouraging students from pursuing Philosophy, and to ask ourselves if our advice reflects our own career aspirations (and social background) more than those of our students. The message students take away is that they don't belong in our field, and we often rationalize this kind of advice as serving the best interests of our students. Is this really the case though?

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