Some Of Our Books


« CfP: BGSU Graduate Student Workshop in Applied Philosophy | Main | The ethics of professional (non-)correspondence »

July 10, 2013


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Hi, Sally,
I'm excited about your post, but feel a bit sheepish about contributing, since I know so little about your recent work. But my curiosity has gotten the better of me, so here goes: Having attended the Pacific session on your essay collection, I'm a bit surprised by what you say above about being uncertain about how to characterize your method, since I'd felt after that session as if I had a fairly clear picture of what you were up to and how it differed both from the traditional approach via analysis and experimental philosophy. Your project, as I understood you to be characterizing it there, reminded me of Millikan's approach in Language, Thought, and Other Biological Categories. Her idea is not to begin with a set of concepts we have an independent handle on, but to give quasi-stipulative definitions of certain key notions, e.g. that of a proper function, and then show how they earn their keep by their ability to help us explain something that as philosophers want to explain, in her case, the nature of content. I'd understood you to be doing something similar with your concepts of woman and man. You stipulate the contours of these concepts and then defend their use by showing how they allow us to understand certain social phenomena we'd like, as philosophers, to understand.

That's no doubt over-simplified, but does something like that strike you as right? For my money and given that our ordinary concepts seem often to contain conflicting strands, this can be one of the more sensible ways of approaching philosophical questions.

Hi Sally,

Thanks for the post -- Like Janice I really just have a clarificatory question: in your second set of questions, how is 'social' understood? There is a literature, mainly relating to applied ethics topics, in which it is recognized that certain social problems cannot be resolved individualistically. These are problems that relate to the causal insignificance of individual actions, e.g. global warming, changing corporate policies on drug pricing, etc. Would that count as social? These are problems that do seem important in trying to figure out how to live with each other, possibly by generating distinctively social norms.

Hi Sally,

Thank you for the very interesting post. I too know little about your recent work but also couldn’t help myself from jumping into the discussion. I would like to build on Julia’s comment. I too am unsure about what “social” means on your view. As a political philosopher, I was struck by your claim that political philosophy isn’t “social” in the sense that you are concerned with in your work. I am not entirely sure I agree with this claim, but perhaps I am misunderstanding your view of what “social” means. While it is true that much of contemporary political philosophy is concerned with the sorts of relations that ought to take place between individual citizens, there are some areas that focus on the relations among and between groups of citizens or, what could be called, political societies. At least two areas come to mind. First, work that is communitarian in orientation seems to be very focused on exactly the sorts of issues that you have in mind. Communitarians, for example, try to identify the sorts of ideals and norms that ought to govern political communities. They try to give an account of how members of a political society ought to live together and of how they ought to organize themselves collectively. They are also concerned with the question of how to create the right sorts of political communities. Second, work in the area of global justice tries to give an account of how international political societies (think of Rawls’s Law of Peoples) ought to organize themselves collectively, about what the right sort of global political community might be, and of the norms and ideals that ought to govern the relations between rich societies and poor societies (think also of Pogge and Singer’s work). Julia’s claims about international climate are also relevant here too, since a growing body of work in global justice is trying to answer these sorts of questions in relation to climate change (i.e., what norms should govern rich and poor societies’ interactions around carbon emissions). So, I am interested to hear more about how your notion of “social” is meant to capture or take into account something new and different. Thanks again.

Hello Sally,
Thank you for your post. I have a few questions about transracial adoption. It seems appropriate to say I am a white woman that does not have any children nor do I plan on having any. In Resisting Reality you talk about white parent’s racial identity changing as a result of the adoption and their depending on epistemic resources from the racial community of the child. Are these necessary features of being a good parent? I have read a fair amount about Native American and Aboriginal child removal and it seems to me that the combination of the war on drugs and social services child removal are basically the same sort of system. It strikes me that many white people would not consider adults of the child’s racial group a good resource in part because criminality and race are intermingled in our current context. What do you think of this? Also, do you think foster parents have the same obligations as adoptive parents?

Hello Sally. I am curious about whether you have heard about and been able to pay any attention to the US Supreme Court's decision in Adoptive Couple vs. Baby Girl. It came down around the same time as the rulings on the Voting Rights Act and Prop 8 but got much less attention.

I ask about whether you have any thoughts on the case because it involves both race and adoption, two topics you have written about very well. Here's a commentary on the case I have read:

As you'll see, Feldman suggests that the case ended up being decided on grounds less to do with race than with "a distaste for a law that prefers biological parents to adopted ones." If you have paid any attention to the case, I'm curious as to whether you have any reason to doubt this assessment; whether you think the ruling was progressive, regressive, or both; and, especially if you're unsure what to say about either of the first two questions, whether it strikes you that the case and the decision would be particularly useful to investigate for those interested in thinking about the politics of race and adoption.

Hi all - thanks for your questions! Let me start with Janice.

Re method: Yes, Janice, you have the basic idea right. But the problem is that in the social world, often the relationship between our way of thinking and reality is more complicated, e.g., the project of defining what marriage is, is not just a descriptive or explanatory project. We need to figure out what marriage should be. This may involve offering a new concept (or revised concept) that changes the world. But then by what standards do we judge ourselves to be successful? It would seem we should use moral/evaluative concepts. But if we are also using the same method for understanding/critiquing them, things seem pretty unstable. Yes, we need to work plank by plank to repair Neurath's boat, but I'm just not sure if there is a better or worse place to begin. (Note too that we can't just take people's preferences or pleasures/pain to be a stable basis for evaluation because they will change as our concepts and self-understandings change.) I'm not sure if this makes sense....but I do feel muddled about it.

More in a second...

Julia - yes! I agree that there is a literature on problems that can't be dealt with individualistically such as global warming, etc. But the problems I have in mind are somewhat different. The first issue is explaining what look like a bunch of individual choices in structural terms, and then thinking about how the structures could be different. In my view, most of our individual choices are highly conditioned by our social milieu - what is available, local social meanings, our concepts, etc. For example, when I get up in the morning I put on shorts and a t-shirt (rather than a ball gown or a sari), and I do this freely; but an adequate explanation of my behavior, I think, should look at the social factors that structure my choices, including culture, the market, my background and the local pressures on me including the activities I will be expected to engage in, the material conditions such as the temperature, the availability of cotton or silk, the shelter I will be occupying, etc. A lot of other humanistic disciplines are involved in social critique, meaning critique of culture, the market, etc. But this background tends to be invisible in ethics. People have preferences and make choices and perform actions, and we hold them morally responsible, or not. But to my mind, there is so much more to consider: are there choices I should have but don't (and why?)? Are there choices that I have that others should also have, but don't (and why?)? What are the meanings of my choices/actions and how did they come to have those meanings? Are there ways in which the meanings are distorted or cramped that might be ameliorated? (I am answering this question without giving an direct answer to the question "What is "the social"?" because I am avoiding that....) Does this help?

Meena - thank you for your follow-up to Julia's comment. Yes, there is work amongst communitarians on the sorts of questions I find interesting and important. But perhaps the difference is that I'm interested in why philosophers are not more engaged in social critique. I'm not sure how to articulate my frustration. Perhaps the issue can be put this way: moral and political philosophers seem to take so much of what people do and think at face value. It is as if the forces that govern us are a matter of our intentions, policies, etc. But this is just the tip of the iceberg. I find that a deeper structural/material/historical explanation of human societies is really important for understanding how we live together, and if we want to change how we live, we are going to have to do a lot more to address those factors. I'm interested in the notion of "critique" that looks to analyze the preconditions for life as we know it so we can disrupt them. Trying to think about things differently is part of what's needed, but if we haven't gained understanding through critique, it is easy for the forces that hold the current conditions in place to persist in spite of good new ideas.

I'm sure I haven't articulated this well....but keep pressing me!

Clare - thanks for your quesiton! I am not sure I fully understand your question, but what I take you to be asking is whether it is always valuable to reach out to the transracial adoptees community of origin to gain knowledge and advice about how to raise the child. The worry, I take it, is that sometimes the community is dysfunctional: white parents would "not consider adults of the child’s racial group a good resource in part because criminality and race are intermingled in our current context."

I have to admit, I can't even see what the concern is. Is the idea that some races are so immersed in the criminal lifestyle that either white parents would be in danger if they reached out to them, or all they could learn from the racial community would be how to be criminal? This strikes me as thoroughly absurd. It might be that it is not feasible or desirable to make contact with the adoptees birthfamily. But every race has multiple cultural forms and there are traditions and ways of life that are valuable. The issue is that an individual whose appearance marks them in a social context as being of a particular race needs to find ways of navigating that social meaning in ways that are affirming and healthy. So the job of a white parent is to find support amongst people similarly marked to understand what's involved, what the challenges are, and how positive identities are formed in the face of the challenges. This will involve choices - I don't encourage my children to identify with misogynistic elements of some Black sub-cultures. But the complexity of race and culture provides options. And whether foster parenting requires similar efforts depends on the circumstances. Parenting is usually a matter of triage: you have to work first to make sure your child is safe, basically healthy, connected/attached, etc. Whether racial identity is a priority at a given time will depend on what other challenges are immanent.

Hi Chike:
Thanks for raising the question of the recent decision. I had heard news of the decision but haven't studied it. One thing I find curious in the article you link is the suggestion that the case wouldn't have arisen ("what made it a federal case") unless the father had been an American Indian. That's not my understanding. I would think that Scalia is right (a first for me!): "The best interests of the child, he pointed out, are not in fact considered when a baby is born unless there is some controversy about custody -- the child ordinarily stays with its biological parents. Some children, he said, would “be better off raised by someone else,” but our laws respect the rights of birth parents."

I agree with the presumption that parents should have custody of their biological child unless there is evidence of abuse or neglect. Otherwise there is too much room for abuse in removing children from their biological families due to racist and classist assumptions about what's good for the child. This is exactly what the ICWA was created to avoid. Sure, it will be hard for a baby to be removed from a loving family to move to another home, but kids are resilient, and there is reason to think that if the adoptive parents had not fought the father's right to start with, it would have been easier on the child (at 4 months!), so I place the blame with them, not the biological father, for the harm.

That said, I may be missing some aspects of the case since I didn't really study it. It is worth a close look though!

Hello Sally,
I am so sorry my original question wasn’t clear. I am currently reading The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander and I was assuming that there is no real difference between actual behaviors across racial lines but that through unjust practices such as stop and frisk in NY it appears (wrongly) to be about dysfunctional communities. Anecdotally when I show my students data about disproportionate punishment they seem to respond as if this is about adult people of color’s character. Psychologist, Jennifer Eberhardt has done work showing there is a strong implicit association between black people and criminality. I now show Anderson Cooper’s version of the doll study where children discuss race and they are much more receptive to seeing that we are not in a post racial society and they don’t seem to import views about criminality. I find in your writing that you are very contentious about these issues but I worry that the average white person, even one transracially adopting does not come close to your level of reflection. I take it that historically child removal has been about racism simpliciter but in the age of the The New Jim Crow part of the epistemic distortion is seeing racial groups as criminals. I agree with Charles Mills that the racial system in place is set up such that whites do not have knowledge of the reality that people of color experience. In essence, I worry there is a high likelihood in our context that a white parent would reject associating with communities of color because they think (wrongly) that there is a cultural dysfunction in that community. I was watching a news report shortly after Trayvon Martin’s death and they were speaking to parents. Many of the parents talked about having discussions with their children about clothing choices and interacting with law enforcement. I was blown away and upset by this. My parents never had that sort of discussion (privilege) with me and I don’t know that they would have thought to even if I was a person of color. A white parent might hold the belief that the police only hassle people that are up to no good and therefore see no reason to discuss this with their child thereby failing to prepare them for our racist context. In essence, do you think that the way that criminality and race are wrongly intermingled in our society makes the epistemic burden on white parents especially difficult? Would it rise to the level of a type of supererogatory epistemic feat? I really like your discussion of your racial identity changing. I think this would be an especially important process for transracial adoption. I am assuming (perhaps wrongly) that not all of these changes are passive but involve a lot of work on your part. I worry that the nature of foster care is such that white foster parents would not see the value of investing themselves at the level of identity change and therefore creates many bad environments for children of color. Do you think that foster parents, even though custody may be temporary, ought to have a change of identity? I realize much of this hangs on whether identity change is passive, active, or both. I hope this clarified my worries. I hope this was clear.

*conscientious. I am sorry I am very nervous.

Sally, thanks, yes, that helps a lot! These questions are very interesting. I am reminded of some of Ann Cudd's work, too (esp."Oppression by Choice").

Hi Clare - I'm so sorry I misconstrued your earlier question! Your elaboration helps a lot.

I think it is really hard for white people to see the complexity of races (actually it can be hard for anyone to see the complexity of another race). And it is certainly true that in the minds of many white people there is a fear of other races and assumptions of criminality, etc.

I think there are many different kinds of adoptive and foster parents. Some adoptive parents are aware that there is work to be done to help their children feel at home in the world and part of that will involve helping them be comfortable as members of their race. These are likely people who already reject the ideas about criminality, etc. But others want to "save" the child from their race. And in that case, it is going to be REALLY hard to reach out. Sometimes agencies will screen out such families. But I'd guess that there are whole agencies that are about saving children - this was certainly the case with American Indians. And there will be fear, and avoidance, and ignorance. But interestingly, kids are often good teachers, and they make connections (on the playground, in school) and if you love your child who is of a different race, it is hard to see race the same way.

I don't really have much philosophical to add here, and am just rambling. But I don't think it is supererogatory to gain the knowledge you need to prepare your child for life in an unhealthy and unjust culture. It is what you need to do to be a good parent. Have you read Andrew Solomon's *Far From the Tree*? It is a really powerful book about parenting children who are not like you in significant ways. It is a really powerful book.

Don't be nervous about asking questions. I'm sorry if my first answer made you nervous. Keep asking if you want!

Yes, Julia! Ann Cudd's work is really fantastic and I've really benefited from it.

Hello Sally,
If you can believe it I am trying again! This question is about the business of philosophy. I read your book in the context of a seminar on the metaphysics of gender and the class participants have a variety of interests. There were two features of Resisting Reality that I found incredibly refreshing. First, you shared the spotlight. Someone new to your topics could pick up your book and not only get exposure to your work but your footnotes etc. really guided the reader to an unusually high number of other philosopher’s work. Second, you are an excellent bridge builder. Your treatment of philosophers that, I take it, often get short shrift brought these philosophers to a new audience. Are these features that you consciously imparted in your work? Do you have any suggestions for other philosophers that are writing books to help them create the same climate in their work?

Sally, thank you very much for the thoughtful response. Again, though, I find myself surprised by your answer. This is largely because political philosophy is usually criticized for not being steeped enough in the way things really are (we are accused of failing to put enough stalk in what people actually do, say, and think) and of focusing too much on the way that things ought to be. This is the critique of political philosophy as being too focused on ideal theory. This is now changing with a new focus on non-ideal theory. So, while I am very much in agreement with you about what is important to focus on, I am not as sure as you that contemporary political philosophy doesn't deal with much of what you are concerned with. This seems true also in relation to what you describe as "structural" concerns. If I understand correctly, you are interested in how structural features can create, shape, and structure our choices. Much of the recent focus in political philosophy on "structural injustice" addresses exactly these issues. Again, I agree that yours are really important concerns, but I think that there are good resources in political philosophy. So, I want to take up your request and to really push you again to explain what you see as being distinctive about your approach to the "social". I find this discussion extremely intriguing and exciting. It brings to light some good grounds for a much closer relationship between people like yourself doing feminist theory, m&e, etc. and people like myself doing political philosophy. Thanks again for the great discussion!

HI Meena - I'm glad you think there are people working on these issues. My own experience with political philosophy is that it is STILL mostly discussion of Rawls and/or discussion of what states can and can't do (except Anderson and a very few others). In particular, the political philosophy I read isn't about structural issues that occur between the state and the individual. Can you give me some examples of the sort of work you have in mind?

Thanks, Clare! That is very kind of you. I do think it is important to write in ways that philosophers are introduced to each other. I work in such a weird tangle of areas, discussing philosophers who never talk to each other or read each other, I don't really have an option but to try to find common ground and common language. It means the world to me that you think I'm sometimes successful! :)

Hi Sally, thanks for pushing back. I should have given some clear examples of what I have in mind. Outside of work you're already familiar with (such as Okin and Cudd), I was mainly thinking of work in international justice. For example, Thomas Pogge's work emphasizes the role that international political structures play in the causation of global poverty. People who work in global justice and health also talk about the social causes of global health injustice. One piece of work that comes to mind, outside of Pogge's work in this area, is Sridhar Venkatapuram's "Global Justice and the Social Determinants of Health" in Ethics and International Affairs. I myself am doing some work on exploitation. I argue that exploitation can be understood as taking wrongful advantage of other's vulnerabilities. It seems to me that many of the vulnerabilities that lead to exploitation are the result of structural injustices. But may be that's just me!

Hi Sally,

I wonder whether you think there is a fruitful meeting point between your work on the social construction of concepts and the topic of thick concepts in the ethics literature? I think one way to think of the so-called 'culture wars' is as wars over which thick concepts hold sway within a society. Does society understand sexual issues, for example, primarily in terms of concepts connected with sexual purity and restraint ('sanctity', 'chastity', and so on) or in terms of sexual freedom, self-expression, and experimentation ('liberation', 'orientation', 'kink', and so on)? The culture wars are, in other words, concept wars. But the moral philosophy literature on thick concepts tends (in precisely the way you suggest is typical) to ignore the social and political aspects of concept formation and concept possession. You haven't (to my knowledge) written on thick concepts at all but this seems a promising point of connection between your work and work in the 'mainstream' (i.e. mainstream analytic) ethics literature. What do you think? Any interest in taking this overlap up (and in doing so continuing to shake things up, thank goodness)?

Hi Sally

I wonder if your concerns are in every respect so far from those of the broad area of philosophical research that has come to be labeled "collective intentionality" theory? In one of your responses you write that "an adequate explanation of my behavior, I think, should look at the social factors that structure my choices, including culture, the market, my background and the local pressures on me including the activities I will be expected to engage in, the material conditions such as the temperature, the availability of cotton or silk, the shelter I will be occupying, etc." Within the collective intentionality literature there is a lot of material that attempts to understand the kinds of thing you mention here, including work on (as the standard terminology goes) social rules, collective beliefs, and shared values. These are not seen by the discussants as limited to either very small or very large populations. Perhaps you are unhappy with the accounts of these things that have been offered by the theorists in question. If so this could be the source of a fruitful dialogue.

Hi Sally,

Great stuff!!

Two questions:

First, am I correct to think that social structures on your view derive their normative force – their norms for the behavior of social role occupants – on the basis of historical facts about how they were organized? If so, do histories of organization individuate social structures on your view? If not, what does?

Second, as you may know there is lots of good work done in social-role theory that discusses gender-role from a structuralist perspective (the psychologist Alice Eagly’s work comes to mind), and in trying to figure out where that type of investigation ends and yours begins, I come back to your question/topic #3 about philosophical method. On the one hand, your project seems naturalistic: theories from the social sciences carve out social reality at its joints, one of those joints is social structures and their causal power, and you are reflecting on how that joint informs philosophical questions about the ontology of social categories (and other stuff). On the other hand, and as you mention, you want to allow for radical possibilities. You note above that we can introduce new terms in order to affect social change. However – and here the naturalistic project comes back into focus – it seems that it is an empirical question what the causal forces are that sustain and evolve and social structures. Is this a theoretical commitment that you wish to avoid? I guess I’m not entirely sure what your worries are regarding naturalistic methodology here.

Sorry, all, for the delay. First, Meena - yes! I think the work you cite is very relevant, and I would love to build more bridges between that work and my own.

Daniel - I LOVE the suggestion that there are connections between my work and the debates about thick concepts. I agree that there are important issues here and I've been wanting to get up to speed on thick concepts. Can you suggest some reading (other than (classic) Williams and (new) Eklund)? Also, in my paper "Social Construction: The Debunking Project" (on my website) I distinguish thick and thin social categories. I think that's relevant, as is a really interesting paper by Laura and Francois Schroeter "A Third Way in Metaethics."

Margaret and Ted, I'll get back soon...just got interrupted.

Hi Sally,

Thanks for the references: I will check them out.

What has interested a lot of people in thick concepts is obviously the way in which they combine the evaluative and descriptive (and much of the debate is over how exactly they do this), and the focus has been on ethical terms such as ‘kindness’ or ‘cruelty’. Many think that judgements employing thick ethical concepts are ‘factual’ and can straightforwardly be true.

But think of terms such as ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’. These seem to combine the evaluative and the descriptive in a suitably ‘thick’ way: can judgements employing these concepts be true or false? Now, I can think of the explanation of the practice of using the terms ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ (in the traditional sort of way) and think of it as involving both mistaken beliefs and misguided values etc. But still, can I not still think of ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ as concepts with which, should I wish to participate in their use, there is knowledge to be had? After all, I’ve been inducted into the practice, and I know how I’m supposed to apply the concepts: I know who count as feminine women and masculine men and I know that I’m a fairly feminine guy, for instance. Isn’t this still knowledge? But I reject the use of the concepts (for a variety of reasons) and so come to ‘lose’ certain knowledge I could participate in (of course I gain by this loss). This is the line of thought that, it seems to me, ultimately explains Williams’ notorious claim that reflection can destroy knowledge.

I could of course decide to carry on using the traditional concepts but ‘co-opt’ them (call it queering a concept). This is of course now a pretty familiar practice too.

But the above opens up a way of thinking of rival and contesting conceptual practices -- one could even talk of ‘knowledges’ (I know this language may make some peasoupers shudder) -- in ways that seem to me philosophically and politically fruitful: and of course it ties up the topic of thick concepts with all the work on social construction that you have been doing.

I think the key Williams paper to read is “Truth in Ethics” in Brad Hooker (ed.) Truth in Ethics (Blackwell: 1996). I think that some of the essays in a collection on Williams I edited (Reading Bernard Williams: Routledge, 2009) would be helpful: see Blackburn, Ch 1, esp pp.19-21 and Goldie, Ch 5, esp pp.96-97, and perhaps Rovane Ch 3 for an exploration (albeit not focused on thick concepts) of multimundialism about the ethical. (I also think that you would enjoy the Krause paper on political action, Ch 12.) But none of these papers are exactly on the topic and I’m afraid that I’m not up enough on the collections on thick concepts published in the last two years (pea-soupers?). If thick concepts (with their ‘union’ of fact and value) are the main way in which people build an ethical world, then one would think that there would be many papers on thick concepts and social construction but I don’t know of any. Over to you!

The comments to this entry are closed.

Ethics at PEA Soup

PPE at PEA Soup

Like PEA Soup

Search PEA Soup


  • Unless otherwise indicated, the views expressed in any given post reflect the opinion of only that individual who posted the particular entry or comment.