Philosophy’s Disunity as Cover for Its Problems

Philosophy’s Disunity as Cover for Its Problems


The nature of philosophy is to blame for philosophy’s woman problem, says Zachary Ernst, who left his position as tenured associate professor of philosophy at University of Missouri to work in the private sector, and who occasionally writes about academia and philosophy at his blog, Inklings. But it isn’t what you think. Ernst isn’t blaming philosophy’s combativeness or its emphasis on innate talent. Rather, he thinks that because philosophy has “no unifying subject matter”, it is “like a blank canvas on which people paint their biases.”

First, there’s the case to be made that philosophy is not unified. Ernst describes how philosophy is broken into different areas of specialization, each with various subfields which ask different questions and sometimes conflict with one another. These subfields are lumped together through “historical accident.” He writes:

When I was an academic philosopher, I took the position that these subfields have nothing whatsoever of any significance in common with each other. I thought, and I still do, that it’s just an accident that we happen to put these people in the same academic department. This really angered a lot of people. In fact, some of the most heated discussions (which weren’t really discussions) I ever had were about the (boring) question of what should count as “philosophy”. My former colleagues would invariably trot out some generalization that supposedly grouped together all these different areas of philosophy, but I always thought they did nothing but demonstrate my colleagues’ appalling ignorance of what was happening outside their own cloistered department. Every single time they provided something that was supposed to differentiate philosophy from other fields, it was trivial to name another department (which was certainly not “philosophy”), in which that differentiating factor was on full display.

Academic philosophy is simply a loose agglomeration of different questions, methodologies, and topics. And there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with that. If the questions are good ones, and the methodologies are sound, then by all means, pursue those problems. But the fact that your offices are in the same building doesn’t make it the case that you’re doing the same thing.  

Second, there is the case to be made that this disunity contributes to sexism in philosophy. Ernst claims it does by depriving the often used hiring criteria of “fit” of any determinate content.

The word you always hear is “fit”. Some compromise between the department’s strengths and weaknesses is settled-upon, and an applicant who matches that compromise is a “fit” for the department.

The trouble is that, paradoxically, we’re talking about whether someone “fits” into a structure that has no specific boundaries, and in which there is no agreement about those boundaries. This provides some very convenient cover for someone who just isn’t very comfortable with treating a woman as his equal.

If you want to make an argument against hiring someone, the best way is often to show that they’re not a good “fit”. There are two ways to be a bad “fit” — you can overlap too much, or not enough. So the trick is to find a plausible way to redraw your disciplinary boundaries so that the person falls too far inside or too far outside these imaginary boundaries…

[W]hat does this have to do with sexism? The answer is that it provides fabulous cover for sex discrimination. When you’re not comfortable with someone because of their gender, you can oppose their being hired, being awarded tenure, and so on by redrawing a set of disciplinary boundaries that were never real to begin with. In my experience, there are many victims of this strategy, but a disproportionate number of them are women.

The genius of this strategy is that when you redraw your discipline’s boundaries in order to exclude someone, you are being no more arbitrary than when you redraw those boundaries to include someone else. The victim of this fraud is unable to point to any specific aspect of the hiring (or promotion) process that was unfairly or arbitrarily applied to her, because the entire process is a sham to begin with, from the moment a job advertisement is formulated that lists desired areas of expertise (those areas of expertise are, after all, themselves totally arbitrary). You can’t point to a lie that was applied to your case when exactly similar lies were uniformly applied to everyone.

The whole post is here.  Does philosophy lack unity? If so, is it unusual among the disciplines in this regard? And is the connection between lack of disciplinary unity and sexism (and perhaps other forms of discrimination) plausible? How is the notion of “fit” used in your department’s hiring? Comments welcome.

(image: photo of pieces of “1000 Colours Puzzle” by Clemens Habicht)

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