That Philosophy Is A “Cushy Gig” Explains Some Of The Profession’s Problems


Philosophy is largely male, white, cis, straight, able-bodied—why? Well, maybe it has little or nothing to do with philosophy.

That appears to be the view of philosopher Albert Atkin (Macquarie), in response to Richard Marshall when he raises the topic of diversity in philosophy in an interview at 3:AM Magazine.

Atkin, who spends some time in the interview discussing not only his philosophical work on pragmatism and Pierce, but also his Roma Traveller background, has the following to say:

I don’t agree that philosophy has a problem that other disciplines don’t. Take your example of History. A report from the RHS last year noted that only 20% of History Professors in the UK are women: about the same as the number of women holding senior positions in The City. Philosophy is probably a bit worse on those kind of indicators, but History isn’t exactly knocking it out of the park either. Truth is, philosophy is very white and very male, and extremely middle class, but so are most other disciplines. And they all share the same kinds of problems that we do—sexual harassment, greater career obstacles for women and people who are racialised as other than white, full of shibboleths and mores that are alienating to those from working class backgrounds, unfriendly or indifferent to people with disability, and so on. And as far as I can tell… it happens because the academy is just another social structure in a society that for the most part fucks-over women, people who are racialised as other than white, the poor and working class, and people with disability.

I honestly think claims that there is something intrinsic to the discipline that means it attracts a particular type of person (who tends to be male and white and wealthy) is weak tea. Philosophy has a problem, but it has a problem because the world is a shitty place, and the most comfortable and interesting jobs tend to be populated by the most privileged. As much as people complain about academia, it’s a pretty cushy gig. Why are there so few black academics? Because for the most part, society is racist. Why do we struggle to get gender equality? Because for the most part, society is sexist. Why are working class people underrepresented in academia? Because for the most part society makes it easier for the privileged to succeed. Why are people of disability made invisible in academia? Because for the most part society is ableist. Philosophy may be a particularly troublesome and resistant pocket of that society, but it’s hardly the last or biggest hold out.

Readers may recall some data on how white philosophy is compared to other humanities collected by Eric Schwitzgebel (Riverside). It is now two years old, so precise numbers may have changed, but as you can see, philosophy is not the worst offender:

Latin American History: 50% white
Spanish Literature: 51% white
Asian History: 53% white
American Studies: 60% white
Comparative Literature: 73% white
Music: 77% white
American Literature: 78% white
Drama/Theater: 78% white
Musicology/Ethnomusicology: 79% white
English Language: 79% white
Art: 81% white
Religion/Religious Studies: 81% white
American History: 82% white
Middle/Near-East Studies: 84% white
Philosophy: 84.5% white
Archaeology: 85% white
History, Science, Technology, and Society: 85% white
English Literature: 86% white
French & Italian Literature: 87% white
Music Theory and Composition: 87% white
European History: 90% white
Classics: 91% white
German Literature: 91% white

(See also “Blacks in Philosophy in the US,” “Minorities in Philosophy: Data Visualized,” “Percentages of US Doctorates in Philosophy Given to Women and to Minorities, 1973-2014,” and “Demographic Data on US Philosophy Faculty.”)

Atkins thinks that the focus of our efforts should be on society, not just exclusively on the profession:

You also ask, what can be done? Well, we can obviously try to make the places we work more equitable, try to make ourselves aware of the inequities and of all the things that lead to inequitable treatment and try to counteract them. But there is much more to it than this. If you take History as an example again, the RHS will tell you they’ve been trying to improve gender equality for the last thirty odd years. That’s why, despite being better than philosophy, they’re pretty disappointed with their results. We have to play catch up to that within the discipline, but really, we have to do more to rectify the inequality we find in society at large. I mean, I don’t know if there are any other professional philosophers who self-identify as Roma Traveller, but I don’t imagine there’d be too many of us. However, I’m not going to worry about that for the time being because the greater concern for me is seeing Roma children given the proper opportunities to finish school, get access to good health care and fair treatment in the judicial system. The problem goes far beyond academia. There’s much we should and can do within philosophy, but we also have to do more outside of the academy too.

The whole interview is here.

Byron Kim, Synecdoche

Byron Kim, Synecdoche

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