What Was I Thinking?


As I pressed the “publish” button on the “Philosophical Topics of Interest to Women?” post, the old Saturday Night Live commercial for “Chess for Girls!” popped into my head. It was a warning, but one that I allowed to go unheeded. In part this was owed to exhaustion, in part to distraction, in part to what might be a less-than-optimal amount of conscientiousness about certain things, and in part because the person whose inquiry was featured in the post is, in fact, a good and smart person who I know to be sincerely concerned with improving the climate for women in philosophy, and so I did not have my guard up.

A minute after I published the post, criticisms started rolling in—via instant message, email, Facebook, and eventually in comments here at Daily Nous. I headed off to a full-day philosophy workshop, finding time here and there to approve each comment in the growing pile of objections. It was nice to be forced away from the blog for much of the day as this was going on. But now the workshop is over. I have reread the comments here, the post at Feminist Philosophers about it, and can now share my thoughts, in case you’re interested.

First, let me thank those of you who have written to me about this, either privately or in comments here or on Facebook or on other blogs. I’m grateful for the criticisms, and see them as chances for learning. I’m also grateful for the charity that most commentators have extended to me while making their objections, in regard to my intentions (and also to the professor whose question I posted, in regard to his intentions). And I am also appreciative of those who included kind words about Daily Nous when presenting their objections.

Second, it should have been rather clear to me that the question, as presented, embeds some explicitly sexist assumptions and lends itself easily to a further sexist read apart from those assumptions. Also, my posting of it placed a burden of explanation on those who already have their hands full dealing with and fighting sexism elsewhere. So, even though the ensuing discussion was really very interesting and I think quite useful, I apologize for posting it as I did. It was a mistake to post something so sexist.

Third, let me address the call that some people made for me to delete the post. I did not do this for a few reasons. Mainly, it felt like a cheat—an attempt to revise the record. Better, I thought, to not try to hide the mistake, but rather to use it as a learning opportunity, for me and for the readers. I’m kind of Millian about these things, and have the hope (perhaps unfounded) that, generally (generally, not always), further discussion of problematic issues is better than silence.

Fourth, just to be clear, I’d like to say what I would do if I could do it all over again. I would post it again, but, first, I would have edited the query before posting it, eliminating the sexist examples, and eliminating any language that assumes that there are “topics that are more likely to be of interest to women than other topics.” Second, I would have added some editorial remarks that indicate explicitly that, along several dimensions, the value of asking this question is up for discussion. Third, I would have added remarks that stress that acceptable answers to the query will be based on data and people’s real teaching experiences and not on sexist assumptions and speculation. And finally, I would have made some remarks about how even data-based generalizations about students’ preferences may be of little use, and may reinforce harmful and limiting stereotypes.

Let me again thank everyone for taking the time to comment on these matters, and apologize for posting the question as I did. I recognize that Daily Nous is a kind of public space for the profession, and that I need to exercise wisdom in tending it. I am still working on the wisdom thing, though, and so I appreciate you all stepping up to help when I need it.

Justin

P.S. Today is another travel day, so comments may be slow to appear.

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alethiam
alethiam
7 years ago

I’ve been looking for that Chess for Girls skit. (Seriously.)Report

Anon
Anon
7 years ago

This post violates disciplinary norms about responding to criticism on the internet. You’re supposed to lash out at people and say ridiculous things.Report

rebeccakukla
rebeccakukla
7 years ago

This is a model response, Justin. Well done. I think you’ve just established a new model for blogging about the discipline.Report

Jan
Jan
Reply to  rebeccakukla
7 years ago

Hear, hear!
with one addition: I really appreciate the work you do with this blog! Thanks so much.Report

Rachel V McKinnon
7 years ago

Thanks Justin.Report

hlinde
hlinde
7 years ago

Well done, Justin! I think that post generated soul-searching for some, and prodded others (myself included) to formulate more precisely what we thought about the subject.Report

Anonymous
Anonymous
7 years ago

The main cause of the small number of women in philosophy is the treatment of women and their ideas, in classrooms and in professional contexts, in many ways large and small. It’s not the topics, at least not in the first instance. That said, the poor treatment of women connects in complicated ways to the topics. For example, women are less likely to be dismissed as confused when they present philosophical arguments about, say, surrogacy. But then, as a “women’s topic” the topic itself is more likely to be dismissed. So the solution is to treat women and their ideas better, no matter what the topic. Once this happens, more women will want to do philosophy.Report

Elizabeth Harman
Elizabeth Harman
7 years ago

Thanks for this, Justin!Report

Jennifer C.
Jennifer C.
7 years ago

The contrast between this blog and a certain salient alternative couldn’t be sharper. So refreshing. Thanks for doing this work for the profession.Report

Lauren Leydon-Hardy
Lauren Leydon-Hardy
7 years ago

I want to echo Hilde and Rebecca — your response here is just awesome. Daily Nous rules.Report

Ellie Mason
Ellie Mason
7 years ago

Respect.Report

anon reader
anon reader
7 years ago

Oops, I arrived too late because I’d wanted to participate in the discussion. I didn’t think there was anything wrong with the question (I am a woman professor in a mostly male dominated area) and I think a lot about approaches, and subtopics within areas, which are likely to be more appealing to women given the kinds of educational and social backgrounds women are more likely to have had. E.g. less reliance on examples from mathematics and physics where these aren’t required, less unnecessary symbolism, fewer sports analogies… asking about specific topics to include on syllabi seems a reasonable extension of this.Report

Anon
Anon
7 years ago

This is why I don’t blog.Report

Carla Fehr
Carla Fehr
7 years ago

Thank youReport

ayt.
ayt.
7 years ago

i’m really pleased that you didn’t delete the original post and thereby attempt to alter the public record. this is one of the things i like least about a certain other blog. good on you for your thoughtful and measured response.Report

Anon
Anon
7 years ago

Thank you for this thoughtful post. Such a refreshing response, and makes me feel great that this is my go-to source for news in the profession.Report

anongrad
anongrad
7 years ago

I guess I missed the boat here, but do people think it would have been less problematic if the original post had asked for evidence of non-philosophical interests that tend—as a matter of fact, and perhaps entirely to do social contingencies, etc.—to be more of interest to women, and that can be tied into a philosophy curriculum? All sorts of philosophical problems and concepts—in logic, ethics, whatever—can be illustrated in any number of ways. For example, there are countless examples of free-rider problems that all have the same structure: union dues, climate change, traditional agricultural problems, etc. If it were to turn out that, for whatever reason, women tend to be more interested in unions than in climate change or agriculture, and men more interested in climate change than the other two—just a hypothetical, of course—then I don’t see what would be pernicious about intentionally using a union example of a free-rider problem in one’s class for the reason that it would be more likely to appeal to women’s non-philosophical interests; or at least I don’t see what would be pernicious about trying to balance one’s examples. I often hear people criticized for using examples that (apparently) appeal more to men—regardless of its accuracy, the complaint is often leveled when people use sports examples. When accurate, I think this is a legitimate criticism. But to remedy it, we need to first know if there are in fact gender differences in the interests people hold. There may not be, but I don’t think we can settle the question a priori (as one of the other commenters pointed out).

Of course, I may very well be missing something here. If I am, I very much welcome being set straight.Report

Sam Centipedro
7 years ago

This non-philosopher (who bumped accidentally into this post and its predecessor) finds the most miserable aspect of this little fuss to be the poor level of thought and discussion.

All I see is a stream of unsubstantiated assertions and hand-waving opinions. Is that what philosophers think is appropriate? I thought reasoning skills were valued highly, but I don’t see them here.

OK, even taking it as a given that it would be desirable to have a more equal gender balance in philosophy (which is a large assumption in itself), I see no attempt to understand the nature of the problem, its causes, the relevant interactions between the underlying factors, and how to come up with a solution. And no attempt to establish what is already known about this issue.

Crooked Timber had some posts on the issue, including one called “Stereotype threat and Philosophy’s problem” in December 2013 (http://crookedtimber.org/2013/12/03/stereotype-threat-and-philosophys-problem/). That was prompted by a paper by Gina Schouten and the blogger writes: “Her paper is, as she says, an armchair reflection on the hypothesis, but I think it would be useful to anyone wanting to study the causes of the sex ratios empirically.”

Where is the research program into identifying these factors? Where are the results? Surely at least one philosophy department somewhere has had the brains to work out that conjuring up a research project on the issue in conjunction with a social sciences or educational sciences department (we know joint ventures give bigger kudos to both sides – win-win!) to draw out those factors. Understanding a problem is the first step in solving it.

My guess is that it is because philosophy seems to value asking questions much more highly than finding out answers. But a question without an answer (be it conjecture or fully fledged theory) is nearly valueless. If it cannot find answers, philosophy is the pursuit of pure ignorance.

(I asked some philosophers of religion once what questions their field had answered – the silence was deafening!)

Why philosophers think their discipline should be respected by other fields when they can’t even work out how to pitch their own tent is beyond my understanding.Report

Crimlaw
Crimlaw
Reply to  Sam Centipedro
7 years ago

Sam Centipedro sounds like he thinks that conversations at a blog are where philosophers do their main work.Report