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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Thomas
Thomas
6 years ago

I`m not really sold on the idea that there is in fact such a strong disunity in philosophy. Granted, there are plenty of diverse theoretical and methodological views floating around and it takes a different body of knowledge and skills in order to make a substantial contribution in Heidegger-inspired phenomenology, formal epistemology or exegetical work on Boethius. What I`ve encountered many times though is that, when listening to a talk, a solid philosopher usually has a very good grasp about the weak points of a certain theory, even when the theory presented is in a field outside of his area of expertise. For example i`ve heard very interesting arguments in talks in applied ethics from folks that work in Lewis-style metaphysics and so forth.
In contrast to that one also should not downplay the disunity of some of the hard sciences. In physics for example the scientists that are concerned with the theoretical foundations and those working on the engineering-side very often have no idea about the work of their counterparts. Still there is no need to draw artificial borders.Report

Here is a Name
Here is a Name
6 years ago

Can we have a moratorium on idle armchair speculation about the gender disparity in philosophy and limit ourselves to actual evidence? It would move the conversation forward significantly (at the cost of blog hits).Report

Arthur Greeves
Arthur Greeves
6 years ago

I would have thought that the rarity of women hires in the area of philosophy simply proceeded from the dearth of female graduate students, and the dearth of grad students proceeds from the dearth of female applicants, etc. Is there evidence that (in large numbers) women are being turned away from jobs that they are more qualified for than their male counterparts? If not, Ernst’s point is based on a false premise.Report

Joe Bartzel
Joe Bartzel
6 years ago

I’m a PhD student in a religious studies department, formerly in a philosophy department. We’re perhaps worse off than philosophy (and at least as much so) when it comes to lacking clear boundaries. And yet, while RS is far from perfect itself, we don’t have the same levels of underrepresentation of women that philosophy does. So, while it may be true that disunity functions as a convenient cover for some instances of discrimination that contribute to the problem of underrepresentation of women in philosophy, I doubt that this disunity is a causal factor in said underrepresentation–or, at the very least, that it’s a significant or primary causal factor. If it were, we’d expect to see similar levels of underrepresentation in other departments where disunity is similarly pervasive; yet, in actuality, that’s not what we see, at least in the case of religious studies.Report

anonymous person
anonymous person
6 years ago

I am really bothered by, and tired of, random philosophers–especially men–speculating wildly from the armchair about why philosophy has a “woman problem”. This person doesn’t even have first-person access to even a single woman’s experience in philosophy. Nor is he providing any empirical evidence for anything. Also, I can’t understand how anyone can currently hypothesize that the problem is at the hiring level (the tenuring level is different–I suspect that if we looked at numbers, there might be some evidence that women are disproportionally denied tenure). These people who troll every blog complaining about women getting preferential treatment in hiring are probably wrong, and I think they are wrong that that would be bad even if it was happening. But they are certainly *right* that simple numbers suggest that the ratio of women:men getting hired is roughly proportionate to the ratio of women:men getting philosophy PhDs. And we have evidence of where it is that we start losing women in philosophy, and it is far before the hiring stage. So I find it a bit bizarre to claim that “fit” is used as a way to discriminate against women. (I suspect it *is* used as a way to discriminate against racial minorities, disabled philosophers, and working class philosophers, but of course, claiming that here would be the pot calling the kettle black…) Even if this is right, the numbers seem to show that if that is what is going on, then other departments must be compensating by giving women preferential treatment in their job searches. (As a super “big-picture” philosophy person, I also don’t recognize this disunity of philosophy/find it hard to get my head around what it is supposed to be, but that is a different issue…)Report

Nobody
Nobody
6 years ago

I think he’s on to something. But rather than the disparate nature of the sub feilds, and the biased redrawing of lines, I think the abstract nature of philosophy makes it really hard for us to evaluate each other. And rather than admit we’re having a hard time doing that, we look to other factors instead- gender is one of them. Undergrad or PhD granting institution might be another. If I’m right, that’s pretty sad. I mean, aren’t we the ones who teach people not to commit ad hominems?Report

Chris Surprenant
6 years ago

From what I have seen, the women in philosophy problem can be traced back to what happens at the undergraduate level. Most 100-level philosophy classes at the places I’ve been (Colby, BU, Tulane, and UNO) are roughly 60% women, 40% men. When you look to major numbers and the male/female ratio in upper-level courses, it’s closer to 80% men, 20% women.

There seems to something about the discipline or what happens in the classes themselves that discourages women from continuing. When I was an undergraduate at Colby (Cheshire Calhoun, Jill Gordon, and Sarah Conly made up 50% of the teaching faculty), we tried to find out the cause through surveys. From what I remember about the results (this was back in 2004 or so), what we found was that the primary reason women are turned off from philosophy is because they perceive the discussions in the classroom as combative and not constructive. Through further discussion with female majors (controlled setting, it was a small committee that was looking into this issue, and I was the only male member), they expressed the concern that just participating in discussions that may be perceived as combative or where people are perceived to be opinionated will cause a girl to be labeled as a “bitch”, which presents a problem socially at a small, residential college like Colby.

I don’t know if we’d see the same results if we started surveying undergraduates in philosophy courses at colleges and universities across the US. But getting some sense as to why females leave would probably be easy enough. All you’d need to do is survey introductory level students, ask them why they signed up for course, what they liked/disliked about the course and philosophy in general, and then survey these students again a few weeks into the next semester asking them if they are taking any more philosophy courses, and if so, why, if not, why not. Do the same thing for majors. Ask them why they chose to major in philosophy, and then, when they graduate, ask them if they plan to do graduate work in philosophy, and if so, why, if not, why not. Then, you make all of the raw survey data public (redacting any identifying information) and let a large number of people get to work analyzing it.

Of course it’s a lot easier to speculate about why women do or don’t pursue PhDs or whatever else, but, as others have noted, if we really wanted to know we’d get some actual data from the students and go from there.Report

p
p
6 years ago

These kinds of idle and, I am not afraid to say, silly speculations are not helpful. The lack of women in professional philosophy is a very complex issue that most likely does not have one or two easily identifiable “causes” that one can just “think up” from behind a computer screen. And it probably has some roots way before we get to the professional stage though, no doubt, various other things along the way contribute mightily. In fact, this kind of “thinking up” stuff is paradigmatic analytic philosophy when it turns to bullshit – rigorous and about nothing.Report

In defense
In defense
6 years ago

A few things:
1. Dr. Ernst’s wife is a professor of philosophy.
2. During my graduate studies, I met Ernst and his partner. I worked with them both as colleagues and mentors.
3. Ernst AND his wife both supported grad students who came forward with hostile environment and sexual harassment claims–and yes, I was one of those students who had no choice but to report due to escalation after years of ignoring it. For the record, neither Ernst or his wife were witnesses to my own experiences and complaint.
4. Is this “fit” hypothesis based on his observations? Is it a thought experiment of sorts? Trial-and-error to better improve the climate in philosophy? Perhaps Ernst has experience in possibly having to give a statement if he witnessed or reported an incident? In my own experience, as a female, “fit” was a term I heard or read often in graduate studies but never my undergraduate studies (my undergraduate work was at an all-women’s college.).

I feel this essay gives philosophers something to work from to build philosophy, not tear it down. I also feel we, as philosophers, can’t dismiss this as a problem that only hurts women, nor should it be an issue that women should only ones discuss. In the latter case, we’re often dismissed as “hysterical feminazis” or some dismissive, insulting phrase.Report

Morgan Thompson
Morgan Thompson
6 years ago

As some commenters mention, there is already evidence that women take Introduction to Philosophy about in proportion to their representation in the undergraduate population, but the proportion of women drops off significantly after Intro (Paxton, Tiberius, Fidgor 2012). From that same study, it looks like the proportion of graduate students and faculty members are not statistically significant. More recent evidence is suggesting that women may come into college less interested in philosophy. Chris Dobbs (a graduate student at Georgia State) found that only a small proportion of students who come to college declaring a philosophy major are women. Dougherty, Baron, and Miller (2015) provide some evidence that women are less interested in philosophy compared to men even on the first day of class.

Further, Carolyn Dicey Jennings’ data on job market placement suggests that women get jobs in proportion to the proportion of women graduating with PhDs in philosophy. Although ambiguities with the notion of “fit” may provide ample opportunity for bias to sneak into the job market, it is unlikely to be the most (or even an) important factor in women’s underrepresentation in philosophy. Plus, I expect what Kristie Dotson (2012) describes as a culture of justification (or “border policing” the boundaries of philosophy) is much more harmful than a mere disunity of the subdisciplines within the field and the ability to redraw boundaries due to (explicit? implicit?) bias during the hiring process.

Many commenters are asking for empirical investigation of the factors that contribute to women’s underrepresentation in philosophy. Luckily, a great number of groups are currently investigating the problem through surveys and interviews. Hypatia recently published work by Tom Dougherty, Samuel Baron, and Kristie Miller investigating underrepresentation at the undergraduate level at U Sydney and by Cheshire Calhoun discussing issues about the philosophy major’s usefulness for getting students jobs. Crystal Aymelek has conducted qualitative interviews of women philosophy majors. Toni Adleberg, Sam Sims, Eddy Nahmias, and I have also investigated women’s experiences in the Introduction to Philosophy classroom at Georgia State. We found evidence for a number of potential factors: women perceive the philosophy major as less useful for getting a job, find the proportion of women authors on the syllabus to be unfair, find philosophical topics discussed in their courses to be less relevant to their lives, dislike the method of thought experiments to a greater extent than men, and feel less confident speaking about philosophical topics in class or in their ability to perform well on papers and exams. In line with the recent work by Sarah-Jane Leslie, Andrei Cimpian, Meredith Meyer, and Edward Freeland (2015), we found that although women are not more likely to perceive brilliance-based Field-Specific Ability Beliefs (FABs), the women who do perceive brilliance-based FABs are much less likely to plan to continue in philosophy than the men who perceive brilliance-based FABs. There are also a great number of empirical projects in the works at other schools. Hopefully, as we begin to get more empirical work on the problem, we can determine what factors cause the underrepresentation and what interventions ameliorate these factors. Ultimately, we expect that many of these interventions will improve the philosophy classroom for all students.

The underrepresentation of non-white philosophers receives less attention. We know black philosophers are so few in philosophy that we can determine the exact number of black philosophers currently in the field (Botts, Bright, Cherry, Mallarangeng, & Spencer 2014). Philosophy is in quite poor shape if we can count the number of black philosophers. It is however quite useful for investigating potential factors for the underrepresentation of black individuals in philosophy. At the Diversity in Philosophy conference, Cherry and Spencer presented data that the top 5 AOS’s of black philosophers and the top 5 AOS’s of black women philosophers differed drastically from the top 5 AOS’s of all philosophers based on the PhilPapers survey. With Liam Bright and Erich Kummerfeld, I am investigating potential factors for the underrepresentation of black students in philosophy at the undergraduate level. From our data at Georgia State, it looks like there may be a similar drop-off amongst black students after Introductory philosophy courses. It would be great to see more groups empirically investigating this issue or the plight of other underrepresented groups in addition to the factors contributing to women’s underrepresentation in philosophy.Report

Grad Student
Grad Student
6 years ago

“Does philosophy lack unity? If so, is it unusual among the disciplines in this regard?”

Yes, and yes. Why? Because philosophy is the starting point of inquiry. When one first asks an inchoate question one must engage in philosophical thinking in order to make it answerable. This means, among other things, getting clear on one’s concepts so that the question is stated in a clear way and thinking about the best way of coming to know the answer to the question. This already accounts for much of what are considered distinctively philosophical questions: epistemology, logic, philosophy of language, etc. all relate to the tools that philosophers use to make inchoate questions answerable. Philosophers tend to use a common set of tools that are fairly universal in their application because philosophy must be capable of tackling any inchoate questions that might arise from any domain whatsoever where there is no preexisting method of answering those questions. This is the only thing that unifies philosophical questions. Philosophy is not defined by its subject matter, but by the indispensable intellectual function it provides for the rest of human inquiry. People will still engage in philosophy without philosophy departments; they are just unlikely to do it in a very rigorous and explicit manner.

The problem is that many contemporary philosophers have begun to reify the tools of philosophy into a distinct universal subject matter. Thus prior to this movement we would both study logic, language, and knowledge on their own as well as use our understanding of these topics to try to answer specific problematic questions that arose in other parts of human inquiry. Now we wish to only study the tools themselves and leave the problematic questions to the sciences in which they arise. “What is the nature of memory?” … “Oh, that’s not philosophy, it’s psychology!”. If we continue to do this I expect that traditional philosophy departments will eventually be gutted and most philosophical subfields will either be continued in a limited manner within a number of smaller departments (e.g. ethics departments and HPS departments), or absorbed into other departments. For instance, logic will be absorbed into math and computer science departments, semantics will be absorbed into linguistics, empirically informed phil mind will be absorbed into cog-sci/psych departments, etc. Certain topics like philosophy of language that is not heavily integrated into empirical linguistics (i.e., theories of truth and propositions), metaethics, history of philosophy, Gettier-style epistemology, and rationalist metaphysics are unlikely to survive except perhaps in some religious institutions like Notre Dame. The irony is that the people who do the boundary policing most likely fall into this latter category. In their attempt to preserve the supposed purity of philosophy they are effectively condemning it to annihilation. Anyone who is even remotely aware of the current political climate should be trying to establish as many links between philosophy and the rest of the sciences/humanities as possible.

“And is the connection between lack of disciplinary unity and sexism (and perhaps other forms of discrimination) plausible?”

Nope. See comments #2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 8, and 10. At best it might be a fairly slight factor in some instances. There is very little reason to think that it is a major contributing factor.Report

Zachary Ernst
6 years ago

I think a few points of clarification are in order. First, I never claimed that the “fit” phenomenon I talked about in my blog post was a major cause of the disparities between men and women in philosophy. That would have been nutty, for exactly the reasons others have already mentioned.

Second, is this “armchair speculation”? Well, if I had claimed that the “fit” dynamic was a major cause of gender equality in the philosophy profession, then it would have been. But luckily, I never said that (because it would be nutty to make such a claim). All I said was that I’d seen it happen more than once. That’s not armchair speculation, although I have to admit that I was sitting in a chair with arms when I witnessed this happening.

So why even bother writing about it? The entire script that goes along with re-drawing “fit” lines is subtle and clever, insofar as it’s really difficult to demonstrate that there was any bias. Because it’s difficult or impossible to take action after discrimination has been enabled in this way, it’s got to be nipped in the bud before it happens. And so we ought to be aware of how the amorphous nature of academic philosophy enables discrimination.Report

lemmy caution
lemmy caution
6 years ago

LOL at the people busting on philosophers for armchair speculation. Like busting on John Henry for “too much steel driving”.Report