Is Philosophy Too “Stupid” For Women? (updated)

Is Philosophy Too “Stupid” For Women? (updated)

Women in Philosophy: What Needs to Change?, a collection of essays edited by Katrina Hutchison (Macquarie) and Fiona Jenkins (ANU), is reviewed by David Papineau (KCL, CUNY) in The Times Literary Supplement. Papineau reviews the book with the question in mind of why there are so few women in philosophy. Things are not as overtly sexist as they were in the bad old days, he notes, so he entertains various other explanations. One is that philosophy is more likely to seem like a waste of time to women:

To take an analogy – which I hasten to add is limited – consider professional snooker. Even though women are eligible to compete as professionals, none is ranked in the top hundred. The six-times world champion, Steve Davis, has no doubt about the reason. It is not that women are incapable of the highest levels of skill. It is rather that as a group they are disinclined to devote obsessive effort to “something that must be said is a complete waste of time – trying to put snooker balls into pockets with a pointed stick”. As Davis sees it, “practising eight hours a day to get to world championship level” ranks high among the “stupid things to do with your life”.

Perhaps Davis has a rose-tinted view of his colleagues. It would be surprising if the world of professional snooker were uniformly welcoming to women aspirants. And no doubt a few successful role models would swell the number of women in the professional game. But suppose that there is something to Davis’s theory, and that, even if these problems were solved, the mind-numbing rigours of practice would still dissuade most women. Would this be bad? It is hard to see why. The rewards for the top snooker players are considerable. But, if they come at the cost of a lifetime spent hitting coloured balls, and if women are less ready to pay this price than men, then who is to say they are wrong?

In some sought-after areas of employment, membership of a disadvantaged group can itself be a qualification, alongside any other abilities candidates may have. There are obvious reasons for wanting political institutions to include a suitable proportion of women and other under-represented groups. A similar case for affirmative action can be argued more widely, even for such technical professions as law and medicine. Good practice in these areas often demands familiarity with the problems of marginalized groups, as well as purely theoretical expertise. However, this line of thought has no obvious application to philosophy, or to snooker for that matter. On the face of things, neither profession has the function of representing particular groups.

Even if we assume that women are voluntarily selecting themselves out of philosophy, as in snooker, and that there is no special social need that warrants affirmative action, as there may be in law and medicine, it does not yet follow that philosophy’s gender imbalance is benign. The crucial question is whether the costs that are turning women away are essential to the philosophical enterprise. Hours of practice may be a sine qua non for high-level performance in snooker. But the hoops that women philosophers need to go through may be irrelevant to philosophical excellence, and be serving only to reduce the supply of able philosophers.

Papineau then discusses the research by Sarah-Jane Leslie and others regarding how philosophy and other disciplines in which “raw talent” is thought necessary to succeed have fewer women. He adds:

I wonder whether a yet further mechanism might not be doing most of the damage. Philosophy and economics are both distinguished from similar disciplines by a marked tendency towards scholasticism. Much work in both subjects focuses on technical minutiae whose relevance to larger issues even the experts are hard pressed to explain. Of course, serious academic work need not always be transparent to the general public, but much in philosophy and economics isn’t even of interest to those in adjacent sub-disciplines. One doesn’t have to be an enthusiast for “impact” to suspect that the main point of much of this technical work is to enable young scholars to display the kind of super-smartness that their elders so prize. Placing a premium on brilliance creates a pressure to work in a style that requires it.

This may turn women away from the brilliance-prizing disciplines, not because they can’t play the game, but because they won’t. Most young people come into philosophy and economics because they want to address important issues, not to make the next move in a technical exercise. When they discover that they need to dance on the head of a pin to get a job, women and men are likely to react differently. Where many men will relish the competitive challenge and enjoy the game for its own sake, many women will see it as the intellectual equivalent of putting balls in pockets with pointed sticks, and conclude that they could be doing something better with their lives.

If this is the right diagnosis for the scarcity of women in philosophy, it raises fundamental questions about the nature of the subject.

He sums up his view:

The first task is to deal with the easy issues, and make sure good women philosophers are not being turned away for bad reasons. Then there is the admittedly harder task of deciding which topics deserve sustained philosophical attention and which do not. But once these matters have been dealt with, there seems no further reason not to let the gender numbers fall where they may.

The whole review is here.

UPDATE (7/24/15): The TLS has published letters to the editor in response to Papineau’s review. One is from from Kate Manne (Cornell):

Sir, – I was disappointed by David Papineau’s review of Women in Philosophy: What needs to change? edited by Katrina Hutchison and Fiona Jenkins (July 17). Papineau points out that women’s underrepresentation in our field may have a benign explanation. This is of course possible. But it is not very likely, as a glance at some of the recent feminist scholarship in this area would serve to indicate – including, notably, work in the very volume which Papineau was reviewing, much of which received a surprisingly cursory treatment from him.

Work which played an important role in inspiring the volume – and is cited repeatedly throughout, including in the second sentence of the introduction – also sheds some light here. In a now famous paper, “Changing the Ideology and Culture of Philosophy” (2008), Sally Haslanger argues that women’s under-representation in philosophy is plausibly due partly to the fact that disciplinary norms and gender norms often put women at crosspurposes. For women have less social permission to engage in the kind of aggressive intellectual combat which remains (for better or, probably, worse) standard in our discipline. Women are implicitly expected to manage social dynamics, not to try to win arguments or show others to be mistaken.

Papineau opines that in philosophy, as in snooker, men will tend to “relish the competitive challenge and enjoy the game for its own sake”, whereas women will be drawn to pursuits with more instrumental value. False modesty about the worth of our discipline aside, Papineau ignores the fact that many women clearly want to play the game – or would do, were we not subject to hostile and punitive reactions in doing so. As a result, being a woman in philosophy is often stressful and unpleasant – as the experiences shared on the well-known blog “What is it like to be a woman in philosophy?” amply demonstrate.

The same sorts of mechanisms likely serve to exclude members of other historically subordinated social groups, e.g., non-white, nonaffluent people, from philosophy as well. (The number of black philosophers, especially working in anglophone departments is staggeringly low.) As Kristie Dotson has argued, in another influential paper, “How is this Paper Philosophy?” (2012), the culture of justification so prevalent in our discipline plausibly plays an important role in this too. It disproportionately disadvantages those who do not enJoy the presumption that they have something to say for themselves.

There is also the fact that disagreeing with, challenging and correcting people is an inherently hierarchical exercise. One is typically not supposed to break the ranks of gender, race, or class in doing so, in the course of ordinary social life. And in philosophy, more than in any other discipline, attempts at intellectual throw-down are routine, even required – as Papineau recognizes, in noting that philosophy is unusually adversarial among humanities disciplines. Unfortunately, he fails to subsequently notice that this gives philosophy the potential to be exceptionally liberating for members of non-privileged groups. It is one of the ways to gain the intellectual resources to criticize and reject bad ideology, and resist oppressive social norms, pr,actices and institutions. So it matters to those of us in the discipline that we are here. And it matters for the growth of progressive social movements. This obviates Papineau’s conclusion that the lack of a gender balance in philosophy is not in itself a problem.

The sooner we acknowledge that some people pay higher social costs than others for challenging intellectual authority figures – hint: it helps if you look like one – the sooner we will be able to make progress towards the egalitarian goal of enabling anyone to challenge anyone else, intellectually. This, in my view, is one of the main things that would need to change in order to attract and retain the philosophical talent of many non-privileged people we are currently losing. And it will be a shame for our discipline, and social justice, if we fail in this.

Department of Philosophy, Cornell University.

The other is from Amia Srinivasan (Oxford):

Sir, – David Papineau writes that “good practice in [politics, law and medicine] often demands familiarity with the problems of marginalized groups”, but that “this line of thought has no obvious application to philosophy”. This is news to me. I would have thought that theorizing well about, say, inequality, pornography or racial hate crimes – to take a few central topics of philosophical interest – might require one to know something about being poor, a woman, or non-white. Insofar as philosophy is in the business of getting the world right, it would seem useful to have more philosophers who are acquainted with some of its less savoury aspects.

All Souls College, Oxford.

(image: detail of “Paar im Gespräch” by Simon Glücklich)

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Please enter an e-mail address