Feminist Philosophy and Its Controversies (guest post by Laurie Shrage)


…I expect there will be deep and lasting tensions going forward among feminist philosophers. Most of the tensions have to do with perceptions of harm: harm to the author, the journal, communities of people who are marginalized and threatened, and to feminist philosophy. I hope feminist philosophers will explore and critically discuss questions about the harms caused by the recent events…

The following is a guest post* by Laurie Shrage, professor of philosophy at Florida International University.


[Katherine Bradford, “Fear of Waves”]

Feminist Philosophy and Its Controversies
by Laurie Shrage

In 1994, Martha Nussbaum reviewed a collection of essays on feminist epistemology for the New York Review of Books that divided the community of feminist philosophers. One point of contention was whether she misrepresented and unfairly criticized the work of a junior feminist scholar who contributed to the collection. Within a few years of this controversy, this young scholar left the field of academic philosophy.

Over the following decade, feminist philosophers continued to be divided about Nussbaum’s review, despite the fact that the review was overall highly favorable and brought wider attention to feminist philosophy. Because feminist philosophy was a relatively new subfield and one not well respected in mainstream philosophy, some felt Nussbaum’s critical comments about some authors would give ammunition to the opponents of feminist philosophy. Others argued that Nussbaum used her position of relative privilege in the profession in ways that harmed women who held views or utilized methodologies she opposed. The anger and division between Nussbaum’s defenders and detractors reached levels that we are now witnessing between the critics of Hypatia and Rebecca Tuvel, and their defenders.

In 1994, I was a recently tenured feminist philosopher, with considerable experience of the field’s hostility to and disparagement of feminist philosophy, and I shared many of the concerns of Nussbaum’s critics. Today, I’m a relatively senior feminist philosopher, and I find myself on the side of Hypatia’s and Tuvel’s defenders. In each case, these controversies create destructive and lasting tensions among scholars with deep intellectual sympathies and projects. During the past week, I’ve been thinking about the Nussbaum review controversy, and how it might apply to the current one.

In 1994, I wrote a critical reply to Nussbaum’s review which I sent to the NYRB and Nussbaum, and circulated among feminist philosophers on email (a new technology then). To my surprise, Nussbaum sent me a hand-written letter in which she replied in detail to every one of my criticisms. I felt humbled by her letter because she took the time to write to me personally, because she took everyone one of my criticisms seriously and responded to them, and because her replies showed me that I had been overly harsh and unfair in my criticisms of her review. Over the following decade, Nussbaum seemed to welcome opportunities to engage constructively (and forcefully) with her feminist critics, whether in print or informally at conferences. Moreover, her published works have engaged seriously with feminist philosophical scholarship, and many are themselves major contributions to feminist philosophy. Nussbaum set an example for me of how to act constructively and with integrity when a community divides (over legitimate disagreements) and loses sight of its larger common goals.

My perspective on the Hypatia/Tuvel controversy is shaped by my having served as an editor of the journal, and by my research and writing on questions of transgender and transracial identities. When I heard about the call for retraction, I opposed it because I thought the concerns raised did not warrant retracting a journal article, but rather more debate. Because the author in question is a young feminist scholar, I was concerned that the public bashing of her scholarship would not only be quite discouraging for her, but also for any untenured feminist scholar who writes on controversial issues. Moreover, as someone who is sympathetic to Tuvel’s views on transracialism, I found the harsh criticism of her article to be unfair. As a former journal editor, I know that Hypatia’s review process employs the best practices that scholarly journals have devised to obtain helpful and expert reader reports. Journals should all strive to improve their peer review process, but when an article they publish provokes an outcry, they need to treat all parties with due respect, including the author, editors, reviewers, and readers.

As with the Nussbaum review controversy, I now find myself on the other side of a divide from scholars whose work I find the most useful and exciting in our field. And as with the earlier controversy, I expect there will be deep and lasting tensions going forward among feminist philosophers. Most of the tensions have to do with perceptions of harm: harm to the author, the journal, communities of people who are marginalized and threatened, and to feminist philosophy. I hope feminist philosophers will explore and critically discuss questions about the harms caused by the recent events. Although I disagreed with the letter calling for retraction, and the subsequent apology from the journal’s associate editors, I have a lot of respect for those who took these actions, which is why these events are so disturbing to me. Moreover, for feminist philosophers of my generation, it’s difficult to imagine that feminist philosophy would have flourished without Hypatia.

In some of my own writing, I have strongly criticized the work of other feminist philosophers. In several cases, I later met these philosophers in person and read more of their work, and then wished I had been more charitable and constructive in my earlier criticisms. Harsh criticism can be polarizing, whether it’s justified or not, and I hope over the next few years feminist philosophers will work to depolarize rather than further divide the community of philosophers who are addressing difficult questions about gender, race, disability, religion, class, immigration status, sexuality, and so on. The Nussbaum review controversy, and Nussbaum’s response to it, did not in the end harm feminist philosophy but rather drew more interest in it. It’s quite possible that if we respond to the current controversy in ways that are constructive and sensitive, we’ll see the same result.

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John Doe
John Doe
4 years ago

Thanks for a thoughtful reflection. It is deeply saddening and sobering to see Zoe Samudzi and her mob fellows compare – no, equate – people like you with cockroaches and attempt to shout down any form of reasonable, constructive disagreement. You are, like many of us, among Dolezal’s “defenders” and “defenders’ defenders”, which means, by Samudzi’s standard, a cockroach. But let us not forget that cockroaches survives the worst catastrophes. When the silencing voices have all but disappeared, we will be able to “respond to the current controversy in ways that are constructive and sensitive” as you suggest.

Feminist philosophy and the most vulnerable members of our profession, and of society, no doubt need some anger in their defense, pace Nussbaum. But, perhaps more than ever, and above all, they need reason and care. And while those who consider us their enemies can’t forgive, we can and will.

Thanks again, and be strong in the face of foreseeable bullying.Report

Cindy
Cindy
Reply to  John Doe
4 years ago

The cockroach comment made by Zoe Samudzi was very upsetting to me. Why would someone use such dehumanizing language when such language has been so heavily implicated in genocide and other atrocities and crimes against humanity? Does she know that “cockroach” was the term that the Hutu people used to describe the Tutsi people in the lead up to the genocide in Rwanda in the mid-nineties? I am in such despair over this controversy that I can’t really engage in discussion/analysis. I am glad that Laurie (and others) have had the composure to do that.Report

Matt
4 years ago

I have always really admired Laurie Shrage’s work as a philosopher, and, in my (too) limited experience, her as a person. This post is one more example of why that’s so. I’m glad to see it posted.Report

pessimistic grad
pessimistic grad
4 years ago

“In each case, these controversies create destructive and lasting tensions lasting tensions among scholars with deep intellectual sympathies and projects.”

I am not quite sure about your analogy. While there might be vaguely shared goals, It rather seemed to me that the two camps are deeply intellectually alienated by each other. The only response deemed appropriate by the open letter camp crosses the line of fundamental academic rules of conduct and intellectual decency of the other. There is no common ground to move to if the rift is this deep. The previous comment sections and contributions on the matter should at least make nobody optimistic of the kind of outreach and convergence Nussbaum and her critics seem to have achieved.Report

Professor Plum
Professor Plum
4 years ago

Thanks for the post.

I agree with much of what you say, and it is probably helpful to remember that feminist philosophy has long history of controversies and discord. Howver, I do think that your comparison glosses over the huge disanalogies between these two controversies. The open letter’s remand for retraction and the associate editors’ assertion that the paper should not have been published aren’t continuous with Nussbaum’s critical review of the work of a vulnerable scholar; the former are interventions of a completely different kind, and they seem to express a worldview that is simply intolerant to diversity of thought and ultimately a worldview that is intolerant of philosophy itself.

While I’m happy to discuss and debate the possibility of transracialism and whether philosophy papers must engage with the lived experience of others, I don’t think many of those who have spoken out against Tuvel’s paper are interested in having those conversations because they consider those issues closed. In addition, they demand that everyone share that assessment. At that point, I’m afraid they’ve left the (very large) penumbra of what I consider philosophy, and they are engaged in a different sort of activity.Report

Laurie Shrage
Reply to  Professor Plum
4 years ago

Thanks for your response. Actually, the main comparison I’m trying to draw is between the reaction to Nussbaum’s review (mostly behind the scenes, as this was before the age of social media), and the reaction to Tuvel’s article. Nussbaum’s article appeared when successful feminist philosophers were leaving the profession for other fields and when listing “feminist philosophy” on one’s CV could be a liability. The reaction to Tuvel’s article is partly a function of the lack of diversity in Philosophy, especially among those who occupy senior positions in the profession. The APA and other philosophical organizations are now making significant efforts to make the profession more inclusive, and perhaps the tensions that blew up around one Hypatia article can help us understand the need for these efforts.Report

Preston Stovall
Reply to  Laurie Shrage
4 years ago

I’m sorry to come late to this conversation, but I’ve read this comment a number of times and I’m left wondering how top-down efforts to promote diversity and inclusiveness will be responsive to the concern Professor Plum raised here:

“While I’m happy to discuss and debate the possibility of transracialism and whether philosophy papers must engage with the lived experience of others, I don’t think many of those who have spoken out against Tuvel’s paper are interested in having those conversations because they consider those issues closed.”

If the suggestion is that the ‘significant efforts’ that the APA and other professional organizations are making toward ‘diversity and inclusiveness’ are supposed to address the problems that lie behind the Tuvel controversy, I’d like to hear more about what ‘diversity and inclusiveness’ is supposed to mean. For many of the most outspoken voices in this affair are also clamoring the loudest for more ‘diversity and inclusiveness’.

To be clear, I worry that whatever ‘diversity and inclusiveness’ is supposed to mean in theory, in practice it ignores the real diversity that would have helped here–namely, ideological diversity. For Professor Plum is right–Tuvel’s critics are not interested in engaging with her work because they consider the issues it raises closed. However we interpret the response to Tuvel’s paper by her critics, it was one of policing the ideology of a discipline. And I’ve seen very little from the APA or other professional philosophical organizations over the last few years that suggest there’s much interest in ideological diversity in the profession of philosophy, particularly concerning the politics of gender and race.

The problem with the response to Tuvel was not that the author or her critics were, as a group, insufficiently diverse or inclusive (as those terms are used by those who use them). Here was an untenured woman, a feminist philosopher, with her work publically condemned and her person subject to slurs, and by the very people one would otherwise expect to be calling out such behavior. Instead, her critics tried to interfere with the peer review process at a leading journal in the interest of suppressing an idea that they found politically objectionable. This is a problem of political ideology, groupthink, and the bad social practices that arise from the ability of new media to spread that ideology uncritically among the group. When one then considers that her critics hail from segments of the academy that are most interested in top-down efforts to promote programs of diversity and inclusiveness, it is hard (for me at least) to see how *more* diversity and inclusiveness is supposed to solve the problem.

If the suggestion were that more *ideological* diversity and inclusiveness is needed, then I can understand how the call for more diversity and inclusiveness would in fact be responsive to the problems the Tuvel affair brought to light. But in that case, I would hope to see more discussion about the problems of ideological exclusion that appear in some quarters of the discipline, and more effort on the part of the APA and other professional organizations to address these problems. But neither of those things appear to be forthcoming. And so I’m left with the question of what ‘diversity and inclusiveness’ is supposed to mean here, and how it’s supposed to help in situations like the one that led to Tuvel’s reprehensible treatment.Report

Rita Manning
Rita Manning
4 years ago

Thank you Laurie. I completely agree. I don’t think my own career in Philosophy would have been possible without the strong support of my SWIP sisters when i was young and untenured.Report

pessimistic lecturer
pessimistic lecturer
4 years ago

I agree that questions about harming people discursively are at the centre of this issue. I think questions about the relevance of the identities of one’s cited sources also looms large. I share pessimistic grad’s concerns about the disagreement on this issue. It seems so contrary to basic principles of reason, as I conceive it, to say (a) that a paper is totally unsuccessful because it doesn’t cite anyone with a given group identity, while (b) refusing to point to any argument by a member of said group that is relevant to the paper. I don’t know how to rationally converse with someone who says that the group identity of cited authors matters independently of what has been said by people of the relevant identity. Do you see an prospects for making progress on this debate, prof. Shrage? If not, is this a side issue that’s less important than I’m assuming?Report

Laurie Shrage
4 years ago

Some of the issues raised by the Hypatia controversy are similar to the ones now being raised in the JPP controversy: http://dailynous.com/2017/05/26/philosophical-symposium-black-lives-matter-without-black-authors/ One central issue concerns what journals, authors, editors, reviewers, and conference organizers should be doing to ensure that intellectual and social perspectives important to the topics discussed are not overlooked. I think many scholars and academics agree that it’s wrong to ignore or overlook work by scholars from historically underrepresented groups in all forums, but especially in forums where the issue of injustice to these groups is the focus. The real disagreement in these cases seems to be about which actions are appropriate when someone perceives there has been a failure to be sufficiently inclusive. In the JPP case, one highly respected scholar voiced and explained his concerns in a constructive way, and the journal then responded by acknowledging its mistake and with a commitment to do better in the future. In the Hypatia case, the methods of protest used were highly divisive and destructive. There is now another “open letter” going around the internet which criticizes (some might say “shames”) those who signed the first open letter, https://www.ipetitions.com/petition/an-open-letter-on-the-hypatia-controversy . That is, the new open letter uses some of the same tactics its authors are condemning—tactics that escalate conflict and are highly polarizing.Report

Preston Stovall
Reply to  Laurie Shrage
4 years ago

“I think many scholars and academics agree that it’s wrong to ignore or overlook work by scholars from historically underrepresented groups in all forums, but especially in forums where the issue of injustice to these groups is the focus. The real disagreement in these cases seems to be about which actions are appropriate when someone perceives there has been a failure to be sufficiently inclusive.”

Hmm, that doesn’t seem to me to be the core of the disagreement (particularly if perception is taken to be factive). It’s not the methods of protest that are at issue. Instead, the disagreement is over what counts as protest-worthy.

From where I sit, the disagreement is over the contention that it is appropriate (epistemically or ethically) to censure (the work of) a philosopher or group of philosophers for failing to include certain voices, where there is no effort to specify just what was missing in the original body of work. One group of people appears to believe that (epistemic or ethical) rules of ‘inclusiveness’ provide that, in certain contexts, the racial or gendered identities of a speaker or group of speakers are alone enough to militate in favor of professional condemnation for those who do not abide by those rules. The other group of people think that while inclusiveness is a virtue, the content of a speaker’s contribution should bear more (epistemic or ethical) weight than the speaker’s identity in these situations, particularly when it comes to assessing the (already professionally vetted!) work of one’s colleagues, and particularly when there has been zero effort to specify just what was left out.

Incidentally, I think this disagreement is orthogonal to the issue of the merits of standpoint epistemology. For one could accept that one’s identity makes an epistemically relevant contribution to one’s take on the world while also believing that the content of a speaker’s contribution to a conversation, rather than her identity, should determine whether a philosopher or group of philosophers has erred in not including certain voices in that conversation.Report

DC
DC
Reply to  Laurie Shrage
4 years ago

“There is now another “open letter” going around the internet which criticizes (some might say “shames”) those who signed the first open letter, https://www.ipetitions.com/petition/an-open-letter-on-the-hypatia-controversy . That is, the new open letter uses some of the same tactics its authors are condemning—tactics that escalate conflict and are highly polarizing.”

Laurie, with all due respect I think the comparison is not valid. The new open letter authors are not attacking the old letter signatories’ tactics because of some universal moral objection to such tactics, but because such tactics were used unfairly against a target who did not deserve them.

In this case, the target may be completely justified. Personally, I think it is. And polarization and conflict are not necessarily always a bad thing. This isn’t the first time something like this has happened, and better to have the first letter signatories’ actually face some consequences for their actions may be a good thing for the field.Report

Preston Stovall
Reply to  Laurie Shrage
4 years ago

I take it this is the new “open letter” you were referring to:

https://www.ipetitions.com/petition/an-open-letter-on-the-hypatia-controversy

If it is, DC is clearly right. There is no comparison of the tactics between this letter and the original, on account of the fact that the aims at which those tactics are directed are so manifestly different. This passage nicely sums up the issue, and confirms my contention that the debate is not over the methods of protest, but rather over what is to count as protest-worthy:

“Most of the signatories to the Hypatia letter enjoy both the intellectual and practical benefits of free and open debate and discussion within their institutions. A vast majority of the signatories also directly benefit from the mechanisms of fairness of review processes within publishing in order for their ideas and words to see the light of day. This letter is then addressed to the heads of the universities and publishing houses of those who signed the Hypatia letter, which not only set out to have an article disappeared, but contributed to a cultural climate in which debate is stifled and individuals are demonized. These signatories participated in a purposeful, modern-era witch hunt whereby some of the most privileged in academia and publishing created a groundswell of opprobrium for a junior scholar–one that can be reasonably expected to have serious ramifications for her career and reputation.

“Many of us have watched in astonishment and horror over the last few years as identity politics has been used as a cudgel to disappear the material condition and facticity of the world, be it social or scientific. Instead of nurturing dialogue with one’s interlocutor, a climate of taking irrational, unscientific, and reactionary dogma has been championed by the academy and the general media. And anyone who has dared to question, critique, or even—as in the case of Tuvel—subject it to rigorous logical scrutiny in an effort to expand its application, has been met with shaming at best and abuse at worst. This alarming call for the silencing of an academic who made a good faith argument has left little room for doubt that the proponents of this dogma will brook no questioning of it. We believe that the signatories to the Hypatia letter have engaged in a call for de facto censorship and deep intellectual dishonesty to intimidate not just Tuvel, but anyone else who might consider offering a contrary opinion or perspective.

“The signatories sent a clear message: no inquiry into the function and precepts of the prevailing philosophy of gender will be tolerated. We unequivocally reject this message and affirm our right to question, critique, and rebut any and all philosophies or viewpoints, regardless of how much academic support they may have. We recognize the Hypatia letter as an egregious example of a growing authoritarian trend when it comes to engaging certain topics. We refuse to bend to it. We condemn the attempts of academics and others to silence and erase from public view an opinion solely because it does not fall within the discursive parameters that they have taken it upon themselves to set. We assert that the academics who signed on to this letter betrayed their fundamental duty as scholars to encourage—even demand—rigorous examination and robust discussion of ideas.

“It is supremely ironic that Tuvel’s acceptance and application of many of the core arguments used to buttress one of the prevailing views of a certain type of identity, when applied to another social domain has, conversely, sparked such outrage. It is difficult for us to draw any conclusion other than that Tuvel–however inadvertently–has shown the hollowness of such ideas and that those who expound them can proffer no credible defense. The letter and the demand for retraction show nothing as much as a thorough inability to logically rebut Tuvel’s argument.”Report