Fatphobia in Philosophy


How is philosophy hostile to fat people?

The question is occasioned by the recent publication of  Unshrinking: How to Face Fatphobia by Kate Manne (Cornell).

An article about the book at Inside Higher Ed last month discusses fatphobia in academia and in philosophy in particular:

Manne recounts how one friend was repeatedly told in graduate school that her body shape would make her unemployable because “only thin women are seen as intelligent,” while others were informed that they should “lose weight and look smarter.”…

Another friend in philosophy overheard a colleague state, “If she can’t discipline what she eats, how can she discipline what she thinks?”…

Such brazenly discriminatory attitudes are so imbued in academia—and philosophy, in particular—that some of the discipline’s most famous teaching examples rely on blatantly fatphobic tropes… 

“We use the figure of the fat man in the trolley problem unselfconsciously,” she said, citing the conundrum of whether it is ethically sound to push a large man to his death if it stops a trolley from wiping out five smaller people. “It’s seen as appropriate and unproblematic, even amusing, to push this man in front of a trolley.”

Those who aren’t subject to fatphobia may have difficulty recognizing instances of it, or understanding its effects. So I thought I would open up a space for people to discuss examples of it, impacts of it, remedies, and so on.

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Daniel Greco
Daniel Greco
25 days ago

My first philosophy class was intro to ethics, and trolley problems came up a lot. The professor, who was fat, made a point of coming up with variations on the examples where it was a thin person who had to die. E.g., there’s a leak of poisonous gas, and we can only save people by plugging a gap in the wall to block the gas, and only the thin person will fit into the narrow gap. I loved it.

Daniel Muñoz
25 days ago

“We use the figure of the fat man in the trolley problem unselfconsciously,” she said…. “It’s seen as appropriate and unproblematic, even amusing, to push this man in front of a trolley.”

Isn’t the point that pushing the fat man does seem problematic?

Here’s what Thomson says after introducing the case:

Presumably George may not shove the fat man into the path of the trolley; he must let the five die. (“Killing, Letting Die, and the Trolley Problem”)

Trying to be considerate
Trying to be considerate
Reply to  Daniel Muñoz
25 days ago

The trolley problem is mainstream and we can’t only look at Thomson’s paper to determine whether the fat man in the case currently contributes to fatphobia.

Even if you think that it is morally problematic to push the fat man, there is still reason to worry about how the case is presented. Fat people getting hurt is a familiar and problematic kind of humor (you can easily find videos with titles like “fat people funny fail compilation” on youtube with millions of views). We should be worried about using the possibility of pushing the fat man to make the case amusing. Perhaps most people won’t find it funny for fatphobic reasons, but some might, and some fat people might be made uncomfortable by the uncertainty of who is amused for the wrong reasons. As other commenters point out, there are other ways of making the case amusing without the risk of people finding it amusing for fatphobic reasons.

Daniel Muñoz
Reply to  Trying to be considerate
25 days ago

I never said we should call him “the fat man.” I’m just denying the claim that “we” philosophers think it’s “appropriate” to push him. There have been lots of surveys on this. Most people are anti-pushing!

As it happens, I agree that “the fat man” is a rude name, and unless I’m specifically talking about Thomson’s papers, I try to avoid it.

sahpa
sahpa
Reply to  Daniel Muñoz
25 days ago

I agree with Daniel. The example and terminology should give us pause, and we are almost surely better off coming up with better examples that are not (or don’t flirt with being) fatphobic.

Having said that, it is just an unfair broadside to say, of academic philosophers in general, that ‘it is seen as appropriate and unproblematic’ to push the man to save the five in that trolley problem. It also seems to be making a very basic, amateurish mistake about what that case is being used to do.

Nicolas Delon
Nicolas Delon
Reply to  Daniel Muñoz
24 days ago

I agree, but a charitable reading of Manne’s point may be that the hypothetical nudges us to entertain the thought of pushing the fat man as permissible and, incidentally, amusing. What’s ‘appropriate and unproblematic’ is not the pushing but its being a course of action to consider seriously (and indeed one naive utilitarians might recommend). She could have phrased it better, but I want to assume that she knows Thomson wants to pump the intuition that we should not push the fat man. After all, she did her PhD at MIT.

Last edited 24 days ago by Nicolas Delon
Daniel Muñoz
Reply to  Nicolas Delon
24 days ago

You’re probably right, Nicolas, that Kate knows the view. But she still shouldn’t have said what she said!

As you interpret her:

What’s ‘appropriate and unproblematic’ is not the pushing…

But she said:

It’s seen as appropriate and unproblematic, even amusing, to push this man in front of a trolley.

That’s misleading at best.

Nicolas Delon
Nicolas Delon
Reply to  Daniel Muñoz
24 days ago

It is misleading. Agreed.

why not backpack
why not backpack
25 days ago

I genuinely don’t understand why the weight detail is needed in the “large man” trolley problem variation. “a man with a heavy backpack” would do just as well.

Joshua Mugg
Joshua Mugg
Reply to  why not backpack
25 days ago

Well, you could/should throw the heavy backpack instead of the person. If what is needed is person’s weight plus the heavy backpack, then I’d think that self-sacrifice (with the backpack) is what you should do. That’s why the weight detail is included in the original example.

Caracalla
Caracalla
25 days ago

For many years now, I have changed the fat man in the trolley problem to a super jacked bodybuilder. Hopefully the gym bro community will forgive me.

Jaime Chapa
Jaime Chapa
Reply to  Caracalla
25 days ago

As a gym bro I approve this message

Louis Zapst
Louis Zapst
Reply to  Caracalla
25 days ago

The jacked bodybuilder will throw you off the bridge if you attempt to push them first. Result: your problem is now the train rather than what to do about the train.

T K
T K
Reply to  Louis Zapst
25 days ago

I use a giant as my example. And I tell my students that he only lifts upper body. So, if you push him up high with a big stick, he will just topple over. That’s what he gets for skipping leg day.

Prof L
Prof L
Reply to  T K
19 days ago

This is so problematic, so much hostility directed toward those who skip leg day.

Patrick Fleming
Patrick Fleming
Reply to  Caracalla
25 days ago

I use a Cosplayer who is dressed in a suit of armor to portray the Mountain from Games of Thrones. He is easy to tip over and might stop a small trolley.

Jaime Chapa
Jaime Chapa
25 days ago

This is a little off the topic. However. I’m an amateur bodybuilder. And I definitely felt like attitudes towards me were influenced by how I looked. Context: I was a lot bigger (muscle wise) in graduate where I felt it. And didn’t as much feel it in under grad when I was smaller.

Also I felt this from the faculty and not so much from the students (this may be because fitness has gained a lot of social media popularity with people my age and younger (I’m 32).

Junior faculty 4
Junior faculty 4
25 days ago

I am a fat person, and have been for my entire adult life. I find shoving anyone horrible (and that is the point of the example), but the mere suggestion of shoving the fat man is hilarious in part because of the absurdity of the thought (evaluating someone’s size and figuring out if they could stop a runaway trolley). That’s what’s funny about it. It is similarly funny for it even to occur to a surgeon to harvest someone’s organs who is getting a check up in the next room.

Do we really have to explain humor to people who assume the funniness here is because people harbor some kind of death wish for fat people, or take some delight in our demise precisely because we are fat? Is philosophy now humorless?

Mildly transgressive humor is part of levity, and to the extent I have any claim to positionality in this debate, then I say continue to go for it.

PS: Man with large backpack mucks up intuitions because the natural question is why not throw the backpack, and then you have to explain that the backpack isn’t enough, and then they ask whether you could take the backpack and jump yourself, etc etc. Messes with the intuitive function of the example.

BCB
BCB
Reply to  Junior faculty 4
25 days ago

As another fat person, thank you for this much-needed dose of sanity!

Lukas Myers
Lukas Myers
Reply to  Junior faculty 4
25 days ago

I think even if the example is morally problematic, we should teach it for its comedic value. And its immorality grounds that value of course: https://philpapers.org/rec/MYEIOT-2

BCB
BCB
Reply to  Lukas Myers
25 days ago

Thanks for weighing in, dude. I figure between the three of us, we ought to get a pretty wide view of the issue. Of course, always hungry for more perspectives!

Scared to post my real name
Scared to post my real name
Reply to  Junior faculty 4
25 days ago

Yes, philosophy is humorless but even suggesting that runs the risk of you being insensitive to whomever the joke applies.

Ryan
25 days ago

Another friend in philosophy overheard a colleague state, “If she can’t discipline what she eats, how can she discipline what she thinks?”…

Oh, to have one hour to autopsy this person’s private life to identify his or her frailties, kinks, insecurities and…secrets.

Patrick Lin
Reply to  Ryan
24 days ago

And many philosophers are alcoholics or otherwise overindulge in drugs. If they can’t discipline what they drink/take, how can they discipline what they think?

Many philosophers are also nerds with little athletic ability. If they can’t discipline their bodies, how can they discipline what they think?

And so on. Basically, if you’re not a warrior-monk, you’re not fit to be a philosopher, according to this absurd line of argument.

Nicolas Delon
Nicolas Delon
Reply to  Patrick Lin
24 days ago

The presupposition is that it is even harder to discipline one’s thinking than to discipline one’s eating — or that it is impossible to discipline one without disciplining the other, given certain views about mind-body relations. That’s almost certainly false, but I wouldn’t say it’s an absurd line of argument. We can probably find similar thoughts among both the Stoics and the Epicureans (and even in the late Foucault), and it may follow from certain views about the relation between different virtues, including wisdom and moderation (or from ‘practices of the self’ for Foucault). The idea could be that intellectual and bodily disciplines hang together. That’s not my view, and the fact that it has that pedigree doesn’t make it true, but I don’t think it’s absurd.

Last edited 24 days ago by Nicolas Delon
Patrick Lin
Reply to  Nicolas Delon
24 days ago

Sorry, I didn’t mean that the premise is absurd—I can imagine that lots of people might believe it, so it’s a premise to take seriously.

But what’s absurd is that it quickly collapses into a reductio ad absurdum where only physical, intellectual, and moral exemplars can be “true” philosophers—and since those exemplars don’t exist, which means no true philosopher has ever existed…

Naive squirrel
Naive squirrel
Reply to  Ryan
24 days ago

It should be noted that a major flaw in the reasoning is the assumption that fatness equates to lack of discipline (or nonfatness equates to discipline), given some reflection on conditions of willing and choosing, not to mention uncontrollable biological factors that contribute to body size/composition.

joker
joker
25 days ago

Just for the record aren’t there plenty of jokes in the field about other figures as well. Don’t we tell people that Thales (who founded the field) was distracted and fell into a well? That Adam Smith was so absentminded that he once walked miles outside of town past his destination before noticing? That Kant “caan’t” do this or that? That philosophers have their heads in the clouds? That certain French philosophers are unreadable? And there’s Quine’s quip about the historians?

Andrew Richmond
Andrew Richmond
25 days ago

I’m surprised that there are comments defending the thought experiment because it’s “funny,” “hilarious,” and a “joke.” Maybe we do need to evaluate it as humor, and I genuinely don’t know how that would shake out. But I’ve never thought the trolley problem was even intended as a joke (let alone a hilarious one — come on) any more than the Utility Monster or P-zombies were. Am I missing something, or is my sense of humor broken, and the thought experiment is actually supposed to be funny?

An adjunct
An adjunct
Reply to  Andrew Richmond
25 days ago

It’s perverse, so part of its value is that it helps root up unrealized perversity. A man is quite literally being treated like a thing. Some people will tacitly suppose he deserves to be because he made himself fat. It’s also important to the experiment that he be generic. It’s funnier, but ‘raises more questions’, if you have to choose to shove William Howard Taft onto the tracks. With no characteristics to distinguish the people to be saved, ‘fat man’ is able to conceal its function as a proxy for a pre-reflective attitude that takes our categories as given (natural, obvious, cutting situations at their morally relevant joints, etc). Even ‘fat woman’ would not in the same way, because it immediately exposes the potential contempt involved, the presumptively uneven distribution of desert due to the uneven distribution of dessert, etc. In conclusion, fat men are an indispensable part of the economy of moral philosophy, and should be honored for their service.

Sergio Tenenbaum
Sergio Tenenbaum
Reply to  Andrew Richmond
25 days ago

“Here it [this example] is introduced for light relief and because it will serve to show how ridiculous one version of the doctrine of the double effect would be.” This is Foot just after she discussed the fat man in the cave example. Thomson’s introduction of the footbridge example also strikes me as certainly trying to be, if not hilarious, at least lightly amusing:

“What to do? Being an expert on trolleys, you know of one certain way to stop an out-of-control trolley: Drop a really heavy weight in its path. But where to find one? It just so happens that standing next to you on the footbridge is a fat man, a really fat man. He is leaning over the railing, watching the trolley; all you have to do is to give him a little shove, and over the railing he will go, onto the track in the path of the trolley”

Jamie Dreier
Jamie Dreier
Reply to  Sergio Tenenbaum
25 days ago

Right, I *thought* I remembered that the footbridge fat man follows closely upon the Case of the Speluncean Explorers, which is from 1949.
And I also agree that Judy Thomson frequently made her examples morosely humorous, as when she conceives of a plan to cook somebody; and others are just just oddly specific, as when she fervently desires the touch of Henry Fonda’s hand on her brow, or you find yourself attached to a famous concert violinist.
I think of it as an attempt to leaven the story. Anyway it was just her style.

Errol Lord
Reply to  Jamie Dreier
25 days ago

Henry Fonda’s *cool* hand on her fevered brow; details that make all the difference.

Tom Hurka
Tom Hurka
Reply to  Jamie Dreier
25 days ago

There’s also the fat man who’s falling down toward you and will crush you to death if you don’t vaporize him with your ray gun — an example of an innocent threat. It’s in Thomson’s “Self-Defense” article but wasn’t it first in Anarchy, State, and Utopia? Lots of fat men doing lots of things! (I’m fat and don’t mind them myself.)

Alan Nelson
Reply to  Jamie Dreier
19 days ago

When I took her intro ethics class as an undergrad, it was clear that she especially enjoyed rehearsing her examples.

joker
joker
Reply to  Andrew Richmond
25 days ago

Note that the point of my comment is not about “defending the thought experiment because it’s a joke.” My point is to put the example in context. The original article about Manne says the example is “blatantly fatphobic,” as if philosophers have gone out of their way to pick on fat people. But this isn’t entirely clear to me because there are lots of jokes about people in the field that exist, and one might think in context this example is not revealing of some deap-seated prejudice against fat people. The other examples Manne notes are concerning, but this one seems less so in my perspective.

Tom Hurka
Tom Hurka
25 days ago

My memory is that it’s always a fat man and never a fat woman. Is that signficant?

Colleen Hieber
Colleen Hieber
Reply to  Tom Hurka
25 days ago

Maybe just in the sense that it reflects “default male” thinking.

Gray
Gray
Reply to  Tom Hurka
25 days ago

If the example involved a fat woman, it’d likely be criticized for being misogynistic.

Edward Cantu
Reply to  Gray
25 days ago

Exactly. Colleen, sorry but you’re off on this one.

Joona Räsänen
Reply to  Gray
25 days ago

Men are being killed in wars and men are doing the most dangerous jobs in the world – and men are the ones being sacrificed in thought experiments!

Scared to post my real name
Scared to post my real name
Reply to  Tom Hurka
25 days ago

No, singling out men for humor is never significant! Especially in philosophy circles.

State School Prof
25 days ago

Did anyone else think the Inside Higher Ed article was insultingly cursory and pathetic?

Manny
Manny
25 days ago

The Fat Man is fat to make simple sense of how a single person’s mass could stop a runaway trolley—and in a way that doesn’t raise distractions or questions. A man with a large backpack: “why doesn’t he just throw the backpack itself?” A bodybuilder: “why are you telling me he’s got enormous muscles? Am I supposed to be wondering about whether he’s strong enough to stop the trolley with them alone?” Etc.

Any amusement (light, at best) derived is plainly not supposed to be trading on “isn’t it funny to hurt fat people” but instead the absurdity of the image of someone fat enough to stop a runaway trolley in its tracks. I worry about people who can’t see that.

Notice too that this complaint against it being a fat man can similarly be run against it being, e.g. a woman. (“This is just making fun of violence against women, misogyny, etc.”) Or a black man. (“Making light of racist attacks.”) And so on for pretty much any class of person that isn’t a white, abled, straight, man. So we could make all the characters in thought experiments white, straight men…..but I reckon the very same people unhappy here are similarly unhappy about papers and thought experiments being dominated by white characters and he/him pronouns.

Eric Wiland
Eric Wiland
25 days ago

In philosophy, we praise an objection for being weighty and criticize an objection for being slim. Important issues are heavy, while trivial ones are light. We hope our work is substantial rather than ephemeral. I hope my points here aren’t flimsy ones. . . .

Nick
Nick
Reply to  Eric Wiland
25 days ago

And then of course there are thicc concepts

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Eric Wiland
24 days ago

This is a very narrow objection It’s a slender reed on which to hang your response. I’d like to hope that a more solid case can be made.

Leonard
Leonard
25 days ago

The utilitarian thinks we should push the fat man, but not call him the fat man

An adjunct
An adjunct
Reply to  Leonard
25 days ago

Shove him to save the others, but nudge him with a carefully calibrated series of quiet suggestions and incentives to make better choices to save the socialized costs of his burden on healthcare costs, and along the way, in a happy confluence of interests, save himself—while retaining the public image of ‘the fat man’ to steer others to continue to self-regulate and shame their friends and neighbors into doing so.

Karen Margrethe
Karen Margrethe
25 days ago

I always thought he was modelled on the ‘Fat Controller’ in Thomas the Tank Engine (aka Sir Topham Hatt):

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Fat_Controller

The first book in the series was published in 1945; the character first appears under the name ‘The Fat Director’ in 1948. In appearance, he is a ‘Fat Cat’ – according to google: ‘someone who has a lot of money, especially someone in charge of a company who has the power to increase their own pay’. I may be wrong that he is the original ‘fat man’ (though it would explain why he is not a fat woman).

Justin Smith-Ruiu
Justin Smith-Ruiu
25 days ago

There are other treasures of our cultural heritage I’m far more worried about losing than Philippa Foot’s trolley problem, if humor derived from corpulence is deemed unacceptable. For example, while not philosophy in a narrow sense, Rabelais’s Gargantua did mark an important moment in the emergence of Renaissance humanism, and it’s hard to imagine early modern philosophy taking precisely the shape it did a century later had this work not existed. But it’s also hard to imagine this work without its hundreds and hundreds of pages of fat jokes. These delight me to the core of my being each time I reread them.

Also, I know no one wants to go digging in history anymore, at least not pre-trolley-problem history, but it seems to me that Thomas Aquinas, who unlike Gargantua actually existed, might be usefully nominated as the patron saint of fat philosophers. We all know the legend of the semicircle that had to be cut out of the monastery dining table to accommodate his belly. Somewhat less known is that his own mentor Albertus Magnus acknowledged that Thomas had the appearance of a “dumb ox”, but predicted that his “bellowing” would be heard throughout the world; and the Catholic author G. K. Chesterton, full of admiration, wrote of Thomas that he was “a huge heavy bull of a man, fat and slow and quiet; very mild and magnanimous but not very sociable; shy, even apart from the humility of holiness.” There are timeless lessons here. One is that getting people to stop making fat jokes altogether is a pretty tall order; another is that those who make them have generally been able to hold space for these jokes alongside a lucid awareness of the plain and evident moral and intellectual excellences of fat people.

Louis F. Cooper
Louis F. Cooper
Reply to  Justin Smith-Ruiu
25 days ago

Somewhat in this vein, though it’s a literary not a philosophical reference, is the example of Falstaff and the barbs exchanged between him and Prince Hal.

Meme
Meme
25 days ago

I guess I’ve always unintentionally excluded weight when introducing the problem to students. I just say something like “in this version, you could push a person off the bridge and their body would stop the trolley…”. That doesn’t seem to miss out on anything crucial to the case. At the same time, speaking as a fat dude, I don’t really see a problem with the weighted version (or with people, myself included, who find it funny).

Louis Zapst
Louis Zapst
25 days ago

Lots of discussion here about the Trolley “fat man,” but not a lot about the more difficult problem that job candidates face if they happen not to be conventionally attractive (which, for women, includes being thin). I’ve even heard it argued that the attractive candidate should be hired because they will increase student interest in philosophy. I’m not sure there is an answer to this problem outside of informal search committee vigilance and careful consideration of just why one is hiring and what the criteria should be.

An adjunct
An adjunct
Reply to  Louis Zapst
25 days ago

Being not exactly minuscule myself, I would simply turn to this to my advantage by appealing to both the self-interest and the ethical concern of my prospective department. A sexy healthy young colleague might be nice to have around, say as a running partner for those hours of the day when you’re not writing research articles, but when it all comes down to the wire wouldn’t you like to know that there’s a fellow of exceptional bulk around who might be involuntarily drafted, in a pinch, into an effort to save the remainder of the department? Reason it out in terms of expected value: while the gram-ready candidates might net you some not inconsiderable rise in enrollments, at least during those years when the sweet bloom of youth is still on, don’t you think that there would be infinitely more won were you to safeguard your own lives? Thank you for your consideration, I await a message from the committee confirming the dates of my fly-out.

Lukas Myers
Lukas Myers
25 days ago

Fat guy here: I posted something similar in a comment, but even if we think the fat man case is morally problematic, perhaps we ought to teach it for the fact that it is funny. For a case that supports this claim to funniness see the following paper: https://philpapers.org/rec/MYEIOT-2

The Doctor
The Doctor
25 days ago

Years ago, (the one and only time I attended the Eastern APA), I remember seeing one person who was fatter than I was walking the halls between talks. I then kept my eyes peeled the rest of the conference for other fat philosophers. Out of the literally hundreds of philosophers there, I think I saw three fat people.

It is hard to imagine that that is a coincidence in a country with a population with about a 40% obesity rate. It is hard to imagine it is not the result of widespread bias within the discipline.

(I am aware that medically ‘obese’ and fat are not co-extensive. I am aware that the population at the APA is not necessarily representative of the discipline as a whole. I recognize that the APA is a relatively small sample size. I recognize that just because I did not see more fat people doesn’t mean there weren’t more… etc. etc. I cannot imagine, however, that all these tiny hedges can add up to explain why a group that’s ABOUT 40% of the population made up ABOUT 1% of the attendees at one of our most prestigious conferences).

Meme
Meme
Reply to  The Doctor
25 days ago

I would not be surprised if obesity and education level were inversely proportional. (Example: higher education means higher income means better quality food, healthcare, etc.) In fact, a cursory google search suggests that this is true. Anyway, perhaps what you saw at the APA–if it is representative, as you flagged–is correlated more closely with academia in general than with academic philosophy in particular.

The Doctor
The Doctor
Reply to  Meme
25 days ago

If I had to plunk down money on the order of causation, I would not bet on it being the education that causes wealth which then also causes a reduction in obesity. I suspect it is prior wealth that causes a reduction in obesity and success in higher education.

So yeah, I could see the relative lack of fat philosophers as a result of bias in favor of wealth and privilege (though I am interested to hear more from Manne on the role that Fatphobia is playing). And yeah, that bias isn’t exclusive to philosophy–and characteristic of academia in general–but that really doesn’t excuse us either.

sahpa
sahpa
Reply to  The Doctor
25 days ago

Meme is right. The obvious confounds to worry about are wealth and education. Their exact causal relationship with one another is actually irrelevant to the question at hand – what matters is how much *that pair* of factors explains.

So it is in fact very easy to imagine that the extreme thinness of US academic philosophy (relative to the US pop) is not (mainly, largely) the result of widespread bias within the discipline. Assuming that by ‘bias’ you mean something like personal prejudice against fat people.

The Doctor
The Doctor
Reply to  sahpa
24 days ago

Why wouldn’t the causal relationship be important? On one version of the story, as a person gets more educated, they get more wealth, which in turn, results in them eating better, having better health care etc, which results in a smaller size. The slimness of philosophers would be a by-product of their education–which, in theory, is what we should be selecting for when doling out jobs, publications, presenting spots at conferences, etc.

On the other version, we have prior wealth and privilege resulting in both a smaller size and better education. I hope we can all agree that we shouldn’t be selecting who gets jobs, publications, presenting spots at conferences, etc based on who grew up rich! (Or privileged in other ways that are irrelevant).

The second option absolutely represents bias–just not bias against fat people qua fat people. It represents bias towards wealth and privilege. And even if this bias is widespread across society and academia–we philosophers should still aim to do better.

So perhaps I have broken a norm of philosophical conversation by pivoting away from the topic at hand (fatphobia) when presented with reasons for thinking that it is playing a smaller explanatory role in explaining my observations as I had originally thought. But pointing out that we aren’t biased IN THAT WAY, because we are really biased in THIS WAY is not the silver bullet that we need here.

(And as has been said elsewhere in these comments–society in general is absolutely fatphobic, so it would be remarkable if philosophers were not. So surely that bias is doing some work in explaining the relatively low proportion of fat people in philosophy)

JAK
JAK
Reply to  The Doctor
24 days ago

My experience is the opposite: in my experience *at least* 40% of philosophers are fat. Probably a bit more. (Perhaps we have different standards for fatness?)

The Doctor
The Doctor
Reply to  JAK
24 days ago

It is possible that we have different standards. It is possible that times have changed since the one time I went to the Eastern APA…

Is your observation based on experiences at the Eastern (or other prestigious conference / event)? It might be more telling of bias if there really were a representative number of fat philosophers, but they were not equally represented in the spaces and events that we have carved out as representing the best of the best that philosophy has to offer.

JAK
JAK
Reply to  The Doctor
23 days ago

It’s based off being around lots of philosophers at conferences, in departments, and knowing lots of philosophers. Philosophers are absolutely not people I’d stereotype as being in good shape. Probably close to half are fat.

Shelley Lynn Tremain
Shelley Lynn Tremain
25 days ago

I interviewed Kate Manne for this month’s installment of Dialogues on Disability. You can find my interview with Kate Manne on BIOPOLITICAL PHILOSOPHY here: Dialogues on Disability: Shelley Tremain Interviews Kate Manne – BIOPOLITICAL PHILOSOPHY

Nick
Nick
24 days ago

OK, we can all quibble about the ‘point’ of the Fat Man case, but this distracts us from the important truths in this vicinity: no-one should deny that it’s going to be tougher for larger women in particular to make it in academia. But this is almost certainly because this is true of the world in general. Manne is right to rage against this preposterous unfairness. Surely bias plays a significant role here, and each of us should try harder to avoid it.

But I think what frustrates me about all of this is that I know how it will go. Philosophers write about Fat Men on bridges or in doorways. Manne claims this is evidence of philosophy’s particular “systemic fatphobia”. That suggestion is so easily questionable that it predictably provokes exactly the kind of defensive reaction we see here. But that reaction itself will be interpreted, by those sympathetic to Manne, as decisive evidence for precisely the fatphobia hypothesis at issue. Manne’s supporters will get angrier, her opponents will get more dismissive and distrustful of that style of critique, everything will become more calcified, and not a single, solitary fat woman in philosophy will be helped by any of it.

If Manne is reading this, and I hope she is, please consider that these social dynamics may actually make things worse, because we may need to focus much more on our feelings about actual, embodied people and much less on the size of the denizens inhabiting our weird thought-experiments.

MrMr
MrMr
Reply to  Nick
24 days ago

I strongly agree.

The “fat man” point is bad; my read is that Thomson did indeed play fatness for morbid laughs, but this reflected the broader culture at the time of the writing, and when it comes to the here and now where attitudes are different, philosophers are frequently uncomfortable with that feature of the case (as evidenced by the many saying as much here).

Also with others upstream, I agree that the simplest explanation of the thinness of academic philosophers is that they are high-SES, and high-SES people are thin. This explanation doesn’t cite anything about philosophy in particular, which is indeed part of what makes it simple and attractive. But ~by the same token,~ it also strikes me that the simplest thing to expect is that contemporary philosophers are fatphobic. Again, not for disciplinary-specific reasons, just for the reason that the culture is, and they are in the culture.

I have no doubt that some people are being told to lose weight to get jobs, and I myself tried to lose weight before my last market run. No one told me to do that, but I sensed I would appear more competent and professional if I were more attractive, which in this case meant thin. Surely some people do think the cruel thought reported that someone who cannot discipline their food also cannot discipline their mind (to me, this sounds like something a young person would never say, but that an older person might). That’s cruel, incurious, and stupid; it sucks. So it is unfortunate that a tendentious-at-best point about the fat man in the trolley example, and speculative/unsupported claims about the special disciplinary problems in philosophy in particular, are distracting from the true and important point that fat people are disrespected and disvalued in cruel and intellectually indefensible ways throughout our culture, and we should be aware and exercise appropriate solidarity.

G. D. Whitaker
G. D. Whitaker
24 days ago

This is very interesting. As a bigger person myself, I don’t think I have ever experienced fatphobia in academia. Perhaps, it is because I am a man. However, I think it is important to examine the bias in this space.

James Cummings
James Cummings
24 days ago

Fatness is quantification. Fatness is reality.

Fatness pulls us down from our ethereal thrones and forces us to confront genuine consequences for the first time in our purely-hypothetical careers.

I observe fatness. I recognize fatness. Nothing to praise or blame, it is simply fat.

Self perceived outliner
Self perceived outliner
24 days ago

As a woman I am fairly unattractive. When I was a graduate, I was surprised by the fact that none of the women faculty I saw was unattractive. This make me feel very isolated in this respect. Others may not notice this because they are all fairly attractive themselves. I also infer that they may all have higher social status than I do.

Ian
Ian
22 days ago

This might be the only DN comment thread I’ve ever read that gives me hope

praymont
praymont
21 days ago

Material for a treatise on fatness in philosophy (early results of searching “corpulent”):

  1. Alexander Bain (1888): “If a tradesman of a corpulent and respectable appearance … were to slide down gently into the mud, … I am afraid we should all have the barbarity to laugh.” (English Composition and Rhetoric, 1st pub in 1866?, p. 243) Fatness adds to the tradesman’s respectability. Bain focuses on the incongruity of this with falling in mud.
  2. Herbert Spencer (1860): “What induces us to laugh on reading that the corpulent Edward Gibbon was unable to rise from his knees after making a tender declaration? The usual reply to such questions is that laughter results from a perception of incongruity.” (“The Physiology of Laughter,” Macmillan’s magazine, March, 1850, no. 5, p. 395). Again, the emphasis is on fatness as adding to respectability.
  3. C. S. Peirce (1902): “It would be easy enough … to marshal a goodly squadron of treatises on logic each of them swelled out with matter foreign to any conceivable applicability, until, like a corpulent man, it can no longer see what it is standing, and the reader loses all clear view of the true problems of the science.” (“Minute Logic”) Mild derogatory humor.
Mark Lance
Mark Lance
20 days ago

(I hope it is ok to respond to the prompt, rather than to further quibble about the Fat Man case.)

I have a close friend who is fat and a very good philosopher. Call him x. We have a third friend, a very thoughtful philosopher and good person, who at the time was more of an acquaintance than friend. Call him y. We are out one night, maybe 20 years ago.
Y: you know x, I think I should tell you this, both as a bit of self-criticism, but also because perhaps others are like me and that’s worth knowing. But I had always assumed you were stupid. I saw you give a paper at an APA and thought “oh, that’s a really good paper, I’m surprised!” Then I saw you comment at another and thought “Oh, that’s a really good comment, what a surprise. Then the comment reaction happened again and I started reflecting that I’d never seen anything from you other than a good paper and good comments. And then it struck me that my predisposition was entirely because you are heavy. I’m sorry for being that way.”

Meme
Meme
Reply to  Mark Lance
16 days ago

“I used to think you were stupid and fat, but now I realize you’re just fat.”

But seriously, was y ever overtly mean to x before this realization? Or were his past judgments kept private? If the latter, why on Earth would y share this with x? Just commit to resisting the predisposition and leave x unaware!