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Why are there so few women in philosophy? Maybe it is the content of the philosophical cannon, which is incredibly sexist, rather than merely the result of women’s delicate, empathetic minds, or the sexual aggressiveness of male philosophy professors. Maybe it’s not just the climate of philosophy, but also its content.

When discussions of women in philosophy are raised, the issue often turns to the ‘climate’ in which philosophy is taught (rampant sexual harassment, philosophers in positions of power who are not punished for harassing female students, etc.), or to the inadequacies of women as philosophers (lack of interest is abstract theory, unwillingness to engage in ‘aggressive’ debates, etc.). In short, these explanations tend to come in at the level of student preferences and weaknesses or teachers who make the climate inhospitable to women.

For example, from the 2009 version of this debate:

Helen Beebee, director of the British Philosophical Association, says one reason may be that women are turned off by a culture of aggressive argument particular to philosophy, which grows increasingly more pronounced at the postgraduate level. (The New York Times Ideas Blog “A Dearth of Women Philosophers”)

Another discussion focused on women’s inadequacy for philosophical discussion from The Philosopher’s Magazine also from 2009:

…Simon Baron-Cohen is a Professor of Developmental Psychopathology at Cambridge whose theory of mind characterises male minds as “systemising” (driven to analyse or construct systems) and female minds as empathising. “Philosophy is, as you know, the pursuit of logic and the analysis of concepts as logical systems,” he told me. “It therefore requires ‘systemising’ and all areas of systemising (mathss, computer science, physics, engineering, etc) show this male bias.” However he stresses that biological and cultural factors can both play a role in developing these empathising and systemising traits. (Brooke Lewis “Where are all the Women?“)

There are hundreds of examples of sexual harassment, gender-based dismissal, and other issues at the blog What is It Like to Be a Woman in Philosophy? The New York Times 2013 series on women in philosophy from the Stone floats a number of hypotheses (see end of this post for a brief summary of each). But all of these explanations focus on the ‘climate’ of philosophy departments and ignore the content of the cannon itself.

The Content of Philosophy

One thing that I think is sometimes overlooked in these discussions is an examination of what philosophers said about women. It was often very unkind and uncharitable (to put it mildly).

When I was an undergrad, studying ethics, I would *constantly* read things in which my gender was trashed by “the Great thinkers” such as Kant, Aristotle, Hegel, Rousseau and Plato. These passages were often part of the assigned readings, but were rarely discussed in class as though ignoring them would make them disappear or as though such sexism had no bearing on the credibility (and often stark hierarchies) built into their ethics. These passages were salient to me, but in class they were totally ignored.

It can be very demoralizing to read (and then re-read for understanding, and then re-read again for tests and essays) passages that reduce your gender to their reproductive function, and then reduce the reproductive contribution of your gender to something on par with a “flower pot” (Plato), or to hear that women provide the material cause while men provide the formal cause, with the latter treated as clearly more important (Aristotle), especially when the writers clearly think that women don’t contribute much other than reproduction. (So women are only good for reproduction, and our contribution to reproduction is not even that important!)

It is demoralizing to read “Great moral theorists” write that women are so delicate and emotional/irrational that they cannot be serious moral agents (let alone grasp difficult moral philosophy!) and should be confined to “passive citizenship” in which they are protected by the “active citizens” i.e. white, propertied, men (Kant). When one is then asked to write an essay where at least one of these views has to be defended against the others the process of writing the paper can be an assault on one’s self-respect (you mean I have to defend the view of someone who treats me like that???).

I coped with this issue during my undergrad by seeking out feminist reinterpretations, criticisms and discussions of these works. This helped me retain self-respect while doing the work required for a philosophy BA. None of these feminist works were included on the syllabus, however. This meant that doing a BA in philosophy was a lot more work for me than it would have been for many of my male peers who did not have to seek external sources to maintain self-respect in the face of blatant misogyny.

Feminist Philosophy is “Not Real” Philosophy

To make matters worse, even today, feminist philosophies are not considered “real philosophy” by many philosophers (including many female philosophers). Having the opportunity to take a course in feminist philosophies is often the first time that female students will have the chance to criticize and examine these racist, gendered and misogynistic things that have been said about women and non-Europeans. It is often the first time female students will read predominantly female authors, and it can make it seem like philosophy is “for” people like them after all. Reading criticisms of gendered concepts, gender hierarchies, and arguments about how a philosopher’s misogynistic views might, in fact, affect the content of his theory (rather than being merely peripheral) can be validating for those students who suspected as much when they were doing the original reading of the cannon.

When I have taught or TAed for feminist philosophy classes in the past, I have had a number of students express this kind of thing to me. Many women have written in their reviews of the class that it was the first time the read about “First Nations philosophies” or “Women’s views” or “African American philosophies” in a way that represented these views respectfully (rather than, say, talking about how women are not rational which comes up a lot in the history of philosophy). But classes in feminist philosophy are almost never required courses to complete a philosophy degree because they are not considered “core courses” for the discipline. Some departments don’t even offer any courses in feminist philosophy at all.

Conclusion

The result is that women and minorities are explicitly maligned and denigrated in the content of what we teach. Rarely is this denigration and disrespect raised in the context of ‘core’ philosophy courses (ethics, epistemology, metaphysics, ancient philosophy, the rationalists and the empiricists). Instead this sexism and racism is treated as though it were peripheral to the philosopher’s main view. Feminist philosophy and philosophy of race do raise criticisms of the gendered and racialized concepts philosophers have relied on in creating their theories, but these criticisms are themselves treated as peripheral and marginalized within the discipline as it is taught today.

Why are there so few women in philosophy? Possibly because we read texts that explicitly state that women can’t do philosophy. Professors rarely address these statements. And the sub-fields of philosophy that do address and probe these sexist and racist views are themselves treated as peripheral and marginal to the core of the discipline.

Note: 

I started writing this post in 2010 when I read a blog post on Playtonic Dialogues, “Where my Philosophy Girls At?” I left a version of this comment at Playtonic Dialogues‘ post “What it is like to be a woman in philosophy.” At that time, there was a flurry of interest in the lack of women in philosophy. I never published this post, because I intended to improve it first.

Now, once again, the issue of women in philosophy is being raised, in part as a result of recent sexual harassment allegations in the field. The New York Times’ Opinionator Blog, ‘The Stone’ has recently completed a five-part series on women in philosophy (links and a brief description of each blog post are at the bottom of this post). So once again, this topic seems timely. That is why I am publishing it now.

Link Round-Up below the Fold

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John Stuart Mill by John Watkins 1865

John Stuart Mill by John Watkins 1865

Note: This is not really a post. These were some notes that I was saving to work on a post later. I had scheduled this to automatically publish in order to encourage myself to work on it instead of just leaving it as I do most drafts that I write. Unfortunately, I got really ill and forgot about it. So here are some notes for a post that I was going to tidy up and write later.

The other day I wrote about a 2005 list of the top-ten most harmful books from a conservative perspective. I described one of the things that I found odd about the list, namely the stance against critical thinking skills. Today I want to comment on a second thing that I find odd about the list: It has a strong illiberal streak. When I say it is illiberal, I don’t mean ‘liberal’ in the way this is sometimes contrasted with conservatism; I mean ‘liberal’ in the sense of liberty and freedom, two values that many conservatives claim to uphold and hold dear.

I’ve written in the past about some of the different ways to understand the concept of liberty of freedom, and how the Tea Party seems to reduce freedom to not paying taxes. I find it difficult to understand what exactly Republicans have in mind when they invoke the concept of freedom, and this post continues my attempt to uncover how conservatives use the concept of liberty and freedom.

One of the books that does not make the top ten, but gets honourable mention on the list is John Stewart Mill‘s On Liberty. I find it very strange that this book should make the list at all since in this text Mill provides some of what are widely considered the best defences of the liberties many Republicans claim to hold dear. Mill writes in defence of freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, freedom of religion  and freedom of the individual.

Here again is a passage from Dewey’s Democracy and Education:

Dewey on the relationship between education and freedom

Dewey explains how without education workers don’t understand how their work contributes to the social good, and so their labour does not reflect their own ends, but instead the ends of their employers. This robs workers of their freedom. From Democracy and Education, page 249.

This also helps me understand, to an extent, the hostility to the Arts and Social Sciences (well, except for economics which is also a social science) that one sometimes finds in certain commenters on the right. For example, Margaret Wente is almost always deriding students who choose to take philosophy, English, sociology, or anthropology despite having an MA in English herself. (I wrote about Wente’s odd loathing of her own education in an earlier post).

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John Dewey: One of the most dangerous men in America

John Dewey: One of the most dangerous men in America

There is a list going around Facebook recently, though the list is quite old published in 2005, of the top 10 most harmful books of the 19th and 20th centuries from a conservative perspective. Many of the books listed are quite predictable, since anything that challenges capitalism or Christianity is an immediate candidate. But one book that made the top 5 kind of surprised me. There sitting at #5 is John Dewey’s Democracy and Education. I mean this book is at #5, it ranks as more harmful than Marx’s Das Kapital (#6) and Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil, where he proclaims that God is Dead (#9). Darwin’s The Origin of the Species and The Decent of Man don’t even make the list (though they get honourable mention). What on earth could be so dangerous about Democracy and Education? Well, lets see what they say:

In Democracy and Education, in pompous and opaque prose, he disparaged schooling that focused on traditional character development and endowing children with hard knowledge, and encouraged the teaching of thinking “skills” instead. His views had great influence on the direction of American education–particularly in public schools–and helped nurture the Clinton generation. (Source: Human Events: Powerful Conservative Voices)

So thinking skills are threatening? I find this passage odd because “hard knowledge” itself comes from the exercise of thinking skills. Dewey does not actually argue against teaching knowledge in Democracy and Education. Instead he argues that while teaching knowledge is important, this ought to be done in the context of examining and questioning the knowledge that is being taught so that students will learn how to create new knowledge and advance our understanding. There would be no new scientific, mathematical, engineering, or other advances in knowledge without exercising thinking skills.  If Einstein had not been curious about physics and spent his time thinking while working in the patent office, then we would still be stuck with only Newtonian physics. In fact, we wouldn’t even have Newtonian physics, since his ideas about gravity and so on were derived from his thinking about apples falling to earth. Dewey on this point:

Dewey on the relation between thinking and knowledge

Dewey notes that knowledge is subordinate to thinking because knowledge cannot progress without thinking. From Democracy and Education, page 146.

Dewey's Democracy and Education: The 5th most harmful book of the 19th and 2th centuries

Dewey’s Democracy and Education: The 5th most harmful book of the 19th and 2th centuries

Second, it is strange to admit that teaching thinking skills leads to voting democratic. Surely if one’s views were worth their salt they should be able to withstand critical scrutiny.

Third, it is frightening to see how this kind of fear of critical thinking finds its way into official Republican policy only a few years later. In the 2012 election season the Republican party of Texas included the following in their educational platform:

Knowledge-Based Education – We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) (values clarification), critical thinking skills and similar programs that are simply a relabeling of Outcome-Based Education (OBE) (mastery learning) which focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority. (Source: The Washington Post)

Of course, it is important to note that the undermining of parental authority does not follow from the development of critical thinking skills that challenge students’ fixed beliefs. For that to follow you would have to make explicit the premise that parental teachings are of a kind that cannot withstand critical scrutiny. If one were truly certain of the knowledge one was imparting to one’s offspring, then one would have no fear of their critical questioning, since the critical examination of true beliefs merely leads one to understand their truth more deeply.

But finally, one of the things that I find most odd about the inclusion of Democracy in Education among the top-five most harmful books is that the very distinction between knowledge and thinking that these conservative fears are based on is a distinction that they seem to be getting from the very work they are afraid of. Here is Dewey’s description of this distinction:

Dewey on Knowledge and Thinking

Dewey Describes knowledge as that which is settled and known, that which is certain, while thinking arises from doubt, questioning, and the unknown. Thinking can also expose false knowledge, according to Dewey. From Democracy and Education page 283.

It seems strange to me to invoke a distinction introduced in a philosophical work in order to describe why that work is harmful when one clearly agrees with the distinction introduced therein. One of the means of evaluating whether philosophy is good or bad as philosophy is on the basis of the distinctions introduced by the philosopher because introducing and elucidating distinctions is part of the work of philosophy. The fear of Dewey’s work seems to have a tension in it because they seem to agree that the distinction between knowledge and thinking is a worthwhile and important distinction (therefore it is good philosophy) but then think that introducing the distinction is harmful because it might encourage thinking which would challenge children to examine their beliefs to discover whether what they have taken to be knowledge (what has been ‘called knowledge’ as Dewey puts it) really deserves the label.

I guess Hannah Arendt was right when she wrote:

There are no dangerous thoughts;
Thinking itself is dangerous (See Discussion on SciForums)

And just for fun, Stephen Colbert’s take on the Texas GOP’s position against thinking: for those in the USA, you can find the clip at this link. For those of you in Canada, you cannot find the clip because the Comedy Network’s website sucks, contrary to what their commercials claim.

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So, hey, I am Dr. Bakka now. Sorry the posts have been slow lately and I still owe a number on the series on OWS that I began over 1.5 months ago, but I was working on getting credentials

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An Origami Heart folded from a US one dollar bill

An Origami Heart folded from a US one dollar bill

I find it very bizarre that during a time of economic upheaval the Globe and Mail is running a series on “Giving.” Is Charity the answer to our economic woes? Some seem to suggest that it might be. For example, Ed Clark, CEO of TD bank (whose salary rose by 9% last year, while inflation is at 3% according to the consumer price index) said:

“We live in a market economy,” which means that paying executives less than the market rate will make it hard to attract the cream of the crop, he [Clark] said.

“Personally what I’ve always said is… what you do with your pay matters. You can solve this problem on how you behave personally in terms of charitable donations and things like that, and try to reconcile that dilemma.” (Source).

Clark believes the problem of CEO pay would be difficult to address directly (by lowering or limiting it), or we would not be able to attract “the cream.”[1] So the solution is for CEOs to act charitably.[2] Again, a similar refrain to the Globe section, I linked to above.

This suggestion seems problematic to me. There is a moral difference between equality achieved through rights (as a matter of what we are owed as persons) and equality achieved through charity (as a matter of the beneficence of others). Immanuel Kant discusses the danger that charity poses to the self-respect and dignity of the recipient in The Metaphysics of Morals.  Although I have some quibbles with Kant’s discussion in these sections, I think it is right in the broad outlines.

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Protesters on the Bridge

Protesters on the Bridge

This is the second post in a series of posts I am writing in response to some inane commentary about #OccupyWallStreet. I am beginning with a response to Sally Kohn’s Piece “Follow No Leader” but will add to the discussion as I read more inane commentary from journalists who seem content to point out their own incompetence and call this “reporting.” I am not singling out Kohn’s piece because I think she is incompetent and other journalists are competent. Instead, I chose her piece as representative of a genre.

I don’t see this post as a defense of the movement as much as it is a criticism of journalism.

The sections I examine are as follows:

1. I Demand One Demand

2. Leaderless Clearly Means Pointless (This post)

3. They are Middle Class the Hypocrites!

4. Those “Smelly”  “Jobless” Hippies Should Just Try Harder if They Want to Succeed

5. Focus on What They are Wearing

6. Are Journalists Simply Incompetent?

Bibliography:  Link Round-Up of Decent Places to Follow the Protest

In the first post, I argued that the demand for one demand is forgetful of history. Once we recognize an injustice it is easy to identify that injustice as the demand (in retrospect). But at the time an awareness of a new form of injustice is developing the sense of outrage is usually amorphous, because we don’t yet have words or concepts to name that injustice. Usually there are a series of smaller demands that only later seem to be related to a single goal. “I have a dream” that we will be taken to “the promised land” is not exactly a specific demand. In retrospect, once we have a name for the injustice we can see how the “disparate” demands are actually “one demand.” But that only happens over time.

In this post I want to look at the criticism in the mainstream media that seems to say that if there is no leader, then the movement cannot have any point. Once again, this criticism was raised in response to the G20 protests in Toronto, but once again, all it does is point to journalistic incompetence.

2. Leaderless Clearly Means Pointless

One of the main criticisms of the new kind of activism that eschews leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King is that without a leader the media cannot figure out what is going on, so clearly nothing is going on (they mistakenly conclude).

As was the case with the demand that there be one clear demand, this only shows that old-style media reporting cannot keep up with new-style activism. I agree with the journalists that it is probably more difficult to get a “sound bite” from a movement with no leader charged with producing such sound bites in their inspirational speeches.

I wrote before about why reducing arguments to sound bites in the media is harmful, but here is another shot. In philosophy we teach students that they must criticize the premises, or the connection between the premises and the conclusion. They may not just attack the conclusion. The reason we teach this is that if all one does is attack the conclusion one has “contradicted” the speaker, but one has not argued against the speaker. By reducing arguments to sound bites, as journalists have recently been doing, all we get in political discourse is contradiction. We don’t get any argument. If this seems confusing, watch Monty Python’s Flying Circus’ “Argument Clinic” sketch.

The complaint that there is no leader of the movement really boils down to a complaint that this makes the job of the journalist difficult in a way it used to be difficult before journalism gave up. If there is no leader, then journalists will have to research and think about possible reasons for a protest rather than reducing the argument to a “sound bite” which is even worse than reducing an argument to a conclusion.

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I work in health care ethics, and there is a saying in the hospitals, “Nurses Eat Their Young” (see for example this podcast from the radio show “White Coat, Black Art” on the topic of nurse bullying). Well it seems to me that the same can be said of left-wing activists. Once again a bunch of young activists from a “left” perspective are trying to do something and raise awareness about the economic injustices currently occurring and the (allegedly) “left-wing media” seems incapable of figuring out what is going on. The same thing happened after the G20 in Toronto, and I wrote about that here. I am a philosopher, and what we do is analyse arguments, so I am going to comment on the ridiculousness of mainstream commentary on the occupation. I am beginning with a response to Sally Kohn’s Piece “Follow No Leader” but will add to the discussion as I read more inane commentary from journalists who seem content to point out their own incompetence and call this “reporting.”

I don’t see this post as a defense of the movement as much as it is a criticism of journalism.

The sections I examine are as follows:

1. I Demand One Demand (this post)

2. Leaderless Clearly Means Pointless

3. They are Middle Class the Hypocrites!

4. Those “Smelly”  “Jobless” Hippies Should Just Try Harder if They Want to Succeed

5. Focus on What They are Wearing

6. Are Journalists Simply Incompetent?

Bibliography:  Link Round-Up of Decent Places to Follow the Protest

This list will grow as I read and run across new inane commentary in the media. Guess what journalists, I am an oldster, well out of my 20s, I earn well over $100K per year, and not only can I figure out why there is a protest, but I also think the protesters have a legitimate point.

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