–Arts and letters for the modern age–

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–Arts and Letters for the Modern Age–

Girls and Women in Philosophy

by | Apr 10, 2023


You may ask: What does an old white man like me know about girls and women in philosophy? Well, I used to (and still do) teach them. The issue I want to discuss is the underrepresentation of women in getting a PhD or a tenure track position in philosophy. In arts and humanities subjects, women get just over half of all PhDs awarded, but in philosophy it is around 30%. Only 20% of philosophy professors in the US are female, and this ratio (20/80) has been stable between 2010-2021. [1] So far, two explanatory models have been put forward to account for this: 1. Different Voices; 2. The Perfect Storm. I will not discuss the models in detail, this is not my aim here, but I will briefly introduce them. 

Different Voices

The first model, roughly, assumes a fundamental difference in the philosophical outlook and approach between males and females, which would explain the underrepresentation. Buckwalter and Stich (2014) claim that men and women diverge when it comes to philosophical ‘intuitions’. [2]  It also appears that philosophy rewards a distinctively male approach to the subject (e.g. men tend to be comfortable with being adversarial – but women less so). This puts women at a disadvantage. [3]

One may ask: is philosophy adversarial because it was (apparently) shaped by men, or is philosophy – by its nature – adversarial? I’m not sure that there is a clear answer to this. Some parts of philosophy are adversarial. After all, we look at arguments and if there are weaknesses, we point them out and/or present counter-arguments. But before we get to arguments we start with wonder. Why is there something, rather than nothing? What is this thing called consciousness? What is it like to be a bat? What happens after death? Why does God – if there is a God (another question!) – permit evil? Does existence precede essence, or is it the other way round? After exploring such questions we encounter historical answers, and then we form our own philosophical view. Often, we will disagree with the ancients, so some aspects of philosophy will be adversarial. But, a lot of philosophy between the starting point (wonder) and the formulation of an argument or an explanatory model is exploratory: we formulate questions and we are looking for answers. However, just because philosophical arguments often bring about an adversarial stance, that doesn’t mean it must necessarily be aggressive – although, this is something that often happens in the classroom and at conferences. The “young buck” (or old buck) syndrome exhibited in these venues is just something that should be discouraged. [4] 

We find that the adversarial – and aggressive – approach is already present in ancient philosophy. Cicero (De Finibus 2. 17.) quotes Zeno of Elea as saying: “Rhetoric was like the palm of the hand, Dialectic like the closed fist.” [5] Socrates likens his encounter with Protagoras (Plato, Protagoras, 339e) to a boxing match: “At first I felt like I’d taken a punch from a champion boxer – everything went black! my head was in a spin!” The allusions to fighting continue into the medieval period. In volume 2 of Mary Ellen Waithe’s A History of Women Philosophers, there is an essay (by Joan Gibson) on the 12th century Abbess, Herrad of Hohenbourg. She was involved in composing a famous manuscript: the Hortus deliciarum (Garden of Delights), the first encyclopedia written by a woman. There we find an illustration of philosophy (as a woman), linked to the seven liberal arts (also depicted as women). [6] Dialectics was the art of reasoning well and of constructing arguments and counter-arguments. The maiden depicting dialectics holds the head of a dog with bared teeth in her left hand. The inscription reads: “argumenta sino concurrere more canino.” (I allow arguments to clash/do battle, just like dogs.) [See the image in the appendix.] Lady Dialectic was also frequently depicted with a serpent in one hand.

Perfect Storm

The Perfect Storm model (Antony) “seeks to explain women’s low representation within philosophy as a kind of interaction effect among familiar kinds of sex discrimination that are operative throughout society, but that take on particular forms and force as they converge within the academic institution of philosophy.” [7] Many factors converge to create a Perfect Storm for women: stereotype threat, implicit bias, conflicting norms, etc.

I wish to share with the reader my experience of teaching philosophy, which is in accord with the Perfect Storm model. Years ago, I taught A-level philosophy (i.e. the last two years of high school in the UK, age range: 16-18). The top students were often girls. This may have had something to do with their greater facility with language and its nuances – it helps with conceptual clarity. And we know that girls tend to read more than boys. Since my classes were small, the girls did not have to overcome domineering boys in class discussion. I would also explain at the beginning of my courses that those with the loudest voices and those who constantly interrupted others didn’t usually have the best arguments – because they didn’t spend enough time thinking before they spoke. 

One year, by accident, I observed and overheard two of my female students in the lunch break, talking to some boys (non-philosophers). I was surprised how they underplayed their own intelligence. In the next class I addressed this as a general issue about gender stereotypes, and the students explained that boys didn’t like clever girls (one of the many double binds they face). After discussing this issue in class for a while, one of the girls started to grin and asked: “So, is your wife more clever than you are?” Fortunately, my (late) wife got a double first from Aberdeen University, so I could reassure my students that I practice what I preach.

But, my wife had told me a story about taking a logic class in philosophy at Aberdeen. On the first day of the course the professor entered the room, looked at my wife, the only woman in the seminar, and said: “Logic is not for girls.” That would have been in the mid 1970’s, but I think some of this attitude is still with us. This would have been a crude version of the Different Voices approach. Louise Antony reminds us that ‘the “patterns” and “trends” that Different Voices models are invoked to explain generally turn out not to exist.’ The fact that my wife chose and stuck with logic, seems to confirm this – anecdotally.

Other Hurdles

Back in high school, the mark scheme for philosophy rewarded clarity in presentation and argument, as well as detailed and precise understanding of the issues. Arguments and counter-argument had to be presented in their strongest forms, resulting in a convincing conclusion. The adversarial element was definitely present.

When I began teaching at university level, one more element entered the mix when assessing the work of students: independence of thought, and a healthy critical stance towards the literature. I usually translate this requirement for my students as: “you need to provide a sustained attack of the argument.” I may be wrong in adding this element of aggression to the guidelines, but it seems to yield better grades. 

In class discussion I have always discouraged the aggressive style and preferred to follow Habermas: let’s go with the best argument. We should ask, how could my opponent’s argument be improved? rather than destroying it outright – or even getting personal. [8]

I do enjoy attacking authority figures, probably because I had a domineering father. And as a young man I trained in martial arts and later taught it for a while. This helped me to control my aggression; I could turn it on and off at will. So, the aggressive streak has always been with me. Perhaps this explains my affinity with philosophy?

Note that the canonical figures in philosophy have for a long time been male. Many of these philosophers (e.g. Aristotle, Kant, Hegel) held sexist views; they considered women to be inferior to men and/or not suited to do philosophy. Women have been largely written out of the history of philosophy, but the curricula are now being adjusted to include female philosophers. [9] In the past, this gave the [false] impression that philosophy is a male business. Furthermore, female philosophers quickly learn that their work, compared to men’s, is systematically undervalued. Another factor in the Perfect Storm is that women in philosophy are subjected to sexual harassment – see here. Having listened to male philosophers, pontificating about what is right and wrong in seminars, it must come as a shock and disappointment to young female philosophers to realise that their male teachers often fall short of the ideals they project in their classes. [10]

I recall a particular conference where a male professor was disparaging a young woman’s argument. This PhD student had presented an unusual but original idea (and that is rare in philosophy), and I liked it. In response to the Cambridge man’s intervention, I addressed the PhD student in these words: “I would like to give you some ammunition. Here is a transcendental argument which would support your views.” Yes, I did use the word ‘ammunition’. I wanted her to fire back. [11] 

The Cambridge don, who would later in the day give the keynote speech, was a prickly kind of fellow although I didn’t realise this at the time. After he delivered his keynote speech, I was first in the Q&A session and challenged his argument. But, in my mind, my intervention was wholly unrelated to what had happened earlier to the PhD student. Indeed, I had forgotten about it. I just didn’t think much of his cogitations. By some strange coincidence, I and the Cambridge don were seated next to each other at dinner, and he gave me a strange look when I sat down. I made an attempt to engage him in conversation, but he simply turned away and started speaking to the person on his other side. He could dish it out, but he couldn’t take it, when somebody “took aim” at him. The lesson is: the adversarial approach is not always appreciated by the male members of the profession either. And Louise Antony reminds us that many react badly if a woman challenges them.

The female reluctance for confrontation and aggression is not innate; girls are simply discouraged to exhibit such behaviour. [12] In my martial arts classes, most girls just didn’t want to make physical contact with their sparring partners for fear of inflicting pain. [13] Boys didn’t have such qualms. Antony points out that it is a mistake to think that gendered differences are always ‘natural’ and therefore immutable.

Women and girls often face situations where they cannot win. The double bind female athletes experience (they have to balance being feminine with being an athlete – e.g. having a muscular physique – and/or having the ruthless attitude of a “winner”) is also present in philosophy. Women who are combative philosophers break gender norms, as Anthony describes: “Women who act like men will precisely not therefore be perceived or treated like men: the woman who interrupts frequently may be sanctioned more quickly or more heavily than the man who acts the same way.”

I agree with Antony that the Different Voices model is unconvincing. Of course, there may be contexts where males and females have “different voices” (e.g. girls and women tend to read more; this greater facility with language helps with writing), but I don’t believe that the Different Voices model has any traction in philosophy. [14] Does the experience of pregnancy change the way you do philosophy? I doubt it. It only informs your perspective on certain issues (e.g. in metaphysics or ethics), just like having been tortured informs your perspective on issues like punishment and forgiveness. Similarly, women started to establish and study the “ethics of care” because of their own experiences; but this doesn’t mean they do philosophy differently. Waithe writes in A History of Women Philosophers (1987): ‘The women were engaged in precisely the same kind of philosophical enterprises that have historically characterized male philosophers.’ Witt & Shapiro say that female philosophers of the early modern period “were self-consciously countering a recognized misogyny in philosophy but, insofar as they deployed philosophical methods, they would seem to reject the view that the problem was intrinsic to the discipline of philosophy itself.”

In “In Defence of Different Voices” (2020), Beebee & McCallion write that some feminist philosophers “have sought to critique the hierarchy of reason which places appeals to universal principles over and above situational, relational and context-dependent considerations.” The hierarchy of reason (think of Descartes or Kant) is supposed to be emblematic of the male way of doing philosophy, as reflected in the history of philosophy; whereas women’s focus is – allegedly – on “context-dependent” considerations. [14] First of all, this reduces a lot of (female) philosophy and philosophers to ethics and this, in itself, is a stereotype. Women also do (and have done) logic, philosophy of science, metaphysics, etc. Secondly, contextual considerations are also present in “male” philosophy; think of Bernard Williams, Act Utilitarianism, non-ideal theory (John Rawls), or we can go back to Aristotle and the idea of equity (epieikeia). This dichotomy between what is distinctively male or female in philosophy strikes me as simplistic. 

It may well be right that, as Beebee and McCallion put it, “someone’s lived experience – the ideas they are exposed to and the problems they encounter – will influence the kind of philosophy they are inclined to pursue and the kinds of ideas they are likely to gravitate toward.” As an undergraduate I avoided philosophy of religion and medieval philosophy – later I learned to appreciate these fields. Women may equally be put off by some of the topics in the curriculum. But the solution is to offer alternatives, rather than making something obligatory. When I did my first degree, none of my philosophy courses were obligatory, with one exception. We had to take either a course in logic or read one of the ancients in the original Latin or Greek; I chose the latter. Thus, I anecdotally disproved the Different Voices model, without being aware of it (and so did my late wife). 

As teachers, we have some leeway in designing courses. When I taught teenagers in high school I chose topics from the syllabus which young people (regardless of their sex) would find engaging: e.g. themes from the philosophy of religion, Sartrean existentialism and J.S. Mill’s On Liberty. And now that the discipline is beginning to recognize the contribution of female thinkers in the history of philosophy, these will be incorporated into the curricula. Furthermore, we are now acknowledging the contribution and influence of, for example, Simone de Beauvoir on Sartre and Harriet Taylor on Mill.

A further problem with the Different Voices model is its potentially pernicious effects. It can be used to cement the status quo by affirming gender stereotypes. It suggests that certain gender differences are innate and immutable, leading to essentialism (e.g.: They can’t handle conflict, logical reasoning, etc.). This means for women to either stay out of philosophy or to restrict themselves to areas which ‘suit women best’. Both routes result in a loss to philosophy and in a loss to women. 

What to do? “Attack” the conditions that create the Perfect Storm in philosophy and in society. Here is one recent example: The University of Oxford has recently changed its policy about intimate relationships between students and staff. Previously such relationships were only “strongly discouraged.” Now they will be prohibited. This is one measure (of many) that can weaken the Perfect Storm.

Notes

[1] I suspect that when we specify by class and race, things will also look dire.

[2] By ‘intuition’ they have something like this in mind (Buckwalter & Stich, 2014: 310): ’Appeal to intuition has played a central role in Anglo-American philosophy over the last 50 years. In a typical episode, a philosopher will describe a real or (more commonly) an imaginary situation and ask whether some of the people or objects or events in the situation described exhibit some philosophically interesting property or relation:

  • Is the action described morally wrong?
  • Does the person described know that he won’t win the lottery?
  • When the speaker in the story uses the word ‘water’ does the word refer to H2O?
  • Does the “Chinese Room” really understand the story?

[3] Buckwalter & Stich claim that the different voices emerge particularly when it comes to thought experiments and ‘universal intuitions’. I don’t find this convincing. Firstly, philosophy is not just about thought experiments and intuitions. Secondly, continental philosophy doesn’t rely as much on these, but the situation for women is the same. See also the paper by Adleberg et al (2015). They could not replicate the results from Buckwalter & Stich’s study.

[4] This is nicely explained by Piers Benn (from 3.30 minutes onwards).

[5] ‘Dialectic’: A discourse among people who hold diverging views on a particular subject; a method for finding truth and conceptual clarity.

[6] Perhaps because the word ‘philosophia’ is feminine; but note that Socrates likens his task to that of a midwife.

[7] Louise Antony’s seminal paper from 2012 maps the terrain and clearly sets out the issues; she also refutes a lot of the claims by Buckwalter & Stich. Interested readers might also want to look at Helen Beebee & Anne-Marie McCallion’s paper ’In Defence of Different Voices’ (2020): https://doi.org/10.5840/symposion20207213. Beebee & McCallion try to reframe the Different Voices model as a “metaphilosophical project,” in order to take the sting out of Antony’s critique.

[8] Although in print there are the odd cases where things get out of hand. One scholar, with reference to an ongoing disagreement, alluded to the image of two gunslingers meeting on the high street at noon to finally battle it out. I did enjoy reading the High Noon passage, and I admit to enjoying Isaiah Berlin’s essay on Rousseau, where he calls him a “lunatic” (among other things), and so did my high school students, because here is a philosopher who did what we were not supposed to do in philosophy: name calling.

[9] For a recent example, see here: 

https://aeon.co/essays/why-are-women-philosophers-often-erased-from-collective-memory

[10] This report on harassment (at a Dutch university) makes for interesting reading: https://www.rug.nl/research/young-academy/files/yag-report-harassment-at-the-ug.pdf 

[11] Interestingly, in the penultimate sentence of her essay Antony also uses the term ‘ammunition’.

[12] If the reader has doubts about this, then have a look at this young martial artist: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=65QCHZDXKmA.

[13] There is another problem that Audrey Yap identified: in martial arts, but also in contact sports, girls ‘must be comfortable with using their bodies instrumentally, and see themselves as being able to act on the bodies of others’. Boys are encouraged to do so from early on.

[14] See Phyllis Rooney’s paper ‘Gendered Reason: Sex Metaphor and Conceptions of Reason’ from 1991.

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