And what difference does it make?
The disparity in numbers might be because philosophy requires great upper body strength---far up in the brain department? I won't pursue this theory because there are obvious considerations against it: consider the Darwin Awards ---awards given to astounding feats of gene pool cleansing. Men overwhelmingly dominate the awards each year... And great intellectual ability is no assurance of "wisdom"---a now quaint idea it's still worth remembering philosophy is supposed to be a love of. Quaint I know because "successful" philosophers may do without it as we will see at the end of this writeup.
Statistics for women in mathematics, science and engineering:
computer science/engineering: below 30%
physical sciences and mathematics: below 40%
social and biosciences: at or above 50%
psychology: above 70%
philosophy?... around 30%, closer to 20% if we mean employed in philosophy.
More plausibly, the low numbers of women philosophers is blamed on:
1. Garden variety sexism within the philosophical community, the kind that pops up wherever money, prestige, and power are in play. (Never mind that money, prestige, and power seldom consort with philosophy.)
2. Women have enough practical sense to know better than to invest in a difficult subject with little chance of material reward or clear practical effect.
3. Something about the adversarial method common in the field puts them off---the aggressive criticism of every movement of thought, the seeming delight in finding fault with another's position, and the apparent, right off the bat, lack of emphasis on consensus seeking.
4. Something about the content of the subject itself puts women off---maybe they don't have "philosophical" problems of the sort that rise to the same level of urgency they seem to for many men. Perhaps they have different philosophical problems that men, who have largely developed the tradition, do not typically address. Thus women discount philosophy and seek answers to the problems of significance to them elsewhere, such as in the social or natural sciences or in the humanities.
Probably a confused combination of more than one of the above contribute, but the last two are the least discussed and the ones I want to call attention to since they are, if true, philosophically relevant, not merely sociological facts. If the method and content of the subject have been important obstacles, it suggests the character of the subject of philosophy is and will be changing fundamentally as more women enter the field and because of it. Moreover, it should given certain widely held assumptions about what philosophy pretends to be doing.
It's sometimes suggested that some fields naturally attract members of one sex more than others. But whatever might be the case about that, we can still ask does it matter? I think we can distinguish areas where:
1. Sex matters intrinsically to the qualifications of the participant because certain abilities are required to participate well: e.g., upper body strength to combat duty.
2. Sex is a matter of indifference as far as the field is concerned, e.g., civil engineering, astrophysics, geology. We don’t think bridges fall because they are designed by a member of one sex or the other or that rocks or stars reveal different aspects of themselves depending on the sex of the investigator. (Though perhaps it’s not beyond the pale to imagine it might be shown one day that women are ever so slightly more sensitive to subtle cues that give them milliseconds of advance warning over males in earthquake prediction. And it is curious that astrophysics and the geosciences do considerably better than physics at attracting women.)
3. Sex matters, but not to the qualifications of the participant, rather to the purpose and integrity of the area or subject matter itself. Sexual parity matters to covering the territory, so to speak. There is some reason to believe this might be true in medicine and the biosciences... And I will argue it is true in philosophy. In the latter case, the territory may quite literally change with the sex of the explorer.
The third possibility is most relevant for philosophy. Now the claim that there might be something wrong with sexual disparity is not just a matter of social justice. That concern is ever present, but a new factor enters the picture. The argument goes like this:
1. If the subject matter of philosophy is important; and
2. if its content, form, and methods are not independent of the typical features of a natural class of human investigators; and
3. if built into the subject is the ambition to be comprehensive—to have something authoritative to say about the whole of human experience, not merely this or that part; and
4. if human experience is significantly bifurcated by biological sex (in a more durable or irremediable way it is not, say, by race), then
5. representation from each side of the bifurcation, it seems, is an imperative—not a luxury or even just a matter of fairness.
The plausibility of the conclusion depends on the plausibility of the "if" statements. I think the "if" statements are more plausible than their denial, though each could be and has been denied. I really won't have much to say directly about first and third premises here. They could easily be topics all by themselves. But I think they are less controversial than 2 and 4, so I will mostly address them.
But before doing that---concerning the possible reasons for the fact that fewer than a quarter of professional philosophers are female:
This explains some of it, no doubt. But there are a couple problems with placing too much blame here. First, if other arts, humanities, social, and natural sciences can overcome sexism to a much greater degree (leaving out physics and engineering but not so much mathematics), why hasn't philosophy? (Does philosophy have something in common with physics and engineering?)
The situation is made more acute by the fact that sexism and feminism are themselves philosophical characterizations and the latter, at least, is a philosophy in its own right. These notions were identified or invented by philosophers, not all of them women, and, second, no other field of intellectual inquiry prides itself on getting at the real, all-things-considered, "objective" truth of any fundamental matter more than philosophy. Philosophers like to believe that when it comes to being careful about what they think, nobody beats them. So either they are being careful and women just aren't suited to this kind of endeavor, or what women think, as distinct from what men do, is part of the truth and philosophers have an inconsistency to explain which any philosopher worth their salt should take seriously as a matter of intellectual integrity. It has been a kind of undefended assumption that the sex of the investigator should not matter in philosophy since, after all, we philosophize for generic "human beings." The suggestion seems to be that since the sex of the investigator doesn't matter to the subject, we should be fine with men doing the lion's share of it if they want to. But if sex doesn't matter, why are men the ones doing most of it? We are not talking arm wrestling here.
I will be generous and say that few male philosophers are open advocates of ordinary sexism. And as for being unconsciously biased or afflicted with "implicit bias," this doesn't jive well with one very ancient and core imperative of philosophy: Socrates' watchword, "know thyself." Not to be aware of something about themselves that could have major moral import or blind them to aspects of reality that they supposedly want to philosophize comprehensively about is no small handicap for a philosopher. Not to be aware of something important that you could be aware of is worse for a philosopher than for almost anyone else. Non-philosophers aren't as much in the business of making authoritative pronouncements on the legitimacy of the thinkings and doings of others. Not to put too fine a point on it, but traditionally male (i.e, most) philosophers (with a few notable exceptions) while theorizing about ethics, or knowledge, or what there is in the world, etc. have typically not said we are philosophizing for men, the kind with external genitalia. They have either intended or allowed it to be inferred they were talking about "people" in general, irrespective of sex.
So, if, either in their methods or the problems they address, they are not taking into account essential and philosophical differences of experience and perspective between women and men, that should spell trouble for their conclusions. Unless, of course, there are no very deep philosophical differences between women and men. Whether that is true, I think, is worth discussing.
I am not aware of anyone putting it so starkly but I think suspicions that there are, indeed, such deep differences are motivating slow but noticeable changes in the philosophical establishment. Why has it taken so long? And more importantly what will it mean to the future of philosophy? I'll return to those questions later.
In short, I don't think sexism, even unconscious sexism, is all that is going on here but, next, we have to consider...
The impracticality of philosophy
Probably the hardest subject to convince anyone (who doesn't already get it) is worthwhile and relevant is philosophy. Other than helping us to win arguments in a context where the disputants are semi-rational as in law courts, it's not obvious what useful skill specifically philosophy offers that couldn't be gotten more directly. Successful scientists, lawyers, and engineers, etc. or those in pretty much any profession or occupation must be good not only at thinking straight but about picking out what is relevant and what to do with this information. They might benefit from philosophical training, but it is hardly a requirement. Because of the demand it places on clear writing, argumentation, and critical skills (and ought to place on ferreting out, and strenuous reflection on, what matters, i.e., is of ultimate value), philosophy should be useful for any number of careers and there is some empirical data to support this. But again one could acquire these skills more directly than by asking after the questions that have been bandied about for millennia by philosophers with little to show in the way of settled "information you can use" (what there is really in the world, what knowledge is, what the good is, what the right way to live is, etc.).
But if the interest is otherwise there, it's not clear that impracticality stops people from doing things. People who voluntarily devote themselves to playing sports or studying art and music seriously in school are repeated bombarded with the advice that these activities are not, statistically speaking, likely to lead a given individual to material success. Yet, at least as many women as men engage in them. Most of the social as opposed to the physical sciences pay less yet are dominated by women.
Is it the cost/benefit calculation? Philosophy taken seriously is just too hard given the opportunities lost in making it a target of devotion. Better to pursue a path that allows for modest reward but also a more modest outlay of devotion. Pursue a path that affords a more well-rounded experience of life? Being a mother requires vast amounts of devotion for little pay or likelihood of pay. Maybe philosophy is like motherhood for men? Not capable of giving birth themselves, the next best thing for men might be: help someone else give birth (out of their heads, Zeus-like)? So, perhaps, this is why Socrates took himself be a midwife (unpaid, of course). This may explain some of the attraction to males but not their ambition to be generically representative of humanity in pursuing it, nor its relative lack of attraction for women.
Perhaps, to many women, the endless hair-splitting may seem fundamentally misguided? Suppose they are right. Then men shouldn't be wasting their time with it either.
The endless hairsplitting again. It is not even openly cooperative. The basic method seems to be contest. Set down rules, master those rules, lay down a claim, attack or defend it (doesn't seem to matter which). Then invite your colleagues to have at it until someone comes out looking good---for awhile, until some still craftier philosopher steals your thunder. Rinse and repeat.
Supposedly, philosophy is about the ultimate assumptions behind every important human pursuit: art, science, religion, politics, morals, etc... It asks questions about the beginning and end of life and all the worthwhile stuff that happens between. It's hard to believe women aren't interested in these questions.
Maybe it is about style then. The dominant style of doing philosophy was invented by men. It is not native to women. Problem solving, or at least troubleshooting, can be done in different ways that utilize different native capacities and insights. Can't there be more than one style of doing philosophy without its advocates walling themselves off from the partisans of another style? The walling off itself takes on the guise of a philosophy and that says something. One might say that's how analytic ("taking apart") philosophy was born.
After all, unless one identifies style with substance, isn't the object of philosophy better understanding of every aspect of experienced reality for all who experience reality as they in fact experience it?
Philosophy tastes bad
Maybe most women just don't like philosophy? Little about it is intrinsically interesting to them. If so, what does that say about the nature of philosophy, about the relevance of its claims?
Unless men get something out of it that women don't? But if that were the case, wouldn't that very fact be ripe for philosophical questioning? What is it between women and men that so fundamentally splits their experience of being conscious in the world? And if there is a difference, what is it that male philosophers have been doing these past two thousand years? Have they just been doing "male philosophy" all along, "philosophy by males about males for males," all the while thinking they were doing generic, unisex, "human philosophy"?
To a philosopher, that would be nice to know.
Flavors of freedom
But maybe it is the character or the content of philosophy that tends to put women off? Perhaps the kinds of questions about human experience that natively engage them are different from those that dominate the tradition? Or maybe they recognize different concerns in the very same questions and concepts of that tradition? As one example of a sex-inflected concept, I will address the moral and political notion of "freedom."
There are sexed understandings of what is important about the concept of freedom and they are critical to understanding the centrality we, in western society, place on autonomy---it is, for example taken as the place from which to judge the well-being of individuals and whole societies. Wars get fought over the idea. Fried potatoes get renamed...
The notion variously referred to as "liberty," "freedom," or "autonomy" in political philosophy and ethics is given two radically different takes. Two distinct understandings of what freedom is have been identified (most explicitly in recent times by Isaiah Berlin): we might call them the prepositional freedoms:
1. Freedom from outside interference in one's pursuits. This premises personal autonomy in isolation from other persons. I can only find my ultimate happiness and fulfillment by not being hemmed in by others in my choices and opportunities. I am free so long as no one bothers me without overriding justification (and that can only be that I am infringing on someone else's autonomy). The starting point is the ideal of not being bothered at all in what I want to do. This is stipulated as a supreme political good. Other political goods will be measured by how they impact this one. This is also sometimes called "negative freedom." We might also call it the "leave me alone" theory of freedom.
2. Freedom to participate in something larger than oneself. Here the priority is a perceived good that comes from being connected to others. The idea seems to be that what has value in life comes from connection with others and anything that stands in the way of establishing and nurturing that connection is undesirable. Here, happiness and fulfillment necessarily involves connection with others and conflicting interests that threaten that connection are to be addressed and settled to mutual advantage. Relationship comes first. Any other value including negative freedom is good but only to the extent it makes for more fulfilling relationships between individuals. This view premises a wider circle than the individual as what the idea of freedom is supposed to serve. What blocks opportunities to engage is the opposite of freedom. What's valuable about liberty has everything to do with the context in which it is exercised.
Of course, both of these conceptions of freedom probably matter to nearly everyone. But when push comes to shove and trade offs have to be made, people divide between which one should be secured first. And that seems to make a huge difference in one's political priorities.
Negative freedom was classically articulated in the 19th century by John Stuart Mill in On Liberty; and to this day his superior ranking of negative freedom over the positive sort still dominates western political philosophy.
And you can guess which of these conceptions of freedom is most likely to natively appeal to women and which to men. Overwhelmingly, most female political philosophers lean toward prioritizing the "freedom to" conception. (And they did so long before Berlin made the distinction.)
It will be said that there are women and men on both sides of this divide. But my claim is not that women and men will automatically come to different practical conclusions on any philosophical point but that even when they come out apparently in the same place there remain differences that should matter to a fuller understanding of what is going on. It should matter to philosophers, in particular, because the differences may explain apparent anomalies.
Rand and Mill
To sharpen my point, I will take a well known woman philosopher who at first blush defended a conception of negative freedom, Ayn Rand, and suggest that even though she and Mill, its most famous defender, may seem to be on the same side, at a certain fundamental level, this is not clear at all. I deliberately choose two philosophers on the same (arguably) conservative end of the political spectrum. (The case is too easy if I pick thinkers at opposite ends. The point is the bifurcation cuts across political lines---or just about any other line of importance you care to draw.)
Mill's ultimate justification for placing his notion of negative liberty so high on a pedestal is that it is the most fruitful way to insure that we harness people's natural selfish tendencies so they serve best the good of all. Innovation, new ideas, creativity, etc., which redound to the benefit of society as a whole, will benefit from the full exercise of the passion with which people pursue their own ends if we give them as much elbow room as possible. (Never mind that the flood gates are open to costly idiotic ideas as well... they are supposed costs of doing right by the big picture.) From individuals exercising their liberty we all benefit (in the scheme of things). But Mill is also a founder (along with Bentham) of utilitarianism (he coined the term, in fact), the moral theory which claims that the happiness of the greatest number is what justifies an act with moral consequences. Maximum liberty is a means to an end for Mill. Utilitarianism can be very demanding in that it isn't ever about maximizing one's own personal good but that of the larger community. How valuable liberty is will depend on its usefulness, the good it results in for the greatest number. It's important to realize that, for Mill, as wonderful as maximum liberty is, it is only as good as its results are in the aggregate.
For Rand, freedom seems more like the end itself, but not quite... It is about the leeway to maximize the only happiness we stand any chance of maximizing: our own. She argued for a form of ethical egoism, a view that not only do we as a matter of fact always seek our own good (normal healthy individuals are set up that way), we ought to if we are rational. Ethical views that promote self-sacrifice (as utilitarianism and deontology may) presuppose "a nightmare view of existence" in which we are asked to do what we cannot in fact possibly do and then held responsible for our failure. She claims we cannot really be altruistic. When we think we are, we are just being selfish in a roundabout, insincere way. What we really do is voluntarily adopt the happiness of another as instrumental to our own, and then call that being unselfish. But it is not. It may be a more enlightened selfishness (perhaps), but still selfish. If it really matters to you that someone suffers and you seek to relieve it, it is because it makes you suffer and that bothers you: you may have chosen to enlarge your conception of self (or you can't help enlarging it) but you have not stopped being selfish.
Notice that the separateness of individuals is nowhere here posited or prized. If anything, it is not something to treasure but to divest from. Freedom exists not to enhance isolation or "moral islandhood" but to offer opportunities to transcend it. (Rand is not alone among women moral theorists. Even "care ethics" theorists---superficially, quite opposed to Randian politics---share this prioritization of opportunity for connection.)
It is important to note that Ayn Rand takes it for granted that we can and do enlarge our selves and, unless socially insane, cannot help doing so. We care about ourselves first, then those close to us, then others as they come to matter to us. There is no ought here as in we ought to enlarge our conception of self. Rather, we will enlarge the conception because that's what we do. And those that don't? Well they can't very well do the impossible, that is, what they can't. Fortunately, most of us can and will. Most of us are rational and moral without needing to be heroic about it, she seems to be saying. She takes that as a given.
Who is she talking about?
Notice that Rand's argument is quite optimistic about our natural ethical impulses. Freedom is a naturally occurring good thing that conduces to our happiness. In contrast, Mill's conception of freedom is harnessed to a stern imperative: freedom is good but only if it conduces to the greater good. Mill assumes people are not naturally already inclined to fret over the greater good; Rand, that they couldn't if they wanted to and it's more than foolish to think they can.
What does this have to do with the sex of the philosopher?
Why does Mill (and Kant) couch morality in terms of stern imperative?---commands designed to counter or reshape natural impulses? Why is morality even thought of in terms of imperatives? Why does anyone need to be reminded that being good requires considering other selves separate from us?
Who is he talking about?
Right there is a crucial sex difference. The point only gets clearer when we compare deontological/Kantian views of ethics.
The thing is that women do not conceive of ethics as primarily about strictures on natural inclinations of isolated individuals but about invitations to realize potential connection with others. The kind of autonomy that matters more to them is one in which connectedness is respected and no one is left out. Rand may very well have good reason to be optimistic about our natural inclinations---as long as the focus is on women.
The naturally dominant strains in moral philosophy (consequentialism and deontology) presuppose intransigence in human nature. They take a pessimistic view of what we would do without constraint. (Who would?) Morality is a stick, not a carrot. They conceive of morality in terms of constraints on supposedly "human" but not very pretty instinctive behavior. In reality, though, the great moral philosophers have all along been doing---not one-size-fits-all moral philosophy but---specifically male moral philosophy. (Well almost: Hume is an interesting and revealing exception---and it's not by accident that he's been called the "woman's moral philosopher" by Annette Baier.)
As long as men continue to dominate philosophy just how "male" traditional philosophy has been will remain beneath the radar of a vocation that by its own lights should let nothing so large and obvious escape it.
The bifurcated understanding of freedom, or the form its value takes, suggests, not proves, that women and men do not conceptualize their values in the same way even when they are ostensibly the same values. Proof---or, rather, plausibility---would require many more close examinations of concepts that show revealing seams where these ideas are stretched across sex lines. There is an indeterminacy of translation especially in value language across sex lines. (But it probably figures in also even at more basic, less abstract, levels such as perceptions and sensitivities: the perception and evaluation of color, the feel of objects, smells, etc.)
One could do this with other concepts widely thought to have no relation to the biological sex of the one considering them, not just higher order concepts like respect and love, for example, but even, perhaps, the very rules of logic and language, and the relative weight of reason and feeling.
In a broad sense of empirical, some of the facts relevant to this discussion are empirical. Empirical refers to experience, not just to the scientistic notion of experiment. Experience, while always about observation, does not always stem from experiment. So, unless we class necessarily retrospective and interpretive inquiries such as history, literary interpretation, as empirical sciences, science of the experimental sort isn't going to settle the question: are there essential differences of experience and value between women and men? The very foundations of inquiry itself, not excluding science, are at stake here. They are sexed.
Again, proof is not the object here. Even many more close examinations of the concepts and theories from across philosophy would not effectively "prove" my point in any strict sense of proof. I submit my "proof" will run something like G. E. Moore's when he raised his hands before a crowd of external world skeptics and said in effect, "I know that I have two hands. I know it with greater certainty than I could possibly have regarding any premise of any argument you could offer me to make me think that I don't." His famous "proof" of an external world works by shifting the burden of proof.
The real mystery will be to explain how we have been hoodwinked into believing otherwise.
The philosopher horizontal: sex and philosophy
Colin McGinn, philosopher of mind (or upper body strength?); see Katie Roiphe on...
Philosophers are embodied persons like anyone else but---unlike most non-philosophers---they are under a special intellectual obligation to ask more probing questions than may be necessary to the non-philosopher's taste. Unturned stones are not to be tolerated. Every assumption a philosopher makes or sees being made is ripe for questioning. So when a sex scandal involves a philosopher as in the recent case of prominent philosopher of mind Colin McGinn (here and here) it naturally raises the question what's up with philosophy and sex? In other fields, where investigators are more concerned with examining aspects of the world external to their motivations and rationalizations, we might excuse people for being a little blind sometimes to the conditions of their perspective, but a philosopher's vocation ought not to permit the luxury of that excuse---ever.
Philosophy, the oldest field of human inquiry, has always been dominated by males and still is---more than almost any other field, even mathematics. If what philosophers do, as they themselves sometimes think, is create and test the conceptual frameworks within which other fields operate, if in logic and ethics they even clarify the normative agenda that governs our thinking about what our pursuits should be generally, then they must have and embody higher standards on matters of truth and integrity than may be tolerated elsewhere. (Assuming we are not church-goers, that the sexual scandals of priests and pastors don't cause us more hand-wringing than those of our landlords or plumbers, assuming we live by rational principles, what happens when the guardians of those secular standards show themselves failing those same standards?)
Vincent F. Hendricks, philosopher of mathematical logic, L'affaire Hendricks.
My implication is that sex matters---even, and perhaps especially, in philosophy. (I don't mean here sexual practices so much as the biological fact of the very existence of sex. There is a branch of applied ethics called "philosophy of sex"; what I address is more properly labeled, "the sex of philosophy.") Feminists have long called attention to the social and political aspects of sexual bifurcation and the relative power imbalance. But the difference sex difference makes is vastly greater than that. It cuts right through to the substance of areas as seemingly far removed from sex (or the specifically feminine and masculine takes on the world)---as we might imagine: moral and aesthetic theory, metaphysics, epistemology, even logic itself is not immune, nor are all the "philosophies of" either: mind, science, religion, law, political and economic theory, etc. A future topic I will present will focus on sexual artifacts in the structure of the preeminent moral theories in an effort to offer another bit of evidence to add to the pile showing experience is sexed.
Sex, I argue, is right up there with death as an intrinsic cause of our limited perspective.