Seattle Analytic Philosophy Club Message Board › Why are there so few women philosophers?

Why are there so few women philosophers?

A former member
Post #: 15
Victor, you wrote: “There are two questions here, one more philosophically controversial than the other. There's the social justice issue: are women who want to be philosophers being scared off by an entrenched male culture? That's socially/politically controversial, but hardly a special problem that philosophy has. The other issue is intrinsically philosophical: is there something about the content and methods of philosophy that is what it is precisely because women are not involved in it in equal numbers. That is truly a philosophical question and the one that, if true, would be more peculiar to philosophy. To the second question I answer, yes, a minority position, and one I have to defend.

“Here's what's peculiar to philosophy: no other field takes on itself the responsibility of being the ultimate arbiter of the concepts and methods of other serious fields of inquiry or practice. Philosophers let it be known that they in some ways set the agenda for other areas, acting as intellectual police: whether it's scientific method or ultimate moral questions which affect legal and political ones. If society has the structure it has because philosophers had something to do with it, and philosophers are mostly male claiming to do sex-blind philosophy for generic human beings, I think we have a problem.”

Victor, I think you're right to separate the problem into these two categories. I agree that the former issue — the social justice one — is not specific to philosophy. And on the one hand, I might have some sympathies with your minority position on the latter issue. I tend to be a tiny bit of an essentialist when it comes to sex and gender issues (although I believe FAR more of gender is socially constructed than most essentialists do). And I have often thought that the content and/or the methods of philosophy seemed inherently patriarchal. But what those contents and/or methods are, and exactly what it is about them that may be patriarchal, seems to be a core question here.

So the first thing I'm going to say is that I question your assertion about what it is that is peculiar to philosophy. I’m not so sure that philosophy’s unique characteristic is its position as the ultimate arbiter of the concepts and methods of other serious fields of inquiry or practice. I’m very conscious of the history of philosophy, and that in some sense it is sort of the mother of the other areas. In that sense, until fairly recently, I would have agreed with your assessment; I think the other serious fields of inquiry did take their cues from philosophy. But in terms of where the cues come from these days, I think the sciences trump everything. In other words, I think that science has become that arbiter and a sort of intellectual police force. Not a perfect one, and honestly I don’t want to get into questions of whether or not this should or shouldn’t be the case. And of course, now that science is (I would contend) in this position, there will always be people who reject it as the arbiter of concepts, methods, moral questions, etc.

But philosophy, outside of academia, is frequently outright chuckled at or greeted with blank stares. When I have a philosophy book on me, and someone asks me what I’m reading, I get very strange reactions (which, incidentally, I don’t take to have to do with my gender). It seems like idle speculation to them. Of course people outside of academia aren’t the only ones who get to determine the scope of philosophy. If scientists or politicians or judges or anyone for that matter regularly looked to philosophy to inform their practice, I would take that very seriously. But from where I’m standing (and I would welcome correction on this if I’m reading it wrong), it seems more like philosophy is taking its cues from the sciences: biology, neuroscience, psychology, etc. I truly don’t mean to mock academic philosophers, but if they take themselves to be such arbiters, and no one is listening to them, well…

I do have a sort of vague sense of what it is I think is peculiar to philosophy, and I think I lean towards believing it to be more of a methodological issue than a topical one. At this point, I’m not prepared to articulate it. But I thought I’d dive into the discussion anyway. Hopefully this (and the meetup itself) will help me towards that articulation.
Gene L
user 19640341
Group Organizer
Seattle, WA
Post #: 644

But philosophy, outside of academia, is frequently outright chuckled at or greeted with blank stares. When I have a philosophy book on me, and someone asks me what I’m reading, I get very strange reactions (which, incidentally, I don’t take to have to do with my gender). It seems like idle speculation to them. Of course people outside of academia aren’t the only ones who get to determine the scope of philosophy. If scientists or politicians or judges or anyone for that matter regularly looked to philosophy to inform their practice, I would take that very seriously. But from where I’m standing (and I would welcome correction on this if I’m reading it wrong), it seems more like philosophy is taking its cues from the sciences: biology, neuroscience, psychology, etc. I truly don’t mean to mock academic philosophers, but if they take themselves to be such arbiters, and no one is listening to them, well…

.
You are correct in that the trend in philosophy has been to defer more and more to the natural sciences.

Alex Novack, the club's founder, has said that he has encountered very negative reactions when he has told people he is studying philosophy. Instead of defending philosophy we should ask why these reactions are there.

The majority of people, in my experience, and this includes very educated, intelligent and successful people, are not interested in philosophy, and some have contempt for the subject. And why should they be interested? Unlike the arts, analytic philosophy does not, in general, stir our empathy or speak to our deepest human aspirations. Unlike the sciences, philosophy does not deliver tangible results. Even human constructs, like the law, can succeed or not succeed in tangible ways.

If someone thought they were a professional-level musician, or capable of winning literary awards, they could easily be proven wrong. If someone were to make scientific claims, there are clear methods to arbitrate these claims. Now if philosophy is a serious subject worthy of respect from all levels of society, is this compatible with it also being a subject where anyone can have an opinion, and message board debates are a reasonable way of arbitration? In the end, what has actualy changed in the real world? So one can see where "idle speculation" comes from...

So philosophy is in a bit of bind. At the professional level, most of it is really not accessible to the public. While one may not be capable of producing great art, many people can appreciate it. Now many people may not understand science well, but everyone is capable of seeing its tangible results. Now if philosophy is just everyone's opinions on topics where the real world isn't going to slap you in the face if you are wrong, then one can see why serious educated people might ignore it.
Victor M.
user 12752879
Seattle, WA
Post #: 194
Terra writes,

I think the other serious fields of inquiry did take their cues from philosophy. But in terms of where the cues come from these days, I think the sciences trump everything. In other words, I think that science has become that arbiter and a sort of intellectual police force....But from where I’m standing (and I would welcome correction on this if I’m reading it wrong), it seems more like philosophy is taking its cues from the sciences: biology, neuroscience, psychology, etc.
Thanks, Terra, for your thoughts.

Yes, philosophy doesn't seem to have much relevance to people on the street. I've tutored philosophy at the UW for many years and I can tell you from my experience working with students right out of high school: most have only the vaguest idea of what philosophy is: they tend to think it has something to do with psychology or religion or politics or maybe some bazaar sexual practice. I can hardly blame them. Outside of some private or Catholic schools, philosophy isn't taught at the grade school level. Most know at least the difference between biology and chemistry (if not much about them) but between philosophy and religion? Their first philosophy course can be incomprehensible.

Philosophy has little relevance to the day-to-day practice of scientists or lawyers or politicians or pretty much anybody else unless they are insatiably curious. Nevertheless, theoretical physicists (Einstein), pioneers in biology (Darwin), in mathematics (Leibniz) (on which many of quantitative sciences rely), and Supreme Court Justices know their philosophy in practice if not also in theory. At the upper reaches, the cutting edge, of any field you have to consider "what if" situations, work out the implications of assumptions, ask whether the old or established way of doing things really is still helpful or whether it is time to rethink things from scratch. Those skills are philosophical---whether people realize it or not. So there is a lot of philosophizing happening out there that isn't called philosophy.

If you are asking specifically about academic philosophy, about how influential it is as opposed to philosophy generally, the very idea that it is a professional field (one that pays people to do nothing but transmit and do philosophy) has always been a little controversial. After all, before the past century and a half or so, almost all the great philosophers did other things for a living or had independent means; philosophy was something you did if you were afflicted with that level of curiosity. It's viability as a worthwhile paid pursuit is a little shaky. (All this was true in science as well, but with a difference... see below.)

There are plenty of philosophers out there who would trace in detail how important conceptual analysis is to understanding the fundamentals of any field, but the problem is most people don't interact with those fundamentals. They interact with the results of fields. Educated people today listen to science claims the way they used to listen to religious ones. They can see everyday around them the tangible results of science in the form of technology. Science's productivity is in their face so who can blame them for taking their cues from what scientists say?

But it is what's in your face that I think we need to be most wary of. Or that's what I think.

The thing is that if you find anything wrong with the way things are in society and think it ought to change---the first people to come with ideas for change will be people thinking philosophically. It's been that way historically and I don't know any reason why it is any different now. They may not be professional philosophers, but they will be philosophers.

...

There's also a lot cross-pollination especially between analytic philosophy and science, but philosophy, even analytic philosophy, is much bigger than this science connection, which I think gets over stressed in this club. It has to be because the biggest challenges today in philosophy are issues that science is not very helpful with: one of them is the problem of normativity, that is, where value comes from. Normativity is the fancy term for the idea that we insist in some degree on one state of affairs over another. Why be rational? Why be moral? Why care about aesthetics? are all questions about normativity.

Hilary Putnam, a major contemporary philosopher of science, claims normativity is ubiquitous: we can barely open our mouths to claim anything without being normative. Science can't present us with evidence and expect the evidence to move us unless it is being normative and telling us we should attend to the evidence. But why? Why should I bother? (Consider climate change...)

Anyway, I don't want to defend philosophy too much here... that would be unphilosophical.

...

I do think the emphasis philosophy places on the primacy of reason over feeling and intuition and natural instincts is part of what discourages many women. It is not that women are any more irrational than men are, but there is a difference in their respective attitudes toward rationality---and morality.

There is a sense in which men have a psychological need to use reason to justify themselves to themselves and to each other. Women do not to the same extent. The urgency to be rational or to be moral are treatments for a disorder than women typically do not suffer from. (The relevance of those criminal statistics I brought up in the comments...) Philosophy can be seen as male self therapy.

This might explain why psychology is as dominated by women as philosophy is by men. See this chart (thanks to Jon):

http://www.newappsblo...­
Gene L
user 19640341
Group Organizer
Seattle, WA
Post #: 645

There's also a lot cross-pollination especially between analytic philosophy and science, but philosophy, even analytic philosophy, is much bigger than this science connection, which I think gets over stressed in this club.
http://www.newappsblo...­
I agree but this reflects what people who are attracted to club are interested in. I would like to see more people with humanities backgrounds but I think the club skews towards many with engineering backgrounds.
Jon C.
JonCohen
Mercer Island, WA
Post #: 226
The urgency to be rational or to be moral are treatments for a disorder than women typically do not suffer from.
That is a very extraordinary claim. What it your evidence?

If you're right, we'd better not let them vote.
Victor M.
user 12752879
Seattle, WA
Post #: 195
Jon,

Who shouldn't vote? Men or women?

Although I'm not making it, I could easily imagine that a case could be made that men should not be allowed to vote---for the same reason they should not be allowed to own guns. Women, yes, women should be allowed to own guns, but not men. Evidence: when was the last time a woman or a girl walked into a school or workplace and shot people up at random? The evidence is pretty overwhelming. Women know how to use guns more responsibly---and may even have a more legitimate need for them---than men. Women act responsibility without being hammered with reason after reason why a certain practice is not a good idea. Men apparently do need to be hammered with arguments---and still don't seem to get it.

(Of course, this assumes voting by anyone has as much real world affect as owning a gun, which is doubtful... this was an earlier topic we did.)
Jon C.
JonCohen
Mercer Island, WA
Post #: 227
Victor,

I sense that what you mean by rationality is different from what I understand. I tried to google feminism and rationality so see what you might be referring to, but most of the hits are abstracts saying that the concept of rationality that feminists criticize is outdated.

I am also not following your link between voting and gun ownership, but that may be off-topic.

BTW, my comment about voting was a reflection of my belief that rationality is an very important factor towards making voting work to successfully govern a society. Whether voting matters is probably off-topic also.
Victor M.
user 12752879
Seattle, WA
Post #: 196
Jon,

The notion of rationality I am alluding to is a fairly general, not very controversial, and certainly not outdated one. It is simply that one should be able to give reasons for what one thinks or does that are not internally inconsistent and that cohere with the rest of public experience. Rationality, like morality, makes normative claims on us. It says we should think and act a certain way, that is, according to certain third person accessible and comprehensible rules.

But it's important to note that neither the capacity for, nor the conscious practice of, rationality is necessary for effective behavior. We can observe behavior in animals and small children, even plants, that, were these kinds of beings capable of reporting on their rationality, they might be able to give us perfectly comprehensible reasons.

Given the desire to eat and the belief that food is present, an animal eats. If an animal could talk and could understand why we might ask, they might give us a reason why they eat that would make sense to us.

My comment, again, about rationality and sex was about the primacy of rationality for men versus women, not about capabilities (as it is sometimes construed). To behave exactly the same way, men need---are required by their otherwise unruly tendencies---to make a much bigger deal of their rationality than are women. To be even halfway decent people---merely to be on a par with women---men have to make more of an effort and put on a bigger show about their reasons. Moral theory reflects this. Political and legal theory does also...

These are just claims now. I don't expect them to be convincing to someone to whom it isn't already obvious. I hope to offer some support for them over the course of several meetups.
Jon C.
JonCohen
Mercer Island, WA
Post #: 229
Victor,
How does "making a bigger deal of their rationality" lead men to higher participation in philosophy and the hard sciences? In my experience the men that are engaged in the hard science professions, e.g. myself and my co-workers, are predominantly the ones who are in fact not struggling with unruly behavior, and yet they still out-number the women by a wide margin.

Your claim might be alternatively be that some boys at an early age notice their base instincts and respond to that by focusing attention on developing their rationality wherease girls do not have that experience and thus go through life without such a focus on developing a particular kind of rationality. The supposed result of that process is apparently that fewer women continue that process to its conclusion towards a career in the hard sciences. Possibly. My comment earlier was based on the idea that if it is true that fewer women have developed the kind rationality that can overcome base instincts like selfishness, then perhaps it would be rational for men to not allow women to vote. I suppose that your response would be that women simply have more rationality to begin with, in addition to their lack of the baser instincts, and that such naturally gifted rationality is simply not inclined to the hard sciences, but it is sufficient for suffrage.


The problem with that hypothesis is that it doesn't seem to explain the rest of the data besides the hard sciences. As I mentioned in the comments, there is a very clear correlation in the chart of Ph.D.s by discpline that lower percentages of women go into fields depending on the impersonal versus personal nature of the field. That correlation does not seem to be explained by a trend simply of rationality. In particular one might expect that men who have successfully worked to develop rationality specifically because of its social benefits would be drawn to study the psychological and social consequences of that process, when the evidence is clear that there is no such trend. If anything it seems that men are distinctly uninterested in it. There is clearly something that drives men to be interested in the impersonal sciences, but I don't see that it is anything other than the intrinsic importance to society of knowledge in those particular fields. Men may simply be inclined to be providers, and women inclined to be caregivers, albeit with some larger fraction of men having trouble with anti-social behavior.

One other minor point, I don't think consistency is required for rationality, because sometimes it is not possible. Rationality just means that you arrived at a decision through some process of reasoning from available evidence. Since the need to make inferences is unavoidable, the evidence may lead to incompatible conclusions, and you have to pick the best that you can when a paradox arises.
Philip B.
PhilipBitar
Everett, WA
Post #: 259
Of the 402 members of this meetup group, about 280, or 70%, are men.

I obtained the above count by viewing every page of members — 20 members per page — but the gender of some members is ambiguous. The count is not meant to be exact.

Of the 737 members of the Drunken Philosophy group, about 72% are men.

I obtained the above estimate by viewing 10 pages of members.

Of the 180 members of the Redmond Socrates Cafe, about 115, or 64%, are men.

Of the 76 members of my meetup group Why Human Life Makes Sense, 46, or 61%, are men.
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