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

Why are there so few women philosophers?

Victor M.
user 12752879
Seattle, WA
Post #: 188

Christi Ashley O'Donnell wrote:

Define "philosopher" first within the context of society as we know it now and throughout history. That is a good place to start. Then think about social constructs within time periods and societal change. Also, men are statistically more left brained, women are able to use both the left and right hemispheres of the brain equally and have deeper limbic systems. Men and women have different anatomies: brain and body. This is a complex subject and "patriarchy" isn't the answer, but I do think that basic anatomical differences and socially constructed values and ideas will make a difference in who gets recognized as a "philosopher".
Tha­nks for commenting Christi, but your request for a definition of a philosopher is a doozy! Some thirty prominent philosophers were recently asked what philosophy was and gave a baffling variety of answers from straight-laced attempts to laughter, from resorting to telling jokes to throwing up their hands... You can listen to the podcast here:


I could give a different definition every day... today it might be this: a philosopher is someone who cannot agree about anything with another philosopher. Seriously, this is probably not as true of any other field I know. To define "a philosopher" in contemporary contexts and throughout history, as you ask, is hard. But for purposes of this topic we mean (more or less) people who teach in most college philosophy departments. Until fairly recently, this has usually been white guys who teach about dead white guys and some living ones, too, but both the teachers and the thinkers taught are changing...

Your point about the specialized abilities of male and female brains I'll leave to the neuroscientists in the club to chime in on, but whether it is physiology or social construction or both, there are differences. I think you are right. But the philosophical aspect of this is what do we do with this information about differences and why?

Yes, sex and gender are both likely involved in why there are so few female philosophers, as most of the references I posted in the topic description would corroborate, but there seem to be aspects peculiar to philosophy that seem to be operating in holding women back in addition to ordinary sexism. Unlike other fields which have some external facet of reality to work on and touch base with, philosophy seems to have been invented by minds---if the nature of those inventing minds is non-generic, i.e., if they have a "sexed" structure, a set of priorities and values peculiar to their sex, we might expect the "inventions" to reflect this. We will explore this...
Christi A.
Seattle, WA
Post #: 13
We must all meet and discuss this!!!
Eden K.
user 125055192
Kent, WA
Post #: 1
I think that there have been female philosophers throughout history. Look at Ethics of Care and Feminism. Like many other fields, philosophy has been unfairly dominated by men. Women are still exploring the areas available to them and philosophy is not extremely popular a subject. It is probably one of my favorite subjects and I happen to be a woman. There is still societal stigmas and gender roles. Why have we not had a woman president? Is another another good question. Look forward to more on this subject.
Victor M.
user 12752879
Seattle, WA
Post #: 189
Hi Eden,

Thanks for the comment. Yes, there have been female philosophers throughout history. Right from the beginning there was Diotima who Socrates credits with showing him the way (not to mention the Delphic oracle, Pythia, who gave him his marching orders). Less well known was the powerful criticism Descartes got from the Princess of Bohemia or that Kant got from Maria von Herbert or in more recent times Simone de Beauvoir....

The disparity in numbers however has always been there. It is changing today faster than ever. But why slower than in other fields? The Sally Haslanger article offers some statistics...
Eden K.
user 125055192
Kent, WA
Post #: 2
Perhaps Pavarotti knows....­
Victor M.
user 12752879
Seattle, WA
Post #: 190
Elizabeth writes:

"I don't think the fact that 94% (give or take a point or two) of everyone who is incarcerated in the world is male is the result of illness or cultural factors."

I wonder why you don't think that. I think it is due in large part to cultural factors that keep women at home in many countries; that cause even women in Seattle to make excuses when their little boys hit other boys, that make men more powerful politically, and therefore more enticing to lock up. Man and woman get in a fight, if one of them dies, it's probably going to be the woman. Schools in the US are run almost entirely by women, who fear teen boys and under the "no tolerance" policy, send those boys straight from ninth grade to prison for so much as fisticuffs. The same boys who, until sixth grade, were praised for fisticuffs.
Elizabeth, I do think culture in the sense of "male" culture generally (not in the sense of this or that, e.g., national culture) works in tandem with biological differences to produce the high rate of rule breaking (and rule-making) that characterizes male attitudes toward their behavior.

I assume you are not disputing the incarceration numbers. But here are some references for the 93% number:



But, again, culture is not isolated from biology. Culture at the level of "global" culture is closely tied to biology. What else would it be tied to? I'm not talking sociological trends in the US. I'm talking at every point in history everywhere on the globe where there have been people to notice. The instigation to rule-breaking---whether violent or not, whether it's street crime or on Wall Street---is endemic to males. There are a few revealing crimes where women outperform men (crimes clearly tied to economic need: shoplifting, bad check writing, prostitution), but these just reinforce a larger point I will make later about the relationship of sex to rules, and ultimately to ethical theory. Male crime is about power-grabbing. To put it bluntly, it's thrilling to them. The opposite of the criminal impulse is also about power-grabbing: the making and enforcing of rules, laws, regulations, codes, high-minded philosophical principles... Law abidingness is a passive activity. If you are not making the rules or breaking them, where's the fun in that?

Sociological explanations for crime are applicable to women, and, to the extent men have been marginalized, to them, too. But that doesn't explain the sheer volume and ubiquity of male criminality. As one commentator put it, coming from a two-parent family and getting a college education means that a man is likely to be more successful at whatever he does---including crime. The cost to society of white collar crime is ten times higher than street crime.

Another point of clarification: it is not absolute rates of incarceration that I'm referring to. That may well have to do with local conditions. It is the relative rate, the ratio of males to females, that is consistently skewed everywhere you care to look: males are 14 times more likely to be locked up.

All the sociological factors you pointed to (and I could add many more to your list) are real and part of the cause. But the question is why are the cultural factors what they are? Do cultural factors cause cultural factors? How far can you go with that explanation? Well, where did it start?

If we could get a clearer picture of what lies at the bottom of sexual disparity in places of power, we might be in a better position to do something effective about it---or at least begin thinking about it in the right way, so that some effective solution becomes imaginable, a project to which a philosopher may be in a position to contribute.
Victor M.
user 12752879
Seattle, WA
Post #: 191
Gene writes,

"Not emphasizing differences where differences matter can lead to real world harm, too."

Not even close. Study the psychology of genocide, and you will find that the first step is classifying other humans as some different type of being than yourself. Saying that there are "2 different types of beings in the world" has potentially catastrophic effects, and this is not of course theoretical. The next question might be which of these beings is truly human? Perhaps the other sort of being are "cockroaches"?­ Now if you can think of any "harm" caused by thinking of the commonalities between humans even remotely close to genocide, I'd be interested in hearing it.
Since you brought in genocide, let's take Nazi Germany. One of the first steps in planning a genocide is to consolidate forces on the side planning the genocide. That means minimizing, even turning a blind eye to, differences among those in the group you want on your side and minimizing differences among those in the target group. This polarization of what are in fact many groups into an "us versus them" situation also involves stressing commonalities that in fact are not there. The myth of the pure Aryan German was a useful myth to the Third Reich, but ethnographically there was little to back it up. The average German had more ethnographic heritage in common with the British than with the Italians (not to mention the Japanese) but they allied themselves with the latter against the former. And among the Nazis' targets, in addition to 6 millions Jews who were killed in the concentration camps, there were also another 5 million non-Jews consisting of Gypsies, Slavs, homosexuals, mentally ill, communists, and sympathizers with any of the other groups including no small number of "Aryans." What did all these groups have in common? For a diverse set of reasons they stood in the way of Hitler's plans. That's what they had in common. Hitler and his team even looked for inspiration at the American treatment of Native Americans---that is, before the Americans forgot how much they had in common with him and turned against him.

The point is that emphasizing differences is just the other side of the coin of stressing commonalities. People will use either strategy, usually both, to their advantage if they can get away with it.

More to the topic, here's one way stressing commonalities can be useful if you are a closet sexist: The law is the law, right? If a woman commits the same crime as a man then the law should make no allowances for the fact that she is a woman. If a young father kills his child, it is murder. He gets a hefty prison sentence if not worse. If a young mother does the same, she gets the same. Right? What's the difference? Murder is murder.

Does it matter that there is something called postpartum depression? Young fathers have a right to get depressed, too. To suggest that women should be treated differently because they are women is to risk being called "brave":

“In 2009, Texas state representative Jessica Farrar proposed legislation that would define infanticide as a distinct and lesser crime than homicide. Under the terms of the proposed legislation, if jurors concluded that a mother’s ’judgment was impaired as a result of the effects of giving birth or the effects of lactation following the birth,’ they would be allowed to convict her of the crime of infanticide, rather than murder. The maximum penalty for infanticide would be two years in prison. Farrar’s introduction of this bill prompted liberal bioethics scholar Jacob M. Appel to call her ’the bravest politician in America.’”

user 3213556
Seattle, WA
Post #: 89
Victor, elsewhere in the discussion you use the phrase 'experience is sexed'. I'm curious whether your view is more about sex or gender?

Also, I agree that ignoring relevant differences will lead to cognitive errors and that such errors have been promoted and exploited, in some situations such as the one you mention leading to tragic consequences.
It seems that you're emphasizing one way (sex or gender) in which experience might differ, and then presumably dichotomizing within this attribute. It would seem that the challenge for such a proposal is establishing that this is not ignoring the relevant differences and/or putting forth misleading distinctions.
Victor M.
user 12752879
Seattle, WA
Post #: 192

Yes, that is the challenge---not putting forth misleading distinctions. That's a challenge because in this cultural climate distinctions have been used to mislead and still are---as I am well aware of. But not making distinctions where they should be made is also misleading. It's a delicate balance but if we are truly interested in issues of social justice or the advancement of civilization we need to get a handle on what matters and what doesn't in the way of distinctions. That's why the subject of sexual disparity in positions of power and influence is important. And why we need more than a knee-jerk response to them.
Victor M.
user 12752879
Seattle, WA
Post #: 193
L'Affaire Hendricks

To add a little more fuel to the fire of this topic and at the risk of being even more "sensational" (after all there is no reason something can't be both sensational AND have serious philosophical import at the same time), let me introduce "L'Affaire Hendricks".

A little background first:

Synthese is an academic international journal of philosophy. It is (or was?) one of the most venerable, prestigious, and hard-core of analytic philosophy journals. Specializing in philosophy language, philosophy of science, epistemology, and logic, it's been around since 1936 and published seminal papers by many important philosophers including Carnap and Quine. It is based in Holland and publishes in several European languages, English predominating. It's been called the most influential journal in philosophy. Vincent F. Hendricks is one of its editors-in-chief (still) and an elite in his area which is mathematical logic and epistemology.

With that in mind, you can read more here:





"...a special course web page"


"If P, then WTF?!"


Let me be clear about what is important here. That Hendricks may not be all that different from most men; that we all know sex sells; that his volunteering to pose for a magazine using sex to promote charitable consumerism may indeed have been motivated by at least partly by charitable ideals; that yes American political correctness, more than the European sort, can be a little overly squeamish about sex; and that he may genuinely have thought it a fun and useful idea to inject a little self-parodying humor into an important subject that doesn't usually wear its sexiness on its face (or anywhere else)---all this can be true without taking away from the fact that he should have known beforehand what he would provoke. It shows an insensitivity to the meaning of culturally symbolic behavior in a context that people, correctly or not, do take seriously. Had he worked with more peers who were women, he might have been spared the embarrassment of how this would come across and spared the reputation of the venerable international journal he edited, his specialty, and perhaps the whole field of philosophy. Surely philosophers ought to know better: if you are going to do something provocative, be ready with a good argument.

The Hendricks case, like the McGinn scandal, are not in themselves that egregious compared to what other men in similar positions have gotten away with with fewer, if any, consequences, but they are symptomatic of the problem of too few women in philosophy.


What does Intelligent Design have to do with sex? Nothing, probably,... but Hendricks. Not long before l'Affaire Hendricks there was the Intelligent Design/Synthese/Hendricks ruckus:



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