On The Lack of Women in Philosophy, Contd.

It’s not just me. It does seem there has been a lot of talk recently about women in philosophy: their absence, why they leave philosophy so early, the sexism and sexual harassment they face, and whether philosophy seems to do worse in this regard than other disciplines in the humanities or even science. (To jump into this debate, you could do worse than chase down some of the links available here through the excellent New APPS blog: discussions on the under-representation of women in edited volumes, conferences, the McGinn affair, for instance.)

I consider myself to have already made a contribution to this debate by my positing the Dickhead Theory as a possible explanation for the lack of women in philosophy. To wit, academic philosophy is overpopulated by male blowhards who seem to conceive of it as a contact sport and engage in public displays of obnoxious behavior at academic fora. Today, I want to embellish that claim just a bit in response to some of the discussion that was sparked by Rebecca Kukla’s suggestion that the adversarial nature of philosophy was something women could and should be able to handle:

I think that the whole idea that women are put off by or unsuited to the aggressive, argumentative style of philosophy is crap.

This has sparked a fairly extensive discussion so I’m definitely coming to this late, and possibly with very little, but let me press on regardless, mainly by way of anecdote. (A far more theoretically informed discussion can be found on the New APPS blog here and here. I broadly agree with Jennifer Saul that whether or not the aggressive style is something that women are comfortable with, its bad for philosophy, and with Eric Schliesser that modes of argumentation can be productive without being aggressive and that even if philosophy was adversarial in the past doesn’t mean it has to be now.)

So: the best and most useful and productive philosophy discussions I have participated in have not taken place at public fora like conferences or colloquia. They have taken place in private settings: a beer in a bar or at someone’s home, a discussion over a coffee somewhere. They have been intense in the best sense of the word: lots of ideas exchanged, arguments traded back and forth, positions questioned and examined extensively.  The contrast with the ‘public’ discussion of philosophy could not be more acute. There, the aforementioned Dickhead Theory finds ample confirmation.

The reasons for this, I think, are quite simple: philosophy as a discipline seems to set great store by performances in its public arenas: the forums, the conferences, the workshops, the colloquia. Here is where, apparently, you ‘make an impression’, where you posture. Its graduate students are highly insecure, worried about jobs and placement. They go to these venues hoping to make a visible impression; they have already received some instruction on how to perform from their ‘heroes’: the tenured (male) bigwigs who will write their letters of recommendation (and who once were graduate students just like them). The peacock effect in these settings then manifests itself in the visible display of coarsely demonstrated philosophical nous.

Take a discipline racked by deep insecurity about its worth compared to science, which finds its most pleasing self-image in imagining itself continuous with the natural sciences and aspires to their ‘hardness’, throw in a largely male population, add a desperate job market, a culture of uncritical hero worship of its luminaries, mix in a sphere of ostensible academic interaction used instead for preening and strutting and the academic equivalent of mating, and you have, I think, the makings of a domain, which will continue to remain hostile to women.

6 thoughts on “On The Lack of Women in Philosophy, Contd.

  1. As a former wannabe-philosopher, I’d have to say that this section of Kukla’s interview is more resonant than any idea that combativeness is off-putting to women in particular:

    “Second, I think that women – along with those from less privileged backgrounds – are more likely to have complicated familial responsibilities that make philosophy appear too risky of a career path. It takes quite a bit of privilege and autonomy to be able to spend your twenties making a near-poverty-level salary, knowing that at the end of it you will likely have to move several times to whatever random locations the job market points you to, with the odds of a permanent job at the end of all that remaining quite low.”

    Granted, I find it impossible to extract my experience as a woman from my experience as an introvert from a working-class background, but the other huge turn-off is pretty similar to the peacocking you describe above, but which I would term “blowhard syndrome” – people (usually men) who dominate discourse merely through volume and repetition, and a complete unwillingness to be swayed by others. As a woman (possibly?) I get this every damn day, and clearly my career choices have not gotten me into an area free of it, but even as a blushing undergrad the department was solely enamoured of the boys in the big beards who just never shut up, despite never actually saying anything. If they said nothing of substance but worked the word “ontology” into every comment, they were the stars. Man, if my life is going to be filled with that bullshit anyway, why choose an unpredictable career that’s going to be sewn up by it?

    Also the aspirations of philosophy now seem so narrow and self-obsessed that it hardly seems worth pursuing. Sort of like an elevated circle-jerk, everyone facing inward to avoid the specter of their irrelevance.

    Oops, that was combative! 😉

    1. Melon,

      You’re back! Glad to see you here. That is indeed is a very good point made by Kukla. Indeed, it might even explain why academic philosophy is dominated in general by a very particular demographic: men from fairly comfortable economic settings. I suspect this is probably true of other fields to a lesser or greater degree.

      Hope you’re doing well.


  2. Hi! I have been really careful all along to separate ‘aggressive’ from ‘adversarial’, and to distance myself from the view that philosophy should be adversarial OR assholish. I agree about the blowhard problem, but am kind of sad that I keep being misrepresented in this way. (See discussions on the feminist philosophy blog, newapps, and elsewhere, where I clarify this repeatedly.) I realize that this isn’t about me – it’s at this point a larger disciplinary discussion, and fair enough, I am glad it is – but I don’t want to be remembered as the woman who stood up for adversarial assholitude in philosophy. Also, when I gave the interview, I really thought that the point that melonw picks up on was more important in all senses than the styles of discourse point, so I am glad to see it getting some attention.

    1. Rebecca,

      Thanks for your comment and welcome to the blog. I’m definitely not taking you as the poster person for the Aggressive Asshole brigade. Your original statement, which you later clarified (and perhaps I should have picked up on that) did mention “aggression”, which is why I cited it, and then the followups by Saul and Schliesser, which attempted to answer it. In a little Facebook discussion with Catarina Dutilh-Novaes I mentioned the quality of good philosophy discussions – that while they were conducted in what might be termed ‘adversarial’ settings insofar as they involved the questionings of assumptions and skepticism, they never felt aggressive or hostile. That kind of ‘adversial’ many philosophers male and female can handle.

      Incidentally, since you also mentioned this attitude as being traced back to the origins of philosophy, I should note that Maureen Eckert just noted that she intends to present a paper very soon debunking that notion. I’ll send you a FB friend request and you can check out the discussion thread where I linked the blog post.


      1. Request accepted! I do regret using the term ‘aggressive’ because it is multivalent and has been open to various interpretations, many of which I am not comfortable with. Good philosophy discussions that are intense and penetrating, where everyone involved stands ready to listen to critiques of their positions and have their minds changed, as well as being willing to plunge in work through what others have said with vigor, are ‘aggressive’, as I meant the term, and they may not be adversarial at all – they might even be (and often are) deeply collaborative and constructive. I do stand by my claim that a taste for that sort of thing is pretty essential to the disposition to be a professional philosopher, and that that’s neither gendered nor a bad thing.

        Anyhow I am deeply sympathetic with your aptly-named Dickhead Theory. Thanks for engaging!

  3. As I kept reading your discussion of aggressive argumentation, I was reminded of the world of Free Software mailing lists (& IRC chats), being more familiar with Debian, I’d cite the Debian-devel list as one example. Over the recent past (5 yrs?), after the introduction of the Debian Womens initiate and the recent diversity statement, some members have been moving some of their discussion styles to be more collaborative and less adversarial. So I wonder how these arguments styles and trends can be compared to your example. I’m sure Prof. Biella Coleman could provide the academic insight into that.

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