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.

2012’s Top Five Posts (Here, Not Elsewhere)

2012, the year that was (or still is, for a few more hours), turned out to be a busy one for blogging at this site. I wrote three hundred and twenty-four new posts, bringing the total for this blog to three hundred and fifty-five. The blog finally crossed fifty thousand views. (A humbling figure, if you think that major blogs receive those many hits in a day.)

The five most popular posts in terms of views were the following. (I don’t think these are necessarily the best pieces I wrote, which is a judgment I find hard to make in any case, but they definitely attracted some attention.)

  • David Brooks Went to a Springsteen Concert, And All I Got Was A Stupid Op-Ed: I wrote this post in response to a typical display of asinine, pseudo-profound commentary by a columnist who is an integral component of the embarrassment that is the New York Times Op-Ed page.  It was a bit silly, and I suppose could be described as satire, but really, it was a pretty straightforward reaction to idiocy. Among others, Brian Leiter linked to it, as did Bradford DeLong, and Corey Robin, and that brought in many viewers. Many thanks to you all. (In particular, Leiter and Robin have brought many readers to this site, so I owe them multiple thanks.)
  • Bill Keller Needs to Drop the Snark and Do Serious Journalism: This was an angry reaction to a New York Times Op-Ed that I found profoundly politically offensive. I have grown increasingly depressed by the state of political journalism in the US and Bill Keller’s writing on WikiLeaks at the nation’s premier newspaper summed it up for me. As a public display of confusion about the responsibility of the journalist, and the relationship they should maintain with those in power, Keller’s piece has few parallels. Glenn Greenwald and Corey Robin linked to this post.
  • On The Lack of Women in Philosophy: The Dickhead Theory: This post grew out of a long-held concern of mine that the academic practice of philosophy often betrays what should be its guiding principles, among which should be the creation and maintenance of an atmosphere conducive to open and unfettered inquiry. I find the lack of women in philosophy appalling, and remain convinced that the way male philosophers run the profession has a great deal to do with it. This post was prompted by articles by Jennifer Saul and Helen Beebee.
  • Occupy Wall Street And The Police: Why So Estranged?: In this post, I wondered why the police, who should be on the side of those protesting the 1%, are instead, so committed to doing the bidding of those that would keep them in a state of economic and political deprivation. Again, Brian Leiter cited this post.

I wrote three hundred and nineteen other posts of course (check ’em out!). Most of them sank into obscurity, but that’s quite all right. I’m still amazed that anyone bothers to read anything posted out here.

So there you have it folks. Another year awaits, and while I’m not quite sure that I will blog at the same rate as I did in 2012–primarily because I two new book projects planned (besides a newborn!)–I will continue to write as often as I can. Do stick around.

Note: I also owe thanks to all those folks on Facebook and Twitter who linked to, and shared my posts. Much appreciated.

On The Lack of Women in Philosophy: The Dickhead Theory

Jennifer Saul over at  The Philosophers Magazine has an interesting article on the psychological biases in the field that are adversely affecting the role and presence of women in philosophy. Saul considers various explanations for why women are so poorly represented in philosophy, one of which is:

[T]he importantly distinct idea that women approach things differently, and that philosophy is the poorer for not fitting well with women’s ways of thinking. One version of this idea can be found in Carol Gilligan and another in very recent work by Wesley Buckwalter and Steve Stich. These claims of women’s difference, however, have never held up well empirically, as Louise Antony argues eloquently in her “Different Voices or Perfect Storm”. [links added]

I agree with Saul in general and have an alternative theory to offer as explanation for the lack of women in philosophy. I call it the Dickhead Theory.  The heart of the Dickhead Theory (DT) is contained in the email I sent to Saul:

One of the biggest problems is that philosophy is treated like a contact sport: an argument is a contest, a chance to knock your opponent down, to utterly destroy him. Look at the way male philosophers report on question-and-answer sessions at colloquia: “Oh, X just wiped the floor with Y; X just totally devastated Y’s objection’ and so on. Look at the hostility with which questioners confront speakers, or the bristling tone of most philosophy discussions. Are they doing philosophy or are they working out deep neuroses? I find all of this extremely distasteful and diligently avoid most philosophy talks simply because I cannot stand – pardon my French – all the dick-waving.

I understand that philosophy is structured around the construction, analysis and defense of arguments, and that as such, it is an adversarial discipline. However, I have yet to see any good argument that such activities are best conducted in an atmosphere that approximates the one described above.  Philosophy is, truth be told, seemingly overpopulated by male dickheads. And I don’t think women like being in disciplines where that is the case.

In response to my email, Saul directed me to a paper by Helen Beebee titled ‘Women and Deviance in Philosophy‘. In it, Beebee includes a section titled ‘The seminar as a philosophical battleground’, which I think, argues for the DT much more carefully and thoughtfully, and in much more temperate language. At the end of the section Bebee concludes:

The hard question remains, of course: do women in fact, in general – or perhaps just more often than their male colleagues – find the aggressive and competitive atmosphere that is often present in the philosophy seminar uncongenial, independently of any effect it may have via stereotype threat? I do not know the answer to that question. I myself do not enjoy being on the receiving end of aggressive and competitive behaviour, and…do not feel in the least bit demeaned by that confession. On the contrary: on my own personal list of thick moral concepts, these both fall under ‘vice’ rather than ‘virtue’. I cannot, of course, speak for others. But my point here has been that there are grounds for thinking that such an atmosphere is alienating for women – and hence good reasons to attempting to change the atmosphere of the seminar room when it is aggressive or competitive – whatever the answer to the hard question; so it is one that we can simply allow to lapse. The role of such an atmosphere in the pursuit of truth is, at best, neutral; at worst, it runs the risk of putting women off philosophy – thereby reinforcing the stereotype that philosophy is a man’s world.

Yeah. What she said.