Feminist Philosophers

News feminist philosophers can use

Diversity in emotions, again! October 18, 2014

Filed under: academia,emotion — annejjacobson @ 7:53 pm

[note: acute comments coming in make me realize that this post is a bit hastily written. I'll say a bit more in the comments when I can, but let me Draw your attention to the discussion of the bystander in #3.]

There’s a recent post here about how humans vary in the strength of the emotions they field.  A cruel comment may get someone angry for a day or two, but another person may feel beaten up in a way that lasts far longer without being pathological, though it may become a pathological threat to their health and more general ability to function.

The discussion on the last post turned quite quickly to Borderline Personality Syndrome, and contributors covered a lot of ground.  But I think we left out two other important topics.  In addition, there may be connected topics that I am not mentioning, and I hope they’ll get raised in comments if anyone is interested.  So here are the two I am thinking about.

1.  Given that being nasty to someone can cost them a week or more of their lives, and that “strong feelers” are not rare, what in the world is happening with people who are nasty adult bullies in supposedly humanistic fields like philosophy?  I suggested in a certain recent discussion that occupied this and a number of other blogs that maybe some of the bullies are not aware of the power their words can have.  Words are not sticks and stones.  But words can kill by sending someone depressed over the edge.  And no doubt in other ways in our small world.

Another possible source of the nastiness is alexithymia, which is a fascinating but unpleasant disorder.  People with the disorder usually are literally incapable of imagining others’ distress.  It’s been suggested that corporate criminals who ruin the savings accounts of thousands or millions may not be able to imagine fully the effect of what they are doing.  While no diagnostician at all, I watched carefully the descriptions of Ken Lay, of Enron infamy, and he certainly was described as displaying related traits.

I once tried to tell someone prone  sometimes to incredibly nasty comments that she could end up killing someone.  A very difficult thing to say, and I messed up entirely by managing to suggest I was going to die.  That was a real mess to sort out.  So let me say now:  Words can kill.  Probably more often they deeply wound.  The wounds can cause chaos in someone’s life.

2.  A second question concerns the value of being a strong emoter.  If you look at our last discussion, emotional surges were likened to tsunamis.  Of course, some of us like to think that philosophy is driven by reason, but might strong emotional reactions have epistemic importance even in the ‘rational’ fields?  If so, it might mean that some of us arrive at important conclusions in advance of finding the reasons for them.  Does our pedagogy allow this?  If not, should we rethink some of the demands placed on students.

I recently gave a paper to a group of biologists, some of whom encountered the concept of mental content for the first time (which, incidentally, is a concept I doubt in the end makes sense).  Some of the biologists took standard argumentative weapons and launched them at the concept.  But one person was perplexed and very unhappy.  I was reminded of three-hour tutorials with Elizabeth Anscombe, where one could do deep conceptual therapy, which does allow that one may need a lot of time to find reasons for already intuited conclusions such as “There’s something badly mistaken here.”

Anyway, I’d love to know what others think about this.

 

McCabe, West, and ‘public philosophy’ October 6, 2014

Filed under: academia — annejjacobson @ 3:56 pm

David Livingston Smith put this video up on FB. It is long, but watch the first 6 mins and you’ll probably want to come back to it later.

 

 

 

“Eugene Park Was Right: Academic Philosophy Is Failing Its Cosmopolitan Values” October 5, 2014

Filed under: academia,colonialism,minorities in philosophy — Stacey Goguen @ 5:30 pm

Bharath Vallabha has a post here about philosophical traditions, cosmopolitanism, and universality.

“The power of philosophy is that, by raising abstract questions about human beings, it generates inquiry to which any person can contribute, irrespective of their local, contingent situation. Universality is intrinsic to philosophy, and most philosophy classes in the Anglo-American tradition are taught with this aim of universality firmly in mind. How can ignorance of non-Western philosophy be compatible with this universal impulse of philosophy? How can Anglo-American philosophers claim to seek universal philosophical truths and concede that they are only aware of the Western philosophical tradition?”

“If most Anglo-American philosophers have “no opinion at all about non-Western philosophy because they are simply ignorant of it,” then in what sense can they speak about philosophy itself, rather than just about Western philosophy?”

“So why are most Anglo-American philosophers content to just continue the debates they inherited from their teachers, who inherited them from their teachers, and so on? Park articulated the urgent need to bring Western and non-Western philosophers into dialogue. Where is the urgency to do that on the part of most Anglo-American philosophers, not for the sake of minorities, but for the sake of their own growth as philosophers and world citizens?”

“According to Leiter, minorities should go beyond their traditions and engage with Western philosophy, but the only thing Western philosophers have to do is to continue on with the internal momentum of Western philosophy. In fact, they must guard it from being corrupted by the “consumer demands” of minorities.”

“It is understandable that Descartes and Kant in the 17th and 18th centuries did not engage with non-Western philosophy; after all, they wrote within a culture of colonialism. But what is the excuse for contemporary Anglo-American philosophers? Especially now that advances in civil rights, immigration, and technology have made our society more open than ever? Enlightenment philosophers stood ahead of their culture, prodding their contemporaries to look beyond their local traditions to a global world.

Contemporary Anglo-American philosophers, however, are lagging behind their culture, even as our global society hungers for new ideas.”

 

Chris Lebron Interviewed at 3:AM: “The Colour of Our Shame” September 29, 2014

Filed under: academia,internet,minorities in philosophy,politics,race,social justice — Stacey Goguen @ 8:53 pm

You can read the interview here.

“Chris Lebron is a philosopher who asks deep questions about theories of justice appropriate for race. He thinks about bridging the gap between abstraction and lived experiences, about American democracy and racial inequality, marginalisation and oppression, about the idea of character and how it helps explain racial inequality, about the problem of social value, about why Rawls isn’t enough, about ‘white power’, about despair and blame, about perfectionism and egalitarianism, about soulcraft politics, about three principles of racial justice and about the lamentable number of black philosophers currently working in the Academy. Give this one the time of day to sink in, then reboot…”

 

Rankings and Implicit Bias September 26, 2014

Filed under: academia,bias — jennysaul @ 2:19 pm

There’s some really interesting discussion starting to take place about the pros and cons of various kinds of ranking systems for philosophy. A couple of years ago I wrote a paper on the potential for implicit bias in both the PGR and the REF. I thought it might be useful for that paper to be a part of these discussions, so I’m posting the penultimate draft of it here. (Also, I can’t figure out how to use my university’s newly updated CMS. Grr!)

The paper is “Ranking Exercises in Philosophy and Implicit Bias”, in Journal of Social Philosophy, 43:3, 2012.

RankingsPenultimate

It was only after publishing the paper that I noticed another interesting difference between REF and PGR. I’m no great fan of the REF– it has lots of problems, but it does have the nice feature of not weighting an areas of philosophy more heavily than any others. Whatever area your work is in, it’s only ranked by people in your area, and there’s no overall ranking of departments, except in so far as various competing ones can be (and are) arrived at through the rankings of work, impact, etc. So there’s no case to be made that a department will do better in the REF by hiring an analytic metaphysician than a pragmatist. Departments are free to just go by quality and teaching/supervising needs, without worrying that they should favour particular areas for the sake of the rankings.

 

Is civility a professional error?

Filed under: academia,free speech,improving the climate,language — jennysaul @ 7:25 am

A guest post from MM McCabe

Amid the debate about academic freedom which has been in the professional news recently, there has been a parallel discussion about the nature and importance of ‘civility’. It is a category mistake (as I have argued) to take civility to be the converse of academic freedom. But some have argued that civility is still a professional error: that we may or even should use uncivil language and a hostile stance at times in dealing with opposition and criticism. And the demands for incivility are heard more acutely when we face attack on our very institutions and seem to be fighting for our academic lives.…..

Begin, however, with the ordinary case. In the corridor or the classroom or the seminar, civility is at least an aspiration – that we speak and listen to each other in a civil manner: it is an aspiration within an existing community – hence the political overtones of the word. Why should we bother? Civility is an attitude displayed in the content of what one says, revealed by tone or linguistic choice, but it is fundamentally an attitude to another person – of taking them seriously, of treating them with respect and care, and without prejudice. This, I take it, matters intrinsically – just because whatever enterprises we are engaged in, we are engaged together. This explains the shock and outrage and the sympathy for its target when civility seems to be cast aside.

But civility matters practically and instrumentally, too. For discussion – not only in philosophy, but perhaps philosophy is a paradigm case – is a fragile thing. In its full sense it relies both on each party’s having the confidence to speak without hesitation or fear and on each party’s ability to listen to the other. Shouting, of course, precludes listening; and so does its behavioural counterpart, incivility – where the damage may be done at a distance, or over a length of time. For these are exercises of power; and they distort and damage and stunt each party over time. (As a young graduate student, in seminars with an array of philosophical heavyweights, I said not a word in public for years; and the sense, both of terror at speaking up, and of hubris in daring to think I have something to say, has remained with me ever since, only overcome, regrettably, by a natural garrulousness). The wielding of power is bad for each party; both the silenced and the speaking end up with a view of what they each think that comes from their squinted sense of themselves, rather than from some better assessment of what they (might have) said. That is bound to limit what we think about – since some stuff never gets said; and some gets said too much. And it is bound to limit us.

For all this has both a narrowing effect and a broadening one. Incivility relies on an assumption of being right; and that assumption itself may make a speaker risk-averse (this is the Mastermind syndrome – you too can be a specialist within a vanishingly narrow scope…) or pontifical everywhere (this is the God syndrome – to which both those who believe in a god and those who do not are prone…). Both syndromes affect both parties to a discussion where the balance of power is out of whack: but they are the assumptions of power, not of careful inquiry.

For the hearer, civility has an obvious epistemic advantage, that it does not tempt us to accept beliefs whose warrant is sustained only by force majeure; it allows us to see the limits of expertise or authority; and it encourages us to think that we too might have something to say. Moreover, in eschewing particular attack, it allows us to turn our attention better to what is impersonal and abstract; it has that instrumental value.

For the speaker (or the writer) it may be hard to remember that we might be wrong, or that we could think again, or that others might have thought about the same things too; and in the grip of a passionate conviction it is especially difficult to make oneself look at the passion from the outside, from the perspective of another, from the abstract stance of the discussion itself. But discussion gives us these other perspectives: if we are able to listen, then we can think about what we think is different ways. If we are sure we are right about something, we can surely afford the patience to listen to a different view; and if the different view is worth hearing, then perhaps we are not so right after all. But that sense of perspective arises only if the other party to our discussion is able, not only to listen, but also to speak. Listening, if you like, goes both ways; and each of us has to have courage to speak, as well as the patience to hear, if the deep intellectual benefits of discussion are to be reaped. That courage can be very hard indeed to find. Civil exchanges, where the exercise of power is absent, are one condition for finding it.

Civility is hard, though: it is easy indeed to feel oneself under threat and to respond without hesitation, seeking to defend ourselves. This escalates – one remark construed as uncivil provokes another and another; and then the history of the offence is just repeated and rehearsed. This is the rhetoric of the playground, of ‘she said, he said, she said…’, the endless recapitulation of grievance, the constant repetition of what was done, by whom, to whom, and under what provocation. Such disputes, legalistic in their detail, may be not only interminable, but utterly indeterminate, since the original offence is often lost in the retelling itself. Both parties, of course, take themselves to be in the right, and to have behaved impeccably. Either may be right. But in such a situation, remember Jarndyce v. Jarndyce: we are all the poorer for it (apart, perhaps, from the Court of Chancery). Return, then, to the nature of the aspiration to be civil. The prospect of restoring good will and the possibility to speak and to listen together demands that the endless detail is, at last, abandoned. The future of collaborative discourse is more important than its past.

In all of our exchanges, perhaps, we fall short: civility is under construction, but it continues to be an aspiration. But there is still a question of the role of rage: are we never right to express fury, or righteous indignation? Communities, after all, are not only the place for polite discussions of an afternoon in the study, but the locus of structures of power, places where wrongs can be done and go unnoticed or unprotested. When that happens, there is another demand upon us, a different kind of courage called for – the courage to protest, to object, to stand up for one party against another – a courage that is demanded even where there is no risk of physical harm. So in counterpoint to the aspiration to civility, there is a proper demand to call out wrong, and to insist on expressing disapproval or disdain or condemnation. This may be a case, merely, of objecting to a wrong; or a protest against the improper wielding of power. (It should not, I think, for all the reasons above, simply call out an intellectual mistake – accusations of stupidity promote the wretched ‘smartness’ competition). Such a protest may indeed express other responses than civility: anger is the properly moral emotion in response to some appalling injustices. And that rage may be, not only about the content of the injustice, but directed against the perpetrator – after all, we regularly think that there is a connection, sometimes, between the views that someone holds and their moral character. As so often, there is a matter of fine judgment here between the demands of moral indignation, and the demands of attentiveness; and this, we might think, works within any community, whatever its boundaries. But once again there is a difference of category: moral indignation may be a moment or a stance against some particular offence; but it should not be a general attitude, nor a repetitive trope, nor, indeed, a policy. Instead, in general, civility serves us well; for it underpins the virtues that promote freedom of inquiry: modesty, a sense of community and intellectual courage.

 

Taking Aim at Student Evaluations’ ‘Air of Objectivity’ September 19, 2014

Filed under: academia,academic job market — annejjacobson @ 3:47 pm

We’re asked fairly often for publications discussing biases in course evaluations.  Now the Chronicle of Higher Ed links to an article which notes biases and other faults in course evaluations.  E.g.,

Some of what Mr. Stark and Mr. Freishtat write repeats critiques by other researchers: that evaluations often reflect snap judgments or biases about an instructor’s gender, ethnicity, or attractiveness; and that they fail to adequately capture teaching quality. While economists, education researchers, psychologists, and sociologists have weighed in on the use and misuse of these tools, it is relatively unusual for a statistician to do so.

and they have a number of other objections, ones that should appeal to administrators who don’t like claims about ‘identity issues’.

The bottom line? “We’re confusing consumer satisfaction with product value.”

The biblio for the research article looks wonderful.

 

A defense of a defense of emotion in philosophy September 16, 2014

Filed under: academia,bias,emotion,Uncategorized — annejjacobson @ 7:28 pm

In an important post Magicalersatz assserts:

The idea that philosophers should start from first principles, construct premises, and ‘follow the argument where it leads’ without hindrance from emotion or personal perspective is a romantic one. It’s also an absurd one. We all come to the table with biases, presuppositions, and background assumptions – whether we admit it or not. And yes, these types of commitments are present even in ‘the core’.

The fact that her statement can seem just common sense may be a testimony to the way in which ideas from empirical research is permeating our perspectives. And if it doesn’t seem just common sense, you should know that there is a great deal of empirical support for the idea that reason alone isn’t going to get us far. We can and should try very hard to get rid of – or at least mitigate – morally problematic biases, but the idea of a good, substantive philosophy emerging from pure reason is a myth.

The thesis that human beings are not purely rational, even when we think we are being so, started to emerge with a number of researchers in the 1960’s-70’s. The first official attack on the Cartesian conception of reason that has many in Anglo-American philosophy in its grip comes with Damasio’s 1994 Descartes’ Error:

ALTHOUGH I CANNOT tell for certain what sparked my interest in the neural underpinnings of reason, I do know when I became convinced that the traditional views on the nature of rationality could not be correct. I had been advised early in life that sound decisions came from a cool head, that emotions and reason did not mix any more than oil and water. I had grown up accustomed to thinking that the mechanisms of reason existed in a separate province of the mind, where emotion should not be allowed to intrude, and when I thought of the brain behind that mind, I envisioned separate neural systems for reason and emotion. This was a widely held view of the relation between reason and emotion, in mental and neural terms.

In the Introduction of new editions, Damasio notes correctly the now entrenched nature of his views:

I advanced the hypothesis … that emotion was in the loop of reason, and that emotion could assist the reasoning process rather than necessarily disturb it, as was commonly assumed. Today this idea does not cause any raised eyebrows …

Of course, the details are not fully worked out, there are competing hypotheses (dual process pictures, for example) that do not incorporate all his ideas, and so on. BUT in general the demise of the ‘man of reason’ is pretty much a done deal.

 

Academic free speech and the academy: an informative approach

Filed under: academia,civility,free speech — annejjacobson @ 7:01 pm

Mary Margaret McCabe has a thoughtful post on free speech and civility. She argues that there is a pragmatic inconsistency in letting civility trump free speech in the academy.

If academic institutions exist for the pursuit of knowledge and understanding, whether alone, or with colleagues, or with students, such inquiry does not say in advance what may or may not be thought, or considered or assumed or believed. Socrates’ injunction to follow the argument where it leads is surely the right one: inquiry is not constrained by canons of what can or cannot be said or thought. This is true, at whatever level the inquiry occurs. So an inquiry into inquiry is similarly unconstrained. Equally, an inquiry into how inquiry should be institutionalized is free in the same way. The context of inquiry, that is, is a suitable topic for inquiry too – the openness runs across fields and up the orders, to include, of course, the inquiry into academic freedom itself.

If that is right, then the basis of academic freedom is internal to the nature of academic business.

What about civility? Aside from cases of the impossible interlocutor, one who will not listen, civility is something to which we academics should aspire:

Civility is an important aspiration in the context of inquiry that is free in the sense I outlined. For free inquiry occurs between and among people; and people are over and over affected not only by the content of what is said, or even the general import of what is said, but also by its manner and its tone. Loud and fierce declarations of opinion often force an interlocutor to be silent, or to be afraid; in such cases civility is clearly conducive to an effective and productive exchange of ideas.

 

COACHE: Faculty assessing their university September 14, 2014

Or: Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher Education.

COACHE is a product of Harvard’s School of Education. One of its main outputs is a survey that is taken by faculty and then analyzed by COACHE. As I remember, the survey gives one standard assertions such as “The administration of this university strongly supports interdisciplinary research” and then gives one an option of five answers from “agree very strongly” to “disagree very strongly”. (Or at least something much like that.) One great thing is that the score the university gets is a comparison with what are counted as peer institutions. So if your university is ranked in the bottom third in interdisciplinarity, for example, that is not simply because you have a lot of malcontents. Rather, it is because your faculty are much more negative about that feature than most of the faculty in your peers. And that becomes a problem for the university.

If you are on the job market or if the tenure decision is coming near, do think of asking if your (prospective) university has a COACHE report, and ask to see it. (Those applying to grad school may also benefit; see the next para.) At least the one for my now former university reveals two things: (1) major weaknesses and (2) differences between tenured and non-tenured (tt) points of view; see below for a remark about this. If you want to dig a bit deeper, it may also show you more general facts about the university that are holding the problems in place. In my experience the report is stunningly accurate. That is, the university ranks low on features that, to be perfectly frank, drove me crazy. The faculty, however, love the upper administration, a fact that shows a very important disconnect.

TENURED VS. NON-TENURED points of view. In my former university the tt are generally more positive than the tenured profs. It would seem easy for the tt also to be much more negative, as I would guess they are in some other places. In any case, there are contexts in which this won’t matter, and ones in which it will. If a set of discontented tt faculty have been bullied into being enthusiastic for prospective grad students, those who believe them may be in for a shock. Equally, if the tt folk are much happier than those with tenure, they may not be a good source of information about whether you should join the department as a faculty member. Now the COACHE report does not mention specific departments, so differences in these respects are really just warning signs.

The differences between tenured and tt points of view are interesting, and I don’t really know what explains them. When I was following the literature on sexism in STEM quite closely about ten years ago, it appeared that STEM women did not perceive the sexism until the tenuring process started. One can think of a number of possible reasons for this, and some of them would spread across genders and disciplines. Perhaps, for example, some senior faculty feel protective about the younger ones, and smooth things out for them a bit. Another might be that the tenured faculty may try to draw on more resources, and so discover what the weaknesses are. On the other hand, it would seem most unfortunately easy to make the tt faculty miserable, so differences in directions different from those at my university would seem to be more understandable.

 

 
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