1. Lucy O’Brien has done nothing at all which merits being told to leave the profession. (edit: whether via implicature or semantic content)
Some truths September 13, 2014
‘Is feminist philosophy too. . .?': Part 3 September 12, 2014
Is feminist philosophy too personal? Are feminist philosophers too emotionally invested in the subject matter?
This is another criticism I’ve heard fairly often, though I’m not sure whether it’s actually a distinct criticism from the worry that feminist philosophy is too political. I’m treating it here as a separate worry, since I think there are interesting things to be said about it as a criticism in its own right.
I take it that the worry is something like this. Feminist philosophers have deep personal investment in the subject matter they are pursuing. They are extremely emotionally invested in the equality of men and women, in combating sexism, and exploring ways in which women have been and are disenfranchised. But this sort of personal investment isn’t likely to produce good philosophy, since it will prevent them from ‘following the argument where it leads’.
The idea that we must somehow break free of personal investment to engage in truly rational thought is a familiar trope within philosophy. For example, Bertrand Russell says in his essay ‘The Value of Philosophy’:
‘Everything, in contemplation, that is personal or private, everything that depends upon habit, self-interest, or desire, distorts the object, and hence impairs the union which the intellect seeks. By thus making a barrier between subject and object, such personal and private things become a prison to the intellect. The free intellect will see as God might see, without a here and now, without hopes and fears, without the trammels of customary beliefs and traditional prejudices, calmly, dispassionately, in the sole and exclusive desire of knowledge — knowledge as impersonal, as purely contemplative, as it is possible for man to attain. Hence also the free intellect will value more the abstract and universal knowledge into which the accidents of private history do not enter, than the knowledge brought by the senses, and dependent, as such knowledge must be, upon an exclusive and personal point of view and a body whose sense-organs distort as much as they reveal.’
Feminist philosophy can likely never be free of personal attachment, can never be ‘without hopes and fears’, mired as it is in people’s (and especially women’s) desire for progress and equality. And so feminist philosophy is somehow impaired, compared to other, ‘purer’ topics in philosophy.
Let’s start with the obvious on this one. It’s more than a little bit suspect to criticize a group predominated by women who are thinking carefully about gender as going wrong because they are too emotional. I mean really. But let’s leave this – quite obvious – point aside.
Are feminist philosophers often personally invested in the positions they defend? Yes, of course. But then, philosophers – feminist or not – are often personally invested in the positions they defend. The ‘free intellect’ which can ‘see as God might see, without a here and now’ is, I’ll hazard a guess, a myth. No one actually thinks like this. No one can think like this. It’s perhaps the privilege of wealthy white men like Lord Russell to think that they can – that they aren’t hindered by the inevitable biases of who they are, where they’re from, etc. But then, even Russell seems to have not followed his own advice about good philosophy. As he says in the preface to his autobiography:
“Three passions, simple but overwhelmingly strong, have governed my life: the longing for love, the search for knowledge, and unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind. These passions, like great winds, have blown me hither and thither, in a wayward course, over a great ocean of anguish, reaching to the very verge of despair.”
I don’t dispute that feminist philosophers often have personal (and yes, emotional) attachment to the topics they discuss. But they aren’t alone in that. Topics like wellbeing, justice, morality, virtue, etc are the kinds of things we inevitably take personally, and have deep personal investment in. And they are also the subjects of very good philosophy.
Nor is personal investment unique to ‘value’ subjects within philosophy. There are lots of ways to be personally invested in a topic other than longstanding pre-theoretic emotional attachment. How often have you read a scathing book review, seen an angry outburst in a q&a, witnessed a sneering comment of derision in a talk? These types of displays are, unfortunately, all too common in our profession, and they occur often in ‘the core’. I’m deeply skeptical that anything other than emotional investment in the topic (or in your being right on the topic) produces these kinds of behaviors. Pride, disdain, scorn – those are all emotions too.
To my mind one of the most valuable contributions of feminist philosophy is a positive take on how emotion and emotional investment can help us to make progress on certain philosophical topics. This idea isn’t by any means unique to feminist philosophy (there was this guy called ‘Aristotle’. . .), but feminist philosophy gives us some wonderful examples of it. Consider Eva Feder Kittay’s work on personhood or Sally Haslanger’s work on adoption. In both cases, the authors acknowledge their personal connection to the topic, and in particular their connection as mothers. But, as Kittay rightly points out, a discussion of such topics would be incomplete without such perspective. The myth of these debates is that other people involved don’t have such personal investment, and thus can be more ‘objective’. But why should we think this? Why should we think that, e.g., Peter Singer isn’t personally invested in being non-disabled, or that David Velleman doesn’t have a personal investment in biological parenthood?
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’. Here, for example, is a passage from Ted Sider’s Writing the Book of the World:
‘A certain “knee-jerk realism” is an unargued for presupposition of this book. Knee-jerk realism is a vague picture rather than a precise thesis. According to the picture, the point of human inquiry–or a very large chunk of it anyway, a chunk that includes physics–is to conform itself to the world, rather than to make the world. The world is “out there”, and our job is to wrap our minds around it. This picture is perhaps my deepest philosophical conviction. I’ve never questioned it; giving it up would require a reboot too extreme to contemplate; and I have no idea how I’d try to convince somebody who didn’t share it.’
Sider has taken some heat for these comments. But my suspicion is that what’s unusual or disconcerting about this passage is simply its honesty, rather than its methodology. Sider is admitting that part of the background to his work is a basic viewpoint which he can’t really imagine doubting, and which he doesn’t really know how to argue for in a way that would convince a skeptic.
My own – and I suspect many other feminist philosophers’ – assumption that men and women should be equal is similar, in this respect, to Sider’s commitment to a type of metaphysical realism. Does that make it personal? Sure. Does that make it bad philosophy? Not unless a whole bunch of other stuff is bad philosophy too. As feminists have long argued, the personal is political. It can be philosophical too.
Tl:dr – Emotional investment isn’t in any way unique to feminist philosophy, and feminist philosophy shows us ways in which acknowledged emotional investment can contribute to philosophical progress.
“What I still do not believe is that we should add Asian philosophers, or African-American philosophers, to the curriculum in order to “encourage” (on some misguided theory) minorities to enroll in philosophy courses.”
I agree. We certainly should not add anyone to the curriculum on the basis of a misguided theory. But knowing all that we know about stereotype and implicit bias, we have very well-supported theories in favour of adding demographic diversity to our syllabi. Knowledge of these theories tells us that our selections for syllabi are very likely influenced by implicit biases which it make it more likely that we will select white men. It also tells us that demographically diversifying our syllabi is no mere marketing ploy, but rather something which is likely to have real effects on the attitudes not just of students from underrepresented groups, but also on those of other students.* Those who are making such suggestions are not acting as “identity politics police”, as Leiter would have it. We are carefully examining the evidence, and working to improve our profession. Eugene Park’s testimony is a further piece of evidence (albeit anecdotal) that these suggestions are on the right track.
*For a summary of some of this, see my “Implicit Bias, Stereotype Threat and Women in Philosophy”, downloadable at the lower right, here.
Can one be hugely disappointed but not at all surprised? September 11, 2014
If so, here’s a good case, from CHE
U. of Illinois Board Votes Down Salaita Appointment
The University of Illinois’s Board of Trustees voted on Thursday to deny the appointment of Steven G. Salaita to a professorship on the Urbana-Champaign campus, in the latest chapter of a month-old saga that has inflamed academe.
That Mr. Salaita’s appointment appeared on the list of proposed faculty hires to be voted on by the board came as a surprise. The campus’s chancellor, Phyllis M. Wise, who has been the subject of several no-confidence votes at the college, maintained in recent weeks that she would not send the appointment to the board. Trustees have expressed support for her leadership.
H/t also to Dailynous
A Woman’s Room Online September 10, 2014
An interesting artistic representation of how online harassment impacts women:
Amy has created an exhibit called A Woman’s Room Online: a free-standing 8×10 foot room that is being installed in the L.A. Center for Inquiry office. It will look superficially much like any office in which a woman might work, with the usual accoutrements.
But each object will be covered with messages these women have received on Twitter, Facebook, and email. Real messages, actual things sent to them that are the vilest, most hateful examples of the worst humanity has to offer.
I’ve received a variety of gross and abusive messages and feedback for expressing my opinions online. Much of this was explicitly gendered. Much of it was anonymous, but not all. I use a pseudonym here so I don’t have to expect more of the same tomorrow.
So the concept behind this artwork is quite compelling to me: it captures something of the ways in which I’ve experienced this kind of abuse as inescapably permeating my environment, both at work and elsewhere. It helps to make vivid what it feels like to be told I should just ignore it or “brush it off”, or that it’s not a big deal.
Women take online harassment more seriously not because we are hysterics, but because we reasonably have to. There is no gender equivalence in terms of the denigrating, hostile and sometimes exceedingly dangerous environmental effect that misogyny has, online or off.
Conference at UConn, November 21-23
Keynotes: Jason Stanley (Yale) Ishani Maitra (Michigan) Richard Wilson (UConn)
The Injustice League in the Philosophy Department at the University of Connecticut seeks abstracts on topics related to the conference theme. Suggested topics include: hate speech, slurs, propaganda, slut-shaming, bragging, and gossip.
We seek philosophical work from a variety of subfields, including: ethics, political philosophy, social philosophy, philosophy of language, epistemology (e.g. epistemic injustice), feminist philosophy, philosophy of law, and philosophy of race.
Please send abstracts of 750 – 1000 words, prepared for blind-review, to our graduate student project assistant, firstname.lastname@example.org by September 22th, 2014. Please put “DS Submission” in the subject line of the email. Decisions will be made shortly thereafter.
If you have any questions pertaining to the conference, please email: Suzy.Killmister@uconn.edu
Papers resulting from the conference will be strongly considered for publication in a special volume of Social Theory and Practice focused on the conference theme, guest edited by Hallie Liberto.
Who Really Has Academic Freedom? September 9, 2014
The concept of free speech is an abstraction worth defending, certainly. But what does free speech mean when nearly everyone who has actually gained any kind of a degree understands fully that the freedom to academic expression is contingent upon any number of factors, including race, class origins, gender, and ethnicity, to name just a few? …
At his blog, Jeff Ketland has posted the names of individuals at Oxford he claims constitute ‘a lynch mob’ against him. The people he identifies are mostly grad students. Ketland claims all the people he identifies were part of a malicious smear campaign which:
harassed a family, including even a 4-year old child, out of their home; and then the smear campaigners authored a harassing letter repeated false allegations while making offensive extra-judicial demands and got it signed by 135 people.
In memory of this outburst of vigilante harassment in Oxford, the Oxford lynch mob members are listed here, denoted LM1, LM2, etc.
The people identified are in fact simply the signatories of this open letter which expressed concern about the university’s handling of the situation. Whether or not some of these individuals also harassed Ketland, it’s definitely not the case that they all did. (I know some of them personally, and that’s simply not the kind of behavior they would engage in.) And it’s definitely not the case that the letter itself constitutes harassment or a ‘smear campaign’.
Ketland’s post seems to constitute a worrying form of retaliation.
Is feminist philosophy too unrigorous?
Another common complaint is that feminist philosophy – whatever its shared assumptions or agenda – is simply not suitably rigorous. I suspect that a lot of people who make this criticism haven’t read enough feminist philosophy. Does some of it lack rigor? Sure. Is some of it really messy and unclear? Absolutely. But that’s true of every part of philosophy. The very best of feminist philosophy, though, is a model of clarity and systematic thinking. But perhaps the claim isn’t that all feminist philosophy isn’t rigorous. Maybe, instead, the thought is that feminist philosophy is in general less rigorous than non-feminist work, especially work in ‘the core’.
To be clear, by ‘rigorous’ I don’t mean formal. Sometimes I think people use the term ‘rigorous’ such that work which incorporates more technical jargon and formalism is automatically more rigorous. If that’s what you mean by ‘rigorous’, then sure – feminist philosophy is less rigorous than, say, the bulk of philosophy of language or philosophical logic. But then, so is the vast majority of non-feminist philosophy. And I don’t think being rigorous matters to philosophical quality, if that’s what you mean by ‘rigorous’. By ‘rigorous’ I mean clear and carefully argued. Work that’s formal can lack philosophical rigor (in this sense), and work that’s philosophically rigorous can lack any trace of formalism.
So is feminist philosophy less rigorous (in this sense) than a lot of mainstream philosophy, especially ‘the core’? The truth is that I don’t know, and I don’t think my judgements on the matter are likely to be that reliable. (I don’t think yours are either.) If feminist philosophy were in fact somewhat less rigorous, though, it wouldn’t tell us anything very useful about the merits of feminist philosophy as an area of philosophical enquiry. There are perfectly good reasons why feminist philosophy might be somewhat less rigorous than other areas which don’t bear at all on whether feminist philosophy is ‘good philosophy’. But there are also perfectly good reasons to be suspicious of our comparative judgements in these cases.
For one thing, feminist philosophy (at least as it’s currently practiced in English-speaking philosophy) is a relatively new discipline. It wouldn’t be surprising, given this, if a lot of the work in feminist philosophy was slightly more exploratory in nature than work in fields that have had much longer to define the terms and parameters of their debates. Part of what we’re doing right now in feminist philosophy is ground clearing, just trying to figure out the dialectical terrain. That kind of work can seem – and might be – less clear than work that’s situated within a well-defined and thoroughly explored debate. But that doesn’t make the newer discipline inferior, or the work that’s done in it less philosophically impressive. (Indeed, given the relative newness of the discipline it seems particularly impressive just how clear and rigorous some of the work in it is.)
But feminist philosophy is not only a relatively new field, it’s also a relatively marginalized field within professional philosophy. And it wouldn’t be surprising if this marginalization had bad knock-on consequences for the discipline. (Just as it’s no surprise that many of the most prominent feminist philosophers made their names – and earned their first jobs and their tenure – doing something other than feminist philosophy.) Feminist philosophy isn’t ‘core’. It isn’t widely represented in top philosophy departments. It’s hard to publish on it in top generalist journals, get invited to speak on it in cushy venues, or dialogue with a large group of interested philosophers about it. It’s certainly possible that the net effect of this situation is a drain on resources and talent from feminist philosophy – a drain that might have some negative affects the overall quality of the field. Again, I don’t want to assert that this is in fact the case. But if it was, it wouldn’t make me worry that feminist philosophy was somehow an inferior discipline. It would just make me want to address the ways in which feminist philosophy isn’t taken seriously. And I’d still think feminist philosophy as it currently stands is worthwhile and important, given how much great work there is in the field.
But I also think it’s important to realize that our judgements about rigor and clarity aren’t free of bias. The standards we employ when we say feminist philosophy ‘lacks rigor’ may not be standards we apply universally. Within particular philosophical conversations, people often say things that can sound opaque to the uninitiated. When metaphysicians talk about fundamentality and the ‘flow’ of time, or when epistemologists talk about warrant and internalism vs. externalism about knowledge, or when philosophers or perception talk about the content of experience and what it’s like in Eden, or when ethicists talk about exclusionary reasons and normative power, it can be really difficult – from the outside – to get a good sense of what’s going on. Nevertheless, metaphysics, epistemology, perception, and ethics all are doing just fine in contemporary philosophy. What I want to suggest is that judgements about what’s clear or rigorous aren’t made in a vacuum. And given what we know about gender bias, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if we tend to judge a group, the majority of whom are women, talking about gender more harshly than we judge your average philosopher.
More generally, something that seems perfectly clear to participants in a debate may seem obscure – even unintelligible – to those not immersed in that debate. With a lot of debates in philosophy, though, we seem give the participants the benefit of the doubt. Sure, it may not make much sense to me. But there seems to be a good conversation going on there, and the people engaged in it all seem smart and like they know what they’re talking about. So they’re probably on to something, even if what they’re on to isn’t my thing. (You may, instead, be the kind of philosopher who thinks most philosophy outside your area is bullshit. If so, you’re an equal opportunity hater. Congratulations. . .? But you should at least grant that there isn’t a special problem with the badness of feminist philosophy, amongst all the other badness you are forced to put up with.)
With feminist philosophy, though, people seem very quick – unusually quick – to move from ‘That sounds kind of obscure to me’ to ‘Feminist philosophy isn’t clear or rigorous!’ to ‘Feminist philosophy is crap!!!!’. And that inferential slide is a bad one.
Tl:dr – Feminist philosophy might, at present, be less rigorous than other fields for reasons orthogonal to the merit of feminist philosophy as a discipline. But we also might judge feminist philosophy more harshly than we judge other fields.