Anita Allen on Philosophy

crmallen1.jpg The Philadelphia Inquirer has an interesting interview with Anita Allen, philosopher and law professor, about her view of philosophy and her experiences as both philosopher and law professor. It makes for depressing reading. At the time of the interview, Allen was about to give the keynote address to the Collegium of Black Women Philosophers.

“I have not been able to encourage other people like me to go into philosophy because I don’t think it has enough to offer them. The salaries aren’t that great, the prestige isn’t that great, the ability to interact with the world isn’t that great, the career options aren’t that great, the methodologies are narrow. Why would you do that,” she asks, “when you could be in an African American studies department, a law school, a history department, and have so many more people to interact with who are more like you, a place where so many more methods are acceptable, so many more topics are going to be written about? Why would you close yourself off in philosophy?”I feel that philosophy is hoisting itself by its own petard. Its unwillingness to be more inclusive in terms of issues, methods, demographics, means that it’s losing out on a lot of vibrancy, a lot of intellectual power.”Despite delight at the birth of the collegium, the existence finally of a “critical mass” of black female philosophers, she admits “philosophy still feels to me like an isolated profession. I don’t think I would encourage a black woman who has big ideas necessarily to go into philosophy,” Allen says. “Why? What’s the point? Go out and win the Pulitzer Prize! Don’t worry about academic philosophy. On the other hand, I would like to see that world open up to more women and women of color.”  

And to some extent Allen seems hopeful:

“My hope,” Allen says of the Nashville gathering, “is that this meeting will be for black women philosophers what the first meeting of black women lawyers was for us in the early ’90s. . . . We have now arrived. And I think women in philosophy can also arrive.”  

See below for more on the Collegium of Black Women Philosophers. Thanks, Sally, for the article!

48 thoughts on “Anita Allen on Philosophy

  1. I read that story a few days ago, and I have to admit that I agree with much of what Allen says. My department has been trying (with very little success) to increase the number of women and students of color who major in philosophy. When I read Allen’s assessment, I couldn’t help but think that I kind of agree. Why encourage bright–and especially feminist students–students to go into philosophy? Although my department is very supportive of feminism and race theory, the larger philosophical world is not. So unless the students are clearly already turned on to philosophy, and don’t have something else that they’re eager to pursue, why encourage them to major? And this is especially true for less-privileged students, who really do need to get jobs upon graduation, or at least know that there will be a job there for them after completing a grad program.

    This really is a serious problem. My chair is putting pressure on those of us who do feminism to encourage more undergrads to major in philosophy, and yet I’m not convinced this is the right thing to do…

  2. This is sadly too true. My undergrad education, at a very good California university, included only a handful of women and people of color.

    The issue is that much of the history of philosophy, which departments should(?) to be teaching, is crowded by only a certain type of people. Unless we start including different perspectives in the undergrad courses, I don’t think we’re going to find many varied types of people in our discipline. It’s much more interesting to major in some other discipline where they can do philosophy but also work in areas with more diversity.

  3. There is something puzzling about the idea that philosophy is not diverse or “inclusive in terms of issues.” I don’t doubt that there is some important sense in which this is true, but it’s worth mentioning that there arguably is no field with less topical unity than philosophy.

    Philosophy covers everything from aesthetics and the philosophy of emotions, which are about as humanistic as you can get, to formal logic, which differs little from mathematics. Throw in metaphysics, ethics (including meta- and applied), philosophy of language, and the philosophy of science (all different sorts!), and the range is actually quite stunning. Indeed, for any topic or field of inquiry X, there could be a philosophy of X.

    I guess the complaint, though, is that for some values of ‘X’, philosophers generally don’t seem very interesting.

  4. John,

    Please, your comments are welcome in any location.

    That does sound odd, but you know what I mean, I think.

  5. I know what you mean, thanks! Somehow I took your first comment on this thread to suggest that I might have violated some derivative Gricean rule of relevance for weblogs. ;)

  6. “the salaries aren’t that great, the prestige isn’t that great, the ability to interact with the world isn’t that great, the career options aren’t that great, the methodologies are narrow.”

    This is an odd list. Consider salary and prestige. If these are reasons to avoid philosophy, they’re reasons to avoid most academic disciplines. But is this right? We should encourage black women to avoid the academy because the pay is only middle-class and the prestige is only so-so? That hardly seems right.

    And who says the career options aren’t that great? They’re not that great if you don’t love philosophy. But if you do, then what career options are better? Being an investment banker? Not for me, I think (and thank God).

  7. #8 seemed to miss the “people like me” qualification. Allen’s point is that the burdens of being an African American woman in the philosophy profession are unlikely to be worth the possible benefits. She goes on explicitly to compare philosophy with other fields in and outside academia. Not really so complicated or controversial–unless one is determined to ignore the race/gender angle Allen was addressing.

  8. # 10 seems, I think, to miss the point of #8 — which was that “people like me” can mean very different things. If “people like me” means black women who share Allen’s intellectual interests, then no doubt she is correct that philosophy is not the best place for such people. But if “people like me” means simply black women, then it is not so clear. For instance, suppose the people in question are interested in issues that can only be explored within a philosophy department, or explored best within a philosophy department? Then it is not so clear cut that they are best to go join some other department, or skip the academy altogether. Should a black woman who loves and is talented at physics avoid physics because physics departments (let us presume) have race/gender problems? It’s just not clear….maybe, if the personal or professional costs are too high. But the cost/benefit analysis depends on how deep and abiding one’s affections for the subject in question is. (How could an African studies department, or a law department, or a history department, help a student who is most curious about physics? If they’re most curious about that topic, then the cost of switching to history might be devastating. The point holds of course if the deep interest is any of the many issues that are pursued in philosophy departments but not in history, etc., departments.)

    No doubt there are serious and troubling race and gender barriers in philosophy. That’s a real problem — I’m not denying that. But philosophy departments may still be the best place to be for a black woman (or a black man, or a white woman, etc.) if that person’s greatest interests lie within philosophy, at least of a kind that is done within philosophy departments.

    I have lots of non-white female students in my classes. Should I work under the presumption that the issues I care deeply about are not for them? (“Figuring out how mental states have the content they do is not for you: maybe you should try history or African studies instead.”). Is that really going to get us anywhere?

  9. Nick, 2 things. One, I think you might be underestimating how awful the experience of racism and sexism can be. A survey done to see why so many women trained in science to the PhD level choose to leave academia revealed that many of them want to have NOTHING to do with universities EVER again. Allen records sexual harassment that is truly awful. A very enlightening book is Unlocking the Clubhouse, which epxlores what Carnegie Mellon did in the computer science department to keep female students. The problems they addressed are common ones in philosophy too, from the male graduate students who happily tell women they don’t belong, to the fact that all the problems, projects and examples are determined by male interests. Whether much of anything echoes a minority female’s experience may be doubtful.

    Second, Allen appears to think that philosophy can be pursued in other departments. That might be true for much of philosophy, including some of the more abstract and analytic areas, such as language. And many of the other academic areas – e.g., psychology – are more women friedly, I think. I read recently that only about a third of cognitive psychologists are women (unlike the rest of the field). If so, that sounds better than philosophy.

  10. JJ,

    … from the male graduate students who happily tell women they don’t belong, to the fact that all the problems, projects and examples are determined by male interests. Whether much of anything echoes a minority female’s experience may be doubtful.

    The male graduate students who do that are behaving repugnantly. But maybe you could help me understand this thing about problems, projects and examples being determined by male interests, and not echoing minority female experience.

    Here are a few concrete examples that might help focus the discussion, but please feel free to use other examples if they’ll work better.

    Is it true that, for any two things, there is a third thing that is the fusion of them? This is a much discussed question from metaphysics about a view called “unrestricted composition.” What male interests are served by discussing this question?

    The Gettier problem shows that knowledge is not tantamount to justified true belief. Carl Ginet’s barn-facade example is the most famous Gettier example, and one of the most memorable in all of philosophy. What is it about the example that caters to male interests?

    Also, I bet questions of justice, knowledge, the nature of the mind, and the existence of God are of interest to most thoughtful adult humans. At least, it doesn’t take too much to get a thoughtful person to appreciate the depth of these issues. What would make minority females different in this respect?

    I understand that people might find other issues more interesting or worth pursuing. Perhaps one might think it more important, for example, to go into medical science or pharmaceuticals and help develop and test products that meet minority women’s health needs. But surely this is not something that could or should occur in a philosophy department!

  11. JJ: I was not objecting to the claim that racism and sexism are powerful deterrents. I agree with that. I have experienced a lot of it, and it sickens me. I was only pointing out that many of the points Allen raised would not apply to someone who cared most about certain kinds of philosophical problems or issues. They don’t have the option of going into history departments or whatever. (That’s one of the reasons the issue of race and gender bias in philosophy is so important!)

    Regarding the second point, I was careful to grant that certain philosophical issues can be pursued outside philosophy departments. But that doesn’t change the fact that many can’t be. One option is that those philosophical issues are just bunk, or not worth pursuing, or too determined by male interests to be worth investigating. But that’s a substantive claim that is hard to defend without deep familiarity with the issues to be debunked. (And even then it’s hard to defend: many philosophers have tried and dreamed of just such a proof!)

    It’s perhaps also worth saying, given this discussion: I know many women graduate students in philosophy who have had to deal with quite a bit of hostility from women outside of philosophy, who criticize the legitimacy of their intellectual interests. It’s bad enough to have to deal with sexist philosophy departments and institutional structures. It is worse when, in addition, people who don’t share your intellectual interests (and are largely ignorant of them) judge them to be illegimate.

    Nick (who is happy that his dissertation advisor’s advisor’s advisor was the great mathematician Emmy Noether)

  12. Hi John,

    one might worry that the way you’ve put the question is unfair. Think by way of comparion of the way that sexism or racism works in society at large. Many things are sexist or racist but it’s only possible to see this when you view them in a broader context. It might be unfair, then, to demand that one look specifically at a narrow question in philosophy and show how it (instrinsically) reflects only male interests.

    That said, I’m inclined to think that a great many philosophical problems (and especially the more interesting ones!) are not gendered/racist in the way sometimes alleged. The Gettier problem, for instance, was discovered centuries ago in India! And as you point out, surely questions about the nature of justice, knowledge, morality, etc. are questions that could interest any thoughtful person.

  13. Hello Nick,

    You’re right of course about the importance of context in understanding discrimination. But I was asking a question about a specific statement regarding “problems, projects, and examples,” so I don’t think focusing on specific problems or examples could be considered unfair!

    I gave a couple examples, as I said, that might help focus discussion, but I was careful to grant that the examples might not be the best for JJ’s purposes. If we have to work in lots of observations about context and history to understand matters, that’s fine by me.

  14. I take Allen to be referring exclusively to advising students who are interested in topics that could just as well be pursued in other fields– it’s the only way that what she says makes sense. And this way it makes a lot of sense. (One salient such topic is philosophy of law– as Allen’s own career demonstrated) One important question she alludes to is an ethical one: Suppose I’ve got a black woman student interested in topic T, which could be pursued either in a philosophy department or some other field O. I know that black women face lots of prejudice in philosophy and that it’s not quite so bad in O. I want there to be more black women philosophers, but I also want the best for my student. What should I do? We can add in that the student wants to use method M and to focus on problem P, both of which are rare and a bit marginalised in philosophy but taken seriously in O. I think it would be good to get more philosophers using M and studying P, but I know she’ll have an easier time of it over in O. What should I say?

  15. Male vs female interests? I’m much happier pointing out others’ generalizations about other fields than trying to bring the same to philosophy. After all, how could we know?

    Still, Nancy Tuana’s series “Re-reading the Canon” would be interesting for people to look at. As pieces of feminist analysis, the essays in the volumes often enough point out the defects in claims of impartial philosophy or bring to the philosopher’s topics resources not standardly invoked in philosophy.

    As for questions about justice, knowledge, the nature of the mind, etc: There have certainly been very serious questions raised about the universality of such topics as they are discussed in (analytic?) philosophy.

    I vividly remember myself many years ago being at a conference and having the men with whom I was disagreeing politely telling me that I was just being irrational. For my younger self, I was in a very puzzling situation. I didn’t think I was just wrong, but I was certainly outvoted. In Wittgensteinian terms, this raises serious questions about how to go on.

    The next day I encountered an early review of Carol Gilligan’s In a Different Voice which talked about how women’s moral intuitions may be just counted as non-rational compared to men’s. The review could have been in part about my experience.

  16. JJ,

    I don’t doubt that philosophers are partial. Likewise, I don’t doubt that significant institutional barriers exist in philosophy for women and minorities. But you said of philosophy that “all the problems, projects and examples are determined by male interests.” I’d just be really surprised if it turned out that, say, discussion of the Gettier problem somehow served male interests.

    Now, I can see how asking of God “Does He exist?’ not-so-subtly serves male interests. But the gendered nature of the deity in question is an artifact of religion, and nothing of philosophical substance turns on the deity’s gender. All the interesting philosophical issues remain the same if we say ‘Does She exist?’

  17. John, I actually said “all the problems, projects and examples are determined by male interests..” In the context of computer science, the list can be contrasted to ‘theories,’ ‘algorithms,’ etc. And “determined by” does not mean “serve.” I actually meant something like “they’re the ones guys invented, found interesting, wanted to discuss, etc.” Further, the fact that the guys choose the examples, problems, etc doesn’t mean none of them are of interest to female philosophers.

    The situation is actually very complicated, because of course Judith Jarvis Thompson, Philippa Foot and Elizabeth Anscombe have all formulated examples that have been well discussed in the mainstream analytic philosophy community. And no doubt a little thought would remind me of others. One question their work MIGHT raise is whether the general features of a male-dominated discipline mean that most people who participate end up in someway writing like men.

    These issues are really well discussed problems in feminist literature and/or discussions. There are really large and interesting issues that are discussed. Let me urge you to take any of the books from the Re-reading the Canon series that cover historical philosophers well loved in the analytic tradition and see some of the differences feminist approaches can bring.

  18. If ‘determined by male interests’ really just means that men struck up the discussion, then I very much doubt that it should dissuade women from pursuing the questions. Likewise, the fact that feminist writing is ‘determined by female interests’ shouldn’t dissuade men from reading it.

  19. I don’t think the claim is that women should be dissuaded by this, but rather that the questions chosen may not be the ones that women are more likely to be interested in (an empirical claim, obviously). Similarly, men doing feminist philosophy may want to explore topics different from the ones that occurred to women. This may make it a bit harder for them to get into the field. Neither women in “mainstream” fields wanting to do non-traditional topics nor men in feminism wanting to do non-standard topics should necessarily be dissuaded. And both fields would benefit enormously from the new perspectives, I think. But the fact that the perspective is new may present an additional barrier.

  20. Jender,

    The point about male interests ‘determining’ the questions was labeled a ‘problem’, and it was suggested that this determination is part of what leads minority females away from the field. So it was suggested that women are dissuaded by this, and calling it a ‘problem’ (mentioned in the same breath as odious verbal harassment of women!) strongly suggests that there is some merit to their dissuasion. But I detect no normative significance whatsoever in ‘determination’ in the intended sense.

    Now, if the questioners carry on their inquiry in a way that excludes new perspectives from entering the debate, or in a way that excludes new questions from being asked, then that’s a serious problem with the way the discipline is practiced. It’s not a problem with the questions (or examples) themselves, though.

  21. John, if you look at the post about the SWIP newsletter you will see that the concluding sentences in the quote are about possible consequences if more men start to leave philosophy. One set of possible consequences is that it would be good for women. The second set of possible consequences is that it would be good for philosophy.

    I’d expect every feminist philosopher to see how an affirmative response to both conjectures could be given. Many of us have gone through the arguments in classes we teach.

    I’m thinking that you are basically asking why anyone could think philosophy itself would be better if there were more women and fewer men in the profession. I’m not at all sure this is the right forum for going into the details of what might lead one to such a conclusion. There is really a massive literature, some of which has been referenced in this discussion.

  22. Sorry, JJ, but my question had nothing to do with the SWIP publication, or about what would happen if men abandoned philosophy in droves, or whether that’d be good, or for whom. It was a specific question about a specific statement you made.

    My point: given the way you’ve clarified ‘determined’, it seems clearly false that it’s a genuine “problem” that the questions were determined by males.

  23. Quick clarificatory question: JJ, do you agree with John, or do you think he’s wrong but don’t want to pursue the disagreement further at this time? (If the latter, I do hope you’ll return to this issue in a future post, since it seems like an important one, and would be worth getting straight.)

  24. I suspect JJ is saying that John doesn’t get it and he needs to read some of the relevant literature.

  25. I’m pretty sure that JJ is just to busy to keep going with this right now, as am I. I’m sure it will come up again later though, so fear not! Glad everyone’s so interested. Here’s my quick response to John that may clarify things a bit. John says: “The point about male interests ‘determining’ the questions was labeled a ‘problem’, and it was suggested that this determination is part of what leads minority females away from the field…Now, if the questioners carry on their inquiry in a way that excludes new perspectives from entering the debate, or in a way that excludes new questions from being asked, then that’s a serious problem with the way the discipline is practiced. It’s not a problem with the questions (or examples) themselves, though.” I take it that the argument for white male determination being a problem includes an important suppressed premise to the effect that the field is not very open to new perspectives (an emprical claim, obviously). Otherwise, yes, it’s not inherently a difficulty. Now, not being open to new perspectives is arguably a problem no matter who was responsible for the old perspectives. But it’s likely to be especially a problem for minorities and women if the ones responsible for the old perspectives were white men. So John’s right in pointing out the need for the suppressed premise. It’s quite frequently suppressed, and that may impair communication. Anyway, JJ’s source (which I haven’t read) probably does spell all this out nicely!
    Now.. back to my real job.

  26. Calypso,

    Presumably the relevant literature contains at least one example (if it doesn’t, then it’s worthless). Those familiar with the literature could simply produce one.

  27. That’s interesting. It seems to me that it’s the closed nature of the field that is doing all the work here still. That is, if in either scenario there are, say, 100 people with worthy new perspectives who aren’t getting a fair hearing, I don’t see why the demographic makeup of those individuals should make any intrinsic moral difference. (That is, I’m not sure why “a problem for minorities and women” is considered any more important than a problem for people, period. It seems equally serious, and worth addressing, in either case. The demographic distribution of the problem is strictly irrelevant to its moral weight.)

    New question: supposing that philosophy really is closed to important new issues and methods, but some neighbouring discipline – Law, say – can pick up the tab. Why change philosophy, rather than abandon it in favour of Law? (I raise some related issues in my follow-up post here. It seems to me that one should go into the discipline which allows them to pursue the kind of work they want to do. So long as some such place is available in the academy at large, I’m not sure I see the point of trying to reform other disciplines so that they, too, are doing the same kind of thing. Let a thousand flowers bloom, and all that.)

  28. To clarify because I really don’t want for this discussion to carry over into others: I think the problems I was referring to are both problems of practice and problems of content. I take the dual questions of the SWIP post to refer to each of these – and so to indicate a community understanding of the problems.

    The fact that I was described as changing the topic when I referred to the SWIP post seemed to me a good excuse for ending a discussion which I don’t really see as particularly beneficial to this blog.

    It may be unpalatable news, but many, many theorists have argued that American-European men have a particularly difficult time understanding that others see their point of view and their concerns as inherently limited, partial and therefore problematic when dominant. (A-E men typically seem to have no problem in seeing other perspectives as limited and partial, but theirs gets treated as exempt from limitations.)

    That seems to me to be the root problem here, and it struck me as a good idea to bring a futile discussion to a close. It still seems like a good idea.

  29. Oh, that’s disappointing. If critical discussion of important feminist issues between philosophers of good will and diverse perspectives is not considered “beneficial to this blog” then I’ve clearly misunderstood the purpose of this site.

    Perhaps if you append “only” to the blog’s title, such misunderstandings could be avoided in future.

  30. Just for the record, the “root problem here” is that someone made a statement, which if true would be significant, but wouldn’t or couldn’t really say much in defense of it when asked.

    Vague references to “community understanding” or “the literature” or what “many, many theorists have argued” hardly ever does much to advance a discussion, in this context or elsewhere.

    The basic question remains: What’s the normative significance of the fact that a question was originally asked because a male found it interesting (i.e., ‘determined’ by male interests)?

  31. I have to say that I’m puzzled by JJ’s attempts in this post (and previous ones) to force an end to discussion. John Turri and Richard, though persistent, have not been at all uncivil or otherwise inappropriate in their posts. Surely if someone really felt that there was nothing more to say, they could simply decline from posting themselves. Why try to hush things up? That just makes it seem like you’re unable or unwilling to back up your arguments; you seem flustered.

  32. Hi ya’ll. Quick promise: I will do a post sometime in the future taking up the issues raised here. I’m not sure how it happened– and please, let’s not analyze this!– but this thread of comments has become a rather unpleasant place to be. I’d rather start over someplace else, at some time in the future.

  33. I think that from my point of view, the choice of ending a conversation stems from the fact that I don’t see why I should be appointed to be the one to educate some people who are not choosing to educate themselves. Try reading Lugones and Spelman’s article “Have We Got a Theory for You!” to learn about the respectful way to approach people who are having their own conversation. The basic idea is that you try to listen and learn rather than demand that the conversation be conducted on your terms. I already gave examples in another thread about why mainstream topics in epistemology are ‘male’ or ‘eurocentric.’ It’s not so much what the mainstream topics say or how they reflect a bias but it’s rather what the list of mainstream topics implicitly or explicitly omits, excludes, and derogates.

  34. Well said, Calypso. Your remark suggests to me an interesting experiment someone studying blogging might perform. That is: seeing what happens when people with little or no background demand that some common understanding in a field be proven to them.

    Hmmmm. I might go over to a cognitive neuroscience blog and ask if using fMRI isn’t just practicing a new phrenology.

    Mind you, fMRI is new enough, and that charge recent enough, that they might be interested in pounding one into pulp.

  35. Yikes, there are clearly deeper issues simmering away here, and I for one would like to resolve the seriously conflicting messages I’m getting from various members of this blog.

    The first time I commented on this blog, hesitant because I’m very conscious of being an outsider to the dominant ideology, I tentatively asked to make sure I wasn’t intruding on what was meant to be a purely “internal” discussion amongst committed feminists. I was assured then that my contributions were welcome, so I’ve subsequently been commenting under the assumption that this was an open forum for good-faith discussion of feminist issues.

    Now, the pretty clear message from Calypso and JJ is that they feel others are intruding on “their own conversation”. That’s not something I want to do. I certainly meant no disrespect, and do not wish to remain here if my contributions are unwelcome, resented, or otherwise met with the sort of hostility seen above.

    I ask for confirmation before departing, though, because I think there is a LOT of value to online fora where people of diverse perspectives can discuss issues rationally and as equal conversational partners. I’m not aware of any other forum where feminist issues can be discussed in this philosophical way. (Most feminist blogs are of course more expressly political, partisan, and insular.) So I hope you (the collective owners of this blog) might be inspired to fill that role.

    But that may not be your vision for this blog. Just let me know.

  36. Thanks for this question, an important one. This blog is meant to be *both* a place where feminist philosophers can talk to one another, *and* a place where others can come to learn about and discuss feminist philosophy. Sometimes– fortunately not very often– these goals are in tension with one another. That’s what happened, I think, in this thread. Hopefully this will continue to be a rare event.

  37. John T:

    Perhaps adapting a basic idea from Sandra Harding’s discussion of science and standpoint epistemology would be helpful.

    The closed nature of the philosophical community is a problem because the background beliefs of the community function on the level of facts which determine the questions that are asked and funded. In other words, men have been in control of philosophy for a long time, thus controlling the questions asked and funded/published. Increasing the cognitive diversity of philosophy by including more women would change the questions asked and funded.

    So, the problem with the philosophical questions pursued isn’t that men asked them. Rather, the problem is that other questions don’t get asked because there aren’t women in positions to ask them.

  38. In response to the original article on Allen, most careers if you are not going into entrepreneurship, high level politics or entertainment, don’t pay well and have little prestige. For instance the day I started my program in health communication in public health program, my classmates and I were told there was little pay.

    However I didn’t take on that comment but saw it as a challenge. Regardless of the field, if it’s not a calling that you are not passionate about it doesn’t matter. Now that I am approaching the big 3-0. ;-) I realize that though I could have taken on a PhD program right after undergrad intellectually. Instead I completed my master’s. I am better prepared now socially/emotionally to know my focus, my discipline, and have a willingness to challenge the discipline and add value when I complete the program.

    I think if people regardless of their discipline learn how to think like entrepreneurs and are trained communicators, then they can build a better platform for their cause. For instance who will be the next Frederick Douglass to challenge status quo and make a call for humanity? The goal is to be multi-dimensional and find application in any field. Perhaps that’s just a reflection of my approach.

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