Not Your Grandpa’s APA

There’s an article out in the Philadelphia Inquirer about the APA that singles out some feminist philosophers as showing the exciting new directions that philosophy is taking:

To be sure, the panel on “Philosophical Perspectives on Female Sexuality” was not your grandpa’s APA. Indiana University’s Elizabeth Lloyd, in her paper on “Analyzing Bias in Evolutionary Explanations of Female Orgasm,” crisply outlined how male assumptions ludicrously distort “Darwinian” explanations of this explosive adaptation.

And the University of South Florida’s Rebecca Kukla – a professor of obstetrics and gynecology as well as philosophy – offered a brilliant analytic comparison, in her “Depression, Infertility and Erectile Dysfunction: The Invisibility of Female Sexuality in Medicine,” of male-directed ads for Viagra and ads aimed at female sexual dysfunction, demonstrating the ongoing belief that female sexuality, unlike male, cannot be located in a specific body part

Of course, the article is elsewhere criticised as merely seeking out titillating tidbits. Unsurprisingly, I agree with Romano, the journalist, about the quality and interest of Lloyd’s and Kukla’s work. But I’ve also found that more and more philosophers who I meet and converse with– even those whose own work is squarely traditional in style and content– would agree with Romano that there’s something very exciting going on right now in the way that more and more philosophers are connecting traditional work up with issues of real-world political significance. (I think a great example of this comes from another philosopher who did a session at this APA– Miranda Fricker’s work connecting epistemology and injustice. Her book has a nice preface that touches on the idea of reconnecting philosophy to the world in this sort of way.)

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23 thoughts on “Not Your Grandpa’s APA

  1. While I appreciate the shout-out, I think Leiter’s extreme anger in response an article that singled out for discussion papers by two feminist women and one black man (Cornell West), as opposed to any of the ‘substantive’ ‘central’ papers, itself calls for feminist analysis (or at least some sort of analysis!). I am saddened that the expanding-as-we-speak comments thread on Leiter’s blog seems to have settled into an agreement that, regardless of whether Leiter was right to attack the journalist, clearly SOMETHING must be done to fix the APA or provide an alternative to it if THIS is how the public sees us. It is really pretty insulting, especially given that the original article was quite clear that those three papers were outside of the normal APA fare.

  2. I couldn’t help but notice the journalist’s comment about the women philosophers being “scraggly-haired with wire-rimmed glasses.” I suppose this should not surprise us and is perhaps not as bad (or at least on a par) with the men having long beards dating back to the 60’s (also scraggly, I might add) and corduroy sports coats with elbow patches. I wonder which academic convention would meet with this journalist’s fashion approval? And hey, women had presence enough to be mentioned, anyway! I am thinking of putting a post on Leiter’s blog in response to his comment. We’ll see.

  3. Satire of academia is an art form I appreciate (e.g. Zadie Smith’s book On Beauty) and the journalist strikes me as being pretty good at at it. If you’re going to be funny, you have to focus on the guy with the pony tail and the gal with the scraggly hair…and anything that seems out of the ordinary. That’s how humor works. At the same time, I think the guy provides a fair amount of information about the goings on. He definitely got me curious about the “invisibility of female sexuality” paper.

  4. No one, anywhere, disputed “the quality and interest of Lloyd’s and Kukla’s work. ” That is a gross misrepresentation of Velleman’s comments and the subsequent discussion. As I said in the comments section at my own blog, it is quite clear that Romano–who is an ignoramus and who is hostile to philosophy–did not focus on their papers because of their “quality and interest.”

    In reply to Rebecca Kukla’s comment, above: “extreme anger”? What are you talking about? I am not extremely angry, just bemused; I very much doubt even Professor Velleman is “extremely angry” (did you forget that it was his comments that prompted the post?). And do you really think Cornel West’s work is representative of philosophy? How could you?

    Very puzzling.

  5. I didn’t see anyone, anywhere, including in the original article, claim that West’s work was ‘representative’ of philosophy. What/who are you responding to? And if you are not angry then why are you seeking out blogs that you don’t usually post on to follow up on the issue and ask rhetorical questions?

    Here are some of the words and phrases that you and Velleman used that sounded angry to me: the article was ‘silly’, a ‘hodgepodge of caricatures and titillating titbits’, ‘pander’ing and reductionist. The APA is ‘useless’ because it allowed such reporting to occur. The ‘let’s see now’ in response to my comment and the one above was clearly sarcastic and hostile, and added no substantive point. In contrast (presumably to the papers and philosophers mentioned) what was missing from the article was reporting on ‘substantive’ papers that represented the ‘central concerns and accomplishments’ of the discipline.

    I’m sorry if you are offended by my standing up to you on this and calling you on your rhetoric – I really am. I don’t know if you are offended; I am just saying in advance that I am sorry if you are. But I hope you agree with me that calling people on dimensions of their rhetoric that shut down productive disagreement and perhaps give unintended impressions is an important part of productive philosophical conversation. Your original post (and Velleman’s – I named him from the start so I am not sure why you accused me of forgetting about him) indeed sounded angry, as did your follow-up comments. Whether or not you know this, it is true. Several people independently e-mailed me to comment on it today. If you weren’t angry, then you should know that that’s how you sounded.

    You are of course right that the papers mentioned in the article (including mine) were not as central to mainstream philosophy as others. That was, in fact, a major explicit point of the article. I still don’t see why it’s even slightly a problem to point that out in a newspaper article. The reporter claimed that the APA is broadening the types of papers it allows on the program; it is. This is a true fact that the reporter chose to report on. Whether such work is better or worse than more typical work is a question for another day – surely there is plenty of trivial, lousy work and plenty of philosophically insightful and exciting work in each camp.

  6. Thank you for the reply, but let me remind you what you wrote. You said, “Leiter’s extreme anger in response an article that singled out for discussion papers by two feminist women and one black man (Cornell West), as opposed to any of the ’substantive’ ‘central’ papers, itself calls for feminist analysis (or at least some sort of analysis!). ” This seems to imply that Cornell West’s work is ‘centra’ (I used “representative” instead). It also implies, unfairly and irresponsibly, that I posted David Velleman’s comments because of hostility to “feminist women” and a “black man.” These are cheap rhetorical shots, and you know that.

    I fear you (and your correspondents) don’t know what I sound like when I’m extremely angry. (And that you and like-minded correspondents agree isn’t enough to make something ‘true,’ but I’m sure you know that.) Words like “silly” and “pandering” are not the ones I use. The words I use would, I suspect, violate the “be nice” policy this blog has adopted (reasonably so, given the anonymity that is the norm here).

    I have been reading this blog pretty regularly for over a month now, since I posted in response to an irresponsible attack on me that had appeared here. Why do you think you know what my blog reading habits are? Why is my posting in reply to a misrepresentation of my views so surprising? I am foolish enough to believe that reasonable individuals will revise their views if and when they are mistaken.

    I am not offended by you “standing up to” me, or even by your comments: I am puzzled, as I said. And I am further puzzled by the choice of language here: ‘standing up’? We’re both grown-ups with tenure, having a disagreement. What does ‘standing up’ have to do with it? You’re equally good at rhetoric, so why even bring that up?

    In any case, Carlin Romano referenced your paper and Professor Lloyd’s not because of his respect for your work, but because he thought the titles would titillate the readers and allow him to grind his particular axe against most of what we philosophers do (including you). You must know this as well as I do.

  7. I’m a bit unclear about the discussion on the Leiter blog. What would be accomplished by getting visiting journalists to “understand the central concerns and accomplishments of the discipline,” as Velleman suggests? What effect is being envisaged? People will see how wonderful our work is?

    Obviously, most people have a strong desire to be seen as they see themselves. And perhaps part of what Velleman would like to see is a public acknowledgement of our struggles to create exceptional philosophy.

    However, given a chance to speak to the press, the state legislature, the senate, the president, etc, I don’t think I’d spend the time trying to convey the import of Kriple on rigid designators, or Quine on two dogmas, fine though that work is.

    So I’m wondering if Velleman’s remark reflects a neglect of some important factors in communication. Or something like that. We can try to pour information into others’ heads, but communication of any significance typically depends on a match of some sort among the values and interests of the interlocutors.

  8. Brian, you write: “In any case, Carlin Romano referenced your paper and Professor Lloyd’s not because of his respect for your work, but because he thought the titles would titillate the readers and allow him to grind his particular axe against most of what we philosophers do (including you). ” But here’s what Romano said about Kukla’s paper: “And the University of South Florida’s Rebecca Kukla – a professor of obstetrics and gynecology as well as philosophy – offered a brilliant analytic comparison, in her “Depression, Infertility and Erectile Dysfunction: The Invisibility of Female Sexuality in Medicine,” of male-directed ads for Viagra and ads aimed at female sexual dysfunction, demonstrating the ongoing belief that female sexuality, unlike male, cannot be located in a specific body part.” He calls the comparison “brilliant” and then describes it well enough that a reader might well think “Huh! I’d never thought of that– interesting.” This looks like respect and appreciation of Kukla’s work– I really don’t know how else to read the word ‘brilliant’. It also looks like he’s realised it’s something that can be conveyed to readers in a single sentence well enough to make them start seeing aspects of their world in a new way.

    Now, of course, he’s probably also pleased that it’s a bout sex– I don’t deny that. But why say that he didn’t reference the paper out of respect? It looks to me like there’s quite a bit of respect there.

  9. Fair question. If you read the piece I wrote about Romano’s “memorial” for Rorty, you’ll see that he is quite clueless about philosophy. If you’ve read his other work that is philosophy-related that impression will be reinforced. Ergo, I conclude he has no capacity to render a meaningful critical judgment, since he is ignorant of our discipline, and that he is moved entirely by his hostility to most of what we philosophers do, mostly because, on the evidence I have, he can’t understand it.

  10. I’d be curious to know what Rebecca thinks of Romano’s summary of her paper. (I’ve read other work of hers, but I don’t know this paper.) Perhaps he understands some areas of philosophy better than others. I agree, by the way, that Romano is at least sometimes way off in his understanding of works that he reads, and pretty offensive as well. I’m actually thinking of his infamous review of MacKinnon’s book, which included an imagined rape of MacKinnon. (For a summary– not an esp. great one, but what a quick google found me– of the events surrounding it, see here:,9171,979960,00.html?iid=digg_share.)

  11. On reflection, ‘areas of philosophy’ above should probably be ‘bits of philosophy’.

  12. I don’t know this Romano person’s history at all, but yes, his summary of my paper was accurate as far as it went. He oversimplified the point (which is appropriate in that context) and that wasn’t my main point, but it was one of the points I harped on and he got it right. If nothing else, he definitely had to have sat and listened to a bunch of my paper to write that; just having liked the title wouldn’t have sufficed. Same for Lisa Lloyd’s paper.

  13. Having been to the Miranda Fricker session, let me just second Jender’s comment and add that her work has one of those important and genuinely new ideas (at least as far as I know). And that’s about the virtues of the hearer.

    At the same time, Linda Alcoff’s introductory summary had a very bitter sweet air as she discussed the consequences of being denied the position of a credible speaker or witness. How many women does one know who speak with a hesitant air?

    Apparently, across the sciences – and philosophy too, I should expect – women tend to submit less for publication. How many occasions of not being particularly welcomed or believed would this require or reflect, I wondered.

    In fact, it would be great to have the session’s papers in a published symposium, and I hope some journals out there will respond to something first rate and politically so important. It could not be more relevant to the day to day problems of inclusion that American political parties are finally beginning to think about.

  14. I remember Fricker writing about the ways that certain kinds of people are denied credibility, but I don’t recall whether she also discusses certain topics as ones on which it’s hard to get credibility. I’m thinking sexuality is an interesting example of the latter, at least within certain contexts. Work on sex is very often dismissed in philosophy (and other fields too maybe? I don’t know) as mere titillation. I should note that I’m definitely not singling Brian or Velleman out here– I think this is quite widespread. I know that Brian’s judgment of Romano’s article was in large part influenced his views of Romano’s previous work. So he didn’t just read the article on its own and conclude that Rebecca’s paper was only discussed for the sake of titillation. However, I think that’s a fairly natural reaction for many people to have, even with the word ‘brilliant’ in the description, and even with a lucid description of an interesting point. And if that’s right, it’s really kind of startling– an indication that the topic serves to hugely reduce the status of claims being made either in the paper or by those praising it. (After all, what we’ve got is a paper obviously about sex being described as brilliant. Why did this paper get chosen for discussion? I would have thought both brilliance and topic played a role, but if it’s natural to assume that it’s just topic, that shows the brilliance has totally fallen out of the picture for the person making this assumption.) And this is worrying, as it serves as a real deterrent to working on certain topics by those who want to get taken seriously. If there is serious work to be done on these topics (and I think there is) then this can’t be a good thing.

  15. jender, I think you are right that it is considered a topic to giggle over. One thing one suspects is that it is hard for many to appreciate how much imagination and effort is required to rethink standard categories in the discussion of sex.

    There have got to be many other factors. It would be interesting to see if a topic concerned with male sexuality would be considered titillating.

  16. “on the evidence I have, he can’t understand it” (emphasis mine).

    Notice that this is quite obviously untrue. Unless the reporter has some severe mental deficiency, he could understand it, he just doesn’t. The fault is accidental, not essential. Our discipline isn’t that hard. (Though, obviously, there are status enhancing reasons for pretending it is.) Most people of ordinary intelligence could understand philosophy if they were to put the time into it, they just choose not to, because it’s boring and difficult. Still, it can be taught most of the time.

    [Edited in order to accord with our ‘be nice’ rules– Jender]

  17. Feeling out of sympathy with Carl’s remark – students are one thing, and adult amateur readers usually another – I looked up Romano’s credentials. You might be surprised;

    In his academic life, Romano has taught philosophy at Yale, Yeshiva University, Williams College, Bennington College, Temple University and the University of Pennsylvania, where he is currently a Visiting Professor teaching media theory and philosophy. During the 2002-2003 academic year, he was a Fulbright Professor of philosophy at St. Petersburg State University in Russia. He has been a Shorenstein Fellow at Harvard, a Freedom Forum and NAJP Senior Fellow at Columbia, a McCloy Fellow and Fulbright Scholar to Germany, and the first Eisenhower Fellow from the United States to Israel. He is a 3-time winner of the Society of Professional Journalists “First Prize” in Criticism, and a recipient of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania’s Distinguished Arts Criticism Award.
    Mr. Romano was born in Brooklyn, New York. He received his B.A. from Princeton University, an M.Phil in Philosophy from Yale University, and J.D. from Columbia Law School. He lives in Philadelphia and New York City.

    And he was a Pulitzer finalist in 2005.

    “Teaching philosophy” can mean all sorts of things, some nearly irrelevant here. But if this person cannot understand philosophy to a fair degree, it is not clear to me why we should worry about getting “visiting journalists” up to snuff.

  18. While I was at the APA this year as usual, I am afraid that I missed the Lloyd and Kukla panel. Whatever our views of this reporter (and there have been discussions of his views on philosophy earlier), I do think it is a very poor showing for the APA’s main event. Other organizations note the success of their events in terms of publicity by column inches and coverage on air. Thus, the UK’s Political Studies Association will have its award ceremony covered by radio, print media, and it was broadcast on BBC Parliament this year. The APA is many times the size of the PSA and the conferences reflect this size disparity as well. I think one short newspaper piece a poor showing.

    Surely, more must be done to promote the subject and — even if we are fully satisfied with this piece — we should not be satisfied with the genuine lack of attention our discipline’s major event receives. I agree with Jender that the panel in question touches on issues of genuine ‘real world’ concern. Equally so were our panels hosted by the APA’s Committee on Philosophy and Law. One article cannot cover everything. However, just one article on an event that many consider one of the most important events in the philosophical year is unsatisfactory.

  19. I notice a big difference between philosophy’s image in the US and the UK. There is more popular philosophy in the UK, more philosophy in mainstream newspapers, two philosophy magazines. In general, philosophy makes it into the public square a lot more. This is surely not because of better journalistic coverage of philosophy conventions, or because of PR work being done by philosophy organizations, is it?

    I suppose there are a lot of factors, but it seems like a major one is that philosophers themselves in the UK are more interested in showing up in the public square. More write books of general interest. I would think a change of attitude among philosophers themselves is the key to better press coverage for the field in the US. Not that there’s none of that already, but it would be good to see more.

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