Network theory and the culture of philosophy

Network theory showed up in a recent post here.  The idea was really quite simple:  if we want to make changes in the culture of philosophy  to make it more hospitable to women philosophers, then network theory might be a good source of ideas.  After all, academic philosophy is a network.  It surely behooves us to think about networks.

In that regard, here is an interesting lecture  that  is about how power flows through a network, including how networks create social change.  On watching it this afternoon, I was struck by some  of  the analysis that is presented.  At the moment, though, I’m distracted  by a more specific question.   And that’s a question about new movements within philosophy. 

Three come to mind.  One is feminist philosophy, another experimental philosophy and still another philosophy about embodied minds.  For  those of us at the Hypatia conference, feminist philosophy seems  now fully an area of philosophy.   More recently, experimental philosophy is at least gaining stature.   After what has seemed – to me at least and I’m pretty sure some others – a slow period, the embodied mind movement is quite  quickly gaining more notice.

If we think of Anglo American philosophy as including most of philosophy pursued and published in English, then it seems fair to say that the network contains some very powerful clusters which are themselves interconnected.  The lecture linked to above maintains that innovations come from the edges and move in toward the center.  On the edges you may find people who are connected to powerful clusters, but they count as outsiders because they are very young, or at least were, e.g., graduate students when they started.  (This is stunningly true of experimental philosophy, I think, though there have been some established figures, like Steve Stich.)

These three movements have varied in the speed and success with which their innovations have moved toward the center.  Given the body of literature produced, which is very considerable, feminist philosophy looks comparatively stalled.  It might be interesting to think about this phenomenon in terms of network theory.   Why has it stalled and what can we do? 

One thing stands out in terms of the lecture:  The connections are missing or at least not exploited.   Connections are essential to movement in a network; either there are not enough connections to the clusters of power or feminist philosphers are not using the connections – or, of course, some combination of these. 

From this point of view, the most important thing may be to work to get women within the more powerful clusters, where that  includes enhancing their opportunities to connect with members of those clusters.  Here is where the male only invited speakers really does cost women, who end up time and again with few opportunities for recognition as “one of us,” in addition to not getting the sheer conversational contact.  But we can also think ourselves of doing what we can to create conversational contact opportunities.

Another factor is the production of cultural products, again according to the lecture.  Here the effort  to draw up lists of women’s writings  seems very important.

In any case, the best lesson from this might be:  The best way to promote feminist philosophy may be to promote women.

14 thoughts on “Network theory and the culture of philosophy

  1. Interesting stuff, but I’m not so sure about your suggestion about the best lesson. Doesn’t that depend on the thought that women will be supportive of feminist philosophy? I feel like the issues of promoting women and promoting feminist philosophy are getting run together a bit.

    As far as networks go, though, I’ve been very pleased to see increasing interaction right here at the blog between e.g. experimental philosophers and feminist philosophers! Of course, some of them get to interact within a single body ;).

  2. Hi Jender, I tried to follow the theory to see where it went; I probably at least cut the discussion too short. I don’t think it’s likely that I would confuse women philosophers and feminist philosophers, and I’m sorry I’ve given that impression. In any case, I was less interested in the conclusion than in experimenting with thinking that way.

    One suppressed premise is that if the problem is a lack of connections, then simply working within the community of feminists isn’t going to solve the problem of getting to the center, as it were.

    Of course, one reaction would be that one doesn’t want to get to the center. But if one does, then it is quite reasonable to think one has to work outside the community.

    A second suppressed premise is that a lot of the objections to feminist philosophy persist because of stereotypes, schemas, outsiderhood, etc. So merely having more women could help.

    A third suppressed premise is that women who are already in a department need to work to create a female supportive community within the department.

    Mind you, it could be that women would turn out to be as hostile to feminist philosophy as some men are. There were grim stories at the Hypatia conference of men in departments tellilng students not to work with a feminist philosopher. On the other hand, most female students I have encountered in departments feel pretty beleagured and a number of women do too.

    What I left out entirely is trying to connect more with powerful men. I’m not sure that hasn’t been tried, although very informally.

  3. Let me just add: I hadn’t really thought about comparing rates of getting to the center and looking at the situation that way. I think that might be fruitful.

    I also eschewed one line of explanation that I do think is correct; namely, for various reasons, feminist philosophy has been blocked. The trouble with using that in this context is that it names the problem without guiding us to any positive conclusion.

  4. Sorry if I misunderstood JJ. I sometimes find myself slipping back and forth between the women issue and the feminist philosophy issue, so I may imagine slippage where it isn’t!

  5. I heard recently that during the 1980s and 1990s a group of women in the worlds of business and finance, who wanted to help increase women’s access to those worlds, made a pledge: whenever they had to say no to something, they’d recommend the name of another woman instead….

  6. Jender, I shouldn’t try to respond to a comment when I’ve just accidentally woken at 5 am. Thank goodness the list only has a few items.

    Heg, that’s interesting. I wonder if we could get something like this started in philosophy.

    Maybe we could uncover the names of the 2 or 3 women who are asked to give keynotes at all these conferences and always say “no”. We could ask them to consider a list of alternatives we’ve drawn up if they don’t know other women. (This is meant to be sort of snarkish.)

  7. It’s interesting–and disturbing–to think about the success of “experimental philosophy” versus that of feminist philosophy. While feminist philosophy has been around for years, it still is pretty marginal in the most influential departments. Experimental philosophy seems to have just arisen recently, and it’s gotten quite a lot of attention. While this seems problematic to me, I wonder if part of the reason is that feminist philosophers have other important objectives, including creating a *feminist* community of students, faculty, and community members outside the academy. In contrast, it seems that many mainstream non-feminist philosophers aim mostly to impress one another and to bolster themselves in the world of academic philosophy.

    I don’t mean to suggest that feminist philosophers are responsible for our own marginalization (believe me, it often makes me very angry that we are ignored, marginalized, and derided as not “real” philosophers!). But I also think there are multiple networks operating, and that our influence within the larger culture is equally (maybe even more?) important than how successful we are in making ourselves prominent within mainstream philosophy.

    (Of course, I realize that I’m tenured already in a philosophy department that is rather supportive of feminism, so I speak from a place of privilege here. Feminist philosophers obviously need jobs if we are going to be able to do what I feel is most important about my/our work…)

  8. helenesch, thanks for your thoughtful comments; I think we’re in agreement about a lot of this. The issue about jobs for scholars who want to specialize in feminist philosophy is probably the central motivation for thinking about how to make it more mainstream. It’s also the case that some of the content of feminist philosophy might well improve the professional community. Finally, that some male philosophers in some very good schools are telling students NOT to study with their highly regarded feminist colleagues probably limits the choices of students.

    I do wonder about whether it is quite right to see experimental philosophers as aiming for influence. I have been wondering whether in general women come out of grad school with less sense that they have full rights to as central a place in the profession as anyone else; perhaps more men do. That could make a huge difference to whether one seeks out powerful people to help and so on. I also have to say that even when I’m really sure that something I have somehting interesting to say to some person – perhaps a visitor to my department, for example – they can certainly take some time to tell me that’s not so. In addition to being as**ole behavior, it is, I suspect, less frequently manifested to men.

    I suspect there are other reasonable goals. The effects of having more respect in the community might be beneficial. Having feminist philosophy recognized as a standard perspective might mean a more just distribution of the perks in the profession. And so on.

  9. I think we need to tease apart two distinct aims: (I) promoting feminist philosophy as a subdiscipline of philosophy (like ethics, metaphysics, philosophy of science, etc.) and (II)promoting feminist philosophy’s influence on philosophy, as methodology and critique. There’s already been some comparison here with experimental philosophy; to build on that, experimental philosophy isn’t a subdiscipline with its own topics and problems, but instead a methodology and a critique of other methodologies, that can be and have been applied in a variety of subdisciplines. The early successes of experimental philosophy haven’t been in the form of graduate students wanting to specialize in experimental philosophy (pace Justin Sytsma), but rather in the form of experimental philosophers’ critiques being taken seriously by non-experimental philosophers.

  10. Noumena, I think that depends in part on what one is calling “experimental” philosophy. Machery’s book on concepts does not report his own experiments to test philosophical intuitions; rather, it is a very empirically, experimentally informed book. Ditto Doris, to take another example. But I think they count as experimental philosopher.

    In this wider sense, experimental philosophy is getting a wide following. The narrower sense is at least attracting people to NEH seminars, etc. Are you sure the lead narrow-sense-experimental philosophers aren’t supervising doctoral dissertations in the field?

  11. Noumena, I’m flattered that my name would occur to you as an exception, but I don’t think that I am one. I certainly didn’t come to Pitt HPS with the intention of specializing in experimental philosophy; in fact, when I started Edouard Machery wasn’t on the faculty yet and it was a year or two after he came to Pitt before I ran my first experimental study. I tend to see experimental philosophy as more of a sub-set of empirically-informed philosophy, with experimental methods adding another tool to the philosopher’s toolbox. As such, I see myself as first and foremost a philosopher of psychology and philosopher of mind, although I happily call on experimental methods where appropriate in doing that work (and, of course, have used those methods in other projects as well). Although Edouard is my dissertation co-adviser, and even though one chapter (out of seven) in my dissertation does call on some experimental studies I have run, it is primarily a work in philosophy of science and philosophy of mind. I think this is fairly typical: Most experimental philosophers have primary interests in an area like philosophy of psychology or cognitive science and call on experimental methods, where appropriate, in doing that work. Nonetheless, I think that jj has a point in that experimental philosophy’s success has not just been in the form of the critiques of experimental philosophers being taken seriously, but in the growing number of people doing experimental work in philosophy (including a growing number of graduate students and even undergraduates). In fact, this includes some prominent critics of experimental philosophy! For example, I’ve recently been working on several experiments with Max Deutsch who has been an outspoken critic of x-phi. (Although, to be fair, it is worth distinguishing here between critics of some chunk of, or even most of, the work that has been done in experimental philosophy and critics of the idea that experimental work done by philosophers could ever be relevant to philosophical questions.)

  12. jms, Thanks for the clarification. I was talking recently to a colleague who was at the summer NEH seminar on experimental philosophy; it does seem to be thriving.

    In my comments about speed toward the center, I was really thinking more about the sociology of the thing: What, e.g., is the impact of “experimental philosophy” as an AOC, for example, in comparison to “feminist philosophy.”

    If you are on the market this year, you might let us know later how you fared. In fact, it would be fascinating to hear a comparison of your perspectives with a candidate in feminist philosophy, if that should come easily to you. Anyway, if you find yourself making such a comparison with someone and you all feel you could write a short piece, we’d love to see it/put it up, etc.

    Most importantly, good luck!

    Noumena, ditto for you!

  13. I am on the job market this year and would be happy to contribute. If somebody reading this is also on the job market with an AOS/AOC in feminist philosophy and wanted to compare, please contact me! I suspect, however, that we would mainly see the effect of other factors. In particular, let me note that in terms of applying for jobs, an AOS/AOC in experimental philosophy doesn’t do you much good: There is one job listing this year that even mentions “experimental philosophy” (although, as Kate Devitt pointed out to me, at least in the October JFP there where no job listings that even mentioned “cognitive science”); in contrast, although I didn’t pay close attention, it seemed that “feminist philosophy” was mentioned significantly more often. Added to that, this seems to be a very good year (relatively speaking) for philosophy of science, so I was able to apply to what I expect is a comparatively large group of jobs. Nonetheless, it will be clear from my CV and publications that I am one of those experimental philosophers, so I expect this will come up in SC discussions and that I’ll be asked about it at interviews; this might give me some sense of how experimental philosophy played on the job market… and if so, I would be happy to share!

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