Response to Louise Antony

A member of Feminist Philosophers invited SPP to respond here to  a post of mine.  I strongly supported this idea and in doing so assumed that we could at least converge on an account of what happened.  Instead the blog has ended up providing a platform for a response from SPP that is in error on facts and issues. 

I took my previous post to make two statements.  The second was inaccurate, and it was corrected as soon as the error was pointed out.  They were: (1) the SPP conference has a talk/session that instantiates an exclusion that it attempts to explain; (2) The conference has a poor record of invited women philosophers at the last 3 conferences; the figures cited were corrected to: 1 speaker in 2010, 3 in 2009, and 0 in 2008.  (Readers should note an amendment in the earlier post.)  Let us take these in reverse order:

(1)   Antony disputes the facts about conference speakers, in part because she includes women who were not invited to speak at the conference.  That is, she adds in those invited to speak at a workshop occurring before the conference.  The workshop tends to be the responsibility of one or a few individual members; it isn’t a product of the program committee, for example, as the conference is. My understanding is that in the current year, 2010, the workshop was produced by one individual.  Hence, the connection between the choices shaping it and those of the SPP is much more tenuous.  In addition, the presence of invited women philosophers at this year’s workshop was noted in my comments, as was the unusually high number of contributed papers by female philosophers.

Antony wrongly and puzzingly attributes to me an allegation that I did not make.   Indeed, in a comment, Rob Wilson said he wasn’t sure anyone was making the allegation in question, which I take as some sign that the attribution of the allegation is much more problematic than Antony is indicating.  It is simply wrong to say that the post was about issues concerned with friendliness or hostility.  One indication of the narrow focus of the post is noted by Antony:  the number of invited speakers couldn’t possibly decide the general issue of the climate women experience.  I couldn’t possibly think it did.  That was not going on.  

Of course, supposed allegations, like insinuations, may be solely in the minds of the hearers.   One should be very careful attributing them to the speaker. 

What, then, was the post really about?  I was wrong to think that was clear.  So let me explain:  It is an ongoing concern of feminist epistemology and philosophy of science that practices in many fields deprive women of epistemic authority. This worry provides the motivation behind my post.  One reason for our gender conference campaign is that some practices in philosophy do particularly fail to accord women philosophers epistemic authority.  They fail, that is, to accord women philosophers equal status with men philosophers as contributors to the intellectual enterprise of philosophy.   A good indicator of the inequality is the practice of not featuring women philosophers as invited  speakers, or not doing so in numbers comparable to the men (allowing, of course, for differences in overall numbers in the field).  That is hardly my idea alone, and our gendered conference campaign arose not just in agreement among ourselves, but also in response to our readers who comment here, along with recommendations from professional literature, such as this pdf from the Barnard Center for Research on Women.

(2)   To take up the issue of the opening talk:  The underlying concern here as elsewhere is the role accorded to work by women philosophers, including our own professional efforts, along with those from other fields, to understand what to many of us appear to be exclusionary practices.   

There is a field of knowledge about the causal mechanisms producing the low number of women in many fields, and it has been extensively developed over the last 40 years.  There has been significant success; thanks in part to the $130 million NSF has invested, results are being tested and codified, and new  procedures are implemented in many universities.   Noting this historical background speaks to formulating and evaluating causal hypotheses linking some phenomenon to the low numbers of women in a field.  Stich’s title and a related paper by his co-author suggested that they are advancing a relevant causal hypothesis.  I think that I’d object to any causal hypothesis featured at a professional meeting that didn’t take into account  existing expertise.  But in any case, the point here is that the existing expertise is  owned at least in part by people whose general absense was being both explained and instantiated.  

There is, then, another layer that explains why the focus was so much on the talk and the invited speakers.  That’s the worry that that session did not just instantiate  the problem it was discussing, but it may also have instantiated the cause of that problem.  The failure in professional contexts to represent  women’s professional expertise as relevant  can be a real killer-off of women doing research.  As the opening session illustrates, it happens even when the knowledge is being developed by leading researchers supported by NSF.   That’s what made the issue so important.  That and the fact that the choices we are discussing here suggest a lack of knowledge of such issues, as opposed to ill-will. 

The scientists I discussed this issue with before writing the post were in contrast very aware of the political implications of the situation.   This blog has been very concerned that the physical sciences now appear better able to adapt to women scholars than philosophy is. Supposing  my scientist friends are somewhat typical of scientists in the US today, I think it likely that awareness of such issues in the science communities may help explain some of the difference.**

 Nothing so far speaks to Stich’s work specifically on gendered differences in intuitions, which may be up to his own high standards of brilliant and revisionary research.  (On the net perhaps I need to stress that I am completely serious in saying he has done superb and wonderfully revisionary work.)


**This still imperfect paragraph has been changed in light of comments 1-3.  Thanks, MBS and Jender.


I haven’t been able to address all of Antony’s points, but I’m not even sure many people will have read this far.   For those who have followed this, your comments are very welcome.  Unfortunately, when Jender and I discussed which day the posts should go up, I had forgotten that on June 30th I will be traveling quite a bit.  However, I will get to the comments as I can.  Please be sure to follow our rule – be nice! – so your comment stays up.

18 thoughts on “Response to Louise Antony

  1. I think this is very well articulated, particularly in its explicit attention to the expertise of women who work on precisely this topic–whose contributions are effaced through the instantiation of their absence.

    I do, however, wish that the second-to-last paragraph were a bit clearer in its reasons for including the (seemingly irrelevant) detail of the scientist’s Islamic faith. While the final sentence of the paragraph shifts the ostensible “odd”-ness of his understanding to his status as a scientist rather than a Muslim, the lack of explanation for the inclusion of this detail about his identity appears to suggest that we ought to be surprised by (and hence, feel the weight of the argument more?) the fact that even people who are Muslim can understand why this situation poses a problem. Unless there is some other explanation, then, it would seem that the inclusion of this detail only serves to reiterate the idea that Muslims are more misogynist than non-Muslims–an idea that is as pernicious as it is false (as is at least partially demonstrable in need for the Feminist Philosophers’ Gendered Conference Campaign).

  2. Mary,

    Since JJ’s traveling today I thought I’d say that I’m quite sure she didn’t mean to presuppose that Muslims are less likely to understand this sort of thing. (I base that on previous discussions on this blog.) I’ll leave it to her, though, to explain why she included that detail, since I don’t know.

  3. Jender, thanks so much, but it’s a bit too early for me to be on the road.

    MBS: You’re raising a very good point. I had worried about it, and I’m now thinking there is no way I can say what I wanted in any short way. Let me say that I meant to contrast the public image and the reality. In fact, we know and have discussed the fact that in some ‘muslim countries’ women have much more access to roles as science faculty.

  4. “the talk instantiates an exclusion that it attempts to explain”

    Does it really, simply because Stich is one male speaker, and not part of a gender-balanced panel? If there are reasons to have one speaker, rather than a panel, then I don’t see this as exclusion. I think the talk could (conceivably) instantiate the exclusion it was attempting to explain content-wise. That is, if Stich were relying on intuitions and dismissing those of women who write on these issues, but obviously that’s not your charge. Speaking of the paper–I’d like to read it and can’t seem to find it online–does anyone have a url for it?

  5. Jean, interesting and complicated point. Let me take the simple route and say “absence” would have done for the points that follow.

    It is, of course, absence in a context, where the context itself does not have a presentation of the quite stunning and highly relevant research women have done.

  6. First, just to clarify, since a previous comment of mine has been invoked in JJ’s response to Louise Antony’s post. In the original post, JJ says, having mentioned the Stich and Buckwalter paper:
    3. The society’s conference have a dismal record of women philosophers as invited speakers; in two out of the last three conferences, no women philosophers were invited speakers.** Accordingly, no women are asked to join Stich and Buchwalter in addressing the question of why there are so few women in philosophy.
    4. Hence, the session enacts the exclusion it seeks to explain.
    I said, in the relevant part of my comment:
    A claim along the following lines–”‘Stich and Buckwalter, as men, giving an invited paper on gender and philosophical intuitions’, esp. once combined with the fact that there are no female philosophers on the invited program, provide a basis for thinking that SPP is a gender-suspect organization”–does not seem to me a credible claim. Perhaps nobody here intends to make that claim.
    JJ says that in my comment I “wasn’t sure anyone was making the allegation in question”, which JJ takes “as some sign that the attribution of the allegation is much more problematic than Antony is indicating.”

    Just to be clear: the claim (allegation?) I viewed as suspect is really an argument, one that might reasonably be read into 3 and 4, in their context. I read JJ as having retracted the claims about numbers of women philosophers, as I think she should: they are wrong, not just because a person here or there has been missed but because once adjusted in accord with the facts they show that SPP has actually had a relatively strong record of women, including women philosophers, being on both the invited and the contributed parts of its program.

    I take Louise Antony’s post chiefly to be a challenge to the other part of the claims in 3. The question for me is whether the whole of 3 goes. If we’re left with just the dismal record part at the beginning, or (alternatively) the last “no women asked to join” part, the inference to 4 seems to be especially problematic. And if 3 goes in toto, then just what is the critical claim about SPP that remains? It’s a real, not a rhetorical, question.

    Second, and more briefly: there is an irony in excluding the relevance of the pre-conference workshop from consideration here, since it was at the 2008 version of that conference–on experimental philosophy–that attention was drawn to the absence of women philosophers from the line-up of that workshop. In my view, SPP responded appropriately and constructively, recognizing that the workshop itself could be used as a way to supplement diversity efforts, and using that experience to even more self-consciously attend to issues of gender in particular.

    rob wilson–

  7. RAW, thank you for your comments. I’m not sure I’ve got the full import, but I think I am clearer about some issues.

    The focus of the original post was meant to be pretty narrow, and I have been completely perplexed at the attributions of allegations and insinuations. I think you’ve suggested that they look to be intended as conclusions supported by what was said explicitly. It’s clear that in ordinary contexts, if you say something that might be taken to imply something hostile, then some people will attribute the content to you. E.g., Obama thinks there are things wrong with American so he’s anti-American and wants the country to lose wars. But people who do this often are either convinced by the Freudian idea that we can read the details of each others’ minds, and/or they’re committing the fundamental attribution error. Or they are going in for a quite political form of the ad hominem fallacy. None of these are supported philosophically as principles of interpretation.

    I’m not sure that I accept your argument about why the workshop should count, and in any case, it was mentioned with some enthusiasm in the comments. However, I’m happy to amend the original post and to note in the present one that there’s an amendment. In our page about the gendered conference campaign, we are clear that we do not think facts about low numbers of invited women speakers says anything at all about the cause, and I really regret not having repeated that in the post.

    There is a problem about saying more. According to the SPP reply, the president at least does not think it is important to have women philosophers as invited speakers on the program. Further, it is said in stressing that issue, I reveal that I think that women doing empirical work don’t matter (or some such). In light of that, it is hard to represent SPP as clearly committed to increasing the representation of invited women philosophers on the conference program. The difference between workshop and conference program may not be completely insignificant.

  8. Let us not attribute thoughts to anyone. The SPP president doesn’t say what she thinks is important, and I’m quite certain that she would likely agree inviting women to speak is generally important.

  9. profbigk: I do appreciate your attempt to be helpful, but she does say that, or at least something close to equivalent. This is not simply my interpretation; that is, I’ve discussed it (very briefly) with others who read the post. (I’d check on the precise wording, but the post was hardly – from my point of view – fun reading.)

    I completely support the idea that our views and statements about what others think – along with insinuate and allege – should be austere. The fundamental attribution error is really an error, and human being are not good, when it comes to the details, of reading each other.

  10. When it comes to these important issues, posts that are so critical in such concrete ways about specific meetings seem to me to merit especially open and careful followup discussion. So, this exchange continues to seem very important to me.

    Because of that, I am still struggling to understand some of what seem to be exceedingly fine distinctions in JJ’s commentary on the SPP meetings. Beyond the distinction of what field the female speakers have PhDs in (which has been discussed already), JJ also takes it (in this response) to be noteworthy that some of the excellent female philosopher’s on this year’s SPP program were in the workshop rather than on other parts of the program. The implication seems to be that they shouldn’t count? That seems odd, since in practice the workshop seems just as integral a part of the meeting as any other bit. (If anything, it’s a more prominent showcase.)

    But the new specific reason given in this reply for discounting the female philosophers in the workshop is that: “The workshop tends to be the responsibility of one or a few individual members; it isn’t a product of the program committee, for example, as the conference is.” This seems rather strained to me, and perhaps misleading. It suggests, in particular, that there is a program committee. But there isn’t; my understanding is that by long tradition, the SPP program is put together solely by the program chair(s) — roles which the SPP website suggests have almost always been filled by just a few individual SPP members, and usually (and as in 2010) by only 2 individual members. (This fact was noted by JJ herself/himself in the initial post that occasioned this exchange, by the way.) So it seems that we are being asked now to consider discounting female philosophers invited by one group of 1-2 SPP members, but to count those invited by a different 1-2 SPP members. That doesn’t seem right. Is there some other reason for drawing this distinction? In the end, I conclude that — contrary to JJ’s initial post, but of course respecting the importance of these issues! — the program this year is fully in accord with Rob Wilson’s conclusion above, that “SPP has actually had a relatively strong record of women, including women philosophers, being on both the invited and the contributed parts of its program.”

  11. I’d like to focus on jj’s claim about women *philosophers* at the SPP and Louise’s response that it does not really matter what discipline women are in as long as they are participating as invited speakers. I think it matters a lot that women philosophers get invited.

    Many interdisciplinary conferences will typically have more women in the disciplines other than philosophy — from my own experience this is true, for example, in history and philosophy of science venues, and social sciences and philosophy. Women have much greater representation in history of science, psychology, sociology, history, etc., etc. They have greater representation in the top ranked institutions and as full professors and in named professorships. Because these disciplines have a better balance, women will have a much better chance of being invited to conferences. Based on my own experience, and what I have been told by organizers of conferences that have only male philosophers, one’s institutional standing matters — given the underrepresentation of women at top ranked institutions, this is something that works against women in philosophy in a way it does not for women in other disciplines.

    If a conference has participants from two or three disciplines, so that fifty or thirty percent of the participants are philosophers, but none (or none of the invited philsoophers) in that group are women, it sends a message (or number of messages) about women in philosophy. Women graduate students are especially likely to absorb that message consciously; others may absorb it without conscious awareness.

    Moreover, there are disciplinary differences that matter. Psychologists tend not to be interested, for their research at least, in the normative issues that interest philosophers. A political theorist may paint a large picture with interconnecting themes, where a philosopher will go for argumentative detail, and so on. So from a disciplinary standpoint, I think it matters that women in philosophy have a visible presence.

  12. Curious, let me respectfully disagree. I think the distinction between the two is obvious enough, and I don’t remembering it being contested in the first round of discussion. There are a number of ways in which they are different, and here’s another: the charge to the program committee/chairs is (something like) to develop a conference that presents reasonably cutting edge research on a variety of topics for the society; the workshop aims to explore one topic. The significance of finding one or no women philosophers to put on the conference program is quite different from the significance of finding none on the one topic.

    But in any case, as I’ve said a lot of times, I cited the workshop in comments – in fact, early on in comments. And since so many people have taken the original posts focus as quite different from what it was intended to be, I changed the original post to get Wilson’s point in. I hope the point is now moot.

    Let me point out again that the original focus was on explaining an absence of women in philosophy with an absence of women and thereby the absence of high quality expertise possessed by some women philosophers. I don’t know why it seems all right to do that on the question of why there are so few women in philosophy. We do know that locating the causes of social phenomena generally requires quite a bit of research, sifting through the data, etc. And, of course, the post would never have been written if there have later been an inclusive round table discussion of the relevant research or anything like that.

    JT, thanks for broadening out the discussion. My figures on psych are over 5 years old, but then the proportion of women in psych was close to, and maybe over 50%. Women in cognitive psychology are close to 40%, I think. The presence of women philosophers as invited speakers matters, as you point out, in a couple of ways we haven’t discussed. Let me add something that we mention in our gendered conference literature. The low numbers of women, along with their near invisibility, is a large part of what gives right to the idea that women don’t do philosophy; not featuring women as invited speakers helps to perpetuate that idea.

  13. Independent of what was intended here, there, or anywhere, I want to make the point that the characterization given of the distinction between the regular program and the pre-conference workshop at SPP conferences by JJ in #13 above seems to me mistaken. Variety is important to both the main program and the workshop, even though the latter has a topic. (Occasionally, the conference itself has a topic.) For the record, the “topic” for the last three workshops has been something like experimental philosophy (2008), animals and cog neurosci (2009), and morality in phil and psych (2010). Each covers a wide swath of territory, and whoever puts the workshop together, I suspect, has his or her finger on the pulse of what is “cutting edge” here, as do the program chairs.

    What’s more relevant, in my view, is that the pre-conference workshop usually has about a 10-12 invited speakers, sometimes close to the number at the whole of the main program (this year, there were 18 slots for invited speakers in the main program, 5 occupied by women). Since participants in the workshop typically stay for the conference, and the workshop also can draw new blood into SPP, it can serve an important role in enhancing diversity via the speakers’ stature. This year, of 10 speakers at the workshop, 5 were philosophers: Josh Knobe, Julia Driver, Susan Dwyer, Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, and Thomas Nadelhofer. Both the theme, and the stature of these people, seem to me to have served as drawcards for attendees that enhanced diversity. My hope is that SPP will continue to make use of the workshops to further enhance diversity here, especially in moving beyond gender, where I myself think the track record is quite strong.

  14. I find it quite puzzling why so much time and effort has been dedicated to the nuances and uncertainties surrounding the underrepresentation at this conference while the subject of the quite clear underrepresentation in the philosophy department of one of the major research institutions in Canada, namely, UBC, which subject was raised on this blog, was virtually ignored by contributors to it.

  15. RAW, Thanks once again for your comments. I guess you didn’t notice that I did change the initial post, as I said in response to your first comment. That change is also marked in this post.

    I do notice that you and many other commentors have focused on the record of SPP, which you feel is quite strong. I understand why that was so important to you. I am not sure I communicated the import of the distinction I made in 13; it comes out if one considers a kind of negative. E.g., there is quite a difference between

    1. We could not find any woman philosopher doing high quality work in any cutting edge field.
    2. We could not find any woman philosopher doing high quality work in, e.g., animal cognition.
    These suggest different things in relation to the question of whether women have epistemic authority.

    Still you will quite likely not agree, and it does sound as though you think the workshop can provide a nice niche for women philosophers. We probably disagree on how that prospect looks.

    People were apparently very interested in Stich’s causal hypothesis, but not the causal hypothesis presented here, which women have worked out. For several reasons, this raises a concern about whether there’s enough in place to sustain the inclusion of women. The underlying issues that have excluded women are largely unconscious factors that shape choices. They do not simply go away. The issue of whether women are considered equal to men in the development of important new work in philosophy remains very important. One could certainly worry about why the issue, which has been a major focus of this whole discussion, has been ignored.

  16. two further things: I totally agree in widening the scope of the diversity sought. I had thought to remark earlier on how the controversy so far was concerned with quite privileged white women, few of whom are visibly physically challenged (though some of us, including myself, have invisible and sometimes quite severe disabilities).

    Shelley, I clearly messed this up. I was very struck that a session about – to simplify – the absence of women instantiated the absence of women and, arguably, instantiated the cause of the absence of women. But very few people seemed interested in that or in the closely related question of whether women are accorded epistemic authority.

  17. The first comment on this post said:

    I think this is very well articulated, particularly in its explicit attention to the expertise of women who work on precisely this topic–whose contributions are effaced through the instantiation of their absence

    The effacing or erasing of women’s research is a central concern for those trying to improve women’s status in the profession. We have picked up this topic in many different guises and we will continue to do so.
    For now, though, I think that I have said the same thing over and over again. I’ve made concessions, and altered the original blog, despite the fact that supposedly omitted material was in the comments section. It looks as though there is nothing more I can do. I hope just to leave this discussion.

    There have been no further comments for over 18 hours. Since I will be preparing for a trip, and can’t guarantee I’ll be able to respond to future comments, we are closing this discussion. I am grateful to commentors, and most especially thank those who, throughout the posts on this topic, remained respectful and even constructive.

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