Could the content of philosophy be gendered?

I always caution students and colleagues in other departments that philosophers often ask questions that they cannot answer.  I think, though, that the material below, however simplistically put, might make us take the question more seriously than perhaps we may do ordinarily.

There is a starting point in this reflections, and it comes from Jenny Lloyd’s The Man of Reason.  Lloyd argued that, among other things, the role of the isolated ego in philosophy (e.g., the Cartesian Ego) reflected and may have been supported by philosophers’ own removal from any of the material duties in life.  All those were left to the women (or, in Oxford colleges, one’s scout).

We now have nearly four decades of feminist critiques of mainstream philosophy as embodying a bio-social position that places women as outsiders.  Furthermore, if we look at the differences between mainstream philosophy and feminist philosophy, we can see some remarkable differences that may reflect different social settings for many men and women. The human being in today’s philosophy of mind appears to spring into existence fully formed at about 25 years of age. He has acquired his concepts by relatively solitary causal interactions with the world, and much of the results of his interactions are fully contained in his head. It may be, as some have argued, that mind contents can be found outside his head in records he keeps in a diary or even indeed in his ways of moving in the world. Nonetheless, he is by and large alone.

The self of feminist philosophy is largely very different. She often knows that Descartes was wrong, as Annette Baier has argued, to hold that the human mind is whole and entire unto itself. She cannot be the whole respository for the normativity that is needed for a theory of concepts, for example. Her intellectual thriving is dependent on social inputs, corrections and co-constructions. She is going to be less worried by books such as The Invisible Ape, that argues that individuals by themselves are much less good at getting truths than we have thought, because the idea of individuals going it alone was not her idea.

Finally, when the NY Times announces a new theory of reason as inherently social, she can say that she’s been there and done at least quite a bit of that. She may, however, resist the accompanying trope that we need knowledge of other minds because we want to control others and protect ourselves. That thought is much more common in mainstream philosophy than feminist philosophy.

As the NY Times tells us, “Darcia Narvaez, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Notre Dame and a contributor to the journal debate, said this theory “fits into evolutionary psychology mainstream thinking at the moment, that everything we do is motivated by selfishness and manipulating others, which is, in my view, crazy.””

18 thoughts on “Could the content of philosophy be gendered?

  1. If a philosophy is a person’s attempt to make sense out of the elements of a person’s experience, it stands to reason that the content of that experience is critical to what comes out as a philosophy. Some people might think that you would get a better total result if you had a broad spectrum of people with lots of different experiences so that their philosophies would bump up against each other and challenge each other to expand. That’s is what I would prefer, but others seem to want to select out those who conform to the prevailing tend and let the rest fall away.

    So, of course, the resulting established philosophy is gendered, racist, nationalist and limited in every other to the dominant culture.

  2. Descartes seems to be taking a bum wrap on this blog of late. I want to come to his defense just a little bit. First, let me point that Annette Baier herself has a lovely paper ‘Cartesian Persons’ which argues that Cartesian persons are essentially second persons. Second, it is perhaps worth noting that in 17th century Europe Descartes was a bit of a hero to women thinkers. From their point of view, the Cartesian account of rationality was one that was gender neutral. It allowed for women to be just as good reasoners as men, and so countered an Aristotelian conception of reason that tied rational capacity to the body that capacity informed. Cartesianism served as the underpinning of schemes to educate women and arguments for equality of the sexes. See Erica Harth’s Cartesian Women for the study that really got things moving in discussing this matter. [I might also add that he seems to have treated women reasonably well. He recognized his illegitimate daughter and the correspondent whom he arguably took the most seriously was a woman.]
    But my remark can be also be taken to underscore just how much perspective matters in Philosophy. Imagine an introductory class where students are told what to think about what a bunch of dead white guys said. What is the student to contribute to the discussion? What they focus on in trying to figure out what someone thinks is going to depend on where they are coming from. I don’t think philosophy is gendered, but I do think that philosophers are particularly bad at opening up discussion of what are really fundamentally human questions so that a variety of perspectives can be heard. How to improve that while still holding the exacting standards of philosophical argumentation is something I find challenging on a daily basis.

  3. Lisa, Before I saw your comment, I was going to say – and am now saying – that my comments were subject to some strong counterexamples, both historical and contemporary. Though the project of seeing human cognition as embedded, extended, etc, seems in the hands of many mainstream figures today to be remarkably a-social, there are certainly others, such as Hume and Wittgenstein, a resource for many of us, who were hardly a-social in their theorizing. (this is less obvious with Hume perhaps, but jackie taylor, Lloyd and baier have made strong cases here.)

    Descartes is surely also much more complex a thinker. I think that for Mills purposes, the figure he has in mind is really that of not very historically informed intro texts. But the real Descartes was not urging us all to entertain radical doubt, he was intellectually closely related to Princess Elisabeth, and so on.

    About the gendering of philosophy. There’s a ton of psychological literature that says “fight or flight” is THE human response to stressful challenges. Nonetheless, there is a recent and now somewhat established view that that is the paradigmatically male response, and not the universal human response. Are there comparable stands in philosophy that might reflect the experience of the majority of its practitioners, and fall far short of general human experience? It would be amazing if that were not so.

    The very common idea that we need a theory of mind so we can predict and control others may be a case in point. Now a very effective challenge to that picture of understanding was formulated by Shaun Gallagher, so the claims about gender are hardly clear cut.

  4. jj, thanks for the clarifications, I must say I was a bit worried when I first read your post. It seemed to me only to reinforce the binary male-individualistic vs. female-social, which generally doesn’t strike me as a helpful way of thinking about these matters. I was then going to add that, even if it’s true that philosophy of mind (both past and present) tends to focus on the individual, that doesn’t strike me as a particularly gendered thing either. In fact, one of the exciting new directions in the field of extended cognition is precisely that of integrating the social level which is glaringly lacking in alternative accounts. Indeed, at the workshop on extended cognition that I am organizing (takes place in two weeks from now in Amsterdam), many of the papers are precisely on combining the social and the extended perspective. Alas, the workshop has a terrible gender balance, ALL of the contributed papers are by men! (Of the almost 30 submissions I received, only ONE was by a woman, and it didn’t make it to the final list.) But again, this also suggests that focus on the social level need not be a gender-related thing.

    As for the role of Descartes in the whole story, forgetting for a moment about the gender dimension, he definitely contributed to the abandonment of a social focus which WAS present in scholastic philosophy, so in that sense I agree with you. Up until the 16th century, logic for example was routinely defined as the art and science of debating (arguing), i.e. an inherently multi-agent situation. In that sense, Mercier and Sperber are only reinventing the wheel! (But that’s not entirely fair on them, given that they do mention the role of dialogical practices in the Middle Ages in their paper, in fact referring to a paper by me.) And in view of Lisa’s comments above, I’d say that that in itself is already a sign that the binary male-individualistic vs. female-social just won’t work in terms of a heuristic device to explain developments in the history of philosophy.

    Moreover, I’d also like to mention that at least some authors in the phenomenology tradition, Merleau-Ponty in particular, paid very much attention to the level of social interactions for the constitution of the self. There’s much to be admired in the novel insights emerging from feminist philosophy, but it would be incorrect, I think, to claim that focus on the social level is something to be found exclusively in this tradition (but that’s probably not what you are claiming anyway).

  5. Catarina,

    The way to solve that problem is either to invite some women to present, or to solicit some submissions by women writing on the topic who are doing good interesting work.

  6. The gender balance among the invited speakers at my workshop is pretty good (60%-40%), but then the contributed papers screwed up with my statistics :)

    As for soliciting contributions from women, as it is in a ‘new’ area for me (philosophy of mind), I just didn’t know enough people to go asking around. My feeling is that gender balance in phil mind is pretty bad. (I even started a thread at NewAPPS asking for names of women working in the area.)

    You may or may not know that I am actively involved in the gendered conference campaign, so obviously your advice was the first thing I had in mind. For me this outcome is particularly frustrating, but it will be a nice workshop anyway, I think.

  7. I’m sure it will be an excellent conference! And it’s not like it’s all-male or anything. One other thing you might consider doing if you are ever in a future situation like this is contacting female philosophers of mind for suggestions on who to encourage to contribute. They usually know the others in the field, and will know if younger up and coming people that might otherwise not submit.

  8. Whoops–that was me, Laurie–I posted from my phone, which I don’t normally do, and it defaulted to anonymous.

  9. Thx :) This time I was really sort of running against the clock, as the workshop had to take place before the end of my contract in Amsterdam, so I didn’t have the time to go solicit more contributions once it turned out that out of 30 submissions, only one was by a woman. But when having a bit more time, that’s certainly something to be kept in mind.
    But anyway, this wasn’t the topic of this post to start with! (Seems like we always go back to the gendered conference campaign, hehe…)

  10. Following up on what others have hinted at above, the idea that female philosophers have some corner on anti-individualism and attention to development in philosophy of mind seems terrifically out of date at the very best. From Putnam to Haugeland to Brandom to Davidson to Chalmers and Clark, mainstream male philosophers of mind have attended to the social and embodied dimensions and preconditions of thought for quite some time now. And I know tons attend to development, although I don’t want to embarrass myself by listing names as it is not my area. Indeed, with people like Gallagher and Kelly rising to the top of the field now, detailed attention to this sort of thing strikes me as the norm rather than the exception among malestream philosophy.

    It is true that feminist philosophers have been at the forefront of this sort of work, but I think we gain nothing by simplifying and stereotyping other parts of philosophy. I complained about this last week on this blog too, when Alcoff’s straw caricature of postmodern philosophy was quoted approvingly. As feminist philosophers, we have all suffered through having our work caricatured and simplified to the point where respectful engagement across philosophical differences becomes impossible, and we have rightly complained about it. We should be very careful not to return the favor, I think.

  11. It seems to me that conversations that juxtapose the individualist/social oriented construction of the self along lines of gender seem to miss the possibility that the relation is not a simple dualism. In reading the work of Cole in the introductory text that I use (Kessler’s text), for example, it occured to me that if the construction of the self is a matter of our relations to the world and those around us, then the Cartesian self, if understood as an example of a gendered self at a particular point in Western gender-role history, is also a “relational” self in the sense that gender roles are social relations. Thus, the relation of the relational self to the Cartesian self is one of subsumption (perhaps the wrong word, but it gets the job done, I think). That is, this discussion may be engaging a sort of category mistake. Just a thought I haven’t really put out there or developed too much, but have been mentioning in class in passing for a while now. Also, understanding gender roles as contextual social relations (and only one of many wihtin which we develop) opens up the possibilty of a call for a more rigorous (and perhaps empirical) understanding of HUMAN ego-development, on a more general level. –J. Welsh

  12. Let me try to explain better what I was trying to say. Adding in some background might help a bit, or not.

    I see the work on the extended mind in a particular context. A central challenge to our tradition’s thought about the mind is coming from cognitive neuroscience; it argues over a number of dimensions that we just do not have the individual cognitive successes that we think we do. You can see this from the intro to the Invisible Gorrilla, which is probably readable at For someone like Annette Baier, who thinks that the human mind is not whole and entire unto itself, this needn’t be surprising. Knowledge and wisdom do not just require knowledge of what others think, but it requires being a member of a community of seekers and assessors.

    Now I have recently read all the books published before Feb 2011 on the extended mind, or at least all I could find. If you want a radical extended mind thesis, then Noe, whom I greatly admire, is surely one to look at. Noe notices that what we actually get in through our eyes is comparatively little in relation to what we think we see. What gets us, for Noe, from input through the eyes to seeing the whole scene? It’s our grasp of sensory-motor contingencies acquired as we move through the world. This is an a-social picture, as indeed is Merleau-Ponty’s view of perception, as far as I have read. What is left out is the period of constructing the world with adults and other children that children do.

    So what about Putnam and/or Burge style externalism? The received view (though not Noe’s) in the extended mind community is that content is one thing and vehicles of content are another. The vehicles of Burgean content are wholly in the head and that allows Ned Block to hold that if two kittens by some miracle get into the same brain states, they have the same experience. We’re back to the brain in the vat, which is about as a social as one can get. Similarly, despite his worries about content, Davidson seems to have vehicles of content in the head operating to cause actions.

    In fact, tony Chemero argues that all the extended mind people other than himself do buy into this “its all computations in the brain” business. He seems to be mostly accurate, though since he puts me in that camp, I think he’s made one big mistake. His central argument is that once you have representations with content in the head then you’ve lost a really extended mind thesis. That seems plausible. Clark similarly allows that the computations in the mind and the symbols can get out into the world, but there is nothing essentially social about this picture.

    Griffiths and Scarantino do explore a transactional account of emotions in their article in the handbook of Situated Cognition. However, though they certainly feature emotions as social commmunication and see them as scaffolded by society, they deny that they are holding that the emotions themselves are extended. In addition, as far as I could see, the rest of the discussion in the handbook of situated cognition is a-social. I was not very careful, so I might have missed bits here and there, but I did go over the Intro very carefully to see what there was.

    One of the people going to Catarina’s conference is said to have really approached the social in his latest book, which I subsequently bought. I though it was a paradigm of not understand social interactions and ending up giggling at the picture given. I know, that’s hardly a sharp critical reaction.

    Contrast this sort of picture to one like Sue Campbell’s, which has memories as social co-constructions, or feminist philosophers of science who see theory construction as a community endeavor. Similar remarks might be made of Baier’s, Lloyd’s and Jackie Taylor’s Hume, where the community is essential for knowledge.

    This is actually the second time I’ve typed this response, and I lost the entire first one, so I’m quitting here. But I will add that the trick is really not just to add society, but to make it essential. That’s the constitution-causation distinction that Aizawa and Adams have highlighted. But even so, that so little brings in society at all does seem remarkable. Dan Hutto is an exception, and perhaps Matthew Ratcliffe is too, along with Griffiths and Scarantino, but I haven’t found many.

  13. JJ: I totally agree that the social needs to be integrated deeply into the account of mind. (In your response, you don’t pick up on my mention of Brandom as an example of someone who does this, but I’d stick to his doing that, even though I think Brandom’s view is limited and problematic in many ways.) I also agree that feminists have been interested in this topic for a long time. But notice that your more nuanced post above is VERY different from your original claim that mainstream/male philosophy is caught in a view in which “The human being … appears to spring into existence fully formed at about 25 years of age. He has acquired his concepts by relatively solitary causal interactions with the world, and much of the results of his interactions are fully contained in his head.” This really can’t possibly be said of the views of Putnam, Davidson, Clark, etc. And again I also totally agree that those folks don’t do a sufficiently rich job of integrating the social in all its rich detail into the essence of their picture of mind … indeed I like to think I’ve made a modest career out of pointing just such things out. But trying to use a broad Cartesian brushstroke to dismiss mainstream philosophy of mind just seems counterproductive and distorting. That sort of Cartesian individualism – which as some above pointed out, Descartes himself didn’t hold – is just not what dominates the discourse.

  14. Rebecca, I am sorry to say that I got distracted by personal circumstances and so didn’t get back to your comment. Let me say for the record that I meant the first general statement as confirmed by the details I gave. That’s made me realize that I meant by current philosophy of mind something more restricted than I conveyed. I meant to be talking about contemporary writers who believe in mental representations as the vehicles of thought and meaning. Perhaps I should add that I also meant those believers who accept some sort of causal +/- teleological account of content. Causation is individualistic, so the last condition secures the accusation of a strong component of a-socialness. I should add that I don’t know of any account of the meaning/content for mental representations that is social. Perhaps my imagination is failing me.

    Of course, there are more social theories of word meaning, but I’m not thinking of them as theories of mind.

    So I think one disagreement between us may be whether theories of langiage meaning are theories of mind. I’m also not sure where exactly to place Putnam and Davidson on these scales. Brandon is for me a complex case, since I think he is so wrong on the history of philosophy (or did once) that I haven’t paidroper attention to him.

  15. Actually, looking back at the post, I see I do stress today’s philosophy of mind. I think it is not a stretch to say that since davidson and putnam wrote their major stuff, the question of mental content has taken a bit of a turn, with really a lot of agreement that there has to be some sort of content that is not language based. I may be exaggerating the extent to which the idea that internal content is the source of language content is believed, but that view is widely held. And in any case, I’m less clear why Putnam and Davidson is seen as part of today’s philosophy of mind.

    The last discssion I had with clark, not that long ago, i utterly failed to get him to see that content might not start out as private, for what that’s worth. I’d say he is more individualistic than one might think.

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