She eats, shoots and leaves

A reader has sent us an interesting question about how women show up in philosophical examples.  He wishes to remain anonymous, so responses here please.

 I was wondering if anyone has conducted any kind of study (even informally) of women, both real and imaginary, featuring as examples in philosophy papers. I ask because I’ve recently gotten annoyed with the amount of times that women feature only in passive capacities, or as victims, in papers that I read. Thinking about the field I am most directly acquainted with, it’s really hard to think of examples of women featuring in examples in more positive ways. Because of the size of the literature it’s hard to know whether this is commonly occurring, or just common in some subfields.

12 thoughts on “She eats, shoots and leaves

  1. For whatever reason (no obvious reasons apply), I’ve always been conscious of this kind of thing; but I don’t think I’ve never noticed it, I’ve heard stories of it, but when noticed, this kind of thing would make a good story, so that’s hardly telling.

    In my own writing, I make a point of not doing this, and indeed of inverting traditional stereotypes. (Professors are always female, the half of a marriage that stays home and looks after the offspring will be male, etc.)

  2. I’ve always liked this one:

    ‘Mary is a brilliant scientist who is, for whatever reason, forced to investigate the world from a black and white room via a black and white television monitor. She specializes in the neurophysiology of vision and acquires, let us suppose, all the physical information there is to obtain about what goes on when we see ripe tomatoes, or the sky, and use terms like ‘red’, ‘blue’, and so on. She discovers, for example, just which wavelength combinations from the sky stimulate the retina, and exactly how this produces via the central nervous system the contraction of the vocal cords and expulsion of air from the lungs that results in the uttering of the sentence ‘The sky is blue’. […] What will happen when Mary is released from her black and white room or is given a color television monitor? Will she learn anything or not?’

    -from Frank Jackson’s ‘Epiphenomenal Qualia’ (1982).

  3. Here’s an example I just read with a woman featuring in a pretty non-passive role. Not sure it would count as “positive” though. Here goes:

    “Cleopatra is throwing a big party, and wants to sacrifice about fifty slaves to appease the gods. She is having a hard time convincing the slaves that this is a good idea, and decides that she ought to give them a chance at least. She has obtained a very strong poison, so strong that one molecule of it will kill a person. She puts one molecule of the poison in each of a hundred goblets of wine, which she presents to one hundred slaves. Having let the molecules of poison move around in Brownian motion for a while, she then orders the slaves to drink half a goblet of wine each. Let us now assume that if one consumes the poison then in many cases death is preceded by an ominous reddening of the left hand, or by a reddening of the right hand or by both. Let us also assume that, given that one has swallowed the poison, the reddening of the left hand and that of the right hand are statistically independent. This being the case, one will observe a macroscopic conjunctive fork open to the past. Death will form a conjunctive fork with the reddening of left hands and the reddening of right hands, and left hand reddening will be correlated with right hand reddening among all slaves”.

    —from Arntzenius, Frank. 1990. “Physics and Common Causes”, in Synthese, Vol. 82, No. 1, January 1990, pp. 77–96.

  4. I recognise the writer’s concern. I recently attended the Joint Session where men outnumbered women five to one (my estimate) and yet many examples were about women, who were subjected to these bizarre trials as the one outlined by Zorro.

    Michele le Doeuff has written about this throughout her work, but I recommend especially (the preface of) The Philosophical Imaginary and Hipparchia’s Choice. Marguerite La Caze uses Le Doeuff’s notion of the philosophical imaginary to analyse the use of imagery in the analytical tradition in The Analytical Imaginary.

  5. Hi M,

    Actually, I took the question to be about how women generally show up in examples. I intended the Mary example to be one of the *nicer* examples that subverts the traditional picture of women. Mary is a brilliant scientist. Alas, being a brilliant scientist is not a role always frequently associated with women. In other words, vis-à-vis the question of how philosophers have portrayed women in examples, Jackson is one of the good guys !

    As far as I remember, Jason Stanley’s book ‘Knowledge and Practical Interests’ has some lovely examples that also subvert stereotypes. (I haven’t got his book to hand right now, so I can’t give a direct quote – but have a look !)

  6. Zorro, I don’t know if it is typing or if there is something particularly bad about the internet, but it’s easy to make such mistakes. For me, my beloved distinctions between “there”, “their” and “they’re” collapse; “its” and “it’s” become randomly distributed, and so on.

    You are not alone!

  7. Aaron Smuts has a nice piece on Hume and Mother Nature in Feminist Interpretations of Hume.

  8. I don’t conduct a wide study of philosophy, but I do go on a bit of a rant about this in my book on forgiveness. Alas, my publisher doesn’t offer a preview on Google books, but pages 83-85 are dedicated to my argument that the study of forgiveness belabors examples of three standard hypothetical women: the sexually betrayed wife (she’s always a wife), the abused wife (again, always married, always to a man), and a mother forgiving injuries to her son (probably inspired by the Dostoevsky example, but it’s become a standard trope). I’ve appealed to these myself, but I complain about their prevalence because philosophers in the analytic tradition generally appeal to what Hilde Lindemann calls “the stories found lying about in our culture,” or master narratives, rather than developing theories informed by the stories of actual women. The result is that when concrete, living women’s experiences do not match the master narratives, many philosophers argue that the real stories misunderstand or wrongly do moral practice. You know what I mean? Analytic philosophers, and I include myself in the category, tend to armchair our way to theories based on thought-experiments and then suggest actual women’s practices go wrong when they don’t match our theoretical constructs.

  9. In case an example would be handy: Austin’s _How to Do Things with Words_ for “she” or “her” includes a couple hair-raising examples… One key illustration of the whole book is “Shoot her,” (101) which of course might be urging or merely advising, etc.; a man can say “I do” to “take” a woman; another time one man tries to convince another that a woman is an “adultress”… The only time a woman is in the subject position (trying to do something with words), as far as I can tell, it is to illustrate how context affects whether or not she can use words to divorce her husband…

    That said, I’d love to see more positive examples (as with Mary). Who has helped to turn the tide?

  10. Personally, I try to use plenty of female examples, though perhaps subconscious biases come in to play. When an example involves two people, I’ll generally use one male and one female for ease of reference. In such cases, I have often tossed a coin to allocate genders. The one hang up I have is that if I want one character to be bad (a mass murderer, say) then it always seem more natural to me that they be a man. Is that sexist? Should I have female murderers too?

  11. I had a philosophy professor as an undergrad who told me that, to combat what he saw as the pressure to use “she” as a generic pronoun, he only used “she” or female examples when he wanted to give an example of someone making a mistake or holding an incorrect position. It was one of those things that I could not, even at the time (14 years ago or so) believe that someone said out loud to another person. Thankfully, most people are not so obviously jerks.

    (The “Mary” example made me wonder if the sex of the “brain in the vat” was given or not, but a quick check seems to indicate the Putnam used “person”, at least mostly, and says “imagine it’s you” at the start, so I guess the answer is context dependent.)

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