Has feminist philosophy changed philosophy?

Let’s all visit Iceland!

Conference of the Nordic Network for Women in Philosophy at the University of Iceland (in cooperation with the Institute of Philosophy and EDDA – Center of Excellence), September 7 and 8, 2012.

Feminist philosophy has emerged in the last decades as a vibrant field within Western philosophy. It has resulted in questioning canons of philosophy as well as core concepts of the philosophical curriculum. Feminist epistemology, ethics, aesthetics and metaphysics have contributed to a richer understanding of the epistemic, ethical, perceiving and embodied subject. The past and the present of philosophy as an academic discipline appear in a different light. Despite this, philosophy still has one of the lowest proportion of women and minorities among students and faculty when compared to other disciplines within the humanities and the sciences as a whole. Does that have to do with the lack of acceptance of feminist work within philosophy? Or is it necessary to dig deeper in order to understand the resistance of philosophy towards change in this respect? The keynote speakers at this conference, Sally Haslanger and Linda Martín Alcoff, have gained widespread attention for their writings on the institutional culture, content and styles of philosophy, as well as for their initiatives on improving the situation of women and minorities in philosophy. The NNWP calls for papers that discuss if, and if so how feminist philosophy has changed philosophy.

Sigríður Þorgeirsdóttir, University of Iceland
Ásta Sveinsdóttir, San Franciscso State University
Eyja M. Brynjarsdóttir, University of Iceland
Salvör Nordal, University of Iceland

Abstracts (max 200 words) are due by May 25, 2012. Please submit your abstracts to sigrthor@hi.is.
Replies to submissions will be sent out June 5th.

Dr. Ásta Kristjana Sveinsdóttir
Associate Professor of Philosophy
San Francisco State University


Berlin: Collectivity Beyond Identity


“Collectivity beyond Identity” Conference

Organized by the Center for Transdisciplinary Gender Studies at
Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin

Location: Senatssaal, Unter den Linden 6 (Berlin)
Date: 28th – 30th of June 2012

Modes of collectivity play an important role in numerous social and everyday contexts. Collectives form the basis of political practice and engagement as well as of economic and labor relations. Collectivity appears to be a particularly important notion in areas like feminist theorizing; this is especially so once the notion of the subject has been submitted to critical examination, and no longer construed as sovereign and isolated. After all, how might we rethink the notion of community and how can we conceive of collectivity, when the seemingly crucial aspect of collectivization – identity – has become the object of critical study?

Keynote Speakers:
Susanne Baer (Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin)
Linda Alcoff (Hunter College / The City University of New York)
Sabine Hark (Technische Universität Berlin)
Linda Zerilli (University of Chicago)
Adriana Cavarero (Università degli Studi di Verona)

For a detailed program and registration information, see:

Registration deadline: 18th of June 2012 (reduced registration fee until *1st of June* 2012)

Conference languages are English and German.

The conference is financially supported by the German Research Foundation (DFG)

Local Organisers:
Sophia Ermert (Law), Gabriele Jähnert (Gender-Studies), Ina Kerner (Social Sciences), Kirstin Mertlitsch (Gender-Studies), Mari Mikkola (Philosophy), Eva von Redecker (Philosophy)

Everyone’s using feeding tubes (or are they?)

A typical news story on women, especially brides, losing weight by having a feeding-tube inserted nasally, is subtitled:

The latest weight-loss method to hit U.S. involves inserting a tube into your nose — and it’s proving popular with brides-to-be desperate to shed pounds fast.

I’ve seen so many internet links and alerts to this “disturbing new trend,” almost always described by columnists as popular!, hot!, dangerously widespread!, that I spent some of my limited and precious time on this earth trying to find a story that actually says how many women are doing this.  It must be bigger than Atkins was! Right?

Here’s the thing: I can’t find a story about more than two people doing this, and sometimes it’s the same one or two people.  As far as I can tell, it is possible that more people have written about the “trend” than have actually pursued it.  Why is this lighting up the interwebs, and why is it implied that the feeding-tube diet has the freaking momentum of a runaway freight train?  Whose interests does it serve to write about it this way? Who finds this so fascinating to read?  Possibilities:

  1. Don’t laugh, but it crosses my mind that providers of the dratted procedure are the ones salting the media with the stories of ersatz concern over just how awfully effective it is.  Not one of the stories I’ve read fails to call attention to this.  It’s bad but so gosh darn effective!
  2. Some of this coverage and alarm is reminiscent of the literature on the watchers of reality TV; evidence suggests that those who enjoy watching reality television are motivated by schadenfreude and senses of superiority, inclined to vengeful thinking, and self-comforting of one’s own insecure thoughts (of the “I’m better than THEM, at least” variety).  The more women that do it, the more foolish we are.  Silly women!  We’re not smart, are we!  Shake your head at how big the trend is!  Not that there are numbers on this, but come on!
  3. Some of us readers, on the other hand, are not motivated by meanness or schadenfreude, but fear.  We’re horrified to think that women would pursue dangerous ideals of body image and appearance, and really fear for the well-being of vulnerable people who suffer with varieties of disorders with respect to ourselves and our appearances.  But are we looking in the right direction?  Are an unstated number of well-off American women, who want to spend thousands of dollars to look a certain way in a photo, the people we should be attending to?

Don’t get me wrong – if even one person thinks this is a good idea for weight-management, I agree that it is one person too many.  But something about the spread of this as a news story bugs the heck out of me.

Can’t get a philosophy job? Why not go out and try to change the world?

I think the question “Why not change the world” can look quite irresponsible, so I’m going to try to make it sound more sensible than it might at first.

Some background: There’s a non-obvious link between two recent posts, the one on the AWID Istanbul conference and that on Homophobia. The link is actually Elizabeth Reid, with whom I’ve been meeting up in Oxford. We were grad students together at Somerville College, and she has a B.Phil. in ancient philosophy, with special emphasis on Aristotle.

It is Elizabeth who has just been to the Istanbul conference. It is also Elizabeth who has tried to reconnect virtuous behavior and eudaimonia in her work in developing countries on topics such as women’s welfare and AIDS. Some things she has done are spectacular, I think. She was the UN Development Program’s first Director on AIDS in developing countries and from about 1986 advocated what is now a standard opinion: AIDS is as much a social problem as a medical problem.

Advocating new approaches can make one’s life difficult, but I am certain Elizabeth thinks she has been extremely fortunate to bring philosophical and feminist positions to her now quite long period of advocacy.

So of course I have been wondering about the comparative quality of a life as, say, a UN official working for things that are probably more important than, e.g., developing a better account of the mind’s cognitive relation to its environment. Such as working on alleviating the suffering of millions of people.

Going into work on global problems is not especially easy. Entry points today are very often internships, Elizabeth tells me. That is, exploited labor, even with the UN. Still, when we think of what we might do other than teach philosophy, it might be worth shaking things up for a bit and looking at something entirely different, as Monty Python might say. Elizabeth does say one should start with some area one would really like to affect. But she did have a clarity of insight that might have provided unusual motivation.

I can hardly believe I’ve raised this topic, but I probably believe it is true that there are more important things than being a philosophy professor. One answer to “Why Stay?” could be “Don’t”. Mind you, thinking about trekking around Africa to hold workshops on AIDS prevention does make staying in philosophy seem like an easier option.

The Sunday Cat recognizes some of the limits of Youtube

Youtube is a marvelous repository of videos of non-human subjects, who form more than 50% of the world’s population! But sometimes the ratings of videos seem to suggest to certain failures in judgment. Of course, that might just be because only human beings are allowed to rate!

Thus, see this highly rated video:

And its sequel:

We are talking millions of viewers!

Allies at Rutgers

Heather Demarest posted the following in the comments thread on this post:

There is a lot of interest in our department (Rutgers) right now about the practical side of how to be a good ally and supportive colleague, especially in common, everyday situations. In response, our climate committee is organizing a “being a good ally” workshop. We’re hoping to hold two sessions, one for graduate students and one for faculty. We’re still looking for someone to bring in to moderate (alongside one of our faculty members). Any advice from people who have done this kind of workshop in the past would be appreciated.

Kudos to Rutgers for putting on what sounds like an awesome workshop. Let’s help them out with some suggestions, dear readers!

Ps – Anyone who hasn’t seen the Rutgers climate page should go check it out.

Is homophobia a result of suppressed homosexuality?

A NY Times article suggests it sometimes may be. One major advantage with the article is that it is written by the researchers, RM Ryan and WS Ryan, who did the experiments. Still, for me, more than anything else, the article raises the question of what the Freudian theory of suppression was supposed to be. I’ll say why that seems important at the end.

The research described does seem to produce good empirical evidence that there are people who strongly explicitly identify themselves as straight, but who nonetheless have homosexual feelings. Further, these people were significantly more likely than others in the study to express homophobic tendencies and attitudes.

The problem, however, comes with the interpretation. The problems may arise because scientists can, like journalists, put their findings in terms that the ordinary NY Times reader will understand even if it is misleading. Or my criticisms may be wrong. Or something else could be going on; for example, they may not have meant “suppression” to be Freudian suppression.

Here is their interpretation:

One theory is that homosexual urges, when repressed out of shame or fear, can be expressed as homophobia. Freud famously called this process a “reaction formation” — the angry battle against the outward symbol of feelings that are inwardly being stifled…

It’s a compelling theory — and now there is scientific reason to believe it. In this month’s issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, we and our fellow researchers provide empirical evidence that homophobia can result, at least in part, from the suppression of same-sex desire.

They relate take their research to be relevant to recent conservative public opponents of gay rights:

In recent years, Ted Haggard, an evangelical leader who preached that homosexuality was a sin, resigned after a scandal involving a former male prostitute; Larry Craig, a United States senator who opposed including sexual orientation in hate-crime legislation, was arrested on suspicion of lewd conduct in a men’s bathroom; and Glenn Murphy Jr., a leader of the Young Republican National Convention and an opponent of same-sex marriage, pleaded guilty to a lesser charge after being accused of sexually assaulting another man…
Even Mr. Haggard seemed to endorse this idea [of suppression causing anti-gay attitudes] when, apologizing after his scandal for his anti-gay rhetoric, he said, “I think I was partially so vehement because of my own war.”

So here is the problem: suppression is supposed to be about keeping something out of consciousness. For Freud, something suppressed is difficult to get into consciousness. However, someone who has a war going on inside himself hardly seems to have failed to get it into consciousness. Ditto for people who are acting on desires. They may not like the desires and want them to go away, but it is hard to believe that someone pressuring someone else to have sex is really unconscious of his desires, however reluctant he may be to name them at other points.

One way of defusing this objection would be to say to say that RM Ryan and WS Ryan did not mean “suppression” as Freud did, but rather meant it as, say, failed dieters mean it when they talk about suppressing a desire for ice cream. You try not to think about it, and often succeed, but then the phone call with bad news comes and you go out for ice cream. However, that does not seem to be what the researchers think they can show.

The researchers take the fact that people can explicitly identify as straight on questionnaires and then are revealed on implicit association tests to have gay reactions to show that they are unaware of their gay reactions. But it doesn’t really seem to do that. That’s because people who are aware that they feel one way can simply not tell the truth when they are asked explicitly. I don’t know how many racist or sexist people would hide their attitudes when questioned explicitly, but I’d bet a lot “know better” than to admit how they actually feel.

Why worry about this? Well, at least in the United States a lot of people are advocating as morally required practices that would be very difficult and even very harmful for others to follow. And we do discover that these pure people sometimes do not practice what they preach. What fuels this kind of dangerous hypocrisy? Should we see it as a deep psychological problem out of their control? Or is it really something we should see as a terrible moral failing? Or perhaps the failing is that conceptions of morality have so often become so seriously divorced from ideas of loving and cherishing, and much more attached to fear, shame and punishment.

In fact, the article provides some evidence for the last hypothesis:

We found that participants who reported having supportive and accepting parents were more in touch with their implicit sexual orientation and less susceptible to homophobia. Individuals whose sexual identity was at odds with their implicit sexual attraction were much more frequently raised by parents perceived to be controlling, less accepting and more prejudiced against homosexuals.

What do you think?

How to be an ally

I had a really interesting conversation recently with some male graduate students and younger male faculty about how they could best support their female colleagues. I wish I’d had more to say – I find the issue a really tricky one – so I’m hoping comments here will provide some further insight.

Step 1, of course, is don’t be a sexist bigot.

Step 2 is to be aware that your own sexist bigotry may not always and everywhere be immediately transparent to you. (Yes, even though you’re a philosopher. Wild.)

But these guys were great, and pretty much up to speed with steps 1 and 2. They were most concerned with navigating the complicated and perhaps more nuanced step 3: be supportive and encouraging of your female colleagues without coming across like a condescending asshole.

Do you go out of your way to interact philosophically with your female colleagues, to follow up on points they’ve made in seminars, to call on them in q&a? Or does that just make you seem like you’re coddling them?

Do you intervene when you see a male colleague being a sexist jerk? Or does that just make it look like you think your female colleague can’t stand up for herself?

How, in short, does the well-meaning male philosopher do his best to be an ally to his female colleagues?

Comments are open – thoughts welcome!


Now I get it!

Have you ever felt that, as a woman philosopher, there is something you are missing? This video suggests what that might be.

You probably do not want to play it at work. It really isn’t for children, I would say.

See here:

If you are in the States, don’t forget the Saturday rally!

Many, many thanks to our correspondent, JT.

Security, Protection, Self-Care: international Feminism’s agenda

Apparently a good amount of international peace and justice activists’ discourse is focused these days on issues about security, protection and self-care. At the same time, it can be difficult for policy makers to have much sense of the immense range of responsibilities women’s lives can involve; plans for a nation can too often neglect or work against women’s interests. In responding to this problem, women working for the security and protection of women in developing countries have, over the last several decades, developed a very nuanced and detailed agenda. It is still evolving, of course, but the recent meeting in Istanbul of the Association of Women’s Rights in Development seems to me to suggest an exciting and maturing convergence of agendas.

There is so much going on; so many questions being raised, so many action plans being developed. Follow through on some of the links from the conference, and see what you think.

I’m told there was not much Western presence. I think that is a situation we should think about critically. Many of the problems being discussed are not regional.