On women students leaving philosophy early on.

Figures on women in tenure/tenure track jobs usually put the percentage of women at 16 to 20%. Interestingly, the gap between men’s participation and women’s starts early in their undergraduate career. This phenomenon is proving hard to understand for a number of feminist philosophers.

There is an explanation given sometimes in computer science, and it might be worth considering here. The idea is that while men are often keen on abstract problems divorced from all other human interests, women are much less so. Like women in computer science classes, perhaps women in philosophy are considerably more engaged by questions that are not divorced from reality. We needn’t posit innate differences between men and women to ground such a result; differential training would be enough.

I read this explanation for CS sometime very recently and can’t remember where. It is also
in the excellent study of women in CS at Carnegie called Unlocking the clubhouse.

Let me give some examples for philosophy ; note I am not arguing from these examples. They are just illustration. (1)A women explained to me that she was interested in philosophy until they got to Hume’s account of the self. Presumably she didn’t want to spend hours arguing that she did have a self, as she understood the debate. (2) at a university where the women were expressing increasing dissatisfaction with their courses, I was approached by one of the male faculty about why this was happening. I said that he seemed to take philosophical discussion to be a matter of his standing on the top of a hill knocking off all the students until one knocked him off. “Yes,” he responded enthusiastically. “That’s what I do best.”

Note in the second example we can see two issues. One is whether women like the combative style – a well known question – and the other is whether knocking the professor off the hill is something they want to spend 4 years on. It is not exactly an abstract question, but one where it might be hard to say what its interest is. (Phyllis Rooney has a recent paper arguing relatedly that, to puT it roughly, the combative method is disliked principally because it changes the topic.)

Another case: on a recent blog I saw a reference to a prof who spent the semester arguing about a possible elephant on the table. That certainly could dampen my interests however cleverly it was done.

It could be that we have too many Intro teachers who like to demonstrate puilosophy’s lack of relevance. Given what is said about men in CS, irrelevance is not a killer of interest for many of them. But it may well convince women that they’d be happier elsewhere.

41 thoughts on “On women students leaving philosophy early on.

  1. This hypothesis has always driven me sort of nuts–but maybe it’s because I’m a woman who is more attracted to a problem the more abstract and divorced from human experience it is. Is there research that shows that women are “less keen” on abstract problems divorced from all other human interests? Does the research that you mention in CS show this? It doesn’t resonate with me at all.

    Also, I’m confused about the relationship between this issue and the combativeness issue that you also raise here. Are they supposed to be related? They seem completely divorced from one another to me. (e.g. I have some friends who do very abstract pure mathematics–and I have never witnessed a single ounce of combativeness in the math department at my university (which has one of the best math departments in the world) or amongst these friends.)

  2. Formal philosophy is lost on me, but I find a lot of Foucault, Jaspers, and Butler accessible to the degree that even just contemplating a few of their ideas can be transformative. Philosophy that helps people understand themselves and their world is most likely to influence other fields, no? Perhaps not computer modeling and other genuinely mathematical problems; but certainly ethics, the arts, anthropology and other humanities benefit from humanistic philosophy that can be applied to human problems and thinking one’s way out of the status quo.

    Can’t find it again, but I once read an article by a philosopher in Israel that had set up a suicide hotline. He and others were lobbying to let philosophers be paid counselors. He said that was most important was to first be a friend to the person calling, and then to help them find their way philosophically around their problem(s) and to see a way forward.

    Sounds wonderful to me. I often feel that what I need is not a psychiatrist, but an epistemologist. I suppose the structuring of grants has as much a negative impact on philosophy as it does the sciences, such that the chest-beating for grant money and as an expression of machismo is in a negative feedback loop that excludes living philosophy in favor of the mathematical that so many men identify with.

  3. It’s also important to keep in mind that no one (not Phyllis Rooney, not Anne Jacobson, not anyone) is making the claim that *all* or even *the vast, vast majority* of women prefer non-combativeness or embodied thought or practical issues and that *all* or even *the vast, vast majority* of men prefer combativeness or abstract thought divorced from practical concerns.

    The only reason why I raise the obvious point is that some people seem to think single counter-examples somehow disprove what Rooney and others argue. I mean, I’m a counter-example. I have long been turned off by the combative nature of many philosophers, and lately I’ve turned my work toward more practical issues. But this is no disproof of anything Rooney has argued.

  4. Matt, thanks for clarifying that.

    Anon grad student: I worried about how to put what one might not have interest in. I expect that if you enjoy pure maths, you are unusual ahd that’s probably a paradigm of what the CS people were talking about. I certainly can enjoy logic and I spent years on questions like “can 2 distinct material objects occupy the same place at the same time.” So I expect I’m sympathetic to your concerns also. What I don’t myself like is seeing people’s luxuriating in philosophy’s supposed uselessness. I also wouldn’t like thinking I was just participating in Hesse’s Bead Game, which can come close to describing us.

    Note that I am not saying women can’t do pure math. The point from CS is that given how many of us were brought up, many women would not like spending their lives on it.

  5. Wilelyvwitch,nthqnks for the v. Interesting comments. Did you know there is philosophical therapy,nin effect. I expect you can easily find it with Google.

  6. Sorry for the ipad mistakes!

    About the combativeness issue. Wat I was close to saying is this: some people might find combativeness upsetting, but in addition it is usually very boring. It’s the latter flaw ai was focusing on.

  7. I do understand that it was meant to be a generic, and not a universal claim. And I wasn’t trying to give a counterexample to it, merely saying that it didn’t resonate with me and wondering whether there was more than anecdotal evidence for it (since I know plenty of philosophers and physicists/mathematicians who seem to provide anecdotal evidence against it). I also think we need to be careful with generics…

  8. I really resist diagnostics like this, for some of the same reasons that anonymous grad student points to, but I would also put the point somewhat differently. It is not like students, male or female, are flocking to philosophy in droves. Typically, philosophy has many fewer majors than other departments, especially in the humanities. Compare: English, Sociology, Economics, History. All have at least on the order of 10 times more majors than philosophy. And if philosophy attracts majors it is typically in conjunction with a pre-law program. That is, philosophy is just not seen as having a practical value. It is a luxury that many students choose to dabble in rather than pour themselves into. I just don’t think any explanation that ends up reifying gender categories is the best one here.
    An interesting thing has happened in my department. While I was chair, I decided to promote not only the philosophy major but also the minor, as something students could do in addition to some career track. We regularly give students the data on the medium term advantages of a philosophy credential in intro courses, and A students get a letter from the chair encouraging them to take more courses and think about a major or a minor. The number of minors increased, and lo and behold, the percentage of our minors across gender is about 50/50. Who knows what the explanation is — I suspect it is a cluster of factors: (a) female students are concerned to make sure that they can support themselves outside of their academic interests (b) we also have a complement of strong female faculty who teach at all levels, along with female MA students who serve as TAs; (c) our percentage of female majors is around 30% on average. (d) the good female students get encouragement early on (but then again so do the men).

  9. I’m surprised by the description of computer science as concerned with “abstract problems divorced from all other human interests.” Certainly, computer science has some highly theoretical areas. But if anything, I would guess that computer science is more strongly tied to daily, practical interests than disciplines like math or physics or chemistry. Indeed, nearly all of the students I knew who pursued computer science chose the major because they wanted to get jobs as programmers or engineers.

  10. I can only speak from my own experience, so N=1 and all that, but the one and only philosophy course I ever took was enough to put me off the discipline for life. For me it was definitely a combination of the abstractness and the (to me pointless) arguing.

    I got very impatient with what felt like irrelevant and frankly power-play issues with how the discipline seemed to be understood. That is, the very rules about what was within the bounds of philosophy and philosophical argument seemed arbitrary and frankly artificial. The examples were so far removed from anything I cared about, and the things I did wonder about were apparently not philosophical (for one, I kept wondering who was taking care of Descartes’s home and meals when he was busy philosophizing).

    I doubt very much whether I have anything resembling a full or accurate picture of philosophy based on this one course, but I *am* confident that I have an accurate notion of why I was turned off by it.

  11. Perhaps I can put it better this way. There’s a difference between being impractical, or removed from human interests, and being abstract. The two qualities may be run together in philosophy, but there isn’t a deep connection between them. Computer science is abstract, but it’s also highly practical in the sense that computers are ubiquitous and tech jobs abundant. Premedical studies are less abstract but still practical. History or anthropology may be less abstract and also less practical.

    So I guess I wonder which of these two qualities, abstractness or practicality, is purported to discourage many female students in fields where they are scarce.

  12. Women leaving philosophy is not a bad thing, by itself.
    I would need to know what they do instead to make that evaluation.
    Maybe they switch to other subjects which make them happier? Or maybe they get married and become stay-at-home moms? Without knowing that, I don’t know what to think about these numbers.

  13. Andreas, maybe that is right as a claim about what is better for the world. But it’s a separate question whether this counts as a bad thing *for philosophy* – and as a woman in philosophy, I can say that it is certainly a bad thing *for me*.

  14. A general comment: we are talking about why some women have left philosophy. Most of us have stayed, and so our tastes nd intuitions may not tell us much about them.

    I almost put in a remark about the various characterizations I was giving of what was disliked about philosophy. I was thinking of saying that clearly I could use help. I am grateful for that which has been given.

    The characterization in Unlocking the clubhouse is available through Amazon’s “look inside.” you need to ask for the table of contents and then click on the relevant Chapter.

  15. I’m really not sure this is directly relevant (it probably isn’t analogous), but I keep thinking of this article from NPR: http://www.npr.org/blogs/alltechconsidered/2013/05/01/178810710/How-One-College-Is-Closing-The-Tech-Gender-Gap. One of the suggested sources of disparity in CS is that boys tend to start playing with programming early in their primary/secondary education. So when you add in a first-year “weed out” course, they are primed to do well and people new to tech aren’t. Are there preparation or earlier educational experiences that make men in philosophy do better off the bat than women? One possibility: the encouragement of boys to do well in math and science primes them to be better prepared for abstract problems and the kind of reasoning expected in many philosophy courses.

    I also wonder if the way philosophy tends to be taught is playing a role. In my experience, and it seems in the way a lot of people talk about teaching philosophy, it’s largely lecture-based and teacher-oriented (e.g. “Let me tell you what is important here. Now, tell me why I said that was important.”) It seems that in many cases, philosophical reasoning is not taught, students are only rewarded if they demonstrate it. It would be interesting to see whether those who are teaching undergraduates with more experiential or problem-based approaches retain more women.

  16. Andreas,

    On the face of it, I would think the numbers themselves do tell you something. If we assume that gender preferences are, for the most part, not innate, then we should expect, naturally, that the distribution of interests in various subjects would be representative of the population. So the baseline question should be why we are not seeing a representative distribution of interests? Of course, we can’t do the whole controlled experiment thing to find out, what’s nature and what’s nurture, but I’m thinking that it is more morally prudent to begin with the assumption that certain traits are not natural than that they are, in which case, your worry would beg the question at issue, right?

  17. Anecdotal first: wanted to be a Phil major (my college mentor was a Phil prof) but the dept was small, you had to take classes from everyone and there were two ritual humiliators in the bunch. Raised by a father who cluelessly shamed his children when they didn’t meet his standards of rationality, I opted out. Had Found critical theory in English and thought, ok. But continued to study and read phil and now teaching Lit and Phil courses in my English dept and love it. Classes filled, with waiting lists.
    Evidence second: our Computer Science dept. used a cohort system for increasing numbers of women in the department and it is changing the culture. Got grant money to support cohorts of women students and the cohort is creating a tradition and network that is self sustaining,

  18. A few observations and questions:

    1. I do a lot of interdisciplinary work, and scholars in other humanities fields are just more…professional to one another than philosophers are. By “professional” I mean respectful. I gave a talk in an English/Media Studies department this Spring, and I was SHOCKED at how decent everyone was to me in the Q&A. They asked lots of hard, challenging questions, and there was great back and forth, but at no point did I feel like this was a situation of Mutually Assured Destruction. We could talk about ideas and work without turning philosophy into war by other means. If you’re an undergraduate woman who’s taking lots of courses across a number of fields, I’d pick the one where people behaved like adults, not the one where people behave like the d00ds on redit.

    2. There’s a big difference between combative debate and a pissing contest. Women can be combative (Mean Girls, anyone?), and combatitiveness isn’t necessarily gender inflected. However, a pissing contest is. It’s competition as a means of masculine gender performance. And I think *that’s* what I see in a lot of what goes on in philosophy. Now, sometimes I’m totally into performing that masculinity myself…but other times, I get tired of being caught up in a bunch of intellectual peacocking. It could be that undergrad women read this peacocking/pissing contest, and THAT’s what turns them off. By the time you’re 19 or 20 I would think you’re pretty well-attuned to that sort of thing–at least I think I was, and many of my students seem to be.

    I guess what I’m saying is: philosophers often behave like complete jerks to one another, and women are not stupid, so they stay far, far away…me, however, I am not so self-possessed and keep coming back to philosophy like one would to an abusive partner.

  19. I agree entirely with Lisa Shapiro here, and applaud her straightforward approach to welcoming more undergraduates, including undergraduate women into the major. We are trying to make philosophy a more inclusive community, one that engages a wider variety of approaches and interests. I would recommend against broad speculative generalizations about philosophy and about particular philosophical approaches and interests and whether they are more or less likely to appeal to women. We should intentionally demand of ourselves to be as supportive of and respectful to an undergraduate woman who wants to do meta-metaphysics as we would to any other person entering our community. It doesn’t help to portray whole philosophical approaches and traditions (let alone historical figures) as worth less because they are impractical, or out of touch, or not about “the real world.” That’s not inclusion. Moreover, it sends an implicit script to young philosophers about what sorts of philosophical approaches and traditions are, as it were, more suited to women. That’s not fair to them. Meanwhile, common sense efforts, such as Shapiro’s work as chair and the GCC, make a real, empirically assessable difference.

  20. I agree with commentators above who note that we shouldn’t conflate the abstraction issue with the concern about adversarial/ combative argumentation in discussions about philosophy and gender. I think it is also important to note that “adversarial argumentation” can cover a range of argumentation behaviors, from what Trudy Govier calls “minimal adversariality” (respectful disagreement) to “ancillary adversariality” (insulting put downs of “adversaries”) –or as Robin J (at #18) distinguishes “combative debate” from “pissing contests.” I draw on Govier’s distinction in my recent papers on the adversarial argumentation concern: in “Philosophy, Adversarial Argumentation, and Embattled Reason” (Informal Logic, 30(3), 2010 –this is open access), and “When Philosophical Argumentation Impedes Social and Political Progress (J. of Social Philosophy, 43(3), 2012).

    There are a couple of things I like to stress. First, we need to be very careful how we articulate and examine the adversarial argumentation issue as a gender issue. We need not assume innate differences, as Anne J notes, and there is a lot of empirical work now (by linguists, communications scholars, etc) documenting the problematic role of one-upmanship and power-plays in male-male communications in specific cultural contexts–esp. in the West and in the US. Deborah Tannen’s work on this is noteworthy (eg in her book “The Argument Culture”). Anonymous (at #10) notes that this behavior is not uncommon in philosophy: “I got very impatient with what felt like irrelevant and frankly power-play issues with how the discipline seemed to be understood. That is, the very rules about what was within the bounds of philosophy and philosophical argument seemed arbitrary and frankly artificial.” Or as Robin J (at #18) remarks: “It’s competition as a means of masculine gender performance.”

    This connects to a second thing I like to stress. Even apart from differences in comfort levels with combative argumentation (differences that do not just have a gender cast), is the kind of one-upmanship, going for the jugular … ancillary argumentation behavior that is not uncommon in our discipline good for philosophy and philosophical development? In both of my papers I argue that it is not, and significantly for epistemological reasons– this kind of argumentation subverts the epistemic goods (truth, understanding, rationality…) that philosophical argumentation at its best is intended to advance. In my 2012 paper, in particular, I argue that what I call the “default skeptical stance” that is a given in many philosophical contexts runs the clear risk of silencing those who are “new” to the discipline, especially members of minority subgroups who seek to introduce new ideas and perspective to the debate. An adversarial stance can exacerbate the implicit biases that are likely to be in play already. –Phyllis Rooney

  21. What about career considerations?

    From what I can tell, philosophy is seen (at least where I’m from) as somewhat of a risky major (compared to geology, premed, business, etc.) Only the best of the “best” (mostly men) get to work at big Universities and publish, and a larger but still-small group works as adjuncts and at smaller colleges. The latter are not always on solid ground in this economy. And while philosophy is a decent premed/prelaw, it doesn’t strike me a surefire bet like math or science, particularly for someone from a marginilized group, who already has the deck stacked against them in these fields.

    I would submit a male is more likely to take this “risk”, if I’m right that it is a risk, for a variety of reasons (one would be that a male’s able to compensate, if the risk doesn’t work out, with his male privileges…I was a mediocre philosophy major and this describes me.)

    Three of my female friends who were philosophy majors told me (anecdotal evidence warning) this is/was the reason they “dropped out”. I make no claims to being right or thinking this is the reason other females “dropout”…it is just what I know of those three people.


  22. Phyllis Rooney: I was anonymous commenter #10. Thank you for your comment, which beautifully articulates some of the issues I was trying to get at.

  23. This is a great topic, one I’m very interested in but unfortunately don’t have much insight into. But here are a couple of thoughts.

    1. I bet different people (and maybe especially different philosophers) have really different conceptions of what are “abstract problems divorced from all other human interests.” For instance, I personally found Hume’s skepticism about the self profound and moving, as apparently the student AJJ mentions did not. And although possible elephants are most definitely divorced from everyday experience, I know that some philosophers (including women!) find modal metaphysics scrapes the bottom of their grip on reality; others it leaves cold and they’re turned on by social construction; and of course there’s a third class who are gripped by both.

    2. I suspect the cultural issue is more important than the subject matter issue. Philosophy of language has a really big problem attracting and retaining women. Semantics (in linguistics departments) has no such problem. But the subject matters, while not exactly the same, are very similar.

  24. DavidRLogan: the career considerations you mention seem very reasonable, but it seems like those same considerations should apply to many other arts and humanities majors. And yet many of those majors don’t have the gender imbalance problems that philosophy has.

    Anyway, if I may engage in some wild speculation: might an affinity for science-fiction have an effect on how one reacts to fanciful thought experiments and examples that appear to be entirely divorced from reality? As someone who loved reading science-fiction as a kid, I think I developed an early appreciation of how you can tease out the implications of a certain idea by applying it to a very alien context, and I think fanciful thought experiments in philosophy have the same kind of value (when used correctly).

    Now, assuming that science-fiction is perceived as being “for boys”, maybe young men are more likely to be “primed” for the seemingly irrelevant questions raised in the more theoretical fields of philosophy. This might be analogous to how young men are more likely to be primed for studying computer science since they are more likely to have fiddled with programming or computers when they were younger.

  25. It would seem to be possible to design a questionnaire that could be distributed to students at the end of an introductory class in philosophy, asking whether they would take another class in philosophy, whether they would consider doing a minor in philosophy, and whether they would consider doing a major in philosophy, and asking them to give their reasons for negative or positive answers, and to identify various characteristics of themselves, including gender and minority (possibly other characteristics as well). Why not, after all, ask young people why they do or don’t want to continue in the field? I once suggested this on another blog and was shot down with a remark that, at that age, people don’t really understand their own reasons. But it seems to me that, even though we may not always be lucid about our own reasons, it would be a useful addition to this discussion to have a lot more information about what young men and young women say about what turns them off about philosophy as they see it at a very early stage of their exposure, or alternatively what turns them on.

  26. What also seems to me relevant is the sort of issue raised in Eva Kittay’s essay ‘The Personal is Philosophical is Political: A Philosopher and mother of a cognitively disabled person sends notes from the battlefield’. (Metaphilosophy, 2009, numbers 3 and 4). Kittay tells how she almost left philosophy, what drove her (on one occasion) almost to the point of leaving. What she was exposed to is the sort of thing that would make many people decide not to do philosophy, if they themselves were exposed to it. What she was exposed to was basically the running down as philosophically irrelevant of her experience. Whether this sort of running down of one’s experience as irrelevant is something that women find more objectionable than men, and whether (if so) it contributes to the uneven gender distribution in the profession is a different question. But it is an issue closely related to the issues mentioned in the post and by other commenters, and I think should have some prominence.

  27. “nothanks” (at #23): actually you had beautifully articulated the concern at #10. We need more of these clear articulations of reactions to some forms of philosophical argumentation. In connection with this, Cora Diamond (at #26): I think it is a great idea to distribute the questionnaire you suggest, asking for both positive and negative reactions. (I’m inspired now to work on one for my dept. and will be happy to share the format/results with others who are interested. Such a questionnaire could also be very helpful for us as instructors when we set up discussions and debates in our classes. Many of us are, I think, already sensitive to gender, race, and class dynamics and such a questionnaire could help us to fine tune our sensitivity and the effectiveness of our class discussions.)

    Richard (at #25): I think your suggestion about young men’s (stronger) background in science fiction and “fanciful thought experiments” possibly providing them with a closer cultural fit with the fanciful thought experiments in philosophy is not at all a “wild speculation.” There is then, of course, the further question about the significant role of fanciful thought experiments in many areas of philosophy (the trolley examples in ethics, for example): is this good for philosophy and philosophical development? Lisa Schwartzman has a recent paper that connects nicely with this question: “Intuition, Thought Experiments, and Philosophical Method: Feminism and Experimental Philosophy” (J. of Social Philosophy, 43(3), 2012). As she suggests, this is a question that also relates to recent debates about ideal/non-ideal theory.

  28. I apologize for dropping out of this discussion. I’m in the UK – as opposed to the USA where I live normally – and unfortunately picked up some germ my body wasn’t prepared for.

    Perhaps I was getting sick when I wrote this piece, because I see in a number of comments interpretations that I intended not to endorse. (Alternatively, the illness led me to stress the negatives.) So I will try to be more organized and clear about the central points.

    First, though, I should have made these two points explicitly: There is research coming from a study of Carnegie Mellon that suggests an at least partial solution to a largely unsolved problem for feminist philosophers; that is, why do a number of women leave philosophy very early on. There are three important features that should have been stressed: the work on the solution involved a lot of solid research, and it brings in a factor that may apply in philosophy even if women who have stayed in philosophy may not perceive it very clearly. Empirical work is also very useful here since there are a number of reasons to think that humans are not very good at explaining these kinds of things, such as the “leaving” phenomena, either regarding themselves or others.

    A fourth feature is that it employs an account of the turn-off. I put this as the material and teaching being abstract and out of touch with human interests. I should instead have used the characterization in the book, I suppose. That explanation is that a lot of women find that computer science as taught at CM had no relation to other fields. I think economics was one example. If I remember correctly, the book maintains elsewhere that women find interdisciplinary work much more congenial that a lot of men do, and they largely didn’t like the disciplinary isolation of computer science. The authors also point out that about 30% of guys on a survey say that they are in computer science solely because they enjoy it; the implication is that usefulness or applications are beside the point. Apparently women do not respond like this in significant numbers.

    About the combative style: This came in with the professor who likes to contest the top of the hill with his students. I wanted to point out that one factor, the style, is well discussed, though perhaps inconclusively. That wasn’t news coming from a study of CS. I did want to stress that fighting over the hill does something else; namely, the classes are now not just about philosophy; they are also about beating down the prof. This addition might well be put in the category of not answering to human interests, or at least those that might motivate women to do philosophy. In my experience, male students pretty much love combat. Personally, I’m willing to take it on for a while, but it doesn’t sustain my interest.

    A last word: just hope you don’t have to acquire antibiotics on a trip to the UK. If anything, medications are prescribed with more care than they often are in the States. In addition, the meds you are used to may have an agreed upon use in the UK which is quite different from the standard use in the States. Finally, the British seem to be aware that the metabolism of antibios (and other meds) vary with age, while in my experience US doctors do not stress this. 55 seems to be a cut off point on UK pill-ordering web sites. It is stressful to lie a lot and who knows if it is effective.


  29. “In my experience, male students pretty much love combat.”

    May I humbly request that you not put things in this way? And preferably that you even try to *think* of it a different way.

    Maybe it’s true ‘on average’. But I would hate to think that when I’m in your class, and you see me there, your belief that “male students pretty much love combat” is in the back of your mind. Like everyone else in the world, I am not on average.

  30. I agree with Luke. Generics like “male students pretty much love combat” are dangerous/offensive, and reinforce damning stereotypes that we ought not want to reinforce. Generics strongly influence the way we think about groups of people, and individuals who belong to those groups *even if* they are counterexamples to the generics. That is why I am bothered by this as a candidate explanation for the lack of women in philosophy as well: if it turns out to be the right explanation, or a part of the right explanation, so be it, but then I think we need to be extra careful to think about the way we talk about it qua explanation so as not to accidentally reinforce the idea that women are less capable of/less interested in abstract thinking than men are, and, in particular, to not reinforce the idea, as far as I can tell *very* prevalent in philosophy, that women should only do work in ethics, political philosophy, areas related to psychology, etc.

  31. Here’s another perspective, which I hope others will consider. I represent kind of person that is most (over)represented in philosophy: male, white, analytic phil. language, etc.

    I did not start out in philosophy; rather, I started out with a degree in a great books program. While I enjoyed the program, I felt that seminar discussion often consisted of people sharing their private, idiosyncratic experiences of a text. I could only rarely learn from this sharing. There was no obvious means of ensuring that it led to quality discussion. And, indeed, it often didn’t.

    When I took my first analytic philosophy class, some years later, I noticed the opposite: people were much more careful when commenting, presumably because they knew that they would have to defend their comments in that “minimally adversarial” environment distinctive of philosophy. As a result, I fell in love with the discipline. Students policed each others’ comments, which, to my mind, made conversation exciting and explosive.

    When I read discussions like this, I get a little afraid. I don’t want philosophy to lose what I love about it — what sets it apart from the other humanities.** When I discovered analytic philosophy, I found the little piece of the academy that corresponds to my personality and learning style. I’ve been to enough literature and theory-inclined history conferences to know that the kind of academic environment fostered there is not one where I feel comfortable. Because there are many others like me, we should resist homogenizing academic environments across the humanities.

    Agressive environments must go, obviously. But if philosophy were to lose its minimally adverse environment, people with my personality and interests would lose their home in the humanities. The humanities should accommodate a range of learning styles, and philosophy, as it is practiced now, is the home for people like me. We should maintain philosophy’s adverse environment in order to support a diversity of learning styles in the humanities.

    **Some might argue that a minimally adverse environment is not distinctive of philosophy. I have no knock-down argument for my claim, beyond my particular experience in the humanities. But consider that philosophy is unique in its overrepresentation of men in the humanities, and that its environment is frequently offered as an explanation of that fact. That would suggest that its environment is unique in the humanities, which is confirmed by my experience.

  32. I love this blog and follow it regularly. I feel unsettled then that I find this thread dispiriting. RH, while I both sympathize and empathize with your experience (I really do) I earnestly welcome folks into our discipline who offer new methods, new pedagogy, new approaches, new (including old, but neglected) traditions. Maybe you do too, I don’t mean to suggest that you don’t.

    I simply want us to not treat such opening up of our discipline, which has in part already been caused by greater inclusion, to treat this opportunity as a zero-sum game. Instead of asking “are thought experiments bad for philosophy?” let’s see the obvious answer: sometimes yes, sometimes no.

    There are some women in philosophy. These women are exceptional in at least two respects. One, these women are in a discipline that is clearly struggling to respect women as full participants and contributors in our discipline. Two, these women are doing it, and doing it very, very well. Some of those women study technical philosophy that is highly abstract because that is where their abilities and passions are.

    But these women are not exceptional in one respect: they are not anomalies; they are not odd; they are not philosophizing in bad faith; they are not opposed to the greater project of a more inclusive and more productive discipline; they are not anecdotes; they are not the few who made it through. They earned their keep (by more than half) and did so because they are excellent philosophers and teachers who love what they do.

    It’s o.k., that not everyone loves two-dimensional semantics. But it’s also ok if someone does. It’s ok that a woman does.

    It does a great disservice to identify particular interests, abilities, passions, etc. as somehow male. It does a disservice to the women and men who work in these areas. We don’t have to tear one another down to let more of us in. That, to me, seems like standing on a hill.

  33. RH, i don,t think that anything I said is really in conflict with what you said.

    My concerns are about content. I mentioned aggression as something that can change content somewhat covertly.

    I suspect that some philosophers like to stress to students that philosophy is au fond useless. Relatedly, I do remember when I was a very poor parent in Oxford; I went to talk to Peter Strawson about the situation, and he said, “O, but you cannot earn money doing philosophy.” I also not so long ago read an interview with someone who was maintaining that theoretical ethics has nothing to do with actual moral problems. Such claims seem to me to still be reflected in a fairly widespread attitude in philosophy. There may be some merit to such claims, but they may also turn off students, and women more that men.

  34. Anon grad student: thank you for the reminder. I should have said “in my experience just about all male students…” I do remember a vivid exception in a discussion at a very highly ranked univ in 1991. The profs (all male) were pounding tables as they said, “this is the philosophical method. One person puts up a position and every one else tries to knock it down. If women don’t like it, they should get out of philosophy.” I do remember one male grad student timidly saying that some male grad students also might not like it.

    Anyone disagreeing was pretty timid in that context, and very understandably, a number of people were in tears.

  35. Luke, of course, I did not say all do.

    I really don’t actually have a clear idea of what it is to have a thought or be thinking something. Still less do I understand what role it has/could have in producing actions. Still, there are some mechanisms in the brain that send off an alarm when we get audiences wrong. In particular, look at the work of J Allman at Caltech. So I register your concern, but doubt the implied advice that adjusting thoughts solves problems.

  36. Thank you for your reply, Anne.
    I know you didn’t say “all” do. Just as when a man stands in front of the class and tells them, “Women do not like abstract thinking,” he will later brush off any concerns by adding, “Of course, I didn’t say *all* women.” I really hope other philosophers do not think the same way. It’s very troubling that every male student in your class is already pigeonholed. We know that female students are pigeonholed in similar essentialist ways in classes, and the effects are not good.

    Your doubts about the causal efficacy of thoughts sounds like a joke. Philosophy is thinking; the only thing it can ever do is adjust our thinking. So you are making the case that philosophy is completely irrelevant to anything else in life. I hope it’s a joke.

  37. Becko, that is extremely helpful. I am not mentally prepared to find blog comments *profound*.

  38. I believe generics have gotten some recent attention in the feminism/phil language literature. Sally Haslanger has a paper on ideology and generics that I’ve been meaning to read for some time (and now have some extra motivation to read!).

  39. Matt: it is a great paper.

    I am afraid i’ve run out of time! Please have another say, but do know I won’t reply.

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