Underrepresented Philosophers Database

Malcolm Keating has built upon Helen DeCruz’s excellent work to create a really wonderful database we can all go contribute to!

The purpose of this website is to collect the names and works of philosophers underrepresented in philosophy courses at the undergraduate level. By incorporating more works by philosophers belonging to typically underrepresented groups, it may be possible to combat stereotype threat and improve retention of women, persons of color, and others who are historically minorities in philosophy.

Through this website, you may

add names of, and works by, underrepresented philosophers
search for philosophers (by a number of criteria)
view demographic information for the philosophers.

This will only work if we all do our bit by adding ourselves, and others! Also, do let Malcolm know about other things you’d like the database to include. It’s a work in progress, and he’s eager for it to evolve in response to the needs of the community!

But before you go rush off to add lots of other people, do note that due to privacy concerns you should only add yourself or historical figures.

28 thoughts on “Underrepresented Philosophers Database

  1. I’m already annoyed at how salient my underrepresented status is amongst other philosophers, I don’t exactly want it made even more salient by a database like this.

  2. I’m concerned about the fact that it’s possible for someone who does not bother to read (and/or does not care to respect) the privacy requirements to publicly post highly personal information about other philosophers so easily. And that such information will then will only be removed if the outed person (a) /notices/ (and why should they?) and (b) requests that it be removed. I know I don’t want to have to keep checking this database to make sure things are not said about me here that are private and/or inaccurate. Also, offering to remove something private once it’s been posted is surely a version of offering to lock the stable door after the horse has bolted. At minimum, I would suggest, there need to be much more well-thought-out controls on who can edit what. I also think there are other risks inherent in the creation of this database, such as that mentioned by the previous commentator, which (in the best-case scenario) are likely to lead to the database being quite limited in ways that are likely to be detrimental to its having the kind of effects that (I imagine) are desired.

  3. Hi, thanks to Jenny for posting about this, and a couple of comments in response.

    First, I’d like to clarify what Rachel’s concern is, so that I understand. Is it one that you have about any “underrepresented x” list (such as the original one for women philosophers that I’ve incorporated here) or is this about inclusion of more fine-grained characteristics which are underrepresented, such as gender history/identity, disability status, and etc.? If the former, then this is a larger problem, one which my project certainly has to grapple with, but isn’t unique to it. Or is there something specific to the design/implementation of this version (right now, Google Spreadsheet plus some data entry/reporting controls)? I agree that evidence shows there is an inherent danger in highlighting under-representation, as it increases the effects of stereotype threat, etc. At the same time, if instructors want to provide texts written by those authors, there is a questions as to how to know where to find them (names in journals don’t give us a full picture of who philosophers are–as the “What a philosopher looks like” Tumblr blog is good for doing).

    Second, the concerns that anon @ 6:36 pm points to are ones that were raised, and discussed in some email conversations that I had with several female philosophers before continuing on. I think that the worry about being outed is indeed a significant concern. It strikes me that (1) it is already possible to quickly disseminate erroneous information on the Internet, so that isn’t a unique problem here, but (2) the requesting of specific information does raise to salience the possibility that someone might, for whatever reason (charitably, mistaken good intentions, uncharitably, nefarious ones) make a damaging entry.

    These comments in mind, it seems like there are (at least) the following possibilities:
    1. Remove descriptors of under-representation other than “woman” and preserve some of the other things, like using a form for entry.
    2. Incorporate a log-in feature to ensure that the only person able to enter biographical information is the philosopher in question herself.
    3. Incorporate a log-in feature that just records who has entered the information.
    4. Incorporate a feature that confirms the accuracy of entries with living philosophers, coupled with a log-in, of the sort that works when you update your address and get a confirmation email to ensure you were the one making the change.

    If the consensus is that the effect is overall more negative than positive, I’m happy to take the entire thing down (though I think that, at minimum, data entry validation & search tools on Helen’s excellent resource are a positive).

  4. Is an ‘underrepresented philosopher’ just a philosopher who isn’t talked about enough? Probably most philosophers think themselves to be those.

  5. “discussed in some email conversations that I had with several female philosophers”

    I’m not sure why it would be imagined that femaleness per se qualifies one to speak to relevant issues. The privacy concern, as I understand it, is not about femaleness, since femaleness is (typically) a non-private feature of female people. The relevant consultation groups would be those with people with marginalised orientations, identities, disabilities, etc. /that are typically not public/: those people, already vulnerable in the profession and generally, are the ones who might be at risk of further harm from being outed and/or having the profession’s attention focused on their underrepresented status, against their wishes, and might have reacted to hearing about this database not by celebrating but by breaking out in a cold sweat.

  6. “I’m not sure why it would be imagined that femaleness per se qualifies one to speak to relevant issues.”

    I wasn’t intending to imply as much, only describing the process I undertook.

  7. My comments are for Malcolm.

    First, I wanted to thank you (Malcolm) for starting this project and for all of the hard work you have done to create it.

    Second, I wanted to express some worries that I have. As an underrepresented philosopher (I’m a South Asian woman), I am not sure about the general approach to the database. This isn’t a critique of your intentions (which are obviously good) so much as it a worry about what it is to identify as an underrepresented philosopher and what the implications of identifying as such a philosopher are.

    My worry is about asking “underrepresented philosophers” to explicitly identify as such. At least in my case, identifying explicitly as an underrepresented philosopher in such a forum, makes me feel more singled out as being such a philosopher. I’m also worried about the psychological impact of identifying oneself in such a way. For example, there is a good amount of literature that suggests that when people identify as being different or not belonging to the mainstream (i.e., as belonging to the out group), they tend to perform less well. I’m worried that similar concerns may arise here.

    So, I’m wondering, why not just create a philosophers database (for all philosophers) that contains a variety of demographic data, which would then be searchable?

    Thanks for your thoughts in advance.

  8. Hi, Meena, thanks for your question and comments. I’m aware of the problem of identifying as an under-represented person and the impact it has on performance. In fact, the initial purpose for collecting this information was to address stereotype threat in the philosophy classroom by allowing instructors to easily find and include texts that increase the representation of women (see Helen De Cruz’s first call for input here here.

    As I was using this list to develop my own syllabus, I found myself thinking that I wanted to be able to include women who are also people of color, so that the head-shots I use on my slides would not show students the images of only white philosophers. This, in addition to some thoughts about making the information more searchable, lead to the project as it is.

    For this reason, the emphasis is on people traditionally minorities in philosophy classroom reading lists. Someone putting together an intro class likely already has access to information about the “standard” set of texts. I think that there is a tension here which may not be unique to my website: in considering the problem of representation in order to address it, those persons who are not in the majority feel the psychological effects that they are aiming to prevent in future generations.

    Perhaps even just the name of the website/project is what is troubling? I wonder if changing that might help allay some of these feelings when contributing?

  9. I agree with the privacy concerns.

    However, I don’t quite yet understand the worry about the existence of such a database, if the privacy issues are well-handled. What are the asymmetries between this and, say, the gendered conference campaign (which I strongly support)? As far as I can tell, this database confers similar benefits, and the campaign faces similar worries. The gendered conference campaign is also pointing out that a group of philosophers are underrepresented, implicitly identify who they are — and also as different and unfortunately currently in the out group, tokening, etc. The existence of a database serves as a useful practical resource and, in my view more importantly, rules out the common excuse that it is difficult to find underrepresented philosophers who work on particular topics outside of one’s circle.

  10. One under-represented social category, in philosophy and academia, and positions with status in society general, is socio-economic class at birth/during childhood. The academic achievement gap between the rich and the poor in society is also growing. I am queer and a woman, but I feel that a greater impact on my life (and ability to fulfil my ‘potential level of success’) has been the internalised inferiority I feel and have felt since childhood, having spent the first two decades of my life in a low socio-economic group, as well as the challenges I faced in succeeding in lifting myself out of that class.

    I am no longer ‘relatively poor’ within my society, however, I now move in social circles surrounded by people who grew up in upper-middle class families…which seems especially the case within philosophy departments. I believe this is a big issue for philosophy. How many of the philosophers partaking in debates about social justice/distributive justice have never directly experienced poverty or deprivation themselves? How many philosophers working on intra-generational and global justice have never set foot in or spent little time in developing countries? I am not saying that you need to have had direct experience to make the right arguments, help move society in the right direction, do great philosophy etc. but imagine what these debates could become if they were enriched by philosophers who have actually ‘been there’.

    During my university education, I would often depart philosophy classes feeling it was all so farcical – classes would be dominated by the confident kids from wealthy backgrounds up on their soap-boxes about ‘social justice’, ‘rights for the poor’ and ‘equality of opportunity’…only to return afterwards to their exclusive college, to go and study with their highly educated friends, all on full scholarships, while their dinner was cooked for them and rooms cleaned for them. There are privilege cycles as well as poverty cycles, and all too often we focus on the latter. Perhaps because it is easier than acknowledging the former, and how one’s own life fits within that paradigm.

  11. I take Shen-Yi’s point to heart. I too am a big fan of the gender conference campaign (GCC). But there are important differences between the GCC and the underrepresented philosophers database. The GCC actually brings attention to the people that are doing the excluding (intentionally and/or unintentionally), while the database brings attention to those who are typically excluded. Furthermore, the GCC does not require that the excluded identify themselves in any specific way. It is a way of asking for inclusion without pointing to any individual as being specifically excluded. It acts on behalf of women philosophers as a whole. In short, the GCC just doesn’t seem open to the sorts of worries that I have about the underrepresented philosophers database because the mechanism by which the GCC works through is entirely different from those of the database.

  12. What I’m hearing, I think, can be summed up under two headings: privacy and stereotype threat. First, there is the concern that people will be outed, or, that they will have an undue burden to keep tabs on their identity in a way that is burdensome, in addition to those burdens already in place due to the second concern, stereotype threat. This is the concern that asking already under-represented people to contribute to a resource, even if that resource aims at correcting the under-representation, exacerbates the problem.

    My intention in setting this up was simply to expand on what was already in place, in part because I think we all agree that efforts on increasing representation of women in philosophy are only part of the efforts we need to make. Given the non-private and tendentious nature of other demographic information, I thought that asking those persons to add themselves avoids the problem of others speaking for them. These demographic features aren’t always salient in the classroom (for instance, that Joan Roughgarden is a trans woman isn’t necessarily something that needs to be pointed out to my students—that she is a female, highly respected scientist is probably, in most cases, pedagogically sufficient), but sometimes they are (some of the work by C. Jacob Hale on the butch and FTM experiences might be informed by the publicly known fact of his transition).

    For those who are voicing their worries about privacy and the burden of self-identification, I’m curious what their approach would be to increasing the diversity of those philosophers which are assigned at the undergraduate level, in particular philosophers who are not white women? I’ve suggested a couple of possible approaches to privacy above which I’m willing to implement. But is a consensus emerging that only typically “public” identity features be included?

  13. Meena,

    That is very helpful. Thank you. I definitely see the mechanism difference now, even though I remain unconvinced of a difference in effects.

    First, on self-identification: As far as I understand the literature, stereotype susceptibility can be activated in numerous other ways besides self-identification. For example, Shih et al (2002; study 2) show that even subliminally exposing Asian American participants to words like ‘Taiwan’ produce the same kind of effect as asking participants to self-identify as Asian American. So, given how easily stereotypes are activated, even if GCC does not ask women philosophers to self-identify as such, its prominence — perhaps even the mention of words like ‘gender’ — is likely to have similar effects. So I am not sure the individual / group distinction is significant here.

    Second, on drawing attention: The targets of the database are not necessarily the people in it. When I first heard about this, I actually took the existence of the database to draw attention to exactly the same people, the people who are doing the excluding. It is now easy to say “hey, have you consulted this…” to someone who fails to include any woman in a conference program, on a syllabus, etc. At least, it no more harms underrepresented minorities than similar efforts which have been lauded, such as the Women in Logic list.

    The privacy issue is hard because I don’t see an easy way to balance that with not placing too much burden on the underrepresented philosophers themselves. However, speaking for myself, even if placing myself on the list would constitute a small cost to my own prospects, I think the existence of the database could be well-worth it for the results of conferences, courses, edited volumes, etc. that include more underrepresented minorities.

  14. Hi Malcom,
    I can see — as I think everyone can– that you are really very much trying your best to do a good thing here, and do it in a way that’s not problematic. In my view (and it’s only the opinion of one philosopher) if there’s going to be such a database, it should be secure in such a way as that only the philosopher in question (for those of us still alive) would be able to enter their own name and related info. So, something like the log-in and verify system that you mentioned earlier. Simply *asking* that philosophers only add themselves isn’t enough, because there are bad people in the world who would, e.g., ‘out’ someone for nefarious purposes (it’s happened to me in philosophical contexts), and because there are decent enough people in the world who would ‘out’ someone in ignorance of, without adequate understanding of, what that person would themselves want (thinking e.g., “I’m sure they’d be fine with this– I mean, doesn’t everyone already know? and it’s weird they’re not already on the list?’ etc)
    There are lots of reasons one might not want to be identified as of a particular underrepresented group, and lots of reasons one might have mixed feelings about it. I have mixed feelings about it. Much of my work, e.g., is Hume scholarship and though I have much less confidence in academe as a system of meritocracy than some of the cis straight white guys I know, I do admit that some substantial part of my heart of hearts wants that work to be read as simply Hume scholarship, without the additional “by a woman, who is also x, y and z” These, as you know, are complicated issues and people need to have maximal opportunity, imho, to decide for themselves how to present themselves to the world.

    Meena: just quickly, about class issues. (Economic and socio economic). I agree this is a serious issue, and I really hope/wish there were some way of getting more than anecdote about this. I too don’t come from money (where that means actually having actual experience with actual poverty in my case, including a brief period of homelessness as a teenager) I have had discussions/debates with people about just what is the fact of the matter here in academe– the person with whom I was discussing this most recently insisted that there are a lot of people in philosophy who come from, in some sense or another, ‘working class’ backgrounds, and I said I’d be shocked if that were true. I haven’t clue one about how to design or administer an appropriate survey, or I’d do it myself. If anyone does get an idea and time to do so, though, I’d be happy contribute some questions I think are relevant… (?)

  15. [A generalizable point emerging from this discussion: better to engage in consultation with the relevant people/groups *before* setting out to help them. Privilege can often result in assuming one knows how to help others without asking what’s wanted or needed. However well-intentioned, it’s preferable to ask first, then act.]

  16. The stereotype threat worry is a real one, and one that arises in many contexts. In particular, it is reasonably likely that all the discussion about underrepresentation itself triggers stereotype threat. (I say ‘reasonably likely’ rather than ‘certain’ because it’s also very likely to be in the air already and not in need of triggering.) Though this does make me worry about these discussions sometimes, it has not convinced me to stop talking about these issues because they need to be talked about if they are ever to be fixed.

    I think the issue is similar here. We *need* more papers by members of underrepresented groups on syllabi and at conferences– in order to fight implicit bias and stereotype threat. The various barriers faced by members of these groups make it much harder for them to become known in such a way that they leap to mind when one is organising a conference, even if one is deliberately trying to diversify. A resource like this one will be tremendously useful in getting more members of these groups onto the lists of “people to ask”.

    I do think, however, that it”s important for each person to be able to decide whether they want to be listed in this way. Malcolm has tried to do this, but it may be that the higher tech solution (with logins, etc) is better if feasible.

  17. Hi

    I just wanted to say, privacy issues aside, I think this is a great idea. As one who was newly out when I commenced my philosophy studies, I googled and searched wikipedia like mad trying to find philosophers who weren’t straight…I was desperately searching for role models. But I struggled to find them. Then I thought about why that might be. I suspected that being an ‘out’ philosopher might be difficult in academia…ie. due to sterotype threat/bias/misunderstanding/ignorance perhaps other philosophers might not rate one’s work as highly if they construed the persons work itself as being the product of a type of bias or driven by the philosopher’s emotions, and not their intellect (when there’s such current emphasis on philosophy being ‘cerebral’).

    I eventually found examples though, and this was enormously important to my development as a philosopher, and I thank those role models for taking the very diffult and in many ways risky step of being public about their identity. I suspect if more were, it would help to eventually eliminate this problem (and I’m sure there is empirical evidence that tells this story).

  18. I’d like to endorse what Katy said in #14 about only allowing the philosopher him/herself to list him/herself in the database. I think it’s got to be an explicit permission model, and for all the reasons people have listed above.

    Regarding class, there are just lots and lots of murky issues here. People mean lots of different things by “working class,” as that term has traveled far from its roots in connection to capital. People mean everything from “my parents weren’t able to afford to send me to private school” to “I was homeless.” But what Anon #10 said resonates pretty strongly with me, in that I frequently got frustrated in the philosophy classroom as an undergraduate at what I perceived to be the “limo liberalism” of many of my fellow students. Even now I sometimes react the same way when I hear political philosophy papers at conferences. Discussion of citizenship, marriage, and animal rights seem to particularly do it for me, and I’ll often avoid those talks or walk out early. Data would be nice, but it would be extremely difficult to formulate the questions in a way that would yield useful information.

  19. Thanks, everyone, for your helpful and insightful remarks. I think what I’d like to do, given the feedback, is threefold:

    1. Although so far there have been very few persons who have added themselves to the database with sensitive demographic information, I will remove that aspect from visibility for the time being.

    2. During that time, I’d ask that anyone who would like to be involved in the design of a more robust framework (with logins and an email verification system), to please get in touch. In particular, I would solicit help from persons like those of you who have commented, belonging to those groups of philosophers historically underrepresented in undergraduate courses (and, indeed, the profession at large). While I have some technical skills, I would be grateful to work with those of you with experience in navigating the sensitive issues raised here. And I’d be happy to come on board in an assisting manner to anyone who already has such a project underway.

    3. The final goal would be to convert the database into something which addresses the privacy issues raised here, perhaps with more documentation about its aims, the importance of the demographic categories represented, and some discussion of how the effort relates to research on stereotype threat and etc..

    I hope that the site, even without the additional categories, proves in the meantime to be a useful way to enter and search information into the list that Helen De Cruz began several months ago. I want to emphasize that being of assistance to this ongoing effort was, and remains my primary goal, so I’m happy to hear and have a chance to respond to the feedback here. Given that the spring semester is about to be underway, I likely won’t have much time to engage in conversation here, but if anyone would like to continue the conversation by email, I’d be glad for the chance. Thanks. (c.malcolm.keating at utexas.edu).

  20. Just wanted to say that, though I can see that some of the issues raised above might need thinking about, as a mixed race philosopher who can’t remember being taught about any non-white thinkers during my studies I think that that initiatives like this are really needed. So thanks for making it and I hope that you can work out any issues and that it is successful.

  21. Malcom, one thing you should probably be sensitive to is that lots of trans people prefer “trans” rather than transsexual. The latter is a highly medicalized term with lots of baggage. That ought to be an option.

  22. Rachel, absolutely. I’ve had the topic of “trans/trans*/transgender/transsexual” come up many times in conversation and I’ve seen it discussed in literature. It touches on lots of sensitive issues. I’ve had some people say they prefer “transsexual” because, whatever they think of the gatekeeping process, they prefer to understand transition as medical treatment. But as you say, the baggage around the term is tremendous and one shouldn’t just assume that’s a moniker someone trans would embrace. There’s also the question of “transgender” versus “transgendered” (many people I know cringe at the latter, while others embrace it as a description of a process they’ve actively pursued), as well as the space between “trans” and “woman” or “man” (saying someone is a blackman strikes us as odd, even othering, although Englishman isn’t necessarily).

    In any case, in terms of the pragmatic question of data collection, there’s the importance which you point to, of allowing people to self-identify in a way that is genuine and constructive, as well as the importance of aggregating information in a way that is representative and also helpful for people using the database. That’s one reason I think multiple-choice coupled with the ability to write in an “other” is crucial. I’ve seen many surveys which use radio buttons and force people to choose between, say, “male”, “female”, and “FTM”, “MTF” or something, which is not only poor in terms of data collection, but psychologically damaging as it reinforces the idea that trans* people must necessarily be some kind of “other” gender. I think ideally, we might like some kind of fine-grained entry system which is able to be aggregated in a number of different coarse-grained views.

    Anyway, this is a long response to indicate total and enthusiastic agreement, and a thanks for adding this. If you have positive examples of surveys and the like which you think do things well, I’d be happy for you to send them my way.

  23. (Also, let me just add, that despite my mention of “transition”, I am not in any way implying that medical/social/etc. “transition” is the or a central defining characteristic of someone who is trans, but only pointing to a particular anecdote about the way some people identify.)

  24. I noticed the multiple-selection option, which I commend, particularly when we’re talking about gender. I just recall not liking the options (choosing between transsexual and transgender is an unhappy decision). Also, yes, please avoid “transgendered.”

Comments are closed.