From the Guardian about Mary Midgley:
She was one of an extraordinary group of female philosophers at Oxford during the war that comprised Philippa Foot, Iris Murdoch, Elizabeth Anscombe and Mary Warnock, all of whom went on to work in moral philosophy or ethics. Was that a coincidence, I ask, or was it a female response to the male world of logical positivism that dominated British philosophy at that time?
In a recent letter to the Guardian, explaining why she thought there was a shortfall in women philosophers, she wrote: “The trouble is not, of course, men as such – men have done good enough philosophy in the past. What is wrong is a particular style of philosophising that results from encouraging a lot of clever young men to compete in winning arguments. These people then quickly build up a set of games out of simple oppositions and elaborate them until, in the end, nobody else can see what they are talking about.”
It has remained one of Midgley’s principles to write in such a way that the maximum number of people can see what she’s talking about. The philosopher and historian Jonathan Rée says: “She has always written in a language that’s not aimed at the cleverest graduate student. She’s never been interested in the glamour and greasy pole” associated with Oxbridge and London.
5 thoughts on “Why a dearth still of female philosophers? “The problem is not men as such …””
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I don’t see any reason for thinking that this has anything to do with a male/female divide. Her writings are admirably clear, but so are those of many male philosophers. She tries successfully to get at the heart at the issues and not just play games, but this, too, is also true of many male philosophers. Derek Parfit comes immediately to mind as a great example. I’ve also seen many philosophers of both sexes who (perhaps against their wishes) seem argue points for the sake of winning and impressing others, not for the sake of uncovering the truth (I won’t mention any names here to be kind).
With all respect to Midgley, who is a wonderful philosopher, I don’t see a good reason for thinking she’s right on this one.
Anonymous, I think that what she’s saying maybe needs to be placed in the context of the time she is talking about. E.g., in Oxford from the time she left (1948?) until about 1976, there were five wmen’s colleges and 30 men’s colleges. The latter did not admit women, so the men vastly outnumbered the women. To some extent, philosophy was perforce a man’s game. I think that roughly the same held true of Cambridge, with most people wanting to do grad phil going to Oxbridg. What one would expect is that the women who got accepted as the possibilities opened up would often, though not always, follow a style that was originally developed by the men.
I’m actually not in favor of what I see as a style that developed later than Midgely’s time. I’m going to quote myself, which may seem outrageous, but still:
There’s another comment, but I am going to close this part before I lose it.
A second complaint about a kind of style that has appeared. Philosophy did not used to be a discipline in which we grounded very central theoretical terms in their usefulness.
You can get a good idea of the justification for highlighting the ‘gamesmanship’ aspect and the alienation of female philosophers from the analytic movement by reading Ved Mehta’s book ‘Fly and the Fly-Bottle’. It’s hard to find, but there is a copy available on the Web: https://archive.org/stream/flyflybottle00meht/flyflybottle00meht_djvu.txt
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