Why a dearth still of female philosophers? “The problem is not men as such …”

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.

What do you think?  Is this a good candidate for inclusion in the explanations for women’s absence?

5 thoughts on “Why a dearth still of female philosophers? “The problem is not men as such …”

  1. 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.

  2. 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:

    Something else was happening to philosophy in the early 70s that led me to feel some disenchantment with it. I was extremely surprised to rediscover recently Hilary Putnam’s review of Gareth Evans’ posthumous book and to see his remark, “One thing a review cannot convey is the relentless technicality of the book. … It is a book addressed to Evans’s fellow specialists, and only to them. Philosophy, as Evans pictures it, is as esoteric as quantum mechanics.” I am not sure this is the exact complaint I had at the time about philosophy, though Gareth was certainly a looming presence at that time. In any case, I was certainly feeling less and less interested in a lot of it. I had always thought that one of the most interesting and indeed delightful questions one can ask is, “Should we be thinking about things in this way at all?” while in my experience that question was becoming for many a mark of one’s not having the essential ability to compare and contrast the standard views. I do not want to insist that making such comparisons is a bad thing, but it is not what is most engaging for me

    There’s another comment, but I am going to close this part before I lose it.

  3. 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.

    Recently, during the memorial conference for Philippa Foot that occurred at Somerville College in March of 2011, a well-known philosopher was disputing Foot’s position on the law of double effect, and in doing so, he employed the idea of intentions as mental representations, with the last one in a chain guiding the action. He agreed with the criticism that Foot would never have employed such an idea, but remarked that ‘mental representation’ was proving very useful in philosophy. Such a response is unlikely to move anyone with any Wittgensteinian training.
    Technical terms are not forbidden, but they are not to be used to cover holes in a theory. One has to be able to give an account of how they solve the problems regarding which they were invoked.
    In these terms, ‘mental representation’ understood in terms of semantic properties may
    well be problematic. The idea of an inner representation that guides our action may answer to our sense of agency when we act, but we do not have a theory that explains satisfactorily how the guiding occurs. How does inner content cause things like muscle contractions or indeed anything involved in acting? There is a hole in the theory. Few theorists have paid much attention to the hole.

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