Papineau on Women in philosophy.

I am very grateful for the help various members of the blog provided.  I’ll try to list them tomorrow.

David Papineau has written a review of Women in Philosophy: What Needs to Change? a collection of essays edited by Katrina Hutchison and Fiona Jenkins for the TLS.  I think it is exceptionally difficult to review adequately an extended examination of biases and other obstacles encountered by a disadvantaged group if one is not a member of that group.  This problem is particularly severe when the examination reflects a number of viewpoints from members of the group which are elaborated with some exquisite detail.  So why did the TLS ask Papineau to write the review?  He does not have a history of distinguished contributions to the field of feminist philosophy, sociological treatments of bias and discrimination, and so on.

Well, who knows their actual reasons?  It might, however, be because they thought he’d write a thoughtful and fair review, as indeed I think he has.  Here his review contrasts markedly with recent discussions of microaggression, which are discussed below.  This was not my first impression, however, and so when I mention complaints, do remember that his task was actually exceptionally difficult.  Indeed, it isn’t clear to me he realized how difficult it was.

Let me first say that readers may want to pay particular attention to his discussion, both for the information conveyed and for the model of discourse that is presented.  Among other things, Papineau’s discussion reveals he has listened seriously to those invoking empirical research on implicit bias and stereotype threat.  He is critical of the role of aggressive discourse.  Perhaps most remarkably, he considers whether the typical topics of philosophical discourse should be enlarged to consider issues about, for example, power and gender.  Papineau’s comments argue an unusual ability to expand one’s imagination.

To take a more critical view: I will mention two problematic areas in his discussion:  1.  His view of the place of the excellence required by philosophy, and 2.  Two assumptions he makes about women in relation to philosophy.

The first:  Carol Dweck was one of the early theorists who saw a difference between two approaches to academic excellence.  One view is that achieving excellent is a matter of utilizing a talent existing independently of one’s training.  The other view is that the crucial factor is sustained long-term effort.  Which view one takes may not reflect any fundamental feature of the field.  If we take this idea to Sarah Jane Leslie’s thesis that philosophy’s image of itself has it requiring some sort of given brilliance, we can notice that the idea of inborn excellence may be a conceit of a field, but that does not mean it is true.  Indeed, I was extremely surprised to see blog discussions asserting that our field does require a high level of pre-existing intelligence. Papineau, who discusses Leslie, appears to take a realist’s view.   Such a view invites us to take biased pictures of the likely embodiment of such brilliance.  One would not be surprise if  most instances are male.

2.   The first:  the supposedly distinctive traits of women:  It doesn’t really matter whether or not in the end there turns out to be any real difference between women and men. The problem with positing that there is is that this is a claim that has been made so many times in ways that harm women’s interests that it ought to be handled with extreme caution. Papineau doesn’t show the caution needed.   Of course this doesn’t make his point malicious or sexist, but the assumption that women are relevantly different can be a huge distraction in solving the problem of women’s low participation.

The second assumption:  the problems of marginalised groups:  Papineau says,  “There are obvious reasons for wanting political institutions to include a suitable proportion of women and other under-represented groups. A similar case for affirmative action can be argued more widely, even for such technical professions as law and medicine. Good practice in these areas often demands familiarity with the problems of marginalized groups, as well as purely theoretical expertise. However, this line of thought has no obvious application to philosophy, or to snooker for that matter. On the face of things, neither profession has the function of representing particular groups.”   A contrary view is that philosophy is a valuable enterprise and its value lies in the way it helps us make sense of complex and troubling aspects of human existence and experience, and not just those problems shared by men of European origin.  [See comments 1 & 2 below]. Some time ago Lorraine Code observed that the concentration in epistemology on “S knows that P” abstracts epistemology from all the issues about why knowledge is important.  The progress fueled by her work and that of others shows how important a very wide array of viewpoints can be.  Similar points have recently been made against the idealizations so standardly employed in ethics, political philosophy or philosophy of science, at least until recently.

These two hypotheses together lead Papineau to say: ‘Even if we assume that women are voluntarily selecting themselves out of philosophy, as in snooker, and that there is no special social need that warrants affirmative action, as there may be in law and medicine, it does not yet follow that philosophy’s gender imbalance is benign.’  Such mere assumptions made in the context of a philosophical argument or an article of this sort may not be neatly confined to their context. They often spill over to subsequent debates. The thought of having to spend more time than is already necessary explaining to people why one shouldn’t assume that women are just less interested in philosophy and arguing that familiarity with the problems of the marginalized is important for doing good philosophy fills one with dismay.  That his review could have this outcome is unfortunate, given that it contains so many good points.