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.

13 thoughts on “Papineau on Women in philosophy.

  1. “A cont[r]ary 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… The thought of having to spend more time than is already necessary explaining to people … that familiarity with the problems of the marginalized is important for doing good philosophy fills one with dismay.”

    I worry that this “contrary view”, in pushing back against a too-narrow conception of philosophy, in turn narrows the definition too much in a different direction. Philosophy is pluralist in lots of directions: very little of philosophy of physics – at least that part of philosophy of physics that aspires to be continuous with physics – has anything to do with human existence and experience.* I think there’s at least some danger of conveying the message that philosophy of physics should work to increase representation by women *so that* they can bring a new distinctive perspective not currently present in the subject. That in turn has some risk of conveying to women that they have to do philosophy of physics in a new way that draws on their marginalized stattus, and that pushes against the STEM narrative that women shouldn’t be discouraged (as arguably they are now) from being interested in, and self-defining as excellent in, highly mathematical and abstract fields of science.

    * except in the sense that any human activity does because it’s done by humans – but that would be an argument for pushing back against gender imbalance in all fields, even snooker!

  2. Dvid, I think the objectionable implication arose from over zealous editing on my part. Do you think something like “the vale of philosophy as a field lies in significant part in …’ Would sole the problem?

  3. “Voluntarily selecting oneself out of…” is kind of a symptom of a larger problem in philosophy–which is to individualize everything and be unable to consider a systemic explanation. It’s deeply implausible that women “voluntarily select” themselves out of snooker because it’s a foolish enterprise . Who teaches a boy snooker? Why do you ever learn snooker? What could be a deterrent to women playing snooker? Other men teach only boys snooker, and women are not made comfortable in the environments where snooker is played. In fact, it was historically an all-male leisure activity that flourished during a time when the genders were segregated. But somehow–that’s all changed–now we should assume that it’s all a matter of individual choice and the fact that it would be a huge breech of social mores for a woman to play snooker 100 years ago has nothing to do with the fact that women don’t play snooker now.

    There’s an interpretation of this analogy that suggests it is pernicious. He implies that philosophy is like snooker–just this thing that a person must be utterly devoted to perfecting one’s skills at but which doesn’t have an obvious payoff–and that’s a foolish way to live life. Of course, women would not want to be so devoted. He suggests there is something about philosophy that requires a fanatic devotion. We know women aren’t like that.

    Don’t be fooled by the self-deprecation there about snooker (and philosophy, by implication). Of course women are too serious and sensible for these activities! I respect women and completely understand why they prefer not to engage in these activities. Go away, women. Go, do your serious things and leave me and my men friends to our foolish endeavors.

    “Most young people come into philosophy and economics because they want to address important issues, not to make the next move in a technical exercise. When they discover that they need to dance on the head of a pin to get a job, women and men are likely to react differently. Where many men will relish the competitive challenge and enjoy the game for its own sake, many women will see it as the intellectual equivalent of putting balls in pockets with pointed sticks, and conclude that they could be doing something better with their lives.”

    I see you mention this issue annejjacobson but your criticism is very generous–or perhaps I’m being very uncharitable.

    The idea philosophy is technical is philosophy’s version of an excluding ideology. There is a vast sea of non-technical philosophy done by men–and sometimes women–that is very well respected. Most philosophy is not ‘technical’ in the sense it requires some advanced grasp of symbolic logic or a technical vocabulary (which women seem well able to master in English–they also have technical terms!). Many men don’t like the logic-chopping type of technical philosophy either. Philosophy isn’t more adversarial than English or other fields. That’s another well-worn notion that could be dispelled if philosophers would only attend a few talks in English or History.

    (Am I being uncharitable in thinking he suggests the evidence provided by people’s testimony is not real evidence? “There is no direct evidence of this in philosophy, but it would be surprising, as Saul observes, if philosophers were somehow peculiarly immune to the surreptitious influence of historical prejudice.” Informal testimony about experience of bias are currently the only evidence we get. I supposes that evidence is indirect because the person who engages in the bias would deny that they are biased–so you have to infer that there is implicit bias. Is this merely indirect evidence or not evidence at all?)

    People should subject the arguments about gender bias to critical evaluation. To do that well, one has to subject one’s own assumptions about philosophy to critical evaluation. And then maybe give some arguments–not just throw one’s own assumptions back into the pile.

    “The alternative would be first to decide which topics are really worth studying, and then to see who wants to study them.” Huh? Who decides this? Can he really be blind to the fact that this is a question about power and who has it?

    “The first task is to deal with the easy issues, and make sure good women philosophers are not being turned away for bad reasons.”

    I suggest he consider the nuts and bolts of this claim. Only some people have the power to decide who are the ‘good philosophers’ and what are the ‘good reasons.’ The very issue at hand is who are the ‘good philosophers’ and what are the ‘good reasons’ to ‘turn philosophers away.’

    Perhaps he could consider the possibility that philosophy could simply become more of what it is: An already pluralist, diverse intellectual enterprise. Even historically it was such (especially historically). Was Kant a ‘technical’ philosopher? Kant wanted to talk about ‘big important questions’–questions about human beings! Questions about what they were like and stuff! And the answers Kant gave had a hell of a lot to do with Kant’s existence as a particular human in a particular historical period. Likewise–all philosophers, ever. We all know this when it comes to history of philosophy. Don’t we? How can anyone be blind to the fact that this will be true of us now?

    The places where philosophy becomes narrower are the places where most of social and economic power in academia is concentrated. There’s plenty of intellectual diversity at the lower rungs of the philosophy ladder. The current question is whether it will become respectable work in the eyes of philosophy’s main gatekeepers–not whether anyone would do it and call it philosophy. About that, I wouldn’t hold my breath. (And if you fear changes to philosophy at the top–you’re safe. Breathe. Relax. Go on with your bad genius self.)

  4. Yes, that seems fine. (And maybe it was an overlong comment on my part in respect of a single sentence in any case, but I’ve seen similar comments elsewhere.)

  5. “Apart from anything else, categorizing traditional topics as distinctively masculine in order to free up more of the curriculum for women’s interests would seem singularly unhelpful to those women who do want to work in epistemology or metaphysics.”
    When I first thought about philosophizing as a feminist I was stuck: my interests were in epistemology and metaphysics and I thought they had nothing to do with gender (or race or class or anything else non-generic). I came to think that was wrong, and have–along with increasingly many others–been doing feminist epistemology and metaphysics since–i.e., since the mid-’70s. I know that for many, maybe including Papineau, that’s still oxymoronic–but it shouldn’t be presented as somehow obvious that those fields are impervious to “women’s interests”. Yes, some members of variously marginalized groups want to do philosophy in ways that are uninflected by their social location, and they should have as much right to do so as more privileged philosophers do, but I think it’s clear that the discipline–including epistemology and metaphysics–is changing as more variously “different” people enter it–not because women think differently or care about different things, but because attention is being drawn to the many dimensions of power and privilege that shape the world–including ontologically and epistemologically.

  6. Naomi, I agree. Were you at the Pacific APA this year? Eliz. Barnes was in a great session on feminist metaphysics (or something like that). Maybe you were part of it?

    Jenny Lloyd’s The Man of Reason was a wonderful impetus for me. A bit later than you, though I had pre-publication discussions with her.

  7. no, Anne, I wasn’t at the Pacific APA. But it is terrific seeing so many people taking feminist–and critical race theoretic, etc.–metaphysics seriously.

  8. Female logicians are often exposed to the comment, usually made by members of the older generation of male philosopher, that women are too “wise” to waste their time on the “mind-numbing rigours” of technical philosophy.

    As a female logician, I wonder, what conclusion I am supposed to draw on being told this? That I am not one of the wise women?

    Anyway, it’s just the same old exclusionary narrative.

  9. Just a few tangential observations here in response to the thread.

    One: since the Papineau review seems to occupy the analytic philosophy mode of practice, the choice of snooker as an analogy chooses a British past-time that once again (probably unconsciously) embeds an Anglo-centric, in-the-game tone that has perpetuated alienation among those who don’t know or venerate the give and take of British philosophy culture.

    Two: the snooker analogy ignores a serious difference in the WAY the practice of undergraduate philosophy at least occurs across different national borders. Unlike English students who do not have to choose philosophy at all and who come to a three year degree focused on philosophy as a discipline, and even unlike Scottish students who get to choose at “outside subject” beyond their four year degree program, students in the United States are often first exposed to philosophy as an option within mandated general education categories or as a required disciplinary selection within their four year majors or institutions. Unlike snooker, undergraduate philosophy in the United States places itself in the way of an individual’s education less avoidably than a hobby like snooker, and so won’t always reflect a free-choice model of individual activity.

    Three: as chocolate string bean observes here, the methods by which philosophy gets disseminated matter. How we teach it in the classroom, and the tone we set for dialogue and discussion, can be exceedingly alienating to ANYONE who does not relish a sparring model of quick-wit strategy. Reflection rarely plays a strong role in the jousting approach to classroom dynamics, yet jousting does sometimes characterize the kind of philosophical play (as opposed to actually doing philosophy) that is venerated among some of those who believe in a ‘high intelligence” model of excellence. Just as students who score well on timed, narrow, standardized reasoning tests may excel in analytic problem solving without being at all able to collaborate or offer genuinely original insights to difficult problems, so too might philosophers who insist upon a narrow range of “technical” mastery as the guiding standard for the entire field fail to account for the powerful barriers that occlude access to philosophy through other ways of practicing it. The barriers amount to a fetish, a form of pedagogical socialization that permeates even professional practice.

  10. Just following on from the last post, and chocolate stringbean’s excellent observations, it seems to me that with his discussion of “unnecessary scholasticism” Papineau has cause and effect the wrong way around. It’s not that boys naturally choose to carry on these show-offy and trivial intellectual activities while girls are too naturally ‘helpful to society’. As others have pointed out, one needs to examine the socialization processes into the profession. With all the narcissistic mentoring that I’ve seen going on, what happens in my opinion is that the careers of many students with real philosophical passion and sufficient fire in their bellies to critique their elders die of neglect. Meanwhile the students sent forward are so well trained in kowtowing to powers that be over the importance of the previous generation’s pin-dancing that all that those students are philosophically capable of thereafter is pin-dancing that is even more derivative and pointless.

  11. “Leslie and her co- authors found a common feature to all the subjects with fewer women. These disciplines are distinguished by the view that “brilliance” is necessary for success. Where other subjects allow that determination and hard work can take you to the top, established practitioners in the male-dominated subjects insist that there is no substitute for raw, native talent.

    According to Leslie and her associates, this attitude discriminates against women in the brilliance-prizing fields: since raw talent is stereotypically associated with young men rather than women, selection committees in these fields are disinclined to pick women, and moreover women are discouraged by these expectations.”

    Here’s a different take, compatible with Leslie:

    There are *plenty* of brilliant women with raw, native talent in philosophy, at every stage, as many as there are men (we see them every day in our classes). There are *plenty* of technically trained, formally capable, and aggressive-argument loving women in philosophy, at every stage, as many as there are men (I see them every day in my logic classes). There are *plenty* of socially useful contributions one can make even with the most seemingly obscure and haughty philosophical formalisms if one is so inclined (see for example Mercier using logic, philosophy of language and metaphysics in the Same-Sex Marriage case in Canadian Appellate Courts). And Geez I wish we would stop making excuses for women (“they don’t like arguing”, “they shy away from abstractness”, “they have been badly socialized”), since the brilliant women we are talking about don’t need excuses.

    We need look no further than what research has established robustly: brilliant, technically trained, aggressive men *awe*; brilliant, technically trained, aggressive women *frighten*. They frighten men as well as women. The more brilliant, the more technically trained, the more aggressive the woman, the more frightening. Brilliant, technically trained, aggressive women are being **mobbed** out of the profession –some subtly, some unsubtly– at every stage by frightened people. There are few things people (men and women) will accept less than being frightened by a woman. (‘Mobbing’ here is a technical term. I refer readers to the extensive literature on the topic.)

    Why philosophy more than other humanities and social science disciplines? for eg theoretical linguistics? Why philosophy more than most STEM subjects?

    Three reasons:

    (1) In most other disciplines, including most STEM subjects, standards on the basis of which work is *read*, and hence has a chance of being deemed remarkable, and hence disseminated, are grounded in empirical facts; everyone has an interest in keeping abreast of recently discovered empirical facts. Absent such objective references, philosophy places high value on the brilliance of its authors. Philosophy is thus superlatively prey to implicit and explicit gender biases relating to the psychological effects of brilliance. This hypothesis predicts that the less grounded in empirical facts a discipline is, the fewer women we should expect to succeed in that discipline. This hypothesis is borne out by the facts.

    (2) Philosophical brilliance is based on recognition of the value and strength of arguments. “Value” and “strength of argument” judgments are notoriously subject to self-interest. See Tversky and Kahneman. This fact alone brings us right back to (1).

    (3) There is a chicken and egg problem that prevents philosophy from emancipating itself from these gender biases: Philosophy will remain superlatively prey to implicit and explicit gender biases as long as philosophy lacks a critical mass of women. (See Virginia Valian for empirical work on the relevance of critical masses.)

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