“I am sorry; therefore, I exist”

 

Becca Rothfeld, a graduate student in philosophy at Harvard, has reviewed Sarah Ahmed’s Living a feminist Life, In the CHE, 6/25/2017. There is a lot to like about the review, and I’ve included below some of my favorite passages. The idea that the manifestations of sexism we may have to deal with are a kind of ethical stupidity certainly fits the experience we find recounted in what is it like to be a women in philosophy? In fact, the question I wwant to raise is about a very related claim. This is the claim that the problem is affective, not intellectural.

***In an earlier post I think I was raising something like this possibility. What I’d really like help with are the questions (a) How new is this thought and (b) who else has been saying it.***

I don’t really do ethical theory, but I’d think this is a common idea. However, then I remember that many of us are surprised by Eric Schwitzgebel’s finding that philosophers working in ethics are not more moral than those of us working in other areas. Is ethics too often treated like an intellectual exercise, as opposed to one that might engage our motivation? One antidote for this might be to include a section on what we get wrong in our obligations. (I may here be indebted to my Somerville tutors – Anscombe and Foot – who seldom left their students motivationally unchallenged.)

Quotes from the review:

How exhausting it is to have to defend your right to excel, and to take on the additional burden of having to explain that you shoulder this burden at all. Sometimes I find myself enmeshed in a nested doll of apologies, apologizing for apologizing until apology supplants apologia and the seed of self that once grounded it and “Sorry!” is all that’s left. The female cogito, the basis of a brutal gender dualism, is this: I’m sorry, therefore I am. We’re allowed to exist in the first place only because we’re pre-emptively sorry for it.

The problem, I think, is not intellectual but affective: Sexism in the university and in the world of arts and letters is more often a failure of empathy than a failure of understanding. Ahmed says as much: “Diversity work is emotional work,” she writes. Callousness and cruelty are a kind of ethical stupidity, and their remedy is a sentimental, not a theoretical, education.

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