Rational Agency and Feminist Philosophy

Do posts on rational agency or new behavioral econimics count as feminist?  Does feminist philosophy have to address issues explicitly about women or gender?

One thing going on behind the scenes here is that we see wordpress’s daily tally of the main search terms bringing  readers to this blog.  And sometimes one is “kyriarchy,” which Jender wrote about.   And that’s the pyramid structure of power relations that constrain and oppress so many.

 Looking recently at the search terms and that  post, I realized that feminists’ work that isn’t explicitly about women or gender may none the less have a very closely related topic, the kyriarchy.  Writings about the conception of rational agency or the domination of traditional economics can certainly be in many ways about the kyriarchy.  For example, the European self-conception of rational agency is  very present still in discourse about the “conquered” or enslaved.  

Three questions arise.  Please join in on them.  To some extent they raise the question of whether professional philosophy has often to present itself as politically disengaged.  Perhaps the answer to that  is easy.

1.  If we counted papers on  the kyriarchy as feminist, would there seem to be more feminist papers in the top journals?

2.  If  papers and books on the kyriarchy were candidates for feminist works, would we end up with works in the feminist corpus which really are not feminist at all, maybe to the point of being hostile to women?

3.  Are there many papers in philosophy which do criticize the products of the kyriarchy as unfortunate ways of thinking but don’t seem to contain any awareness of their political significance?  Relatedly, is bringing out the political significance of one’s criticism of the ideas of rational agency a way of inviting rejection by Phil Rev?

I would think that a lot in virtue ethics and some neo-Wittgensteinian work does undertake tasks very congenial to criticizing some of the cultural artefacts of  the kyriarchy.  Is Alva Noe’s work on perception covertly relevant  to the kyriarchy?  Any other candidates?  Specific or more general?

Rational agency again

In maintaining that ethics could no longer be done entirely a priori, David Brooks apparently sent the philosophy blogsphere into something of a spin.  (Of course, the piece was entitled “The End of Philosophy.”)  Anyway, discussion of that was such fun, I thought I’d draw your attention to another attack on the idea of human rationality, even though I haven’t read the book,  Animal Spirits How Human Psychology Drives the Economy and Why It Matters for Global Capitalism.  From a review:

Akerlof, a Nobel laureate, and Shiller, a good bet to become one, are prominent mainstream economists. They don’t deviate easily from orthodox theory, with its allegiance to the proposition that people are essentially rational, well informed and unemotional in the numerous transactions that shape the economy. But in “Animal Spirits,” they have deviated — and they have done so just as mainstream theory self-destructs.

There was nothing rational, well ­informed or unemotional about the behavior that has all but collapsed the economy. That leaves most of America’s economists without a believable framework for explaining how we got into this mess. Akerlof and Shiller are the first to try to rework economic theory for our times. The effort itself makes their book a milestone. …

…And their book takes their case not just to economists, but also to the general reader. It is short (176 pages of text) and easy enough for laymen to understand (most of the time).

Above all, they challenge the reigning free-market ideology of the past 30 years or so, from the rise of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan to the abrupt arrival of the present crisis late last year. That ideology held that markets should operate free of government because they were rational. But if animal spirits influence behavior, then government must play a broad, disciplinary role, and do so permanently.  (My stress.)

Keynes apparently saw a lot of this, but the role he gave to animal spirits got written out of economics.  So now we’ve had experiments with a comparatively unregulated market, and even those benefitting up to now should have  some sense something went awfully wrong.  Well, those other than the conservatives on US radio and TV who are now blaming the mess of Obama.

Rational Agency and the “End of Philosophy.”

(With thanks to BH for drawing the Brooks’ to my notice.)

At the American Philosophical Association the idea of rational agency can seem firmly in place.  “Our rational agency” can seem to apply unproblematically to us and our actions, or at least to the ones we want to focus on and analyze.

But it isn’t clear it should occupy such a place.  And David Brooks’ op-ed yesterday gives a reasonably accurate picture of a very different view emerging from a great deal of recent work in empirical psychology and cognitive neuroscience. 

Moral judgments … are rapid intuitive decisions and involve the emotion-processing parts of the brain. …

The question then becomes: What shapes moral emotions in the first place? The answer has long been evolution, but in recent years there’s an increasing appreciation that evolution isn’t just about competition. It’s also about cooperation within groups. Like bees, humans have long lived or died based on their ability to divide labor, help each other and stand together in the face of common threats. Many of our moral emotions and intuitions reflect that history. We don’t just care about our individual rights, or even the rights of other individuals. We also care about loyalty, respect, traditions, religions. We are all the descendents of successful cooperators.

The first nice thing about this evolutionary approach to morality is that it emphasizes the social nature of moral intuition. People are not discrete units coolly formulating moral arguments. They link themselves together into communities and networks of mutual influence….

The rise and now dominance of this emotional approach to morality is an epochal change. It challenges all sorts of traditions.

There are plenty of details to object to in the article.  But the overall picture of human normative functioning, which is now coming into philosophy largely through kinds of experimental philosophy, is exceptionally important.  And, of course, very Humean.  And in a number of ways very feminist. 

Of course, there is no sign in Brooks’ article of the history, nor are the recent feminist discussions typically recognized in the relevant literature.  Perhaps we should try to change that.

Why does anyone diss analytic philosophy?

Or, rather, why do our fellow humanities profs fail to respect us any more?  Jason Stanley (Rutgers) attempts to answer this question in a way that shows what is and always has been great about philosophy as we (i.e., “analytic philosophers” broadly understood) do it.  First, a worry about the “we.”  I think a number of readers and participants in this blog are not particularly happy about being identified in that way.  Indeed, I probably fit the label and, for different reasons, I’m not happy about that.  But I’d like to write from the inside on this piece, rather than present philosophy in academia today as some distant problem.  Most of us, analytic or not, are quite affected by the conception of philosophy that does dominate in Anglo-American-Australasian universities today, so in a sense we all have a vested interest in these discussions as, in some way, insiders.

All the quotes below are from Stanley, except for  this one:

 Janet Maslin, the reviewer closes with this observation:

When Cass [an academic and central character] witnesses a PowerPoint presentation featuring “brain scans of sophomores, neuroimaged in the throes of moral deliberation over whether they should, in theory, toss a hapless fat man onto the tracks in order to use his bulk to save five other men from an oncoming trolley,” this book occupies its ideal vantage point: close to the absurdity of current academic thinking yet just far enough away to laugh.

A case can be made that some of the distrust of  philosophy today is that it is seen as having radically misunderstood what is important in human life and thought.  So one might at the end want to know if JS realizes that.

1.  First, the insults; here’s one of many:

In the recently announced results of the new American Council of Learned Societies “New Faculty Fellows” program, 53 recent Ph.D.s in the humanities were awarded post-doctoral fellowships. None of the initial list of winners held a Ph.D. in philosophy. This is only the most recent insult to the oldest of disciplines.

2.  What are the other, respectible humanities doing:

Humans organize themselves into societies, cultures, nations, religions, genders, and races, and employ art and literature to represent their character. According to one view, the humanities should explain the nature of these formations – how the cultural artifacts the groups produce represent their respective identities. … Confrontation with the other has become a necessity of modernity, and humanists have settled into playing a role as our arbiter with the unfamiliar.

Philosophy stands apart from this emerging consensus about the purpose of the humanities. Its questions – which concern the nature and scope of concepts like knowledge, representation, free will, rational agency, goodness, justice, laws, evidence and truth – seem antiquated and baroque. Its central debates seem disconnected from the issues of identity …  Whereas humanists have transformed into actors, using their teaching and research as political tools, philosophers have withdrawn ever more to positions as removed spectators, and not of life, but of some abstracted and disconnected realm of Grand Concepts.

3.  What’s wrong with the estrangement:

That philosophy has become estranged from the humanities is ironic. Philosophy has shaped the modernity in which its role has been supplanted by the anthropology of the other …   There is perhaps a place for the history of Philosophy – investigation into how abstract reflection on grand concepts led to the modern world – but no more use for the abstract theorizing of a Descartes, Kant, or Spinoza.

4.  And a positive characterization of philosophy:

Philosophical problems also have a childlike grandiosity. When a philosopher announces that she is working on the nature of truth, she sounds like a teenager discovering the world of ideas for the first time. The notion that someone could come up with a new way to show that (say) we know that we are not brains in vats must seem infantile, even more so when the methods seem so dry and dilettantish. As the philosopher David Hill has described the discipline, it is “the ungainly attempt to tackle questions that come naturally to children, using methods that come naturally to lawyers.”

The view that there is no proper place anymore in the academy for the theorizing of figures such as Descartes, Spinoza, Hume, and Kant is well-reflected in the relative success philosophers achieve in competition with fellow humanists for various fellowships. ..  Nevertheless, while contemporary philosophy shares positivist enlightenment values, the positivist anti-metaphysical program has fallen into disfavor. Many leading contemporary philosophers have achieved their status precisely because of defenses of metaphysical views. ….In short, philosophy has not changed. David Lewis writes very differently than Nietzsche. But the unusual figure was Nietzsche, and not Lewis. The great philosophical works have always been difficult technical tomes, pursuing arcane arguments in the service of grand metaphysical and epistemological conclusions. None are easy reading for laypersons, and few base their arguments on anthropology or sociology. The conclusions they draw, and the methods they employ, are the same that one finds in the work of philosophers today. There are many philosophers working today who embrace and argue for Hume’s skeptical conclusions, just as there are many philosophers today arguing for Descartes’ view about the relation between the body and the soul in the Meditations. …  But given the role that the Humanities have adopted in modern civilization, what role does philosophy have to play? … current philosophers … have returned to the traditional philosophical questions one finds in classical philosophy – the nature of persons and rational agency, the status of free will, the nature and reality of material objects. …

5.  The good that philosophy brings to educations:

Most humanists challenge preconceptions by confronting students with alternative cultural identities. The philosopher instead focuses on the beliefs that constitute a religious or cultural identity. … Instead of teaching the middle-class American person about the actual poverty and oppression in her society, the philosopher forces her to reflect on abstract problem cases in which that person’s intuitions lead her to condemn the behavior of someone who is in fact behaving in all relevant respects similar to her. These are different methods of confronting complacency, but they are no less effective …  if the purpose of the humanities is to challenge preconceptions and basic beliefs, in the service of forming a better and more tolerant citizen of a diverse and globalized world, the methods of the philosopher and the methods of the historian are equally necessary.

So philosophy is still engaged in abstract reflection on the grand concepts, just as it’s core always has been.  And that enables us to really help students by revealing to them their basic ideas in the service of making them more tolerant.

On to comments on JS above.  First things first:  can we put some infelicities aside?  For example, most Humean scholars in the Hume Society resist the idea that Hume reached sceptical conclusions; he was constructing a naturalistic conception of the human mind, and, I would add, its conclusions about the limitedness of human reason are abundantly supported by recent research.  But these are not sceptical conclusions; rather, we realize our knowledge is largely owing to instinct.  Somewhat simillarly, many philosophers  today may be dualists, but it’s surprising to be told they are Cartesian substance dualism.  I have no idea where these folk are, but there aren’t many in the forums I know about.

Secondly, many historians of philosophy get very nervous about the idea that there are these grand concepts that have been contemplated for millennia.  I mean, we might not be all that sensitive to different cultures but we really shouldn’t assume that all the philosophers that English speakers read shared our culture and concepts.

Thirdly, as someone who thinks that there  is something to be said for a conception of the mind’s relations to nature that we largely  lost with Fodor’s language of thought, and Chisholm’s misinterpretation of Brentano’s quasi-thomistic conception of intentionality, I can report that there’s a great hostility to important thought that prevailed for most of those millennia. 

But let me  leave it to you, dear readers, to advance pros and cons to this picture.  Do you think, for example, our contribution to education is well captured?

Let me also remind you of our tradition of respectful disagreement.  Furthermore, since Stanley’s was one of the few straight analytic sessions to move out of the Westin for the Pacific APA, let us note that in some ways he is on the side of the good (supposing, of course, there is one.  With sides.) 

(And thanks to Chris Green, York University, for the email about JS’s article.)

CFP: Graduate Conference for Feminist Philosophers

Diotima: A Graduate Conference for Feminist Philosophers
Feminism, Technology and the World: Ecological Perspectives
University of Western Ontario
September 25-26, 2010

CALL FOR PAPERS
This conference aims to bring together graduate students who share an interest in feminism, post-coloniality, queer theory, critical race theory, philosophy of disability and anti-oppression theory in general, regardless of their primary area of research.
Keynote Speaker: We are pleased to announce Lorraine Code, Distinguished Research Professor Emerita at York University and recipient of the Distinguished Woman Philosopher Award (2009), as our keynote speaker. Prof. Code’s work explores “ecological thinking as a conceptual apparatus and regulative principle for a theory of knowledge – an epistemology – capable of addressing feminist, multicultural, and other postcolonial issues.”

We are also pleased to announce Gillian Barker as our faculty keynote speaker. Prof. Barker specializes in philosophy of science and of biology. She is interested in ecological conceptions of organism-environment interaction and their implications for our thinking about agency, normativity and knowledge, and in ecological psychology as a tool for transformative learning and action.

We invite submissions in any area of philosophy or feminist theory, that have been influenced by your feminist commitments broadly construed, including but not limited to:
• Feminist analysis of information sharing systems and new technologies;
• Social consequences of genetic or biomedical research and treatment;
• Explorations of a human/non-human divide, or personhood generally;
• A discussion of a recent work or emerging political concern;
• Developing interactions between theorists from different cultures;
• Wilderness, the built environment, poverty and politics;
• Environmental disaster and response;
• Intergenerational justice

Presenters will have 30-35 minutes to speak, followed by a 10-minute commentary and a 25-30 minute discussion period. Papers should be approximately 4000 words. Please include an abstract with your submission of no more then 200 words.

**EXTENDED** SUBMISSIONS DEADLINE: June 30

Please send your submissions electronically to diotimagrads@gmail.com. All papers will be evaluated by blind review; identifying information should appear in a cover letter only.

UWO’s philosophy department has an established strength in feminist philosophy, philosophy of science, and is home to the newly formed Rotman Institute for Science and Values.

CFP: Diotima

Diotima: A Graduate Conference for Feminist Philosophers
Feminism, Technology and the World: Ecological Perspectives
University of Western Ontario
September 25-26, 2010

CALL FOR PAPERS
This conference aims to bring together graduate students who share an interest in feminism, post-coloniality, queer theory, critical race theory, philosophy of disability and anti-oppression theory in general, regardless of their primary area of research.
Keynote Speaker: We are pleased to announce Lorraine Code, Distinguished Research Professor Emerita at York University and recipient of the Distinguished Woman Philosopher Award (2009), as our keynote speaker. Prof. Code’s work explores “ecological thinking as a conceptual apparatus and regulative principle for a theory of knowledge – an epistemology – capable of addressing feminist, multicultural, and other postcolonial issues.”

We are also pleased to announce Gillian Barker as our faculty keynote speaker. Prof. Barker specializes in philosophy of science and of biology. She is interested in ecological conceptions of organism-environment interaction and their implications for our thinking about agency, normativity and knowledge, and in ecological psychology as a tool for transformative learning and action.
We invite submissions in any area of philosophy or feminist theory, that have been influenced by your feminist commitments broadly construed, including but not limited to:

• Feminist analysis of information sharing systems and new technologies;
• Social consequences of genetic or biomedical research and treatment;
• Explorations of a human/non-human divide, or personhood generally;
• A discussion of a recent work or emerging political concern;
• Developing interactions between theorists from different cultures;
• Wilderness, the built environment, poverty and politics;
• Environmental disaster and response;
• Intergenerational justice

Presenters will have 30-35 minutes to speak, followed by a 10-minute commentary and a 25-30 minute discussion period. Papers should be approximately 4000 words. Please include an abstract with your submission of no more then 200 words.
SUBMISSIONS DEADLINE: June 15

Please send your submissions electronically to diotimagrads@gmail.com. All papers will be evaluated by blind review; identifying information should appear in a cover letter only.