Email inquiry: What does a philosopher do?

A ten year-old blog reader writes with this question:

Could you explain to me what a philosopher does? I like to write small theories about life, I want to know other people who do that. In the process I found this blog. So please tell me how this works! Thank you.

Hi! There is no single answer to your question, because philosophers can do many things. Some of them teach, some of them write, and some of them apply philosophy in other ways too. Most of them do some combination of these things.

It’s great that you like writing small theories about life, which is an excellent start on doing philosophy. Philosophy scholars who work in universities, colleges and other schools have a few different ways of doing philosophy: teaching, writing, and helping other people think through hard questions about life and the world. How should we live, work, eat, play and treat one another? What is the world like? What is it to have reasonable beliefs about things?

These questions can get complicated really quickly. They also lead into other questions about those questions, and about how we try to answer them. For example, suppose there are different answers to questions of how we should live. Should we try to decide which of the answers are better? How could we do that? What would make better answers better?

A lot of this philosophical discussion ends up being aimed at other philosophers. There is such a thing as philosophical expertise, and this expertise gets developed through some pretty specialized writing and speaking. But philosophers also work with non-philosophers, through their teaching, and through other kinds of jobs. For example, a philosopher might help the people who work at a hospital to make more thoughtful and ethical decisions about their patients’ health. That’s a specific job that many people have, and it often involves people with philosophical training. Philosophers do many kinds of public philosophizing — including blogging on Feminist Philosophers!

People who have been trained in philosophy do all kinds of jobs. Philosophy doesn’t have to be the job you do. Actually that’s pretty rare. It’s a lot more common for people to use philosophical ways of thinking and communicating in doing lots of other things. That is, philosophy can be the way you do things. I’d say a philosophical way of doing things is: reflectively, being open to new ways of thinking, with a particular sensitivity to hidden assumptions that are built into our lives and actions – and whether those assumptions are reasonable when you look at them carefully.

Having a practiced philosophical ability to just pay attention to stuff, in the broadest sense of the term, is a great way to find more transparent, more accurate, more effective, and more ethical ways of living and acting. I hope you keep writing and thinking, and finding value in philosophy!

You are very welcome to reply to this message by posting a comment. As you can see, I took your name out of your email. If you comment, you can make up a name to use, or you can just do it anonymously.

Dealing with gender/topic biases in teaching evaluations

A reader solicits practical strategies for facilitating the sensible institutional interpretation of student evaluations of teaching, given the empirically well-founded worry (as was noted on this blog recently) that such evaluations express a substantial bias against women instructors.

Hello wonderful community of feminist philosophers, I’m hoping that you can help me with a problem that is not just mine but is one that so many of us share. This is the problem of teaching evaluations. Teaching evaluations as a method of assessing teaching leave much to be desired. However, their use becomes even more problematic or worrisome when (as in my case) they are used as one of three main criteria for annual departmental evaluations and promotion.

There is good evidence to show that anonymous course/teaching evaluations are biased against women and a number of other underrepresented groups. Most recently, there is this study. But in addition to evaluations being generally biased against women, I’m facing the additional issue: namely, in all of my courses I include a good deal of feminist and critical race theory. Having recently read my course evaluations, I noticed that a good number of my students reacted negatively to this material. For example, there were many comments that spoke to the “problem” of so much feminist philosophy, about how I’m trying to “indoctrinate them,” and about how if they didn’t simply agree with my (feminist) positions then I would give them low grades. Of course, all of these claims are false but nonetheless I am worried about their presence. It seems that on the basis of the content of my courses (in addition to the gender bias), my evaluations are importantly lower than those of others (and for reasons that have nothing to do with my actual teaching abilities).

So I’m wondering whether and how people in other departments have dealt with this problem. I’m pretty certain that my institution (big, public university) is committed to keeping them, so abolition is not on the table at this point. Still, I wonder if there is any way to take into account these known biases so that certain groups of people are not systematically disadvantaged. Have any departments tried other methods of assessing teaching either instead of or in addition to the required ones? Even though my university probably isn’t going to stop using teaching evaluations any time soon, it is possible that my department might be persuaded to use a different method of assessing teaching when it comes to departmental annual merit reviews (or at the very least, supplementing the university required teaching evaluations with some other methods).

Looking forward to hearing your thoughts on this matter.

Pronoun tantrum in Philosophia Mathematica book review

Thanks to reader R for pointing out the following passage from a recent book review in Philosophia Mathematica, an OUP journal.

“The author constantly uses the pronouns ‘her’ and ‘she’ in a gender-neutral setting. This juvenile affectation seems now to be de rigueur among male academic writers. I wonder if it helps them attract women or if it just makes them feel like cool dudes. Maybe they simply enjoy offending people, pour épater les bourgeois.”

I will not tag the book being reviewed, since it is not the book author’s fault that the reviewer has included this bizarre sexist outburst, nor that the editorial process allowed it to be published.

On the value of philosophy in public discourse

Dr Tania Lombrozo, a philosophically-minded professor of psychology at UC Berkeley, writes in a NPR commentary that some recent major news stories reveal how public discourse would benefit from input from academic philosophers. She cites the complex moral, social, metaphysical, and epistemological issues arising in the resignation of a NAACP official who was “outed” as white; in the white supremacist murder of nine black church-goers in Charleston; and in the stance taken on climate change by Pope Francis.

Two thoughts – neither of them particularly original – meant to complement Lombrozo’s insights: First, while stories of this magnitude serve as good examples of the need for philosophical contributions to public discourse, it is probably not an effective strategy to wait for stories of this magnitude before getting involved in public philosophy. Not only is there a good chance of the more subtle voices being lost in the commentary noise anyhow, but without a consistent public presence in the first place, philosophers will not be sought out for commentary either by readers and viewers or by venues and hosts. Only by contributing habitually on the small things, I think, are philosophers likely to find an audience for the big things.

Second, it is worth considering whether the strong disposition to do philosophy, and especially analytic philosophy, in terms of hyper-idealized fabricated examples might comprise a sort of anti-training for public philosophy. The message that real philosophy requires that issues first be framed in terms of the simplest (often bizarrely simple) toy scenarios plausibly socializes philosophers to feel uneasy about commenting in a professional capacity on complex cases – at least, without their commentary comprising a blizzard of caveats. If we want a more influential, vibrant public philosophy in the longer run, it is worth training philosophy students to be comfortable philosophizing about actual cases. Perhaps the most important step in that training will be to model the approach.

CFP: Social Kinds (Journal of Social Ontology)

Professor Mari Mikkola, co-editor of the Journal of Social Ontology, writes to share this note:

Call for Papers: SOCIAL KINDS

Journal of Social Ontology (JSO) will publish a special section devoted to social kinds. The deadline for submissions is October 15, 2015.

Social kinds include money and marriage, recessions and unemployment, as well as race and gender. It is often argued that social kinds depend in some way on people’s attitudes, activities, habits and practices. Actions and attitudes of individuals may both determine what social kinds exist and what the particular nature of different social kinds is, and may causally bring about and sustain social kinds. Even so, social reality is “stubbornly real” in that the extent to which individuals can change it is rather limited. This raises a number of questions concerning the ontology of social kinds.

Questions to be addressed in the special section include (but are not limited to):

– THE NATURE OF SOCIAL KINDS: Are social kinds uniform, or might ‘money’ and ‘gender’ for instance be fundamentally different kinds? Does essentialism apply to any social kinds? Should we adopt some form of realism about them? What kind of ontological dependence is at stake? On what does the existence and identity of social kinds depend on?

– SOCIAL CONSTRUCTION: Social construction plays a central role in the debate on social kinds. What is it? And what role do social practices play in it? Is social construction merely a causal process, or is it also a matter of constitution? How can notions such as bootstrapping, or looping effects contribute to our understanding of social kinds?

– KNOWLEDGE: It has been argued that the knowledge that those who do the construction have about their constructs is infallible. Is this indeed the case, and if so does it hold for all social kinds (including recession and unemployment) or only for some (perhaps money and marriage)? Do social kinds depend on collective intentionality? Which social kinds, if any, require common knowledge? If social kinds require collective acceptance, is this part of the very concept of a social kind? Can people be mistaken about any feature of institutions, or do some have a privileged status?

– FUNCTION: Which functions do social kinds fulfill? Is the function of some or all social kinds to solve coordination problems? In which sense (if any) is a status function a function? (How) can social kinds be dysfunctional? Does analyzing social kinds in terms of (regulative or constitutive) rules serve to shed light on social functions?

– NATURAL KINDS: How if at all do social kinds differ from natural kinds? Which insights from the philosophical study concerning natural kinds extend to the study of social kinds? If social kinds are homeostatic property clusters, what holds those properties together? How do theories concerning substantial kinds or primary kinds apply to social reality? How does the ontological nature of social kinds affect the theory of reference to social kinds? Do the social sciences rely on social kinds in the same way as some have suggested that the natural sciences rely on natural kinds?

– NORMATIVITY: Many if not all social kinds have a normative or evaluative dimension. What roles do norms and appraisals play in social kinds? What role do deontic powers play in institutions? Might some social classifications (like gender and race categories) uphold unjust practices? If so, does this pose special problems for social criticism? How can the normative dimension of such social constructions be justified or criticized? How if at all are ideologies implicated in social kinds?

We welcome any paper-length submissions (up to 8500 words) related to the topic of social kinds, and not restricted to these questions. All submissions should be suitable for anonymous review. The deadline for submissions is October 15, 2015. For further info, please contact arto.laitinen[at]; f.a.hindriks[at] or mari.mikkola[at]

Austin TX staff training session: Men Are From Earth, Women Aren’t

The city of Austin, Texas recently elected a municipal council with a majority of women councilors. The city manager’s office deemed this such a profound change to the operations of government that a special training session was arranged to teach city staff, who are apparently recruited directly from the monastery of Mount Athos, how to work with women-folk.

Surprisingly, an office that thinks this session is a good idea seems not to be an office rich in contacts with workplace gender experts. So one of the expert presenters turned up and cited that locus classicus of empirical evidence and conceptual subtlety, Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus. And the other based his warnings — notably, that women ask a lot of questions and don’t like numbers — on his personal experience:

The city commission [Allen] had worked with is all-female, which apparently qualified him for the job. Plus, he has an 11-year-old daughter who plays volleyball. (Allen was later fired from his city manager position for unrelated reasons.)

I’m glad to hear that the firing was for unrelated reasons. Letting their 11 year-old play volleyball would be a terrible reason to fire someone.

After the Internet and social media got their WTF on, the city manager appears to have realized that an apology was called for. That was good. But his apology wasn’t for the right thing. That was bad.

“I have to acknowledge that this particular training should have received proper vetting. I must take responsibility for that not having occurred,” [Austin city manager Marc] Ott states to reporters.

Well, no. The problem wasn’t a failure to vet the content of the presentations; arguably the presenters did more or less what they were supposed to do. The content was ridiculous because the idea for this training session was terrible. (Because there are philosophers on the Internet: of course in a different possible world, an idea for a training session might not be terrible. E.g., if it were already known that the staff environment were one hostile to women. In that very different case, though, a very different kind of intervention than this would have been required — earlier, and not simply because more women had been elected.) A better apology in this case would have focused on the decision to arrange staff training of this sort in the first place: i.e., predicated on lazy generalizations about women, and on the idea that accountability to women representatives is a deviant case, requiring special preparation for staff beyond basic professionalism, courtesy, and respect.

Committee Resignations Over Science Hall of Fame’s Lack of Women Nominees

That this got as far as two committee members actually resigning after two years without a woman nominee, while reportedly the museum still does not understand the objectors’ counter-proposal, suggests organizational problems and failures of internal communication.

Two female researchers tasked with helping to recognize the top scientists in the country have stepped down from their duties to protest lack of recognition for other women in the field.

Judy Illes and Catherine Anderson resigned from the selection committee of the Canadian Science and Engineering Hall of Fame this month after realizing that no women had been nominated for induction two years in a row.

Practical advice for dealing with epistemic injustice and quieting in social situations?

A teenaged woman, call her Amy, reports her frustration and even her despair at constantly having the least valued opinion when talking with men and boys. People will sit around and BS; alleged facts will be pulled out of thin air (or worse places); strong opinions will be conjured on topics of little prior reflection. That’s all good. But even this BS is at least taken seriously enough to be worth counter-argument when it comes from men. Whether the dismissal of her opinion is scornful, or indulgent with a patina of affection, she finds her (relatively rare) contributions in social situations treated as silly or naïve by default. And when she tries to point out that this is happening, this observation too is treated as silly or naïve, and dismissed out of hand as well. She can’t break through the attitude of dismissiveness, even to point out its existence. “What do I have to do to at least make you recognize that I’m serious about this?” she muses. “Do I have to stab you to get your attention?” Amy is the least violent person I know, making this both very funny and a clear sign of her being truly fed up.

“Is this just how it’ll always be?” she wonders. Smiling avuncular pooh-poohing of her contributions to social discourse dominated by men?

On one hand, my conversation with Amy is a spur to continued activism, including micro-level social awareness. On the other hand, it leaves me at something of a loss when I consider what advice and guidance is available to Amy.

I can listen sympathetically and validate her experience, certainly. We can talk about epistemic injustice, and I can help explain how that connects with epistemology and justice more generally. I can help situate the failed uptake of both her conversation and her remarks about the conversation relative to notions of speech-act silencing or quieting. On these topics I count as relatively expert; and helping her to theorize or understand the phenomena more richly is plausibly some form of assistance. But what about practical suggestions? Amy would prefer to be able to improve or repair social situations, rather than blowing them up; firebrand is not usually her style. I can offer my own personal take on how to broach socially hard topics or correct anti-social behaviour; or talk about things I’ve seen other people do that worked (or didn’t). But this all feels pretty idiosyncratic. There is a huge range of strategies that people marginalized by social prejudices use to confront and mitigate the situations that trouble Amy, the success of which vary according to all sorts of factors. Is there already a sort of online clearinghouse of strategies that people have used to good effect when facing this sort of dismissiveness? Or a good book that gives practical advice of this sort? (Something aimed specifically at young women would be particularly valuable in Amy’s case.)

Or could people share their favoured approaches here? Choices of tone, gesture, turns of phrase… broader social strategies (including “get better friends”) — what has worked for you?

Job Offers: Are They Professional News?

Consider a Philosophy department that is hiring a new senior colleague. They have two or three outstanding candidates in mind, each of whom they would be unreservedly delighted to welcome into their community. But they can only hire one. They make a hard choice and send out an offer; but it is declined. So they make another hard choice and send an offer to another of their preferred candidates.

Consider now the candidate who gets such an offer from a department they respect, couched in terms of how happy the department would be to have them join. Is there any reason why the department should feel in any way embarrassed about making the offer, or why the candidate should feel slighted in receiving it?

There might be — if the first-choice candidate already chose to publicize the rejected offer, and a professional news blog chose to carry the story. Trumpeting senior offers that are rejected is a way of very publicly revealing subsequent appointments as having been second-or-later choice candidates, with optics unlikely to reflect the completeness of the welcome that a department is offering their eventual appointment. This risks tarnishing a relationship between new colleagues; it interferes in a professional relationship that is (starting the moment the first candidate decides to reject the offer) none of the first candidate’s business; and these, I think, are sufficiently uncollegial outcomes to be worth carefully avoiding unless some unusually strong professional interest is served by making the announcement.

What about job offers, then, rather than offers rejected? Is publicizing offers that have been made, but are still undecided, less professionally corrosive than publicizing those that have already been declined? I have my doubts. Either an open offer will be accepted or it will be rejected. If it is rejected, the effects of having publicized it are virtually indistinguishable from those of publicizing offers already rejected. But supposing the offer is accepted, what will have been the benefit of publicizing the offer before the matter was settled? Prudential concerns might arise here — could the costs of a publicly-known declined offer encourage a university to sweeten the deal during negotiations? But even if this made some sense from the candidate’s negotiating perspective (it strikes me as ultimately self-defeating), that would not elevate it to the level of professional news. Gossip, perhaps; but not news.

Somebody’s actually moving to a new appointment might well be professional news — though it’s worth questioning the presuppositions of newsworthiness that attend such a story. The perceived newsworthiness of a professor’s relocation is just the sort of judgement one would expect to find laden with attitudes and biases about gender, race, and sub-disciplinary fields, and irrelevant halo effects arising from academic pedigree and connections. But even if actual moves were newsworthy, prospective ones would be a very different thing. In general a position is offered in confidence, and until it is formally accepted, it might yet be offered to another candidate. While there may be special circumstances and reasonable exceptions, in general information about job offers is best not treated as professional news.

Why my focus on senior job offers, then? I think that the considerations raised here (being careful with information about hiring processes, out of respect for the relationship between departments and their new colleagues) do apply to junior academic job offers as well, though the typical scale and slightly frenzied nature of hiring into junior untenured positions might make it harder to make confidentiality stick. But ultimately the reason to mention senior hires is because those are the offers that have been treated as newsworthy in the philosophical blogosphere.

A word about comments: This post is about practices, not specific cases. Please do keep comments similarly focused.

Progressive Rhetoric For Regressive Ends (2)

An earlier post reviewed an example of progressive rhetoric in the service of non-progressive ends. Perhaps the most striking cases of this strategy are those in which the rhetoric of women’s rights is invoked to justify precisely actions taken against women themselves. In 2011 (with Jason Kenney as Minister of Citizenship and Immigration), Canada banned the wearing of the niqab during the citizenship oath-swearing ceremony. (“Frankly, I found it bizarre that the rules allowed people to take the oath with a veil on,” Kenney explained.) When a federal court overturned that law last month, ruling that new Canadian Zunera Ishaq had the right to wear her otherwise perfectly legal religious garments during her swearing-in, the Prime Minister of Canada himself weighed in to impugn her choice. “That is not the way we do things,” Stephen Harper pronounced.

In Harper’s case the argument was initially couched in terms of an appeal to fear of secretive foreigners: “This is a society that is transparent, open and where people are equal, and I think we find that offensive. I believe, and I think most Canadians believe that it is — it is offensive that someone would hide their identity at the very moment where they are committing to join the Canadian family.” But the appeal to equality surfaced in there too, and sure enough, now even Harper’s What are you hiding? remarks are being spun as defenses of gender equality.

The optics of a group of powerful men, lawmakers and representatives, telling a woman how she may dress for a public event are already awful. They take on a jaw-slackening character when those men go on to preen for having burnished their feminist credentials so wonderfully. How could legislation forcing women of some religions or ethnicities to partially disrobe in public ceremonies, against their explicit wishes, be depicted as a blow struck for women’s rights? One answer is that respect for women’s choices has practically nothing to do with the rationale for such a law. A likelier aim is just to blow the dogwhistles harder, while hoping to confound those critics sensitive to the genuinely fraught intersectionality of practices for which considerations of culture, religion, gender, and individual choice may pull in different directions.

This is not mere conjecture; the Conservative government is convicted by its own supporting rhetoric. Current Immigration Minister Chris Alexander recently tweeted in response to the Zunera Ishaq case that the hijab – a headscarf not typically understood as covering the face – also ought not be permitted during oath-taking. Remarks like these indicate that the purpose of such a law and such rhetoric is based neither on “transparency” nor on equality, but on simple negativity towards anything identifiably Islamic. The citizenship oath becomes a ritual of compulsory renunciation and humiliation for people of different languages, cultures, religions and practices. In the way of dogwhistles more generally, dropped hints like Alexander’s are kept rare enough to avoid alienating somewhat moderate voters, but are nevertheless fodder to energize the more extremist base without whose votes, money and voluntarism the Party would be disadvantaged. Again the appeal to gender equality functions as a preemptive defense against criticisms of such calculated religious and ethnic bigotry.