The Psychology of Philosophy

How can we as philosophers improve our thought and the way we practice philosophy, both individually and within the profession?

As his Meditations reveal, Descartes thought that he could avoid fundamental error by subjecting his thought to rigorous scrutiny – an activity he could undertake from his own armchair. Philosophers have found this idea very attractive. But recent work in psychology and cognitive neuroscience suggests there are problems with his method. Theorists working in these fields have a lot to tell us about how we think and the ways in which we are very easily inclined to cognitive error.

As feminists we are concerned with the mistakes and biases that affect equality of opportunity within the profession. However, we are not focused exclusively on women; there are too many people who experience obstacles in philosophy for us to be happy with so narrow a vision. (It’s also worth noting that recent work in happiness studies that suggests people in a just social group are happier.)

We’d like to start a list of readings that identify and analyse the unconscious psychological processes that can lead to cognitive error. Many of them are concerned with ways in which there are unjust barriers to full participation in philosophy, but not all are directly related to discrimination. We welcome new additions to this list.

Implicit Bias: Jenny Saul’s paper.

Conceptions of talent and their influence on performance: a paper by Carol Dweck’s paper.

Stereotype threat: A popular article by Claude Steele.

Ways one might reduce bias (about racism, but can apply to sexism), a paper from Dovidio’s group.

Bystander training: sometimes people witness discriminatory behaviour that shocks them, but they don’t know how to react. This website has some useful resources to help people act in these situations.

Stress and creativity:  How stress can put you in a rut.

Please add references to any relevant work in the comments.

19 thoughts on “The Psychology of Philosophy

  1. I have just read the Carol Dweck paper you suggested. Thanks so much for having drawn my attention to it – it was truly enlightening.

    I am a PhD student in philosophy and my perennial problem is lack of confidence. When the philosophy gets hard, as it inevitably does, I automatically think I’m stupid and am not intelligent enough to be doing it. Maybe I don’t have that kind of mind, perhaps I’m just not cut out for it, etc etc. Those things may be true, but I have often wondered whether women have a tendency to think they are stupid when wrestling with new problems and concepts in philosophy first, rather than thinking philosophy is hard first. In other words, they blame themselves and their abilities before they blame the philosophy.

    My interest in the psychology of philosophy goes a bit wider than this, however. I am also interested in the idea that men tend to put themselves forward more often than women, whether that’s with their opinions or with job applications. What do others think about this? I wonder whether women in philosophy – as elsewhere – underestimate themselves, their talents and their credentials, and so tend to assume they don’t have a chance of getting jobs, getting papers accepted etc. Men, on the other hand, tend to overestimate themselves, thus putting themselves forward far more regularly than women do, thereby increasing their chances simply by dint of having put themselves forward more regularly.

    I would be very interested in reading any papers on this if anyone knows of any.

  2. I think it is not necessary that everyone like philosophy to become a genius philosopher. You like it just as you like it. The great philosophers wirte the book just for what they think. The readers find out their thoughts are different from one to another. Gender is not the reason for limiting your mind. It is hardness make you always want to giveup. Friedrich Nietzsche set a common model for woman — “weak”. In this economic world — life support first, wild thinking second.

  3. Just a gentle note that the analytic ethos matters here as many have said, but in addition to this there is also an extraordinary complicity with exclusion and silencing in the everyday course of affairs, department meetings, committees — perhaps for no more nefarious reason that one does not wish to be instantly attacked (overtly or subtly) for non-complicity (jokes are a great way to get away with attacks of this kind: oddly joking is not an effective way to avoid being ‘trivialized’ or utterly ignored — which is a common theme in many stories.

  4. A paper on how bias in the evaluation of testimony may influence argumentation, and how it may be addressed, “Argumentative Injustice” by Patrick Bondy, can be found in Informal Logic 30(3):

    The remaining articles in the same special issue of Informal Logic on “Reasoning for Change” also have to do with feminism and philosophical methodology.

  5. This is very academic.Question:Considering the aims of feminism,is it uberhaupt possible for academics studying/researching,lecturing and writing in this field to be feminists?Whatever we take feminism to be,I consider it to be about being active to change paradigm.If you are supporting the Status Quo,which as an academic in the field of feminist issues you are,even if only in a passive manner,you are allowing change to happen organically,leaving the field right open for the active input on the part of the anti-feminism Status Quo to maintain the Status Quo..Academics live and think in the patriarchal bubble.They think,study and work in an environment which is especially structured and controlled to maintain the Status Quo.Like Left/socialist and Green politics,feminism as a political movement has been hijacked,or rather,been guided,controlled and usurped by the Status Quo without,apparently,feminist academics noticing.Professional “feminists” would rather not question their motives if they are career academics or otherwise dependent for their living on the Establishment.For those feminist academics who have questioned their commitment to feminism,it must be difficult,if not impossible if they are actually in the field in question,to stay in the academic scene while looking for the cognitive disconnect which nobody has noticed,or at least not to the degree that it has made it into a public forum.The mainstream press would certainly not bring it into the open,or have they?Academics would say that you can hardly be expected to go looking for a cognitive disconnect that is not there.Perhaps the academics,in the Western democracies at least,who are in this field could reiterate their interpretation of what political feminism-a tautology,to be sure-stands for.

  6. One of the social psychology constructs that I find useful in understanding cognitive error is “nonspecific need for closure,” that is, the psychological need to have an answer to some issue, regardless of what the answer may be. People’s need for non-specific closure tends to be higher in situations when they’re tired or stressed, and lower when the cost of being wrong is high. We see this often in politics, e.g., the readiness of many to believe that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction (and even to link them with al-Qaeda). In addition to situational differences, people also have trait-level differences in this construct. One would hope that this trait would be lower among philosophers and those who value thinking and exploration in general, but it is probably still relevant at the situational level.

    See: Kruglanski, A. W., & Webster, D. M. (1996). Motivated closing of the mind: “Seizing” and “freezing.” Psychological Review, 103(2), 263-283.

  7. (A case in point for the problems raised by cognitive closure: A philosopher friend recently received a lengthy review of her manuscript assuming that she was trying to establish A, when in fact (as she said in her introduction), she was trying to establish B. Apparently A is the more common goal for papers, or at least was probably the framework with which the reviewer is more familiar.)

  8. just a thought following the reply by Gayle (only just found this site, so apologies for the late response!) Having just rediscovered my love of philosophy, I’m finding that many men are threatened by the fact that i can out-argue them … or that I am even prepared to try!

    My last boyfriend – himself a self proclaimed ‘feminist’ man (more self delusional actually, but that’s another story) – claimed to want a woman who could think for herself … as long as what i thought concurred with what he did … needless to say the relationship didn’t last long!

    But sadly this is not an isolated case I find. I don’t work in academia, so things may be different where you are – but i find that women who can defend their own point of view are looked on as an anomaly to the natural order of things – both by the men and – more sadly again – many of the women I work with too.

    but getting back to the point of the question, I wonder whether women’s deference to male perceptions is as much a societal requirement in order to be heard at all … I certainly find that i will couch my ideas in a much softer style than my male colleagues – but have also learned subtler ways of still getting my point across … I don’t want to be a man – i don’t want to think like a man, and i don’t want to have to behave like a man to have my thoughts respected as an individual’s response to the world around me. Yet the language i use, and the way i speak (and probably my body language and how i look too) all contribute to how i am perceived and how my ideas are received. In addition to other physiological aspects, do we have a lack of confidence because we are taught to have?

  9. I used to think that psychology was a horrible, detrimental subject my first few years of college. Then I discovered that I had only been exposed to a small, relatively modern and commercial body which had been branded “psychology”. Finding a way out of this narrow mold led me to the books “Toward Psychologies of Liberation”, “Pedagogy of the Oppressed”, and some wonderful books on feminism & multiculturalism which I cannot unfortunately recall the names of.

    I am male. I think that along with under-emphasis of females in certain areas, like the study of philosophy, one might also explore the possibility of over-emphasis of conflicting roles like the ideal of being motherly or submissive in the good sense (submitting that one knows that one knows nothing).

  10. I don’t think Descartes’ philosophy lasted even one century without being thoroughly criticized for its metaphysics. I’d expect Kant’s critique was as thorough as any modern critique (or if not than Spinoza’s).

  11. Well,not much progress here in this our closing stage of the West’s democracies.I am reading The Trillion Dollar Conspiracy and Tragedy in Crimson at the moment.Is this of interest to women feminists?It ought to be.
    Things are changing rapidly,but feminists are still struggling with yesterday’s issues,or so it seems to me.Where are the interesting blogs these days,without the shills?

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