April 19, 2005

Women in Philosophy

To continue with the "topical" posts:

Some of us on occasion remark on the differences in tone of philosophical exchanges between men and those between women. I confess that I sometimes fail to see what's going on in exchanges between men, and I'm sure the reverse happens, as well. And I often find myself blaming gender for frustrations with philosophical discourse. Yet I also tend to think that gender is not what I ought to be blaming--if I ought to be blaming anything at all--, but something like cognitive styles, which vary along lines that correlate with, without being equivalent to, those of gender. Whether gender itself is a social construction or contains natural kinds is not terribly interesting to me; I would prefer to avoid positing anything external as far as possible. It may, of course, turn out that there is no other option if we want to make progress with respect to specific gender issues; but since I'm concerned with philosophy, and philosophy consists of conversation and thinking, I'm under the illusion that certain differences that fall within that domain don't need to be blamed but owned up to.

Earlier this semester, wondering if others had wondered about differences in philosophical method that tend to correllate strongly (but not exclusively) with gender lines, I found this post at Sappho's Breathing, which suggests that philosophical subfields are "gendered." Hence the title, "Real Men Do Metaphysics." It's a suggestive post, but the correlations don't match up with my experience. What might match up with my experience is a difference in method, regardless of subject matter.

What I mean by "method" must be combination of things, temperamental and cognitive. It's not clear where to draw the line between the two, or which can be rightly given "external" explanations and which cannot. For instance, women talking philosophy tend to be less careful of each other's pride; the interaction tends to be less tense, whereas men often tend towards combativeness. This difference is hard to internalize; it's difficult to think of it as anything more than "beyond one's control."

But combativeness often goes hand in hand with analytic method. Previously, I have referred to this as the "hunt-and-kill" method of philosophy and contrasted it with (what else?) the "gathering" method. Clearly, analytic thinking cannot be dispensed with in analytic philosophy. Nevertheless, I confess to having a preference for getting all the details onto the table before one starts analyzing things; and I prefer that analysis make the problem messier, not cleaner. To what extent these preferences are "gender-based" I don't know. But they are preferences that seem to be more "within one's control" than broader temperamental differences.

About the analytic approach combined with combativeness, Cleis had this to say: "I'm concerned that a primarily adversarial approach to philosophical argument alienates many smart women, who then turn their attention to other fields of study. That is philosophy's loss. I'm also concerned that philosophical talent is recognized most often when it's delivered in an aggressive package" , "The Brights and the adversary method" (no, one has nothing to do with the other).

The broad question I want to ask is, To what degree can the differences between the ways women and men approach to philosophy be ascribed to gender? Will the line be drawn at differences in aggressiveness and social hierarchy issues, or will cognitive differences also come into play? And if cognitive differences do come into play, should we think of them as gender differences? My worry regarding the last issue is that, as intellectuals with responsibilities to understand and make ourselves intelligible to others, there may be very good reasons why we shouldn't blame cognitive differences on (or for) anything.

It's possible, too, that my division of gender differences in philosophy into those that are "beyond one's control" and those that are "within one's control" is just an attempt to knock against the former with the latter, which may or may not be helpful.

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Blogger Ignacio said...

Somehow I feel accused ;) . I don't know: I wish more women philosophized and blogged.

Some, very near us, do: http://majikthise.typepad.com/majikthise_/weblogs/

But I dont' know. I guess I wish a currency of confidence in a mutual exchange of ideas could be taken as a sign of respect and self-respect, rather than as nutty machismo.

4/19/2005 09:02:00 PM  
Blogger Ignacio said...

And I know that's not what you were suggesting.

4/19/2005 09:03:00 PM  
Blogger Blakely said...

No accusations. I wasn't setting out to complain (this hasn't genuinely bothered me for awhile), just to take note of something that girl philosophers wonder at from time to time. (It's also a subversive attempt to get them to comment on The Web of Belief.)

Actually the number of female: male analytic philosophers blogging is nothing to the ratio of analytic: continental philosophers blogging. Whatever that means.

The thing about the "currency of confidence" (whatever that exactly is) is that it cuts both ways. The conferral of respect is clearly a good and desirable thing, but if one must be very confident in order to obtain it, mixed feelings ensue in those who are less confident.

So much for the phenomenology of philosophy discussions.

4/19/2005 09:37:00 PM  
Blogger AJPJ said...

Blakely is correct, of course.

There really is too much combat on occasion and not enough *putting the facts on the table* - I think if there was more of the latter the discipline might occasionally come to some sort of consensus. Something that is very dear to my heart (the sign of an actual subject of study, I think).

I don't know if this maps the female/male divide (most of the women analytic philosophers I know are quite confrontational, although often with more of an eye to detail than the men) but it certainly is a problem within the discipline. I didn't sign up to be a gladiator (however much I really, really do enjoy it, if all I cared about was arguing I'd try to find a job as a talking head on cable news).

4/19/2005 10:43:00 PM  
Blogger Ignacio said...

Brings a whole new meaning to hetero-phenomenology

4/19/2005 10:43:00 PM  
Blogger Ignacio said...

damn, andrew swept in and stole my punch line

4/19/2005 10:44:00 PM  
Blogger AJPJ said...


4/19/2005 10:48:00 PM  
Blogger Dub! said...

My God, the boys are even competitive about punchlines!

And look, now I'm doing it!

Blakely, I had typed up a pretty long reply to your post, but my computer just blinked off with no warning and I'm left with a clean slate. Maybe it's for the best. It was almost embarrassingly personal. Here's a revamped version. It might be totally wrong.

I know what you're talking about, and we've talked about this before. The gender difference in philosophy is a really hard one to put one's finger on. I've noticed that the women in this department (who are my friends and I've spent time with) are often concerned with figuring out someone's motivation for asking a question. The men tend to find questions, and accepting them as questions, try to answer them. (Maybe this "gender difference" can't be expanded outside my tiny circle of friends here, but it's the same group of people that led you to raise this issue, I think.) I think this very much colors the way that people engage with one another, so I think you are right in saying that the "temperamental" aspect of philosophical method bleeds into something "cognitive." It's not just an issue of people having to put facts on the table; it's an issue of what sort of things we'll accept as facts on the table.

I grapple with this. I know that externally I come across as combative, but I'm scared to death of wedding myself to methods and arguments that, when it comes down to it, are just an interesting puzzle or game for me. In the end, I'm not sure I know what my ultimate motivations are for asking the sorts of questions I ask, even the ones (correspondence, consciousness, etc.) that I instinctively think are really important. I don't think most people do. The easiest way to avoid this issue is to pick out interesting questions and to spar. That sounds disparaging, but I dont mean to imply that there's anything intrinsically wrong with this: it's a perfectly legitimate way of engaging with philosophy, and the norm for the analytic tradition. It's also how most normal science proceeds: scientists tackle topics that are pretty much laid out for them by the discipline. Women in analytic philosophy programs, from what I've seen, tend to be more honest and open about their personal motivations, which leads to a more personal approach and less of a willingness to start from foundations laid out by "the field." Men tend not to open themselves up like that. (I hate writing these sorts of generalizations.)

I don't think this is biological... it feels mostly social to me. And I definitely don't think we can blame cognitive differences (if they exist) for talking past one another. Having sympathy for other people's methods is a valuable virtue to cultivate. Part of me thinks that when we're told to "find a philosophical voice of our own," we're being told to succumb to a method and not feel conflicted about the fact that others exist (and could be ours!). I think there's something a little bit sad about that. I'd prefer not to think that there are any methods that are beyond my control, even though they may be and I've already settled into one of my own.

4/20/2005 05:27:00 AM  
Blogger Blakely said...

Hi Richard,

The point about motivation seems exactly right. It's easy to get caught up wondering why someone asks a certain question, and therefore not proceed with the line of thought it initiates. I tend to think: either there's something I don't know, or I should be suspicious. There's definite resistance to importing someone else's agenda.

Short of some extra knowledge about the subject at hand, though, it is hard to see what about what makes a philosophical question interesting could be conveyed. Nothing else but experience, that is; or possible experience.

Maybe it's fortunate that dispositions like these do lead to philosophical views. (Even if they aren't the best-liked views around.)

4/20/2005 08:27:00 PM  
Blogger Talia said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

4/21/2005 09:21:00 PM  
Blogger Talia said...

Thanks for your post Blakely.
First of all, I think lurking in the background, and I think you mentioned it, are metaphysical issues about gender and gender qualities. I usually allow myself to talk about mascucline or feminine qualities without assuming that they are essential to the biological categories. I think gender is ultimately a metaphysical issue, and since I easily get grumpy about metaphysical problems, I let myself free to talk about gender qualities without positing anything in particular about gendered people per se.

So I think it is fair to say that among the various ways philosophical styles and methods can be categorized, is a dichotomy between masculine and feminine styles.

I think several people mentioned the difference between getting the other person's argument on the table, and going right into a combative mode. The hunter/gatherer analogy kind of works. One style is to help the other philosopher unpack their argument while the other is to attack it. I think it's worth it to mention that in a lot of ways these approaches might yield the same result; which is to shed light on the argument in question.
I would also say that the feminie style is more than simply getting the argument on the table. It is personal in that it involves a genuine attempt to understand the other philosopher's argument, which might be facilitated by understanding the motivation. I think this goes with the (perhaps feminine) quality of empathy.
It seems like their might be a lot of power in taking an empathic approach to philosophical analysis or argumentation.
But perhaps the reason the difference in style is troublesome has to do with self representation. That is, as much as philosophy is about ideas, it is also about philosophers. The worry might be that in using an empathic approach one functions merely as a facilitator, rather than a distinct philosophical voice. (This could have to do with different conceptions of identity - more group or more individual.)

4/21/2005 09:28:00 PM  
Blogger Ignacio Prado said...

My concern is that people are understanding sincere expressions of disgreement as instances of "combativeness." Of course, many times philosophers fail to take the time to understand someone else's position, and therefore what they say against it will seem combative. But we are all stuck inside our individual epistemic frames of reference. If something doesn't make sense to us, then there is no other remedy, assuming we are after agreement grounded by truth, than expressing why it doesn't make sense to us. That doesn't need to mean "self-assertion," because the latter to me implies a use of rhetoric in lieu of rational argument. Frankly, I don't see much of that in good analytic philosophy.

4/23/2005 05:46:00 PM  
Blogger Blakely said...

Disagreement is not necessarily combative. (Lots of things can be combative.) Nor does sincerity clearly have much to do with it, nor "self-assertion" imply rhetoric. (It implies... assertiveness.)

There can in analytic philosophy be an air of hostility that can (though it need not always) distract from the actual topics of conversation.

But what Richard noted was more to the point of my concerns--: philosophical conversations, and whole subfields of philosophy, have presuppositions. Oftentimes I think we're not even aware that they exist. It can be hard to articulate disagreement with premises that are not acknowledged, though it's something we learn to do better over time. This may not be related to gender at all, or it may be, if needing to know motives in order to follow a line of thought is gender-related.

4/23/2005 07:53:00 PM  
Blogger Ignacio Prado said...

Blakely said. . .

"self-assertion" [doesn not] imply rhetoric. (It implies... assertiveness"

But why is this a problem, unless it is done in a completely indulgent way that detracts from the content of the assertions? Personally, I think a little more stylistic indulgence would make analytic philosophy a lot more interesting to read (my graders, apparently, disagree with me).

"It can be hard to articulate disagreement with premises that are not acknowledged, though it's something we learn to do better over time."

Fair enough. I guess I personally try, undoubtedly unsuccessfully, to integrate the "gathering" of unacknowledged premises into the actual argument / analysis. The problem is you end up with the opposite vice . . too much stage setting and not enough positive argument . . . My Professors have tended to train me away from that. . . but that may be part of the problem.

4/23/2005 10:27:00 PM  
Blogger Dub! said...

Stereotypically male question: "Why do you think that?"

Stereotypically female question: "Why would you want to think that?"

Both legitimate ways of doing philosophy. Both very different.

4/24/2005 05:19:00 PM  
Blogger Blakely said...

I was just struggling to find graceful ways to respond to the question "Why do you think that?" (e.g. "Why do you think those instances of assertiveness are hostile?" --or, better, "Why do you perceive them that way?") And failing to find any.

4/24/2005 06:18:00 PM  
Blogger Ignacio said...


4/24/2005 08:42:00 PM  
Blogger logicnazi said...

This is a question I have been thinking about a great deal recently when a friend of mine mentioned to me a group of female philosophy students complaining that they were being treated unfairly by all the competition/aggressiveness in philosophy and I ran across this blog trying to find any evidence for correlations or lack thereof between mathematical understanding and combativeness/assertivness.

Defining Combativeness

First though let me make it absolutely clear what I mean by combativeness as it isn't quite the normal language use. By combativeness I don't mean to include yelling, personal attacks, rudeness or other emotional outbursts and insults. Rather I simply mean it to refer to the game of attacking others positions and vigorously defending your position and whatever level of vociferousness that is a pragmatically necessary consequence of this (muzzles aren't an option).

So at least from my experience and many reports it seems women are statistically less comfortable with this game. Certainly this is not true for all women, I think the girl I am spending the summer with in england likes to argue even more than me which is impressive ;-). However, I think how we interpret this fact may depend vitally on why this is true. Is it innate or is it societal (the intuitive distinction is good enough...I can make exactly how iI clarify it clear if anyone cares).

What Should we Do?
I think if the answer is that it is societal we should do what we can to fix these societal features but shouldn't make any changes to accommodate lower levels of combativeness at the faculty or grad student level (a more gentle introduction is fine). Any such action would help send women the message that they didn't have the same ability at argument and combativeness the same way being put in the 'dumb' classes has been shown to make children less intelligent and at the very least we should not be helping to force girls into certain stereotypes of femininity.

Also if it is societal there is nothing to distinguish the combativeness in philosophy from the features which characterize the interaction in any other field. That women were conditioned not to like the behavior shouldn't make any difference. Hence the presumption that current practice is right because it works carries the day. Moreover, if the cause is societal this suggests that people are quite sensitive to societal images and messages. Thus the publicity of saying we are making philosophy less combative to be fair to women should be avoided at all costs. I mean can you imagine someone saying that they were going to dispense with the latin names in taxonomy so as not to be unfair to blacks!

On the other hand if it is innate the questions become much more difficult. Philosophy doesn't produce any easily measurable output so it isn't as clear what the right response should be. I do think that without the combative approach it would essentially become a different subject but why prefer the current one to the new one? I tend to think the current approach is actually the most likely to produce rigorous internally consistent philosophy since I tend to believe this combative approach, also used in the sciences and formalized in law, is uniquely suited to exposing flawed or insufficient reasoning and evidence. However, perhaps some other kind of philosophy would have it's own attractions though my aesthetic judgment strongly favors the first one. So my inclination in this case would be that they are both valid subjects so let them both exist and if one dies out then we know which one is better.

Don't get rid of Combative Philosophy

Note neither case supports the often implied argument that it is wrong or bad for there to be a combative subject like philosophy. The very product of philosophy is the deliberative process itself and clearly a combative process is quite different than a non-combative one. So there is some valid intellectual subject which consists of evaluating analytic philosophical claims via argument and counterexample. That is combativeness is not just a random tack-on designed to discourage women or out of oppressive inclinations. Your aesthetics might not appreciate it but this is not more a reason why it shouldn't be an academic discipline that your lack of appreciation for James Joyce should give the university cause to cancel a conference on her work. It might offer some reason to suppose the university had an obligation to fund an complimentary discipline which caters towards 'women's interaction' (tho this might already exist).

What you CAN'T Believe

So while I'm really not sure whether this difference is societal or genetic there are some positions you simply can't hold. In particular one can't reasonably believe both.

1. Philosophy needs to address the issue of combativeness because women are innately less combative.

2. Women are innately just as able at all the valid academic disciplines as men are, e.g., men don't have greater innate ability in mathematics or physics.

Unfortunately this seems to be the received view by many people on this subject. They believe that philosophy is unfair to women and their notion of group unfairness is usually based on the idea of treating people differently because of innate characteristics, i.e., they don't think it is unfair for some jobs to require 'masculine' things like using power tools. Yet they also object quite vigorously to even the suggesting that men and women are innately better suited to different disciplines (i.e. Summers).

However the only way one could hold these two beliefs is to also believe that no discipline is by it's nature inclined to be more combative than other disciplines. That is you would need to explain the heightened combativeness in math/physics/philosophy and other subjects in some other way than as being caused by the subject they study. Even if you do not believe that disciplines which have right and wrong answers and thus frequently resulting in situations where only 1 of several people can be right are more inclined towards combativeness do you really think that the combativeness needed in all the various disciplines is always the same? It seems to strain credibility to think that all the variations in academic interaction that stem from the nature of the subject never affect combativeness.

Thus if women are inherently less combative or tolerant of combativeness it would stand to reason that they are thus statistically less able at those disciplines which are by their nature more combative. The only way this could be false is if there were always countervailing factors which balance out the effect of combativeness. Yet now this would require believing that there are several relevant faculties for academic disciplines which vary between men and women but then they just all happen to cancel out in every discipline. This strains credibility.

Combativeness in Mathematics

While I mentioned the value of combativeness for the discipline as a whole (discovering flawed assertions) it also seems to have an advantage for the student in many subjects. I think philosophy is one of them but I have more experience with mathematics. When I observe students it is usually the case that the students who challenge me and other students most gain the most understanding (true this is usually men who do this but some women as well). It seems this happens because the students who challenge each other eventually uncover the source of their disagreement. However, the students who are very reluctant to challenge me or each other often end up staying confused about whatever their concern was.

Acting Now

I suggest that as with other features since we don't know if men and women differ innately in combativeness we should act as if they don't. We don't want to lock women into gender roles in a mistaken attempt to protect them. Moreover, all the anecdotal evidence I have (both from all my female friends and older women) suggests that there is a great deal of social pressure on women not to be assertive. Disgustingly, to my mind, many of the same guys who go on about being liberated and reject the barest suggestion that women shouldn't do anything men can do yet then never date the argumentative, combative and assertive girls. In short if we know there are obvious places where women are being stereotyped into non-combativeness why don't we start there rather than risk messing up a discipline and sending a flawed message to young women.

In particular it seems we are in exactly the same evidential position with respect to women and combativeness as we are with respect to women and mathematical ability. In both cases we observe a correlation and don't know if it is social or innate. Also in both cases we know there is strong social pressure on women not to possess these qualities. Hence if we believe we should operate under the assumption women have equal mathematical abilities it seems we should also operate on the assumption women have equal capacity for combativeness.

5/23/2005 07:20:00 PM  
Blogger Blakely said...

Hello interesting stranger:

Thanks for the comment. I would hesitate, however, to jump to the comparison you make between philosophy and mathematics (or science, for that matter). One thing I was assuming was that there is no clearly successful philosophical method. (Even among currently practicing philosophers, it seems like very few approach their subjects in exactly the same way, or handle discussion in the classroom in the same way.) It's also true that I'm primarily concerned (as far as this topic goes) with the way discussion is handled and not with the way ideas are treated, say, on paper. And it's not entirely clear that the success of any discipline need be tied to a specific method of classroom intruction.

I also think there are good reasons why philosophy needs to be tolerant of different methodologies, because of the special kind of thing philosophy is. It is questionable whether proofs can be made or evidence assembled in philosophy in the same way as in mathematics or science. Except in logic, it is not so clear when things are proven, or how to analyze the data. And though this may lead (obviously) to more room for dispute, it also suggests that the work of philosophy consists not in assembling proofs or data but in--I submit--finding new ways of looking at things; which goal demands that we tolerate various philosophical methods, and perhaps also methods of classroom instruction.

5/28/2005 01:07:00 AM  

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