Philosophy and Feminism
Defending a critique of the politicization of academic philosophy

Socrates, a dead white male philosopher. (Dreamstime)



In my July 5 National Review Online column, “The Gender Academy,” I argued that left-wing activism over gender issues is detrimentally politicizing academic philosophy. Its publication spurred criticism on three philosophy websites, Daily Nous, Leiter Reports, and Digressions & Impressions. Here I wish to respond to my critics.

The most heavily criticized passages were my descriptions of philosophy of race and feminist philosophy as “sub-disciplines that exist to promote left-wing ideology” and again as “insurgent, newfangled sub-disciplines that critics are likely to dismiss as political imposters.” Many took me to be categorically dismissing all the work done on these topics, but I took myself to be arguing a more modest point.

I am critical of giving feminism and race the extra attention and insulation from criticism that comes from designating these topics as “entire sub-disciplines of philosophy.” Given that it’s considered impolitic to criticize “entire sub-disciplines of philosophy,” we should vigorously debate what deserves to be considered as such. Knowledge, ethics, and being-qua-being deserve that distinction. It’s not obvious that feminism and race do.

As many suspected, I am an expert in neither philosophy of race nor feminist philosophy. I need not be. One could have principled reservations about a discipline called “conservative studies” without being an Edmund Burke scholar. If you know that conservatism is a position in political philosophy, you might reasonably think it shouldn’t also be a discipline unto itself.

That is essentially the point I’m pressing against feminism as a sub-discipline of philosophy. Let feminism be discussed alongside conservatism, libertarianism, liberalism, fascism, and socialism in political-philosophy classes. Why must feminism, alone among these “isms,” also have its own brand of epistemology, ethics, literary theory, and biology? I doubt feminists would tolerate libertarian counterparts to any of these.

The objection to philosophy of race is different. It’s not that the work is necessarily ideological but that it is the Left alone that favors prioritizing race as a subject of intellectual curiosity. When conservatives address race, as Thomas Sowell does in his book Intellectuals and Race, it’s generally to contest liberal claims of its importance for policy and identity.

Even if the work that takes place in philosophy of race is entirely non-ideological — which I doubt — the existence of the sub-discipline legitimates the idea that it’s terribly, terribly important to keep the “national conversation about race” going. Like most conservatives, I think that conversation, and liberal policies generally, are more likely to make old wounds fester than to heal them.

My criticisms of the University of Colorado Boulder philosophy department’s “Best Practices” document also came under fire. Some readers raised the point that its guidelines are not binding, but that hardly makes my criticisms irrelevant. It’s worthwhile to discuss whether these are the guidelines that graduate students should be encouraged to abide by. I regret not making clear that my criticisms are quite limited — only a few sentences in a nine-page document. I completely support the recommendation that teachers acquaint themselves with the scientific literature on implicit bias and I apologize to the authors for giving the impression that I condemn their efforts wholesale. Here are the guidelines I found problematic:

“We should attempt to gender balance class discussions.”

“We should pay special attention to the philosophical promise of female students and students from other underrepresented groups” (emphasis mine).

“We should take steps to assist female students and students from underrepresented groups in expressing themselves in class, by, for example, intervening when such students are interrupted or spoken over while attempting to contribute.”

Do I have a problem with recognizing the philosophical potential of female students? Would I let someone interrupt a woman in class? Of course not. But I see no need to specify women and minorities when a blanket policy of civility would obviously cover them. Nor do I think it is wise to implement policies of favoritism for students with certain demographic features in an attempt to counteract historical discrimination.


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