Philosophy and Feminism

by Spencer Case
Defending a critique of the politicization of academic philosophy

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.

For one thing, the Best Practices document doesn’t make it clear whether the goal of the “special attention” is to counteract the implicit bias in each teacher, or to counteract the effects of discrimination in society as a whole. Even if we knew this, the guidelines would provide little guidance. How much longer than a male student should I let a female student speak in a class of ten men and two women? When is “gender balance” achieved?

The subtle and diffuse nature of implicit bias means that no one can be sure exactly how much is present in any given interaction. There’s no way for the teacher who gives “special attention” to know that she’s not overcorrecting. What she can be sure of is that she is making a conscious decision to treat some of her students differently on the basis of irrelevant demographic features when all have an equal claim to her attention and support. This is clearly wrong.

In addition, dialogue tends to be more natural among participants who aren’t constantly thinking of each other in terms of group membership. Adherence to these guidelines — which ask us to keep demographics ever in mind — could render the classroom experience artificial for students of both sexes alike.

I conclude with two points about the prevalence of sexual harassment in philosophy.

First, it’s uncharitable to attribute obviously fallacious arguments of the form “I did not see X, therefore there is no X” to Michael Tooley, a trustworthy philosopher who claimed he had not witnessed sexual harassment, or others who have made similar reports. The point is that such testimony constitutes some evidence that the problem might not be as pervasive as feared. The possibility that one can fail to recognize instances of sexual harassment shouldn’t lead us to discount testimony entirely.

Second, we should keep Socratic wisdom in mind and remember what we don’t know. Last year, Jennifer Saul, who runs the blog What Is It Like to Be a Woman in Philosophy?, wrote,

When I talk to people about [the sexual harassment problem in philosophy], I am invariably asked whether sexual harassment is worse in philosophy than in other fields. The short answer is that we don’t really know: It’s very difficult to get good data on something that is drastically underreported and often kept confidential even once reported. But to me, the most important thing is this: Sexual harassment harms its victims greatly. It’s wrong, and we need to get rid of it. We don’t need to know about relative frequency to see this.

Trouble is, without this knowledge, we cannot be sure that the philosophy gender gap is driven by high rates of sexual harassment. The unknown information is also relevant to the question of how we should go about resolving the harassment. If departments with large proportions of women have similar rates of harassment, then we have some reason to think that an influx of women to our field may not resolve our issues.

There is much more that needs to be said than I can say here. A proper development of my position would be as long as a dissertation and read by as many people. I hope my sins of omission can be forgiven.

— Spencer Case is a philosophy graduate student at the University of Colorado. He is a U.S. Army veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan and an Egypt Fulbright alumnus.

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