Thursday, November 12, 2009

The Personal is Still Political: The Status of Women in Philosophy

The autumn of 2009 has witnessed an interesting upsurge in questions of women’s place in the study of philosophy. The season began with several blog posts commenting on news reports about the absence of women studying philosophy. Subsequent posts and news stories began to question why so few women were studying philosophy, how this problem could be addressed and even whether the only problem was that the disparity appeared to be a problem rather than a natural tendency. One particularly contentious set of exchanges on the topic took place on Brian Leiter’s blog, Leiter Reports: A Philosophy Blog, and concerned the question of whether philosophy classes constituted a hostile environment for women. One of the original news stories on the topic explained the absence of women in the philosophy classroom by suggesting that “one reason may be that women are turned off by a culture of aggressive argument particular to philosophy, which grows increasingly more pronounced at the postgraduate level.” This suggestion, regardless of its merits as a description of what turns many people against philosophy and not only women, drew the ire of Brian Leiter’s corner of the blogosphere. After launching ad hominem [sic?] attacks on two prominent women philosophers who he regards as “hacks,” Leiter offers the enlightened suggestion that it is “demeaning to women” to say that the excessively aggressive argumentation that he prefers drives women out of the classroom and contributes to the absence of women in the profession generally. Never mind that this kind of dismissal, which Leiter employs quite regularly—as when a subsequent post jokes that Judith Butler writes her books using a random academic sentence generator—, may be precisely the kind of aggressiveness that women and others find intolerable about the study and profession of philosophy, the question deserves more than the dismissive or inevitably confounding treatment it receives from Leiter.

Without referencing that debate in her article for
The Chronicle of Higher Education’s October 16th “Diversity in Academe” issue, Regan Penaluna offers the hypothesis that misogyny in the philosophical canon may account for the absence of women in philosophy classes and their subsequent absence in the profession.
Perhaps aware that her article would appear in a special “diversity” issue of the Chronicle or perhaps as an ironic underscoring of women’s exclusion from mainstream philosophy, Penaluna claims that since “the canon as it stands is almost entirely composed of men—including many who have little good to say about women” this situation “cannot but contribute to an unwelcoming environment.” (B27) Citing the fact that “other disciplines, such as history, English, and the sciences, also have male-dominated canons, but they attract comparatively more women than philosophy does,” Penaluna suggests that “for this reason, one might conclude that the cause of gender disparity in philosophy is not the canon” (B27) thereby suggesting that professors’ handling of misogynous material might have something to do with women’s attraction to the field. This would make the problem of philosophy less an academic problem concerning what to study and more a political problem about how to study it. In short, the disparity between women in philosophy and women in other fields with male-dominated canons might be a political problem rather than an epistemological one. Mercifully, Penaluna quickly provides the corrective to the unsettling question of whether philosophy professors’ handling of the subject might be partially to blame for the exclusion of women when she asserts that it “would be wrong” to exculpate the canon for the political actions of its interpreters.

Of course it is possible that both the canon and its handlers are to blame for creating an atmosphere of hostility toward women in the faculties and classrooms of philosophy departments.
After all, it is not the philosophical canon alone that “demands that its students identify more closely with its canonical figures” (B28), it is rather philosophy faculty themselves that either do or do not “bring a critical approach to the interpretation of patriarchal texts, while also raising awareness of [. . .] works by women” (B27). Nevertheless, Penaluna explicitly rejects the idea that the political decisions of philosophy faculty to utilize a sexist canon without bringing a duly critical perspective to texts and thereby encourage their students to passively accept not only canonical figures but their misogynist attitudes are to blame before reiterating “that there are few women in philosophy because the canon is sexist and there is little being done about it.” (B28, emphasis added) Although that little conjunction, and, is unstressed in Penaluna’s article, I prefer to stress it because it highlights that the textual problem is actually a political problem about the relations that philosophers have not only with their material, but with one another as well. If philosophers are trained to emulate rather than critique their forbears, this is a failure of philosophical reflection to consider the political consequences of a certain kind of activity; it is not an effect that texts produce on their own. If it were not the activity of philosophers that made the difference then the “obvious” solution that “philosophers consider the misogynist passages of great philosophers in a critical manner” and “mainstream feminist philosophy” (B28) would have no chance of success before the occult power of the text.

The proposal to mainstream feminist philosophy, however, will only have marginal success at bringing more women into the classroom and the profession without a corresponding change of attitude toward the philosophical canon.
One of the prevailing themes in feminist philosophy involves critiquing the canon’s exclusion of women through their inclusion as an object of study. That is, in the Aristotelian conception of woman as receptacle, for example, part of the problem is the presumption that woman are known and not misrepresented by that description. Consequently, the traditional role of women in philosophy has been a form of passive inclusion as an object of knowledge whose ability to speak has been far more rigorously proscribed because of that inclusion than because of women’s exclusion. To be sure, Brian Leiter includes women like Judith Butler in his philosophical universe, but he does so by suggesting that she works unthinkingly, mechanically, instinctively and therefore “incompetently” in the medium of thought that is philosophy’s proper sphere. It is therefore unsurprising that feminist philosophers have raised significant questions about the phallogocentrism of the Western philosophical tradition and thus found themselves at odds with the preferred narrative of inclusive progress that philosophy spins about itself. At the same time, it is unsurprising that those feminists who questioned the political effects of philosophy’s preoccupation with the cerebral at the expense of the bodily became the objects of scorn for the philosophical mainstream committed to toeing the same line that resulted in women’s exclusion in the first place. The problem with the token inclusion of women philosophers who do not challenge the philosophical mainstream is that the presence of a Martha Nussbaum or Maudmarie Clark, valid in its own regard, is purchased at the expense of disparaging those who challenge the profession, like Butler or Rand, as either hacks, or “sophomoric,” as Leiter characterized Penaluna’s mention of Nietzsche’s possible misogyny.

In denying the political responsibility of philosophers, I wonder if Penaluna offers a critical narrative that is in fact very comfortable to academic philosophers because it does not significantly disrupt their standard practices within the profession.
These practices may start with reading the same books ad nauseum, but they further involve utilizing the same conceptual techniques no matter what their limitations and no matter what the consequences of those limitations. For example, in attacking the canon, one is conspicuously silent on the complicity of academics, who may have hesitations about the possibly misogynous bits in Nietzsche or the pro-slavery aspects of Aristotle, but skip over that material rather than assessing it openly. This preserves the respected tradition of decorum in which philosophers decline criticism until they can be sure about the grounds for criticism at the expense of those for whom such views are not only intolerable, but detrimental. It is emblematic of this attitude that Peter Carruthers suggests that the proportion of women in philosophy needs further study by experimental philosophers. By skipping over misogyny in philosophy through delay or oversight or simply substituting it with material that makes the same substantive point without including the offensive details, academics convey a powerful message about the place of women in the discipline: misogyny and those it hurts are not part of philosophy proper, a field that knows no gender, class or cultural identity. Rather these are simply errors to be at least ignored, or at best replaced with a more inclusive figure that preserves the timeless truths of the masters. As Penaluna notes, such an attitude is neither philosophically, nor socially responsible. Misogynous aspects of the canon should impugn the philosophical integrity of those associated with them because they display a stark lack of attention when “philosophers who devote[] their lives to investigating human experience” can ignore a significant portion of humanity by remaining “simply unconcerned with the condition of women.” (B29) Moreover, it begs the question of the social function of philosophers if they believe that the experience of women or the difficulty in responding to misogyny belong to subjects outside the purview of philosophical reflection.

Because I am not sure that Penaluna isn’t simply a more subtle and nuanced writer than I am, I will refrain from claiming that she misleads readers by downplaying the political implications of choices that philosophers make about their subject-matter. This may be wise if for no other reason than that she cites the numerous political decisions philosophers make to promote the continued relevance misogynist ideology. Nevertheless it seems relevant to emphasize that these claims are not simply hypothetical postulates, but reflect the actual conditions of women studying and making their way into the profession of philosophy. The absence of women from philosophy classrooms and the professoriate is already a political issue that many current members of the profession have ignored, promoted, misrepresented or resisted. Philosophical reflection should play a role in deciding which of these options we would like to continue, but that will not come about unless one is clear that reflection takes place within the medium of political relationships rather than being outside of them.

1 comment:

Devin Zane Shaw said...

That Leiter doesn't get it is made obvious by the fact that he uses questions of about the status in academe in philosophy to take cheap shots at women philosophers.