Salad Bar Philosophy, anyone?

I was listening to woman's hour again today. It was a program I'd meant to catch on the day it came out but didn't in fact listen to for a while because my computer got virused (and all...) So I listened to the podcast here. The reason I was so keen on listening to it was that they'd announced it on twitter as being about women in philosophy. As in academic women philosophers. In actual universities, teaching in actual jobs. Why there are so few of us.

So the women interviewed were saying, surprise surprise, that it's all down to cultural stereotype. Women aren't supposed to be good at abstract reasoning, and cold stuff like logic and maths. Which is sort of what Rousseau said. And Aristotle, those pillars of the sexist bastards community.

But when women do end up teaching philosophy in universities, it is sometimes said that they do a different kind of philosophy - they tend to gravitate towards more applied or practical subjects like ethics and aesthetics, whereas men do the more abstract metaphysics, philosophy of mind or language. I haven't counted. And I'm not really aware of anyone who has, so I don't know if that's true.

In order to do a proper study you'd have to know what to look at as well - what people teach? They often don't choose what they teach, or even if they do, it doesn't always match their research interests or their qualifications. You can't look at Ph.D titles either as people often change their research interest as they grow. And if you look at publications, you might get a fairly disparate view of what people have been working on because of the luck involved in getting stuff accepted (I have two articles out on the philosophy of crime fiction, which I by no means consider to be my main research interest!)

But even if this were true, it does not follow that women are naturally better suited to teach or conduct research in these areas. And yet that is often what is assumed. Women are more concerned with practical things, it is said, and less interested in the abstract. Again with Rousseau and Aristotle.

That would be bad enough, but now add to the equation that metaphysics, etc is also described as 'hard' philosophy, and sometimes - wait for it - 'meat and potato philosophy', whereas ethics, etc. gets called 'soft', or 'cream puff' philosophy - the easy, non-essential, stuff. And who do you think came up with these distinctions?

So let's do a bit of maths here: men start philosophy departments and do metaphysics, etc. A few women trickle in in the fifties and take what's left, what the men don't mind them doing. So the men call what the women do 'soft' and decide that women are naturally suited to work on these topics (those unnatural women who want to do philosophy in the first place, that is). Then these women train other women who then end up working in the same field. A myth is born.

Now when I started studying philosophy I did choose the 'hard stuff'. I enjoyed it, and was moderately successful at it. Then I got very bored with it and decided that what I really enjoyed was writing about Plato's political theory. Now that's another kettle of fish altogether as it fits neither in the 'hard' or 'soft' categories. But as the years went by, my research was influenced by writers I admired, and these were mostly women: Martha Nussbaum, Elizabeth Anscombe, Philippa Foot, Anette Baier, and more. So now I'm doing a lot of ethics, 'soft' stuff. Also, I teach Aesthetics in my department, cause no-one else can, and because it's sort of fun. So I'm a typical woman philosopher now - the system caught me and transformed me into what I ought to be. Another way of seeing it, is that I do what I bloody well feel like doing, and fuck the lot of them. I do smogasbord philosophy. Salad bar philosophy.

I was just reading yesterday, in the New York Times, an article attempting to explain why there are less women in academic philosophy. The author, Andy Martin, was blithely arguing that philosophers, are all 'a bit autistic', and that, as Simon Baron-Cohen tells us, autism is an 'extreme male brain', successful philosophers are typically male. I rest my case.

(No I don't quite rest it, I encourage you, if you haven't yet, to go read what I think about Simon Baron Cohen's take on autism here. It isn't pretty.)

(Also, although I'd love it if my son became an academic, and I certainly don't see why autistic people shouldn't be in academia, and indeed some are, I think we all know how hard it can be for an autistic person to fight their way to the top of anything, and to end up in a profession that requires them to interact with hundreds of people every week. So please.)

(Oh, and yes, some philosophers are socially awkward. But being rude, absent-minded or self-centrered is not the same as being autistic. For fuck's sake).

Now I'm done.


@jencull (jen) said...

I expected that philosophy would have less stereotying, don't ask my why!! Jen

Sandrine said...

So did I ...
On the other hand things are changing. My colleagues are putting together a symposium for philosophy day and although all the participants are male (I'm the only woman left in the department and I didn't want to take part this year, so not their fault!) the topic is practical philosophy - another word for cream puff or soft philosophy!

Elenchus said...

Women not supposed to be good at abstract reasoning, 'cold' stuff like logic and mathematics? Oh for goodness' sake! I went up to university to read physics. In my interview I was asked why not pure maths as my maths was so strong. Then I decided to switch to philosophy, not because I wasn't doing well with physics, but because I wanted an even bigger picture...I was so utterly fascinated with the world around me. My main area of interest in philosophy was Philosophy of Mind, but I also got a bit damned excited about Metaphysics and Epistemology. My main area of interest in physics was quantum.

What's my point? I am not in the slightest bit autistic. I am not a man in woman's clothing. Anyone who knows me will tell you I'm about as feminine as it gets. I nearly did go into acadaemia. Why didn't I? Because personally, to take my studies to the level I would have wished, would have been so all-consuming (wonderfully so, I might add) that I could see it did not fit with the other things I wanted at that stage in my life.

This is all based on a very personal view of course, of what I wanted and how I wanted to do it, but it was absolutely nothing to do with ability or lack thereof. Academic philosophy is just, in my view, a very extreme and rigorous discipline, absolutely bloody wonderful, but perhaps uniquely so, leaves very little room for anything else. I venture that there are other female philosophers out there who also made a hard choice for personal reasons and who, like me, miss it every single day. I incidentally, watched both my principal tutors get divorced in the years I spent studying with them.

If there aren't many women in academic philosophy compared to other disciplines, then, to echo Sandrine (and I really enjoyed reading this blog, thank you) let's look at the reasons behind the actual facts and figures. Look at why the female students didn't pursue acadaemia (look at why the male ones do and don't, for that matter), look at the real reasons those who are in there at the coal face are teaching or publishing on the subjects they are...that's much more interesting.

And anyway, a good philospher never narrows their field too much, for the exciting thing about philosophy is it takes in the whole picture - it is the love of knowledge and wisdom, all of it! Hoorah for Salad Bar Philosophy!

Thank you again Sandrine.


Sandrine said...

Thanks for commenting, Elenchus, and for adding weight to my point with your experience! Anecdoctally the people I've met who were doing the most complicated, formal, maths heavy philosophy were all women!

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