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Sexism in academic philosophy

A scandal has recently arisen at the University of Miami over allegations of sexual harrassment by “star philosopher” Colin McGinn. I have little comment on the scandal itself except to say that I believe McGinn’s accuser.

The article I’ve linked to above goes on to raise a series of issues about sexism in philosophy. I’d be the last to suggest that those questions should be ignored. I do wonder whether it makes sense to tack them on to a story that reports a scandal when the questions are only tenuously related to the scandal. Yes, sexual harrassment and the dearth of women in philosophy are both related to each other by “sexism.”  But if one is going to go down this path, why not use the McGinn incident to gather all of the malfeasances in the profession and relate them to one another by “unfairness”?

Rachel Weisz as Hypatia in "Agora"

Rachel Weisz as Hypatia in “Agora”

Like so much journalism, this article is more remarkable for what it fails to ask than for what it reports (especially since almost all of the pertinent evidence regarding the scandal is under lock and key). One question worth asking is this: there are parts of philosophy in which women are in fact quite well-integrated into the discipline, e.g., ancient philosophy. To understand the reasons for the relative dearth of women in “philosophy,” it might be useful to ask why women are attracted to some disciplines within philosophy rather than others. No one who does ancient philosophy, or reads scholarship on it, finds himself or herself thinking, “Where are the women in this field?” As far as the study of Plato and Aristotle (etc.) are concerned, men and the women are equal co-workers in the same field. If things are different in other parts of philosophy, maybe that has something to do with the sub-culture of those disciplines in philosophy. But does philosophy itself have to take the blame for it? And does philosophy have to take the blame because of Colin McGinn?

In my experience, ancient philosophy is just different from the rest of philosophy, and in a good way. A day spent at Princeton’s Classical Philosophy Colloquium or the Society for Ancient Greek Philosophy is one spent among professionals, male and female, who understand that philosophical conversation is a harmony of interests in a common good–rather than a field trip into the realms of discursive pathology. I criticized the TAS Seminar earlier for being an extreme instance of the latter, but the truth is that a lot of philosophy is discursively pathological. Spend time on virtually any ideologically-charged philosophy blog and you’ll see what I mean. I’m inclined to think that in our culture, women are more sensitive to the harms of discursive pathology than men, and tend to be more averse to it. Men for some reason are more tolerant of it. But the McGinn scandal is not the best route to discussion of that topic. I’m not sure it’s a worthwhile route to discussion of anything at all–except what it looks like when a “star” outlives its own brightness, and implodes.




  1. Marsha says:

    Maybe you mean this, but ancient philosophy is much more about the real world and how to live in it than is much of contemporary. I think that may play into who’s interested in it and who isn’t. Alternatively, we could see it as who likes to partake in highly abstract games or puzzles, as a rule, and who doesn’t.

  2. irfankhawaja says:

    Yes, I did mean that, and what you say is definitely part (an important part) of the issue. I would give some credit here to Martha Nussbaum, who made some of these points a few decades ago, e.g., in her books The Fragility of Goodness, Love’s Knowledge, and The Therapy of Desire. Nussbaum (along with Alasdair MacIntyre and few others) focused a lot of useful attention on philosophy as a literary genre, which raised important questions not just about its content but its method and style. That intersected with feminist concerns about the field, but had a broader scope as well. She was unapologetic about insisting that philosophy was about how to live, and that puzzle-mongering isn’t necessarily the definition of rigor. Everyone in the field owes her something for that. Unfortunately, a lot of Nussbaum’s scholarship ended up being problematic and tendentious, which tended to dilute (even discredit) the legitimate point she was making. But she was right to make it, and it’s similar to yours.


  3. But women are also reasonably prominent in those aspects of ancient philosophy that are fairly esoterically metaphysical, having more to do with abstract puzzles than with, say. ethics and “how to live in the real world.” Think of Mary Louise Gill’s Aristotle on Substance: The Paradox of Unityand Philosophos, Gail Fine’s On Ideas: Aristotle’s Criticism of Plato’s Theory of Forms, Charlotte Witt’s Substance and Essence in Aristotle, Sarah Waterlow/Broadie’s Nature, Change, and Agency in Aristotle’s Physics, and Passage and Possibility: A Study of Aristotle’s Modal Concepts, and Nature and Divinity in Plato’s Timaeus, Pamela Hood’s Aristotle on the Category of Relation, Jennifer Whiting’s “Living Bodies,” Elizabeth Asmis’s Epicurus’ Scientific Method, and Julia Annas’s commentary on Aristotle’s Metaphysics Mu and Nu (on mathematical objects), and Dorothea’s work on causation in Aristotle.

  4. I left out Dorothea Frede’s last name.

  5. irfankhawaja says:

    I actually see your observation as compatible with what I said. In fact, I was previously going to write that women are becoming increasingly prominent in the most technical parts of philosophy of science and philosophy of logic as well as ancient philosophy. That’s my impression, anyway, but I can’t assert it with full confidence, so I omitted it.

    But to put the two points together: part of the explanation for the prominence of women in ancient philosophy is Marsha’s explanation. Call it the Nussbaumian explanation: the ancient philosophers saw philosophy as an integrated part of life, and many women find that more appealing than an approach to philosophy that doesn’t stress integration. (I’m married to such a woman.)

    But that isn’t (and wasn’t meant to be) the full explanation. There are many women in parts of philosophy that are purely technical, and one thing that’s struck me about this, at least impressionistically, is that women are prominent in parts of philosophy that are hyper-technical, in fact, technical enough to qualify as sub-cultures of their own. I’m thinking of the masthead of the Notre Dame Journal of Formal Logic, where I worked for a year on the editorial staff. I think the explanation here is that these fields are so technical that there is a kind of solidarity-of-the-hyper-technically-competent that protects the women involved in them. The subject matter is so rigorous and so difficult that there is no room for extraneous considerations like sexism and no way to bullshit your way through an argument. Either your proof works or it fails. Either you’ve mastered the technical details or you haven’t made the grade.

    But the latter two facts aren’t true in the rest of philosophy. There is enough wiggle room there for sexism, and plenty of opportunity for bluffing and bullshitting. That’s where women get shut out. Men have mastered the world of bullshit much better than women have (so far). When a discipline trades on bullshit and arguments from intimidation, and/or appears to consist of hyper-technical puzzles with no connection to the fabric of ordinary life, women drop out. That’s a fuller version of my hypothesis.

    Your observation coheres with my fuller hypothesis. Ancient philosophy involves the same kind of solidarity-of-the-hypertechnical as, say, formal logic or philosophy of physics (because ancient philosophy requires mastery of very difficult languagess–e.g., Attic Greek, etc). But the examples you’ve cited are a hyper-technical subdiscipline within a hyper-technical discipline. And my fuller hypothesis predicts that women will flourish in fields like that.


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