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”?
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.