A Philosopher's Blog

Women, Aggression & Philosophy

Posted in Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on April 27, 2011
Halo: Reach

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While the majority of undergraduate students in America are women, philosophy departments are still predominantly composed of men. Not surprisingly, both male and female philosophers have addressed this matter and various explanations have been offered as to why this is the case. There have also been numerous learned treatises written about how to remedy this apparently problematic situation.

While the entire topic is well worth addressing, my goal in this essay is far more modest. I will address only the rather limited subject of women and aggression in philosophy.

If my memory serves, my first exposure to this matter was in my undergraduate days in a class on feminism. As a graduate student and in my professional career, this matter was (and is) brought to my attention fairly often, generally by female colleagues in the field.  This sort of aggression was, of course, cast as an evil of philosophy and a causal factor in pushing women away from philosophy. The general idea is as follows.

Certain practices in academic philosophy are rife with aggressive behavior. Since we are talking about philosophers, this behavior is generally not physical. Rather, the aggression tends to be social and intellectual. To use a commonly cited example, paper presentations are sometimes cast as struggles between the presenter and the audience. The presenter tries to come across as smart as possible, while members of the audience launch attacks calculated to bring the presenter down a peg and to lift themselves up in the intellectual hierarchy. While this might seem to be something of an exaggeration, it does match my own experience. It is also, of course, consistent with Hobbes discussion of how the learned behave in the presence of each other.

While not all men enjoy this sort of adversarial method, it is ofter claimed that men find it far more appealing than women. This seems to be correct and is consistent with the stock gender stereotypes. As far as the cause, one can present the usual suspects: socialization and genetics. Whatever the cause, there does seem to be a significant difference between how men and women react to such situations, at least in general terms.

Given that these sort of interactions are part of being a professional philosopher, it makes sense that women would the field less appealing and hence this is a plausible causal factor as to there being fewer women than men in philosophy.

This does not, however, automatically entail that this behavior should be changed so as to make philosophy more appealing to women.

To use an obvious analogy, combat oriented video games and aggressive sports are far less appealing to females than males. However, to assume that this is somehow a defect in the games or sports would be a rather hasty conclusion. It would also be rather hasty to infer that such games and sports should (in the moral sense of the term) be changed so as to appeal to females. After all, there are plenty of other games and sports that females can play. So, for example, if many women do not find Halo: Reach enjoyable, they can always play Portal 2 or (God forbid) Farmville. Likewise, if many women do not find the practice of philosophy appealing, they can seek alternatives.

An obvious, and correct, reply is that while combat games and contact sports are inherently aggressive, it is not obvious that philosophy must be aggressive. There is also the obvious point that while women can play a wealth of alternative sports and games, to simply tell women that they have to play philosophy the “male way” or hit the intellectual highway seems to be rather unwarranted.

That said, it could be argued that the  aggressive nature of this sort of philosophical behavior might be an important (or even essential) aspect of the philosophical method. If so, it would be unreasonable to expect the practice of philosophy to change so as to make it appeal to women. Going back to the games and sports analogy, it would seem unreasonable to demand that video games and sports be changed so that they will appeal to women and allow women to compete with men in all cases (such as in American football).

While it is tempting to see philosophy as requiring an aggressive clash of ideas, this does not seem to be essential to the practice of philosophy. To use the obvious example, while Socrates was quite willing to engage with the likes of Meletus and Ion, the Socratic method is more of a cooperative endeavor rather than an inherently acrimonious or hostile one. It is, of course, also possible to have a lively, spirited and even competitive exchange of ideas without it devolving into a situation that is needlessly aggressive.

This sort of approach would, I think, make the practice of professional philosophy more appealing-and not just to women.

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13 Responses

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  1. Asur said, on April 27, 2011 at 11:00 am

    The Socratic Ideal is someone who is concerned not with what they believe, but with whether their beliefs are true. This is the ideal of philosophic debate, and I don’t think that it could ever fail to be both civil and enjoyable.

    There are two problems, though: it assumes that everyone is using the same standards (perhaps you accept religious faith as a justification and I do not), and it requires that we not be emotionally invested in our beliefs.

    I think this last is the source of actual aggression within debates, and until being human means not being a feeling creature, we’re stuck with it.

    Marcus Aurelius had the best advice here: If you can’t change something, don’t waste effort trying. Work around it if you can, put up with it if you can’t.

    On a side note, I’ve heard this same concern over how philosophy is done from people committed to feminism; what always floors me is that the concern is predicated on a gender stereotype. The argument isn’t that we all suffer because of this, but that women do and they do so because they’re less aggressive than men. Are gender stereotypes only bad when they don’t agree with the points you’re trying to make?

  2. Equus said, on April 27, 2011 at 1:22 pm

    Philosophy intertwines with psychology as they both, to some extent, deal with humans and how they interact. Women, being wired to respond to people, would find psychology more appealing. Therefore, women who are interesting in philosophy would rather choose psychology instead as it carries similar elements but deals something they’re more interested in.

    Also, video games have a strong emphasis on the mind’s spatial skills. This is an area where women don’t excel in due to evolution. Hence, why they don’t tend to enjoy it. Again, another one of my opinions, be it right or wrong.

    • Asur said, on April 27, 2011 at 6:09 pm

      That must be why my wife could never beat me in Street Fighter II.

      Although, she did regularly whoop my ass in Mario Kart…

  3. [...] April 27th, 2011 § Leave a Comment While the majority of undergraduate students in America are women, philosophy departments are still predominantly composed of men. Not surprisingly, both male and female philosophers have addressed this matter and various explanations have been offered as to why this is the case. There have also been numerous learned treatises written about how to remedy this a … Read More [...]

  4. T. J. Babson said, on April 27, 2011 at 9:54 pm

    Some comments from Philip Greenspun on women in science, but I suspect much of what he says can be applied to philosophy as well:

    A good career is one that pays well, in which you have a broad choice of full-time and part-time jobs, in which there is some sort of barrier to entry so that you won’t have to compete with a lot of other applicants, in which there are good jobs in every part of the country and internationally, and in which you can enjoy job security in middle age and not be driven out by young people willing to work 100 hours per week.

    How closely does academic science match these criteria? I took a 17-year-old Argentine girl on a tour of the M.I.T. campus. She had no idea what she wanted to do with her life, so maybe this was a good time to show her the possibilities in female nerddom. While walking around, we ran into a woman who recently completed a Ph.D. in Aero/Astro, probably the most rigorous engineering department at MIT. What did the woman engineer say to the 17-year-old? “I’m not sure if I’ll be able to get any job at all. There are only about 10 universities that hire people in my area and the last one to have a job opening had more than 800 applicants.”

    And that’s engineering, which, thanks to its reputation for dullness and the demand from industrial employers, has a lot less competition for jobs than in science.

    What about personal experience? The women that I know who have the IQ, education, and drive to make it as professors at top schools are, by and large, working as professionals and making 2.5-5X what a university professor makes and they do not subject themselves to the risk of being fired. With their extra income, they invest in child care resources and help around the house so that they are able to have kids while continuing to ascend in their careers. The women I know who are university professors, by and large, are unmarried and childless. By the time they get tenure, they are on the verge of infertility.

    http://philip.greenspun.com/careers/women-in-science

    Here’s more:

    Pursuing science as a career seems so irrational that one wonders why any young American would do it. Yet we do find some young Americans starting out in the sciences and they are mostly men. When the Larry Summers story first broke, I wrote in my Weblog:

    A lot more men than women choose to do seemingly irrational things such as become petty criminals, fly homebuilt helicopters, play video games, and keep tropical fish as pets (98 percent of the attendees at the American Cichlid Association convention that I last attended were male). Should we be surprised that it is mostly men who spend 10 years banging their heads against an equation-filled blackboard in hopes of landing a $35,000/year post-doc job?

    Having been both a student and teacher at MIT, my personal explanation for men going into science is the following:

    1. young men strive to achieve high status among their peer group
    2. men tend to lack perspective and are unable to step back and ask the question “is this peer group worth impressing?”

    Consider Albert Q. Mathnerd, a math undergrad at MIT (“Course 18″ we call it). He works hard and beats his chest to demonstrate that he is the best math nerd at MIT. This is important to Albert because most of his friends are math majors and the rest of his friends are in wimpier departments, impressed that Albert has even taken on such demanding classes. Albert never reflects on the fact that the guy who was the best math undergrad at MIT 20 years ago is now an entry-level public school teacher in Nebraska, having failed to get tenure at a 2nd tier university. When Albert goes to graduate school to get his PhD, his choice will have the same logical foundation as John Hinckley’s attempt to impress Jodie Foster by shooting Ronald Reagan.

    It is the guys with the poorest social skills who are least likely to talk to adults and find out what the salary and working conditions are like in different occupations. It is mostly guys with rather poor social skills whom one meets in the university science halls.

    What about women? Don’t they want to impress their peers? Yes, but they are more discriminating about choosing those peers. I’ve taught a fair number of women students in electrical engineering and computer science classes over the years. I can give you a list of the ones who had the best heads on their shoulders and were the most thoughtful about planning out the rest of their lives. Their names are on files in my “medical school recommendations” directory.

    In Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, it is Werther, not Lotte, who decides to kill himself, anticipating the modern statistic that men are about five times more likely to commit suicide than women.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on April 28, 2011 at 11:27 am

      In general, the academic path is not the best to take if your goal is high pay. Unless, of course, you plan on being an administrator-those posts can pay extremely well and provide many perks.

  5. writerswhimsy said, on April 28, 2011 at 12:28 am

    Being a woman with a master’s in philosophy, I can see some truth to what you’re saying. If philosophy seems like it has a masculine bias/approach, that shouldn’t be too surprising considering it was mostly men practicing it for the bulk of our western philosophical tradition. For a very long time women weren’t even considered rational.

    However, in my experience, *a lot* depends on the gender balance of the philosophy department in question as well as the faculty’s areas of concentration.

    • Asur said, on April 28, 2011 at 2:02 am

      I’m not sure I understand: what, pray, is a “masculine approach”?

      • writerswhimsy said, on April 28, 2011 at 8:56 am

        It’s the adversarial/combative nature of philosophical discussion that the original poster was commenting on. Strength, competitiveness and directness have traditionally been qualities ascribed to and more valued in men, as opposed to the softer qualities that were traditionally prescribed for and prized in women, such as passiveness, harmony, collaboration, etc.

        • Asur said, on April 28, 2011 at 10:27 am

          I feel, and I hope you agree, that our past traditions regarding the relation of women to men are rather dim candles by which to see, things that we should not attempt to preserve.

          What seems to be a matter of fact is that the average differences between two men or between two women are greater than the average differences between men and women.

          If we wish to claim the effects of socialization as part of the actual attributes of a particular group, then we must accept that if, say, a group was at some point socialized to be incompetent, then they would actually be incompetent and everyone else would be justified as treating them that way into perpetuity.

          Surely there have been groups in the past who have been systematically denied education and opportunities for personal growth, and as a result been generally less competent than those who had not been denied such goods.

          It seems to me that we do a disservice to ourselves when we imply that a woman acts like a man if she is assertive or that a man acts like a woman if he is subservient.

  6. Christina Dietz said, on April 29, 2011 at 3:52 am

    Interesting thesis.

  7. magus71 said, on May 1, 2011 at 12:11 am

    “Certain practices in academic philosophy are rife with aggressive behavior. Since we are talking about philosophers, this behavior is generally not physical. Rather, the aggression tends to be social and intellectual. To use a commonly cited example, paper presentations are sometimes cast as struggles between the presenter and the audience. The presenter tries to come across as smart as possible, while members of the audience launch attacks calculated to bring the presenter down a peg and to lift themselves up in the intellectual hierarchy. While this might seem to be something of an exaggeration, it does match my own experience. It is also, of course, consistent with Hobbes discussion of how the learned behave in the presence of each other”

    Mike, you’re entirely correct on this. After working with so many here, I have a new admiration for your ability to co-mingle with these types. I really do.

    I’ve noticed it big-time since deploying and being surrounded by people–civilian and military–from the intelligence field. People are constantly sniping at one another. It’s completely pathetic. These people have a very difficult time admitting when someone else has a good idea. And the intellectual realm offers very little in the way of emirical evidence so people can always feel smarmy and right, without reality to smack them in the head.

    The easiest way to deal with these types is to get them involved in a physical activity which is grounded in reality and not theory. Get them on a run and watch them wilt. Challenge them to the most hated endeavor of all: Arm wrestling. There’s simply no arguing over who wins. Anything physical will do to bring out their true nature, which is usually a weak, self-doubting individual.

    I take that back: Arm wrestling is not the most feared activity amongst the smarmy intelligencia here; it’s actually going “outside the wire” or outside our bases where they have a decent chance of getting shot or blown up. So I do so as often as I can and I noticed the people that Hobbes spoke of won’t confront me on anything anymore. At first they got jealous, then I offered to take them along.. They decline. The desk is much safer.

    I’m blue-collar at heart for a reason. And the Taliban is being beat by the blue-collar, not because those are the people that are thrown into the meat grinder, but because those are the people who have guts.


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