Why women (or at least this woman) leave philosophy

Recently a friend posted this article on facebook with the question: Why don’t more women go into philosophy? As someone with a BA in philosophy who was very close to pursuing a PhD in philosophy before I decided to take the Literature/Critical Theory route (I actually decided when it was time to start working on applications my senior year as an undergraduate), this question is highly relevant to my own personal experience. While the research concludes that women leave philosophy or decide not to pursue philosophy between the introductory course and the coursework for the major, I would like to talk about my own experiences, because, while they are not universal, the problems I experienced cannot be unique to my experience alone.

Before I begin, I need to say that I had a number of great philosophy professors who I am still in touch with today. I visit my former philosophy department about once a year. The professors with whom I continue to stay in touch would certainly not allow the behavior described below. However, the fact that it happened, and more importantly philosophy sets up a framework that can encourage such behavior, was a large part of why I felt compelled to leave philosophy.

In a discussion with a larger context which I no longer to remember, a classmate argued that we could objectively say that some human beings are defective, particularly people with disabilities, people with chronic illness or chronic pain, and women who cannot have children (tellingly, men were not defined by their reproductive abilities, and the lack thereof did not make them “defective”). I am every person on that list. I have a disability. I have a chronic illness. I experience chronic pain. I am a woman who cannot reproduce. Naturally, I challenged this notion. I don’t remember my exact argument, but I did invoke both personal experience, though my argument did not rest solely on it. I was told that I was too subjective, having such experience, and therefore I could not speak on the subject without bias. A number of philosophers, most notably Lorraine Code, have challenged the idea of objectivity, but the notion still holds for some, and I was basically told that someone who had none of my experiences was objective, therefore better qualified to speak about disability, chronic pain and illness, and women who cannot reproduce than someone who had experienced them. Under the guise of objectivity people with experience are silenced in favor of people who have little knowledge of the subject about which they are speaking. The implication is clear: people who can walk away from a philosophical discussion and leave the subject a neat little thought experiment are given higher standing than people for whom the implications of the discussion would have a serious impact on their daily lives. Is it any wonder that women, members of racial minorities, people with disabilities, and other marginalized groups of people would be turned off of philosophy?

Another time, I had a young man approach me at an undergraduate philosophy conference and start a discussion regarding women’s capabilities. He kept trying to get me to admit that even if men are better than women at logic and philosophical arguments, that should not be grounds for lesser moral or legal standing. He could not understand why this was upsetting to me. If we put aside the fact that his premise “women being worse at logic and having less skill for philosophy,” cannot be proven and that all observations to that end come from years of socialization, as well as the fact that the formulation of the question is nonsense, because no one would ever question whether or not women being better at something than men would give men lesser standing, and would quite possible dismiss whatever the skill was as pointless in the first place, there is still an obvious problem. Such assumptions (men are better at logic and philosophy), have been used to keep women out of the conversation since the dawn of philosophy itself, and he is using the same argument, at conference where I was one of two female presenters, while speaking to a woman who intended to go into philosophy. He didn’t understand that what he was saying had problems because while he granted women the same moral and legal standing, accepting his premise would keep them out of philosophy.

The western philosophical canon has numerous instances of misogyny, racism, and ableism. Good philosophers will always critique these things or not use them, but they are still read in the philosophy classroom (and if they were not, we would have very little material to work with). In my experience, whenever someone, usually me, would raise the critique of how something in the text was troubling, they would be met by the rolled eyes and sighs of (white, able-bodied) male classmates. They would usually say “we know this isn’t okay, why talk about it?” and imply that to talk about this was wasting time, never once considering what it would be like to be reading an essay you are expected to respond to as part of the enduring “philosophical conversation” only to discover that the person to whom you are supposed to respond thinks that you shouldn’t be part of the conversation, let alone considering that there may be implications of the misogyny that need address beyond “we aren’t misogynists anymore, let’s ignore that part of the argument.”

Furthermore, despite the fact that it’s generally not okay, using philosophers with biases against certain groups to justify different treatment, particularly gender essentialism, happens. You might say that they are doing philosophy wrong, and I believe you, but it happens a lot more often than you would think, and objections to it often get labeled “bad philosophy” themselves. This can make a philosophical conversation an unsafe space for woman and other marginalized groups.

I’m not calling for censorship, I’m calling for recognition that everyone is subjective, and the realization that a “thought experiment” can mirror someone’s real life experience, and that should have some weight in the conversation. Philosophy can be a force for good, it can be used to fight oppression and challenge flawed patterns of thought that push certain groups of people to the margins, but it can also be used to support the status quo. Certainly a racist or misogynist with a mastery of philosophy is more dangerous than their ignorant counterparts. If we want more women, people of color, and persons with disabilities to join the philosophical conversation, we need to seriously challenge people who use philosophy to support oppressive attitudes. We need to acknowledge that the ideas they bring forth do not exist in a vacuum and have very real consequences, most notably that people leave philosophy because of it.

I still love philosophy. I love a good philosophical conversation. I will talk about philosophy with you for hours if you aren’t a jerk. At times I feel disappointed in myself because, from an outside perspective it looks like I let one asshole scare me away from doing something I love, and I often wonder if that really wasn’t what happened (for what it’s worth, I’m still in academia and the offending party is not). But really, it was exhaustion. I was tired of the conversation always beginning with a justification of why I should have a voice in the conversation at all. While I have had numerous positive experiences in classes and in philosophy club, I realized that I would continue to have that conversation for the rest of my life, and I was tired.

I hope that my reader takes away more than simply “I left philosophy because people were mean to me,” because I am talking about a larger problem that needs to be addressed. I still have hope that it can be, but it wasn’t my fight.

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6 thoughts on “Why women (or at least this woman) leave philosophy

  1. “Under the guise of objectivity people with experience are silenced in favor of people who have little knowledge of the subject about which they are speaking. The implication is clear: people who can walk away from a philosophical discussion and leave the subject a neat little thought experiment are given higher standing than people for whom the implications of the discussion would have a serious impact on their daily lives” – This is one of the arguments that John Ralston Saul uses against The Cult Of Rationalism. Saul’s compassionate and humane view of philosophy, which he details in the book “Voltaire’s Bastards”, was a revelation when I heard about it as a Philosophy student.

    • I wish someone would have brought that up when I was a philosophy student, however I don’t know if it would have done much good with the other person involved in this argument, as I brought up several critiques of the very idea of objectivity and he rejected the idea that he was subjective and lacking the experience to really know anything about chronic pain or disability. He was objective, I was subjective. The professor in question backed him up on this one. Still, thank you for this insight, I will most definitely look into Saul’s book.

    • [T]hank you for this insight, I will most definitely look into Saul’s book.

      Yes, me too, thanks so much for referencing it. Sounds like I’d really like it too.

  2. Hi, Victoria!

    I hear you so much about the “some people are objectively lesser, or broken, and pursuing The Good means making sure fewer of these people exist” arguments! I am not a philosopher, have only had two philosophy classes, but this crops up a lot in lay conversation, too. What I always say is, “you can’t KNOW that they’re not happy, that they don’t like their lives, so you have to defer to what they want for themselves.” I mention the long history of people — scientists and philosophers — being SURE that some category of living things is incapable of consciousness, until either the people themselves told them (i.e., slaves speaking out about horrible things they suffered, when white people rationalized slavery by saying black people couldn’t suffer) or later generations of scientists actually looked to see if there was something they recognized as consciousness (i.e., research into animal cognition and emotional life, when Descartes said that a dog was basically a machine that moves and barks, but has no thought, self, or feelings.)

    I have always been flummoxed by the “well, that’s just your opinion, and you’re talking about specific people. I am talking about generalities” retort, too. It *is* my opinion, I can’t say I can be objective. But now I know that the person making this argument isn’t being objective either. He (it’s almost always a he, but that’s also just my experience) probably has even less of an idea what a Hypothetical Severely Disabled Person feels than I do, so he’s going on whatever he projects onto that person, which is going to be his own fear of disability and death, which he sees as going hand in hand.

    But I can only argue this well because I’ve been on the Internet for years, seeing what other disabled people (some of whom are even philosophers!) have written about this. If I were back in college, fresh out of high school, or even fresh out of college, I’d be totally unable to fend off an entire classroom full of people, and the professor too, arguing that people like me are holding the human race back and it would be better for everyone if we did not exist.

    I’d probably cry if that happened.

    (My comment seems to be italicized. I have no idea how that happened.)

  3. Pingback: “Not About You,” or the Politics of Universalizing | Whimsical Derridean

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