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Silencing the men: a philosophical conundrum, or master stroke?

by | Sep 26, 2017 | The Agenda

The debate around women in philosophy is often polarising, essentialising and pretty damning of contemporary philosophy. ‘Women don’t like argument, combat, and aggression, so can’t cope with the disciplinary culture’—or so the argument goes:

‘Women lack the sort of mindset that is required to devote one’s life to solving glorified crossword puzzles, so opt out in search of something more meaningful’; ‘Women don’t get a kick out of status indicators like journal publications, so aren’t competitive in the current job market’.

Let us put to one side the well-documented sexual harassment, sexual assault and simple everyday sexism within academic philosophy. It may be true that some women are leaving the discipline because they are intimidated by the culture, bored by mainstream debates or unmotivated by the rewards on offer.

The debate around women in philosophy is often polarising, essentialising and pretty damning of contemporary philosophy.

However even if that is the case, we cannot conclude that the domination of men in philosophy is nothing to worry about.

If the disciplinary culture, topics and norms are set by privileged white men, of course we would expect those who fall outside that dominant group not to feel at home. What then can and should we do?

At University of Liverpool and Durham University we are trying an experiment, and we are inviting everyone to join in. We are asking whether we might contribute to ending the male domination in philosophy by providing our women undergraduates a space within their studies where the prevailing norms are inverted – where no male philosophers are on the reading list, where there are no male faculty members, and where the dominant peer group is female. 

We cannot conclude that the domination of men in philosophy is nothing to worry about.

We hope that this space will enable our students to develop practices, interests and support structures that can sustain curiosity, and support transition into post-graduate study and beyond.

The experiment is inspired by the experiences of four young women at Oxford University during World War II. Elizabeth Anscombe, Philippa Foot, Mary Midgley and Iris Murdoch began studying philosophy at Oxford in the late 1930s.

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Phillipa Foot, Mary Midgley, Iris Murdoch, and Elizabeth Anscombe

During the war, most of the male dons and undergraduates were away, and this created a university environment that was uniquely dominated by women. Mary Midgley, who at 98 recalls those war-time classes and the friendship the quartet formed, believes that the absence of men helped them. They were, she says ‘able to get heard’. Iris Murdoch described that time as a ‘world of women’.

Our undergraduate women have formed their own group and are meeting regularly to drink cocoa and discuss the philosophy of this remarkable quartet.

Iris Murdoch described that time as a ‘world of women’.

Alongside the experiment, In Parenthesis is also studying the philosophical practices of the quartet, and asking whether they fit the above-mentioned ‘combat and crosswords’ model of philosophy. (spoiler: they don’t).

Theirs was a group where philosophy was interwoven with friendship. In the years following the war, all four met regularly in Philippa Foot’s living room in Oxford to do philosophy together. In those meetings they devised an outline for an ethics that could challenge the views of those young men who had just returned from war.

Our undergraduate women have formed their own group and are meeting regularly to drink cocoa and discuss the philosophy of this remarkable quartet.

In particular, they were angered by the idea that questions about facts and questions about value belonged to different realms—the former being the domain of science and the latter the domain of feeling.

cocoa party 2 1000x1000

‘Cocoa party’ reading group essentials

Instead, they argued that whenever we describe the human reality that surrounds us, those descriptions are essentially ethical. Their collective work contains a detailed and provocative understanding of human nature which supports an integration of fact and value.

Theirs was a group where philosophy was interwoven with friendship.

We are now convinced that the four women should be thought of as a philosophical school, to be classed alongside, and in contrast to, their counterparts in the (all-male) logical positivists school.

In saying this, we are demanding that the history of twentieth-century philosophy be rewritten to foreground the remarkable contribution by this group of women, understood as a group, and not as lone women in dialogue with groups of men.

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