What the lay public thinks it knows about philosophy today

If you do philosophy and haven’t yet read Rebecca Schuman’s wild attack job on the discipline in Slate, please read it through first. It gets worse as it goes on: http://www.slate.com/articles/life/education/2014/02/sexual_harassment_in_philosophy_departments_university_of_colorado_boulder.html
Slate has millions of readers, and those readers have tens, perhaps hundreds, of millions of friends. How many of them will now mentally associate philosophy with a ‘Wolf of Wall Street’ environment of open ass-slapping and utterly shameless sexual harassment, overt racism and homophobia, and old boys sitting around talking about the good old days before the ‘ethnics’ arrived?
I’m not exaggerating: all these things are stated in Schuman’s editorial.
What sort of effect will this have on university graduates with ‘BA in Philosophy’ on their resumes?
More narrowly, will this article lead to more, or fewer, women entering philosophy?
For years now, the unquestioned wisdom has been that the best way to attract and retain more women in philosophy is to accept without question the worst portrayals of sexism in the profession and to then to repeat and broadcast those portrayals — however weakly some may be substantiated, and however unclear the details — as widely as possible to raise awareness. Perhaps, at some point soonish, we should pause for a moment to carefully consider the wisdom of that approach before we dig ourselves in any deeper. At the very least, isn’t this something we should discuss?

9 thoughts on “What the lay public thinks it knows about philosophy today

  1. I’m a woman who enjoys philosophy and started a grad program but later switched out. I was never sexually harassed and nobody was inappropriately sexualized as far as I knew. But the bad attitudes and rudeness of students and profs got to me. It was bad in my BA and worse in grad school.

    Most in philosophy have never been properly socialized, and it shows. I’m not painting everyone with this brush, but I think we’ve all seen what I’m talking about. People riding ego trips, people who can talk for hours but can’t listen for a minute, and just plain rude assholes. Many of them were males but some were females. They were so in love with themselves that they were blind to their own dickery. Some of the ones (again, mostly males) who claimed to speak for me and other women were the worst of all, but there were also many who didn’t have anything to do with sexism or feminism. They were just jerks and came in all shapes and sizes and both sexes.

    Both my departments had climate committees. They only made things more annoying. I didn’t decide to go into philosophy departments to be an unpaid social worker. I just wanted to do philosophy. Constantly calling attention to things I don’t care about, my sex and race, soured me on the experience. I finally asked what I was doing in an expensive program when I sort of dreaded coming to school each day.

    This is just one woman’s experience, but maybe others are like mine (anyone out there?). The complete lack of social skills and general rudeness drove me away, and the climate committees made it worse. What drew me to philosophy was doing philosophy and what drove me away was the ego games and other obstacles to doing it enjoyably with a community of inquirers.

    If I’m not the only woman who feels this way, then this is maybe something philosophy should look at.

  2. Definitely agree with you that there are some major PR problems building up with philosophy. Half the world thinks it is psychology or astral projection, now the other half is increasingly thinking it is invariably a terrible place where overt racism, sexism etc., are the norm.

    I suppose the first half has been a problem for awhile; philosophy has never had any real PR efforts for a long time. Now the good efforts to get gender issues and such under control are wrecking the PR for people who do know what philosophy is. It is hardly a good situation to be in.

    How could it even be corrected? There will never be a Slate article on how efforts to improve things have been successful, only articles on the next iteration of McGinn or the APA report style hullabaloo.

    The “pseudo-intellectual” thing from the APA report was kind of funny at first, until it became an awesome way for many people to confirm that philosophy is not only bullshit but terribly sexist. (See, e.g., the gawker posts on it.)

    It’s one thing for McGinn to be representative of a problem with individuals in academia and often philosophy, quite another for the journalist bait view of Colorado to be representative of philosophy departments in general. Future efforts to address equity, sexism and representation should not be recklessly damaging to the profession, but instead be mindful of their goal of improving it on the whole. Maybe the APA report should’ve been written like student evaluation: Good stuff at first, terribly bad stuff in the middle, positive hopes at the end.

    • I’m rarely inclined to adopt conspiracy theories or speculate about the intentions of others. Nevertheless, I can’t help but think that some of these hit-pieces are partially motivated by a combination of sour grapes and confirmation bias. Most contemporary journalists were humanities majors during a time when (a) many of their “theoretically inclined” professors were making facile claims about the merits of and culture within philosophy departments and (b) their interactions with philosophy students and/or instructors were likely colored by the (not entirely unwarranted) contempt many of us feel for the figures they were studying. Thus, they are already possessed of a narrative in which we were a bunch of racist sexist Derrida-skeptical logic-chopping trolls clinging to our God, Freedom, and Immortality. For that reason, they are quick to pour on the opprobrium whenever a Colorado report surfaces. At the same time, their slow to think critically about the veracity of generalizations they’re advancing, whether they’ve got the facts right, or what effects their reporting might have on our discipline.

      Alas, I am not especially sanguine about any of the ways we might combat our PR problem. I don’t think we can just keep our problems in house. But, if not, then we’re exposing ourselves to a hostile and ignorant world.

      • Interesting analysis, RM! Reminds me of something Bryan Magee said in his _Confessions of a Philosopher_ (and Magee is quite a fan of Schopenhauer, Heidegger, and many other European thinkers):

        “Very noticeably, many of the individuals to whom Continental philosophy appeals are among those to whom Marxism once appealed. Its factions often possess the same sort of gang mentality, and behave in the same unlovely ways — being, among other things, intimidating and eliminative of dissent.”

        It’s in keeping with your idea, I think, that the writer of the _Slate_ piece has her PhD in German (and an MA in Humanities and Social Thought) rather than philosophy. Quite possibly, this means that she came into contact with philosophical figures without first learning how to do or read philosophy. Not sure about Hamilton Nolan at Gawker, though it seems he did philosophy at Howard (whatever that involved).

        I’ve met several non-philosophers who were deeply attracted to these intellectual currents in their university years (some as early as the 1960s) who to this day retain a hostility to reasoning and even to words like ‘reason’ and ‘rationality’, but who also seem to have taken from them an attachment to social activism. While many of them happen to advocate social causes I also support, some do not and I often think that those who do are hampering rather than promoting the success of their social goals by pursuing them anti-rationally.

        I’ve been told that this is more a function of the way Continental ideas were received in the English-speaking world than of the ideas themselves, and that in Europe they have not had this effect. But I must admit I don’t have enough background to know. Perhaps you or others here do?

    • Thanks, TM. I like your call for balance. The CSW report does contain some points in favor of the department, which I think is good; but as you say, particularly since (as it now seems) the site visit team was aware when writing that their report would be read by those outside the department, it may have been improved by following your format.

      You’ve got me thinking again about another way in which such teams might benefit from attention to composition. More on that soon!

  3. Although I’m rather pedestrian epistemologist, I do enjoy reading and learning about many of the figures in the “continental” tradition. When I read them, however, I go through the following process. First, I try to get clear on their technical vocabulary. Second, I search for the arguments they use to support their claims. Third, I evaluate whatever arguments whatever I’ve found.

    In my experience, lots of people (especially students) involved with other humanities disciplines are not very interested in reconstructing and evaluating arguments. Thus, the works of Saussure, Foucault, Barthes, and so forth are read more like divinely inspired religious texts. That is, such readers allow that there are interesting questions about exegesis and coherence of these philosophers’ works, but don’t tend to allow corresponding questions about whether their clams are true or enjoy adequate argumentative support.

    Perhaps this partially explains the “reception problem” that you point out.

    Moreover, my sense is that, for many of the humanities students who find their way into journalism, truth and rationality were never of special concern.

  4. You know what your problem is laughing philosopher? You are part of what we call the “reality based community.” You believe that solutions emerge from judicious study of discernible reality. But, while your studying that reality important people like Rebecca Shuman will be creating new realities and you can study those too.

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