The Problem with the Problem of Women in Philosophy

I have been wanting to write this article ever since reading a recent article in The Guardian in which Jonathan Wolff asks the question “How can we end the male domination of philosophy?” This therefore is the problem of women in philosophy, which remains “the most male-dominated discipline in the humanities, both in its population and its combative methods”. The reader comments are, as always in The Guardian, passionate and wide-ranging, with many different views and counter views being espoused.

Credit: Bryony Bainbridge

Credit: Bryony Bainbridge

At Schumacher College I had the very great privilege to be taught for a week by English philosopher Mary Midgley, who is now 91 years old and yet about to publish her new book early next year titled Are You an Illusion?. She replies to Wolff in a letter, saying that:

It was clear that we were all more interested in understanding this deeply puzzling world than in putting each other down. That was how Elizabeth Anscombe, Philippa Foot, Iris Murdoch, Mary Warnock and I, in our various ways, all came to think out alternatives to the brash, unreal style of philosophising – based essentially on logical positivism – that was current at the time. And these were the ideas that we later expressed in our own writings.

Source: The golden age of female philosophy

At Nottingham University undergraduates take three courses in their first year. So as well as Psychology, I also took Philosophy and Linguistics. Psychology is a subject which has an extremely large ratio of women to men, as does Linguistics, and yet Philosophy, which you would think would attract like minded people wishing to grapple with the issues of epistemology (how do we know things?) and ontology (what is reality?) does appear to have this combative nature to it in some faculties, although this was never apparent at Nottingham I hasten to add.

There is, however, a problem with the problem of women in philosophy, and this is an interesting problem to confront, for it reveals what is for me a deeper issue. I asked my friend Emma Kidd, herself a philosopher and phenomenologist, to comment on Wolff’s article:

Emma Kidd

Emma Kidd

I think that confusing this more attentive, open way of engaging and inquiring with gender is rather missing the point. What the woman lecturer demonstrated, and thus inspired rather than denegrated, was more of a Phenomenological approach to engaging with the world, presencing what is, as it is, and being open and sensitive to reflecting patterns emerging within the students work that have emerged throughout the history of philosophy.

This is in contrast to the dominant mode of thinking and inquiry that most of academia, and our society, has over developed to the extent that it has come to pervade every aspect of our lives. As Iain McGilchrist points out, the left hemisphere which re-presents the world to us, from which our classical logic has emerged, has evolved to dominate our experience of the world.

We are caught in a hall of mirrors of our mind’s own making, one that only understands separation, abstraction, analysis, and by its own nature is not equipped to understand or even to tolerate contradiction, paradox, newness or the as of yet unknown. This is a human dilemma we are facing, not a gender issue.

Two women philosophers I really look up to an admire are Ingrid Stefanovic Lehman (Professor of Philosophy at the University of Toronto, and author of Safeguarding Our Common Future: Rethinking Sustainable Development) and Nora Bateson, an independent filmmaker, lecturer and writer and who is the daughter of Gregory Bateson, the anthropologist and cyberneticist. Nora recently posted a short but extremely potent critique of a presentation on Big Data which she had listened to, and the philosophical foundations from which her critique springs are telling:

At a recent session on Big Data I got a super-sized tummy ache. It appears to be the beanstalk sprouted from quantitative magic beans and binary rain. Huge scoops of numbers get formed into patterns that are totally decontexualized…. and then, good heavens, and then we call it information. At the session they referred to Big Data as the new oil. It is not noble. It is for sale. The thing about numbers is they pretend to be “objective”, they carry a tone of “fact & figures”… when in fact they are “objectifying” and are much more slippery in the stories they carry than poetry. This is not about Big Data, it is about our cultural perception of the possibilites for Big Data. Its about us. So…?

In business we find many women who are taking a deeply philosophical approach to the transformation of organisations and economics, thinkers such as Denise DeLuca (cofounder of Biomimicry for Creative Innovation), Jennifer Sertl (business strategist and systems thinker), Louise Altman (pioneering mindfulness in the workplace), KoAnn Skrzyniarz (founder of SustainableBrands.com) and Betsey Merkel (Technology-based Community and Economic Developer). The list is endless. Here the focus is not on philosophy as combat, but on philosophy as a path to help change our mental models, change our level of consciousness and help us co-create our futures together. As Emma rightly points out, to gain a deeper insight into the world, we do not need a female philosophy to counteract a male philosophy. We need to be taught as to how to enquire into nature, and for this we need to be led into the dynamic way of seeing. It is not a gender issue (although I do not at all wish to diminish gender issues, these obviously need to be addressed at one and the same time).

Maria at Schumacher College

Maria at Schumacher College

I wrote in my last blog about artist Charles Biederman who in one of his letters to physicist and philosopher David Bohm wrote that he could follow Bohm’s argument analytically, but he could not penetrate beyond the words to grasp the deeper insights from which the words and writings could only point to. One other philosopher in my life who has, of course, had a great influence on my thinking is my wife Maria. Maria studied Wittgenstein at university, as part of her degree in Economics. For many Wittgenstein remains elusively impenetrable, but for Maria his works made sense and resonated at a very deep intuitive level. Maria really does have this deep intuitive understanding of the world, and I admire immensely those who have it. I have learnt a huge amount from Maria, who is as humble in ego as she is as profound in thought.

This I think is the ultimate challenge for wannabie philosophers. It is not for men to become more like women, it is for each and every one of us to move from an ego-centric world view to an eco-centric world view, and that is why I always say that to see well is an act of humility.

2 thoughts on “The Problem with the Problem of Women in Philosophy

  1. I could not agree more with Emma’s take on this about this being a ‘human dilemma’ rather than a gender issue. Maybe we need a more enlightened view of gender as a continuum.

    The author of one of the blogs I follow has recently ‘come out’ and is planning to transition to becoming a woman. Such courage. I am not expecting her thinking to magically change overnight to being ‘feminine’. I suspect how she gets treated may change though. I will be interested to find out.

    On a personal note I did once notice just how pervasive our conditioning is with regard to gender. I was talking to someone who was truly androgynous. I could not tell if s/he was male or female. Although I consider myself pretty ‘enlightened’, during the chat I realised just how unsettling it was not to know if I was talking to a man or a woman. I was doing it successfully (I believe) but I had to keep batting away the thoughts about the unanswered question. A real learning point.

    Good post.

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