Prolegomena to Any Future Parity in Philosophy

Rose Woodhouse

Elizabeth Picciuto was born and reared on Long Island, and, as was the custom for the time and place, got a PhD in philosophy. She freelances, mainly about disability, but once in a while about yeti. Mother to three children, one of whom is disabled, two of whom have brown eyes, three of whom are reasonable cute, you do not want to get her started talking about gardening.

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40 Responses

  1. Kazzy says:


    Are these changes in the demographics of philosophers/philosophy majors leading to any change in the subject itself? Are different people being studied? Different ideas being brought to the table? Is it in any way moving away from the works of dead white guys?Report

    • Rose Woodhouse in reply to Kazzy says:

      I try to and others try to. But it’s hard when you do Western phil, as we do: you can’t have a phil class that doesn’t deal with (depending on content): Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Hume, Kant, etc.Report

      • Kazzy in reply to Rose Woodhouse says:

        When you say “we”, do you mean your department? Are other departments broader in their approach… perhaps with offerings in Eastern phil, philosophy of the Americas, African philosophy, etc?Report

      • Jaybird in reply to Rose Woodhouse says:

        When I was in school (a million years ago), there were courses that showed up every semester, courses that showed up every year, courses that showed up every two years, and courses that showed up every four years.

        For some reason, the courses that showed up every semester (101, Logic/Rhetoric) were usually packed and the courses that showed up every four years usually had about 60% of capacity.

        I don’t know how much that has changed in the last 20-some years, though.Report

  2. Rose Woodhouse says:

    Broader field. Yes, departments offer those, but they aren’t the main course – they are side dishes.Report

  3. Pinky says:

    I would guess (and it’s only a guess) that women and minorities who are interested in philosophy get steered into X Studies majors.Report

  4. Chris says:

    I wonder if there might also be better ways to reach out to undergraduates. I don’t know the current numbers, but for a long time cognitive psychology was 75% male, despite psychology departments in general being about 2/3s female. There were a lot of explanations for this, some of them good some of them bad, but when it came down to it, I think the biggest factor was the way in which cognitive psychology was promoted to undergrads: you had one, maybe two courses for undergrads, a brief mention in intro psych, and little else. For this reason, many cognitive psychologists actually came from other, male-dominated undergrad majors (comp sci, philosophy, math, etc.). Recently (in the last 10 years), many cognitive psychology areas have been actively reaching out to psychology undergrads (through research fairs and getting more undergraduate research assistants), and the number of female graduate students has gone up noticeably.Report

  5. NewDealer says:


    The Philosophy department at Vassar did offer courses in Eastern philosophy and did try to do interdisciplinary philosophy. My first year writing course was called Problems of Philosophy and we read Mencius along with Plato and modern philosophers like Thomas Kuhn. Even modern philosophers tend to be of European origin and background like Thomas Heideger, Hannah Arendt, Martha Nussbaum. bell hooks is an exception it seems.

    But you can’t study philosophy without studying the Western Greats like Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Thomas of Aquinas, Locke, Kant, Thoreau, etc. I would say a philosophy department that skips over Plato and Aristotle is no philosophy department. Just like you can’t have a Theatre or English department that skips over Shakespeare. This might be unfashionable as a viewpoint but I think it is true. Though I’m a liberal who believes that it is better to take the Asian, Latin American, and African canons and elevate them to being the equals of the Western canon instead of displacing the Western tradition. So I would add rather than subtract and replace. People should take a Great Books course in University but it should include The Tale of Genji and Things Fall Apart and the Bhagavad Gita (and more) along with The Republic, The Poetics, City of God, The Talmud, Paradise Lost, etc. Or maybe have two required courses: Great Books: Western and Great Books: Non-Western.

    There do seem to be parts of the left where it is mandatory to trash Western culture. I think you can critique Western culture for slavery and other misdeeds/evils while teaching that there was a lot of Western art and culture that is really good from The Ancient Greeks to the Renaissance to Mozart to now.


    I think those solutions are draconian but it also seems that draconian solutions were required if the graduate student program was put on suspension until things are worked out. Though student and professor sexual relationships seem like it is always going to be fraught with controversy. It probably happens at least once a semester on every campus. On the one hand, presumably everyone is an adult capable of consent. On the other hand, power dynamics.

    Being a grad student (especially when one is aiming at academia as a career) seems to be a weird mix of being a professional equal and being a student at the same time. I felt this more as an MFA student than as a JD. When I was in theatre grad school, we would hang out and get drinks with our professors at least once a week usually after a particular class which was all the playwrights, directors, and actors together called Co-Lab. In law school, only two professors ever entertained us at their places and I only got lunch with a professor once as a kind of social event.Report

    • Kazzy in reply to NewDealer says:


      I generally agree with you about adding rather than subtracting. Sometimes you bump up against practical limits wherein you have to remove something in order to add something, but this doesn’t require trashing on what is removed nor removing it entirely. So, maybe you still do Shakespeare, but you only spend one month on him instead of four.Report

    • Rose Woodhouse in reply to NewDealer says:

      My reference to draconian solutions was ironic.Report

    • Alan Scott in reply to NewDealer says:

      My Theater degree was pretty light on Shakespeare, albeit with the understanding of “I’m sure you had more than enough of this in high school”. Discussed in a sophomore year theater history class (though the reading for Elizabethan Theater was Marlowe’s Faustus rather than a Shakespeare Play), and then one junior level Shakespeare course that was taught by the English department rather than the Theater Department. Even then, Theater is a discipline where your primary texts are really important.

      But having your intro to philosophy class read Plato’s Dialogues is rather like having your intro to biology class read Pliny the Elder’s Bestiary. For that matter, how often will an intro to biology class even read Darwin? Certainly Darwin’s ideas will be studied, but they will be studied in the context of our modern understanding of evolution rather than the context of 19th century tall ships.

      Studying it in college, I though philosophy was total bullshit. It’s only many years later, reading Rose’s posts, that I have come to appreciate its value. What Plato and Descartes have to say about the nature of reality and shadows in caves and invisible geniuses is so much intellectual wankery–and there’s no reason that the study of philosophy has to lead with that, rather than something like contemporary bio-ethics.Report

      • Rose Woodhouse in reply to Alan Scott says:

        Some people do topic-based classes (at the intro level), some do historical. I usually do the former. But there are some texts that I think are old as the hills but are really great (e.g., Plato’s Euthyphro, the first two of Descartes Meditations, parts of Aristotle, basically all of Hume). The analogy with biology doesn’t hold so much, because technology has only altered the communication of what we do. You still have to sit down and write. We have different expectations for writing standards, and we have lots of people who have come before us who have thought out some of what our initial responses would be. (If Plato submitted, say, Ion for publication, what would the report say? I’m almost tempted to do the rejection report as a joke post. In fact, damn it, I will! Sometimes, also, it’s helpful to trace the origins and development of an idea with its different flavors. So in a moral theory class, I might teach moral anti-realism by starting with Hume, hitting Ruth Benedict, Ayer, Mackie.

        The only time I use anything published before the 20th century in an upper-level class is if it is still an influential view. I’m teaching an aesthetics class right now. We are reading Aristotle, Hume, and Kant because these guys still influence people today.

        I’m going to teach Bioethics over the summer. No dead white guys at all, except for possibly a couple of passages from Kant.Report

      • Rose Woodhouse in reply to Alan Scott says:

        The thing is, even if you read all current literature, it’s still almost entirely white guys.Report

      • Murali in reply to Alan Scott says:

        Large swathes of modern analytic philosophy have a certain sceptical orientation which I think is necessary to do good philosophy*. It might seem like intellectual wankery to ask how we know that the external world is the way it appears to us (or even approximately so) but these questions are important. If we claim to know something, in order for us to be correct and justified in our knowledge claims, there must be an available and general account of how people may acquire knowledge or even just justified beliefs. Talk about the possibility of evil demons, brains in vats etc pose genuine challenges that any general account of how we can acquire justified beliefs must meet. Common sense or folk accounts of knowledge fail because the way in which they discount sceptical scenarios is circular, which is itself a problem even by common sense standards of justification.

        *Lots of applied ethics like most of bioethics, most of environmental ethics and large parts of political philosophy as well as large chunks of basic normative ethics is insufficiently sceptical and thus not very good philosophy.Report

      • Rose Woodhouse in reply to Alan Scott says:

        I concur with Murali here.Report

      • Murali in reply to Alan Scott says:

        The above comment was aimed @alan-scottReport

      • Murali in reply to Alan Scott says:

        But do you know what’s weird, lots of lay people think of Kant as this austere realist, but Kantian constructivists like Rawls and Korsgaard regard him as an anti-realist. Certainly, if my memory serves me correctly, the prescriptivism of Hare is more congenial to the sort of practical deontic requirements that are part of Kant’s theory. i.e. if your theory was a descriptive theory about what right making features there are in the world, then many of the things that Kant says would not make sense. A lot of the stuff Kant says about the categorical imperative only makes sense if you adopt some sort of constructivism and prescriptivism.Report

      • Rose Woodhouse in reply to Alan Scott says:

        Yeah, I’m not as acquainted with the meta-ethical debate. I think he’s understandably construed a realist in terms of the truth value of moral statements on his view, but (IIRC) Korsgaard’s point (and Rawls’s?) was that he should be construed as a constructivist in terms of the fact that it is reason (and not say, some fact about the world aside from reason) that is right-making.Report

      • Alan Scott in reply to Alan Scott says:

        If we claim to know something, in order for us to be correct and justified in our knowledge claims, there must be an available and general account of how people may acquire knowledge or even just justified beliefs. Talk about the possibility of evil demons, brains in vats etc pose genuine challenges that any general account of how we can acquire justified beliefs must meet.

        Baloney. These questions boil down to “Does existence exist?”, which is right up there with “Can god cook a burrito so hot even he can’t eat it?” for stupid questions. This seems like something that would only really appeal to upper-middle-class white men who are maybe a little bit stoned. If that’s the foot that philosophy departments are leading with (and that was the case at my school), I’m not especially surprised that you get a field dominated by white men who sometimes get a bit handsy over drinks.Report

      • Rose Woodhouse in reply to Alan Scott says:

        @alan-scott First, I should say that I think Murali was right in that some applied stuff has suffered.

        Second, though, the question is not “does existence exist” but which of my beliefs actually match the world. The reason why Descartes is interesting is because of the difficulty we have in determining that even at such a basic level as perception. Do our sensory perceptions match the actual world exactly? Do they represent the world with distortions? Do they represent the world with serious distortions or falsely represent that there is a world. The fact that it is very very difficult, if not impossible, to determine which of these is the case (except using either inference to the best explanation or, as you do and G.E. Moore does, a sort of “come on now, folks, this is ridiculous” hand-waving) is an interesting fact, and has implications for scientists and all of us. If our job as philosophers is similar to that of scientists and is partly or mainly to increase true beliefs and decrease false beliefs, then it matters.

        However, of course it’s not necessary to re-invent the wheel every time you do any philosophy. You don’t need to address the reality of the external world before you do, say, ethics (I have to get my students not to do this, sometimes). But thinking through the problem Descartes posed is helpful both to see what philosophy is for, and for helping you see that your beliefs may be slightly shakier than you think.Report

  6. zic says:

    The idea behind site visits was that universities would reach out to the committee for help, not for public shaming. It was a good thing, after all, that Boulder reached out. Apparently, the report was released not by the APA committee, but by UC Boulder’s administration. Now what department will be willing to subject itself to that exposure?

    This is troubling me. There are numbers of things going on here, but lets start with the fact you offer elsewhere — 15 separate complaints of sexual harassment. Aren’t those complaints part of the legal requirements for invoking legal investigations? If so, it seems like it would preclude a promise of privacy for the department; such a promise might not be one the university could keep. When the process of justice begins, that always has the potential to become part of the public record. I cannot file a legal complaint against an employer for sexual harassment I don’t go through the steps to document it, and that first step is contacting the employer and filing a complaint.

    The next problem is that the philosophers in the department did not understand this; they agreed to a back-room investigation that gave them opportunity to clean their act up. That sounds great, it really does. But because there were complaints of a legal nature, this also seems like it has the potential to become a coverup of actual crimes. One of the things about justice is that you are innocent until proven guilty, but the process itself is a public exposure for all parties, not just the accused, and the public’s reaction can include shaming.

    Third is who released the report. Did the committee involved have the right to keep it secret? Even if they did, upon turning it over, did the university assume this obligation? Perhaps, they were required to make it public. Perhaps administrators felt the report so egregious that it offered a teaching moment to other departments to clean their act up.

    I share your disapointment that the whole profession will be tarred so; but a profession closely associated with ethics might need to shoulder a greater burden when it comes to obviously ethical violations of others rights.Report

    • Rose Woodhouse in reply to zic says:

      Zic, I agree with you – exposure is good. I said that in the OP. It just does not come without costs.

      The complaints were handled individually by the university. Entirely separate process. This report was not to address them, but to address the culture of the department. Departments will be more reluctant to reach out in the future. That is a shame.Report

      • zic in reply to Rose Woodhouse says:

        I understand this.

        But it’s also a shame they think the culture of the department should be protected above the rights of the women working or studying in the department.

        I do think the priorities are misplaced.Report

      • zic in reply to Rose Woodhouse says:

        Rose, I actually wonder if the public release of this type of report might be response to Penn States mishandling of things, too. It wouldn’t surprise me to see a pendulum shift in the reveal direction for a while.Report

      • Rose Woodhouse in reply to Rose Woodhouse says:

        The point of the report was not a discovery of what occurred. It was not supposed to be forensic. It certainly was not supposed to protect its culture; quite the opposite. It was supposed to be a set of recommendations on how the department can improve. The writers of the report (whom I don’t think you can accuse of not taking the matter seriously) were upset that it was released. They wanted to be able to create a situation where (since it would be private) everyone could be honest about what happened. Then they could give advice on how to improve.Report

      • zic in reply to Rose Woodhouse says:

        @rose-woodhouse, something made the administrators with the authority to release the report change their minds.

        Perhaps they realize it would be leaked, for instance, and that a leak would be damning. Perhaps there’s some underlying change in how universities perceive these kind of rights violations within the school underway, which wouldn’t surprise me after the events at Penn State. I was pushing at finding the reasons they released the report, I doubt they did it without consideration if it was meant to be confidential and they had agreed to that. Something changed; the very philosophy at their decision making practices changed.

        As a reformed reporter, this is very important to me. When you promise someone confidence, you keep it. They didn’t, and so I wanted to consider their possible motivations for violating that trust.Report

      • Rose Woodhouse in reply to Rose Woodhouse says:

        This former member of the department suggests the university wasn’t acting totally benevolently, but it’s not clear exactly what the university motivations are:

  7. Shazbot3 says:

    In some sense, the whole profession does deserve to be tarred as sexist. There are those doing the sexist harrassment and those tolerating it and choosing to not fight harder to stop it.

    As a grad student I saw things. Bad things. The faculty knew they happened but did nothing.Report

  8. Butterfly says:

    This is a general problem in all walks of life. Exposure is necessary, even at a cost. Women deserve to be treated with respect in universities and the workplace.Report

  9. Michael Drew says:

    For the life of me, I don’t get why philosophy is so much worse for this stuff than other male-dominated academic fields – or if it’s not, why it seems to make the news for it so much more.Report

    • For what it’s worth, I think women in the business school are affected as well (though I have no way of comparing it to philosophy). My experience in academia is that they have to put up with much more of this kind of thing than in industry. I’m not exactly sure why, but I think it has something to do with the inertia of the institution.Report

    • Rose Woodhouse in reply to Michael Drew says:

      Michael, I think the male-dominated-ness alone helps. Which is due, as I suggested, to beliefs about innateness of abilities and other issues. Philosophers are also less willing to examine their biases because they don’t think they have any biases. They also think they are better able to think out issues of right and wrong than anyone else (which is, for the record, NOT always true, although I do think philosophical education is in fact useful), so if someone presents them with a standard of behavior they will argue it into the ground. We may make the news more because it’s worse, or because people think it’s funny that philosophers, who are supposed to be so deep etc. etc., are really a bunch of jerks like everyone else.

      I don’t think it happens as much at businesses and perhaps (some) other academic departments partly because women have more freedom to bolt. As I said, even if everyone takes your complaints utterly seriously, if you lose your mentor, you are not only out of the job, but often out of the field.

      Without going into details, this happened to me. An ex-advisor acted egregiously, and I was in a bind. I had come to the school to work with him (as many PhD students do). He was the only guy in the department who did my specialization. He was one of maybe the top three guys in the country in that specialization. So I could:

      1) Try to transfer, although acceptance rates at any PhD program are quite low. If I transferred successfully, there were two other places in the country where a recommendation from someone in the area would carry the weight Egregious Ex-advisor’s did on the job market. Both are good buddies with Egregious Ex-advisor. I would need letters of recommendation from three professors to transfer – it would be noted if I didn’t have one from Egregious Ex-advisor and assumed that he thought I couldn’t cut it. I would also be informing my department I want to leave, which is a bit awk and all, since I wanted to stay.

      2) Throw out your previous work and start again in a different area. This can be a non-starter for many many reasons, including but not limited to the debt you are accumulating each year you are in grad school.

      3) Report him. Then some people in the department would support you, some would be against you. Uncomfortable situations. That’s assuming the report leads to nothing or a slap on the wrist, which is most likely. Let’s say more severe punishment occurs or he’s ousted. The department is damaged by the tarnishing of the reputation of one of its leading lights. You have now damaged the careers of all the people who supported you and the other grad students because your department will drop in the rankings. If it makes the national philosophy gossip rounds (if not national news) then that could adversely affect your job chances, because, again, many would support you, and some jerks would think you’re a whiny feminist.

      4) Do what I did, which is figure our a faculty member whose work had a fairly subtle connection to what you are doing, switch the focus of your work but not the essentials, and establish a great working relationship. Egregious Ex-advisor roams free, but I do warn the PhD applicants who contact me to ask what working with him is like.Report

  10. This seems roughly analogous to Morbidity and Mortality (M&M) conferences in medicine.

    During these conferences, things that went wrong in the care of a patient are discussed. In my experience (and blessedly, I never found myself having to present at one), residents will describe the clinical course to the other assembled doctors, and often others with expertise will weigh in on how things could have been managed better. It’s meant to shed light on things that should have been handled differently so everyone can learn from the mistakes made.

    They are not open to the public, and only medical staff are invited to attend. This is so people have a (relatively) safe space in which to acknowledge errors without fear they’re going to make a statement that gets them sued. Were these conferences made public, nobody would be willing to talk about such things. Perhaps one could argue that this would let in more light, but it would be counterproductive to the process.

    To my reading, that is now at least part of what is likely to happen now that this report has been made public.Report

  11. Murali says:

    Yeesh, I did not know that shenanigans got to be so bad.Report

  12. Stillwater says:

    I’m pretty familiar with the CU Phil Department from before the period outlined in the APA report, so I (of course!) view things somewhat differently. Since the evidence is scant at this point, I’ll throw out some thoughts which might make sense of some of the conclusions arrived at by the APA report.

    1. Without excusing any of the behaviors outlined in the report, I think a bunch of that stuff is indicative of academics in general rather than specific to CU. So in that sense, CU is being criticized for behaviors that, institutionally, are accepted and reinforced within male dominated disciplines across the board. (I saw the subtle signals of misogyny within the Neuro community – a field heavily dominated my men back when I studied that stuff.)

    2. Some of the questionable behaviors might derive from a tension between two factions within the Phil Department about direction and identity: the hard core M&E folks (George Bealer, Michael Tooley, Stephen Leeds, etc) and the feminist/social/applied phil camp (Allison Jagger, Claudia Mills, etc). The M&E folks tended to look down on the social phil. subdiscipline as “soft”. And within the M&E group there was one long term female tenured prof who consistently received less-than-appropriate respect from her male colleagues, tho a fair description of that dynamic requires me to say that in my experience those criticisms were always focused on the quality of her work rather than her person or gender or whatever. It would be very easy, however, for someone to perceive those criticisms as being expressions of misogyny. (I’m not sure I’d want to even attempt to disentangle the interconnections, myself.) All that is to say that historical battle lines were formed and entrenched a looooong time ago and play out in real time as what could easily be seen as a conflict between genders: male/M&E vs female/femisism/applied ethics. I don’t know how relevant those considerations might be at an explanatory level, but I’d bet they aren’t irrelevant either.

    3. Sorta in conjunction with point 2, I have a hard time believing that the younger profs I personally know (Huemer, Hanna, Boonin, etc) would engage in any of these behaviors, and insofar as those guys are reflective of the newer culture within the Department, I’m inclined to think this is about lingering resentments between two old factions within the department itself, and how those old battle lines play out today.

    None of that should be construed as apologetics, of course. Just that it’s hard to say what’s going given the scanty evidence available.Report