UPDATE: Rebecca Kukla further explains her position in a Facebook status update.
Friend-of-the-blog Rebecca Kukla is the latest 3:AM Magazine interviewee. Alongside lots of interesting observations about her philosophical work, she was asked to comment on the poor gender balance in professional philosophy. Here is one of her (somewhat controversial) comments:
[L]et me go on record as saying that I think that the whole idea that women are put off by or unsuited to the aggressive, argumentative style of philosophy is crap. Discursive intensity and tenacity, a high premium on verbal sparring and cleverness, and a fundamentally critical dialogical method have been central to philosophy since its birth, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. The fact is, most people, regardless of gender, find that kind of discourse difficult, overwhelming, and somewhat threatening; the Athenians didn’t crack out the hemlock for no reason. This is why most people should not be philosophers, and that’s just fine. A tiny number of women and men thrive on that kind of engagement. I think the idea that women are disproportionately bad at it or put off by it is based on anecdotes – anecdotes that are hopelessly distorted by stereotypes and biases – and not on serious evidence.
Over at Feminist Philosophers, friend-of-the-blog Jenny Saul reacted to this statement, respectfully disagreeing with Kukla. (Also, do read the comments by readers following the post: a very instructive discussion!)
Now, I don’t actually know whether women are put off by aggressive argumentative style. But I am firmly convinced that it’s bad for philosophy. It is more than possible to be critical and careful and to raise objections without being an arsehole. And guess what? Better philosophy ends up being done. Far too much philosophical discussion is more about showing that one is more clever than the speaker (or the objector) rather than trying to understand shit.
(Full disclosure: I deeply admire both, and have had the opportunity of interacting fruitfully with each of them over the last couple of years.)
Here I want to add to the debate by saying that I agree with both on a number of points, but ultimately I’m with Rebecca here. But let me first spell out the sense in which I agree with Jenny. I think she’s absolutely right in pointing out that in too many places philosophy is practiced as a sort of vanity contest: if there’s no blood on the floor at the end of a departmental colloquium, for example, then it wasn’t serious philosophy. What I find particularly annoying is the widespread habit of, while listening to a speaker, immediately jumping to the least charitable interpretation of what she/he is saying, and then moving on to look for counterexamples, without having really tried to first understand the points actually being made. (I had a lot of exposure to this approach at a certain department where I visited for a few months as a graduate student, and which shall remain nameless.) This approach is not conducive to good philosophy in any way; the goal is to beat the opponent by whichever means, including distorting the views actually being defended, rather than a common pursuit of truth.
But ultimately, I’m with Rebecca in holding that the kind of adversariality that characterizes philosophical debate at its best can be very productive. It is a well-known fact that we human reasoners have a strong tendency towards doxastic conservativeness (e.g. the phenomenon known as confirmation bias), i.e. we like to hold on to the beliefs we already have. Now, a very effective antidote to this tendency in contexts of intellectual inquiry simply is: people who disagree with you and who will prompt you to provide convincing reasons for your beliefs. In this process, you are forced to revisit your own beliefs, which may lead to a change of mind once you realize that your reasons for holding belief B are not so solid after all. By engaging in this process collectively, we are all much more likely to arrive at more solid, better grounded beliefs.
As Rebecca points out, this argumentative model of inquiry is at the very birth of Western philosophy in Ancient Greece. Philosophy has always been a dialogue of people disagreeing with each other, and this is precisely what makes it a worthwhile enterprise. (I’ve been developing the notion of productive adversariality within my dialogical conceptualization of logic and deductive reasoning, but the overall point applies more generally to philosophy as well.)
And what about the gender dimension, which is what prompted Rebecca’s observation in the first place? I think there is no denying that, historically, adversariality has been strongly associated with masculinity, and in this sense one might want to say that the whole enterprise of philosophy has a masculine origin. (In Ancient Greece, women were for the most part not welcome in philosophical debates at all. There were a few exceptions though, such as the hetaera Aspasia.) But now, modern women seem to be confronted with the choice between: rejecting productive adversariality, and thus (in my opinion) maintaining the association between adversariality and masculinity, thereby reinforcing an infelicitous dichotomy; appropriating productive adversariality as rightfully belonging to women as well – in other words, deflating the gender dimension of productive adversariality. I suppose it will come as no surprise that I identify strongly with the second option.
There is a catch though: as pointed out by one of the commenters in the FP post, women who adopt an argumentative style of philosophical interaction are often perceived as ‘bitchy’ and ‘angry’, simply because this behavior does not fit the stereotype of how ‘a woman should behave’. So in practice, women who appropriate productive adversariality do not have it easy. I am fully aware of this (having experienced the phenomenon from up close and personal), but it seems to me that it is a burden that some of us will have to bear, hoping to contribute towards a change in the stereotype sooner or later.