Monday, October 29, 2007

Professor Anita Allen on Philosophy

I was tipped off by this post at Feminist Philosophers to this article on Professor Anita Allen's address to the Collegium of Black Women Philosophers:

Yet she recounts in stinging detail how tough it could be, as a black "Army brat" raised on bases from Georgia to Hawaii, to feel comfortable in philosophy, a discipline that still counts only about 30 black women among thousands of professors. That partly explains why she chose to move to legal academe and express her philosophical interests from there, while maintaining a secondary appointment in philosophy.

"I'm in a livelier, more hands-on world," Allen says, offering a sharp view of the discipline with which she fell in love as an adolescent.

"I have not been able to encourage other people like me to go into philosophy because I don't think it has enough to offer them.

"The salaries aren't that great, the prestige isn't that great, the ability to interact with the world isn't that great, the career options aren't that great, the methodologies are narrow.

"Why would you do that," she asks, "when you could be in an African American studies department, a law school, a history department, and have so many more people to interact with who are more like you, a place where so many more methods are acceptable, so many more topics are going to be written about? Why would you close yourself off in philosophy?

"I feel that philosophy is hoisting itself by its own petard. Its unwillingness to be more inclusive in terms of issues, methods, demographics, means that it's losing out on a lot of vibrancy, a lot of intellectual power."

Despite delight at the birth of the collegium, the existence finally of a "critical mass" of black female philosophers, she admits "philosophy still feels to me like an isolated profession."

"I don't think I would encourage a black woman who has big ideas necessarily to go into philosophy," Allen says. "Why? What's the point? Go out and win the Pulitzer Prize! Don't worry about academic philosophy. On the other hand, I would like to see that world open up to more women and women of color."

If Allen sounds like a person who fell out of love with philosophy as a malformed academic discipline, if not with the subject itself, the field may have itself to blame. She could not have started off more enamored.

There's a a good follow up question in this post: What is philosophy?

I dont know the answers, I'm just a law geek/social scientist. But it's all interesting to me. I forwarded this to friends interested in law and philosophy, and so I thought I'd post this as well.

I was just talking to a couple of jurisprudence scholars about the paucity of female jurisprudes in the current literature and academy, and how intimidating it is to "speak up" and join the male-dominated discussions/shouting matches that occur even on blogs. What can I say that won't sound stupid, or be shut down as being naive? It's heavily male dominated to be sure, and it reminds me of feeling shy in big classes in law school (things are different now that I take mostly graduate seminars which are much more roundtabley and not as prone to the over-talking aggressive male dynamic that tends to reward the loudest male and too-quickly pass over the think-before-speaking female student). I'm always afraid of a rhetorical smack-down for coming off naive, dumb--or hell, just imprecise, the cardinal sin.

You'd think jurisprudes would be less shrill than those talking about more controversial issues like race and feminism. I rarely get into such contentious debates when talking about my own work, which is potentially controversial enough because it's about the efficacy of outcome-oriented organizational accountability programs and compliance with federal anti-discrimination law vs. process-oriented organizational responses that may be merely symbolic. I can imagine tons of arguments that could erupt over economic incentives, restructuring the workplace, paternalism, privacy/autonomy concerns, interfering with market efficiency--there are actually big stakes involved, but the discussion--even at the business school--is for the most part pretty civil and collegial. I am told by a friend that a possible explanation may be the application of the "politics are so vicious because the stakes are so low" principle.

I've always been shy about talking about my interest in jurisprudence or political philosophy on my blog for the same reasons. I used to take jurisprudence and political philosophy courses back in college, continue to read it for "fun," and have even TA'd undergraduate jurisprudence classes. But I never feel quite equipped or confident enough to talk about this lingering interest on my blog (unlike, say, my rants on critical theory).

This is why I don't get free legal philosophy books to review.


I am alerted by X. Trapnel of Books Do Furnish A Room, of the relevance of this post by Harry Brighouse of Crooked Timber on a MUST READ paper by Sally Haslanger on Women in Philosophy.

Brighouse on Haslanger:

I’m going to resist the temptation to summarise for two reasons: one is that allfaculty members in Philosophy Departments should read the whole thing andcarefully, the other is that I don’t want any misimpressions caused by mysummary to influence subsequent discussion. Read it.

It seems blindingly obvious to me (but I’m willing to stand corrected, of course) that individual women, whatever their individual merits, have a better shot at success in grad school if there is a critical mass of other women in the program. Admissions committees create that environment (or fail to create it) by their decisions about the gender balance of entering classes. Haslanger herself is deliberately cautious about making very strong recommendations, but my (possibly ill-informed, but nevertheless entirely relevant) thought that graduate admissions committees are like night-club bouncers convinces me that graduate admissions committees should work very hard indeed to achieve gender balance.