Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Feminism and Philosophy

Lydia McGrew has a post (partly) on feminist philosophy that I think puts forward a number of common stereotypes about the field that need to be put to rest. The most serious is this comment about feminist philosophy:

Which brings us to the real sense in which it is bad for women to enter the pink-collar ghetto: It is bad for them because they are going to be encouraged to do less rigorous work than they should be doing in philosophy. It will be bad for their professionalism. Group politics will become the very stuff of their "work" and "research," which is not good for the integrity of the work.

Part of the problem with this is that it misreads what feminist philosophy is; McGrew is making the same mistake Leiter made a while back when he suggested that Hypatia, the major feminist philosophy journal, couldn't be top-tier because it was too narrow. Anyone who has read Hypatia with any sort of semi-regularity knows immediately the obvious falsehood of this: if Hypatia failed to be a top-tier journal (I don't think it does, but if it did) it would have to be because it is too broad; it is extraordinarily difficult to manage a high degree of editorial quality when your submissions and readership are as extraordinarily diverse as Hypatia's. Likewise, McGrew makes the assumption (she more or less explicitly states it in the comments) that feminist philosophy is a narrow field with a relatively monolithic agenda -- "group politics". But extended interaction with feminist philosophers would show this to be false; feminist philosophers agree on very, very little. In fact, what they tend to agree on are not substantive claims but the same sorts of things philosophers elsewhere agree on -- problems worth discussing. This is not to say that there aren't substantive claims that get widespread agreement from feminist philosophers -- most will be pro-choice, for instance -- but this is demographics, not agenda. Even on points that are widely agreed upon, like the acceptability of abortion, one finds that the agreement does not run all that deeply -- the reasons for agreeing to the claim are very diverse, and the views on what follows from it practically even more so. "Group politics" is not something one finds; one finds a general concern for justice for women, but politically feminists are too diverse to have any coherent sort of "group politics". This becomes noticeable if you spend enough time hanging out with the people at the Feminist Philosophers blog.

Thus it is not possible to make sweeping claims about what women will be encouraged to do when they go into feminist philosophy. I have no doubt that there are some areas of feminist philosophy where they will, in fact, be encouraged to do less rigorous work. There are plenty of circumstances outside feminist philosophy where this is true, too; I've talked to more than one woman who has complained about how everyone attempted to push her into applied ethics despite the fact that she had made clear that she wanted to do something like philosophy of science. So it wouldn't be surprising if this were the case in some parts of feminist philosophy. But there are clearly areas where this is not the case; I assure you that if you go into analytic feminism you are not going to be pushed to do less rigorous work. If you do work at the intersection of feminism and cognitive science you are not going to be pushed to do less rigorous work. And if you do work in feminist history of philosophy, for at least some areas of that very large field I can guarantee you that you are not going to be pushed to do less rigorous work.

Incidentally, in the comments the remark is made that non-feminists don't study feminist philosophy. But this seems to require playing with words. If one means by 'feminist' anyone who has a concern for improving the lot of women, then it's probably true. But this is hardly a problem. When you start getting much more specific you find that it is entirely possible to find non-feminists studying feminist philosophy, usually on particular topics. There are entire areas of history of philosophy where feminist philosophers are at the forefront of the work; understanding what they are doing requires study of feminist philosophy.

Lydia does analytic philosophy, which is a notoriously self-regarding field; some of this shows here in comments sprinkled throughout. But it can't just be analytic narcissism syndrome; she shows no recognition of the fact that there are people doing feminist analytic philosophy, for instance.