Thursday, August 15, 2013

Women in Philosophy vs. Feminist Philosophy

Why isn't this on more syllabi? What do we intend when we do put it on syllabi?
Following my twitscussion earlier with Pauline Kaurin about my desire to try teaching an Intro to Philosophy class that consisted of entirely female philosophers, I discovered that the NewAPPS blog had recently begun the project of putting together a database of readings by female philosophers to be used for not only Intro, but for any philosophy class.

As Helen De Cruz explains:
It is still very common that students only get readings by male authors in their introductory classes to philosophy. This contributes to the image of philosophy as a boys only discipline. It would therefore be useful to have a list with readings written by women that are suitable for philosophy courses, such as general introduction to philosophy, philosophy of science, ethics, epistemology.
Needless to say, I am very happy to see that such a project is underway, and has already received many excellent suggestion on the Google Docs spreadsheet they link to on the blog.

However, one caveat Professor De Cruz mentions at the end worries me about this project.  She concludes:
In first instance, the focus would be on papers and book excerpts that are not overtly specialist or technical, suitable for intro-level or intermediate courses. Ideally, they should have made a significant impact on their field. They should be readings you have either already successfully used in class context, or envisage using.
I have emphasized the caveat I find worrisome insofar as it seems that, depending on how one understands the meaning of "ideally" here, the whole point of this project should be to overcome the philosophical, institutional, and historical biases that have precisely prevented women from having "made a significant impact on their field."

My concern then is this: Should this project/database be used to help philosophy professors to switch male authors for female authors without necessarily changing the philosophical topic and concepts under discussion, or should this be used instead to underline how the topics and concepts historically approved by philosophy have helped to make this project/database necessary in the first place?

I do not want to suggest that there is necessarily no value in opting for the first option over the second (or that this is what is currently being done here, as the database seems instead to currently be a mix of the two), as it is perhaps worthwhile—as I suggested on twitter in my exchange with Professor Kaurin—to do a sort of "Pepsi Challenge" with such a course and see if students notice/care/are affected by reading female-only philosophy texts without having been informed prior of the gender of the authors.  Similarly, would the gender of the professor have an effect on such a syllabus?  There is also of course the question of reinforcing gender essentialism in suggesting on the one hand, that female philosophers should or must write about or be used to emphasize female-specific issues in the history of philosophy, and on the other hand, that female philosophers cannot or do not emphasize such issues in their work regardless of whether that is their conscious or unconscious intention.

I am not therefore trying to criticize this project so much as call attention to an issue that I think needs to be addressed before we—as often happens—think we've overcome a historical error only to have reproduced it because we didn't successfully identify the error in the first place.

Relatedly, see also: Philosophy Has a Sexual Harassment Problem by Jennifer Saul
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1 comment:

  1. Pepsi challenge w/ say Arendt & Beauvoir vs. Irigaray & Butler. The former would probably be more consumable for intro.