New feminist philosophy journal!

Four fantastic feminist philosophers are editors of a new philosophy journal!

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Critical thinking and sex/gender differences: The persistence of belief

In the best of times I find teaching critical thinking tremendously frustrating. I do not teach it at all for long stretches as a result, but the five-five schedule of a full-time community college teacher means that I return (frequently) to courses that I find frustrating in order to avoid the insanity that can result from teaching multiple sections of the same course. Three sections of the same course can produce (in me at any rate) something that resembles sleep walking in the classroom and a constant state of déjà vu (didn’t we go over this last class?).

In any case, I believe in critical thinking. I feel like I am doing something valuable as we work our way through the importance of giving reasons and all the ways that our thinking can go wrong even when we do so. The class finishes with a discussion of how to think critically about science and this semester’s class ended with a convergence of ideas and events that illustrated many of the most important ideas in the course.

Last week students were to write one page arguments either for or against the hypothesis that females are more nurturing and compassionate than males. The assignment was connected to a discussion of fallacies and they brought their papers to class and exchanged them to search for fallacies in their fellow students’ papers  – many of which, so I discovered while grading them, they had also committed in their own papers. The assignment worked fairly well (although the original papers were not very good – at least that made finding the fallacies easy). But what was even better was that the exercise coincided with the release of an article on sex differences in brains and their purported link to behavioral differences published in PNAS. The results were picked up and reported in a variety of media outlets – actually “misreported” would be a better description. and the final unit of our semester on scientific method.

First, the current discussion providing an opportunity to illustrate a particular problem that had occurred in their own papers – the difficulties that arise from dichotomous thinking about nature and nurture when talking about sex differences in behavior. Second – the numerous critiques of the science provided a great opportunity to discuss a variety of issues connected to “scientific method”: choice of research question, the use of background knowledge in research design, the question of what counts as a significant difference in statistical information, and the general complexity involved in the production of scientific knowledge. There have been a number of excellent commentaries on this research that can be used to highlight these issues.  I offer several of them here: Cordelia Fine’s critique of the paper and I also recommend her Delusions of GenderBerit Broggard’s post on the New APPS blog, Sophia K. Scott (critiquing the science specifically), and a more humorous take by Dean Burnett from The Guardian.

I have used sex difference research as an ongoing example throughout a critical thinking course before – mostly research on differences in mathematical ability – and I strongly recommend using one or two specific examples as the core examples for a critical thinking course. It is particularly challenging as students have to confront their own persistent beliefs that gender differences must be hardwired.

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Guest Post-Cycling after 60

Please see my Guest Post-Cycling after 60 on Fit, Feminist, and (Almost) Fifty.


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Why is this story about women?

Perhaps it is my imagination but it seems to me that the NYT has a tendency to frame stories about women, work, and family in a way that is somewhat reactionary.  This morning’s story, “Coveting Not a Corner Office, but Time at Home,” is a case in point. The thrust of the article is that most middle class working women with families don’t want to “lean in” and climb the corporate ladder but rather are looking for jobs with flexible schedules and good benefits  – although the article does note that ideally they would like the job to be rewarding as well.  But isn’t this something that working men with families also desire?  The answer to that question – according to an analysis of a longitudinal study released by the Pew Research Center this spring – is likely to be “yes”.  And yet, the Times article is exclusively about women.

Part of the reason for that seems to be that it is framed as a response to Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In (the much-discussed article by Anne-Marie Slaughter in last summer’s Atlantic Monthly is also referenced), even though the article notes that these pieces offer advice from and to elite women – not the average working class woman.  This framing is reminiscent of the critique of second wave feminism that it did not address the needs of most women – which was somehow supposed to make the critique less legitimate.  While sexism takes on different shapes and nuances when combined with class (as well as race, ethnicity, disability, and different gender identities) it is nonetheless sexism.  That a particular author addresses one version of sexism but not others does not thereby invalidate their observations.

Sadly, the Times has a history of undermining women through stories that might appear to be speaking to them. There was Lisa Belkin’s infamous “The Opt-Out Revolution” in 2003, for example.  This sort of article paints a world in which feminism has largely achieved its goals and women are now free to make choices, including the choice to opt-out of the work force (as in the case of the women that Belkin describes) or at least opt-out of the cut-throat-corporate-ladder-climbing work force that they are being urged into by women who don’t understand them (like Sheryl Sandberg).  These articles embrace “choice feminism” – as this view is sometimes called.  They do not question the very assumptions that keep systemic sexism in place – assumptions such as: it is women who are (and should be) primarily interested in and caring for children and the choices people make within particular societal structures should be read as if they were choices made from all possibilities (not just all of the options that are readily available given the very real constraints of those social structures).

Perhaps I am being unfair in expecting that a newspaper story (even in the NYT) would manage to engage in some deeper social critique rather than standard, unreflective fare.  But I would think that the idea that many humans are (or should be) invested in the well-being of the members of their families and not merely in their own careers is not something that should be treated as a story about women.

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Sentiment and reason

Next week’s The New Yorker (January 17) has an article by David Brooks, What the science of human nature can teach us:  It’s actually is is an excerpt from his forthcoming book which is primarily about education, according to his description.   The excerpt, however, reads like a sequel to his 2001 Bobos in Paradise with the new upper class now described as the “Composure Class.”  The thrust of the piece is that contemporary neuroscience and evolutionary psychology tell us that human nature is not so much rational as “sentimental,” as in the Humean meaning of “sentimental.” (Brooks describes it so in his live chat today at Ask the Author Live: David Brooks on the Composure Class.) His primary point is that our connectedness – our social nature – is more fundamental than our rational nature.

But if we see sentiment and reason as dichotomous we may be in trouble and this is something that’s perhaps a flaw in my previous post.  There I say that a certain rhetoric “pushes us” away from reason. I think it might be clearer to say that as well as befuddling reason, the sort of confusion such rhetoric causes also undermines real sentiment.  Though I am not wild about David Brooks politics and his I think there are problems with some of the science that he uses (see below*), what I did like in this article was the interplay or, maybe even, looping that takes place between the rational and the emotional. 

And this brings me to Obama’s speech last night and back to the issues of the previous post.  The speech was a good one and it did several things that I think are very important.  First, he pointed out that we should refrain from belief when we do not have the evidence: “For the truth is that none of us can know exactly what triggered this vicious attack. None of us can know with any certainty what might have stopped those shots from being fired, or what thoughts lurked in the inner recesses of a violent man’s mind.”  Secondly, he called for civility, without which we cannot have rational discourse.  “And if, as has been discussed in recent days, their deaths help usher in more civility in our public discourse, let’s remember that it is not because a simple lack of civility caused this tragedy, but rather because only a more civil and honest public discourse can help us face up to our challenges as a nation, in a way that would make them proud.” (Quoted from the transcript on The Washington Post website.)  He combined rationality and sentiment – we want to be connected to each other and be a community and to do so we need to recognize what our goals are and how to achieve them.  But to do that we have to put aside false feeling and convictions that are not grounded in reason.  

*One particular example that stuck out for me was that he buys the evolutionary psychology story about women being pickier about who they have sex with because of the need to have a mate who sticks around to help with the child-rearing. There is an empirically equivalent story that has women being promiscuous in order to rope as many males as possible into a community of caregivers all of whom have some reason to think the child might be their. One might argue that the second explanation doesn’t jibe with the pickiness of contemporary women, but the natural response there is to point out that social factors and changed circumstances (modern society is not Pleistocene society).

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Syllogisms, nihilism, and politics

I am concerned that philosophy may be in for some bad press after the recent coverage of Jared Loughner’s syllogisms and nihilism.  There was an interview with his philosophy instructor in Slate here and the NYT ran a piece on his nihilistic philosophy.  It’s described as a “belief in nothing,” which isn’t how I would have put it (since you can’t believe in nothing).  I would have said that it is a belief that there is nothing that is meaningful in and of itself.  For more discussion, see the Philosophy Pages definition or The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy search for nihilism.  The first item from this search has to do with Moral Skepticism, which seems most on target to me.   Later in the NYT article there is also a discussion of Loughner toying with something that sounds a bit like the inverted spectrum argument and his mistaking dreams for reality.  I am wondering how my teaching of Descartes’s Meditations is going to go this spring.  I think there might be more general support for the view frequently expressed whenever I teach the First Meditation that, as Mr, Gutierrez is quoted as saying in the NYT article “Normal people don’t talk about that stuff.”  But in fact they do, but within a very bounded framework, which is what is missing when philosophical reasoning blurs into unreason. 

One definition of “nihilism” (the one from Philosophy Pages) notes that it is “the denial of the possibility of making useful distinctions among things.”  I think that we may well be living in a nihilistic time in that sense.  What I mean is that the distinction between what is reasonable and what is not are badly blurred.  So, while “normal” people do not mistake their dreams for waking experience on a regular basis, someone might “talk about that stuff” and learn something in the process.  Exercising reason involves making these important distinctions and this brings me to the exercise of reason in relation to the events in Tucson and the subsequent political responses to those events.  There is much to say here but I am just going to focus on one issue for the moment.

Did the increasingly non-rational political rhetoric of the last decade cause the shooting in Tucson this past weekend? No. The causal chain is not one that could stand scrutiny. The causal links cannot be clearly articulated. But Sarah Palin and others are now arguing that there is nothing wrong with that political rhetoric and that those who have drawn a connection are off-base, or worse, they are committing “blood libel”. (As reported by Michael Shear in the NYT blog “The Caucus”.) In making this claim, she continues to engage in a particular brand of politics that gives rise to the idea that there is a causal connection between the current political discourse in the United States and the events of Saturday.

What do I mean? The standards of rational political discussion have disappeared. Loughner’s insane syllogisms bear a resemblance and here is how. He has the trappings of reason in the form of valid arguments (arguments which if the premises are true, then the conclusion would follow with certainty) but, of course, his premises are not true and so no true nor even meaningful conclusion follows from them. What passes for acceptable arguments in the political arena are arguments that bear more than a passing resemblance to Loughner’s. The premises he use are couched in metaphorical language that is difficult to interpret. If we cannot interpret it, we cannot figure out what sort of evidence would be required to determine if the claim is true. So, not only are the premises not true, but the use of language is not even geared towards the assessment of truth. Compare, for example, Sarah Palin’s statement in the video posted on her Facebook page: “Especially within hours of a tragedy unfolding, journalists and pundits should not manufacture a blood libel that serves only to incite the very hatred and violence that they purport to condemn. That is reprehensible.” When the implied argument is fleshed out, it goes something like this: Journalists and pundits should not manufacture a blood libel that incites the very hatred and violence they purport to condemn. (To do so would be reprehensible. Journalists and pundits did manufacture a blood libel that incites the very hatred and violence thy purport to condemn.) Therefore, their behavior is reprehensible. Did they manufacture a blood libel? Literally, no and so what she is saying is literally false. But, of course, we are not meant to take what she is saying literally. We are intended to interpret what she says as a metaphor. What they did was “like” a blood libel. But in what way? Is it really? We can’t assess the truth of the claim and so can’t determine whether we should draw the conclusion. We are thrown off reason and so can only respond from emotion. What do we feel? In general, if we like Sarah Palin we are going to feel she is right. There are no objective criteria for determining if we should accept her conclusion or not and because she has shifted the conversation away from the realm of rational discourse the fallback is our previously held political commitments and alignments. And here is the problem with the rhetoric of the extremist. It drives us away from reason and it is only through the use of reason that a democratic society can guide itself away from a kind of tribalist positionality to a state that works for its citizens because those citizens have a means of interacting with, conversing with, and negotiating with each other.

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What good is philosophy?

Thanks to a facebook friend’s post, I had the opportunity to look at some interesting photographs of philosophers taken by photographer Steve Pyke. Many of these photographs are accompanied by something that the philosopher had to say about herself, how she came to be a philosopher, or something about philosophy. So, for instance, Sally Haslanger says:

“Given the amount of suffering and injustice in the world, I flip-flop between thinking that doing philosophy is a complete luxury and that it is an absolute necessity. The idea that it is something in between strikes me as a dodge. So I do it in the hope that it is a contribution, and with the fear that I’m just being self-indulgent. I suppose these are the moral risks life is made of.”

Contrast this with Hartry Field:

“A nice thing about the sort of philosophy I do is that it can never be used to justify wars or oppress the disadvantaged or anything like that. Unfortunately, this follows from a more general principle.”

While Haslanger worries that she may not be making enough of a contribution, Field comforts himself that he is contributing nothing (and so nothing bad).

While it is probably true that many non-philosophers worry about whether what they are doing is worthwhile, this worry seems integral to being a philosopher. If we are to question everything, then surely we must also question that very activity. I think that I was particularly struck by these two quotes because they captured views that I have held at various different times. When I first became interested in philosophy I came to believe that it was, as Haslanger put it, “an absolute necessity”. I believed that it was through ideas that change would occur and that promoting the right ideas was crucial to bringing about the changes that I believed needed to take place. But my years of studying analytic philosophy in graduate school brought me much closer to Field’s understanding of philosophy. I enjoyed philosophy and it did no harm, so maybe it was, as Haslanger suggests, a luxury, but it was a harmless luxury. It took a few years, but I did eventually recover from graduate school and in doing I have thought about the value of philosophy almost every time I step into the classroom.

My current views on philosophy are not captured in either of these quotes. Haslanger claims that the idea that philosophy is something between a luxury and a necessity is a “dodge”, but I think that it all depends on what one means by “something in between”. There are times when philosophy is a necessity. There are times when a better understanding of the concepts that we are using to understand a problem or revealing unexamined presuppositions is the only way to make progress towards a solution. At such times I would argue philosophy is a necessity. But there are also times when it is nothing but a luxury because sitting around examining the situation is simply not what is called for at the moment. There are times when action is the right thing and though philosophy may lead to action, it is not the same thing as action. But even in such circumstances, we still need for people to be doing philosophy. We need to have people who are practiced in philosophical skills so that when we need them, they are there. Firefighters spend quite a bit of time just hanging around the firehouse. But firefighters are not a luxury – even when they are not needed.

Of course, what Field expresses is not a view about philosophy more generally, but only about the philosophy that he does. I wonder if he is right about that. I think that I still believe too strongly in the power of ideas to feel comfortable about accepting that even his philosophy is harmless without really thinking it through. If there are times when philosophers are needed, then perhaps to be a philosopher and to believe that philosophy has no bearing on life would seem to be shirking one’s duty.

Update: At the end of October the NYT carried a photo-essay on Steve Pyke’s work and an essay by him.

See these at and

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