Saturday, June 30, 2007

Midwest SWIP Fall 2008 CFP

A note about Society for Women in Philosophy and their sponsored conferences:
SWIP is divided into regional groups in the U.S. -- East, Midwest, and Pacific. From what I can tell, the regional groupings serve little other than an administrative function.

Each group sponsors conferences at least annually. Eastern SWIP usually meets in the spring, sometimes in conjunction with other conferences. For example, in 2004 Eastern SWIP met the day before a conference sponsored by the Rock Ethics Institute at Penn State on the feminism-related topic of "Epistemologies of Ignorance." Midwestern SWIP holds a conference in the fall and one in the spring, and the Pacific group usually meets twice a year. The conferences are not strictly regional, though, since presenters may come from any area of the country. Indeed, since academics do move (at least once, from graduate school to other employment, and often more than that), the regional memberships do not always represent the members' current academic homes.

SWIP also organizes multiple sessions at each of the three APA division meetings, and often organizes sessions in conjunction with other groups with overlapping interests, such as the Society for Analytical Feminism or the APA's Committee on the Status of Women.

There is also a SWIP group in the UK and one in Canada.

I've attended two Eastern SWIP conferences and one Canada-SWIP. They are always programs that range over a wide variety of philosophical disciplines, and are a great place to network, especially for graduate students and young professionals. (See Sharon's earlier post here.)

Organizers of the Eastern and Pacific SWIP conferences, in particular, make an effort to construct programs that include both papers focusing specifically on feminism and papers that address women in philosophy more generally. That is, there are papers on feminist bioethics alongside history of philosophy papers alongside social epistemology and social theory. In addition to a number of feminist papers, they attract submissions that analyze, critique, and extend the work women philosophers (e.g, papers on Hannah Arendt).

Although I've never attended a Midwest SWIP conference, their cfp's and programs have always struck me as being more specifically focused on feminism and women's issues while being more inclusive in terms of format, encouraging presentation styles outside of the typical philosopher-at-the-lectern-reading format. (A footnote to this inclusive message, though, is that, as an analytic philosopher, I don't feel as welcome to submit to the Midwest as to the Eastern--I don't know if that's just me or if I'm picking up on a message that analytic philosophers have other venues.)

And now, the announcement:

Midwest Society for Women in Philosophy
Call for Papers

Midwestern SWIP has always had a practice of making
its programs spaces for work that develops feminist
ideas, theory, philosophy and practice. We have not
included on our programs work that is not engaged in

At this time, we amend this practice so our programs
are spaces for work that, whatever else it does,
connects themes of feminism and male supremacy with
themes of anti-racism and white supremacy.

Midwest SWIP is an interdisciplinary conference with
a particular emphasis on troubling the discipline of
philosophy and the theory/practice dichotomy.

Fall 2007 Division Meeting
October 26-28, 2007
University of Toledo, Toledo, OH

Deadline for submissions: August 1, 2007

We invite work in all areas relating to feminist
anti-racist theory/practice, from political theory and
ethics to metaphysics and epistemology as well as
papers, panels, and performances that engage feminist
anti-racist praxis and theorizing more broadly.

Papers, poetry, panel proposals and/or other proposals
and queries should be sent via email to each of the
Gaile Pohlhaus at
Sophie Vick at

Thursday, June 28, 2007

CFP: Special issue of Hypatia on Feminist Bioethics and Medical Biotechnologies

Call for Papers

Special Issue of Hypatia: A Journal of Feminist Philosophy
Topic: "Medical Biotechnologies"

Edited by Marin Gillis and Inmaculada de Melo-Martín

Medical biotechnologies have been heralded as both the solution to most problems affecting human beings and their environments, and as a threat to all that matters to us. Feminist analysis of current medical biotechnologies has much to offer to this debate. Hypatia: A Journal of Feminist Philosophy invites
submissions that use feminist philosophy to evaluate medical biotechnologies.

Articles exploring feminist philosophical analyses of medical biotechnologies and those evaluating how feminist values might shape the development and implementation of such technologies are welcome. Also of interest are essays reflecting on the gendered, race, and class dimensions of medical biotechnologies, those evaluating the impact of globalization on these biotechnologies and vice-versa, and articles offering new insights into the effects of medical biotechnologies on social and political arrangements.

Although feminist work in biomedicine is frequently assumed to be about women's capacity to procreate, this issue seeks to highlight other dimensions of medical biotechnologies, including human genetic modification, cloning, xenotransplantation, chimeras, pharmacogenomics/genetics, and human genetic

Papers should be no more than 8000 words, inclusive of notes and bibliography, prepared for anonymous review, and accompanied by an abstract of no more than 100 words. Please provide a cover letter identifying your paper as a submission for the special issue "Medical Biotechnologies." The deadline for submissions is 15 March 2009.

Papers should be submitted by electronic attachment in Word to Marin Gillis at Submissions should follow Hypatia guidelines (see

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

What is experience?

I’ve been thinking a little about what philosophers and scientists mean by “experience.”

Science is empirical; it is based on what can be observed, what can be experienced. This has several important implications. First, explanations are natural, not supernatural. Second, scientific knowledge is based on observed data, not on guesswork, tradition, or sentiment. And third, evidence must be public. In principle, more than one person should be able to observe the evidence; indeed, anyone who is properly positioned to have the experience should have it.

But this is not the only meaning of experience, or even the primary one, in many contexts.

A part of the controversy over evidence-based medicine can be traced to different ideas about the kind of experience that is the basis for medical knowledge. Evidence-based medical practitioners think of medicine as being like a science, for which controlled empirical studies of large numbers of patients provide the best evidence for which treatments work. Others see medicine as being more like a craft that is based primarily on the clinical relationship between doctors and their patients. For them, experience is personal, and some doctors believe that what they have learned from their experience treating patients as distinct individuals cannot be replaced by generic studies.

In an April 2007 New Yorker article by John Colapinto titled “The Interpreter: Has a remote Amazonian tribe upended our understanding of language?”, the linguist Dan Everett claims that members of the Piraha tribe are “the ultimate empiricists.”

Colapinto writes
The tribe embodies a living-in-the-present ethos so powerful that it has affected every aspect of the people’s lives. Committed to an existence in which only observable experience is real, the Piraha do not think, or speak, in abstractions - and thus do not use color terms, quantifiers, numbers, or myths. Everett pointed to the word “xibipio” as a clue to how the Piraha perceive reality solely according to what exists within the boundaries of their direct experience–which Everett defined as anything that they can see and hear, or that someone living has seen and heard. “When someone walks around a bend in the river, the Piraha say that the person has not simply gone away but “xibipio”–”gone out of experience,” Everett said. “They use the same phrase when a candle flame flickers. The light “goes in and out of experience.”
The extreme attitude toward experience of the Piraha points out the limits of empiricism, and why a culture that is empiricist to such a degree could never develop anything resembling modern science, because science is just as dependent on the trustworthiness of testimony as it is on the trustworthiness of direct experience.

On the one hand, our culture, which is a culture thoroughly permeated by science and technology, is resolutely empiricist. On the other hand, we are reliant on information about experiences that are not our own.

I’m reading a book about children and education that quotes ecological psychologist Edward Reed:
There is something wrong with a society that spends so much money, as well as countless hours of human effort—to make the least dregs of processed information available to everyone everywhere and yet does little or nothing to help us explore the world for ourselves.
[We are beginning] to lose the ability to experience our world directly. What we have come to mean by the term experience is impoverished; what we have of experience in daily life is impoverished as well.

I have a hard time seeing that what we mean by experience is at fault, or that abundance of information is necessarily a barrier to having first-person, direct experiences.

Although Reed is allied with pragmatists James and Dewey, to hold that our concept of experience (as second-hand, testimonial information about the world rather than direct perception) strikes me as less than pragmatic. Isn't it possible that our easy access to information, and increasingly good and well-vetted information, may serve us in gaining direct, first-hand experience? For instance, if I’m interested in trees, I might look up what trees grow in the forest outside my back door, learn that tulip trees are common and a little about them, and then by going into the forest be able to distinguish tulip trees from other trees by their flower and leaves. Although this is not the same kind of activity as aimless noodling about, I can learn to be a better direct observer by having access to second-hand information.

In the context of childhood education and the value of spending time in nature and time in creative play, then it seems to me that it is not the meaning of ‘experience’ that is at fault but an education system that is relentlessly competitive on many different levels and that relies on simple tests to gauge complex learning. A completely different matter.

Friday, June 22, 2007

National Women's Studies Association Annual Meeting

The NWSA is meeting June 28-July 1 in St. Charles, Illinois, west of Chicago.

Philosophers who are presenting at the conference include Nancy McHugh, Marianne Janack, and Cate Hundleby in a session on feminist epistemology.

Their session has the provocative title "Do We Know Better?: Discussing the State of Feminist Epistemology" and is scheduled for 9:30 to 10:45 on Sunday morning, July 1. It should generate fascinating discussion!

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Ethics and Science

By advancing Reason as the basis of intellectual authority, the Age of Enlightenment initiated both the rise of modern science and the elevation of humanism, individualism, and democracy as the basis of the modern state. It was discovered that the Earth is not the physical center of the universe, and liberal political views developed which eventually led to abolitionism, anti-racism, and sexual equality.

But it has been only about 500 years since Copernicus, and apparently radical ideas take time to catch on. Here, Cosmic Variance puts a poll on interracial dating (83% of Americans find it acceptable) into perspective with the acceptance of heliocentrism (74%).

Who would say that in 500 years there hasn't been just as much progress in ethics/philosophy/politics as in science?

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Climate change and the role of philosophers

Last week NASA administrator Michael Griffin questioned the urgency of global warming, commenting to NPR's Steve Inskeep that NASA should have a lesser rather than a greater role in performing climate science and monitoring climate change. While Griffin does acknowledge that the global climate is warming, his comments support Bush Administration cutbacks to earth observation work.

The comment that caused the fuss:
I have no doubt that ... a trend of global warming exists. I am not sure that it is fair to say that it is a problem we must wrestle with. To assume that it is a problem is to assume that the state of Earth's climate today is the optimal climate, the best climate that we could have or ever have had and that we need to take steps to make sure that it doesn't change. First of all, I don't think it's within the power of human beings to assure that the climate does not change, as millions of years of history have shown. And second of all, I guess I would ask which human beings -- where and when -- are to be accorded the privilege of deciding that this particular climate that we have right here today, right now is the best climate for all other human beings. I think that's a rather arrogant position for people to take.

This comment begs for analysis, and there's a fine one here, at Adventures in Science and Ethics.

NPR ran its own commentary later in the day, an interview with Penn State geosciences professor Richard Alley.

First, he addressed Griffin's claim that we cannot evaluate whether the current climate is the optimal one. Rather than drop his jaw in disbelief at the question of optimality (as many commentators did), Alley notes that biological sciences do have reasons for saying that some states of affairs are better (for us, and for other living creatures) than others. This is because we can assume that living creatures have, to some degree, adapted to the current conditions. Of course, adaptation is continuous (e.g., there is still on-going postglacial migration of tree species in North America), but humans are more likely to be able to cope with climate conditions in which they already thrive than with alternatives.

Second, interviewer Michele Norris asked Alley "Are we tiptoeing into the realm of philosophy?" by considering how to respond to climate change. Alley says
If we aren't, I think we should be. The energy system, the climate in which we live...are such big questions that it would be the height of arrogance to leave them to no one but the scientists and the engineers. I certainly hope that the philosophers and theologians are thinking about these too.
Thus, there is a point of agreement between Michael Griffin and his critics. The point is made over and over again in this debate that there are scientists (they are the ones that measure things) and then there are people who are qualified to make assessments of what the science means and what should be done. They are variously called policy-makers, philosophers, or the public, and they are not always educated in the relevant sciences. To be fair, Alley says only that it should not be only scientists who think about what should be done, while Griffin's position is much stronger. A few days after the NPR interview, the AP reported that
Griffin reiterated that NASA’s job was to provide scientific data on global warming and leave it up to policy makers to decide what to do with it.
There is some irony in this, and especially in Alley's appeal to philosophers to get on the job of evaluating the moral response to climate change. Namely, philosophers, by and large, do not do that kind of work. Consider a recent table of contents from The Philosophical Quarterly, "one of the most highly regarded and established academic journals in philosophy... [which publishes] high-quality articles from leading international scholars across the range of philosophical study." It is all fine work, but mostly in metaphysics, and not relevant to applied policy decisions.

What many people believe philosophers do and what philosophers actually do are two different things.

However, in the third part of Alley's commentary he goes on to do himself just exactly what he thinks philosophers are best equipped for--to give a sensitive overview of the ethical implications of climate change. He argues that Griffin is correct that some people will no doubt benefit from climate change (Alley omits mentioning the insurance business as most likely to profit) and others will be harmed. And there is ethical weight to identifying who these parties are. He says that places that have winter, places that have air conditioners, and places that have bulldozers at their disposal for shoring up sea-walls will all be harmed less than poor nations and people who live at the equator and near the poles.

It is a fiction that only professional philosophers are equipped to make such judgments, and it would be harmful to wait until the philosophical community came to recognize the importance of focusing on such issues. Scientists themselves can and do make value judgments.

Friday, June 01, 2007

Judging Pay Inequity

This week's Supreme Court decision in the Ledbetter v. Goodyear case disables an important tool for addressing pay disparity between men and women. How can feminist philosophers address this decision?

Sadly, the decision
endorses a burdensome barrier to filing discrimination claims but is not suited to a philosophical response. The majority decision is deceitful in that it does not openly question the legality or morality of workplace discrimination. It gives support to discriminatory practices without justifying the change on principle.

It is, however, suited to a political response, and the Congress should work to overturn the ruling.

A New York Times article analyzes the fact that Justice Ginsburg gave her strongly worded dissent orally:
The oral dissent has not been, until now, Justice Ginsburg’s style. She has gone years without delivering one, and never before in her 15 years on the court has she delivered two in one term. In her past dissents, both oral and written, she has been reluctant to breach the court’s collegial norms. “What she is saying is that this is not law, it’s politics,” Pamela S. Karlan, a Stanford law professor, said of Justice Ginsburg’s comment linking the outcome in the abortion case to the fact of the court’s changed membership. “She is accusing the other side of making political claims, not legal claims.”

Feminist Law Professors
offer a brief analysis and many links.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg's dissent is here.