Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Gender and Skepticism

A colleague told me a disheartening observation/hypothesis concerning the students in his epistemology class.

The class as a whole has generally had a positive reaction to the readings assigned thus far in the course but had a negative, even hostile, reaction toward the latest article they discussed, a marvelous piece by Miranda Fricker called "Scepticism and the Genealogy of Knowledge."

My colleague is a contextualist, a feminist, and a pragmatist anti-skeptic. "I just realized how, if I wanted to, I could once and for all turn the class opinion against the skeptic," he confided. "All I'd have to do is to consistently refer to the skeptic as 'she'."


Noumena said...

I'm familiar with Fricker, but not this piece in particular. (And I haven't had enough caffeine yet to parse the abstract.) Did your colleague explain what it was about his students' reactions that made him think they were critical because Fricker is a woman?

Evelyn Brister said...

No he didn't, specifically. He did note that the language they used to critique her was expressed in gendered terms. Were her arguments too soft? Was she wishy-washy? On what did she base her authority as an epistemologist (as though these students--many of them in their first upper-division course) can judge these questions.

I have an additional clue as to what he was thining. In a different conversation he referenced the book he's reading: Cordelia Fine, Delusions of Gender.

One of Fine's points, he says, is that how people think about gender depends in large part on how gender is framed. So I suspect that he's thinking of the gendered culture of both my institution and of philosophy, and of how that culture is self-reinforcing using various gender frames. The background ratio of men to women students here is 2:1, but our upper-division courses usually include 1 to 3 women out of about 30 students in a course.