Monday, January 22, 2007

CFP: Canadian SWIP

Canadian Society for Women in Philosophy Conference 2007
October 12-14, University of Alberta, Edmonton

Conference theme: Communicating Feminisms

The 2007 Program Committee invites submissions on any feminist philosophical topic that relates to the conference theme, broadly construed.

Keynote speaker: Dr. Moira Gatens
Australian Research Council Professorial Fellow
Department of Philosophy, University of Sydney

Feminist scholarship continues to contribute massively to knowledge across the disciplines, to public policy formation, and to popular discourse. Yet as feminist research has become more diverse and developed, perceptions of it are often reductive or one-sided; this has tended to limit the extent to which feminist methods and insights are communicated in extra-academic contexts. This conference seeks to develop new strategies for representing feminism and communicating feminist research to audiences within the academy and beyond. How can feminist theorists be in conversation with empirically-minded scholars? How can scholars of feminist philosophy draw on the experiences and insights of the world outside the university to make better theory? How do feminists of different theoretical schools and political persuasions collaborate across our intellectual differences? What connections might be drawn between extra-academic feminist political practice and feminist philosophy?

Submissions of long abstracts (1000 words) are invited (for eventual presentations of 20 minutes, or not more than 3000 words). Submission reequirements and full contact information can be found at

DEADLINE: March 12 2007.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Scientific outreach and training

Alan Leshner has an editorial in last week's Science (12 January 2007, p. 161) calling for scientists to be better trained in public outreach.

He distinguishes between public education and public engagement:
Efforts that focus simply on increasing public understanding of science are not enough, because the problem is not merely a lack of scientific comprehension. In some cases, the public generally does understand scientific content in a fundamental way but still doesn't like it.

I wish that Leshner had space in the editorial to elaborate. He seems to be thinking about the debate over teaching evolution in schools, among other issues. Of course, not all scientists are working in areas that are in need of spokespeople to resolve public controversy, so his proposal for across-the-board training of graduate students in public communication is inefficient. One of his other suggestions is that academic institutions should reward people who engage in public outreach. This certainly seems true. Sometimes such efforts count as "service," which is widely considered less important than teaching and research. Arguably, though, communication with non-scientists is also a form of teaching.

I have two additional thoughts. First, when it comes to communicating about science and policy issues, what is lacking is not just the media and communications training that Leshner mentions but also training in normative reasoning and the role of science in society. Often, scientists are discouraged in their training from thinking about the normative assumptions in their research. Second, public outreach about scientific issues that affect policy can be (and is) undertaken by scholars outside of science. Philosophers are just one group that have played a key role in communicating about science and ethics with regard to biology education, the stem cell debate, species conservation, and disposal of nuclear waste.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Evolution and social constructivism

I attended a talk last night by David Sloan Wilson on "Evolutionary Social Constructivism."

His thesis is that evolutionary theory provides a "unique" theoretical framework for understanding not just the diversity of life and patterns of anatomy, behavior, etc. in living things, but also for understanding human behavior and human experience. The humanities and social sciences, he argued, are only just beginning to recognize the power of evolutionary thinking. He argues for increasing access of students and academics to training in evolutionary theory and for recognition of the value that evolutionary frameworks will have for fields as diverse as economics, psychology, politcal science, social work, literature, and religion. He also believes that there are schools of thinking in the humanities (he mentioned "potmodernists," whoever they are) which are "anti-evolution" (whatever that is), which I suppose (this was not clear) means that they treat humans as disembodied thinkers without situated biological bodies and ancestral histories.

I think he meant two things by "evolutionary theory." For one, he meant the history of human evolution, including how the story of human evolution explains our range of behaviors and psychology. For instance, in their book Unto Others D.S.Wilson and Eliot Sober examine how altruism, or prosociality, can be explained by group selection. Second, by evolutionary theory he also seem to mean any process that involves replication and selection. He included recent and short-lived phenomena in cultural evolution among the things that we humanists could better understand if we embraced evolutionary theory more whole-heartedly.

I'm in favor of promoting education in evolutionary theory--for undergraduates, for academics, and in grade schools. And I think that Wilson is right that "thinking through evolution" will be a fertile method with as-yet-undiscovered applications in the humanities and social sciences. But I fail to see the connection with social constructivism or how the term "evolutionary social constructivism" adds something useful to discourse.

"Social constructivism" already means too many different things to too many different people. In education, it indicates the philosophy that learning is collaborative. In social theory, it is a way of conceiving of social reality as created by interactive social processes--social constructivists investigate the actions and texts that support institutions and norms. In philosophy, it is both an anti-realist ontological thesis (that categories of things are not given but are human inventions) and an epistemological thesis (that knowledge bears some mark of the social context of its production).

What would "evolutionary social constructivism" mean? According to Wilson, it is a program of studying the effect of human evolutionary history on the objects of study of the social sciences--on rationality, on social behaviors, and so on. But this seems to be in opposition to social constructivism, not a revision, modification, or refinement of it. Social constructivism emphasizes the contingency and open-endedness of what we know (and of social institutions, learning, etc.). Although there is an element of historical contingency in how our evolutionary past happened to play out, evolutionary explanations tend to emphasize a way in which behavior or abilities or knowledge is determined. It also seems to be a thesis at a different level than a social constructivist thesis--it does not make a claim about what there is (ontology) or what we know (epistemology). It is a program of study.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Standpoint epistemology and dinner conversation

Last month I aired my frustration about a situation in which a logic professor dismissed any and all testimonial evidence on the basis of a (misapplied) informal fallacy.

In blog comments, Khadimir said he would have tried to figure out what "in the person's constitution" led her to reject the legitimacy of public assistance programs. These sorts of dinner-table political arguments do usually call for an exchange of political beliefs about the proper role of government, the trade-offs between positive and negative liberty, whether someone's station in life is a mark of their character, and whether suffering builds a sense of personal responsibility. And, in reality, the conversation did take these directions.

But I'm interested in the practical epistemology of the social situation, and also in Khadimir's comment. I'm tempted to diagnose this libertarian position as being the result of privilege. But psychologizing is too easy. And too easy to refute. Privilege doesn't cause someone to dismiss the needs of the poor and disabled in any straightforward sense of 'cause'. A more subtle analysis of the knowledge claims and social conditions is needed.

How can some people claim to know that they are harmed by welfare programs when others claim to know that they are not harmed, even though they are not receiving payments themselves? I assume that none of us at the dinner table that night had received social security payments, or disability benefits, or WIC or food stamps or Medicaid or Pell grants. Where does our knowledge of public assistance programs come from? Why do some of us know that they make our civil society run better and more fairly? Why are some of us glad that these programs exist, just in case, even though we think we can count on our educations, our training, our job experience, and our families to get us out of the kinds of financial binds we are most likely to face?

I think we can look to social epistemology to explain the differences in what people know about social fairness and about social luck. Social epistemology also has something to say about why some of us do actually know something about public assistance. We know it in a very real, very detailed way because we know people who have depended on public assistance and who have tangled with its bureaucracies. This is knowledge that comes from personal experience, and there is no "mere" about this kind of anecdotal evidence.

Miranda Fricker has a term for the systematic misrecognition that allows someone of privilege to believe that what she "knows" about public assistance (or any kind of oppression) is on a par with what someone who is oppressed (or identifies with the oppressed) knows about being dependent on aid. She calls it "credibility overspill."

Norms of credibility track power. At the dinner table, our conversation about politics was also guided by subtle (and not-so-subtle) power relations. Gender, professional status, argumentation skill, comfort with adversarial methods.

In addition, the libertarian was able to deny the credibility of any source of justification that she encountered. Why? Because any knowledge--first- or second-hand--of what it was like to need public assistance would have been clouded by being a recipient of financial aid. And those recipients could be dismissed in two ways. First, they just have a greedy interest in receiving money they do not "earn." And second, their station--as poor, as needy--lowers their epistemic status. Their testimony is not as trustworthy as a college professor's testimony about how the political landscape looks from her perspective.

Is "credibility overspill" also a barrier to learning new things? If you're in a position of privilege, you can afford to not notice certain things about what everyday life is like for the less privileged.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Philosophers grab at research funds

The Leiter Reports blog links to a faux grant proposal that will make philosophers giggle: a program for nano-philosophy.
(The .pdf by Robert Stainton and colleagues at University of Waterloo is here.)

This is an exciting time for consumers – but also for researchers who can count on endless grants in nano-engineering, nano-computing, and so forth.

In an effort to bring philosophy on board, members of University of Waterloo’s
Department of Philosophy began the search for very, very small philosophical questions.

Feminist philosophy has a role to play in examining the tiny question:
Is abortion always obligatory?

And philosophers of science, likewise, may address the compelling question:
Can science be naturalized?

I would also like to suggest that in the modern endeavor to press inquiry all the way to the bottom, there's a role for positive--and not simply critical--philosophy, with metaphysical conjectures such as:
"I exist, therefore I am."
"Where there is nothingness, there is not; where there is being, there is."
"DASEIN: there you are."

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

The Source of Knowledge in Experience

Someone just asked me why this blog, with its dual interests in analytic feminist theory and philosophy of science (and, especially, in their intersection) is called "Knowledge and Experience."

Identifying the source of knowledge as being in personal, but als
o (and necessarily) shared experience is a presumption of both feminism and of science. Naturalism is therefore a fitting methodology for investigating social groups and gender relations, as it is for investigating natural phenomena. A recurring theme we have taken up in the blog is how experience grounds knowledge, how experience shapes what investigations are taken up and which theories are accepted, and how a failure to take experience into account is often to blame for misconceptions about how the natural and social worlds work.

Philosophers who theorize about inquiry and about social action, as we do, have an interest in doing philosophy in a way that touches, moves, nudges, directs the world outside of academic philosophy. We fall short when we are unable to communicate the importance of theory outside of our circle. In endorsing pragmatism (and dismissing a certain kind of metaphysical posturing), William James wrote that
the only things that shall be debatable among philosophers shall be things definable in terms drawn from experience. (Things of an unexperienceable nature may exist ad libitum, but they form no part of the material for philosophic debate.)