Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Book review of Potter's Feminism and Philosophy of Science

Alexandra Bradner has written a thoughtful, sympathetic review of Libby Potter's Feminism and Philosophy of Science: An Introduction, Routledge, 2006.

How we'd love to have time on this blog to discuss many of the points the review raises! Alexandra's review is worth reading itself, but here let me pick a few highlights:

1. It's nice to see someone call out the PSA for their lack of attention to feminist philosophy of science at the latest (2006) conference. I would add that in recent years the pages of the journal have also overlooked work in this area and appear to underrepresent women, especially when writing explicitly from a feminist perspective.

2. There is much attention paid to the status of women in science by the NSF, the AAAS, and other organizations interested in science and science education. Such attention is not so often paid to the humanities, whether because gender disparity is not apparent in the humanities generally or because our national interest is not pinned to the humanities as it is to the sciences. But figures (nicely summarized here and more links here) show that, as a discipline, philosophy lags behind most life and physical sciences in terms of the representation of women. Thus, Alexandra is correct to draw attention to how
...although Potter's own philosophers take time to discuss the gender construct in which science is produced, there is no attention to the gender context in which philosophy is produced -- the number of female philosophers, their ranks, salaries, editorial roles in journals and major anthologies, differences in training, extra-career obligations, etc.

3. Bradner praises Potter for how
this introduction makes it clear that philosophers interested in the fact/value distinction (that is, all philosophers) ignore feminist philosophy of science at their peril.

4. Finally, Alexandra writes that she wonders
what exactly is feminist about Potter's conception of feminist philosophy of science, for although feminists are certainly interested in value intrusion and naturalized epistemology, there is nothing especially feminist about these interests.
This is a delicate point. Feminist philosophy is of interest to all philosophers precisely because the issues and oversights that it raises highlight ways of thinking that have the effect of marginalizing women. And usually, insofar as these ways of thinking affect some people differently from other people, they signal a more general and not specifically gender-relevant problem. However, as our attention is shifted to the more general problem, the relevance to feminism drops out of sight.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Building Biophilic Communities

Over at The Splintered Mind, guest blogger Dan Haybron examines a Social Biophilia hypothesis. Extending E.O. Wilson’s idea of biophilia as “the urge to affiliate with other forms of life,” Haybron proposes that humans have an unrecognized psychological need to be in nature, and to be in nature in communities with others.

The biophilia hypothesis has some empirical support: across cultures, humans respond similarly to cute furry animals, prefer open, grassy landscapes, and keep pets and plants in and around their homes. Wilson proposes an evolutionary explanation for biophilia. Humans evolved in complex wilderness landscapes, so our brains are suited for handling the problems that arise in natural settings. We can identify many types of plants and animals by sight, by sound, by smell; we can manipulate natural environments in ways that have allowed humans to thrive in nearly every area of the globe. Wilson believes that in cultures that are alienated from natural settings, psychological well-being (“sanity”) is depressed.

Haybron gives an explanation for why humans flourish in natural settings but why this psychological need (assuming it exists) is not readily recognized. If the need was always met in human evolutionary history, then there would not have been a reason for it to rise to the level of a conscious desire to be in nature. Humans were already living in nature. We have not been living in urban settings for very long when measured on the time-scale of generations and selection pressure.

© The Landmark Society of Western New York

So although we so seem to be happier in nature, this is not so obvious to us that we forego other pleasures or goods that are best accrued in developed communities. There are also various other forces, like the location of employment opportunities, that push us into constrained urban surroundings. Sure, people go hiking, camping, fishing. Municipalities build parks and we set aside federal lands for recreation. But these activities are in decline, and when cities expand parkland, they are now more likely to construct fields for organized sports than to preserve groves of trees.

© Bob Darling Photography

In a recent Harper’s piece, Edward Hoagland wrote
Politically, in the grabby phase we’re living through, this impulse doesn’t take the form of widely wanting to preserve nature as a public domain. Rather, we’ll tend to hire a backhoe to dig a private mini-pond and plant nursery vegetation, after chopping down whatever had grown up naturally in the vicinity before. A guy next door to where I used to live simply poisoned all of “his’ frogs in the pond outside his house because they sang when they mated in the spring. He had thought he was buying silent water.

This raises the thorny question of what counts as a nature experience for the sake of satisfying the supposed biophilic psychological need.

I always find discussion of a “return to land communities” unrealistically romantic. Life on the farm and life in the woods is harsh. Not having a reliable water and sewer system is decidedly unromantic and can reduce happiness, certainly. I wonder about the practicality of such visions of the good life. To take an example, Wendell Berry’s agro-romanticism is seductive, but does he earn his living working his small family farm or through his writing and speaking?

So I think the resolution to these questions lies not in comparing land communities with pavement communities, but in evaluating how the psychological benefits of meeting biophilic needs can be met by building from and changing the communities that we already live in.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Journal Rankings

In the last few weeks, philosophy bloggers have posted their various evaluations of the European Science Foundation's journal rankings. For a partial list of the journals and bloggers' comments, see Leiter Reports, Lemmings, Feminist Philosophers, Gone Public, and Brooks Blog.

Although analytic philosophers seem to be mostly satisfied with the list as a rough cut, continental and feminist philosophers have raised some concerns that it reinforces a popular but not universally accepted standard for what counts as the best philosophical writing.

John McCumber has made several important points:
1. that the European Science Foundation has a questionable agenda in ranking journals in the humanities.
2. that simple rankings invite mis-use by tenure committees looking for easy to make and easy to enforce judgments about research quality.
3. that although the list's purpose may be in part to promote rigorous (blind) peer review, not all the journals in the A-List are peer-reviewed in the standard way.
4. that the list is based on journals' "reputations" but it does not say how those reputations have been evaluated. Indeed, McCumber points out that the analytic focus of the A-Listed journals coincides with the analytic research interests of the committee that compiled the list.

There are a number of reasons to be wary of ANY simple ranking scheme.
1. Lists serve the status quo.
Any list is bound to favor older, well-established journals that publish papers across a range of areas in philosophy. These journals have well-earned reputations. But they are less likely to publish philosophical papers that attempt to push philosophy in new directions—that are multi- or cross-disciplinary, that challenge analytic methods and styles, that deepen newer paradigms, such as environmental and feminist frameworks, or that apply philosophy to solving practical problems, as in medical ethics. Most specialty journals--and all specialty journals that are not analytic--are classified as B-List. But the criterion that journals not specialize does not speak to the quality of the papers they publish.
2. Many of the journals on the list are not double-blind reviewed, and as McCumber points out, a decision of whether or not to publish a paper
needs to be blind, and preferably double blind. The way major philosophy journals are editorially reviewed in this country simply reinforces the dominance of the old over the young, and is I think a major reason why there are so few new ideas in American philosophy compared to other disciplines.
3. Lists can serve the interests of administrators looking to deny tenure, but cannot so easily be used in the interests of younger members of the profession. It is not helpful as a guide to where to submit papers because it does not reflect considerations such as acceptance rates, moratoriums, the time it takes to get a response from the journal, reputations within particular sub-disciplines of philosophy, and citation rates.

Indeed, it is not clear why this or any other list would be superior to a simple citation ranking as is used in the sciences (though even that type of ranking is subject to all the above faults and is too often mis-used).

My final thought about journals is a question raised by my friend Jim Johnson, who asked why the prominent philosophy journals are not published by professional organizations. And I don’t know the answer. In political science, two prominent journals are published by professional organizations. This is also common in the sciences, where both the general interest journals (like Science) and specialty journals (like Ecology) are published by organizations (AAAS and ESA, respectively). When journals are published by organizations, then they have a tighter connection with the organization’s membership and a direct duty to be responsive to the profession, and particularly to the young members of the profession. (Although no doubt this accountability causes head-aches for journal editors!)

Monday, July 09, 2007


The U.S. National Women's Studies Association held its 2007 annual conference at the Pheasant Run Resort in St.Charles, Illinois, just outside Chicago. While attending, a number of scholars who've been involved with FEMMSS (Association for Feminist Epistemologies, Methodologies, Metaphysics and Science Studies) began a series of discussions we hope to continue in 2008 at the NWSA in Cinncinati, Ohio.

Philosopher Nancy McHugh organized an informal breakfast meeting to discuss some FEMMSS planning, given that it is a virtual organization at the moment. I think we might be encouraged that the Ontario Society for the Study of Argumentation, a similarly interdisciplinary international group originating in philosophy has existed for over ten years without any structure but with a series of very successful biennial conferences drawing a wide range of international scholars. However, it was clear at the 2007 FEMMSS conference hosted by Arizona State University (Tempe) that future biennial conferences are just the beginning of what our group wants. We want outreach to public policy, publications, workshops, and more.

Unfortunately, our breakfast meeting was cut short, but fortunately the reason was that our timing conflicted with a scheduled meeting of the NWSA Taskforce on Science and Technology. We adjourned our meeting to join theirs, and it turned out we increased their numbers from about four to about ten. Their group has a narrower academic domain (excluding larger epistemological and metaphysical issues) and a more U.S. membership than FEMMSS. However, by coordinating our efforts we can all benefit by complementing each other's work, rather than competing for people's energy.

NWSA also can run bulletin boards and discussion groups for Science and Technology Studies! And this is a great opportunity for FEMMSS to connect with STS since we have not been strong in history or sociology of science.

Those of us who attended the Taskforce business meeting will receive messages, and we hope to organize some sessions for NWSA in June 2008. They already plan an informal, off-the-program session for us to share research and explore possibilities for collaboration during the "pre-conference" official sessions.

Nancy, Marianne Janack and I were on a panel entitled "Do We Know Better?: Discussing the State of Feminist Epistemology" which did generate some fascinating discussion, just as Evelyn predicted. In particular, I came to realize that my own view runs somewhat contrary to Nancy's. Nancy spoke about the increasing situatedness of feminist epistemology -- it's nice to know we practice what we preach! However, I raised concerns about the loss of the original rhetorical concerns of the feminist critiques of epistemology and of the history of science. Marianne argued Richard Rorty's epistemological cynicism about feminism is unwarranted (to be part of her upcoming edited Rereading the Canon volume on feminist engagements with Rorty). Despite unfortunate timing on the morning of the last day, and relocating ourselves from an absolutely frigid room, there was a good turnout, and I think we could have continued the discussion much longer. Fortunately, we will! See you in Cinncinati in 2008!