Tuesday, December 13, 2011

For Women, Which Form of Job Satisfaction?

Julie White has a post worth reading on the Chronicle of Higher Ed's blog: "A Career Dilemma." She points out that it's not only women who are less well off when this dilemma holds, but students as well.
The proportional imbalance of women (as well as other minorities) creates a career dilemma for some of us. We can work at a community college, where it’s likely pay and job satisfaction will be better for women than at four-year colleges, but we will have less time and energy to get our scholarship out into the world. Or we can work at a four-year college with more prestige and opportunities for research, but where we are more likely to feel underappreciated and culturally isolated.
When the perspectives of groups with different cultural experiences are left out (whether based on sex, race, ethnicity, gender, class, ability, or other points of societal stratification), gains in new knowledge will inevitably be incomplete, inaccurate, or downright injurious to the underrepresented or misrepresented groups.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Engineers are Smokin' Hot

My university has posted this recruitment ad on their homepage. I'm not sure if it's targeted at 18-year-old women or 18-year-old men. Is the intended message "You can be a woman, can study engineering, and can STILL be smokin' hot," or is it "You can come study engineering at RIT and STILL meet some smokin' hot (and fast!) women"?

The male voiceover says "Around here, there's only one thing we expect from our students..." and then the on-screen text flashes the phrase "Beautiful Solutions."

Anecdotally, the women in the video are not actually on the Formula team.

Update: The women in the video apparently are on the Formula team in some role, but not in the roles portrayed. Also, after the college president received negative feedback "from a number of people," including students, the video was taken down from the RIT homepage.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Gendered Language and Textbook Examples

I've been going over rough drafts of term papers, and I have as many students writing about "the future of mankind" and "the well-being of men" as ever. When I suggest that they consider writing of "human well-being" instead, they look puzzled. Wasn't gender-neutral language something that was adopted by professional and academic writers in the 1980's? Thirty years ago?

My kindergartner showed me a page in his math workbook. There were little pictures of people to count: girls dressed as dancers and boys dressed as soldiers (yes, with little rifles complete with bayonets!). I asked him if he knows any real-life dancers: yes, one, named Jeff. I asked him if he knows any real soldiers: yes, one, named Jenn. Will those real-life examples override the images which are put before him?

I was considering which textbook to adopt for a critical thinking class and came across this McGraw-Hill quiz. The 10 quiz questions concern a Senator ("he"), a Professor ("he"), Mr. Equalminded, Tom, and Mr. Theist. There are no feminine pronouns on the quiz. I thought we were free of this by now. How do these texts make it past the review process?

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

New APPS on women, again

The New APPS blog has consistently been a clear voice for not overlooking the women among us. After all, to give women in philosophy what they are due is only a matter of logic and of fairness, two qualities that philosophers claim to specialize in.
Here's the latest: an overview of how women fare as authors and subjects in prominent book series.

Friday, September 09, 2011

Zeno's paradox

When I'm teaching an Intro course, I frequently take time to present and discuss a paradox. I frame this activity as a warm-up exercise at the beginning of class, and I make clear that it's not a time to disengage but rather is a time to enjoy how intellectually stimulating philosophy can be--it's not something that folks have to take notes on or which I grade.

In crafting a mini-lecture on Zeno's paradoxes I came across the following Youtube video on Achilles and the tortoise, which is so charming that I couldn't believe it had had only 250 views (at that time)!

Monday, August 22, 2011

What Does a Philosopher Look Like?

I'm at a philosophy conference outside of the US. I think there may be even fewer women in philosophy in this country and its neighbors than in mine. The conference hotel is small, and philosophers don't look quite like most of the other guests. There are no nametags, and the conference just started today.

I got on the elevator this morning, on the 6th floor, to go down to breakfast at the designated time. On the 5th floor a young man got on, sporting a ponytail and sport coat (i.e., our uniform). On the 4th floor, a white-haired man got on. The young man turned to the older man before the doors were even closed and asked him "Are you a philosopher? Are you here for the conference?" (the lingua franca is English) and introduced himself.

I may as well have well been wallpaper. Female, and visibly pregnant to boot. No chance of my having deep thoughts or being someone worth knowing. Or--maybe I'm just overly sensitive, and it was the white hair that made the young man snap to. Someone 10 or 15 years older than me might be someone worth schmoozing with. Then again, I don't often see my white-haired female colleagues getting that treatment, either.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Conference papers and professional courtesy

What are the rules regarding conference paper submissions and fresh work in philosophy?

I've presented at and attended some scientific conferences, and the rules at those conferences are usually explicit in the calls for papers: submitted work must be presented at the conference for the first time, and it must not yet have been published. I think the rules on work that has been accepted for publication but not yet published vary, and they depend on how crucial it is to get information out to peers.

Granted, there are ways to bend these rules. Often, a scientific research project has been produced by a whole team of people and the data can be analyzed and presented in many different ways. If the team members come from different disciplines, then they may be able to present their research from different disciplinary angles at various conferences. Also, there may be different products that come out of a single study--one paper might focus on methodology, another on a new use of a technology, while another analyzes the consistency of that study's results with similar studies. But in any case, it's widely recognized as wrong to submit the exact same paper to two similar conferences, just as it would be wrong to submit it to two journals.

In philosophy, though, our work builds and our views shift in a more organic way, and there may be a good reason to present the same work to two quite different audiences. It seems fully acceptable to give a paper at a local symposium and also at a national conference. Is it acceptable to submit the same paper or abstract to more than one conference simultaneously, without intending to make any changes? To submit to more than one division of the APA? To submit to a group session and to the main program at the APA, perhaps betting that one would be rejected or could be withdrawn? To submit to an APA session some work that has been accepted by a journal but is still forthcoming? To submit to an APA work that has already been published? Where is the line?

More than once, I've attended papers delivered at the PSA which I've also seen delivered in a similar or exact same form elsewhere. In some cases, I've already read the journal article. In one case, I had read the journal article 4 years before seeing the presentation. Something like that might be acceptable if it extended or modified a prior published article, but in this case no changes had been made and the article's publication was not mentioned.

Conference program committees should review papers anonymously (that is, without knowing who the authors are, their affiliations, or their status). Is it fair for them to look up paper titles to see if a paper has been published or presented elsewhere? Or doesn't that undermine anonymity since many people now post paper drafts online?

Friday, June 24, 2011

Innovations in Ethics Curricula

Innovations?! Well, no. Here is yet another of my frequent complaints! Textbooks in ethics (and in Intro to Philosophy, and in Philosophy of Science, and in Environmental Philosophy, and I'm sure in most of our other areas) go through frequent editions but each edition contains the same old topics with the same old papers.

Yes, some of the old papers are classics and nothing else compares. Judith Jarvis Thomson on abortion. But in general, except for the addition of pieces on climate change, an ethics anthology now looks almost exactly like an ethics anthology when I was in college--over two decades ago! And some of the pieces seemed dated to me then.

Today's exemplar just arrived in my mailbox--Social Ethics: Morality and Social Policy, edited by Mappes, Zembaty, and DeGrazia and in its 8th edition with McGraw Hill. I don't think this text is any worse than all the others, but it's not better, either.

Take the example of the chapter on climate change. It contains 10 selections, but only 2 of them were written in the last decade! Both of those pieces are written by philosophers but were originally published in the popular press.

And let's look at the gender breakdown--something that should be informative about the degree of currency and creativity in an anthology. Women constitute 20% or so of professional philosophers but a much higher percentage among ethicists. In addition, this text has sections s on issues that have been extensively examined from a feminist perspective: sexual ethics, abortion, marriage, pornography, and global and economic justice. Finally, the text includes selections written by practitioners (rather than exclusively by philosophers) and published in the popular press (rather than just in philosopher journals).

So what can possibly explain this breakdown?
Of the pieces with named authors, only 15% have a female author. Some of those female authors have more than one piece in the anthology, so that only 12% of authors are female!

The cost of the text is over $100. Do any of these pieces come with an expiration date? I drink fresh milk, eat fresh eggs, and insist on fresh fruit. My mind requires fresh nourishment as well.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

CfP: Feminism and Climate Change


Hypatia: Special Issue on Climate Change

March 15, 2012 submission deadline
Volume 28, Number 3, Summer 2013
Guest Editors: Nancy Tuana and Chris Cuomo

Hypatia: A Journal of Feminist Philosophy seeks papers for a special issue on Climate Change. We welcome new feminist scholarship on the scientific, ethical, epistemological, economic, and cultural dimensions of current global climate change, as well as case studies that critically engage specific questions in local, regional, national, and/or global contexts. In addition to essays developing feminist analyses of the science, ethics, and politics of climate change, we encourage investigations of the gendered, neo-colonial, and other power-laden frameworks which shape the discourses and power flows that influence various parties’ understandings of and responses to climate change.

There has been a great deal of work in the natural and social sciences on various aspects of climate change, and there is increasing acknowledgement in the literature that extreme weather events and ecological disasters tend to have greater negative impacts on women, girls, and those who lack economic and social power. Nonetheless, little attention has been given to the complex ways in which hegemonic conceptions of gender, race, nation, and knowledge are implicated within institutional frameworks of climate policy, media representations of scientific knowledge, and suggestions of planetary redemption through "eco-engineering," carbon markets, or profit-generating green technologies.

In addition to critical case studies focused on specific regions or trends, some questions and issues that might be considered in this special issue include (but are not limited to) feminist analyses of the following topics:
  • Geopolitics of climate change treaties and political processes
  • Ethics and politics of approaches to climate justice, including cosmopolitanism, human
    rights, human security, indigenous rights, and eco-centric perspectives
  • Critical analyses of industrial, scientific, policy and activist discourses
  • Climate change denial and epistemologies of ignorance
  • Intersections and tensions of development ethics and climate ethics
  • Epistemologies and ethics of climate modeling, including economic models
  • Naturalization of fossil fuel dependence and consumerism
  • Climate change and the resurgence of reactionary notions of population control
  • Critical analyses of the influence of popular media, from misinformation to education
Deadline for submission: March 15, 2012
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 200 words. For details please see Hypatia's submission guidelines
Please submit your paper to manuscript central. When you submit, make sure to select “Climate Change” as your manuscript type, and also send an email to the guest editors indicating the title of the paper you have submitted: Chris Cuomo: cuomo@uga.edu, Nancy Tuana: ntuana@la.psu.edu

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

CFP: SAF at the Central APA, Feb. 2012

That's a lot of acronyms!
CFP: call for papers
SAF: Society for Analytical Feminism
APA: American Philosophical Association, meeting in Chicago

Here's the call. This is a good opportunity for graduate students (and others!) who are working in feminist philosophy in an analytic style. Ethics, epistemology, metaphysics, philosophy of mind, philosophy of language, philosophy of science--all are welcomed. It's also a supportive organization for women in philosophy, with reasonable dues and frequent networking/philosophizing opportunities.



Society for Analytical Feminism: Feminist Philosophy in the Analytic Tradition

SAF Session at the Central Division APA

Palmer House Hilton, Chicago, Illinois

February 15-18, 2012

The Society for Analytical Feminism invites submissions for a session at the 2012 Central Division APA meetings.

The Society seeks papers that examine feminist issues by methods broadly construed as analytic, or discuss the use of analytic philosophical methods as applied to feminist issues. Reading time should be about 20 minutes. Authors should submit either (1) a paper, or (2) an extended abstract, as detailed as possible (up to 1000 words) accompanied by a bibliography. Please delete all self-identifying references from your submission to ensure anonymity. Send submissions as a word attachment to Robin Dillon (rsd2@lehigh.edu).

*** Deadline for submissions: August 1, 2011. ***

Graduate students or underfunded professionals whose papers are accepted will be eligible for the Society’s $250 Travel Stipend. Please indicate on a separate page (or in your covering letter) if you fall into one of these categories.

The Society for Analytical Feminism provides a forum where issues concerning analytical feminism may be openly discussed and examined. Its purpose is to promote the study of issues in feminism by methods broadly construed as analytic, to examine the use of analytic methods as applied to feminist issues, and to provide a means by which those interested in Analytical Feminism may meet and exchange ideas. The Society meets yearly at the Central Division meetings of the APA and frequently organizes sessions for the Eastern Division and Pacific Divisions. Information can be found on our website.

Membership in the Society is open to all who are interested in and concerned with issues in Analytical Feminism. Annual dues are $25 for regularly employed members, $15 for students, unemployed, underemployed, and retired members. To join, send your check for the appropriate amount payable to the Society for Analytical Feminism to Robin Dillon at the address below.

Robin S. Dillon

Department of Philosophy

15 University Drive

Lehigh University

Bethlehem, PA 18015

Friday, June 10, 2011

Reading Coded Language

In online discussions about stereotype threat, combative attitudes (as opposed to adversarial method), and distinguishing exclusionary or sexist/racist language from innocuous language, it is often pointed out that an accused speaker need not be intending to exclude or accuse or intimidate others. Furthermore, some see sexist/racist language where others merely see colorful or humorous examples.

This is a legitimate issue, worth discussing. How can sexist language be identified? Can language be sexist even when the speaker has no such intent? And what about cases where many people in an audience wouldn't identify the language as exclusionary? Are those who would (usually those who feel targeted by it) just overly sensitive? Possibly even paranoid?

First, the question about intention. It's certainly possible that a speaker be sexist without a conscious intention. In a male-dominated (white-dominated) environment, using language that reinforces males/whites as the norm may seem just that--normal--while also achieving an exclusionary effect. Sometimes we aren't even aware of the coded language we use or what our actions indicate about our beliefs. Indeed, it is the rare bigot who is so aware and proud of the bigotry as to reach for offensive language.

For example, in the town where I went to college if someone said "I know the Safeway is farther away, but I'd just rather go there than the Winn-Dixie," this could reasonably be interpreted as conveying an unspoken attitude toward race. And many at my college would have said it. There was no need even to reach for a more explicit code: "The Winn-Dixie? Only townies shop there!"

I attended a talk not too long ago during which I spent much of my time wondering if others in the room (and who) were as offended as I was at the low-level but constant aggressive nature of the talk. What do you think? Does a pattern emerge from the following statements? (The talk/slideshow was about the nuts-and-bolts of collaboration--ostensibly about how to deal with the practical side of working with collaborators.)
  • "Know that in some collaborations, you will wind up jumping into bed with people you won't want to build a relationship with."
  • "Figure out what people expect out of a collaborative relationship. Some are even genuinely concerned about the issues, so try to figure that out."
  • "Always tell people the deadline is earlier than it really is," with a stock photo of a war game.
  • Slide title: "Surprising Sights," with clipart images of a fat lady and a bearded lady.
  • military jokes and drinking jokes and drinking-in-the-military jokes (and no other jokes).
  • Slide title: "Different goals and agendas," with clipart image of someone being stabbed in the back with a knife.
  • "Before you jump in bed with a collaborator, find out how much they'll want from you."
I'm trying to decide if the talk was offensive only because of its insincere attitude toward the goal of inquiry or for other reasons as well.

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Parental Choices

I think a lot about my parenting but don't often write about it. But there are two independent things in the news lately that have provoked similar responses, and I want to explore them.

Namely, why is it that there is such controversy over "the right way" of raising kids when so many ways seem to do just fine? And the higher-level question, what should guide us parents in decisions about how to raise our kids, and, in particular, how we allow them to spend their (non-school) time? Why does the baseline belief seem to be that parents should conform to a typical parenting mode, something that comes from outside of themselves and is rather like a community standard? Why, that is, when we are a multiplicity of communities and do make these decisions for ourselves all the time? Why not also make those decisions for our very young children (assuming that children will be able to make more and more decisions for themselves as they grow up)?

Here are two stories:
  1. via Feminist Philosophers, a Canadian mother who hasn't revealed the gender of her infant receives media attention, much of it negative.
  2. the National Association for the Education of Young Children released guidelines advocating incorporating electronic technology (computers, etc.) into all early childhood educational settings (including preschools and outdoor summer camps).
My reaction to the mother who won't reveal the gender of her infant is to wonder "Who cares?" Some even call it child abuse, in part, no doubt, because she lets her toddler and her pre-school boy wear dresses and long hair. But who cares? Some grown men wear dresses. Let them. Some men, e.g. Moroccans and Egyptians, wear long robes as a matter of cultural identity and dress their boys that way, too. Children seem to do just fine in this world so long as their clothes are safe and comfortable.

Likewise, some parents clearly do want to make this choice for their young boys: you will wear boy clothes in boy patterns. That seems fine to me, too. In my house, we don't wear images of violence or meanness--no sharks with huge teeth or skulls or guns on our t-shirts. (We do have lots of pictures of trees!) This is due to me exercising influence as a parent. I made the decision, and as my boy grew older I let him know why. He may challenge me sometime, but that will be between us, and I don't see why it's anyone's concern whether I make it a matter in which I give him freedom or enforce my authority.

The second problem seems different. In the absence of evidence, why would an educational body recommend some technologies over others (gameboys rather than baseballs, cellphones rather than soap bubbles) across all contexts? The impulse seems to me related to the background belief in the first case: electronic screens are something we all do now, so childhood exposure should prepare little ones for it.

I don't see why, in these cases, we would treat little ones as smaller versions of young adults. It might be disruptive for a 7th-grade boy to wear a dress to junior high. He would get teased, among other possible problems. But a toddler? Not so much. It might be deficient for a 7th-grader to lack computer skills these days. But a toddler?

The Tiger Mom gets called out for being too strict, too demanding. The hippie mom gets called out for being too lenient, for misguiding her child's gender image. But both have kids who seem well-adjusted.

Both of these parents are self-conscious about their parenting, and that seems to me to be what matters. Both are proud of their kids, and of themselves, for reaching their goals.

But I don't withhold judgment entirely. The parents I don't understand are the ones who don't like how their children have become but continue to raise them to be that way. I don't understand the parents who seem concerned that their child gets in trouble for bringing toy weapons to pre-school and drawing images of weapons and violence--and yet the child continues to have access to those objects and ideas. In the case of a 5-year-old with a fetish for swords and parents who are disturbed by it, why not inundate that child with musical theater? How can there be room in a young brain for laserguns when it's filled with Rogers & Hammerstein?

Sometimes I think I'm just lucky: my boy loves to play UNO with me and work spatial puzzles! We hike together, we sew together, and we watch nature documentaries. But really, that's just childhood. Little kids know what they know, and they don't know what they don't know. I'm mystified by parents of little kids who say "I wish my kid didn't love X so much"--unless that parent secretly loves X, too.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Philosophy: The Root of All

This may be my favorite XKCD comic ever. Not embedding because you'll want to see the rollover.

Filosophy Festival = Fun

From the Telegraph, via 3 Quarks Daily--an announcement of a philosophical festival in Wales.

Says the organizer, Hilary Lawson:
I'm interested in philosophy because it's about understanding the world and our lives. When we started the festival three years ago, philosophy was more likely to appear in Monty Python. It was a laughable matter, it was technical and analytical – not about our lives. Our aim is to overturn the current intellectually conservative environment, where ideas and philosophy are not valued or taken seriously. Our goal is to create an open, vibrant, intellectual culture which combines innovative thought with rich experience.
The festival partners philosophical debates with film, poetry, music, and fun. Yes, there is professional philosophy--and then there is philosophy. The world needs both, and it's likely that professionals could use more philosophy in their lives, too. (Just none of that metaphysics.)

The poet Ruth Padel says of the festival
Poetry and philosophy matter in everybody's lives.
This reminds me of a scene in Examined Life when Cornel West says that anyone can be a philosopher and that it doesn't take fancy schooling, but that it's not easy, either, and requires great courage. (Clip is here, with that passage right at the start.)

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Adaptation to a changing climate in Chicago

In my academic life, there is much discussion of adaptation to climate change, often in the terms of a moral imperative to protect the disadvantaged and poor and to consider assisted colonization (or assisted migration) for desirable plant and animal species which are unable to migrate to a new environment quickly enough to keep up with rapid climate change.

There is less awareness of the necessity of climate adaptation in society at large. We more often hear about global warming in a context of trying to slow it down (mitigation), with less attention paid to how we will cope with the inevitable changes already underway. Except for insurance companies, which seem to be paying close attention!

Yesterday the NYTimes reported on how Chicago is working to get ahead of the curve, taking predicted climate change into account in its urban planning. Fifty years from now, Chicago's seasons and climate may be much more like Alabama's! Having experienced frigid Chicago winters, I'm wondering what it would be like to have such long, dark nights without the cold and snow.

Some of Chicago's actions include:
  • new street tree plantings are species from more southern ecosystems, eliminating the native white oak in favor of sweet gum.
  • more street trees in business districts to help control run-off water and to cool the air.
  • light-colored permeable pavers in parking and bike lanes to control run-off, to channel water to street plantings, and to lower the temperature.
  • rubbery additives to pavement assist with expansion and contraction due to extremely hot and cold seasons.
  • investing in air conditioners for public schools.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Philosophical language and the gender norm

The surprising encounter with the accusation that someone who fails to articulate disagreement is a 'wuss' has heightened my sense of gender normativity in language over the last few days. (This is public radio, not Howard Stern!) I'm happy to see that I'm not the only one who sees gender bullying played through language games.

Reading essays in Paul Horwich's Truth, Meaning, Reality (2010), he writes in "A World without Isms":
Of course it was wishful thinking for me to have suggested in my title that this could spell the end of all 'isms'. For there was bound to be one for the very point of view that I'm recommending. "A bloodless quietism" is how Crispin Wright has labeled it—"the bland perspective of a variety of assertoric 'language games', each governed by its own internal standards of acceptability, each sustaining a metaphysically emasculated notion of truth, each unqualified for anything of more interest or importance." Well, Crispin, sorry for being so anemic, boring, and effeminate...
This move allows the unconscious (and unthinking) sexism to be its own insult.

Friday, May 20, 2011

What does 'Wuss' Mean?

I sometimes download and archive podcasts but find that I don't listen to them as often as I intend. But then something will strike my fancy. And that's how I came to listen recently to a Philosophy Talk podcast dated 12/5/10.

The topic is "Disagreement" and the interview is with Jennifer Lackey of Northwestern, a social epistemologist who examines testimony as a source of knowledge. The topic is a fascinating one, and the sort of thing that I would encourage my students to think about.

But I got caught on this piece of dialogue:
"What should I do in the face of disagreement? Should I change my opinion just because you disagree? If I change my opinion just because you disagree, that seems kind of wussy. On the other hand, if I don't at least reconsider, that seems kind of arrogant. So what should I do: be wussy or arrogant? chuckle"

Lackey: nervous laughter
Why the chuckle and the nervous laughter?

Could it be because 'wuss' is a not-quite-polite word to use here? What does 'wuss' mean, anyway, and what is its origin?

I've always thought of 'wuss' as one of those words that is like the phrases 'that sucks' and 'it really blows.' They've become part of the vernacular, but we are marginally aware of their sexual origin. You wouldn't say it to your mother-in-law. At best, isn't it like substituting 'witch' for 'bitch'? The meaning is the same, and the substitute doesn't eliminate the sexist nature of the insult, or does it?

I looked up the origins of 'wuss' and found much speculation but no authoritative origin. Suggestive, though. It means 'wimp' and comes from the expression 'pussy-wussy,' meaning 'sissy.' It became popularized in the US in the 1980's. Strangely, some seem to say that 'sissy' does not have a sexual reference, and that 'pussy' in this context refers not to women's anatomy but to men who act timid, subservient, weak, and ineffectual and in this way are like women.

Either way, the term is a way of insulting a man by calling him either gay or feminine, and it plays either directly or indirectly off the slang word 'pussy.' I wonder what Jennifer Lackey, philosopher of language, thought at the time of the interview. The word gets additional power, of course, by being directed at a woman by a man, and in the context of a male-dominated profession.

I checked my instincts by asking a few of my colleagues. Some guys said that it's just a slang word, not too polite, meant to be insulting, but basically harmless. Some guys said it was insulting to gays. But women said it was sexist: "Oh, that's a way of saying 'pussy' without saying 'pussy'."

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Molyneux and Puzzles of Vision, Part II

I recently wrote about Molyneux's problem (2 posts ago, see the long quote from John Locke).

It's still on my mind, and by a stroke of luck I'm reading Annie Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Chapter 2 is on seeing, and a passage addresses Molyneux's problem explicitly, recounting something she had read about the effect of cataract surgery on children and adults who had never before seen. Her summary reaches to the emotional impact of first sight, its wonders and its frustrations:
I chanced on a wonderful book by Marius von Senden, called Space and Sight. . . . For the newly sighted, vision is pure sensation unencumbered by meaning: "The girl went through the experience that we all go through and forget, the moment we are born. She saw, but it did not mean anything but a lot of different kinds of brightness." . . . In general the newly sighted see the world as a dazzle of color-patches. They are pleased by the sensation of color, and learn quickly to name the colors, but the rest of seeing is tormentingly difficult. . . . The mental effort involved . . . proves overwhelming for many patients. It oppresses them to realize, if they ever do at all, the tremendous size of the world, which they had previously conceived of as something touchingly manageable. . . . A disheartening number of them refuse to use their new vision, continuing to go over objects with their tongues, and lapsing into apathy and despair. . . . On the other hand, many newly sighted people speak well of the world, and teach us how dull is our own vision.
The full passage--almost 10 pages--is worth seeking out. After reading about the experience of newly discovered vision, Dillard experiments with her own sense of sight, trying to see space as flat colored patches rather than as already-interpreted spatial objects.
When the doctor took her bandages off and led her into the garden, the girl who was no longer blind saw "the tree with the lights in it." It was for this tree I searched through the peach orchards of summer, in the forests of fall and down winter and spring for years. Then one day I was walking along Tinker Creek thinking of nothing at all and I saw the tree with the lights in it. I saw the backyard cedar where the mourning doves roost charged and transfigured, each cell buzzing with flame. I stood on the grass with the lights in it, grass that was wholly fire, utterly focused and utterly dreamed. It was less like seeing than like being for the first time seen, knocked breathless by a powerful glance. The lights of the fire abated, but I'm still spending the power. Gradually the lights went out in the cedar, the colors died, the cells unflamed and disappeared. I was still ringing. I had my whole life been a bell, and never knew it until at that moment I was lifted and struck. I have since only rarely seen the tree with the lights in it. The vision comes and goes, mostly goes, but I live for it, for the moment when the mountains open and a new light roars in spate through the crack, and the mountains slam.
Photo: Beatrice Murch

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Major in Philosophy, Not Business

Not for the first time, a business blog lauds the skills of humanities majors over business majors, referencing this original post from Harvard Business Review.

The argument is precisely what we tell our majors to expect about how their degree will set them apart (and it's also the reason why assessment is so tricky in the humanities!):
Any great work of art — whether literary, philosophical, psychological or visual — challenges a humanist to be curious, to ask open-ended questions, see the big picture. This kind of thinking is just what you need if you are facing a murky future or dealing with tricky, incipient problems.
Humanities majors, these business leaders seem surprised to learn, spend their time in college practicing these general-purpose and adaptable skills:
  • thinking carefully about situations which involve complexity and ambiguity
  • creative problem-solving
  • clear writing and sophisticated oral presentation skills
  • understanding the subjective perspective of other people.
I would add to that list one more essential skill:
  • thinking for oneself and developing the courage to speak one's thoughts

Not only do business colleges encourage lock-step thinking, but their rigor has come under scrutiny by educational and sociological researchers who look at things such as average earning potential, exit exams, and time spent studying. One of the authors of Academically Adrift writes:
We found that students concentrating in business related coursework were the least likely to report spending time studying and preparing for class. If one considers simply hours spent studying alone, undergraduates concentrating in business coursework invest less than one hour a day in such pursuits. Given such modest investments in academic activities, it is not surprising that business students show the lowest gains on measures of critical thinking, complex reasoning and written communication.

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Molyneux's Problem: Can the Blind Know How Shapes Look by Touch Alone?

In my modern philosophy class, we recently read this excerpt from John Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Book II, Ch. 9:

To which purpose I shall here insert a problem of that very ingenious and studious promoter of real knowledge, the learned and worthy Mr. Molyneux, which he was pleased to send me in a letter some months since; and it is this:- "Suppose a man born blind, and now adult, and taught by his touch to distinguish between a cube and a sphere of the same metal, and nighly of the same bigness, so as to tell, when he felt one and the other, which is the cube, which the sphere. Suppose then the cube and sphere placed on a table, and the blind man be made to see: quaere, whether by his sight, before he touched them, he could now distinguish and tell which is the globe, which the cube?" To which the acute and judicious proposer answers, "Not. For, though he has obtained the experience of how a globe, how a cube affects his touch, yet he has not yet obtained the experience, that what affects his touch so or so, must affect his sight so or so; or that a protuberant angle in the cube, that pressed his hand unequally, shall appear to his eye as it does in the cube."- I agree with this thinking gentleman, whom I am proud to call my friend, in his answer to this problem; and am of opinion that the blind man, at first sight, would not be able with certainty to say which was the globe, which the cube, whilst he only saw them; though he could unerringly name them by his touch, and certainly distinguish them by the difference of their figures felt.

But this has remained a philosophical riddle for over 300 years--until a couple of weeks ago, when a study was published in Nature: Neuroscience. This new study confirms the intuitions of Locke and Molyneux, who were in the minority at their time--other philosophers thought that a blind person would immediately be able to make use of restored sight.

The study worked with 5 subjects in resource-poor countries who had been born with severe cataracts or correctible corneal disorders but who had not been treated. The subjects were old enough (8 years or older) to have language skills and be able to interact with the researchers. Within just a couple days of corrective surgery, the subjects were not able to correlate the sight of Lego shapes with shapes they could feel but not see. However, within days to weeks, they were able to make the correlations--showing that experience is needed but that learning progresses rapidly. NYT article here.

Monday, May 02, 2011

Exploring scientific frontiers

A student in my modern philosophy class gave me the link to this video after we talked about some of the scientific advances made in the 17th and 18th centuries, and particularly how the discovery of microscopic life in water (protists) inspired the thought that there were "worlds" within in this world of which humans were unaware.

Likewise, if I were an aspiring physicist, I would be vulnerable to the excitement this video conveys about discoveries in particle physics and cosmology.

Dark Matters from PHD Comics on Vimeo.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

The Limits of Business Ethics

One thing going in my academic life while I wasn't posting has been work related to reconceptualizing our university's general education curriculum. We've always had a liberal arts and science "core," though it has dwindled in credit hours over the years. Right now, students must take two introductory-level humanities courses (two courses chosen from among English, fine arts, history, STS, and philosophy). Right, it's not much. In our new curriculum, any department, anywhere in the university, can apply to teach a course in the arts and science core. And the business college has decided that their business ethics course ought to count.

Many, many arguments have been constructed, dressed, gussied up, rearranged, and presented to the committee made up of people from all over the university, most of them with no background in liberal arts or sciences, to explain why this is a bad idea. What amazes me, though, is that the quality of arguments don't seem to matter to the committee nearly so much as the...well...the marketing. But isn't that the point?

The business college has resorted to constructing case studies to show why it's so important to teach ethics to their students their way. Imagine, they say, that someone is asked by her employer to do something immoral and illegal, but her job or her raise or her bonus hinge on it. She has a lot to consider! It's not easy to think through the ethics of such cases!

After watching Inside Job, I don't doubt that there is a need for ethics education in business, finance, and accounting. I do doubt whether it can come from inside.

And there is the recent case of the LaSalle University professor who somehow worked strippers and lap dances into an extra credit class meeting for a business ethics class. One wonders: bad egg, or just positioned at one end of a spectrum?

Thoughts on a long hiatus

Can it have been over a month since I last posted? Other bloggers sometimes announce a hiatus. I just seem to take them from time to time with no prior warning or intention. I fall into the habit of blogging and then...I just fall out of it. Strangely, I can't discover a correlation with whether or not I'm otherwise busy...or whether I've been working on research. It's certainly not for lack of material, the supply of which is constant. The blog archive likewise shows no particular pattern--except that when there are posts, there tend to be more posts soon.

I think habits frequently have this contingent nature, including habits of reading and writing. If one is a runner, you can't imagine not running...until you stop...and then can't imagine starting again...until you do. Both conditions have some inherent stability.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Philosophy and Conceptual Art

There is much that I know I don't know. But I often am aware, roughly, of what it is that I don't know. So I was thrilled today to learn something new about someone I should have known more about.

One of my students has been talking to me about women artists, and in particular about feminist conceptual art. Today she was teaching me about the conceptual artist Adrian Piper, and I was so curious because this seems like an unusual name, and I've read work by the ethicist Adrian Piper. And guess what? Same person!
This realization is more surprising because I don't expect academics to have time in their lives to develop other careers, and I don't expect to see an analytic philosopher (that is, someone not primarily writing aesthetics) be a figure in the artworld.

Adrian Piper studied with John Rawls at Harvard, and had a number of teaching posts after that. She was the first African-American woman in philosophy to be tenured, and left a teaching post at Wellesley in 2008. She's written much on Kant, on ethics, on history of philosophy more broadly, and on discrimination and identity. Her artistic career as a conceptual artist continues and seems to draw on some of the same themes as her philosophical work--the construction of personal and social identities and selfhood--but through a modality very different from analytic argumentation!

Here is an interesting interview with Piper from 2001.

Friday, March 11, 2011


My latest posts have been complaints. I need something to brighten my spirits. Ahhh...thinking about yarnbombing is just the thing.

Yarnbombing is like street art or graffiti, but it uses yarn, fiber, etc. as its medium. Thus, it's not permanent but it lasts longer than something like chalk, and it can be removed rather easily--if that were necessary. The point is usually to bring art into drab public spaces, but it serves other purposes, too, and it makes a political point about the value of handmade work in a mass-produced public culture. I also like the way it turns the usual gender expectation of graffiti on its head. Many of these works are by women. Men also participate, of course, and in that, it's a way of breaking down the stereotypes of women's work and women's crafts.

Photo by Aria.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Why I'm Ambivalent About Women's History Month

March is Women's History Month. Eventually, it would be nice to be able to do away with it.

Women's History Month serves a purpose in foregrounding women's history and thus helping educators to brush up on histories they might otherwise overlook. But the goal of that attention is to mainstream this history--to make it easier and more natural to include the lives of women and their historical influence into the curriculum.

But these efforts have to be sincere, and they have to be useful. We feminist scholars and educators have a duty to use Women's History Month to include women in our syllabi and our lectures, and then to keep including them, even in months where we don't get the reminder.

What doesn't work is to focus attention on women in a way that can be used to further belittle, marginalize, or trivialize. Because by calling out women for special treatment, we're already taking the risk of reinforcing the beliefs that people come with--so the occasion has to be used effectively to redirect or change those beliefs, not re-entrench them.

In my last post, I mentioned that the Women's and Gender Studies Program on my campus was celebrating International Women's Day. They've also celebrated Women's History Month--by sending around a homemade image to all faculty and staff with the suggestion that we use it for our "desktop wallpaper" during the month of March.

It is a composite image of 6 of what I take to be their ideas of prominent and influential women in history:
  1. Queen Elizabeth I (nice start)
  2. Frida Kalho (well, OK)
  3. Harriet Tubman (so far, so good)
  4. Oprah Winfrey (judge for yourself)
  5. Marge Simpson (blue hair and so influential! DOH!)
  6. a busty image of Eve (SEDUCTRESS!!! ORIGINAL SIN!!!)
It is a 72KB file, it is not sized to fit my screen, and it uses the Comic Sans font.

I could not make this stuff up.

Monday, March 07, 2011

Why I Hate International Women's Day

I don't hate it for its Soviet roots.

The Wikipedia caption for the poster at right:
The 1932 Soviet poster dedicated to the 8th of March holiday. The text reads: "8th of March is the day of rebellion of the working women against kitchen slavery" and "Down with the oppression and narrow-mindedness of household work!". Originally in the USSR the holiday had a clear political character, emphasizing the role of the Soviet state inthe liberation of women from their second-class-citizen status.
Indeed, I'm all in favor of liberating women from the status of second-class citizen. And I think that doing so means demanding equal treatment for women in education, employment, and politics. Those are difficult tasks, and they require work on a daily basis, and I have no problem with a day that calls attention to the politics of gender.

But what I do have a problem with is a patronizing day for celebrating femininity analogous to Valentine's Day or Grandparent's Day. In Italy, and in some other countries, men give women flowers or chocolates on March 8. And then they elect, and tolerate, Berlusconi.

This gets personal:
At my university there is Women's and Gender Studies program, and it has an event budget. But it has not brought in an academic speaker in years, and its only event this year will be to hand out tulips to women--for being women--in the student union tomorrow. No political involvement on campus, no programming. Just tulips--symbols of love, symbols of unblemished beauty.

We also have a Women's Center, part of the Student Life part of campus. To recognize International Women's Day, they're holding a henna workshop.

Great. Flowers and make-up. So much for being modern women.

Thomas Kuhn's Ashtray

A story and video illustration by Errol Morris, concerning his time as a student of Thomas Kuhn's, at the Times.

In the comments:
That's the problem with relativism: Who's to say who's right and who's wrong? Somehow I'm not surprised to hear Kuhn was an ashtray-hurler. In the end, what other argument could he make?

Thursday, March 03, 2011

Being a Good Girl

A student I was privileged to have in my feminist theory course last term is a graduate student in the fine art photography/video program. I've found myself thinking quite often about her work, which simultaneously portrays and critiques stereotypes of good girls. The stereotypes she chooses juxtapose images of good little girls with conformist adult women, and juxtapose past norms for female discipline with contemporary expectations.

I haven't developed expertise in thinking about visual culture and art, but I'm immediately struck by the difficulty of what she proposes to do. How can an image simultaneously present a role and critique that role, and do so with multiple levels of meaning, making depth available to the viewer. And all while anticipating the expectations and assumptions that viewers will--or won't--bring to what they see.

This conundrum, which I expect is common in photography--especially in photography that reaches toward social commentary--is also familiar in feminist theory. For instance, consider my post below--on the one hand, in striving toward gender equality, we hope that, soon, gender won't matter, but for the sake of the striving, we must call attention to it. A point has to be made, but in making that point we risk undermining the eventual goal. This blog on politics and photography often addresses similar themes.

Whitney considers a related question in this post:
Do you have to rebel to be liberated? Does liberation dictate a change in appearance or only a change in mindset?
And this is a puzzle which I saw the young feminists in my course struggling with. On the one hand, they felt that they wanted to graphically mark their feminist consciousness--by how they dress or by not wearing make-up. But they also, rightly, questioned whether marking themselves was either required by feminism or effective as a feminist action. (And it's true, the people I know who have adopted a hippie persona are rarely radical, and the radicals I know don't usually look it but live their lives in ways that set them outside the mainstream. More on this thought soon.)

Below is one of Whitney's video installations. My first reaction was to love it--it's beautiful, and it seemed to me to find that tension point between, on the one hand, showing how much care feminine appearance and performance requires, and on the other hand, showing that the costuming, while perhaps adopted to fit others' expectations, also becomes adored in its own right, as we fit ourselves inside the role we are expected to inhabit.

Interestingly, Whitney reported that all of the women she has shown it to say they like it for reasons similar to mine, and all they men she has shown it to describe it as trite or clichéd--including my male colleague who does aesthetics.

Untitled from Whitney Warne on Vimeo.

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

A Film about Mathematicians, with Hilary Putnam

The film below sounds like it would be interesting, just because of the interesting subject matter. I've been thinking about women in math and science, so it's worth saying a few words about that. I'm conflicted when it comes to pointing out that I'm looking forward to seeing this film because the mathematician featured is a woman. I think that I'd be interested in it regardless of the gender of the main character. But in a social context where those of us who are women and interested in math and science are made to feel odd, there is added value in highlighting the work of women. Yes, there is a paradox here: gender shouldn't matter, but gender has to matter.

A while back, without a tenure-track job but having full access to university courses, I decided to take a year to construct a solid foundation in science (and to do the pre-req's for a master's program in science). That required taking a year of calculus. A friend and colleague, teacher of women's studies courses, and supporter of women in the sciences, could not help but express the doubt-ridden question "Why in the world would you want to take calculus? Math is so hard! Aren't you worried you won't do well?" Why would I have such a worry? Me, with a PhD--why would I be worried that I couldn't do what so many 18-year-olds can? And why project such doubts?

This week a student, a graduating senior woman majoring in business, told me that she signed up to take a physics course in the spring to complete her last general education requirement in science. She happens to enjoy math and has done well in physics in the past. Her academic advisor discouraged her from taking the course.

Here's the trailer for the 2008 1-hour documentary film Julia Robinson and Hilbert's Tenth Problem. It's not easily available, but I plan to ask our library to order it. I think it would be a nice fit for a Women in Science course.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Hilary Putnam and Natalie Portman

Here's a riddle:
What do Hilary Putnam and Natalie Portman have in common?
Why, of course, they share talents in common. They are among the very, very few to have Erdos-Bacon numbers--indeed, these two have the same Erdos-Bacon number of 6.

An Erdos number of 1 refers to coauthorship with the mathematician Paul Erdos, (an Erdos number of 2 belongs to those who have coauthored with an Erdos coauther, and so on).

Degrees of separation from Kevin Bacon are calculated by appearing in a performance or film in which Kevin Bacon also appeared.

Hilary Putnam has an Erdos number of 3 (and if anyone can show the coauthorship path in comments, I'd be interested), and a Bacon number of 3 from having appeared as himself in the documentary film Julia Robinson and Hilbert's Tenth Problem.

Natalie Portman has a Bacon number of 1. As an undergraduate at Harvard, she co-authored a paper in neuroscience, giving her an Erdos number of 6. She also won a Westinghouse Prize (Intel Science Talent Search)--making a unique combination with her Oscar for Best Actress.

Not surprisingly, xkcd has illustrated the Erdos-Bacon dream.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

One Color and One Sex in Philosophy

I just got an announcement in my inbox for a new Intro to Philosophy text. This one is written in a way that makes liberal use of contemporary films so that students
"will not only discover a new relevance to their own lives, but will dissect the key readings with a perspective they were previously unaware of."
One wonders if the book is supposed to be relevant to women students, too. Out of 42 authors, the majority of them 20th- and 21st-century authors, only 2 are women. That's less than 5%! Not only is that far lower than the percentage of Intro to Philosophy students who are women, it's lower even than the still-very-low estimate of women teaching philosophy.

The text is called "Introduction to Philosophy in Black, White, and Color" but--ahem--the only color I see is White.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Access to Power

Here's one of those questions on which my intuitions pull in opposing directions.

How important is it for us in academia to have informal access to folks in positions of authority? And if informal access to people in power is a good thing--either for the people who get the access or those in the positions of authority, then how important is it that the access be fair, especially given that people in positions of authority have very real, burdensome demands on their time?

Here are some reasons to support informal access:
1. In organizations and communities with democratic elements, informal meetings across levels of hierarchy strengthens the impression of equality.
2. Those in power can lose touch with "regular folks," and formal means of access deliver messages that are funneled along only certain lines, often adversarial ones. Say there is some sort of structural problem that could lead to a grievance, isn't it much better for someone in a position of power to hear about the potential problem before it becomes serious? Plus, informal access is more likely to create positive relationships rather than adversarial relationships.
3. If people in a community or organization feel close to figures of authority, perhaps they are more likely to be supportive of the community or organization in general.

But here's the concern. Genuinely informal, causal, social interactions are more likely to happen in social circles that are coincident with the leader's own social milieu, but that can serve to entrench the interests of that social milieu while doing nothing to create access for others.

Here are some examples, and I'm genuinely conflicted about most of these:

1. The dean's office runs a series of breakfasts. They are open for anyone on faculty or staff to stop by and chat or share ideas and problems. However, they take place while some people are teaching and are always held at the same time.

2. A provost holds frequent private parties at his home. Invitations are offered liberally and generously. But there is a group of regular invitees, and these become known around campus as the provost's inner circle.

3. A provost with a very busy schedule creatively schedules his downtime as a chance for students, faculty, or staff to chat with him informally. This regular 3-mile running event is called "Pace the Provost." He has a 20:34 5K time.

4. A dean holds informal "meeting hours" at a local pub, after hours. Some untenured faculty make it their business to attend, figuring that sharing beers with the dean is a form of insurance.

What do you think of these cases?
I don't see a problem with #1. Presumably if the dean's office is reaching out, they'd be open to individuals setting up meetings. #2 is slightly more problematic. However, public figures still have private lives. And it seems to me like a provost is actually rather removed from decisions that will affect faculty members as individuals (except for tenure decisions).

#3 raises a different problem. On the one hand, it's very creative, and, as a runner myself, it sounds fun. But then, it creates access for certain people (runners, more likely men than women) and not others (if you're fat or blew out your knees, too bad).

#4 creates the most conflict between my intuitions. On the one hand, extending business conversations in more comfortable surroundings sounds absolutely unobjectionable. On the other hand, of these 4 situations, this one seems the most likely to result in someone receiving favorable treatment--not as a result of conscious favoritism, necessarily, but as a result of having had the chance to develop regular old familiarity and trust.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Books with nice covers and nice pages

Don't judge a book by its cover?

Why not?

The Modern Library hardbacks on my shelf have such lovely brass-colored dust jackets with black-and-white images, nice firm cloth bindings, and smooth, impossibly thin pages which never seem to yellow. Are they still being published? I just floated around the Random House site, here, and only found paperbacks. Even brand new, the hardcovers had prices only a hair above the competitors' paperbacks. I loved them!

I'm teaching Modern Philosophy in the spring, for the first time in over 10 years. And imagine my shock: E.A. Burtt, The English Philosophers from Bacon to Mill is entirely out of print! Strangely, its companion volume, Monroe Beardsley, The European Philosophers from Descartes to Nietzsche, is not. But that one is available only in paperback.

What's a good solution? What are other folks doing? I ordered The Empiricists instead. But I hate having a mismatched set. And are Locke and Hume not worth reprinting when Spinoza et alia are?

Thursday, February 10, 2011

At C

I'm approaching the end of a term. Just one more week, and I have many students in my upper-level classes who have not turned in work. Major assignments, minor assignments. Some are brilliant when they participate in discussion, but it seems they can't get around to the written comments which make up 35% of the grade. When the students in question are math majors, engineering majors, physics majors...failing to understand numerically how that will affect their grade is not possible.

One of the classes I'm teaching now I haven't taught since 2005. Some reading materials which students found a reasonable challenge 6 years ago now completely stump a significant portion of the class. They don't even attempt the reading. Not to mention that more than one can't read cursive, so how are they getting the notes I write on the board?

Have standards at my university changed in only 6 years?
Is there something unusual about how or why students enrolled in this particular class?
Is there a larger pattern?

The book Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses by Richard Arum and Josipa Roska has been getting some attention and does point to a larger, even national, pattern.

From an interview with Salon:
Fifty percent of the kids in a typical semester say they haven't taken a single course where they've been asked to write 20 pages over the course of the semester. And 32 percent have not taken a single class the prior semester for which they've been asked to read more than 40 pages per week on average, and in terms of homework, 35 percent of them say they do five or fewer hours per week studying alone.
OK, guilty as charged. In one class I'm requiring students to write over 20 pages but most are coming in far below the expectations I expressed--both in terms of quality and quantity. In the other class, I'm only requiring about 15 pages of writing. Both classes have over 30 students. I think I spend too much time on grading. My students tell me I require more writing than many of my colleagues--particularly those in other liberal arts disciplines. I believe them. Because if they were practicing writing regularly they'd be better at it than they are.

So here's the bind. My colleagues are requiring less work. My students are expecting to do less work. I want to set them tasks which are challenging but possible. And the bar for what is possible falls a little every year. We are stuck in a pattern of decline, and it seems to be a problem of collective action. No one is positioned to make a change without paying a cost.

More from the Salon interview:
There's a longstanding tradition of some students going through college with little asked of them and little learned. Nothing is new about that. However, there is significant evidence out there that something has changed in terms of the academic rigor and student workload.... Full-time college students spend 50 percent less time studying than they did several decades ago. We also know that in terms of grades, students expect to receive higher grades and do receive higher grades in spite of less effort.
Philosophers are surely as much a part of this drift as other disciplines. The book reports that 45% of the students followed in the study (at a wide variety of campuses) failed to progress in developing critical thinking and analytical reasoning skills in their first two years. That's our department, no? Not just us, but we surely play a central role.

It's possible that one of the things to blame is something I love dearly: academic freedom. No one tells me what or how to teach, and I take the responsibility to teach well seriously. But with no one looking, it is all too easy for some of us to slide a lot and all of us to slide a little.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Ernan McMullin

Michael Ruse has written a memorial piece for Ernan McMullin at the Chronicle.

Hearing McMullin speak about the history of the development of early modern philosophy in tandem with modern science was one of the delights of my first year in grad school. I appreciated that it was a good story, well-told. Thinking about science and philosophy as sharing metaphysical commitments which were particular to the Church and to origins in Hellenistic philosophy implicitly presented the thesis that if Church history had been different, the questions and tools available to 17th century science would also have been different. This was consistent with my learning to take a historical and sociological approach to the development of scientific methods and institutions (but in a way that respects, rather than undermines, the intuition that science and philosophy are progressive). That lecture probably reinforced the track I was already starting to follow. In hindsight, much about the talk was probably already obvious to many in the audience, and I know of others who have given more detailed accounts of how scholastic metaphysics affected the development of modern science (Dan Garber, especially), but at the time I was happy to be able to absorb these historical points and to hear them in the form of a fascinating narrative.

I've also found his talk on "Values in Science" to be provocative at several points and useful for several projects. I just learned from Michael Ruse's piece that it was the PSA presidential address that year--I don't believe it's marked in that way in the printed collection.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

How Do YOUR Clothes Fit?

I love finding an opportunity to bring a gendered insight to bear, even on another feminist.

I assigned Ron Giere's piece "The Feminism Question in the Philosophy of Science" for one of my classes, and I'm enjoying re-reading it. Giere's central point is that just about any current theory of scientific theories allows for the possibility that influences on theory choice may include cultural background beliefs or individual bias.

This is obvious for post-Kuhnian theories. It's less obvious, but still true, for theories which rely on subjective probability (following Richard Jeffrey) because there are no constraints on how individuals assign initial probabilities to theories, and those initial probabilities may be conditioned by all sorts of beliefs. Likewise, for theorists such as Laudan and Lakatos whose historical theories of theory change impose stricter rationality constraints than those implied by Kuhn, there is still the possibility that one theory has become developed enough to be a serious alternative because of its relation to cultural values.

Giere goes on to build up his position of perspectival realism (which he later developed in his book Scientific Perspectivism). While logical positivists, as well as some contemporary realists, look for theories (in the form of statements) to be true representations of the world, Giere's perspectival realism abandons truth as a criterion for judging theories. Indeed, he rejects linguistic statements as representations for something more in line with scientific practice--it is models, not statements, which are representations. Judgments are made not about the turth of statements but about the degree to which scientific models fit the world.

Giere writes
Unlike truth, fit is a more qualitative relationship, as clothes may be said to fit a person more or less well.
I would point out that, for a typical man (other than David Byrne!), we can often quite easily say that his clothes fit more or less well. But for women, we need to know something else. Namely, we need to know what the fashion is this season.

I have a lovely Irish linen blouse, suitable for only dressy occasions, which I bought in the 1990's. According to the size label it should fit, but I'll have to wait for fashions to cycle around to the roomy end of the scale first.

The point is that judgments of truth cause difficulty for realists precisely because they are bivalent, and so realists reach for "approximate" truth (an idea which, in my opinion, does not fly). Being qualitative, fitness accommodates judgments about the degree of precision which is required for different models in different contexts. Nonetheless, one wouldn't expect fashion to be a factor in making judgments of fitness, though the analogy seems to invite this conclusion.

In the end, I'm not sure that Giere would be troubled by it. I'm not. It does seem to be the case that epistemic values vary from one scientific community and historical moment to another, and that epistemic values are an influence on judgments of which theories (or models) are best. Some communities look for simplicity, others look for breadth--either of these are bound to be considerations in making judgments about whether models fit the world.

Saturday, February 05, 2011

Gender and Germs

How does feminist philosophy of science make a (muddy) splash?

Shari Clough adds gender insight to the germ hypothesis, and shares the word with an interview on npr.org. Snappy reasoning!

Shari's abstract:

The hygiene hypothesis offers an explanation for the correlation, well-established in the industrialized nations of North and West, between increased hygiene and sanitation, and increased rates of asthma and allergies. Recent studies have added to the scope of the hypothesis, showing a link between decreased exposure to certain bacteria and parasitic worms, and increased rates of depression and intestinal auto-immune disorders, respectively. What remains less often discussed in the research on these links is that women have higher rates than men of asthma and allergies, as well as many auto-immune disorders, and also depression. The current paper introduces a feminist understanding of gender socialization to the epidemiological and immunological picture.

Photo by katiew.

Beautiful Connections

Tinadot posts a collection of provocative images of neural cells: here.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

What Do You Know?

Wikipedia is asking for more female contributors.
This is important in that it recognizes that, if Wikipedia says something about our cultural worldview, then the perspective of that worldview is skewed if those who write it don't represent the full diversity of interests.

I don't buy the line that it's because women don't use computers as much or in the same ways as men. I think the cause is a more broadly rooted phenomenon--women being less like to recognize their own epistemic authority or to recognize that what they have expertise on counts as knowledge.

We philosophers have a word for this--agnotology, or the epistemology of ignorance. Some sorts of things are deemed worth knowing, and others not; and social practices, some of them gendered, dub people experts. Feminist philosophers have examined how cultural values shape the understanding of what counts as knowledge--including Nancy Tuana, Shannon Sullivan, Lisa Heldke, Nancy McHugh, and Carla Fehr.

Thanks to Zoe for the link!

Friday, January 28, 2011


Cordelia Fine's fantastic analysis of "neurosexism" and exposé of the sloppy reasoning that feeds misconceptions about gendered brain differences to the popular press is reviewed in the Times Literary Supplement by Carol Tavris.

This is a good book to use in class--not just a class on feminist theory, but also in a philosophy of science class that examines the structure of evidential claims and the ways that values can influence scientific research and the communication of science.

From the review:
Fine’s romp through the fields of neurosexism is sandwiched between two other sections; in the first, she explores the unsexy, low-tech, but primary causes of gender differences in achievement: the persistence of discrimination, subtle and blatant, that convey the message to women – “You don’t belong here”, and the institutional rules, explicit and implicit, that impede advancement – or make it possible; after all, the international rise of women in law, medicine, science, bartending and the military did not occur because their brains became less lateralized. The final section examines the socialization of children and the phenomenon that draws so many parents to the notion that sex differences are innate: the sex-stereotyped play choices and behaviours of their toddlers. Parents aren’t wrong in what they observe. They are wrong only in assuming that their child’s preferences at the age of three, four or five has anything at all to do with what that child will grow up to become.