The patriarchy of philosophy

“Is there a genetic component?” he said. “I have no idea. But what is certain is that the role of culture is much more important.”

They say that before becoming a columnist, you must first prove yourself to be an exceedingly arrogant and self-righteous tool. My particular brand of pretention and general disdain for others can be partly attributed to my major: when I graduate in the spring, my transcript will read “Bachelor of Arts: Philosophy.”

Philosophy is one of those rare majors that, when declared, simultaneously elicits looks of reverence and contempt from others. Philosophy majors are often seen as meek hipster wannabes who emit foul odours and begin every sentence with “it is the case that.” And with good reason. Moreover, it is the case that anyone who tells you they really “get” Wittgenstein’s arguments is either lying to you or ready to write their own column.

But something far more troubling than Converse shoes is plaguing one of world’s oldest disciplines. Philosophy boasts one of the absolute lowest ratios of women to men in academic circles today, closely rivalling mathematics and engineering in a race to the bottom.

Though a lack of data makes it hard to find precise figures, the latest studies indicate that women make up anywhere between 17-30 per cent of academically employed philosophers. In 2007, only 27 per cent of those who received doctorates in philosophy were women (according to the National Center for Education Statistics).

I find this data shocking. If there’s any overt sexism in McGill’s philosophy department, which is chaired by a woman, I haven’t experienced it. Philosophy majors would never sing a sexist song about a factory in Chicago – we’re far too pretentious and sober for that. I’ve had the privilege of studying under five exceptional and revered female philosophy professors, and have seen three female presidents of the Philosophy Students’ Association.

The main problem here is the silence concerning the number of women in the field outside of McGill, where things look a lot less promising. In the top 54 American philosophy departments, less than 19 per cent of the faculty are women. Why did it take me almost four years in the program to hear about this gross injustice?
A grad student suggested to me that the exclusion of women might be a product of a more general shift toward an analytic rather than continental style of philosophy. While the analytic tradition is often associated with formal logic and a respect for the natural sciences, the continental style’s emphasis on the human subject may have historically proven more inclusive to female scholars.

Personally, I don’t think the solution to the tradition’s misogyny lies in attempting to popularize the continental tradition in North America. Of course, this is almost entirely a result of my own personal contempt for continental philosophy. As a Jew of Eastern European descent, there’s a voice inside of me (probably my mother’s) that doesn’t particularly enjoy glorifying the works of Martin Heidegger, Nazi-bastard. Mostly, though, I really just don’t understand the readings. It took me nearly three months to learn what Hegel meant by “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny” and I assure you, it was not fascinating.

But back to the more general problem. I think a lot of the time the question of women in philosophy is overlooked as a result of the widespread belief that the entire enterprise of philosophy has no real world import. Ambrose Bierce astutely defined philosophy as “a route of many roads leading from nowhere to nothing,” a definition which seems to have caught on.

Granted, there’s very little money to be earned in philosophy, and it certainly won’t win you friends. But even contemporary philosophy matters. Philosophical discourse shapes and challenges the entire realm of thoughts and ideas. It addresses some of the most fundamental questions of meaning, existence, and the limits of human knowledge.

When women are left out of philosophy, they’re left out of a discourse and enterprise whose effects spill over into every academic field. Innovations in philosophy gradually seep into public consciousness, and that consciousness ought to include the voice of women. If a women falls out of philosophy, and there is no one there to read about it, does she make a sound?

Riva’s taking a break until January. Say shalom until next time: