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Saturday, June 05, 2021

Philosophy departments everywhere: sociopathology isn't destiny

 There is an article in the Philosophers Mag that made me laugh outloud. It is a survey essay by Helen Beebee entitled Women in Philosophy: What’s changed? Beebee lists the things that have pushed back the men’s club atmosphere in Philosophy departments, including less tolerance for sexual harrassment and greater opportunities for women to publish. This is the paragraph, though, that I particularly liked:

“One final change I do want to highlight, though, is the atmosphere in philosophy research seminars. Some things that used to happen relatively frequently: questions asked in an incredibly aggressive manner. (I’ve seen people in a state of near apoplexy, so insulted were they by the speaker’s outrageous suggestion that metaphysical realism is false, or that maybe knowledge is justified true belief after all. I mean, what is wrong with the speaker? Is he or she an idiot?) Someone hogging an enormous slab of the Q&A time by asking repeated follow-up questions. (Because their question must just be so much more important than the questions the other members of the audience want to ask.) Or failing to shut up despite the fact that the seminar was supposed to end ten minutes ago and the chair is very clearly starting to look desperate.”

The instances gave me an instant (non)nostalgia for my own days as a grad student in the University of Texas Philosophy Department. Both the intelligence policing – the idea that you had to be smart, which I at first thought was a joke and then realized was taken very seriously – and the outsized, testosterone swollen passion attaching to abstract positions, usually backed up by this or that hoary “analytic” philosopher – were a huge burden to someone like me, who just wanted to talk about Nietzsche, Derrida and Georges Bataille. This desire, not an unusual thing in 80s humanities, marked me down as a nihilist or something. And so I had that experience of presenting arguments that insulted all of humanity, plus the shade of Bertrand Russell, bless his hairy hide. After a while, it was just not funny any more. I remember taking a class with one of the names on the faculty rouster in which discussions that involved me often ended up in “throught experiments”about what I would say if someone was pointing a gun at my head. From my own brief experience of being mugged, I thought that it would be a very rare thing indeed if the mugger was after my response to questions concerning the correspondence theory of truth. A pistol, in my opinion, is a powerful coherence-maker.
If decades on philosophy departments are starting to understand the sociopathic nature of intelligence policing, and doing something about it, it will be almost entirely because of women in philosophy departments, and the entrance of feminism (in another two or three decades, who knows? Even people of color!) have disrupted the thing, the our thing, the male philosopher’s cosa nostra.
Excellent news for the people in that small, small world.

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