Tag Archives: Philosophy

Is philosophy a man’s game?

Philosophy is a long way behind in the gender equality stakes.

The Philosopher’s Magazine suggests that only 20% of tenured staff in the US and the UK are female, compared with, for example, about 40% in psychology. Anecdotal experience, on the other hand, suggests that the numbers are much more even at the undergraduate levels. What is happening in between? How does a relative gender parity skew towards the masculine at the postgrad and professional levels?

Recent discussions on the internet have revolved around the following:

  • the generally aggressive, combative, belligerent culture of discussion within philosophy;
  • the association of women with the ‘softer’ or ‘woolier’ sub-disciplines – aesthetics, ethics, history of philosophy, ancient philosophy, and so on – and men with the ‘harder’ or ‘colder’ sub-disciplines (metaphysics, epistemology, logic);
  • women being left out of informal, male-dominated networks (that convene over e.g. poker, basketball, beer at the pub);
  • and, more broadly, widespread prejudice and outdated stereotyping, or the clash of ‘schemas’ (= unconscious biases) – as above, folk understanding says women are ‘life-giving’, ’emotional’, and ‘nurturing’, while philosophers have to be ‘rational’ and ‘penetrating’ and ‘hard-nosed’. Such prejudice gives rise to e.g. evaluation biases, and women end up locked out as a result.

(cf. Brian Leiter, this article in the NY Times, this brilliant paper by Sally Haslinger of MIT, dana @ The Edge of the American West here, Kieran Hiely with a classic post on the subject, some great discussion over at the FeministPhilosophers blog, and visit the Women in Philosophy Task Force here).

So, what’s going on? It seems ridiculous to me to say that women aren’t suited to philosophy because it’s too rational or rigorous. Women don’t seem to have much trouble succeeding in the law, for example. And commenters have noted that there are plenty of female linguists doing work on semantics, while philosophy of language remains largely male (despite the fact that both groups are working on similar things). Perhaps the disciplinary culture is the relevant factor?

The canon of philosophy is full of dead white men, sure. That can’t be encouraging to female students. But then again, the literary canon is also full of dead white men, and there are plenty of women in English departments. Maybe women are promoted in English departments because that fits with our biases – English (as an ’emotional’ or ‘sensitive’ discipline) is something, you know, women can do. What is for certain is that gender inequality is not unique to philosophy. Economics provides a good example. Of the last 64 Nobel Memorial Prize winners in Economics, only 1 is a woman. And that’s this year’s winner, Elinor Ostrom, who was awarded the prize for her work on managing shared resources (a ‘soft’ and ‘wooly’ speciality – none of the precision and mathematical rigour of logic general equilibrium theory there).

So, how are we doing in Sydney? UNSW is doing OK – 33% (5/15) of listed philosophy staff are female, including the discipline co-ordinator (in English – 45%, 10/22). USyd, on the other hand, has 6 women in a department of 34 philosophers (17%); compare with the English department, where over 50% of staff are female – 14 out of 29. These samples ought to be too small to be representative, but USyd’s faculty in particular reflects the general trend observed by The Philosopher’s Magazine.

So – is philosophy a man’s game? What do you think?

Is democracy for everyone?

By Nick Hayward

(What follows is largely a summary of an IQ2 debate held on Sunday, the 4th of October, as part of the Festival of Dangerous Ideas. The topic was ‘Democracy is not for everyone’: more information here. This is a topic I know nothing about: corrections and comments are encouraged!)

Well, is it? Some say no. Dr. Carmen Lawrence, former Premier of Western Australia, argues that monied interests, corruption and nepotism have undermined Western ‘democracy’ to an extent where it can no longer be described as a system ‘for’, ‘of’, or ‘by’ the people. Those prepositions serve instead ‘the corporations’ or ‘the wealthy’. Factionalized parties and opaque preselection processes foster anti-democratic institutions even within those larger political bodies that pride themselves on being democratic.

Ambassador M.K. Bhadrakumar, a now-retired Indian career diplomat, chimes in with an analysis that sees ‘democracy’ as an historically and culturally specific institution. Once a state has reached a certain level of economic development, he says, once its bourgeoisie has grown and its entrepreneurial class has reached a certain mass, political stability becomes the watchword and more authoritarian systems of government become unworkable. Democracy fills the gap; but without that base of prosperity, it can never function correctly. Maybe we ought to rethink exporting our democracy to countries that can’t support it.

The opposition perks up. Professor John Keane, author a recent book on democracy, argues with Derrida that ‘democracy’ is not something attainable: democracy is always ‘democracy-to-come’. And as an ideal, he says, it is the best weapon we have against hubris, the fault of every power-mad politico. No other system, says Keane, protects us so well from the caprice of the individual. The old arguments for democracy (the people know best! down with elitism! only the people’s government is legitimate!) are hackneyed, tired cliches (like the phrase ‘tired cliches’); similarly, modern opponents of democracy are more often than not the ones who would benefit were it abolished – the upper-middle classes, the capital asset owners, the philosopher-kings. Those grumblings we hear over monied interests are not a sign of decay, but rather the opposite – they are a sign that democracy is working how it should, allowing voices of dissent to be heard.

Amina Rasul, once the Phillipines’ Presidential Advisor, stands and makes the points that have been overlooked: what other system do you propose? If democracy is not for everyone, then what? And please, she asks, tell me whether or not that system would protect the rights we enjoy, the liberties of freedom of association and assembly, of religion, of speech, that many of us take for granted. ‘Democracy’ is not a petrified form (or a cookie-cutter, waiting to be pressed into the dough of un-democracy…mmm); it is above all a process, and one that can adapt quite easily to any number of cultural contexts.

The audience is cynical. A few people are surprised that no-one has mentioned ‘tyranny of the majority’; one person makes the point that democracy is not always the best way of doing things. Air-traffic controllers, for example, shouldn’t be expected to tally votes from the pilots they direct. Most others grumble about money in politics.

The pre-debate poll was slanted heavily in favour of the anti-democracy folk. A couple of hours later, almost everyone had changed their mind. What do you think?

(This debate was recorded, and will be broadcast on the BBC and ABC Fora, dates TBA. IQ2’s debates are always a lot of fun. The 2010 season is scheduled to start on the 9th of February with the topic ‘Popular Culture: We’ve seen the future and it is junk’.)

What is a coincidence?

By Arthur Kary.

The aim of this post is to get deep into coincidences, and try to figure out what exactly is going on. It would help if you thought of this as more of a hypothesis than any attempt at a theory, just me throwing out a few ideas to get everyone thinking about it. I’m going to argue that the dominant aspect of coincidences is the subjective attitudes we have towards the events, rather than the ontological nature of the events themselves.

Coincidences themselves do not exhibit the properties of ‘remarkable’ or ‘weird’. That an event is a coincidence is not like an object refracting particles of light, doing so whether someone is watching it or not. What makes coincidences so interesting to me is that they rely on an observer to recognise them. They need someone to add the remarkable to it through their perception of the event. A definition of coincidences I propose is ‘an unlikely and apparently uncaused relationship between objects or events, the observation of which causes in the perceiver a particular emotional response’. I will now talk about that particular emotional response, focusing on why we might feel it, and also bring to light the big role it plays in the overall coincidence phenomena.

Unlikely in that definition, taken simply, means you don’t come across it very often. But unlikely can also be looked at in a more abstract way. Given someone’s way of understanding the world, the possibilities and significance of any particular event occurring are apt to change.

The feeling of coming across a coincidence, I think, is the violation of one’s schema, or way of understanding the world, by an event that doesn’t fit in it, or is improbable according to it. Coming across someone who shares a birthday with you may seem an unlikely event in your schema, you may term it a coincidence, but as anyone who has attended a Phil Staines lecture knows, the probability of being in a room with someone who has the same birthday as you exceeds 50% with only 23 people in it. For the person who has that knowledge, that relationship does not have the same significance. Another important point is that despite each scenario ending up with different outcomes, either experiencing a coincidence or not, the physical events leading up to it are all the same. It is the interpretation on behalf of the individuals that changes the outcomes.

So to sum up my argument, I think coincidences are primarily the result of our expectations of the world compared to the world itself. Events and relationships in the universe do not have a significant quality or a weird quality as part of their constitutions. These properties are attributed by us, in our experience of those events. If we look at coincidences in this way, we are able to avoid attributing extra forces or phenomena to the universe, instead acknowledging how we may be shaping the world through our experience of it.

What is Chinese philosophy?

By Wai Wai Chiu.

Like the history of Western philosophy, Chinese thought is divided into different periods. The period which is usually labelled as the golden age of Chinese thought is the pre-Qin period. This is the period where the widest variety of schools prevailed. (Qin is the name of a dynasty in China around 221 B.C – 207 B.C. The pre-Qin period usually covers 770 B.C. – 221 B.C. Compare Socrates, who lived around 469 B.C. – 399 B.C., and Plato, who lived around 429 B.C. – 347 B.C.)

When we talk about a contrast or comparison between Chinese philosophy and Western philosophy, we do not mean that there is a singular, unified view in Chinese philosophy and a singular, unified view in Western philosophy. Rather, we point to some similarity among schools in China and some similarity among Western schools, and sketch the context and the topic in which they can be compared, noting that every similarity makes sense only under some conditions.

Very briefly, the primary concern of Chinese thought is self-cultivation in this world. This includes the transformation of one’s character, habit, disposition and other faculties. But it should be noted that different thinkers have different conceptions of what self-cultivation is and how we should carry it out. Most of them will agree, however, that problems in knowledge, politics and even reality cannot be considered as independent of self-cultivation. For example, in discussing politics, the government is supposed to be a model for ordinary people. The government should educate them, to help them engage in self-cultivation.

Western philosophy has a close relationship with mathematics, and later, with logic and physics. For example, Plato claims that his doctrine is prepared only for those who know geometry. And if this is the requirement for philosophical thinking, I guess many Chinese thinkers will be considered as not suitable or eligible for philosophy! From geometry, Plato thinks that philosophy should be freed from particulars, be static, clear and demonstrable. The construction of philosophy should resemble the Euclidean system. While in China, philosophy is more connected to history and literature. The founder of Confucianism, Confucius, emphasized the study of poetry and traditional propriety. Like literature, the spirit of philosophy lies in the transformation of one’s character and sentiments, and like history, philosophy is a continuous response to tradition (and the social environment shaped by tradition).

The emphasis in Western philosophy is on clear and precise concepts, definition, truth, and universality, an approach which favours deduction and the formulation of rules and principles. Some of these serve like axioms in mathematics, some of them as corollaries. To paraphrase Plato again, a philosopher is supposed to engage in pure thinking, to philosophize in a realm that is strictly governed by reason alone. Nowadays, justification still plays a supreme role in philosophy. And here, justification concerns constructing arguments from propositions.

For ancient Chinese thinkers, however, the faculty of reason is not singled out as the VIP in philosophy. Actually, in some schools there is not even a clear distinction between reason and sentiment. Whether a doctrine can be justified is often measured by the effect of the doctrine on one’s self-cultivation or social order. It is more important to see what can be inspired by a statement and what modification it brings to our practice than to clear it systematically in our mind. Therefore, the use of analogy and metaphor is very common, and Chinese thinkers often elaborate an idea by giving various examples (which is quite the opposite of Plato), relating its significance to the audience or sometimes telling a story. Also, Chinese thinkers have a stronger inclination to synthesize different theories, even those of opponents.

Greek philosophy puts much emphasis on the descriptive or representative function of language. Language is supposed to match reality, and each sentence points to a fact which is in some sense independent of human make-ups. Correspondence is a very important idea in Western philosophy of language. On the other hand, Chinese philosophy puts more emphasis on language’s prescriptive or orientative function. Language is primarily associated with guiding human interaction. Some thinkers think that each name prescribes certain actions. Correspondence is replaced by the effectiveness of the motivational power of language.

Most Western philosophical texts are written in Indo-European derived languages, while Chinese has had its own linguistic development. Translation to a foreign language, like English, is made difficult by the absence in ancient Chinese of articles, prefixes, suffixes, tenses, distinctions between singular and plural, and so on. This makes each character and each word in Chinese a cluster of meaning and an indeterminate reference sometimes fixed only temporarily by context. This feature may be a disturbance or a treasure -depending on how one thinks about language, meaning and the worldview behind each system of language.

Is all seduction manipulation? Is there a right and a wrong way of seducing someone?

 By Nick Hayward.

Plato and Socrates were clear on love. There is common (pandemotic) love and there is heavenly (ouranian) love – carnal desire versus desire for the transcendental. The former, says the Symposium, is the kind of end to which seduction should not be directed. Seducers pursuing nothing but sex are the deceptive ones, manipulative, base and trapped in the cave. Love is not of a particular body or a particular thing, but rather it is the Idea of love that so many lovely things partake in. It is more virtuous to pursue this Idea (and forsake the pursuit of sexual gratification) or to inspire others (through seduction) to pursue the Idea in your step.


And Plato and Socrates also had some very practical advice for the seducer. In the Lysis, Socrates savages Hippothales, who does nothing but flatter his beloved with songs and poetry. Flattery only sets you up for a fall, he says. What you really need to do is humble your lover, take the wind out of their sails – bring them down a notch. Then they’re all yours. Socrates’ humbling of Lysis, the object of Hippothales’ affection, takes the form of a questioning, an elenctic examination. Socrates doesn’t just want Lysis to feel humbled, he wants him to feel like he knows nothing – he wants to start him on the path to philosophy and the pursuit of Ideas.


I argue that this advice – to humble your beloved instead of flattering them – has been twisted and taken to an extreme by the modern ‘seduction community’, the ‘pick-up artists’ who apparently live for little other than seduction and sex. One of the techniques advocated by this fraternity, called ‘negging’, is a subtle humbling intended to take a woman down a notch (‘great nails…are they real?’) The seduction community freely trades insults and one-liners of this sort, and sees their success as vindication of a cynical, misogynistic attitude towards the opposite sex. But they miss the point. It is never right to put someone down in order to satisfy your own (sexual) desires. Socrates, however, suggests that it might be right to put someone down in order to have them realize how little they know.


And there is more advice to be found in Plato. Towards the end of the Symposium, Alcibiades bursts into the dinner-party, drunk and belligerent. He tells the other symposiasts of the time he failed to seduce Socrates: his entreaties, his wining and dining, his embarrassment. Alcibiades talks about the nature of his desire to partake in Socrates’ virtue by seducing and having sex with him. We find, however, that this desire is perhaps not so genuine. Alcibiades finds it easy to revert to the apathetic mean and fall in with the masses when he cannot acquire virtue simply by gratifying a virtuous man. The lesson here is that the conflation of lust and love is misleading. The only way to become a better person or to pursue the Idea of love is to examine yourself, to commit to the path of philosophy. Sex and seduction are not and cannot be ends in themselves. Again, the seduction community misses the point.


Of course, all the contentions above can be vigorously challenged. Is it really virtuous to manipulate someone towards an end of your choosing? (Such as the pursuit of a Platonic Idea.) Can you ever escape carnal desire? Maybe all conversation is persuasion. If so, where do you draw the line between persuasion and manipulation? Just what is manipulation, and what is seduction? Socrates was perhaps a tad overmodest. How can a man who claims to know nothing know that it is right to humble others? (…for the sake of philosophy?) The seduction community began as a rarefied meat-market. Was it so bad then? Is there a problem with people enjoying the seduction game? What is the nature of the power relation between seducer and seductee?

Philosophy Discussion Group – Consent – Tuesday 19th

The Socratic Society’s Philosophy Discussion Group meets again on Tuesday, May 19th in Morven Brown 205 (note new location) from 1pm until 3pm. Anyone with an interest in the topic is welcome, and you can come and go at any time; you don’t need to be there for the whole two hours. The discussion group is very informal.

The topic is: “Consent”

Consent is fundamental to many of our interactions with other people. It is most controversial in relation to sexual activity but is also an element of many other activities, such as medical treatment, scientific research, contact sports, and even seemingly innocuous acts such as getting a tattoo or borrowing a car.
Next week the discussion group will be considering the concept of consent, attempting to answer such questions as:

1) How do we know when consent is present?
2) Does consent need to be active or is passive/implied consent good enough? In other words, does the participant need to indicate through words or actions that he or she consents, or is the absence of refusal or protest enough?
3) Can consent be given in advance, or does consent only apply to what is happening now? Can consent be revoked?
4) Is there a responsibility to obtain consent before a particular act? In other words, does responsibility rest only with the person giving consent, or does the person receiving consent have an obligation to act to obtain confirmation that consent is present?

Anyone (not just discussion group participants) is welcome to post answers to one or more of these questions in the comments below.

Philosophy Discussion Group – Happiness – Tuesday 31st

The Socratic Society’s Philosophy Discussion Group meets again on Tuesday, March 31st in Morven Brown 372 from 1pm until 3pm. Anyone with an interest in the topic is welcome, and you can come and go at any time; you don’t need to be there for the whole two hours. The discussion group is very informal.

The topic is: “Happiness – what it is and how to get it.”

This blog post is an “open thread” — you are welcome to post comments about this weeks discussion topic.

See you on Tuesday…