We teach the professors how to talk!


What you should say to your seatmate: Are women discriminated against in the world of academic philosophy?

If so, they shouldn’t be. Yesterday, we started reading the links Katy Waldman provided on the subject.

For Waldman’s piece at Slate, click here. For ourselves, we were stopped dead in our tracks by the way her first link began.

The piece was written by Sally Haslanger, a philosophy professor at MIT and, we’ll assume, a darn good one. Below, you see the way her piece began.

What follows has nothing to do with women’s issues. Times are hard all over:
HASLANGER (9/2/13): Many of us have had the experience of sitting on an airplane and being asked by the person in the next seat, “What do you do?”

It is a moment of uncertainty: what to say? There are risks if you reply, “I’m a philosopher,” for you may then have the neighbor expounding “their philosophy” at length, or recounting how awful their experience was when taking Philosophy 101. (“We read some crazy article about being kidnapped and hooked up to a famous violinist to keep him alive!”) One time, a male friend of mine got the enthusiastic response, “Oh, you’re a philosopher? Tell me some of your sayings!” However, when I’ve tried the “I’m a philosopher” reply, it has prompted laughter. Once when I queried why the laughter, the response was, “I think of philosophers as old men with beards, and you’re definitely not that! You’re too young and attractive to be a philosopher.” I’m sure he intended this as a compliment. But I stopped giving the answer “I’m a philosopher.”
Haslanger doesn’t know what to say when people ask her what she does. It seems she wants to answer their question by saying, “I’m a philosopher.”

Is Haslanger “a philosopher?” You can answer that question as you like. On balance, we’d be inclined to say the answer is almost certainly no.

(Do physics professors answer that question by saying, “I’m a physicist?” We don’t know!)

Out of the goodness of our hearts, we’re going to teach the professors how to talk! The next time someone asks Haslanger what she does, she could say something like this:

I’m a college professor.
I’m a college instructor.

She could even say, “I’m a teacher” or “I teach philosophy in college.” What would be awful in that?

Down through the years, we’ve often wondered where the philosophy professors are as our culture’s access to logical thought is blasted to smithereens. It turns out they’ve been writhing in pain on jets, not knowing how people talk.

Haslanger keeps talking: As she continues, Haslanger says this:
HASLANGER (continuing directly): Although most philosophers these days are not old men with beards, most professional philosophers are men; in fact, white men. It is a surprise to almost everyone that the percentage of women earning philosophy doctorates is less than in most of the physical sciences (see chart). As recently as 2010, philosophy had a lower percentage of women doctorates than math, chemistry and economics. Note, however, that of these fields, philosophy has made the most progress on this count in the past five years.
Most “professional philosophers” are men? Did you know that such people existed? Where are they? What do they do?

In closing, it's our turn to writhe in pain. According to the identity line at the Times blog where this piece appeared, Haslanger “was awarded the Distinguished Woman Philosopher of the year in 2010.”

As it turns out, it looks like Haslanger is “a philosopher” after all! Where has she been down through the years as our access to logical thought has been stripped away, in large part by the “journalists” right there at the New York Times? Putting it another way:

When will the national's philosophers give their seatmates a little help?


  1. Part of the problem is that IMHO a professor of philosophy isn't necessarily what I think of as a Philosopher. In my book, a Philosopher is someone like Plato or Marx. A person who devised original ways of viewing some part of the world and whose works have been widely read for many years. This has nothing to do with sex.

    1. This has nothing to do with sex? Everything has to do with sex. Or at least that what that philosopher Sigmund Freud said.

      And we know he was a philosopher: he was white and wore a beard.

    2. Good one, deadrat :)

      BTW age and sex are one thing, but race has never been a part of what constitutes a "philosopher". Confucius would obviously qualify. The leading living conservative philosopher IMHO is Thomas Sowell, who is black.

      BTW neither of these people has a Ph.D. in Philosophy. Being considered a "Philosopher" is defined by accomplishments, not by degrees or professorships.

  2. Why does Somerby think "our access to logical thought" is confined to the NY Times and other conventional media outlets? I think that, whatever your political inclinations, you can find pithy, incisive analysis of personalities, events, trends, undercurrents, etc. on the internet, some of it written by the philosophers Somerby thinks are "hors de combat". I know that some very foolish people think you can find such analysis right on this blog.

    1. And yet, you keep coming back (to boast of your own greatness and superiority).

    2. Yes, indeed, this blog is so intriguing that upwards of 500 people a day "keep coming back," most of them lingering as long as a full minute before moving on.

    3. Yet, you feel the need to respond, literally every day.

      One can't help but wonder what does that say about you.

    4. I don't wonder.

      Just sayin'

  3. I would say Haslanger is more of a professional egoist than anything else.

  4. I find this post a bit unfair. Are you complaining that philosophy has no applications and thus someone cannot be a philosopher but must be simply a teacher of philosophy? There are applications of philosophy. For example, many ethicists are trained in philosophy -- these are the people in hospitals who make the hard decisions affecting life and death. Ideas from philosophy in logic have influenced computer science. But across history, philosophy determined all of the sciences by providing foundational ideas for fields such as physics and the natural sciences. Psychology evolved from philosophy. Methods for empirically testing ideas have brought subfields in psychology to the point that they became new disciplines with applications to real world problems. It is not wrong to say that someone is a professional psychologist than it is for someone to call themselves a psychologist or physicist or biologist. It means they work at adding knowledge to their field, not just communicated previous knowledge to novices -- which is what someone who teaches philosophy or psychology or biology does. Calling someone an egoist for wanting respect in one's field strikes me as extending the disrespect that may be keeping women from entering the field in the first place.

  5. While I really appreciate this blog, I often find Bob's take on professors and academics willfully obtuse. In this case he doesn't seem to understand what the job of a college professor is AND how that might lead to Haslanger's confusion.

    Teaching is only part of what professors are paid to do. They are also paid to do research, publish their findings, and contribute to their field (be it philosophy, biology, or electrical engineering). Depending where they work, their responsibilities might lean more towards teaching or research and publication.

    Given this, many professors don't necessarily think of themselves as teachers first. Teaching might just be something they have to do in order to do what they love - researching and producing knowledge. That's the Western model of the university. Students are supposed to learn from accomplished practitioners in a field AS OPPOSED to simply well trained and accomplished teachers. Unlike, for instance, high school, students come to study with someone who does great philosophy. Not necessarily someone who is a great teacher.

    If you get that, you can see where Haslanger's coming from. But - in the end - I also think that Bob offers good advice to her. Say your a professor and move on.

    Finally, I also lament that absence of our professors serving as public intellectuals and people who should be able to explain complex topics to a lay public. Too often they talk to themselves in obscure jargon about specific issues that only matter to people studying their field.

    1. By the end of your comment...

      "Bob offers good advice to her. Say your [sic] a professor and move on."

      [Like Somerby] "I also lament that absence of our professors serving as public intellectuals."

      ...I forgot what your beef with Somerby was.

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