Women, Aggression & Philosophy

Protective sports equipment such as helmets ca...

Philosophers at work.

While the majority of undergraduate students in America are women, philosophy departments are still predominantly composed of men. Not surprisingly, both male and female philosophers have addressed this matter and various explanations have been offered as to why this is the case. There have also been numerous learned treatises written about how to remedy this apparently problematic situation.

While the entire topic is well worth addressing, my goal in this essay is far more modest. I will address only the rather limited subject of women and aggression in philosophy.

If my memory serves, my first exposure to this matter was in my undergraduate days in a class on feminism. As a graduate student and in my professional career, this matter was (and is) brought to my attention fairly often, generally by female colleagues in the field.  This sort of aggression was, of course, cast as an evil of philosophy and a causal factor in pushing women away from philosophy. The general idea is as follows.

Certain practices in academic philosophy are rife with aggressive behavior. Since we are talking about philosophers, this behavior is generally not physical. Rather, the aggression tends to be social and intellectual. To use a commonly cited example, paper presentations are sometimes cast as struggles between the presenter and the audience. The presenter tries to come across as smart as possible, while members of the audience launch attacks calculated to bring the presenter down a peg and to lift themselves up in the intellectual hierarchy. While this might seem to be something of an exaggeration, it does match my own experience. It is also, of course, consistent with Hobbes discussion of how the learned behave in the presence of each other.

While not all men enjoy this sort of adversarial method, it is ofter claimed that men find it far more appealing than women. This seems to be correct and is consistent with the stock gender stereotypes. As far as the cause, one can present the usual suspects: socialization and genetics. Whatever the cause, there does seem to be a significant difference between how men and women react to such situations, at least in general terms.

Given that these sort of interactions are part of being a professional philosopher, it makes sense that women would the field less appealing and hence this is a plausible causal factor as to there being fewer women than men in philosophy.

This does not, however, automatically entail that this behavior should be changed so as to make philosophy more appealing to women.

To use an obvious analogy, combat oriented video games and aggressive sports are far less appealing to females than males. However, to assume that this is somehow a defect in the games or sports would be a rather hasty conclusion. It would also be rather hasty to infer that such games and sports should (in the moral sense of the term) be changed so as to appeal to females. After all, there are plenty of other games and sports that females can play. So, for example, if many women do not find Halo: Reach enjoyable, they can always playPortal 2 or (God forbid) Farmville. Likewise, if many women do not find the practice of philosophy appealing, they can seek alternatives.

An obvious, and correct, reply is that while combat games and contact sports are inherently aggressive, it is not obvious that philosophy must be aggressive. There is also the obvious point that while women can play a wealth of alternative sports and games, to simply tell women that they have to play philosophy the “male way” or hit the intellectual highway seems to be rather unwarranted.

That said, it could be argued that the  aggressive nature of this sort of philosophical behavior might be an important (or even essential) aspect of the philosophical method. If so, it would be unreasonable to expect the practice of philosophy to change so as to make it appeal to women. Going back to the games and sports analogy, it would seem unreasonable to demand that video games and sports be changed so that they will appeal to women and allow women to compete with men in all cases (such as in American football).

While it is tempting to see philosophy as requiring an aggressive clash of ideas, this does not seem to be essential to the practice of philosophy. To use the obvious example, while Socrates was quite willing to engage with the likes of Meletus and Ion, the Socratic method is more of a cooperative endeavor rather than an inherently acrimonious or hostile one. It is, of course, also possible to have a lively, spirited and even competitive exchange of ideas without it devolving into a situation that is needlessly aggressive.

This sort of approach would, I think, make the practice of professional philosophy more appealing-and not just to women.

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32 Comments.

  1. If a philosophy prof with a bow tie ever bites you you need to get rabies shots directly.

    The folly that keeps men going towards the coveted Phd. with little employment prospects at the end of it, as well as the attack dog mentality, is missing in many women.

  2. It’s an interesting subject, with a lot of old ground that it’s easy to retread. Sally Haslanger’s (in)famous essay is well worth reading and thinking about carefully. I’ll quote a section at length to give people a sense of it:

    In my year at Berkeley and in the two years ahead of me and two years behind me, there was only one woman each year in a class of 8-10. The women in the two years ahead of me and the two years behind me dropped out, so I was the only woman left in five consecutive classes. In graduate school I was told by one of my teachers that he had “never seen a first rate woman philosophy and never expected to because women were incapable of having seminal ideas.” I was the butt of jokes when I received a distinction on my prelims, since it seemed funny to everyone to suggest I should get a blood test to determine if I was really a woman. In a seminar in philosophical logic, I was asked to give a presentation on a historical figure when none of the other (male) students were, later to learn that this was because the professor assumed I’d be writing a thesis on the history of philosophy. When I was at Penn as a junior faculty member and told a senior colleague that I was going to be married (to another philosopher, Stephen Yablo, then at UM), his response was, “Oh, I’m so sorry we’ll be losing you.” This was in 1989.

    That said, I’d like to add an additional view. It seems to me that the systemic issues that Mike is pointing to are symptoms of a deeper professional malaise — a deficit in professional standards. Frankly, I am utterly embarrassed to look at the editorial policies of major big name journals, and find that they have a casual attitude towards blind peer review. That is a travesty. And if professional philosophers don’t give a sense that they, as a collective, are even willing/able to act like stewards over the standards of professional merit, then one is left with a fairly unflattering picture of the discipline. Perhaps that is one pressure that will cause concern for ‘minorities’ (to use an outmoded word). I mean, if you suspect that members of the profession are lazy and prone to unreflective stereotypes, I would be utterly unsurprised if I found out that people who occupy relatively vulnerable social positions were to decide, en masse, to say: “To heck with these charlatans”.

  3. As regards the UK, I’m pretty sure Ludwig Wittgenstein was an influential role model in terms of poor social behaviour by philosophers – the rudeness, the leather jacket, etc. Existentialism probably had similar effects. The abandonment of Christianity by many of that generation as an assumed cultural background would tend to have a harshening effect on academic manners. Bertrand Russell’s style of wit soon turns to aggression in those who lack his aristocratic hauteur.

  4. I have to say, you do not cite any sources for your assumption that women are less aggressive than men (your “significant difference”). I can believe that they would not be physically aggressive to men as they are smaller on average, but what is the evidence that they are less aggressive in other ways? All human beings are hierarchical, as mammals typically are, so presumably establishing pecking order involves some sort of aggression or confrontation or challenge.

  5. I’m not so sure that lack of aggressiveness has much to do with women’s under-representation in philosophy. Women are doing very well in other fields that require aggressiveness. For example, women are half of all laws students now, I believe. I personally think the main reason is that women are more interested in other people than men are (whether by nature or nurture) and that sort of people-orientation doesn’t get much of an outlet in philosophy.

  6. Stephen.

    Wittgenstein was indeed a role model for poor social behaviour by philosophers because he wore a leather jacket. Though his shoes were known to have been well-polished, he did not wear the customary tie and often arrived at ‘lectures’ wearing a woollen lumber jacket. The damage done to a generation of Cambridge philosophy students by the poker-waving don’s poor example in matters of dress are hard to estimate, but I believe it would be correct to say ‘existentialism probably had similar effects.’

    Luckily Wittgenstein’s student, translator and executor, Elizabeth Anscombe – a formidable debater and thinker in her own right – was not put off pursuing a career as a professional philosopher by her teacher’s attire.

  7. Stephen, If you believe that they’re less agressive in a physical way then it’s also reasonable to believe that they aren’t agressive in other ways also. Arguably because to say a person has a personality is to say they have ‘consistency’ and that if a person is agressive in one type of way this will also be reflected in their ‘other ways’.

    Maybe also because types of agressiveness don’t exist independetly of each other, in the sense that say verbel aggressiveness hints the possibility of physical agressiveness. If the former type of agressiveness is percieved as a practical impossibility (by women due to them being smaller say) then the pursuit of following type of agressiveness may end up being written off by them also.

  8. *latter type of agressiveness..

    *former type of agressiveness may end up..

  9. (sorry didn’t proof read my original post)

    Stephen, If you believe that woman are less agressive in a physical way then it’s maybe also reasonable to believe that they aren’t agressive in other ways also. Arguably because to say a person has a personality is to say they have ‘consistency’ and that if a person is agressive in one type of way this will also be reflected in their ‘other ways’.

    Maybe also because types of agressiveness don’t exist independetly of each other, in the sense that say verbel aggressiveness hints the possibility of physical agressiveness. If the latter type of agressiveness is percieved as a practical impossibility (by women due to them being smaller say) then the pursuit of the former type of agressiveness may end up ultimatly may end up being written off by them also due to it being perceived as a futility.

    (not sure about all of this though!)

  10. There are many lawyers in my family; I worked with lawyers for several years and even had a lawyer girl-friend. Lawyers can be very aggressive when they argue, but they are invariably diplomatic and polite. Lawyers learn people-skills, if they don’t already have them: otherwise, they don’t convince judges.

    I don’t know many philosophers, but I have met many online, and they can be rude, without any empathy or people-skills.

    In fact, some online philosophers seem to pride themselves on their lack of people-skills.

    Given that, I can see why women, who generally for reasons which may be genetic or a result of their upbringing, pride themselves on their people-skills, study law and not philosophy.

  11. Stephen,

    Raising the matter of the burden of proof is, of course, fair. However, there is the question of where it should be placed. There seem to be the following main competitors: 1) the claim that men are more aggressive than women, 2) the claim that men are less aggressive than women, and 3) the claim that they are (roughly) equal in aggression.

    In general, women have been regarded as being less aggressive than men (this was the view I saw repeatedly in discussions of this matter) and this would seem to make claim #1 more initially plausible, thus putting the burden of proof on the other claims. Of course, this initial plausibility is not extremely strong and hence could easily be overcome if there is evidence to the contrary. After all, the idea that men are more aggressive than women might be a mere unsupported stereotype that has been often taken as the plausible starting point.

    If women are as aggressive as men (or more so), then the idea that they are repelled by academic philosophy because of a lack of aggression would clearly be shown to be false. In that case, an alternative explanation would be needed (such as the possibility that women generally are simply not interested in the subject).

  12. Jean,

    That is an interesting explanation. But, how would your account for the fact that the practice of teaching philosophy would seem to provide a considerable outlet for people orientation? As a professor, I have to teach class (which is surely as people oriented as addressing a court), hold office hours, serve on committees, interact with colleagues and so on. But, perhaps my experience is unusual in its amount of human interaction.

    While many laws do focus on people, the same seems true of philosophy. Also, a significant portion of law deals with matters that are only indirectly connected to people (patent law, for example).

  13. S. Wallerstein,

    Philosophers (and academics in general) are often cast as being socially (and practically) inept, which might have a basis in fact. If so, this might be a factor in why women tend to be underrepresented in philosophy and other areas of academics.

    Interestingly (or boringly), my own experience has been that academics seem to be roughly as capable (or inept) as the rest of the population in this regard. However, academics are sometimes quite willing to avail themselves of the stereotype.

  14. Mike, Yes, as a professor you’re focused on people, but when did that focus get going? Not when you were an undergraduate, I don’t think! Philosophy classes are all about ideas. Graduate school is (of course) even more so. Yes, you have to function as a TA, but your skill at that has very little to do with your success in graduate school. So you are going to be drawn in the direction of books and ideas, some possibly very remote and arid (however intellectually interesting).

    Say a woman endures all of that peoplelessness, and does get a job. The years before tenure are going to be even less people-oriented, because teaching doesn’t matter all that much for tenure, but research does. Plus, a woman may begin to have very people-y alternatives to excelling in philosophy, like raising children.

    Now I agree, if a woman finally does get tenure, at that point she may be able to satisfy her desire to be people-oriented. Maybe be like Martha Nussbaum, and study the lives of real people (like in her book Women and Human Development), and write books about very palpable, human things. This is not ruled out!

    But to get to that point, you have to deal with years of low people-ishness. I think that tends to keep women out, more than men (whether because of nature or nurture).

    I don’t think this is the only factor, by any means, but I like it more than the aggression theory. Women do like combat–just watch The View a couple of times! You’ll see 4 women having great fun fighting with each other. However, they’re fighting about human things, not about…the problem of universals or what not.

  15. s. wallerstein

    Mike:

    Very interesting what you say about academics consciously using the stereotypes for their own advantage.

    Thanks for the tip.

  16. Mike and others,
    We seem to be operating with a single global measure of aggressiveness (to which I confine myself) by gender. If I am right that the social function of aggression is establish hierarchies, female aggression might well exist, but take other forms – ostracism, gossip, say, rather than more physical forms – pointing, raised voice, talking over others – that are more masculine. We might also differentiate objects of aggression. Is one salient point not that women might not be verbally aggressive to men, as opposed to other women, where they are a minority? And of course aggression and assertiveness are distinguishable. I don’t envy the whole situation of fighting over limited resources I must say. Perhaps we should look to ways to increase the size of the pot!

  17. Rather than questioning the degree of aggressiveness, or even claiming that that would explain main differences between male and female academic behavior, I question the idea that all sorts of aggressiveness are related. Particularly, I disagree with Lucas’s claim that “if a person is aggressive in one type of way this will also be reflected in their ‘other ways’”. Certainly, not true. In fact, although I somehow digest the view that woman are less physically aggressive due to morphological reasons, an equally retro-statistical appreciation could be concluded regarding a possible female superiority in emotional aggression. However, if aggression at all is to be recycled in order to explain male-female gaps in philosophy, I would suggest a third or fourth type of aggression which tend to be more common in men but does not necessarily coexist more obvious types of aggressiveness within a same person. I can’t find a suitable definition for this “new” type of aggressiveness just now, so don’t ask me, please.

  18. Rather than questioning the degree of aggressiveness, or even claiming that that would explain main differences between male and female academic behavior, I question the idea that all sorts of aggressiveness are related. Particularly, I disagree with Lucas’s claim that “if a person is aggressive in one type of way this will also be reflected in their ‘other ways’”. Certainly, not true. In fact, although I somehow digest the view that women are less physically aggressive due to morphological reasons, an equally retro-statistical appreciation could be concluded regarding a possible female superiority in emotional aggressiveness. However, if aggression at all is to be recycled in order to explain male-female gaps in philosophy, I would suggest a third or fourth type of aggression which tend(s) to be more common in men but does not necessarily coexist(s) with more obvious types of aggressiveness within the same person. I can’t find a suitable definition for this “new” type of aggressiveness just now, so don’t ask me, please.

  19. If we accept that there is a level of aggression in male philosophy academics that is not found in the history department or oriental languages profs etc it might be instructive to speculate why. No one has done this so far. Is it something about the subject or the type that gravitates towards its upper reaches?

  20. Tra

    If a person is aggressive in one way it is certainly reasonable to believe they are in other ways also. To take an example from popular culture, children in schools who are described as aggressive by their teachers are rarely just percieved as being aggressive in just one particular way, e.g. physically violent but not ‘emotionally’ violent or in terms of their use of language or aggressive exclusively in their mannerisms etcetera, often types of aggression accompany each other, because types of aggression don’t exist in isolation.

  21. It is interesting to learn from the article that the majority of undergraduate students in America are women. I infer from this that young American womenfolk are earnest people who seriously wish to find out what the purpose of life is about. What better way than from the professional philosophers in academia. Surely they have long discovered what it takes to live life well and to live it in a fulfilled way.
    I accept that it is with great expectation, the womenfolk of America quest for knowledge and understanding. They have realistic hopes that they will become learned and wise.
    But alas! The realisation soon dawns on them that the human power for serious thinking is only a part-time activity. Indeed the realisation also dawns that none of the philosophers really knows what the pertinent purpose of human thinking is.
    And so we get a proliferation of undesirable and time-consuming distractions – for example, aggression, harassment, self-promotion, one-upmanship.
    No – the practice of philosophy should not be changed so as to make it appeal to women. Rather it should be changed to make it appeal.

  22. Is it possible that aggression has very little to do with why women are underrepresented in the academic world of philosophy? Is it possible that women are inherently less inclined to think abstractly?

    I find considerable evidence in my private life that women are less likely to consider ideas as disconnected from their sensibilities than men, that they seem to almost instinctively assess ideas in regards to how they interact with a person, rather than whether or not they are true. Are there others here who can concur?

    Obviously I speak generally, not absolutely. But this general suggestion, if true, could account for the underrepresentation of women in philosophy, could it not?

  23. Can you please cite where that Hobbes discussion is from to me. I am interested in reading that.

  24. This project sounds interesting. I think aggression has very little to do with why women are underrepresented in the academic world of philosophy. Keep discussing.

  25. Gender and Talking Philosophy « Feminist Philosophers - pingback on May 16, 2011 at 5:21 am
  26. With the video game analogy, there’s a complication that actually ties it closer together to philosophy.

    If you are just playing video games for the hell of it and don’t care what other people think, then yes, if you don’t like ‘aggressive’ games, you can play portal, or harvest moon (the farmville before farmville), or a number of RPGs that don’t focus so much on combat.

    However, a remaining problem is that Harvest Moon and Portal aren’t seen as “serious” games in the industry. So if you try to interact with a gaming community on a deeper level–go to a convention, write an article for magazine, write a review, or talk to other gamers on a discussion board, you can expect to be confronted with a LOT of condescension. “You’re not a hardcore gamer.” “You’re just a casual gamer.” “You’re a girl gamer.”

    Hell, I myself do like some of the “aggressive” video games, and I STILL had my “hardcoreness” as a game questioned based on the fact that I was a woman. I was assumed to not be as competitive as I was, or not as good at it, or then in some cases too competitive and a perfectionist.

    The OP is right that the issue isn’t the existence of aggressive activities, but the valuing of aggressive engagement as the ONLY way to play the game (be it WoW or Philosophy.)

    However, to say we shouldn’t change what does exist because people have options that are non-aggressive, is ignoring the fact that those options are not equal–in that, non-aggressive sports and games are (often) not given the status of “pinnacle” or “hardcore” or “real” or “the good ones.”

    So in this sense, video games are lot like philosophy in that, you COULD engage with them in a less “aggressive” way, but you WILL sometimes be socially penalized for doing so in a significant way, and this has a specific dynamic if you’re a woman.

    This doesn’t mean we have to change the rules of football or recode Halo, but it does mean people should think about the way they praise sports, games, athletes, and gamers.

  27. As for consideration that maybe women inherently think less abstractly, here’s a question:

    If women are culturally encouraged to think primarily of interpersonal relationships and to focus on how their actions affect other people, would you expect them (as a group) to have more of the habit of thinking ‘abstractly’ and not interpersonally?

    And if this is the case, how would you go about distinguishing between what is culture and what is biology?

    This is to say, if your “private experience” suggests that women INHERENTLY think less abstractly, then your private experience isn’t very observant in this regard.

  28. “It would also be rather hasty to infer that such games and sports should (in the moral sense of the term) be changed so as to appeal to females”

    Why?

    A few thoughts:

    1. Philosophy, currently, is an agressive field to be working in, I think most people would agree on that.
    2. There is a disproportionate amount of white men in philosophy.

    I don’t necessarily see that being agressive means you lack of personal skills though. It can do, but many people thrive on competition.

    I’d be the first to admit I have bad people skills (in person) but am perfectly willing to be agressive in writing- if that is what it takes to be a philosopher- HOWEVER I would rather not be agressive, since this is not conductive to solving problems and working with other people and their ideas.

  29. Eve, I think you’re surely right, to an extent. A top school in philosophy, like Rutgers, is notorious for their “blood sport” approach to the discipline.

    But there are costs to that approach, because it can create a lot of heat without a lot of light. Some faculties regard the “blood sport” ethos to be a liability, and will refuse to hire candidates of that type. So it depends on the local culture and the emphasis they place on collegiality and professionalism.

  30. Eve,

    As far as the burden of proof goes, it should be on those proposing the change to the sport or the game. If there is a good reason to change, as examples, first person shooters and American football so that they appeal more to women, then that reason should be easy enough to supply. Otherwise, the status quo seems to be the default position. Naturally, this rests on certain assumptions about the burden of proof-which is a contentious matter.

    Quite right, aggression does not entail a lack of personal skills. I’ve met numerous very aggressive people (men and women) who have good social skills.

  31. Benjamin,

    I generally prefer the running model or friendly game model of philosophy: there is a competitive element, but everyone is a good sport and the overall goal is both improvement and enjoyment.

  32. too much theory kills people.

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