this mt19, pwip (people for womxn in philosophy) returns as philosophy-related group with the release of an all-womxn philosopher ‘general philosophy’ reading list. the group aims to prevent womxn* from becoming unnecessarily disengaged from philosophy through providing ‘survival’ resources now and by taking action for tangible structural change. what follows is an explanation of this particular move, grounded in our founding events.
after a draining yet exciting (in a range of senses!) first year, we –martha harlan and alicehank winham– found ourselves saliently caught in a mutually nagging reflection upon our experience as philosophy & theology students at oxford. the socially-constructed shared label of ‘womxn’ seemed indetractably and predominantly linked to less-than desirable experiences that the majority of our socially construed counterparts (yes this is a generalisation!) did not experience. while there may be no universal statement of a womxn’s experiences in philosophy, as we dug around we confirmed this label to be historically, systematically, and still pervasively linked to certain personally reported and empirically documented phenomenon. we consulted our own and our peers’ experiences, statistics, and oxford’s own gender gap research, confirming the need to address how to combat the discouragement felt (and inculcated) in a world in which womxn appear to be epistemically silenced. we decided to make moves as society-identified-womxn and as allies to other systematically overlooked groups.
we validate and choose to act upon our unsurprising apathy and anger that we continually hear leads many of our womxn peers to consider that that although philosophy can be fun, it was never going to an option they could seriously consider. we tackle the problem at one locused entry-point by reproducing, as a resource and talking point, an all-womxn first year General Philosophy reading list in contrast to the original that contained only 2/42 womxn philosopher readings. this is not intended as a ‘final’ solution but as a striking means for dialogue, as well as to display a current faculty-oriented and collaborative resource for those eager to see the work of high quality womxn philosophers in our curriculum now. over our second year here, we worked with faculty who recommended appropriate articles, chapters, books, that we collated for you. thank you to those who helped and encouraged us. and thank you, dear womxn and allies, for being here. please use this resource to broaden you philosophical vision and discuss as well as critique the situation respectfully and constructively.
to promote our intention that this reading list acts as an enabling talking point to broach the wide array of issues that lead to the impetus of its production, we emailed all undergraduate philosophy faculty requesting suggested contents and their responses to a few questions. please see the responses, including general responses and ones that specifically address 3 questions we posed, that we have permission to share below. they highlight the nuance involved in what can be presented as, yet is by no means, a superficial topic. thank you to the faculty for their thoughts, and we welcome your thought and consideration.
Our three questions:
1. Is it important for the work of people from a diverse (please feel free to question this) range of backgrounds and identities writing in different styles to be included in our study of philosophy? In our General Philosophy paper? Why?
2. What work do you think a reading list like this aims to and can do, and what matters might it fail to address? What further work needs to be done alongside it?
3. What purpose ought the ‘General Philosophy’ paper serve, including the values, introduction, methods, and insight it might offer about the field to those entering into it for the first time? (How ought an informative paper introduce students to the context and contents of ‘philosophy’ throughout history?). More generally, what do you perceive to be required to make a philosophy paper ‘responsible’ in how it is taught and presented to students? How can (if not already) the Gen Phil paper here achieve this?
Many of us on the faculty share your concern about the lack of representation of women and non-white/non-Western philosophers on the first year philosophy syllabus. The good news is that the reading list for General Philosophy has been re-designed to include more women and non-Western voices. The new list is not perfect — it’s a particular challenge to find texts that are accessible enough for first-year students — but it’s a very good start, with an excellent representation of women philosophers
It is obviously and uncontroversially important that women don’t feel that their role in philosophy must be only as consumers, not as producers. Of course, starting at Oxford is an intimidating experience for many undergraduates, whatever their gender and ethnic identity, because if you are not arrogant it is natural to doubt whether you are going to be able to meet the high standards. I suspect that most male undergraduates also think of themselves as consumers but not potential producers of philosophy. However, the low numbers of pieces on reading lists by women/non-white philosophers must tend to exacerbate the problem. But there is no silver bullet to solve it. In some cases no doubt there are articles by women/non-whites on topics in the first-year syllabus that are as suitable, or more so, than those currently on it; in other cases there may not be. That is not surprising, given how predominantly male philosophy has been at most times in history — it is what one would expect on the assumption that the works produced by male and female philosophers are of the same average quality (the situation with ethnicity is different, but the upshot is similar). I don’t think the answer is primarily to do with altering the syllabus, any more than it would be in e.g. mathematics (where similar problems arise), unless there is something wrong with it on independent grounds, for the point is (roughly) to give students the most effective instruments for thinking with philosophically at the most fundamental level, whoever made those instruments in the first place. However, that is not meant as a criticism of your proposed all-women reading lists, which I assume are intended as additional rather than replacement material.
I’m not the best person to consult on undergraduate reading materials, since almost all my teaching since 2000 has been at postgraduate level, but e.g. in epistemology it is easy to list some leading contemporary epistemologists who are women, e.g. Jennifer Nagel, Jennifer Lackey, Miranda Fricker, Elizabeth Fricker, Linda Zagzebski, Jane Friedman, and Maria Lasonen-Aarnio. In formal semantics and pragmatics, many of the most important figures are women, e.g. Barbara Hall Partee, Angelika Kratzer, Irene Heim, Friederike Moltmann, Robyn Carston, Deirdre Wilson (a good example to show that women can be very well-represented at the top of an extremely technical field). In some other fields it would be harder to give similar lists. Of course, whether those people have written things suitable for a first-year undergraduate reading list is another question, though some of them certainly have.’
I think the issues here are quite complex and involved, and I have a number of thoughts about them. Forgive me if this email gets rather long; take it as a tribute to the importance of what you wrote about in yours.
- In the philosophical arena, women can be understandably put off by a certain way of doing philosophy in public, pretty common hereabouts: viz. the disputatious, knock-the-other-side-down mode. That mode is no doubt more characteristically male than it is female. But worse, it is (I believe) a bad way of doing philosophy, typically; which explains why quite a few men also feel put off when they encounter it. – This is an issue which has come in for a certain amount of discussion, e.g. in print; and it is good if women (and men) can draw constructive attention to it.
- Some women are put off when they see how many authors in ‘the canon’ are men. The major reason for that fact, as regards the canon up till (say) 1970, has to do with the effective withholding of education from women over the centuries; more recently, it remains true that there are more men than women in academic philosophy (tho’ this ratio isn’t mirrored in all subjects). You mention having ‘received the message that any of our work is less likely sufficient than that of our male counterparts –which often makes us believe we ourselves are somehow insufficient’ – but I feel like saying: ‘Please don’t think that way!’ The prevalence of male writers on the present philosophical scene may indeed be thought disturbing, until one realises just how much dross there is being published – which itself has to do with the modern requirement to publish lots in order to get academic jobs (a disaster in my view). Put simply, quantity is no guide to quality. The issue of quality brings me to:
- If someone wants to raise the question whether men or women are better at philosophy, what should we say? It’s hard to answer the question properly without having said quite a lot about what philosophy is, and what the point of philosophizing is. I have my own views, of course; and they are certain to be different from those of many of my colleagues. That said, my honest answer to the q. would be, based on many years of teaching undergraduates, as well as observing my peers: Neither sex seems to me overall ‘better’ at the subject. However, women do better moral philosophy by and large, I would say. Moreover, I believe the greatest philosopher of the second half of the 20th century was a woman, i.e. Elizabeth Anscombe. And facts like these are important. For it is not as if the contribution of women is just ‘more of the same’: the kind of philosophizing done by women is very often (I believe) distinctive, and distinctively important.
- Partly for this reason, I believe that the discourse of ‘equal (or proportionate) representation’ is not ideal. I can’t see it as a general requirement of natural justice that if group X make up N% of the population then N% of any given body of people enjoying goods of some description (money, attention, power…) ought to belong to group X. That’s perhaps a bald kind of thesis. – But women in philosophy surely don’t need to appeal to anything like that thesis.
- It’s always good when smaller groups can thrive within the whole (e.g. academic) community, and the dominance of the mainstream is typically to be resisted. So I applaud your setting up of PWIP. In the days of Anscombe, Foot, Murdoch & Midgley, examples of such smaller groups existed courtesy of the women’s colleges (esp. Somerville, in their case). That was one of the arguments in favour of having women-only colleges, in fact. (Another story.)
I fully agree that our reading lists have to do better in addressing underrepresentation (of female and non-white non-Western authors). I also agree that this is particularly important (probably already at school and) at UG first-year level. I hope to get back to you with suggestions after the break.
I’m now thinking out loud. As we have come to mistrust any simple alignment of biological sex and gender, we should perhaps also mistrust our judgement that all the philosophy primarily written by biologically male authors represents exclusively male thought. This off-the cuff thought is not at all meant to justify or excuse underrepresentation in any way or form.
I certainly welcome the initiative and can understand apprehensive feelings one can have when coming to Oxford. I wish that there were an easy way to dispel those feelings. I am committed to doing what I can and hopefully adding more feminist philosophy to the curriculum will help….I wish you the best of luck with the initiative!
I fully agree (who would not?) that women are not sufficiently represented on our reading lists. I must say, however, that I am not in favour of a separate reading list listing works by women. (And I hope it goes without saying that the works of a female philosopher should not be listed just for being written by a women.) For it seems to me that this risks reinforcing the view, if implicitly, that one has a ‘main’, ‘serious’ list, with works mostly by men, and then the ‘second rate’ list, with work by women. To my mind, it echoes what one hears in the context of sport, where for example people will say ‘Oh, Serena Williams is the greatest female tennis player ever’, and not ‘she is one of the greatest players ever’, as if her achievements, great as those are, can never equal let alone surpass the achievements of the lowest ranking male player.
… the Faculty has in any case been working for a little while on a revised Gen Phil reading list, and on other associated changes to Gen Phil (slightly adjusting the list of topics, and the exact structure of the exam questions). The revised reading list has been approved by the Undergraduate Studies Committee, though it (and other material) will be discussed, I expect, at this term’s Faculty meeting before it is circulated more widely. A large part of the revision of the reading list has been to include a good proportion of women authors, for each of the Gen Phil topics, a fact which you may find encouraging.
… Faculty reading lists are not, and are not intended to be, canonical. Tutorial reading lists are for tutors to draw-up as they see fit, it being the college tutor’s job to teach their students philosophy, and to prepare them for exams, as they think it best to do. In this context, a Faculty reading list represents one way in which to approach a set of topics or tutorials, which, if pursued, should prepare students well for the exams. De facto, the Faculty-approved lists will often, though by no means always, be starting points from which tutors will develop their own lists.
With regard to your own endeavours in drawing-up an all womxn reading list, I commend the industry and thought that you and everyone involved have put into this. However, I would recommend waiting and seeing the Faculty’s own revisions (when these are ready to be circulated more broadly) before you endeavour to circulate your own list. You will also need to be sure, if doing the latter, that you make it very clear that your list does not have any imprimatur from the Faculty, even if you have incorporated suggestions from individual Faculty members within it: we must avoid a situation in which students might (however unreasonably) complain that they did not do as well as they’d hoped in their exams because they followed what they thought was an official reading list but which wasn’t.
I would also recommend that if you are interested in engaging in questions of undergraduate teaching provision and curriculum development, you would find it useful to engage with the formal structures for consultation with students that we have in the Faculty, particularly the Undergraduate Joint Consultative Committee.
Thanks for sending this through. I think this is a very worthwhile initiative. I doubt I have anything original or particularly insightful to say in response to your questions. I do think it is important both for philosophy itself and for the teaching of philosophy for readings to be very diverse. It is important for philosophy because there is some kind of truth in standpoint epistemology: people’s different experiences and view points position them to see some phenomena better than others and a full grasp requires a diversity of perspectives. Philosophy is supposed to try to grasp timeless and universal truths, but very often it’s really about how certain people happen to see things. Philosophy does a terrible job of retaining women and minorities and part of the reason is likely to be because it is not presented as being for them. But philosophy has be done throughout the world, in different cultures. It doesn’t belong to one group and we have to communicate that effectively.
Q. 1: Yes, it is important, because philosophy, as an academic discipline, does not exist in a cultural void. There is a temptation in philosophy to think of itself as above the fray, unaffected by the world that it surveys from on high . (To some extent, this is a general temptation in academia, but philosophy is bitten by the bug more than most disciplines.) Consequently, philosophy is liable not to notice its own cultural biases or predilections. One corrective to this tendency is to include work by people with diverse identities and divergent styles of thought. This ought to be built into the syllabus from the start; hence the importance of applying this principle to the General Philosophy paper.
Q. 3: The General Philosophy paper should prepare students in a variety of ways. It should introduce them to the range of topics covered in the ‘western’ philosophical tradition; the existence of other traditions; the different approaches taken by different schools of thought; a sense of how the discipline has developed over time; and the importance of paying close attention to the textual context of philosophical arguments. Most important of all, the paper should prepare students to think of philosophy as open. By this I mean, in part, opening up the question of what constitutes philosophical thinking. (“Who are the true philosophers?” asks Glaucon in Plato’s Republic. This ought to be a question from the outset.) I also mean preparing students to question the methods and topics that currently dominate in (analytic) philosophy. To put this last point another way: The paper should not treat students as apprentices learning a set of skills that enable them to do well in performing standard professional tasks – as if this constituted ‘philosophical thinking.’
I do teach Moral Philosophy, and look forward to seeing the list you are compiling for that one.
Do with the reading list what you choose. Read the items for citations in essays, background reading, revision, or for fun. It is always useful to have a broad range of perspectives when trying to reach conclusions about these questions that are presented to us as both transcending and defining reality. We wish you the best of luck, and if you have any further queries or concerns please let us know!