Here’s one thing I agree with Camille Paglia about

Fully prepared to cringe at what I found, I followed the link in this Tweet yesterday:

Slate (@Slate)

Why is philosophy so hostile to women?

And what I found was pretty much what I expected to find. The XXfactor feature at Slate is fairly predictable — the pieces often seem to have been written by a college sophomore who has just discovered feminism and is filled with the zeal of a convert.

There was one part that made sense to me, though. The purpose of the piece was to speculate on why there are even fewer women teaching in the philosophy departments of American academia than in physics. (Maybe Larry Summers would like to offer a theory. Then again, maybe not, since he’s short-listed for a new job.)

Here’s the part that made sense. It’s a quote from this article by Camille Paglia:

I feel women in general are less comfortable than men in inhabiting a highly austere, cold, analytical space, such as the one which philosophy involves. Women as a whole—and there are obvious exceptions—are more drawn to practical, personal matters. It is not that they inherently lack a talent or aptitude for philosophy or higher mathematics, but rather that they are more unwilling than men to devote their lives to a frigid space from which the natural and the human have been eliminated…

That pretty much describes the difference I’ve observed in nearly six decades on the planet. Is it a perfect delineation? No. I know some women who “think like men” in this way (they tend to gravitate toward such professions as the law), and increasingly it seems I run into men who think like women.

And of course, some women become philosophers. But I think Ms. Paglia put her finger on a key reason why more women don’t choose that path.

It’s not, as Paglia notes, that women can’t master philosophy. It’s that they tend to abhor the “frigid space” of pure abstraction. Which, you know, is a point for women on my scoreboard. But then, according to my friend Claudia Brinson, who intended to be kind in calling me this, I’m a “difference feminist.”

The writer of the XXfactor piece wasn’t going for the Paglia explanation:

…(S)he also needlessly drags gender into what seems like an individual preference for pragmatism over abstract-mindedness. If women perceive philosophy as a “frigid space,” it’s probably because they are outnumbered and alienated, not because they consider theoretical musings somehow less “human.” Likewise, the male philosophers propositioning their graduate students appear perfectly comfortable wallowing in the mud of everyday life. If only they had some respect for their medieval counterparts, who chose to personify philosophy as a fair, virtuous woman

In other words, it’s the fault of those oppressive horndogs running the philosophy departments.

I prefer the more reasonable conclusion, that they perceive philosophy as a “frigid space” not “because they are outnumbered and alienated,” but because that’s what it is — pure thought, floating weightlessly in the ether of abstraction.

35 thoughts on “Here’s one thing I agree with Camille Paglia about

  1. Doug Ross

    I’d suggest that it is because women are smart enough to realize that “philosophy” is pure bunk. It’s one of those areas (like economics) where you don’t have to right, you just have to be able to sell your theory. It’s a great job for someone who can’t do anything.

    1. Doug Ross

      As an example, the “great” philosopher Aristotle thought the Earth was the center of the universe and, regarding women, thought:

      ” woman is “more mischievous, less simple, more impulsive … more compassionate[,] … more easily moved to tears[,] … more jealous, more querulous, more apt to scold and to strike[,] … more prone to despondency and less hopeful[,] … more void of shame or self-respect, more false of speech, more deceptive, of more retentive memory [and] … also more wakeful; more shrinking [and] more difficult to rouse to action”

      Philosophy is a boy’s club because women wouldn’t want to hang out with a bunch of self-absorbed misogynists.

    2. Phillip

      “a frigid space from which the natural and the human have been eliminated” ? I didn’t read the whole article, but perhaps Ms. Paglia is really referring to philosophy-within-academia, which could be understandable. But to generalize about “philosophy” as devoid of human or natural elements is ridiculous, since the point of philosophy through the millenia has been to understand and explain both the natural world and then the processes of human thought, and human thought about human thought. As Isaiah Berlin put it, “the goal of philosophy is always the same, to assist men to understand themselves and thus to operate in the open, not wildly in the dark.” Philosophy or the history of philosophy (the history, in other words, of human thought) may be taught far too frequently in a “frigid” manner, but the subject itself is not. To say that this gender gap is explained by women shying away from the “abstraction” of philosophy would be like saying that there’s something inherent that keeps women from wanting to be composers or artists. It’s not true, and being proven to be not true more and more every day.

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        Ultimately, the real debate is over whether we believe men and women are different. I believe that they are. Everything I’ve seen in life, the men and women I’ve known, point to that. Men and women are physiologically different (I do hope everyone has noticed), and that extends to their brains. When I search on “male and female brain differences,” I get a lot of hits. An excerpt from a National Geographic blog post on the subject:

        Research shows that when men and women listen to a passage being read aloud from a novel, only the left hemisphere in the male brains was activated. In contrast, women demonstrated activity in both the left and right hemispheres. The female brain is more attuned to words and sounds. Girls tend to learn to speak earlier than boys and this may be why. It could also explain why women excel at learning languages.
        Most men may not have a gift for language, but they do have something that many women do not, a brain wired for risk-taking. In fact, most women’s brains simply don’t reward them for taking big risks. Men, on the other hand, get a burst of endorphins, a chemical when gives a sensation of pleasure, when confronted with a risky or challenging situation. In fact, the bigger the reward the more likely a man is to take a risk.
        So all of this explains why men never ask for directions right? It sort of does, actually. A man’s brain tends to give him a talent for spatial reasoning. He may navigate based on abstract concepts such as distance and direction. He may not articulate it well, but he is pretty sure where he is going. A woman on the other hand will depend on her language skills, navigating by talking about landmarks that she can see or hear. She notices and articulates if the car has passed the same diner three times. So maybe if they both work together, they will have a much better chance of never getting lost.

        Women tend have a greater affinity for certain kinds of mental activity, while men tend to have affinity for different kinds of mental activity. We’re talking general trends here.

        This makes sense to me. To others, it is anathema. They’re quite adamant about denying it. If you’re Larry Summers and you say something like that, you lose your job, such is the intensity of the idea that there are masculine and feminine cognitive styles.

        I don’t know enough about the field of philosophy to know whether the disparity in academia is because of these brain differences or not. I just thought Camille Paglia’s explanation for why that might be made sense.

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          Language is slippery. That excerpt I quoted said men rely on “abstract concepts such as distance and direction,” as opposed to step-by-step verbal directions.

          “Abstract” wasn’t the word the writer was looking for. Distance and direction are concrete aspects of the physical world. Seems to me that a verbal description of how to get to a place involves more abstraction.

          The word she was looking for was “intuitive,” not “abstract.” As in, “men’s intuition.” 🙂

        2. Doug Ross

          How would you explain the growing trend of women in politics, C-executive level positions in business, extreme sports, etc? Are their brains changing or are they slowly overcoming the prejudices and societal pressures that forced them into particular roles?

          For example, do Nikki Haley, Hillary Clinton, Carly Fiorina, Danica Patrick, Angela Merkel, and Darla Moore have man-brains? or did they just have a level of perseverance to overcome the bias of male dominated environments?

          Philosophy is one of those “nice work if you can get it” jobs. No heavy lifting required. Just sell the snake oil for as long as you can find enough buyers.

    1. Doug Ross

      I admire Rand’s books (The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged) as novels that provide an interesting (and mostly correct) view of the relationship between the government and individuals. That doesn’t mean I buy into her “philosophy”. Her books do a good job of capturing the struggle high achieving individuals have when faced with government regulation and members of society who believe they are entitled to a cut of the efforts of others by force or regulation.

  2. Bryan Caskey

    Meh. Pieces like this annoy me. First, there’s a big difference between being a professor of philosophy at a college/university and being a “philosopher”. So let’s just get that straight.

    In the great span of western civilization, women have been second class citizens (in all areas) until relatively recently. Look at the time periods of what are considered some of the great Western philosophers:

    Socrates (Plato)
    St. Augustine
    Thomas More

    That gets you up to about 1970, starting from 400 BC. Philosophy moves more slowly than advances in silicon valley. If women want to study philosophy, there’s nothing stopping them from doing so in 2013. The idea that the boys in the philosophy department are being sexist to women (more than anywhere else) is laughable. I also got a laugh from the “rough and tumble” style of debate keeping women at bay.

    I majored in double majored in philosophy and economics, and then went to law school. You want “rough and tumble”? Try a 1L contracts class. It makes my philosophy classes look like a pillow fight.

    People who complain about stuff like this make water down actual issues facing women.

  3. Kathryn Fenner

    Women don’t like abstraction, which is why girls can’t do math…
    Except that girls are now kicking boys’ butts in math….

    Once you remove the obstacles, such as lowered expectations, lowered academic attention to female students, sexual harassment, and so on, few fields fail to attract more females. Engineering, perhaps, since so many of them seem to be on the autistic end of the spectrum, on which males predominate….

    They used to opine about why so few women were in symphony orchestras, until they switched to blind auditions, and lo and behold, women are quite as capable as men….

        1. Doug Ross

          But the rates are 4:1 male-female… that’s not a wide enough gap to suggest brain differences. 100:1, 1000:1 maybe. 4:1 is something else.

          1. Brad Warthen Post author

            Four-to-one seems like a dramatic difference to ME.

            Of course, I’m used to politics, in which three to two is regarded as a landslide, granting the winner a huge mandate and sweeping aside the dissenting minority as insignificant going forward.

            In politics, four-to-one means you can be dictator for life…

        2. Kathryn Fenner

          SOME female brains are different from SOME male brains.

          There are plenty of autistic females, for example.

          1. Brad Warthen Post author

            This is a glass half empty/glass half full thing.

            Another way to put it is that male and female brains are different, but there are exceptions that prove the rule…

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      “…lo and behold, women are quite as capable as men…”

      There’s always this undertone of judgment about moral worth in these discussions, when there should not be. It’s not about whether one gender is “as good as” the other, or as smart as, or as capable as.

      I’m not talking about better or worse. I’m talking about different.

      For all the hand-wringing about girls lagging in math and science, the truth is that girls simply do better than boys at school in general. Part of it is that they have a greater tendency than boys to apply themselves, to do their best. I heard an interesting discussion on NPR recently about the issue of whether parents should pay their kids to get good grades ($20 for each A on a report card, say). Someone was saying that object to that as you might, the fact is that it works — but just with boys. Why does the incentive work with boys and not with girls? Because, he explained, girls are already doing their best — the incentive makes no difference in their effort level.

      Here’s a somewhat different explanation based in physiology, from Mrs. Kinney, my Latin teacher at Bennettsville High School. When I was in the 9th grade, she explained to the class her theory of why girls sat still and behaved and paid attention in class, and boys fidgeted and couldn’t concentrate. She said it’s because boys at that age are maturing, and as a result their shoulders are getting broader. This makes them unstable, because in a sitting position they are V-shaped — this broad beam across the top, tapering down to a much narrower sitting surface. So they’re never settled, never comfortable.

      Whereas, she pointed out, the girls are maturing, too, and as a result are sitting on their broad beams.

      The boys in the class thoroughly enjoyed this explanation, although Mrs. Kinney wasn’t one to tolerate excessive hilarity…

      1. Kathryn Fenner

        They used to say girls couldn’t do math, though they did better at liberal arts type subjects, and lots of research was done to explain it, and scientific types and pundits nodded sagely. Physical differences! Of course girls cannot do math because babies, evolution, physiology….and lo and behold, despite all the reasons, it turns out girls nowadays do better than boys at math.

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          Do girls do better at math because they have a greater affinity at math, or because they apply themselves better at that, and at all academic pursuits?

          Either way, we’re saying girl’s brains are different — either because they have greater native mathematical ability, or because they’re able to better focus the ability that they have.

          Those scientific types who “nodded sagely” — were they all men? Probably, because guys are better than women at nodding sagely when they don’t know what’s going on…

      2. Doug Ross

        “Part of it is that they have a greater tendency than boys to apply themselves, to do their best. ”

        Maybe because the boys know the deck is already stacked in their favor? If you’re running a 100 yard dash where you get a 50 yard head start, you don’t have to push as hard.

        Or it could be because they aren’t too bright in the first place. I think I’ve come across more stupid adult males than females in my lifetime. Shows like “Jackass” are indicative of the male brain.

  4. Kathryn Fenner

    Doug gets it. Male privilege does change some outcomes….

    Sort of like the “shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations” concept….

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Doug gets the feminist talking point. That doesn’t mean he gets IT.

      Y’all really believe that little boys are coasting in school because of their consciousness of being the masters of the universe, which persuades them they don’t have to try?

      OR you really, truly believe that in education today, there is an institutional bias to accord males some special privilege, so that they don’t have to try as hard? Really?

      Where is this finish line that boys supposedly start out halfway toward? Is it good grades? Is it honors at graduation? Is it getting into the best colleges?

      Which educational institutions out there, in the Year of Our Lord 2013, do y’all believe are saying, “Oh, he’s a boy; give him an A (or admit him, or accord him honors) just for that?”

      Repeating a cliche does not make it true…

      1. Doug Ross


        You haven’t explained how the fact that more and more women are filling positions in high levels of government and business if their brains are different from men’s. What’s different now other than opportunity and overcoming bias?

  5. Bryan Caskey

    Haven’t girls always been more eager to do schoolwork than boys? I can tell you that the best study groups in college and law school were always the ones made up of 100% girls. That’s always been the case, in my experience. It starts early, too. In elementary school, boys want to run around and rough-house, while girls want to sit at the desk and complete assignments.

    Boys and girls are fundamentally different. And that’s a good thing. It’s not better or worse. It’s different.

    Who do teenage boys idolize? It’s fierce, unsmiling tough guys. (It’s Batman, soldiers, and the cowboy role.) The desire to be independent, strong, and funny are what drive young boys (and some men). That’s not necessarily conducive to a classroom setting.

    1. Mark Stewart

      Bryan’s on to the difference between men and women. It doesn’t start with our brains being different, it starts with our social conditioning being different. The only difference that is innate is how the female brain approaches and deals with pregnancy and child-rearing.

  6. Doug Ross

    Let’s not forget that women have not even had the right to vote for 100 years yet… they were treated as second class citizens for the first 150 years this country existed. If you don’t think that established a foundation for bias that would take decades to overcome, you’re being very man-brained.

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