Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Rise of Ethics and Feminism

A philosophical discussion arc, as I defined the term a couple weeks ago, is a curve showing changes over time the use of a name or a word as a "keyword" in philosophy books and articles listed in The Philosopher's Index (which dates back to 1940).

Previous posts showed discussion arcs of various prominent philosophers. But I've also been searching by topic and subfield. One striking general result I've found is the rise of discussion in ethics relative to other philosophical subfields.

Here's a chart of the enormous increase in total rate of philosophical publication since the 1940s, with keyword searches related to subfield. (Note that the y-axis is scaled logarithmically. Note also that "*" is a truncation symbol, so that (for example) ethic* returns "ethic", "ethics", "ethical", etc. The rate of increase in the 1940s is somewhat inflated by the increase in the length of listed article abstracts.)

[If this or any other chart displays incorrectly, click on it to bring up a cleaner jpg.]

I don't know whether to find it alarming or exciting that if trends continue philosophers will soon be producing 100,000 articles and books per five-year period in some subfields.

What I am interested in here is not so much the absolute numbers, though, as the relative numbers. And not even the relative numbers per se, which may be somewhat misleading (since not all and only epistemology articles contain epistem* as a keyword, and the keyword false negatives and positives may differ by subfield), but rather the changes over time in relative numbers. In the chart above, for example, you will see that in the 1990s ethics (EMP: ethics, moral, political) crossed lemmings (language, epistemology, metaphysics, and mind). Assuming relatively constant false negatives and positives over time within each subfield, the crossover suggests that ethics has been growing faster than has language, epistemology, metaphysics, and mind.

The following chart displays that fact more clearly:

In the 1950s, about half as many books and articles had an ethic*/moral*/polit* keyword as a language*/epistem*/metaphys*/mind* keyword. Now there are more EMPs than lemmings.

Nor have other major subfields fared better, as you can see below:

The ethicists are taking over! (If only they would behave better.)

Feminism is now a major philosophical research specialization, as was not the case before the 1970s. The chart below displays its explosive rise. (In the denominator is EMPlemmings: all articles using any of the EMP or lemmings keywords.) Notice that the rise is almost entirely in the 1970s to early 1990s. The trend has been flat to declining since then.

The same chart shows a U-shaped curve for discussion of race. I double-checked a sample of the 1940s articles to see if they really did treat race or ethnicity as a substantive topic (rather than, say, using a phrase like "the human race" in the abstract simply to mean people), and almost all did use "race" in the intended way. In the context of World War II, race was I suppose a rather hot issue! Interesting that it should be less so, at least in the philosophy journals, in the heyday of the civil rights movement.


peter kirwan said...

I was very surprised to see that there is more stuff out there on gender than on race. In the course of my own research I've had a much easier time getting hold of stuff by philosophers on racism than I have on sexism.

I'd be interested to see some sort of breakdown of what people are actually discussing about gender. Specifically, how much of the gender discussion is about real world sexism I wonder? It wouldn't surprise me if there is a lack of attention to sexism because people assume it's structure will just be the same as racism (which it isn't of course) so the idea is that if you've discussed racism you've sort of already covered sexism too.

peter kirwan said...

quick note:

I'm distinguishing real world sexism (e.g. workplace discrimination, issues of justice in the home etc) from things like feminist epistemology (which is not to say the latter isn't extremely interesting).

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks, Peter, that's a good suggestion for follow-up. I can't do it right now, but hopefully before too long....