Friday, June 07, 2019

Why Academic Philosophy Ought to Be One of the Most Demographically Diverse Disciplines, Instead of One of the Least

Academic philosophy in the U.S. remains largely male. In 2017 (the most recent data available), only 27% of PhDs in Philosophy were granted to women, according to the National Science Foundation's Survey of Earned Doctorates. This percentage hasn't budged for decades: In the 1990s, 27% of Philosophy PhDs were women. In the 2000s, also 27%. (See here.) Among major field and subfield categories with at least 200 PhDs awarded in 2017, only major fields Engineering and Mathematics had a smaller proportion of women (25%) and some subfields within Engineering, Mathematics, and the Physical Sciences. (Physical Sciences overall had 33% women PhD recipients.) In the humanities, arts, and social sciences, only Economics (34%) and Religious Studies (35%) awarded less than 40% of their PhDs to women.

Philosophy in the U.S. remains largely non-Hispanic white: 86% in the NSF SED data from 2017. Among the 92 major fields and subfields awarding doctorates to at least 200 U.S. citizens or permanent residents who reported their ethnicity, only Ecology was more white (89%). In 2017, only 20/340 (6%) of Philosophy PhD recipients reported being Hispanic or Latino, 11 reported being Asian (3%), 4 reported being Black or African American (1%), 0 (0%) reported being American Indian or Alaska Native, and 8 (2%) reported being mixed race or other. The percentage of Hispanic and Asian Philosophy PhD recipients has very slowly increased over time, but the percentage of Black and Native American Philosophy PhD recipients has remained essentially flat at 1%-2% and 0%-1% respectively since the beginning of the recorded data in the 1970s (see here).

Although systematic demographic data on disability, LBGTQ status, economic disadvantage, and other types of demographic diversity are not as readily available, academic philosophy in the U.S. might not be especially diverse in these respects either. (See, for example, this recent testimonial by a transgender graduate student.)

It is sometimes suggested that even in a fully egalitarian society, equally welcoming of people from all backgrounds, we should not expect an exactly proportional representation of women and of the races in academic philosophy. Some academic fields might be naturally more attractive to men and white folks, others to women and black folks, and with equal opportunity, people in these different demographic categories might sort themselves disproportionately. Little boys disproportionately like monster trucks and little girls disproportionately like cute ponies, even if their parents (supposedly) don't force such preferences upon them. A career in academic philosophy might be like that. Philosophy might be the monster truck of academic disciplines.

While such reasoning might or might not apply to Ecology and Mechanical Engineering, such claims cannot, I think, be true of academic philosophy as properly practiced. Academic philosophy should in fact skew the opposite direction, with unusual demographic backgrounds disproportionately over-represented.

Academic philosophy is not about one thing. It's about everything. It concerns the entire universe and the whole human condition. One gender or one ethnicity may care especially much about monster trucks or black holes, but one gender or one ethnicity should not similarly tend to care more than another about the human condition in general. We all do, or should, care about philosophy. You may have no theory of black holes, but for sure you have philosophical views, at least implicitly -- background ethical positions, background assumptions about the general nature of things, a background sense of the sources of knowledge, opinions about death and the possibility or not of an afterlife, aesthetic opinions, political values. Academic philosophy is, or should be, just the most general academic treatment of issues such as these. It is unlikely that in an egalitarian society, women and non-whites would be less interested in exploring fundamental questions about the world and the human condition than are white men, or less inclined to pursue them given the opportunity.

Maybe something about the highly abstract nature of academic philosophy, or its combativeness, or its roots in the European tradition tends to draw white men and repel others? I am not sure that's right, but even if so, these are accidental features of the field, which we ought to consider reforming. Philosophy can work as well by science fictional narrative [1] or engaged dialogue as by highly abstract argumentation. It needn't, and I think shouldn't, be as combative as it often is. And the ignorance and disrespect U.S. philosophers often display toward non-European traditions is a flaw we should repair, rather than a feature to be taken for granted.

There is one structural feature of academic philosophy that I do think ought to influence its demographic proportions: Its celebration of the presentation of novel views and arguments, minority positions, and challenges to what people ordinarily take for granted. Philosophy is, and should be, to a substantial extent, about considering new ideas, rethinking convention, exploring radical and strange-seeming possibilities. For these reasons, outsiders to the cultural mainstream and people who have lived with the disadvantages of existing cultural structures and worldviews, ought to be especially valued and welcomed in the discipline -- overrepresented rather than underrepresented.


Note 1: If you think that science fiction is mostly white male, you need to update to the 21st century, friend. For example, check out last year's Nebula Award nominees.

[image source]


Josh said...

Eric, I've seen it proposed that women of a philosophical bent simply choose other disciplines (english, sociology, anthropology, psychology, gender studies), in which they are 'over-represented' which seems to be born out by the data here:

Do you agree with this interpretation, and if so, why might this be? Should we 'poach' women from these fields, and send some of our men to these disciplines?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

It's possible. Let's do some poaching! :-)

e-head said...

As I was reading this piece I had the exact same thought as Josh. I suspect fields like AA studies, gender studies, cultural studies, sociology, etc... are capturing a lot of women and non-whites that might otherwise join philosophy programs.

Maybe more cross-discipline dialog is all that's needed?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

e-head: It would be a start. I'm all for that!

Philosopher Eric said...

I personally am not troubled by who does and does not get the philosophy PhDs, egalitarian or otherwise. I simply care about the state of the field itself. But it seems to me that white men have been crappy stewards. (Yes I’m a white man, and no I’m not in the field myself.) So I’d love for some other demographics to get in there and perhaps shake things up.

There is currently a women by the name of Sabine Hossenfelder in the “manly” field of theoretical physics, and she’s certainly shaking things up. You see, physics has gone so far that evidence from which to support or refute existing models, has often become impractical to impossible for us to get. Thus in order to keep particle collider money rolling in and so on, her field seems to have decided to forgo evidence in favor of “beauty”.

I’ve told her that she can’t simply “fix physics”, since the problem here ultimately resides under the domain of philosophy. All of science remains in need of effective principles of epistemology. Thus I believe she should help develop a respected community that does have such accepted principles to provide, and that this community would then fix far more than just physics.

If anyone is to be poached, she’s the person that I’d consider most hopeful. And indeed, she’s currently looking for something to do given that her current contract is not being renewed. If anyone’s interested, check out her excellent blog at the following address:

chinaphil said...

The idea about innovation is interesting, and sounds right, but in reality it may be more of a block than a doorway for traditionally underrepresented groups. Many sectors are not always friendly to people who do things a strange way and look different as well. I'm thinking fields as diverse as mathematics (how many Ramanujans never got discovered?), music (black person performing on MTV? I wonder if they're singing death metal? Indie pop?), literature (getting much better now), entrepreneurship (white Silicon Valley)...

I wonder if philosophy has actually backed itself into a bit of a corner, because innovative non-(white males) find it harder to get recognition (as in every field); and the ladder of formal/technical qualifications by which talented minorities could force recognition of their skills are toxic/unappealing in philosophy in a way that is not true of other subjects, as suggested above.

Howie said...

On first thought the questions are !) what attracts people, men or women, to philosophy? 2) Is this a matter, as you say, of something like taste in cinema or leisurely reading? 3) thinking like an economist, a choice is always something over something else. So what do women who might like philosophy choose instead of philosophy? It might be religion. Maybe philosophy lacks the right combination of head and heart for women. 4) How do you advertise philosophy to women and how do you lure women in with the right cursus honorum, so to speak?

Howie said...

I wonder if women who are susceptible to philosophy want to do something which makes them feel involved in the world and which has a positive social impact, and that philosophy does not do that for them

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the continuing comments, folks!

I hope that philosophy isn't straightjacketedly closed to innovation. I don't think it is, though of course there are curmudgeons. In some cases, innovation might have to wait til after tenure, though. But with the security of tenure, there's a lot of freedom to explore.

Howie: I'm always a bit leery of these sorts of generalizations!

Keith Dee said...

Sorry professor, but you can't get an ought from an "is-not". And if philosophy is about challenging received views, then you might challenge the received academic view that diversity of genitals and skin color 1) is a virtue in itself and 2) necessarily generates diversity of views. Thought and speech here are more homogenous and restricted than anywhere else in society.