Paula as philosopher

Men still outperform women in a small number of subject areas.   It’s common knowledge that these include maths and physics (I’m still looking for someone who will explain why this should be so).  But it was a surprise to me to find that philosophy is much closer to these subjects than to the humanities subjects with which it is most commonly grouped.

I learnt this from a pamphlet published by the British Philosophical Association and the Society for Women in Philosophy in the UK. At undergraduate level 45% of philosophy students are female. This is much closer to Maths’ 40% than it is to History’s 58%, let alone English Studies’ 73%.

And the figure drops at postgraduate level, to 38% at Masters level and 35% of doctoral students (compared with 52% and 53% for History and 71% and 61% for English).

This raises some really intriguing epistemological questions about the relationships between different forms of knowledge.  Should philosophy be relocated to faculties of maths/science?  It reminds me of the marvellous Borges story, The Library of Babel, where he imagines a library stocked with books in apparent order but in fact randomly distributed.  It also brings to mind Patrick Geddes, a much-neglected Scottish thinker of the 19th century, who constantly challenged disciplinary boundaries.

But the question here, obviously, is why women should do so much less well in philosophy than in other subjects.  (I say ‘do less well’; I actually don’t have the results of their studies, only their participation rates).   Is it more to do with the particular culture of philosophers and the way they practice,  or the intrinsic logic of their discipline?  Answers do not have to be on a postcard.

  1. I drew some comparisons between gender issues in science and philosophy recently on my own blog here. I think there is a cultural difference for philosophy, though, which relates to how debate and criticism is carried out in a much more personal way than in a science like physics. Additionally, readings are much more about the individual (and usually male) viewpoint rather than about the more impersonal form of experiment or theory which has no gender.

    1. TomSchuller

      Thanks Athene. I’d encourage other readers to look at your blog, which covers the subject in more detail than I do, and which also attracted some very interesting comments. I wonder how much it is to do with philosophy not being as concerned with empirical questions as other subjects (in social as well as natural sciences), but it is not alone in this. My intuition is that the abstractness of philosophical language will have a lot to do with it.
      I was very struck by finding out how gendered Rousseau’s conception of enlightenment was – the curriculum for Sophie was totally different from that intended for her brothere Emile.

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