Women, Academia, Philosophy, Power

Around this time six years ago I was putting together my AHRC application to do a PhD in Philosophy at Warwick. I was going to write my thesis on Spinoza and Nietzsche’s conception of truth. I was really looking forward to it. Then I fell out with my prospective supervisor and I decided not to stay at Warwick. And then I couldn’t muster up the enthusiasm to apply elsewhere. This had a huge effect– Philosophy was really very important to me – I loved reading it and thinking and writing. Anyone who knew me at that time will know how enthusiastic I was; usually going on about something in Spinoza’s Ethics which had got me excited that day.

After a few years of bumbling around being confused, I started writing a book, started my own business, and realised that last week I started reading Philosophy again. And today I started thinking about why I had gotten out of Philosophy in the first place. It’s not like I am any less interested in the questions, or less interested in reading Philosophy.

Then I picked up this on Twitter, which is a discussion between a friend who I knew at Warwick, the writer Scott Bakker and some other Philosophy type people. It reminded me exactly of what I was getting out of. I hate that really small, tight (often pedantic) type of discussion of things that don’t really matter to anyone else except a few people. And that’s what Philosophy is, right?

Well, now I realise, no, not right. That’s not what it is – that’s what it’s been defined in a very narrow, masculine, over-codified, academic world. What I always disliked about Philosophy is the idea that you’ve got to combat with people, all the time. Academic conferences, in Philosophy anyway, although I’m sure in other disciplines too, would always have enthusiastic people presenting their work only to be followed by people trying to pick holes in it. Warwick was bad, although it was usually across the stupid analytic/continental philosophy divide. I heard stories of people who had given papers at Middlesex only to have strips torn off them by members of staff and PhD students.

I’m giving some papers at a Tech conference in Holland this week and I have none of the same worries about presenting. I gave a paper on Deleuze & Leibniz once and was terrified of the questions. I was worried I’d say something wrong, knew that there would be people there ready to trip me up. I’m quite looking forward to questions at the end of my WordPress papers.

Seriously, Philosophy may be populated with geeks, but it’s not lacking in testosterone. The thing about academic philosophy is that the stage has already been set, and it’s a male stage. If you’re a woman and you enter into it you’re doing it on masculine terms. You’ve already lost – game over. Maybe some people are comfortable with that, fine, I never was. Maybe that’s why while there are so many women who do Philosophy as a BA and MA, the numbers to drop off toward PhD and then in academic careers.

My husband asked me this evening if I’d ever felt discriminated against as a woman. I said no, I didn’t think so. But when I think about it, while I was never personally discriminated against, I was structurally discriminated against. You have got to enter into those masculine power structures to do well – there isn’t really any other way. Of course, you can, and I could have, but I was never comfortable with it. And if you try to be part of the academic philosophy world without entering into combat mode you’re seen as weak or flakey. And it’s not just men who see you like that that. Women who have acceded to the masculine mode of doing things think that too – are even more likely to say it.

I guess another way is to go down the feminist theory route, which wasn’t really my thing since what I loved in philosophy was ontology and ethics. And anyway, just because I’m a woman doesn’t mean that I have to do feminist theory.

There were few of the men who I met who I thought were sexist (though there were a few); the methodology itself is sexist. There isn’t room for any other mode of doing Philosophy. It’s as if combat is the only way to do it. It’s not. Philosophy doesn’t have to be narrowed down to the myopic world of academia. In the end, I’m glad it was academia that I gave up, instead of giving up Philosophy. I didn’t accede to the masculine power structures that were being enforced, and I’m sure that I have thrived much more outside of them. Maybe I’ll even start writing a bit about Philosophy again :)