Citations, gender balance and disagreement

Philosophy has a problem with gender balance. It has the longest history of any academic discipline but that is a history set within millennia of patriarchy. And it’s a discipline that engages seriously with its history. We still cite Plato and Aristotle from two and half thousand years ago. With social progress, gender balance in the profession has improved, albeit from a most unfavourable and unjust starting point. We are at least now in a position where we can correct some of that injustice in our citation practices, engaging with women’s ideas and thereby challenging the stereotype that philosophy is a man’s preoccupation.

This being philosophy, though, it’s complicated. As I’ve read work from other disciplines, I’ve become more conscious of the idiosyncratic citation practices of my field and realised that they do not always make gender-inclusion easy. One feature is how few citations we make in philosophy. A typical philosophy paper will be 10-pages long with 15 citations whereas I’ve seen medical papers that are more like 3-pages long with 100 citations. When there are fewer citations to go round, the choices we make become even more important. But I don’t think this is the only problem. What I’ve noticed is that in philosophy around 80-90% of the citations we make are disapproving ones. We cite people to say that they are wrong: sometimes obviously wrong or stupidly wrong. Again, I don’t see this so much in other fields. Typically, they might say “there is recent work on X”, and follow it with 20 citations. More usual in philosophy is to say: “N has argued for Y and Y has obvious flaws. Y is plain wrong”.

As I’ve become more aware of matters of equity, diversity and inclusion in the intellectual endeavour, I have wanted and tried to include more women in my references but, to do so, I feel that I’ve also had to fight these conventions. I don’t want to cite women only to say how wrong they are. But I don’t want to not cite women either. The solution has been an attempt to break out from the disciplinary conventions and try to include more approving citations. This itself is hard, of course, given that philosophy as a whole tends to focus more on disagreement than agreement.

To give an example, I work a lot in metaphysics. We have some excellent women metaphysicians in Helen Beebee, Laurie Paul and Sara Bernstein. Unfortunately, for me, they all work in a neo-Humean/Lewisian tradition that I think is wrong. I feel uncomfortable citing them only to say so. In my new Absence and Nothing, I’ve instead tried to find women’s work with which I agree, such as by Heather Dyke and Geraldine Coggins. Again, the discipline doesn’t help me. There are very few instances where we accept what another philosopher says and, even if we do, it’s likely to be on a confined, isolated matter. It seems that there’s no point saying something if someone else has said it already.

I’ve found another gender-related matter when introducing women into the hypothetical examples that often occur in speculative philosophical writing. So many of these examples concern despicable acts or stupid beliefs, e.g. “John decides to torture a cat” or “Jim believes that 2 + 2 = 5”. The scenarios are so extreme that it could look misogynistic if I used women’s names (try thinking of those examples with women’s or non-Western names substituted). The difficulty here is that we often need absurd cases in order to make the point, such as for reductio ad absurdum or to demonstrate some moral precept. The more extreme, the clearer the point.

In part, the nature of philosophy has created these difficulties. It tends to be adversarial and I am of course aware of a view that this itself is a product of historical patriarchy. I’ve seen movement in the right direction here, towards philosophy as a more cooperative enterprise. Nevertheless, I don’t think it would be right to eliminate disagreement from our or any other discipline. It’s a vital part of the intellectual quest that we challenge each other and overturn established wisdom. The ideal would be if we pursued that quest in a context of justice and equality so that we didn’t have to worry about whether it was a man or woman whose views we were rejecting. We can only get there one step at a time, however, which means making changes now to the flawed system within which we operate.

1 Comment

  1. Em says:

    Professor Mumford, surely you want to cite female philosophers because of the quality of their work, and not simply for the fact that they are women. I don’t want people to cite my work because I am a woman, I want people to cite my work because it is good!

    Also, out of curiosity, what do you mean by ‘gender’? Moreover, in order to talk meaningfully of ‘social progress’ you need a defined endpoint to progress towards. Is your defined endpoint a state of ‘equity’, ‘diversity’ and ‘inclusion’? These are fine concepts, but it is not exactly obvious what they look like in practice.


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