Saturday, 22 June 2013

Science Fiction and Women in Philosophy


It’s an impression I have and I may be absolutely wrong that the interest in Science Fiction which is predominantly male is predictive of an interest in Philosophy as a subject particularly Philosophy as it is now presented. I refer to the Thought Experiment obsession. Make your name with a killer T.E. seems to be a goal. In the broadest sense of the term the culture that obtains in Philosophy departments is not of very great quality. Here are people who affect to ponder great thoughts and they read China Mieville and the like. Not many women want to spend time in this environment and they’re right.

14 comments:

elisa freschi said...

Here is an interesting article ridiculizing (unless it is serious, which I hope not) TE as "market-products" of philosophy:

http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/science/2013/06/marketing_philosophy_thought_experiments_are_the_product_and_podcasts_the.html

Thus, sciene-fiction:science=TE:philosophy?

ombhurbhuva said...

That Slate article is not very serious and makes some amusing points on what he supposes is the conflation of experiment in the scientific sense and as used in Thought-Experiment. The analogy between the two is turned into a parallel. A Thought-Experiment is a way of stress testing concepts or it is supposed to be that. Daniel Dennett calls them intuition pumps and is dubious about their intent to lay bare the structure of a problem. I think that's right.

However it is the fascination with thought gadgets, A.I. , brains in vats, Matrix, futuristic concepts even many-world theories that is a pulp cultural phenomenon. I read of a Professor of Philosophy who plays games like Dungeons and Dragons. It is a well observed fact that women in general are not interested in such trifles. Maybe they act as a shield (Activate Shield) that subtly repels. Or is that a fancy of mine?

ktismatics said...

Google can't seem to find the article for me, but "studies show" that more women than men read science fiction, at least in the US. But that's because women read far more fiction than do men full stop.

Last week the press reported that most US colleges and universities have informally adopted "affirmative action" admission policies giving preference to male applicants with lower GPAs and SAT scores than females, in order to maintain an appropriate gender balance in enrollments increasingly dominated by women.

ombhurbhuva said...

http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2011/may/31/women-science-fiction-writers

is a guardian piece that finds interest in S.F. Running at 24:1, male dominated in readership and authorship.

http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/science/2013/06/marketing_philosophy_thought_experiments_are_the_product_and_podcasts_the.html

is the Slate piece. There may be difficultly reading that but google on 'slate marketing philosophy through thought experiments' should pull it.

No doubt women are bigger readers than men but there are men's departments.

Affirmative action won't be on over here but women dominate in the medical and other high points demand faculties. Our young braves are for war.

ktismatics said...

The article you link is 24:1 male-authored scifi books recommended as top-of-the-shelf titles in an online thread. But book sales and readership sex differences? I tried again and failed again to find the article stating that women now outnumber men in buying scifi titles in the US. The closest I could come was a 2008 report, in which 55% of scifi books in the US were bought by men, 45% by women. Since then the overall fiction-reading gap has increased: now in the US 80% of novels are bought/read by women.

Certainly among those who do read fiction, men are more likely than women to prefer scifi. And philosophy depts. remain dominated by men. Are philosophy majors/profs more likely to read fiction than are, say, math and science majors? I'd guess probably so. However, I'm guessing that even in philosophy depts. the women are more avid fiction readers than are the men. But philosophy fiction purports to be more "philosophical" in content than other genres, so men are more likely to talk about them than about, say, Hemingway.

Therefore, to make a short story long, I suppose I agree with your original contention, Michael.

ktismatics said...

Perdido Street Station is pretty good; Embassytown is a TE that fails; The City and the City might have made an okay short story but is far too thin for a novel; I doubt I'll read any others. On the other hand, based on recent discussion here I just reread Wide Sargasso Sea: haunting, beautiful, fierce, compelling.

ombhurbhuva said...

John:
I’m offering an impression based on the nerdish element that is present in the philosophy blogsphere and what they are enthusiastic about is not The Wide Sargasso Sea though philosophically it has much more of interest than The City and the City which I abandoned. But wow parallel worlds!

The reportage on the readership is distorted by the need to mine the ‘mother-lode’as it were, to make S.F. more lady friendly. It’s a mining planet on the outer ring of the Aurum galaxy. Warp speed.

ktismatics said...

I read only about half of The City and the City before securing my exit visa. I'm not sure whether I have a place in the blogosphere any more, commenting here and there without drawing much conversation, not particularly impelled to write posts of my own. We'll see.

elisa freschi said...

Sorry for being purely anedoctical:
I wonder whether the problem about women and scifi is *not* about scifi in itself, but about action and violence often associated to it. I do read Asimov's scifi, but I get bored when I have to read long passages about how space ship A pursuits space ship B. The same argument could apply to women and thrillers/detective stories. I would not be surprise to read that they enjoy Agatha Christie but not so much more "active" books.

Coming back to scifi and philosophy, this might mean that women might enjoy the imaginative part but dislike the agonistic one?
Please note that I am here not implying that women are genetically inclined not to like action, I am rather neutral about the relation between genes and action books and think that ---whatever the case--- women are well-trained to enjoy other things.

Brandon said...

This line of thought seems to me to get things obviously backwards; being in a philosophy department is predictive of being a male reader, which is predictive of reading science fiction, which is all a very tenuous connection. Likewise, virtually all the obvious cases you mention of overlap between philosophical T.E.'s and science fiction (brains in vats and the like) are cases where it is easy to show the borrowing was in the opposite direction: i.e., science fiction authors tend to use philosophical ideas, particularly those that are already handed to them in a skeletal story form that they can adapt. (And some of the overlaps have nothing whatsoever to do with T.E.'s. Mieville's Embassytown, mentioned in a comment above, is not a thought experiment of any kind at all but obviously a close re-telling of Plato's Myth of Theuth, with a few Marxist twists. And I am utterly, utterly certain that Plato was not an extensive reader of science fiction; nor Karl Marx, for that matter.)

Use of thought experiments derives from the early history of the philosophy department. Philosophy departments (as opposed to philosophy as a university subject), at least in the anglophone world, were formed in opposition to psychology departments, and a great deal of early philosophical discussion was devoted to the conceptual implications of psychological (including parapsychological) experiments, and possible such experiments. Thought experiments are just the result of that plus drift. This history is why philosophy departments in the English-speaking world are dominated by LEMM subfields (Philosophy of Language, Epistemology, [Analytic] Metaphysics, Philosophy of Mind); and, as it turns out, the only subfields of philosophy in which thought experiments are at all common are these and subfields that have since branched off from them. Other subfields use them rarely or not at all. Philosophy is a much bigger discipline than you are making it out to be. (It's also the case that thought experiments get much wider discussion outside of professional philosophy than they do inside, precisely because of the SF connections. Contrary to popular belief, even LEMM philosophers don't spend all their time talking about brains in vats and Chinese rooms. People only think that because they get most of their philosophy through science fiction channels.)

ombhurbhuva said...

Hi Elisa,
What I'm offering here is a purely subjective extrapolation from the fact of sci fi fans that are also well placed in philosophy I mean full tenured professors. It's a pervasive culture that is elevated by the fascination with thought experiments. Death rays, brains in vats etc. There's nothing morally offensive about this but it's a low grade interest for individuals who have gone the distance scholastically. For example the scifi novels of H.G. Wells are discussed but never the much better social novels. Can we make judgements about the taste of others. I would say definitely and people do it all the time. Women in general might look at the elite philosophers and think 'is this where it takes you'? No thanks.

ombhurbhuva said...

Brandon:
Would not the flow from philosophy to scifi if such was the case not strengthen my point about the mind set that obtains in academic philosophy? However cloaks of invisibility, rings of same, talking heads, hollow mountains and the like are a staple of folk tales, myth and legend from time immemorial.

The history of the development of the academic departments of Philosophy in opposition to those of Psychology, as you write, may have had the effect of a tractor beam drawing a certain type. In any case there they are and quite highly placed too.

As to T.Es not being discussed in Philosophy, that seems wrong. The literature on the Chinese room pro and con is vast, likewise trolley problems and ‘the violinist’, the pond of Singer in depth discussion etc. are the part of the entry into the more rarefied air, an airlock, if you like, that some may not be ‘suited up’ for.

ktismatics said...

Physics, engineering, aeronautics, computers, philosophy, theology: science fiction blends the most male-dominated disciplines, in the US at least. It's potentially an empirical question, but I'm guessing that a fair percentage of kids who enter these fields were lured via early exposure to scifi.

Is this a genetically male predisposition, or a product of sex-stereotypical socialization from an early age? Studies have shown that, when given access to both "boy" toys (guns, cars, balls, etc.) and "girl" toys (dolls, tea sets, dress-up clothes, etc.), both boys and girls tend to prefer the boy toys as long as some adult doesn't steer them toward the gender-appropriate choice. If left to their own devices, girls might find science fiction stories just as satisfying as romance stories, if not more so.

On some level all fiction can be regarded as thought experiments, placing imaginary characters in hypothetical situations. It's been proposed that the 19th century novel achieved popularity because it offered readers the opportunity to explore subjective motivations and interpersonal strategies in the non-threatening context of psychological thought experiments.

ombhurbhuva said...

John:
I think what you are saying is true. We are not determined in our path through life but there are a lot of nudges. It's a cultural thing. In India for instance women studying philosophy outnumber men by two to one (iirc). I read this a while ago but can't find the source at the moment. Speculation around gender is a minefield so discussion will be light, tiptoeing very carefully.

The novel is at its best when it's free of agenda but still situations test the protagonists mettle. They are experimented on and alter their own thinking. I have just finished reading Henry James's The Middle Years and found the multiple blends of irony very satisfying.