Academic philosophy in the United States has a diversity problem.
No other discipline of comparable size in the humanities is as gender-skewed as philosophy. Women still receive only about 28% of philosophy PhDs in the United States, and are still only about 20% of full professors of philosophy — numbers that have hardly budged since the 1990s. And among U.S. citizens and permanent residents receiving philosophy PhDs in this country, 86% are non-Hispanic white. The only comparably-sized disciplines that are more white are the ones that explicitly focus on the European tradition, such as English literature.
One of the main causes of homogeneity in philosophy, we believe, is subjectivity and bias in the evaluation of philosophical quality.
What makes some works of philosophy good and others meh? It’s not straightforward. In biology, you synthesize the protein or you don’t. In math, you prove the long-standing conjecture. It’s not always entirely clear in these fields what separates the good from the meh, but there are substantial external standards and constraints. Philosophy, in contrast, is partly about challenging existing standards. We admire philosophers whose central arguments are nearly impossible to understand, or who speak in paradoxes, who accept seemingly bizarre views, or who display dazzling skill with formal logical structures of no practical significance. Kant and Hegel are better loved than understood.
It’s almost aesthetic, the assessment of philosophical quality.And like aesthetic judgments, it’s shaped by a huge range of factors — how well the view fits with your hopes and preconceptions, whether it’s argued with confidence and flair, how clever or wise the author seems, how much other people admire the author.
Being good at seeming smart is perhaps the central disciplinary skill for philosophers.
Whether a work is even read as a work of philosophy — rather than literature, religion, or journalism — depends partly on the author’s social position and whether its topic and writing style fit disciplinary expectations. Potentially interesting work is disqualified, on unclear grounds, before the question of “good or meh” even arises.
Similarly unclear are our grounds for assessing campus speakers and students in the classroom. Whom do you perk up and listen to? Whom do you credit with brilliance and insight? In philosophy, the line between the foolish and the unconventional-but-clever is hard to locate.
To a substantial extent, what we assess is whether the person who is expressing the ideas in question sounds smart. If you’re going to convince someone to take your perplexing, paradoxical ideas seriously, or if you’re going to convince them that your impenetrable prose is worth the struggle, you had better first convince them that you’re wicked smart. Being good at seeming smart is perhaps the central disciplinary skill for philosophers.
This might explain why no academic discipline is more obsessed with the intelligence of its practitioners than philosophy. The philosopher Sarah-Jane Leslie and her colleagues recently asked faculty, graduate students and postdoctoral fellows from around the country to what extent they thought their discipline required a special aptitude “that just can’t be taught.” Philosophers agreed with such statements more than scholars in any other subject area.
It’s not that white men are innately better philosophers than women and people of color. It’s that white men have better command of the cultural apparatus of seeming smart.
Unfortunately, seeming smart is not a level playing field. In our culture, white men, especially white men from privileged backgrounds, have a large advantage in displaying the superficial features that attract high expectations.
Social psychologists have demonstrated that identical resumes are rated more highly when the applicant is white or male than when the applicant is black or female. Emails from prospective graduate students are more likely to receive a reply if sent by someone with a stereotypically white male name than if sent by a woman or ethnic minority. Interviewers tend to credit black and dark-skinned Latino subjects with less intelligence, even when the interview answers are the same. In a recent study of biology students, anthropology doctoral candidate Daniel Z. Grunspan and colleagues found that male students were perceived by their peers as having a better understanding of the classroom material than their female classmates, even when controlling for grades and outspokenness in class.
It’s not that white men are innately better philosophers than women and people of color. It’s that white men have better command of the cultural apparatus of seeming smart. As undergraduates, they enter the classroom with more self-confidence. They see faces like their own in front of the classroom and hear voices like their own coming from professors’ mouths. In the philosophy classroom, they see almost exclusively white men as examples of great philosophers. They think “that’s me” and they step into it. Those around them, their professors and fellow students, see them and think that person sounds smart — and these students are then further encouraged.
It’s a double whammy. Before one writes or opens one’s mouth, cultural biases favor white men over others. After the words come out, cultural biases favor a certain style.
The next time you’re tempted to dismiss a piece of writing—not just a work of philosophy, but any work that requires subjective evaluation — consider that your judgment likely reflects a range of influences that are difficult to see, many of them probably unlovely, culturally specific, and unrelated to intrinsic value.
Myisha Cherry is a doctoral student in philosophy at the University of Illinois at Chicago and host of the UnMute podcast. Eric Schwitzgebel is a professor of philosophy at UC Riverside and author of “Perplexities of Consciousness.”