A Persian Cafe, Edward Lord Weeks

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

PhilChat, Women in Philosophy

Today marked the first meeting of a 'PhilChat' group at the university. About fifteen people went - a mixture of postgraduates, especially dedicated undergraduates, a trio of rather less dedicated undergraduates who had apparently been press-ganged into coming by the postgrad who ran one of their tutorials, and of course our speaker - the esteemed Professor Helen Beebee, who gave a talk on women in philosophy. She had just been taking a two hour lecture so we had a short wait for her to arrive, during which time the postgraduates (most of whom were down to give talks in future weeks) introduced their own specialisms, which were mainly metaphysical but included one guy who had spent a long time considering the precise meaning of the word "allegedly" and was down to do a talk on the philosophy of swearing. Oh, and it took precisely three-and-a-half minutes before the discussion turned to laughing at MMU and their study of Continental Philosophy (as UoM students of Analytic Philosophy, we of course look down on both of these).

The talk itself was interesting. If I were a person with the slightest bit of power, then I would have demanded more statistics, but there were enough statistics present to demonstrate that women are a minority and the argument as to why this was certainly seemed plausible. (Essentially, it was the classic "Philosophy, as practised by most departments, is a rather intellectually violent discipline. This has a greater propensity to turn off woman than men." Professor Beebee cited the example of another professor at one of her previous employers who had kept a score of "Home Wins" and "Away Wins": whenever they had a visiting scholar, the home scholars would attempt to tear the scholar's article to pieces and if, as usually happened, they succeeded, the professor would chalk it up as a Home Win.)

After a short break, during which the less interested undergrads sloped off, there followed a Q&A session. Both of the questions I had in mind were asked in slightly different form before I was called upon to ask a question, but I learned some of the way in which philosophy seminars work. In the process I was introduced to the hand question/thumb question distinction, a distinction on a par with the analytic/synthetic distinction in terms of its importance to a young philosopher. Having arrived slightly late, I was near the front and did not see the raising of hands/fingers and so remain ignorant of the workings of this phenomenon; however, to use Donald Rumsfeld's terminology it has moved from an unknown unknown to a known unknown, which in my book is a significant improvement.

Eventually we ran out of time - in fact, I think we overran significantly - and the postgrads headed off to the pub. I went to the aquatics centre for kayaking, spent an hour capsizing in a controlled fashion, another hour varying between sitting on the edge and screeching around the pool at top speed, and eventually headed back to the house.

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