More on the current climate for women in philosophy of mind (empirically informed or not)

Gualtiero invited me to comment on the current climate for women in empirically informed philosophy of mind. Unfortunately, I cannot comment on this without first calling attention to what I believe is a mistaken distinction in recent discussions of this very issue.
Serife Tekin recently made a nice attempt at characterizing empirically-informed philosophy of mind. The distinction, as drawn, basically comes down to one between works in philosophy of mind that use metaphysical considerations in support of the views set forth and works that appeal to empirical data. As noted in the post, it is not difficult to find works that fall into one or the other category. For example, works that appeal to fission and fusion thought experiments to support theories of personal identity clearly belong to the first type.
Despite the virtues of these attempts at defining empirically informed and non-empirically informed philosophy of mind, I have a huge problem with the very distinction. The distinction is misleading and unproductive.
First, it draws arbitrary lines where there shouldn’t be any. For example, if I were to write an article defending a quantum model of consciousness, my work might count as empirically informed. If, on the other hand, I were to come up with a defense of a string-theoretical model of consciousness, my work would not count as empirically informed.
Second, ’empirical’ is said in many ways. Philosophers of language very often use linguistic data as part of their arguments. But I doubt that those who see themselves as empirically-informed philosophers of mind would label a work at the intersection of philosophy of language and philosophy of mind ’empirically-informed philosophy of mind’.
Third, the distinction suggests that articles that use thought-experiments are not empirically informed. But that is not true in general. Some debates cannot (yet?) be settled on scientific grounds. Presumably the very debate about the nature of consciousness is an example of this. If someone comes up with a model of consciousness that relies on thought experiments, then this work could very well be empirically informed, in my opinion. It could be empirically informed because being empirically informed includes knowing when to appeal to scientific data and when not to.
Fourth, a project that isn’t empirically informed when it should have been isn’t a project in a different sub-sub-discipline but a project that is plainly and simply mistaken.
In general, I don’t think phrases like ‘experimental philosophy’, ‘neurophilosophy’, ’empirically-informed philosophy of mind’, ’empirical philosophy of mind’ shed much light on anything. I don’t mind when people use these terms when nothing of consequence hinges on it or when it facilitates communication with people in other fields or other sub-disciplines. I use these labels myself when talking to people from other disciplines and when writing grant applications. In those contexts, the labels can be informative.
So back to women in the sub-discipline. My impression is that none of the sub-disciplines of philosophy are great for women. The fact that there are 20 percent women in the top 50 philosophy departments, about 10 percent female contributions to philosophy volumes and countless male-only conferences is a pretty good indicator that the climate for women isn’t great and isn’t improving. So when you ask women the questions formulated by Rebecca over at Leiter Reports, women will naturally report that things aren’t great. It probably doesn’t matter which sub-discipline you ask the questions about. Things aren’t great for women in any sub-discipline (that I have worked in, anyway).
But even if things aren’t great, things can be better or worse. In comparison with other sub-disciplines I have worked in, philosophy of mind is actually pretty good. My feeling is that there isn’t an old boys’ club in this area. I am sure there are old conservative males who are working in this area. But they don’t form a club. I also feel that people working in philosophy of mind welcome newcomers and even hang out with them at conferences and take their work seriously. This is good for men and women alike who are starting out in the field. But it also helps to minimize the exclusion of women.
There are lots of ways to improve the current climate for women in philosophy of mind. I am currently writing a book review of a collection of papers in philosophy of mind that appears to have about one female contributor (I haven’t checked everyone’s website to ensure that the male-sounding names aren’t actually names of women). It’s a good collection. But the lack of women stands out and I am going to mention it. I believe speaking up is just the sort of thing that might help minimize the exclusion of women in philosophy. I am glad that Brains has decided to tackle these issues. I am optimistic that these discussions will change things around. It will take quite some years to completely combat the implicit biases against female philosophers, but my hope is that I will live to see justice in the discipline.


  1. Hi Brit,

    This is a really helpful post. I take your point on the troubles with the “empirically-informed …” label. I wonder, though, if they couldn’t overgeneralize: e.g. in certain contexts I can’t say whether my current project is in mind, epistemology, or action — does this mean that these labels have no value? (To be honest, sometimes I think this.) My response to your challenge would be to insist that we use the labels as broadly as possible: thus we would want to count all the cases you describe as empirically-informed in the only important sense. Would this help to salvage the label?

  2. Brit

    Hi John, I agree with you that many projects lie at the intersection of several sub-disciplines. However, there is a difference here. “Empirically informed” normally is taken to refer to a certain method in philosophy of mind. Philosophy of mind is not normally taken to refer to a particular method.

    I have absolutely no problem with the label, construed broadly, as you suggest. But I think empirically-informed philosophy of mind just is philosophy of mind done properly. In other words, if you need to take empirical data into account in arguing for a particular view and you don’t, then your argument is weak and easily dismissed.

  3. John Schwenkler

    This seems fair. It had also occurred to me that we could say that these things come in degrees: e.g. with Kim and Davidson toward one end of a spectrum (perhaps McDowell at the extreme), and then Block and Dennett (say) on the other. As you suggest, though, some of this has to do with the kinds of issues at stake: when you’re talking about consciousness, say, there’s more of a need to attend to experimental data then when you’re doing straight-up metaphysics of mind (though of course even there one can’t be insular).

    What I liked most in Serife’s post was the distinction between different ways of being empirically-informed: for me, it captured pretty well the respect in which the approach that I identify with most strongly (John Campbell is the main influence here, which I think pegs me pretty well) differs from that of someone like Gualtiero. Both are ways of being attentive to relevant scientific data (and of course it is possible to do both at once, to blur the distinctions, etc.), but the problems at stake are often different, and consequently so are the approaches.

  4. gualtiero

    thanks Brit for this helpful post. needless to say, we should all be mindful of the problem and do our best to remedy the situation, especially when inviting speakers and symposia for colloquia and conferences, editing volumes and journal special issues, etc.

  5. Hi all,
    This has been such a productive conversation. It is hard to disagree with Brit’s point that empirically-informed philosophy of mind is just philosophy of mind done properly. Perhaps the term “empirically-informed philosophy of mind” was once a good placeholder, but now has now become obsolete. But the term may still have some value, as John seems to be concerned about, at least when bargaining philosophy’s relevance to real world, (e.g., in grant applications), but then again, in that case, why can’t we make all the arguments we make for the value of empirically-informed philosophy of mind, just for philosophy of mind (period!)?

    Another point, though, pertains to using thought experiments versus real data in philosophical reasoning. Thought experiments, at least in most cases, are less messy than real data, perhaps by the virtue of having been constructed to support a particular philosophical argument at the first place. One is free to make the thought experiments more or less complex, depending on one’s purpose. But in dealing with real data, one has to put up with a lot of mess, and at the end, one may find that the initial philosophical intuition that the data was purported to support actually fails (and this would be the best scenario, as one can still make a point about the intuition). In other cases, data may make one even more confused about the intuition.

    This point is not to defend the need to keep the term ‘empirically-informed philosophy of mind’ but to point out the kinds of challenges philosophers are faced with when they consult worldly data.

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