Tuesday, September 6, 2011

If I Were A Boy

Today I'm thinking about this question:  How would my scholarly life be different if my name were Paul Jennings and my author photo was this:

I got to wondering about this reading Larissa MacFarquhar's recent profile of the philosopher Derek Parfit in The New Yorker, which I really enjoyed.

In particular, the reflection was prompted by the description of Parfit's feelings of admiration for the "dazzling" Bernard Williams. I, too, am an admirer of Williams's philosophy, though I didn't know any of the personal things the article describes: that he flew Spitfires in the Air Force; that he had an affair with another man's wife; that he wrote about opera. 

In describing Parfit's admiration for Williams, MacFarquhar suggests it's not just Williams's writing that Parfit admires, it's also his whole way of being in the world.  That "way" is captured partly in a photograph, in which Williams is described as looking aristocratic, worldly, godlike.  Williams just somehow seems like fascinating guy.

I know this feeling.  It's good when you have it, and of course, it's even better when someone else has it about you.  And it is common and natural for intellectuals to be fascinated by one another like that. 

In our discipline of philosophy, fascination and its lesser cousin "interest" play an unusually outsized role, because the first crucial step in anything is getting people interested in what you have to say.  Even if you're right, it gets you nowhere if no one finds you interesting.  Indeed, part of Parfit's interest in Williams seems to have stemmed from thinking Williams was completely wrong and mistaken in his basic ideas.

Now the problem.  Have you considered how difficult it is for a woman to fit into this world of intellectual fascination?

Men just don't seem to be fascinated by women in that way. Sure, they might admire women intellectually, and they might have crushes on them and want to sleep with them, but intellectual hero-worship?  No.  It doesn't really happen.

Even if it did happen, it would never be described in as intellectual hero-worship, because everyone would be falling all over themselves saying it was some kind of sexual or romantic fascination, not a genuine intellectual fascination.  The woman would be at best demoted to "attractive" and at worst accused of playing her sexuality for attention.

Of course, if a young woman is intellectually fascinated by a man -- well, this just seems to strike everyone as completely as it should be. 

So, really, is it any wonder we have an "inverted pyramid" gender problem in academia?


Daniel said...

Hi Patricia,

I've seen the phenomenon you describe a LOT. The one exception seems to be in queer studies or gender studies, where queer men are pretty head-over-heals about Judith Butler or Eve Koussevitzky (?) Sedgwick. Maybe the queer boys in general tend to attend more to women in that way - not sure.


Patricia said...

Hi Daniel,
That is so true, it *is* an exception! That gives me hope for the future :)

Tim said...

I'm not sure I'm fascinated, in the Parfit-->Williams sense, with any philosophers, but I've been pretty interested in a few, over the years. (In the one-notch-down-from-fascination sense you introduce, I mean.) And some of those are women.

Maybe it's an availability thing in part; if I were a purely formal logician, there mightn't be many women in whom to be (relevantly!) interested. As someone who's been interested in stuff like action theory and social epistemology, here and there, I've found a number of women philosophers whose work has struck me as intriguingly right and intriguingly wrong, in just the right way to make them Interesting.

Patricia said...

Hi Tim, I'm glad to hear it!

We'd probably do well with less Fascination and more Ordinary Interest anyway, so that is certainly encouraging.