Professor Sally Haslanger is no stranger to bold ideas, having once proposed in a landmark paper that the word ‘woman’ should refer to those who are systematically subordinated by virtue of their interpretation of their bodies. Since entering academic philosophy in 1977, her work has bridged metaphysics and feminist theory, and is studied in one of ANU’s first-year philosophy courses. As Ford Professor of Philosophy and Women’s & Gender Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, she is currently visiting ANU, having delivered the prestigious Jack Smart Lecture for 2016 on the topic of ‘Cognition as a Social Skill’.
For a philosopher now mostly known for her feminist work, her interests and output have varied much. Brought up as Christian Scientist, a group she describes as a ‘very narrow, unusual Christian religion’ that shuns the use of medicine, Haslanger, her mother, and her grandmother ‘were very involved’, though she broke off from the sect when in high school.
Speaking of her time at Reed College, a small liberal arts college in Oregon, Haslanger said, ‘I hadn’t decided on what I wanted to major in, and by the time I got to the point where I needed to make a decision I thought religious studies would be a good major’.
However, after returning from a trip to India, she found herself studying logic, metaphysics, and philosophy of language, in stark contrast to her earlier interests in dance and religion. Enraptured by philosophy, and encouraged by the support of her professors, she pursued a doctorate in philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley. ‘I just fell in love with it … that’s how I got into it’.
Catalysed by a paper she had been approached to write for a 1993 collection of feminist papers on reason and objectivity, she hasn’t stopped working on feminist theory since. ‘It was such a good experience, because it was the first time I brought together my training in philosophy with my political activism’. Prior to that point, her work had mostly been in metaphysics, asking questions like ‘how can we step in the same river twice’.
‘I’d gotten frustrated with metaphysics’, a field in which Haslanger felt little was at stake. ‘Then I started doing more metaphysics about the social world, where there’s a lot at stake. There’s a lot at stake trying to understand if race is real or if it’s an illusion, or if gender’s real or an illusion’.
Though Haslanger endorses a social constructivist stance about gender, she said that ‘some attention to gender is necessary for a just society’, emphasising her view that ‘the choice of our language is a political choice’.
While gender may be an illusion, philosophy has and still is dominated by men, with women comprising around 23% of Australian female philosophy academics in 2006, a figure comparable to that of mathematics and physics. Like most female philosophers, Haslanger is acutely aware of this disparity. ‘There weren’t many women doing metaphysics at the time [in the 80s and 90s], so for every conference I went to, I was the only woman, and I was doing work where mainly I was citing men’.
Haslanger spoke of the ‘leaky pipeline’ that drips over the life of a philosophy enthusiast: in Australia, women are more likely to take a first-year philosophy course than men, but their numbers quickly decline over the years, something that is a constant source of puzzlement and debate within philosophy. ‘One hypothesis is that introductory syllabi and courses don’t really cover that many women, or persons of colour … and so women just don’t feel as engaged’.
Stereotype threat, the drop in performance that results from being a stereotyped minority, was also raised by Haslanger as a possible cause. ‘If you’re in a minority of one in your group with a stereotype, like white men can’t jump, or whatever, you would tend to do worse’. Yet even to Haslanger, who has spent her life pondering and arguing about such questions, a satisfactory answer is elusive.
One explanation often put forward is that women are generally more social than men, with women dominating social professions like teaching, and nursing. Academia in general, with its comparative isolation, has high rates of mental illness; yet talking about the role of women’s social tendency, Haslanger admitted that ‘there’s something that’s even preventing introverted women from doing philosophy, and I’m not sure what that is’.
At the same time, Haslanger strongly encouraged students to study philosophy. ‘I think it’s a fabulous time to do philosophy. Women and minorities are making progress, they’re changing the way we think about things, and what we do.’
‘On all the tests – the GREs, LSATs, and MCATs – philosophy students do the best out of the humanities, and some of them do better than the sciences and even economics. So, doing an undergraduate degree in philosophy is compatible with doing anything’.
David Chalmers, one of the most-cited philosophers of the century and a professor at ANU, made his name investigating ‘the hard problem’, the question of why qualitative sensations exist. Yet the real hard question for philosophers might be how to understand the state of female participation within academic philosophy.