Intellectual authoritarianism: The Golden Age of Female Philosophy Edition

If you put the golden age of female philosophy into Google Images you get this. It has accordingly been selected as the picture for this post by the Troppo Robot Barry.

I do think that in normal times a lot of good female thinking is wasted because it simply doesn’t get heard.

Mary Midgley

I’ve written about the blokey intellectual authoritarianism of economics on numerous occasions, for instance writing here about how it has become:

a discipline more or less ruined by a relentless cult of stupid cleverness, and its crude abstraction from historical, social and economic context, a discipline in which ideas that are absurd on their face – like the idea that the Great Depression was a spontaneous holiday taken by tens of millions of people – are made respectable by cleverness.

It can’t be anywhere near as bad in the natural sciences because science is much more falsifiable in practice than the social sciences and that makes intellectual authoritarianism there harder to get away with – except where it works which is as it should be. Even so, there are plenty of stories of sciences going off on misguided adventures and staying on them long after it would seem there was good reason to reassess. And the more speculative they are – the more they relate to the ‘architecture’ of a set of ideas rather than the ideas themselves and the hypotheses that can be cashed out of them – the more intellectual authoritarianism for its own sake can thrive.1

As I documented here, neo-Darwinism generated a powerful intellectual authoritarianism based around a particularly compelling and simple aesthetic quite similar to those driving neoclassical economics. As Denis Noble put it:

What went wrong was that the Modern Synthesis became hardened into dogmatism. Starting from the theory that this is the way in which evolution could have happened, it became transformed into the conviction that this was the only way in which evolution must have happened.

Noble proceeds to quote the transcript of a debate he chaired between Richard Dawkins and Lynn Margulis. At issue is the possibility of symbiogenesis in which certain organisms evolved not through the gradual accretion of random mutations as Neo-Darwinism would have it, but by some more direct process by which one organism acquires the characteristics of another – for instance by physically absorbing it:

Dawkins: It 2 is highly plausible, it’s economical, it’s parsimonious, why on earth would you want to drag in symbiogenesis when it’s such an unparsimonious, uneconomical 3?

Margulis: Because it’s there.3

It’s notable how often women pop up at the transgressive margins of such disciplines. Lyn Margoulis in evolutionary biology and Elinor Ostrom in economics – whose Nobel Lecture I quoted at the head of a recent essay about competition and cooperation in economic and political thinking.

Designing institutions to force (or nudge) entirely self-interested individuals to achieve better outcomes has been the major goal posited by policy analysts for governments to accomplish for much of the past half century. Extensive empirical research leads me to argue that instead, a core goal of public policy should be to facilitate the development of institutions that bring out the best in humans.

I’ve always had the same kind of disappointment at much of the blokey logic chopping in philosophy. Academia makes all this much worse by institutionalising these values. I’m interested in philosophical questions like those tackled in John Searle’s “What is an institution” and because has noticed this about me, I get endless notifications of journal articles in this tradition. And almost all of them take some term or concept and show how there’s a way it can be misunderstood (if you’re trying) or how it doesn’t cover all cases (no kidding?). The articles then invariably proceed to some qualification or new term and if we’re lucky we never hear of it again.

(I think there are very similar problems of what I’ll call a ‘masculine’ perspective in the culture of both the effective altruism and the Radical Xchange movements, but I won’t defend that proposition here, only foreshadow that I’d like to return to it.)

Be that as it may, I was aware of a generation of women philosophers from Oxford who were at the height of their fame in the late 50s and 60s, and when I saw this podcast which gives you the lowdown. Here’s another podcast I tracked down which I highly recommend on the same material in two parts.

The basic story is that A. J. Ayer had published Language, Truth and Logic in 1936 (I think) which arrived at the redictio ad absurdum that the Nazi’s preference for Jewish pogroms can’t be said to be wrong in any objective sense but rather reflects different moral preferences and intuitions. As Adolf Eichman said to Anne Frank, “You do you”. The men then went off to war and Oxford seminars were smaller, much more gender-balanced and those men who did attend were disproportionately older or given to conscientious objection than your standard cohort. And out of this four female philosophers who made large and distinctively different contributions from the men blossomed. If you’re interested in a transcript of the show, it should be up on the ABC, but it’s not. So I’ve loaded the program into YouTube and it has generated a transcript here.

I’m a bit taken aback in hindsight at the pussyfooting around about whether or not they are a ‘school’ of philosophy. They’re said to have practised in different areas. But every one was interested in moral philosophy and most were decidedly unhappy with the dominant style of philosophy at the time, particularly moral philosophy. Anscombe blew up the contemporary field with her 1958 essay Modern Moral Philosophy and was very influential in the emergence of modern virtue ethics in the spirit of Aristotle – since championed by Alisdair MacIntyre. Philippa Foot is an important virtue ethicist of whom I know no more. 4

Iris Murdoch is similar in her concerns seeking to ground ethics in the texture of our lives, rather than in answers to trolley problems and in blackboard diagrams. In her famous “Sovereignty of Good”, one of her central and often quoted stories is of a woman slowly coming to a truer (and it turns out more generous, less solipsistic) understanding of her daughter-in-law’s true qualities. This is not unlike R.G. Collingwood’s story of trying to understand the Albert Memorial in his Autobiography, leading me to wonder how involved Collingwood was. (He died at 53 in 1943 and his chair was taken up by the reductive, brilliant Gilbert Ryle who proceeded to distance English philosophy from continental philosophy, especially that of the Hun.) Murdoch is arguing that this is moral work deploying the virtues of self-awareness, self-criticism, and genuine curiosity towards others all infused with generosity and the search to unify truth and love. A. J. Ayer, eat your heart out.

And here’s Midgley’s of whom I’ve become fond having only looked her up after hearing the podcasts from her The myths we live by which you can download for free:

In this book, we will consider several very potent ideas that have moved … from ordinary thought to affect the course of science and have then returned to outside usage reshaped by scientific use. Right away, one might name the concept of a machine, of a self-interested individual, and of competition between such individuals. Metaphorical concepts like these are quite properly used by scientists, but they are not just passive pieces of apparatus like thermostats. They have their own influence. They are living parts of powerful myths – imaginative patterns that we all take for granted – ongoing dramas inside which we live our lives. These patterns shape the mental maps that we refer to when we want to place something. Such ideas are not just a distraction from real thought, as positivists have suggested. Nor are they a disease. They are the matrix of thought, the background that shapes our mental habits. They decide what we think important and what we ignore. They provide the tools with which we organise the mass of incoming data. When they are bad they can do a great deal of harm by distorting our selection and slanting our thinking. That is why we need to watch them so carefully.

I find this whole approach so much more interesting and helpful in my own thinking than most articles in academic philosophy. (I guess I’ll be sorry if I’m walking along the road one day and I see a trolley with 15 low IQ quadriplegics hurtling towards a Nobel Prize winner who might discover a technology for cold fusion and I can’t work out which way to pull the lever, which – I have every confidence –will be accessible to me.)

I may continue this if time and inclination permit. If I did I’d argue as I’ve suggested previously, that preoccupation with greater representation of women in the academy has eclipsed what I regard as the more fundamental issue of the quality of the discourse itself.  The most urgent thing for me is making these disciplines philosophy, evolutionary biology and economics (I expect there are plenty of others) less stupidly masculine in their Cartesian obsession with building from axiomatic foundations, their hostility to ambiguity and ‘probable’ as opposed to indubitable reasoning and the accompanying aggressiveness towards those who don’t value that kind of approach.

Getting more women into these disciplines would be great to see. But it may be possible to do this whilst having minimal impact on the problem. There are plenty of women (like this one) who seem preoccupied with showing that they’re just as good as any man in the terms that the men have set. Of course, they should do if that’s what takes their fancy. I think affirmative action programs can be useful. But they’ll be more useful if they’re run with a clear objective of tackling the fundamental problem of the way the discipline operates. And affirmative action will often be run by the powers that be which by definition come with the risk that the ‘masculinist’ instincts of the discipline will be left minimally disturbed as the discipline recruits the ‘best’ women according to its own lights. In their engineering of the academy, the Henry Higgins of the world won’t have to ask “why can’t a woman be more like a man?” Because the ones they choose will be.


  1. 1. I was listening to this excellent edition of The Jolly Swagman interviewing Eric Weinstein which raised a similar point regarding string theory – though with no connection to the gender issue. Here’s Weinstein when the compare Joseph Walker tells him of his conversation with a leader of string theory who’s now disappointed at the progress it made:

    The string community has a particular crime that it has to deal with. No one feels comfortable levelling the charge but I do because I’m outside of it. The string community when it became very animated around 1984 with something called the anomaly cancellation, which was an interesting development. … When orcas decide that they’re going to kill a whale very often what they do is interfere with that whale’s ability to get to the surface and they’ll plug its blowhole or they’ll invert it so that it can’t breathe. … Now that’s what the string community did to every other branch they said look we’re the only smart people we’ve got this.

    Let’s go back and read all those articles in which you said … this is the only game in town blah blah this is a terribly behaved community that’s absolutely brilliant. … And so I think the next time you have a conversation with anybody in that community Consider asking the question what responsibility to strengthen yours have when they claim to have once been overzealous and very optimistic. Because a lot of us said you’re not you’re not even close to an answer, you’re deluded. And I think that a lot of us are tired of being called cranks and being pushed around by a bunch of aging baby boomers who don’t seem to be able to deliver on the many promises they made through the press through the funding agencies that explained their right to take the resources of the community.

    You took the most important intellectual community that academics has ever produced. And you threw our legacy which belongs to everybody in this area into the toilet to promote a theory that did not deserve the hype of the resources and the reduction in vitality and diversity that we’re intellectually present in that field beforehand. So I think it’s really time for those of us who have been talking since 1984 about the excesses of that community to getting much clearer and better description of how badly this part of the community fucked up.

    I made precisely the same claim about the monoculture of neoclassical economics in its assault on the summit of imperfect competition in ‘new trade theory’ in my debate with Krugman. I was amazed that, though Krugman had learned of what I’d said through Mark Thoma’s otherwise excellent blog of links to economic articles – Economists View, Thoma wouldn’t post my own response to Krugman or otherwise respond to tell me why. Was it really unworthy of the site?[]

  2. Neo-Darwinism[]
  3. theory[]
  4. 1. I also know nothing of Mary Warnock who’s mentioned among these women.[]
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4 years ago

Isn’t this just generally a problem of insiders vs outsiders in a field?

From one end, as you say, scientists who can test things against empirical data, enabling outsiders to become insiders (Einstein). Or also sports and music, where individual African-Americans can quickly and irrefutably prove their superiority.

To the other end, post-modernists and culture studies types who’ve created a language all their own with gatekeepers who block out anyone speaking clearly, blocking out the possibility of outsiders (at least until their funding gets cut).

p.s. all that stuff in philosophy about definitions was demolished by Wittgenstein in his Philosophical Investigations. Gregarious Socrates and his endless search for the one true definition was undercut by a German who didn’t like people.

Kant also wrote about the uselessness of fighting over definitions. I wrote an honours thesis a long time ago about this kind of thing.

Here’s a quote: Instead, in a way that Wittgenstein made the centrepiece of his later philosophy, Kant thought that empirical concepts become increasingly substantive and meaningful as they are used to delineate collections of characteristics within sensory data, which is a function that “can be practiced only”, “cannot be taught” and “is the specific quality of so-called mother-wit; and its lack no school can make good.”

4 years ago

Yes, I believe the problem of insiders vs outsiders is inevitable. The degree to which it’s a problem obviously varies for a bunch of reasons, and individual insiders can be more open to outsiders than others.

Whether or not in some fields it’s less so or more so a thing doesn’t mean there isn’t the problem. If even in science progress advances one funeral at a time, you can bet the problem is worse elsewhere.

4 years ago

There are plenty of people who will tell you Kant does the opposite of what I (and the many people whose arguments I preferred) claim. Here’s one such book making the opposing case:

Had never heard of Mary Midgley. Will look her up. Interesting that her maiden name is Scrutton. Unsurprisingly, given the little I’ve read of Midgley, Scruton approves of nee Scrutton:

4 years ago
Reply to  Nicholas Gruen

Yep, radical empiricism was the term at least some of the pragmatists used, although I consider it was a poor description of pragmatism!

Pragmatism requires what’s considered “useful” to do a whole lot of hand-wavey heavy lifting, so much so that you can end up in a post-modernist bizarro world following the useful path rather than the objective path.

Don’t get me wrong, I think there’s plenty to like about pragmatism, mostly to do with downplaying the importance of Ideas and ontological claims about Ideas. And anything that rejects even talking about ontology is a big plus in my book ;-)

But I reckon Popper did pragmatism better with falsifiability as the standard bearer.

As far as I’m aware, though, if it’s not a relatively hard science, there simply isn’t a solid philosophical foundation for a humanised epistemology that doesn’t also admit the possibility of post-modernist bizarro world fantasies.

About the best test I’ve heard is from Taleb: does an ancient antecedent exist? Has the idea survived through time?

That has its own very large limitations. But it’s something.

Funnily enough, you can say that the split between the foundational-theoretical economists and the more “wisdom” oriented ones has an ancient antecedent: the same split appears in philosophy!

And just like economics, it’s the theoreticians who end up working in universities despite how vapid a lot of it can be.

Of course, it’s also in the Greek myths: Apollo and Dionysus. It’s just that our universities pay homage to Apollo much more than to Dionysus.

ps I’ve been reading Range by David Epstein and noticed Kaggle being cited as a service for outsiders to solve problems that stump insiders. Nice work there, Nicholas!

4 years ago
Reply to  Nicholas Gruen

There’s a lot in your reply.

Let’s see if I hit anything in my reply.

Cartesian dualism usually means seeing mind as of a different substance to matter, which leads to the classic dualist problem: how can mind interact with matter?

Cartesian dualism in that sense is dead and buried. There’s basically no one left who thinks that mind is distinct from matter. It’s matter all the way down. And mind is an emergent property of matter — we’re all monists now!

But I think what you are referring to as Cartesian dualism is the brain-in-the-vat question. Are we brain in vats and what we consider the world purely sensation, or is there really an objective world out there distinct from our sensations of it?

That’s a perennial question that’s always up for debate. Nonetheless, I think the brain-in-the-vat problem is not related to any one school of thought and has never been definitively answered one way or the other.

Kant’s transcendental idealism I think proved that object permanence, the persistence of a self and causality are so embedded in our ability to think that to deny them would render all thought impossible, thereby throwing out the baby with the bathwater should one be skeptical of it. Nevertheless, that’s not a refutation of our brains being in a vat, although there are plenty of interpretations of Kant that claim he does refute exactly that.

And yes, positivism is profoundly wrong. But I think Popper was better than just a mere inverter of verifiability to produce falsifiability. He certainly didn’t make the mistake of thinking words must correspond to objects in the world to have meaning. And although he personally was an intellectual authoritarian and a supreme tool, his advocating for an open society means he was not an intellectual authoritarian in his philosophy.

As for Wittgenstein in his Philosophical Investigations, I consider his philosophy of language to be revolutionary and largely correct. Here are a ragtag bunch of his points:
– the meaning of words derive from their social use
– a private language is impossible — language presupposes social verification or approbation of how we are using words 
– every word is connected to others in a web of interconnected meaning 
– there is no way to provide a definitive definition of any single word

Structuralism has many avatars. The minimal version of structuralism is more or less an extrapolation of the point above about words being in a web of interconnected meaning around a core structure. That notion has then been extended to other fields and then bastardised and distorted. And post-structuralism is just complete bonkers.

Anyway, I’ve written a lot!

But I think I’m getting to my point: I think Wittgenstein’s philosophy provides the best counterpoint to empty, impersonal intellectualism because it best describes how language works as something deeply social and embedded in a way of life. To Wittgenstein, making a mathematical model of human behaviour is oxymoronic because the use of language, which is just one aspect of human behaviour, is itself not a part of the logical realm.

I could write a lot more… but I don’t know how much I’ve misunderstood your points or how much what I’ve written can be construed as just rambling.

4 years ago

I listened to the latest Portal podcast episode that had Eric Weinstein chatting with Agnes Callard, who is a philosopher.

It was hilarious in light of this conversation because it had Agnes displaying the worst tendencies of professional philosophers: painful “word” thinking, reference to theories from dead philosophers without taking a position oneself, unconvincing thought experiments. Agnes also coupled that with the bizarre American tendency of over-sharing personal details, jumping from the weirdly abstract to the too personal but never hitting the happy middle ground.

To me, Agnes came across as bizarrely superficial and Eric the wise sage.

4 years ago
Reply to  Nicholas Gruen

Be sure to the last 20 minutes or so.

You can fast-forward most of it and lose nothing but that last 20 minutes is amazing car-crash podcasting.

Agnes just makes a breathtaking fool of herself.