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Armchair philosophy: is it sexist?

Posted by Christopher Shea  February 11, 2010 12:30 PM

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In my first philosophy class, in college, a teaching assistant explained that "intuition," in his field, meant something quite different from what it means in the phrase "women's intuition." That may have been truer than he knew.

Intuition, or apprehension of certain facts or conclusions by the mind alone, sometimes without the intervention of reason, is in theory genderless. But at the website Experimental Philosophy, a professor at the City University of New York, Wesley Buckwalter, presents evidence that men and women intuit different conclusions when faced with the same sets of facts.

One of the examples has to do with a popular subject in X-Phi: intuitions about a person's state of mind in certain situations depending on whether those situations end well or badly. For instance, if a vice president of a corporation goes to his chairman of the board and says, "We are thinking of starting a new program. We are sure that it will help us increase profits, and it will also harm the environment," and the chairman responds, "I don't care about the environment, I'm only interested in profits. Go ahead," did the chairman know that his actions would cause harm? What if the new program will help the environment, and the chairman responds in the same way? Did he know that good would follow?

Although the two scenarios are logically the same, test subjects are more likely to say the chairman knew that the harm would happen than that good would occur. (Likewise, they are more willing to place moral blame than praise in the alternate situations.) Buckwalter's contribution is to find, at least in his test sample of 405 men and 340 women, that women are even more likely than men--by a striking amount--to shift their epistemic conclusions depending on the outcome of the scenario.

Buckwalter goes on to make a much broader argument: Perhaps one reason for the dearth of professional female philosophers is that, from freshman seminars on, their intuitions are dismissed as flatly wrong by men. They are told that they just don't "get it."

At the Experimental Philosophy site, the paper has attracted lavish praise ("I am so thankful you are doing this work," writes one female scholar) as well as strong suggestions that the idea that women "think differently" be dealt with very carefully.
A graphic from Wesley Buckwalter's paper, "Gender and Epistemic Intuition"
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