6.1 General Conclusions

Women students are not as such outsiders in philosophy. They are a part of a companionship that can be rewarding in a number of ways. Just like men who practise philosophy, also women feel passionate about it, and sharing this passion with others regardless of their gender is certainly one of the joys of philosophy. Nor has it been my goal to argue that co-operation between women themselves would be unproblematic or free from power struggles: regardless of the ingroups we belong to and regardless of the fact that some of these groups may be more or less overtly discriminated against in society, within these groups, we can still enter different kinds of hierarchies and oppressive relationships.

Yet, as I have demonstrated, belonging to a minority in philosophy brings its own challenges, especially considering that philosophy has such a long history of being defined by the styles of interaction of the majority and that it still operates, to a high degree, by discussing a “canon” of texts written by members of a specific group with typical features of social class, race and gender identity. Women have participated in this companionship since the very early days, but very little of their contributions has been preserved continuously until today.

This is unfortunate, for a historical “we” of women in philosophy is missing. A great part of the history of philosophy fails to present women as philosophising subjects. Quite often, women are objectified and disparaged, as if they were an alien and inferior species. To compound this, many women feel that the image of the philosopher is not something they can relate to, and the tacit rules of the philosophy class and interaction between students can appear arbitrary or unsatisfactory. The masculine ideal of the philosopher genius can seem impossible to attain even if women students do well in their studies. Loving philosophy as a mode of thinking and enjoying its breadth and depth do not necessarily coincide with feeling at home in the social practices of the discipline. From the viewpoint of many, it appears that philosophy somehow minimises the significance of embodiment and expression of emotions in favour of reason, as if these two could not coexist.

I do not claim that all women students everywhere share these experiences, nor that women are the only ones to experience these modes of estrangement. As long as many individuals share some of these feelings, however, there is a reason to find appropriate ways to renew philosophy teaching, and even to think through the very goals of philosophy. In what kinds of contexts and companionships should we aim to practise philosophy in the future?

In the Gender and Philosophy summer schools, diverse strategies were used to promote inclusiveness: alternative ways of teaching the history of philosophy, problem-based learning, engaging the senses, and cultivation of care and generosity in the classroom. As I have suggested, there is no magic wand with which one could conjure up an equal and non-discriminatory learning environment out of the complex, competitive reality of academia. However, I have emphasised the significance of ethics in education: vigilance in the learning situation and sensitivity to the needs of the students. In addition, it is pivotal for lecturers to acknowledge their own biases and possibly stereotypical ways of interacting with students. At the same time, as Pettersen’s conception of mature care suggests, lecturers have to remain sensitive to their own needs and not be taken in by the chance to act as idols or omnipotent benefactors, with all the impossible demands these roles bring along.

The study at hand has raised numerous issues calling for empirical research. To understand the varying degrees to which women students become interested in philosophy, it would be of interest to investigate attitudes to and teaching of philosophy in upper secondary school, and to compare the success experienced by female and male students in their philosophy courses with their identification with the subject. It would be equally important to acquire more data on the sources of alienation from philosophy, the background for choosing a main subject, and the importance of factors such as the reputation or location of the university and any regional differences in the general interest in philosophy of women applicants.

The question of regional factors brings us back to the regional differences in the upper secondary school education in philosophy, not forgetting the possible regional impact on the applicants’ values and perception of the gendered aspects of different disciplines. When students apply to a university, they may have a poor conception of how the theoretical emphasis of a specific department may affect their feeling at home as a student in that department, and more general ideas about the university and one’s chances of being accepted to study there may have a lot of weight with applicants when they choose an institution.

Quantitative studies can help map out some aspects of these issues, but they leave a deeper layer of the student experience virtually intact. Interviews can provide a much richer understanding, not least because interviewees can elucidate experiences that the researcher might not think to ask about in a questionnaire. If women’s underrepresentation in philosophy is researched further, an approach that combines quantitative and qualitative methods might be particularly useful.

Students’ socialisation into philosophy would be yet another interesting theme for a qualitative study. Eager to integrate into the philosophical community, philosophy students may be disposed to take for granted the social demands and values of the field, which, for historical reasons, have been formed according to the needs and social styles of a fairly homogenous group – mainly White, heterosexual cis men. More general research on the possible formation of homosociality in philosophy, how philosophy in this sense compares to other male-dominated fields, and how its social norms may yield in heterosocial situations, might shed light on the feelings of belonging and not-belonging, or inclusion and alienation, within philosophy.

It is not rare for academics to think that the topic they teach is more important than how it is taught. Learning about pedagogy seems to steal time from something more important, namely the content of research and teaching. However, just as learning about philosophy can free our thinking in general, learning about pedagogy can free our teaching. Naturally, not every lecturer needs to use exactly the same methods. The goal is not to conform to a specific pedagogical framework but to gain more latitude in one’s teaching practices and make the learning experience more rewarding for the students with the means that go well with the lecturer’s own abilities, aspirations and characteristics.

To support the reader’s strivings, however, I propose below a checklist which can be used as an aid to inclusive teaching of philosophy. I prefer to present the checklist as a list of questions to ask oneself—firstly, because often there are no easy yes-or-no solutions to practical problems in the classroom, and secondly, because I believe that both philosophy and pedagogy operate best not by following orders, but by means of dialogue, questioning and reflection. This said, the choice of questions and the suggestions related to them certainly carry some normative elements, based on what I consider to be central for inclusive teaching.

6.2 Questions to Ask Oneself

Some of the following questions could be applied to promote inclusive teaching of any subject, while others are more philosophy-specific. In any case, if not every day, at least every now and then, it is worth asking oneself:

  • Do I listen to my students attentively? If some of them are insecure or feel alienated from their studies in philosophy because of their gender, ethnicity, race, disability or class, do I have the means to encourage them?

  • As a supervisor, do I listen to my supervisees and encourage them or do I just tell them what to do and what is wrong with their work? Do I engage in thinking together with them?

  • Do I have a policy for making it easier for women students and students belonging to other minorities to feel at home in philosophy? For instance, do I discuss the work of women and Black philosophers? If I feel incompetent in these topics, do I at the minimum have a strategy to make the work of those philosophers visible and available to interested students?

  • Have I acquired some basic knowledge of the complexity regarding the issues of gender and sexuality? Should I familiarise myself with the experience of trans women and men and gender-non-conforming individuals?

  • Am I ready to check my own assumptions of what is relevant in the history of philosophy? Do I have enough knowledge about the different strategies of integrating minorities into the teaching of the history of philosophy?

  • When I give examples, am I aware of their gendered aspects? Which variations of examples would surpass the usual White, heterosexual cis male, able-bodied norm?

  • Do I offer stereotypical or counter-stereotypical examples of “important philosophers”? Do I lend support to the idea of the philosopher as a lone wolf or as a suffering genius, or should I challenge this stereotype?

  • Am I familiar with concepts such as “micro-inequity”, “implicit bias” and “stereotype threat”? Do I have strategies for avoiding these phenomena?

  • What are the implicit practices of the proposed learning environments in philosophy and how do they shape the possibilities of diverse students? Should these practices be made explicit? Should I be involved in their development or help students themselves make choices pertaining to them?

  • Am I able to see the possibilities for individual philosophical flourishing in all students? Is my inability to encourage some students intertwined with my difficulty interact with that particular gender or race?

  • Am I sensitive enough about when to discuss differences of class, gender, ethnicity, ability and so on, and when not to draw attention to these?

  • Do I have a constructive policy of how to act if students in my class engage in subtle discriminatory practices, for instance, if they show appreciation only to comments from their own ingroup and disregard the speaking space of others? If finger-pointing is a bad strategy, can I change the group dynamics in more subtle ways?

  • Is the classroom harassment-free?

  • Am I aware of my own power and possibilities as a lecturer or do I find myself silently blaming the students if something goes wrong in the classroom? How do I overcome situations in which I am challenged by my students? Do I find ways to build trust between them and myself or do I simply appeal to my authority?

  • Are some of the students sexualised or racialised? Do I myself engage in such practices? Do I refer to students as representatives of a specific gender identity, race or religion or do I allow them to be learners among others, without unwarranted assumptions about their outlooks on life?

  • How do my own insecurities reflect on my teaching? If it is impossible and not even desirable to lose all insecurities, can acknowledging them help me to begin dealing with them?

  • Am I aware of the ways in which emotions can be shut out of a philosophy class? Do I allow space for discussing personal experience? Do I consciously encourage learning strategies that integrate the student’s emotions and past in the learning process?

  • Am I, however, aware that as a lecturer I am not a therapist and that I need to protect myself from emotional overload?

  • Am I aware that not all learning experiments will succeed—that experimenting with new ways of teaching and learning presupposes a tolerance for occasional failures?

  • Am I aware of the fact that in academia, a narrowly defined point of departure is often presented as neutral? Do I give the students tools to recognise this bias?

  • Do I help the students to recognise the power dynamics within academia and in the classroom?

  • Am I aware of my point of departure and both of my privileges and those aspects of my identity that marginalise me? Do I acknowledge the complicated reality of intersecting differences in the students?

  • Do I have a policy about whether to use trigger warnings, when to use them and when not?

  • Have I found the ways of teaching that work best for me and that help me most efficiently engage my students in their diversity? Am I at my best giving lectures, or would more interactive ways of teaching and learning work better in my case?

While some of the issues discussed above are relevant regardless of the time in history we are living in, it is equally true that the problems of philosophy do not develop in a vacuum. The environment in which the teaching staff and students of our time make their choices is the contemporary academia. During the past decades, universities have been increasingly driven by neoliberal politics and its carrot-and-stick approach. The very last question I want to raise on the topic of learning and teaching philosophy is about the meaning this political framework for our work.

6.3 Philosophy and the Politics of Education: What’s Next?

In recent years, neoliberal university politics have merged with meritocratic practices to produce what Foucault (1977) would have called docile bodies: bodies that have internalised control and act with an almost robotic precision to achieve the goals set by the highly organised, competitive and hierarchical system. Universities in different parts of the world have faced the demands of neoliberal politics in different degrees, but in most cases the means to attain a more “efficient” and “productive” academic environment are similar: politics of austerity, attempts to decrease the number of universities and academic disciplines particularly in the humanities, attempts to gradually introduce term fees into universities that were earlier completely free of charge, privatisation, growing influence of non-academics on university boards, competition for private funding, brand development, constant changes in the organisation structure and teaching, and precarity of work.

The meritocratic tendencies of academic life have been harnessed to serve the needs of neoliberal politics by making the universities, research groups and individual researchers constantly compete for shrinking funds. Excellence is presented as the criterion for winning the competition for funding, and numerous ways of measuring this excellence are created, often with the idea to incorporate assessment of both quality and quantity. For instance, one of the most important criteria for evaluating a researcher’s competence is the number of publications in high-standard peer-reviewed international journals. Even master’s students may be painfully aware of the fact that in order to attain research or teaching positions, they should efficiently collect credits towards their degree, with the highest possible grades, thus creating the image of a prospective doctoral student.

A system based on the accumulation of merits and their evaluation by peers could be, in principle, woman-friendly and gender-inclusive, provided that all the necessary precautions against implicit bias had been taken into account and forms of discrimination like stereotype threat and micro-inequities had somehow been ruled out of the picture. In a meritocratic system, which academia appears to represent par excellence, the most talented and the most industrious individuals are ideally rewarded, which in turn means that basically women with excellent merits would be equal with men with excellent merits in the competition for advancement, first in their studies and then in their careers.Footnote 1

The problem is, of course, that even though a degree of rivalry appears to have always been present in the practice of European philosophy, the demands of constant competition for the utmost merits, efficacy and production under pressure are quite far removed from the reasons why people want to learn philosophy in the first place. In other words, there is a fundamental tension between philosophy as a production of knowledge and philosophy as an attempt to genuinely engage with the world around us and with each other in the attitude of wonder. At the same time, at least half-hearted adoption of values of efficacy and production appears to be the price that one has to pay for a career in academia. If women were, indeed, to acquire a steadier foothold within philosophy, we would still be faced with the question whether there is anything left in the practice of philosophy within the constraints of the neoliberal university politics that is worth pursuing.

If we direct our gazes towards students who have chosen to study philosophy in the hope that it is a quest for wisdom, it seems obvious that the competitive framework provided by contemporary academia hardly helps them grow as human beings or to become, through this growth, better philosophers. Frodeman and Briggle have suggested that instead of deploring the current state of academia we should embrace it as a chance for a rejuvenation of philosophy (2016). As they interpret the situation, academic philosophy has long ago cut its ties with problems that people actually experience as meaningful and become a hermetic inquiry into questions that have no significance outside the department. In their view, the answer to the crisis is to relinquish philosophy as defined merely in terms of academic professionalism, to bring it into contact with real issues, and to turn the classroom into a laboratory of pedagogical experimentation. As they see it, it should be the goal of philosophers to take matters into their own hands to produce a reformation of philosophy rather than just to adjust to the change that is imposed upon them from the outside. (Frodeman and Briggle 2016).

It is obvious that in our times, riddled with the rise of anti-intellectualism and populism along with overt misogyny and racism, it is rather natural and necessary for philosophers to start discussing philosophy in a closer connection with current political and ecological developments. In other words, a new philosophical orientation towards the surrounding world may not become urgent as a result of the crisis of philosophy, but rather the social, environmental and health crises of a global scope awaken philosophers to re-evaluate their goals. A shift of this nature has already begun.

The fact is that working within academia—whatever its imperfections—has until now provided philosophers with at least some security and freedom. Therefore, it is not sufficient to find out how to broaden the scope of philosophy outside academia, and what kinds of demands this broadening may bring to the teaching of philosophy—it is necessary also to find ways to develop philosophy and its teaching within academia. In the case of women, in particular, it is hardly satisfactory to show them a way out of academic philosophy at the moment their foothold within it is still insecure. For this reason, we still have to find ways to change academia from within and strive for a politics of education that has more humane values than those of meritocracy and neoliberalism. Solidarity, generosity and care do not come about because the environment in which we work or study is geared to nurture them, but because of the conscious choices we make within the limits given to us, and because of our willingness to push those limits.

This said, profound changes in social atmosphere are not only the handiwork of strong-minded individuals but, perhaps more than anything, the effect of outside forces and crisis situations. These can shake up our world and even the belief of politicians in the neoliberal agenda in an abrupt manner, as we have come to see in the context of wars, the COVID-19 pandemic and—perhaps to a lesser degree—the acceleration of climate change. Crisis situations both provide a new perspective on our possibilities for action and show us the basic human ways to seek escape from a stressful reality: denial, protest, scapegoating, panic, irrationalism, intellectualisation, withdrawal, bonding, solidarity. In such situations thinking, instead of simply reacting, is difficult, because it presupposes an intellectual space, a minimal distance to the fears we are facing.

Philosophers, too, engage in these strategies of escape. The difference is that it is our task to protect intellectual freedom: not by producing noise, propaganda, rash conclusions or quick fixes, but by creating the time and space to pause in the face of uncertainty. Ideally, the philosophy class can act as an incubator for non-tribalist thinking that counteracts the logic of hatred. How to take this legacy forward and to renew it with a sensitivity to gender, is a question to which all of us, all philosophers, should give serious thought.