Women in Philosophy - One Citation at a Time: An interview with L.A. Paul

“It is still unlikely for a woman to set the agenda. For a woman to define what the conversation is about.”

Apr 14, 2018

la Photo courtesy of Virginia Commonwealth University

“It is still unlikely for a woman to set the agenda. For a woman to define what the conversation is about.”

“When I was in grad school and beyond, I was there at a time when people were actually claiming that women couldn’t even do philosophy, and not everybody said that, but it was certainly said. And that was hard, because I thought that was wrong but it’s kind of a hard thing to have to deal with.”

University of North Carolina Chapel Hill Eugene Falk Distinguished Professor of philosophy, Laurie Paul visited NYU Abu Dhabi last week to give a talk on her revolutionary and hugely popular book Transformative Experience.

In a nutshell, Transformative Experience argues that certain experiences radically alter your preferences and conception of yourself. Paul gives the examples of electing to become a vampire or having a child. In both cases, the person making the decision does not have the tools of reasoning to rationally decide whether or not to undergo those “transformative experiences.”

Paul joined NYUAD’s advanced philosophy seminar Philosophy and Fiction on Apr. 12, and the students had the opportunity to ask her about her experience of writing Transformative Experience and of being a female in a field notoriously dominated by men, and generally lacking diversity.

Paul began by giving some background on her book, and explained how she has successfully managed to bridge her philosophical work with work in several other disciplines, including cognitive science and psychology. Paul’s openness to sharing her philosophical work with academics and non-academics outside of the field was refreshing, for people often wonder how philosophy fits into the modern and increasingly empirical era. Transformative Experience began gaining popularity through mainstream media sources in a way that tends to be rare for philosophical texts. As it gained more and more popularity, cognitive scientists and psychologists were particularly interested in her concepts of the sense of self and the effects on rational decision making.

Philosophy is a practice best done through conversation, and Paul continued the Transformative Experience journey through many conversations within the philosophy field and outside of it. She regularly works with sociologists and has even co-authored a paper with an economist.

In terms of what it was like to be a philosophy graduate student as a woman, Paul shared one particularly illustrative anecdote:

“When I was a grad student, I had a couple of experiences with older male philosophers where they thought I was male through communication and then one person, like, almost passed out, when he met me. So I’m waiting outside of the philosophy department and this person comes up and looks at me very sternly, basically like, Get out of my way. Unlocks the door, goes in, and shuts the door in my face. Like, Get out of my way you person who is the way of philosophical progress,” she laughed.

“Finally the door opens and he’s like, Are you L.A. Paul? And then we went in and sat down. And he said, I’m sorry, I thought you were a man,” she said.

More broadly, Paul shared some of her insights on the struggles of starting out as a philosophy student at the time when she did, and some of the problems that still linger in the discipline today.

In Paul’s opinion, one of the biggest issues as a young student starting out in philosophy was a general lack of confidence. Philosophy’s lack of empirical evidence means that defending an argument requires not only strong logical argumentative skills, but the unshakeable confidence to defend those claims against harsh, inquisitive criticism.

“Before I did philosophy, I wasn’t that confident that I could do it. I think a lot of times in our society and culture, women just have less kind of ungrounded confidence in what they do. Which is not a criticism, it is just that a certain amount of ungrounded confidence can get you pretty far.”

Paul credits some of the lack of confidence to doubts about women’s ability to practice philosophy.

With regards to vehemently defending one’s ideas arguments and ideas, she explained that, “if you feel that you’re not being taken seriously, it can be even harder.”

While talking about her experiences from her Master’s degree and PhD at Princeton, Paul acknowledged that the field has even come a long way since then.

According to her, there are still certain subfields in philosophy that generally have less female representation than others. Metaphysics, her field, is particularly male-dominated. Moreover, while women regularly publish books and articles, the citation practices have proved to be somewhat rooted in the past.

“If you look at journal articles published ten years ago in metaphysics, you’ll see maybe fifty citations and not a single woman amongst them. It’s hard not to notice that,” she said, adding that it can become increasingly demoralizing to spend so much time and energy writing articles and getting them published in topic journals, only to have them completely ignored by your peers. Paul’s insights about citation practices in philosophical publications casts a light on some of the more unconscious issues of bias within academia.

Paul also highlighted that women tend to be more highly represented in certain fields of philosophy than others.

“I don’t know why. It does seem like different subfields have been more welcoming to women than others. Certainly ethics and history. Lots of women are seen as leaders in [formal epistemology]. And it’s not that there aren’t women that are seen as leaders in metaphysics, but I really think that if you look at the citation practices in metaphysics and the way the conversations have gone, you don’t see the presentation of women that you do in some of the other subfields,” she said.

Conversely, Paul was also overjoyed to talk about the excellent and encouraging mentors she has had, specifically David Lewis, her supervisor at Princeton.

“[He took] my work seriously in a way that, like I said, I wasn’t naturally inclined to do. Which was incredibly empowering.”

We also asked Paul why she elected to publish under her initials, L.A., instead of her first name, Laurie. She told us that it was a funny story without any gender intention behind it. Before publishing her first paper she asked her mentor what her publication name could be. He told her that Laurie sounded like a diminutive or a nickname, so she should stick with her initials.

“And once you have a publication name it isn’t a good idea to change it, and I’m pretty committed to that. So I have it. So there I am,” she said.

Maya Morsli is Opinion Editor. Email her at [email protected]

Gazelle Logo