Tuesday 24 November 2020

Philosophy by Women

Today's post is by Elly Vintiadis. She introduces her new book, Philosophy by Women: 22 Philosophers Reflect on Philosophy and Its Value (Routledge, 2020).
A couple of summers ago I was reading something (I don’t remember what) and it struck me that most people have no idea what philosophy is and that they only think of old white guys when they think about philosophers. So I decided that I would put together a book of essays on the nature and value of philosophy written exclusively by women in the field of philosophy. I wanted it to be a book about philosophy so that readers can get a better idea of what it is we do and why it is important, while at the same time, without making a fuss about it (I didn’t even want the word “women” in the title), registering in peoples’ minds that there are women doing philosophy and doing it well. At a time when the usefulness of philosophy, and the humanities in general, is being questioned and when the voices of women are being increasingly heard around the world, a book such as this seemed to be particularly timely. 

To my amazement, though, I found it quite difficult to find a publisher. I had to explain why the contributors are all women and to show what would be produced that was worth producing, if only women wrote in the book – as if our voices ceased to be philosophers’ voices but had to be women’s voices and as if women would necessarily have another point of view, as a group, instead of our voices being the individual points of view taken by philosophers. I thought that was strange, given that I am sure no one asked such questions for all the anthologies over the years that have been written exclusively by male contributors. But eventually, after trying a number of publishers, Routledge took up the book and the result is an anthology of essays by a rather diverse group of philosophers, with different interests and different writing styles. 

By offering essays on the nature of philosophy and its value, this volume aims to contribute to a move towards philosophy reaching outward, engaging with the world it is a philosophy of. Through short and accessible essays the contributors of this book introduce people outside our field to the work that philosophers actually do, and to those aspects of it that can be relevant in our everyday life. At the same time though, in the essays in this collection philosophers are looking inward, to philosophy itself. 

By trying to explain what philosophy is some essays include criticism of contemporary academic philosophy. Such a critical view that challenges the status quo is essential for the evolution of any discipline that does not want to remain stagnant and especially for a discipline like philosophy that requires constant self-examination. So this is a book with a philosophical message: that more inclusivity would be good for philosophy because inclusivity is not only about what people enter in philosophy, it is also about the ideas and perspectives that are allowed to be heard. But it also has a political message: that inclusivity in philosophy is also a matter of justice. 

By putting together a book composed only of texts by women in philosophy, the aim is to show what is actually the case (that there are many women working in philosophy) while also providing counter-stereotypical examples that can also serve as role models, and thus show what is possible, hopefully motivating more women to pursue goals that they might otherwise have shied away from. Hopefully, also, this book will provide new readings in meta-philosophy; after all, the world around us is constantly changing and philosophy is too but we are stuck reading the same things by the same group of people.

Tuesday 17 November 2020

Does Monogamy Work?

Today's post is by Luke Brunning (University of Birmingham). He presents his new book, Does Monogamy Work? (Thames & Hudson 2020).

Luke Brunning

Monogamy, where someone has one romantic partner at a time, is the dominant form of romantic life in our society, and most others. But why is this the case? Has monogamy always been dominant? Are there realistic alternatives to monogamy? What will the future of romantic life be different? I explore some of the questions in Does Monogamy Work? a short book for a general audience.

People often suppose monogamy is the ‘natural’ result of our biological constitution. Human babies require extensive care, so we might think we are hardwired to form monogamous ‘pair bonds.’ But the evidence for this is not conclusive. Different strategies can aid the survival of our genes, and two may favour nonmonogamous social dynamics: group care and kin support, or the prioritisation of offspring quantity over quality.


Monogamy is better thought of as a form of social organisation, which later became an ethical ideal. Marriages, which help people secure and transfer resources between groups in contexts of scarcity and uncertainty, became monogamous due to contextual pressures. Fewer wars, or better understanding of disease, equalised numbers of men and women in society, for example, or the shift away from agricultural labour, to wage labour, made larger families less tenable. It is no accident that the legal codification of monogamous marriage arose in societies like Ancient Greece and Rome which used imperial domination to maintain access to sexual slaves, therefore allowing male patricians to secure their estates while remaining sexually nonmonogamous with noncitizens.


The emergence and slow evolution of Christian thinking about marriage helped entrench monogamy as a social ideal. But this was not a straightforward process. Some Christian patriarchs were polygamous, some Church Fathers thought polygamy might help Christian communities ‘be fruitful and multiply’, and many influential teachings about the value of monogamous marriage presupposed the imminent end of the world. It was not until the Middle Ages that monogamous marriage was entrenched as a spiritual and secular architype. Christian colonialization then helped export monogamous norms across the globe, often forcing them on unwilling populations as the price of ‘civilisation.’


Romantic love, as we understood it, was folded into the monogamous ideal at a later date, rather than animating it from the offset. Historically, love matches were the exception. The monogamy ideal reached its heights in the USA and Europe after WWII, when people craved love and domestic security, and rebuilding economies could provide it. Since then, however, changes to social and economic organisation have increasingly pressured monogamy. Monogamy weakened as a social practice as globalisation increased worker mobility, inflation incentivised women to join the workforce, the sexual revolution delayed child-birth and catalysed sexual experimentation, and feminist thinkers challenged social norms. People began to date more, delay marriage, and divorce. At the same time, people came to want more from a romantic partnership; more experiences, self-growth, emotional resonance, and sexual satisfaction.



These changes encouraged some people to explore nonmonogamy as a response to the desire for more in romantic life. These experiments in living vary widely; from hierarchical forms of polyamory, to looser forms of relationship anarchy, or religious polygamy. All forms of nonmonogamy, however, can offer people greater resources and sources of fulfilment while reducing the pressure to be ‘the one’ to someone else. Recognition of these benefits has led some scholars to argue for legal reform to either abolish, or redesign, marriage to accommodate multi-partner unions and so protect the care and love found in nonmonogamous lives. Political debate over such unions may be more common in coming decades.


Nonmonogamous relationships have always been critiqued: as impractical, unjust, or emotionally untenable. These critiques can be answered, or apply with equal force to modern monogamous family life; often they rely on contentious premises or an overly narrow conception of nonmonogamy. Of greater importance, is the need to attend to the ways that emerging forms of romantic life, like polyamory, might amplify existing norms we have reason to question, e.g. amatonormativity, the privileging of amorous relationships, or sex-negativity, the privileging of sexual restraint. The norms of nonmonogamous practices, of openness, clarity in communication, and so on, can also unwittingly favour ideals of individualism that reinforce potentially harmful power dynamics, or existing forms of romantic privilege concerning race, gender, and class.


Does Monogamy Work? aims to destabilise our relationship to monogamy. Monogamy is one form of romantic life someone might consider, amongst others. Monogamy is not straightforwardly ‘natural’, socially inevitable, or the only route to intimate flourishing.

Tuesday 10 November 2020

Explaining Imagination

This post is by Peter Langland-Hassan, Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Cincinnati, who is presenting his new book, Explaining Imagination (OUP 2020). The book is available as a free open access download, thanks to a TOME grant from the University of Cincinnati.

Peter Langland-Hassan 

We won’t understand what imagination is—we won’t be able to explain imagination—until we can write a recipe for making it out of parts we already understand. My book, Explaining Imagination, is a compendium of such recipes.

What ingredients do they feature? On my telling, they are other familiar mental states like beliefs, desires, judgments, decisions, and intentions. In different combinations and contexts, they constitute cases of imagining.

The idea that imagination can be reduced to other kinds of mental states in this way is at odds with what most (maybe all) other philosophers have had to say about imagination. According to the orthodox view, if we list a person’s beliefs, desires, intentions, judgments, decisions, hopes, wishes, fears, and so on, and fully describe their ongoing use of those states in practical and theoretical reasoning, we will leave open whether they are imagining. For the facts about what, if anything, a person is imagining are thought not to be entailed by any facts about other folk psychological states they might be in. This is the sense in which imagination is commonly held to involve a sui generis or “primitive” type of mental state.

My reductive strategy is to look closely at behaviors and abilities commonly held to be enabled by imagination and to show how the work assigned to imagination can be accomplished by other kinds of states we already knew we had. These phenomena include conditional reasoning (Chapters 5 and 6), pretending (Chapters 7 and 8), the comprehension and enjoyment of fictions (Chapters 9, 10, and 11), and creativity (Chapter 12). In each case I try to explain how it can be that the imagining we associate with each activity is nothing over and above the skillful use of states like beliefs, desires, and intentions.

I do not, however, argue that imagining that p is the same thing as believing or desiring that p—or even as weakly believing or desiring that p. Rather, my claim is that some uses of beliefs, desires, judgments, intentions, and so on—none of which may have the precise content p—constitute cases of imagining that p. Here I apply the maxim, “Don’t assume content mirroring.” For example, suspecting that p is not the same as believing that p; but suspecting that p may nevertheless be reducible to believing that q, where q is the proposition that it is somewhat likely that p.

A second important maxim at work in my book is: “Don’t assume homogeneity.” In order for imagining to reduce to other kinds of mental states, we needn’t assume that it reduces in the same way in each instance. What gets called ‘imagining’ in one context—such as pretense—may be something different than what is called ‘imagining’ in another—such as daydreaming.

What unifies the diverse phenomena I try to explain as “imaginings” is that they are all cases of rich, elaborated thought about the unreal, fantastical, fictional, or possible that is, in general, epistemically safe. (“Epistemically safe” in the sense that it does not tend to decrease one’s epistemic standing, as opposed to, say, delusions which can also be about the unreal and fantastical.) Imagining, in this sense, sometimes involves mental imagery. But it needn’t by its nature. 

Some readers of may worry that the reductive approach I recommend is dismissive, deflationary, or even eliminative of imagination proper. But that is a misunderstanding. My aim is to explain imagination, not to question its importance, or to make it disappear. The take-home message is rather this: imagination is mysterious on its face. Because we have a comparatively clear understanding beliefs, desires, perceptions, and intentions, then—if the sometimes surprising recipes offered in Explaining Imagination succeed—a similarly clear conception of imagination is close at hand.

Tuesday 3 November 2020

Mental Disorder and Social Deviance

This post is by Awais Aftab (Department of Psychiatry, Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, OH, USA). In this blog post he introduces and summarizes the article “Mental Disorder and Social Deviance”, co-written with Mohammed Abouelleil Rashed (Philosophy, Birkbeck College), and published in International Review of Psychiatry. Aftab also leads the interview series ‘Conversations in Critical Psychiatry’ for Psychiatric Times which is likely to be of great interest to the readers of this blog.

Awais Aftab


I have been fascinated by the problem of distinguishing between “mental disorder” and “social deviance” since the early days of my psychiatric training. My exposure to the antipsychiatry philosophical literature had left me with a lingering, nagging doubt that unless there was some valid way of making this distinction, the legitimacy of psychiatry as a profession would stand on precarious and perilous ground.


Social deviance refers to actions or behaviors that violate social norms. The declassification of homosexuality brought the issue of differentiation between disorder and deviance to the forefront in the 1970s. When DSM-III was published, Spitzer sought to formalize a definition of mental disorder that would make explicit this distinction.


In the article, Rashed and I provide an overview of some of the major conceptual strategies that have been discussed as a means of discriminating between mental disorder and social deviance, and the extent to which these strategies can be said to be philosophically successful. We begin by reviewing the DSM's definition of mental disorder, which relies on “dysfunction in the individual” as the primary demarcating criterion. 

Mohammed Abouelleil Rashed

However, given that “dysfunction” is left undefined, it offers little guidance, forcing us to explore specific notions of dysfunction as they exist within the context of commonsensical, clinical, and naturalist approaches. The commonsensical approach ends up relying on “folk” judgments, the naturalist approach (exemplified by Wakefield’s harmful dysfunction analysis) puts us in an epistemic bind since our knowledge of the mechanisms of psychological functioning is limited, and their evolutionary history is largely speculative. 

The clinical approach, on the other hand, blurs the distinction between dysfunction and distress/disability since the presence of distress/disability is seen as an indicator of dysfunction. This leads us to discuss how distress (conceptualized in our discussion as intrinsic vs socially constituted) and disability (which is always in the context of a particular social environment) fare in this regard. While both are promising and practically more helpful than dysfunction, neither offers a perfect or straightforward way of making this distinction.


3E enactive approaches offer a promising theoretical strategy which relies on “functional norms” of an individual that support continued self-maintenance and adaptation, however, the notions of self-maintenance and adaptation are not currently operationalized in a manner that would allow us to resolve controversial cases with any degree of consensus. 

Finally, the application of ethical and political approaches transforms this issue into a complex negotiation of values which requires us to consider, for instance, balancing of harms and benefits of disorder designation, the need for “rational moral justification” vs reliance on relativistic societal value judgments, and higher-level arguments based upon a theory of the good society or eudaimonia. Other approaches such as such as Mad Pride and neurodiversity question the very distinction between social deviance and mental disorder in the first place.


Our review of all these strategies suggests that no single approach satisfactorily accounts for all possible cases and that a distinct dividing line between disorder and deviance remains elusive. However, these various philosophical strategies help illuminate the relevant considerations involved and suggest that the distinction between disorder and deviance is not simply a natural fact to be discovered but a complex judgment that requires negotiation between competing values.


Perhaps you may be wondering: how does this conclusion impact my lingering, nagging doubts about the legitimacy of psychiatry that I mentioned in the beginning? The process of philosophical reflection over the years has disabused me of the notion that a simple reliance of naturalism is what is needed for psychiatry to be legitimate. Psychiatry may be value-laden through and through, and there may be no easy demarcations, but that is a problem only if we continue to naively insist that nature be carved at its joints when no such joints exist.