Standing Up to Socrates

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Since the days of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, philosophy has long been seen as male-dominated. But the field is rich with contributions from female thinkers, such as Aspasia, whose lectures drew the most powerful citizens of Athens in the fifth century BC. photo: Superstock.

When Macy Salzberger x’14 joined the Socratic Society, an undergraduate club for UW students interested in philosophy, she was hoping to find like-minded friends eager to engage on complex topics: contemporary ethics, the nature of consciousness, and more.

What she found, instead, was a fierce style of argument — and hardly any women.

“People were yelling and banging on the table to make their points,” says the philosophy major.

What Salzberger was experiencing was the dialectic — a method of argument philosophers use to resolve a disagreement between two or more people holding different points of view. The Greek philosopher Socrates introduced the method in the fifth century BC; over the centuries, it has become much more combative.

As a first-year student, Salzberger (now a senior) often found herself drowned out at meetings. “The environment felt hostile, and often I was the only girl in the room,” she says.

Salzberger decided to do something about it. She sought advice from two philosophy professors she regarded as mentors: Claudia Card ’62 and Harry Brighouse.

“They said to invite more women, and be intentional about it,” she says.

Women are underrepresented in philosophy, comprising less than 20 percent of full-time faculty in the field. Does the fierce dialectic play a role? In a recent New York Times essay series on women in philosophy, women say they can handle the diatribes — but that more insidious problems, such as implicit bias and stereotype threat, keep numbers low.

“It is easy for people to think this is a male discipline,” says Brighouse. “But there are subtle things to ask. In my classroom: am I alert to women’s hands? Do I call on the men more? That requires you to look much harder at your practice.”

With targeted invitations from Salzberger and encouragement to speak loudly and often, more women began showing up for the Socratic Society’s weekly meetings.

“I told them that I understood the problem, but that it was possible to balance out the combative tone if more of us came,” says Salzberger.

Brighouse points out that what Salzberger did to shift the dynamic in the Socratic Society is a great example of what can be done in the field. “We should not just accept what seems apparent on the surface, but learn what can be adjusted or changed,” he says.

Salzberger is now serving her second term as president of the Socratic Society, and through her leadership, the group has sharpened its focus and seen an uptick in attendance — including more women.

“Macy has been an outstanding leader,” says Russ Shafer-Landau, professor and chair of philosophy. “It’s absolutely vital that we enfranchise all who want to participate in philosophical discussion.”

Published in the Spring 2014 issue

Tags: Humanities, philosophy, Student life, Students

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