Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Report from the Field: William James and Feminism at the 2013 Summer Institute in American Philosophy

The 2013 Summer Institute in American Philosophy convened in Eugene, Oregon, from July 8 to 13, around the plenary topics of “William James and Feminism and More,” “Philosophy and Music,” “Indigenous Philosophy”; addressed by Erin McKenna, Erin Tarver, Susan Dieleman, Linda Simon, and Loren Goldman, Luke Fishbeck and Sarah Rare, Fred Maus and Douglas Anderson, and Thomas Norton-Smith and Thurman Lee Hester, Jr.; the keynote theme was "Pragmatism and Aesthetics," discussed by Richard Shusterman. 

Four of the five discussants on the three panels comprising “William James and More” were women, including all the participants specifically on “William James and Feminism”; interestingly, only one of the participants on all the remaining panels was a woman, and that woman (Sarah Rara) was not an academic but a musician. On the nine unofficial panels of three, five or six (depending on the gender of someone named Terry) participants, roughly half included one woman apiece; of three solo presentations, one out of three was by a woman. Of the total nine or ten women participating, five were explicitly addressing “women” or “feminism” as topics. Suggestions for advance reading were published on the conference website. The helpfully selected readings for “William James and Feminism” were “The Feminine-Mystical Threat to Masculine Scientific Order,” from Charlene Haddock Seigfried’s classic book Pragmatism and Feminism, and a group of texts by William James including “On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings,” which were required, and as options, additional lectures or chapters by William James including “Pragmatism and Humanism”, “The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life,” ‘The Energies of Men,” “Great Men and Their Environment,” “The Importance of Individuals,” “‘what Pragmatism Means,” “The Gospel of Relaxation,” “Habit,” The Stream of Consciousness,” and “The Self.” Seigfried’s chapter is a strong and clearly reluctant or regretful, feminist critique of William James by a long-time and distinguished James scholar. The James papers all have passages that either voice positions that are obviously well-suited for feminist appropriation or else invoke women or gender in unself-conscious and problematic ways.

After the first of two keynote addresses on the first night, the first two mornings of the conference were given up to the two sessions on “William James and Feminism.” Both were well attended by a group diverse in age and gender if not in race. Colin Koopman, co-director of the Institute, introduced the seminar by explaining that the session had been conceived by him and Tarver at a previous conference, due to both feeling that the topic of James and feminism, which had come up at that conference, was ripe for more general discussion among specialists on American Philosophy. All three speakers independently but McKenna and Tarver most strongly related being surprised and disappointed—"depressed,” in so many words—by encountering unexpected, significant manifestations of sexist thinking and behavior in James’ writings and biography, as had Seigfried almost twenty years before. McKenna raised the related questions: Why should feminists bother to try to convert pragmatists? and Why should. pragmatists work to engage feminist ideas? She expressed annoyance at encountering feminists who dismissed American philosophy as having no resources for feminist work. She expressed the wish to insert James into feminist dialogue. But she also admitted to “increasing doubts” of his value for feminism. McKenna raised the important, disturbing question whether James’ work may attract people who share the same blindness to gender that he himself exhibits. Tarver brought up the phenomenon of people reacting to criticism of James as if they have to “save” him-—such people complaining that feminist criticism on James is “overly mean.” Tarver insisted that worrying about not making others feel as if they have to to “save” James was “neither feminist nor pragmatist.” Seconding McKenna, Tarver reiterated throughout the conference to insist that “pragmatists ought to be feminists.” But she warned that making James’s philosophy work for feminists required more than just individual work; it required Institutional work. Dieleman pointed out that feminists “can’t just leave out a major figure,” that is, they “couldn’t just read Dewey and omit James” She affirmed that there ”are good reasons to engage” James, although what to keep and what to get rid of was a serious question.The tone of both mornings was distinctly serious, with especially the more senior panelists frankly expressing increasing unhappiness with the new awareness which preparing their assigned topic had led them.

The discussions on both days partook of the some of the seriousness of the panel.
Most of the audience members who spoke up seemed to re-simplify what had just been shown to be complex. Rather than disputing or refuting what the panelists had said, many in the audience just spoke as if nothing new had been presented, voicing what were pretty clearly the same views they had anyway. At one point a senior male professor, possibly keynote Shusterman, expressed the opinion that the material that the panel had presented (probably that regarding James’s marriage) was “conventional” and ‘banal.” One was too shocked at this stunningly inappropriate comment—amounting to a dismissal of the the very topic of the plenary and of the Penn State University Press Feminist Interpretations of William James “Re-Reading the Canon” series volume it was partly convened to help make up—to even think of a comeback. Interestingly, no one, then or the next day either, ever let on that it had been said. (No doubt it was discussed in private; I myself ought to have sought out opportunities outside of the sessions to bring it up to fellow attendees.) It would have been welcome for one of the (male) co-directors (who as male were unlikely to be as paralyzed as I was) to have pointed out discreetly that the language was was out of line.

Overall, the audience did not seem to take the topic as seriously as the panelists. It was shockingly clear to anyone used to working within the feminist field that aside from specialists on feminist pragmatism, Seigfried critique of James was still an outsider view within American Philosophy. Later the second day, in a general panel on William James, I gave a paper on “William James and Women” that coincidentally touched some of the same biographical episodes as McKenna. Primarily, I called into question the disturbing recent biography of James, suggesting that author Robert D. Richardson had admitted only to minimize James’s problematic behavior with women outside his marriage and that subsequent work like Gunter’s biography of Mrs. Alice James followed his example. After my talk, Koopman asked (if I understood him) how these biographical revelations bore on interpreting and teaching the philosophy. I admitted that not being a James scholar I didn’t have a glib answer but invoked the premise of a recent book called Philosophers Behaving Badly that life and works are so entwined (particularly in regard to pragmatism) that the life couldn’t help but be related to the work. Like the plenary speakers, I was pretty stunned at what I had read in preparation for the topic. SIgnificantly, though Tarver was the chair of my panel, and obviously was better positioned to engage Koopman’s question than I was, she did not do so, raising the question whether the not-always-so-collegial comments from the floor the previous days had temporarily silenced her.

The next day I attended panels, none of which touched on women or feminism, all of which were made up of men. The following day I returned home although the conference was to go on two more days. Unlike the previous year, I found I did not feel such an overwhelming desire to be present at the conference to the end as to pay to change my flight and book two additional nights at my motel. This was especially odd since by leaving I missed a presentation on “Feminist Aesthetics,” as well as a panel on William James and “Energy,” one of the presenters on which, Linda Simon, is the author of the first biography of James which discussed newly found letters between James and his wife and which I had included in my paper. I had the distinct feeling of not wanting to speak to anybody. I was overwhelmed by the strange mood of the two James plenaries. In retrospect, I am almost beginning to feel that the “James and Feminism” panelists were disrespected. I felt I had witnessed live for the first time the sort of disrespect that women philosophers have long called attention to but which I had assumed was on the way out and in any case probably never had existed within the Society for the Advancement of American Philosophy. Obviously that was naive. On the other hand, perhaps another, more senior scholar should have been added on the panel. The audience made smart comments because they could get away with it because no one on the panel was experienced enough to assume the authority to stop them.

As a final note, I had chosen to speak on “William James and Women” because the CFP had encouraged submissions on topics related to the plenaries and keynote. It was notable that no one else besides me had apparently submitted a paper related to “William James and Feminism,” leaving me to be on a panel with two papers on James topic unrelated to mine or each other or to the the plenaries or keynotes. Rather than a “William James and Feminism” conference, it turned into a plain William James conference, just as on the final title the original “William James and Feminism” turned into “William James and Feminism And More.” “William James and Energy” was included, as if to assure that attending or reading the readings for “William James and Feminism” was optional. Yet as McKenna discussed, in reference to some philosophers gender is fundamental; as she observed, if you take the sexism out of Aristotle, the philosophy collapses.It might turn out that this is true of James as well. But if so, no one in that audience at least on those two days seemed to want to find out.

—Carol Bensick

Carol Bensick has been a CSW Research Scholar since 2010. She received her Ph.D. in English and American Literature from Cornell University in 1982 after completing a dissertation titled “La Nouvelle Beatrice: Renaissance Medicine and New England Theology.” She has taught at University of Denver, Cornell University, UCLA, University of Oregon, and UC Riverside. Her book, La Nouvelle Beatrice: Renaissance and Romance in "Rappaccini’s Daughter," was published in 1984. Her most recently published articles include “Esther Edwards Burr” inAmerican National Biography (1999) and “Partly Sympathy, Partly Rebellion: May Ward, Hawthorne, and The Scarlet Letter,” in Hawthorne and Women (1999). 

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