A woman's place in rational debate;Another voice;Opinion

10th September 1999 at 01:00
ACCORDING to a new survey, women with an interest in philosophy are more likely than men to believe in Karma, alien visitations and the theory that Darwinian evolution does not account for the emergence of human beings. While it would be rash to read too much into the findings of one poll, the results do raise some important questions about whether men and women typically think differently, and for this reason believe different things.

The questions raised by the survey run deeper than the usual mud-slinging fun and games of the sex wars. At stake is the question of what it is to be a rational and reasonable human being. If men and women cannot agree on what that means, the very assumptions which form the foundations of the education system are threatened.

On the one side, there are those who claim that our notions of rationality are gender-neutral. Women and men may tend to have different mental strengths but both can agree on what it means for an argument or opinion to be rationally justified. If these people are correct, then it would seem the survey has some worrying implications - the beliefs women seem more inclined to hold are those that seem weakest by the standards of traditional rationality.

On the other side are those who claim that women and men think differently, and that these different modes of thought are not inferior or superior to one another, merely different. Men tend to prefer the hard, deductive model of reasoning found in mathematics and sciences. Women tend to prefer a more holistic, intuitive mode of thinking. Although these are generalisations, men and women typically differ in their thinking habits.

But to conclude that men are more rational than women would be to place one mode of rationality above another. To believe that reincarnation is an irrational belief, for example, is to assume a masculine, scientific notion of rationality.

Who is right? The answer is important for political as well as theoretical reasons. At the premier meeting of British philosophers this year, the cumbersomely-named Joint Session of the Mind Association and the Aristotelian Society, only two speakers out of the 15 were women (all were white, but that's another story). If there is no difference between masculine and feminine rationality then clearly philosophy has got a long way to go before it is a truly non-sexist subject. But if there is a gender difference in thinking, and philosophy represents the masculine side, then we must expect women to remain a minority in the subject, unless philosophy itself changes to include more feminine modes of thinking.

Nor is this a debate confined to philosophy, or even academia. The question of whether any culture - working, educational or creative - is dominated by a masculine or feminine way of doing things has to be answered if we are to achieve a genuine end to sexual discrimination. If it can be shown that any discipline is operating according to a gender-specific paradigm, then it will remain dominated by one gender, unless its culture changes. The new survey does not take us anywhere nearer answering these questions, but it does highlight their enduring importance.

However, a few points must be kept in mind. First, the poll was of a self-selecting group of people interested in philosophy. This may make them different to the rest of the world - after all, most people actively avoid philosophy.

Second, the gender differences effectively vanished once people reached postgraduate level. This is compatible with at least two competing theses: first, that gender differences are cultural and, given a good education, men and women will settle upon the same model of rationality. On this view, if more women tend to prefer "unscientific" theories, it is only because they have been educated by a society that still thinks science is something for the boys. The second hypothesis is that women who think differently simply don't make it in the profession.

These issues cut across partisan lines. Feminists are split between those who assert and those who deny there is a distinctively feminine mode of rationality. Resolving the issue will take both psychological research into the actual thought processes of men and women, and philosophical work on what it means to be rational. In the meantime, we should not assume that when men and women talk about rationality they are talking about the same thing.

Dr Julian Baggini is editor of the

Philosophers' Magazine

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