Philosophy Phriday: Ants and Women

The Daily Ant hosts a weekly series, Philosophy Phridays, in which real philosophers share their thoughts at the intersection of ants and philosophy. This is the tenth contribution in the series, submitted by Kathryn Pogin.

Ants and Women: A Reflection on Understanding

We live in an increasingly polarized society. According to survey data, between 2004 and 2014 ideological consistency in the American population seems to have doubled; that is, the share of the population who express uniformly liberal or conservative viewpoints regarding a range of issues shifted from about 10% of the population in 2004, to 21% in 2014. At the same time, hostility across ideological lines is increasing. In 2016, the Pew Research Center released a report containing this striking data point:

For the first time in surveys dating to 1992, majorities in both parties express not just unfavorable but very unfavorable views of the other party. And today, sizable shares of both Democrats and Republicans say the other party stirs feelings of not just frustration, but fear and anger. More than half of Democrats (55%) say the Republican Party makes them “afraid,” while 49% of Republicans say the same about the Democratic Party. Among those highly engaged in politics – those who say they vote regularly and either volunteer for or donate to campaigns – fully 70% of Democrats and 62% of Republicans say they are afraid of the other party.

Our sociological situation is epistemically concerning. In forming our beliefs, it can be difficult to be fair, to do one another justice — all the more so when you are not like me and in virtue of our dissimilarity it is more difficult for me to understand your needs, desires or interests. Fear, it seems, would compound these challenges. Our social context – including our political culture, our relationships to one another, our values, and our emotional attachments or hostilities – shapes our access to various epistemic resources.

Consider this passage from Michèle Le Dœuff’s “Ants and Women, or Philosophy without Borders”:

Some months ago, when giving a paper about Sir Francis Bacon’s philosophy, I mentioned that, according to him, Nature was a woman; true knowledge treats her like his legitimate wife, while false knowledge deals with her as if she were a barren prostitute. In the same paper, I also mentioned that according again to Bacon, there are three kinds of intellectual attitudes, or three kinds of philosophers, namely the pure rationalists, who are like spiders, the empiricists who are like ants, for they gather materials but do not work on them, and a third category—good philosophers who are like bees, for they gather and work on the material gathered. Now, during the discussion a gentleman strongly objected to Bacon’s use of ants as a metaphor. He explained that there are many different species of ants, and some of them do not merely gather, some have gardens for instance, where they grow mushrooms. The gentleman concluded that philosophers do not know what they are talking about when they use metaphors. This is true enough, but I felt sorry indeed that nobody observed that it is not true that a woman is either a wife or a prostitute; nobody asked whether ‘nature as her’ implied that the scientist is, as a matter of course, male; nobody said that the simple fact of using ‘woman’ as a metaphor is questionable in itself. So, when speaking of feminism in contemporary French philosophy, one has to keep in mind that, on the Parisian stage, the honour, dignity, diversity and reality of insects are better defended than the honour, dignity, diversity and reality of women.

When I was fourteen, my youth pastor kicked me out of a church service. The lesson of the day was on Islam. I didn’t know anything about it, but when he said Muslims hated us because we worshipped the true God while they worship a false idol named Allah, something didn’t make sense. I asked “Isn’t ‘Allah’ Arabic for God?” He repeated that Muslims want to deceive the world into believing in Allah, but that wasn’t an answer to my question. I tried again, “Don’t Arab Christians pray to ‘Allah,’ too?” He told me I was being disrespectful and needed to leave.

I was the sort of kid who was intensely worried about pleasing those with authority over me. When I was young my mom would take me shopping with her, and often, she thought she’d lost me. When I was told to stay right behind her, I took her literally. When she would turn around to make sure I was still there, I moved too. When I was in sixth grade, my dad once woke to me crying over an unfinished school project at midnight—angry at first because he thought I had put homework off to the last minute. It was for extra credit, and I already had an A. (He laughed when he realized, and told me to go to bed.) So, I didn’t raise my hand that day out of any desire to be rebellious, or out of a desire to take a stand, but rather because I was genuinely confused. As I walked out past my friends and fellow church members I was utterly mortified. But the longer I stood outside, in the otherwise empty church hallway, the more questions I had. Why couldn’t he answer? If he was wrong about Arabic, what else might he wrong about? If the word of God is truth, why shouldn’t I ask what’s true?

An ant’s search for Truth. Photo: Andrea Lucky/Myrmecos

Versions of these questions have stuck with me through the years; that’s why I was drawn to philosophy. Once I started asking questions, I realized how interconnected our beliefs are—both internally, to our own doxastic life, and socially, in our epistemic communities. Many of my beliefs rested on a source I no longer trusted. Many of my friends’ and family members’ beliefs rested on the authority of my youth pastor’s testimony as well, along with the authority of the church that credentialed him. My political views were informed by my religious views. Which interpersonal relationships I took to be most important (and most trustworthy) were both a cause and a consequence of my politics and my religion. I didn’t yet have the language of Descartes, but I realized that like one rotting apple can spoil a basketful, my entire epistemic life rested on shaky ground.

The takeaway here, though, is not my realization regarding the anti-Muslim prejudice in the testimony I was listening to and its implications for my beliefs then more broadly – rather, it’s how easily that realization might have never come. If it hadn’t been for a random bit of understanding of an Arabic term; if it hadn’t been for the total lack of answer rather than even a shallow rationalization; if it hadn’t been for my mortification when I was asked to leave and the questions that prompted, what might I believe now?

A leaf-cutter ant queen, dismantling the patriarchy. Photo: Alex Wild

It’s comfortable – socially, politically, epistemically – to accept the values and practices of those in our communities. Not only is it comfortable, it’s natural, and at least from the subjective perspective, it tends to seem rational. But when communities are structured by injustice, by oppression, or by marginalization, the values and expectations that surround us will be distorted in such a way as to interfere with our epistemic access to truths about one another. In a society structured by sexism, for example, metaphors involving women as wives or prostitutes might not stand out as mistakenly simplistic in the way a metaphor involving inaccurate representations of ants would, if the misrepresentation of women appears repeatedly in our cultural milieu. When we are practiced in accepting certain kinds of misrepresentations, certain patterns of disregard, they become more difficult to detect. To do better, we must keep in mind not only the mistakes that we make (e.g., that, at least on occasion, “the honour, dignity, diversity and reality of insects are better defended than the honour, dignity, diversity and reality of women”) but how easy it can be to make them. We should keep this in mind to guard against epistemic hubris in ourselves, but also, to cultivate understanding with one another.

KathrynPoginKathryn Pogin is a PhD candidate in the philosophy program at Northwestern University. She received her MA from the University of Notre Dame, and her current work addresses ideology and epistemic justice. Pogin is also a blogger at Feminist Philosophers, and is known for her award-winning work as The Daily Ant Fashion Correspondant and Philosophy Phridays Executive Producer. Don’t forget to check out her op-ed in the New York Times!