Newsletter < Women in Philosophy of Science

Women in Philosophy of Science

In our Three Minute Interview series, we ask prominent women in philosophy of science what's good, what's bad, and what can still improve for women and other under-represented groups in philosophy. In this issue: Sabina Leonelli, who is a professor in philosophy and history of science at the University of Exeter, where she co-directs the Centre for the Study of the Life Sciences. 

Three Minute Interview

It is really encouraging to see growing recognition of the work of women in philosophy. This is visible in the efforts to avoid all-male line-ups in philosophy of science events, the rising attention to the composition of our teaching materials and research sources, and the increasing support for the EPSA and PSA Women’s Caucuses - which as a result have been able to promote discussion venues, dedicated lectures and symposia, and the availability of childcare in our biannual conferences. The latter in particular will not only help carers of all genders and career stages, but also exemplify how philosophy can flourish through engagement with life and its vagaries (a truth which is hard to hold on to when rehearsing a talk while juggling hotels, conference programs and unreliable babysitters on one’s own). 

Particularly in Europe, however, there is much to do to improve working conditions for underrepresented groups within philosophy. As senior co-chair of the EPSA Womens’ Caucus, I regularly receive reports of all-male-led philosophy events, harassment cases being swept under the carpet and teaching syllabi that systematically avoid work by female authors. All of this fits right into the current testosterone-fueled political climate with its adversity to open, constructive and rigorous debate among different viewpoints. Europe has long exemplified the struggle to bring diverse cultures and histories in contact, and like many other parts of the world, is in the grip of a new tide of xenophobia and fear of the “other” – which, unsurprisingly, is accompanied by mistrust in the value and legitimacy of science. Philosophers of science should seize the chance to actively counter these tendencies, and this starts with devoting attention to the composition of our own field and the nature of our scholarly and professional practices.

This is a lesson that I have been lucky to learn throughout my philosophical upbringing, with mentors such as Hasok Chang, Mary Morgan, Hans Radder, Henk de Regt and John Dupré acting as role models for inclusivity. Even with their substantive help, I have found myself negotiating what looked at times like an impenetrable glass ceiling – not only in terms of gender, but also in linguistic and cultural terms. Organisations like EPSA clearly exemplify how philosophy of science involves many non-native English speakers coming from a variety of cultural backgrounds and intellectual traditions. The recent history of our field however, with the strong influence exerted by Anglo-American philosophers and the use of English as a lingua franca, has not valorized such diversity and the richness of experiences and perspectives that it brings. As someone raised in Italy and Greece, I am well-acquainted with the difficulties in adapting not just one’s language but one’s writing style and choice of topics to what is perceived to be acceptable. I cannot count the times I was told that: the ways in which I write and think are “too historical”; the philosophers I am reading are irrelevant; attention to real science has no place in philosophy; and my attempt to avoid what I perceived as unnecessary jargon signaled a hopeless lack of rigor. Such remarks were not necessarily hurtful or wrong in themselves (except for the one about real science!), but always proved pointlessly damaging when accompanied by the conviction that there is one “right way” of doing philosophy of science - which I was clearly and hopelessly failing to embody, with no right of appeal.

This is where scholarly societies can make an enormous difference. A turning point in my own trajectory was attending my first ISHPSSB Conference in Vienna in 2003 (organized by the champion of philosophical pluralism that was Werner Callebaut), where I experienced a version of my field as a truly welcoming, diverse and constructive intellectual space, where I was encouraged to trust my philosophical instincts and develop my ideas. We have tried to foster this same attitude within the Society for the Philosophy of Science in Practice, and there are sustained attempts to do the same within EPSA, PSA and the British Society for the Philosophy of Science. Notably, some of our top journals, with encouragement from these societies, are explicitly working in this direction too, and our field stands to gain enormously from this movement. As incoming co-Editor-in-Chief (with Giovanni Boniolo) of History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences - a journal with a proud history of valuing and promoting intellectual diversity – I am aware that balancing rigorous evaluation of quality with openness to diverse philosophical approaches is a challenge that is often hard to navigate. I am also aware that it is a creative challenge with transformative potential for our work, a surefire way to guarantee that philosophy is never “business as usual”.  Whether we do this as teachers, students, authors, editors, referees, administrators or organizers, it is a challenge well-worth confronting.

Interview by Anna Alexandrova.

Profile: Sabina Leonelli

Sabina Leonelli is a professor in philosophy and history of science at the University of Exeter, where she co-directs the Centre for the Study of the Life Sciences (Egenis). She gained her PhD at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, following an MSc in history and philosophy of science at the London School of Economics and a BSc (hons) in history, philosophy and social studies of science at University College London. Sabina is also Editor-in-Chief on the international journal History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences, together with Professor Giovanni Boniolo.

Her research spans the fields of history and philosophy of biology, science and technology studies and general philosophy of science, and currently focuses on (1) the philosophy, history and sociology of data-intensive science, especially the research processes, scientific outputs and social embedding of Open Science, Open Data and Big Data, and the construction of semantics to enable data linkage for automated mining in the plant sciences and biomedicine; and (2) the epistemology and history of the use of organisms as research models, with a focus on experimental organisms and on the plant sciences.

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