Monday, April 23, 2018

Who is our audience?

The last few days I have been at the fantastically wonderful workshop on Feminist Philosophy and Formal Logic organised by Jessica Gordon-Roth and Roy T. Cook at the University of Minnesota. We're a group of about 25 people, of which only about 1/5 are men, and we've been put up in a rustic Minnesotan hunting lodge (complete with chocolate lab, feet-high drifts of snow, enormous fireplace, and possibly haunted basement art studio). In true workshop fashion, the presenting participants circulated papers in advance and then each was given about 15 minutes to summarise the important bits of their paper and then an hour to hold the floor for questions.

When I received an invitation to present, my first response was "But I don't know anything about feminist philosophy – here, should I say something about my women in medieval logic project instead?" and thankfully Jessica and Roy thought that was great and let me come anyway. I kicked off the first day (very nice, no preconceived notions of what we were supposed to be talking about), which ended up being rather historical in bent while the second day was slightly more formal in bent.

What was interesting was that both days ended up -- completely organically, being dominated by a particular thematic-question. The first day, it was "Who is a logician?" In my talk I spoke about Christian de Pizan's statement "Je ne suis logicienne", and what it meant to be a logician and who gets to self-identify as a logician and who gets to call someone else a logician -- and also who gets to self-deny and who gets to deny others. It was interesting the number of people who then went on to preface their talk or their comment on a talk with "I am not a logician" (in fact, I think I may have been one of the only ones who identifies as a logician first and foremost!).

But it's the question that seemed to characterise the second day that I want to talk about most: Who are we writing these papers for? Who is our audience?

The papers presenting formal models tended to be of a similar structure: Here's this cool thing in feminist philosophy that we can construct a formal model out of. The formal model doesn't always get things right, but there's a bunch of knobs that we can twiddle whenever the model makes some prediction that doesn't seem right. But there are a bunch of questions the formal model doesn't answer; these answers can only be gotten from the world. A number of the papers also made some sort of apology for the use of formal tools, and a discussion of how the authors tried to make the formal side of things more accessible to those who might not have had as much training in them as those who call themselves logicians do. What I found interesting is that these two groups of responses/reactions only make sense if you take the audience of the papers to be radically different.

There are, as I see it, three main groups of people that can be the answer to "Who are the formal tools for?":

  1. The feminist philosophers.
  2. The formal logicians.
  3. The authors.

(These groups are neither exhaustive, nor exclusive, but are the most likely/typical. The groups are also not uniform, even though I speak below of "the feminist philosopher" or "the logician".)

(1): If the audience for a paper presenting a formal model of some aspect of feminist epistemology, etc., then the model needs to substantially engage with the phenomena in the world: It has to get things right, it isn't enough to say "if it doesn't, we can always twiddle the knobs until it does." This isn't going to be helpful as a tool to the feminist philosopher who may not know how to twiddle the knobs appropriately.

(2): If the paper is a sort of "proof of concept" for logicians, along the lines of "look at this interesting stuff that you might not think was amenable to formal modeling or logic that actually is, maybe you should look into this further", then there is no need to apologise for using the formal methods. After all, the way to make this material accessible to the logicians is to speak it in a language they already understand! I will happily put myself in this group, and say that papers like this are for, among others things, me, and for people like me, who might not have previous been exposed to feminist philosophy or standpoint epistemology or anything like that, but now have more access to them via a language they understand. But this group also includes people for whom the logical symbolism is in fact the easier way to grasp new ideas than reading prose alone, for example, people with certain types of learning disabilities. To assume that the prose of the feminist philosophers is always more accessible than the symbols of the logician is not a helpful stance to take -- nor is any position along the lines of "If the only way you logicians will be interested in feminist philosophy is if we translate it into logic for you, then screw you" (any more than saying "if the only way you feminist philosophers will be interested in logic is if we translate feminist philosophy into it for you, then screw you" is), especially when everyone here are people who value logic and logical methods.

(3): I sometimes think that people downplay the importance of the process of modeling in favor of the end-model itself. But, speaking anecdotally here, I've always found the process of building the formal model way more useful than the end model itself -- the process is what helps me clarify the concepts, figure out what questions to be asking, find out where the uncertainty lies. Of course at the end I always hope that I've come out with a model that could be used for something, but the utility doesn't lie in the end-model alone, it also lies in the process by which we got it. So I think we should keep in mind that sometimes, the audience for papers like these can be the authors themselves, who can then take what they've learned from the process of modeling and use that to guide their future questioning.

I've actually got quite a bit more to say about questions of audience more broadly -- whom do we write for when we write academic papers vs. blog posts, whom do I write for when I write fiction, whom do my students write for when they write papers or dissertations, but I'll take that up in another post.

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