You are here

Cutting-Edge Scholarship: Feminist Philosophy and Formal Logic

December 14, 2017

Portrait of Jessica Gordon-Roth and Roy T. Cook

Portrait of Jessica Gordon-Roth and Roy T. Cook
Photo by Matthew Weber, CLAgency student

Professors Jessica Gordon-Roth and Roy T. Cook might at first look like an unlikely pair of collaborators. While Gordon-Roth specializes in feminist philosophy and the history of early modern thought, Cook devotes the bulk of his scholarly attention to mathematical logic, semantic paradoxes, and the aesthetics of popular art forms, such as Lego sculptures and superhero comics. But amidst their divergent academic interests, the two professors of philosophy point to a region of overlap which is, they argue, in desperate need of philosophical reflection: feminist philosophy and formal logic.

Though the last several decades have seen much fruitful engagement between scholars working on feminism and those in other areas of philosophy, formal logic has seemed to be largely untouched by these developments. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, a prestigious scholarly resource among philosophers and students of philosophy, devotes fewer than 150 words to feminist approaches to logic, providing—more than anything else—a sense of the sparseness of the literature. “Though feminist philosophy has, over the past few decades, engaged with both traditional, non-formal epistemology and with the history and philosophy of science in deep and important ways, similar interactions between feminist philosophy and philosophical and formal logic have been less frequent and less fruitful,” explains Gordon-Roth.

This is not to suggest that there has been no engagement whatsoever between feminist scholars and logicians. But, as Cook points out, even the one anthology apparently devoted to feminism and logic (one of the few works listed in the Stanford Encyclopedia’s frustratingly brief overview of the literature), entitled Representing Reason: Feminist Theory and Formal Logic (Falmagne & Hass 2002), “actually focuses more on dialogue between feminist philosophy and non-formal epistemology, with fewer than half the essays addressing formal logic directly.” 

Though there has been some scholarship at the nexus between feminism and logic, Cook and Gordon-Roth maintain that feminist philosophy and formal logic have “failed to benefit from the sort of sustained interaction that has enriched feminist philosophy and philosophy of science.” Such sustained interaction has, Gordon-Roth explains, “resulted in a large body of work that addresses the ways that feminist perspectives can illuminate our accounts of how we know the everyday and scientific world, as well as the ways that epistemology and the history and philosophy of science can fruitfully be brought to bear on feminist projects.” According to Cook, this productive engagement between epistemology and philosophy of science, on the one hand, and feminist philosophy, on the other, raises a question: “If the epistemologists and philosophers of science are benefiting so much from their interactions with feminist philosophy,” he asks, “why aren’t the logicians and philosophers of logic doing this stuff as well?”

Feminist Philosophy and Formal Logic: A First-of-Its-Kind Workshop

To provide an opportunity for fruitful engagement between feminist scholars and logicians, Cook and Gordon-Roth are organizing an academic workshop on feminist philosophy and formal logic, to be held in April 2018. The two scholars point to a number of factors behind the idea’s genesis, including a recent focus on diversity and inclusion in the Department of Philosophy’s short and long-term planning and the Minnesota Center for Philosophy of Science’s continuing emphasis on, as Cook puts it, “exploring and supporting cutting-edge, innovative, and novel approaches to the philosophy of science and the philosophy of mathematics.”

The workshop, seeking to foster fruitful scholarship at the nexus between two very different areas of philosophy, surely fits the bill of cutting-edge, innovative, and novel: “To my knowledge, there has never been a workshop or conference on this topic,” says Gordon-Roth, “Thus, there is a great opportunity here for groundbreaking and important philosophical and technical progress.”

The workshop will feature twelve presenters and up to four non-presenting participants from philosophy departments across the United States and the United Kingdom, each of whom has a research interest on topics at the intersection of logic and feminist philosophy. Cook and Gordon-Roth expect the presentations to span a diverse set of issues and perspectives. “The particular topics and approaches were left completely up to the invited presenters,” explains Cook, “so long as they related to the main focus of the workshop—feminist philosophy and formal logic—in some identifiable way. As a result, the workshop will include a number of different approaches, including historical work, extremely technical mathematical work, and just about anything in between.”

Though the two scholars express excitement for the workshop and the future research it will inspire, they acknowledge that organizing the event is not without its obstacles. “One of the main hurdles with this sort of event,” says Gordon-Roth, “is funding.” Since there is so little contemporary scholarship on the intersection between feminist philosophy and logic, Cook and Gordon-Roth have at times found it difficult to secure grants. That said, they point out that the Minnesota Center for Philosophy of Science, the University of Minnesota Department of Philosophy, and the Association of Symbolic Logic have all committed small grants and logistical support for the workshop since the beginning.

“This early support might have helped to dispel skepticism for the project from some quarters,” explains Cook, “both from logicians who think feminist philosophy has little to offer with respect to their projects, and from feminist philosophers who think similarly of formal logic.” In addition to these smaller grants, the remainder of the funding for the workshop came from a substantial award from the University’s Grant-In-Aid program.

Inspiring Future Research

The culmination of the workshop will be in the form of a published volume, featuring a paper from each participant. The publication, explains Gordon-Roth, “will provide a tangible record of the exciting research that will take place at the workshop and will provide an essential starting point for those wishing to develop research projects in this area.” The two scholars hope that the volume will spur further research beyond the disciplinary boundaries of philosophy.

“Feminist philosophy, with its connections to a multitude of other disciplines in the humanities, and formal logic, which is studied not only in philosophy departments but mathematics and computer science departments, are two of the most interdisciplinary areas of philosophy,” says Cook, “and thus there is the potential for this work to be influential across a wide and diverse segment of intellectual life.”

Cook and Gordon-Roth hope that the workshop and the further research and activities it inspires will contribute to a more holistic, comprehensive philosophical pedagogy. “Given the absolute centrality of questions about gender to discussions and debates occurring both across the University and across our culture,” says Gordon-Roth, “we think it is absolutely essential that feminist approaches to any subject be included whenever we take ourselves to be presenting a balanced, comprehensive discussion of that subject. But one can’t teach feminist approaches to a subject until there is an identifiable and substantial amount of work on feminist approaches to be taught. One of the main goals of this workshop—and the activities that will follow it and build on it, such as the planned volume—is to begin to build up exactly this sort of research.”

This story was written by an undergraduate student account executive in CLAgency. Meet the team.