A tendency to have “philosophical idols”


Rebecca Schuman at Slate on academics who treat their graduate students as a sex pool.

Some things in academia never change. Even in an age when the feminists apparently control everything, it seems that the practice of older (usually male) scholars sleeping with much younger (usually female) graduate students is alive and … well, I wouldn’t say “well.” With two such relationships making recent news in the discipline of philosophy alone, for some of the older generation of male professors (again, mostly male), the grad students are still a dating pool—and vice versa. This is not just icky—it is highly damaging to the profession.

Philosophy! Again! What is it with these guys?

It’s not just a matter of two consenting adults’ hearts wanting what they want. Because not only are these relationships almost always an unacceptable abuse of power, they also affect the dynamics of departments, entire fields, and the very act of academic mentorship altogether.

So why does it still happen (other than the fact that people enjoy having sex)? It happens because in many academic disciplines—such as, of course, philosophy,which already enjoys a reputation for misconduct—there is a tendency for beginning scholars to have “philosophical idols,” as explained to me by Meena Krishnamurthy, an assistant professor at the University of Manitoba. (Just count the times this author uses the word “hero.”)

Oh gawd. Ok. You know where else that happens? Locally – among the atheists and secularists (and skeptics). There’s a huge amount of fandom and hero-worship. That’s why I was so disagreeable to the “Global Secular Council” when it gave birth to itself: it was the unabashed presentation of the same 8 or 10 faces we’d been seeing for 8 or 10 years, and the unabashedly worshipful language. Not healthy, people! Remember “thought leaders”?

[pauses to see if it’s still there – it’s still there]

The world’s greatest thinkers are already making the case for rationalism, but as free agents their impact on international discourse is hindered. We coordinate the thought leaders of our movement, providing an arena where compelling information from a secular perspective can be organized, published, and disseminated.

Our team of social and political thought leaders compiles the knowledge and data that uphold our worldwide community, providing substance and fresh leverage to we who think scientifically, as we lobby for government and societal change in the United States and around the globe.

Don’t talk like that. Don’t don’t don’t.

Take this example from Carla Fehr, associate director of the American Philosophical Association’s Committee on the Status of Women in the Profession Site Visit Program, which conducted the recent visit to the University of Colorado–Boulder that resulted in the ouster of the chair and the freezing of graduate admissions. Let’s say, Fehr proposes, a woman whose adviser has a reputation for dalliances with students goes out on the job market. “People ask, with a wink and a nod, what it was like getting that letter of recommendation.” If, the next year, she leaves his letter out, she’s then “asked why the famous professor was not writing for her. Her professor’s behavior,” Fehr explains, has “put her in a position where she just couldn’t win.”

It was nice for him though. Isn’t that the important thing?

So what, if anything, can be done? Institutional policies that forbid such relationships? Many universities have these already, and they rarely seems to matter. Off-site visits, such as the one Carla Fehr engineered? As satisfying as it was to see CU–Boulder duly spanked, that resulted in an infuriating amount of rank-closing and defensiveness. Sure, every now and then, a Colin McGinn type does something high-profile enough to cost him his job—but that’s rare. Usually the “consequences” are little more than behind-the-back whispers and the occasional passive-aggressive slight. (One of my mentors in grad school once stuck a very prominent scholar—who had just left his wife for a 28-year-old graduate student—in a near-unattended 8 a.m. conference slot.)

Indeed, most of the time, an accomplished senior scholar can get away with almost any poor sexual decision with a student, and still be respected in the field. Colin McGinn himself is giving a keynote at a high-profile philosophy conference in a few weeks.

Well that’s insulting. And it kind of confirms what I just said – it was fun for him and that’s the important thing.


  1. thephilosophicalprimate says

    Even aside from sexual predation, I’ve never seen the idea of working with (i.e. working FOR) one’s academic “hero” work out well for the hero-worshiper — although it typically works out quite well for the worshiped. That’s why all of my philosophical heroes are safely dead. And it’s really their IDEAS I admire, not the people who had those ideas; they were probably (and in some ways were demonstrably) shitty people. For examples, see Aristotle’s ideas about women, Hume’s ideas about race, and Mill’s ideas about human sexuality.

  2. says

    That reminds me: I read Colin McGinn’s philosophy-of-physics book, or tried to. (His notoriety gained by his unprofessional conduct led this review—now paywalled, sorry!—to appear on my corner of the Twitterhedron.) It was terrible. Not the mundane sort of bad which comes from ordinary incompetence, but the gobsmacking kind, the kind begat when ignorance and a deeply rooted arrogance start a family. There’s wrong, and then there’s the next level, where the disaster you see makes you doubt the author has anything to say about any other subject, and you’re not willing to risk coagulation of your grey cells in order to find out.

  3. Seth says

    I would say ‘Guys, don’t do that,’ but we know how that tends to work out. (Although I have a penis in lieu of a vagina…)

  4. Josh, Official SpokesGay says

    From my chair there seems to be a strong correlation between narcissistic and entitled personalities in men and an attraction to working in academic philosophy. I wonder if research would bear that out or not.

  5. screechymonkey says

    I think a lot of people seem to think that the sexual attentions of younger women is just one of the “perks” of the job. And it starts before the actual professor ranks. Whenever it came up that I was a teaching assistant for an undergraduate course, a very high percentage of my fellow male graduate students would immediately ask if there were any hot women in my class. (Women, if they commented on it at all, would ask perfectly normal questions about whether I liked teaching, etc.)

    I’m sure some of these men were asking out of self-interest — although, really, how was that supposed to work? Trying to set up my students with my friends would only have been marginally less creepy than trying to date them myself. But for the most part, the default assumption appeared to be that my students were really opportunities I was lucky to have. Some guys just flat-out asked if I was sleeping with any of them, as if it was the most natural question in the world.

  6. Crimson Clupeidae says

    Even in the non-academic world of corporate training, this can be an issue (not idolizing, but instructors trying to sleep with their students).

    It got to be enough of an issue at one point when my wife was working as the head of the training department, that she told her soon-to-be instructors that they could sleep with the students, but if they did, they had to sleep with all of them. 😀

  7. says

    Quoting some passages from the aforelinked review:

    As was said of the Sokal hoax…


    As was said of the Sokal hoax, there is simply no way to do justice to the cringe-inducing nature of this text without quoting it in its entirety. But, in a nutshell, Basic Structures of Reality is an impressively inept contribution to philosophy of physics, and one exemplifying everything that can possibly go wrong with metaphysics: it is mind-numbingly repetitive, toe-curlingly pretentious, and amateurish in the extreme regarding the incorporation of physical fact. With work this grim, the only interesting questions one can raise concern not the content directly but the conditions that made it possible […] For all the epistemic faux-modesty that this book purports to defend, the image that persists while grinding through its pages is of an individual ludicrously fancying themselves as uniquely positioned to solve the big questions for us, from scratch and unassisted, as if none of the rest of us working in the field have had anything worth a damn to contribute.

    My impressions are in accord with this assessment, right down the line. The foremost question on the reviewer’s mind is how McGinn got his book published, and by Oxford University Press of all places. The conclusion is not cheerful:

    I can hazard no explanation other than that Colin McGinn is a ‘big name’; and if that is sufficient for getting work this farcical in print with OUP, then shame on our field as a whole.

  8. says

    And, as always… the underlying complaint about addressing this issue is that some men (NOT ALL MEN!!!) rebel against the very notion that somewhere, somehow, in some situation no matter how narrowly limited, some women are off-limits to their sexual advances. That’s pretty much the entire issue in a nutshell. They’re literally saying that even though there are likely hundreds of thousands of women who are single, looking for relationships, within an appropriate age group, and NOT under their direct supervision within a few hours drive of most major universities, professors HAVE TO HAVE SEXUAL ACCESS TO THE GRAD STUDENTS THEY SUPERVISE OR ELSE NEVER HAVE SEX AGAIN, LEADING TO THE END OF HUMANITY!!!!!!

  9. sc_770d159609e0f8deaa72849e3731a29d says

    If philosophy, which surely ought to involve proportionality and rationality, does involve “a huge amount of fandom and hero-worship”, surely there’s something wrong with the way it’s taught and practiced.

  10. palmettobug says

    I remember a long time ago naïvely wondering why women didn’t choose certain fields. I’ve since learned that, with almost perfect regularity, when there’s smoke, there’s fire. Lack of women’s participation almost always points to either harassment or misogyny or both.

  11. njuhgnya says

    RE: “sleeping with [all of the students]”, academic sleepovers sound awesome!

  12. johnthedrunkard says

    Why does it continue? Perhaps because ‘normal’ relationships between men and women are not very different from the exploitative, power-imbalanced, coercive, commercialized pattern.

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