New Criticals

Allegory of Philosophy’s Man Cave

And now, Diotima said, let me show in an image how enlightened or unenlightened our profession is: Behold! Mostly white, male philosophers working in a cavernous profession that opens onto the light of egalitarian ideals. Here they have been since they were undergrads, and have their legs and necks chained so that they cannot move and can see only what stands before them, being prevented by the chains from turning their heads. Above and behind them, their blatant sexism blazes, and between the red flames of these biases and the philosophy professors themselves there runs a high road that spans the profession.

I see.

And do you see, Diotima said, women philosophers—both professors and graduate students—passing along the high road doing all sorts of interesting philosophical work and making genuinely excellent contributions to their profession? Some of them are talking, others silent.

You show me a strange image, and these male philosophy professors seem strange.

Like ourselves, Diotima replied, and they see in their own shadows and the shadows of one another the outlines of great egalitarians, thrown by their flaring biases behind them onto the opposite wall of the cave?

True, I say. How could they see anything but the shadows if they were never allowed to move their heads?

And similarly, of the women philosophers and the work they carry out, the male philosophers would only see biased and sexist shadows on the wall before them, lesser figures merely performing for and at the pleasure of the males?

Yes, I say.

And if the male professors could talk to each other, would they not agree that they were seeing themselves and these women philosophers as they actually are?

Very true.

And suppose further that the philosophy profession bounces echoes of every voice. Would the male professors not be sure that the voices of the women philosophers on the road were coming from their passing shadows?

No question, I replied.

To these male philosophy professors, Diotima said, the ideas about women philosophers would be nothing but shadows projected by their own sexism and biases.

That is certain.

And now look again, and see what will naturally follow if a male philosophy professor is told to use his sabbatical to really think about gender equality in the profession for a semester. At first, when he is released and compelled suddenly to stand up and turn around and walk and look carefully at the practices of gender equality, he will suffer sharp pains; the glare will distress him, and he will be unable to see the reality behind the shadows made by his biases. Then imagine someone telling him that the shadows he saw before were an illusion, and, now that his eye is turned towards the actual women in his profession walking along the high road, he has a clearer view. What will be his reply? And imagine that his instructor is pointing to these women as they pass and requiring him to really see them for what and who they truly are: equals. Will he not be perplexed? Will he not fancy that the distorted sexist shadows that he formerly saw are more real than the talented professional women philosophers that are now shown to him?

Far more real.

And if he is compelled to look straight at the bright light of gender equality, will he not feel pain and turn away to view the shadows he can see, which he will conceive to be in reality clearer than the things that are now being shown to him?


And suppose that he is forced into view of the enlightened egalitarian values, is he not likely to be pained and upset? In the sunlight of true equality his eyes will be dazzled, and he will not be able to see anything at all of reality.

Not right away, I said.

He needs to grow accustomed to the sight of what gender equality in a profession really means. And first he will see a confused image of equality, next reflections on equality from others, and then what it is for a profession to endorse equality; and then he will gaze upon the greatness of a philosophy profession that actually practices gender equality?


Last of all he will be able to see true equality itself, and not mere reflections of it, and he will see his own proper role in practicing and upholding it in philosophy, and he will contemplate it as it truly is.


He will then proceed to argue that this true gender equality properly belongs to an enlightened profession of philosophy, as an ideal realized from ideas in its own history and pointing towards its future, and he will also understand how the profession, blinded by its own traditions, has historically often justified sexism and misogyny in Western society, and that he and his fellow male philosopher professors have too often it carried forth?

Clearly, I said, he would first see the truth of gender equality in professional philosophy and then reason about it.

And when he remembered his old habits, and the supposed wisdom of the discipline and his fellow male philosophy professors, do you not suppose that he would compliment himself on his new outlook, and pity them?

Certainly, he would.

And if they were in the habit of conferring honors among themselves for who belittled women philosophers the most hilariously, who scored the sexiest undergraduate assistants, who was sleeping with which graduate students, and who got laid most at conferences, do you think that he would care for such honors and glories, or envy those who possessed them? Would he not say with Homer, “Better to be an adjunct professor at a community college rather than think as they do and live after their manner”?

Yes, I said, I think that he would rather suffer anything than entertain these false notions and live in this miserable manner.

Imagine once more, Diotima said, this philosopher coming suddenly out of the light of gender equality and returning to his chains in his place in the profession; would he not be certain to have his eyes full of darkness?

To be sure, I said.

And if, before he relapsed into his old sexism and implicit biases, he was planning a conference along with male professors who had never looked beyond the norms of their profession, and he suggested choosing a woman philosopher as a keynote speaker, would he not be seen as ridiculous? Male philosophy professors would say of him that he took sabbatical to think about gender equality and came back like a woman who can’t think critically; they would add that it is obviously better not to think about the problems of the profession; and if a junior philosopher tried to force more male philosophers to think about gender equality, if they could catch the culprit, they would deny him or her tenure.

Without a doubt.


Adapted from Benjamin Jowett's translation of The Republic. Image: Plato's Allegory of the Cave by Jan Saenredam, according to Cornelis van Haarlem, 1604, Albertina, Vienna.