Early-Career Research Spotlight: Kate Manne

Early-Career Research Spotlight: Kate Manne

The purpose of an early-career research spotlight post is two-fold. First, the aim is to bring attention to an early-career APA member who is doing some interesting research. Second, the hope is to generate discussion about the spotlighted work. Feel free to ask our spotlighted researcher questions pertaining to the work discussed in the post. Comments must conform to our community guidelines and comment policy.

In this first installment of the series, it brings me great pleasure to spotlight the work of Kate Manne. Manne is an assistant professor at Cornell University, where she has been since 2013. She works in moral, social, and feminist philosophy. She has published or forthcoming work on normativity, social norms, desires, moral psychology, and their inter-relationship, in venues such as Oxford Studies in Metaethics, Philosophical Studies, and Social Theory and Practice. Her writing has also appeared in the popular press, including two op-eds in The New York Times. She is currently working on a book on misogyny, which is under contract with OUP (Oxford University Press). It’s safe to say that philosophy is keeping her busy early on in her career. Below, Manne shares some details about the content of her work and her approach to researching with others.

Justin: Kate, thanks for agreeing to do this interview. It’s an honor and a pleasure for me, as I have engaged with some of your work for my dissertation. First off, I hear that you are working on a book. Can you give us any details? What is it about, and why are you writing it now?

Kate: Thank you for interviewing me, Justin! It’s an honor to be asked, and it has been a pleasure for me to think through my answers to your interesting and thoughtful questions. The book I’m working on is about misogyny. Its tentative title is Down Girl: How Misogyny Upholds Male Dominance. It grew out of a paper I wrote a draft of last year, “What is Misogyny? A Feminist Analysis,” which I’ve been working on revising in conjunction with working on the book this winter. The paper in turn grew (or, really, ballooned) out of my attempt to write a brief op-ed a few days after the Isla Vista shootings in California in May 2014. I was so frustrated with what commentators were saying about misogyny—that it had to be hatred directed at women as a class, harbored deep in the heart of an individual misogynist. But that makes no sense of misogyny as a political phenomenon.

My first basic thought was, what would we expect misogyny to be, understood as the most hostile and toxic manifestation of patriarchal ideology? Not a uniform hatred of women, surely. Patriarchal social structures, in conjunction with the ideology that governs them, work to make women into men’s deferential, attentive social subordinates, and to mask many of the forms of dominance and power which men have over women. Patriarchal social relations are designed to look as amicable and seamless as possible, in other words. So why would even the least enlightened of men within a patriarchal culture be hostile towards women across the board, or as a social class in its entirety? We might expect him to have a low opinion of women’s capacities in masculine-coded arenas, say (which I think of as being sexist). But having a low opinion of someone is one thing; being hostile toward them, quite another. Women will often be far too pleasant and convenient to have around to be an object of his hatred, at least when things are going smoothly.

My second basic thought was that it is when things are not going smoothly—i.e., when men have a sense of what the sociologist Michael Kimmel calls “aggrieved entitlement”—that things are liable to go south. That’s when hostility and aggression toward women seems likeliest to arise, from the perspective of moral psychology. And that was what it seemed like happened in the case of Elliot Rodger, who planned to wreak revenge on all of the “hot blonde sluts” who had failed to give him the attention and affection he was craving, or indeed to notice his existence whatsoever.

Justin: So what does misogyny end up being on your view, overall, then? And what has the process of developing the project been like for you?

Kate: Overall, I’ve come to think of misogyny as a system of social forces which manifests itself in both individual and institutional actions that create a hostile and toxic social environment for certain kinds of women—namely, those who are represented as a threat to patriarchal social relations. But since one woman can often serve as a stand-in or representative for a whole host of others in the misogynist imagination (both the individual and collective imagination, I mean), almost any woman will be vulnerable to misogynist hostility from some source or other. I’m also interested in the ways misogyny works via regular social norm enforcement mechanisms, moralism and other negative character-level generalizations, and hierarchical social moves (hence the title of the book, at least in part). I don’t think it needs to be explained in terms of fancy and, to my mind, fairly puzzling psychological attitudes, like the idea that women are seen as sexual objects, viewed as sub-human, or as having a hateful, disgusting “essence.” To me, it’s more plausibly about the re-establishment of social hierarchies and the freak-outs when they get challenged.

But there are so many different forms of domineering behavior and putting others down which misogyny can employ that it’s hard to keep track of them. Adults are insultingly likened to children, people to animals or even objects. Then there’s belittling, ridiculing, humiliating, mocking, slurring, vilifying, demonizing, as well as infantilizing, sexualizing, silencing, shunning, shaming, blaming, patronizing, condescending, and numerous other dismissive and disparaging forms of treatment. But I don’t think these “down girl” moves reflect how women are literally viewed much of the time, except maybe as the result of wishful thinking and willful denial. They’re dynamic, active, and forceful manoeuvrings. They put women in their place when we seem to have “ideas beyond our station.” So I think misogyny is a matter of desire, not belief, at least in the first instance—desires which are the product of channelling broader social forces.

So, yeah, basically I started to write an op-ed, and didn’t find much in analytic feminist philosophy directly about misogyny. The conceptual resources are there in rich supply—Sally Haslanger and Rae Langton were on my dissertation committee at MIT, where I did my graduate work, and their work among many others’ constantly inspires me. But the dots needed joining. So I ended up trying to write some semblance of the philosophy paper I was looking to read originally, to help me write my article (which of course never got written). The project just sort of kept growing from there, thanks to the encouragement of a lot of generous people who showed an interest in it. But it is very depressing stuff to work on, so there is a fair amount of teeth-gritting involved. Looking at the ways in which women are threatened and punished when they violate patriarchal norms and expectations is often confronting and shocking, without being surprising—or, at least, it shouldn’t be. It makes me very aware of how much I have to be grateful for in my own life. If I ever write another book, it will have to be about something fun and uplifting, like corgis. I’m sure there’s a philosophical angle in there somewhere, right?

Justin: Sounds super interesting! I look forward to reading it when it comes out. Oh, and one of my colleagues Marc Ereshefsky works on species and classification in the philosophy of science, so yes, there is some work to be done on corgis.

Justin: Kate, you seem to write on a broad range of topics. Do you see your work as cohesive at all or do you see yourself as writing in a number of different areas?

Kate: *laughs* Oh, it’s all just the one topic to me. I have a one-track mind, for better or, probably, worse. All my work is about authority, domination, deference, and hierarchies, in one way or another. The crumbling of the patriarchy, the death of god, the decentralization of moral authority…fun stuff like that. My hobbyhorse just happens to range over several different sub-areas in moral, social, and political philosophy, and sometimes epistemology as well. So I find myself doing my best to keep up with the literature in a number of separate niches.

Justin: That makes sense. Okay, so is there one argument that you’ve given in print that you plan on defending further in the future? For instance, you argued for an internalist position in your 2014 paper “Internalism about Reasons: Sad but true?” Is this a position you plan on defending further or expanding on? Do you feel the need to respond to externalist positions when you read them?

Kate: I’d like to come at the topic from a totally different angle next time. What I’ve always been the most interested in when it comes to the turn to reasons in ethics is why we’re so excited about the notion in the first place. I worry that the word “reason,” being as heavily masculine-coded as it is, functions as a kind of buzzword. We say that “A has a genuine normative reason to be moral,” for example, and seem to feel reassured that we’ve thereby communicated the extent to which A is bound or obligated or practically required to do the morally right thing. There’s sometimes even a sense that we’ve explained the authoritative quality of morality by showing that agents have reasons to comply with it. But is that right? What’s so uniquely authoritative about reasons? I’m not sure there’s anything that provides an answer to this question in the concept or property of being a reason (about which there’s very little agreement—as the debate over reasons internalism shows). Maybe the use and italicization of the word “reason” just serves to soothe our anxieties about moral authority in a godless world, on an illicit social and psychological basis. I mean, it could be just an accident that the turn to reasons has tended to downplay the normative importance of desires, emotions, the body, and sociality—all feminine-coded notions—while placing heavy emphasis on the rational and the objective, paradigmatically masculine-coded notions. But, like most people influenced by the feminist critiques of rationalism, I doubt this.

My views about this are idiosyncratic in mainstream normative theory though, to say the very least. I’d like to write more about this if I can ever manage to get some insight into whether I’m the one operating under the influence of illicit social and psychological forces. Because it’s natural to be jealous as a woman of the ease with which otherwise privileged men are taken to be reasonable. And, like many philosophers, I have a pretty deep-seated fear of being dismissed as irrational or unreasonable. To the extent that it’s a holistic assessment of you as a thinker and interlocutor, it says, basically, don’t talk to this person; don’t ask her. That’s a frightening prospect for anyone whose identity is as bound up with thinking and conveying ideas as most philosophers’ identities are (me included).

So…I wonder and question myself a lot about this. Maybe it doesn’t matter though. Sometimes I find myself thinking—look, I’m probably wrong to believe p, given all the amazingly smart people who disagree with me. But, in the unlikely event I am right that p, it’s not completely absurd to think that I might be among the group of people who would have the hunch that p. So it might be better to throw caution to the wind, make the argument that holds as best I can, and then let other people correct my probable mistakes. Being willing to stand corrected is such a big part of good intellectual character, I think. But it can be hard to cultivate that skill when you are also trying as hard as you can to be honest and self-critical in your thinking. I wonder how many other people might have some version of this “I’m probably wrong, but, just maybe…” thought when they find themselves with some weird view, especially early on in their careers. I’m really just thinking out loud now…

Justin: I’m not sure how many people have a version of that going on in their heads, but I can tell you that I feel that way in most of my own work, so I can very much relate. So Kate, I’m curious, is there any argument that you’ve given in print that you have since abandoned? If so, what was it, and what has led you to believe that it could be false?

Kate: I find it very painful to read my own words once I can’t go back and tinker with them anymore. (I’m a very obsessive writer, in terms of sentence rhythm and such. I’m not sure why. I wish I could change this about myself; it’s annoying.) But I know there are a number of places where I would now think I’d been insufficiently critical of moral claims and concepts that have an apparent depth or gravitas to them, but which play an important role in pernicious political ideologies for that very reason. I used to think of the ethical norms of marriage, friendship, and parenthood, for example, as something you shouldn’t seriously question from inside those relationships. How convenient for the patriarchy and the social status quo in general! How limiting and also, in certain ways, pessimistic. Good relationships are a lot less fragile and static than I think I realized at the time.

Justin: Okay, more of a methodological question. You have had 2 co-authored pieces thus far in your career, with Jason Stanley and David Sobel, both well-respected philosophers, and for good reason. How did that come about? And second, how do you find collaborating?

Kate: In a word, great! Both Jason and Dave have been terrifically generous and inspiring people to develop ideas and write with. It’s a huge privilege to have gotten to work with them. And I’m a very “think out loud” and “think by writing” sort of person in general. So exchanging thoughts and feedback with other people early on in a project is something I really value. I love collaborating for similar reasons. Philosophy can be pretty lonely and daunting, for me at least, if I don’t hash out my ideas with friendly others. And when in the course of doing that you find out you have basically the same thought as someone else, it can give rise to co-authoring pretty naturally. I would say “organically,” but hey, this isn’t Pitchfork.


If you know of an early-career researcher doing interesting work, nominate them for a research spotlight through our submission form.  Our goal is to cover early-career research from a broad array of philosophical areas and perspectives, reflecting the variety of work being done by APA members.



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