Lunch with a Legend: Dr. Helen Longino, a Pioneer of Women in Philosophy


BY COLLEEN COYLE – STAFF WRITER

Anxiety bubbled in my stomach last Tuesday as I awaited my encounter with the prolific Dr. Longino. What does a sophomore undergraduate say to a woman who has spoken all over the world, published three books, been awarded numerous honors, and teaches at Stanford, one of the country’s top institutions? Thankfully, I was joined several students who also felt equally intimidated and we sat down to lunch with her bubbling with excitement and nerves.

Listening to Dr. Longino speak, I was struck by her intentionality, her preciseness of word, and her mental acuity. She spoke of philosophy as if it was a language, explaining that her fascination was epistemology (theory of learning) tied with a love for philosophy of science. Feminism also inspired her, though she was not trained in feminist philosophy. Rather than studying women in philosophy, Dr. Longino lived as one. She shared with us that as a graduate student the faculty (which was comprised of men) was calling on students to submit a list of potential keynote speakers and Dr. Longino sent one “entirely comprised of female speakers”. Dr. Longino went so far as to keep her name anonymous and later found out that the list of potential female speakers “incensed” the male faculty, as they sought the individual who had the audacity to challenge the patriarchal academic system. Dr. Longino was one of two women in her graduate school, and it was expected that at least one of them would drop out before the end of their term there, needless to say, it was not Dr. Longino.

When interacting with Centre students, Dr. Longino was calm and intentional, listening carefully as students presented opinions, theories, and questions. My anxiety over meeting her was certainly without cause, as she offered opinions, counsel, and humor to each student who offered their thoughts to her.

It comes as no surprise then, that when confronted with the disrespectful Centre audience during her convocation which clapped before she was finished, and played sexually suggestive soundbites, Dr. Longino was unperturbed. Dr. Longino indicated that she encountered much worse, sharing a story of man who was so enraged by her work that he climbed on top of a table to yell profanities at her. In no way was what occurred during her convocation acceptable, but it does make me grin knowing that a few disrespectful undergraduates are the types of individuals Dr. Longino eats for breakfast.

Dr. Longino’s work, which analyzes the binary which scientific research is structured around, could revolutionize the ways in which data is collected and understood, focusing on the interactions, rather than individuals. Implications of her work suggest that the surroundings of a person may be significantly more influential than any inherent personality traits, challenging age old philosophies of individualism and scientific assumptions. Dr. Longino’s work challenges one of philosophy’s most basic assumptions, that all society should be examined at an individual level. When the analysis turns to understanding individuals as a product of a larger group, that can reshape the data collected by scientists and reshape their assumptions, allowing them to produce results that are better able to explain reactions between individual factors.

Dr. Longino is not only a prolific writer in the philosophy of science field but is also a influential female figure in a field dominated by men. In addition to focusing on issues of philosophy, Dr. Longino is working to increase diversity in philosophy and shape the field of philosophy to become more accepting to those who may differ from the typical philosopher.

Dr. Eva Cadavid was responsible for bringing Dr. Longino on campus as part of the Humana speaker grant, and was “thrilled” with having her on campus. Part of Dr. Longino’s visit included visiting classes, speaking with students, and presenting her work to them. I found my earlier anxieties were unfounded in my interactions with Dr. Longino, who I now consider an role model and someone that will likely serve as an inspiration for other Centre men and women who want to change their field for the better.

 


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