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Feminists and Philosophy

And mustn’t there be a type of woman that loves philosophy,1 and another type that hates it?

Yes, both of these.

Plato, Republic 456A

We’ll encounter opposition, won’t we, if we give women the same education that we give to men, Socrates says to Glaucon. For then we’d have to let women strip and exercise in the company of men. And we know how ridiculous that would seem.

Absolutely, says Glaucon—at least in the light of present practice.

Note, however, that it was not such a long time ago, Socrates says, when the public calisthenics for men that now seem so natural and admirable seemed themselves absurdly foreign—for we weren’t used to the idea of men stripping in public. But when we reflected about the reasons for the change, and decided they were good, then “the appearance of absurdity ebbed away under the influence of reason’s judgment about the best.”2

Convention and habit are women’s enemies here, and reason their ally. Habit decrees that what seems strange is impossible and “unnatural”; reason looks head on at the strange, refusing to assume that the current status quo is either immutable or in any normative sense “natural.” The appeal to reason and objectivity amounts to a request that the observer refuse to be intimidated by habit, and look for cogent arguments based on evidence that has been carefully sifted for bias.

In our own society the arguments of feminists make such appeals to reason and objectivity all the time, and in a manner that closely resembles Platonic arguments. We now demand, with Plato, that reproductive differences between men and women not be taken to be relevant to hiring unless it can be shown that these differences affect job performance, as it rarely can.3 We point out that these differences are not disabilities until law and custom treat them in certain ways; and we expect to be heard. Hiring in my own university was between 1977 and 1992 administered under a consent decree resulting from the settlement of a class-action lawsuit that vividly recalls Platonic arguments: for the males who denied tenure to a prominent female anthropologist held that her new type of scholarship, which concentrated on women, was theoretically weak.4 The women prosecuting the class-action lawsuit did not hesitate to argue that by objective criteria (above all, the judgment of outside experts) this was not the case. The claim of objectivity had been used as a screen to mask mere prejudice against the new and strange. Critical to the case was this distinction between a pretense of objectivity and real objectivity. And so, at Brown as in Athens: “the appearance of absurdity ebbed away under the influence of reason’s judgment about the best.”

And yet today reason and objectivity are on the defensive in some feminist circles. We are frequently told that reason and objectivity are norms created by “patriarchy,” and that to appeal to them is to succumb to the blandishments of the oppressor. We are told that systems of reasoning are systems of domination, and that to adopt the traditional one is thus to be co-opted. Our liberation as women, it is said, requires throwing over the old demand for objectivity and cultivating new modes of reasoning, which are not always clearly specified, but which are frequently taken to involve immersion in a particular historical and social context, and to be closely allied with some form of cultural relativism. Several distinct ideas have been involved in the attack—for example, the idea that traditional norms of objectivity insulate from criticism judgments about women that are false and politically motivated; and the idea that detachment from context is bound up with a traditionally male denigration of intimacy, emotion, and the body. I shall later return to these ideas, some of which have considerable merit.

The assault on reason has now reached the citadel of the alleged enemy: for feminists within philosophy itself have recently been very vocal in calling for the demotion of reason and its replacement by some different, politically more advantageous norm. Things have gone so far that the American Philosophical Association’s Newsletter on Feminism, in a special issue on feminism and rationality, published (along with some admirable articles) a piece by Ruth Ginzberg who teaches philosophy at Wesleyan University, alleging that modus ponens, one of the basic laws of logic,5 was a male patriarchal creation oppressive of women.6 The argument seemed to be that modus ponens is a male-invented way of defining who counts as a rational being, and that women very often (more often, it is suggested, than men) fail to recognize modus ponens as a valid form of inference. Indeed, Ginzberg generalizes, women tend to find “formal symbolic systems” “alien” and “foreign.”

A related article in the same issue argues that the logic of the Aristotelian syllogism is “wonderfully fitted to hierarchical modes of thinking,” because it separates the form of an argument from its material content. Since females have traditionally been linked to matter, males to form, this emphasis on form contributes to the marginalization and subordination of women.7 One might have thought that such arguments would seem to any feminist retrograde maneuvers, capitulations to the worst denigrations of women as empty-headed and illogical. To some feminists, at least, they did not.

The feminist assault on reason is troubling because the arguments in its favor are for the most part weak, as I shall shortly argue, and because these arguments uphold a picture of women that feminists have worked for centuries to overturn. Nor do these weak arguments advance the political goals for which some feminists may favor them. For a mirror image of the assault on traditional conceptions of objectivity has recently been mounted by some conservative thinkers against the very norms of academic freedom and academic objectivity to which women in today’s academy must look for the defense of their employment. For example, the eminent legal scholar Michael McConnell (a professor of law at the University of Chicago) has recently argued that professional organizations should not insist on the usual standards of objective judgment in academic hiring, and the usual norms of academic freedom, in their dealings with religious institutions.

These standards of objectivity, he claims, at least as currently realized, are sectarian and parochial, creations of a narrow liberal tradition. In some religious institutions, McConnell writes, standards of truth and reason require reference to “authority, community, and faith, and not just to individualized and rationalistic processes of thought.”8 Religious institutions are entitled to use these standards to deny jobs to those who do not conform. Liberals, he concludes, cannot claim that their standards of truth and objective judgment must take precedence in making academic judgments. In another article, McConnell explicitly invokes the aid of deconstruction to make these points, arguing that “the central insight of post-modernism is the exposure of liberalism as just another ideology”; relying on this insight, religion can confidently put forward its own criteria of truth.9

It seems unwise for a feminist to ally herself with McConnell’s position on reason and truth, since this position could all too easily be used to defend the firing of women who criticize the position of their church on feminist issues. Yet by espousing deconstructionist ideas, many feminist academics have zealously denied that objective standards can be defended. If those ideas were convincing on other grounds, one might have to put up with these difficult practical consequences. But one certainly should not favor them for the sake of their practical consequences—as frequently happens, I believe, in feminist debate. And, as I shall shortly argue, the ideas are in fact far from convincing.

The issue raised by McConnell is of immediate concern to women in philosophy. In 1990, the national board of the American Philosophical Association proved unable, after lengthy debate, to pass a simple resolution opposing discrimination in hiring, promotion, and publication. Some religious institutions protested that they wished to support a different resolution exempting them from the anti-discrimination provisions, which mentioned race, gender, religious affiliation, and sexual orientation among the impermissible grounds of discrimination. (The version that was finally passed was a compromise, allowing these institutions to discriminate only on the grounds of religious affiliation, and not where such membership was defined in a way that entailed any other form of forbidden discrimination.) My point here is not about the relationship between religion and feminism. The opposition to women’s equality has many sources in our society, and in many cases religious traditions have been major sources of support for women’s progress. What I am claiming is that the opposition to women’s equality, whether in secular or in religious dress, derives support from the claim that traditional norms of objectivity are merely a parochial liberal ideology. Women in philosophy have, it seems, good reasons, both theoretical and urgently practical, to hold fast to standards of reason and objectivity.

Why, then, have they not done so? Why is the assault on reason so attractive to some feminist thinkers? Four reasons, I believe, can be offered for the trend. First, these feminists, like many other critical social thinkers, have been influenced by French theorists such as Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault, and by their criticisms of reason. To my mind perversely, they believe that these positions, which try to reduce reasons for a conviction to causes of that conviction and claim that arguments merely reflect the play of social and political forces, have in them something liberating and politically progressive. But one might reflect that if argument is to depend on the play of forces, the weaker will always lose. What the weak seem to require is a situation in which reason prevails over force, and is given special respect. The deconstructionist might now reply that, as a matter of fact, this never happens, and it is liberating at least to recognize this fact. To this one should say that the descriptive claim seems false—and that to make such dire claims as if they reflected inevitable truth is likely to make them come true, by leading people to relax their vigilance about standards of argument.

Second, feminists working in philosophy note that the philosophical tradition has existed alongside patriarchal and oppressive institutions. Then, in a fallacious form of argument that one might designate cum hoc, ergo propter hoc, they blame the philosophical tradition for these abuses—even though some of the philosophers in the tradition were social radicals who argued vehemently against them, and still others provided in their thought the bases for a critical assault on unjust practices. Nor do they consider the historical analysis forcefully put forward by J.S. Mill in The Subjection of Women, according to which women’s situation becomes far worse in eras mistrustful of reason and argument. It is hard enough at any time, Mill writes, to convince people of something that goes against their deeply entrenched interests and threatens their power. It is impossible to do so when they spurn the very mechanisms of reasoned persuasion.

  1. 1

    Strictly speaking, my translation contains a redundancy: literally, the Greek says, “that loves wisdom,” and “love of wisdom” is what philosophy is.

  2. 2

    Plato, Republic, 442A-D. The best recent account of this section of the Republic is in Plato: Republic 5, translation and commentary by S. Halliwell (Warminster: Aris and Phillips, 1993).

  3. 3

    Compare Republic 451DE, where Socrates gets Glaucon to admit that female dogs are not considered to be incapacitated for all other tasks by the fact that they sometimes bear and suckle young.

  4. 4

    The Title VII class action suit, initiated in connection with the tenure case of Louise Lamphere, resulted in a settlement that granted tenure to Lamphere and two other female faculty members who had been denied tenure, and a cash settlement to another who had been terminated earlier. A monitoring committee was set up to supervise hiring, tenure, and promotion at Brown, requiring that all jobs be duly and publicly advertised and that departments carefully document their search procedures, giving reasons for not hiring the best of the available female and minority candidates. It has been my experience that no statement in good faith of reasons for not hiring a candidate is denied out of a mechanical concern for minority and female hiring. (My own department, which has since 1984 had two tenured women, has recently hired six males in a row, with perfect justice so far as I am able to see, and with no impediment from the university.)

    But there is general agreement on campus that the existence of the guidelines very much improved the quality of both male and female faculty members, largely because of the requirement of public advertisement and search, which prevented weak departments from perpetuating themselves through informal hiring methods. For a description of the Lamphere case, see Louise Lamphere, ” ‘Not So Much Worse Than Others’: Forging a Career in the Context of Title VII Suit,” manuscript on file with the author, Department of Anthropology, The University of New Mexico.

  5. 5

    Modus ponens is the inferential form: if P, then Q; P; therefore Q.

  6. 6

    Ruth Ginzberg, “Feminism, Rationality, and Logic,” in American Philosophical Association Newsletter on Feminism and Philosophy, Vol. 88, No. 2 (March 1989), pp. 34–39; see also Ginzberg, “Teaching Feminist Logic,” same issue, pp. 58–62.

  7. 7

    Vance Cope-Kasten, “A Portrait of Dominating Rationality,” same issue, pp. 29–34.

  8. 8

    Michael McConnell, “Academic Freedom in Religious Institutions,” in William van Alstyne, editor, Freedom and Tenure in the Academy (Duke University Press, 1993) pp. 303–324; see the eloquent reply by Judith Jarvis Thomson and Matthew W. Finkin, in the same volume, pp. 419–429, which makes use throughout of appeals to reason, logical distinctions, and traditional philosophical analysis. McConnell replies to Thomson and Finkin in an unpublished response on file with the author. I note that one might agree with McConnell’s conclusion without agreeing with this aspect of his reasoning: for, without granting that standards of objectivity are parochial and mere “ideology,” one might grant on grounds of religious liberty that religious institutions should be in some cases exempt from those standards. This was in fact a central line of argument in McConnell’s article.

  9. 9

    McConnell, ” ‘God is Dead and We Have Killed Him!’: Freedom of Religion in the Post-Modern Age,” Brigham Young University Law Review, Part 1 (Winter 1993), pp. 163–188. On a close reading of his argument McConnell does not finally embrace deconstruction; he argues only that its insights might be used to support religious freedom. McConnell’s argument about tradition and religious freedom is subtle and complex; the reader should be aware that I have presented only a small and not altogether representative part of it.

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