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Feminism and Philosophy: An Exchange

In response to:

Feminists and Philosophy from the October 20, 1994 issue

To the Editors:

Martha Nussbaum’s review [NYR, October 20, 1994] of A Mind of One’s Own deeply misrepresents the stated intentions of the editors of the volume, Louise Antony and Charlotte Witt. Although they share Nussbaum’s scepticism about arguments connecting gender to notions of reason and rationality, they were concerned, as she clearly is not, to represent those arguments in the words of their proponents. The volume was conceived as a conversation between these two positions, something one would not guess from Nussbaum’s review.

Rather than refer to any of the papers that most clearly present the revisionist side of the argument (aside from mine, there are those of Genevieve Lloyd and Robin Schott; they are the only papers Nussbaum does not discuss), Nussbaum offers her own speculations about what might motivate such arguments, and refers to two contributors to a newsletter. In one of those cases, she seriously misrepresents the views of the author, Ruth Ginzberg. Ginzberg, a philosopher who regularly teaches logic, is concerned to think through the resistance many of her students show to logic, with the aim, as she clearly states in the piece to which Nussbaum refers, of helping them to claim the tools of formal reasoning as their own and to be empowered in their use—for precisely the reasons Nussbaum gives. Such caricaturing of views is problematic enough on its own terms; in this case it takes the place of any critical discussion of the more contentious papers in the book under review.

Contributing to this volume, including participating in the conference that the editors organized as we were preparing our essays, was enormously rewarding. It was especially useful for me to be engaged seriously by other feminists and philosophers whose views are so deeply different from my own. No matter how negatively Nussbaum may have judged my paper or the others she didn’t discuss, it would have far better served feminism and philosophy to have acknowledged that such a conversation, and not the promotion of one side of it, was the point of the book she was reviewing.

Naomi Scheman

Professor of Philosophy

University of Minnesota

Minneapolis, Minnesota

To the Editors:

It is surely boring to readers of these pages to read the lament that one has been misinterpreted, but it is also a little bitter to experience such distortion, especially at the hands of someone whose work I so much admire. Martha Nussbaum rightly observes that I think much of the theory of logic has some complicity in the subordination and marginalization of women, and then she somehow attributes to me the view to which I myself am objecting by explaining part of how it came to be sustained, the view that women are “empty-headed and illogical” (p. 59).

How she arrived at this attribution is very unclear, for she offers not a word of explanation. Omitting some prosaic possibilities as uncharitable as the language she employs, it may be that the key is that neither she nor I would be writing about these matters if there weren’t something to worry about. I would surmise, furthermore, that we would agree on the generalization that women (and men, for all that goes) have at least as much ability to reason as is required by “logic,” by theories about what is rational thinking.

What there is to worry about then is that “the subordination and marginalization of women” has involved both the refusal to recognize women’s rationality and the unwillingness to provide even reasonable opportunities for its training, development, and employment. Whether or not “logic” is an accomplice to these disrespectful and wasteful practices, as I argued it was, the upshot is that at least some women sometimes accept the cultural stereotype of themselves as illogical, that they sometimes shun encounters where “logical argumentation” is the coin of the realm, that they sometimes develop an attitude toward logic that resembles the so-called “math phobia,” and so on. If women come to think of themselves as “illogical” in these contexts—let alone what some men might be encouraged to think—, these are real, if not unmixed, losses, and their consequences are indeed often something to worry about. And I would not have written for an essentially feminist publication if I did not think women are powerfully capable of worrying about these things in deeply and genuinely rational ways—including the development of more adequate theories of logic.

Vance Cope-Kasten

Department of Philosophy

Ripon College

Ripon, Wisconsin

Martha Nussbaum replies:

First I wish to express my personal respect for Naomi Scheman. Her perceptiveness and analytic sharpness are well known; I can think of few people whose comments, questions, and observations are as stimulating. It was largely because I believed that the article by Scheman in the Antony/Witt collection did not give a fair representation of Scheman’s philosophical ability that I omitted discussion of it.

I did not misrepresent the intentions of Louise Antony and Charlotte Witt. Indeed, I showed the manuscript of the review to them, and to all authors in the volume whose articles I discussed at any length, and revised it after taking account of their comments. I then read a second draft of the review at a session of the Society for Analytical Feminism with both editors and a number of the authors in attendance; again I was alert for criticisms, and revised the piece in response to some of them. I remained critical of Antony and Witt’s decision to include some pieces of what I consider to be inferior work for reasons of balance, and I made that difference plain.

The Antony/Witt volume had a peculiar feature: the anti-reason positions that most of the articles were criticizing were not the positions of the “dissident” philosophers represented in the collection (with the exception of Lloyd, who was criticized in Atherton’s paper). I chose to focus on the debate between the pro-reason essays and their target, rather than on the (sometimes idiosyncratic) positions represented in what I thought the weaker essays. The feminist debate over reason and objectivity is fruitful, and I hope it will continue. I do have a position in that debate, whose expression in the review should not have come as any surprise. I have criticized postmodernist attacks on reason and objectivity in print for about ten years. In recent years, furthermore, in the course of work on issues concerning the status of women in developing countries, I have observed the frequency with which such attacks on reason (and also on Enlightenment universalism) have been used to discredit feminist attacks on local traditions that subordinate them. These experiences have confirmed me in my conviction that feminism needs to be able to avail itself of robust notions of reason and objectivity. (See especially “Human Functioning and Social Justice: In Defense of Aristotelian Essentialism,” Political Theory, 1992.) I repeated those points in the review.

Ruth Ginzberg’s short essays on feminism and logic, which I discussed, are all I know of her work. Since Ginzberg is currently looking for a job (a fact of which I was unaware when I wrote the review), it is important to state that I have no intention of impugning her work generally; indeed, I have heard much good of her, as teacher and as writer. I trust that prospective employers will pass an unbiased judgment on the totality of her work. I think that the 1988 articles are unsuccessful. Although her writing is not always terribly clear, I am convinced that I characterized their argument correctly. Ginzberg writes that she herself is personally convinced that the inferential pattern called modus ponens (If p, then q; p; therefore q) is valid. On the other hand, she reports that female students in her classes have trouble seeing its validity more often than do male students. Her conclusion is that we should consider broadening our notion of logic to include the thinking of these women, who usually get branded irrational because modus ponens is taken to be definitive of the rational. She writes: “As well-trained philosophers, though, we should realize that the mere fact that a young undergraduate can’t describe the phenomenon of human reasoning upon first being asked the question is not evidence in favor of the claim that her perception of the phenomenon is wrong” (emphasis in the original). She then refers to some other feminist critiques of reason and logic, and says that she can’t help thinking that these criticisms are right.

In a recent interview in the Chronicle of Higher Education, furthermore, asked about her position in the modus ponens articles, Ginzberg is quoted as saying that “philosophy might do better to expand its definition of what counts as rationality”—presumably, once again, by admitting as rational what is usually taken to be illogical and therefore irrational. So I think that I have characterized the project correctly: only what Ginzberg calls a broader notion of the rational is what I would call the irrational, if it involves entertaining the possibility of doing without modus ponens. Indeed, notice, Ginzberg’s own argument has the form of modus ponens. (If female students tend to have trouble with modus ponens, logic should be broadened to include the ways they think; female students do have trouble with modus ponens; therefore…) Without that inferential form, which has not been challenged even by nonstandard logics, I don’t see how Ginzberg or her students or anyone else can think or speak. Furthermore, I am skeptical of her alleged facts. Neither I nor any other teacher of philosophy I know has had Ginzberg’s experience of a gender disparity with respect to grasping modus ponens. If there is something about Ginzberg’s position that I have missed, all I can say is that I did my best to interpret the materials before me.

Cope-Kasten, like Ginzberg, offers a reconceptualization of the logical, with the intention of making logic more hospitable to women and their interests. His way, though well-intentioned, is even more perverse than Ginzberg’s: he writes that the Aristotelian syllogism is oppressive of women because it separates the form of reasoning from its matter. (Traditionally, he says, women are associated with matter, men with form.) But if one cannot separate consideration of the logical form of an argument from the consideration of the truth or falsity of its premises, one is unable to think or argue. That distinction is fundamental to all reasoned discourse, both male and female. If I say: “All women are illogical; W is a woman; therefore W is illogical,” I make a formally valid argument, but it is unsound because its first premise is false. If, on the other hand, I argue, “All mothers are women, W is a woman, therefore W is a mother,” I make an invalid inference from true premises. Without this distinction there is no room for any reasoned criticism of anything, much less of bias and injustice. Therefore the consequence of Cope-Kasten’s argument, I said (not, of course, his intention) would be to reinforce the view that women are illogical.

I am aware that I have been understood by some of my readers to be dividing feminists into “good” and “bad” feminists, and to be declaring some people’s work to be illegitimate. Let me say, then, that I have no desire to impugn the integrity of any feminist philosopher or her work, nor did I do so. It has been very hard to make a place for feminism in academic philosophy. Scheman and some of her fellow feminist philosophers have had to suffer a lot of unjust vilification and abuse, some of which I plan to describe at a later date. Those of us who come late to the subject, when it is already respectable, owe gratitude to those who took bigger risks earlier, opening up what is by now an intellectually exciting diverse field, full of stimulating controversy and a rich plurality of views. (The whole point of my review, obviously, was to make some of this exciting work known to a more general audience.) I do think that the participants in these controversies should be willing to say frankly what they take to be mistaken and what they take to be inferior. To conceal such judgments out of respect for the person’s intentions and goals is to treat that person like a child. But the pioneers in this new discipline deserve the unequivocal admiration of all of us for their vision and for the courage with which they risked their careers for their new conception of what both justice and excellence require.

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