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.

Third, feminists note that males who wish to justify the oppression of women have frequently made a pretense of objectivity and of freedom from bias in sifting evidence, and have used the claim of objectivity to protect their biased judgments from rational scrutiny. More than a little perversely, some feminists have blamed this behavior on the norm of objectivity itself, rather than on its abusers.

Finally, a number of interesting philosophical criticisms of traditional norms of reason have recently been made within philosophy—concerning, among other issues, the role of human interest and desire in inquiry, and its cooperative or communal character; concerning, as well, the contribution of the emotions to good reasoning about personal and political choice. These issues are thought to have some relevance to feminism. Only this last point seems of any intellectual interest, and I shall return to it.

All this time, there have been many women in philosophy doing good work, along more or less traditional lines, in metaphysics, epistemology, moral and political philosophy, and the history of all these. Many of these women are, politically, strong feminists. Thus they have been increasingly troubled by the strident claims of other feminists (both in and outside of the profession of philosophy), wondering whether there really is, as is claimed, something politically retrograde in their own activity. But at the same time they remained convinced that these charges were misguided, that traditional philosophical work, its traditional methods and also its traditional texts, still had a valuable role to play in feminism.

A Mind of One’s Own is a collection of essays by women who are prominent in philosophy today and who wish to confront recent feminist criticisms of philosophy. Most of the contributors are under fifty and widely respected; most grew up with strong political ties to feminism. Few have written much about feminist issues in their work, and it is a question whether they would have achieved success had they done so. (Reason may not be male-biased, but many philosophers who use it certainly have been, and the profession has remained one of the most male-dominated in all of the humanities.) These women now ask: Are we right to feel, as we do, that reason and objectivity, the traditional “tools of our trade” (as the editors write) have important contributions to make to the lives of women who seek full equality?

The collection is important because women in philosophy have too long been silent about the question it poses, embarrassed by the shortcomings of some feminist philosophical work but reluctant to criticize people with whose politics they have much sympathy. The book is also distinguished by the quality of its contributors. On no previous occasion have so many of the most interesting female thinkers in philosophy contributed to a single book dealing with feminist issues. Most of the contributors tend to pull their punches, spending pages to say politely that a certain piece of anti-reason feminist writing fails to make some elementary distinction, or makes a basic logical error. For example, Margaret Atherton is too patient with writers who collapse the distinction between rationalism and empiricism; and Sally Haslanger spends ten pages showing that Catharine MacKinnon confuses being objective with pretending to be objective when one is not. Several other articles fail to reach the generally high standard of the collection. One should, I think, admire the motives of the editors, who describe their goal as promoting tolerance and respectful dialogue, while criticizing them for being on occasion excessively tolerant.10

The book begins with essays examining traditional writers in the “canon” of Western philosophy, and arguing, as the editors put it, “that the thought of traditional philosophers is rich with possibilities for feminist interpretations.” Oddly enough, there is no essay on Plato or Mill—it is both a strength and a weakness in the collection that contributors write on whatever interests them most, without much regard for an overall plan. Marcia Homiak contributed a richly suggestive essay on Aristotle, a thinker of remarkable misogyny who has nonetheless recently come to be of great interest to feminists in both philosophy and the law.11 Homiak eloquently shows the reasons for this interest, investigating Aristotle’s norm of a life lived in accordance with reason. Unlike some modern pictures of reason prevalent in economics and elsewhere, the Aristotelian view, Homiak argues, does not neglect the role of emotions in practical reasoning, nor does it neglect the importance of attachment and affiliation in a complete rational life. On the other hand, it insists that this life of affiliation—marriage, friendship, citizenship—be lived in accordance with a plan endorsed through reflection; in this way it provides a model for feminists eager to endorse the emotions while also affirming the values of self-respect and self-determination.

Although this is not central to her argument, I wish that Homiak had taken the opportunity to be more critical of the traditional opposition between emotion and reason on which the denigration of emotion she mentions is based. Aristotle certainly gives good arguments for seeing this opposition as oversimple. And one reason he believes that anger, pity, and other emotions are so important to good reasoning is that he thinks these emotions themselves contain reasoning. (A part of being angry, for example, is to have the belief that one has been wronged.) But in general Homiak’s essay goes to the heart of some of the more interesting feminist criticisms of traditional norms of reason; for she shows that the tradition itself has rich resources for the criticism of some accounts of reason that feminists have found impoverished.

A similar demonstration of the richness of the “canon” is to be found in Annette Baier’s article on Hume, which argues that Hume’s idea of reason as a natural embodied faculty can help us investigate some of the interesting questions feminists have asked about traditional ideas of intellectual detachment. According to Baier, Hume argues that reason is not a quasi-divine faculty, but a natural embodied capacity that human beings share with other creatures who learn from experience. He anticipates the modern feminist argument that human “norms, including norms for acquiring language, are social in their genesis as well as in their intended scope.” Later in the book, Helen Longino, a philosopher of science, develops this very line of argument (though without reference to Hume), emphasizing the importance of social context and shared standards in acquiring scientific knowledge. Baier’s claim for Hume’s relevance to current feminist projects thus receives strong support.

Hume and Aristotle have often been invoked in feminist argument. It might seem to be a more difficult matter to reclaim more austere philosophers such as Descartes and Kant, whose views have frequently been denounced by feminists as based on culturally male standards of detachment and cold rationality. And yet Margaret Atherton convincingly argues that Descartes’s arguments for a genderless reason separated from and not determined by the nature of the body were in fact sources of strength for women aspiring to equality. On the whole, the rationalist idea of a fixed human essence, far from promoting women’s oppression, helped to advance their equality. For if we are not more than what we are made to be by society, and women appear to be different, then they are different; but if we all have an inalienable rational core, then that core may be seen to exert moral claims even on those who would deny its presence. This is the very argument in favor of Cartesian rationalism that was long ago made by Noam Chomsky, who might have been mentioned in this connection. Atherton gives the argument a firmer historical basis, and shows its continued appeal.

Finally, in an especially fascinating article, Barbara Herman, a leading moral philosopher, devotes her attention to Kant. Herman has elsewhere effectively defended many of Kant’s basic moral ideas about respect, virtue, and what it means to be a person.12 Here, therefore, she attempts the much less promising task of defending his ideas on sex and marriage. Kant’s evident misogyny and disdain for the body have caused feminists to dismiss his arguments without seriously considering them. But, Herman argues, Kant’s thinking about the possibilities of exploitation inherent in sexuality should be taken seriously: in his Lectures on Ethics and his Metaphysics of Morals he correctly points out that sexual interest in another’s body frequently blocks respect for the other as a person, leading the person to be treated as a thing. The prospect of sexual pleasure, furthermore, also leads people to volunteer to be treated as things. Sexual activity involves mutual surrender and thus, for Kant, the conversion of persons into things. Legal institutions, in his view, should intervene to protect the status of the parties as persons. Marriage, for him, is the way in which law intervenes to define the parties to a sexual relationship as equal persons, thereby blocking the natural tendency to treat people as objects, and so to exploit them. The rules of care and support in marriage produce an artificial structure of moral regard by making sexual relations possible only where there are secure guarantees of concern for the other person’s life and the acceptance of obligations with respect to that person’s welfare.

Whatever we may think of these ideas, Herman argues, we must admit that they deserve the most serious scrutiny of feminists. Indeed, they anticipate the conclusions of some contemporary feminists,13 while connecting those conclusions to a deeper analysis of personhood and equality. Feminists, Herman suggests, should be skeptical of Kant’s solution to the problem—for they may judge, with good reason, that marriage has all too frequently promoted and protected the exploitation and the thing-like treatment of women.14 Nonetheless, a modern critical analysis of sexual relations, marital and non-marital, can learn much from his diagnosis.

The most interesting essays in the rest of the collection offer eloquent defenses of aspects of traditional philosophy that have been severely criticized by feminists. Elizabeth Rapaport addresses the arguments of feminists who hold that out of respect for the differences among groups of women we should reject the concept of “woman” as a universal notion, and avoid claiming that women are members of a class whose oppression has certain common features the world over.15 Concentrating on the work of Catharine MacKinnon, who has frequently been criticized for her “essentialism,” she defends MacKinnon’s appeal to such universal claims in moral and also legal argument, holding that a legitimate concern to emphasize differences should not cause us to deny common features—such features, for example, as sexual subordination and vulnerability to sexual violence—in the oppression of all women. Recognition of such common elements is frequently important to both moral and legal argument. But Rapaport should, with MacKinnon, go further: we need not only a concept of woman, but also a universal concept of the human being in order to say clearly what women need and what has been denied them. MacKinnon’s well-known statement that “being a woman is not yet a way of being a human being”16—i.e., that women are not granted the status of human beings—derives its argumentative force from a rather Kantian (or Platonic) notion of a common humanity that underlies gender and gives rise to claims of equal rights: “Being a tree is not yet a way of being a human being” has no moral force; it is only against a background assumption that women are indeed human (have needs, capacities, and rights similar to those of men) that the claim that their way of life is not fully human has moral force.

To invoke a notion of “the human being” is to engage in metaphysics—though not necessarily a type of metaphysics that seeks standards outside human experience. And feminists who regard all universal notions with suspicion have also put under suspicion the entire activity of doing metaphysics, which we might loosely describe as the activity of analyzing, the most general concepts that we use in talking and thinking about anything whatever, concepts such as cause and effect, substance and property, and so forth. Feminists have been particularly suspicious of concepts that appear central to feminist analysis: the concept of the human, the concept of the individual, and the notion of binary opposition or contrast. It has been claimed that the universal concept of the human being ignores morally salient differences among groups, and frequently imposes a male norm on women; that emphasis on the individual neglects values of mutual help and care that women rightly prize; and that binary contrasts are generally used to cordon off or marginalize groups that lack power.

Charlotte Witt—the author of one of the best books recently written on Aristotle’s Metaphysics17—argues strongly that recent feminist criticisms of metaphysical analysis have been badly misguided. To the extent that they make interesting criticisms of the metaphysical tradition and some of its central notions, they have done so by using metaphysical analysis themselves. MacKinnon, she notes, employs her own concept of the human being and human self-realization: but because it is tacitly employed, it is never subjected to full critical analysis.

Carol Gilligan, in her famous criticisms of male norms of reasoning, also offers a contribution to our understanding of what it is to be human—namely, to value care for others and relatedness with them as well as justice and autonomy. This is a view, Witt writes, that would be much easier to assess rationally, and either accept or reject, if it were straight-forwardly presented through an ethical argument, with appropriately rigorous metaphysical analysis—rather than suggested obliquely through summaries of Gilligan’s empirical research.

Empirical studies of gender differences are not sufficient to tell us what is good for either males or females, since we have no reason to think that the people being studied were brought up in circumstances designed to realize their best traits. Witt concludes that postmodernist thinkers such as Richard Rorty and Jean-François Lyotard, who have suggested that it is liberating to stop doing metaphysics, are simply wrong: rigorous argument promotes liberation by showing us clearly what in our practices is merely a matter of habit and what has a more powerful justification. And no postmodernist thinker has succeeded in showing that the distinction between good metaphysical analysis and bad, between rigorous and sloppy analysis, can no longer be used in the age in which we live. In short, the blanket rejection of metaphysical analysis, and even of essentialism, is a perilous theoretical position for feminists, and leaves them without the resources to make a convincing radical critique of unjust societies.

In “Quine as Feminist: the Radical Import of Naturalized Epistemology,” Louise Antony confronts the central charge of the anti-analytic feminists: that traditional epistemology has been inherently male-biased in conceiving of reason as a faculty that enables us to grasp a reality which exists independently of human history and human concepts. As Atherton’s article on Descartes already indicated, it is not at all clear that this traditional picture should be viewed as hostile to feminism; detachment from history can sometimes bring liberation. But Antony believes that there is more to be said about the charges against traditional epistemology. First she makes the obvious point that the feminists who make the charge are way behind the times: for many years there have been few defenders of a strong form of metaphysical realism, according to which truth consists in correspondence to pre-articulated, “given” reality. Most prominent analytic philosophers have criticized that picture in one way or another, giving human faculties some role in constructing not just the conditions of knowledge but also the categories under which objects are objects of knowledge.

She then makes the equally obvious point (which still bears repeating) that the old norm of objectivity was in a sense more attractive for feminists than the norms that feminists now defend. For if we could get to the real truth by purifying ourselves of all social and historical influences, and if this were a project that had any real hope of being achieved, then arguments in favor of women’s equality and dignity would be, at least in principle, easy to assess. If, on the other hand, we grant (persuaded by the arguments of W. V. Quine, Nelson Goodman, and others as well) that history, culture, and human interests always color inquiry in one way or another, we saddle ourselves with the much more subtle and tricky task of demarcating, in any inquiry, between the legitimate and valuable historical and cultural influences and those that are not so valuable. We run the risk that many will despair of accomplishing the task; they may suppose that the search for knowledge really is nothing else but a kind of power-seeking, in which ideology in effect displaces epistemology. This extreme conclusion is not warranted by any of the more convincing antirealist arguments. That is why post-modernist accounts, for example that of Stanley Fish, are especially defective. 18 But those accounts raise a serious issue concerning the role of interests in knowledge. Therefore, to answer such people, we require an epistemology that separates legitimate from illegitimate human interests.

Having defined this task, Antony’s essay does not attempt to carry it out. And I doubt whether Quine’s thought has the resources to carry it further. Strongly influenced both by a form of behaviorism that would now not find much support even within cognitive psychology, and by an equally uncritical form of sociobiology, Quine does not offer subtle or fruitful insights into these social questions. Here one might have expected Antony to discuss the contributions of the American pragmatists, of the pragmatist-influenced work of Hilary Putnam, and of the work of Jürgen Habermas on the Continent. For these thinkers provide what Quine does not: an account of how human interests might be sifted and critically examined, in order to produce a process of knowledge-seeking that, while not free from interest, is free from illegitimate bias.

These themes are taken up—though with references to the Anglo-American social contract tradition of Locke and Hobbes, rather than to Habermas or Dewey—in Jean Hampton’s fine essay, “Feminist Contractarianism.” While developing her own version of social contract theory, drawing on both Hobbes and Locke, Hampton, an especially original and resourceful moral philosopher, argues that this tradition as a whole has rich resources for addressing feminist concerns about exploitation and manipulation. She concurs with Herman that their sort of concern for the underlying social contract need not signal a neglect of love and human relations. While one would be wrong to use a contract idea to evaluate bonds of love directly, such a concept can enhance these bonds instrumentally by making the parties aware of social imbalances and injustices that might ultimately subvert their relationship. It is only when the demands of distributive justice have been met, Hampton argues, that love can truly flourish.

The essays in this book testify to the richness and diversity of philosophical feminism and of female philosophizing. And they testify to something else, which Witt explicitly states, and several other contributors show without stating: that doing feminist philosophy is not really something different from doing philosophy. (Hence, I think, the sometimes tantalizing quality of the collection, which opens up more issues than it can resolve, leading the reader to want to read each of the contributors’ more systematic work.) To do feminist philosophy is simply to get on with the tough work of theorizing in a rigorous and thoroughgoing way, but without the blind spots, the ignorance of fact, and the moral obtuseness that have characterized much philosophical thought about women and sex and the family and ethics in the male-dominated academy. It is in this way and no other, I think, that women in philosophy can go beyond the past achievements of males.

Answering a hypothetical opponent who charged that women have contributed nothing much to philosophy, J.S. Mill replied that philosophical creativity is not a spontaneous outpouring of untutored genius. It is an achievement that requires both mastery of the tradition and one’s own disciplined rigorous practice within it. Women will achieve much in the field, he says, when that sort of mastery of traditions and practices is opened to them.19 This is now happening, and it deserves recognition.20

This Issue

October 20, 1994