Philosophy, feminism and universalism

RP 076 () / Article

During the last ten years or so, when I have been asked what my particular ‘interests’ are, I have usually said that I have been working on ‘feminism and philosophy’, or ‘philosophy and feminism’ – or perhaps, though less often, ‘feminist philosophy’. I have become increasingly interested in how to think about this conjunction: ‘Feminism and … ; Philosophy and … ‘

In Hipparchia’s Choice, Michele Le Dceuffwrites:

The desire to see philosophy continue: this is something that preoccupies us all. Yet have we thought ill enough of this discipline that we love? ‘” On occasion I have maintained that this discourse which claims to understand everything better than any other is a mode of phantasmagorical hegemony; all the same, in it I saw my road to freedom.)

My own experience was similar. My interest in philosophy began in my teenage years and became serious in my mid twenties. Among other things, it symbolized to me independence of mind and rejection of the narrow rigidities of my childhood and adolescence. And one of its great attractions was that it seemed to have nothing to do with the rest of my life. The ‘I’ who studied philosophy seemed almost Cartesian, and I thought of philosophy as dealing with ‘universal’ questions where I might just possibly meet on equal terms, as it were, with other ‘minds’, and where the problems of the rest of my life could be bracketed out. (The American philosopher Sara Ruddick writes, in similar vein, that her life was shaped by a love affair with Reason; a desire to be in a ‘world’ that transcended the messy and fleshly concerns of everyday life – and particularly, in her case, motherhood.[2]

When I first studied philosophy, the question of gender did not even enter my head, and when I first became aware of it, it was with a profound sense of shock, since it seemed to undermine the foundations of what I thought I had been doing. One of the most fundamental aims of feminist philosophical work has been to deconstruct the claims of much masculinist philosophical theory to be ‘universal’ or ‘objective’ in the sense of being able to adopt a ‘God’s eye view’ above the fray of things like social location and politics. Elizabeth Grosz [3] writes that three of the most important things questioned by feminist philosophers have been the following:

  1. The belief in any universal truth independent of the particularities of history or social conditions.
  2. The belief in observer-neutral or context-free knowledge.
  3. The belief in a transhistorical subject of knowledge who can in all ways ‘distance’ himself from the objects of knowledge; in other words, a dIsembodied, sexless, perspectiveless knower.

These views are shared in many ways by postmodern epistemologists. The distinctiveness of the feminist critique of philosophy, however, lies mainly in the demonstration that there are important ways in which much of philosophy rests on typically or paradigmatically male experience and concerns, even though these may not be the same at all times. What preoccupies philosophers, what is seen as ‘important’, what is marginalized or even seen as ‘not philosophy’, what is absent and not thought worthy of mention, what is given little value or treated with contempt — these are closely related to conceptions of masculinity, and to the projects that are, in varying ways, seen as typifying the life of a man. Much feminist philosophical writing has aimed to show that this ‘false universalism’ is, in fact, a type of particularity.

Now this might suggest that the aim of feminist philosophy should be to transcend this false universalism, and develop philosophical theories which are in some way more inclusive, and perhaps genuinely ‘universal’. This kind of view, when applied to other fields of enquiry such as science, has sometimes been […]