No sex in the brain

Women Philosophers
October 11, 1996

Mary Warnock has collected together some excellent pieces of philosophy by women. They are a reminder of the brilliance and the diversity that women philosophers have achieved. The historical span of the collection, which begins with a piece on substance written in 1670 by Anne Conway, provides a sense of continuity in women's endeavour to gain admission to philosophy. The later pieces testify to the fact that women, despite their massive under-representation in the profession, have not only gained admission, but participated with distinction. Philippa Foot's paper on moral arguments (1958), for instance, was a catalyst in the revitalisation of moral philosophy; Judith Jarvis Thomson's famous defence of abortion (1971) decisively changed the shape of the debate.

There is nonetheless something amiss at the heart of this book. It presents a range of writings by women, yet it contains nothing that argues for the relevance of gender to philosophy. Warnock is aware that a feminist literature exists, and that its exclusion requires justification. She says, first, that feminist philosophy is no good, for it contains "too much unexamined dogma" and "too little objective analysis"; and, second, that it is in any case not genuine philosophy, since it fails a certain "test of generality" which she takes as a criterion: "The truths which philosophers seek must aim to be not merely generally, but objectively, even universally true. Essentially they must be gender-indifferent."

There is good and bad work in all kinds of philosophy, and feminist philosophy is no exception. But Warnock's summary judgement as to the poor quality of feminist philosophical work is wholly unjust. As for the idea that the concern with gender makes feminist philosophy insufficiently general to count as philosophy, this is an absurdity. All human beings, as sexed and social creatures, are defined in relation to some category of gender, so at this abstract level gender is not merely a general category, but a human universal.

Warnock seems to assume that feminist philosophy must seek gender-specific truths, for she alleges a contrast with genuine philosophy which must seek "gender-indifferent" truths. I would dispute the assumption. Feminist philosophers investigate the different ways that gender can illuminate philosophical questions and debates. Furthermore, this new sort of philosophical inquiry is being championed distinctively by women, and it has no less a goal than to transform our conception of the subject. Any book devoted to women philosophers as such ought at least to represent this movement somewhere in its pages, not least because it is happening now. Despite there being so very much to admire in the individual pieces collected here, the nonrepresentation of what is undeniably an innovative movement by women in philosophy renders the collection, in my opinion, disappointingly conservative.

One of the finest pieces begins: "To do philosophy is to explore one's own temperament, and yet at the same time to attempt to discover the truth". Iris Murdoch's insight should remind us that if we wish to reflect on philosophy in a way that will issue in a proper understanding of our own philosophical inheritance, then we must not only ask which truths it has attempted to reveal, but also whose temperaments were thereby explored. That is, what is the significance, if any, of the fact that the temperaments explored so far have mainly been those of men? This question matters: if we are to be philosophers at all, then we are committed to a certain intellectual cohabitation with these male temperaments, as well as with such truths and falsehoods as they may have given us. Insofar as Warnock's book may help us to seek an answer it does so despite itself, since the project of gathering together the writings of women philosophers is denied its proper rationale. For this reason the collection amounts to no more - though indeed no less - than the sum of its parts.

Miranda Fricker is research fellow in philosophy, Birkbeck College, University of London.

Women Philosophers

Editor - Mary Warnock
ISBN - 0 460 87738 0 and 87721 6
Publisher - J. M. Dent
Price - £20.00 and £6.99
Pages - 301

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