Bearding dinosaurs in their common-room lairs

The Blackwell Guide to Feminist Philosophy. First Edition

May 25, 2007

Not so long ago "feminist philosophy" would have seemed an oxymoron. Philosophy, it might have been said, is about the human condition in the abstract, not the condition of a subset of humanity.

Such an airy dismissal might still be muttered by common-room dinosaurs, but it will not get much of a hearing, and rightly so. Historically, great philosophers have often been concerned with relations between different subsets of humanity: men and women, masters and slaves, parents and children, citizens and outsiders. And philosophically, although there are important similarities between the condition of different classes of humanity, there are differences as well, and moral and political theory, but also the theory of interpretation, meaning and communication, must think about how to take them into account.

Of course, when it comes to men and women it is no easy matter to work out what the differences are, whether they are innate or socially constructed or even whether they are there to be celebrated or only deplored. Writers venturing into that territory will also face the danger that whatever catalogue they hit upon is liable to be queried as the product of a particular squint. Perhaps it is only writers from Mars (or Venus) who think that men are from Mars and women are from Venus. Objectivity and certainty are contested categories - where on this dream-visited planet are they to be found, asked William James despairingly - and however we might hope to answer him, an unlikely place indeed to look for them is in descriptions of the relations between men and women.

Indeed, "essentialism" is one of the most joyously used terms of abuse in the feminist lexicon, covering any position holding that there are useful general things to say about women or, for that matter, men. It is less often noticed that this raises the question of whether the very idea of feminist philosophy falls into the same abyss.

The 15 essays in this admirably professional collection cover much territory, grouped into four general areas: history, moral philosophy, political philosophy and epistemology, or the theory of knowledge.

Historically, there are questions about the relatively invisible place of women in the history of philosophy, and about the quality of work that some women in fact produced.

The enemy here is nicely epitomised by Kant, who acidly remarked that a woman with her head stuffed full of Greek might as well grow a beard, "for that would express more obviously the mien of profundity for which she strives". Kant is also something of a target of the section on ethics, and especially of the outstanding essay by Margaret Walker, since he tried to shoehorn the whole thing into a juridical model where sympathy and feeling play no role. Few feminists will applaud his view that passions and emotions are a kind of illness, detracting from the sovereignty of reason (although curiously enough, many of today's most vigorous Kantians in the academy are women). Kant's epistemology is also seen as an object of suspicion, since it too downplays the activity of the subject, dividing the field between passive receptivity and universal reason, leaving the distinctive experience of the situated subject out of it.

Although I commend this collection as philosophically sophisticated and a useful resource, I have two reservations. First, there is much second-order writing about what previous feminist writers have said. Second, there is little direct passion. You could read it without, for instance, learning that worldwide there are about 100 million females dead through infanticide or neglect in childhood. I suspect such things are not talked about because Western academics fear the label of colonialism. But without facts such as this, airy complaints about oppression, voiced in the abstract by one of the most privileged groups of people on the planet, can sound thin.

The Blackwell Guide to Feminist Philosophy. First Edition

Author - Linda Alcoff and Eva Feder Kittay
Publisher - Blackwell
Pages - 292
Price - £19.99 and £65.00
ISBN - 9780631224 280 and 2243

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