The moral meaning of mothers

Moral Passages - Womanising Nietzsche
October 13, 1995

Superficially, these two books have little in common save being in some sense feminist. Kathryn Pyne Addelson's work is concerned with developing a moral theory to answer the question of how we should live, whereas Kelly Oliver examines how philosophy has excluded women.

Addelson uses philosophy and sociology to develop her arguments, and although she is far from a traditional philosopher, she discusses the work of analytical philosophers as well as feminists. Oliver's book, on the other hand, lies firmly in another philosophical tradition of poststructuralism and deconstruction.

The title Womanising Nietzsche is a little misleading as she also critiques Sigmund Freud and, centrally, Jacques Derrida, drawing heavily on the work of feminists such as Luce Irigaray and Julia Kristeva. Addelson's argument is developed largely through the use of many case studies, progressing from practice to theory.

Oliver produces highly theoretical but clearly argued text, that leads from theory to practical speculation. However, the two works contain so many common themes that together they can tell us a great deal about the concerns of, and perhaps the proper direction for, contemporary feminist thinkers.

The feminism that the two texts strive for is an open one, with relevance for all. Addelson is explicitly concerned to seek a general feminism, suited to the 1990s. Her chosen theme of procreation is not defined as concerning only women, but refers to broad child-rearing practices. Oliver is concerned with the "matricide" of western culture and of various philosophers. For Oliver, a reading of Nietzsche and Derrida shows that they fail precisely in not recognising their texts have the implicit function of denigrating and denying women. Her solution develops a model of the maternal, but in an inclusive way: it is not drawn on because of the experience some women have of being mothers, but because every single one of us is born of woman.

Much recent work in feminism and in ethics questions the notion of the autonomous individual, and both Addelson and Oliver continue this theme in their very different ways. Addelson uses her case studies to show how individuals and individualism are inextricably linked in social meaning, in collective action and collective possibilities. In doing so she gives some extremely penetrating analysis of different ways of seeing the same moral issues, and she shows how the social persistently lies behind what may be presented as the individual. However, her work perhaps lacks sufficient theoretical argument to show that we must always understand individuals on the level of the collective.

Oliver's critique of traditional psychoanalytical accounts of the mother posits maternity as the foundation of social order, not a threat to it. She shows how issues of connection and separation always work together: all subjectivity is intersubjectivity. She raises queries about the separation of an ethic of care from an ethic of justice in the work of Carol Gilligan, raising exciting possibilities for the development of work in feminist ethics.

If truth is convergence, we must think very carefully about the places where these two texts seem to meet.

Paula Boddington is lecturer in philosophy and study adviser, Australian National University.

Moral Passages: Toward a Collectivist Moral Theory

Author - Kathryn Pyne Addelson
ISBN - 0 415 91020 X and 91021 8
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £37.50 and £11.99
Pages - 332

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