Critchley & Philosophy’s Self-Image: A feminist concern?

from "The Bunyip of Berkeley's Creek"

In asking and attempting to answer the question, “What is a philosopher?” in “The Stone,” (discussed by us here), Simon Critchley arguably articulates a familiar image of the philosopher.  To put it roughly, he thinks that philosopher is an other worldly creature who is not engaged with the common values and mores of the society.

This is not an uncommon description, and it may be  one philosophers generally think is true of them.  So let’s suppose it is part of philosophy’s self-image, and restrict our attention to those doing philosophy in Western universities today. 

Philosophy professors seem to be on the whole very privileged and elitist practitioners.  For people who do not hold to society’s values, they conform to lots of them and benefit from them.  Thus there seems to be a suspicious gap between the self-image and the reality.

Or let’s suppose that’s all true for the sake of argument.  What I’m interested in is why this is or could be a feminist concern.  And, while we’re at it, maybe we should say what does or can make something a feminist concern.  (Or not, since that’s a lot to ask of a comment here.)

What do you think?

15 thoughts on “Critchley & Philosophy’s Self-Image: A feminist concern?

  1. I wrote a post on my own blog that addresses your conderns here, jj, and I’d be happy to hear what others think:

    Below, I argue that Critchley’s philosopher practices the logic of hipness. As I detail in my recent article in Contemporary Aesthetics ( , “hipness” is a masculine disidentification with certain privileged masculinities (e.g., white and/or bourgeois ones) whose purpose is to prove or demonstrate one’s superior masculinity (and privilege) to these groups with which one disidentifies. To simplify, the hipster says: “I’m SO incredibly privileged that I can disidentify with/reject/rebel against the conventional signs/attributes of privilege and still receive the benefits of that privilege.” This disidentification for the purpose of demonstrating unqualified privilege is at the heart of Critchley’s definition of a philosopher.

    Critchley’s response to his question is that a philosopher is someone who disidentifies with the status quo in order to prove how superior he (gendered language is intentional here) is to others privileged in this status quo. The status quo is the world of necessity. “The philosopher,” as “the person who has time or takes time,” rejects or rebels against the constraints posed by corporeal and social needs. Insofar as the philosopher is unconstrained by needs, “the freedom of the philosopher consists in either moving freely from topic to topic or simply spending years returning to the same topic out of perplexity, fascination and curiosity”. The philosopher is not only rejecting the “economic” world of “time and money,” but also the oikos, the domestic, the sphere where needs are met. So, one definition of a philosopher is: he who rejects femininity/the feminine/women’s work. Given the recent study finding that female scientists continue to do a disproportionate amount of housework relative to male scientists (, Critchley’s claim that philosophers reject the oikos normalizes maleness/masculinity and makes it difficult for female philosophers to be seen as “real” philosophers.

    The other side of this first definition of “philosopher” is he who disidentifies with the time-money economy. Here is where the logic of hipness is most evident. Unlike those most socio-economically privileged in contemporary society—professionals, businesspeople, and politicians—the philosopher rejects the tokens by which privilege is conferred and recognized (e.g., wealth, success, etc.). As Critchley puts it, “because of their laughable otherworldliness and lack of respect social convention, rank and privilege, philosophers refuse to honor the old gods and this makes them politically suspicious, even dangerous.” I think Critchley is romanticizing and overestimating the “danger” philosophers are thought to pose to society. While a Texas school district may try to ban Bill Martin’s book on Ethical Marxism, their attempt to do so only made them a laughingstock (they mistook Martin the philosopher for Martin the children’s book author. And, may I add, Bill Martin the ethical Marxist is probably the least dangerous and friendliest guy in the profession). Philosophers are only seen as “dangerous” if they don’t have the very tokens of privilege they reject (whiteness, masculinity, bourgeois class status). When white dudes who don’t too closely resemble indigent people exhibit “otherworldliness and lack of respect [for] social convention, rank, and privilege,” they are merely seen as “laughable”. However, when, say, Angela Davis does this, or when white women, or queers, or people of color do this, they’re not thought to be “laughable,” but dangerous. When the philosopher is a white dude, his rejection of the tokens of privilege further confirms his privilege—this is the logic of hipness at work. While the philosopher may romanticize his perceived “dangerousness” or “nonconformity,” viewing himself as more “free” than the non-philosopher, this rebellion appears as a source of freedom or leisure, and not a source of persecution, because he has the privilege to not be considered a serious threat (just “laughable” and “ridiculous”).

    the blog is:

  2. Another possible interpretation: Most, if not all, current university philosophy professors are not philosophers, according to this definition.

  3. anonymous, I completely agree. That’s really why that is, I said, “Or let’s suppose that’s all true for the sake of argument.” I’m trying to understand why feminists should be concerned about such possibilities. So perhaps we can detach the question of why such a view is a concern from the question of whether Critchley holds the view.

  4. Robin, I’m sorry to say that our spam police misidentified you as spam. I’m so glad I found your comment in the spam box and could liberate it. If the spam police were human, I’d be very tempted to say they found you dangerous; I think, though, it just gets activated by comments that contain URLs.

    Whatever. I’m looking forward to thinking through what you are saying. It is odd and interesting that people who in some sense don’t understand white privilege can nonetheless do these faux renunciations of it.

    I agree that one thing the detachment Critchley’s philosopher has is from ‘women’s world.’ Certainly that is part of what should concern feminists.

    Thanks so much for coming by and saying more about your views

  5. I like a lot jj’s question and I reflect on why Critchley’s piece is problematic from a feminist standpoint.

    I think robin and jj are right. C’s philosopher is a checked-out hipster, who is more or less ‘removed’ from women’s world and concerns about money and time. I put ‘removed’ in quotes because his removal actually points to a male fantasy of “god-like” and/or “monstrous” resistance. A detached sovereignty. An existence beyond human attachments.

    C’s philosopher stands outside our ordinary humanity, as a monster or god. He laughs at servant girls and lawyers, and derides the pettifogger who stutters. The parts of his humanity that are rejected are womanhood (particularly that associated with domestic work), material interest, and disability. Obviously, the philosopher is male (as in all of C’s examples), free of needs and eloquent. When you are Socrates or Russell, you are walking with the gods, and they are neither in need nor stammering. Long live the fantasy of the independent mind — the hard thinker removed of everything that would make him vulnerable and material.

    I think there is a lot which is distressing in the ignorant coolness and derisiveness of our philosopher.

    However, jj, I recognize myself a lot in this portrait. I can’t just disavow it. I need to own it, and I feel that those who do philosophy professionally are injured to a large extent by internalizing this ideal. In other words, there is a huge part of me that enjoys the portrait of the philosopher, and I need to look at that part. I recognize that part in some of my friends and in some of the dreams that I have. I know that this part is badly injured by sexism and I need to work it through. But I can not give it away. It does show up sometime in the way I feel and breath.

    That being said, I am terrified to see how the parts of myself that I consider injured are offered as an ideal for others to live in. One needs to see these ‘qualities’- deriding other people’s reactions, denying one’s needs, and so on- as injuries. And maybe the work of integration may start from there.

    Do you have any thoughts about how this ideal of a philosopher actually injures people?

  6. I’m a PhD student in moral philosophy, and my research supervisor not only sees himself this way, but seems to think a philosopher *ought* to be this way. Because of this belief, he takes it (though he rarely comes right out and says it) that applied ethics (where feminist phil falls roughly into this category) isn’t “real” philosophy, and further, that concerns about equality in the profession are nothing to do with philosophy. I am a female student with children. -There’s one way this should be a feminist concern!

  7. I think Leiter is right to quote Nietzsche on this issue:

    “[Philosophers] all pose as if they had discovered and reached their real opinions through the self-development of a cold, pure, divinely unconcerned dialectic…; while at bottom it is an assumption, a hunch, indeed, a kind of ‘intuition’…that they defend with reasons they have sought after the fact. They are all advocates [Advoktaen] who resent that name, and for the most part even wily spokesmen for their prejudice which they baptize ‘truths’–and very far from having the courge of the conscience that admits this, precisely this, to itself…”

    Academic philosophy, in various ways, selects for a fairly narrow section of society. I am very concerned that certain prejudices dominate in the ‘philosophical community’, and so members of that community, seeing their own bias mirrored in their peers, mistake that bias for detached rationality.

  8. One of the things that bothers me about this picture of a philosopher is that it does not do justice to the need to be part of “the world” one lives in in order to criticize it. It perpetuates the image of the philosopher who can step aside from his/her present in order to diagnose it. Not only is this impossible, as some comments on the previous Feminist Philosophers post regarding Critchley’s column pointed out, it reminds me of what Foucault criticized in those who attempt to take on the role of “universal intellectuals”–those who would claim to be able to see and know what is wrong and what must be done, through appeal to universally valid truths and values. The universal intellectual can then act as a spokesman for the good and the right, speaking for others and leading them towards the ideal.

    This is problematic enough from a feminist perspective, where we have come a long way in pointing out the dangers of speaking for others, but the issue with Critchley’s post goes further: he emphasizes the philosopher’s ability to step outside of his/her social and political world and use his/her leisure time to enjoy otherworldly thoughts, but then this seems to be the point at which he stops. Critchley points out that when philosophers do that they appear dangerous to others because they are not part of the usual social world. But he does not emphasize, as he should, the capacity for philosophers to work towards social and political change, to write and speak and act in the present. This would make them worthy of the label “dangerous.”

  9. There have been such great comments. I hope to respond more later, but let me say quickly to bogdan that the question of injury is really interesting. It’s often said that some academic fields attract people who are not very good socially and who may even have considerable problems in relating to others. So part of the story could be that problems are brought to philosophy and it’s used to validate them.

    I’m a bit worried here, though, that we end up labeling disabilities as bad abnormalities, but maybe we should equally be hesitant to assume that different means superior, as perhaps philosophy may be used to encourage us to do.

  10. ChristinaH is right on the spot. The capacity to ignore present issues – or not to work towards social and political change- is scary and not very ‘dangerous.’

    For jj: When I was talking about injuries, I had in mind injuries that comes with living in patriarchy. To give you an example, men are encouraged to split off their relationality; women live with models within which expressing anger, for instance, is verboten.

    In this sense I was thinking about injuries. An injury is when one gives only examples of philosophers that are men. Or an injury is when ‘the philosopher’ laughs at the world. In Critchley’s example, the philosopher laughs at slave servants and people who stammer.

    I would say that injury is here a little different than disability. When Harriet Johnson had her debate with Peter Singer, she was a disabled person. In contrast, Singer is injured because he did not see how his ableist assumptions worked in the back of his mind.

    In this sense of injury, I would say that we all are injured by sexism, racism, homophobia. Of course, injuries are inflected and worked through in different degrees. So, I would not look at being incapable of relationality (like in C’s example) as a bad anormality, but rather as a normal bad condition, or an injury (particularly, for men, and why not, for men philosophers who are attracted to C’s ideal).

    Or an injury may happen because one behaves like a cool, white dude, not knowing his or her privileges. Or like in the example of anon2, her supervisor is injured and ignorant of his injuries.

    Do you agree with me? Do you think I overstate this idea of injury?

  11. Bogdan, I guess i think we are all harmed by these false ideals, though I’m a little hesitant about this. I think part of my hesitancy concerns people who naturally approximate the ideal – the exceptionally high-achieving geniuses whose families are exhausted in taking care of them; except in the cases of ones really mentally ill, I’m not sure I think of them as regrettably injured. People around them, on the other hand, may be quite regrettably injured.

    So three things, I guess: Perhaps the ideal does manage to connect with some deeper values we have: we do think Einstein was worth it, even if he was high maintenance. Virginia Wolf may have been ‘worth’ the drain on Leonard, though one could feel very sad about her mental state, which if not exactly an injury, was nonetheless an affliction.

    Secondly, while whites are injured by their racism and Wall Street crooks are injured in that they are victims of society’s values, I do think we have to resist feeling VERY sorry for them/us. Perhaps just because others suffer so much more.

    Finally, some of this starts off with natural inclinations, which I suggested before.

    I think I’m finding myself in the middle of thinking about this, and haven’t really gotten a full view yet.

  12. Thank you for sharing some of your thoughts on ‘injuries,’ and more broadly, on the impact of false ideals. I think I love your hesitance; it helps me a lot to understand what I think.

    To be honest, I try to write on the this idea of injury, and this exchange helps me to get excited about the notion of injury. I work primarily within a psychoanalytic literature in which clinical experience show analysts and analysands in the process of discovering their sexism, and classism, and homophobia. In other words, when we free associate, there are weird parts of us which are expressed in words, and that is so hard to accept. I use to do work against racism and homophobia. In my therapy, however, I discovered some of my deep racist feelings. In therapy I remembered an exchange with a black woman whom I liked. By going deeper into my thoughts about that woman, I had images with monkeys and I felt disgusted. It is hard for me to accept that I have this racist side, but I have evidence now that is ‘alive and kicking.’ (And I am not getting into some of my problems with domestic work, or heterosexism… )

    Now, I agree with you. Not only those who internalize the ideals are injured, but people who take care of them are hurt as well. They could be hurt more than those who are ‘injured’ by actually practicing their detachment from material and social world.

    I would like to hear more about why you think that deeper, better values would justify a relationship with a injured person (and also ignorant of his or her injuries). My reluctance here is to see this as a form of sacrifice, where one sacrifices oneself for a larger good (science, or literature).

    I would add to your example about Virginia Woolf my own hypothesis. What if her affliction was generated by her being raped, or at least strongly abused in childhood (like Salvo argues)? What if patriarchy had a role in this? First, by making this incident of sexual abuse shameful, Woolf was obviously reluctant to explore that feeling of shame. Second, by looking at her affliction as only mental, or only biological, patriarchal assumptions hide the larger social context where Woolf’s dependency and vulnerability were sanctioned, right?

    White racists and Wall Street crooks, I believe, are also injured. That means we can be somehow compassionate towards their wounds, even though they express their racist, or dog-eat-dog, philosophy. However, being compassionate towards inevitable injuries does not mean we should not express out anger. It seems hard but I think being compassionate and angry is possible. I think the problem intervenes when one looks at ‘injuries’ as ideals to be emulated, don’t you think?

    And taking action, like this blog does it, certainly does not hinder a form of compassion for those who benefit from oppression and injustice.

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