Is feminist philosophy too political? (Or: Is feminist philosophy motivated by a political agenda?)
Probably the most common line of criticism I’ve heard of feminist philosophy is that it is too political or somehow motivated by an underlying political agenda (see, for example, the long discussion at Daily Nous). The thought, I take it, is something like this. Feminist philosophers are all motivated by a set of shared background assumptions, as well as a shared political agenda. This creates an environment in which disagreement or failure to toe the party line is not tolerated. And that’s not an environment that’s going to produce good, critical philosophy. Philosophy that’s motivated by a political agenda – and which demands affirmation of various political tenants – isn’t likely to be good philosophy.
Does feminist philosophy tolerate disagreement? Of course it does. There’s a huge variety of opinion within feminist philosophy, as anyone familiar with the literature knows. And there have been many influential arguments within feminist philosophy that have been influential largely because they criticize commonly held beliefs or assumptions within feminist philosophy.
What’s perhaps true is that all or almost all feminist philosophers share a few key assumptions – that there is sexism or gender-based oppression, that there ought not to be sexism or gender-based oppression, that men and women (or, more carefully, those people currently gendered as men and as women) ought to be equal, and that it’s important to pay attention to (often overlooked) issues of gender when doing philosophy. But such agreement is hardly surprising, and seems more an artifact of how we use the terms ‘feminist philosopher’ and ‘feminist philosophy’. If, for example, you think gender doesn’t matter in the epistemology of testimony, you probably don’t talk about gender very much in your discussion of the epistemology of testimony. You don’t get called a feminist philosopher. Miranda Fricker disagrees with you – she thinks gender (and class, race, etc) matter a lot to the epistemology of testimony. She gets called a feminist philosopher. If you think Fricker is dead wrong about this, and you publish a reply to her, your reply probably won’t be described as feminist philosophy, even though it engages with feminist philosophy. Feminist philosophers can and will be interested in what you have to say. But we reserve the appellation ‘feminist philosopher/philosophy’ for work that shares a few very basic assumptions about gender. You wouldn’t walk into a bachelor-only party and think “Wow, everyone here isn’t married! There must be some weird sort of groupthink going on!” Likewise, you shouldn’t walk into a feminist philosophy conference and think “Wow, everyone here thinks gender is an important philosophical topic and that sexism exists! There must be some weird kind of groupthink going on!”
Is there something weird about the fact that feminist philosophers spend a lot of time talking to people who share their basic assumptions, hold conferences where everyone shares those assumptions, etc? If there is a problem with that, it’s a problem for philosophy in general, rather than feminist philosophy in particular. Philosophers spend a lot of time talking to philosophers who share certain basic assumptions. We have conferences/volumes/forums where everyone or almost everyone is a metaphysical realist, or at least thinks metaphysics isn’t pointless. We have conferences/volumes/forums where everyone or almost everyone agrees that old-school British philosophy of language is silly and behind the times. We have conferences/volumes/forums where everyone agrees that knowledge is possible, or that we’re at least picking out some meaningful concept with our use of the term ‘freewill’, or that philosophy of physics can make a useful contribution to our understanding of physics. That’s just how that goes.
But people often accuse feminist philosophers – and feminist philosophy – of being unwilling to engage with those that don’t share their basic set of assumptions. This just seems patently false. Feminist philosophers engage all the time with non-feminist work. The trouble is that, unfortunately, this engagement is often ignored by everyone but those already doing feminist philosophy. And I don’t doubt that feminist philosophers would engage with non-feminist work even more were those doing non-feminist work more eager to pay attention to what’s going on in feminist philosophy.
That being said, it’s probably true that if someone published a paper saying that sexism doesn’t exist, or that women are inferior to men, or etc, most feminist philosophers wouldn’t be interested in engaging with it. But I don’t see anything at all wrong with this. For starters, it sucks to have a conversation with someone who thinks you’re naturally inferior, or who denies your (to you very blatant and obvious and backed up by tons of evidence) experience of oppression. It makes you feel like shit. Philosophy shouldn’t require us to have those kinds of conversations. Some people are willing to have them, and that’s great. But there’s nothing wrong with refusing to engage in them, potential loss to ultimate philosophical progress and enlightenment notwithstanding.
Secondly, refusing to engage with those who don’t share some of your basic assumptions – simply because you don’t think such engagement is worthwhile or likely to be productive – has a long and storied tradition in philosophy. From Hume consigning metaphysics to the flames, to the logical positivists hating on pretty much everything, to David Lewis greeting paraconsistent logic with a blank stare – this is something that philosophers do. You have to start somewhere and you have to take some things as obvious. For a lot of women, especially those who do feminist philosophy, these starting points include the importance of gender and gender equality. It’s hard to see why there’s anything wrong – or at least anything philosophically unusual – with that.
What about the claim that feminist philosophy is motivated by a political agenda? I’ll admit that this is a criticism I have a hard time grasping. Sure, feminist philosophers all want gender-based oppression to end. And no doubt a lot of us think that understanding gender – and it’s relevance to various philosophical debates – may ultimately aid us in addressing gender-based oppression. But it’s not like all feminist philosophy papers end with cries of ‘Down with the patriarchy!’ A lot of work is just attempting to get theoretical traction on gender, and gender’s relevance to various areas of philosophical enquiry. Someone’s background motivation for being interested in a philosophical topic doesn’t, in general, seem to be something that’s particularly relevant to the subsequent work they do. It’s not, after all, a question we ask of someone doing traditional metaphysics or epistemology. Or at least, if we do ask that question, we’re satisfied with something like “because working on this topic helps us get clearer about something important”. Maybe the fact that feminist philosopher’s think gender – and getting clear on gender – is important makes feminist philosophy political in some sense. But in the same sense, tons of other philosophy (maybe all philosophy) is political as well.
Tl:dr – I can’t see any sense of ‘political’ in which feminist philosophy is political in a way that tons of other philosophy isn’t.