‘Is feminist philosophy too. . .?’: Part 1

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.

20 thoughts on “‘Is feminist philosophy too. . .?’: Part 1

  1. Good post, looking forward to the rest of the series. There’s one points I would like to comment on: I struggle to find what to think and feel about the general assumption that feminist philosophers are female feminist philosophers (as you seem to imply in the sixth paragraph), and I would like to connect it to my personal experience.

    One the one hand, it seems reasonable and understandable to concede that there are in fact more women than men in these fields of studies, and not only is this a fact, but something that should be stressed, as if it were a genuine female enterprise, deserving attention to the gender of their ranks. This issue becomes even more prominent in other languages (such as Spanish) where gender inflection is reflected on words (filósofas feministas vs. filósofos feministas). This point of view is indeed very political (because it is concerned not only with stating truth through their work, but also creating or performing the truth through their mere presence) and is related to the idea that in order to understand an experience, one has to be part of it, be it race, ethnicity, gender, culture, age, language, etc., and that empathy is not enough. The most extreme positions would claim that there is a gap, an incommensurability, between those who share the experience and those who do not.

    On the other hand, I, as a heterosexual male sociology undergraduate that really likes queer theory, want to be part of the community that is producing some really great work here in Spain, but feel alienated and not wanted. I can understand some resentment from my (female) feminist professors and lecturers when first meeting a pretty average looking guy that loves queer theory, but the defensive positions they sometimes take frighten me, both intellectually (equality means what it means) and professionally (I see a black future ahead of me, where affirmative action may take away from me positions or scholarships I believe I deserve but won’t have because of my sex). When I met one of my favorite queer theorists, she insinuated that I was a “hetero-queer” (a guy who only follows this most hipster discourse because it is cool and can get him laid), which made me ashamed, sad, angry and confused, especially confused.

    I have to stress that this is my personal experience, so I do not have any reason to believe that this is symptomatic of feminist philosophy in general or just an anecdote. However, I do feel the need to raise the question here. What literature is there on the topic of affirmative action within the ranks of feminist spheres in academia? Do you have any personal experience related to this topic?

  2. I find it interesting that many critics of feminist philosophy object principally to the fact that the background assumptions might be political and ethical in nature (the charged language of “agenda”).

    An assumption that is unacknowledged, unreasoned, or prohibited from critical examination is surely philosophically a bad thing. But why does the political nature of that assumption make it worse? Why does adding politics supposedly make even an assumption that is acknowledged, reasoned, and open to critical examination into a bad thing?

    I wonder if part of the reason is a common knee-jerk intuition that ethics and politics are matters of personal opinion, not matters of truth, and that, consequently, to seek to establish ethical and political claims and increase the scope of ethical and political knowledge is a kind of conquest under the guise of truth. It’s an absurd view for a philosopher to take, since it’s a first year philosophy student’s uncritical default position, but perhaps it’s an unconscious assumption, and perhaps less surprising if the philosopher doesn’t work anywhere near value theory.

    At the end of the day, of course, there’s a great deal of hypocrisy involved. I’m likely to object to background assumptions and political agendas when they risk telling me I’m in the wrong, but I’m unlikely to notice or mind them when they don’t affect me negatively.

  3. Hi Nicolas,

    Thanks for your comment. I certainly didn’t mean to assume that all feminist philosophers are women. But it’s definitely true that a lot of them are, and that the field is stereotyped in a way that’s gendered – and that matters to how it’s perceived. But my main point in bringing up the gender of many feminist philosophers was just that women shouldn’t be looked down on if they don’t want to have conversations about whether they’re equal to men. They’re not bad philosophers if they just don’t want to engage with those conversations.

  4. Indeed, the philosophical “validity” of their work is not hindered by their reluctance to discuss (especially if the ones at the other side of the discussion are not willing to listen anyway).

  5. This is an interesting discussion about a prevalent bias. I happen to think a bit of the anti-feminist-philosophy bias has to do with the roots of some feminist theories in continental philosophy. E.g. Simone de Beauvoir was an existentialist. Social constructionism seems to be assumed by many feminist philosophers, but what is the evidence for it? Also, tenets are not tenants.

  6. Very interesting read, magic. Elizabeth Anderson has a very good review of a book by Koertge, Haack, et al that makes some similar points. Let me though try to give voice to what has sometimes been my worry about the political nature of feminist philosophy (and maybe that of some others).

    It’s hard to make generalizations about feminist philosophy, as it is about most areas of philosophy, because it’s not a monolith. However let’s take Haslanger’s presidential address as an example of a representative piece. My takeaway from the transcript is that she believes that the concepts philosophy should use (mind, knowledge, etc.) are those that will aid us in making headway towards social justice. I confess that it does strike me as a bit odd to ask, when considering, say, whether property dualism is the case, what kind of answer will lead to greater social justice. It just doesn’t seem that relevant.

    As you point out, there have been other “tests” for philosophical worthiness – verifiability/empirical content. But I think you’d agree that a “social justice” test is at least more overtly political/moral. One might wonder why this matters, as anon does above. But I think it fairly clear that what counts a just society is a very open question in the minds of many philosophers – Rawlsian liberalism, marxism, something more libertarian, perhaps something more radical altogether. (This is not to say that people don’t think there are truths associated with such things.) If it is an open question, using a particular answer as the key cog in assessing philosophical worthiness seems at least somewhat inappropriate – unless we’re talking about FP being a boutique area of philosophy.

    Further, some of my resistance to some FP is the result of blog posts on the matter, not of what’s in the literature. The above-mentioned political/moral nature of at least some FP seems to leads many to feel more comfortable using morally loaded terms when evaluating philosophical ideas. So, you get cases like the recent Cogburn/ableism dustup over at newapps. Leaving aside the the not well considered way of making his point, there does seem to be a real philosophical question there: whether there are some disabilities that are objectively bad (say, those that cause great pain). Instead of taking up that idea, you got responses like “Shame on you!” and “Disgusting!”. In the minds of some who do feminist disability studies, allowing even the possibility that disability isn’t solely the result of social oppression is beyond the pale.

    Or you get debates surrounding how to view categories like “men” and “women” that seems to be solely approached by looking at how they score on the oppression-o-meter. And so there are conflicts between transgender-ist (?) philosophers and other feminist philosophers on whether such categories should be recognized and what form that recognition should take.

    It does seem to me, then, that feminist philosophy is in a bit of a different spot with regard to it’s use of the political and moral in resolving philosophical disputes.

  7. It seems as if you’re underestimating the amount of agreement among feminist philosophers. My impression is that there’s agreement not just on things any liberal would say–men and women should be equal, etc.–but on much more controversial things. For example, many feminist philosophers seem to agree that there is no significant innate difference between male and female brains. I think the agreement stems partly from a political position–the idea that if there were a difference, it would be impossible for women to advance to full equality. Anyone who asserts an innate difference is charged with “essentialism” (why not just nativism?), a term of abuse. This politically motivated anti-nativism plays a role in all sorts of arguments, all over the feminist literature. This is the kind of thing that makes me see feminist philosophy as more political than most philosophy.

  8. Jean: People don’t believe that because of a political position, we believe it because that’s what the best neuroscience is saying. It’s an empirical question and all the empirical studies that show a difference are absurdly flawed. The studies that don’t have obvious flaws show no relevant difference. See Cordelia Fine’s work.

  9. I have read quite a lot of this literature, including Fine, and I think it takes a certain amount of “politics” to think the best neuroscience shows there are no innate male-female differences. I think a non-political reader would more likely say it shows small innate differences. Many respectable scientists with feminist “cred” read the literature that way, such as Patricia Churchland, Anne Fausto-Sterling, Janet Hyde, Melissa Hines, etc. So I don’t think the anti-nativism in feminist philosophy can be explained by saying “that’s what the best neuroscience tells us.”

  10. Jean, I agree with you that the science isn’t unequivocal, though I don’t agree that there’s any such thing as a ‘non-political’ reader – we can’t approach a subject like the innate differences (if any) between men and women from an apolotical perspective, no matter how much we might like to.

    I disagree very strongly, though, that there isn’t diversity of opinion on this topic within feminist philosophy. I’ve heard feminist philosophers suggest (at feminist conferences, no less) that there probably are some innate differences between the sexes, but that given both the role of socialization and evaluation bias, we’re not currently in any position to say, of any particular difference, that that difference is innate (and that we probably under-estimate the role of socialization). I’ve also heard feminist philosophers suggest that there are in fact innate differences between the sexes, but that there are just as significant differences that cut across the sexes, such that the distinction we make between the sexes isn’t nearly as special or privileged as we think it is. (Imagine you had a collection of red and blue shapes – some circles, some squares, and some triangles. If you sort via color, you do get a significant difference. But if you sort via shape you get just as significant a difference, with a very different grouping. I’ve heard feminist philosophers suggest that distinctions among the sexes are like the red/blue distinction – they do give us a difference, but not a privileged one, and there are other ways of dividing people that would yield just as significant a difference.)

    Both these views on innate sex difference are distinct from the view that all sex-based differences are socialized. But I’ve never yet seen any feminist philosopher cast out in shame for making claims like those I’ve outlined above. I’ve only seem them discussed with civility and interest.

  11. In the literature and on the internet it does seem to me it’s common for people to use “that’s essentialist [therefore non-progressive]” as a very quick move against any reasoning that asserts male-female differences, no matter how small. I think I could find lots of examples, if I devoted the day to it (but I won’t!). It sounds like in direct discussions of nativism among feminist philosophers, there is plenty of room for disagreement. (Good!)

  12. They’re also distinct from the view that innate sex differences (in the brain, bodies, whatever) MATTER to political equality. Often those arguing for innate sex differences think that such differences justify political differences. That’s a non sequitur.

  13. ajkreider, Haslanger’s ameliorative project definitely construes philosophy and philosophical progress as political. But she doesn’t think feminist philosophy is uniquely political, she thinks – as far as I can tell, at least – that all philosophy is political. (Indeed, I’d bet she thinks that the claim that philosophy can somehow be done from an apolotical perspective is itself a political claim – but I don’t know, we’d have to ask her about that.) Moreover, I’m not sure what you mean about taking Haslanger’s address as ‘a representative piece’. Many feminist philosophers are very interested in Haslanger’s defense and development of the ameliorative project, for sure. But I don’t think you can thereby conclude that most feminist philosophers ascribe to something like the ameliorative project.

    As for your reaction to blogs. . .Surely there’s a difference between the way conversations are conducted on blogs and they way they are conducted in academic literature, and surely it’s unfair to judge the former via the latter. What’s more, the blog post you point to, and most of the subsequent comments (Rachel’s are a notable exception), are all by people who don’t self-identify as feminist philosophers, and hosted a blog run by people who (for the most part) don’t self-identify as feminist philosophers. So I’m really not sure why it should be at all relevant to feminist philosophy.

    Finally, you and I seem to have very different experiences of feminist disability studies. I’ve personally given numerous papers on disability to feminist disability studies audiences in which I suggest that disability isn’t entirely the result of social oppression. I’ve yet to be tarred and feathered for this.

  14. ajkreider: Here’s something to consider. Many of us have already explained, at length, either in blog posts, blog comments, news-ish articles, journal articles, or books why such views are deeply problematic. So when the people proffering such problematic views continually refuse to read (or simply ignore) those arguments and explanations, it gets *really tiring* for us to keep repeating them. So we turn to terse call-outs. We’re tired. We just want people to stop doing crappy things. We get told that we’re not willing to engage them in substantive argument.

    NO. It’s they who aren’t willing to engage us. We’ve already put out our arguments and explanations. They won’t read them, meditate on them, and then come back. They argue from a position of (relative) ignorance and expect us to all the work.

  15. Hello magical, and thank you for the reply.

    The point of my calling Haslanger’s project “representative” was not to say that it represents the kind of thing a majority of feminist philosophers are interested in. Rather it was to say that the kinds of ideas expressed there are a reflective of those of a non-insignificant portion of feminist philosophy – enough to prompt worry about some aspects of feminist philosophy are political in a way that lots of other philosophy is not.

    I’m happy to agree that all philosophy is political to some degree or other. But Haslanger’s project seems very overtly, and heavily political. It’s probably right that philosophy can’t be done apolitically, but it’s another step altogether to think that this means it’s a good idea to go all in with political motivations – to make these the guiding principle.

    That is something you very seldom see in other area’s of philosophy – but see it significantly in feminist philosophy – whether a majority or not.

  16. I’m really unclear. Should we say that ethics is the same, given Singer’s work and that of those who agree with him, would want to hire him, etc?

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