Some reflections on feminist philosophy

A lot of people don’t like feminist philosophy. And, more strongly, a lot of people think feminist philosophy is somehow bad philosophy. There’s been a fair amount of discussion of these kinds of sentiments on the glorious internets lately, and this blog has largely ignored them – mostly because we’re busy doing our own thing, but also because there’s a worry that in addressing these kinds of criticisms of feminist philosophy we implicitly give them more weight than they deserve. But I’m going to take the opportunity to talk about them. Over a short series of posts I’m going to look at what I think are the major or most common criticisms of feminist philosophy. What I say will be entirely my own opinion – I don’t speak for the other bloggers, let alone other feminist philosophers. But I wanted to address this topic because I used to think feminist philosophy was bad too. So think of the posts that follow as the reflections of a former hater.

For myself, though, I don’t actually think any of these criticisms were ever the main reason I didn’t like feminist philosophy – even if they provided some post hoc justification. Not liking feminist philosophy was just sort of something I fell into, and stuck with because it was cool. I read some stuff in feminist philosophy early on in grad school that wasn’t my thing. The philosophical methodology that I love is the methodology of contemporary analytic philosophy, and the stuff in feminist philosophy I was directed toward was probably best described as phenomenology.* I quickly assumed the whole field was like that. Why did I assume that based on a few articles? Who knows. But it felt like I had to choose between liking feminist philosophy and liking David Lewis, and I chose David Lewis. (I feel the full absurdity of this in retrospect, given that, e.g., David Lewis and Rae Langton wrote papers together. But it didn’t seem absurd at the time.)

What’s clear is that hating feminist philosophy was easy. It was encouraged, even. Feminist philosophy was a fun thing to laugh about in the bar after a talk. And making fun of it was a good way to try to prove I could be ‘one of the boys’.

These days, my love for David Lewis and my love for feminist philosophy have found a way to happily co-exist. I share the upcoming series of posts in case they’re helpful for anyone feeling the sort of tension past-me felt.



*Just to clarify, I don’t mean to suggest there is anything wrong with phenomenology! And it’s something I’ve gained an increasing appreciation for over time. But especially in grad school, it just wasn’t the style of philosophy I felt most at home with. 


4 thoughts on “Some reflections on feminist philosophy

  1. I used to also not like / be very skeptical of feminist philosophy. I’m not fully certain what my exact thought process was, because a lot of it was subconscious, but I think it was something like this:

    There don’t seem to be a lot of women in philosophy.
    Therefore, I guess many women aren’t that good at philosophy, overall.
    There are a good handful of women in ethics, and there’s tons of women in feminist philosophy.
    Hmm, maybe those areas aren’t as challenging, or aren’t that good quality-wise.
    **Because, if feminist philosophy was awesome, why isn’t it full of men?** (I’m 99% certain this actual thought flitted through my brain at some point.)
    So if almost all men avoid FP, and almost all the awesome philosophers I know of are men, how could FP be anything other than mediocre?

  2. This is so very interesting to read, thanks for sharing (both of you!). I suspect my immediate appreciation for the vast ocean of work in feminist philosophy was partly due to the fact that I was a late-comer to the field and not at all acculturated to the canon or traditions. So my first year of graduate school, I was presented with readings from everyone from Augustine to Alison Wylie and I just figured, that’s all a lot of philosophy that I should read.

    I remain grateful that I sort of accidentally wandered into Wisconsin, took a class with Claudia Card, and decided to stick around. I think I was lucky, not learning the cultural disdain.

  3. thank you for sharing this. It made me think of my own experience of disregarding feminist philosophy, or rather what I thought feminist philosophy was. It was (my experience) very similar to what the post describes. I also thought I had to decide between the analytics and the rest. And even though I did not have a clear idea of what the non-analytic philosophers were doing, somehow I was sure I liked what the analytic philosophers were doing. Only a few years ago I started learning what feminist philosophy is, and it completely changed my opinion and my relationship with it. To the extent that I cannot see myself doing something that is not feminist philosophy in one way or another.

  4. Thank you for this post on such an important, and fraught, topic! I still struggle with describing myself as doing feminist philosophy, largely an instinct developed as a student, when I often thought, “but I can do the other stuff, and I don’t want people to think that I’m running to what is easy because that’s ‘all I can do’.” As a result of trying to avoid feminist philosophy without totally avoiding it, I turned to political philosophy, instead of metaphysics, which I really loved! Now, while that instinct still arises by times, and especially with students who often learn quickly the “status” of feminist philosophy(!), the stronger worry involves a tension between the idea that I’d like feminist work to be just philosophical work “proper,” and the idea that even if “feminist” naming were no longer necessary, I so value the existence of the body of work (and the people who do it) that I couldn’t bear to let it go. And as many of those people have taught me, not everyone *can* do feminist philosophy, actually.
    On another note, I’ve recently realized that I often think of feminist philosophy (particularly feminist epistemology/philosophy of science, where I usually work) as an area in which the analytic/continental division — and, of course, the fact/value division — isn’t so central as in other philosophical approaches, where I can draw on, e.g., Langton, Beauvoir, Quine, and Haraway in fruitful and, hopefully, sharp ways. Without brushing off the importance of traditions, that strikes me as important about feminist philosophy.

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