‘Is feminist philosophy too. . .?’: Part 2

Is feminist philosophy too unrigorous? 

Another common complaint is that feminist philosophy – whatever its shared assumptions or agenda – is simply not suitably rigorous. I suspect that a lot of people who make this criticism haven’t read enough feminist philosophy. Does some of it lack rigor? Sure. Is some of it really messy and unclear? Absolutely. But that’s true of every part of philosophy. The very best of feminist philosophy, though, is a model of clarity and systematic thinking. But perhaps the claim isn’t that all feminist philosophy isn’t rigorous. Maybe, instead, the thought is that feminist philosophy is in general less rigorous than non-feminist work, especially work in ‘the core’.

To be clear, by ‘rigorous’ I don’t mean formal. Sometimes I think people use the term ‘rigorous’ such that work which incorporates more technical jargon and formalism is automatically more rigorous. If that’s what you mean by ‘rigorous’, then sure – feminist philosophy is less rigorous than, say, the bulk of philosophy of language or philosophical logic. But then, so is the vast majority of non-feminist philosophy. And I don’t think being rigorous matters to philosophical quality, if that’s what you mean by ‘rigorous’. By ‘rigorous’ I mean clear and carefully argued. Work that’s formal can lack philosophical rigor (in this sense), and work that’s philosophically rigorous can lack any trace of formalism.

So is feminist philosophy less rigorous (in this sense) than a lot of mainstream philosophy, especially ‘the core’? The truth is that I don’t know, and I don’t think my judgements on the matter are likely to be that reliable. (I don’t think yours are either.) If feminist philosophy were in fact somewhat less rigorous, though, it wouldn’t tell us anything very useful about the merits of feminist philosophy as an area of philosophical enquiry. There are perfectly good reasons why feminist philosophy might be somewhat less rigorous than other areas which don’t bear at all on whether feminist philosophy is ‘good philosophy’. But there are also perfectly good reasons to be suspicious of our comparative judgements in these cases.

For one thing, feminist philosophy (at least as it’s currently practiced in English-speaking philosophy) is a relatively new discipline. It wouldn’t be surprising, given this, if a lot of the work in feminist philosophy was slightly more exploratory in nature than work in fields that have had much longer to define the terms and parameters of their debates. Part of what we’re doing right now in feminist philosophy is ground clearing, just trying to figure out the dialectical terrain. That kind of work can seem – and might be – less clear than work that’s situated within a well-defined and thoroughly explored debate. But that doesn’t make the newer discipline inferior, or the work that’s done in it less philosophically impressive. (Indeed, given the relative newness of the discipline it seems particularly impressive just how clear and rigorous some of the work in it is.)

But feminist philosophy is not only a relatively new field, it’s also a relatively marginalized field within professional philosophy. And it wouldn’t be surprising if this marginalization had bad knock-on consequences for the discipline. (Just as it’s no surprise that many of the most prominent feminist philosophers made their names – and earned their first jobs and their tenure – doing something other than feminist philosophy.) Feminist philosophy isn’t ‘core’. It isn’t widely represented in top philosophy departments. It’s hard to publish on it in top generalist journals, get invited to speak on it in cushy venues, or dialogue with a large group of interested philosophers about it. It’s certainly possible that the net effect of this situation is a drain on resources and talent from feminist philosophy – a drain that might have some negative affects the overall quality of the field. Again, I don’t want to assert that this is in fact the case. But if it was, it wouldn’t make me worry that feminist philosophy was somehow an inferior discipline. It would just make me want to address the ways in which feminist philosophy isn’t taken seriously. And I’d still think feminist philosophy as it currently stands is worthwhile and important, given how much great work there is in the field.

But I also think it’s important to realize that our judgements about rigor and clarity aren’t free of bias. The standards we employ when we say feminist philosophy ‘lacks rigor’ may not be standards we apply universally. Within particular philosophical conversations, people often say things that can sound opaque to the uninitiated. When metaphysicians talk about fundamentality and the ‘flow’ of time, or when epistemologists talk about warrant and internalism vs. externalism about knowledge, or when philosophers or perception talk about the content of experience and what it’s like in Eden, or when ethicists talk about exclusionary reasons and normative power, it can be really difficult – from the outside – to get a good sense of what’s going on. Nevertheless, metaphysics, epistemology, perception, and ethics all are doing just fine in contemporary philosophy. What I want to suggest is that judgements about what’s clear or rigorous aren’t made in a vacuum. And given what we know about gender bias, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if we tend to judge a group, the majority of whom are women, talking about gender more harshly than we judge your average philosopher.

More generally, something that seems perfectly clear to participants in a debate may seem obscure – even unintelligible – to those not immersed in that debate. With a lot of debates in philosophy, though, we seem give the participants the benefit of the doubt. Sure, it may not make much sense to me. But there seems to be a good conversation going on there, and the people engaged in it all seem smart and like they know what they’re talking about. So they’re probably on to something, even if what they’re on to isn’t my thing. (You may, instead, be the kind of philosopher who thinks most philosophy outside your area is bullshit. If so, you’re an equal opportunity hater. Congratulations. . .? But you should at least grant that there isn’t a special problem with the badness of feminist philosophy, amongst all the other badness you are forced to put up with.)

With feminist philosophy, though, people seem very quick – unusually quick – to move from ‘That sounds kind of obscure to me’ to ‘Feminist philosophy isn’t clear or rigorous!’ to ‘Feminist philosophy is crap!!!!’. And that inferential slide is a bad one.

Tl:dr – Feminist philosophy might, at present, be less rigorous than other fields for reasons orthogonal to the merit of feminist philosophy as a discipline. But we also might judge feminist philosophy more harshly than we judge other fields. 

14 thoughts on “‘Is feminist philosophy too. . .?’: Part 2

  1. Well let’s see. I do work both within more traditional feminist boundaries, and I do work in “mainstream” “core” areas like philosophy of language, epistemology, and metaphysics. My work in feminism is JUST as “rigorous” as my work not in feminism. It’s the exact same skill set applied to different problems.

    That people think that feminist work is automatically less rigorous, whatever they happen to mean by that, is just maddening. How could it not be sexist in origin?

  2. Hi Rachel,

    Yeah, I agree with you – I think there’s a ton of very rigorous feminist work, and a ton of not-so-rigorous ‘core’ work, and I don’t think there’s any major difference across fields. I know some people will stridently disagree, though. So what I wanted to explore with this post was, in part, the idea that *even if* it were true that feminist philosophy were somehow less rigorous, that wouldn’t tell us anything about the merit of feminist philosophy as a discipline. So this particular criticism of feminist philosophy doesn’t work, imho, on multiple levels. But yeah, I think the major issue is how we judge what counts as ‘rigorous’.

  3. I think you’ve bent over backwards to be as charitable as possible, and I admire that. I’ve heard a lot of philosophers talk about “rigor”, and I’ve heard a few philosophers (though actually not that many) deny that feminist philosophy has rigor. I’ll be a little less charitable: when I hear philosophers say “rigor”, I don’t think they have anything clear or consistent in mind. “Rigor” is one of the least rigorously used terms in a philosopher’s vocabulary. At best, it seems to just be a generic negative term for work that isn’t well conceived. At worst, it covers over a litany of prejudices and biases.

  4. I want to add to the chorus: You’re almost too generous to your foolish (to mention the least of their sins) opponents. That feminist philosophy is less rigorous than other areas of philosophy is a proposition that doesn’t deserve a moment’s serious consideration. If anything in the vicinity of the claim is worth taking seriously it’s precisely the obverse: the fact that issues in feminist philosophy matter in a way that issues in logic, etc., rarely do might as it were ‘keep you honest’. The fact that feminist philosophers are very conscious of implicit biases, concerns about objectivity, how power affects discourses, etc., etc., might make them more aware of how they affect their research than a discipline in which these problems are for hegemonising reasons dismissed. (In fact I suspect this is just as foolishly generalising; but as a way of fighting rhetoric with rhetoric…)

  5. It seems to me sociologically true that feminist philosophy is more continuous with, and more receptive to, non-analytic thought (from other philosophical traditions and also from other humanist disciplines). This is not to say that all feminist philosophy is that way, of course, just that there is a notable difference. I’d imagine, for instance, that the average length of citation chain you’d need to get from an article in feminist philosophy to something you might call ‘Theory’ is much shorter than that for an average article that does not identify as feminist. In light of this, it would not be surprising that the analytic imperialist, who thinks analytic philosophy has generally has better or more rigorous standards than other philosophical traditions and humanistic disciplines, would think of much of feminist philosophy as less rigorous. Without passing judgment on the truth of this thought, it would not surprise me if as a social matter it was the source of some substantial portion of the notion that feminist philosophy is unrigorous.

    I would also add: even on the supposition that this thought is correct, it would by no means indicate that feminist philosophy is not worth doing compared to other pursuits (at most it would indicate that it should be done in a more traditionally ‘analytic-y’ way).

  6. Not all philosophy needs formal rigor. Sometimes formal notions can help clarify a point. But sometimes a creative thought-experiment does the trick and does it better. Sally Haslanger and Sarah-Jane Leslie make use of formal notions in ways that are really clear. JJT’s violinist is among the most successful thought-experiments in philosophy. I think feminist philosophy might be too… willing to take seriously unfounded criticisms hurled its way.

  7. I guess I’m questioning whether this sort of claim is worth worrying about. Don’t get me wrong, you worried about it to make some sweet points about what we’re trying to do when we’re doing philosophy. And that’s useful for any philosopher. So in that sense, I’m glad that you worried. But philosophical tools are meant to make confusing ideas less confusing. And I can’t think of too many things more baffling than gender.

    So I’m having a hard time thinking of a basis for these criticisms that isn’t just plain old sexism. :/

    But I guess this was also part of your point- I mean you did say that you “wouldn’t be surprised” if gender bias had played a part in the criticism.

  8. I’ve struggled for years with feminism. I want to like feminism. I want it to be about equality and everyone given the space to feel safe. I want a better world. I don’t want women to suffer from the sexual whims and reductionism of men. I want a branch of feminist philosophy to be useful for more than a small window of history, but I can’t even find it there.

    Feminism tends to be a faulty lens through which to view history and the world, one which denies influences such as class and the role women have played in oppression throughout time. Sensing this, it seems some feminists have worked to add caveats to feminist theory, but this smacks of shoddily expanded definition, not an effective one. Feminism only holds up in a modern mindset, and then only when applied to modern situations. Disenfranchised males, people of color, and transfolk tend to be pushed down out of convenience (as a trans individual, the reception I have received at ‘womyn’ only events is central to my rejection of feminism). There’s a lack of empathy and humility. I don’t see how feminist initiatives get us to a state of equality.

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