Is feminist philosophy too personal? Are feminist philosophers too emotionally invested in the subject matter?
This is another criticism I’ve heard fairly often, though I’m not sure whether it’s actually a distinct criticism from the worry that feminist philosophy is too political. I’m treating it here as a separate worry, since I think there are interesting things to be said about it as a criticism in its own right.
I take it that the worry is something like this. Feminist philosophers have deep personal investment in the subject matter they are pursuing. They are extremely emotionally invested in the equality of men and women, in combating sexism, and exploring ways in which women have been and are disenfranchised. But this sort of personal investment isn’t likely to produce good philosophy, since it will prevent them from ‘following the argument where it leads’.
The idea that we must somehow break free of personal investment to engage in truly rational thought is a familiar trope within philosophy. For example, Bertrand Russell says in his essay ‘The Value of Philosophy’:
‘Everything, in contemplation, that is personal or private, everything that depends upon habit, self-interest, or desire, distorts the object, and hence impairs the union which the intellect seeks. By thus making a barrier between subject and object, such personal and private things become a prison to the intellect. The free intellect will see as God might see, without a here and now, without hopes and fears, without the trammels of customary beliefs and traditional prejudices, calmly, dispassionately, in the sole and exclusive desire of knowledge — knowledge as impersonal, as purely contemplative, as it is possible for man to attain. Hence also the free intellect will value more the abstract and universal knowledge into which the accidents of private history do not enter, than the knowledge brought by the senses, and dependent, as such knowledge must be, upon an exclusive and personal point of view and a body whose sense-organs distort as much as they reveal.’
Feminist philosophy can likely never be free of personal attachment, can never be ‘without hopes and fears’, mired as it is in people’s (and especially women’s) desire for progress and equality. And so feminist philosophy is somehow impaired, compared to other, ‘purer’ topics in philosophy.
Let’s start with the obvious on this one. It’s more than a little bit suspect to criticize a group predominated by women who are thinking carefully about gender as going wrong because they are too emotional. I mean really. But let’s leave this – quite obvious – point aside.
Are feminist philosophers often personally invested in the positions they defend? Yes, of course. But then, philosophers – feminist or not – are often personally invested in the positions they defend. The ‘free intellect’ which can ‘see as God might see, without a here and now’ is, I’ll hazard a guess, a myth. No one actually thinks like this. No one can think like this. It’s perhaps the privilege of wealthy white men like Lord Russell to think that they can – that they aren’t hindered by the inevitable biases of who they are, where they’re from, etc. But then, even Russell seems to have not followed his own advice about good philosophy. As he says in the preface to his autobiography:
“Three passions, simple but overwhelmingly strong, have governed my life: the longing for love, the search for knowledge, and unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind. These passions, like great winds, have blown me hither and thither, in a wayward course, over a great ocean of anguish, reaching to the very verge of despair.”
I don’t dispute that feminist philosophers often have personal (and yes, emotional) attachment to the topics they discuss. But they aren’t alone in that. Topics like wellbeing, justice, morality, virtue, etc are the kinds of things we inevitably take personally, and have deep personal investment in. And they are also the subjects of very good philosophy.
Nor is personal investment unique to ‘value’ subjects within philosophy. There are lots of ways to be personally invested in a topic other than longstanding pre-theoretic emotional attachment. How often have you read a scathing book review, seen an angry outburst in a q&a, witnessed a sneering comment of derision in a talk? These types of displays are, unfortunately, all too common in our profession, and they occur often in ‘the core’. I’m deeply skeptical that anything other than emotional investment in the topic (or in your being right on the topic) produces these kinds of behaviors. Pride, disdain, scorn – those are all emotions too.
To my mind one of the most valuable contributions of feminist philosophy is a positive take on how emotion and emotional investment can help us to make progress on certain philosophical topics. This idea isn’t by any means unique to feminist philosophy (there was this guy called ‘Aristotle’. . .), but feminist philosophy gives us some wonderful examples of it. Consider Eva Feder Kittay’s work on personhood or Sally Haslanger’s work on adoption. In both cases, the authors acknowledge their personal connection to the topic, and in particular their connection as mothers. But, as Kittay rightly points out, a discussion of such topics would be incomplete without such perspective. The myth of these debates is that other people involved don’t have such personal investment, and thus can be more ‘objective’. But why should we think this? Why should we think that, e.g., Peter Singer isn’t personally invested in being non-disabled, or that David Velleman doesn’t have a personal investment in biological parenthood?
The idea that philosophers should start from first principles, construct premises, and ‘follow the argument where it leads’ without hindrance from emotion or personal perspective is a romantic one. It’s also an absurd one. We all come to the table with biases, presuppositions, and background assumptions – whether we admit it or not. And yes, these types of commitments are present even in ‘the core’. Here, for example, is a passage from Ted Sider’s Writing the Book of the World:
‘A certain “knee-jerk realism” is an unargued for presupposition of this book. Knee-jerk realism is a vague picture rather than a precise thesis. According to the picture, the point of human inquiry–or a very large chunk of it anyway, a chunk that includes physics–is to conform itself to the world, rather than to make the world. The world is “out there”, and our job is to wrap our minds around it. This picture is perhaps my deepest philosophical conviction. I’ve never questioned it; giving it up would require a reboot too extreme to contemplate; and I have no idea how I’d try to convince somebody who didn’t share it.’
Sider has taken some heat for these comments. But my suspicion is that what’s unusual or disconcerting about this passage is simply its honesty, rather than its methodology. Sider is admitting that part of the background to his work is a basic viewpoint which he can’t really imagine doubting, and which he doesn’t really know how to argue for in a way that would convince a skeptic.
My own – and I suspect many other feminist philosophers’ – assumption that men and women should be equal is similar, in this respect, to Sider’s commitment to a type of metaphysical realism. Does that make it personal? Sure. Does that make it bad philosophy? Not unless a whole bunch of other stuff is bad philosophy too. As feminists have long argued, the personal is political. It can be philosophical too.
Tl:dr – Emotional investment isn’t in any way unique to feminist philosophy, and feminist philosophy shows us ways in which acknowledged emotional investment can contribute to philosophical progress.