‘Is feminist philosophy too. . .?’: Part 3

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. 

7 thoughts on “‘Is feminist philosophy too. . .?’: Part 3

  1. “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.”

    I don’t see how admitting to having unargued for assumptions is particularly “personal.” ALL arguments rely on the assumptions. The issue is acknowledging them as such, which Sider admirably does, and which I can’t say for many of the so-called feminists I have interacted with regarding my status as a sexual assault victim. Rachel McKinnon has work on so-called ally culture and how it’s really fucked up, and ya know what? She’s right.

    My adviser once told me to explain the problem of fictional names without making any assumptions. Well, that turned out to be impossible, OF COURSE. One of my assumptions is there are no abstracta, and I don’t know how to argue for it apart from citing Quine and appealing to an incredulous stare. Likewise for my conviction that men and women ought to be equal. But this basic assumption is quite vague as it is. It is in need of a theory of equality. I suspect there are very few informed people who would disagree with this, but does that make it personal? No. It is just part of the nature of investigation. You must start with some assumptions — that doesn’t entail that philosophy is personal in any substantive sense.

    The personal is political mantra is supposed to be a substantial thesis that cannot be proven merely by noting that people start with assumptions in their investigations. Sider’s admission of making a vague starting assumption is certainly not support for this significant claim.

    I would love to see more philosophers admitting their assumptions as such, and realizing that often those assumptions don’t really tell you much until you begin to theorize. But once you start doing that, you MUST argue for it, and you can’t take THAT THEORY as a basic assumption. So far as I can tell, there is SOME kind of theoretical consensus among the feminists I have come across, take RCT for example, or the idea that more governmental policy and legislation is the right way to fix things. But these are contentious THEORIES that are most often taken as fact. And, in my experience, the reaction to questioning this THEORETICAL consensus is often taken as the product of being an unenlightened neanderthal, which is false. Cue sanctimony and ostracism, which indeed both sides (whatever that means) are guilty of.

    While all feminists agree that people ought to be equal, indeed, most people who don’t even identify as feminists would agree with this, not all of us agree on what that means, what it requires, and what system would generate it. I think as feminists we would all do well to keep this in mind when dealing with, say, a FEMINIST who doesn’t believe in RCT or a FEMINIST who doesn’t believe that legislating everything is going to work, someone like myself for instance, who I suppose might be identified as a left wing libertarian womanist. Disagreeing with feminist theories does not entail disagreement with its basic assumptions.

    Not sure really what the overall take home of this is, but I just wanted to post my reaction to this post.

  2. Me either. Which is some evidence that it’s perhaps not the complete theoretical consensus within fem phil.

  3. I take the main point of this post to be that ALL philosophy is both personal and emotional, proceeding from frequently unarticulated (and often unprovable) basic assumptions –but only some people doing philosophy acknowledge this about there own work. I find it beautifully stated, and plan to include links to this short piece in all my intro phl classes. THANKS.

    I take one of Heidi’s important responses is that many fem philosophers are subject to the same professional hazards as non-fem philosophers: assuming that anyone who doesn’t share their personal or political commitments and base assumptions must therefore defective in some way connected to rationality. (Still, and just for the record, I am a feminist and I do philosophy for money…. and I don’t think all people should be equal. It is not an assumption I share.)

  4. Thanks Anon! I think emotional responses and intellectual investment ought to be distinguished. I also think, however, that emotions play a key role in seeing moral facts (see McFall, Myers, and others). Further, I believe that many philosophical theories have moral implications. For instance, I work on the metaphysics of personhood and that clearly has social and political implications. I work on philosophy of language. Surely, theories of linguistic competence certainly would have social and political implications re: who gets to count as a competent speaker and all of the accompanying status that goes with so counting. Part of the reason I find Kripke’s theory of names so compelling is that it does not rule out those who have no uniquely identifying definite descriptions associated with the names that they use do not get ruled out as incompetent speakers of the language, surely a theory that rules out a good portion of the language using public as competent speakers has got to be false. And NOW I have an excuse to insert some of my favorite Kripke quotes.

    “The average person, according to this, when he refers to Cicero, is saying something like ‘the man who denounced Catiline’ and thus has picked out a certain man uniquely. It is a tribute to the education of philosophers that they have held this thesis for such a long time.”

    Additionally, to follow up on my earlier comment, as I said, no intellectual investigation can begin without assumptions, and the assumptions we find plausible often hang on intuitions, and intuitions are likely not neutral, but nevertheless, as Kripke says:

    “Of course, some philosophers think that something’s having intuitive content is very inconclusive evidence in favor of it. I think it is very heavy evidence in favor of anything, myself. I really don’t know, in a way, what more conclusive evidence one can have about anything, ultimately speaking.”

    The problem, as I see it, is acknowledgment of all of this stuff, which hopefully, would lead to more intellectual humility, more collaboration, more interaction, more openness to other points of view on all fronts.

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