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The Feminist Revelation

  • Christina Sommers (a1)


In the Proceedings of the American Philosophical Association for the fall of 1988, we find the view that “the power of philosophy lies in its radicalness.” The author, Tom Foster Digby, tells us that in our own day “the radical potency of philosophy is particularly well-illustrated by contemporary feminist philosophy” in ways that “could eventually reorder human life.” The claim that philosophy is essentially radical has deep historical roots.

Aristotle and Plato each created a distinctive style of social philosophy. Following Ernest Barker, I shall call Aristotle's way of doing social philosophy “whiggish,” having in mind that the O.E.D. characterizes ‘whig’ as “a word that says in one syllable what ‘conservative liberal’ says in seven.” Later whigs shared with Aristotle the conviction that traditional arrangements have great moral weight, and that common opinion is a primary source of moral truth. The paradigm example of a whig moral philosopher is Henry Sidgwick, with his constant appeal to Common Sense and to “established morality.” On the more liberal side, we have philosophers like David Hume who cautions us to “adjust [political] innovations as much as possible to the ancient fabric,” and William James who insists that the liberal philosopher must reject radicalism.

In modern times, many social philosophers have followed the more radical example of Plato, who was convinced that common opinion was benighted and in need of much consciousness-raising. Looking on society as a Cave that distorted real values, Plato showed a great readiness to discount traditional arrangements. He was perhaps the first philosopher to construct an ideal of a society that reflected principles of justice, inspiring generations of utopian social philosophers.



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1 Digby, Tom Foster, “Philosophy as Radicalism,” Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association, vol. 61, no. 5 (June 1988), p. 860.

2 ibid., pp. 860–61.

3 See Ernest Barker's introduction to Aristotle's Politics, where he argues that Aristotle was “a Whig of the type of Locke or Burke.” Politics of Aristotle, ed. and trans. Ernest Barker (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1973).

4 Both David Hume and William James warn against the hazards of social and political radicalism. Here is Hume on the subject of political experimentation: “To … try experiments merely upon the credit of supposed argument and philosophy can never be the part of a wise magistrate, who will bear a reverence to what carries the mark of age; and though he may attempt some improvements for the public good, yet will he adjust his innovations as much as possible to the ancient fabric…” (Essays on Moral and Political Subjects, pt. II, essay XVI). William James saw the rejection of radicalism as central to the pragmatic method. “[Experience] has proved that the laws and usages of the land are what yield the maximum of satisfaction… The presumption in cases of conflict must always be in favor of the conventionally recognized good. The philosopher must be a conservative…” (“The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life,” Essays in Pragmatism (New York: Hafner, 1948, p. 80)).

5 Digby, p. 860.

6 Jaggar, Alison, Feminist Politics and Human Nature (Totowa: Rowman and Allanheld, 1983). A similar typology is described by Rosemary Tong in “Feminism Philosophy: Standpoints and Differences,” American Philosophical Association Newsletter on Feminism and Philosophy (April 1988), pp. 8–11.

7 See Wasserstrom, Richard, “Racism and Sexism,” Philosophy and Social Issues (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1980), p. 26; Moller, SusanOkin, Justice, Gender and the Family (New York: Basic Books, 1989).

8 Okin, pp. 170–71.

9 Wasserstrom, p. 26.

10 Daly, Mary, Gyn/Ecology: The Metaethics of Radical Feminism (Boston: Beacon Press, 1978), p. 59.

11 Dworkin, Andrea, “Why So-Called Radical Men Love and Need Pornography,” ed. Laura, Lederer, Take Back the Night: Women in Pornograpy (New York: William Morris, 1980), p. 139.

12 Mackinnon, Catherine, Toward a Feminist Theory of the State (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1989), pp. 116–17.

13 Held, Virginia, “Birth and Death,” Ethics, vol. 99, no. 2 (January 1989), p. 388.

14 Allen, Jeffner, “Motherhood: The Annihilation of Woman,” ed. Joyce, Trebilcot, Mothering, Essays in Feminist Theory (Totowa: Rowman and Allanheld, 1984), p. 315.

15 Alison Jaggar, p. 340.

16 ibid., p. 336.

17 ibid., p. 219.

18 ibid., p. 132.

19 ibid., p. 340 (part of this passage was misprinted in the first edition; see the 1988 edition for correct text).

20 Sylvia Hewlett is a good example of a working liberal feminist. She left the academy when her academic sisters did not give her adequate support in her attempts to manage a family and an academic career. See her A Lesser Life: The Myth of Women's Liberation in America (New York: William Morrow, 1985).

21 Jaggar, Alison, eds. Alison, Jaggar and Paula, Rothenberg, Feminist Frameworks (New York: McGraw Hill, 1984), p. 85.

22 Harding, Sandra, “Why Has the Sex/Gender System become Visible Only Now?”, eds. Sandra, Harding and Merrill, Hintikka, Discovering Reality: Feminist Perspectives on Science (Dordrecht: D. Reidel, 1983), p. 312.

23 Rorty, Richard, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), p. 185.

24 Many feminist philosophers are convinced that babies are born bisexual and are then transformed into “males” and “females” by their parents. See, for example, Ferguson, Ann, “Androgyny as an Ideal for Human Development,” eds. Vetterling-Braggin, M., Elliston, F., and J., English, Feminism and Philosophy (Totowa, NJ: Rowman and Littlefield, 1977), p. 61; Rubin, Gayle, “The Traffic in Women: Notes on the ‘Political Economy of Sex’,” ed. Reita, Rayna R., Toward an Anthropology of Women (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1975), pp. 157210; and Harding, p. 127.

25 But see Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, who persuades me that this confusion can be dissipated: The Woman Who Never Evolved (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981). A persuasive case for biologically-based male and female differences is found in Symons, Donald, The Evolution of Human Sexuality (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979).

26 Jaggar, p. 149.

27 Jaggar says: “Most of the current socialist feminist accounts depend on a psychoanalytic theory of character formation, arguing, for instance, that the mother-rearing of children, in a sexist and heterosexist social context, results in psychologically passive girls … and aggressive boys … [But] given its materialist presuppositions socialist feminism recognizes that a psychological theory alone could never constitute a complete explanation … [Socialist feminists] are claiming merely that certain forms of praxis generate psychological predispositions to perpetuate those forms of praxis.” ibid., pp. 150–51.

28 Mackinnon, Catherine, Feminism Unmodified (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1989), p. 226.

29 Mary Anne Warren, “Is Androgyny the Answer to Sexual Stereotyping?”, in “Femininity,” “Masculinity,” and “Androgyny,” ed. Mary Vetterling-Braggin, p. 170.

30 Elizabeth Lane Beardsley, “On Curing Conceptual Confusion: A Response to Mary Anne Warren”, in “Femininity,” “Masculinity,” and “Androgyny,” ed. Mary Vetterling-Braggin, p. 197.

31 From “Sex, Society, and the Female Dilemma: A Dialogue between Simone de Beauvoir and Betty Friedan,” Saturday Review (June 14, 1975); quoted in Davidson, Nicholas, The Failure of Feminism (Buffalo: Prometheus Books, 1988), p. 17.

32 Hewlett, p. 211.

33 For a fuller account, the reader may wish to see my “Filial Morality” in the Journal of Philosophy, no. 8 (August 1986), and “Philosophers Against the Family,” eds. Hugh, La Follette and George, Graham, Person to Person (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1988).

34 Held, Virginia, “Feminism and Epistemology: Recent Work on the Connection between Gender and Knowledge,” Philosophy and Public Affairs, vol. 14, no. 3 (Summer 1985), pp. 295307.

35 Minnich, Elizabeth, “Friends and Critics: The Feminist Academy” (keynote address), Proceedings of the Fifth Annual GLCA Women's Studies Conference (November 1979). Quoted in Bowles, Gloria and Klein, Renate Duelli, Theories of Women's Studies (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1983), p. 4.

36 Virginia Held, p. 297.

37 That philosophers are reluctant to bring the full weight of analytic criticism to bear on the large feminist claims is partly due to the correct perception that, for their part, many feminists treat adverse criticism as an attack on women.

38 See, for example, Schuster, Marilyn R. and Vandyne, Susan R., “Curricular Changes for the Twenty-First Century: Why Women?”, in Woman's Place in the Academy: Transforming the Liberal Arts Curriculum (Totowa: Rowman and Allanheld, 1985), p. 18; and McIntosh, Margaret, “Seeing Our Way Clear: Feminist Revision of the Academy” (keynote address), Proceedings of the Eighth Annual Greater Lakes College Association Women's Studies Conference (November 5–7, 1982), p. 13.

39 MacKinnon, Feminism Unmodified, p. 59.

40 Harding, Sandra, The Science Question in Feminism (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1986), p. 116.

41 See, for example, Linda Gardner, “Can this Discipline be Saved? Feminist Theory Challenges Mainstream Philosophy,” Working Paper 118, Wellesley College, Center for Research on Women.

42 This complex finding has objective merit, but it is hardly new; ethics has always moved between the poles of justice and mercy, or rights and responsibilities. It is much too early to say whether or not men and women have significantly different styles of moral reasoning. Recent studies strongly suggest they do not. See, for example, Walker, L., “Sex Differences in the Development of Moral Reasoning: A Critical Review,” Child Development, vol. 55 (1984), pp. 677–91.

43 Schuster and VanDyne, p. 5.

44 Sandra Harding, p. 16.

45 Virginia Held, p. 299. Held's survey of the progress of the feminist critique of science and other forms of masculine ways of knowing includes no reports of skeptical criticism. The (self-)congratulatory mood characteristically dominates discussion, extending even to “exhaustive” bibliographies. In a recent issue of the American Philosophical Association Newsletter on Feminism and Philosophy devoted to the feminist critique of the sciences, many critical articles were not cited. This led one of the neglected critics, Alan Soble, to complain in a letter to the editor: “Actually I was a bit surprised that other pieces critical of the project were not included in the bibliography, since taking into account what all sides have to say seems to be a necessary condition for philosophical discourse on a topic.” See the Newsletter, vol. 88, no. 1, p. 19.

46 Levin, Margarita, “Caring New World: Feminism and Science,” The American Scholar (January, 1988).

47 Raymond, Janice, “Women's Studies: A Knowledge of One's Own,” Gendered Subjects: The Dynamics of Feminist Teaching (Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1985), p. 55.

48 In this vein, MacKinnon argues that women have learned to join the conspiracy that denied the violent and humiliating nature of the sex act and to believe they actually want sex as it is now practiced. She characterizes the willingness of women to have intercourse as a “complicitous collapse into ‘I chose it’” that is pan of a “strategy for survival.” “Sexuality, Pornography, and Method: Pleasure under Patriarchy,” Ethics, vol. 99, no. 2 (January 1989), p. 340.

49 Fox-Keller, Elizabeth, “Women Scientists and Feminist Critics of Science,” ed. Jill, Conway, Susan, Bourque, and Joan, Scott, “Learning about Women: Gender, Politics and Power,” Daedalus, vol. 116, no. 4 (Fall 1987), p. 89.

50 Adelson, Joseph, “An Academy of One's Own,” The Public Interest (Spring 1988).

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