How Feminism Is Re-writing the Philosophical Canon
Professor Charlotte Witt

The Alfred P. Stiernotte Memorial Lecture in Philosophy at Quinnipiac College, October 2, 1996. Copyright © 1996 Charlotte Witt. All rights reserved.
Reprinted on SWIP-Web by written permission of the author, 5/98.

For a summary by the author, please follow this link.

The past decade has seen an explosion of feminist writing on the philosophical canon, a development that has clear parallels in other disciplines like literature and art history. Since most of the writing is, in one way or another, critical of the tradition, a natural question to ask is: Why does the canon have importance for feminist philosophers? My question assumes that the philosophical canon is of importance for feminists, and so I do not address either the claim that the idea of a canon is itself oppressive and ought to be rejected by feminists, or the claim that there is no uniquely philosophical canon. Rather, I take the volume of feminist writing on the canon to be evidence of its significance for feminists, and I am concerned to explain that importance.

A recent volume dedicated to exploring the connection between philosophy and its history, opens with the following description of the relationship between contemporary philosophical movements and the philosophical canon:

"Each historian of philosophy is working for an "us" which consists, primarily, of those who see the contemporary philosophical scene as he does. So each will treat in a "witchcraft" manner what another will treat as the antecedents of something real and important in contemporary philosophy" [1]

Think, for example, of the way in which analytic philosophy came to embrace Hume, elevate Frege and despise Hegel, and consider the fact that philosophers in the continental tradition would replace Hume with Hegel, and omit Frege altogether. [2] When analytic or continental philosophers search the history of philosophy for their antecedents, they naturally interpret and evaluate the tradition differently. But, they are engaged in the identical project, which is to justify historically their current philosophical concerns. Are contemporary feminist philosophers engaged in the task of historical self-justification by forming a canon for ourselves, as analytic and continental philosophers have done?

Let me begin with what is different about the feminist project. Feminist philosophers engaged in a project of re-reading and re-forming the philosophical canon face two unique difficulties. The first, the problem of historical exclusion, is implied in the quotation I just read. In the quote the philosophical "us" the historian is working for is male--recall the pronoun "he"-- as is the historian himself. Feminist philosophers are faced with a tradition that believes that there are no women philosophers and, if there are any, they are unimportant. And, as our quotation illustrates, the absence of women from the history of philosophy, and the canon, is reflected and re-iterated in philosophical writing today.

Of course, women are not entirely absent from the history of philosophy, and that brings us to the second unique difficulty we face. Canonical philosophers have had plenty to say about women and what we are like. Notice, for example, the use of the word "witchcraft" to describe bad, male philosophy. In general terms, we often find that philosophical norms like reason and objectivity are defined in contrast to matter, the irrational or whatever a given philosopher associates with women and the feminine. The negative and oppressive characterization of women and the feminine in traditional philosophy presents a second, unique challenge to feminist philosophers intent on re-reading the canon in search of our philosophical origins. Our tradition tells us, either implicitly through images and metaphors, or explicitly in so many words, that philosophy itself and its norms of reason and objectivity exclude everything that is feminine or associated with women.

In response, feminist philosophers criticize both the historical exclusion of women from the philosophical tradition, and the negative characterization of women or the feminine in it. Hence, the project of including women in the philosophical "us" is both factual and conceptual. Feminist historians of philosophy have argued that the historical record is incomplete because it omits women philosophers, and it is biased because it devalues any women philosophers it forgot to omit. In addition, feminist philosophers have argued that the philosophical tradition is conceptually flawed because of the way that its fundamental norms like reason and objectivity are gendered male. [3] By means of these criticisms, feminist philosophers are enlarging the philosophical canon, and re-evaluating its norms, in order to include women in the philosophical "us".

In addition to these two special projects, however, feminist philosophers are using the tradition as analytic and continental philosophers have done, namely as a historical justification for the importance of "our" theoretical issues and "our" philosophical perspective. The project of self-justification raises a third issue facing feminist philosophers working on the canon. It is unclear exactly who the "us" of feminist philosophy is. Some feminist writing on the canon treats the "us" as women, and examines the history of philosophy and the canon from that perspective, adding women philosophers to the record and the canon, and deploring the negative valuation of women and the feminine in it. Is the "us" of feminist historians of philosophy a natural kind populated by all women, united by the principle of the feminine? Other feminist writing understands the "us" to be composed of feminists, and it scours the history of philosophy looking for early feminists or positions useful for feminist theory. Is the "us" made up of feminists, and defined by a philosophical and political orientation? And, is there a single philosophical and political perspective shared by all feminist philosophers?

Moreover, since the question of how to define women and the feminine, is itself a disputed topic within feminist philosophy, the two ways of thinking of the "us" are intertwined; different feminist philosophers conceive of women and the feminine differently. For example, some feminists, following the lead of Gilligan and Chodorow, have defined women in terms of a psychology of care and connection; while other feminists like MacKinnon and Dworkin define women in terms of their subordinate sexual role. [4] Still others, like Elizabeth Spelman and Judith Butler, argue that any attempt to define what woman is necessarily excludes some women, and ought to be rejected. Hence, whether feminists re-read and reform the philosophical canon in relation to the "us" of women or the "us" of feminism, they are inevitably drawn into important controversies that are debated in feminist philosophy today. When this happens, feminists use the philosophical tradition as a resource for the project of self-justification just as other philosophical movements have done.

In section one I describe feminist readings of the philosophical canon that challenge its derogatory characterizations of women. These are of three kinds: (I) readings that record the explicit misogyny of great philosophers (like Aristotle's description of a female as a deformed male) (ii) readings that argue for gendered interpretations of theoretical concepts (like matter and form in Aristotle) (iii) synoptic interpretations of the canon (like the view that, historically, reason and objectivity are gendered male). The third category of feminist criticisms of the canon diagnoses where philosophy as a whole went most deeply wrong, and, in doing so, it constructs an anti-narrative for feminist thought, a negative image of philosophy that feminism ought to resist.

In section two I discuss the response of feminist philosophy to the myths that there are no women philosophers and, in any case, no important ones. One response has been the retrieval of women philosophers for the historical record. A related development is the elevation to the canon of women philosophers like Mary Wollstonecraft, Hannah Arendt and Simone de Beauvoir. The destruction of the myth that all philosophers are male, however, brings with it a historical understanding of women philosophers that threatens another myth, namely that there is a distinctive feminine philosophical voice. We find the unity of the "us" of women and the feminine shattered by the voices of women philosophers. The fact that women philosophers speak in many voices, some indistinguishable from their male counterparts, illustrates the point that challenges to the philosophical canon in the name of women frequently return us to contemporary controversies in feminist theory.

In section three I examine the way that feminist philosophers have been engaged in re-reading the canon looking for antecedents to feminist philosophy in the work of those philosophers (e.g. Hume) and those theories (e.g. Arisotle's virtue ethics) that are most congenial to current trends in feminism or which provide most fuel for feminist thought. This is to use the canon as other movements have done--as a resource, and as confirmation that a feminist perspective or problem is securely rooted in our philosophical culture. Through using the tradition creatively, as a resource for feminist theory, they are establishing that the "us" of feminism has origins in the philosphical canon.

In my conclusion, I focus on the fact that feminists engaged in re-claiming the canon for feminist goals read and evaluate it differently. I suggest that the multiplicity of feminist readings of the history of philosophy is rooted in, and reflects, different understandings of what feminism is. In this regard, feminist philosophers are doing exactly what other contemporary philosophical movements have done, namely to engage in a project of historical self-justification through a selective interpretation of the philosophical canon. Since feminist philosophers have different understandings of what feminist philosophy is, which means that we do not agree of the central values of feminist theory, we also disagree concerning where to locate our historical origins.

Before proceeding, however, I must address an issue which I call Euthyphro's Dilemma. [5] As you recall, in the Euthyphro Socrates asks the following question: Is a philosopher worthy of the canon because the feminists love her or do the feminists love her because she is worthy of the canon? Euthyphro's Dilemma asks whether canons are formed based on the intrinsic merits of philosophical works or whether they are formed based on the pro-attitudes of the canon forgers towards that work. A look at the recent history of the philosophical canon shows that intrinsic philosophical merit is not sufficient to place a work in a canon, and it is arguable that philosophical merit is not even necessary. [6] However, and this is the point I want to emphasize, it does not follow from the fact that works are selected for a canon based on the pro-attitudes of the selectors that philosophical works do not have intrinsic merit, nor does it follow that they do not differ as to merit. What does follow is the simple truth that there is no direct correlation between the greatness of a philosophical work, and whether or not it is included in a particular philosophical canon. For example, Plato's Republic is clearly a work of great philosophical genius and enormous influence but, despite the dialogue's astonishing declaration concerning the equality of men and women in the guardian class, its position in the feminist canon is insecure. [7] In what follows I focus on the issue of feminist canon re-formation rather than the ongoing philosophical debate concerning which philosophical works have merit, which do not, and how to tell the difference.

I. Feminist Criticisms of the Canon as Misogynist

"Women are capable of education, but they are not made for activities which demand a universal faculty such as the more advanced sciences,philosophy and certain forms of artistic production. . . Women regulate their actions not by the demands of universality, but by arbitrary inclinations and opinions." G.W. F. Hegel, The Philosophy of Right

Since not every philosopher is as blatant as Hegel, the idea that the gender of philosophers is important or even relevant to their work is a thought that runs counter to the self-image of philosophy. So, it is interesting to explore how and why feminist philosophers came to the realization that gender is a useful analytic category to apply to the history of philosophy. We can distinguish two aspects to this process although, in many cases, the two aspects were merged in a single project. The first stage of realizing the importance of gender consisted of the cataloguing of the explicit misogyny of most of the canon. The second stage consisted of probing the theories of canonical philosophers in order to uncover the gender bias lurking in their supposedly universal theories. The two aspects are unified by Bat-Ami Bar On's description of the focus of the writers in her collection Engendering Origins--"What they are primarily concerned with is the extent to which Platonic and Aristotelian texts are (un)redeemably sexist, masculinist or phallocentric." (xi)

Let me illustrate these points with Aristotle. There is no doubt that Aristotle's texts are sexist; he thought that women were inferior to men and he said so explicitly. For example, to cite Cynthia Freeland's catalogue: "Aristotle says that the courage of a man lies in commanding, a woman's lies in obeying; that "matter yearns for form, as the female for the male and the ugly for the beautiful; that women have fewer teeth than men; that a female is an incomplete male or "as it were, a deformity": which contributes only matter and not form to the generation of offspring; that in general "a woman is perhaps an inferior being"; that female characters in a tragedy will be inappropriate if they are too brave or too clever." [9] However dispiriting or annoying this litany is, and whatever problems it presents to a woman studying or teaching Aristotle, it does not amount to a gendered interpretation of Aristotle because it can be argued that Aristotle simply held a mistaken view about women and their capacities (as did most Athenians). But, if this is so, then Aristotle is not unredeemably sexist. He is just sexist, and we can safely ignore his statments about women, since they are false.

This happy conclusion is a bit too quick. For, if we reconsider Aristotle's statements, we find a connection between form and being male, and matter and being female. [10] That is, we find that matter and form are gendered notions in Aristotle. By a gendered notion I mean a notion that is connected either overtly or covertly, either explicitly or metaphorically with gender or sexual difference. Furthermore, matter and form are not equal partners in Aristotle's metaphysics; form is better than matter. And since hylomorphism is the conceptual framework that underlies most of Aristotelian theory from metaphysics and philosophy of mind to biology and literary theory, it begins to look as if his philosophy is indeed "unredeemably sexist, masculinist and phallocentric".

Several feminist philosophers have developed this thesis. For example, in "Woman Is Not a Rational Animal", Lynda Lange argues that Aristotle's theory of sex difference is implicated in every piece of Aristotle's metaphysical jargon, and she concludes that "it is not at all clear that it [Aristotle's theory of sex difference] can simply be cut away without any reflection on the status of the rest of the philosophy." [11] Elizabeth Spelman has argued that Aristotle's politicized metaphysics is reflected in his theory of soul, which, in turn, is used to justify the subordination of women in the Politics. [12] And, finally, Susan Okin has argued that Aristotle's functionalist theory of form was devised by Aristotle in order to legitimate the political status quo in Athens, including slavery and the inequality of women. [13]

If these scholars are right, then Aristotle's theories are intrinsically biased against women, and it is unlikely that they can have any value for feminists. Alternatively, as I have argued elsewhere, one might conclude that the suspect gender associations between Aristotelian matter and form are extrinsic, and therefore removable from Aristotle's theories without substantially atlering them. If this interpretation is correct, then Aristotle's theories might have value for feminist philosophers.

I have chosen Aristotle as my example, but similar feminist critiques are available concerning both the explicit and the covert misogyny of other canonical figures like Plato, Descartes and Kant. Sometimes, as in the case of Descartes, the argument is subtle since, unlike Aristotle, his theories are not stated in gendered terms, and he expressed both a personal and a theoretical commitment to equality. Yet some feminists have argued that his theory of mind-body dualism, and his abstract characterization of reason resonate with gender implications-- on the assumption that women are emotional and bodily creatures.[14] Feminist criticisms of Plato's theories stress dialogues (like the Timaeus and Laws) that characterize women as inferior to men rather than the egalitarian Republic. Kant's writings, like Aristotle's, provide the ideal target for feminist criticism because they contain both overt statements of sexism and racism, and a theoretical framework that can be interpreted along gender lines. [15]

The philosophical canon can allow the luster some of its members to be tarnished by feminist criticism, just as it has weathered criticisms from analytic or continental perspectives. The most radical feminist critics, however, have urged that the canon's central philosophical norms and values, like reason and objectivity, are irredeemably masculinist and sexist. The synoptic approch considers the Western philosophical tradition as a whole, and argues that its core concepts are gendered. But, if this is so, then the Western philosophical tradition as a whole, and the central concepts that we have inherited from it, requires rejection or radical revision. Moreover, philosophy's self-image as universal and objective, rather than particular and biased, is mistaken.

Feminist synoptic interpretations of the canon take two forms. The first, exemplified by Genevieve Lloyd's Man of Reason, argues that reason and objectivity in the history of philosophy are gendered male. [16] The way that reason and objectivity are gendered male varies as philosophical theory and historical period varies, but the fact that they are gendered is a constant. From Aristotle to Hume, from Plato to Sartre, reason is associated with maleness. Therefore, the notion of reason that we have inherited, whether we are empiricists or existentialists, requires critical scrutiny.

The second form of synoptic interpretation, exemplified by Susan Bordo's The Flight to Objectivity, argues that the modern period in philosophy, and, in particular, the philosophy of Descartes, is the source of our ideals of reason and objectivity that are gendered male. In other words, this story chronicles a turn in philosophy coincident with the rise of modern science, which generated ideals of reason and objectivity that are deeply antagonistic to women and feminism. [17] Cartesian rationalism and the norms of modern science mark a decisive break with a philosophical and cultural tradition that was more accommodating of female characteristics and powers.

It is important to note that Lloyd and Bordo differ not only with regard to the historical story they tell concerning the maleness of reason, but also with regard to the way they understand that maleness. For Lloyd, the maleness of reason is symbolic and metaphorical rather than cultural or psychological. Lloyd does not intend the maleness of reason to refer to either a socially constituted gender category or a psychological orientation shared by males. "This book is not a direct study of gender identity. It seeks rather to contribute to the understanding of how the male-female distinction operates as a symbol in traditional philosophical texts, and of its interactions with explicit philosophical views of reason". [18] In understanding the maleness of reason as symbolic rather than as psychological or social, Lloyd avoids making a theoretical commitment to any particular psychology of sex differences or any particular account of the social formation of gender identity. What she gains in flexibility, however, she loses in content, since it is difficult to specify exactly what metaphorical maleness is, and how it is related to psychological or social maleness.

For Bordo, however, the maleness of Cartesian reason is given both a cultural meaning and a psychological content. "In the seventeenth century it [the feminine orientation toward the world] was decisively purged from the dominant intellectual culture, through the Cartesian 'rebirthing' and restructuring of knowledge and the world as masculine." [19] "The 'great Cartesian anxiety,' although manifestly expresssed in epistemological terms, discloses itself as anxiety over separation from the organic female universe." [20] Cartesian 'anxiety' is separation anxiety from mother nature; the rational norms of clarity and distinctness are read as symptoms of this anxiety. [21] Bordo's social-psychological notion of maleness, while rich and explicit, provides a large target for critics because it is based on a controversial historical thesis (that the 17th century showed a marked increase in gynophobia) and a disputed psychological theory of the family (object relations).

Despite their different historical stories, and the different ways that they understand the maleness of reason, each of these panoramic visions of the history of philosophy deliver the same moral, which is that the central norms that inform our philosophical culture today are gendered male. [22] Hence, both stories provide historical justifications for the feminist call to reject or to reform our central philosophical norms of reason and objectivity. Let us take a closer look at both argument and conclusion, and ask the question: Does the feminist synoptic critical reading of the history of philosophy justify either the conclusion that reason ought to be flat-out rejected by feminists or the conclusion that reason ought to be reconceptualized by feminists?

I have argued elsewhere that even if feminist historical arguments are successful in showing that philosophical norms like reason and objectivity are gendered male, this conclusion does not justify a flat-out rejection of either traditional philosophy or its norms of reason and objectivity. [23] For, the notion that the philosophical tradition is male-biased in its core concepts would justify a rejection of it only if it ought to be other than it is. And, if a male-biased notion of reason is a flawed notion, then reason and objectivity ought to be gender-neutral or gender-inclusive rather than male-biased. So, what needs to be argued is that reason and objectivity would be different if they were not gendered male but were gender-neutral or gender-inclusive. But, if feminist philosophers develop this argument, then they are reconceptualizing reason and objectivity rather than rejecting them.

Indeed, it is in the task of reconsidering philosophy and its central norms that feminist criticisms of the philosophical canon become intertwined with current feminist writing. Because the question of what a gender-neutral or gender-inclusive notion of reason would look like, and the question of whether such a notion is desirable, or even possible, depends upon how you characterize gender difference, and, moreover, whether or not you think gender is a useful analytic category. On these central questions there is debate among feminist contemporary philosophers. Hence, with feminist theory just as with other contemporary philosophical movements, the evaluation of the philosophical canon inevitably intersects with current debate. Negative philosophical canons are constructed from the materials of history, but according to the blueprint of the present.

II. Feminist Revisions of the History of Philosophy

"These women are not women on the fringes of philosophy, but philosophers on the fringes of history"

Mary Ellen Waithe

Negative canon formation, which I have just discussed, is important for feminist theory because it establishes the pervasive presence of gender in the philosophical canon, and the thematic denigration of women. Feminist revision of the history of philosophy and of the canon of philosophical greats to include women has a different purpose. It has brought into the historical record the lost voices of women philosophers from the classical period to the present, and it has challenged the marginalization of important women philosophers. In so doing, feminists reject the "males only" understanding of philosophy that is exemplified historically by the negative canon, but also conditions contemporary philosophical culture.

Feminist canon revision is most distinctive, and most radical, in its retrieval of women philosophers for the historical record, and in its placement of women in the canon of great philosophers. It is a distinctive project because there is no comparable activity undertaken by other contemporary philosophical movements, for whom canon creation has been largely a process of selection from an already established list of male philosophers. It is a radical project because by uncovering a history of women philosophers, it has destroyed the alienating myth that philosophy was, and by implication is or ought to be, a male preserve.

In A History of Women Philosophers Mary Ellen Waithe has documented at least 16 women philosophers in the classical world, 17 women philosophers from 500-1600, and over 30 from 1600-1900. And, in the recent feminist series Re-reading the Canon three of the fourteen canonical philosophers are women: Mary Wollstonecraft, Hannah Arendt and Simone de Beauvoir. What is crucial to understand is that none of the three is canonical--if by that you mean included in the history of philosophy as it is told in philosophy department curricula, in histories of philosophy, and in scholarly writing. Indeed, The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, published in 1967, which contains articles on over 900 philosophers, does not include an entry for any of them. Moreover, if the index is to be believed, de Beauvoir and Wollstonecraft are not mentioned at all in any article, and Hannah Arendt merits a single mention in an article on "Authority". Far from being canonical, these women philosophers are scarcely even marginal, warranting perhaps a passing reference in a survey of existentialism or political philosophy, but little more. [24] Hence, the feminist series Re-reading the Canon is not only engaged in a critical re-reading of canonical figures like Plato and Hegel, but is also, by fiat, changing the contours of the canon.

The project of retrieving women philosophers has a paradoxical relationship with contemporary feminist theory, however. On the one hand, it is clearly a feminist project; its originators were interested in establishing that women have been philosophers throughout the history of the discipline despite their routine omission from standard histories and encyclopedias of philosophy. However, there is a clear distinction between women philosophers and feminist philosophers. Most of the newly discovered women philosophers, though certainly not all, were not the mothers of contemporary feminist thought nor did they write philosophy in a different voice from their male counterparts. Indeed, their breadth of philosophical interests is comparable to that of male philosophers although their domain of application sometimes differs. In her introduction to A History of Women Philosophers Mary Ellen Waithe comments "If we except the Pythagorean women, we find little differences in the ways men and women did philosophy. Both have been concerned with ethics, metaphysics, cosmology, epistemology and other areas of philosophic inquiry." [25] And another editor, Mary Warnock, comments "In the end, I have not found any clear "voice" shared by women philosophers. [26] The women philosophers restored to the tradition by feminist hands are not all proto-feminists nor do they speak in a uniform, and different, voice from their male peers.

Simarilarly, women philosophers who are candidates for initiation into the philosophical canon--like Mary Wollstonecraft, Hannah Arendt and Simone de Beauvoir--are a diverse crew. According to Elizabeth Young-Bruehl "That Hannah Arendt should have become a provocative subject for feminists is startling" presumably because of Arendt's explicit criticism of feminism. And while Wollstonecraft and de Beauvoir were both feminists, they share neither a common philosophical voice nor common philosophical principles. In The Vindication of the Right's of Women Wollstonecraft argued for the education and political equality of women using Enlightenment principles, while Beauvoir's The Second Sex reflects her marxist and existentialist roots.

The diversity of women philosophers raises the question why their recovery or re-valuation is an important project for contemporary feminist theory. What the retrieval of women philosophers, and their inclusion in the philosophical canon has done is to challenge the myth that there are no women in the history of philosophy and the fallback position that if there are any women philosophers, they are unimportant. Lovers of wisdom that we all are, we all benefit from the correction of these mistaken beliefs. However, what is really at issue is not philosophy's past, but its present; its self-image as male. That self-image is created and maintained in part by a tacit historical justification. It is a damaging self-image for women philosophers today, and for women who aspire to be philosophers. The real significance of uncovering the presence of women in our history, and in placing women in our canon is the effect that has on the way we think about the "us" of philosophy.

III. Feminist Appropriation of Canonical Philosophers

Feminist philosophers have also changed the history of philosophy by appropriating its ideas for feminist purposes. From the perspective of negative canon formation, the history of philosophy is a resource only in so far as it describes the theories and thinkers that were most deeply mistaken about women and women's equality with men. Other feminist historians of philosophy have found important resources for feminism in canonical philosophers. Indeed, they have found valuable concepts even in the worst offenders of the negative canon, like Aristotle and Descartes.

For example, in the Fragility of Goodness Martha Nussbaum has described the virtues of an Aristotelian ethics with its emphasis on the importance of concrete context, emotion and care for others in an ethical life. [27] And Marcia Homiak has argued that Aristotle's rational ideal, far from being antithetical to feminists, actually captures some of feminism's deepest ethical insights. [28] With regard to Descartes, Margaret Atherton has argued that his concept of reason was interpreted in egalitarian rather than masculinist terms by several women philosophers of the 18th century, and was used in their arguments for equal education for women. [29]

Other feminists have urged the reconsideration of the views of canonical figures, like Hume and Dewey, who have played only a minor role in the negative feminist canon. For example, Annette Baier has argued at length for the value of a Humean perspective in both epistemology and in ethics for feminist theory. [30] And, in Pragmatism and Feminism Charlene Seigfried argues for the value of pragmatism for feminism; a position also taken by Richard Rorty. [31]

It cannot have escaped your notice that some of the very same philosophers who were cast as the villains of the negative canon are also mined by feminist theorists for useful ideas. Indeed, it is likely that every philosopher from Plato to Nietzsche, who has been condemned to the negative canon, also appears in some feminist's positive canon. [32] This is perplexing. After all, if feminists evaluate canonical texts so differently, it raises questions about the coherence of feminist interpretations of texts. Is Aristotle a feminist hero or villain? Are Descartes' ideas dangerous for feminists or useful to them? If feminists have argued both positions, we begin to suspect both interpretations. And more seriously, we begin to suspect that there is no such thing as a feminist interpretation of a philosopher. In short, we begin to wonder about the coherence and unity of feminist canon revision. Why is it that feminist philosophers have reached different, and even sometimes incompatible, interpretations of the history of philosophy?

III. Feminist Canon Revision and Contemporary Feminism

I began this paper with the idea that histories of philosophy and philosophical canons are constructed in relation to a contemporary philosophical movement, an "us". I have spent the bulk of this paper explaining the special problems that women and feminist philosophers have faced in finding any trace of an "us" in an exclusionary, derogatory and demeaning philosophical tradition. In my conclusion, I return to the question of how to think of the "us" in relation to which feminist historians of philosophy have been criticising, re-writing and re-reading the philosophical canon. In my view, the multiple and contrary readings of the philosophical canon by feminists reflects the contested nature of the "us" of contemporary feminism.

Recall that the "us" in question could refer to one of two groups. First, there is the "us" that consists of women and the feminine. Looking at the history of philosophy from this perspective has been useful for two projects: the documentation of the pervasive, negative valuation of women and the feminine in history of philosophy, and the re-inscription of women philosophers into the historical record. This aspect of feminist canon revision has forced the "us" of philosophy to include women as well as men.

The second "us" refers to feminist philosophers. Feminist re-interpretations of the canon have been successful in showing the historical roots of feminist issues, and in finding theoretical resources for their resolution. This aspect of feminist canon revision has asked the philosphical tradition to focus upon feminist issues and problems and to devote its resources to them. This process of conceptual appropriation is another way of expanding the "us" of philosophy, by making our problems, feminist problems, central and important rather than peripheral and trivial.

However, as I have noted, each of these ways of thinking of the "us" generates difficulties. The women philosophers restored to history and the canon by feminist historians speak in many voices, which raises questions concerning what the feminine voice might be. And, doubts about the existence of a unified, feminine philosophical voice, in turn, raise questions about how to define gender difference. When we read the history of philosophy using gender as a category, the results raise interesting theoretical questions concerning how to define women and what the feminine is. But, of course, how to define gender difference, and whether to define it, is one of the central issues of contemporary feminist theory. For example, Judith Butler has criticized Susan Bordo's interpretation of Cartesian reason as male on the explicitly feminist grounds that Bordo's definition of gender difference is essentialist, and, hence, exclusionary. [33] Ultimately, then, the interpretation of the history of philosophy in terms of women and the feminine depends upon the way that gender is defined, and whether or not you think that defining gender is an exclusionary and suspect activity. Feminist historians who use the "us" of women and the feminine are inevitably drawn into contemporary feminist debates concerning gender difference, how to define gender and whether to define it.

And, when feminist historians use the "us" of feminism to re-read the canon, they also arrive at different interpretations. For example, they disagree concerning whether or not Cartesian reason is masculine reason or whether or not Aristotle's ethical ideal is valuable. These disagreements might make us wonder what it means to provide a feminist interpretation of the canon. And, if the idea of a feminist interpretation is itself unstable then it is hard to see how feminist philosophy can use the canon to construct a historical self-justification.

The fact that feminist interpretations of canonical figures are diverse reflects, and is part of, on-going debates within feminism over its identity and self-image. If you think that gender-neutrality is an important value for feminist theories, then you will find in Descartes' notion of disembodied reason an important theoretical antecendent. "Both Astell and Masham use reason and rationality as synonymous with thinking...What they have taken from Descartes' account is the idea that right reasoning, and hence more important, knowing what to do, is a process that can be understood simply through introspection, without requiring the trappings of a formal education from which women were excluded. Their use of reason is gender- neutral because of its generality." [34] For Mary Astell and Damaris Masham, writing in the 17th century, it is Descartes' conception of reason as gender-neutral that is important for their arguments in support of the education of women. And for those contemporary feminists who value the norm of gender-neutrality, disembodied, Cartesian reason is an important philosophical resource.

If, on the other hand, you think that gender difference is an important value for feminism, then you will interpret Cartesian disembodied reason as male reason, given the traditional associations between women and the body. "Lloyd and Bordo have each argued that the concept of reason to be found in Descartes is not gender-neutral but rather describes a way of thinking that is stereotypically masculine...The masculine standard of rationality, then, serves as a gatekeeper to exclude feminine thought processes and, by implication, women themselves from the halls of intellectual power." [35] For Lloyd and Bordo, it is gender difference rather than gender-neutrality that is an important category for an understanding of canonical figures like Descartes, because the category of gender difference is central to feminist theorizing. Whether one thinks of gender difference symbolically, as Lloyd does, or as a social and psychological category, as Bordo does, this approach to feminist understanding differs markedly from the feminism that values gender-neutrality. To those who place gender difference at the center of feminist thought, what is important about Cartesian reason is the way that it encodes difference beneath a surface of gender-neutrality.

As these examples, suggest, when feminists interpret a canonical figure differently they do so because of their theoretical differences as feminists. And what is at issue here is not only disagreement about the canonical figure, but also disagreement about feminist philosophy itself, and what its central theoretical notions are and what its values ought to be. Hence, we can understand the multiple readings of the philosophical canon as other philosophical movements have done--to provide a historical justification for itself. Feminist disagreements over canonical figures and the appropriate catetgories to use to interpret the canon are, in the final analysis, disagreements within feminist philosophy over what feminism is, what its theoretical commitments should be and what its core values are. [36]

As it turns out then, we can understand the multiple readings of the philosophical canon in terms of the on-going debate in feminist philosophy concerning how to specify both the "us" of women and the feminine and the "us" of feminist theory. In this respect, therefore, feminist philosophers are using the canon as other philosophical movements have done, which is to provide a historical justification for itself. Feminist disagreements over canonical figures, and the appropriate categories to use to interpret the canon, are, in the final analysis, disagreements within feminist philosophy over what feminism is, and what its theoretical committments should be, and what its core values are.


1. Philosophy in History ed. By Richard Rorty, J.b. Schneewind, Quentin Skinner (Cambridge 1984) 7.

2. I do not mean to suggest that there is no disagreement among analytic and continental philosophers concerning the value of particular canonical figures, nor do I want to imply that there is total disagreement between analytic and continental philosophers. My point is simply that each tradition evaluates the canon differently, even allowing for some agreement. Kant, for example, is an important figure in both traditions, although what is considered valuable in Kant's thought differs.

3. Phyllis Rooney summarizes feminist criticisms of the "maleness" of reason in "Recent Work in Feminist Discussions of Reason" in the American Philosophical Quarterly Vol. 31, Number 1, January 1994.

4. The definition of women in terms of a psychology of care and connection can be found in Carol Gilligan's In a Different Voice (Cambridge 1982). Catharine A. MacKinnon defines women in terms of sexual subordination in Feminism Unmodified (Cambridge 1987).

5. Louise Antony is responsible for the reference to the Euthyphro.

6. Bruce Kuklick's "Seven thinkers and how they grew: Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz; Locke, Berkeley, Hume: Kant" in Philosophy in History provides a fascinating account of the canon of modern philosophy was, in fact formed in American universities. The moral of his story is that intrinsic philosophical merit is not sufficient to account for this canon.

7. The question of Plato's feminism is debated in half of the contributions to Feminist Interpretations of Plato ed. Nancy Tuana (Penn State Press 1994).

8. The Philosophy of Right, T.M. Knox (trans) (New York, Oxford University Press, 1973) 263.

9. "Nourishing Speculation: A Feminist Reading of Aristotelian Science" in Engendering Origins: Critical Feminist Readings in Plato and Aristotle ed. By Bat-Ami Bar On (State University of New York Press, Albany 1994) 145-146.

10. I present and evaluate the evidence for this claim in "Form and Normativity in Aristotle" in Feminist Interpretations of Aristotle ed. Cynthia Freeland (forthcoming).

11. In Discovering Reality ed. By Sandra Harding and Merrill B. Hintikka (D. Reidel 1983) p.2.

12. In "Aristotle and the Politicization of the Soul" in Discovering Reality.

13. Women in Western Political Thought by Susan Okin (Princeton 1979), chapter 4.

14. For example, see Naomi Scheman's "Though This Be Method, Yet There Is Madness in It: Paranoia and Liberal Epistemology" in Antony and Witt eds. A Mind of One's Own: Feminist Essays on Reason and Objectivity (Westview 1992); Susan Bordo's The Flight to Objectivity (New York 1987); and Genvieve Lloyd's The Man of Reason (Minnesota 1993) ch. 3.

15. Kant's derogatory remarks about women are in his pre-critical work Observations on the Beautiful and Sublime p. 111 (Goldthwaite ed.). Robin Schott's Eros and Cognition (Boston 1988) presents a critical, feminist reading of Kant's conceptual framework.

16. Nancy Tuana's Woman and the History of Philosophy (Paragon 1992) also provides a feminist reading of the history of philosophy.

17. Evelyn Fox Keller's Reflections on Gender and Science is a classic source for feminist criticism of the rise of modern science.

18. The Man of Reason 2nd ed. (University of Minnesota Press 1993), ix. In another essay Lloyd explains that in her view there is an important connection between gender metaphors in philosophical texts and real world gender divisions and the way that gender identity is formed in a culture. See "Maleness, Metaphor, and the 'Crisis' of Reason" in A Mind of One's Own ed. Louise Antony and Charlotte Witt (Westview 1992).

19. The Flight to Objectivity p. 100.

20. The Flight to Objectivity p. 5.

21. In "Though This Be Method, Yet There Is Madness in It" (in A Mind of One's Own Naomi Scheman develops parallels between the Cartesian subject--disembodied, rational, and unitary--and the repression and projection characteristic of paranoia. Her analysis, like Bordo's, makes use of psychoanalytic categories but it does not make a historical, cultural claim as Bordo does.

22. Bordo and Lloyd differ in other important respects as well. Bordo is interested in providing a social and psychological explanation for the masculinization of philosophy by Descartes. Why did Descartes conceive of reason and objectivity in a masculine guise? The social answer is that during his life European culture was undergoing a gynophobic spasm. The psychological answer depends upon object relations theory, and the development of that theory along gender lines by Chodorow and others. Lloyd is not interested primarily in the causal question addressed by Bordo. Moreover, she thinks that the maleness of reason in the philosophical tradition is primarily symbolic or metaphorical rather than social or psychological. Ultimately, then Bordo and Lloyd differ as to what is meant by the maleness of reason.

23. "Feminist Metaphysics" in A Mind of One's Own: Feminist Essays on Reason and Objectivity. (Westview 1993).

24. For a discussion of the omission of Simone de Beauvoir from the philosophical canon see the Introduction to Feminist Interpretations of Simone de Beauvoir ed. By Margaret A. Simons (Penn State 1995).

25. A History of Women Philosophers Vol. 1, xxi.

26. Women Philosophers (J.M. Dent 1996 ) xlvii.

27. The Fragility of Goodness: Luck and Ethics in Greek Tragedy and Philosophy (Cambridge 1986).

28. See her paper "Feminism and Aristotle's Rational Ideal" in A Mind of One's Own: Feminist Essays on Reason and Objectivity (Westview 1992).

29. See "Cartesian Reason and Gendered Reason" in A Mind of One's Own. Celia Amoros has retrieved the arguments in support of the equality of the sexes made by the 17th century Cartesian philosopher Francois Poullain de la Barre (1647-1723). See her paper in Hypatia vol. 9, no. 1 (Winter 1994).

30. See Baier's papers: "Hume, the Women's Moral Theorist" Women and Moral Theory ed. Eva Feder Kittay and Diana T. Meyers (Roman and Littlefield, 1987) and "Hume, the Reflective Women's Epistemologist?" in A Mind of One's Own.

31. Pragmatism and Feminism (Chicago 1996). Rorty's views can be found in "Feminism and Pragmatism" Michigan Quarterly Review 30/2 (Spring 1991) 231-58.

32. In this re-evaluation of what the traditional canon has to offer feminism, there are, I believe, two important and obvious shortcomings. The first is Plato. I do not think that either his egalitarian position in the Republic or the resources of other dialogues like the Symposium have been sufficiently explored. Second, it is odd that John Stuart Mill's work has not received more attention from feminists.

33. See the symposium on gender in Hypatia vol. 7, no. 3 (Summer 1992), especially the papers by Judith Butler and Susan Bordo.

34. "Cartesian Reason and Gendered Reason" by Margaret Atherton, p. 33.

35. "Cartesian Reason and Gendered Reason" by Margaret Atherton, p.31.

36. Thanks to my colleagues at UNH (especially Deborah Barnbaum) for listening to a rough draft of this paper. Thanks also to Sally Haslanger, Cynthia Freeland and Mark Okrent for their comments and suggestions.

Note on the Author: Charlotte Witt ( is Professor of Philosophy at the University of New Hampshire.

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