Feminism and its importance for the future of philosophy

“Philosophy is concerned with the meaning of human life, whether there is any such meaning and whether the human can be made an object of systematic study.” – Riet Turksma. This concern and insight into searching for answers to humanity and the world’s ‘big questions’ which are seemingly unanswerable, makes for interesting discussion which accounts for all human beings. Yet these questions are often tackled and left to highbrow philosophical theory, which is a small, elitist field traditionally inhabited by men due to its austere, cold and analytical atmosphere. But it’s important that women infiltrate this field of ‘highbrow’ theory and research, not only to concern itself with fair play but also with changing the rules of the game. But perhaps as Camille Paglia, Professor of Humanities at the University of the Arts, Philadelphia, argues it is “not that women inherently lack a talent or aptitude for philosophy or higher mathematics, but rather that they are more unwilling than men to devote their lives to a frigid space from which the natural and the human have been eliminated”.  

But a shift in the proportion of key female philosophers and thinkers has correlated with vigorous efforts from organisations to increase the number of women in philosophy and to root out all forms of bias and discrimination. This shift has furthered philosophical feminism as a political cause, recently committed to gender equality and the gender wage gap; but by as Gutting says by using it as, “vehicle of a political movement” there is a danger of forgetting its other purposes and importance for the future of philosophy. Philosophers uneasy with strong feminist claims about the current poor treatment of women may feel that feminist philosophy has nothing to offer them, with writing on feminist topics being often by women and sometimes not welcome to male contributions. 

But the contribution to the abstract, analytical and purely academic thinking sometimes derives from the stereotypical roles that society has imposed on women- such as the emphasis on “care” and “kindness”. This can be clearly seen in ethics, such as explained by Nancy Williams in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “proponents of feminist care ethics…stress that traditional moral theories…are deficient to the degree they lack, ignore, trivialise, or demean values and virtues culturally associated with women.” Many feminist philosophers have therefore developed various “ethics of care” that enhance or displace “masculine” values such as autonomy and self-fulfilment. Yet even theories such as Utilitarianism where the “greatest happiness for the greatest number” take on a deeper meaning when understood not as a duty toward generic humanity but as a call to personal engagement with those in need. 

This also translates into epistemology where values and ‘care’ filtrates into traditional analytic approaches that treat knowledge as the goal of an isolated mind such as those of Descartes. For example, feminist philosophers such as Helen Longino and Louise Antony have offered strong analytic arguments for enriching the ‘masculinist’ view of knowledge with elements previously ignored as signs of ‘feminine’ cognitive weakness. As well as epistemologists, Simone De Beauvoir (who partnered with Jean-Paul Sartre, the founder of Existentialism) and Harriet Taylor Mill provided vital arguments for the unjust differences between men and women. In De Beauvoir’s famous “The Second Sex” she speaks of women being trapped in a gender role that is ‘the other’, a term defined by men which leads to the oppression of women. Whilst Taylor advocated that motherhood should not lead to a subordinate position but that women should have the right to education and civil rights- this they can use to claim economical independence. 

As you can see, women such as De Beauvoir and Taylor paved the way for future feminist philosophers to come, but feminist philosophers’ now personal and political rage against injustice could create an atmosphere hostile for philosophical reflection; a world in which as Camille Paglia states, “Philosophers are now at the margin. Philosophy has shrunk in reputation and stature – it’s an academic exercise.” However, by looking at the significant achievements of feminist philosophers to date, which has already improved the climate for women and philosophical thinking itself – it is clear that these developments are still needed. There is much more development required from Feminist philosophers and thinkers, with recent examples of the #MeToo movement and the Gender Pay Gap bringing to light the attention that needs to be shined upon such issues. 

Just perhaps, now they are approached in a different form and presented through a different medium in today’s modern world. One which has to balance the nuances of cultural criticism and pop culture with the movements such as Post-Modernism and Post-Structuralism. A revival of philosophy is needed not only to incorporate more females but to encourage younger minds to tackle life’s ‘big questions’.

References:

Gary Gutting. (2017). Feminism and the Future of Philosophy. NY Times, Retrieved July 13, 2020. from https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/18/opinion/feminist-philosophy-future.html

Camille Paglia, Ellie Stevenson. (2005). Ten great female philosophers: The thinking woman’s women. The Independent, Retrieved July 13, 2020. from https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/this-britain/ten-great-female-philosophers-the-thinking-womans-women-299061.html

Riet Turksma. (2001). Feminist Classic Philosophers and the Other Women. Economic and Political Weekly, 36(17), 1413-1424. Retrieved July 13, 2020, from www.jstor.org/stable/4410545

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