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Twentieth-Century Philosophies Feminist

History Of Philosophy

Feminist work in the history of philosophy was initially concerned with analyzing canonical philosophers' accounts of women and their conceptions of femininity. Although there were exceptions, the philosophical canon is rife with conceptions of women as lesser or misbegotten men, a bias that has had a profound structuring impact on the history of philosophical and scientific conceptions of men as the true form and women as inferior. Luce Irigaray argues that woman has been defined not in terms of true difference from men, but in terms of lack according to an A (male) / A (female) logic. Men are the true form; women the deviation. Men are rational animals; women less capable of reason.

But the "question of women" in feminist scholarship in the history of philosophy is far broader than canonical (male) philosophical views of women. Much feminist philosophical scholarship has been devoted to recovering the work of women philosophers who have been "forgotten" or, like Beauvoir, seen as too marginal to be included in the canon. Philosophers of history such as Mary Ellen Waite, Eileen O'Neill, Therese Dykeman, and John J. Conley, who have devoted their attention to recovering the work of women philosophers, argue that the lack of women philosophers in contemporary histories of philosophy is due neither to the absence of women philosophers nor to the significance and value of their work, but is the result of complex values that inform the narratives of philosophy and determine what questions and styles count as philosophical and whose voices are sufficiently influential to be chronicled.

Feminists working in the history of philosophy have further argued that gender leaves traces not only on canonization processes, but deeply inscribes the very concepts of philosophy. One common theme in feminist histories of philosophy is the contention that many of the central categories of philosophy are formed through the exclusion of the feminine. In a complex two-step process, concepts such as reason, morality, and agency are produced through the prioritizing of masculine characteristics and the forgetting of gender. The concepts so constructed are then posited as objective and universal rather than gendered and particular. As just one example, Genevieve Lloyd argues that "rationality has been conceived as the transcendence of the feminine; and the 'feminine' itself has been partly constituted by its occurrence within this structure" (p. 104).

To the extent that the central categories of philosophy have been inscribed in this way, not only is philosophy not the objective, universal practice many philosophers have believed it to be, it is also complicit in a social organization that impoverishes the lives of women as well as men. The question of the maleness of reason, for example, may be what is behind common judgments of women as less capable of rational thought, but the question itself is far more complex. To investigate the maleness of reason, one must consider the extent to which conceptions of rationality have privileged traits historically associated with masculinity. In other words, one must consider the extent to which the attainment of rationality has been perceived as involving the control or transcendence of attributes historically identified as female—the body, the emotions, the passions, the appetites, the erotic. If it is the case that what Michèle Le Dœuff has called the "philosophical imagery of gender" (1989) is inscribed onto a philosopher's conception of reason, then one can not simply ignore his (or her) sexism for it is at the core of the values from which this central category emerges.

Feminist philosophy's attendance to the denigration of the feminine in the history of philosophy presents an important step, but one that must be seen as a first step of a much larger inquiry. Feminists delineate such bias not to simply reject a philosopher, but rather to participate in new ways of reading historical texts that identify resources for engendering the central concepts of philosophy in ways not predicated on the forgetting of gender. These reading strategies are diverse and reflect the different positions and training of feminists themselves. Some, such as Le Dœuff, Penelope Deutscher, Sarah Kofman, and Irigaray, bring deconstructive methods to bear on canonical texts. Others, such as Annette Baier, Barbara Herman, and Martha Nussbaum, read through the lens of contemporary feminist revaluing of the emotions.

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