How is the Western philosophical canon sexist?*

My daughter Hannah clearly begins to realise that she is a female person. Half a year ago she turned two, and by now she has been pointing out that certain people are men and women for quite a while. At the moment she is using these concepts quite playfully: so while she might at one time say that she is a “girl” (certainly not a baby!), at other times she’ll also claim that she is a “good boy”. I don’t know what goes into the mastery of these concepts, but a fresh look at some canonical philosophers like Aristotle, Albert the Great and Hegel made me worry. So far, I mostly tended to think of condescending remarks about women as inconsistencies or aberrations that might be ‘typical of the time or context’. But what if they are not mere inconsistencies? What if they are part and parcel of their philosophical theories?

As is well known, Aristotle conceived of women as defective males. Calling something defective, has normative and teleological implications. Accordingly, the generation of women is not seen as the best or intended outcome. In other words, it seems that if natural processes always were to run perfectly, there wouldn’t be any women. This idea plays out in number of ways, but the upshot is that women count as performing less well in everything that matters in our lives. Moreover, these defects are related to metaphysical notions. Women are seen as connected to the material, while only men are truly capable to indulge in the life of the mind. If you know a little bit about Western philosophy, you’ll probably know that the mind or intellect is pervasively construed as superior to the material. Now if your theory also tells you that women are more bound to the material (and to things related to matter, such as emotion etc) than the intellectual, your theory implies that women are inferior to men. In this context, the idea of women as defective males might sound straightforward. But is sexism restricted to such contexts? I doubt it. As Christia Mercer puts it in an intriguing article: “It is almost impossible to exaggerate the influence these ancient ideas had on the history of Western thought.”

Not surprisingly, then, there was and is a lively debate among feminist historians of philosophy as to whether the Aristotelian notions of matter and form are inherently related to the notions of female and male respectively.  Thus, the question is whether the concepts of matter and form depend on the concepts of being female and male. If yes, Aristotelian hylomorphism would be inherently or intrinsically sexist. And what if not? Would Aristotle’s philosophy be absolved? – While this question seems important, I think it is too strongly put and might distract us from the issue at hand. The notion of an inherent relation strikes me as a red herring. As I see it, the relation between materiality and being female cannot be shown to be an inherent one, unless you have a very special metaphysical theory. But that doesn’t mean that the concepts are not intimately related in the actual historical theories. In other words, Aristotelian metaphysics is still sexist through and through, even if matter is not identified as inherently female.

As I said in the beginning, it might be tempting to just push the sexism aside as an inconsistent aberration. Corrected by contemporary insights, you might say that Aristotelian philosophy is great as long as you ignore some factual errors about women. Yet, I doubt we can separate the sexism that easily from Aristotelianism or other philosophies. I began to realise this when considering Albert the Great’s defense of the Aristotelian view of women. Albert the Great and other Aristotelian thinkers clearly defend the idea of women as defective males. What is striking is that they continue to maintain the idea even in the light of fairly obvious objections. One such objection is this: If women are defective males, then every women born is to be seen as going against the perfection of natural processes. If this is correct, then why are there so many women in the first place? As Evelina Miteva pointed out in a recent paper (at the IMC 2019), Albert explains the abundance of women by claiming that the generation of nobler and more complex beings (= men) requires the concurrence of many external conditions. In other words, the more perfect the intended product, the more can go wrong in the production. And since natural processes are often obstructed by a lack of required conditions, we can explain that so many women are born, even if their generation goes against natural design. Put simply, the reason that there are so many women is that so many things go wrong. If this is correct, then one might say that Albert is adamant to maintain the sexist ideas in Aristotle’s philosophy and show why they are consistent. Put more drastically, Aristotelianism can be defended by rendering women as subhuman.

While Albert the Great’s defence of Aristotelianism is clearly sexist, not everyone who endorses Aristotle can be justly taken as explicitly endorsing sexist beliefs. But sexism has not to be explicitly endorsed in order to gain ground. This is what makes sexism and other ideologies structural. Given the prominence of Aristotle, the sexist ideology might be sufficiently served already by not renouncing the doctrine of the defective male. The point is this: A canonical doctrine retains its sexist impact as long as the sexist elements are not explicitly excluded. Arguably, this kind of implicit sexism might be said to be even more pervasive. Basically, it resides in the conjunction of two claims: (1) that the intellect is more dignified than the material and (2) that women are more tied to the material (or emotional etc.) than to the intellectual realm. I honestly wonder when these claims have been explicitly challenged or renounced for the first time.

If it is true that these claims largely went unchallenged, then much of the history of Western philosophy coincides with a history of sexism. Arguably, this does not mean that all Western philosophers are sexists. Firstly, the positions of the philosophers I alluded to (and others) can be said to be much more subtle, and not reducible to the claims I ascribed to them. Secondly, some philosophers, when pressed, might expressly have rejected or do reject sexist beliefs. What can we say in the light of these facts? The point is perhaps not so much that all these philosophers endorse sexist beliefs. The point is rather that they continue to endorse ideas that come out of sexist convictions. As Crispin Sartwell recently claimed, the history of Western philosophy might even be seen as justifying white supremacy. While I am quite hesitant about a number of Sartwell’s historical claims, I still think his piece suggests an important lesson.** If one accepts the general line of argument in his piece, this doesn’t necessarily mean that the philosophers in question are all white supremacists. It just means that they build on ideas that might have served and can continue to serve as a pertinent justification. But even if they aren’t supremacists, this doesn’t mean that the justifying function of their ideas can be cast aside as a mere inconsistency (at least not without scrutiny).

Analogously, one might argue that not all Western philosophers are sexist. But this doesn’t mean that our canon is off the hook by declaring that the sexist parts can simply be cancelled out. Certain ideas continue to justify sexist assumptions, even if no one expressly were to endorse sexist ideas. Once you notice how authors such as Albert twist and turn the ideas to justify the sexism of Aristotle, you can’t unsee the connections that hold these ideas together. If we don’t expose and disown these connections, we continue to carry these assumptions along as canonical. Saying that they are merely inconsistent outliers (that can be ignored while the rest of the theory might be retained) just seems to ingrain them more deeply. – Why? – Because then the justifying connections between sexist and other claims remain unchallenged and continue to pervade our canon.

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* Earlier, the post was called “Is the Western philosophical canon sexist?” Désirée Weber convinced me to change the title to its current form.

** Addendum: Speaking as a historian of philosophy, I find Sartwell’s piece wanting. Why do I find it interesting? I think it makes (but partly also exemplifies) crucial points about the use and abuse of ideas, and more generally I’m wondering whether there are limits to what we can do with an idea. — Currently, much of the so-called Enlightenment ideas are used on a newly populated battlefield: On the one hand, there are whig ‘historians’ like S. Pinker who argue that the Enlightenment is all about progress. On the other hand, there is someone like Sartwell making the contrary claim. – Professional historians like to discard both appropriations, for good reasons. But the appropriations won’t go away. On the contrary, they are very powerful.  –– Moreover, I also think we should be careful when assessing a piece of “public philosophy” by means of regular academic standards. Sartwell explicitly acknowledges the limits and polemical nature of his piece.

 

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