Posts tagged Karl Marx

The Passive-Aggressive Freedom-Lover’s Distributed Book Club #3: Stanley Cavell, Foreword: An Audience for Philosophy, from Must we mean what we say? xxi-xlii

As I was saying the other day, I’ve been thinking that my readers might be interested in thinking about some ordinary language philosophy, and about some of the topics that Stanley Cavell raises in his masterful collection of essays, Must we mean what we say? The book is published by Cambridge University Press. I thought you might enjoy thinking about some material which I’ve quoted here for educational purposes under principles of fair use, such as Cavell’s fascinating and puzzling forward, in which he addresses the question, What is the audience for philosophy? Is there one? To whom or to what do we address ourselves when we speak in a philosophic mode, and what can that tell us — about philosophy, and about us as would-be teachers or practitioners of it?

Foreword: An Audience for Philosophy

If the essays which follow do not compose a book, collecting resonance from one another, nothing I can say in introducing them will alter that fact. The relations among them are no less complex than the complexities I have sought to trace within the essays themselves; and any concept I would wish to use in characterizing their relations is either itself already at work within the essays, so far as I have been able to put it to work, or else it would require the working of another essay to do what I would want with it. The surface thematic overlappings among the essays are, I think, sometimes surprising, or surprisingly numerous. Because it would be tiresome to list them here, I have made an index of the themes I find, and found as I wrote, to be of guiding importance. Certainly I do not by this mean to suggest that I have fully treated any one of these themes; a number of them are just glanced at. But I have in each case wished that the place I have made for a theme’s appearance provides data for further investigation of it.

Although various portions or drafts of separate essays were being written during essentially the same period, I have as far as possible arranged them chronologically acording to their date of completion. It will be said that two of them—those on Endgame and on King Lear—are pieces of literary criticism, or at best applications of philosophy, while the remainder are (at least closer to being) straight philosophy. I wish to deny this, but to deny it I would have to use the notions of philosophy and of literature and of criticism, and the denial would be empty so far as those notions are themselves unexamined and so far as the impulse to assert such distinctions, which in certain moods I share, remains unaccounted for. Its account must include the obvious fact that these subjects, as I conceive of them, do resemble one another. One line of resemblance is marked where, in the essay on King Lear, I suggest a sense in which that play could be called philosophical drama and where I characterize a philosophical criticism; another line is projected at the points at which I note that each philosophy will produce terms of criticism directed against other philosophies, or against common sense, which are specific to that philosophy, and hence defining for it. In wishing to deny that some of these essays are philosophical and others not, I do not deny that there are differences among them, and differences between philosophy and literary criticism; I am suggesting that we do not understand these differences. At various moments I am led to emphasize distinctions between philosophy and various of its competitors, various interests and commitments and tastes with which, at various moments in history, philosophy was confusible—e.g., between philosophy and science, and art, and theology, and logic.

If I deny a distinction, it is the still fashionable distinction between philosohy and meta-philosophy, the philosophy of philosophy. The remarks I make about philosophy (for example, about certain of its differences from other subjects) are, where accurate and useful, nothing more or less than philosophical remarks, on a par with remarks I make about acknowledgment or about mistakes or about metaphor. I would regard this fact—that philosophy is one of its own normal topics—as in turn defining for the subject, for what I wish philosophy to do. But someone who thinks philosophy is a form of science may not accept that definitio, because his picture is of a difference between, say, speaking about physics and doing physics. And this may be not only a special view of philosophy, it may be a partial view of science; because certain ways in which certain persons talk about science are a part of the teaching of the science, and the ways in which the science is taught and learned may be taken as essential to an understanding of what that science is.

I do assert a distinction throughout these essays which, because it may seem either controversial or trivial, I want to call attention to from the beginning—a distinction between the modern and the traditional, in philosophy and out. My claim is not that all contemporary philosophy which is good is modern; but the various discussions about the modern I am led to in the course of these essays are the best I can offer in explanation of the way I have written, or the way I would wish to write. The essential fact of (what I refer to as) the modern lies in the relation between the present practice of an enterprise and the history of that enterprise, in the fact that this relation has become problematic. Innovation in philosophy has characteristically gone together with a repudiation—a specifically cast repudiation—of most of the history of the subject. But in the later Wittgenstein (and, I would now add, in Heidegger’s Being and Time) the repudiation of the past has a transformed significance, as though containing the consciousness that history will not go away, except through our perfect acknowledgment of it (in particular, our acknowledgment that it is not past), and that one’s own practice and ambition can be identified only against the continuous experience of the past. (This new significance in philosophical repudiation itself has a history. Its most obvious precursor is Hegel, but it begins, I believe, in Kant. For it is in Kant that one finds an explicit recognition that the terms in which the past is criticized are specific to one’s own position, and require justification from within that position. A clear instance of such a Kantian term of criticism is his characterization of an opposed Idealism as making the world empirically ideal and transcendentally real; another is his diagnosis of dialectical illusion.) But the past does not in this context refer simply to the historical past; it refers to one’s own past, to what is past, or what has passed, within oneself. One could say that in a modernist situation past loses its temporal accent and means anything not present. Meaning what one says becomes a matter of making one’s sense present to oneself. This is the way I understand Wittgenstein’s havingdescribed his later philosophy as an effort to bring words back to their everyday use (Philosophical Investigations, §116; my emphasis), as though the words we use in philosophy, in any reflection about our concerns, are away. This is why Wittgenstein’s interlocutors, when he writes well, when he is philosophically just, express thoughts which strike us as at once familiar and foreign, like temptations. (Heidegger’s consciousness that our deepest task, as philosophers and as men, is one of getting back to a sense of words and world from which we are now away, is an intimate point of similarity with Wittgenstein.)

These reflections will perhaps seem uncongenial to many of my professional colleagues, but they are meant to collect data which most of us, I believe, have noticed, but perhaps have not connected, or not taken to be potentially philosophical. Take, for example, the fact that the isolated analytical article is the common form of philosophical expression now, in the English speaking world of philosophy; something reflected in the fact that the common, and best, form of philosophy textbook is the assemblage of articles around individual topics. This is often interpreted as symptomatic of philosophy’s withdrawal from its cultural responibilities. The trouble with such an idea is that it occurs to a person who imagines himself certain of his culture’s needs, and certain of his capacity to supply them on demand, and ignorant of our cultural situation—in which each major form of expression (say painting and music and philosophy) has, where serious, taken upon itself the characteristic cultural responsibility of preserving itself against its culture, against its own past accomplishments, which have helped to inform, and to distort, present culture; past accomplishments which are used as names by those incapable of contributing to the present, against those who would take those accomplishments as setting the tasks of the present, or setting the terms in which present activity has its meaning and acquires its standards.

Analytical philosophy can, alternatively, be interpreted as symptomatic of philosophy’s finally coming of age, or accepting its age, assimilating itself to the form in which original scientific results are made known. The trouble with this idea is that these articles are not accepted the way scientific papers are; they are not felt to embody results which every member of the profession can then build from. On the contary, it seems to me commonly assumed among the serious philosophers I know that when they look into a new article they will find not merely a number of more or less annoying errors, but that they will find the whole effort fundamentally wrong, in sensibility or method or claim. Even when it is good—that is, when it contains one interesting or useful idea—the interest or usefulness cannot simply be taken over as it stands into one’s own thought, but will require independent development or justification from within one’s own procedures. It often happens that what makes an article or passage famous is its enunciation of a thesis which the profession is fully prepared to annihilate. The refuting of Mill on desirable, or Moore on indefinable, or Wittgenstein on private language, have become minor industries, established more than one living. These can be disheartening facts, especially among the young who are entering the profession and are still deciding whether it can support life—as though the profession as a whole has forgotten how to praise, or forgotten its value. (In emphasizing that criticism has been the life of philosophy from its beginning, I do not wish to camouflage what is genuinely disheartening about its present. I mean merely to remember that criticism need not be uncomprehending, nor always entered out of enmity.) It is hard to convey, to anyone who has not experienced it, how pervasive this malaise has become. For it controls one’s response to one’s own past work as well as to the work of others, and it applies not merely to chunky articles, but to each assertion one hears or makes.

The figure of Socrates now haunts contemporary philosophical practice and conscience more poignantly than ever—the pure figure motivated to philosophy only by the assertions of others, himself making none; the philosopher who did not need to write. I should think every philosopher now has at least one philosophical companion whose philosophical ability and accomplishment he has the highest regard for, who seems unable to write philosophy. Were such a person content with silence he would merely be the latest instance of a figure always possible in philosophy, possible indeed nowhere else. (It would make no sense to speak of someone as a gifted novelist who had never written a novel; nor of someone as a scientist who had made no contribution to science. In the case of the scientist, the contribution need not be his own writing; but one could say that he must affect what his field writes. His contribution, that is, may be oral, but it must affect a tradition which is essentially not oral; this suggests that such contributions must be exceptional. It indicates further that writing plays differing roles in different enterprises, even that writing means something different, or has a different inflection, in contexts like writing a novel, writing a fugue, writing a report, writing (up) an experiment, writing (down) a proof. If silence is always a threat in philosophy, it is also its highest promise.) But one finds instead various contraries of contentment, perhaps a tendency, more or less contained, to cynicism or to despair about the value of writing or of philosophy altogether—discontents often not sufficiently unambiguous, or not showing early enough, to force or to permit a break with the field. Philosophy inspires much unhappy love.

If these are facts of philosophical practice now, they must have a sociological-historical explanation; and what needs to be explained is what these facts point to, that the writing of philosophy is difficult in a new way. It is the difficulty modern philosophy shares with the modern arts (and, for that matter, with modern theology; and, for all I know, with modern physics), a difficulty broached, or reflected, in the nineteenth-century’s radical breaking of tradition within the several arts; a moment epitomized by Marx’s remark that … the criticism of religion is in the main complete … and that … the task of history, once the world beyond the truth has disappeared, is to establish the truth of this world … (Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, Introduction). This is the beginning of what I have called the modern, characterizing it as a moment in which history and its conventions can no longer be taken for granted; the time in which music and painting and poetry (like nations) have to define themselves against their pasts; the beginning of the moment in which each of the arts becomes its own subject, as if its immediate artistic task is to establish its own existence. The new difficulty which comes to light in the modernist situation is that of maintaining one’s belief in one’s own enterprise, for the past and the present become problematic together. I believe that philosophy shares the modernist difficulty now everywhere evident in the major arts, the difficulty of making one’s present effort become a part of the present history of the enterprise to which one has committed one’s mind, such as it is. (Modernizers, bent merely on newness, do not have history as a problem, that is, as a commitment. The conflict between modernizers and modernists is the immediate topic of the two essays on music—numbers VII and VIII.) I might express my particular sense of indebtedness to the teaching of Austin and to the practice of Wittgenstein by saying that it is from them that I learned of the possibility of making my difficulties about philosophy into topics within philosophy itself—so that, for example, my doubts about the relevance of philosophy now, its apparent irrelevance to the motives which brought me to the subject in the first place, were no longer simply obstacles to the philosophical impulse which had to be removed before philosophy could begin, hence motives for withdrawing from the enterprise. It was now possible to investigate philosophically the very topic of irrelevance, and therewith the subject of philosophy itself; it is characteristic of philosophy that from time to time it appear—that from time to time it be—irrelevant to one’s concerns, or incredible in itself; just as it is characteristic that from time to time it be inescapable. No doubt there is a danger of evasion in this spiralling self-consciousness; perhaps one should indeed search for more congenial work. Just as there is the danger of excusing poor writing in insisting upon the complexities of consciousness one is at each moment attempting to record, or to acknowledge. —Am I talking only about a condition within America? If so, it is said in the spirit in which a certain kind of American has usually spoken of his country’s release rom the past: out of a sense of disappointment in struggle with vistas of peculiar promise. And as usual, it is the expression of shock in finding that one’s mind is not, and is, European; which in practice means (and in philosophical practice means emphatically) English or German. —If others do not share these doubts, or find these dangers, I certainly have no wish to implicate them.

* *

The topics of the modern, of the philosophy of philosophy, and of the form of philosophical writing, come together in the question: What is the audience of philosophy? For the answer to this question will contribute to the answer to the questions: What is philosophy? How is it to be written? In case a philosopher pretends indifference to this question, or not recognize that he has an answer to it, I should note that this question intersects the question: What is the teaching of philosophy? Not, of course, that this question is likely to seem more attractive to those responsible for teaching it. On the contrary, like their pressed colleagues in other fields, professors of philosophy are likely to regard their teaching obligations as burdens, certainly as distant seconds in importance to their own work. Whatever the reason for this state of affairs, it has a particular pertinence for the philosopher. A teacher of literature, is, say, a professor of English, and he can say so; a professor of anthropology is an anthropologist, and he can say so. But is a professor of philosophy a philosopher? And to whom can he say so? One often says instead, asked what it is one does, that one teaches philosophy. And that is the problem. Does one teach philosophy? And when one is gripped by that question, one is really asking: Can philosophy be taught? Who is in a position to speak for philosophy?Such questions express that difficulty I referred to a moment ago as one of maintainining one’s belief in one’s own enterprise. (Hegel, I am told, said that he was the last professor of philosophy. I think I know what he would have meant—that he was the last man to feel that he could speak evenly about every way in which the philosophical impulse has found epression, the last with the natural conviction that his own work was the living present of philosophy’s history, able to take that history for granted. And that would mean that philosophy, as it has been known, is past. The mention of Hegel here reminds me that the sorts of problems I have spoken of in connection with the teaching of philosophy more familiarly arise in thinking about the history of philosophy, about whether anyone but a philosopher can write or know its history, and about whether a philosopher could allow himself to do so.)

When, in Austin at Criticism (Essay IV), I complain that Austin never described his procedures accurately and circumstantially, I am in effect complaining simultaneously of a lack in his philosophizing and of a failure in his teaching. These complaints have their proper weight only against the recognition of how powerful a teacher he was; for it was in part because Austin was devoted to teaching, according to a particular picture ofwhat teaching can be, or should be, that he avoided certain ranges of what the teaching of philosophy perhaps must be—the personal assault upon intellectual complacency, the private evaluation of intellectual conscience. (This range of teaching is not confined to philosophy, though its proportions and placement will vary from subject to subject. This is what I am talking about in the opening of the essay on King Lear, in pointing to the New Critics’ concentration on the teachable aspects of the poetry.) A major motive for wishing to leave the field of philosophy, for wishing relief from it, from one’s periodic revulsions from it, would be to find something which could be taught more conveniently, a field in which it was not part of one’s task to vie with one’s students, nor to risk misleading them so profoundly. Wittgenstein, though he swiftly resigned his appointment as Professor, was, as I read him, unofficially readier for these requirements, and like every great teacher he would have distrusted his right, or the necessity, to impose them. (The great teacher invariably claims not to want followers, i.e., imitators. His problem is that he is never more seductive than at those moments of rejection.) I find that his Philosophical Investigations often fails to make clear the particular way in which his examples and precepts are to lead to particular, concrete exercises and answers, for all his emphasis upon this aspect of philosophy. At the same time, his book is one of the great works about instruction—the equal, in this regard, of Rousseau’s Émile and of Kierkegaard’s Philosophical Fragments.

Because such writing as Wittgenstein’s and such practice as Austin’s strike certain minds as conservative, and because such minds are apt to be over-confident in the faith that contrasts, like conservative vs. liberal, and liberal vs. radical, helpfully explain the behavior of the world and clear the mind for steady action, it is worth noting that these teachers thought of their work as revolutionary—not merely because what they did was new (something which can be overrated or overprized) but because they also thought it plain enough and immediately fruitful enough to establish a new common practice in thinking, and open to talent regardless of its standing within the old intellectual orders. This is another guise of the issue of the modern. I mention it again here because those of us who share, or credit, Wittgenstein’s and Austin’s sense of their revolutionary tasks are responding (as part of the experience of their work in making problematic the relation of philosophy to its tradition) to the concern and implication of their work for correct instruction. (There is no revolutionary social vision which does not include a new vision of education; and contrariwise.) This, together with the fact that their philosophical procedures are designed to bring us to a consciousness of the words we must have, and hence of the lives have, represents for me a recognizable version of the wish to establish the truth of this world. But then wherever there really is a love of wisdom—or call it the passion for truth—it is inherently, if usually ineffectively, revolutionary; because it is the same as a hatred of the falseness in one’s character and of the needless and unnatural compromises in one’s institutions.

When, in what follows, I feel pressed by the question of my right to speak for philosophy, I sometimes suggest that I am merely speaking for myself, and sometimes I suggest that philosophy is not mine at all—its results are true for every man or else they are worthless. Are these suggestions both right, or are they evasions? They express an ambivalence about the relevance or importance of philosophy—one might say, about its possession—which is also one of philosophy’s characteristic features. I have recently noticed a bit of philosophical literary practice which seems to betray this ambivalence. On half a dozen occasions over a period of a few months I found on philosopher or another referring to something called Horatio’s philosophy or Horatio’s view of philosophy, as though Hamlet’s strangely welcomed discovery that

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

constitutes a crack at Horatio rather than a manic release from philosophy (and from reasonableness) as a whole. (The generalizing non-possessive your is common enough in Hamlet’s way of speaking, and there is no evidence that Horatio’s view of the world is distinctive.) Perhaps the reason for this misreading is that philosophers have become threatened by an idea that philosophy has its limitations or impotencies. But I think it also expresses a legitimate confusion about the source or possession of philosophy altogether, as though half believing and half fearing that its natural state is one of private persuasion. I call this confusion legitimate because it isn’t as though the philosopher had some automatic or special assurance that his words are those of and for other men, nor even that any particular arrival of his words ought to be accepted by others. His examples and interpretations have, and are meant to have, the weight an ordinary man will give them; and he is himself speaking as an ordinary man, so that if he is wrong in his claims he must allow himself to be convinced in the ways any man thinking will be, or will not be. —Who is to say whether a man speaks for all men?

Why are we so bullied by such a question? Do we imagine that if it has a sound answer the answer must be obvious or immediate? But it is no easier to say who speaks for all men than it is to speak for all men. And why should that be easier than knowing whether a man speaks for me? It is no easier than knowing oneself, nad no less subject to distortion and spiritlessness. If philophy is esoteric, that is not because a few men guard its knowledg, but because most men guard themselves against it.

It is tautological that art has, is made to have, an audience, however small or special. The ways in which it sometimes hides from its audience, or baffles it, only confirms this. It could be said of science, on the other hand, that it has no audience at all. No one can share its significance who does not produce work of the same kind. The standards of performance are institutionalized; it is not up to the individual listener to decide whether, when the work meets the canons of the institution, he will accept it—unless he undertakes to alter those canons themselves. This suggests why science can be popularized and art not (or not in that way), and why there can be people called critics of art but none called critics of science. I might summarize this by saying that academic art is (with notable exceptions) bad art, whereas academic science is—just science. (It is hardly an accident that creative scientists are on the whole at home in a university and that creative artists on the whole are not.) Now, what is academic philosophy? It seems significant that the questions, What is the audience of philosophy? Must it have one? If so, what is it to gain from it?, have no obvious answers.

When you wish to make serious art popular what you are wishing is to widen the audience for the genuine article. Is this what someone wants who wants to widen the audience for philosophy by writing summaries or descriptions of philosophical works? Or is he, as in the case of popular science, providing simplifications which are more or less useful and faithful substitutes for the original work? Neither of these ideas makes good sense of philosophy. I think someone who believes in popular, or in popularizing, philosophy (as differentiated from someone in an open business venture who finds profit in excerpting and outlining anything in demand) believes that the ordinary man stands in relation to serious philosophy as, say, the ordinary believer stands in relation to serious theology—that he cannot understand it in its own terms but that it is nevertheless good for him to know its results, in some form or other. What reason is there to believe this? There is every reason to believe, on the contrary, that this is the late version of one of philosophy’s most ancient betrayals—the effort to use philosophy’s name to put a front on beliefs rather than to face the source of the assumption, or of emptiness, which actually maintains them. Those who guard themselves from philosophy show a healthier respect for it than those who are certain they know its results and know to whom they apply. For when philosophy is called for one cannot know beforehand where it will end. That is why Plato, as is familiar, at the beginning of the Republic allows the good old man to leave (to see to the sacrifice) before Socrates releases his doubts; and why, recalling that moment, Nietzsche’s Zarathustra leaves the old man (the old saint) he first encounters on his descent back to man, without relating his sickening tidings. Philosophy must be useful or it is harmful. These old men have no need of it, not necessarily because they are old, but because their passion for their lives is at one with their lives; either, as in the case of Cephalus, because his private passion is well spent and he is without rancor; or because, as in the case of the old forest creature, his passion remains in control of his old God, who was worthy of it. The advantage of their age is that their sincerity is backed by the faithfulness of a long life. Otherwise, where sincerity asserts itself, it calls for testing. I do not say that everyone has the passion or the knack or the agility to subject himself to philosophical test; I say merely that someone can call himself a philosopher, and his book philosophical, who has not subjected himself to it.

My purpose is to make such facts into opportunities for investigation rather than causes for despair. The question of philosophy’s audience is born with philosophy itself. When Socrates learned that the Oracle had said no man is wiser than Socrates, he interpreted this to mean, we are told, that he knew that he did not know. And we are likely to take this as a bit of faded irony or as a stuffy humility. What I take Socrates to have seen is that, about the questions which were causing him wonder and hope and confusion and pain, he knew that he did not know what no man can know, and that any man could learn what he wanted to learn. No man is in any better position for knowing it than any other man—unless wanting to know is a special position. And this discovery about himself is the same as the discovery of philosophy, when it is the effort to find answers, and permit questions, which nobody knows the way to nor the answer to any better than you yourself. Then what makes it relevant to know, worth knowing? But relevance and worth may not be the point. The effort is irrelevant and worthless until it becomes necessary to you to know such things. There is the audience of philosophy; but there also, while it lasts, is its performance.

— Stanley Cavell, Must we mean what we say? (Cambridge University Press, 1969/2002), xxi–xlii.

The Passive-Aggressive Freedom-Lover’s Distributed Book Club #1: bringing women from the margins to the center in political theory. From Susan Moller Okin’s Women in Western Political Thought (1979, Princeton University Press). pp. 3-12.

As I was just saying earlier today, I’ve been thinking that my readers might be interested in some of the topics that Susan Moller Okin touches on in her masterpiece, Women in Western Political Thought. The book is published by Princeton University Press. I thought you might enjoy thinking about some material which I’ve quoted here for educational purposes under principles of fair use. Especially stuff like the programmatic material on pages 3-12, where Okin explains how Western political thought has so far been shaped, in part, by the fact that women’s status and women’s concerns have been confined to the margins of political thought. Thus, she writes:

Introduction

The current feminist movement has inspired a considerable amount of scholarship in areas previously unexplored. The recent focus on women in the fields of history, legal studies, anthropology, sociology, and literary criticism has resulted in a number of innovative and important works, such that it is no exaggeration to say that these fields will never look the same again. No one, however, has yet examined systematically the treatment of women in the classic works of political philosophy—those works in which great thinkers throughout history have revealed to us their thoughts about the political and social life of the human race. This book is an attempt to reduce the consequent gap in our knowledge.

It is important to realize from the outset that the analysis and criticism of the thoughts of political theorists of the past is not an arcane academic pursuit, but an important means of comprehending and laying bare the assumptions behind deeply rooted modes of thought that continue to affect people’s lives in major ways. Women, in the course of the present century, have officially become citizens in virtually every country of the Western world and in much of the rest of the world as well. From being totally relegated to th private sphere of the household, they have become enfranchised members of the political realm. However, women are increasingly recognizing that the limited, formal, political gains of the earlier feminist movement have in no way ensured the attainment of real equalities in the economic and social aspects of their lives. Though women are now citizens, it is undeniable that they have remained second-class citizens. Measured in terms of characteristics traditionally valued in citizens, such as education, economic independence, or occupational status, they are still far behind men. Likewise, measured in terms of political participation—especially at higher levels—and political power, they are nowhere near the equals of men. In the past decade, moreover, women have been demanding these more substantial equalities, and an end to their relegation to second-class citizenship. They have been claiming the right to be members of society and citizens of the state on an equal level with men, and, in principle at least, their claims have been getting recognition.

The fact that women have gained formal citizenship, but have in no other respect achieved equality with men, has impelled me to turn to the great works of political philosophy, with two major questions in mind. I have asked, first, whether the existing tradition of political philosophy can sustain the inclusion of women in its subject matter, and if not, why not? For if the works which form the basis of our political and philosophical heritage are to continue to be relevant in a world in which the unequal position of women is being radically challenged, we must be able to recognize which of their assumptions and conclusions are inherently connected with the idea that the sexes are, and should be, fundamentally unequal.

Second, and clearly related to the first inquiry, I have aimed to discover whether the philosophers’ arguments about the nature of women and their proper place in the social and political order, viewed in the context of the complete political theories of the philosophers, will help us to understand why the formal, political enfranchisement of women has not led to substantial equality between the sexes. It is not my purpose to argue any causal connection between the arguments and ideas of the great philosophers, on the one hand, and modern ideas or practices, on the other. However, I do argue that modes of thought about women that closely parallel those of some of the philosophers discussed here are still prevalent, in the writings of modern thinkers, and in the ideologies of modern political actors and institutions. This claim is substantiated in Part V, where we turn to analysis of some crucial contemporary views on women—those of influential social scientists and of the highest courts in the U.S.—and discover striking similarities between them and the ideas of the political theorists analyzed in the preceding chapters. By critical study of the arguments about women conceived by some of the finest minds in the history of Western thought, I hope to add to our comprehension of modern arguments which parallel them in important ways, and which constitute a continuing attempt to justify the unequal treatment of women.

It must be recognized at once that the great tradition of political philosophy consists, generally speaking, of writings by men, for men, and about men. While the use of supposedly generic terms like man and mankind, and of the allegedly inclusive pronoun he, might lead one to think that philosophers have intended to refer to the human race as a whole, we do not need to look far into their writings to realize that such an assumption is unfounded. Rousseau, for example, tells his reader at the beginning of the Discourse on the Origins and Foundations of Inequality among Men that It is of man that I am to speak. It subsequently becomes very clear that it is only the inequality between males that is the subject of his investigation, and the inequality between the sexes is assumed in passing.1 Past and present feminists, only too aware of such practices, have pointed out the dangerous ambiguity of such linguistic usage in a patriarchal culture.2 For it enables philosophers to enunciate principles as if they were universally applicable, and then to proceed to exclude all women from their scope.

Even when philosophers have used words which in their respective languages refer unambiguously to any human being, they have felt in no way deterred from excluding women from the conclusions reached. Aristotle, for example, discusses at length what is the highest good for a human being (anthropos). He then proceeds to characterize all women as not only conventionally deprived of, but constitutionally unfitted for, this highest good. Again, Kant uses the most inclusive terms of all for the subjects of his ethical and political theory; he even says that he is not confining his discussion to humans, but that it is applicable to all rational beings. Subsequently, however, he proceeds to justify a double standard of sexual morality, to the extent that a woman is to be condoned for killing her illegitimate child because of her duty to uphold, at all costs, her sexual honor. He also reaches the conclusion that the only characteristic that permanently disqualifies any person from citizenship in the state, and therefore from the obligation to obey only those laws to which consent has been given, is that of being born female.3 Thus, even words such as person, human, and rational being, apparently, do not necessarily include women.

This phenomenon, made possible by the ambiguity of our language, is not confined to political philosophy. The grand statements of our political culture, too, such as the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, are phrased in universal terms, but, as the chapter on women and the law will make clear, they have frequently been interpreted in such a way as to exclude women. Thus when the Founding Fathers declared it to be a self-evident truth that all men are created equal, not only did they intend the substantial slave population to be excluded from the scope of their statement, but they would have been amused and skeptical (as indeed John Adams was to his wife’s appeal that they not forget the ladies) at the suggestion that women were, and should be considered, equal too.4 Similarly, though the Constitution is phrased in terms of persons, there was clearly no idea in its framers’ minds that this word might be interpreted so as to include women on the same terms as men.5

Human nature, we realize, as described and discovered by philosophers such as Aristotle, Aquinas, Machiavelli, Locke, Rousseau, Hegel, and many others, is intended to refer only to male human nature. Consequently all the rights and needs that they have considered humanness to entail have not been perceived as applicable to the female half of the human race. Thus there has been, and continues to be, within the traditions of political philosophy and political culture, a pervasive tendency to make allegedly general statements as if the human race were not divided into two sexes, and then either to ignore the female sex altogether, or to proceed to discuss it in terms not at all consistent with the assertions that have been made about man and humanity.

In spite of this general neglect of women, however, several of the most important and most interesting of political philosophers have had a considerable amount to say about them. The first four parts of this book comprise an analysis of the arguments of Plato, Aristotle, Rousseau, and Mill, on the subject of women, their nature, their socialization and education, and their proper role and station in society. It would be fruitless, if not impossible, to treat such a subject in a vacuum. What I have done, therefore, is to analyze these philosophers’ ideas about women in the context of their entire theories of politics and society, and with particular reference to each philosopher’s conception of the role of the family. Throughout the study, I have examined the various ideas about women and the arguments which sustain them, with a concern both for their internal logic and for their consistency with each philosopher’s argument and conclusions about men, and about politics and society as a whole.

Clearly, in choosing four philosophers I do not pretend to have covered the treatment of women within the entire tradition of political philosophy. Apart from the omission of the socialists, which requires explanation, however, I have chosen those four who of all political theorists have made the most substantial, most interesting, and most thought-provoking contributions on the subject.

The problem regarding Marx, the Marxists, and other socialists, is that, taken together, they had so much to say, and such insight to offer, on the subject of women in society, that their ideas warrant a separate study. It was the utopian, Charles Fourier, who first both used the status of women in a society as the fundamental measuring stick of its advancement, and considered the progress of women toward liberty to be a fundamental cause of general social progress. Other events influence these political changes; he asserts, but there is no cause which produces social progress or decline as rapidly as a change in the condition of women…. The extension of the privileges of women is the fundamental cause of all social progress.6 Fourier’s initiatives were not ignored by subsequent feminists and/or socialists, including Flora Tristan, Marx and John Stuart Mill. Marx developed the idea of the relationship between the equality of women and general social progress, in the 1844 Manuscripts:

The relation of man to woman is the most natural relation of human being to human being. It indicates, therefore, how far man’s natural behavior has become human, and how far his human essence has become a natural essence for him, how far his human nature has become nature for him…. From this relationship man’s whole level of development can be assessed.7

Though Marx himself did not develop this as a major theme in his works, Engels, Bebel, and the critical theorists of the Frankfurt School have developed further the socialist criticism of woman’s position in society, and of the traditional family.

Socialist writings on women require separate study because of two features which are characteristic of, though not unique to, socialist modes of thought. First, socialist theorists have been far less inclined than most other political theorists to regard the family as a necessary and fixed human institution, and have been very much aware of the relationship between various forms of family organization and different forms of economic structure, particularly property relations. This has meant that most, though not all, socialists who have written about women have taken a critical and questioning view of woman’s role within the family, rather than accepting it as a given. Second, socialist thought is noticeably lacking in the tendency to idealize nature and the natural, and is inclined to replace these criteria for social excellence by the specifically human and cultural. It is largely because of the importance of both these modes of thought for the subject of women, that the contribution of the socialists to the subject is so considerable. The study of that contribution is a task I hope to undertake, and for which the present work constitutes an essential foundation.

From my analysis of the arguments and conclusions of Plato, Aristotle, Rousseau and Mill, concerning women and their proper social and political role, two interconnected themes emerge. First, the most important factor influencing the philosophers’ conceptions of, and arguments about, women has been the view that each of them held concerning the family. Those who have regarded the family as a natural and necessary institution have defined women by their sexual, procreative, and child-rearing functions within it. This has lead to the prescription of a code of morality and conception of rights for women distinctly different from those that have been prescribed for men. The assumption of the necessity of the family leads the theorists to then regard the biological differences between the sexes as entailing all the other, conventional and institutional differences in sex role which the family, especially in its most patriarchal forms, has required.

Second, as a consequence of the above, the constricted role in which woman has been placed has been regarded as dictated by her very nature. Thus, where philosophers have explicitly discussed women, they have frequently not extended to them their various conceptions of human nature. They have not only assigned women a distinct role, but have defined them separately, and often contrastingly, to men. They have sought for the nature of women not, as for the nature of men, by attempting to separate out nature from the effects of nurture, and to discover what innate potential exists beneath the overlay which results from socialization and other environmental factors. The nature of women, instead, has been seen to be dictated by whatever social and economic structure the philosophers favor and to be defined as whatever best suits their prescribed functions in that society. Philosophers who, in laying the foundation for their political theories, have asked What are men like? What is man’s potential? have frequently, in turning to the female sex, asked What are women for? There is, then, an undeniable connection between assigned female nature and social structure, and a functionalist attitude to women pervades the history of political thought.

The conclusions drawn here are, first, that women cannot simply be added to the subject matter of existing political theory, for the works of our philosophical heritage are to a very great extent built on the assumption of the inequality of the sexes. In the case of theorists for whom equality, in some form or other, is an important value, the unequal treatment of women tends to be concealed by the adoption of the male-headed family, rather than the individual adult, as the primary unit of political analysis. Indeed, the thoroughly equal treatment of women, involving far more than the right to vote, requires the rethinking of some of the most basic assumptions of political philosophy—having to do with the family and woman’s traditionally dependent and subordinate role within it.

Second, as we examine some twentieth-century perceptions of women and analyze legal discrimination against women, it becomes clear that these findings should be of interest not only to historians or students of political theory. The functionalist treatment of women—the prescriptive view of woman’s nature and proper mode of life based on her role and functions in a patriarchal family structure—is still alive and influential today. Giant figures in modern sociology and psychology present arguments about women that parallel those of Aristotle and Rousseau. Moreover, when we examine the opinions handed down by the highest courts of the land in cases involving sex discrimination, we find, here too, that judges have used functionalist reasoning of a strikingly Aristotelian character in order to justify their treatment of women as a class apart. Thus, there is no doubt that a thorough understanding of this mode of argument can help us to see why women, in spite of their political enfranchisement, are still second-class citizens.

The chapters that follow require one more word of explanation. Obviously, there are many types of inequality both in the real world and in political theory. Only one type of inequality is dealt with here—the unequal treatment of women. As will become evident, the positions taken by political theorists about other types of equality and inequality are by no means necessarily parallel to, or even consistent with, their views about the equal or unequal treatment of the sexes. Those who have argued that there should be complete or virtual equality between the sexes have sometimes been distinctly inegalitarian in other respects; on the other hand, some philosophers who have made strong arguments for equality amongst women have been just as strongly opposed to equality for women. I have not undertaken to discuss this except insofar as a philosopher’s more general egalitarianism or inegalitarianism affects his arguments about distinctions betwen the sexes, or clarifies the presentation of these arguments. This is not because I consider other types of inequality unimportant. It is, rather, because the unequal treatment of women has remained for too long shamefully neglected by students of political thought. Other types of inequality—class inequality in particular, but also inequalities based on race, religion, caste, or ethnicity, have not been so consistently ignored.

In one sense, this book might be compared with the play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. In that play, building on the foundation of Hamlet, Tom Stoppard emphasizes this originally elusive pair, and makes them, instead of the traditional hero, into the principal focus of the drama. As a result, the play, all its characters, and their relations to each other take on an entirely new perspective. Similarly, when women, who have always been minor characters in the social and political theory of a patriarchal world, are transformed into major ones, the entire cast and the play in which it is acting look very different.

1 The First and Second Discourses, p. 101.

2 One of the earliest feminsits to point out this anomaly was Mary Wollstonecraft, whose A Vindication of the Rights of Woman is a pioneer work in the correction of the language and orientation of liberalism, exemplified in her time by Thomas Paine and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man. For two recent discussions of the sexism inherent in our language, see Elizabeth Lane Beardsley, Referential Genderization, and Sheila Rowbotham, Woman’s Consciousness, Man’s World, pp. 34–38.

3 Kant’s Political Writings, trans. H. B. Nisbet, ed. Hans Reiss. Cambridge, 1970, pp. 43–47, 78, 158–159.

4 Excerpts from the Adams Family Correspondence, in Alice Rossi, The Feminist Papers, New York, 1973, pp. 9–11.

5 See for example the beginning of Chapter 11 below, for Jefferson’s views on this issue.

6 The Utopian Vision of Charles Fourier, pp. 195–196.

7 Karl Marx, Early Writings, p. 154.

— Susan Moller Okin, Women in Western Political Thought (Princeton University Press, 1979). 3–12.

Update 2008-12-04: If you were interested by the topics raised in Okin’s programmatic introduction, you may be interested to know that text from the first chapter of her book, Plato and the Greek Tradition of Misogyny, has been posted over at the Fair Use Blog ….

Have women been shoved to the margins of political philosophy? Have male political philosophers reduced women’s nature and status to their perceived functions within the family? Are political philosophers stances on social equality between men and women so often inconsistent with, or simply determined independently of, their express views on egalitarianism as a general principle? What else from Okin’s work might help illuminate the points she touches on here? Discuss.

What’s in a name? or: Over My Shoulder #23: from Chris Matthew Sciabarra, Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical (1995)

This doubles as this week’s Over My Shoulder. Sort of, because I’m tossing out one of the rules for this week. Normally, here’s how it goes:

  1. Pick a quote of one or more paragraphs from something you’ve read, in print, over the course of the past week. (It should be something you’ve actually read, and not something that you’ve read a page of just in order to be able to post your favorite quote.)

  2. Avoid commentary above and beyond a couple sentences, more as context-setting or a sort of caption for the text than as a discussion.

  3. Quoting a passage doesn’t entail endorsement of what’s said in it. You may agree or you may not. Whether you do isn’t really the point of the exercise anyway.

This week, I’m ignoring rule 2, because I happen to be working on a paper and it’ll be useful to sketch some notes down for it while I’m here. In any case, here’s the quote. This is from Chapter 10, A Libertarian Politics, in Chris Sciabarra’s 1995 study, Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical. I read this in the student center at Wayne State in Detroit, right after (of all things) touring a great little exhibit on the centenniel of the Industrial Workers of the World, hosted at the Reuther Labor Library. Here, Sciabarra is discussing Ayn Rand’s defense of the free market, and her deliberate use of the name capitalism to describe what she was defending:

Rand’s defense of capitalism is similar in form to her defense of selfishness. In fact, Rand titled her collection of essays in social theory, Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, for much the same reasons that she titled her collection of essays on morality, The Virtue of Selfishness: A New Concept of Egoism. Both capitalism and selfishness have had such a negative conceptual history that Rand needed to reclaim these concepts and to recast them in a new and nondualistic framework. Branden remarks that he had told Rand of his preference for the word libertarianism as an alternative to capitalism, since the latter term had been coined by anticapitalists. For Branden, libertarianism signified a broader, philosophical characterization and addressed the issues of social, political and economic freedom (Branden 1978, 60). But Rand refused to renounce the concept of capitalism, just as she rejected any attempt to couch her ethos of rational selfishness in more neutral terms.

In addition to such nominal problems, Rand was faced with the fact that her defense of capitalism differed considerably from other theoretical justifications. Rand’s approach is not Weberian; she did not view capitalism as an expression of the Protestant work ethic. Nor did she view capitalism as compatible with Roman Catholicism, or any other form of religion. Though she accepted the empirical and theoretical arguments of Austrian-school economists who see the market as the most efficient and productive mechanism in history, she refused to defend capitalism on purely utilitarian grounds. And while Rand celebrates the record of economic growth under Western capitalism, she believes that the historical reality diverged radically from a pure, unadulterated laissez-faire system. While the nineteenth-century United States best approximated this system, its progress was severely undermined by massive government intervention in the areas of finance and banking, and in the bolstering of monopolies through land grants and industrial privileges. Marx himself had viewed this nineteenth-century system as only an approximation of full capitalism, since it was adulterated and amalgamated with survivals of former economic conditions (Capital 3:175). For Rand, as for most Marxists, this mixed system reached its twentieth-century climax in the neofascist and corporativist policies of the U.S. welfare-warfare state.

Rand argued that the underlying reason for this failure to achieve systemic purity was moral and cultural. Capitalism as a social system was an implicit by-product of an Aristotelian philosophical base, one that celebrated the rational, the secular, and the egoistic. And yet capitalism was historically distorted because the cultures within which it evolved had not fully emerged from the influence of mysticism, altruism, and collectivism. Rand saw capitalism and altruism as philosophical opposites that could not co-exist in the same man or in the same society. The modern age was fractured by an inner contradiction because it tried to combine the concept of eudaemonic man with the notion that human beings were sacrificial animals. It was for this reason that Rand was extremely apprehensive about the introduction of capitalist markets into primitive cultures. She argued that capitalism required a predominantly rational and secular orientation, and that industrialization could not be grafted onto superstitious irrationality without massive distortion in the evolving structure of production. Though the United States achieved the greatest progress because it was the most secular Western country, it too had preserved significant elements of altruism and collectivism in its cultural base. And it was paying the price.

Curiously, Rand spoke in terms of a cultural and philosophical base. This view differs considerably from the Marxist formulation, which sees culture and philosophy as components of a social superstructure, a by-product of a material base. These opposed characterizations have disparate consequences for both the theory of history and the nature of social revolution; however, what must be explored at this stage is Rand’s understanding of capitalism as an unknown ideal. In Rand’s view, the nature of capitalism is so inherently radical that its historical, philosophical, and cultural implications have yet to be fully comprehended. Rand unabashedly proclaims that Objectivists are radicals for capitalism … fighting for that philosophical base which capitalism did not have and without which it was doomed to perish. Once again, Rand’s project is geared toward articulation. She aimed to articulate those premises which underlie the daily practices and institutions of a historically emergent but not yet fully realized social system.

Following her literary methods, Rand seems to have extracted and emphasized those principles which, she believed, distinguish capitalist society from all previous social formations. She began with the real concrete circumstances of the historically mixed system, breaking down its complexity into mental units. She constituted her vision of capitalism on the basis of such abstraction, having isolated and identified those precepts which are essential to its systemic nature. In this way, she eliminated the accidental and the contingent in order to focus instead on the philosophical ideals of the capitalist revolution. Such a revolution was incomplete because its principles had never been fully articulated and implemented. Rand viewed her own project as the first successful attempt to articulate the moral nature of the capitalist system, ideally understood, thus making possible its historical fulfillment.

— Chris Matthew Sciabarra, Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical (1995), pp. 283–285.

A lot of left-libertarians have rightly stressed that terms such as capitalism and socialism, as they are commonly used, are systematically ambiguous; often they are used to name two different systems that are mutually exclusive of each other ([state socialism and anarchistic socialism][], on the one hand, or the free market and political patronage for big business, on the other). Roderick Long recently made a persuasive argument that both capitalism and socialism, as the terms are commonly used, are best regarded as anti-concepts, and more specifically as package deals of concepts that do not actually go together, which have been used by statists on both the Left and the Right to systematically blur the distinction between neo-mercantilism and the free market. Left statists say they oppose the chimera, and right-statists say they support it, but what libertarians need to recognize, first and foremost, is that the system they are allegedly fighting over is chimerical, and that the words they are using embody false presuppositions about the meaning and the nature of free markets.

I think that’s quite right, and that it’s very important. Nevertheless, we mustn’t be misled into thinking that just because socialism and capitalism as commonly used are anti-conceptual package-deals, that we ought to abstain from both terms on an equal footing, or to take a pox on both your houses attitude towards the institutions, symbols, traditions, and other socio-cultural trappings associated with either identification. In some dialectical contexts the best thing to do with an anti-concept is just to expose it as nothing more than so much Newspeak, to abandon using it, and to exhort others to follow your example. But sometimes the thing to do is just to urge your conversation partners to use language more precisely, and to teach them by example, by choosing one of the senses of capitalism or socialism to use clearly and consistently. And I think that Ayn Rand’s deliberately provocative use of capitalism is instructive here on the principle, even though I think she’s wrong on the application, and that the reasons for the misapplication have to do with deeper problems in her own economic thought. Those problems don’t have to do with defending a free market in the means of production and distribution — I’m all for that, but given the historical example of self-described socialist free marketeers such as Benjamin Tucker, that doesn’t settle the issue between describing yourself as a socialist, describing yourself as a capitalist, or describing yourself as something else again.

Rand deliberately worked to reclaim the word capitalism for the unknown ideal of the completely free market, rather than the known reality of the predatory, neomercantilist mixed economy, in which all actually existing free markets are embedded, confined, limited, and distorted. Sciabarra explains her decision in terms of an intellectual process of isolating the essential features that distinguished societies called capitalist from earlier and later forms of social organization. It’s an apt description as far as it goes, but the connection between the intellectual process and Rand’s aesthetic and affectional imagination needs to be fleshed out in order to fully explain her decision. Rand knew perfectly well that the historical data underdetermined the question of whether predation or voluntary cooperation was essential to the capitalistic form of society: the rise of the societies we call capitalist involved the liberation of many people and of the markets in many commodities; it also involved the escalation of many forms of predatory state patronage and the invention of new ones (it meant, for example, considerably more freedom in agriculture or textiles; it also meant considerably more government intervention in banking, land use, and transportation infrastructure). You could describe the picture by identifying the growth in freedom as the capitalist stuff, with the new levels of predation as anti-capitalist deviations from capitalism marring its productive development. But you could just as easily describe it by identifying the growth in predation as the capitalist stuff, with the growth in freedom as a countervailing, non-capitalist or anti-capitalist development, which the capitalist stuff had an antagonistic, or often parasitic, relationship to. So which description should you choose? I think the best explanation why Rand chose the first picture instead of the second one has to do with what she would have identified with her sense of life — the degree to which her aesthetic and affectional imagination were engaged on behalf of actually existing capitalists, as she understood them, in the known reality of the mixed economy: that is, her view of the grand bourgeoisie — big industrialists, business-owners, money-men, the top tier of entrepreneurial inventors, and ultimately the wealthy broadly — as the heroic prime movers in business, and thus as the world’s motor, driving the production of the material means of survival and human flourishing. (See, for example, Atlas Shrugged or America’s Persecuted Minority: Big Business.) Though she’d no doubt fume at the description, one way of putting it is that she made her choices about what language to reclaim and what language to abandon on the basis of class solidarity. I have no quarrel with Rand’s procedure; but rather only with the particular class she chooses to stand in solidarity with. If Rand is right that the capitalist is the chief victim of the predatory state, and if the picture she draws of the archetypical capitalist is well-drawn, it makes perfect sense for her to reclaim the word capitalism for the free market as against political patronage. If, on the other hand, the bosses are the chief beneficiaries of the predatory state, and if the picture she draws of the archetypical capitalist is ill-drawn — if the archetypical boss is a busybodying mediocrity, a cunning predator, or a petulant grafter, and if their role in the workplace is a drag on the productive labor on the shop floor rather than the animating force behind it as Rand claims — then it makes perfect sense to locate the essence of capitalism elsewhere from where Rand locates it, and to treat capitalism as a term of criticism for political patronage as against the free market.

This may help serve as some explanation for why Rand is willing to identify with the term capitalism and even to invest the symbol of a government fiat currency with near-religious significance, while fully recognizing the predatory nature of the state-business nexus; it may also help to explain how, in spite of really detesting the stupidity and the atrocities perpetrated in the name of socialism, I can be so fond of old union songs, and how I can fly a red flag over my soap box while I preach the free market.

Further reading: