Feminism and Modern Philosophy: An Introduction

By Andrea Nye | Go to book overview

5

JEAN JACQUES ROUSSEAU AND THE NOBLE SAVAGE

What is man? What is the characteristic look and behavior of a man? For an upper-class Greek in ancient Athens, the answer was clear. A man was someone like himself, civilized, literate, a city dweller able to manipulate language to persuade or refute, a property owner rich enough to avoid manual labor. Aristotle's metaphysics expressed this conviction in theoretical terms. Man is a "form" or "essence" that imprints more or less clearly on matter. Some individuals-slaves, foreigners, non-Greeks, and of course women-are human but less perfect exemplars. They exhibit some of the form and characteristics of man but not all, especially in respect to the rationality that distinguishes man from other forms of animal life.

Conway's discussion of natural kinds illustrates how far modern scientists and philosophers had moved away from this Aristotelian view of man's essence by the late seventeenth century. In Conway's system, there are no permanent forms in nature. Man is mutable, one of the shapes that substance takes but like all physical things, subject to mutation. For women and non-European men, the difference could be crucial. If there is no proper form of "man," if there is no species-being to which women or any other group can be unfavorably compared, how is inferior status to be measured or proved? In the essentialist way of understanding species, a woman can be found to have fewer of the necessary characteristics of man. If there is no such standard, women, though different from men, might be the mutating form of a more evolved human organism. A woman's lack of interest in adversarial debate could be adaptation that reduces the chance of war or violence. Her intuitive, emotional "non-rational" styles of thought could lead to better tools for survival in peacefully integrated and ecologically conscious communities. The same could be true of native or primitive man. How is his backwardness or inferiority to be judged? By what standard? Without a fixed

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Feminism and Modern Philosophy: An Introduction
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents v
  • Introduction - Shaping a Past 1
  • 1 - The Virtues of Misogyny 12
  • 2 - Descartes 34
  • 3 - John Locke and the State of Nature 48
  • 4 - Reworking the Canon 64
  • 5 - Jean Jacques Rousseau and the Noble Savage 84
  • 6 - David Hume 99
  • 7 - Feminist Antinomies 111
  • 8 - Feminist Critical Theory After Kant 127
  • Bibliography of Works Cited 145
  • Index 151
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