Philosophy and Feminist Politics: A Brief Guide

By Kelin, Ellen; Smith, Barry | Free Inquiry, Winter 1995 | Go to article overview

Philosophy and Feminist Politics: A Brief Guide


Kelin, Ellen, Smith, Barry, Free Inquiry


Below, Ellen Klein and Barry Smith continue a debate began in FI's Spring 1995 feature, "The Many Faces of Feminism." - EDS.

Philosophy" in its most uncontroversial definition is "rationally critically thinking, of a more or less systematic kind about the general nature of the world (metaphysics or theory of existence), the justification of belief (epistemology or theory of knowledge), and the conduct of life (ethics or theory of value)."(1) "Analytic Philosophy," at least broadly conceived, meets this definition exactly.

"Continental philosophy," in that aspect that has been adopted by American universities, takes its inspiration from a variety of sources, including existentialism, phenomenology, structuralism, post-structuralism, and deconstruction. Yet both continental and analytic philosophy have common roots in the work of Brentano, Husserl, and Frege, and younger philosophers in Europe and elsewhere are increasingly turning to these common roots and to varieties of continental philosophy, which can be called "analytic." What we wish to stress here is that, whether under the rubric of the analytic or the continental school, philosophy just is not politics.

Philosophy Is Not Politics

This does not mean that there is not an important branch of philosophy - political philosophy - that attends to the evaluation of forms of social organization, especially government, from a critical perspective. Nor does it mean that the methods of philosophical analysis and argument cannot be applied to any area of contemporary politics - from questions about the role of Supreme Court Justices to the need for laws pertaining to abortion. To say that philosophy is not politics is, most fundamentally, to reaffirm the is/ought distinction, i.e., to reaffirm that there is a distinction between the way the world is and the way it ought to be.

Philosophers may engage in political activism. But - and this is the primary lesson of the recognition that no "ought" can be derived from any mere statement of what "is" - such activism is independent of any philosophy. Philosophers may strive to change the world; but this is not their task as philosophers. It is, rather, one of analyzing proposed justifications for such change, of testing and criticizing theories of how the world might be changed, of pointing out the likely positive and negative consequences of such change, and so on.

Have feminists, analytic or continental, taken this distinction seriously? Not if Rosi Braidotti's work is any indication.(2)

Braidotti Again

Feminist" philosophy is at best a contradictio in adjecto and at worst a monstrosity along the lines of "Aryan philosophy" or "Jewish chemistry." It should not be embraced for at least two important reasons. The first is logical: philosophy and politics are, as we have argued, distinct activities. The second is pragmatic: to confuse philosophy and politics in the suggested fashion is not good for women.

Does the thesis that philosophy and politics are different mean that the philosopher must defend the existence of an Archimedian point - a completely neutral, God's-eye view - from which to judge the epistemic or moral goodness of any particular standpoint? …

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Philosophy and Feminist Politics: A Brief Guide
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