Academic journal article Hecate

Women and Reason

Academic journal article Hecate

Women and Reason

Article excerpt

This article attempts to clarify the nature of the attack on rationality that is currently being launched by French feminists, especially Luce Irigaray. Two paradoxes with this attack are exposed not with the intention of undermining the attack but more with the intention of pointing out where more work needs to be done.

One way of characterizing western philosophical thought is to point to the dominant ideals of rationality or reason(1) and the battle against the forces of irrationality, unreason or scepticism. The `rationality' of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle involved thinking critically in order to arrive at knowledge of certain human ends: the goals of virtue and wisdom. Greek religion, imbued with mysticism, shunned the `critical thought' side of this idea and clung to tradition as the source of knowledge of human ends. Greek sophists and sceptics dismissed the possibility of arriving at knowledge of human ends but they had a lot of fun using critical thought in order to persuade or entertain their audience.

By the sixteenth century, the old Greek ideals of reason had become lifeless and dull. The study of reason consisted mainly in the use of a rigid form of critical thought: the Aristotelian syllogism(2), in the repetitive exploration of the basic presuppositions of Aristotle's views about humans and the world. Outside the centres of learning, as the sceptics(3) pointed out, Aristotelian reason had little impact or practical relevance. Here, irrationality held sway in the form of religious faith, now increasingly of a protestant nature, or the intuitive thinking of the hermeticists, believers in a particular combination of astrology and mysticism. Paradoxically, these forms of unreason meshing together with changing socio-economic conditions and the expansion of the physical sciences, paved the way for new ideals of reason, ideals that came to be expressed in the philosophical system of Francis Bacon and René Descartes.(4) For Bacon, rationality amounts to the use of a particular method, which employs the senses and induction. For Descartes, rationality is also understood as a particular method, but a method which relies on the apprehension of clear and distinct ideas rather than the use of the senses. Descartes also understood reason as a particular framework for viewing the world, one which took the world to be a giant mechanism, pushed and pulled by physical forces rather than an animated entity, under the influence of spiritual powers.

Some aspects of all of these ideas about reason are still alive today. For example, critical thought is often held as an educational ideal and a guiding principle in public debate, the sciences still appeal to methods drawing on sensory evidence and the world is commonly viewed as a big machine devoid of any spiritual force. Other ideas about reason from our philosophical heritage still exist today; some have come and gone. Still other notions of rationality exist without a philosophical basis; for example, the idea that an action is rational if it is an efficient means of achieving particular goals, surfaces in our earliest written records(5) and is never challenged by the forces of reason or scepticism,(6) in fact it is not the focus of any philosophical views of reason, in the sense that positive accounts of reason are not based on this understanding.

Reason has many faces, and an assault against one may leave the others untouched. Some recent feminism explores problems with rationality. One approach, that put forward by Descartes, is to take particular account of reason, and to argue that in various subtle ways, this account works against the interests of women. Another approach is to view reason as the basis for thought and to try to achieve insight into reason by analysing the system of meaning that structures our thinking. Reason so understood is held to have built-in biases against women or against the feminine. The first approach does not threaten the philosophical enterprise as conceived so far. …

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