Michele le Doeuff, Feminist Epistemology, and the Unthought

By La Caze, Marguerite | Hecate, November 2008 | Go to article overview

Michele le Doeuff, Feminist Epistemology, and the Unthought


La Caze, Marguerite, Hecate


Throughout her work, Michele Le Doeuff demonstrates ways in which dusters of images and ideas can become unquestioned orthodoxies and permeate our epistemic imaginary. In The Philosophical Imaginary (1989) and Hipparchia's Choice (1991) she characterises the historical development of specific philosophical imaginaries through close readings of well-known philosophical images. In The Sex of Knowing (2003), Le Doeuff both narrows and broadens her focus by interrogating the epistemic imaginary in both its philosophical and extra-philosophical manifestations. (1) The epistemic imaginary is the stock of our thought about knowledge and regulates our thought about the relation between knowledge and the sexes. Le Doeuff explores a range of cognitive blockages or schemas that gender our concepts of knowledge. She believes these schemas need to be undone in order for philosophical work to be more creative and for women to be taken seriously in intellectual life. These images and schemas appear in the work of canonical philosophers such as Plato and Kant, contemporary continental philosophers such as Jacques Derrida and Luce Irigaray, feminist epistemologists such as Evelyn Fox Keller, popular media and everyday discourse.

The significance of her project for feminist theory can be approached through the idea of the unthought. The concept of the unthought I am using is a positive one, rather than a reference to the ineffable or unreachable found in the work of numerous contemporary European philosophers. (2) I introduce the term in order to highlight what I see as a central feature of Le Doeuff's work, which enables an understanding of the implications of her project. Le Doeuff refers to the desirable open-endedness or incompleteness of philosophy, which should be like a Brechtian drama 'which ... produces unfinished plays which always have a missing act and are consequently left wide open to history.' (3) Open-ended philosophy must be open to something: that is the unthought. The unthought is thought of the possible rather than that which is outside thought. It is that which we have not come to think yet or have not thought through yet. Le Doeuff refers to 'knowledge yet to be established' and the 'as-yet-unknown' to describe the unthought. (4)

Sometimes the unthought is used to refer to the unthought of texts. Eileen O'Neill observes that one way of reading philosophical texts is to connect them to an external unthought element, such as the class struggle or the author's biography. (5) Genevieve Lloyd sees Le Doeuffs work in The Philosophical Imaginary as close to this approach of unmasking the unthought tensions in philosophers' texts. (6) Lili Alanen also interprets Le Doeuff's work as studies of the philosophical unthought, albeit connected to the theoretical work of texts. (7) In Hipparchia's Choice, Le Doeuff says that rejection of an unthought element in texts is a sign of philosophers' belief in self-founding and self-understanding: 'The absolute transparency to themselves of what they say guarantees the strict definition of the origins of their thought: the latter does not rest on or arise from an unthought (non-thought) which could be explored in order to elucidate what they have said.' (8) She explores the seemingly self-founding texts of Descartes, Kant, Sartre and others, demonstrating the way in which they frequently rely on exclusions and how images often cover contradictions or tensions in that text and The Philosophical Imaginary. In more recent work Le Doeuff connects historical texts to contemporary questions: this is not to presume to know much more than the author about what they are trying to say but, rather, is an acknowledgement of the richness of the texts and their relevance to contemporary readers. My interest here is in the link between the unthought, the notion of incompleteness, openness and of lack that Le Doeuff argues is necessary for women to genuinely engage in intellectual exploration. …

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