Feminist Philosophy in the Analytic Tradition

Supported by the Department of Philosophy at the University of Stirling & and Scots Philosophical Club

Court Room, Cottrell Building
University of Stirling
20–21 April 2007


Jennifer Saul (University of Sheffield): “Woman: Neither Sex Nor Gender”

According to most ordinary speakers and dictionaries, “woman” is a sex term—a term that picks out those who have certain biological traits. According to most feminist academics, “woman” is a gender term—a term that picks out those who have certain social traits, or who occupy a particular social role. Both of these views face severe difficulties. In this paper, I argue for a view on which “woman” is neither a sex term nor a gender term. Instead, it has a complex, contextually shifting extension, sometimes picking out a biologically-defined group and sometimes a socially-defined group. I argue that this view (a) avoids the problems faced by views which take “woman” to be just a sex term or just a gender term; (b) accords well with ordinary usage; and (c) is well-suited to feminist aims.

Christine Overall (Mount Saint Vincent University & Queen’s University, Canada): “Sex/Gender Transitions & Identity”

The focus of this paper is the metaphysics of sex/gender transitions. What or who stays the same and what or who changes? How, if at all, do sex/gender transitions affect personal identity? I describe two possible theories, both of which implicitly use a masquerade metaphor. Either the “true” person is said to be the individual manifested through and by the original sex/gender status, and the transition is, metaphorically, the donning of a mask that conceals the true sex/gender, or the “true” person is said to have been hidden behind a metaphorical mask of the wrong sex/gender, and the individual’s true sex/gender is accurately revealed via the process of transition. I show the problems in each of these theories. I then propose my own account—one that avoids the previous problems and is also, I hope, respectful of trans persons’ own experiences. I suggest that sex/gender transitions are similar to other life-changing transformations, and should be understood as the expression of a deep aspiration for authenticity.

Heather Arnold (University of Sheffield): “Pornography & Silencing: A Response to Langton”

In this paper, I offer a critique of Rae Langton’s defence of Catharine MacKinnon’s claim that pornography silences women. I begin by explaining how Langton uses Austin’s speech act analysis of language to show that pornography can and does silence women. My strategy in response is twofold. Firstly, I argue that Langton herself may be guilty of silencing women in a way that she did not intend to. Secondly, I suggest that when reading Langton, one is forced to conclude either that she has provided a neat counterexample to her own view, or that she fails to defend MacKinnon’s views at all.

Tara G. Gilligan (Lafayette College): “Why Feminist Philosophy?”

Many of the problems raised by feminist analytic philosophers bear resemblance to ongoing debates within mainstream philosophy itself. For instance, feminist philosophy is not unique in challenging traditional conceptions of knowledge, nor in asking whether traditional moral theories can adequately acknowledge the moral relevance of relationships. One may be tempted to ask what is distinctively feminist about feminist philosophy. Can we claim any special domain for feminist analytic philosophy? I answer this question in two parts, first suggesting that if we attend narrowly to the problems feminist philosophers work on in the various subfields of philosophy, then we will have to concede that feminists do not exercise a controlling share in philosophical debate. Of course, it still does not follow that feminism has no special stake in the outcome of the debate nor any special contribution to make toward it. But a more telling answer to the question emerges when we cease to see the problems addressed by feminist philosophers as distinct from one another and instead look for general patterns and assumptions within philosophy as a whole—in short, when we engage them collectively. Once we can see, for instance, how similar the epistemological problem of defining “reason” neutrally is to the problem of viewing art as a disinterested observer we can appreciate that feminism, indeed, presents a formidable challenge to philosophy as it has traditionally been practised. When we understand the collective enterprise of feminist analytic philosophy, we can appreciate and embrace its overarching goal, which is to open up a space in which women, as well as men, can be assured of having an intellectual voice.

Lina Papadaki (University of Sheffield): “Kantian Marriage & Beyond: Why is it Worth Thinking about Kant on Marriage”

Kant has famously argued that monogamous marriage is the only relationship where sexual use can take place “without degrading humanity and breaking the moral laws”. Kantian marriage, however, has been the target of fierce criticisms by contemporary thinkers: it has been regarded as flawed and paradoxical, as being deeply at odds with feminism, and, at best, as plainly uninteresting. In this paper, I argue that Kantian marriage can indeed survive these criticisms. I begin with an analysis of marriage, deal with two serious problems it seems to face: that it is paradoxical and objectifying, and offer a solution to these problems. I then consider some feminist objections to Kant’s conception of marriage, and argue that it can be saved if we disentangle it from Kant’s disappointing and no longer acceptable views on gender. Finally, the paper advances the discussion beyond marriage. Drawing on Kant’s conception of friendship, I suggest that he might have overlooked the possibility of sex being morally permissible in yet another context.

Betsy Postow (University of Tennessee): “Care Ethics & Impartial Reasons”

An ethics of care recognizes moral considerations that are thoroughly partial, yet it also recognises that there is a place for impartial reasons, such as considerations of justice. When these different sorts of reasons pull in different directions, we need guidance in arriving at an all-things-considered judgement. Virginia Held holds that new moral theories are needed to explain which sorts of reasons should have priority when. Not seeing much hope for such new theories, I explore two less ambitious ways to seek guidance for forming an all-things-considered moral judgement in such cases: a “middle-down” approach and a “bottom-up” approach. I find very modest success, but conclude that we can live with the situation without much distress even if no new theories of the sort called for by Held are forthcoming.

Jules Holroyd (University of Sheffield): “Non-ideal Contexts, Non-idealised Autonomy”

This paper addresses two questions. The first is methodological: what role should idealising play in analytic feminist philosophy? The second is substantive: are the conditions for autonomous action relational? Much feminist work has challenged individualistic ideals of autonomous agency emphasising instead the “relational” nature of agents, and exploring the ways in which social relations and conditions might foster or thwart autonomy. Here, I delineate a class of actions, the performance of which requires “uptake” on the part of the “audience”. I note that, in non-ideal contexts in which oppressive norms are operative, such norms may prevent “uptake” from being secured. For instance, such norms may obfuscate the description under which the agent acts, preventing accurate interpretation of the agent’s intention. Looking at such non-ideal contexts brings to light two relational necessary conditions for autonomous action. Thus the departure from the individualistic ideal is further vindicated. Attending to non-ideal conditions can inform our understandings of autonomous agency. However, I caution against a wholesale rejection of idealising as a methodological tool, and illustrate its usefulness in thinking about the conditions for autonomous agency.

Sandra Marshall (University of Stirling): “Provocation: Who Needs it?”

Abstract forthcoming