Randall Horton, philosophy teacher, with a look at why some women hate philosophy.
Richard Dawkins recently set off a firestorm of protest when he asked, hypothetically, which kinds of rapes are worse than others. Dawkins responded to his angry detractors by pointing out that philosophers traditionally wade into hot water to explore the toughest questions with logic that isn’t tainted with extreme emotion and asking that cooler heads prevail. On his website, he wrote a piece in which he said, “I hope I have said enough . . . to justify my belief that rationalists like us should be free to follow moral philosophic questions without emotion swooping in to cut off all discussion, however hypothetical.” Only through continuing discussion and debate can we improve our understanding of tough questions, and it is the philosopher’s job to confront moral challenges with courage and openness. It is true, as Dawkins says, that evaluating the seriousness of any given crime is an important job and juries must do so each time they decide on a serious criminal case, but it isn’t entirely clear that Dawkins was advancing the cause of advanced criminology with his examples. Philosophical discourse of moral problems is generally aimed at solving some problem, but it isn’t immediately clear what problem Dawkins was trying to solve. Dawkins claims he used examples of rape because, “I wanted to challenge the taboo, just as I want to challenge all taboos against free discussion.”
It may be that Dawkins is just one example in a general trend among male philosophers to gravitate toward violent or disturbing examples. When the backlash against Dawkins began, I was reminded of hearing a female philosopher complain of a male philosopher using the following example with a male colleague: “If I dream I have raped and murdered your wife, do I owe you an apology?” In this case it certainly seems that another example would have made the same point with less overt misogyny. The underlying point of this particular thought experiment has nothing to do with women or violence, really, so it was gratuitous at best and revealing of rather dark attitudes and impulses at the worst. Dale Jamieson and Tom Regan offered a though experiment where you are to imagined borrowing a chainsaw from a friend. When he shows up drunk with a bound and gagged companion (the gender of the companion is not specified) and asking for the chainsaw, you have to decide whether to return the chainsaw. Jamieson and Regan take it is a given that any decent person will not return the chainsaw, overriding the moral expectation that borrowed objects should be returned (This appears in Peg Tittle’s book, What If: Collected Thought Experiments in Philosophy.).
On the other hand, I have occasionally been accused of using examples that provoke an overly emotional example. Socrates claimed it is not possible to know what is good and still do wrong. To understand the good is to do the good. I mentioned that I had read where pedophiles often did not seem to believe they had done anything wrong or harmful, although they were aware that society felt they had done something wrong. I wanted to show that even in extreme cases where someone has done something universally reviled, the perpetrator might not understand that it is wrong in the sense that Socrates described. Nonetheless, I was told I should find an example that was less emotionally charged. From this experience, I have some understanding of what Dawkins is feeling, but things are never that simple.
Dawkins’ defense itself seems to echo philosophical attacks on women. Dawkins is correct that philosophers have historically praised emotionless and coolly rational discussions, and indeed it is this fact that troubles feminist philosophers, as such a devotion to reason is often presumed to be the purview only of male philosophers. This is such a persistent problem that Charlotte Witt and Lisa Shapiro write in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “Our tradition tells us, either implicitly through images and metaphors, or explicitly in so many words, that philosophy itself, and its norms of reason and objectivity, exclude everything that is feminine or associated with women.” To promote reasoned discourse devoid of emotion as philosophy’s highest aim has been to simultaneously promote men as philosophy’s most valued practitioners.
Of course, the denigration of women is not always merely implied. Arthur Schopenhauer, philosophy’s most detested misogynist, described women as “childish, silly and short-sighted, in a word, big children, their whole lives long: a kind of intermediate stage between the child and the man, who is the actual human being.” Schopenhauer provokes the most visceral reactions, but other philosophers say much the same. Aristotle describes woman as “more devoid of shame or self-respect, more false of speech, more deceptive and of more retentive memory.”
Philosophers don’t stop with theory, though; their hatred of women sometimes shows in their actions. Schopenhauer, our favorite man to hate, notoriously pushed his landlady down the stairs, earning himself the requirement to pay her a monthly stipend until she died. When she eventually passed, he wrote, “Obit anus, abit onus” (Old lady dies, debt departs.). And Louis Althusser, who had a turbulent relationship with his wife, claims he “accidentally” murdered her. After “massaging” her neck, he said, “I had seen dead bodies before, of course, but never in my life looked into the face of someone who had been strangled. Yet I knew she had be strangled. But how? I stood up and screamed, ‘I’ve strangled Hélène!’” (This story is recounted by Andrew Shaffer in his book, Great Philosophers Who Failed at Love.)
I’m sure most contemporary male philosophers are no more likely than any other men to be misogynists or be guilty of violence against women. One would hope, in fact, that male philosophers are more enlightened and better informed about the plight of and attitudes toward women. The problem is that male philosophers do not write outside of their social context. Given recent (and past) acts of violence against women, misogynistic statements from public officials and politicians, growing awareness of rape culture and understandably strong reactions from women, a stance of hypersensitivity is warranted.
I’m sure it is possible to discuss various aspects of rape and violence, but it must take place within a clear context of resistance against such violence. In order to help people understand the horrors of the holocaust, survivors have written harrowing accounts of degrading and inhumane treatment. They may say, “As bad as my experience was, others experienced even greater horrors.” It would be insensitive, to say the least, for someone unaffected by the holocaust to begin public ruminations over what forms of treatment were most difficult to bear. Similarly, women may also have these discussions about various types and forms of violence, but the person who hasn’t experienced these horrors must tread lightly.
As much as I value reasoned discourse, reason is not the ultimate value. Our emotional lives are important as sources of meaning and knowledge. Women who have experienced violence at the hands of men will have emotional reactions to any discussions of violence, and those emotional reactions are completely rational. Further, even women who haven’t experienced violence are aware of the constant possibility of becoming a victim, and it is rational for them to react accordingly.
A discussion of what kinds of violence are the most painful for them should occur only the context of allies working together to end the violence. Casual speculation on the effects of violence from someone who has not experienced the violence is counterproductive unless it clearly arises from a mutual concern for ending violence and protecting the wholeness of women. Working together, we may elevate the humanity and dignity of both women and men.
Photo credit: Jared Dunn/flickr