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Feminism and Continental Philosophy


Continental philosophy has been a significant force in the development of contemporary feminist thought. Many feminists have turned to the work of continental philosophers because the topics explored by these philosophers are germane to the kinds of questions feminists pursue. Since Hegel continental philosophy has been concerned with questions of ethics, metaphysics, consciousness, and experience. Continental philosophy has occupied a prominent position in contemporary feminist philosophy because it examines these issues so central to feminist concerns.

Existentialism and Phenomenology

The publication of Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex in 1949 marks the beginning of the contemporary feminist movement. De Beauvoir's work is rooted in two prominent continental philosophies, existentialism and phenomenology. The theme of her book is summarized in her famous statement that one is not born a woman, one becomes one. This statement and the analyses ensuing from it reveal the influence of both existentialism and phenomenology at the very beginning of the contemporary feminist movement. Existentialists such as Jean-Paul Sartre emphasized the ontological complexity of our existence as consciousness in bodies. Existential philosophers explored the themes of freedom and oppression, objectification, and the social construction of consciousness. Feminists such as de Beauvoir adapted these themes to the analysis of the situation of women in society. Existential feminists have described female bodily experience as socially constructed. They have analyzed the structures of society that perpetuate patriarchy and the oppression of women.

The influence of phenomenological thought has also been decisive. Husserl's phenomenological philosophy was rooted in an examination of how phenomena appear to consciousness. The phenomenological approach of Husserl, Heidegger, and Merleau-Ponty grounded philosophy in lived experience. For feminists this approach has provided a means of challenging a conception of objectivity that many theorists believe grounds Western philosophical thought and that many feminist philosophers identify as masculinist. It has fostered the development of feminist theory that arises from the distinctive lived experiences of women. Feminist phenomenologists explore how living in a female body in modern society produces a consciousness unique to women. They emphasize human subjectivity and the role of language in creating social reality. Their goal is to develop a feminist consciousness of oppression (Bartky 1990). Exploring the boundaries of that consciousness is the hallmark of feminist phenomenology.

In contemporary feminist thought the approaches of phenomenology and existentialism have merged in feminist analyses of the body. Feminist philosophers such as Iris Marion Young (1990) examine the phenomenon of the female body in patriarchal society. Young explores aspects of women's lived experiencepregnancy, for examplethat are unique to women. Her point is that women's bodily experience is different from that of men and that this difference effects women's consciousness under patriarchy. Young argues that existential phenomenology exhibits an adherence to the subject/object dualism. Young's goal is to replace this dualism with an understanding that erases the difference between the inner and the outer. She wants to develop a position that corrects this error without abandoning the advantages of existential phenomenology.


In the 1960s many feminists were attracted to Marxist philosophy as a vehicle for feminist theory. There were several reasons for the convergence of feminism and Marxism. First, Marxism was the oppositional philosophy of the time; to be opposed to the status quo in this time period almost necessarily entailed a Marxist stance. Second, Marxism, like feminism, was concerned with oppression. Although Marx was not himself concerned with the oppression of women, his theory of the oppression of the proletariat seemed to many feminists to have much to contribute to the attempt to develop a theory of the oppression of women.

The aspect of Marx's theory that became most influential in feminist thought was his theory of the standpoint. Marx argues that the standpoint of the proletariat in capitalism affords it a privileged understanding of its social structure; in his view the proletariat's position as the oppressed class allows it to see the true reality of capitalism. As a social determinist, Marx asserts that knowledge is governed by the subject's historical/material position. Yet he also claims that the knowledge produced by those in the oppressed class is the only true knowledge; the knowledge of other classes, in contrast, is "partial and perverse."

Feminists such as Nancy Hartsock (1983) and Dorothy Smith (1987) have used Marx's theory of the standpoint to analyze the position of women in society. They argue, first, that women, like the proletariat, are an oppressed class. Their thesis is that the bourgeoisie's oppression of the proletariat parallels men's oppression of women. Patriarchy, like captialism, is a system of oppression in which the dominant class, men, hold the oppressed class, women, in subjection. Second, feminist-standpoint theorists argue that the activity of women in societychild-rearing, child-bearing, and houseworkcreates a particular reality for women. Like Marx, they argue that the social actor's activity creates her knowledge. Finally, they contend that the knowledge produced by the standpoint of women is truer than that produced by men. Following Marx, they argue that the knowledge of the oppressed class of women reveals the truth of patriarchy, whereas that of the ruling class of men is partial and perverse.

Feminist standpoint theory has been a major component of contemporary feminist thought. Hartsock's Money, Sex, and Power (1983) advanced the thesis that the distinctive activity of women in society provides them with a privileged access to reality. Her analysis of how the feminist standpoint is produced through the practices distinctive of women in society became the basis for extensive analyses of that standpoint. Dorothy Smith's analysis of the "lifeworld" of women extends the concept of the standpoint into an analysis of the everyday life of women. Combining standpoint theory with a phenomenological approach, Smith argues for an analysis of the everyday life of women as constitutive of their social reality.

But feminist standpoint theory has also raised questions for feminist thought. As feminists moved from a consideration of the difference between men and women to the differences among women, the concept of the feminist standpoint became problematic. Feminists questioned how one feminist standpoint could account for the variety of women's experiences. Feminists also began to question the epistemology of the standpoint. If, as Marx claims, all knowledge is perspectival, then how can one perspective be "truer" than another? Standpoint theorists have difficulty answering either of these questions.

Postmodernism and Poststructuralism

Since the 1990s one of the principal influences in feminist thought has come from the predominantly French philosophies of postmodernism and poststructuralism. Inspired by the work of Friedrich Nietzsche, postmodern and poststructuralist philosophers have questioned not just aspects of Western thought but its very foundation. Rejecting the Cartesian subject and the pursuit of universal knowledge, these thinkers have fundamentally altered the project of philosophy. Many feminists have been attracted to these theories because they provide a radically new way to understand the feminine and its place in Western philosophy. Postmodernism and poststructualism, by redefining truth as plural rather than universal, provide the possibility of overcoming the inferiority of women that has pervaded Western thought.

The widely acknowledged inspiration for postmodern thought is the work of Nietzsche. The object of Nietzsche's attack is the tradition of Western thought beginning with the Greeks. Two aspects of his thought have been particularly relevant to feminism. First, truth, for Nietzsche, is relational and perspectival. It is a "mobile army of metaphors" that is harnessed for use by those in power. Second, Nietzsche questions the centerpiece of modern Western philosophy, the subject. By undermining the subject/object dualism that provides the grounding for the subject, Nietzsche calls into question the autonomy of the subject and its place in the constitution of knowledge.

The radical quality of Nietzsche's thought has resonated with many feminists. For those feminist philosophers claiming that the "man of reason" informing Western thought has excluded women from the pursuit of truth, Nietzsche's approach provided a mean of further articulating this claim and of exploring an alternative.

Two theorists whose work is rooted in that of Nietzsche have played a significant role in contemporary feminist philosophy. The work of Michel Foucault, although controversial, has had a significant impact on contemporary feminism. Like Nietzsche, Foucault takes on the two pillars of Western thought: truth and the subject. For Foucault truth is constituted through discourses; it is specific to the discourse in which it operates. It follows that the universal truth of the Western tradition is a fiction created, itself, by a particular discourse. For Foucault standards for what constitutes truth are not universal but, rather, internal to particular discourses. The most radical element of Foucault's thought, however, is his declaration of "the death of man." Foucault argues that the autonomous, constituting subject of modern philosophy (the Cartesian subject) is a creation of a particular discourse at a particular time and, most significantly, is now in eclipse. For Foucault discourses create specific kinds of subjects; there is no universal subject but only the subjects constituted by particular discourses.

Feminists have found Foucault's work extremely useful. His theory of the death of man has obvious feminist implications even if Foucault did not explore them. "Man" the rational, autonomous, self-constituting subjecthas been a problem for many feminists. Exposing this concept as the product of historically located discourses and thus vulnerable to change eliminates these problems. Feminists have also used Foucault's work to explicate how the subject "woman" is created by the discourses of patriarchal society. In the highly influential Gender Trouble (1990), Judith Butler uses a postmodern approach to explicate how the identity "woman" is constituted. Butler argues that this identity is a fiction created by the actions of women who perform that identity. She advocates a feminist politics that eschews the identity "woman" and instead creates "gender trouble," the destabilization of the gender structures of society. Feminists have also used Foucault's thought to challenge the "truth" about woman, enshrined in Western philosophy and science. Using a Foucaultian approach, feminists have explicated how truths are established and sedimented into their discursive foundation.

The work of Jacques Derrida has also provided the basis for feminist philosophical investigations. Derrida's "deconstructive" approach, like that of Nietzsche and Foucault, constitutes a fundamental critique of Western rationalism. Derrida's strategy of deconstruction focuses on language and its construction of a monolithic reign of truth. Derrida attacks what he calls the "metaphysics of presence," the presuppositions informing the tradition of Western philosophy. His goal is to examine the elements of Western rationalism and expose them as an elaborate construction rather than as absolute truth. He does so by "deconstructing" its basic conceptsthat is, examining the presuppositions that inform those concepts and the consequences that flow from them.

Feminist philosophers such as Luce Irigaray, Julia Kristeva, and Helene Cixous have employed a Derridean perspective to deconstruct the dualisms that found Western philosophy. Questioning the masculine definitions of rationality and truth on which Western thought is grounded, these feminist philosophers have argued for a distinctively feminine way of writing as a counterweight to the norms of male-dominated discourse. If, as Derrida claims, we are constituted by language, then we need another language to resist this constitution. The goal of these philosophers is to redefine "woman" and the feminine in ways that are not structured by Western dualisms.

Postmodern and poststructuralist philosophy have provided a rich addition to feminist philosophy. They have allowed feminists to examine the relationship between language and the status of women in radically different ways. But postmodern feminism has also been strongly criticized within the feminist community. Its critics have argued that postmodernism, by rejecting absolute truth, is a form of relativism, even nihilism. Without some conception of truth, these critics claim, feminists cannot proclaim the truth of the oppression of women. They further argue that postmodernism deprives feminism of a political stance, a necessary component of feminism. The defenders of postmodern feminism counter that their outlook does not preclude politics but, rather, offers a different understanding of the political. They point to the revolutionary force implicit in Derrida's deconstruction and the "local" rather than universal resistance advocated by Foucault. But the controversies over postmodernism and feminism show no signs of abating.

Critical Theory and Hermeneutics

Although they do not represent as pervasive an influence as postmodernism, both critical theory and hermeneutics have also found a following among feminist philosophers. The work of Jurgen Habermas has influenced the writings of both Nancy Fraser and Seyla Benhabib. These theorists find Habermas's philosophy attractive because, although it is critical of Enlightenment rationalism, it nevertheless provides a normative basis for an alternative conception. Partly inspired by Marxism, Habermas's approach entails both a critique of social norms and an alternative vision of a society without oppression. Focusing on the communicative basis of society, Habermas envisions a polity characterized by undistorted communication. Feminists who embrace this view argue that it provides an appropriate basis for feminist politics.

The hermeneutics of Hans-Georg Gadamer has also attracted feminist attention. Although Gadamer is usually viewed as a conservative, some feminists drawn on his writings. Like Habermas, Gadamer attacks the Enlightenment conception of a single path to truth, arguing that there are many paths other than that of reason and logic. Gadamer also challenges the hegemony of the autonomous, rational subject, emphasizing instead the way in which languages create the "horizon of meaning" in which we live. For Gadamer, "horizons" are perspectives in which we are all located, positions from which we understand the world. Like other approaches rooted in language, Gadamer's approach has allowed feminists to analyze the linguistic constitution of social reality, and, in particular, the historical context that informs that reality. Linda Alcoff (1996) and Lorraine Code, for example, argue that feminists can employ Gadamer's approach to articulate an understanding of knowledge that is engaged, situated, and feminist.

See also Beauvoir, Simone de; Cixous, Helene; Code, Lorraine; Continental Philosophy; Critical Theory; Derrida, Jacques; Enlightenment; Feminist Epistemology; Feminist Metaphysics; Feminist Philosophy; Foucault, Michel; Gadamer, Hans-Georg; Habermas, Jürgen; Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich; Heidegger, Martin; Hermeneutics; Husserl, Edmund; Irigaray, Luce; Kristeva, Julia; Marx, Karl; Marxist Philosophy; Merleau-Ponty, Maurice; Nietzsche, Friedrich; Postmodernism; Rationalism; Sartre, Jean-Paul; Structuralism and Poststructuralism.


Alcoff, Linda. Real Knowing. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1996.

Bartky, Sandra. Femininity and Domination: Studies in the Phenomenology of Oppression. New York: Routledge, 1990.

Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble. New York: Routledge, 1990.

Cahill, Ann, and Jennifer Hansen. Continental Feminism Reader. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2003.

De Beauvoir, Simone. The Second Sex. Hammondsworth: Penguin, 1972.

Hartsock, Nancy. Money, Sex, and Power. New York: Longman, 1983.

Hekman, Susan. Gender and Knowledge: Elements of a Postmodern Feminism. Cambridge: Polity, 1990.

Nicholson, Linda, ed. Feminism/Postmodernism. New York: Routledge, 1990.

Smith, Dorothy. The Everyday World as Problematic: A Feminist Sociology. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1987.

Young, Iris Marion. Throwing Like a Girl and Other Essays in Feminist Philosophy and Social Theory. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990.

Susan Hekman (2005)

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