Feminist Metaphysics

views updated


Metaphysics seems to be one of the least relevant, most foreign, and inhospitable disciplines of philosophy in relation to feminist projects and concerns. Traditional metaphysicians have tried to answer questions about the basic structure of reality, about what kinds of beings exist, about the nature of time and causation, and they have probed difficulties like free will and determinism, the nature of universals and particulars and the like. None of these issues seems directly pertinent to feminism, and their abstract formulation and universalist perspective strike some feminists as deeply suspect. Nonetheless feminist metaphysics has emerged as a distinct and lively field in feminist theory. And there are important connections between feminist work on certain metaphysical issues and mainstream metaphysics.

Feminist metaphysics revolves around three core issues: essentialism and anti-essentialism about sex/gender, theories of the self or the subject, and realism versus social constructionism (a version of the realism/anti-realism controversy in mainstream philosophy). Each of these issues is central to Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex, which is rightly seen as the primary intellectual source for twentieth-century developments in continental and analytic feminist theory. Beauvoir oriented her pioneering work toward ontology and essentialism by defining woman as the Other (in relation to man). At the same time she sketched out the first detailed and comprehensive social constructionist account of gender. And she was centrally concerned to retrieve the possibility of subjectivity, agency, and transcendence for women.

Beauvoir's legacy has been developed in two major directions. In broad strokes continental feminist theory is anti-essentialist about sex and gender, and skeptical about the unity and coherence of the self or subject. Continental feminist theory tends to derive both anti-essentialism and anti-realism about sex/gender from a social constructionist view of sex/gender. In contrast analytic feminist theory tends to distinguish among these positions, holding, for example, that socially constructed categories and entities are real, and perhaps even constituted by essential properties. Analytic feminist theory is more hospitable to essentialism about sex and gender, and open to the possibility of non-androcentric theories of the self. These are generalizations, however, as we can see by considering the fact that Luce Irigaray, a pioneer of continental feminist theory, has developed an essentialist theory of sexual difference.

Feminist preoccupation with the questions of essentialism and the nature of the self rather than other metaphysical topics is neither coincidental nor arbitrary. Both of these issues are directly relevant to feminist politics because of their implications regarding the possibility of individual agency and effective shared activity toward political change. For example, Naomi Zack (1997, 2005) points out the consequences of anti-essentialism about gender for collective agency on behalf of women. If women share nothing in common as a group, then on what basis can they forge a group identity, and on what basis can they find common goals? Other feminists, like Diana Meyers (1997, 2002), are troubled by the claim that there is no self or subject because of the implications of that position for the possibility of individual resistance to patriarchal norms, and for collective political agency. Similarly the feminist debate concerning social constructionist and realism/anti-realism is intended to reveal the arbitrariness and contingency of oppressive social and political structures in order to allow for the possibility of political change and an end to oppression. This entry explores the development of feminist metaphysical thinking about sex/gender essentialism, the self or the subject, and social constructionism and realism.

Essentialism and anti-Essentialism in Feminist Theory

The feminist discussion of essentialism usually begins with a distinction between sex differences, which are the biological markers that distinguish females from males, and gender differences, which are the cultural or psychological features that distinguish women from men. Some feminists question the distinction between biology (or nature) and culture underlying the sex/gender distinction. They argue that there is cultural intervention in the production of two sexes from a more complex biological reality. In making this argument, they reject an essentialist account of sex because there are no biological features that demarcate human beings into just two kinds that correspond to female and male. See the discussion in Anne Fausto-Sterling (2000), and the essentialist account of sex differences by Linda Alcoff (2005). In addition, Sally Haslanger (2000) has argued that a major project of feminist metaphysics is the unmasking of putatively natural categories or properties as social.

A similar argument is made against gender essentialism; namely, that there are no biological, psychological, or cultural properties that are common to all women and not shared by any men. Let's call this the commonality problem. Moreover, women of color (and others) have pointed out that the psychological and cultural properties that some feminists propose as essential to all women in fact exclude many women. Let's call this the exclusion problem. Elizabeth Spelman (1998) and bell hooks (1981) made important contributions in articulating these problems. The doctrine of intersectionality was developed by Kimberle Crenshaw (1991) to respond to both the commonality problem and the exclusion problem. Intersectionality is the idea that feminists need to attend to the multiplicity of identities that can and do characterize individuals (race, class, and sexual orientation) in order to avoid the problems of exclusion and commonality. However, the concept of intersectionality is problematic to the extent that it fractures the unity of women, and leads to skepticism concerning whether any useful program for political change can reflect the interests of a heterogeneous collection of individuals.

Feminists have responded to anti-essentialist arguments by developing approaches to essentialism that respect the problems of commonality and exclusion without fracturing the unity of women. There are two basic approaches. A materialist approach to gender essentialism, developed in different ways by Haslanger and Monique Wittig (1997), among others, begins with the body, and the way that bodies are hierarchically ordered in and by patriarchal (and racist, ageist) societies. Gender is a material, embodied state and bodies are classified by societies into hierarchical relations. Being gendered is a relational property because gender categorization is dependent upon how bodies are perceived by others rather than upon the possession of any intrinsic biological or psychological property. Being gendered is also a political property in the sense that it carries with it a position in a hierarchical social structure. The materialist approach meshes with the intersectionality perspective because it allows that bodies can be classified in multiple ways according to overlapping social hierarchies; for example, racialized bodies that are men occupy a different social niche from racialized bodies that are women. Able-bodied women occupy a different position from disabled women and so on. On this approach the identities of being a woman and being a man necessarily have positions in a hierarchical grid of social power relations; if patriarchy did not exist then neither would women and men.

Alternatively Natalie Stoljar (1995) makes the case for understanding woman as a cluster concept rather than an Aristotelian universal. In a related development Naomi Zack (1997) argues that that being a woman is a relational, disjunctive property shared by all women. Like the materialist approach these accounts emphasize the features common to all women, but select features that are sensitive to the problem of exclusion. Unlike the materialist approach to gender essentialism these views do not make oppression intrinsic to being a woman. They also do not provide a conceptual grid for other identities like race, or sexual orientation as the materialist approach does. Tracing the similarities and dissimilarities between gender and other social categories and identities, like race and sexual orientation, is a major theme in feminist writing on essentialism and anti-essentialism. Although the question of gender essentialism remains contested within feminist theory, dogmatic anti-essentialism is no longer a criterion for adequate feminist theorizing.

Finally, some philosophers frame the discussion of gender essentialism in terms different from those we have been considering. Rather than try to determine whether or not there are any properties common to all women, we might wonder whether or not being gendered is essential to the identity of individual women and men. Essentialism in this sense is not about kind membership but rather concerns the issue of whether or not any of an individual's properties constitutes her as the individual she is, and if so, whether or not being a woman is one of an individual's constitutive properties. In different ways, Anthony Appiah (1990) and Charlotte Witt (1992, 1995) explore essentialist theories of gender by focusing on the relationship between an individual's identity and his or her gender rather than the question of what all women or all men have in common.

As mentioned in the introductory text of this entry, one reason for the persistence of the issue of essentialism in feminist theory is the political requirement that women be identifiable as a group with common interests, and who suffer shared injustices. Group identity is politically necessary; mere strategic essentialism does not seem to be sufficient as a basis for political change. For similar reasons the issue of the subject or the self is central to feminist metaphysical thinking. Despite the shortcomings of traditional accounts of subjectivity, it is hard to conceptualize a politically adequate view of agency without some account of the subject who acts.

Feminist Accounts of Subjectivity

Traditionally to be an agent one must be a self or a subject, and not a thing or an object that is acted upon. But feminists have catalogued serious deficiencies with the way in which traditional philosophers have described the self. These deficiencies include the tendency to identify the self or subject with reason in contrast with the emotions and the body; the tendency to associate agency with autonomous individuals rather than connected, relational selves, and the characterization of the subject as unified and coherent. The last criticism is the most radical as it rejects the very notion of a consistent self or subject rather than pointing out deficiencies with traditional characterizations of unified subjects.

The rejection of the unified and coherent subject or self is related to one strand of anti-essentialist argument as we see in Judith Butler's work. Not only does Butler (1990) reject all forms of sex/gender essentialism, but also she does so as part of a rejection of the metaphysics of substance. And the rejection of the metaphysics of substance, the denial that individual, persisting beings exist entails the rejection of subjects in so far as they are characterized as unified individuals that persist through time. Some feminists find the dissolution of stable subjectivities liberating because of the possibilities for innovation, creativity, and performance that this view endorses. Other feminists find the rejections of stable subjects inadequate to the requirements of political resistance and change. Recall that the possibility of agency is based upon the existence of subjects who are agents. Agents can resist patriarchal norms, and can band together to effect political change.

However even those feminists who accept the importance of unified and coherent subjects criticize traditional notions of the self. For example, Susan Babbitt (1996) is critical of the philosophical tradition that centers subjectivity on reason, and defines reason as exclusive of emotions, imagination, perception, and other faculties associated with the body. And theories of the subject, which are mentalistic, also have come under feminist scrutiny. In response feminists like Moira Gatens (1996) have worked to define a bodily notion of subjectivity, which is more adequate to feminist understanding of the importance of embodiment in explaining human agency. Feminists have also developed a relational theory of the self, which interprets agents as constituted by their relations to others, and as embedded in concrete historical and cultural horizons.

The idea of the subject as relationally constituted and historically embedded is more adequate to feminist projects than the traditional idea of subjectivity. However, it is also problematic in relation to the idea of autonomy, which is an important constituent of many theories of moral and political agency. Moral and political subjects or agents act autonomously in some sense of the term. There appears to be tension between the requirement of autonomy on the one hand, and the feminist notion of a relational and embedded subject. If subjects are formed in and by particular cultures, and if their being is determined by their relations to other subjects and also in and by their relations to cultural and historical institutions, then in what sense do they choose and act autonomously?

Feminists like Diana Meyers (1997, 2002) have worked to specify criteria for a notion of autonomy that both recognizes the concrete causal formations of subjectivity, and carves out a reasonable zone for autonomous decision making. In this way, feminists have absorbed the lessons of contingency from social constructionism without giving up the important ethical and political norm of autonomy. Other feminists like Marilyn Frye (1983, 1989, 1996, 2000, 2005) question whether the ideas of individual choice, individual autonomy and individual selves are the central notions that feminists need to understand the structures of patriarchy. They argue against the focus on individual subjectivity and choice not because there are no individual subjects but because focus on the individual subject and her choices obscures the horizon of oppression against which and within which choice operates. It reflects a political commitment to individualism, which does not provide an adequate framework for feminist politics.

Gender, Social Constructionism, and Realism

Most feminists reject a biological, deterministic conception of gender. Instead they see gender as constituted and defined by social norms, practices and institutions. Since social norms, practices and institutions vary in different cultures, and also differ in the same culture at different historical periods, it seems to follow that gender is indeterminate and variable rather than fixed and stable. As we have seen some feminists think that the social construction of gender, in itself, rules out the possibility of gender essentialism because of the variety of cultural norms and their fluctuations through history. We have seen that not all feminists agree with that position. A related issue concerns the reality of gender, which can be understood as a local dispute within the realism/anti-realism debate in the philosophy of science.

Some feminists, influenced by postmodernism and continental philosophy, hold that gender is not a real and determinate category, but a designation whose meaning is indeterminate and unstable. Both Butler (1990) and Drucilla Cornell (1993) have developed views along these lines. An antirealist view of gender has the positive attribute of allowing for immediate liberation for both individuals and groups through novel and creative performances of gender. If you think that gender is performed, enacted, created through behavior in unstable patterns and novel directions, then there is no difficulty in rejecting oppressive structures and stereotypes. Even those who choose to enact conventionally appropriate gender roles can miss the mark and fail to do so exactly. One tension in this position concerns the appropriate understanding of the subject, the agent who enacts liberatory behavior, since anti-realists about gender tend to also reject the notion of the unified, coherent subject.

Other feminists accept the social constructionist thesis about gender, but do not conclude that gender categories are unreal, unstable or indeterminate in meaning. The division between natural entities and artificial or social entities (however we might wish to draw this distinction, and indeed even if we reject it) does not require us to place only natural entities on the side of reality. On the contrary, socially constructed identities like gender and race are fully determinate and very real in their effects on individuals and communities. One tension in this position concerns the autonomy of individuals who are the product of very real social norms and institutions. If we are constructed causally as women and men, then how can we act autonomously to resist patriarchal norms? One response to this issue is to distinguish between the social construction claim interpreted as making a causal claim (which raises the specter of determinism) and the social construction claim interpreted as a view about the social constitution of gender norms (which does not have any implications for determinism). Gender norms are socially constituted through cultural practices and social institutions, but it is up to the individual to accept or to resist them.

Feminist metaphysics is a robust field within feminist philosophy that also contributes in important ways to recent work in feminist social and political theory. Feminist metaphysics also contributes to mainstream metaphysical thought especially in the topics of subjectivity, autonomy and agency; and social ontology, social constructionism and essentialism.

See also Beauvoir, Simone de; Feminism and Continental Philosophy; Feminist Epistemology; Feminist Philosophy; Feminist Philosophy of Science; Irigaray, Luce; Metaphysics; Postmodernism; Social Constructionism.


Alcoff, Linda. "The Metaphysics of Gender and Sexual Difference." In Feminist Interventions in Ethics and Politics, edited by Barbara S. Andrew, Jean Keller, and Lisa H. Schwartzman. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2005.

Appiah, Anthony K. "'But Would That Still Be Me?': Notes On Gender, 'Race,' Ethnicity, As Sources of 'Identity.'" Journal of Philosophy 87 (10) (1990).

Babbitt, Susan E. Impossible Dreams: Rationality, Integrity, and Moral Imagination. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1996.

Beauvoir, Simone de. The Second Sex, edited and translated by H. M. Parshly. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993.

Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge, 1990.

Cornell, Drucilla. Transformations. New York: Routledge, 1993.

Crenshaw, Kimberle. "Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women." Stanford Law Review 43 (6) (1991).

Dupre, John. "Sex, Gender, and Essence." In Midwest Studies in Philosophy, Vol. 11, edited by Peter A. French, Theordore E. Uehling, Jr., and Howard K. Wettstein, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986.

Fausto-Sterling, Anne. Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality. New York: Basic Books, 2000.

Frye, Marilyn. "Categories and Dichotomies." In Encyclopedia of Feminist Theories, edited by Loraine Code. New York: Routledge, 2000.

Frye, Marilyn. "Categories in Distress." In Feminist Interventions in Ethics and Politics, edited by Barbara Andrew, Jean Keller, and Lisa Schwartzman. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2005.

Frye, Marilyn. "Essentialism/Ethnocentrism: The Failure of the Ontological Cure." In Is Academic Feminism Dead? Theory in Practice, edited by the Center for Advanced Feminist Studies at the University of Minnesota. New York: New York University Press, 2000.

Frye, Marilyn. "The Necessity of Differences: Constructing a Positive Category of Women." SIGNS: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 21 (3) (1996).

Frye, Marilyn. The Politics of Reality: Essays in Feminist Theory. Trumansburg, NY: Crossing Press, 1983.

Fuss, Diana. Essentially Speaking: Feminism, Nature, and Difference. New York: Routledge, 1989.

Garry, Ann, and Marilyn Pearsall. Women, Knowledge and Reality. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge, 1996.

Gatens, Moira. Imaginary Bodies: Ethics, Power, and Corporeality. New York: Routledge, 1996.

Haslanger, Sally. "Feminism and Metaphysics: Negotiating the Natural." In The Cambridge Companion to Feminism in Philosophy, edited by Miranda Fricker and Jennifer Hornsby. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Haslanger, Sally. "Gender and Race: (What) Are They? (What) Do We Want Them To Be?" Nous 34 (1) (2000).

Haslanger, Sally. "Ontology and Social Construction." Philosophical Topics: Feminist Perspectives on Language, Knowledge and Reality 23 (2) (1995).

hooks, bell. Ain't I a Women? Black Women and Feminism. Boston: South End, 1981.

Meyers, Diana Tietjens, ed. Feminists Rethink the Self. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1997.

Meyers, Diana Tietjens. Gender in the Mirror: Cultural Imagery and Women's Agency. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Spelman, Elizabeth V. Inessential Woman: Problems of Exclusion in Feminist Thought. Boston: Beacon Press, 1988.

Stoljar Natalie. "Essence, Identity and the Concept of Woman." Philosophical Topics: Feminist Perspectives on Language, Knowledge and Reality 23 (2) (1995).

Witt, Charlotte. "Anti-Essentialism in Feminist Theory." Philosophical Topics: Feminist Perspectives on Language, Knowledge and Reality 23 (2) (1995).

Witt, Charlotte. "Feminist Metaphysics." In A Mind of One's Own: Feminist Essays on Reason and Objectivity, edited by Louise Antony and Charlotte Witt. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1992.

Wittig, Monique. "One is Not Born a Woman." In The Second Wave: A Reader in Feminist Theory, edited by Linda Nicholson. New York: Routledge, 1997.

Zack, Naomi. Inclusive Feminism: A Third Wave Theory of Women's Commonality. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2005.

Zack, Naomi, ed. Race/Sex: Their Sameness, Difference, and Interplay. New York: Routledge, 1997.

Charlotte Witt (2005)

About this article

Feminist Metaphysics

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article