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Feminism and Pragmatism

Feminism and Pragmatism
Richard Rorty

When two women ascended to the Supreme Court of Minnesota,
Catherine MacKinnon asked: ‘Will they use the tools of law as
women, for all women?’ She continued as follows:

I think that the real feminist issue is not whether biological
males or biological females hold positions of power,
although it is utterly essential that women be there. And I
am not saying that viewpoints have genitals. My issue is
what our identifications are, what our loyalties are, who
our community is, to whom we are accountable. If it
seems as if this is not very concrete, I think it is because we
have no idea what women as women would have to say.

I’m evoking for women a role that we have yet to make, in
the name of a voice that, un silenced, might say something
that has never been heard .. I
Urging judges to ‘use the tools oflaw as women, for all women’

alarms universalist philosophers. These are the philosophers who
think that moral theory should come up with principles which
mention no group smaller than ‘persons’ or ‘human beings’ or
‘rational agents’. Such philosophers would be happier if
MacKinnon talked less about accountability to women as women
and more about an ideal Minnesota, or an ideal America, one in
which all human beings would be treated impartially. Universalists
would prefer to think of feminism as Mary W oil stone craft and
Olympe de Gouges did, as a matter of rights which are already
recognizable and describable, although not yet granted. This
describability, they feel, makes MacKinnon’ s hope for a voice
saying something never heard before unnecessary, overly dramatic, hyperbolic.

Universalist philosophers assume, with Kant, that all the
logical space necessary for moral deliberation is now available that all important truths about right and wrong can only be stated,
but be made plausible, in language already to hand. I take
MacKinnon to be siding with historicists like Hegel and Dewey,
and to be saying that moral progress depends upon expanding this
space. She illustrates the need for such expansion when she notes
that present sex-discrimination law assumes that women ‘have to
meet either the male standard for males or the male standard for
females … For purposes of sex discrimination law, to be a woman
means either to be like a man or to be like a lady’ .2 In my terms,
MacKinnon is saying that unless women fit into the logical space
prepared for them by current linguistic and other practices, the
law does not know how to deal with them. MacKinnon cites the
example of a judicial decision that permitted women to be
excluded from employment as prison guards, because they are so
susceptible to rape. The court, she continues, ‘took the viewpoint

Radical Philosophy 59, Autumn 1991

of the reasonable rapist on women’s employment opportunities’ .3
‘The conditions that create women’s rapeability as the definition
of womanhood were not even seen as susceptible to change. ‘4
MacKinnon thinks that such assumptions of unchangeability
will only be overcome once we can hear ‘what women as women
would have to say’. I take her point to be that assumptions
become visible as assumptions only if we can make the
contradictories of those assumptions sound plausible. So injustices may not be perceived as injustices, even by those who suffer
them, until somebody invents a previously unplayed role. Only if
somebody has a dream, and a voice to describe that dream, does
what looked like nature begin to look like culture, what looked
like fate begin to look like a moral abomination. For until then
only the language of the oppressor is available, and most oppressors have had the wit to teach the oppressed a language in which
the oppressed will sound crazy – even to themselves – if they
describe themselves as oppressed. 5
MacKinnon’s point that logical space may need to be expanded before justice can be envisaged, much less done, can be
restated in terms of John Rawls’s claim that moral theorizing is a
matter of attaining reflective equilibrium between general principles and particular intuitions – particular reactions of revulsion,
horror, satisfaction, or delight to real or imagined situations or
actions. MacKinnon sees moral and legal principles, particularly
those phrased in terms of equal rights, as impotent to change
these reactions. 6 So she sees feminists as needing to alter the data
of moral theory rather than needing to formulate principles which
fit pre-existent data better. Feminists are trying to get people to
feel indifference or satisfaction where they once recoiled, and
revulsion and rage where they once felt indifference or resignation.

One way to change instinctive emotional reactions is to
provide new language which will facilitate new reactions. By
‘new language’ I mean not just new words but also creative
misuses of language – familiar words used in ways which initially sound crazy. Something traditionally regarded as a moral
abomination can become an object of general satisfaction, or
conversely, as a result of the increased popularity of an alternative description of what is happening. Such popularity extends
logical space by making descriptions of situations which used to
seem crazy seem sane. Once, for example, it would have sounded
crazy to describe homosexual sodomy as a touching expression
of devotion, or to describe a woman manipulating the elements of
the Eucharist as a figuration of the relation of the Virgin to her
Son. But such descriptions are now acquiring popularity. At most
times, it sounds crazy to describe the degradation and extirpation
of helpless minorities as a purification of the moral and spiritual
life of Europe. But at certain periods and places – under the


Inquisition, during the Wars of Religion, under the Nazis – it did

Universalistic moral philosophers think that the notion of
‘violation of human rights’ provides sufficient conceptual resources to explain why some traditional occasions of revulsion
really are moral abominations and others only appear to be. They
think of moral progress as an increasing ability to see the reality
behind the illusions created by superstition, prejudice, and
unreflective custom. The typical universalist is a moral realist,
someone who thinks that true moral judgements are made true by
something out there in the world. Universalists typically take this
truth-maker to be the intrinsic features of human beings qua
human. They think you can sort out the real from the illusory
abominations by figuring out which those intrinsic features are,
and that all that is required to figure this out is hard, clear thought.

Historicists, by contrast, think that if ‘intrinsic’ means
‘ahistorical, untouched by historical change’, then the only intrinsic features of human beings are those they share with the
brutes – for example, the ability to suffer and inflict pain. Every
other feature is up for grabs. Historicists say, in the words Susan
Hurley uses to describe the implications of Wittgenstein’ s view,
that ‘the existence of certain shared practices, any of which might
not have existed, is all that our having determinate reasons … to
do anything rests on’. 7 So they think that we are not yet in a
position to know what human beings are, since we do not yet
know what practices human beings may start sharing. 8
Universalists talk as if any rational agent, at any epoch, could
somehow have envisaged all the possible morally relevant differences, all the possible moral identities, brought into existence by
such shared practices. But for MacKinnon, as for Hegel and
Dewey, we know, at most, only those possibilities which history
has actualized so far. MacKinnon’s central point, as I read her, is
that’ a woman’ is not yet the name of a way of being human – not
yet the name of a moral identity, but, at most, the name of a
disabili ty .9
Taking seriously the idea of as yet unrealized possibilities,
and of as yet unrecognized moral abominations resulting from
failure to envisage these possibilities, requires one to take seriously the suggestion that we do not presently have the logical
space necessary for adequate moral deliberation. Only if such
suggestions are taken seriously can passages like the one I quoted
from MacKinnon be read as prophecy rather than empty hyperbole. But this means revising our conception of moral progress.

We have to stop talking about the need to go from distorted to
undistorted perception of moral reality, and instead talk about the
need to modify our practices so as to take account of new
descriptions of what has been going on.

Here is where pragmatist philosophy might be useful to
feminist politics. For pragmatism redescribes both intellectual
and moral progress by substituting metaphors of evolutionary
development for metaphors of progressively less distorted perception. By dropping a representationalist account of knowledge,
we pragmatists drop the appearance-reality distinction in favour
of a distinction between beliefs which serve some purposes and
beliefs which serve other purposes – for example, the purposes of
one group and those of another group. We drop the notion of
beliefs being made true by reality, as well as the distinction
between intrinsic and accidental features of things. So we drop
questions about (in Nelson’s Goodman phrase) The Way the
World Is. We thereby drop the ideas of The Nature of Humanity
and of The Moral Law, considered as objects which inquiry is
trying to represent accurately, or as objects which make true
moral judgements true. So we have to give up the comforting
belief that competing groups will always be able to reason
together on the basis of plausible and neutral premises.


From a pragmatist angle, neither Christianity nor the Enlightenment nor contemporary feminism are cases of cognitive clarity
overcoming cognitive distortion. They are, instead, examples of
evolutionary struggle – struggle which is Mendelian rather than
Darwinian in character, in that it is guided by no immanent
teleology. The history of human social practices is continuous
with the history of biological evolution, the only difference being
that what Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett call ‘memes’

gradually take over the role of Mendel’s genes. Memes are things
like turns of speech, terms of aesthetic or moral praise, political
slogans, proverbs, musical phrases, stereotypical icons, and the
like. Memes compete with one another for the available cultural
space as genes compete for the available Lebensraum. to Different
batches of both genes and memes are carried by different human
social groups, and so the triumph of one such group amounts to
the triumph of those genes or memes. But no gene or meme is
closer to the purpose of evolution or to the nature of humanity
than any other – for evolution has no purpose and humanity no
nature. So the moral world does not divide into the intrinsically
decent and the intrinsically abominable, but rather into the goods
of different groups and different epochs. As Dewey put it, ‘The
worse or evil is a rejected good. In deliberation and before choice
no evil presents itself as evil. Until it is rejected, it is a competing
good. After rejection, it figures not as a lesser good, but as the bad
of that situation.’ liOn a Deweyan view, the replacement of one
species by another in a given ecological niche, or the enslavement
of one human tribe or race by another, or of the human females by
the human males, is not an intrinsic evil. The latter is a rejected
good, rejected on the basis of the greater good which feminism is

Radical Philosophy 59, Autumn 1991



presently making imaginable. The claim that this good is greater
is like the claim that mammals are preferable to reptiles or Aryans
to Jews; it is an ethnocentric claim made from the point of view
of a given cluster of genes or memes. There is no larger entity
which stands behind that cluster and makes it claim true (or
makes some contradictory claim true).

Pragmatists like myself think that this Deweyan account of
moral truth and moral progress comports better with the prophetic tone in contemporary feminism than do universalism and
realism. Prophecy, as we see it, is all that non-violent political
movements can fall back on when argument fails. Argument for
the rights of the oppressed will fail just insofar as the only
language in which to state relevant premises is one in which the
relevant emancipatory premises sound crazy. We pragmatists see
universalism and realism as committed to the idea of a realitytracking faculty called ‘reason’ and an unchanging moral reality
to be tracked, and thus unable to make sense of the claim that a
new voice is needed. So we commend ourselves to feminists on
the ground that we can fit that claim into our view of moral
progress with relative ease.

We see it as unfortunate that many feminists intermingle
pragmatist and realist rhetoric. For example, MacKinnon at one
point defines feminism as the belief ‘that women are human
beings in truth but not in social reality’ .12 The phrase ‘in truth’

here can only mean ‘in a reality which is distinct from social
reality’, one which is as it is whether or not women ever succeed
in saying what has never been heard. Such invocations of an
ahistoricist realism leave it unclear whether MacKinnon sees
women as appealing from a bad social practice to something
which transcends social practice, appealing from appearance to
reality, or instead sees them as doing the same sort of thing as the
early Christians, the early socialists, the Albigensians, and the
Nazis did: trying to actualize hitherto undreamed-of possibilities
by putting new linguistic and other practices into play, and
erecting new social constructsY
Some contemporary feminist philosophers are sympathetic to
the latter alternative, because they explicitly reject universalism
and realism. They do so because they see both as symptoms of
what Derrida has called ‘phallologocentrism’ – what MacKinnon
calls ‘the epistemological stance … of which male dominance is
the politics’ .14 Other such philosophers, however, warn against
accepting the criticisms of universalism and realism common to
Nietzsche, Heidegger and Derrida – against finding an ally in
what is sometimes called ‘postmodernism’. Sabina Lovibond,
for example, cautions against throwing Enlightenment
universalism and realism overboard. ‘How can anyone ask me to
say goodbye to “emancipatory metanarratives”,’ she asks, ‘when
my own emancipation is still such a patchy, hit-or-miss affair?’ 15
Lovibond’s universalism comes out when she says that ‘It would
be arbitrary to work for sexual equality unless one believed that
human society was disfigured by inequality as such’ . Her realism
comes out in her claim that feminism has a ‘background commitment … to the elimination of (self-interested) cognitive distortion’ .16
I share Lovibond’ s doubts about the apocalyptic tone and the
rhetoric of unmasking, prevalent among people who believe that
we are living in a ‘postmodern’ period. 17 But, on all the crucial
philosophical issues, I am on the side of Lovibond ‘ s postmodernist
opponents. 18 I hope that feminists will continue to consider the
possibility of dropping realism and universalism, dropping the
notion that the subordination of women is intrinsically abominable, dropping the claim that there is something called ‘right’ or
‘justice’ or ‘humanity’ which has always been on their side,
making their claims true. I agree with those whom Lovibond
paraphrases as saying ‘the Enlightenment rhetoric of “emancipa-

Radical Philosophy 59, Autumn 1991


tion”, “autonomy” and the like is complicit in a fantasy of escape
from the embodied condition.’ 19 In particular, it is complicit in
the fantasy of escape from an historical situation into an ahistoricist
empyrean – one in which moral theory can be pursued, like
Euclidean geometry, within an unalterable, unextendable, logical
space. Although practical politics will doubtless often require
feminists to speak with the universalist vulgar, I think that they
might profit from thinking with the pragmatists.

One of the best things about contemporary feminism, it seems
to me, is its ability to eschew such Enlightenment fantasies of
escape. My favourite passages in MacKinnon are ones in which
she says things like ‘we are not attempting to be objective about
it, we’re attempting to represent the point of view of women. ’20
Feminists are much less inclined than Marxists were to fall back
on a comfortable doctrine of immanent teleology. There is a lot of
feminist writing which can be read as saying: we are not appealing from phallist appearance to non-phallist reality. We are not
saying that the voice in which women will some day speak will be
better at representing reality than present-day masculinist discourse. We are not attempting the impossible task of developing
a non-hegemonic discourse, one in which truth is no longer
connected with power. We are not trying to do away with social
constructs in order to find something that is not a social construct.

We are just trying to help women out of the traps men have
constructed for them, help them to get the power they do not
presently have, and help them create a moral identity as women.

I have argued in the past that Deweyan pragmatism, when
linguistified along the lines suggested by Putnam and Davidson,
gives you all that is politically useful in the Nietzsche-HeideggerDerrida-Foucault tradition. Pragmatism, I claim, offers all the
dialectical advantages of postmodernism while avoiding the selfcontradictory postmodernist rhetoric of unmasking. I admit that,
insofar as feminists adopt a Deweyan rhetoric of the sort I have
just described, they commit themselves to a lot of apparent
paradoxes, and incur the usual chprges of relativism, irrationalism and power-worship.21 But these disadvantages are, I think,
outweighed by the advantages. By describing themselves in
Deweyan terms, feminists would free themselves from Lovibond’ s
demand for a general theory of oppression – a way of seeing
oppression on the basis of race, class, sexual preference, and
gender as so many instances of a general failure to treat equals
equally.22 They would thereby avoid the embarrassments of the
universalist claim that the term’ human being’ – or even the term
‘woman’ – names an unchanging essence, an ahistorical natural
kind with a permanent set of intrinsic features. Further, they
would no longer need to raise what seem to me unanswerable
questions about the accuracy of their representations of ‘woman’s experience’. They would instead see themselves as creating
such an experience by creating a language, a tradition, and an


In the remainder of this paper I want to develop this distinction between expression and creation in more detail. But first I
want to insert a cautionary remark about the relative insignificance of philosophical movements as compared to social-political movements. Yoking feminism with pragmatism is like yoking Christianity with Platonism, or socialism with dialectical
materialism. In each case, something big and important, a vast
social hope, is being yoked with something comparatively small
and unimportant, a set of answers to philosophical questions questions which arise only for people who find philosophical
topics intriguing rather than silly. Universalists – of both the
bourgeois liberal and Marxist sort – often claim that such questions are in fact urgent, for political movements need philosophical foundations. But we pragmatists cannot say this. We are not
in the foundations business. All we can do is to offer feminists a
few pieces of special-purpose ammunition – for example, some
additional replies to charges that their aims are unnatural, their
demands irrational, or their claims hyperbolic.

So much for an overview of my reasons for trying to bring
feminism and pragmatism together. I want now to enlarge on my
claim that a pragmatist feminist will see herself as helping to
create women rather than attempting to describe them more
accurately. I shall do so by taking up two objections which might
be made to what I have been saying. The first is the familiar
charge that pragmatism is inherently conservative, biased in
favour of the status quoY The second objection arises from the
fact that if you say that women need to be created rather than
simply freed, you seem to be saying that in some sense women do
not now fully exist. But then there seems no basis for saying that
men have done women wrong, since you cannot wrong the nonexistent.

Hilary Putnam, the most important contemporary philosopher to call himself a pragmatist, has said that’ a statement is true
of a situation just in case it would be correct to use the words of
which the statement consists in that way in describing the situation’. Putting the matter this way immediately suggests the
question: correct by whose standards? Putnam’ s position that
‘truth and rational acceptability are interdependent notions ’24
makes it hard to see how we might ever appeal from the oppressive conventions of our community to something non-conventional, and thus hard to see how we could ever engage in anything
like ‘radical critique’. So it may seem that we pragmatists, in our
frenzied efforts to undercut epistemological scepticism by doing
away with what Davidson calls ‘the scheme-content distinction’,
have also undercut political radicalism.

Pragmatists should reply to this charge by saying that they
cannot make sense of an appeal from our community’S practices
to anything except the practice of a real or imagined alternative
community. So when prophetic feminists say that it is not enough
to make the practices of our community coherent, that the very
language of our community must be subjected to radical critique,
pragmatists add that such critique can only take the form of
imagining a community whose linguistic and other practices are
different from our own. Once one grants MacKinnon’ s point that
one can only get so far with an appeal to make present beliefs
more coherent by treating women on a par with men, once one
sees the need for something more than an appeal to rational
acceptability by the standards of the existing community, then
such an act of imagination is the only recourse.

This means that one will praise movements of liberation not
for the accuracy of their diagnoses but for the imagination and
courage of their proposals. The difference between pragmatism


and positions such as Marxism, which retain the rhetoric of
scientism and realism, can be thought of as the difference between radicalism and utopianism. Radicals think that there is a
basic mistake being made, a mistake deep down at the roots. They
think that deep thinking is required to get down to this deep level,
and that only there, when all the superstructural appearances
have been undercut, can things be seen as they really are. Utopians,
however, do not think in terms of mistakes or of depth. They
abandon the contrast between superficial appearance and deep
reality in favour of the contrast between a painful present and a
possibly less painful, dimly-seen, future. Pragmatists cannot be
radicals, in this sense, but they can be utopians. They do not see
philosophy as providing instruments for radical surgery, or microscopes which make precise diagnosis possible. 25 Philosophy’s
function is rather to clear the road for prophets and poets, to make
intellectual life a bit simpler and safer for those who have visions
of new communities. 26
So far I have taken MacKinnon as my example of a feminist
with such a vision. But of course she is only one of many. Another
is Marilyn Frye, who says, in her powerful book The Politics of
Reality, that ‘there probably is really no distinction, in the end,
between imagination and courage’. For, she continues, it takes
courage to overcome’ a mortal dread of being outside the field of
vision of the arrogant eye’. This is the eye of a person who prides
himself on spotting the rational unacceptability of what is being
said – that is, its incoherence with the rest of the beliefs of those
who currently control life-chances and logical space. So feminists must, Frye goes on to say, ‘dare to rely on ourselves to make
meaning and we have to imagine ourselves capable of … weaving
the web of meaning which will hold us in some kind of intelligibility’Y Such courage is indistinguishable from the imagination
it takes to hear oneself as the spokesperson of a merely possible
community, rather than as a lonely, and perhaps crazed, outcast
from an actual one.

MacKinnon and many other feminists use ‘liberalism’ as a
name for an inability to have this sort of courage and imagination.

‘In the liberal mind,’ MacKinnon says, ‘the worse and more
systematic one’s mistreatment is, the more it seems justified.

Liberalism … never sees power as power, yet can see as significant only that which power does.’28 The phenomenon she is
pointing to certainly exists, but liberalism seems to me the wrong
name for it. So, of course, does ‘pragmatism’. I think the main
reason – apart from some reflexes left over from early Marxist
conditioning – why pejorative uses of the terms ‘liberal’ and
‘pragmatist’ are still common among political radicals is that if
you say, with Putnam, that ‘truth does not transcend use’, you
may easily be taken as referring to actual, present use. Again, if
you deny that truth is a matter of correspondence to reality, you
may easily be taken as holding that a true belief is one that
coheres with what most people currently believe. If you think that

Radical Philosophy 59, Autumn 1991

emancipatory moral or social thought requires penetrating to a
presently unglimpsed reality beneath the current appearances,
and find pragmatists telling you that there is no such reality, you
may easily conclude that a pragmatist cannot help the cause of

When, however, we remember that John Dewey – a paradigmatic liberal as well as a paradigmatic pragmatist – spent a great
deal of time celebrating the sort of courage and imagination Frye
describes, we may be willing to grant that the relation between
pragmatism and emancipation is more complex. Dewey said
remarkably little about the situation of women, but one of the few
things he did say is worth quoting:

Women have as yet made little contribution to philosophy, but when women who are not mere students of other
persons’ philosophy set out to write it, we cannot conceive
that it will be the same in viewpoint or tenor as that
composed from the standpoint of the different masculine
experience of things. Institutions, customs of life, breed
certain systematized predilections and aversions. The wise
man reads historic philosophies to detect in them intellectual fonnulations of men’s habitual purposes and cultivated wants, not to gain insight into the ultimate nature of
things or infonnation about the make-up of reality. As far
as what is loosely called reality figures in philosophies,
we may be sure that it signifies those selected aspects of
the world which are chosen because they lend themselves
to the support of men’s judgement of the worth-while life,
and hence are most highly prized. In philosophy, ‘reality’

is a tenn of value or choice. 29
Suppose we think, as feminists often do, of ‘men’s habitual
purposes and cultivated wants’ as ‘the habitual purposes and
cultivated wants of the males, the half of the species which long
ago enslaved the other half’. This pennits us to read Dewey as
saying: if you find yourself a slave, do not accept your masters’

descriptions of the real; do not work within the boundaries of
their moral universe; instead, try to invent a reality of your own
by selecting aspects of the world which lend themselves to the
support of your judgement of the worth-while life. 30
Dewey’s doctrine of the means-end continuum might have
led him to add: do not expect to know what sort of life is
worthwhile right off the bat, for that is one of the things you will
constantly change your mind about in the process of selecting a
reality. You can neither pick your goals on the basis of a clear and
explicit claim about the nature of moral reality, nor derive such a
claim from clear and explicit goals. There is no method or
procedure to be followed except courageous and imaginative
experimentation. Dewey would, I think, have been quick to see
the point of Frye’s description of her own writing as ‘a sort of
flirtation with meaninglessness – dancing about a region of
cognitive gaps and negative semantic spheres, kept aloft only by
the rhythm and momentum of my own motion, trying to plumb
abysses which are generally agreed not to exist’ Y For meaninglessness is exactly what you have to flirt with when you are in
between social, and in particular linguistic, practices – unwilling
to take part in an old one but not yet having succeeded in creating
a new one.

The import of Dewey’ s pragmatism for movements such as
feminism can be seen if we paraphrase Dewey as follows: do not
charge a current social practice or a currently spoken language
with being unfaithful to reality, with getting things wrong. Do not
criticize it as a result of ideology of prejudice, where these are
tacitly contrasted with your own employment of a truth-tracking

Radical Philosophy 59, Autumn 1991

faculty called ‘reason’ or a neutral method called ‘disinterested
observation’. Do not even criticize it as ‘unjust’ if ‘unjust’ is
supposed to mean more than ‘sometimes incoherent even in its
own tenns’. Instead of appealing from the transitory current
appearances to the pennanent reality, appeal to a still only dimly
imagined future practice. Drop the appeal to neutral criteria, and
the claim that something large like Nature or Reason or History
or the Moral Law is on the side of the oppressed. Instead, just
make invidious comparisons between the actual present and a
possible, if inchoate, futureY

So much for the relations between pragmatism and political
radicalism. I have been arguing that the two are compatible and
mutually supporting. This is because pragmatism allows for the
possibility of expanding logical space, and thereby for an appeal
to courage and imagination rather than to putatively neutral
criteria. What pragmatism loses when it gives up the claim to
have right or reality on its side it gains in ability to acknowledge
the presence of what Frye calls ‘abysses which are generally
agreed not to exist’. These are situations which give the universalist
and the realist trouble – ones in which plenty of assent-commanding descriptions are available, but such that none of these descriptions do what is needed.

I turn now to the paradox I noted earlier: the suggestion that
women are only now coming into existence, rather than having
been deprived of the ability to express what was deep within them
all the time. I take MacKinnon’ s evocation of a ‘role that women
have yet to make’ as a way of suggesting that women are only
now beginning to put together a moral identity as women. To find
one’s moral identity in being an X means being able to do the
following sort of thing: make your Xness salient in your justification of important uncoerced choices, make your Xness an important part of the story you tell yourself when you need to recover
your self-confidence, make your relations with other Xs central
to your claim to be a responsible person. These are all things men
have usually been able to do by reminding themselves that they
are, come what may, men. They are things which men have made
it hard for women to do by reminding themselves that they are
women. As Frye puts it, men have assigned themselves the status
of ‘full persons’ – people who enjoy what she calls ‘unqualified
participation in the radical “superiority” of the species’ ,31 and
withheld this status from women. The result of men constantly,
fervently and publicly thanking God that they are not women has
been to make it hard for women to thank God that they are. For a
woman to say that she finds her moral identity in being a woman
would have sounded, until relatively recently, as weird as for a
slave to say that he or she finds his or her moral identity in being
a slave.

Most feminists might agree that it was only with the beginnings of the feminist movement that it began to become possible
for women to find their moral identities in being women. 32 But


most feminists are probably still realist and universalist enough
to insist that there is a difference between the claim that one
cannot find one’s moral identity in being an X and the claim that
an X is not yet a full-fledged person, a person to whom injustice
has been done by forbidding her to find her moral identity in her
X-hood. For the great advantage of realism and universalism
over pragmatism is that it permits one to say that women were
everything they are now, and therefore were entitled to everything they are now trying to get – even when they did not know,
and might even have explicitly denied, that they were entitled to

For us pragmatists, however, it is not so easy to say that. For
we see personhood as a matter of degree, not as an all-or-nothing
affair, something evenly distributed around the species. We see it
as something that slaves typically have less of than their masters.

This is not because there are such things as ‘natural slaves’ but
because of the masters’ control over the language spoken by the
slaves – their ability to make the slave think of his or her pain as
fated and even somehow deserved, something to be borne rather
than resisted. We cannot countenance the notion of a deep reality
which reposes unrecognized beneath the superficial appearances.

So we have to take seriously the idea, made familiar by such
writers as Charles Taylor, that interpretation goes all the way
down: that what a human being is, for moral purposes, is largely
a matter of how he or she describes himself or herself. We have
to take seriously the idea that what you experience yourself to be
is largely a function of what it makes sense to describe yourself as
in the languages you are able to use. We have to say that the
Deltas and Epsilons of Huxley’s Brave New World, and the
proles of Orwell’ s 1984, were persons only in the sense in which
fertilized human ova or human infants are persqns – in the sense,
namely, that they are capable of being made into persons. So we
pragmatists have to identify most of the wrongness of past male
oppression with its suppression of past potentiality, rather than in
its injustice to past actuality.

In order to say that women are only now in the process of
achieving a moral identity as women, I do not need to deny that
some women have, in every epoch, had doubts about, and offered
alternatives to, the standard, androcentric, descriptions of women.

All I need to deny is that women have been able to forget the latter
descriptions – the ones which make them seem incapable of
being full persons. I am denying that women in previous epochs
have been able to avoid being tom, split, between the men’s
descriptions of them and whatever alternative descriptions they
have given to themselves. As an example of the sort of thing I
have in mind – of the need to name, and thus to begin to bridge,
what Frye calls ‘abysses generally agreed not to exist’ – consider
Adrienne Rich’s description of her situation when young. She
was, she says, ‘split between the girl who wrote poems, who
defined herself as writing poems, and the girl who was to define
herself by her relationships with men’ .33 I want to interpret Rich’s
individual situation as an allegory of the more general situation in


which women found themselves before feminism achieved liftoff – of their inability to stop defining themselves in terms of their
relationships with men. To envisage this inability, consider how
Rich’s situation differed from that of a young man in a similar

Since Byron and Goethe men have thought of writing poems
as one of the best ways to create an autonomous self, to avoid
having to define oneself in the terms used by one’s parents,
teachers, employers and rulers. Since 1820 or thereabouts, a
young man has had the option of defining himself as a poet, of
finding his moral identity in writing verse. But, Rich tells us, this
is not easy for a young woman.

What is the difficulty? It is not that there is any dearth of true
descriptions which Rich might have applied to herself. There
were no well-formed – that is, generally intelligible – questions to
which Rich could not have given true, well-formed answers. But
nevertheless there was, she tells us, a split. The various true
descriptions which she applied did not fit together into a whole.

But, she is implicitly suggesting, a young male poet’s descriptions would have fitted together easily. Rich was, in her youth,
unable to attain the kind of coherence, the kind of integrity, which
we think of as characteristic of full persons. For persons who are
capable of the full glory of humanity are capable of seeing
themselves steadily and whole. Rather than feel that splits are
tearing them apart, they can see tensions between their alternative self-descriptions as, at worst, necessary elements in a harmonious variety-in-unity.

Rich’s account of herself as split rings true for, as she shows
in her essay on Emily Dickinson and elsewhere, the languagegames men have arranged that young women should play force
them to treat the men in their lives (or, the absence of men in their
lives) as the independent variable and everything else – even their

poems – as dependent variables. So insofar as Rich could not tie
her poems in with her relationships with men, she had a problem.

She was split. She could not be, so to speak, a full-time poet,
because a language she could not forget did not let one be both a
full-time poet and a full-time female. By contrast, since Byron,
the language has let one be a full-time poet and a full-time hero
(just as, since Socrates, it has been possible to be a full-time
intellectual and a full-time hero).

What might solve Rich’s problem? Well, perhaps nowadays
it is a little easier for a young woman to define herself by and in
her poems than when Rich was young – simply because she may
have read books by Rich, Frye and others. But only a little easier.

What would make it really easy? Only, I would suggest, the sort
of circumstance which made it easy for a young man in the
generation after Byron to make his poetic activity the independent variable in the story he told himself about himself. In a
previous generation there had been what now looks to us like a
band of brothers – HOlderlin and Keats, Byron and Goethe,
Shelley and Chamisso. Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, and

Radical Philosophy 59, Autumn 1991

to be a young male with poetic gifts was to be able to describe
oneself in heroic terms, terms which one could not have used
earlier without sounding crazy. That band of brothers founded an
invisible club, a very good club, one which is still giving new
members a warm welcome. 34 So young male poets do not face
abysses when they attempt self-definition. But, as Rich points
out, Emily Dickinson was not allowed into that club. 35 So, to
make things really easy for future Dickinsons and Richs, there
would have to be a good, well-established club which they could

Here, I take it, is where feminist separatism comes in. Rich
asks that
we understand lesbian/feminism in the deepest, most
radical sense: as that love for ourselves and other women,
that commitment to the freedom of all of us, which
transcends the category of ‘sexual preference’ and the
issue of civil rights, to become a politics of asking women’s questions, demanding a world in which the integrity
of all women – not a chosen few – shall be honoured and
validated in every aspect of culture. 36
Someone who tries to fit what Rich is saying into a map drawn
on a universalist and realist grid will have trouble locating any
space separate from that covered by ‘the category of “sexual
preference'” or by ‘the issue of civil rights’. For justice, on this
universalist view, is a matter of our providing each other with
equal advantages. Nothing, in this vision, could transcend civil
rights and the realization of those rights by institutional change.

So, for example, lesbian separatism is likely to be seen simply as
an arrangement by which those with a certain sexual preference
can escape stigma until such time as the laws have been extended
to protect lesbians’ rights and the mores have caught up with the

Frye offers a contrasting view of the function of separatism
when she writes
Re the new being and meaning which are being created
now by lesbian-feminists, we do have semantic authority,
and, collectively, can and do define with effect. I think it
is only by maintaining our boundaries through controlling
concrete access to us that we can enforce on those who are
not-us our definitions of ourselves, hence force on them
the fact of our existence and thence open up the possibility
of our having semantic authority with them?7

I take Frye’ s point to be, in part, that individuals – even individuals of great courage and imagination – cannot achieve semantic
authority, even semantic authority over themselves, on their own.

Radical Philosophy 59, Autumn 1991

To get such authority you have to hear your own statements as
part of a shared practice. Otherwise you yourself will never know
whether they are more than ravings, never know whether you are
a heroine or a maniac. People in search of such authority need to
band together and form clubs, exclusive clubs. For if you want to
work out a story about who you are – put together a moral identity
– which decreases the importance of your relationships to one set
of people and increases the importance of your relationships to
another set, the physical absence of the first set of people may be
just what you need. So feminist separatism may indeed, as Rich
says, have little to do with sexual preference or with civil rights,
and a lot to do with making things easier for women of the future
to define themselves in terms not presently available. These
would be terms which made it easy for ‘women as women’ to
have what Dewey calls ‘habitual purposes and cultivated wants’

– purposes and wants which, as Rich says, only a chosen few
women presently have.

To sum up: I am suggesting that we see the contemporary
feminist movement as playing the same role in intellectual and
moral progress as was played by, for example, Plato’s Academy,
the early Christian meeting in the catacombs, the invisible Copernican colleges of the seventeenth century, groups of working
men gathering to discuss Tom Paine’ s pamphlets, and lots of
other clubs which were formed to try out new ways of speaking,
and to gather the moral strength to go out and change the world.

For groups build their moral strength by achieving increasing
semantic authority over their members, thereby increasing the
ability of those members to find their moral identities in their
membership of such groups.

When such a group forms itself in conscious opposition to
those who control the life-chances of its members, and succeeds
in achieving semantic authority over its members, the result may

be its ruthless suppression – the sort of thing that happened to the
Albigensians, and which Margaret Atwood has imagined happening to the feminists. But it may also happen that, as the
generations succeed one another, the masters, those in control,
gradually find their conceptions of the possibilities open to
human beings changing. For example, they may gradually begin
to think of the options open to their own children as including
membership in the group ih question. The new language spoken
by the separatist group may gradually get woven into the language taught in the schools.

Insofar as this sort of thing happens, eyes become less arrogant and the members ofthe group cease to be treated as wayward
children, or as a bit crazy (the ways in which Emily Dickinson
was treated). Instead, they gradually achieve what Frye calls ‘full
personhood’ in the eyes of everybody, having first achieved it
only in the eyes of fellow-members of their own club. They begin
to be treated as full-fledged human beings, rather than being seen,
like children or the insane, as degenerate cases – as beings
entitled to love and protection, but not to participation in delib-


eration on serious matters. For to be a full-fledged person in a
given society is a matter of double negation: it is not to think of
oneself as belonging to a group which powerful people in that
society thank God they do not belong to.

In our society, straight white males of my generation – even
earnestly egalitarian straight white males – cannot easily stop
themselves from feeling guilty relief that they were not born
women or gay or black, any more than they can stop themselves
from being glad that they were not born mentally retarded or
schizophrenic. This is in part because of a calculation of the
obvious socio-economic disadvantages of being so born, but not
entirely. It is also the sort of instinctive and ineffable horror
which noble children used to feel at the thought of having been
born to non-noble parents, even very rich non-noble parents. 38
At some future point in the development of our society, guilty
relief over not having been born a woman may not cross the
minds of males, any more than the question ‘noble or base-born?’

now crosses their minds. 39 That would be the point in which both
males and females had forgotten the traditional androcentric
language, just as we have all forgotten about the discussion
between base and noble ancestry. But ifthis future comes to pass,
we pragmatists think, it will not be because the females have been
revealed to possess something – namely, full human dignity which everybody, even they themselves, once mistakenly thought
they lacked. It will be because the linguistic and other practices of
the common culture have come to incorporate some of the
practices characteristic of imaginative and courageous outcasts.

The new language which, with luck, will get woven into the
language taught to children will not, however, be the language
which the outcasts spoke in the old days, before the formation of
separatist groups. For that was infected by the language of the
masters. It will be, instead, a language gradually put together in
separatist groups in the course of a long series of flirtations with
meaninglessness. Had there been no stage of separation, there
would have been no subsequent stage of assimilation. No prior
antithesis, no new synthesis. No carefully nurtured pride in
membership in a group which might not have attained selfconsciousness were it not for its oppression, no expansion of the
range of possible moral identities, and so no evolution of the
species. This is what Hegel called the cunning of reason, and
what Dewey thought of as the irony of evolution.

Someone who takes the passage I quoted from Dewey seriously will not think of oppressed groups as learning to recognise
their own full personhood and then gradually, by stripping away
veils of prejudice, leading their oppressors to confront reality.

For they will not see full personhood as an intrinsic attribute of
the oppressed, any more than they see human beings having a
central and inviolable core surrounded by culturally-conditioned
beliefs and desires – a core for which neither biology nor history
can account. To be a pragmatist rather than a realist in one’s
description of the acquisition of full personhood requires thinking of its acquisition by blacks, gays and women in the same
terms as we think of its acquisition by Galilean scientists and
Romantic poets. We say that the latter groups invented new moral
identities for themselves by getting semantic authority over
themselves. As time went by, they succeeded in having the
language they had developed become part of the language everybody spoke. Similarly, we have to think of gays, blacks and
women inventing themselves rather than discovering themselves,
and thus of the larger society as coming to terms with something

This means taking Frye’s phrase ‘new being’ literally, and
saying that there were very few female full persons around before
feminism got started, in the same sense in which there were very
few full-fledged Galilean scientists before the seventeenth cen-


tury. It was of course true in earlier times that women should not
have been oppressed, just as it was true before Newton said so
that gravitational attraction accounted for the movements of the
planets. 4o But, despite what Scripture says, truth will not necessarily prevail. ‘Truth’ is not the name of a power which eventually wins through, it is just the nominalization of an approbative
adjective. So just as a pragmatist in the philosophy of science
cannot use the truth of Galileo’s views as an explanation either of
his success at prediction or of his gradually increasing fame,41 so
a pragmatist in moral philosophy cannot use the rightness of the
feminist cause as an explanation either of its attraction for
contemporary women or of its possible future triumph. For such
explanations require the notion of a truth-tracking faculty, one
which latches on to antecedently existing truth-makers. Truth is
ahistorical, but that is not because truths are made true by
ahistorical entities.

Frye’s term ‘new being’ may seem even more unnecessarily
hyperbolic than MacKinnon’s ‘new voice’, but we pragmatists
can take it at face value and realists cannot. As I read Frye, the
point is that before feminism began to gather women together
into a kind of club, there were female eccentrics like W ollstonecraft
and de Gouges, but these were not women who existed as
women, in MacKinnon’ s sense of ‘as’. They were eccentric
because they failed to fit into roles which men had contrived for
them to fill, and because there were as yet no other roles. For roles
require a community – a web of social expectations and habits
which define the role in question. The community may be small,
but, like a club as opposed to a convocation, or a new species as
opposed to a few atypical mutant members of an old species, it
only exists insofar as it is self-sustaining and self-reproducing.42
To sum up for the last time: prophetic feminists like
MacKinnon and Frye foresee a new being not only for women but
for society. They foresee a society in which the male-female
distinction is no longer of much interest. Feminists who are also
pragmatists will not see the formation of such a society as the
removal of social constructs and the restoration of the way things
were always meant to be. They will see it as the production of a
better set of social constructs than the ones presently available,
and thus as the creation of a new and better sort of human being.

This paper was delivered as a Tanner Lecture at the University of
Michigan on 7 December 1990.

McKinnon, ‘On Exceptionality’, in her Feminism Unmodified:

Discourses on Life and Law, Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press, 1987, p. 77.


Ibid., p. 71. See also Carolyn Whitbeck’s point that ‘the category, lesbian, both in the minds of its male inventors and as
used in male-dominated culture, is that of a physiological
female who is in other respects a stereotypical male’ (,Love,
Know ledge and Transformation’ in Hypatia Reborn, ed. Azizah
Y. al-Hibri and Margaret A. Simons, Bloomington: Indiana
University Press, 1990, p. 220). Compare Marilyn Frye ‘s reference to ‘that other fine and enduring patriarchal institution, Sex
Equality’, The Politics ofReality , Trumansburg, NY, The Crossing Press, 1983, p. 108.


Ibid., p. 38.


Ibid., p. 73.


At page 33, Frye remarks that ‘For subordination to be permanent and cost effective, it is necessary to create conditions such
that the subordinated group acquiesces to some extent in the
subordination.’ Ideally, these will be conditions such that a
member of the subordinate group who does not acquiesce will

Radical Philosophy 59, Autumn 1991

sound crazy. Frye suggests at page 112 that a person’s sounding
crazy is a good indicator that you are oppressing that person. See
also McKinnon, op. cit., p. 105: ‘Especially when you are part
of a subordinated group, your own definition of your injuries is
powerfully shaped by your assessment of whether you could get
anyone to do anything about it, including anything official.’

E.g., a non-crazy claim to have been raped is one acceptable to
those (usually males) in a position to offer support or reprisal.

Only where there is a socially-accepted remedy can there have
been a real (rather than crazily imagined) injury.


When Olympe de Gouges appealed in the name of women to
The Declaration of the Rights of Men and Citizens, even the
most revolution-minded of her male contemporaries thought
she was crazy. When Canadian feminists argued, in the 1920s,
that the word ‘persons’ in an act specifying the conditions for
being a Senator covered women as well as men, the Supreme
Court of Canada decided that the word should not be so construed, because it never had been. (The Judicial Committee of
the Privy Council, be it said, later ruled in the feminists’ favour.)


Susan Hurley, Natural Reasons, Oxford, Oxford University
Press, 1989, p. 32.


In a recent article on Rawls (,Reason and Feeling in Thinking
about Justice’, Ethics 99 (1989), p. 248), Susan Moller Okin
points out that thinking in Rawls’ original position is not a
matter of thinking like a ‘disembodied nobody’ but rather of
thinking like lots of different people in turn – thinking from the
point of view of ‘every “concrete other” whom one might turn
out to be’. Hurley (Natural Reasons, p. 381) makes the same
point. The historicity of justice – a historicity which Rawls has
acknowledged in his papers of the 1980s – amounts to the fact
that history keeps producing new sorts of ‘concrete others’

whom one might turn out to be.

See the theme of ‘woman as partial man’ in Whitbeck’s ‘Theories of Sex Difference’ in Women and Values, ed. Marilyn
Pearsall, Belmont, California, Wadsworth, 1986, pp. 34-50.

This theme is developed in fascinating detail in Thomas Laqueur,
Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud,
Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press, 1990.




Michael Gross and Mary Beth A verill, in their ‘Evolution and
Patriarchal Myths’ (in Discovering Reality, ed. Sandra Harding
and Merrill B. Hintikka) suggest that the term ‘struggle’ is a
specifically masculinist way of describing evolution and ask
‘Why not see nature as bounteous, rather than parsimonious,
and admit that opportunity and cooperation are more likely to
abet novelty, innovation and creation than are struggle and
competition?’ (p. 85). The question gives me pause, and I have
no clear answer to it. All I have is the hunch that, with memes as
with genes, tolerant pluralism will sooner or later, in the absence
of interstellar travel, have to come to terms with shortage of
space for self-expression.

There is a more general point involved here, the one raised by
Jo-Ann Pilardi’s claim that Hegel, Freud and others ‘were
burdened with a notion of identity which defines it as
oppositional, one which was derived from the psychosocial
development of male children’ (‘ On the War Path and Beyond’

in Hypatia Reborn [cited above], p. 12). Just such a notion of
identity is central to my claims in this paper – and particularly to
the claims about the possible benefits of feminist separatism in
the paper’s later pages. So I am employing what many feminist
writers would consider specifically male assumptions. All I can
say in reply is that the notion of identity as oppositional seems
to me hard to eliminate from such books as Frye’s – and
especially from her discussion of feminist anger. Anger and
opposition seem to me the root of most moral prophecy, and it
is the prophetic aspect of feminism that I am emphasizing in this

Human Nature and Conduct, Middle Works, Vol. 14, p. 193.

See also ‘Outlines of a Critical Theory of Ethics’, Early Works,
Vol. 3, p. 379: ‘Goodness is not remoteness from badness. In
one sense, goodness is based upon badness; that is, good action

Radical Philosophy 59, Autumn 1991

is always based upon action good once, but bad if persisted in
under changing circumstances.’



Ibid., p. 126.

Suppose we define a moral abomination, with Jeffrey Stout, as
something which goes against our sense of ‘the seams of our
moral universe’, one which crosses the lines between, as he puts
it, ‘the categories of our cosmology and our social structure’

(Stout, Ethics After Babel, Boston, Beacon Press, p. 159). Then
the choice between a realist and pragmatist rhetoric is the choice
between saying that moral progress gradually aligns these seams
with the real seams, and saying that it is a matter of simultaneously reweaving and enlarging a fabric which is not intended to
be congruent with an antecedent reality. Giving an example of
such a seam, Stout says (p. 153): ‘The sharper the line between
masculine and feminine roles and the greater the importance of
that line in determining matters such as the division of labour
and the rules of inheritance, the more likely it is that sodomy
will be abominated.’ Later he says (p. 158): ‘The question is not
whether homosexuality is intrinsically abominable but rather
what, all things considered, we should do with the relevant
categories of our cosmology and social structure.’ As with the
abominableness of homosexual sodomy, so, we pragmatists
think, with the abominableness of the absence or presence of
patriarchy. In all such cases, up to and including the
abominableness of torturing people for the sheer pleasure of
watching them writhe, pragmatists think that the question is not
about intrinsic properties but about what we should do with the
relevant categories – a question which boils down to what
descriptions we should use of what is going on.

MacKinnon, p. 50.

‘Feminism and Postmodernism’ , New Left Review, Winter 1989,
p. 12. For a somewhat more tempered account of the relation of
postmodernism to feminism see Kate Soper, ‘Feminism, Humanism and Postmodernism’, Radical Philosophy 55 (Summer
1990), pp. 11-17. In their’ Social Criticism Without Philosophy:

An Encounter Between Feminism and Postmodernism’ (in
Universal Abandon?, ed. Andrew Ross, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1988), Nancy Fraser and Linda
Nicholson argue that ‘a robust postmodern-feminist paradigm
of social criticism without philosophy is possible’ (p. 100). I of
course agree, but I am less sure about the need for, and utility of,
‘social-theoretical analysis of large-scale inequalities’ (p. 90)
than are Fraser and Nicholson.

This is because I am less sure than Fraser about the possibility
that ‘the basic institutional framework of [our] society could be
unjust’ (Fraser, ‘Solidarity or Singularity?’ in Reading Rorty,
ed. Alan Malachowski, Oxford, Blackwell, 1990, p. 318), and
hence about ‘the utility of a theory that could specify links
among apparently discrete social problems via the basic institutional structure’ (p. 319). I suspect my differences with Fraser
are concrete and political rather than abstract and philosophical.

She sees, and I do not see, attractive alternatives (more or less
Marxist in shape) to such institutions as private ownership of the
means of production and constitutional democracy, attractive
alternatives to the traditional socio-democratic project of constructing an egalitarian welfare state within the context of these
two basic institutions. I am not sure whether our differences are
due to Fraser’s anti-foundationalist theory hope (see footnote
17 below) or to my own lack of imagination.


Ibid., p. 28. See Lovibond’s reference at page 12 to ‘remaking
society along rational, egalitarian lines’ . The idea that egalitarianism is more rational than elitism, rational in a sense which
provides reasons for action not based on contingent shared
practices, is central to the thinking of most liberals who are also
moral realists.


A rhetoric of ‘unmasking hegemony’ presupposes the rea1ityappearance distinction which opponents of phallogocentrism
claim to have set aside. Many self-consciously ‘postmodem’

writers seem to me trying to have it both ways – to view masks
as going all the way down while still making invidious compari-




Ibid., p. 12.


MacKinnon, p. 86. See also pp. 50, 54, for the ‘postmodemist’

suggestion that the quest for objectivity is a specifically
masculinist one.

We pragmatists are often told that we reduce moral disagreement to a mere struggle for power by denying the existence of
reason, or human nature, conceived as something which provides a neutral court of appeal. We often rejoin that the need for
such a court, the need for something ahistorical which will ratify
one’s claims, is itself a symptom of power-worship – of the
conviction that unless something large and powerful is on one’s
side, one shouldn’t bother trying.

Developing this point would take too long. Were more time and
space available, I should argue that trying to integrate feminism
into a general theory of oppression – a frequent reaction to the
charge that feminists are oblivious to racial and economic
injustice – is like trying to integrate Galilean physics into a
general theory of scientific error. The latter attempt is as familiar as it is fruitless. The conviction that there is an interesting
general theory about human beings or their oppression seems to
me like the conviction that there is an interesting general theory
about truth and our failure to achieve it. For the same reasons
that trans~endental terms like ‘true’ and ‘good’ are not susceptible of definition, neither error nor oppression has a single neck
which a single critical slash might sever.

Maria Lugones is an example of a feminist theorist who sees a
need for a general philosophical theory of oppression and
liberation. She says, for example, that ‘the ontological or metaphysical possibility of liberation remains to be argued, explained, uncovered’ (‘Structure/Antistructure and Agency under Oppression’, Journal of Philosophy 87, October 1990, p.

502). I should prefer to stick to merely empirical possibilities of
liberation. Although I entirely agree with Lugones about the
need to ‘give up the unified self’ (p. 503), I do not see this as a
matter of ontology, but merely as a way of putting the familiar
point that the same human being can contain different coherent
sets of belief and desires – different roles, different personalities, etc. – correlated with the different groups to which he or she
belongs and whose power he or she must acknowledge. A more
important disagreement between us, perhaps, concerns the desirability of harmonizing one’s various roles, self-images, etc.,
in a single unifying story about oneself. Such unification ~ the
sort of thing which I describe below as overcoming splits seems to me desirable. Lugones, on the other hand, urges the
desirability of ‘experiencing oneself in the limen’ (p. 506).

For a good example of this charge, see lonathan Culler, Framing the Sign: Criticism and its Institutions, Oklahoma City:





University of Oklahoma Press, 1988, p. 55: ‘ … the humanities
must make their way between, on the one hand, a traditional,
foundationalist conception of their task and, on the other, the socalled “new pragmatism” to which some critics of
foundationalism have retreated. If philosophy is not a
foundationalist discipline, argues Richard Rorty, then it is simply engaged in a conversation; it tells stories, which succeed
simply by their success. Since there is no standard or reference
point outside the system of one’s beliefs to appeal to, critical
arguments and theoretical reflections can have no purchase on
these beliefs or the practices informed by them. Ironically, then,
the claim that philosophers and theoreticians tell stories, which
originates as a critique of ideology … becomes a way of protecting a dominant ideology and its professionally successful practitioners from the scrutiny of argument, by deeming that critique
can have no leverage against ordinary beliefs, and that theoretical arguments have no consequences. This pragmatism, whose
complacency seems altogether appropriate to the Age ofReagan,
subsists only by a theoretical argument of the kind it in principle
opposes, as an ahistorical “preformism”: what one does must be
based on one’s beliefs, but since there are no foundations
outside the system of one’s beliefs, the only thing that could
logically make one change a belief is something one already
believes. ‘

sons between other people’s masks and the way things will look
when all the masks have been stripped off. These postmodernists
continue to indulge the bad habits characteristic of those Marxists who insist that morality is a matter of class interest, and then
add that everybody has a moral obligation to identify with the
interests of a particular class. lust as ‘ideology’ came to mean
little more than ‘other people’s ideas’, so ‘productofhegemonic
discourse’ has come to mean little more than ‘product of other
people’s way of talking’. I agree with Stanley Fish that much of
what goes under the heading of ‘postmodernism’ exemplifies
internally inconsistent ‘anti-foundationalist theory hope’. (See
Fish, Doing What Comes Naturally: Change, Rhetoric and the
Practice ofTheory in Literary and Legal Studies, Durham: Duke
University Press, 1989, pp. 346,437-38.)
I am not fond ofthe term ‘postmodemism’ and was a bit startled
(as presumably was MacIntyre) to find Lovibond saying that
Lyotard, MacIntyre and I are ‘among the most forceful exponents of the arguments and values which constitute
postmodernism within academic philosophy’ (p. 5). Still, I
recognize the similarities between our positions which lead
Lovibond to group the three of us together. Some of these
similarities are outlined by Fraser and Nicholson at pp. 85ff. of
the article cited in footnote 15.


Culler is right in saying that we pragmatists hold the latter view,
but wrong in suggesting that we think that logical changes in
belief are the only respectable ones. What I have called ‘creative
misuses’ of language are causes to change one’s belief, even if
not reasons to change them. See the discussion of Davidson on
metaphor in various papers in my Objectivity, Relativism and
Truth, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991, for more
on this cause-reason distinction, and for the claim that most
moral and intellectual progress is achieved by non- ‘logical’

changes in belief. Culler is one of the people I had in mind in
footnote 16 above – the people who want to hang on to the
primacy of logic (and thus of ‘theoretical reflection’ and ‘critique’) while abandoning logocentrism. I do not think this can
be done.

Culler’s charge can be found in many other authors, e.g., loseph
Singer, ‘Should Lawyers Care About Philosophy?’ (Duke Law
Journal, 1989, p. 1752):’ … Rorty … has marginalized the
enterprise of philosophy, thereby depriving pragmatism of any
critical bite.’ On my view, pragmatism bites other philosophies,
but not social problems as such – and so is as useful to fascists
like Mussolini and conservatives like Oakeshott as it is to
liberals like Dewey. Singer thinks that I have ‘identified reason
with the status quo’ and defined ‘truth as coextensive with the
prevailing values in a society’ (Q.. 1763). These claims are, I
think, the result of the same inference as Culler draws in the
passage quoted above. Both Singer and Culler want philosophy
to be capable of setting goals, and not to be confined to the
merely ancillary role I describe in note 26 below.

See Putnam’s Representation and Reality, Cambridge, Mass.,
MIT Press, 1988, pp. 114-15, for the passages cited. See also
Robert Brandom’ s formulation of ‘phenomenalism about truth’

as the view that ‘being true is to be understood as beingproper/y
taken-true (believed)’. Brandom says that what is of most
interest about the classical pragmatist stories (Peirce, lames) is
‘the dual commitment to a normative account of claiming or
believing [Bain’s and Peirce’s account of belief as a rule for
action] that does not lean on a supposedly explanatory antecedent notion of truth, and the suggestion that truth can then be
understood phenomenalistically, in terms of features of these
independentl y characterized takings-true.’ Brandom, ‘Pragmatism, Phenomenalism, Truth Talk’, Midwest Studies in Philosophy XII, 1988, p. 80. Brandom (as well as Davidson and I)
would agree with Putnam that ‘truth does not transcend use’ but
I think all three of us might be puzzled by Putnam’s further
claim that ‘whether an epistemic situation is any good or not
depends on whether many different statements are true’. This
seems to me like saying that whether a person is wealthy or not

Radical Philosophy 59, Autumn 1991

pressed to reshape. Weedon, like Putnam and Davidson and
unlike Dewey, is what Wilfrid Sellars called a ‘psychological
nominalist’ – someone who believes that all awareness is a
linguistic affair. At page 32 she says, ‘Like Althusserian Marxism, feminist postmodernism makes the primary assumption
that it is language which enables us to think, speak and give
meaning to the world around us. Meaning and consciousness do
not exist outside language.’ The difference with Dewey has few
consequences, however, since Dewey would have heartily agreed
with Weedon (p. 131) that one should not view language ‘as a
transparent tool for expressing facts’ but as ‘the material in
which particular, often conflicting versions of facts are constructed’ .

depends on how much money she has.



Joseph Singer, in the article cited in note 24, praises Elizabeth
Spelman for ‘using the tools of philosophy to promote justice’,
and suggests that one such use is to show that ‘the categories and
forms of discourse we use … have important consequences in
channeling our attention in particular directions’ . Surely it is no
disrespect to Spelman’ s achievement, nor to philosophy, to
insist that it takes no special tools, no special philosophical
expertise, to make and develop this latter point? The use of
notions like ‘powerful methods’ and ‘precise analytical instruments’ in the rhetorics of analytic philosophy and of Marxism
constitutes, to my mind, misleading advertising. An unfortunate
result of such mystification is that whenever a philosophy
professor like Spelman or I does something useful, it is assumed
that we were doing something distinctively philosophical, something philosophers are specially trained to do. If we then fail to
go on to do something else which needs to be done, we will
usually be charged with using an obsolete and inadequate set of
philosophical tools.

The only real advantage to psychological nominalism for feminists, perhaps, is that it replaces hard-to-discuss (I am tempted
to say ‘metaphysical’) questions about whether women have a
different experience than men, or Africans a different experience than Europeans, or about whether the experience of upperclass African women is more like that of lower-class European
men than that of upper-class European women, with easier-todiscuss (more evidently empirical) questions about what language these various groups of people use to justify their actions,
exhibit their deepest hopes and fears, etc. Answers to the latter
questions are jumping -6ff places for practical suggestions about
different languages which they might use, or might have used.

I share MacKinnon’ s scepticism about the idea that’ viewpoints
have genitals’ and Sandra Harding’ s scepticism about the utility
of notions like’ woman’s morality’, ‘woman’s experience’ , and
‘woman’s standpoint’. See Harding’s ‘The Curious Coincidence of Feminine and African Moralities: Challenges for
Feminist Theory’, in Women and Moral Theory, ed. Eva Kittay
and Diana Meyers, Totowa, NJ: Rowman and Littlefield, 1987,
pp. 296-315.

See Dewey’s ‘From Absolutism to Experimentalism’ in Later
Works of John Dewey, vol. 5,Carbondale: Southern Illinois
University Press, 1984, p. 160: ‘Meantime a chief task of those
who call themselves philosophers is to help get rid of the useless
lumber that blocks our highways of thought, and strive to make
straight and open the paths that lead to the future.’ There is a lot
of this road-clearing rhetoric in Dewey, rhetoric which is continuous with Locke’s description of himself as an underlabourer
to those who seemed to him the prophetic spirits of his time corpuscularian scientists like Newton and Boyle. Both metaphors suggest that the philosopher’s job is to drag outdated
philosophy out of the way of those who are displaying unusual
courage and imagination.

Singer, in the article cited in note 24, says that ‘Dewey, unlike
Rorty, saw the problems of philosophy as inseparable from the
problems of collective life’, and that ‘by separating philosophy
from justice, Rorty’s vision reinforces existing power relations … ‘ (p. 1759). It is true that Dewey often speaks as if social
problems and philosophical problems were interlocked, but I
should argue that all these passages can best be interpreted in the
road-clearing sense I have just suggested. Dewey never, I think,
saw pragmatism in the way in which Marxists saw dialectical
materialism – as a philosophical key which unlocks the secrets
of history or of society.


This and the previous quote are from Frye, p. 80.


MacKinnon, p. 221, Cf. 137.


‘Philosophy and Democracy’ , The Middle Works ofJohn Dewey,
Vol. 11, p. 145.


To use an analogy suggested by Charlotte Perkins Oilman’s
poem ‘Similar Cases’, it is as if one said to the creatures which
were eventually to become mammals: ‘Do not try to imitate the
ways in which those larger and more powedul fish cope with
their environment. Rather, find ways of doing things which will
help you find a new environment.’ (‘ Similar Cases’ is perhaps
most easily available at pp. 363-64 of Anne Lane, To Herland
and Beyond: The Life and Works of Charlotte Perkins Gilman
[New York, Pantheon, 1990]. The point of the poem is that if it
were true, as feminists were often told, that ‘you can’t change
your nature’ , we should have had neither biological nor cultural


The Politics of Reality, p. 154.


As I suggested earlier, it is easy to bring together Dewey’ s claim
that, in philosophy, ‘real’ is as evaluative a term as ‘good’ with
‘postmodemist’ views – for example, those found in Chris
Weedon’s book Feminist Practice and Poststructuralist Theory.

Pretty much the only difference between Weedon’ s criticism of
the philosophical tradition and Dewey’s is one which also
separates contemporary pragmatists like Putnam and Davidson
from Dewey – the use of ‘language’ instead of Dewey’ sword
‘experience’ as the name of what it is important for the op-

Radical Philosophy 59, Autumn 1991

Although most of the doctrines (e.g. essentialism, Cartesian
individualism, moral universalism) which Weed on attributes to
‘liberal humanism’ are doctrines Dewey (a notorious liberal
humanist) also targeted, Weedon does not seem able to eschew
a longing for what Mary Hawkesworth calls ‘a successor science which can refute once and for all the distortions of
androcentrism.’ (Hawkesworth, ‘Knowers, Knowing, Known:

Feminist Theory and the Claims of Truth’, in Feminist Theory
in Practice and Process, ed. Micheline R. Malson et aI., Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1989, p. 331). But once you
put aside universalism, you should neither hope for knockdown refutations nor talk about’ distortion’. Hawkesworth goes
on to criticize Harding for saying that ‘Feminist analytical
categories should be unstable at this moment in history’ (Harding,
‘The Instability ofthe Analytical Categories of Feminist Theory’,
in the same collection, at p. 19). But prophecy and unstable
categories go together, and Harding’s claim chimes with many
of the passages I have been quoting from Frye. Harding’ s
further claim that’ we [feminists] should learn how to regard the
instabilities themselves as valuable resources’ is one that Dewey
would have cheered.


Frye, pp. 48-49.


I am too ignorant about the history of feminism – about how
long and how continuous the feminist tradition has been – to
speculate about when things began to change.


Rich, On Lies, Secrets, and Silence: Selected Prose 1966-1978,
New York and London, Norton, 1979, p. 40.


The continued attractions of this club in our own cynical century
are evidenced by the fact that, even as Bernard Shaw was having
Candida make fun of Marchbanks, Joyce had Stephen Dedalus
write that he would ‘forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated
conscience of my race’. Joyce was not making fun of Stephen,
and even Shaw admitted that Candida ‘does not know the secret
in the poet’s heart’ .


‘What might, in a male writer – a Thoreau, let us say, or a
Christopher Smart or William Blake – seem a legitimate strangeness, a unique intention, has been in one of our two major poets


[Dickinson] devalued into a kind of naivete, girlish ignorance,
feminine lack of professionalism, just as the poet herself has
been made into a sentimental object. (‘ Most of us are half in love
with this dead girl,’ confesses Archibald MacLeish. Dickinson
was fifty-five when she died. Rich, p. 167.)

sounded crazy to everybody concerned, even the slaves (who
hoped that their fellow-tribespeople would return in force and
enslave their present masters). All that pragmatists need is the
claim that this sentence is not made true by something other than
the beliefs which we would use to support it – and, in particular,
not by something like The Nature of Human Beings.


Rich, p. 17.


Frye, p. 106n.



This is the sort of ineffable horror which creates a sense of moral
abomination (at, e.g., inter-caste marriage), and thus furnishes
the intuitions which one tries to bring into reflective equilibrium
with one’s principles. To view moral abominableness as capable of being produced or erased by changing the language taught
to the young is the first step toward a non-universalist conception of moral progress.

I have criticised realists’ claims to explain predictive success by
truth in Part I of my forthcoming Objectivity, Relativism and
Truth (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1991). A related point – that the success of a true theory needs just as much
historico-sociological explanation as the success of a false one
– is made by Barry Barnes and other members of the so-called
‘Edinburgh school’ of sociology of science.


It may seem that the view I am offering is the one which Frye
rejects under the name of ‘the institutional theory of personhood’

– the theory that, as she puts it, “‘person” denotes a social and
institutional role and that one may be allowed or forbidden to
adopt that role’ (p. 49). She says that this view ‘must be
attractive to the phallist, who would fancy the power to create
persons’. But I do not want to say that men have the power to
make full persons out of women by an act of grace, in the way
in which sovereigns have the power to make nobles out of
commoners. On the contrary, I would insist that men could not
do this if they tried, for they are as much caught as are women
in the linguistic practices which make it hard for women to be
full persons. The utopia I foresee, in which these practices are
simply forgotten, is not one which could be attained by an act of
condescension on the part of men, any more than an absolute
monarch could produce an egalitarian utopia by simultaneously
ennobling all her subjects.


To realise how far away such a future is, consider Eve Klossofky
Sedgwick’s point that we shall only do justice to gays when we
become as indifferent to whether our children turn out straight
as we are to whether they become doctors or lawyers. Surely she
is right, and yet how many parents at the present time can even
imagine such indifference? For the reasons suggested by Stout
(see note 13 above), I suspect that neither sexism nor homophobia
can vanish while the other persists.


Pragmatists need not deny that true sentences are always true (as
I have, unhappily, suggested in the past that they might notably in my ‘Waren die Gesetze Newtons schon vor Newton
wahr?’ [Jahrbuch des Wissenschaftskollegs zu Berlin, 1987]).

Stout (Ethics After Babel, Chapter 11) rightly rebukes me for
these suggestions, and says that pragmatists should agree with
everybody else that ‘Slavery is absolutely wrong’ has always
been true – even in periods when this sentence would have

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Radical Philosophy 59, Autumn 1991

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