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Feminism and the Enlightenment

Feminism and the
Pauline Johnson
The recent turn taken by feminist theory towards a critique
of the spirit of humanism would have surprised de Beauvoir
and the early delineators of the concerns of ‘second wave’

feminism. According to The Second Sex, feminism is an
expression of humanism in a quite straightforward sense.!

Indeed, the main feminist message of The Second Sex is the
assertion that women must be considered first and foremost
as human beings. According to the standpoint of The Second Sex the oppression of women appears as a denial, in a
specifically discriminatory sense, of their right and task as
human beings to freely choose their own identity and
destiny. For de Beauvoir, feminism meant the demand that
women should cease to be stultified by their culturally
imposed femininity and should, along with men, enjoy the
human task and responsibility of making themselves. According to The Second Sex: ‘ … what peculiarly signalizes
the situation of woman is that she – a free and autonomous
being like all human creatures – nevertheless finds herself
in a world where men compel her to assume the status of the
Other. ‘2
In recent times, however, feminism has developed a
powerful unmasking critique of the image of the human
which underpins de Beauvoir’s analysis of the oppression
of women in modem society. As Lloyd points out, the
Sartrean ideal of humanity as transcendence, as the drama
of a self-choosing subject, is not, as it claims, a universal
ideal. The Sartrean ideal used by de Beauvoir is ‘ … in a more
fundamental way than de Beauvoir allows, a male ideal… ‘ .3
On this recent account, the Sartrean ideal of transcendence
is clearly formulated as an exhortation to the masculine self
to transcend or overcome the threat of a supposed feminine
state in which the mere facticity or ‘given’ character of the
body engulfs the self.

Today, it seems, feminism has lost its former innocent
reliance on the claims to universality and gender-neutrality
made on behalf of images of a common humanity. Indeed,
contemporary feminism has played a crucial part in developing an unmasking critique of those images of universal
human aspirations and priorities upon which its own disclosure of the oppressed humanity of modem women once
rested. Harding describes feminism’s new reflective and
critical relationship to descriptions of a universal humanity
in the following terms: ‘What we took to be humanly
inclusive problematics, concepts, theories, objective meth-

Radical Philosophy 63, Spring 1993

odologies, and transcendental truths are, in fact, less than
that. Indeed, these products of thought bear the mark of their
individual creators, and the creators in turn have been
distinctively marked as to gender, class, race and culture. ‘4
In particular, as Harding goes on to show, modern feminism
has in recent years played a crucial part in a developing
ideology-critique of the claims to universality made on
behalf of a Western conception of human reason. Feminism
has joined with other perspectives in modem cultural criticism to expose this concept of reason as a mere’ thing of this
world’ embodying the norms, values and priorities of particular historio-cultural practices.

The distinctive participation of contemporary feminism
in a broad-based critique of the claims of a sovereign reason
appears symptomatic of the growing theoretical and ideological maturity of this vital social movement. There is,
moreover, a considerable consensus within the recent
feminist literature about the necessity and the general direction of this unmasking critique. An important dispute has
arisen, however, over the question of the meaning, the
consequences, of this critique for contemporary feminism
itself. Certain feminists have supposed that the critique of
the claims of transcendent reason establishes modem feminism on the path of counter-Enlightenment. 5 This position
maintains that feminism requires a fundamental break from
an Enlightenment commitment to the cause of reason and
truth, which is exposed as nothing more than a distorted and
disguised will-to-power. There are, however, those for
whom feminism’s unmasking critique of Western constructions of a sovereign reason cannot be understood as an
invitation to an anti-Enlightenment posture. Harding, for
example, endorses feminism’s debunking critique of the
ways in which Western constructions of the power of reason
systematically embody the norms and priorities of a maledominated culture. Yet for her, this critique in no way
heralds feminism’s own break from the commitments of the
Enlightenment. 6 Lovibond too has suggested that feminism
now needs to take stock of its deep indebtedness to the
’emancipatory metanarratives’ of Enlightenment. 7
The following essay investigates aspects ofthis disputed
interpretation of the relationship between contemporary
feminism and the so-called project of Enlightenment. The
argument is that current attempts to sever feminism’s
ideological ties with the Enlightenment rest on a basic


misinterpretation of the character and spirit of Enlightenment. These feminisms have misconstrued the character of
the Enlightenment on two counts. Firstly, their critique is
typically aimed at a caricature of the historical Enlightenment. Their repudiation of the Enlightenment influence is
based on a portrait of the legitimating temper of seventeenthcentury rationalism and fails to acknowledge the antidogmatic spirit which progressively emerged in eighteenthcentury intellectual life. The first two parts of the paper
argue that this fundamental misconstruction of the spirit of
the historical Enlightenment has distorted feminism’s understanding of its own Enlightenment legacy. The vital
difference in the temper of these two periods is then illustrated by a comparison between the limitations of Astell’ s
seventeenth-century feminism and the radicalism of
Wollstonecraft’s late eighteenth-century version.

Secondly, the suggestion that contemporary feminism
can be understood as an anti -Enlightenment posture indicates
a failure to grasp the essential meaning of Enlightenment as
an unfinished cultural project. This interpretation of Enlightenment has mistakenly reduced the dynamic, ongoing,
self-critical process of Enlightenment thinking to a set of
fixed principles and doctrines. Perhaps the most forceful
expression of Enlightenment thinking as the aspiration
which has infused the whole spirit of modernity is still to be
found in Kant’s famous essay ‘What is Enlightenment?’.

Enlightenment, Kant tells us, is ‘the emergence of man from
his self-imposed minority. His minority is his incapacity to
make use of his own understanding without the guidance of
another. ‘8 Thus understood, Enlightenment means only a
commitment to an ongoing critique of prejudice and to the
historical production of a self-legislating humanity. This

commitment which has threaded its way through the intellectual trajectory of modernity exists as a living, dynamic
aspiration which is fundamentally irreducible to anyone
single formulation. So it seems that the acknowledgement
of feminism’s own Enlightenment character by no means
signifies its assimilation to any pre-existing goals and
perspectives. On the contrary, feminism’s current critique
of Enlightenment formulations appears as another vital
episode in the unfolding of the Enlightenment project itself.

Feminism’s discovery of the prejudices built into the various
articulations of this project is nothing more than an extension and clarification of the meaning of the Enlightenment.

Enlightenment, it is argued, needs to be viewed not just
as a one-sided epistemology, nor as the legitimating ideology of certain interests within eighteenth-century society.9
Enlightenment, said to have produced as its ‘crowning

achievement’ a modern culture of humanism, is not reducible to anyone single interpretation of the character of its
goals and perspectives. The final part of the paper outlines
modem feminism’s own character as a specific, dynamic
interpretation of the meaning of modem Enlightenment. It
indicates some of the ways in which the meaning of
contemporary Enlightenment and modem feminism come
together. Both criticise existing social practices and attempt
to reveal the radical social possibilities existing in the
present. Feminism, I suggest, needs to understand itself as
a vital part of this movement pushing back the frontiers of
existing social possibilities. This concluding section of the
paper points to feminism’s place within a contemporary
historicised understanding of Enlightenment aspirations.

Images of Enlightenment in Contemporary
A certain interpretation of the postmodern ‘turn’ in contemporary feminism is up for review here. Basing itself on a
totalising and abstract critique of Enlightenment rationalism, this brand of postmodern feminism construes modem
reason as a guilty normalisation of a set of prejudices whose
influence is uniformly felt throughout every aspect of
contemporary culture. Jardine’s Gynesis: Configurations
of Women and Modernity, which seeks to jettison the entire
legacy of the ‘humanist and rationalist eighteenth century’,
is a typical example. ID Hekman also looks upon postmodern
feminism as a fundamental break from a ‘homocentric’

Enlightenment tradition. She sees a fundamental unity of
purpose between feminism and postmodernism. Both
‘challenge the epistemological foundations .of Western
thought and argue that the epistemology which is definitive
of Enlightenment humanism, if not of all Western philosophy, is fundamentally misconceived’. Both, she goes
on, ‘assert consequently that this epistemology must be
displaced, that a different way of describing human
know ledge and acquisition must be found’. 11
To Hekman and Jardine, Enlightenment embodies that
colonising spirit of scientific rationalism which has, in the
context of modem-day epistemological disputes, reappeared
in the form of positivism and empiricism. Hekman distinguishes her own feminist critique of Enlightenment from
those postures which see in Enlightenment rationalism a
privileging of the ‘male’ values of domination, rationality
and abstraction, against which they assert the claims of the
supposed female values of nurturing, relatedness and
community. 12 To Hekman, feminism is a vital participant in
a contemporary challenge to the so-called epistemological
attitude of Enlightenment. ‘Enlightenment’, on this account, means the oppressive, universalising assertion of
certain, dogmatically assumed truth claims. Feminism, by
contrast, sides with a hermeneutic sensitivity to the conditioned, interpretative character of all knowledges. Against
an Enlightenment ‘epistemology’ defined as the study of
knowledge acquisition that was accomplished through the
opposition of a (masculine) knowing subject and a known
subject, a modem feminist approach ‘ … entails the attempt
to formulate … an explanation of the discursive processes by
which human beings gain understanding of their common
Radical Philosophy 63, Spring 1993

The shared presumption of J ardine, Hekman and Flax is
that feminism’s critique of Enlightenment suggests an
opposition, in principle, between two competing ideologies, Flax, for example, sees in contemporary feminism and
in Enlightenment the clear and irreconcilable opposition of
two ideological competitors. In her view, despite an understandable attraction to the (apparently) logical, orderly
world of Enlightenment: ‘ … feminist theory more properly
belongs in the terrain of postmodern philosophy. Feminist
notions of the self, knowledge and truth are too contradictory to those of the Enlightenment to be contained in its
categories. The way(s) to feminist future(s) cannot live in
reviving or appropriating Enlightenment concepts of person or knowledge.’ 14 In particular, Flax points out that
contemporary feminism is deeply opposed to an Enlightenment construction of a sovereign reason which it exposes
as resting on a ‘gender rooted sense of self’ . 15 On this account, the motto of the Enlightenment, ‘sapere aude’ – have
courage to use your own reason – confers an alleged
normative universality on the supposed attributes of a
modem masculine subjectivity. The attributes of passionate
sensibility and intuitive understanding, associated with a
socialised femininity, can only appear as impediments to be
overcome in the development of the self-legislating Enlightenment personality.

According to this kind of interpretation of the significance
of feminism’s critique of Enlightenment, Enlightenment
appears only as a repressive epistemology whose grip must
be broken in order to assert the excluded claims of the
different and the marginal. 16 The pre-history of a feminist
epistemology comes to appear as the repetitious logic of a
totalitarian opposition between mind and body, reason and
passion, reflection and intuition. What emerges is a portrait
of a masculinised rational faculty which remorselessly
identifies itself and its power of universalising abstractions
with human agency itself. The claims of the passions, of
nature and of the uniquely individual appear as the mere
objects of reason’s limitless will to mastery. Because in the
‘paradigm of Western reason’ the human subject is identified with her/his own subjective reason, all difference is
suppressed and an ascribed masculine psychology is conferred with an alleged normativity.

It is, then, a particular interpretation of contemporary
feminism’s critique of Enlightenment which is up for review
here. The disagreement is not with those feminist critiques
which seek only to unmask the various ways in which
Western constructions of the power of reason systematically
embody the norms and priorities of a male-dominated
culture. To the extent that a contemporary feminism understands itself as an immanent critique which seeks to
rescue the emancipatory intent of Enlightenment from the
various prejudices which cling to its ‘master narratives’,
there is no argument. The disagreement is, rather, with those
for whom this critique of the ‘Western Paradigm of Reason’

is seen to impose the necessity for separating contemporary
feminism by radical surgery from the influence of Enlightenment thinking.

The Enlightenment interpretation proposed below suggests, as already mentioned, that the anti-Enlightenment
turn in contemporary feminist thinking involves two major

Radical Philosophy 63, Spring 1993

misconceptions about Enlightenment. Firstly, the feminist
assault on the normalising claims of Enlightenment thinking frequently rest on a frozen image of seventeenthcentury rationalism, overlooking the progressive turn away
from this interpretation of the Enlightenment which occurred
throughout the eighteenth century. Secondly, this particular
misconstruction of Enlightenment is indicative of a more
general misperception which confuses a specific meaning
given to the ideal of a self-legislating humanity by the
historical Enlightenment itself with the open-ended, dynamic
interpretation of this ideal which has become the meaning
of contemporary Enlightenment.

The Historical Enlightenment and its Project
While Gay has properly warned against any attempt to treat
the Enlightenment as a compact body of doctrine, he discovers, nevertheless, a distinctive cultural climate in eighteenth-century intellectual life. Despite the conflicting interpretations of the object of the newly discovered ‘science
of man’, the historical Enlightenp-lent agreed on the ultimate self-responsibility of each individual. ‘Whatever the
philosophes thought of man – innately decent or innately
power-hungry, easy or hard to educate to virtue – the point
of the Enlightenment’s anthropology was that man is an
adult dependent on himself. ‘ 17
Cassirer finds, however, that d’ Alembert’s description
of his own age as the’ century of reason’ and the ‘philosophic
century’ is too imprecise to capture the distinctive intellectual climate of eighteenth-century intellectuallife. 18 Cassirer
and others point out that this self-description meant something quite specific to eighteenth-century intellectuals.

Namely, although they assume that there is unity, simplicity
and continuity behind all phenomena, d’ Alembert and his
eighteenth-century colleagues do not fall into the snares of
the ‘spirit of the systems’ upheld by the seventeenthcentury rationalists. 19 In the great metaphysical systems of
the seventeenth century, reason is in the realm of the’ eternal
verities’ of ‘those truths held in common by the human and
the divine mind’. The eighteenth century takes reason in a
different sense. ‘It is no longer the sum total of’ innate ideas’

given prior to all experience, which reveal the absolute
essence of things. Reason is now looked upon as rather an
acquisition than as a heritage. ’20
Markus has suggested that for the eighteenth century
‘reason’ appeared in what are, from a contemporary point of
view, two rather incompatible guises. 21 In the first place, the
eighteenth-century intellectuals constructed a specifically
critical construction of the power of reason understood as
the critique of prejudice. Reason, on this account, assumed
the negative character of critique. Reason concerned itself
with the attempt to destroy the irrational ‘superstitions’ of
the age, seen as the cause of all its ill. 22 On this construction,
reason meant that newly born capacity to understand the
world-views of others not dogmatically from the standpoint
of the supposed’ eternal verities’ discovered by reason but,
rather, as particular world-interpretations expressive of a
diversity of cultural experiences. The eighteenth-century
intellectuals, it has been said, discovered the concept of
culture; they were the first to identify that now common-


place conception of the ‘fashioning’ of humans by their
society. The critique of prejudice contrived to establish an
anti-dogmatic insight into the social-institutional supports
behind a diversity of belief systems.

And yet the Enlightenment construction of reason, as, in
Cassirer’s phrase, a ‘heritage’, also gave a particular positive understanding of the character of the rational life. In this
positive construction, reality described an objective, albeit
secular set of principles capable of guiding humanity’s
progress towards an enriched, fulfilled and harmonious
social life. The eighteenth century’s image of the rational
character of the ‘city of the future’ modelled on ‘nature’s
plan’ suggested that the high Enlightenment was unable to
countenance the absolute relativisation of the cultural accomplishment of historical periods and societies. As Markus
points out, this concept of rationality evoked a normative
standard, a positive conception whereby the contributions
of the diverse cultural products of other societies and
epochs to the promotion of the rational, the harmonious and
balanced life could be assessed.23 So the destructive power
of critique was to clear the way to a new rational social
order, ruled no longer by mere prejudice and superstition
but by the ‘highest’ considerations of the well-rounded,
harmonious development of human potentialities. Jacob
and other major interpreters of the period particularly emphasise that high Enlightenment figures like Voltaire sought
an order in society and government, modelled after the new
scientific conception of the orderly and balanced universe. 24
Modern feminism’s antipathy towards the anthropological underpinnings of an eighteenth-century understanding of the rational life is clear. The Enlighteners’

supposition that the new rational society could be modelled
after the principles of nature meant that traditional social
arrangements continued to have powerful sanction. And yet
this eighteenth-century understanding of the rational life
meant also a new departure in the development of the
modern image of the self; an understanding which, in fact,
shares common ground with contemporary feminism’s
own critique of a one-sided rationalist conception of the

To the Enlighteners, the secular principle of human
perfectibility or self-improvement emerged as the clear
successor to the rationalists’ one-sided vision of reason’s
war on the unruly passions. Against the narrow asceticism
of seventeenth-century morality, the Enlighteners’ understanding of the good, the rational life encompasses the
rehabilitation of the sensuous passions as a vital, creative
force. Diderot, for example, insists that under the tutelage of
reason’s power of discrimination, a ‘natural’ sensuous love
serves to unfold hitherto unrealised capacities for happiness
and virtue in the personality of the lover. 25 And Emile’ s
journey of self-development is radically incomplete without the love of his partner Sophie. 26
Luhmann has emphasised that the rehabilitation of the
passions evident in the Enlighteners’ image of the rational,
happy life is indicative of the inauguration of the modem
concept of personality itself.27 He points out that the psychology of the seventeenth century still worked with the old
concepts of temperament and humour which allowed no
room for personal development. This only changes in the


course of the eighteenth century at which point people are
conceived as being changeable, capable of development,
still unperfected. In the context ofthis new understanding of
personality, marital love, a love based on ‘tender confidence’

and esteem, was given a vital place in the Enlighteners’

image of the virtuous, happy and rational life. Fairchilds
describes the new libertarian meaning of the Enlightenment’s
understanding of personality as follows:

In the face of centuries of Christian asceticism, the
Enlightenment propounded the possibility of individual happiness on earth in the face of centuries of
Christian disparagement, the Enlightenment rehabilitated the passions, including romantic love and
sexual desire, as essential elements in such happiness. 28
The discussion so far has been particularly concerned to
differentiate some aspects of the notion of rationality typical
of the high Enlightenment from the rationalism seen to
characterise seventeenth-century intellectual life. Jacobus
and other main interpreters of this period emphasise that the
increased radicalism, the specifically critical character of
an eighteenth-century understanding of the notion of rationality was by no means a uniform or unambiguous
development. 29 Nevertheless, I would argue, there are important differences between the self-understanding of these
two periods which need to be taken on board in the efforts
of contemporary feminism to assess its own relation to
Enlightenment. The anti-Enlightenment turn in contemporary feminism, as we have seen, challenges what it has
construed as the essential dogmatic spirit of Enlightenment
thinking; it has focussed particularly on its supposed onesided rationalism and on its metaphysical pretensions. This
image overlooks the important new critical spirit, the antidogmatic construction which came to infuse the conception
of Enlightenment throughout the eighteenth century, al-

Radical Philosophy 63, Spring 1993

though this cultural commitment to the critique of prejudice
laid down by the Enlighteners was, as noted, constrained by
their own positive, normative conception of the character of
the rational life.

Modem feminism can gain useful insights into both the
radicalism and, from its own contemporary point of view,
the fundamental limits of the Enlighteners’ image of the
rational life, by considering the focus given to this image in
Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication o/the Rights o/Women. A
brief comparison between Wollstonecraft’ slate eighteenthcentury feminism and the more conservative standpoint
espoused in Mary Astell’s late seventeenth-century feminism illustrates important discontinuities between the two
constructions of the power of reason outlined so far.

Moreover, serious tensions which pervade the core of
W ollstonecraft’ s feminism can be traced to limitations
within the Enlighteners’ own inaugural vision of the Enlightenment project.

Enlightenment Feminism: Mary Astell and Mary
The Enlighteners’ image of the rational life was quite
plainly not intended to include women. Rousseau’s Sophie,
‘made for man’s delight’, is esteemed only forhercontribution to the self-development of her mate Emile. Contemporary feminist scholars have rightly drawn attention to the
deep misogynistic currents which inform the perspectives
of main intellectual figures in the Enlightenment. FoxGenovese, for example, points out that’ as heirs to the timehonoured notions of female inferiority, Enlightenment
thinkers normally continued to view women as weak,
troublesome, shrewish, false, vindictive, ill-suited for
friendship, coquettish, vain, deceitful and in general lesser
humans. ’30
Yet, despite this failure to challenge an overtly patriarchallegacy, the Enlighteners’ deliberations on the character
of the rational life opened up hitherto unsuspected possibilities for the development of a far-reaching feminism.

W ollstonecraft’ s feminism moved beyond a mere politics
of anti-discrimination, which calls only for an end to the
exclusion of women from existing social priorities, to
demand for women a vital place in setting the agenda for life
in the ‘City of the Future’. The Enlighteners’ image of the
rational life which emphasised the harmonious development of the individual’s many -sided possibilities opened up
a new creative dimension in Wollstonecraft’s late eighteenth-century feminism.

To appreciate the novel radicalism of W ollstonecraft’ s
feminism, it is useful to compare her Enlightenment
standpoint with the limitation of a feminism which had
already surfaced in the seventeenth century. Astell’ s A
Serious Proposal to the Ladies made explicit seventeenthcentury feminism’s identification with the rationalist’s war
on the degraded and unruly passions. 3 ! Aptly described as
‘Reason’s Disciples’ , Astell and her friend Elizabeth Elstorb
placed great faith in the power of reason to expose the
triviality, the moral unseriousness, of the conventions

Radical Philosophy 63, Spring 1993

governing the lives of the new bourgeois women. The
seventeenth-century feminist accepted her unpopular task
as the upholder of the ‘rules of reason’ against a gross,
unrestrained life guided only by the pursuit of sensuous
enjoyment. Astell explains the plight of the seventeenthcentury feminist as the defender of reason against the
unruly, untutored passions thus: ‘Custom has usurped such
an unaccountable Authority, that she who would endeavour
to put a stop to its arbitrary sway, and reduce it to Reason is
in a fair way to render herself the butt for all the fops in Town
to shoot their impertinent censures at. ’32
In the first instance, Astell’ s feminism voiced the protest
of middle-ranking and upper-class women at their effective
loss of status and power in the new bourgeois society.

Although the newly emerging bourgeois society certainly
provided this class of women with substantial grievances,
by its insistence on the rational legitimation of all social
practices, it offered also the main ideological preconditions
for the articulation of an early feminist standpoint. Writing
on marriage in the year 1700, Mary Astell asked: ‘If
Absolute Sovereignty be not necessary in a State how
comes it to be so in a Family? Or if in a Family why not in
a State; since no reason can be alleg’ d for one that will not
hold more strongly for the other. ’33
Luhmann and others have, however, pointed to the
essentially conformist character of the seventeenth-century
construction of the power of reason. 34 To the seventeenthcentury European, it seemed that the rational life ultimately
meant the observance of the rules and norms of the social
environment against the tyranny of the unruly passions.

And this seventeenth-century image of the rational life
which conditioned Astell’s feminism placed serious limitations on the radicalism of her protest. Astell’ s feminism
was simply not equipped to interrogate in any essential way
the priorities of her society. A Serious Proposal could only
demand an end to the systematic exclusion of women from
the seeming fruits of an intellectual culture monopolised by
men. Astell’ s feminism called for the end to the universality
of women’s exclusion from the elevated ‘life of the mind’

and their systematic relegation to the ‘Trifles and Gaities’

of the marriage estate. 35
On first inspection, the standpoint of W ollstonecraft’ s A
Vindication appears as merely the renewal of the perspective already established in A Serious Proposal. Mary
Wollstonecraft clearly emerges as another of ‘reason’s
disciples’. W ollstonecraft’ s demand that the society recognise women as ‘reasoning creatures’ meant, however,
something different and rather more radical than was implied
in the feminism of her seventeenth-century counterparts.

To Wollstonecraft, the barbarousness of the lives of bourgeois women does not appear simply in the denial of any
intellectual life to the women newly herded into the trivialities of the domestic sphere. The tragedy of the situation
appears, more precisely, in the deplorable waste of women’s potential to lead a life guided by the aspiration towards
self-improvement and human perfectibility. The Introduction to A Vindication announces Wollstonecraft’ s intention
to ‘consider women in the grand light of human creatures
who, in common with men are placed on this earth to unfold
their faculties’. 36 So it is the standpoint of ‘improvable



reason’ which provides W ollstonecraft with the platform
from which to challenge the unnaturalness and irrationality
of the lives of women of her own class.

A late eighteenth-century figure, W ollstonecraft has at
her disposal a specifically critical construction of the meaning
of the rational life: a construction which affirms as its
reigning value the norm of the balanced development of all
the individual’s faculties into the self-directing adult personality. In the first instance, this image of the rational life
appears as the platform for W ollstonecraft’ s scornful critique
of the futility of the lives of bourgeois women in the newly
de-politicised sphere of the household. To Wollstonecraft,
bourgeois society had meant the creation of a whole class of
women dehumanised and enslaved by their dependency.

Wollstonecraft’s feminism protests at the debilitating, onesided development of women’s human capacities in a
bourgeois domestic life.

Taught from their infancy that beauty is woman’s
sceptre, the mind shapes itself to the body, and
roaming around its gilt cage, only seeks to adore its
prison. Men have various employments and pursuits
which engage their attention, and give character to
the opening mind; but women, confined to one and
having their thoughts constantly directed to the most
insignificant parts of themselves, seldom extend their
views beyond the triumph of the hour. 37
Denied the opportunity to develop a range of human
potentials, the personalities of women could only become
horribly distorted and impoverished.

Clearly, Wollstonecraft had no more stomach for the
idleness and mere sentimentality which dominated early
bourgeois domestic life than had her seventeenth-century
predecessors. What is quite new, however, is her conviction
that our efforts to build an enriched and decent social life
could be informed by an attempt to redeem those traces of
a humanistic ethic presently locked within the distortions of
bourgeois domesticity. Wollstonecraft despises the prisonhouse of bourgeois domesticity with its futile and trifling
preoccupations. And yet it is less the type of concerns
nourished by the new bourgeois family that Wollstonecraft
finds so repugnant than their one-sided and hence distorted
form. In the bourgeois family the humanistic image of
relations with others based on a ‘tender confidence’ only
makes its distorted appearance as an irrational romantic
love fanned by ‘vain fears and fond jealousies’ .38
What needs to be stressed here is that the standpoint of
‘improvable reason’ does not simply articulate a judgement
on the trivial irrationality of the lives of the new bourgeois
women. It is also an invitation for a vital, creative participation in opening up new life possibilities for the enriched
self-legislating personalities of the future. To Wollstonecraft,
this creative dimension of the standpoint of ‘improvable
reason’ suggests that a domestic ethic of affectionate care
and duty towards particular others presently languishing in
the artificial sentimentality of the private sphere is worthy
of redemption as a public ethic. Wollstonecraft supposes
that the bourgeois family both provokes and expresses a
need to which it cannot adequately respond. The privatisation
of the ethic of care and responsibility for particular others


appears in the particular context of the bourgeois family in
the unstable and distorted guise of transitory and possessive
love. To Wollstonecraft, this need for relations of care and
responsibility for others finds its most appropriate expression in the friendship which is to her ‘the most holy band of
society’ .39 W ollstonecraft’ s feminism preserves, then, the
ideal of active citizenship. Far from conceiving the realm of
private activities as a sphere which needs to be protected
from political interference, W ollstonecraft encourages the
politicisation of those perspectives and needs presently
contained within a repressive private sphere. Ursula Vogel
comments on this visionary aspect of A Vindication: ‘The
role which we commonly identify as belonging in the
private sphere, Mary W ollstonecraft perceives as a constitutive element of citizenship. Stripped of their familiar
association with intimate affections, and merely personal
interests, the tasks of the mother obtain the dignity of public
virtues. ’40
Condorcet too argued for the ‘admission of women to
the rights of citizenship’ on the basis of the civic importance
of their’ gentle and domestic virtues’ and on the basis of the
distinctive character of their reasoning powers, seen by him
as an expression of their specific interests and aspirations.

Women are not governed, it is true by the reason of
men. But they are governed by their own reason.

Their interests not being the same as those of men
through the fault of the laws, the same things not
having the same importance for them as for us, they
can (without lacking reason) govern themselves by
different principles and seek a different goa1. 41
An evaluation of the utopian aspect of Wollstonecraft’s
programme is not particularly relevant here. ‘What is of
concern is the peculiar radicalism of her feminism which
supposes itself to have not merely grievances at systematic
patterns of discrimination experienced by bourgeois women,
but a vital positive contribution to make to discussions over
the character of the rational life. Where Astell’ s feminism
had demanded only an end to women’s systematic exclusion from the life of ‘reasoning creatures’, Wollstonecraft
appealed to the standpoint of’ improvable reason’ to demand
the participation of the distinctive voice of women in
unfolding the meaning of the rational, happy life.

Reiss offers a very different interpretation of the radicalism of A Vindication. On his account, Wollstonecraft
was prevented from arguing a truly revolutionary case:

because she argued within Enlightenment rhetoric,
for the extension of equality without regard (at least)
to gender. W ollstonecraft was asserting women’s
right to catch up with men, in the same way that Tom
Paine (for example) argued that the enfranchisement
of the dispossessed – whether colonials, the poor, or
the aged must catch up with that of proprietors. It was·
always a matter of the right to participate in the
system, not of the need to change it. 42
Here Reiss discovers only one aspect of the main trends in
what is, from a modem point of view, W ollstonecraft’ s
highly contradictory feminism. As previously argued,
W ollstonecraft is not afraid of upholding those qualities

Radical Philosophy 63, Spring 1993

with which education and circumstance supposedly endow
women as vital ingredients in the fully humanised, improved personality.43 In her view, bourgeois women have
been constrained by a life dedicated to the cultivation ofthe
sensibilities. And yet, as the following passage suggests,
Wollstonecraft’s feminism targets only the dehumanising,
one-sided character of those ‘feminine’ qualities produced
by bourgeois domesticity.

‘The power of the woman,’ says some author, ‘is her
sensibility’; and men, not aware of the consequence,
do all they can to make this power swallow up every
other. Those who constantly employ their sensibility
will have most: for example, poets, painters, and
composers. Yet, when the sensibility is thus increased
at the expense of reason, and even the imagination,
why do philosophical men complain of their fickleness?44
W ollstonecraft’ s critique of modern gender relations had at
its disposal an image of the improved, many-sided personality. Accordingly, her feminism recognises a positive
contribution from a different feminine voice in setting the
agenda for life in the ‘City of the Future’. Wollstonecraft
does not, however, manage to sustain this perspective. The
appeal to an Enlightenment construction of the rational
social life also makes way for a legitimating perspective on
an existing gendered bifurcation of private and public roles
construed as nature. In this case, we see that W ollstonecraft
is not calling for a recognition of the distinctive voice of
women as active citizens in establishing the character of
new social forms. She seeks only a reappraisal of the public
significance of the private duties presently performed by
bourgeois women in the domestic sphere. Women,
Wollstonecraft remarks, ‘may have different duties to fulfil; but they are human duties, and the principles that should

Radical Philosophy 63, Spring 1993

regulate the discharge of them … must be the same. ’45 At
such points, the radicalism of her challenge to the new
bourgeois social arrangement which severed the lives of
middle-class women from the new public sphere is seemingly
overwhelmed by a naturalistic patriarchal ideology.

Despite its own overt radicalism, W ollstonecraft’ s feminism is haunted by an historically understandable, naturalistic
construction of the gendered character of social tasks and
duties. In this capacity her feminism does nothing to
challenge the priorities and the practical arrangement of her
society. It merely calls for the recognition of the vital
importance of ‘womanly’ duties in the realisation of an
harmonious, balanced social life.

So, in W ollstonecraft’ s feminism, we see the aporetic
manifestation of the two dimensions of an Enlightenment
construction of the character of the rational life discussed
earlier. On the one hand, Wollstonecraft employs the Enlightenment construction of the rationality of the balanced,
harmonious life and personality as the vehicle for her
positive feminist critique of both the one-sidedness of the
lives of bourgeois women and the one-sidedness of public
discussions over the content of the good, the rational social
life. Whilst women are denied the exercise of all their
human faculties in the’ gilt cage’ of bourgeois domesticity,
so too there is insufficient public recognition of the humanising ennobling potentials of those virtues of ‘tender
confidence’ and ‘gentle forbearance’ supposedly nurtured
by the intimate sphere. On the other hand, W ollstonecraft’ s
feminism does not attempt to challenge the seeming naturalness of a gendered division of labour. 46 In its positive
construction, ‘rationality’ loses its critical power as an
interrogation of existing social arrangements. from the
standpoint of the neglected claims of a diversity of human
potentials. Seen, rather, as a vision of a balanced, orderly
social life, a vision whose rationality is authorised by the
supposed order of a harmonious universe, the Enlightenment appeal to reason has the effect of sanctioning an
existing way of life. To the extent that it works uncritically
within the aporia of this understanding of the character of
rationality, Wollstonecraft’ s feminism cannot itself entirely
escape a naturalistic ideology which imposes an essential
status on the culturally acquired roles and interests of
modern women.

Feminism and the Unfinished Project of
The naturalistic ideology which plagues A Vindication
appears as a manifestation of the anthropological foundations of her typical Enlightenment vision of the rational
social life. Despite the eighteenth century’s stress on humanity’s unique capacity for self-improvement, this enterprise is still seen to be circumscribed and shaped by
man’s anthropological nature. The Enlightenment had not
yet fully achieved the historical consciousness which was to
emerge in the nineteenth century. Human attributes continue
to be seen largely as fixed anthropological traits. Far from
suggesting the pursuit of historically posited goals and
objectives, the idea of the rational life appeared to the
eighteenth-century Enlightenment as the revelation of na-



ture’s own plan. Hazard points out that it was supposed that
the light of reason would discover nature’s plan and once
this was fully illuminated all that remained was to conform
the new society to it. 47 The capacity for the rational life was
viewed in terms of eliminating the obstacles to the natural
unfolding of ‘human capacities’, in the light of an anthropological discovery rather than as an affirmation of an
historical project or task. 48
The eighteenth-century anthropology according to which
reason appears as an inherent capacity in the individual and
truth the revelation of nature’s plan was unable to discover
its own legitimating prejudices. These would only become
apparent with the historicised perspective which was to
emerge in the nineteenth century. From the point of view of
an historicised consciousness, the Enlighteners’ suppositions
that the new rational society could be modelled after the
principles of nature ultimately suggested the failure of the
historical Enlightenment’s capacity to sustain a commitment
to the cause of a self-legislating humanity. The philosophes
were not yet able to formulate the Enlightenment project as
a commitment to radical democracy which recognised
concrete individuals as the arbiters of their own wills and
needs. As Markus explains, the Enlightenment philosophers’

search for the ‘truth’ of a rationally unified secular culture
‘able to discover and to impose a unique direction towards
human perfection upon all processes of change occurring in
a dynamic society ultimately means the failure of the
historical Enlightenment itself with respect to its own
emancipatory vision’ .49
Although it remained to later generations of Enlightenment thinkers to diagnose the root causes of the failure of the
historical Enlightenment, the seeds of its own self critique
were already unwittingly implanted in the aporias of Enlightenment’s feminism. The democratic impulses of
Wollstonecraft’s feminism, which saw her calling for a
recognition of the distinctive voices of women in any
discussion of the character of life in the’ City of the Future’ ,
was now in conflict with her endorsement of an anthropology
which construed an imposed gender division oflabour as an
expression of a natural order. Yet, in the final analysis, the
anthropological underpinnings of her Enlightenment understanding of the rational life meant that traditional social
arrangements continued to have a powerful sanction. In
particular, as Jane Rendall points out, the Enlightenment’s
attack on the seventeenth century’s concept of a divinely
ordered patriarchal family was replaced by an equally
repressive legitimating ideology of the family as a prepolitical web of natural relationships.50
The twentieth century has shattered the optimism nursed
by eighteenth-century European philosophy. The extravagant expectations harboured by Condorcet and others that
‘the arts and sciences would promote not only the control of
natural forces but would also further understanding of the
world and of the self, would promote moral progress, the
justice of institutions, and even the happiness of human
beings’ , have all but disappeared. 51 With Markus, Bauman
and others. Habermas clearly acknowledges the failure of
the eighteenth century to free itself from the grip of dogma
and prejudice. It seems equally clear, however, that our
present capacity to unmask the failure of this early formu-


lation of Enlightenment is precisely evidence of the continuing, vital relevance of this open-ended cultural project
to contemporary social life. As Bauman sees it, the failure
of the historical Enlightenment to implement its own project
does not mean that the project itself was abortive and
doomed. ‘The potential of modernity is still untapped and
the promise of modernity needs to be redeemed. ’52
So an assertion of modern feminism as an episode in
Enlightenment thinking recognises feminism’s own necessary participation in this, as yet radically incomplete,
open-ended project of cultural criticism. Feminism takes its
vital and distinctive place in the project described by Kant
as the future-oriented optimism that people could emerge
from their self-imposed minority to legislate for themselves.

It remained for later generations of thinkers inspired by the
historical Enlightenment to historicise and radically democratise the meaning of this task. Whereas the Enlighteners had appealed to the’ truth of nature’ to impose a direction
towards human perfection, the spirit of the Enlightenment
since that time has sought to maintain the emancipatory
temper which sees human beings as the creators of their own
social world on the basis of the needs and the aspirations of
concrete individuals themselves. This spirit was encapsulated in the broadening nineteenth-century demand for
constitutional reform, repUblicanism and finally social
revolution and radical democracy.

As already suggested, Kant’s essay ‘What is Enlightenment?’ still stands as a classical interpretation of the
broad cultural meaning of the Enlightenment as the on
going, still radically incomplete project of modernity. Kant’ s
essay underlines that Enlightenment exists only as a human
task or goal. We live, he says, not in an enlig1).tened age but
in an age of Enlightenment. The historical Enlightenment
vision of a self-reliant humanity capable of legislating for
itself must be embraced as the arduous task of every modern
individual. The Enlighteners showed that Enlightenment
required nothing but freedom, in particular ‘the freedom of
man to make public use of his reason at all points’ .53 On this
account, Enlightenment means the freedom of self-legislation in those matters of public import which transcend the
realm of the mere private duty of the citizen. In the end, Kant
suggests that, whilst Enlightenment remains a cultural and
individual task, it also and at the same time identifies the
original vocation of human nature itself. Nature, he comments:

has evolved the seed for which she cares most tenderly,
namely the propensity and the vocation for independent thinking: this gradually works back on the
mentality of the people (whereby they become little
by little more capable of the freedom to act) and also
eventually even on the principles of government,
which finds it advantageous to itself to treat people
who are now more than machines in accordance with
their dignity.54
Enlightenment is an historical project guided by a regulative idea to be constantly recharged with contemporary
historical content.

Kant’s view of Enlightenment is a call for a radical
emancipation from the dogmas of the past and for practical

Radical Philosophy 63, Spring 1993

autonomy. This is a call that has resounded down to our own
time. The call was heard by Kant’ s contemporaries who
applied Kant’ s critical method to his own philosophical
presuppositions. Each succeeding generation of Enlightenment has submitted the certitudes of its own milieu to the
same critical questioning in order to remarshal the energies
and redefine the contemporary meaning of Enlightenment
thus making another advance down the road that Kant had
designated. Each unveils a new dimension of the problem
and a new terrain on which the battle for freedom and reason
needs to be prosecuted in order to realise our historically
accumulating sense of human dignity.

Modem feminism is similarly best understood as occupying this kind of double relation to Enlightenment thinking. On the one hand, modem feminism clearly cannot
ignore its own continuity with the Enlightenment tradition.

It preserves the Enlightenment’s emancipatory vision in
which human beings are affirmed as the determinators of
their own social world. In particular, modem feminism is
properly understood as an interpretation of a contemporary
historicised understanding of Enlightenment. Feminism
today typically repudiates all Enlightenment formulations
which turn on an appeal to an impartial reason and to an
eternal and normatively conceived human nature. Modem
feminism appears as a vital moment in a contemporary
interpretation of the cause of Enlightenment as a commitment to the cause of radical democracy.

The affirmation of feminism’s own Enlightenment
character does not, it must be stressed, suggest its assimilation to any fixed set of doctrines and principles. As its
critic, modern feminism unmasks the failures ofthe various
episodes in the Enlightenment tradition to adequately interpret the meaning of the Enlightenment project. The
narrow rationalism of seventeenth-century metaphysics,
the naturalising constructions of the Enlighteners themselves,
the so-called gender-blindness of Marxian categories as
well as liberalism’s own construction of an abstract’ rightsbearing’ subject have all been appropriately targeted by
contemporary feminism.

Yet as a critic of the Enlightenment tradition, modem
feminism is also and at the same time a manifestation and
an interpretation of Enlightenment. Feminism constantly
seeks to push back the legacy of our entrenched prejudices
to reveal new social possibilities in the present. Ever since
W ollstonecraft, feminists have affirmed their commitment
to a qualitatively expanded interpretation of the meaning of
Enlightenment. Modem feminism has consistently attempted
to expose the prejudices embedded within those definitional
constructions of the human subject called upon in the
various formulations of the meaning of Enlightenment.

Contemporary feminism has, moreover, attempted to open
up our understanding of those activities and actions deemed
the proper subject for public discussion and expression. The
familiar feminist call for the politicisation of the personal
sphere is one instance of feminism’s vital and distinctive
contribution to an on going process of immanent critique in
which generations of Enlightenment thinkers have opened
up new terrains which need to be encompassed in a commitment to radical democracy. Modem feminism is a
qualitative expansion of the contemporary Enlightenment

Radical Philosophy 63, Spring 1993

project. It relies unquestioningly on no preexisting interpretations but offers its own unique, still developing, interpretation of Enlightenment understood as a broad-based
programme for critique and social change promoting the
social recognition of diverse human potentials and ways of

de Beauvoir, S., The Second Sex, Penguin Books,
Hannondsworth, 1972.


Ibid., p. 29.


Lloyd, G., The Man ofReason. ‘Male’ and ‘Female’ in Western
Philosophy, Methuen, London, 1984, p. 101.


Harding, S., The Science Question in Feminism, Open University Press, Milton Keynes, 1986, p. 15.


See, for example, Jardine, A., Gynesis: Configurations of
Women and Modernity, Cornell University Press, New York,
1985; Hekman, S., Gender and Knowledge, Polity Press, Cambridge, 1990; Flax, J., ‘Post-modernism and Gender Relations in
Feminist Theory’ in Nicholson, L. (ed.), Feminism/
Postmodernism, Routledge, 1990, pp. 39-63.

Harding, S., ‘Feminism, Science and the Anti-Enlightenment
Critiques’ in Nicholson, (ed.), F em in ism/Postmodernism, pp. 83106,99.

Lovibond, S., ‘Feminism and Post-modernism’, New Left Review 178, November/December 1989, pp. 5-29.

Kant, I., ‘What is Enlightenment?’ ,in Beck,L. W. (ed.),Kanton
History, Bobbs-Merrill Educational Publishing, Indianapolis,
1963, p. 3.




See Jacob, M. c., The Radical Enlightenment: Pantheists,
Freemasons and Republicans, George AlIen and Unwin, London, 1981. Jacob offers a very illuminating account of the
diversity of intellectual trends at play throughout the eighteenth


Jardine, A., Gynesis: Configurations of Women a~d Modernity,


Hekman, S. J., Gender and Knowledge: Elements of a Postmodern Feminism, p. I.


Ibid., p. 5.


Ibid., p. 9.

Flax, J., ‘Post-Modernism and Gender Relations in Feminist
Theory’, in Nicholson, L. (ed.), Feminism/Post-modernism, p.




Ibid., p. 43.

See, for example, Grosz, E., ‘Feminism and Anti-Humanism’, in
Milner and Worth (eds), Discourse and Difference.


Gay, P., The Enlightenment: An Interpretation: The Rise of
Modern Paganism, Vol. 1, Alfred Knopf, New York, 1966, p.



Cassirer, E., The Philosophy ofthe Enlightenment, Beacon Press,
1951, p. 13.


See d’Alembert, J., Introduction to Preliminary Discourse on
the Encyclopaedia of Diderot, Bobbs-Merrill, 1963, p. xxxv.


Cassirer, E., The Philosophy of the Enlightenment, p. 13.


Markus, G., ‘Society of Culture: The Constitution of Cultural
Modernity’, unpublished paper presented to Thesis Eleven
Conference, Melbourne, Forthcoming in Thesis Eleven, 1992.






Jacob, M. c., The Radical Enlightenment: Pantheists, Freemasons and Republicans, p. 104.


Diderot, D., The Encyclopaedia, Grendzier (trans. and ed.),
Harper Torchbooks, New York, p. 97.



Rousseau, J., Emile, Everyman, 1969.



Luhmann, N., Love as Passion: The Codification of Intimacy,
Polity, Cambridge, 1986, p. 99.

See for example passages from A Vindication of the Rights of
Women on pp. 43 and 110, Norton and Company edition, 1967.


Ibid., p. 110.


See Spenser, S. (ed.), French Women and the Age of Enlightenment, Indiana University Press, 1984, p. 98.


Ibid., p. 92.


See ibid., p. 115.


See Jacobus, M., The Radical Enlightenment: Pantheists, Freemasons and Republicans.


Hazard, P., European Thought in the Eighteenth Century, Hollis
and Carter, London, 1954, p. xvviii.


Fox-Genovese, E., ‘Property and Patriarchy in Classical Bourgeois Political Theory’, Radical History Review, Vol. 4, No. 23,1977.


See Markus, G., ‘Concepts of Ideology in Marx’, Canadian
Journal of Political and Social Theory, Vol. 7, Nos. 1-2, 1983,


Astell, M., A Serious Proposal to the Ladies, 1696.



Astell, M., quoted in Smith, H.,Reason’ s Disciples: Seventeenth
Century Feminists, University of Illinois Press, 1982, p. 63.


Ibid., p. 86
Rendall, J., The Origins of Modern Feminism, Macmillan,
London, 1985.


Astell, M. ,Reflections Upon Marriage (1700); quoted in Mitchell,
J., ‘Women and Equality’, in Phillips, A. (ed.), Feminism and
Equality, Blackwell, 1987, p. 31.


Habermas,J., ‘Modernity versus Post-modernity’,NewGerman
Critique, No. 22, Winter 1981, pp. 3-15,9.


See, for example, Luhmann, N., Love as Passion, p. 94.



See Perry, R., The Celebrated Mary Astell: An Early English
Feminist, University of Chicago Press, 1986, pp. 79-80.


Bauman, Z., Legislators and Interpreters: On Modernity,
Postmodernity and Intellectuals, Polity, 1987, p. 191.

Kant, 1., ‘What is Enlightenment?’, p. 10.


Ibid., p. 15.


Wollstonecraft, M., A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, The
Norton Library, New York, 1967, p. 58.


Ibid., pp. 82-83.


Ibid., p. 122.


Ibid., p. 122.


Vogel, U., ‘Rationalism and Romanticism: Two Strategies for
Women’s Liberation’, in Evans, J. et al (eds), Feminism and
Political Theory, Sage, 1986, pp. 31-32.


Condorcet, ‘On the Admission of Women to the Rights of
Citizenship’, in Baker, K. M. (ed.), Condorcet: Selected Writings, Bobbs-Merrill, 1976, pp. 97-98.


Reiss, T., ‘Revolution in Bounds: Wollstonecraft, Women and
Reason’, in Kauffman, L. (ed.), Gender and Theory: Dialogues
on Feminist Criticism, Blackwell, 1989, pp. 11-41,21.

The Situationist International, until recently almost forgotten, has been rediscovered
by a new generation. The provocative theses of Guy Debord’s Society of the
Spectacle, published on the eve of the spontaneous insurrection of May 1968, are
still a focal point for critical thought about the media and capitalism.

Few writers whose work has occasioned such controversy have so consistently
refused to participate in the public ‘debates’ which define celebrity. Debord
remains a spectacularly obscure figure.

Debord’s film, In Girum Imus Nocte et Consumimur igni ,was made ten years
after the May events. The text was published by his friend, the radical publisher
Cerard lebovici, whose assassination in 1984 remains unsolved. After a campaign
by sections of the French press to implicate him in this murder, Debord
successfully cleared his name in the courts, but the experience led him to ban the
showing of any of his films again in France.



This is the first English translation of Debord’s text, making available for the first
time to the English-speaking world a work in which a largely-neglected dimension
of ‘situationist’ ideas can be clearly discerned. While belated academic studies
have tended to assimilate the Situationists within a history of artistic avant-gardes,
and revolutionaries have emphasised their radical iconoclasm – In Girum imus
Nocte et Consumimur igni – reveals a melancholic nostalgia for a lost Paris and a
reflection upon the fate of those “ready to set the world on fire just to give it more

Translated by lucy Forsyth, this is the complete text of the original 1978 edition,
including camera directions, 24 stills from the film, footnotes added by Debord in
1991, and a preface written by the translator.

In Cirum is published as a 96 page sewn paperback Price £6.95 plus £1 postage
and packaging (Foreign orders add £3 for Air Mail, £1.50 for Surface) from:

Pelagian Press, ReM Signpos~ London WCl N 3XX.

Radical Philosophy 63, Spring 1993

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