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Masculinity in Philosophy

Masculinity in Philosophy
Russell Keat

1. Feminism and philosophy

One important concern of contemporary feminism has
been to identify and challenge (what might roughly be
called) the ‘sexism’ of various academic disciplines;
and this kind of critical work is now increasingly
evident in the case of philosophy. For example Susan
Okin, in Women in Western Political Thought, has
examined the way in which theorists such as Aristotle,
Locke and Rousseau tried to justify the exclusion of
women from participation in the political domain,
typically by claiming their ‘natural’ lack of whatever characteristics were held to be necessary for
such activity; Genevieve Lloyd, in ‘The Man of
Reason’, has shown how the philosophical proponents
of certain conceptions of rationality have often both
ascribed this exclusively to men, and articulated it
in distinctively ‘male’ ways; Larry Blum, in ‘Kant’s
and Hegel’s Moral Rationalism: A Feminist Perspective’

has explored those philosophers’ views of the supposedly different moral virtues of men and women, and
challenged their belief in the superiority of the
former; and Margery ColI ins and Christine Pierce, in
‘Holes and Slime: Sexism in Sartre’s Psychoanalysis’,
have criticized Sartre for the tendency, in both his
philosophical and literary work, to present women as
having ‘fixed natures’ which effectively render them
incapable of the freedom that any human supposedly
has, as a For-itself.

In presenting these as examples of the criticism
of ‘sexism’ in philosophy, I am using a term which
not all these writers themselves use, or make central;
and given the way in which I shall later define this
term, and distinguish it from what I shall call
‘genderism’, it could then be shown how some of their
concerns are with the former, and others with the
latter. For it is my main purpose here to argue for
the importance of distinguishing between ‘sexism’ and
‘genderism’, and to outline the general character of
what would be involved in identifying and challenging
the latter, by contrast with the former. I shall
illustrate this by trying to show the differenCe
between claiming that Sartre’s philosophy is sexist,
and claiming that it is genderist. And I want also
to suggest that the criticism of genderism in philosophy will involve issues that are more complex, and
more far-reaching in their theoretical consequences,
than that of sexism – though this is not to say that
the latter is therefore ‘unimportant’ by comparison.

Before going on to specify in some detail the
distinction between sexism and genderism, some
initial sense of it may be given through a partly
hypothetical example. Consider an ethical theory
according to which some human characteristic – say
‘rationality’ – is taken to be the basis of people’s

intrinsic worth or value, and thus of the respect
that is due to them as moral beings. We can call this
theory ‘moral rationalism’. And now imagine a particular proponent of this theory, who also maintains
that it is only men, and not women, that have or are
capable of having this characteristic, and who thereby (at least implicitly) asserts the inferior moral
status of women, and justifies their unequal and disadvantaged position in society. Such a person could
be criticized for their sexism; and at least part of
this criticism would consist in showing that the
claim about women’s lack of rationality was mistaken,
particularly if this lack was said to be natural or

But notice that, having succeeded in challenging
the sexism of this particular proponent of moral
rationalism, the theory itself remains untouched.

What has been rejected is the exclusiv~ attribution
of the theoretically privileged characteristic to men;
whilst no attention has been given to the question of
whether that characteristic deserves its theoretical
privilege. To criticize this would be to challenge
the theory itself as distinct from challenging the
additional sexist claims of its proponent; and it is
at this point that the possibility of (the theory’s)
genderism arises.

For suppose that, in the society in which this
moral theory is endorsed, the privileged characteristic of rationality forms part of the gender-ideal
of ‘masculinity’: part of what is regarded as appropriate and valuable for men to be, something which
any male must display in order to be a ‘proper man’,
to be masculine. And suppose also that this characteristic is not part of the corresponding gender-ideal
of ‘femininity’ (which might itself include some
‘contrasting’ feature, say ’emotionality’). Thenand especially if this is also a society in which
men systematically dominate women – one would have
some initial grounds for suspecting that this supposedly valuable ‘human’ characteristic is actually a
(masculine) gender-characteristic; and that its
theoretical privilege may be based upon an unjustified
assumption of the superiority of the masculine gender.

And if this initial suspicion were confirmed then one
would have shown the moral theory to be (in the way I
wish to use this term) ‘genderist’, as distinct from
showing the claims made by its particular proponent,
about men and women, to be ‘sexist’.

2. Sex and gender

In order to develop this distinction between sexism
and genderism in philosophy, I need now to introduce
some (initially rather loosely formulated) claims

about the nature of gender and gender-differences.

I take it that in all or most societies, there is and
has been some fairly systematic differentiation
between ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ characteristics:

that is, between those features (such as types of
behaviour, emotional and motivational structures,
aspects of personality and character, and suchlike)
that are regarded as appropriate to men as distinct
from women, and to women as distinct from men. For
example, in the opening chapter of her Report on Male
Sexuality, ‘Being Male’, Shere Hite presents the
answers given by the 7,000+ men who responded to her
questionnaire, about what they regarded as typically
‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ characteristics (see pp.

60-69, 108-110). The most frequently mentioned items
for the former were these: being autonomous, independent, self-assured, in control, unafraid, fair-minded,
strong, unemotional, unexpressive, rational, and
decision-makers; whilst for the latter, there were:

being loving, supportive, warm, gentle, compassionate,
sensitive, docile, patient, self-sacrificing, and
generally ‘people-oriented’. And in reply to the
further question of how they would react if something
about them were said to be feminine or unmanly, most
of them said that they would feel angry, insulted,
humiliated, weak, hurt, and so on.

What we have here is one piece of evidence about
what a certain group of men in a particular society,
at a particular historical period, regarded as
typical characteristics of masculinity and femininity,
i.e. of these two genders. How far these men actually managed to be (in their terms) masculine, is of
course another matter; and even from their reported
replies, there is evidence of varying degrees of
tension, ambivalence, and self-doubt about this, and
about how far they themselves endorsed the values
implicit in their conception of masculinity. But it
can at least be said that most of these male respondents thought of their being perceived and recognized
as masculine, and not feminine, as an important
aspect of their self-esteem, and as something of considerable significance in the conduct of their lives,
their relationships with others (both men and women),
and so on. Whatever the gap between ‘ideals and
reality’ here, it is highly unlikely that there is
no, or only very slight, correspondence between the
two~ that is, I shall be assuming that systems of
gender-differentiation do not merely express ideals
or norms, but are also to a significant extent
effectively realized [3].

Of course, questionnaire-replies of this kind are
only one way in which the characteristics of genderdifferences in a particular society may be identified;
and even here, one would need to examine issues such
as the degree of correspondence between the replies
given by men, and by women, to the same questions.

Further, one might go on to interpret such replies
in terms of the possibly more basic and general concepts that may be presupposed by the relatively
superficial and specific characteristics referred to
by respondents; and it may often be possible to
identify ‘pairings’ of masculine and feminine characteristics, involving some kind of contrast, opposition,
or supposed complementarity (e.g. ‘instrumental v.

expressive’, ‘hard v. soft’, ‘impersonal v. personal’,

I am using the terms ‘male’ and ‘female’ to refer
to differences of ‘sex’, and the terms ‘masculine’

and ‘feminine’ to differences of ‘gender’. Thus a
person’s sex, as male or female, is determined by
their chromosomal structures (XY for male, XX for
female), and the presence of the differing reproductive organs, hormones, and physiological-anatomical
features usually, but not always, associatedtwith
these. There are, admittedly, several complications

here [4]; but these need not concern us to the extent
that for most people, for most practical purposes,
their biological sex is at least taken to be a
straightforward matter of fact by them and everyone
else – so that, for example, there is little doubt
about who would qualify as a man for the purposes of
the Hite report on ‘male’ sexuality.

‘Gender’ is usually contrasted with ‘sex’ by saying that it, unlike sex, is a social or cultural
rather than a biological matter. But this use of
the terms commits one either to the view that no
differences between men and women other than their
sex-differences are in any way biologically, i.e.

genetically, influenced; or to restricting genderdifferences to those that are not so influenced, whatever they may turn out to be, and allocating all
others that are so influenced to the category of sexdifferences. I prefer, here, to use the term
‘gender’ in a way that involves neither of these
commitments, and that instead includes all those
characteristics that, in a particular society, are
regarded as differentially appropriate to men and
women, that tend (partly as a result of this) to
actually so differ, and which do not consist in the
relatively straightforward biological features of the
male or female sex.

So, for example, whether or not – as has sometimes
(though very dubiously) been claimed – men and women
differ genetically with respect to their tendencies
towards ‘aggressiveness’ or ‘nurturance’, such
differences would count as characteristics of gender,
and not of sex, in my proposed use of these terms.

This usage enables me to remain, as it were ‘agnostic’

about this particular theoretical issue – not that I
regard it as unimportant, but only as best kept
separate in the account I shall be giving of the
nature of genderism in philosophy.

There are a number of further issues about which
can also, hopefully, afford to remain.agnostic, by
making no assumptions about them one way or the other.

First, I assume no particular theory as to how men
and women come to ‘acquire’ their gender-characteristics. This agnosticism includes, as just mentioned,
the biological v. cultural debate; and it also includes such questions as the relative merits of rolelearning v. psychoanalytic approaches. (I am, in
fact, strongly in favour of the theory outlined in
Nancy Chodorow’s The Reproduction of Mothering, but
nothing I say later will depend on this.) Second, I
make no assumptions about whether there is any uniformity, between societies, as to which characteristics ‘belong’ to which gender: about whether, that is,
there are any cross-cultural universals of genderdifferentiation. Likewise, I do not assume that
within any particular society, there is just one
system of gender-differentiation: for my purposes,
it could perfectly well be that there are several
such systems, varying with respect to class, ethnicity, age, and suchlike. Nor do I assume that all
personal characteristics belong to the (or a) system
of gender-differentiation: what I will be saying is
consistent with there being some characteristics
shared by members of both sexes; others that are,
say, class-specific irrespective of sex; and so on.

So, as far as I am concerned here, whether or not
some particular characteristic belongs to a system of
gender-differentiation; whether, if it does, it is a
masculine or feminine one; and through what kinds of
processes people come to possess it, are all questions that have to be answered case by case, and in
specific socio-historical contexts – the relevant
contexts being, for my purposes, those in which the
philosophical theory at issue has been developed,
disseminated, accepted, and so on.

3. Sexism and genderism


Having tried to specify the conceptions of sex and
gender that I am adopting, I can now make more
explicit the corresponding conceptions of sexism and
genderism involved in my earlier example of the
distinction between (philosophical) criticisms of the
two. The proponent of moral rationalism who claims
that women are inferior to men because of their
(relative) lack of ‘rationality’ provides an example
of sexism, since this involves the potential justification of various practices that discriminate between
men and women on the basis of their sex, and that
work to the disadvantage of the latter. Criticism of
this sexism will require either or both of the following: successfully challenging the existence of these
supposedly ‘natural’ (i.e. biologically determined)
differences between men and women; and showing how
these practices do indeed operate, unjustifiably, to
the disadvantage of women. (These, in effect, were
the kinds of criticism central in late 18th- to mid19th-century feminist writers such as Mary
Wo11stonecraft, Harriet Tay10r, and John Stuart Mill.)
By contrast, criticism of the genderism of this
moral rationalism would involve at least the following: identifying how the conception of rationality
involved in this theory formed part of the specification of masculinity in the system of gender- differentiation of the relevant socio-historical context;
and showing that this theory made an unjustified and
unjustifiable assumption of the superiority of this
masculine characteristic. (I say ‘unjustified and
unjustifiable’ here so as to distinguish between
(a) showing that no justification has been offered,
and (b) challenging whatever justification has been,
or might possibly be, offered.)
This attempt to define how sexism and genderism
differ is by no means fully adequate, as it stands,
and I shall try to improve upon it in certain ways
later on, partly by working through its implications
in a particular example, concerning Sartre’s ontology,
in the next two sections. But some further general
comments about the distinction may be helpful before
doing this.

First, the concepts of sexism and genderism could
both, ‘in principle’, be applicable to cases where
respectively, men were disadvantaged relative to
women, and the masculine deemed inferior to the
feminine. That is, I do not wish to define these
concepts in such a way that these possibilities are
ZogiaaZZy excluded. However, the examples I have
been and will be considering are all of the opposite
kind; and this is mainly for the reason that, as a
matter of fact, nearly all actual cases of sexism and
genderism do involve the assumption of male dominance
and masculine superiority – since, roughly speaking,
all or most societies are and have been patriarchal.

Second, one consequence of the way I am distinguishing sexism from genderism is that aritiaisms of
the former may themselves tend to display the latter.

This is because very often, when someone is criticizing the ‘sexism’ of a claim that women are, by
nature, inferior to men, with respect to some
characteristic(s), attention will mainly be devoted
to challenging the supposed ‘naturalness’ of this
supposed difference; and it may be implicitly
assumed, thereby, that were women to be like this,
that would indeed make them ‘inferior’. That is, the
critic of sexism may implicitly accept the respective
superiority or inferiority of these characteristics,
in attempting to dispute the claim that ‘women are
inferior’.by showing that they do not (by nature)
differ from men with respect to these. So there is
always some risk of genderism in the criticism of
sexism – though it is certainly one that can be

avoided, with due caution. By contrast, though,
there is less risk of criticisms of genderism themselves displaying sexism, since there is here no
assumption that gender-characteristics are natural or
innate. So, for example, in criticizing ‘moral
rationalism’ as (masculinely) genderist, one is not
assuming that this (masculine) characteristic of
rationality is natural to men, and its absence to
women: one is concerned onZy with the justifiability
of the privileged status given to this characteristic.

Finally, there is no reason why genderism, to the
extent that it exists in philosophy, should be
expected onZy to exist in the areas of ethical,
political, or (broadly) social theories, despite
these being more immediately obvious ones for its
occurrence. It may just as likely be present in the
apparently more remote and esoteric areas of philosophy of mind, metaphysics, or epistemology. This is
at least partly because many such theories involve
claims or assumptions about the nature of ‘the human
subject’; and about that of ‘objects’ which are
specified by contrast with the subject, and often by
reference to the kind of relationship supposed to
exist between the two. There is plenty of room here
for genderist assumptions of the masculinity of these
subjects, and of their relations to these objects as I shall now try to illustrate, in the case of
Sartre’s ontology.

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4. Sartre’s sexism: the for-itself as male
In ‘Holes and Slime’ Collins and Pierce, as noted
earlier, criticize Sartre for a pervasive ‘sexism’

(the term they use, and with a sense very close to
the one in which I am using it) in his philosophical
and literary works. Their main line of argument goes
like this. Sartre’s ‘theory of human nature’ is, as
it were, that humans have no ‘nature’ in the sense of
biologically fixed, or oth~rwise causally deterministic features that govern their lives. Rather humans
are free beings, For-itseZves, and thus utterly distinct from the other central ontological category in
Sartre’s philosophy (at least, in Being and Nothingness), the In-itseZf. Further, Sartre is concerned
to identify, and criticize, various ways in which the
For-itself may display bad faith, in attempting to
deny or ignore its freedom, for example by regarding
itself as having some kind of fixed nature, as being
an In-itself, and so on.

Such a view of humans, say Collins and Pierce,
‘should’ make Sartre particularly unsusceptible to
any form of sexism which, after all, normally involves
the belief that women do have a ‘fixed nature’, which
is different from, and inferior to, that of men.

Yet, as they go on to argue in some detail, Sartre in

practice denies the status of ‘For-itself’ to most,
if not all, the female characters in his novels and
plays, or at best presents them as almost inherently
prone to excessive displays of bad faith. Further,
they suggest that the same tendency is at work in
Being and Nothingness itself, and comment critically
on a number of passages where Sartre describes certain features of the In-itself, ‘slime’ and ‘holes’,
as intrinsically ‘feminin’, and as somehow threatening to the For-itself.

I shall return to this last point shortly. But
first I want to examine how, in the course of their
overall argument, Collins and Pierce criticize an
earlier commentator on Sartre, William Barrett, who
had also claimed that Sartre’s work was sexist. In
Irrational Men, they note, Barrett argued ‘that
Sartre identifies Being-in-itself as female and Foritself as male by means of the characteristics he
assigns to these two aspects of being’ (p.113). Thus,
claimed Barrett,
The For-itself … is for Sartre the masculine
aspect of human psychology: it is that in virtue
of which man chooses himself in his radical
liberty, makes projects, and thereby gives his
life what strictly human meaning it has;
and correspondingly,
the In-itself is for him the archetype of nature:

excessive, fruitful, blooming nature – the woman,
the female.

(Irrational Man, p.2S4; quoted by Collins and
Pierce, p.1l3)
Barrett then claimed that this implicit ‘mapping’

by Sartre of the For-itself v. In-itself on to the
male v. female (or masculine v. feminine: which it is
is crucial, as I shall argue soon) is sexist, since
it effectively identifies the (properly or ideally)
human with the male, and thereby excludes women from
this privileged status. What Sartre was doing,
therefore, was to ignore or downgrade female life
and female psychology. Consider, said Barrett,
… a totally ordinary woman, one of that great
number whose being is the involvement with
family and children, and some of whom are happy
at it, or at least as humanly fulfilled by it
as the male by his own essentially masculine
projects. What sense does it make to say that
such a woman’s identity is constituted by her
project? Her project is family and children,
and these do in fact make up a total human
commitment; but it is hardly a project that
has issued out of the conscious ego. Her whole
life with whatever freedom it reveals, is rather
the unfolding of nature through her. As soon
as we begin to think about the psychology of
women, Sartre’s psychology shows itself to be
exclusively a masculine affair.

(Irrational Man, p.261; quoted, p.lIS)
But, argue Co11ins and Pierce, Barrett’s criticism
of Sartre’s sexism is itself sexist, since it depends
upon the assumption that men and women do have different natures, different psycho10gies, and correspondingly different types of activity to which they are
suited. And they thus argue, as distinct from
Barrett, that Sartre’s sexism consists not in his
exclusion of ‘female nature’ from ‘human nature’,
but instead in his tendency to present women as
having a ‘nature’, and hence as not (in his terms)
fully human.

However, although I mainly agree with what Co11ins
and Pierce say about Sartre’s sexism, and with their
criticism of Barrett’s ‘natural differences’ assumptions, I want now to argue that there is nonetheless
something valuable in Barrett’s comments which can
best be brought out by considering the question of
Sartre’s (possible) genderism, as distinct from his

sexism. Indeed, Barrett himself sometimes uses the
words ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’, and sometimes ‘male’

and ‘female’, without apparently recognizing the
potential difference between these; and what I am
proposing, in effect, is a reconstruction of his
objections to Sartre in terms of the concept of
gender, rather than sex. In doing so, I am trying
not so much to criticize Co11ins and Pierce, as to
indicate how the criticism of genderism differs from
that of sexism. So let us now consider some of the
relevant passages from Being and Nothingness noting, in advance, the conceptual difficulty posed
for translation by Sartre’s use of the term ‘f~minin’

which can mean either female or feminine.

5. Sartre’s genderism: the for-itself as masculine

Towards the end of Being and Nothingness (Part IV,
Chapter 2, Section 3) Sartre engages in what he calls
‘a psychoanalysis of things! (p. 600), in the course
of which he ‘ana1yzes’ what he takes to be various
qualities of the In-itself. The first of these is
its ‘sliminess’ or ‘viscosity’ (he uses the adjective
‘visqueux’, which Hazel Barnes translates as ‘slimy’).

The viscous/slimy, claims Sartre, is both terrifying
and disgusting. Neither solid nor liquid, it presents itself as something to be possessed or appropriated by the For-itself; yet it is not only ungraspab1e, un-possessable, but also turns out to
trap the For-itself who/which attempts to possess it:

its sticky sliminess adheres to the For-itself and
threatens to drag it down and swallow it up. It is
soft and yielding, ‘but its softness is leech-like’

(p.60B): ‘I open my hands, I want to let go of the
slimy and it sticks to me, it draws me, it sucks at
me’ (p. 609) .

Sartre continues:

It is a soft, yielding action, a moist and
feminine sucking, it lives obscurely under my
fingers, and I sense it like a dizziness; it
draws me to it as the bottom of a precipice
might draw me. There is something like a
tactile fascination in the slimy. I am no
longer the master in arresting the process of
appropriation. It continues. In one sense
it is like the supreme docility of the possessed,
the fidelity of a dog who gives himself even
when one does not want him any longer, and in
another sense there is underneath this docili~y
a surreptitious appropriation of the possessor
by the possessed.

And a little further on:

The slime is like a liquid seen in a nightmare,
where all its properties are animated by a sort
of life and turn back against me. Slime is the
revenge of the In-itself. A sickly-sweet
feminine [f~minin] revenge which will be s)~bo1ized on another level by the quality ‘sugary’

A sugary sliminess is the ideal of the
slimy, it symbolizes the sugary death of the
For-itself (like that of the wasp which sinks
into the jam and drowns in it).

Later on, in the same (section of the same) chapter, Sartre considers another quality of the In-itsel£
its being ‘holed’ (‘trou~e’), in relation to what he
takes to be a fundamental human fascination with the
filling of holes – a fascination which is not to be
regarded as consequent upon a certain stage in sexual
development, but rather as prior to, and enabling one
to understand, such sexuality. More or less from
.birth, says Sartre, the baby or infant (as For-itself)
engages with all kinds of holes (aspects of the In-



itself) as things to be filled or plugged, and thereby be made complete. Thus:

… the hole is originally presented as a nothingness ‘to be filled’ with my own flesh; the child
cannot restrain himself from putting his finger
or his whole arm into the hole. It presents
itself to me as the empty image of myself. I
have only to crawl into it in order to make
myself exist in the world that awaits me ….

Thus to plug up a hole means originally to make
a sacrifice of my body in order that the plenitude
of being may exist; that is, to subject the
passion of the For-itself so as to shape, to
perfect, and to preserve the totality of the

Sartre continues:

It is only from this standpoint that we can pass
on to sexuality. The obscenity of the feminine
sex [sexe feminin] is that of everything which
‘gapes open’. It is an appeal to being as all
holes are. In herself woman appeals to a strange
[~trang~re – perhaps ‘alien’ would be better
here] flesh which is to transform her into a
fullness of being by penetration and dissolution.

Conversely woman senses her condition as an
appeal precisely because she is ‘in the form of
a hole’ [‘trouee’]. This is the true origin of
Adler’s complex [i.e. the inferiority complex].

Beyond any doubt her sex [le sexe] is a mouth
and a voracious mouth which devours the penis a fact which can easily lead to the idea of
castration. The amorous act is the castration
of the man; but this is above all [avant tout the more literal ‘before’ brings out Sartre’s
‘priority of holes to sex’ better, perhaps]
because sex is a hole.

(pp.6l3-6l4 – square brackets mine -RNK)
A detailed exegesis of these comments cannot be
provided here, but I think it can be argued that there
are, in effect, at least two (in my terms) distinct
claims being made. First, that these characteristics
of the In-itself – being slimy, and being holed – are
to be seen as feminine; and second, that (at leas~ in
the case of the latter), these characteristics
belong to women by virtue of their very physiology,
their sexual anatomy. Further, since in Sartre’s
ontology the In-itself is clearly in some sense an
‘inferior’ category by comparison with the Foritself, what is implied by these claims is that, at
least in these respects, women as a sex are inferior
since they possess by nature characteristics that
are themselves ‘inferior’.

What this (1att~r) supposed inferiority consists
in, exactly, I shall say more about shortly. But
enough has now been said to enable one to see the
difference between criticizing Sartre’s sexism, here,
and (possibly) criticizing his genderism. In the
former case, one would need amongst other things to
challenge Sartre’s apparent view that female sexual
anatomy has some intrinsic human ‘meaning’, such
that women necessarily differ from men in this
respect; whilst in the latter case, one would have
to engage with the question of what possible justification Sartre might have for de-valuing (and indeed
being ‘terrified’ of) these feminine characteristics.

This, indeed, is a difference which ColI ins and
Pierce clearly recognize, in a lengthy footnote
commenting on the difficulties of translating
Sartre’s feminin as ‘female’ or ‘feminine’, where
they conclude:

Thus, females mayor may not possess feminine
characteristics, and insofar as one discourages
‘feminine’ behaviour in females (or males), one
may be anti-feminine without being anti-female

or sexist. To escape a charge of sexism, one
needs to make such a differentiation, and
Sartre does not do so .

(note 15, p.126)
That is: had Sartre not talked of the feminine as
something that women naturally were by virtue of
their sex (and men were not), then he would not have
been open to the charge of sexism. But that, of
course, would leave open the further possibility of
challenging the genderism involved in his marked
antipathy towards (at least certain features of) the
feminine, and showing the wider significance of this
for his philosophy.

How might one go about doing this? I shall make
only a few, very sketchy remarks here, since the
issues are highly complex. Sartre’s analyses of
‘slime’ and ‘holes’ seem to be closely related to two
quite basic features of his overall ontology, namely
his refusal to accept or recognize the organic features of human existence, and his emphasis upon the
instrumental character of the For-itself’s relations
with the world, the In-itself. That is, there is a
strong connection between his fear-ful antipathy
towards the viscous, as a cloying, organic, seductive
receptivity that cannot be successfully appropriated,
and his attempt to define the ‘nature’ of humans, as
free For-itselves, in a way that altogether excludes
their character as a biological species; and likewise
a strong connection between his account of ‘the attitude of the For-itself towards holes’ and his more
general view of the For-itself as always engaged in
active, manipulative, instrumental relations with
‘objects’. Furthermore, as Sartre himself indicates
explicitly in the passages quoted earlier, both the
viscous and the holed are associated for him with the
feminine; and it is fairly plausible to assume that,
in the specific socio-historical context in which he
was writing, the ‘active-instrumental’ was taken to
be masculine, and the ‘passive-organfc’ as feminine.

Hence there are some initial grounds for regarding
Sartre’s conception of the privileged ontological
category of the For-itself as expressing an assumed
superiority of the masculine, and as operating in a
relationship of projected control over the In-itself
as (at least partially) feminine. And, to the extent
that this is so, we would have here an example of
philosophical genderism, which is quite distinct from
the sexism criticized by Collins and Pierce (namely
Sartre’s tendency to exclude women from the favoured
ontological category) [5].

6. Criticizing genderism

My discussion of Sartre has been intended both to
illustrate the differences between sexism and genderism in philosophy, and to indicate how genderism may
be involved not just in the more obvious areas of
moral and political philosophy, but also in the less
obvious ones of metaphysics, epistemology, and so on.

As noted earlier, one major reason for this latter
possibility is that these kinds of theories frequently make claims or assumptions about the nature of
the human ‘subject’, the differences between such
subjects and ‘objects’, and the character of the
relations between them. And given that such theories
have typically been articulated by men, in patriarchal societies, there is good reason to suspect that,
for example, their conceptions of these subjects
will express a distinctively masculine, gendered
standpoint, whilst masquerading as a purely human,
gender-neutral, one [6] (a form of misrepresentation
which has certain parallels with the way in which, in
class-ideologies, historically specific forms of
human activity are falsely eternalized/universalized).


However, it is not enough merely to suspect this:

one must show conclusively, in particular cases, that
it is so; and to do this, one must first identify the
specific features of the system of gender-differentiation that is operative in the relevant sociohistorical context.

But it might be objected at this point that, given
my definition of genderism as the unjustified assumption of the superiority of gender-specific characteristics, any adequate criticism of the genderism of a
philosophical theory must require not just showing
that it is gender-specific, but also that it is
actually wrong or mistaken to accord such privilege
to those characteristics; and no indication has yet
been provided of how this latter task is to be

As an initial response to this objection, I would
say this: to the extent that any philosophical theory
ppesents itself as gender-neutral, but can be shown
not to be, it can legitimately be criticized as genderist precisely because it has assumed a privileged
status for those gender-specific characteristics
without providing any justification for doing so; and
hence the ‘onus of proof’ is upon its proponents,
namely to justify explicitly what has been tacitly
assumed. Nonetheless, this initial response does not
take one very far; and whilst I have no very positive
suggestions to make as to how in general the desirability or otherwise of various gender-characteristics can be evaluated, I will conclude by noting a
number of more ‘negative’ considerations that seem
important to bear in mind here.

To start with, it may be plausible to assume that
in’any particular system of gender-differentiation,
neither masculine nor feminine characteristics are
likely to be acceptable in their existing form. This
is for at least two reasons. First, the processes
through which men and women come to acquire their
respective genders will probably have involved considerable degrees of coercion, disapproval, fear,
repression, and suchlike; and characteristics that
are generated in these ways are inevitably distorted
and ‘pathologised’ by the very process of their
formation. Second, systems of gender-differentiation
are typically constructed in such a way as to support
and reinforce an overall pattern of dominationsubordination between men and women; and it is therefore very unlikely that the characteristics of either
gender will be appropriate to the social relationships and activities of a non-patriarchal society.

For example, if one examines the masculine and

feminine characteristics mentioned by Hite’s male
respondents (see section 2 above) and asks the
question ‘what would be the relations of power
between men and women who respectively displayed
these?’, the rough answer would surely be that they
would involve the domination by the former of the
latter [7]. (Thus, although my account of genderism
in ‘philosophy has focused upon the assumed superiority of masculine characteristics, it is important to
recognize that the way in which systems of genderdifferentiation sustain patriarchal societies is not
exclusively through the devaluation of feminine
characteristics, but also through the structuring of
relations between men and women precisely as relations of domination.)
So whilst on the one hand an assumed superiority
of masculine characteristics is likely to be unjustifiable, it is on the other hand unlikely that any
straightforward pevepsal of this assumption, ‘replacing’ it by the privileging of feminine characteristics, will be acceptable either [8]. Nor, it would
seem, should one opt instead for some ideal of
androgyny which is specified simply as the combination, in both men and women, of what exist at present
as gender-specific characteristics – as if, somehow,
all that was wrong with the masculine and feminine
was that each was only ‘partial’ and needed to be
‘completed’ by the other [9]. For not only are
existing gender-characteristics ‘suspect’ for the
reasons just mentioned, but also the kinds of opposition and contrast that frequently exist between
various masculine and feminine characteristics make
it unlikely that their simple combination would
constitute a coherent or viable way of living.

Finally, it may in any case be a mistake to think
that there could as yet exist an adequate conceptualization of what should be ideally counterposed to
gender-specific characteristics about which there is
good reason to be suspicious and criticaL For this
would apparently require one to assume that, by some
feat of theoretical analysis, one could achieve a
gender-neutral standpoint from which some positive
alternative could be clearly and persuasively articulated. But a theoretical standpoint of this kind
cannot altogether precede the practice it would
supposedly be designed to guide; and it is perhaps
only, instead, through the inevitably confused and
confusing attempts to discover in practice some
alternative to existing gender-systems that the basis
for an adequate conceptualization of this will be




Barratt, W., Irrational Man, Doubleday Anchor, New York, 1962
De Beauvoir, S., The Secorui Sex, trans. H. Parshley, Penguin, 1972
Blum, L., ‘Kant’ sand Hegel’ s Moral Rationalism: A feminist Perspective’,
Canadian Journal of Philosophy, XII, 1982, pp.287-302.

Blum, L., Homiak, M., Housman, J. and Scheman, N., ‘Altruism and Women’s
Oppression’, in C. Gould and M. Wartofsky (eds.), Women and Philosophy,

Chodorow, N., The Reproduation of Mothering, Uni versi ty of California Press,
Berkeley, 1978
CoHins, M. and Pierce, C., ‘Holes and Slime: Sexism in Sartre’s Psychoanalysis’

in C. Gould and M. Wartofsky (eds.), Women and Philosophy, Perigree Books,
New York, 1980, pp. 112-127 .

Easlea, B., Science and Sexual Oppression, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London,
Hite, S., The Hite Report on Male Sexuality, Macdonald, London, 1981
Hutt, C., Males and Females, Penguin, London, 1972
Lloyd, G., ‘The Man of Reason’, Metaphilosophy, 10, 1979, pp.18-37.

Miller, J.B., Towards a New Psychology of Women, Penguin, 1978
Okin, S., Women in Western PoUtiaal Thought, Virago, London, 1980
Reynolds, V., The Biology of Human Aation, W.G. Freeman, San Francisco, 1976

This article is based on papers given at Philosophy Department meetings in
Lancaster. Bristol, and Bangor – thanks to the participants there, and also
to Alison Assiter, Jenny Lloyd, and Aurora Turner for their comments on an
earlier draft.

For full references, see Bibliography.

This assumption is clearly over-simplified as it stands – in practice there
is a good deal of prejudicial stereotyping, ideological imagery, sel fdeception, etc., in the specification of gender-characteristics.

4 See, e.g., Hutt, Males and Females, Chapters 1-3, and Reynolds, The iHology
of Human Action, Part Ill.

S This genderism may also be involved in Sartre’s conception of the For-itself
as ‘transcendent’; and this may generate certain problems in the say de
Beauvoir makes use of the latter concept in The Secorui Sex. On this, see
Lloyd’s ‘Masters, Slaves and Others’ elsewhere in this issue, and Easlea’s
discussion of de Beauvoir in Chapter 1 of Science and Sexual Oppression.

6 Important examples of this kind of genderism might be found in those forms
of Cartesian dualism involving, amongst other things, a (masculine) devaluation of the body as the locus of emotional experience.

7 For an interesting discussion of some aspects of this issue, see Blum et aI,
‘AI truism and Women’s Oppression’.

8 But cf. Miller’s Towards a New Psychology of Women.

9 I’m not implying, here, that this is the only way in which an ideal androgyny
can be, or has been, specified.



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