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Philosophy, feminism and universalism

Philosophy, feminism
and universal ism
Jean Grimshaw

During the last ten years or so, when I have been asked
what my particular ‘interests’ are, I have usually said that
I have been working on ‘feminism and philosophy’, or
‘philosophy and feminism’ – or perhaps, though less
often, ‘feminist philosophy’. I have become increasingly
interested in how to think about this conjunction:

‘Feminism and … ; Philosophy and … ‘

In Hipparchia’s Choice, Michele Le Dceuffwrites:

fundamental aims of feminist philosophical work has
been to deconstruct the claims of much masculinist
philosophical theory to be ‘universal’ or ‘objective’ in
the sense of being able to adopt a ‘God’s eye view’ above
the fray of things like social location and politics.

Elizabeth Grosz3 writes that three of the most important
things questioned by feminist philosophers have been the
following:

The desire to see philosophy continue: this is
something that preoccupies us all. Yet have we
thought ill enough of this discipline that we love?

‘” On occasion I have maintained that this
discourse which claims to understand everything
better than any other is a mode of phantasmagorical
hegemony; all the same, in it I saw my road to
freedom.)

1. The belief in any universal truth independent of the
particularities of history or social conditions.

2. The belief in observer-neutral or context-free
knowledge.

3. The belief in a transhistorical subject of knowledge
who can in all ways ‘distance’ himself from the
objects of knowledge; in other words, a dIsembodied,
sexless, perspectiveless knower.

My own experience was similar. My interest in
philosophy began in my teenage years and became
serious in my mid twenties. Among other things, it
symbolized to me independence of mind and rejection of
the narrow rigidities of my childhood and adolescence.

And one of its great attractions was that it seemed to have
nothing to do with the rest of my life. The ‘I’ who studied
philosophy seemed almost Cartesian, and I thought of
philosophy as dealing with ‘universal’ questions where I
might just possibly meet on equal terms, as it were, with
other ‘minds’, and where the problems of the rest of my
life could be bracketed out. (The American philosopher
Sara Ruddick writes, in similar vein, that her life was
shaped by a love affair with Reason; a desire to be in a
‘world’ that transcended the messy and fleshly concerns
of everyday life – and particularly, in her case,
motherhood. 2)
When I first studied philosophy, the question of
gender did not even enter my head, and when I first
became aware of it, it was with a profound sense of
shock, since it seemed to undermine the foundations of
what I thought I had been doing. One of the most

These views are shared in many ways by postmodern
epistemologists. The distinctiveness of the feminist
critique of philosophy, however, lies mainly in the
demonstration that there are important ways in which
much of philosophy rests on typically or paradigmatically male experience and concerns, even though
these may not be the same at all times. What preoccupies
philosophers, what is seen as ‘important’, what is
marginalized or even seen as ‘not philosophy’, what is
absent and not thought worthy of mention, what is given
little value or treated with contempt – these are closely
related to conceptions of masculinity, and to the projects
that are, in varying ways, seen as typifying the life of a
man. Much feminist philosophical writing has aimed to
show that this ‘false universalism’ is, in fact, a type of
particularity .

Now this might suggest that the aim of feminist
philosophy should be to transcend this false
universalism, and develop philosophical theories which
are in some way more inclusive, and perhaps genuinely
‘universal’. This kind of view, when applied to other
fields of enquiry such as science, has sometimes been

Radical Philosophy 76 (March/April 1996)

19

called ‘feminist empiricism’; it is a view of feminist
scholarship and enquiry as aiming simply to correct the
errors and biases of older masculinist ways, whilst
engaging nevertheless in a similar kind of enterprise.

This conception of feminist enquiry, however, has
been taken to task for its failure to be critical enough of
the paradigms with which much philosophical enquiry
has been conducted. In particular, it has been argued that
old-style ‘objectivity’, premissed on an implicit belief in
the possibility of a ‘God’s eye view’ which transcends
social and historical location, is not recuperable for
feminist purposes. Some kind of perspectivism must be
an essential presupposition of feminist enquiry, however
difficult it may be to formulate this. Feminist ‘standpoint’

theory is an attempt to formulate a theory of this
perspectivism which draws on Marxist views of
knowledge. Such attempts to formulate a feminist
perspectivism do not usually involve a total rejection of
any notion of ‘objectivity’. More commonly, they
attempt to redefine or reformulate it. Sandra Harding, for
instance, distinguishes between ‘objectivism’ (the belief
~n the God’s eye view) and ‘objectivity’.4 She argues that
objectivism is both too strong and too weak for feminist
purposes, and that feminist enquiry should both reject
the possibility of knowledge that transcends social
location and reformulate the notion of ‘objectivity’ to
allow for the critique, development and accountability of
knowledge claims from varying perspectives in ways that
are foreign to ‘objectivism’.

If ‘objectivism’ is rejected, it means that questions
about the objects and the subjects of knowledge can no
longer be sharply held apart. Knowledge claims cannot
be considered in abstraction from consideration of who
is claiming to know, since the ‘what’ cannot fail to be
inflected by the ‘who’. The discomfiting aspect of this,
for one’s own philosophical practice, arises from the
recognition that the feminist philosopher needs to reevaluate not merely the masculinism of aspects of the
philosophical tradition, but also the location of her own
philosophical work. It is (once one has started) not so
hard to see how philosophical traditions are often
masculinist. It is much harder to think about
perspectivism in relation to one’s own work. But the
critique of masculinist particularity disguised as
universalism has, in recent years, also intersected
powerfully with a growing awareness within feminist
theory and practice of the ways in which some feminist
writing has tended, sometimes unwittingly, to
‘universalize’ the experiences and practices of a
relatively small and privileged group of women. 5 A great
deal has now been written about the importance of
feminist writers, too, recognizing that they speak and

20

write from certain positions, difficult though it may be to
acknowledge or formulate these, or to think clearly about
the impact they may have on one’s own work.

But if it is important to think about the position from
which one writes, it is equally important – and difficultto think about whom one imagines one is addressing and
why. A symptom of this difficulty is the uneasiness
commonly felt by many feminist writers about the term
‘we’. Who is included or excluded in this ‘we’? How is
one to think about these inclusions and exclusions? I
want now to explore some of these questions further by
looking at Michele Le D<xuff's discussion of feminism
and philosophy in Hipparchia 's Choice.

Le Dmuff’s choice
Like other philosophers wntmg from a feminist
perspective, Le D<xuff rejects the false universalism of
much philosophical writing. She links her feminist
critique of this false universalism to her analysis in a
previous book, The Philosophical Imaginary, of myths
and images in philosophy. 6 Historically, philosophy has
often seen itself as fully 'rational'; it has tried to establish
its own value by distinguishing itself from other forms of
discourse such as myth or poetry. If philosophers have
used myths or images, they have seen these as mere
embellishments, or as inessential heuristic or pedagogic
devices. But Le D<xuff argues that these images are
constitutive of philosophy. It could not function ~ithout
them; they are its unacknowledged support. And it is
important to investigate them since they often indicate
the points at which there is stress or tension in a
philosophical theory, the points where it cannot come
out into the open, or where there are things that it has to
exclude. She analyses Thomas More's Utopia, for
example, and in particular the way in which it is
dominated by imagery of theatre and islands. She argues
that these images signal a blind spot in More's work; an
excess where he says more than he means to, and where
he is not able to say other things overtly. Not all of the
myths and images that Le D<xuff analyses are directly
connected with gender. But nevertheless notions of the
'masculine' and the 'feminine' commonly function, as
myth or metaphor, to disguise or repress what cannot be
acknowledged, what must be excluded. They also
indicate the points at which a philosopher may 'exceed'

or contradict the premisses of his own theory. In
Hipparchia’s Choice there is some very powerful
analysis of the way in which Sartre’s analysis of ‘bad
faith’ in Being and Nothingness signals such blind spots.

So, philosophy’s own self-image has been that of the
fully transparent and rational, that which can validate its
own foundations. But Le D<xuff argues that no discourse

can do this. Her strategy of analysing myths and images
in philosophy aims not merely to expose what is hidden
within any particular philosophical system, but to work
towards a new conception of philosophy, one which is
aware of its own necessary limitations and partial and
incomplete character. It is not that we should just wallow
in myth and metaphor. Le Dceuff sees it as very important
that we should aim for such things as clearer insights,
critique, and reasoned argument. But it is crucial, she
suggests, that we should also recognize the partial and
provisional nature of all philosophical work, and the
concerns, interests and perspectives from which we
write. We should put ourselves into our philosophy, and
not try to remain 'outside' what we say or write.

Now it looks at this point as if Le Dceuff is moving in
the direction of saying that philosophy should simply be
perspectival. However, despite her critique of false
universalism, she also wants to maintain that there is an
important sense in which philosophy should be
‘universal’. Her defence ofthe ‘universal’ in philosophy
depends, I think, on an important distinction between the
experience and perspectives from which philosophical
work arises, and the audience to whom it is addressed.

Le Dceuff says some interesting things about
audiences. First, she argues that readers and authors must
have something in common if they are to meet at all.

This does not mean that they will always agree. In fact,
real or substantive disagreement can only come about if
there are certain shared interests, values and assumptions
about what it is important and legitimate to investigate.

This sort of issue has been brought home to me very
forcibly on many occasions when I have tried to have
discussions about feminism and philosophy with men
(though also with some women). I have spent much
totally frustrating time on occasions when no progress at
all was made, because it seemed impossible to establish
or share any basic values or goals. Here is a small
selection of remarks that I have encountered which have
indicated this state of affairs:

Well, this may be quite interesting, but
philosophy?

IS

it

But surely there are no barriers to women
becoming philosophers nowadays?

But surely the fact that a philosopher makes a few
sexist remarks about women has nothing to do with
their philosophy? (They might have had all sorts of
other unpleasant personal habits as well … )
My wife doesn’t feel oppressed.

And so on. If you get this kind of response from an
audience, you rarely get beyond the state of trying to

show that there is actually something to discuss, and you
almost inevitably reach a kind of deadlock.

So it seems that the audience to whom philosophical
work is addressed must, if the work is to communicate at
all, share at least a sense of the basic worth and
importance of the questions being asked and the
enterprise being undertaken. But Le Dceuff wants to say
something else as well about the audience for philosophy.

Philosophical work, she writes, proposes a ‘we’; it
invites a response. But the audience invited to listen or
respond to philosophy should not, she argues, be
restricted by any extra-intellectual criterion. Philosophy
should aim to address women and men together. It should
postulate an open debate in which only ‘reasonable’

people will be involved. Even though it should not try to
develop theories of universal application, it should aim
to be universal in the following kind of way. She writes:

It comes down to postulating that the things one is
talking about have being, or at least the ones that
are worth talking about do. This does not mean that
they ‘really’ exist, … nor that they are radically
independent of the thought that thinks about them.

The postulate according to which the things one is
talking about have being is more minimal than that.

It is the idea that … the simple fact that I posit
something as the object of my thinking means that
I posit it as an object. .. 7

What Le Dceuff means, I think, is that I must assume that
any ‘reasonable’ listener or reader will agree that the
object of my investigation ‘exists’, in the sense of being
worthy of attention and capable of being investigated.

This is what Le Dceuff calls a ‘regulatory’ idea. It does
not presuppose agreement; in fact, as I have said, one
cannot really disagree unless there is also something
shared. The ‘objects’ of feminist study should therefore
be, Le Dceuff suggests, ‘independent’, and in principle at
least be objects of thought, study and reason for
everyone. But if this is the case, she raises the following
question:

In what sense, then, can one speak of feminist
philosophy? If it is a form of philosophy, its object
is independent (or in any case postulated as such);
but what independent object can reside in an
empirically identifiable sociological ‘place’. In the
first analysis, this is a contradiction. 8
In other words, she is saying that there seems to be a
contradiction between her conception of philosophy as
‘universal’ , addressed to readers not differentiated by any
extra-intellectual criterion, and the fact that all writers of
philosophy have a social location.

21

It seems to me that there is indeed a tension in what
Le Dceuff writes. If the writers of philosophy are socially
related, then so too are the readers. The idea of the
proposed ‘universal’ reader who is not differentiated by
any extra-intellectual criterion seems to me to be a
shadow of the idea of the universal ‘Man of Reason’ who
has been the target of so much feminist critique. Le
Dceuff herself cannot, of course, be unaware that the
readers as well as the writers of philosophy are socially
located. The ‘universal’ reader is not an empirical reality,
and the ‘existence’ of the object is simply, she argues, a
necessary postulate in philosophical writing. But if, in
writing philosophy, one must assume as a reader someone who shares some agenda with oneself, the sharing of
that agenda cannot be seen merely as a matter of abstract
‘reason’, and it is hard to see how an abstract postulate
based on that idea could function as a basis for
philosophical work. In the case of feminist philosophical
writing, the agenda that needs to be shared before
discussion can even begin must include, for instance,
some serious appreciation of feminist concerns, a
recognition that issues of gender in philosophy are not a
‘trivial’ matter, and an awareness that philosophy should
not be discussed as if it were a question of ‘Great Ideas’

that spring out of the blue and fully formed from the
heads of philosophers alone. And the kind of profound
change in intellectual orientation that is required for
feminist philosophical thinking to be pursued and
communicated does not arise simply out of one’s head,
or as a matter of pure thought. It always intersects with
changes in experience, orientation and practice in other
areas of one’s life. Certainly, in my own case, my
growing interest in feminism and philosophy arose both
from an increasing awareness of ‘women’s issues’ in the
rest of my life, and from a feeling (still at times
ambivalent) that the intellectual and personal dimensions
of my life should be brought more closely into
relationship with each other.

So I do not think that the idea of the ‘universal’

reader, as Le Dceuff proposes it, can be accepted, since
the realm of the ‘intellect’ cannot be thought of as one
which is wholly divorced from the historical and social
contexts in which human intellects operate. Nevertheless, I think it suggests some important things about the
way in which we might think about feminism and
philosophy, which I would like to try to reformulate.

A starting point for this reformulation might be as
follows. Much feminist philosophy has considered the
question of what it might mean to be a woman doing
philosophy, or to write as a woman. Much has also been
written about the need to recognize that one is never just
a woman, since gender can never be wholly abstracted

22

from race, class and other aspects of one’s social
location. But whilst one cannot either simply write as a
‘human being’, and whilst it is necessary to recognize
the force of feminist critiques of notions of ‘the human’

that have so often excluded women or other beings
perceived as inferior, nevertheless it seems to me that in
the writing and reading of philosophy there are aspects
of ‘being human’ which are not reducible to experiences
which can simply be classified under gender, race or
class, however complex the intersections between these.

There are always senses in which philosophy may,
indeed must, transcend gender and address issues which
can be seen as being of common human concern. And it
is important, indeed, to add that issues of gender should
themselves be issues of common concern. Nor is it
always plain at the outset what kinds of implications for
philosophy thinking about gender will have.

A different significance
But this kind of point can be expressed more generally.

Even if philosophical theories are related in some way to
social experience, the nature of the experience from
which philosophical theorizing arises, or to which it
speaks, may be very wide-ranging and diverse. In
sociological theory, an influential theory of socialization
at one time laid great stress on the notion of ‘significant
others’ .9 But many theorizations of who these ‘significant
others’ might be seemed to assume that they could enly
be the people one happened to bump into in the course of
one’s daily life. The implication seemed to be that
anything which was historically, geographically or
culturally remote could not really be significant. It
seems to me that ‘significance’ cannot possibly be
restricted in this kind of way. It is not necessary for all
aspects of social experience to be shared for it to be
possible for a philosophical theory to ‘speak’ to one from
a position of considerable distance. And, pari passu, it
may be that writing one produces oneself may ‘speak’ to
people whose location is very different from one’s own.

It is always interesting, for example, to find ways in
which the writings of philosophers or theorists
(Nietzsche or Freud, for instance) who are highly patriarchal and misogynist in many ways, may nevertheless
provide in sights or conceptual frameworks which can
provoke a significant re-articulation of what one thinks
about one’s own life or work.

The ‘meaning’ of philosophical theories and the
significance they might have is always open, and may
always generate an ‘excess’ which certainly cannot be
attributed to authorial intention, and which may
transgress the boundaries of expectation. Even where
these same writings try to effect closures or are premissed

on exclusions, they may not fully succeed in these things.

I may read Nietzsche or Freud with profit in ways that
are remote from any expectations they would themselves
have had. Philosophical theories may also of course not
speak to those to whom one assumed that they would
speak. But we need, I think, to recognize the intrinsically
‘open texture’ of philosophical writings, and avoid the
kind of parochialism which assumes that their
relationship to the experience of writers or readers can
always be clearly known in advance or restricted to any
particular social groups.

The nature of the conjunction between feminism and
philosophy does not consist in bringing two selfcontained disciplines or areas of enquiry into confrontation or relation with each other. One of the first things
that happens when the relationship between feminism
and philosophy is taken seriously is that there is a
tendency for intellectual enquiry to become
interdisciplinary, and for the traditional or
orthodox boundaries of disciplines to be
transcended. This is not accidental. I noted
earlier how one of the commonest remarks I
have heard from those who have been
antagonistic to feminist work in philosophy
has been ‘But is this philosophy?’ I have
stopped feeling a need constantly to try to
show that an enquiry ‘really’ is philosophical.

One reason is that conceptions of what
philosophy is have themselves been
historically very variable. In addition, the
strong desire to demarcate rigid territories is
partly a function of the common academic
desire to have hierarchies of expertise and a
strong territorialism of discipline boundaries.

But as soon as you acknowledge the
legitimacy or importance of questions about
the identities of human knowers, as soon as
you stop delegitimizing or bracketing out
questions about who is claiming to know, then
the sharp boundaries between the ‘objects’ of
knowledge and the ‘subjects’ who claim to
know begin to collapse. This means that one’s
conception of the ‘nature’ of a discipline will
change profoundly, and it will no longer be
possible to demarcate academic territories in
quite the same way as before.

So philosophy (or any other area of
intellectual enquiry) will change profoundly
in an encounter with feminist thinking, in
ways that are not always obvious from the
outset. But, in addition, feminism should not
be thought of as a clearly defined set of

beliefs, or an orthodoxy. It is an orientation, which is
both political and epistemological. Feminist enquiry
assumes, as I have already said, some kind of agreement
or consensus about the nature and importance of the
enterprise. But feminism is (and should be) compatible
with strong and often interesting and productive
disagreements and debates about the objects of study and
the methods by which enquiry should proceed. And it is
compatible with – and often requires – radical and
ongoing modification to one’s own thinking in all sorts
of ways.

Some conceptions of the relation between feminism
and philosophy have explicitly or implicitly suggested
that one or the other should be the dominant partner. In
The Sceptical Feminist,1O for instance, Janet Radcliffe
Richards seemed to see philosophy simply as a useful
tool with which to sort out the horrible conceptual

23

muddles into which she thought feminists had got
themselves. Others, by contrast, have seen philosophy as
something which needs knocking into shape by a
feminist sledgehammer, and purifying of its sexism and
phallocentrism. I have come to think that neither of these
conceptions is of much use. There is no clear ‘inside’ or
‘outside’ to feminist theory or philosophy. Feminist
theory is an ongoing and enormously ramified enterprise,
and the term ‘feminist’ is not some kind of hallmark of
authenticity with which one can simply stamp a theory
and accredit it. Feminist goals and values are themselves
matters of contention, and which theoretical outcomes
will come to be seen as apt for those values and goals is,
a fortiori, a matter of dispute and debate. It frequently
does not follow, in philosophy at least, that the relevance
or interest of philosophical theories to aspects of feminist
enquiry is always in proportion to the level of misogyny
or phallocentrism displayed by the male philosophers
who espoused the theory in the first place.

Once feminist philosophical enquiry moves beyond
the initial stage of investigating things such as the overt
sexism of male theory, it is rarely possible sharply to
demarcate which bits of one’s intellectual endeavours are
‘feminism’ and which are ‘philosophy’, since each has
become so changed by the other. And it is for this reason
that, whilst I think that there are problems with the
particular ways in which Le Dreuff expresses her
conception of the universality of philosophy, there is also
something very important about it. As I have said, the
idea of a postulated audience of abstractly ‘reasonable’

people who are differentiated by no extra-intellectual
criteria seems to be a shadow cast by the idea of the
universal ‘Man of Reason’. But I do not think that there
can or should be an enterprise called ‘feminist
philosophy’ which can in principle speak only to women,
nor variants within this that can in principle speak only
to particular groups of women.

One might in fact just as well call this the universality
of feminism as the universality of philosophy. It is
interesting here to consider the ways in which books on
philosophy that have a feminist orientation are often
classified in libraries or bookshops. It is commonly the
case that even when they obviously deal with
philosophical topics, they are classified not under
‘philosophy’ but under ‘gender’ or ‘women’s studies’.

‘Feminist philosophy’ is marked as a variant. Courses
with ‘feminism’ or ‘gender’ in the title are often seen as
a ‘special interest’, of relevance only to women. One of
the central objectives of feminist philosophical work
should be that questions now identified as ‘feminist’

should become part of the normal repertoire of everyone
who studies philosophy.

24

But the reason for this is not simply that one would
like the insights of feminist philosophy to become part of
the ‘mainstream’. More importantly, it is because of a
dialectic that emerges. When feminist enquiry
encounters any discipline, the parameters of that
discipline begin to yield and dissolve in important ways.

At the same time, the parameters and boundaries of
feminist thinking may themselves respond, sometimes
in surprising ways, to new resources which could not
have been predicted. The audience who might respond
with recognition or intellectual excitement to this
dialectic is one which must share some general
orientation. This will involve interconnections between
the social experiences and political awareness of the
audience and their intellectual interests and endeavours.

But who will share this orientation, what the objects of
enquiry will turn out to be, how they can best be pursued,
are things which cannot be clearly determined in
advance. It may well be necessary, for strategic reasons,
for women to retain spaces of their own for the
foreseeable future. Without such spaces, a feminist
approach to philosophy could not have flourished, since
it would have been almost impossibly difficult to get
beyond the stage of trying to show that there actually
was something to discuss. It also seems somewhat
depressingly unlikely that, for the foreseeable future, the
academic mainstream will regard feminism as anything
more than a ‘special interest’. But the dialecti~al .

relationship between feminism and the academic
disciplines has the potential for transformations that are
of entirely general human and intellectual relevance.

Philosophical and feminist discourses have unstable
boundaries; they are open-textured and can be permeable
to each other. Because of this, they project in front of
themselves an audience whose nature is open and
uncertain and which always has a potential for indefinite
and unknown expansion. In this sense, there is a kind of
‘universalism’ implicit in the enterprise on which one
engages when writing from a feminist and/or
philosophical point of view.

As I have said, Le Dreuff argues that the universalism
of philosophy is a postulate, a regulative ideal, rather than
an actuality. But I want to suggest that there is a sense in
which her conception of this regulative ideal is not
sufficiently ‘universal’ , and that the reason for this is her
use of the idea of the abstractly ‘reasonable’ person.

Although Le Dreuff nowhere discusses Habermas,
there is something very Habermasian about her notion of
the universalism of philosophy. Habermas has argued
that the notion of an ‘ideal speech situation’, or
unrestrained communication free from force or fear of
reprisal, is implicit in the making of validity claims in

the communicative practices of everyday life. In his
concept of an ‘ideal speech situation’ he seems to
assume, like Le Dreuff, the possibility of an ‘abstractly
reasonable’ listener or party to the conversation. But
Habermas has been criticized for assuming an ideal
consensus about rationality that can seem at times less
like the universal conditions presupposed by linguistic
communication as such, and much more like particular
Western,
post-Enlightenment
(and
arguably,
masculinist) norms of rationality. (It is interesting in this
context that Habermas has expressed interest in the views
of writers such as Kohlberg, who have similarly been
accused of masculinist forms of universalization.)
Perhaps the problem with Le Dreuff’s notion of a
‘reasonable’ audience for philosophy is not only that this
conception of the audience is too abstract, but that it does
not sufficiently recognize the ways in which the criteria
for what is ‘reasonable’ may themselves be contested.

Le Dreuff argues that philosophical writing needs to
presuppose agreement on what will count as ‘rational’

ways of proceeding, as ‘good reasons’ for agreement or
disagreement. But her own view of philosophy also
suggests that such criteria can be highly contentious. To
give an example, imagine a debate about abortion
conducted between a moral philosopher who is wedded
to a style of argument rooted in an analytic ‘desert-island
dilemma’ approach and a feminist who wants to give an
account of the power relations involved in the history of
the criminalization of abortion, and to ask questions such
as when and why abortion became seen as ‘murder’. To
the analytic philosopher, the feminist may be perceived
as shelving or evading the central moral question – is
abortion right or wrong? To the feminist, the analytic
philosopher is simply failing to recognize that questions
about ‘morality’ cannot be settled in complete
abstraction from questions about power and about social
relationships.

Discussion and debate between women living and
thinking within different cultural traditions can reveal
similar kinds of problems. Anne Seller, for instance, has
written about the ways in which an experience of
teaching in India unsettled and challenged many of her
assumptions about academic debate, about its purpose
and legitimacy, and about the ways in which it should
proceed. 11 A great deal of feminist thinking and
discussion spanning different cultural traditions has
faced similar problems; what has been at issue has been
the criteria for how debate should proceed and what
should count as ‘reasonable’ argument.

What Le Dreuff’s conception of the ‘reasonable’

audience does not adequately recognize is the ways in
which feminist philosophical writing can think of itself

not merely as projected out to a potentially open
audience, but as open to change from the response of that
audience. This openness should concern not merely the
‘substance’ of an already agreed agenda, but challenges
to that agenda itself or to what counts as a ‘reasonable’

way of proceeding. It is precisely this kind of openness
that seems to me to find insufficient place in the
somewhat Habermasian approach of Le Dreuff, and I
shall conclude by suggesting that there are some useful
philosophical resources for thinking about this issue in
the work of Gadamer on hermeneutic understanding.

Truth and method
In Truth and Method 12 Gadamer’s central aim was to
give an ontological account of the conditions of
possibility of understanding, and to describe the
processes by which it works in human life. It was not to
provide a method for achieving understanding or truth,
nor to spell out a normative or ethical ideal of communication. For Gadamer, the basic misunderstanding of the
Enlightenment was to suppose that there could be
knowledge or understanding which was derived from
some abstract or universal standpoint. The
Enlightenment saw reason as sharply opposed to
tradition and authority. Gadamer believes that this
opposition is a false one. All understanding involves
projecting a meaning on one’s perceptions, and all these
interpretive projections are rooted in the situation of the
interpreter. Understanding is contingent, finite and
conditioned. This is also true of our conceptions of
rationality and objectivity; ‘reason’ is historical and
grounded in tradition.

A central concept in Truth and Method is that of
‘prejudice’. But for Gadamer, ‘prejudice’ does not mean
‘bias’ (which might be eliminated). It means, rather,
those things which have to be assumed or ‘prejudged’

before any form of knowledge or understanding is
possible. In this sense, all understanding involves
prejudice and all knowledge is perspectival and limited.

What seems interesting or worth investigation, and the
presuppositions that are brought to this task, are anchored
in a particular historical situation.

According to Gadamer, it is a mistake to see
prejudices as merely negative or as a hindrance which
we might aim to overcome. Without them we could not
have understanding at all, since they constitute what he
calls the initial directedness of our whole ability to
experience. Meaning is produced as a relation between
the subject matter and ourselves, and whilst in one sense
the contextual limitations may put constraints on what
meaning is produced, in another sense they are the
conditions of its possibility.

25

But Gadamer does not believe that the situated,
prejudiced and perspectival nature of understanding
entails that we are locked into finite or closed ‘worlds’ of
meaning whose parameters are permanently fixed. Such
a model of understanding would suggest that the only
way in which we might hope to understand others would
be to ‘get outside’ our own situation totally, disregard
our prejudices, and think ourselves into the world of the
other. But if all understanding is necessarily partial and
perspectival, this is impossible. The outcome of a
conception of knowledge or understanding which
supposes that we must necessarily be wholly locked into
closed worlds of meaning can only be objectivism (I am
right and they are wrong) or relativism (everyone is
‘right’, which is to say that notions of truth, or of
progression towards a better understanding, cannot get a
purchase at all).

The central metaphor that Gadamer uses with which
to think about understanding is that of a ‘horizon’. Like
many metaphors that have been used in philosophy to
think about knowledge or understanding, this is a spatial
metaphor. But although a horizon only exists from a
particular viewpoint or perspective, it is nevertheless
open, and its boundaries are indefinite and can be
extended. We can never remain hermetic ally sealed
within the prejudices that form the initial parameters of
our understanding. The trajectory of human understanding, Gadamer suggests, necessarily involves
encounters with others, and with other perspectives,
which will in turn modify our self-understandings. Any
interpretation is always open to encounter with and
critique from another interpretation. The process of
mutual modification that may occur is called by Gadamer
a ‘fusion of horizons’ . It is possible to understand across
differences of time and place, but the process of understanding does not merely flatten out or eliminate these
differences, nor does the ‘fusion’ involved necessarily
imply a reconciliation.

Georgia Warnke 13 describes the Gadamerian notion
of the ‘fusion of horizons’ as a de-absolutized Hegelian
conception; an ‘Aufbebung’ in which initial positions are
transcended in a new synthesis. But if the ideal of
‘synthesis’ is taken to imply reconciliation or agreement,
then Gadamer’s view does not seem to imply that such a
‘synthesis’ necessarily happens. If, starting necessarily
with our own prejudices, we come up against something
which challenges these, we may respond in various ways.

We might, for instance, feel that we must reject or
dismiss or ignore what we have encountered. We might
feel angry or discomfited. What we cannot wholly avoid
is the confrontation with something which asserts itself
against the prejudices from which we start; nor can we

26

wholly avoid the changes in our own self-understandings
which will result from such confrontations.

Now at this point there seem to be two main problems
with the idea that Gadamer’s thinking about understanding could be relevant to thinking about feminism or
feminist philosophy. First, Gadamer himself showed no
interest in and little sympathy with feminism. 14 And since
its central impulse has been and must be anchored in a
critique of those traditions and prejudices which have
oppressed women, how can a view of hermeneutic
understanding which involves arguing that
understanding is always rooted in tradition and prejudice
be useful to feminism?

There is plainly no sense in which Gadamer’s work
can be utilized lock, stock, and barrel for feminist
purposes, any more than that of any other contemporary
thinker who has so little sympathy with feminism. But it
is useful to contrast Gadamer’s approach with that of
Habermas on the one hand, and Rorty on the other.

Rorty’s pragmatism, his rejection of all Enlightenment
notions of reason or knowledge, and his reading of
hermeneutics entail the end of epistemology, if by
‘epistemology’ is meant any attempt to ‘ground’

knowledge in any way at all. Beyond the rejection of
Enlightenment foundationalism, there can only be
‘conversation’, and even if feminists provide an
additional ‘voice’ in such conversations, it is unclear
how, under such a view, any of the central critical·
impulses of feminism can be theorized at all. Habermas,
on the other hand, is insistent that we have to move
beyond hermeneutics if we are to have a critical theory
of society, or any account of power relations. But his
move beyond hermeneutics involves postulating an ideal
of communication in which all parties are able to
examine disputed claims without fear of force or reprisal,
and by appeal to reason and the force of argument alone.

This ideal seems to me to be very similar to the regulative
ideal of ‘universalism’ in philosophy proposed by Le
Dreuff, in which an audience supposedly demarcated by
no extra-intellectual criterion considers arguments or
knowledge claims on the basis of ‘reason’ alone. They
both assume the possibility of an abstract ‘rationality’

which is not anchored in any particular tradition or set of
prejudices, and in Le Dreuff’s case this is, I think, quite
incompatible with her stress on the need for agreement
before debate can begin. Gadamer, on the other hand,
whilst rejecting the Habermasian ideal of unrestrained
communication as abstract and unreal, in no way aligns
himself with the kind of relativism or view of philosophy
as ‘conversation’ that Rorty espouses. The fact that all
understanding is prejudiced does not entail that there
cannot be better understandings, even if these cannot be

measured against some abstract or universal ideal.

But the issue of the validity of understandings or
knowledge claims also raises a second problem about
Gadamer’s work. There are many points in his writing
(as Strickland notes) where he may appear to be
proposing a normative or ethical ideal of communication
with the other. When giving an account of his view of
understanding, it is often very difficult to describe it
without lapsing oneself into a normative or ethical mode
of writing. For instance, in describing the idea of ‘the
fusion of horizons’, one is led at times, following
Gadamer’s own language, to deploy phrases such as
‘openness to the other’, or to write about ‘responding to
the other’ . But critics of Gadamer, such as Habermas and
Bernstein,15 have argued that a fundamental problem
with Gadamer’s hermeneutics, with his notion of the
‘dialogue’ or ‘dialectic’ of understanding, is that he
nowhere addresses the issue of the sorts of conditions
under which any kind of ‘dialogue’ can be entered into.

Indeed, if Gadamer’s view of the ‘dialectic’ of
understanding, the ‘fusion’ of horizons, is interpreted as
an ethical ideal, it is not at all clear how a kind of
openness or readiness to listen or respond to others could
come about in situations which are structured by
hierarchies of power or relations of domination or
oppression. But Gadamer’s central concern was not to
set an ethical ideal, but to give an ontological account of
the ‘dialectic’ of understanding; the way in which
understanding occurs as a fundamental mode of our
being-in-the-world. Strickland argues that the notion of
‘dialectic’ is more adequate to describe Gadamer’ s view
of understanding than the word ‘dialogue’. A ‘dialectic’

between interpretations, encounters between them that
will impact in some way on one’s own understandings,
will happen whether we like it or not, and whether or not
we have any intention of entering into ‘dialogue’ with
the other. And this dialectic is not dependent on
agreement, nor on reconciliation of perspectives.

So a Gadamerian account of understanding is not
fundamentally concerned with considering the power
structures within which oppressors or those in situations
of power may well have no intention whatsoever of being
open to or responding receptively to the prejudices or
viewpoints of those with whom they are in an unequal
relationship. Nor does Gadamer consider what might be
done to increase the likelihood of such receptivity. There
are ways in which his account of hermeneutic understanding can be understood as conservative. Warnke, for
instance, argues that when discussing the ways in which
understanding presupposes common judgement or
agreement, Gadamer ultimately fails to distinguish
between two senses of agreement: the substantive sense

of actually embracing the views of a tradition, and the
sense in which these views may be an integral part of our
self-understanding, whether or not we agree with them.

In so far, therefore, as feminism must be concerned
with power relationships, including both those which
specifically structure the relationships between women
and men, and those (of race and class, for instance) in
which many women are themselves implicated, it seems
that an ethical ideal of communication is needed, of
which no adequate account can be found in Gadamer’s
work. In addition, a political account is needed of the
conditions under which openness, receptivity or
readiness to respond to the other might have a chance of
being practised.

There seems, therefore, to be no sense in which
Gadamer’s view of understanding can wholly escape the
charges either of conservatism or of failing to offer a
sufficient account of what a feminist understanding of
understanding itself might be. I want to end, however, by
suggesting that, despite these things, Gadamer’s account
of understanding can still be useful to feminism.

One reason for this usefulness is, I think, that there
remain tensions in Gadamer’s hermeneutics. Despite his
professed intention to analyse the structure and nature of
understanding, there are times at which, as I have already
noted, his account of the dialogic structure of
understanding suggests an ethical ideal of
communication in which one is prepared. to recognize
one’s own fallibility, to be open to other views, to
discover the strength of the positions of other participants
in a dialogue. These are themes which resonate with a
great deal of recent feminist thinking, both about the
blindness of many to any kind of feminist writing at all,
and about the blindness of some feminist understandings
to the diversity of women’s lives and priorities. But some
feminist discourse has had difficulty in trying to give an
account of how such blindness might be overcome. Some
feminist accounts of understanding have suggested that
it is impossible ever to understand the experience or
perspective of another. (This is frequently combined with
the kind of reification of ‘experience’ which takes it as
given that one can understand one’s own experience.) A
different kind of view suggests that perhaps it is possible
to understand the other, but only if we can almost become
her, suspend entirely our own preconceptions and
prejudices and ‘enter into’ her world.

The particular usefulness of Gadamer’ s approach to
understanding lies, I think, in the way he attempts to steer
a course between these two paths. It will never be
possible to understand another fully in the way that she
understands herself. To suppose that this should be our
aim amounts, in effect, to a form of appropriation of the

27

other, such that we imagine ourselves as able to speak
for her almost as she might speak herself. We can never
do this. Nor can we ever speak in a way that allows us to
suspend the prejudices from which we begin. In that
sense, to use Le Dreuff’s terminology, we have no choice
but to assume that the objects of our investigation ‘exist’.

But it is equally wrong to suppose that our own
understanding of ourselves is unmediated, or that it
cannot radically change when confronted with prejudices
or perspectives that have a very different starting place.

Our understandings of both ourselves and the other
remain always provisional and partial; we cannot divest
ourselves of our own prejudices, nor can we enter wholly
into the world of another. But Gadamer’s notion of
‘dialectic’ suggests that neither of these understandings
can remain wholly unchanged if there is an encounter
between them. What feminism needs in addition,
however, is a political and practical account of how the
potentialities of such a dialectical encounter can be
maximized, and how a mutual receptivity and openness
can best be achieved that is not a form of denial of one’s
own locatedness nor a form of appropriation of the other.

When the traditions and perspectives of feminist
enquiry and philosophy – or those of women in very
different social and cultural situations – come into
dialogue or relation with each other, any ‘fusion’ that
may result will be no simple synthesis. Nevertheless, the
idea of the ‘fusion of horizons’ seems to me to be one
that might be used to give useful expression to precisely
the universal impulse in philosophical thinking that Le
Dreuff wants to characterize. Philosophical thinking,
from Plato onwards, has often been characterized in
metaphors, and ‘horizon’ is a metaphor. But it is a useful
one in that it suggests both locatedness and positionality,
and at the same time an indefinite openness and lack of
closure. The ‘universality’ of feminist theory or feminist
philosophy should not be thought of as involving appeals
to either final or absolute truths, or to an audience
characterized merely by an abstract rationality. Nor, on

Discourse Unit

the other hand, should it think of itself speaking merely
to an audience whose relation to what is said is thought
to be known in advance. It involves, rather, a potentially
indefinite openness, both to the nature and social location
of audiences, but also to the reciprocity that may be
involved in the challenges posed by those audiences
themselves, and the painstaking reshaping of theory and
of conceptions of the processes of debate and argument
themselves in response to those challenges.

Notes
1. Michele Le Dreuff, Hipparchia’s Choice, trans. Trista
Selous, Blackwell, Oxford, 1991, p. 1.

2. Sara Ruddick, Maternal Thinking, Beacon Press, Boston
MA,1989.

3. Elizabeth Grosz, ‘Philosophy’, in S. Gunew, ed., Feminist
Knowledge: Critique and Construct, Routledge, London,
1990.

4. See Sandra Harding, Whose Science? Whose Knowledge?,
Open University Press, Milton Keynes, 1991.

5. See, for example, Elizabeth Spelman, Inessential Woman:

Problems ofExclusion in Feminist Thought, Beacon Press,
Boston MA, 1988.

6. Michele Le Dreuff, The Philosophical Imaginary, Athlone
Press, London, 1989.

7. Le Dreuff, Hipparchia’s Choice, pp. 40-41.

8. Ibid., p. 41.

9. See, for instance, Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann,
The Social Construction of Reality, Penguin,
Harmondsworth, 1967.

10. Janet Radcliffe Richards, The Sceptical Feminist,
Routledge, London, 1980.

11. Anne Seller, ‘Should the Feminist Philosopher Stay at
Home’, in K. Lennon and M. Whitford, Knowing the
Difference: Feminist Perspectives in Epistemology,
Routledge, London, 1994.

12. Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, Seabury Press,
New York, 1975. My discussion with Gadamer owes a
considerable amount to Susan Strickland’s Ph.D. thesis,
University of Hull, 1993.

13. Georgia Wamke, Gadamer: Hermeneutics, Tradition and
Reason, Polity Press, Cambridge, 1987.

14. See, for instance, Gadamer’s remarks in an interview in
Radical Philosophy 69, Jan/Feb 1995, pp. 34-5.

15. Richard Bemstein, Beyond Objectivism and Relativism,
University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, 1983.

Day Conference 20 April 1996

Social Construction ism, Discourse and Realism
A conference to explore connections between theory, method and politics in social research,
with particular reference to social constructionist and discursive debates in psychology.

Guest speakers: lan Burkitt, Vivian Burr, Andrew Collier, Beryl Curt,
Ruth Merttens, Jonathan Potter, Carla Willig
the

Details from: Uta Denny, Commercial Office, MMU, Hathersage Road,
Manchester M13 OJA, UK (tel: 0161 2472535, email: L.Denny @mmu.ac.uk)

28

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