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Women and the High Priests of Reason

Women and the
High Priests of Reason
Janna Thompson
Women are not supposed to be truly rational. The
conviction that women can at best worship in the
outer precincts of the temple of reason has a long
tradition. It has survived philosophical and social
revolutions. The idea is not that women are incapable
of any kind of activity requiring reason. Those who
sometimes like to think that we are by nature intuitive, impractical and illogical at the same time
castigate us for being calculating, manipulative and
ruthlessly efficient at achieving our ends. Women
have a certain low cunning; or, seen more positively,
a sound common sense understanding of the part of the
world that comes within their grasp. It is the
grander shores, the more sacred groves of rationality
which women are supposed to be unfit to aspire to.

A few women may now be philosophers, mathematicians
or practitioners of a ‘hard’ science, but these
disciplines – which have been traditionally regarded
as the supreme achievements of the human intellect are masculine domains. Women exist in them only in
some discomfort.

Why is it that reason as it is employed in these
areas is regarded as peculiarly masculine? Do
theories about rationality propounded by philosophers
legitimate and perpetuate this situation? To subject
the whole of Western philosophy to a critical examination would be an immense undertaking. This paper
will concentrate on looking at a theory which has had
– and still has – an enormous impact on the way we
think about rationality.

I The Man of Reason and the Man of Science
For as to reason, or sense, inasmuch as it is
that alone which renders us men and distinguishes
us from the brutes, I am disposed to believe
that it is complete in each one of us.

(Descartes, Discourse on Method, Part I)
Descartes contends that the ability to discover what
is true or false is not confined to ‘the company of
learned men’ or to those who are trained in academies.

Indeed, those who are too respectful of academic
dogmas are hindered rather than helped in their
attempts to gain knowledge. Almost anyone, Descartes
says, can train themselves to make proper use of
their rational powers. Thus a person who wants to
make discoveries is advised not to depend on books or
teachers, but to find out for himself, using his own
mind, what is true and what is false. What Descartes
seems to be offering is a liberation from the stuffy,
elitist halls of academia and a road to truth which

can be taken by people who might never have been
found in these halls in the first place.

When Descartes directed his fellow men to make
proper use of their natural light of reason, he may
have had in mind only the ‘men’ referred to by the
narrow sense of the term. But nothing he says about
reason suggests that the power is confined to one sex.

Indeed, we might suppose that Descartes’ view of
rationality would have positive implications as far
as women are concerned. For the Cartesian view, unlike the then prevalent Aristotelian view, did not
allow that particular kinds of persons – women, for
example – could be naturally deficient in their
powers of reason. And further, the Cartesian view.

emphasises that these rational powers can be exercIsed
properly and to good effect by people who are not as women were not – part of an academic -establishment.

There have been feminists who have tried to make
use of these implications of Descartes’ theory of
rationality. A 17th-century disciple of Descartes,
Marie de Gournay, in L’EgaZit~ des Hommes et des
Femmes, argued that only the lack of proper training
in the use of their minds kept women from being able
to understand the true nature of the universe.

Therefore it may seem strange that some people, from
a feminist point of view, have contended that the
Cartesian theory of rationality has had a pernicious
effect on the way women in our society are treated
and perceived.

Genevieve Lloyd in The Man of Reason argues that
the ideal of rationality associated with Descartes
and other Rationalist philosophers of the 17th
century, rather than challenging views about the
natural differences between women and men, had the
effect of sharpening the mental division of labour
between the sexes. The ideal of the Man of Reason
was, in fact, an ideal for males and not females; to
women were assigned characteristics which the Man of
Reason was supposed to suppress or overcome: sensuousness, emotions – in short, the non-rational.

Lloyd thinks that the Cartesian rational ideal had
this effect because it required a more drastic separation than ever before between the intellect and the

The search for the clear and distinct, the
separation out of the emotional, the sens~ous!

the imaginative, now makes possible polarIzatIon
of previously existing contrasts – intellectual
versus the emotions; reason versus imagination;
mind versus matter.

Thus when the Cartesian view of rationality was
applied to the already existing notion that women are

more emotional, sensuous and less rational than men,
women’s supposed mental characteristics were even
further downgraded. For now these characteristics
were no longer part of the rational. Further, those
who embark on the austere path which Descartes
recommends to the Man of Reason, need comfort,
relief and solace. And who better to provide this
service than those traditional nurturers – women?

The Man of Reason must have his Ladies Auxiliary.

Nevertheless, the link between the Cartesian view
of rationality and the degradation of women remains
puzzling. For if it is granted that women are human,
that we have minds as well as bodies, then it is
difficult to deny that we too have reason ‘complete
in each of us’. From a rational point of view the
marriage of Cartesianism with the Aristotelian
belief in the mental deficiencies of women doesn’t
make much sense.

Though it is true that a contradiction can become
common currency if it suits popular prejudices, we
may still wonder why Cartesianism didn’t more successfully challenge traditional views about women. Is
this failure connected, as Lloyd believes, to the
deficiencies which undoubtedly exist in Descartes’

view of rationality? To investigate this further we
have to look more closely at the purposes Cartesian
theory was meant to serve and the way it entered the
social world.

The promise Descartes holds out in Rules for the
Direation of the Mental Powers and also in his more
mature works is that by exercising our mental
faculties properly, we will be able to have incontrovertible knowledge of the nature of the universe.

But from our vantage point we can see that Descartes
was not so much liberating our rational powers from
bookish irrelevancies as binding them to a new view
of the world – to the natural philosophy of Galileo,
Copernicus and other ‘mechanists’. His view of
rationality and the new natural philosophy were made
for each other.

The secret of correct method, as Descartes
explains it in the Rules, is to obtain clear and
distinct ideas as the result of an analytical process
– i.e. by breaking down data until we reach the
‘simple natures’. Then by relating these epistemological atoms in ways that are also clear and
distinct (and by making methodical ‘enumerations’)
we can pass ‘sound and true judgments on all that
presents itself to us’ (Rule 1).

But only to someone who has already accepted the
new natural philosophy would it seem obvious that the
simple natures must be of ‘likeness’, ‘equality’,
‘extension’, ‘shape’, motion’, ‘existence’, ‘unity’,
‘duration’, and not say, ‘colour’, ‘texture’,
‘sound’, etc. Only to those who accept mechanistic
views about causality would explanations in terms of
pushes and pulls seem clear and distinct, and explanations in terms of potentialities obscure and ‘occult’ ..

Even the reductionism inherent in Descartes’ method
is only self-evident within a certain framework of
explanation. Why should we believe that we properly
understand the nature of a piece of wax (to use the
example in the Meditations) when we reduce it to its
epistemological atoms and not when we comprehend it
in relation to bees and beehives? Descartes’

commitments required him to render the piece of wax
into a fit object of contemplation for the kind of
scientific understanding he was inclined to accept.

The Man of Reason is the man who was on the winning
side in the scientific revolution of the 17th
century. And Descartes was only one of the first to
identify rationality with the explanatory principles
of this science.

However, to see the Cartesian view of rationality
as merely underwriting theories which have to a large

extent been superseded is to ignore the main source
of its power and continuing attractiveness. Some
ideals which Descartes embodied in his description
of the Man of Reason, particularly those Lloyd is
most concerned to expose, transcend his time and
place. Descartes’ theory of rationality is meant to
demonstrate that when the mind concerns itself with
its proper objects – and these turn out to be what
can be known in mathematics,science and philosophy then it is capable of true objectivity, true rationality, of real knowledge. Whereas what cannot be
clearly and distinctly understood – and this turns
out to be most of what we are concerned with in our
daily existence – is not true knowledge.

Descartes’ rules for the direction of our mental
powers are like instructions for the efficient employment of a machine where it can be assumed that the
mechanism will operate properly providing it is used
in the way it was designed to be used. The main
instruction is that we should not allow its operation~
to be clogged by impurities. The imagination, the
senses, contribute raw materials to this machinery.

but must by no means be allowed to interfere with the
workings of the mechanism. This is how error and disagreement creep in.

The reason why these other mental faculties introduce error is because they are subjective. Individuals differ in imaginative powers, in their memories,
their emotional life, and to some degree in their
sense experiences. Only the intellect can provide
an objective view of the world – a view that isn’t
affected by an individual’s personality, special
abilities or point of view. What sense experience
does contribute – the possibility of knowing the
simple natures – is kept from being a threat to this
objectivity by ensuring that these natures can be
described in impersonal – i.e. mathematical – terms.

When Descartes insists that our rational .powers are
complete in each of us, what he is really concerned
to establish is that objectivity is possible. Each
of us has an intellect which can operate, if we let
it, undisturbed by individual differences or by our
being the kinds of people we are.

The setting for the operation of reason which
Descartes constructs is not only designed to prevent
the idiosyncracies of individuals from interfering
with the intellect, but to overcome the limitations
which all humans share as bodily creatures. In
ordinary life we are caught up in our daily concerns,
forced to decide and act on the basis of opinion.

We are beset by bodily needs, desires and passions.

Our thoughts revolve around our relations to each
other; our view of the world is coloured by our
values and attitudes. The arrangements which
Descartes describes at the beginning of the Disaourse
on Method for achieving peace, objectivity and
tranquillity are meant to ensure that such human
passions, bodily needs and cares do not interfere
with the workings of the intellect. Being rational
requires that we cut ourselves off from ordinary
existence temporarily. If we can do so, then we
should be able to come to a view which is not affected
by the human standpoint. We can, for instance, learn
to comprehend the piece of wax as an extended thing
– rather than as an object with a use, as something
that has a certain significance to us and a
connection with our lives.

What Descartes is striving for is an epistemological ideal which is still influential and is above
all embodied in some views about philosophy, science
and mathematics. For it is commonly believed that
true knowledge must be objective – not only as far
as individuals are concerned, but in so far as the
human species is concerned. Real knowledge cannot be
merely human knowledge. And thus when Descartes

suggests that the natural light of reason is a divine
light he should be taken seriously. We become godlike to the extent that we can be rational. And this
means for Descartes as it did for Plato, being able
to contemplate with the intellect the objects that
are appropriate to it.

How can we be sure that our knowledge when it is
obtained according to Descartes’ rules is not merely
human after all? How can we be sure that what appears
to us individually and collectively as clear and
distinct is really the case? Only a metaphysical
guarantee can possibly assure us of this. And therefore Descartes in the Meditations deals with this
problem by attempting to prove the existence of God
as a non-deceiver. Descartes’ theory of rationality,
in the end, is founded on a theological premise.

Descartes’ advocacy of the new science and his
metaphysical theory of rationality reinforced each
other. The new science encouraged a distinction
between the common sense world of appearances and a
reality describable in mathematical terms – a distinction embodied in Galileo and Descartes’ advocacy of
the primary/secondary quality doctrine. Moreover the
very possibility of science, mathematics and philosophy, as they have been traditionally conceived,
seems to depend on the ability of the practitioners
to detach themselves from the concerns of daily life,
to obtain results which can be accepted by anyone, no
matter what their personality or background, to
develop universal knowledge rather than knowledge of
the particular and local. So it’s not difficult to
understand how a belief in the possibility of such
knowledge, along with the success of the new science,
could encourage the idea that reasoning in science,
mathematics’ and philosophy can achieve an objectivity
which is more than human. At the same time Descartes’

theological grounding of this rationality sanctified
these disciplines, encouraged a belief that only
scientists, mathematicians and philosophers can be
truly objective and truly rational.

Both the special relation of Descartes’ account
of rationality to these disciplines and its theological foundation must be appreciated in order to
understand why Cartesianism does not, as far as women
are concerned, have much of a potential to liberate.

11 Women in the Heavenly Kingdoms

Ability and inclination alone have never determined
who can join the ranks of the scientists, mathematicians and philosophers. The new scientists of
the 17th century were not on the whole craftworkers those people who actually had a practical knowledge
of the materials which scientists theorised about.

The natural philosophers were people of independent
means with the education, leisure and contacts
necessary to carry on their correspondences, their
experiments, their theorising. Thus the new rationality was associated with a division of labour
according to class, and Descartes’ challenge to the
intellectual establishment was on behalf of this new
intellectual elite.

The intellectual elite was also almost exclusively
masculine. Only women of the aristocracy occa~ion­
ally had a chance to pursue philosophical or scientific studies, and even for them the practical difficulties of fulfilling their social roles and having a
life of the mind were often insuperable. Princess
Elisabeth, who corresponded with Descartes, complains
continually that her social duties and household
cares made philosophical reflection virtually
impossible [2]. Nor would the proprieties permit
her to visit and converse with learned men. The
independent life and the dedication of a savant were
just not possible for women.


Though it is now possible for us to enter those
disciplines which our society has always regarded so
highly, impediments still exist. A woman with a room
of her own and some time in the evening might be able
to write a novel. But becoming a scientist, or even
a mathematician or a philosopher, not only requires
an advanced education – something that is beyond the
means of more women than men – but also a kind of
dedication which many women and men believe to be
incompatible with a woman’s other responsibilities.

Moreover from the 17th century up through modern
times, these disciplines have always been most closely
associated with activities traditionally carried on by
men. The new science had its earliest applications in
astronomy, navigation, ballistics, mining and other
engineering activities. On the other hand, those
associated with nurturing, domestic organisation and
personal relationships seem far away from the heart
of knowledge, according to Cartesian standards. The
skills and ways of understanding that belong to women
seem hopelessly bound to the world of appearance, to
the confusions and turmoil of everyday life, to the
passions and to the imagination.

One of the effects of the Cartesian account of
rationality is to glorify the knowledge and skills
involved in the ‘grand’ disciplines and the activities
associated with them, and to downgrade the more mundane skills and knowledge which people – women and
men – employ in everyday life. It did this much more
decisively than did the Aristotelian account of
rationality – for the Aristotelians did not attempt
to make such a sharp distinction between common sense
knowledge and the knowledge possible in science and
philosophy. It is not so much the Cartesian distinction between the intellect and the passions which led
to a devaluation of women and their traditional
activities, but rather the distinction between real
knowledge belonging to the ‘grand’ disciplines, and
the knowledge required for everyday life.” Our
problem as women is not simply that we are emotional,
but that activities appropriate to us keep our minds
focused on the merely mundane.

However, the association of the higher reaches of
rationality with masculinity cannot be entirely the
result of the impediments which now and in the past
have kept women out of the ‘higher’ disciplines.

The very idea that women too might devote themselves
to making discoveries in the realm of pure intellect
seems to many people to be absurd, incongruous,
unnatural, unseemly, a subject for a joke or a sermon.

Descartes’ own account of what this devotion entails
indicates why it is so widely believed that women
shouldn’t aspire to intellectual priesthood.

, The Man of Reason is supposed to rise above bodily
influences, put behind him the seductions of the body,
detach himself from everyday involvements, use
bodily organs as instruments under the control of his
intellect. Being rational is to be objective, to
concern oneself with universals rather than with
matters particular and local. Being rational is a
matter of mind over matter, will over emotions. And
this is precisely what we as women are not supposed
to be able to achieve.

Our female bodies are irrepressible. They clog up
our mental machinery. We are the subjects of our
wombs, the slaves of our sexuality, or as more recent
writers have it, our minds are drugged by our raging
hormones, we are pushed off the straight and narrow
path of reason by the menstrual cycle, by menopause,
by pregnancy. Women may have the same mental capacities as men, but this doesn’t count for much if we
are constitutionally unable to use them properly.

Any woman who looks into the literature past and
present on the supposed mental disabilities of women
will have cause to wonder whether men are capable of

being rational about this subject. The vehemence
with which generations of scholars have tried to
establish the inferiority of women suggests that more
is at stake than is usually acknowledged. Those who
point out the unfitness of women are not so much
interested in saving us from tasks too difficult for
our constitutions, but in keeping the more sacred
regions of intellectual activity free from female
pollution. Intercourse with the divine has always
in our society been a masculine prerogative. Women
have souls but cannot be priests; women have minds
but should not be the high priests of rationality~
I have suggested that the separation between
matters pertaining to the intellect and matters pertaining to the body and the passions goes along with
a distinction between the sacred and the profane.

Descartes’ view of rationality rests on the belief
that we can have knowledge that is not limited by our
bodily existence. By drawing a sharper distinction
than his precedessors between knowledge obtained by
the intellect and beliefs we get from our senses, he
also sharpens the distinction between what is spiritual, objective, untainted, masculine and the earthy,
impure, pragmatic realm which women are supposed to
be bound to. The Cartesian theory of rationality, by
sanctifying science, philosophy and mathematics,
removed them further from the reach of women. And
even after all these centuries, the odour of sanctity
still clings.

III High and Low Rationality



To present the Cartesian knower as a detached intellect and Cartesian rationality as limited to the
operation of an understanding concerned with mathematical objects and a mathematised reality is to give
an i~complete picture of Descartes’ own view of
reason. For Descartes himself was aware of some of
the limitations of the Man of Reason conceived as an
intellect. In Meditation VI he admits that just as
the natural light of reason can compel our assent, so

too, at times, does nature – and rightly so.

‘ ..• Those things given by God to me as being composed
of mind and body’ teach me things that I can scarcely
deny, for example, that I have need for food and
drink, that 1nJury causes me pain, and so forth.

Later he advises Princess Elisabeth:

It is by availing oneself only of life and
ordinary conversations, and by abstaining from
meditating, and studying things that exercise
the imagination, that one learns to conceive
the union of the soul and the body.


For practical purposes it’s best to have the concept
of ourselves which everyone has when not philosophising, as ‘one person alone who, at the same time, has
a body and thought’ [4]. The questions about the
good and virtuous life which Elisabeth especially
wants answered seem to require this ordinary and
more integrated way of conceiving the self. Though
Descartes doesn’t explicitly say so, they also
require a different conception of rationality.

According to the moral philosophy and psychology
which Descartes develops in the course of his correspondence, our human natures teach us about more than
our bodily needs. Our natures if we read them rightly can also tell us what is ultimately valuable to
us [5].

What brings us true contentment, what the ground
of virtue is, can only be discovered by reflection on
our nature and needs as embodied beings who hate and
love, sympathise and suffer. In undertaking this
task reason must, as in its scientific applications,
iistinguish reality from appearance. But this means
separating what is really good for me from what the
passions of the moment urge me to do. Descartes provides some practical suggestions about how through
reflection, through psychological knowledge about
where our passions come from, we can put our inclinations and feelings in perspective. But ·there is no
question of obtaining any clear and distinct ideas.

Reason is operating not only in different territory
and with different aims, but also according to
different standards of objectivity.

There is also no question of separating the operation of the intellect from the influence and activities of the body. Being rational involves reflecting
on needs, inclinations and attachments, and evaluating these in the light of experiences, self knowledge
and imaginatively constructed possibilities. It is
having a human nature which enables us to answer the
questions which Elisabeth asks. But also it seems
inevitable that the answers each of us gives will be
affected by what kind of persons we are. Descartes
recommends that we should value most the kind of
contentment which fortune cannot take away from us.

But not everyone, even after reflection, ,vould agree
with his rather stoical views about value. We know,
in fact, that different people with different
inclinations and experiences can make different considered judgements on the matter of what should be
most important in their lives. In any case, lifelong reflection on the experiences we have had, on
our own natures, on the successes and failures of
others, on the constructions of our imaginations,
gets us as close as we can ever get to objectivity.

Descartes is right to suggest that as far as
practical life is concerned we have little choice
but to regard mind and body, reason and action as
belonging to a person conceived as an integrated unit.

Not only is the standpoint appropriate to the questions of morality which he discussed with Elisabeth
but also to other matters which require the combined
effort of mind and body, the entire skill of a person.

For practical knowledge, whether of matters pertaining to one’s own inner well-being or the kind of

understanding we need to deal with our social and
physical environment, is the knowledge of a person
and not an intellect. When we are called upon to
deal with the people and objects in our social and
natural environment, we bring to bear mental and
physical skills which we have acquired in our life
time; we depend on our ability to act, to think, to
imagine, to feel, to sympathise. Though scientific
knowledge may sometimes be useful, as Descartes himself suggests in his discussions of the passions,
skill and experience is also needed to understand its
relevance and how it can be applied.

Being rational, as it is ordinarily understood, is
being able to choose and pursue ends, to carry out
means, which are desirable and effective. Being
rational is thus a human ability which requires us
to reflect on and use our imaginations, bodily skills
experiences, attachments. And further, it is inseparably connected to an individual’s way of seeing
and doing things. People may share some standards
and methods and goals, but what counts as a desirable
end or an effective means cannot be entirely divorced
from personal assessments and personal style.

Descartes rightly thinks that the use of reflection and skill in ordinary life counts as rational.

On the other hand, he never brings out how far his
account of earthly rationality – ‘low’ rationality has departed from his theory of canonical rationality
– the ‘high’ rationality of the Rules, the Discourse
and the Meditations. Low rationality does not separate mind from body, the intellect from the imagination or passions, but on the other hand it has no
divine light, promises no super-human objectivity,
and permits nothing to be sacred.

Descartes’ canonical theory of rationality is
supposed to show how science, mathematics and philosophy rise above the plain of ordinary human activities. In many respects, these forms of knowledge
may differ in organisation, scope, aims and reliability from the knowledge of everyday life. What is
doubtful is whether there is such a thing as canonical rationality.

Once we realise that these ‘grand’ disciplines are
the result of human practices, then questions about
their content and development cannot always be
settled by referring to rules, a technique, or what
is clear and distinct. Has the monopoly over the
‘high’ disciplines, held for so long by an elite
group of men, affected their direction or content?

What distortions, oversights, omissions have resulted
from the limitation on points of view? It is difficult to answer these questions, but impossible to
push them aside. After all, if knowledge is going
to be merely human knowledge, then why should we
settle for less?



Genevieve Lloyd, ‘The Man of Reason’, Metaphi~osophy, Vol.lO, No.l, January
Elisabeth to Descartes, 10/20 June 1643: ‘ … the life I am constrained to
1ead does not allow me enough free time to acquire a habi t of medi ta tion in
accordance with your rules. Sometimes the interests of my household, which
I must not neglect, sometimes conversations and civilities I cannot eschew,
so thoroughly dej ect this weak mind with annoyances or boredom that it
remains for a long time afterward, useless for anything else, .. ‘, p.lll in
John Blom (ed.), Desaartes: His Mora~ PhUosophy and PsyahoZogy, New York
University Press, New York, 1972.

Descartes to Elisabeth, 28 June 1643.


Human relationships are among the things which nature teaches us are
valuable. ‘After one has thus recognised the goodness of God, the immortality of our souls and the greatness of the universe, there still remains a
truth the knowledge of which seems to me very useful, and it is this, that
while each of us is a person separate from others, whose interests consequently are in some way distinct from the interests of others, nevertheless
one should consider that one could not subsist alone and is, in effect, one
of the parts of the earth, and more particularly, of this state, of this
society, of this family to which one is joined.’ (Descartes to Elisabeth,
15 September 1645).


The very possibility of canonical rationality rests
on a theological guarantee. In a sense Paul
Feyerabend is right – if God is dead, ‘anything
goes’. Or rather, what is rational to believe depends on nothing more than what we human beings with
our experiences, capabilities, sense organs, predilections, bodily needs, find rational to believe. And
once knowledge is seen to be human knowledge, the
possibility arises that even in its grandest forms,
it cannot free itself entirely from the personal
viewpoints of those who develop it. People at different times, in different situations and societies may
not have the same experience, predilections, or use
their sense organs in the same way.

The implications of this are still being worked
out for science, mathematics and philosophy. In
these disciplines it may be possible to achieve an
impersonality, a universality and detachment which
the knowledge we use in everyday life does not
generally have. On the other hand, this impersonality and detachment is not enough to free such knowledge from the bonds of the human point of view.

Nor is it guaranteed to keep it beyond the reach of
the influence of personal perspectives.


FOR him and tor her . .. the do·s and don’ts it your
relationship is to sltrdl:e.

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