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Philosophy and Aggression

Philosophy
and Aggression
Jean Grimshaw

It is not uncommonly suggested that whereas men tend to have an

aggressive or competitive style of interacting or conducting a
debate or a discussion, women tend to be more co-operative. They
listen better, are more supportive of other people’s contributions;
they are less prone to be assertive, more anxious to understand and
to explicate another person’s view than to prove it to be wrong.

Something like this view of women’s ‘style’ of interaction has
been used, for example by the American philosopher Sheila Ruth,
in a critique of the ways in which she sees philosophy as male. So,
she writes:

At a recent conference on feminist scholarship, a philosopher from an important university was asked how her work
had changed since adopting a feminist perspective. She
answered that it had changed in many ways including focus
and method. Particularly, she said, she no longer felt it
necessary to participate in ‘the hunt’. There was a rustle of
laughter in the room, shared recognition, assent. She had
put women’s ‘names’ to her experience of the situation.

Female consciousness heard and knew. Someone reads a
paper; he is quarry. The others, hunters, listen, waiting for
a weak point, sniffmg blood. They attack; the quarry
defends. Combat. So male. Is this the way to do
philosophy? Is this the way to do any investigation? 1
This sort of thing, Ruth suggests, is just a power game; it seeks to
gain power or status by defeating an opponent in an exchange
which is undertaken precisely for that reason, rather than for any
real engagement of the self with the views being defended or
discussed. The feminist scholar should refuse to participate in
these sterile power games; she should rather, Ruth suggests, trust
her woman’s consciousness and insights, resist the quest for the
male seal of approval, and assert her right and need to do philosophy in what Ruth calls a ‘therapeutic way’; a way that will enlarge
and expand her insights into the female possibilities and realities
that have largely been denied or marginalised by the often misogynistic male philosophy profession.

I have indeed been present at the sort of sterile academic power
games that Ruth describes, and I have sometimes participated in
them myself; there can be few people working in academic
institutions who have not, at some time or another. I have also been
present at meetings of women to discuss philosophical questions
where, despite sometimes quite profound disagreements, there
was a sense of mutual engagement and of concern to understand
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rather than attack other people’s views, and absolutely no feeling
of the need to ‘score points’ or validate oneself by notching up
some sort of conceptual ‘victory’. But a recognition of the sterility
of academic power games is not a uniquely female one. I have
talked to men who have shared the sense of ‘recognition’ that
Sheila Ruth describes. I have also been at plenty of gatherings
where the overt hostility and aggression has been largely female,
and has not always been directed just at men.

But simply to quote counter-examples from my own experience in this sort of way is much too easy. What concerns me here
is that it seems to me that a lot of different issues are getting badly
conflated, and pushing in the direction of a conception of philosophy as ‘therapeutic’ or of philosophy as emerging from the
deliverance of a self-validating female consciousness. Both of
these raise immense problems. In particular, what is seen as an
‘aggressive’ style of conducting argument is, apparently, identified with the enterprise of trying to show that something is wrong,
or with disagreeing, and what is seen as a more ‘co-operative’ and
less ‘combative’ style of proceeding is identified implicitly with
substantive agreement and with the recognition of a ‘woman’s
point of view’ .

In trying to sort out some of the issues that are involved in these
questions, it is important to note, for a start, that there are, in any
case, enormous difficulties in using very general words like ‘combative’ or ‘aggressive’ or ‘co-operative’ when describing such
things as conversations or methods of conducting debate or
argument. Deborah Cameron discusses the view held by many
feminists that in conversation or social intercourse women are, in
some way, ‘naturally’ less aggressive than men, better listeners,
more co-operative, and so forth 2. She argues that this belief is in
fact an aspect of what she calls ‘feminist folk-linguistics’. A great
deal of research has tried to investigate the existence of sexvariations in styles of speech and conversation; the results have
been inconclusive, contentious and very differently interpreted.

Robin Lakoff, for example, suggested that women are more prone
to qualify, to use tag -questions, and generally to speak in ways that
tend to make their speech less forceful and effective than that of
men 3. The extent to which her generalisations about women’s
speech are even accurately descriptive has been strongly disputed.

But even if there are such differences, it is not possible, Cameron
argues, to see speech or conversation or argument as ‘aggressive’

or ‘co-operative’ simply on the basis of the presence or absence of
particular features of speech, if these are considered in a decontex-

tualised way. The use of questions rather than assertions, the use
of tag-questions, the request for an explication can indeed be used
in ways that are supportive of other people and encourage them to
speak. They can also all be used in ‘aggressive’ ways and
experienced as a ‘threat’. (In context, ‘Would you like to explain
what you mean’ can be read as ‘You are so incompetent that you
couldn’t explain it clearly in the fIrst place ,and I have grave doubts
about whether you can at all’; this is how students all too often
experience it in seminars, I think.) Similarly, interruptions,
intrusions into someone else’s speech, failure to continue listening, can be hostile; they can also be used to give opportunities to
enter a discussion, to bring someone else in, to support them. Furthermore, the idea of’ co-operative’ and non-hierarchically organised discourse which aims to facilitate the inclusion of everyone
and avoid dominance by the more confident and articulate is,
Cameron argues, a feminist norm rather than something which it
is ‘natural’ for women to do. And it may often need quite strict
rules of procedure to enable it to happen. Thus some feminist
groups have adopted rules as to how many times a person may
speak, as to what sorts of ‘interruptions’ are allowed, and so forth.

I think it is very important indeed that we attempt to develop
styles of conversation and discussion that are not experienced by
the participants as threatening or hostile. I also think it may well
be true that women are quite often, though not always, better than
men at this; or at least quicker to realise its importance. And if this
were all that was meant by the idea that we should adopt a nonaggressive and non-combative style in philosophy, I would not
dissent at all, provided it were recognised that there is no easy or
automatic’ way of identifying speech styles or modes of conversation which are or are not’ aggressive’. But I do not think that this
is all that is meant in some feminist discussion; and to explain
further, I now want to look at a paper by J anice Moulton, called’ A
Paradigm of Philosophy: The Adversary Method’ 4.

Moulton starts by considering the concept of’ aggression’ , and
she quotes a definition as follows: ‘an offensive action or procedure, especially a culpable unprovoked overt hostile attack, often
involving anger and belligerence’s. This is an account of a
psychological disposition, coupled with a propensity to behave in
certain ways. And it is usually seen in a negative light. However,
Moulton argues, ‘this negative concept, when it is specifically
connected to males qua males or to workers in certain professions
(sales, management, law, philosophy, politics), often takes on
positive associations’ 6. In these cases, she suggests, aggression is
equated with power, activity, ambition, authority, effectiveness
and competence; and aggressive behaviour is taken as a sign of
these things. It is also regarded as more acceptable, even desirable,
that men should display aggression, than that women should.

Moulton then goes on to suggest that there is a particular
paradigm in philosophy which incorporates aggression into its
methodology, and she argues implicitly, I think, that the dominance of men in philosophy is one reason that this paradigm has
been so commonly accepted. She calls it ‘The Adversary Paradigm’ , and characterises it in the following way.

The Adversary Paradigm is based, she suggests, on the following view of philosophy: ‘The philosophic enterprise is seen as an
unimpassioned debate between adversaries who try to defend
their own views against counterexamples, and produce counterexamples to opposing views’ 7. Philosophers make general claims,
and other philosophers attempt to ‘attack’ or disprove these. If
there is not a live opponent in the vicinity, then they will try to
imagine one. A philosophical thesis will be subjected to the most
rigorous possible hypothetical objections by an imaginary opponent, and will only be regarded as worth further consideration if it
survives this test
These ‘conditions of hostility’ ,Moulton argues, do notgener-

ate the best forms of philosophical reasoning. In particular, they
ignore other ways of discussing philosophical theories and arguments; such as why they are important, the reasons why people
hold them, the ways in which they fIt in with other beliefs, whether
there are good reasons for discussing a theory at all, whether
differences in experience can provide reasons for accepting or
rejecting it, and whether holding a certain belief might be benefIcial to people in some circumstances.

Now I think perhaps the fIrst thing to notice is thatthere is a real
problem about Moulton’s use of words like ‘hostility’ or ‘aggression’, or the notion of an ‘adversary’. The fIrst defInition of
aggression she offered equated this with a psychological disposition towards, or behavioural manifestations of belligerence or
anger towards another person. And she talks of the ‘conditions of
hostility’ in the ‘adversary paradigm’ of philosophy. But she also
suggests that one feature of the ‘adversary paradigm’ is its split,
between reason and emotion – its ‘coolness’ , if you like; the way
in which debate is supposed to be conducted in a logical and
unimpassioned way. And it would indeed by absurd, I think, to
suggest that most analytical exercises in fInding counter-examples
are conducted amidst an atmosphere of uncontrolled rage or anger.

It would also be wrong to suppose that the sort of academic power
games Moulton envisages necessarily involve any specillcally
personal animosities between the participants. Now it is true that
hostility towards other people (or the desire to ‘put them down’ or
to score a point) can of course be expressed in ‘cool’ ways, such
as sarcasm, biting irony, exaggerated politeness and so forth. But
Moulton’s argument has shifted, in a problematic way, from a
consideration of the relation between the participants in a debate
or discussion, to a consideration of the relation between a person
and some view or theory. And this shift is of considerable
importance.

I think that Moulton is right that there are things that are very
problematic about the ‘counter-examples’ sort of philosophical
reasoning that she describes. The particular example’ she discusses
is that of a well-known article on abortion by the philosopher
J udith Jarvis Thompson 8 • In this article, Thompson suggests that
we might make a pro-abortion argument as strong as possible by
fIrst conceding a great deal to a hypothetical opponent. So, she
says, let’s, for the sake of argument, accept that those who argue
that abortion is wrong because the foetus is a person are correct in
this assumption. Would it still follow that abortion was wrong? To
pursue this question, Thompson asks us to imagine ourselves
waking up one morning ‘plugged in’ to a famous violinist who will
die if we unplug ourselves. Her argument that abortion is morally,
legitimate and acceptable on at least some occasions depends on
an analogy between a pregnancy and this rather absurd-sounding
situation.

Now I do not think that this sort of argument is well characterised by simply calling it ‘counter-example’ reasoning. It is indeed
problematic; but the problem is that it regards as irrelevant to the
discussion of a moral issue all the questions about the practical and
material circumstances of women’s lives which often make the
abortion question such an urgent one. In an article, ‘Abortion and
the Golden Rule’ ,Richard Hare offers an argument against abortion which, while it does not depend on the use of quite such vivid
‘counter-examples’ as that of Thompson, nevertheless is, in an
important sense, ‘abstract’ 9. Hare argues against abortion by
appealing to a version of what he calls ‘The Golden Rule’; if we
are glad we are alive we are enjoined not to terminate or prevent
the life of a potential person who might be glad that they were alive.

Hare writes of ‘we’ almost as if both women and men bore
children, and as if ‘we’ are a community of equals who simply
have to make abstract moral decisions. Nowhere dOes he recognise the importance to the debate about abortion of such things as
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the lack of an adequately safe contraceptive technology to many
women, the problem for many women of poverty and of bringing
up children on their own, the frequent male control of access to
abortion.

So what is basically wrong with this sort of argument is not that
it uses ‘counter-examples’. There are plenty of other sorts of
arguments (including some of the other sorts mentioned by
Moulton, such as discussing the reasons why people hold beliefs)
where it might be important or useful to consider ‘counterexamples’ to whatever view is put forward. What is wrong with
arguments similar to those of Jarvis Thompson is that they regard
human beings simply as decontextualised or ‘abstract’ individuals
who simply have to make moral choices. The problem is not that
they are, in themselves more ‘aggressive’ or ‘adversarial’ than
other methods of arguing. And there is no reason, so far as I can
see, why the other sorts of methods and questions that Moulton
mentions, such as asking why people hold certain beliefs, or
whether they need them, or what other beliefs they cohere with or
would follow from, should not be conducted, in some sense ‘adversarially’. Any philosophical question can be debated in a spirit
of hostility, or be dominated by the desire to outwit an opponent or
to prove oneself right Whether or not this ‘adversarial’ ethos is
present will depend not so much on personal animosity or hostility as on things such as the institutional context, the already
existing relationship of the participants to each other, and the
presence or absence of shared concerns among the participants.

The importance of the institutional context is crucial; considerations such as modes of assessment and prospects of job security or
promotion may lead people to feel a need to appear ‘clever’ or
confident in argument, even if ata personal level they dislike doing
so.

I think it is very important that we learn to develop modes of
conducting philosophical argument and debate, whether within
institutions (which may sometimes be very difficult to do), or
outside them, which discourage such things as: competitiveness,
hostility, anxiety about being’ shown up’ or ‘put down’ , the desire
to pick holes in an argument just for the sake of it, the promotion
of ‘cleverness’ in silencing or defeating an opponent. I have
speculated that women tend to be rather better than men at doing
this. I think that they may sometimes be quicker than men to
recognise the destructiveness of these things; and I would guess
that this is-because they tend more often to be on the margins of institutional contexts where these things are rife, and therefore more
able to see them from the outside, and because they are sometimes
more often at the receiving end of hostile or ‘adversarial’ behaviour than men.

I think, however, that it is a mistake to identify the avoidance
of these things with any of the following:

(a) with the belief that this is intrinsically more ‘natural’ to
women, or intrinsically endemic in men;
(b) with the pursuing of one sort of philosophical question
rather than another;
(c) with the existence of any sort of philosophical agreement or shared convictions, or with the avoidance of issues
about the truth or falsity of theories.

Sheila Ruth, for example, whose view of ‘the hunt’ I discussed
earlier, contrasts ‘the hunt’ with what she sees as the reliance of
women on their female (or feminist?) consciousness. Moulton
talks of the importance of taking experience seriously. And there
are hints here which suggest that an implicit assumption is sometimes being made that the avoidance of a competitive or adversarial style implies the existence of some shared ‘reading’ of experience or of a consensually validated ‘women’s point of view’ .

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It seems to me wrong to suppose that a clear or consensual
‘woman’s point of view’ can be identified on philosophicru issues,
which is based on any sort of self-validating female experience 10.

Feminism is located, not in a homogeneous female experience
which is self-authenticating or self-validating, but in widely
divergent experiences, including the experience of conflict and of
contradiction. Some of these conflicts and contradictions are
particularly endemic in the lives of many women, and attempts to
resolve them are both materially and practically acute, as well as
involving such things as crises of conscience or moral and philosophical dilemmas. I am thinking of such things as the constant
tension in many women’s lives between their commonly greater
responsibility for the physical and emotional ‘maintenance’ of
others and the conflicts this may create between the responsibility
for others and their own needs, or the way in which this responsibility may create a particular need for a re-evaluation of the split
between ‘public’ and ‘private’ life, and the priorities which should
be attached to each.

Such concerns are not exclusively or uniquely female, of
course. But I think it is this sense of not needing to explain why
something is important, or be on the defensive about it, rather than
any intrinsically greater female co-operativeness or any sort of
agreement or consensus among women as to how to think about
these questions, which explains why women quite often experience some sense of relief, of not always being put on the line, in
groups consisting only of women. But this relief can itself
sometimes be undermined by a too-easy belief in female cooperativeness or a feminist consensus; such a belief can itself be
coercive.

I do not therefore think that, on any substantive philosophical
issues, there is a clear ‘women’s point of view’ which can be
identified. Nor do I think that there is any style or method of doing
philosophy which can easily be seen as ‘female’. But I do think
that women often share concerns which, if taken seriously, would
change the face of philosophy a great deal. One of those concerns
has been the ways in which intellectual debate can often become
a power contest, in which the less articulate or influential or
confident are ata severe disadvantage. And I think that radical philosophy should perhaps pay more attention to this issue than it has
tended to do in the past.

Notes
1

2
3
4

5
6
7
8

9
10

Ruth, Sheila, ‘Methodocracy, Misogyny and Bad Faith: The
Response of Philosophy’, in Spender, Dale (ed.), Men’s Studies
Modified: the Impact of Feminism on the Academic Disciplies,
Pergamon, 1981.

Cameron, Deborah, Feminism and Linguistic Theory, Macmillan,1985.

Lakoff, Robin, Language and Woman’s Place, Harper and Row,
1975.

Moulton, Janice, ‘A Paradigm of Philosophy: The Adversary
Method’, in Harding, S. and Hintikka, M. (eds.), Discovering
Reality; Feminist Perspectives on Epistemology, Metaphysics,
Methodology and Philosophy of Science, D. Reidel, 1983.

Ibid., p. 149.

Ibid., p. 149.

Ibid., p. 153.

Thompson, Judith Jarvis, ‘A Defence of Abortion’, Philosophy
and Public Affairs 1, no. 1, 1971.

Hare, Richard, ‘Abortion and the Golden Rule’, in Baker, R. and
Elliston, F., Philosophy and Sex, Prometheus Books, 1975.

I have argued this at greater length in my book Feminist P hilosophers: Women’s Perspectives on Philosophical Traditions,
Wheatsheaf,1986.

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