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Philosophy and Feminism

Philosophy and Feminism

Dear Radical Philosophy,
In her article on The Sceptical Feminist, Jean
Grimshaw describes my position as an enfeebled and
unviable thing, scarcely worth the name of feminism.

In one sense I hardly blame her. The position she
describes seems to me all that and more: I should
even call it senseless. But it is not mine, nor
anything like it.

She thinks, for instance, that as well as wanting
to count as feminists all people who think that women
are unjustly treated, irrespective of the details of
the views they hold, I also want to say that individual feminists can get on perfectly well without any
theory of what is wrong and what should be done about
it. I don’t see that the quotations by which she
supports this idea would make her case even if they
were not seriously out of context, which most of them
are. Obviously it is impossible to set about putting
anything to rights without a clear fiew of what is
wrong and what is causing it – which is why I spend
most of the book developing the foundations of just
such a theory.

She says I think feminism does not depend on
matters of fact. This is another thing would it would
be a priori absurd for anyone to think (though I see
that is quote compatible with Grimshaw’s thinking
that I do think it). The proposition that women are
oppressed is not analytic – true in all possible
worlds – and so must depend on facts about the world
as it is. I also say quite explicitly that feminists
must be committed to an unending, unprejudiced investigation of them – and I certainly would include
historical investigation in this. What I do say is
that the fundamental feminist case can be demonstrated
without entering into any debate about controversial
questions of fact. I still take this to be very
important, not just as a debating tool, but as a
clearer of clutter and confusion in much feminist
debate. If Grimshaw had caught my point, for instance:

she would not have been able to accuse me of ignoring
the idea that male dominance is an inescapable fact
of nature.

Then there is her attack on the notorious chapter
on sex and sensuality. Here she mistakes my intention
in just about every possible respect. One small
example is the way she takes me to be saying that
pleasures come in higher and lower versions, with
sensual ones decidedly lower, when what I was doing
(I thought obviously) was showing what would follow
even if anyone took this view. But more fundamentally, she misses the point of the chapter. It is
concerned not with current or any other ideals of
sensuality (determinates), but with logical questions
about sensuality and such things in general (determin42

abIes). The omissions she thinks so significant occur
only because they are not relevant to my purpose, and
not because I regard the matters in question as unimportant or superficial. She is not entitled to
infer, therefore, that I do not want to question
current standards of femininity (I should have thought
it quite clear from other contexts that I did), let
alone – in perhaps the most astonishing flight of
fancy in the whole piece – that I think men’s sexual
exploitation of women a rather superficial thing, to
be cured by lecturing men until they behave properly.

In fact I suspect that a good many of Grimshaw’s
misunderstandings come of her not seeing how deliberately limited the scope of my enquiry is, and presuming in consequence that whatever I do not discuss I
regard as unimportant, or that I see as sufficient
for feminism what I really claim only as necessary.

It should be said that embedded in this vast extent
of ignoratio elenchi there are one or two genuine disagreements between Grimshaw and myself: the opposition
between her view that justice cannot be discussed in
abstract and mine that in the first instance it must
be, for example, is substantial and interesting.

However, on the whole her disagreements with positions
I do hold are not much more illuminating than her
disagreements with all the ones I do not. I know she
thinks my theory of justice is too much like cake
sharing, that my wish for a change in society’s moral
standards is moralizing, and that my analysis of
relationships turns people into commodities, but
although her disapproval is manifest in every epithet
she does not say what she thinks is wrong with what I
argue, and I (seriously) have no idea. (The ‘commodity’ language, by the way, which Grimshaw leaps on as
though she has caught some unguarded manifestation of
an extremely disreputable unconscious, was a deliberate device to try to shock the reader out of common
sense categories. It has clearly failed.)
Grimshaw’s article, in other words, has given me
as little reason to rethink any of my ideas about
feminism as my book gave her to reconsider hers.

However, in some ways it is extremely interesting.

Apart from revealing an interpretation of my book
which I otherwise should not have believed possible,
it does raise all kinds of higher order questions
about such things as open texture, incommensurability,
and interpretation in the light of theory. I don’t
think I am an obscure writer, and although I suspect
that Grimshaw decided early on that the author of the
book was a pretty uncongenial character and afterwards
tended to be on the lookout for things to disapprove
of, I certainly do not think that she or her review
can be dismissed as silly or careless: far from it.

So the question of why we missed each other so
completely is worth some thinking about.

Still, it is not at all clear what conclusions to
draw: whether what is needed is more work on the
higher order questions so that we can then go on to a
discussion of feminism and politics with more common
ground, or whether people of such radically different
intuitions should just push on with their own equivalents of Kuhnian normal science, and find out in the
long run whether (as I suspect) a Grimshaw-like view
will find itself stuck in a quagmire of confusion and
contradiction, or whether (as I suspect she suspects),
a Richards-like view will wither through abstraction
and dessication.

My suspicion is that we may have to carry on in
our separate ways for quite a while. When an investigation which left me convinced as never before of the
extraordinary power of philosophical enquiry can
appear to Grimshaw as a demonstration of the barrenness of that kind of approach, there is clearly a
great gulf fixed. But it would be a pity to abandon
all hope of bridging it.

Janet Radcliffe Richards

Dear Radical Philosophy,




I am an OU student having done the Arts and the
Social Science Foundation Courses and second-level
Sociology. I bought my first Radical Philosophy
magazine in Dillons Bookshop, London, in the summer
of 1980. I was attracted to it by an article on
Tory Ideology, which I enjoyed, and I became a
subscriber. I am a housewife, aged 45, with three
children in their late teens, have not been to
university and bear no 0 or A Levels – a typical OU
student in my third year of study.

I enjoy Radical Philosophy and I found No.30
particularly interesting as it covers some of the
areas in Marxism that I am studying at the moment.

I do find some of the articles a little difficult,
but with the knowledge that I am acquiring, it is
very informative to me. My interests are in politics,
philosophy, arts, sociology.

As for the content of the magazine, it might be
more helpful if some more of the articles were of a
political and ideological nature relating to British
politics of the 1980s, with an Editorial (related to
the themes of the articles), News, Comment, and/or
correspondence columns for discussion of some of the
theoretical concepts of the articles. There should
be no need for journal istic criteria to be used;
rather philosophical criteria must be used. I
believe that your main aim should be to become more
accessible, informal and ‘open’ in the magazine and
in the conferences. The less confident outsider or
student who has not got enough intellectual experience to be able to speak or write easily should be
given encouragement to write on different or related
topics. I think that the breaking down of barriers
referred to in your goals and objectives on the
inside front cover of the magazine must always be
borne in mind by the professional academics of the
RP Collective. John Krige’s letter in RP28 and
Seumas Caimbeul and Iaian Grannd’s letter in RP31
have made similar points. Those views and mine ought
to be considered more.

Please continue to knock down the barriers between
academic, elitist isolationism and the outside world
in which we all live. Marxism is a living and highly
practical theory, as can be seen in the New Left of
the Labour Party and in the principles of socialism.

Yours sincerely,
Felicity Gardner

Dear Radical Philosophy,
Although a fairly recent reader of RP, and therefore
not witness to the early debates on the role of the
journal, I would like to take u p ‘ s request to
readers and make a few comments that seem to me
relevant to the course it might take.

Firstly, I would like to express agreement with
Martin John and Phil Murphy (RP22) that RP should not
limit itself to a readership that comprises only
students and academics. It seems that so often those
who get paid to teach or study philosophy forget that
there exists a vast population who make decisions,
voice opinions, and engage in disputes of practical
import, who, while not being possessors of whatever
counts as a philosophical language, do experience in
those activities something that could be vaguely
classed as ‘philosophical’. So great is this lapse
of memory that on occasion academics and students
alike have been apt to forget the motives that drew
them towards ‘its’ study in the first place; this is
most evident when philosophy is discussed as a
‘discipline’ and not as a particular way of articulating the problems and experiences that are, at some
point, common to most of society.

Now I wouldn’t wish to caricature or mis-represent
RP’s position(s) on this, for there does seem to be
genuine confusion over the matter. Take for instance
the editorial in RP22. It firstly, and quite rightly,
takes to task the usual content of philosophy as
written about and taught; as positing certain ‘problems of philosophy’, without considering why they
should be problems worthy of attention; as being
mere formulae handed down. Yet on the opposite page,
in the same editorial, it says ‘We are committed to
the work of philosophy … we have always opposed
the isolation of philosophy from other disciplines … I
Two points issue from this. Firstly, that a
discipline, as opposed to a history, appeals to a
certain insular account of the past. In this case
what we are likely to get is precisely the invocation
of certain traditional philosophical problems. Now
I wouldn’t want to suggest that the motive for the
repetition of ‘problems’ is the same for traditional
and left philosophy alike. The reason for the left’s
repetition should be that the problems have a continued relevance to the wider social context. This
however shouldn’t make philosophy of a radical kind
a discipline, but on the contrary should encourage
its dissolution as a discipline and its re-emergence
as a way of discussing issues relevant to all. In
other words, philosophy should be intuitively grasped
as a way of examining issues rather than something
embodied in particular people and institutions.

The second point is that in so far as concern to
break down institutional barriers is expressed such
aims remain within the ‘citadels of expertise’ rather
than between institutions of education and the rest
of society. We have perhaps become aware in recent
years of the danger of taking at face value the
dramas acted out between two philosophical camps in

So often the points of disagreement are deliberately exaggerated, and conceal the far more significant
areas of agreement. To the extent that this is true
of the content of philosophy, I think that it’s also
true of the relationship RP has to its readers (and
non-readers) compared to less radical publications.

Of course the content is radical, but is the

What I wish to suggest by this is that, instead of
seeking an identity purely in terms of the process of
philosophy, RP tries to identify its audience by reference to the subjects of its discussion as well.

The ‘process’ becomes highlighted whenever philosopher
speaks to philosopher; yet there is potential for a
much wider readership given the issues recently cov43

ered by RP: racism; social work; nuclear disarmament.

Would it not be possible to encourage reaction from
those working in such areas (not just those teaching
or studying) and so open RP to a readership, however
temporary, which otherwise has no interest in matters
philosophical? To this end it might be worthwhile
advertising the existence of certain RP articles in
other relevant magazines and newsletters. I’m sure
that social workers, for instance, would have been
interested in the article by D.J. Clifford (RP31) and
may well have had something to say about it. Why not
encourage them?

In relation to these points, it was with some concern that I read Noel Parker’s definition of the
present type of readership as comprised of students,
ex-students, and academics. Nowhere could I detect
any feeling of dissatisfaction with this state of
affairs. Yet any radical socialist journal worth its
‘discursive practices’ should at least attempt to
encourage a broad-based readership rather than contenting itself to speak only to academic elites and
their student ‘offspring’.

Of course, it may be argued that philosophy is
constituted through a specialized language and that
of necessity this precludes some people from becoming
readers. However, I would suggest that this is less
of a problem than might at first be thought. First,
the distinction between ‘advanced’ and ‘easy’ articles
can, to some extent, be by-passed when the subject is
especially relevant to the reader’s own experience.

Second, in cases where a specialized terminology is
felt to be unavoidable, the author could include
his/her definition of some of the more obscure terms

All of the issues so far raised presuppose that we
know what consequences we expect to follow from the
circulation of radical ideas. When scientists publish their findings they can hope for practical consequences to follow. When the conservative elements
in our society put pen to paper they knowingly offer
their doting readership the assurance of a simple
worldview. But what have been the consequences of
‘socialist ideas’ other than to conserve their
effects within a narrow group of academics? If we
do have hopes for RP’s effectiveness then we should
surely be aiming for an active readership whose
position actually permits them to participate in the
negotiation and influence of the social policy and
conditions under which we all live and work.

One final matter, still related to the above
issues, though this time regarding the scope of the
content. The thing that surprises me most is the
omission of two particular issues that would seem
manna to socialist writers, no matter what ‘discipline’ .

The first is the matter of unions. How is it that
so many editions of RP can have appeared without
mention of one of the few tools influence available
to us? I think that the time is right (it always has
been) for a ‘philosophical’ look at the aims and
assumptions of the various unions in this country and
abroad. It is incredible that at a time when the
very existence of educational resources is being
questioned, academics should adopt such a schizoid
attitude, seeing themselves as radical philosophers
,who happen to be union members and supporters.

This brings me to the other issue which is,
strangely, educational institutions. The role of the
teacher in the classroom has been examined, but there
are obviously assumptions made by educationalists
concerning what constitutes legitimate experience
within colleges, and these must have profound material
effects. Does RP’s silence on this matter mean that
those assumptions/aims are both uniform across the
country, and sufficiently well known about not to
warrant comment? Surely, if we are to take seriously
the claim that the character of something depends on

the context it’s placed in, then we should be concerned to understand the background against which the
pages of RP are being turned.

What I’m pleading for here is an integrated
approach to socialist philosophy. Too often question~
are asked about the ‘role of the intellectual’,
‘forums for intellectual d€bate’ etc. But do not
these kinds of concerns indicate ‘our’ equivalent of
‘their’ handed-down formulae? We should abandon the
spurious and pernicious category of the ‘intellectual’

– firstly, because it is an inheritance that aligns
not, primarily, as socialist to socialist, but as
paid ‘thinker’ to anyone else (political and social
conservatives included) similarly privileged; and
secondly, because it amounts to nothing less than
the Humanities’ equivalent of Technocracy’s ‘expert’.

Both prey off others’ experience to provide them
with their generalizations. (This is not to deny an
‘intellectual’ his or her daily ration of ‘experience’, for they surely cannibalize their own experience as well. They just fail to acknowledge it
[intellectual neutrality?].)
When the label ‘intellectual’ is assigned to
members of the left by his/her opposite it is
clearly intended as an insult. We need not, of
course, concern ourselves with the motive behind the
name-calling, but we do need to pay attention to the
characteristics that make the label an insult. To
be an ‘intellectual’ is to have signed away any claim
to be socially relevant; and, in a socialist context,
any claim for intelligence. What is needed is the
integration of philosophy with experience, not its
separation as a discipline. And, following from
this, we must dispel the notion that individuals can
be variously, and discretely, described as intellectuals or workers – intellectuals are so by virtue of
their insigificance, for they can only be negatively
defined against the background of their debased view
of what it means to be otherwise. The separation of
theory and practice is but a divisory prejudice, and
one which RP could well do without.

I cannot think that these criticisms are unduly
harsh to RP for they must surely apply to all
journals which have the aim of being a part of the
push for socialist change in our society, and hope to
be something more than just an arena for an academics’

‘talking cure’. In any case, RP is streets ahead of
its philosophical ‘rivals’ and at least has the
appearance of having had some life breathed into it.

Best wishes,
Stephen Levy

In the coming months the editorial collective will be
considering the related questions of how the magazine
is distributed and advertised and whom it is intended
to reach. We are therefore very pleased to receive
comments and criticisms from Stephen Levy, Felicity
Gardner or others who wish to contribute to the
discussion, and publish what we can of it for our

Noel Parker, Secretary to the Editorial Collective

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