In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Reviewed by:
  • Line Drawings: Defining Women through Feminist Practice
  • Peg O’Connor (bio)
Line Drawings: Defining Women through Feminist Practice. By Cressida J. Heyes . Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2000.

The work of a philosopher consists in assembling reminders for a particular purpose.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, §127

Cressida Heyes, in Line Drawings: Defining Women through Feminist Practice, has assembled some very important reminders for feminists: Just because some generalizations are bad, it does not follow that one rejects all generalizations. Further, generalizations do not require essences. [End Page 194]

Feminist debates about essentialism are in a stalemate: One asserts the sameness of women (which obscures important power differentials) or one insists on an a priori rejection of the category women (which results in the inability to make certain political claims). The task Heyes sets for herself is a daunting one: to construct an antiessentialist Wittgensteinian feminism that avoids the stalemate above and that provides a way to make politically efficacious generalizations about women that do not obscure important differences in terms of power and social locations. This position offers a new methodology that feminists, whether engaged in more theoretical or empirical research, should find novel and insightful.

In the process of constructing this approach, Heyes first takes up Wittgenstein's exhortation to "look and see," and offers a very thorough examination of the ways that the terms essentialist and essentialism are used in a number of feminists debates. She rightly notes that debates about essentialism have largely been shaped by the antiessentialists, and that being charged with essentialism is a quick way to marginalization or dismissal. Used as a pejorative, this move itself can have serious political consequences (20).

In the first chapter, Heyes describes four kinds of essentialism. Metaphysical essentialism is the view that types of things have an essence or an innate structure (à la Locke) that makes something what it is. Metaphysical essentialism has an a priori nature; it is universalist and realist, and not dependent on anything contextual. Biological essentialism is a cousin to metaphysical essentialism. This is the view that women's uniqueness is a matter of our biological capacities, our hormones, genes, body size, and so on (31). Biological essentialism is a reductionist approach. Linguistic essentialism is "the belief that the definition of a term provides the necessary and sufficient conditions of membership in its extension" (37). The necessary and sufficient conditions will not necessarily include biological attributes but may well include attributes that are products of socialization. The fourth kind of essentialism is methodological essentialism. This Heyes defines as "any way of doing philosophy or social science that illegitimately presupposes the significance of some category of analysis" (43). She identifies methodological essentialism as the most important kind because it bears the most directly on feminist politics, and the need to make justified general claims about women that are politically useful.

Drawing from Elizabeth Spelman's Inessential Woman (a book more of us should read or reread), Heyes concurs with Spelman's rejection of what Spelman calls an additive analysis approach. This approach presupposes that gender oppression is separable from other forms of oppression. It is as if a special ontological autoclave could spin out "pure" gender identity. This erases the experiences (and identities) of women of color, because it makes the categories 'women' and 'people of color' mutually exclusive. In short, what the additive [End Page 195] analysis approach does is to conceptualize individuals as the sum total of their discrete elements of their identities, which might include race, ethnicity, class, sexuality, ability (61–62). Not surprisingly, such an additive approach results in inappropriate, harmful, and politically dangerous generalizations.

The examination Heyes undertakes in the first two chapters about essentialism not only provides the groundwork for the Wittgensteinian approach she develops and employs in later chapters, but also serves as an excellent primer on feminist debates on essentialism that would be very useful in a variety of feminist theory courses.

In Chapter Three, drawing upon Ludwig Wittgenstein's critique of quests for ideals and purity as well as his critique of essentialism in Philosophical Investigations, Heyes argument initially takes the form of a Wittgensteinian conversation, which is quite true to form. She argues for...


Additional Information

Print ISSN
pp. 194-197
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Archive Status
Archived 2009
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.