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  • Embodied Care: Jane Addams, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and Feminist Ethics
  • Grace Clement (bio)
Embodied Care: Jane Addams, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and Feminist Ethics by Maurice Hamington. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2004, 181 pp., $30.00 hardcover.

Care ethics has been a focus of feminist ethics for the last twenty years. In this book,Maurice Hamington contributes to and significantly extends this discourse by showing that care is not just another moral theory; it is basic to human existence in that it is rooted in our bodies. Underlying care ethics are caring knowledge, including what is implicitly known to the body, and caring habits, which express that knowledge. These embodied experiences of caring, in turn, fuel the caring imagination, which enables us to care for those who are ordinarily distant from us. Hamington's key claim, then, is that care is best understood as a bodily reality more fundamental than any moral theory, and in fact as the foundation of morality itself. [End Page 224]

The main strengths of the book are Hamington's clear and engaging presentation, his detailed accounts of the ways in which care is embodied, and his skillful syntheses of different philosophical schools of thought. The book begins with a helpful comparison between care and breathing and then turns to an even-handed summary of recent care discourse. Each chapter begins with a well-chosen and thoughtfully developed example of embodied care drawn from history or literature—among these are Frederick Douglass, Shakespeare's Shylock, and Harvey Fierstein's character Arnold Beckoff. In his exploration of the connections between care ethics and two quite divergent philosophical approaches—Merleau-Ponty's phenomenology of the body and Jane Addams's pragmatism—Hamington brings care out of the relatively narrow confines of much care ethics discourse and demonstrates its more general philosophical significance.

In keeping with care ethics, Hamington's approach is much more integrative than adversarial. Still, some of the book's claims are controversial and may need further defense than Hamington provides here. For instance, Hamington claims that "our bodies are built for care" (2). He certainly does an impressive job of showing the bodily dimensions of caring. But the claim that our bodies are built for care—as opposed to, say, built for survival, or built for battle—is a much stronger claim than simply stating that there are bodily dimensions of caring. While responding to such contrary arguments about the body's "purposes" might not fit well into Hamington's exploratory approach, a fully convincing defense of the strong claim that our bodies are built for care would seem to require that such arguments be addressed more directly.

While Embodied Care arises out of a discourse in feminist ethics and is certainly sympathetic to feminism, it should be noted that specifically feminist questions about care ethics are not its focus. The main feminist critique of care ethics has been that caregivers—who are typically women—are expected to care for others even at the expense of caring for themselves, and thus that care ethics reinforces women's oppression. Hamington responds to this argument by pointing out, rightly, that caring "does not require self-abnegation" (147) and that care ethics is not only a personal ethic but can ground a just, even radical, social ethic. However, such responses about what care can be are unlikely to go far enough to satisfy feminists concerned with moral requirements.

Another gender-related question arises regarding one of Hamington's most effective points, namely that appeals to the body—and our shared experiences as human bodies—can allow us to transcend socially constructed barriers such as race, class, or sexual orientation, and to care for others. One has to wonder whether sex would be included in this list of socially constructed barriers to be overcome through appeals to common bodily experience. After all, one of the traditional arguments for understanding [End Page 225] care as a "women's ethic" is that women's bodies are somehow built for caring in a way that men's are not. It is clear that Hamington—a man who practices care ethics—would disagree with this argument, but it would have been...


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