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  • Philosophizing in a Dissonant Key
  • James Lindemann Nelson (bio)

Recently, I was asked to contribute to a discussion on the impact of feminism on men, held at the Pacific Division meetings of the American Philosophical Association (APA). These remarks represent the outcome of that invitation and discussion, recollected in comparative tranquility. My fellow panelists tended to take a strong, practical, real-world line on the question, skillfully assessing controversies about how feminism, considered as a social movement, affected the interests of men in general terms. My focus was perhaps a bit more hermetic: I assessed the impact of feminism, considered as a collection of ways of doing philosophy, on men, considered as philosophers. My approach was also unabashedly normative: it seems to me that feminism lays down an ethical gauntlet to the profession generally, and to the men that form such a large part of it, in particular.

Part of the motivation for this more constricted approach was my disinclination to pose as a social scientist manqué, in that making judgments about social movements and social impacts tends to press my empirical confidence to its limits. Addressing how male philosophers ought to receive feminism, on the other hand, strikes me as a task that might usefully begin with a statement of my own experience of feminist philosophy as a philosopher who is not a woman (though, of course, I don't intend to leave it there). I'm not altogether happy about the way I express that experience, since I think it's almost bound to spark misunderstanding. Nonetheless, here's the statement, complete with a label for handy further reference:

(S): Feminism presents itself as a set of ways of doing philosophy that is not for men.

This formulation immediately prompts the question, presents itself by whom? Some feminist philosophers might want expressly to assert or to accept this claim arguing that men can't really be feminists—"profeminist," maybe, on a good day with the wind behind them. But the impersonal formulation has a point. On my view, what is "not for men" isn't so much a particular theory of [End Page 223] what feminism comes down to, or particular and contested views about how feminism in general or feminist philosophy in particular ought to go on. My sense is that (S) emerges—perhaps with a little excavation—from common-denominator understandings of feminism among those with a decent grip on the idea. It is part of the concept, rather than conceptions, of feminism.

In what follows, I'll try to clarify further what I do and do not mean by (S); to motivate (S) sufficiently so that it counts as worth thinking about; to tease out some of its implications; and to consider an objection. Part of my conclusion will be that, appropriately understood, (S) captures something important about philosophy, feminism, and men. I'll be assuming throughout that male philosophers ought to take feminist philosophy very seriously, by which I mean making the effort to philosophize in feminist ways, at least as part of the activity of responsible assessment, and perhaps identifying themselves as feminist philosophers. I don't at all see (S) as inimical to that enterprise. Part of what I do conclude from (S), however, is that such men ought to stay alive to how feminism is, for them, what I will call a dissonant way of thinking.

Initial Backtracking

J. L. Austin, as I'm told, said somewhere that "In philosophy, there's the bit where you give it, and the bit where you take it back." Here's the bit where I take it back. To start, I don't intend (S) to imply anything about how feminism presents itself to women. I'm hoping to make a point here about men's encounters with feminism, and, in the end, a point with normative bite. I'm not sure how feminism presents itself to women. I wouldn't necessarily want to suggest that it presents itself as a set of ways of doing philosophy that is "for them," although that might indeed be so for many women who encounter it. Here, at least, I'm not at all inclined to be...


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pp. 223-233
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Archived 2009
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