- The Tools of Women’s Studies and Philosophy:Critical Thinking in Writing Courses
Some of the most important lessons I learned from philosophy and women's studies are related to critical thinking. Work in analytic philosophy taught me how to better locate and reconstruct arguments from what had often seemed like a morass of surrounding text. Philosophy also provided me with a stronger sense of entitlement about using my own judgment. I began to believe that I, too, had permission to evaluate the reasoning of others and learned to do so with greater tenacity and precision. It was also through philosophy that I gained an appreciation for the value of universal principles and abstract concepts, one that would be tested in women's studies, where I learned, instead, to value individual experience in all its messy particularity. It was through women's studies that I became sensitized to racial and sexual biases in a way that allowed me to recognize my right and responsibility to critique even the philosopher according to criteria that he might not even recognize as legitimate.
My journey to becoming a professor in and chair of a philosophy department whose courses are nearly all writing intensive began in ignorance. As a second-year college student I worked with a women's studies professor whose doctorate was in philosophy. For me, then, it was a surprise to learn that the alliance between feminism and philosophy (with some notable exceptions) was both relatively recent and sometimes uneasy. Only after I was already up to my neck in feminist philosophy did I learn that, according to some, it was a contradiction in terms. When philosophy is defined as dealing only with the most abstract or general of questions, and gender is dismissed as an accidental, empirical detail, the term "feminist philosophy" collapses. Of course, fewer and fewer scholars operate with such a narrow definition either of philosophy or of gender, and the possibilities that emerge at this intersection are being explored in ways that could hardly have been imagined even two decades ago.
My appreciation for the richness of this sort of boundary crossing and my love of writing led me to do a postdoctorate academic writing fellowship in an interdisciplinary program at Duke many years later. When I began to focus on the teaching [End Page 91] of academic writing, I became explicitly aware of a similarity in the understandings of critical thinking that I had inherited from these two disciplines, namely, that they sometimes express a similar assumption about the grandness of the nature and purpose of critical thinking. It's a feature that I continue to be aware of precisely because of its awkward fit in the writing-intensive feminist philosophy courses I now teach, such as Philosophy of Race, Class, and Gender. Although my training in philosophy and women's studies effectively guides my teaching in many ways, I find that I am gradually adopting aims related to critical thinking that, on the face of it, are far more modest. Paradoxically, I think they have great potential for transforming my writing-intensive feminist philosophy classrooms into venues where developing critically-based practices is not so much a means to some supposedly loftier goal, but, at least sometimes, an end in itself.
Many traditional academic philosophers seem to see themselves as specially charged with the task of policing the reasoning of others and of teaching others to do this, a mission that often seems to be based on their loathing of relativism, especially the type of relativism that women's studies sometimes seems to advocate. Notice, for example, the not untypical claim in one introductory philosophy text that "critical thinking is impersonal in the sense that mathematics is impersonal. The truth of the sentence '2+2=4' is not a function of some particular person's moods, values, religion, gender, race, or such" (Soccio 40). The "or such" underscores how trivial the listed considerations are thought to be as compared to "genuine truth."
In the wake of Socrates, philosophers have continued to construe the pursuit of critical thinking as a crusade. So, for example, from Kant's floundering for an island of truth...