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Reviewed by:
  • Women Philosophers
  • David Novitz
Women Philosophers, edited by Mary Warnock; xlvii & 301 pp. London: Everyman, 1996, $8.50 paper.

A collection entitled Men Philosophers would strike many as bizarre. This not just because of the difficulty of deciding who and what to include in it, but because philosophy, as Mary Warnock explains it in her introduction, should have nothing to do with being a man—and certainly should not be prized on the basis of the gender (religion, nationality, race, class, sexual orientation) of its author.

What makes Warnock’s collection any less bizarre? A book entitled Male Philosophers (or, better still, Male Philosophy) would make some sort of sense if it contained examples of the ways in which men unconsciously (or consciously) privilege their sex in their philosophical writing. This would be a meta-philosophical critique designed, one supposes, to preserve the integrity of a discipline that seeks, among other things, to follow the argument. But this is not the aim or rationale of Women Philosophers. By contrast, the title Feminist Philosophers, whenever it occurs, is much less puzzling, for feminist philosophy is a first-order enterprise in the service of a particular political cause. When we read such a title, we know what to expect.

But Mary Warnock has declined to edit a collection of feminist philosophy. More significantly, she does not believe that such works are properly a part of philosophy. Writing in her introductory essay of “what used to be called ‘the Women Question,’” she maintains that “there tends to be too much unexamined dogma in these writings, too much ill-conceived proselytizing, too little objective analysis, to allow them to qualify for inclusion among philosophical writing proper” (p. xxxiii). A philosopher, she contends, “must be concerned with matters of a high degree of generality, and must be at home among abstract ideas. It is not enough,” she tells us, “to seek the truth, for truth can be established with regard to particular facts; it can be the aim of historians and novelists. . . .” A genuine philosopher wants truths and theories of sufficient generality to “explain the particular and the detailed and the everyday” (pp. xxix–xxx). Philosophical theories need to be defended with arguments rather than dogma or reformist zeal, and it is in the quality of these arguments that the merits of any philosopher become apparent. It is, Warnock says, “these generalizing, explanatory, and argumentative aspects” of women’s philosophical work that she has tried to include in the volume.

Sandra Harding, Lorraine Code, Alison Jagger, and Susan Hekman number among those who seem but, according to Warnock, fail in the end to make the grade. “For the great subjects of philosophy, the nature of human knowledge, the limits of science, the foundations of morality or of aesthetics . . . must be concerned with ‘us’ in the sense in which ‘we’ are all humans. The truths which philosophers seek must aim to be not merely generally, but objectively, even universally, true. Essentially they must be gender-indifferent” (p. xxxiv). To [End Page 541] deny the possibility of this, to insist that there are many perspectives, no one to be preferred over any other, is to engage “not in philosophy, but in a species of anthropology.”

There are no arguments for this view; only the claim that many feminists and postmodernists would agree with her assessment. Nor is the assessment always fair, for whatever the philosophical shortcomings, say, of Lorraine Code’s Epistemic Responsibility, a predilection for unexamined dogma is not one of them. And although a work of feminist epistemology, it is not clear to me that the theoretical perspective that Code’s book develops does not apply universally.

The aim of Women Philosophers plainly is to show that there are women who do not just proselytize, but who have performed, and who still perform, the Enlightenment task of defending general claims and theories with arguments, who do so without succumbing to the partial, sometimes self-serving, claims of religion and feminism, and who advance their thoughts with the sort of argumentative rigor that reaches beyond the call of gender, race, and class.

The book offers a lively array of examples. The first is an...

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pp. 541-543
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