Rethinking Feminist Humanism

Philosophy and Literature 14 (2):284-303 (1990)
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In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:Nina Pelikan Straus RETHINKING FEMINIST HUMANISM Important challenges to feminist philosophy have been launched by Martha Nussbaum and Carol Gilligan. Taken together, Nussbaum 's TL· Fragility of Goodness: Luck and Ethics in Greek Tragedy and Phüosophy (1986)1 and Gilligan's In a Different Voice (1982)2 direct us to die consequences of feminism's critique of humanism, supplemented recendy by attempts at a union with Foucaultian genealogy.3 Each of these texts provokes questions about the reliance on deconstructive theories, like those of Michel Foucault, in contemporary feminist discourse. In this essay I will indicate some of the limitations ofthat union and contrast it to the expanding possibilities generated for feminist thought by a revised discourse of modern humanism. The desirability of this revision will appear more clearly once we take up the quarrel ofsome feminists with the humanist tradition and realize that there is no satisfactory single account of what humanism means. Nussbaum's revision of humanism, for example, is based on a reexamination of human cognition, one which includes emotional responsiveness, traditionally associated with women, as a source of ethical knowledge. Gilligan's humanist revision suggests another variety of humanism, grounded in the claim that Freudian psychology's descriptions of the cognitive developments of men and women fail to account for the different approaches to ethical dilemmas expressed by women's voices. Nussbaum's humanism has classical roots in Plato, Aristode, and die Greek tragedies, while Gilligan's humanism is derived from modern psychoanalysis. Such differences in themselves illustrate humanism's long and pluralistic history. Although Nussbaum does not describe herself as a modern feminist and Gilligan does, each of their texts Philosophy and Literature, © 1990, 14: 284-303 Nina Pelikan Straus285 suggests how, respectively, a woman scholar's response to classical Greek tragedy and philosophy and a woman psychologist's approach to psychoanalysis offer reinterpretations of both feminism and humanism. Parallels between Nussbaum's and Gilligan's contributions to philosophy and psychology suggestan innovative study ofvoices, stories, and images which employ woman as a vehicle for a new approach to etiiics.4 Read togedier, they indicate ways that feminists can redescribe the humanist tradition without either succumbing to the essentialist doctrine which Foucault exposes as oppressive in its consequences for women, or by being seduced by Foucault's antihumanism itself. Nussbaum and Gilligan both expose what Annette Baier calls "a striking feature ofmodern moralphilosophizing"—namely, its "avoidance of the concept of love"5—and each suggests how that feature can be transformed. As linked meditations on unsolved problems of our own way of life, Nussbaum's project is to correct the "notoriously crude and hasty" Aristotelian "investigation of the potential of women for excellence " (FG, p. 471), while Gilligan's work is a response to the dire consequences of Freud's influential notion that "women's experience of sexuality and relationships" is a "dark continent."6 One outcome of feminism's use of Foucault's critique of humanism is the possibilityofits settling into a new orthodoxy or politically "correct" position used to measure degrees of feminist commitment. A better outcome is that feminist discourses which have assimilated Foucault's analysis of power may help to combat this threat.7 The threat is taken to be orthodoxy, and Foucault's discourse is characterized as a guarantee against orthodoxy's temptations. A more problematic consequence of die Foucaultian influence, however, is a devaluation of liberal feminist discourses about "human nature" in favor ofthose which follow Foucault by (in Foucault's words) changing the subject and asking instead, "How has the concept of human nature functioned in our society?"8 This change in emphasis depends upon a description of knowledge as inseparable from power—with Foucault's own texts as the most powerful examples of the emphasis. Michel Foucault thus becomes the Strong Poet whom some feminists incorporate or resist in their writings.9 This incorporation can circumscribe their approaches to feminist problems in ways that suggest traditional female bondages to founding-father texts from which Foucaultian discourse is supposed to liberate them. 286Philosophy and Literature The problem is then one oftemptation. Exercising power is pleasurable, and if we stop with the pleasure that assimilating Foucault yields, we...



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