Only a foolish reactionary would assert that "there are no women philosophers"
by Alan Gilbert
August 31, 2009
I correspond now with many Straussians, and am very engaged in a debate about how Strauss bred dark reaction in American politics. One, skeptical of patriarchy in philosophy but not entirely convinced about it, wrote me the following note:
“I do not for a moment think that [Strauss’s] belief in women’s intellectual inferiority was a response to having been rejected by Arendt. That belief is rooted in Plato and Aristotle, indeed, in all the authors whom Strauss most admired; and it is rooted in Jewish tradition, perhaps even in Hebrew Scripture. It seems wrong, but it is not irrational. [The act of the woman at the American Enterprise Institute’s who announced I am a philosopher, turned her back on Allan Bloom and walked out] was great fun, but it was not a sufficient refutation. Nor, let us be perfectly honest, was his assertion sufficiently proven. We have decided today to ignore that argument. But we have not yet shown that it is false, have we?”
My Democratic Individuality, ch. 1, is a straight up refutation of all forms of bigotry about human equality (that we all have an equally sufficient capacity for moral personality to understand the law and participate in political life). It focuses on the issue of slavery, but the subjection of women, or anti-semitism/Orientatism towards jews and Arabs or any putative justification of colonialism is equally at issue. In modern philosophy, scientific explanations, like ordinary ones, are forms of induction (Only mathematics is deductive). This style of explanation, either in a detective novel or about slavery and sexism or about quantum mechanics is named inductive inference to the best explanation in a famous article by Gilbert Harman, Philosophical Review, 1965. Through analysis of relevant evidence (determined by the relevant contending theories), it may turn out that a surprising hypothesis is in fact such an explanation. The argument I give shows that so-called natural slavery – and slave-hunting as a form of just war – believed by Greek slave-holders and even Aristotle are rightly rejected by Montesquieu and Hegel on Aristotelian grounds (there are not distinct groups of people who lack the mental capacity to govern themselves and “need” to be ruled by others).
To certain hidebound reactionaries (and in this respect, Leo and his followers Bloom and Dannhauser, are mustily reactionary), it is just obvious that there are no women philosophers.
Unfortunately, for Leo, Hannah Arendt, who was a more imaginative and creative Heideggerian and in fact, her own person philosophically much more than Strauss, taught right down the hall at Chicago. Arendt has a view of power, resting on the coming together of people nonviolently versus the inefficacy of (elite) violence in revolutionary circumstances which may be the single most powerful argument illuminating the potentials of nonviolent movements (In The Unconquerable World, Jonathan Schell adapts it; it is his central argument in a very good book). Arendt’s 1967 view precedes and foreshadows the fall of the authoritarian regimes or what are perhaps inadequately called totalitarianisms in Eastern Europe in 1989. This is a more significant and interesting argument – just one argument of Arendt’s – than any produced by Leo Strauss or any follower of Strauss, period (as Leo used to say). It is also vastly superior to Max Weber’s influential Nietzschean reduction of ideas to power, his misguided notion that states control the means of violence in a territory and have only forms of legitimacy, a view that renders nonviolence, as it is with Strauss (who was in this respect, a Weberian or a crude Nietzschean) outside politics altogether. But this view now dominates American political science and sociology, what I sometimes style Weber with the lights gone out (see Democratic Individuality chs. 9-12). In his view, violence is power and dominant; legitimacy is secondary, an adjunct to successful coercion. In contrast, her view makes the power of oppressed people (with an implied common good) central and repressive violence ineffectual. In a Nietzschean idiom, Arendt’s view transvalues Weber’s terms in a revelatory way of thinking about power from below (even the Chinese Communist Revolution which she mistakenly dismisses as coming from the barrel of a gun). This is just one important argument by Arendt.
In ethics and social theory, today, Martha Nussbaum is a very important figure. She worked out with Amartya Sen the notion of individual capabilities - that we should judge development or democracy on the basis of its furthering of individual capabilities, and not misleading judgments about average per capita income or idle statements about how democracies don’t go to war with one another (see here and here). In Development as Freedom, based on this argument, Sen adapts his own previous work on famine to show that no society which has an opposition newspaper (as in modern democratic India) has a famine as opposed to British-ruled Calcutta in 1943. This is, once again, a very large philosophical or social theoretical argument, perhaps the most telling one on behalf of party-competition as opposed to an authoritarian alternative. The two arguments together – one by a woman, the other by a man who collaborated with a woman - are certainly among the most significant arguments in ethics/political philosophy/social theory of the last half century.
As I have noted repeatedly, Strauss was a brilliant scholar and his exoteric/esoteric distinction sometimes casts enormous light on ancient and medieval thinkers. Yet he offers no interesting philosophical arguments (his arguments are driven by a sublimely reactionary standpoint, without attention for example to why any person might be a modern democrat or without offering any intelligent argument against democratic views; instead, he invokes the mantra of Nietzsche’s “last men.”) As argument, his emphasis on hidden writing, however insightful as scholarship, is often radically defective. In the Republic, Plato offers a great psychological indictment of tyranny; yet he points hiddenly, I suggest, to the notion that a tyrant of a certain kind becomes a philosopher-ruler or philosopher-tyrant. The surface argument refutes the esoteric pointing; the argument as a whole is incoherent or self-refuting (see my “Do Philosophers Counsel Tyrants?,” Constellations, March 2009, here).
Mike Goldfield points to the irony of Arendt teaching down the hall from Strauss at Chicago as Strauss offered his reactionary proclamations (for a thundering German Jew to sound like Colonel Blimp takes effort). See the 2007 APSA debate over Strauss 1933 letter to Loewith here. Goldfield’s is an amusing rejection of this tale, even if one doesn’t know that Strauss himself cultivated this view largely, I think, because Hannah rejected him romantically and not simply because of its ostensible presence in Plato (I will post on this matter later this week). Strauss liked to say that he preferred Xenophon who he analogized to Jane Austen – one who leaves certain things unsaid - in contrast to Plato who he analogized as Dostoevsky. Neither novelist is an obvious comparison, but what Strauss meant to celebrate in Austen is that she teaches us about virtue, about being your own person, not into it for the money or status, about eudaimonism. Some brilliant novels are also philosophical. Instead of just contradicting himself, Leo might have noticed…
Plato is sometimes invoked as the father of Strauss’s patriarchal view – an emanation of power which has always been stupid and is today in tatters. But even the Republic, despite its terrible hierarchy in the “city in speech,” does not invoke slavery. In my judgment, Plato here followed Socrates, as is visible in the Meno. Socrates says to Meno, bring me any slave, and then, through asking him questions, shows that the slave can prove, upon reflection and discovery of his own errors, one of the most advanced theorems of Euclidean geometry. (In Strauss’s semester course on the Meno, Goldfield tells me Strauss somehow managed to miss or skim over this issue; the lectures have apparently now been posted and I will check them soon, but the best one can hope is that Strauss notices them enough to contradict himself or didn’t see that Socrates rejects his view point-blank). Socrates then says that souls, which are neither simply male nor female, animal nor human, have this knowledge from eternity (both in human form and not), and can recollect it through questioning. This is a pure egalitarian argument, as radical as it gets (it is amusing that those Straussians who assert that every argument is in Plato - I suppose in embryonic form - have overlooked this one). I will not elaborate on the distinction between Plato or Plato’s Socrateses and what Socarates might have thought here. But that Plato himself believed something like this can be seen also in the Myth of Er of the end of the Republic. In this context, Aristotle’s weak argument in book 1 of the Politics is an effort to contradict Socrates.
Athens imprisoned women as patriarchal societies have since. But as I noted in several posts from Crete this summer, the earlier societies of the Cycladic islands and Crete were women-led, comparatively egalitarian, trading communities. Plato’s story of Atlantis in the Timeaus was anti-democratic – Plato himself, as Al-Farabi emphasizes was an enemy of Athens in this fundamental respect – and reimagines Atlantis in a nasty, hierarchical and authoritarian way. See Plato's Atlantis and the subversion of Athenian democracy here and What is lost in Plato's story of Atlantis here. As I also traced, the Mystery religions brought the goddess – Demeter (the great mother from Crete) - into Athens. They celebrated a kind of equality which influences some of Socrates' thinking (a participant in the Mysteries) and probably Plato’s. See Crete, the mystery religions, and Athenian democracy here.
Even Plato notes that women may be guardians. But his story of the city in speech in the Republic – a sexual mocking of women and men wrestling naked together – means to invert the today no longer understood Cretan practice of young women and men vaulting over the bulls’ horns (two of the five remaining frescoes or statues in the archaeological museum at Santorini feature this), Plato often varied stories, but in an Athenian patriarchal vein, he needed especially to bury this one under the metaphorical lava of the volcanic eruption (on Santorini in the 16th century b.c.) which destroyed Crete. It was replaced with the unlovely warrior (Aryan) civilization in which a master is buried with his weapons (often along with slaves and women, his alleged subordinates).
In the Symposium, Plato also invokes Diotima who teaches Socrates about love (she is a prophet from Mantinea, who postponed the plague for 10 years, a mocking account if one thinks of the role of the plague in Thucydides in undermining Athens during the Peloponnesian War, and of course teaches the wonders of boy-love to Socrates). But is her presence not a refutation of Strauss’s prejudice? Was she not speaking to Socrates of the matter of boy-love because that was what Socates was into (I guess he was “bi” as some like to say, but primarily into beautiful boys as Plato’s dialogues show). Strauss identifies and makes creative use of the exoteric/esoteric distinction – one of its more obvious applications is the story of Platonic love based on Socrates and Alcibiades in the Symposium. But bigotry against gays and lesbians is equally a prejudice.
As Strauss also overlooks, Ibn-Rusd (Averroes) in his commentary on Plato’s Republic takes the vision of women guardians very seriously. He says that the comparatively rich Cordoba and the other Arab cities are poor because they treat half the population as plants, not as humans. Women could – and should – be lawyers or join other professions. That was an original Platonic philosophical insight as of the 13th century - probably more advanced than anything in the Middle East till the 19th or 20th century (some Arab Marxists at least had better insights). Similarly, Ibn-Rusd probably beats any European philosopher until Mill or Engels. Ibn-Rusd understood the argument in Plato well and applied it in a novel way (the most interesting insight, that goes beyond Plato, in that volume). Was he not – obviously – right?
Forms of exploitation or power over others always lead, over long historic epochs, to the idea among the exploiters that those who are dominated lack the capacities to participate in political life. Hence I argue in Democratic Individuality, for a notion of limited moral objectivity (Greek notions that at least some males have a capacity for a free political life) and for moral progress. That the prevailing structure of power puts the words of prejudice toward others into the mouths of many, and even sometimes otherwise smart people, ones who have some real insights, is no reason, we can now see historically to believe that the prejudices they also espouse are true. With the character of Roxanne who defies the tyrant Usbek in the Persian Letters, with the slave in the Phenomenology, Montesquieu and Hegel attacked this reactionary view in a way which is ultimately, as more and more evidence emerges, putting it out of business. The first chapter of Democratic Individuality suggests that this view, not the ideology of the dominators, is an inference to the best explanation.
Despite various forms of American decadence currently, one positive feature of American life is the emergence of large numbers of women in advanced education. I taught a course on Ethics and International Affairs this summer. 16 of 21 students were women, and the most interesting philosophical argument in the class about the lingering influence of the social science idea of “value” – the one involved in the hope to be value free, see American moral judgments here – was offered by a woman. Sen emphasizes capabilities, but when he begins to speak of conflicts of ethical goods or hard cases, he reverts to a notion of values which fails to distinguish such goods or such cases from their opposites. Nazis have values, patriarchs have values, etc.
In the law, in international studies and in the humanities, women now are majorities in classes (and one of the peculiarities of patriarchy – in its harms to boys and men is that this may continue for quite a while). Soon philosophy faculties, at the junior level at least, are likely to become predominantly women. Very soon, no one will still think that this reactionary argument about women has any merit – because it doesn’t.
Larry Summers recently got into trouble because of avowing that women may lack insight into physics or mathematics compared to men. Guess he never heard of Marie Curie (there is a particularly beautiful poem by Adrienne Rich about Curie and about the devoted study of x-rays, which breeding cancer, killed her young). Harvey Mansfield got all manly in defense of Larry. But the truth is that Larry is in this respect, as in wanting to dump toxic waste off South Africa, just a reactionary fool.
Andrew Sullivan with whom I often agree for example about Obama or about the harms of torture or the dangers of empire, admires (with criticisms) Charles Murray. Everyone has their flaws. But the Bell Curve of Murray and Herrnstein rests on IQ testing which merely operationalizes intelligence to whatever IQ tests test (the definition is circular and uninteresting; IQ tests actually just predict how people will do in class-, gender- and race- structured schools). Herrnstein once wrote a laughable article in the Atlantic Monthly - 1990 - about how black and brown people are outbreeding whites. The national IQ is falling, he suggested. White women better get out of college and breed. This is just warmed over eugenics and even King Canute, telling the sea to stop where his finger pointed, had less hubris…
Herrnstein had a religion of IQ testing (he once debated Chomsky, and if one wants to see the difference between brilliance and the stammering religion of method, that exchange is a paradigm – see Ned Block and Gerald Dworkin, The IQ Controversy). If one knows what is wrong with operationalism in philosophy of social science (the view that we differ about the meanings of concepts like intelligence and democracy and therefore we should develop a way of measuring these things that somehow skirts these differences rather than providing some reasons and evidence for thinking one thing as opposed to another – a hopeless, anti-intellectual and in practice, perverse and reactionary method - one will not be tempted to demonstrate one’s foolishness in this way. Once infamous, Herrnstein is already earning, in this respect, the criticism of silence.
The argument about women in philosophy is no different from other forms of hierarchical prejudice, for instance, the argument for “Kinder, Kueche, Kirche” (childen, kitchen, church) as the Nazis used to put it. Women have not been in political life or lawyers or novelists or whatever; therefore they cannot be. Hillary Clinton just ran for President. The supposed merits of this unattractive argument vanish before our eyes, as Strauss liked to say. It is no inference to the best explanation. Of a particularly hopeless, sexist remark in Strauss, Peter Minowitz in his recent Straussophobia, says: I will not attempt to defend this. He does not bother to give any version of the foregoing argument. Strauss’s assertion is the cant of fools.