Lecture given at the University of Oslo Aug. 22nd 2013

Since this text has not been published previously, I am publishing it now, for International Women’s Day 2016. The topic was given by Tove Pettersen, professor of philosophy at the University of Oslo for my trial lecture before the disputas the following day. The talk is about sexism in the academia, philosophy in particular, though other fields are not exempt from these tendencies. The theme came alive for me today in a conversation I had, which reminded me of an experience of showing a (white, male, not philosophy) professor a flyer for my book (Respect, Plurality, and Prejudice), and he remarked that the book was in Norwegian. Although it was obvious from the text that the book was/is in English, he still saw it as being in Norwegian. This kind of ‘othering’ in action is a very curious thing. To put it in Kantian terms: someone looks at a person, and what they see is a thing, and they keep seeing a thing no matter what – not an aim in itself but an instrument. And this repeats itself over and over and over.    

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak on this topic, which allows me to develop further some of the themes I have treated in this specific direction or context. A main pillar in my dissertation is the contention that prejudice should be treated as one topic, that specific prejudices such as racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, Islamophobia, anti-siganism etc have more in common than what separates them. They intermingle and they are interrelated, lending metaphors from one another. Songe-Møller recounts how the woman, in ancient Athens remained a perpetual alien, a kind of guest in her husband’s house, someone who sought refuge there (2002:17). The Greek word is ‘xene’, recognisable from ‘xenophobia’. And recall how Freud spoke of woman as ‘the dark continent’. Thus sexism makes use of racist figures of thought just like racism uses sexist ideas.

My interpretation of the topic would be to question the prejudices of philosophers in general and moral philosophers in particular in relation to gender. Why is it that they are still very much alive? Philosophy has a potential for an increase in freedom. It is a discipline that tends to go beyond premises that other fields regard as fundamental, to treat them as questionable, open them up for debate, as subject to possible revision. Based on this the general conservatism of philosophers is surprising; a philosopher is and remains, nearly exclusively, a white male.

One feature of philosophical thinking that relates to prejudice is the love of thinking in terms of binary opposites, of formulating the questions in terms of concepts that function as polarities. Where only one of these concepts is explicitly present, the other concept underlies the discussion as a shadow, its negative.  The aim is often to settle the discussion in favour of one or the other; one of these concepts represents what is good, the other what is bad. Among the most important polarities in play are reason vs. emotion, body vs. soul or the mental vs. the physical, nature vs. culture, the individual vs. the social and freedom vs. constraint or force.

A reason for turning to psychoanalysis has been that it is a system of thinking that largely overcomes these polarities; in the thinking emerging from the treatment of hysteria (in both men and women) the body is seen not as a dead lump of meat symbolic of passivity, but as expressive of meaning – it remembers, narrates and communicates. Conversely the mind or soul is revealed in free association and dream interpretation as filled with, relying on bodily symbols and configurations as vehicles of meaning. Thus nature and culture are seen to mutually shape one another. Reason is revealed as continually engaged with the development of emotional and sensory material, and as collapsing if failing to do so – and seemingly senseless affect is shown as partaking of meaning. The individual is seen to be already social; “someone else is invariably involved” in one’s mental life, whether “as a model, as an object, as a helper or as an opponent” (Freud 1921c). Also, the social is in part dynamically constituted by the fantasy investments of the people who partake in it.

Polarisation fits with a prejudiced logic. According to Allport, “the prejudiced person is given to two-valued judgments in general. He dichotomises when he thinks of nature, of law, of morals, of men and women, as well as when he thinks of ethnic groups” ([1954]1979:175). Furthermore, prejudiced subjects require stability and tend to manufacture it where it does not exist; suppressing the fact that something or someone does not fit an established norm (400-401). Now if you look at prejudices with regard to race or ethnicity, I have argued that the contents of the fantasies are surprisingly stable, although there is social and historical variability as to who the main target is. There is a fascinating exhibit at the Jewish Museum in London that brings that point home. It presents you with a selection of quotes about ‘others’ taken out of context and you are asked to guess who this was said about and when. The interesting thing is that you cannot guess; it shows the extent to which prejudices are recycled and reused. In the case of gender far fewer categories abound, most often only two; there is a historically rather stable binary opposition. Thus in de Beauvoir’s words; “the man represents both the positive and the neuter”, while “Woman is the negative, to such a point that any determination is imputed to her as a limitation, without reciprocity” ([1949]2011:5). He is the subject, she is the object, a surprisingly fixed situation.

Whereas what we might call classical racism, which refers to biological racial differences as grounds for differential treatment or for not intervening to correct injustice, has largely been replaced by what Barker (1981) termed ‘new racism’ which instead refers to culture as a quasi-biological entity, as an essence with a similar function, such a change has not happened in sexism. Biologically based sexism remains more salonfähig than biologically based racism. Cordelia Fine (2001) has coined the term ‘neurosexism’ for the more recent phenomenon of sexism cleverly disguised in neuroscientific so-called “findings”. Though it is beyond the scope of this talk to elaborate this here, she has presented a highly intelligent critique of ‘the seductive allure of neuroscientific explanations’, how brains are conceived of as revealing people’s actual nature as if the brain were not altered by experience and socialisation.

Condensation and the history of philosophy

Prejudice, I have argued, relies on primary process logic. We may speak of condensation and displacement, described by Freud as characteristics of unconscious thought processes, as unfolding in public space when people are portrayed as masses and become mere objects of discourse, when categories of people are depicted as inwardly homogenous entities that are rigidly distinct. Prejudices can often be wholly unconscious – but it is also the case that unconscious material is present in prejudices that are actively articulated and consciously upheld. Since we form part of a social system where some prejudices are ‘valid’, and therefore not thought of as prejudices, they are often not spotted when they occur.

In the introductory book on the history of philosophy I read as a first year student (Berg Eriksen/Tranøy/Fløystad 1991) the thinkers presented were all men, with one exception, Simone de Beauvoir. Each chapter ended with a description of the situation of women in the historical era concerned. This example can be seen to illustrate attempted compensation as representing involuntary revelation of prejudice. The act of adding on the passages about the situation of women only served to clarify the logical structure in place, where ‘women’ were presented as a homogenous entity and mere objects towards which social and historical forces were directed, as opposed to the male thinkers presented as subjects and individuals. Thus the effect was a reinforcement of the tendency the authors seemingly tried to amend. Furthermore, the fact that de Beauvoir was the only woman included signalled that she was made to stand for all women, and only, in so far as I recall, with her work on gender. The structure implied that she was the only thinker in the book who was gendered, and included as an exception, as something exotic, as ‘other’. Thus it was a landmark when Julia Kristeva published her three-volume Le Génie Féminin (1997-2002) on Hannah Arendt, Melanie Klein and Colette because of the gesture of revealing these thinkers as subjects rather than as part of a mass. Also the reference to geniality as a hallmark of individuality was and still is unusual as applied to women – a suitable provocation. Tove Pettersen (2011:79) makes the point that when female philosophers are mentioned it is more often with reference to their lives, their biography, rather than their thought, hence the emphasis is in the direction of object rather than subject. A good illustration is that when you mention Hannah Arendt to people, the first thing they tend to say is, “oh, she had an affair with Heidegger”. But strikingly, I have never heard it the other way around, people saying, “Heidegger, isn’t he the one who had an affair with Arendt?”


A prejudice of philosophers that could be seen as related to condensation, is the belief that philosophy is better the more abstract it is. On this basis moral philosophy may be seen as less good than some other kinds of philosophy, though even within moral philosophy, which deals with people and actions, more abstraction tends to be regarded as better.  And one may suspect that there is a slide in meaning and value from ‘intellectually better’ to ‘morally better’. Utilitarianism has justly been criticised for too much bad abstraction, although the problem is wider. The urge to abstraction, to eliminating most socially contingent features from the examples used to think with can be a reason why philosophers often do not to address issues of social oppression; they have abstracted the phenomenon away.

To account for the learning of prejudice, and moral learning in general, I have proposed that moral learning should be seen as evolving through the following distinct, yet interrelated, processes:

  1. Direct experiences – meaning personal experiences of particular situations, features of which become paradigmatic to the individual of something good or bad and thus come to figure centrally in this individual’s moral imagination as prominent values or ideals. This encompasses one’s own experiences as well as the experiences of others directly encountered – as conveyed through empathic understanding, or when others appear as negative examples. The memories of these direct experiences are presented to the mind as images which may, but need not, become verbalized. In the cases in which they do become verbalized, they are usually presented only to oneself or to close friends and family members. They rarely become subject to public discourse.
  2. Narratives – these are stories containing characters and actions and events that follow from these presented in a medium which allows for a representation of a sequence of time. Examples of narratives are novels, short-stories, films, theatre plays, fairy tales, history as presented in teaching and cultural myths as well as in popular culture such as commercials, newspapers and magazines. They contain implicit answers to questions such as: “What is a good life?”, “Which roles are available for me to fill?”, and they point out virtues and vices, ideals and evils, good and bad characters and ways of conducting a life.
  3. Moral definitions and discourse – this category encompasses formulations such as “X is good/bad, right/wrong, praiseworthy/blameable, shameful or something to be proud of, a virtue or a vice”. It includes claims with regard to what actions are appropriate towards whom, and to how should one think and feel with regard to a range of specific actions as their subject and as their addressee. Third, it contains definitions of who is responsible for what and to whom, and of what falls within and what is beyond the realm of the moral. As opposed to narratives, definitions and discourse are generally clear with regard to their moral conclusions and to the scope of their own validity, hence they lend themselves to discussion more easily than do the other two.

At least most moderns would be faced with, and negotiate, conflicts within the first two modes and between all three. To learn to master the moral vocabulary and customs of the culture to which one belongs also involves mastering the particular double-talk and hypocrisy which characterizes that culture.  A democratic culture praises the value of equality while often simultaneously encouraging ethnocentrism and other prejudices. The moral learning evolving in the shape of narratives nourishes some psychological needs that definitions and discourse do not. It enables identification and offers fuller descriptions of persons and circumstances. Thus it lends itself far more readily to answering the questions: Who am I? Who should I become? Where do I belong? And the rich imaginings of the narratives continue to exist alongside moral definitions and discourse. “Culturally entrenched figurations”, to cite Meyers, “are passed on without obliging anyone to formulate, accept, or reject [them]. It is no wonder, then, that higher-order discriminators have no idea they are prejudiced” (1994:53).

Aiming for objectivity does not mean we are objective. Importantly, the full extent to which, and in what ways our social identities influence our outlook is beyond our grasp. There are aspects of experience that are spoken and thought about while other aspects may remain unspeakable and unthinkable. Thus I might have included a fourth category encompassing the unconscious representation of experience. I shall not elaborate on this further here, save to point out that any person’s answer to a question of what events, what positions have shaped his or her stance in decisive ways is going to be at best a partial truth. It is illusory to think that you can spell out what constitutes your point of view, what guides your inquiry – at best you could express your conscious beliefs about it.

Subjectivity and Absence

What I outlined in the first chapter, Subjectivity and Absence, is how social violence is also epistemic, or power has epistemic effects. I used Balint’s model of trauma, built on Ferenczi’s writings on the subject, as a metaphor for how prejudice functions on a societal level.

In the article “Trauma and Object Relationship” (1969) Michael Balint argued that clinical experiences reveal that the structure of trauma has three phases. In the first phase the child is dependent on the adult and is in a primarily trustful relationship (1969:432). In the second phase the adult, once and suddenly or repeatedly, does something highly exiting, frightening or painful. The child may be exposed to excesses of tenderness or excesses of cruelty; to severe overstimulation or rejection (1969:432). The trauma is only completed in the third phase when the child, in reaction to the second phase, attempts to get some understanding, recognition and comfort and the adult behaves as if nothing had happened. The adult may be preoccupied with other matters or plagued by severe feelings of guilt, and may reproach the child with moral indignation or feel that his or her action is best redressed by a feigned ignorance. Balint’s claim is that, while an economic model focuses exclusively on the second phase – having in mind Freud’s definition; “We describe as ‘traumatic’ any excitations from the outside which are powerful enough to break through the [organism’s] protective shield” (1920g:29), his own proposed three-phasic structure changes the basis for the theory of trauma from the field of one-person psychology to two-person psychology (1969:432-433). In his view, the second phase is preceded by a trustful relationship, and crucially, is followed by a non-response which deprives the event of its character of reality. Bion’s concept of nameless dread can be seen to point to a similar phenomenon: “If the projection is not accepted by the mother,” he writes, the rejected feeling does not remain the same but becomes qualitatively different; it is “stripped of such meaning as it has” (1962a:116). Thus it cannot be truly experienced but becomes indigestible, meaningless, that-which-cannot-be-thought. Like the bird mother that feeds the baby bird with food she had digested, Bion’s mother feeds the infant digested experience, leading to the growth of an ability to think (Auestad 2010d). In this case there is a feeding of meaninglessness; the infant is being fed, and left with unthinkable, unpredictable and assaulting occurrences. The situation is one where “the infant has a wilfully misunderstanding object – with which it is identified” (Bion 1962a:117) He or she becomes, incorporates, the misunderstanding object and is also at the same time the subject which is misunderstood, and thus deprived of subjectivity.

Inherent in the common response of the racist, anti-Semite, misogynist or homophobe; “My statement was not intended to be hurtful. You must be hypersensitive. You misunderstand me,” is a similar structure to the one seen in Balint’s account of trauma. It contains the claim that the speaker’s intention should be seen as real or valid, whereas the feeling and interpretation of the recipient do not. As in his description of the trauma’s third phase, the reality of the occurrence is denied. Moral indignation may enter in, as in the accusation of hypersensitivity, where the blame is allocated to the recipient. The speaker is re-affirming his or her own subjectivity and nullifying that of the other. To allude to Bion, the reaction of the recipient is deprived of its name; the position from which it could be articulated is not significant – it is not a meaningful experience. Finally the recipient is invited, or forced, to identify with the speaker. This is the position, it is assumed, from which it makes sense to speak, thus in so far as one is making sense one is connecting with this position. Since the speaker’s version presents itself as being in line with “common sense” whereas the recipient appears as “radical”, a third party would be inclined to support the former, which appears as intuitively meaningful, while the second is on the edge of the universe of meaning. Thus we have a situation where the supposedly neutral third party in responding, to refer back to Balint, by “non-participating passive objectivity” (1969:434) repeats the third phase of misunderstanding, of depriving the event of its reality. It has become non-existent.

To relate this to the theme of philosophers, moral philosophy and gender, I’ll start by citing Jennifer Saul, who writes:

There is very little general awareness of implicit bias amongst philosophers.  The picture of bias that seems to prevail is the traditional one, on which (a) there are some very bad racist and sexist people who hold explicitly biased beliefs (e.g. “women aren’t good at reasoning”); and (b) those who hold explicitly egalitarian beliefs don’t need to worry about being biased.  As long as this picture prevails, implicit bias cannot be fought in the ways that it needs to be fought, because people believe that their genuinely-held egalitarian beliefs mean that they are not biased.  Philosophers need to become aware that good people who sincerely hold egalitarian beliefs may still be unconsciously biased (Saul 2013).

To think in terms of common sense moral judgments; I know Hilary, and Hilary is a good person, so he or she probably would not discriminate on the basis of race or gender or anything like that. The claim that Hilary is discriminating lacks initial plausibility – it is not in line with common sense, but “radical”. And one may even turn the accusation against the one who raised the claim: “In fact, you are the bad person to suggest such a thing. You are now smearing Hilary, who is a nice person”. In Delusions of Gender, Cordelia Fine reports a study where more than 100 university psychologists were asked to rate the fictitious CVs of Dr. Karen Miller or Dr. Brian Miller. Apart from the names, the CVs were identical. About three quarters of the psychologists thought Brian was hireable while only just under half thought that Karen was (55). Thus, overall men are rated more favourably than identical women for jobs that are stereotypically regarded as masculine. Importantly, as Fine points out in relation to a similar study, although “gender clearly was influencing the evaluations, almost none of the participants mentioned it as a factor in their decision making”. Self-reported endorsement of sexist attitudes did not predict hiring bias, though self-reported objectivity in decision making did. In other words, the people who were most convinced of their own objectivity were the ones who discriminated the most (60-61). This finding is interesting in relation to philosophy, since there is reason to believe that philosophers tend to conceive of themselves as far more objective than people in general. To refer to Sally Haslanger;

like women, non-Whites are often perceived through schemas that represent them as less rational, more identified with nature and the body, than Whites. Even if one consciously rejects these assumptions, they may continue to work at the level of schemas. […] In contexts where there are strong masculine gender (and race) schemas at work, stereotype threat becomes an issue for women and minorities. […]

This suggests that individuals in philosophy who identify as women (or as non-White), have a strong investment in philosophy, and also identify as agents responsible for their cognitive performance (as is encouraged by the norms of the profession), are highly susceptible to stereotype threat (Haslanger 2008).

Stereotype threat, in social psychology, refers to being at risk of confirming, as self-characteristic, a negative stereotype about the social category one is perceived as belonging to. The results of extensive research show that performance in academic context can be harmed by awareness that one’s behaviour may be viewed through the lens of stereotypes. This is more likely to occur in contexts where a stereotyped status is made salient. In a more phenomenological vein, I have referred to DuBois’ concept of double consciousness and what I have termed ‘enforced splitting’. In DuBois’ words: “It is a peculiar situation this double consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity” (1903]1994:2). Now this relies on forced introjection and enforced splitting. The former because in a minority position one is forced to swallow, take in, identify with the majority position and its social norms. You are not even making sense unless you relate to a social frame for what is meaningful. Splitting ensues in for far as this is a social frame according to which what you are taken to represent is seen as less good and less worthy of respect. In other words one is forced to partially agree, what Ferenczi termed ’empathising with the aggressor’, and partially disagree, to resist oppression. In terms of our discussion this means that not only men would have a problem with women in philosophy but women would have a problem with women in philosophy. You might say that philosophers are always men even if they happen to be women – or always also men. Or you could say both men and women in a philosophy department would be performing masculinity. “You have to play it to be it” as we know from existentialism, although this can be more or less costly, more or less problematic.

There is currently (August 2013) an exhibition at Tate Modern by Ellen Gallagher (2013), who in her work makes use of advertising in African American focused magazines. These feature hair straightening products, wigs and skin bleach creams. One advertisement for a skin bleach cream stated; “It is not that you want to be white, you just want to remove some discoloration”. So it is nearly, but not quite saying; “It is not that you want to be white, you just want to be less black”. Thus in one sense there are either-or dichotomies, in another sense there are degrees. We might ask, what would be the equivalent of the skin bleach cream for women in philosophy – how do you remove discoloration? One thing I noticed when is studied arts history, which is dominated by women, was a use of vibrant and beautiful colours in clothing, scarves and jewellery, compared to much more restraint in the use of colour and any form of decoration in philosophy. Arguably, the philosophical social space is characterised by more restraint on emotional expression, other than anger. Introducing the theme of emotions in philosophical arguments, as well as referring to personal experiences, would have been considered taboos.

In being expected, as a woman, to say something about emotions, there is a double consciousness being evoked. Now if you do say something about emotions, in a philosophy department, you would be seen as confirming a stereotype, which would be unfortunate. Then, does that mean that you should avoid saying anything about emotions? In any case, a part of yourself would be monitoring yourself and the situation from the outside, weighing how what you say will be perceived in relation to a stereotype – inhibiting spontaneity and creativity.

Killing the angel

When I came to write, wrote Virginia Woolf, “there were very few material obstacles in my way” (1). Although, she continued,

I discovered that if I were going to review books I should need to do battle with a certain phantom. And the phantom was a woman, and when I came to know her better I called her after the heroine of a famous poem, “The angel in the house”. It was she who used to come between me and my paper when I was writing reviews. It was she who bothered me and wasted my time and so tormented me that at last I killed her (Woolf 1931:3).

The angel Woolf describes is a personification of a mode of relating; it is very sympathetic, charming and utterly unselfish; “She excelled in the difficult arts of family life. She sacrificed herself daily. If there was a chicken, she took the leg; if there was a draught she sat in it”. She “preferred to sympathize always with the minds, and wishes of others” (3). Woolf suggests that since 20th century women are heirs to this 19th century feminine ideal of service and subservience, they tend to suffer from this inhibition in the relationships that influence creativity. These are her words on how the angel intervenes:

I took my pen in my hand to review that novel by a famous man, she slipped behind me and whispered; My dear, you are a young woman. You are reviewing a book that has been written by a man, Be sympathetic; be tender, flatter, deceive; use all the arts and wiles of your sex. Never let anyone know you have a mind of your own. Above all, be pure (Woolf 1931:4).

Thus the angel becomes a persecutory object which forbids spontaneity, independence, aggression and desire. She represents a state of mind where anxieties about a work’s reception intervene so as to block creativity. Paralysed with the demands to be agreeable and pleasing the woman writer in particular is prevented from making a mark. In the end, wrote Woolf:

I turned upon her and caught her by the throat. I did my best to kill her. My excuse, if I were to be had up in a court of law, would be that I acted in self-defence. Had I not killed her she would have killed me. She would have plucked the heart out of my writing. […] Thus whenever I felt the shadow of her wing […] upon my page, I took up the inkpot and flung it at her (1931:4).

It took several rounds, as Woolf described it, to kill the angel. Demons do not die easily, though in the end she succeeded. Now where do we know this angel from, other than as a destroyer of writing? One might say she is at once a fantasised creature, the one side of a split, an idealised object – and a real one in so far as she has been implemented as a social and moral norm. Woolf was a white and bourgeois woman writer, and a black woman could be more likely to be cast in the role of not pure, but sexually available and thus bad, rather than angelic other. There is also a dialectic in play, connected with idealisation. It is unstable, so that the sides of the split can change places; if she is not extra good, she becomes supremely bad. When Margaret Thatcher died this year (2013), people on the left were celebrating, playing and dancing to the song from The Wizard of Oz, “Ding Dong, the Witch is Dead”.  Arguably, she was brutal and ruthless, though it is interesting, as it was remarked, that she was hated far more than would have been the case if a man had done all the same things. Fine demonstrates how a fictional ruthless critic was considered far more likeable and hireable in a male than in identical female version. The female version was more disliked as she was perceived as more intimidating, dominant and ruthless than the identical male one.  She remarks on how there is a catch-22 involved here, as the alternative to be seen as competent but cold is to be seen as ‘nice but incompetent’ (2010:58-59).

Now the problem with some versions of feminism is that they have continued to present you with a portrait of an angel. They have taken some qualities that have historically been ascribed to women by male theorists, and reevaluated them. So the line of argumentation would be; “it is not the case that reason is good and emotion is bad, in fact it is the other way around”, or “it is not culture that is good and nature that is bad, it is actually the opposite”. Elisabeth Young-Bruehl (1996) makes the point that such descriptions, intended as feminist, can easily be taken up and echoed by sexists. And we can see why that is; because the structure is kept intact. Hence the good/bad labels can easily be flipped back and forth. In exploring the topic of gender it is too easy to reify it even when that is not intended. Perhaps we are mislead by having one word into thinking that there is one thing that corresponds to it. Since its meaning would vary in accordance with a number of other social identities, race, class, ethnicity, religion, geographical and historical situatedness, education, profession, it is many and variable things. Therefore I think it is useful to think in terms of performativity, as Judith Butler has suggested ([1990]2007), also because it is a dynamic concept that emphasises that power structures have to be repeated, reinforced in order to continue to exist.

In “Womanliness as a Masquerade” from 1929 Joan Riviere described a kind of woman who sustains masculine identifications not to occupy a position in a sexual exchange but to pursue a rivalry that has no sexual object. Her rivalry with the father is not over the desire of the mother, but over the father’s place in public discourse as a speaker, writer, lecturer – a user of signs rather than a sign-object. In a central passage she stated:

The reader may now ask how I define womanliness or where I draw the line between genuine womanliness and the “masquerade”. My suggestion is not, however, that there is any such difference; whether radical or superficial, they are the same thing (1929:38).

This can be seen as a precursor of thinking of performativity. If we think of how philosophers tend to talk in seminars it seems far removed from the ‘ideal speech situation’ as portrayed in discourse ethics, though this ideal may colour the view of what philosophers think they are doing. There tends to be a war of words, speech as an outlet for aggression. The mode is one in which one aims to very quickly identify what an other is saying as belonging to a certain already known position, and presenting ready-made arguments against it, without really having heard what the other said. I learnt to condense what I had to say into very few words, telegram-style, and throw it in, like a punch line, before someone managed to interrupt – because they would want to interrupt you. This style of talking is not the most conductive to grasping new things, to listening to positions you do not already know. It appears to make sense to say that in a philosophy seminar, as we know it, people are performing masculinity. That is not to say that it is the only way of doing so, or, in so far as this style is inauthentic, that there is an alternative way of speaking that would be the authentic one. And women as well as men can enjoy going in for a kill, symbolically. Speech is always artificial in that you need some adaptation to a social situation in order to communicate. So to do critique without reification it may be better to state that this form of communication is highly limited, as well as being disrespectful in many ways, than to rely on a more substantive gendered characterisation.

Philosophy without women

In speaking of narcissism on a group level, Young-Bruehl notes how the male bonding recreates mother-bonding before experience of difference, they are both homoerotic. Rather than specifying their enemies, such groups speak of values, traditions and standards they must protect (1996:234-235) The peer group is the “I” made “we”, and she argues that ‘cultures of narcissism’, rather than being about the ‘I’ are ones that rest upon profoundly conservative self-images (37). She distinguishes between sameness sexism, which claims that women really are men, though failed or imperfect ones, and that men are the ones who reproduce, and difference sexism, where women are dephallisized and have no other task than reproduction (419-420). In Philosophy without Women Vigdis Songe-Møller recounts how, according to Hesiod’s Theogony: “The death bringing sex, ‘the race of women’ originated with Pandora, the first woman, […] both evil and beautiful. She was the punishment inflicted on Prometheus for having set mankind against the gods.” (2002:8) She was not born, but shaped out of clay. Prior to her creation mankind had lived in harmony with the gods and eaten at their table, untouched by sorrows. There was only one sex, and people multiplied with no need for sexuality (10). After she was introduced mankind was forced to toil for its continued existence, and its unity was lost. The individual was no longer self-sufficient but had to depend on someone of a different nature in order to reproduce. Men now had to plough (gr. arotos) both their fields and their women (9). “Humanity’s original condition allowed each man to see himself reflected in any other. The governing principle was sameness.” (10) “Since it is woman who introduces the distinctions and dissimilarities, she comes to symbolize what we can call the category of difference: man stands for original unity, whereas woman is the other.” (10)

She argues that the “Platonic aspiration to unity and harmony is simultaneously an aspiration to immutability and self-sufficiency” (86). There is no scope for fundamental differences, only for absence and lack. In the Symposium he describes a love of what resembles oneself, or one’s own ideal. Thus Pausanias says in his speech about vulgar men, “they are as much attracted by women as by boys […] their desires are of the body rather than the soul [and they court] the shallowest people they can find” (97). He loves the feminine aspect of the other person whether this be a male or a female. By contrast, the man of good taste turns “rather to the male, [and] no boy can please him until he has shown the first signs of dawning intelligence, […] which generally appear with the first growth of a beard” (98). This demonstrates the importance of having a beard, or rather, to Songe-Møller, what the philosophical lover desires is sameness and unity per se (101).  To my mind, this can be taken as a point about intellectual orientation, but it can also be seen as a point a more homosocial compared to a more diverse social sphere.

First, it follows from what I have said earlier that this problem cannot be addressed only at the level of moral definitions and discourse, as that would imply keeping the other levels intact. In fact it is a virtue of Songe-Møller’s account that she goes deeper than that – she is more concerned with addressing the myths that underlie philosophical systems, which I would term the level of narratives.

Pettersen (2011) points to a reason given for the lack of inclusion of female thinkers in the traditional canon, namely that many of their philosophical texts were in a form, a style we don’t recognise as that of philosophy today. In accordance with what I have argued, in so far as varying the style enables a contribution to address other levels, those of narratives and experience, they may be less pure, but they are deeper, more thorough. And it can be of great value for moral philosophy to consult other expressions, such as art and literature, not to take them into a canon but to be in dialogue with them. This is not because we should think of specific expressions or specific ways of doing philosophy as gendered in a substantial sense but because more diversity in one sense allows for more diversity in different senses as well. Such as opening up is about respect and justice, while also being, to draw on Arendt, an epistemic gain for everyone.

Allport, G. W. ([1954]1979) The Nature of Prejudice. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Perseus Books.

Arendt, H. ([1958]1988) The Human Condition. Chicago/London: The University of Chicago Press.

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