“…the distinction drawn since the Enlightenment between the universal and the particular was revealed to be false, because what had been called universal was the particular from the point of view of power… [and similarly] subjective/objective division was revealed to be false, because the objective standpoint was specifically the view from the male position of power.” – Catherine A. MacKinnon,
“Are Women Human?”
Can there be a feminist science? Helen Longino asks in her article in a socio-political context. Though with some reservation, her answer is yes, but on condition that we change the present conceptual framework in which science is promoted in view of making money and waging war, i.e. our science must meet standards set by the social, political, and economic contexts. But what must we do if we want to achieve that goal? Do we need to abandon everything about our society and start from the scratch? Or are we, with the postmodernists, to deny the reality and reject the possibility of rationality and of coming to terms with one another? More importantly, are we not stuck in this perpetual debate about what rationality is and is not without making visible progress? By continuously criticizing among the scholarly circles that we are against totalizing discourses, are we not guilty of academic elitism? What does a “totalizing discourse” even mean? In this paper, I will use Deborah K. Heikes’ recently published book, “The Virtue of Feminist Rationality”, to discuss the three prominent feminist theories of science on the binary tensions (i.e. between objective and subjective, between reason and emotion, etc…) that we have looked at in class, and argue with Heikes that rationality is not only compatible with, but also preferable to, feminist science. As Heikes lays out in a concise manner, these three approaches can be summarized as follows: 1) feminist empiricism: allows the binary oppositions to be genuine but claims women’s equal alignment with the valorized term, 2) standpoint theory, et al.: allows the opposition but valorizes the traditionally half of each pair, and 3) postmodernism: rejects the oppositions entirely. In arguing for the notion of rationality that encompasses many of the demands appealing to the feminists from all three approaches, I hope to show my understanding of Heikes’ attempt to harmonize the disputes among the feminists and to unify the account of rationality as a virtue concept by introducing the idea of reasonableness. I shall, first, start with the problems with the postmodernist approach, and instead, propose that the virtue ethics can offer us into the right direction.
“…the secrets of nature are better revealed under the torture of experiments than when they follow their natural course.” – Francis Bacon
In Novum Organum, Francis Bacon set up a project that promoted inductive reasoning and experimental science. Nature, endowed with generative principle, was likened to femininity, and at the same time became the object to be experimented upon, to be subordinated to masculinity and to be conquered by men. With Descartes, reason became independent from emotion, firmly establishing mind-body dichotomy. From thence on, scientific enterprise became associated with mind, reason, and objectivity while matters of insignificance and uncertainties were viewed as bodily, irrational and subjective; or simply, feminine. In this scheme, women had no place in intellectual arena. After all, women are seen as passivity; bodily appetites and emotions can only disrupt the intellective activity of forming ideas by attentive mind. Even though Descartes’ notion of mind had no gender, mind is an essentially active principle, and reason is essentially distinct from body so much so that Descartes himself could not explain how mind and body interact with one another. Such an essentially disembodied, disengaged and self-sufficient entity as mind is not part of this world; it is utterly detached, separated and distinct from the world of objects it can attend onto to itself and its own ideas. In this way, reason obtains objectivity so as to ground the objective knowledge of a world independent of myself. This view of science as a quest for objectivity, rationality, and hence conquest of men [masculinity] over nature [femininity] outlined the scientific thinking of the Enlightenment up to the present era. No wonder, then, Victor Frankenstein absolutely refused to create a female counterpart to the alchemically created monster in Mary Shelley’s novel. Frankenstein wanted to create the society devoid of emotion and bodily distractions. In a society whose preoccupation was a scientific certainty, surely women would have no place to be. This is also why the women in Laputa desire to leave, for male-dominated as it is, the men only think about mathematical formulae and busy themselves with astronomy. Jonathan Swift captures well on the social roles ascribed to women when he depicts women as adulterous and always longing for bodily pleasure, while the husbands are oblivious of their wives’ affairs because they are too busy with abstractions.
Rationality or objectivity has achieved the status of being a metaphysical template for which any persons claiming to be rational or objective must fit. Such metanarrative has been criticized by many feminist thinkers as well as by the postmodernists. For according to this view, “good” science must meet the criteria set up in the course of scientific revolution – the criteria that exclude emotions, subjectivity and anything men have associated with femininity. That there is such a fixed metanarrative is utterly denied by the postmodern feminists, such as Haraway or as presented by Bordo, who view the concept of situated knowledge as impossible. For the postmodernists, the epistemological perspective of the knower is simply free of the physical locations and limitations of embodied existence, and a ‘feminine’ body can “identify with and enter into the perspectives of others, to accept change and fluidity as features of reality.” As such, such multiplicity of perspectives can easily escape taking responsibilities for which their otherwise situated body must take. At this point, Bordo perhaps rightly asks, “what sort of body is it that is free to change its location and shape at will, that can become anyone and travel anywhere?” Since the body is supposed to be the locatedness in space and time, i.e. the finitude of human knowledge and perception, the postmodern body is not a body at all. This is what Catherine MacKinnon means when she also criticizes the postmodernist attitude of reality,
Postmodernism derealizes social reality by ignoring it, by refusing to be accountable to it, and, in a somewhat new move, by openly repudiating any connection with an “it” by claiming “it” is not there. Postmodernism is a flag flown by a diverse congeries, motley because lack of unity is their credo and they feel no need to be consistent… Postmodern feminists seldom build on or refer to the real lives of real women directly; mostly, they build on the work of Frenchmen, if selectively and often not very well.
MacKinnon is right, when she questions the ‘grand narratives’ of feminist theory as described by Lyotard and as criticized by Nancy Fraser and Linda Nicholson as being non-postmodern feminism and quasi-metanarratives. These grand-narratives are purportedly anti-essentialist in that “there is no such thing as ‘women’ because there are always other aspects to women’s identities and bases other than sex for their oppression.” The postmodernists get rid of standpoint and perspectives, and see ‘women’ as homogeneous and plural concept, but as MacKinnon observes, it is not certain where they get the idea of ‘women’ in the feminist theory as an abstract entity. Perhaps, anything and everything is an abstract entity in the theory where ‘quasi’ can be prefixed to ‘meta’ anything.
However, as Longino concerns, what postmodernists and feminists are essentially worried about is “the idea that there is a template of rationality in which all discourses fit.” In other words, “any appeal to a universal will erase diversity and perpetuate the myth of neutrality and objectivity. That is, it will perpetuate masculine ideals of rationality. This is a fair worry, since as we have seen, women have always been denied moral and epistemic agency through the invention of reason-emotion dichotomy. But if we reject the possibility of metanarratives completely, do we not also lose the very possibility of defending claims to injustice and to women’s rights as rational agents? Does such a move not pose “the threat of fragmentation and incommensurability that come with the absence of all universals?” How are we to reconcile this tension? Deborah Heikes here proposes a type of virtue theory that takes into account of the major dissatisfactions of the feminists with the concept of rationality, and tries to situate rationality as a context-based concept that can only exist within diversity. In order to do so, we must bypass the scientific invention of rationality, and go back to the pre-modern concept of what rationality is. In other words, we must get rid of the relatively recent notion of the rationality as a tool for scientific discoveries, and look at the broader concept of rationality.
“I believe that Aristotle’s account of human functioning does offer us a promising way of criticizing [the inequality of women. Although] Aristotelian feminism [is] concerned not just with gender, but also with class. Its goal becomes general goal of capability equality, its enemies whatever structures – economic or cultural or political or religious – prevent equality from being realized. This, I think, is as it should be, since I think that American feminism is too much propelled by questions of narrow self-interest, too little by a more generous and general concern for human functioning.” – Martha Nussbaum
Sandra Harding criticizes the notion of objectivity/neutrality for not being able to detect the scientific methods that “arise from widespread criticisms in feminist, anti-racist, postcolonial, environmental and other movements for social justice that systematically distorted results of research in the natural and social sciences.” Hence, she makes a distinction between the objectivity in the traditional sense and the objectivity in the sense she uses it, calling the former strong objectivity and the latter weak objectivity or objectivism. The strong objectivity, she argues, provides us with a method that can detect a) values and interests that constitute scientific projects, b) ones that do not vary between legitimated observers and c) the difference between those values and interests that enlarge and those that limit our images of nature and social relations. And this is done by recognizing the social inequality and start off from there in order to explain not only those marginalized lives but also the rest of the micro and macro social order. In this way, the strong objectivity, or the standpoint theory, distances itself from the postmodern concept of women as a homogeneous and abstract entity, but rather tries to aim at a collective political and theoretical achievement. This point is further made obvious when she writes that “standpoint theory is not arguing that there is some kind of essential, universal woman’s life from which feminists should start their thought.” This notion of strong objectivity, she argues, is unlike the traditional sense of neutrality and impartiality that do not take into account of any social situations in that strong objectivity believes that “[i]n any particular research situation, one is to start off research from the lives of those who have been disadvantaged by, excluded from the benefit of, the dominant conceptual framework.”
This is all good and fine. We do need a theory that is not only inclusive and sensitive to the socially disadvantaged but that is also capable of “maximizing our ability to block ‘might makes right’ in the sciences.” But what I find lacking in the standpoint theory is that Harding does not say how this social attitude can be acquired in any near future, and even if it is implemented, the project seems too narrowly-focused in the sense that it is essentially concerned with the socially oppressed in doing science (e.g. social science, political science, et al.) rather than putting an proportionate weight to all structures that prevent equality so as to achieve an overall healthy, ethical society. Further, the standpoint theory is at this point, as Harding herself admits, a theory. I agree with Heikes that “instead of focusing narrowly on particular debates within academic feminism, we should follow Martha Nussbaum’s advice to engage in a broader concern with human functioning, which is ultimately the concern of rationality.” I believe feminist issues in society and science are even larger and graver than a theory whose focus is somewhat localized. We need not just a theory to be less false, but an action and attitude that is less false. For this, I now turn to the exposition of virtue theory and feminist rationality as expounded by Heikes.
“As Aristotle tells us about ethics: the point is not to know the good but to actually be good. The same is true for our cognitive endeavors: the point is not to define rationality but to be rational.” – Deborah Heikes
Here, what needs to be clarified is 1) whether the concept of rationality is, as most feminist literature suggests, inherently masculine, and 2) what is meant by rationality. For if rationality is inherently masculine and is in fact inseparable from male thinking, it does not seem to explain how almost universally feminists come to the rational conclusion that the inclusion of women in the social, political and moral lives in their communities is to be realized. And this reasoning happens even in the cultures that are largely content with their practice of exclusion of women. Not only does this not square with the claim that rationality is inherently masculine, but also if the claim is true, such feminists’ arguments that argue for the inclusion of women “lack intellectual authority and offer little ground for the cessation of exclusionary and oppressive practices for those cultures happily engaging in such practices.” As Heikes argue, “[i]f masculinity is truly inseparable from rationality and feminist must abandon it, we stand to lose a great deal.” It seems that we cannot simply get rid of rationality as inherently masculine, as such a claim involves a necessary circular argument. Indeed, giving up rationality is a complete philosophical surrender, since without rationality, normative claims such as equality and inclusion of women, et al. in epistemology, metaphysics and ethics lack sufficient grounds for their defense. What is rationality then? The mainstream notion of rationality that is the center of attention or criticism is in fact not how rationality was always conceived. The mind-body, reason-emotion and objective-subjective dichotomies are inventions of the Early Modern period when the scientific revolution was at its peak. So it is understandable that we look at the period and seek for the justification for critiquing the social construct of women as the inferior of the binary pair. It seems to make sense to point at specific period in time and say, “Look, ever since the moment science was conducted, women were divorced from the intellectual activity!” But to do so is to accept the dichotomous thinking artificially invented by the male predecessors. To keep criticizing the dichotomy is to fall into the prey of the Enlightenment thinking. As I alluded earlier, this was the time when science was conducted under torture to find out what nature can do, as opposed to what nature does. Why do we need to stick to the conception of what rationality is, defined by the conductors of experimental science? The traditional concept up to then of science was to understand the nature in its natural unfolding, and not in its violent motion, as Aristotle would have it. The rationality defined in the scientific revolution is the rationality defined violently, i.e. contrary to how it is. Why not return to the original sense of the meaning of rationality, which posed in no way a mutual exclusive relationship with emotion, etc.? For virtue theory of Aristotelian feminism, rationality is heavily contextualized and cannot exist without emotion. The dichotomy is still there, but the binary distinction is not diametrically opposed with one another. It is interdependent. If we look at rationality in its pre-modern understanding “that understands reason as a faculty that engages the world in a variety of ways, we find a much broader and richer concept” of rationality. As Heikes argues, “[i]f we take rationality to be a virtue concept, we can move the feminist debate beyond the issues that have occupied it for several decades.” Would that not be a marvelous thing? Virtue ethics takes emotion to be integral part of rational cognition. Therefore, it naturally follows that “social and cultural differences matter in determining the rationality of belief and action, and that objectivity cannot be a matter of achieving some transcendent, value-neutral perspective.” In fact, taking rationality as a purely methodological concept admits of no distinction between reasoning well and reasoning poorly – you are either right or wrong. While one cannot be rational and wrong at the same time with the Enlightenment conception of rationality, with the broader conception of rationality, i.e. virtue rationality, one can reason poorly and still be rational at the same time. The task for the virtue theorists is then to determine who better express rationality in the continuum, and why. This is because the broader conception of rationality, like the strong objectivity of Harding, situates rationality as “embodied and is always responding to the world around it rather than being disengaged from the world.” What is distinctively different from the standpoint theory of Harding about rationality as a virtue concept is that feminist rationality admits of reasonableness, which is a strong tool for assessing a perspective while not denying rationality to such a perspective. For instance, Heikes discusses from her own experience that she has once met a male philosopher who felt perfectly at ease to express to her that women cannot act professionally when they were talking about some third female faculty member whose behaviors were actually far from professional. In referencing this side story in passing, Heikes that this man’s automatic reaction about women are unreasonable rather than irrational, as “[p]erfectly intelligent human beings whose rationality would otherwise never come into doubt can express an uneducable second nature, but this should not necessarily lead us to question the person’s rationality.” Bad reasoning, indeed, does not imply the lack of rationality.
Reasonableness, then, in this way, “gives us a means to determine, in a principled manner, which views to discount, not because they are necessarily false, but because they are uncooperative and exclusionary.” Four central qualities Heikes take to be for reasonableness are objectivity, fallibilism, pragmatism and judiciousness. By objectivity, she means simply that we are able to step back from our own situated self, rather than detach ourselves entirely to acquire a bird’s eye view, and acknowledge and engage with other points of view. The idea here is the willingness to genuinely listen and respond to alternatives. In this way, reasonableness asks us to not only to consider those views that support our own, but also those views that oppose to ours. By fallibilism is meant the ability to be able to make cognitive mistakes and admit that one is wrong, as well as the capacity to reflect on how mistakes are made and why one has made them. Because virtue rationality is grounded in experience and shared practices, which are by no means free of errors, those who cannot admit of their own mistakes or are incapable of reflecting upon their own actions show a certain unreasonableness. Judiciousness in reasonableness is demonstrated when Heikes discusses about children who find tobacco and are tempted to try it out. Reasonable adults would judiciously wait and see through the event without asserting themselves in the situation. The result is that the kids experience a bitter encounter with tobacco and heuristically come to discover that tobacco makes them sick. In the end, the adult achieves the desired outcome, i.e. not to encourage smoking, simply through inaction. Such character too is a sign of reasonableness. Lastly, pragmatism asks us to act contextually depending on the practical needs necessary within the given context. Sometimes, the context demands little precision as in the case of telling a vacation story to a friend, whereas at another time it may require a great precision, as in a case for testifying at a court of law. Reasonable people, she argues, understand this and remain sensitive to the varying contexts. In addition, reasonable people must understand that they do not need to know everything and cannot know everything, because their human condition have limits to what we can know. We must then assess each situation within the context we find ourselves in, and such exercises must necessarily “show reasonableness to lie more within the domain of the subjective, personal, and social aspects of our lives.” As Heikes tells us, “it is in the shift to reasonableness that feminists can truly find an expansion of the realm of the rational into subjective and emotive aspects of human life. [For r]easonable people will not ignore human needs and purposes.” Once again, there is no clear demarcation between reason and emotion in the rationality as a virtue concept, and to expect such a distinction is to accept the Enlightenment way of thinking. By bypassing the scientific revolution and going back to the original conception of rationality, we find an account of rationality that rejects modernism.
In conclusion, I believe that Heikes succeeds in providing us with the virtue theory that reconceives many of the feminist concerns about destructiveness of polarized thinking seen in the traditional dichotomy in the line of what Martha Nussbaum would call Aristotelian Feminism. Her account of feminist virtue theory includes a broader conception of rationality that situates rationality in experience and contexts, and sees the traditional philosophical dichotomies of reason and emotion et al. as not mutually exclusive concepts but as interdependent aspects of what it means to be a human. This way of reconceiving the issues also reconciles and is compatible with a lot of feminist worries about the association of masculinity with rationality, and promotes the view that rationality really is an activity that engages with the world and requires constant assessment of its practice for even though there is a standard of rationality, i.e. a rational person, this standard is neither fixed nor transcendent. Claims that appeal to such a standard, I believe, allows feminists to ground their basic metaphysical, epistemological and ethical claims about social inequality, oppression and injustice.
 Catherine A. MacKinnon, “Postmodernism and Human Rights” in Are Women Human? 46.
 Helen E. Longino, “Can There Be A Feminist Science?” in Hypatia.
 This is a criticism raised by MacKinnon against postmodernists in general, but in particular she has Donna Haraway in mind of her article “Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the 1980’s” where Haraway writes, “Fragmentation, indeterminancy, and intense distrust of all universal or ‘totalizing’ discourses (to use the favoured phrase) are the hallmark of postmodernist thought.” See footnotes on MacKinnon’s article “Postmodernism and Human Rights.”
 Deborah K. Heikes, The Virtue of Feminist Rationality, 11.
 Francis Bacon, Novum Organum Bk. I Aphorism 98. The phrase is variously translated and on some versions read, “…so things in Nature that are hidden reveal themselves more readily under vexations of art than when they follow their own course.”
 See primarily Descartes’ correspondence with Princess Elizabeth for the discussions on the mind-body union.
 Heikes, Feminist Rationality, 29.
 Mary Shelley, Frankenstein.
 Jonathan Swift, Gulliver’s Travels.
 See Bordo, “Feminism, Postmodernism and Gender-Scepticism”, or/and Haraway, “Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the 1980’s”.
 MacKinnon, “Postmodernism and Human Rights” in Are Women Human? 49, 55.
 See MacKinnon, footnote. “No ‘meta’ I have ever encountered has also been ‘quasi.’”
 Longino quoted in Heikes. The article from which this excerpt is from is “Circles of Reason: Some Feminist Reflections on Reason and Rationality” (2005) Episteme 2(1): 79-88.
 Martha Nussbaum quoted in Heikes. “Aristotle, Feminism and Needs for Functioning”, Texas Law Review 70 (4): 1019-28.
 Sandra Harding, “Strong Objectivity” in Syntheses 40:3, Feminism and Science (Sep. 1995), 331-349.