Detail from Group of Three Girls (1911), Egon Schiele. Courtesy the Albertina Museum, Vienna
There is more that unites than divides analytic and continental feminist philosophies – not least efforts to define ‘woman’
Although academic philosophy divides itself into continental and analytic strands, it is not entirely clear how this division is meant to work. For one thing, it pits a continent against a method, which, as the late English philosopher Bernard Williams once pointed out, is like comparing a car made in Japan with a car that’s got four-wheel drive. Moreover, there are many analytic philosophers who are European, and many continental philosophers who are not, and there are many analytic philosophers who read certain continental philosophers such as Martin Heidegger and Jacques Derrida, and many continental philosophers who steer clear of both of them.
In fact, the designation of certain kinds of philosophy as continental is often just an insult: what is really meant is that the philosophy in question is obscure and rococo, and that whatever virtues it has to offer pale in comparison with the logical rigour and precision of the analytic approach. In turn, the retort from many continental philosophers is that logic and precision often mean simply omitting from one’s purview the messier swaths of human experience, those that cannot be reduced to the sort of formulas that analytic philosophers prize, such as x is y if, and only if, z.
This divide seems to reproduce itself within feminist philosophy. One volume pointedly calls itself the Bloomsbury Companion to Analytic Feminism (2018). The famed online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy offers separate articles on analytic and continental feminism (although with a separate article on intersections between the two). The article on analytic feminism notes its commitment to careful argumentation and to ‘the literal, precise, and clear use of language’, while that on continental feminism notes its interest in unveiling precisely those ‘non-discursive deep-seated biases and blind spots … not easily detected by an exclusive focus on the examination of arguments’. The article on analytic feminism emphasises the importance of the philosophy of language, epistemology and logic; that on continental feminism the importance of postmodernism, psychoanalysis and phenomenology.
Yet both analytic and continental feminists are committed to the freedom and equality of women and to overcoming discrepancies in power and privilege in general. If we stress only their differences, we overlook the way they work along a common track. They might take their bearings from different literatures and employ different terminologies; they might also work in relative isolation from one another. Nevertheless, it is possible to understand their respective analyses as contributions to a joint discussion that, if it does not entirely resolve important issues, at least deepens our consideration of them. To see how, we can begin with a core feminist question: namely, who or what are women? Who are the subjects to whose freedom and equality feminist philosophers are committed?
As current debates over trans women and gender identity indicate, this question is more difficult to answer than it might initially appear. In the 1960s and ’70s, so-called second-wave feminists began to distinguish between sex and gender, where sex was meant to refer to biological features of bodies, and gender to the socially and culturally prescribed behaviours, roles, attitudes and desires that were meant to go along with these biological features. Feminists in both continental and analytic camps often used this distinction to argue against the idea that biology is destiny – that, for instance, women’s biological make-up means not only that they alone can bear children but also that they alone can and should raise them. For second-wave feminism, distinguishing between the role of male and female sexes in biological reproduction, and the role of masculine and feminine genders in dividing up domestic duties, seemed to provide the basis for freeing women to pursue their interests and opportunities on an equal basis with men. Yet for later feminists, references to sex and gender have served primarily to highlight differences between different groups of women, and to underscore the difficulty of defining women so as to include all those who ought to be included, and to exclude those who ought not. ..