The Sunday Leader

Women Philosophers In The Androcentric Philosophical Tradition Of The West – Part II

by Desmond Mallikarachchi

Most of the work done by women thinkers in the post-war period was in the field of moral philosophy. While their male peers C.L.Stevenson, R.M.Hare, and D.W. Hamlyn were engaged in building meta-theories of moral behaviour the female thinkers focused on the way in which moral values are actually expressed in their practical contexts. Phillipa Foot, renowned female ethicist wrote extensively on the nature of ethics. She also wrote a number of articles on rudeness, which is not the kind of subject that most male philosophers were interested to delve into. Most of these women philosophers in Britain and elsewhere wrote primarily on ‘real –life ethical issues’ such as abortion, divorce, domestic violence, euthanasia and on practical themes pertaining to good and bad.

Not only did the women enter the field of ethics but they also intruded into the other philosophical territories dominated by males. Sussan Stebbing, for example, was a logician and wrote, Modern Elementary Logic; Modern Introduction to Logic, and many other works, which established her name very firmly in the field of logic. Mary Hesse, another famous British woman was the Professor of Philosophy of science at the University of Cambridge and contributed immensely to her specialised field, namely, philosophy of science.

While females in Britain contributed to philosophy in their respective chosen fields, ethics, logic and philosophy of science, there were female intellectuals in the continent who focused primarily on themes such as psychoanalysis, language, feminism, deconstruction and post- colonialism. Julia Kristeva, Luce Irigaray, GayathriSpivak stand out among other female thinkers but not excluding Hanna Arendt.

Julia Kristeva is one of the most famous proponents of the French feminist theory


(l’ ecritiquefeminin). She was a Bulgarian but moved into Paris in 1966 and became associated with the radical journal Tel Quel .Kristaeva’s earliest major work was Revolution in Poetic Language published in 1974, in which she set out her basic theories concerning language and its role in the construction of the identity. Kristeva differs from Freud and Lacan in citing the origin of language in the pre-Oedipal phase, where the relationship between mother and child is still intact. This is a major theoretical contribution to the field. She also has made significant and inspirational contribution to Semiotics,(or semiology), the science of signs.

Luce Irigaray, another female thinker was the director of Research in Philosophy at the Center National de Recherches Scientifiques and had held that prestigious post since 1964. ‘Irigaray’s work has been challenging and varied ranging from psychoanalysis via literary criticism to method of deconstruction. In her book Speculations of the Other Woman (1974) she offers a critique of Freudian psychoanalysis and western philosophy from a feminist point of view. The thrust of Irigaray’s argument was that women as subjects were excluded from Western philosophy (her observation is equally true even with the Eastern tradition), and this mode of thought allows full subjectivity to only one sex, i.e. male. Her quest for the feminine voice is demonstrated in her works such as The Sex which is Not One (1977, Ethics of Sexual Difference (1984), and Sexes and Geneologies (1984.

Gayathri Spivack is a well-known contemporary woman philosopher, who has been variously labelled as feminist, Marxist  and post-colonialist. She became famous when she translated and prefaced Jacques Derrida’s La Grammatology into English in 1976 with the English title Of Grammatology.  Derrida’s deconstruction is the theory underlying Spivak’s work. She held the Post of Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, New York. Her main works have included In Other Worlds: in Cultural Politics (1987) ; Can the Subaltern Speak? (1988) ; Outside  in the Teaching Machine,(1993).

[Please note:- Most of these female thinkers, however, were feminists but Marxists present a different view and we will discuss their stance on the issue later in the article).

The article thus far dealt with how women were discriminated and how they were forbidden any access to philosophy or any kind or type of theoretical discourses in the andocentric western world. It was a historical truth that women were alienated, marginalised and deprived of many rights. Though I sympathise with their plight, I do not, emotionally lament, as feminists do, about the ordeal the female-folk has experienced right throughout history. What is important is not grieving over the issue but to understand the real causes or discrimination, exploitation and alienation of woman and take a stern decision to play an active role in adhering to the proposed Marxist political programme to transcend the causes and consequently enjoy full freedom.

While women thinkers of the 19th and 20th centuries have concerned themselves with pure philosophical themes, such as psychoanalysis, linguistics, (Kristeva) deconstruction, (Spivak), subjectivity, bourgeois ethical themes (Phillippa Foot) and meta-theories of science (Mary Hesse) and so forth, and labouring to liberate the feminine from masculine philosophical thought, there were other women intellectuals who understood, the role of philosophy in a broader social/socialist perspective under the influence of Karl Marx and Fredric Engels. Rosa Luxumberg, Nadya Krupskaya, and Raya Dunayeskaya stand out among those female thinkers who had been very active during the early decades of the 20th century. To complete our picture of the genre of women philosophers, we will cast a glance at these Marxist women too, who, had a penetrative vision about the problems underlying the oppression of both men and women. We will look at Marxist criticism of feminism later in the series, but for now we will turn to these female thinkers and political revolutionaries.


Rosa Luxemburg


Rosa Luxemburg was a socialist writer and politician active in Polish, German, and Russian socialist movements. For her, philosophy is not a contemplation of certain specifically chosen concepts or a pure critical engagement of abstract theoretical issues; it is an action geared towards a structural transformation of the barbaric and exploitative capitalist society. Though she was nurtured by Marx’s revolutionary ideas, she herself was a revolutionary in her own approach to Marxism and launched a number of debates with Marxist giants such as Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin. She had been a fervent and a brave critic of revisionism (revisionism is any critical departure from the original interpretation of Marxist theory- the writer).

Unfortunately, revisionist label has been applied in a pejorative sense and manner to any significant reinterpretation of classical Marxist theory, and in fact, her opponents applied the revisionist label even to Luxemburg herself. Some criticised her for misreading Marx. In fact the extent to which she has been misunderstood and misinterpreted any attempt of recovering what she actually meant is far from complete says Norman Geras, a commentator of Luxemburg (The Legacy of Luxemburg). She had a very sharp mind and a penetrative perception on political issues of her time. She fearlessly criticised the Bolsheviks after the October revolution and stood for what she thought correct but had to pay the price for it. She was murdered in January 1919 during the abortive Berlin insurrection.

One of her famous expressions demonstrates the antipathy she had towards capitalism “No medical herbs can grow in the dirt of capitalist society which can help cure capitalist anarchy’” (Speech to the Stuttgart Congress –1898). Her works include: Social Reform or Revolution? 1899); Mass Strikes, Part and Trade Unions (1906); The Accumulation of Capital (1913)


Nadya Krupskaya


‘Nadya‘ Krupskaya, another female thinker with Marxist inclination was a Russian Bolshevik revolutionary and was the wife of the famous revolutionary leader V. I. Lenin. She learnt her basics in left politics when she participated in discussion circles and sharpened her revolutionary spirit when she was introduced to the theories of Karl Marx. She was a very clever woman and grasped Marxist fundamentals without the support of a teacher, though, her husband Lenin occasionally taught and clarified certain issues in their discussions about the socialist programme. Unlike her western counterparts, Krupskaya led a very active political life. She became interested in education as a result of serving as the deputy to Lunacharsky, the People’s Commissar for Education during the Bolshevik regime. The then government accommodated her penetrative analysis and proposals on education, and the philosophy of education in Russia at the time was primarily founded on Krupskaya’s views, which had been based on socialist principles. Her influence made a huge change in the Soviet Library systems. She was at her peak during the time of the Russian revolution and was the author of the biography Reminiscences of Lenin.


Raya Dunayevskaya


Raya Dunayevskaya was not a woman who developed any interest in engaging in analysing pure philosophical topics nor did she, being a woman herself become attracted to or contribute in any form to feminism in vogue during her time. She was one time Leon Trotsky’s secretary and split with him later and founded her own political organisation. Ignoring Althusser’s protest in interpreting Marxism as a humanist philosophy, Raya founded the Marxist humanist philosophy in the USA. She has contributed immensely to themes such as social theory, social revolution, dialectical philosophy, praxis theory and above all to the Marxist theory of humanism. Raya has been influenced by Karl Marx, Lenin and Luxemburg, and in fact, they became her gurus. The newspaper she founded, News and Letters covered women’s struggles and liberation of working people of colour, while not separating that coverage from philosophical and theoretical articles.

Amongst Raya’s publications Rosa Luxemburg, Women’s Liberation and Marx’s Philosophy of Revolution and Women’s Liberation and the Dialectic of Revolution received tremendous attention and admiration among both intellectual Marxists and industrial workers as she cleverly linked the objective of liberation with the practice of revolution and never supported or tolerated the feminist call or the slogan that ‘women alone must fight’ for their rights, dignity and respect because these notions or ideals, in reality, are bourgeois in their final and authentic definition. As Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Trotsky repeatedly emphasised during their time, and as genuine Marxist-Activists strongly stress today, the women’s liberation lies with the total elimination of class society, which is the root cause of all differences including the gender. Oppression of women for most feminists (emotional and philosophical) is rooted in the nature of men because as these feminists erroneously opine the subjugation and repression that are inherently biological. When viewed from the point of view of Marxism these feminists are wrong as oppression and repression are rooted not anywhere else but in society. We will present next, in brief, the Marxist position on discrimination against women and Marxist solution to the problem of women.


Marxists on the Oppression and Marginalsation of Women


We saw in the 4 parts published previously in this journal how women were marginalised in all spheres of culture by men yet there were a few women who were engaged in serious logical and philosophical thinking.  Their views, however, were either buried completely or were allowed to surface only selectively and vaguely until a group of women representing both the analytical (For example; Mary Warnock, Susan Stebbing, Mary Hesse, Phillipia Foot, GayathriSpivak, Julia Kristeva, Luce Irrigaray) and Marxist revolutionary traditions (For example; Krupskaya, Dunayevskaya, Luxemburg, Clara Zetkin and Alexandra Kollantai) courageously entered the male-dominated ‘intellectual’ world of the west in the 20th century.

Most women in the west in the recent past developed a philosophy of their own in order to find an answer to the problem of discrimination of women which came to be known as feminist philosophy. “Feminism is a way of looking at the world which women occupy from the perspective of women. It has as its central focus the concept of patriarchy, which can be described as a system of male authority which oppresses women through its social, political, religious and philosophical institutions” (I mentioned this briefly in my previous articles with  particular reference to philosophy ) Well known feminist spokeswomen such as Simone de Bouvere, Julia Kristeva, Luce Irigaray, Dorathy Smith, Donna Haaraway, Patricia Collins, think that they have challenged traditional ideas of how we know things and of rationality and argued that these traditional epistemologies both secular and religious have been based primarily on male assumptions and perspectives ignoring and disrespecting women’s voices.

Most feminists not only saw patriarchy as the basis of marginalisation and subjugation of women but also emphasised that the best solution to women’s oppression would be to treat patriarchy not as a product of capitalism but as a problem in its own right, and, therefore, it is indispensable to eliminate male domination to eradicate women’s oppression.

Some feminists, having been influenced by anthropologists (such as Peter Murdock) and sociologists (such as Talcott Parsons) argue that biological differences that exist between men and women constitute the basis for the sexual difference of labour. Philosopher-cum-cultural analyst Ann Oakley (1974) strongly rejects this by stating that gender roles are culturally rather than biologically determined. She does not accept the view that there is any natural or inevitable division of labour or allocation of social roles on the basis of sex but her pure cultural argument does not seemed to have provided an adequate explanation to the historical dynamics of the discrimination and oppression of the woman which for Marxists have been caused mainly by the mode of economic production and the social division of labour.

Some anthropologists (Marcus and Fisher (in Anthropology as a Cultural Critique) and James Clifford (in Writing Culture) dismiss feminist theory on the ground that it has little to teach that anthropology has not already known. They construe “feminism as little bit more than the expression of women’s dissatisfactions with a sinister patriarchy.” But their criticisms seemed to have been based on ‘pure anthropology’ or on  ‘anthropological present’ rather than tracing and studying in depth the historical dynamics of the issue and thereby creating an opposition between anthropology and history (i.e. the past) as has been demonstrated by Maurice Godelier and Raymond Firth in Marxist Analysis and Social Anthropology (1975). Therefore, James Clifford and Marcus Fisher have not been able to propose any permanent remedy for the feminist problem.


Marxist solution 


As Engels stressed in his work “The origin of the Family, Private Property and the State”

The oppression of women and the family inequalities developed in a socio-economic milieu.(Stephanie Coontz/Peta Henderson).As one Marxist writer elaborated ; “The development of agriculture is the basis for the emergence of patriarchal family, private property of tools and land owned and controlled by males including women’s sexuality. They were thus able to exercise dominance within the household and the society in general, which resulted in the “world historical defeat the female sex” ‘and women were reduced to servitude and became an instrument for the production of children” (file://J:/.htm 2001).The Capitalist mode of production, though promised ‘justice’ for all, continued with the same discriminatory process while encouraging oppressed women to form organisations of their own to fight the ‘male ghost’ but not against the real generator of women’s plight, capitalism itself. (This strategic move on the part of the capitalists is quite understandable).

For feminists, women’s oppression is rooted in the biological constitution of men themselves and hence tracing it in the socio-economic conditions at its best is ideological and not realistic. But Marxists argue that this ‘inclusive-exclusive logic’, could probably be theoretically productive in other contexts such as ethnic and political, but its role is unproductive in the context of women oppression. To view oppression in masculinity terms, as Marxists argue, is not only an easy option but “it is also an entirely static, unscientific and an un-dialectical conception of the human society.” Even if we accept for the sake of argument that there is something inherent in men (say like a ‘selfish–gene’ to borrow the title of the book by Richard Dawkins) which causes men to oppress women, it is difficult to see how the present plight of women will ever be remedied. If feminists study the socio-economic history with due attentiveness and, more importantly, without prejudice, they would see the real root cause of their plight.

The root cause of all forms of oppression including women’s consists in the division of society into classes. The abolition of women’s oppression, therefore, is dependent of the abolition of classes by a socialist revolution which will create social conditions for the establishment of real human relations between men and women. As Alan Woods rightly observes “no genuine emancipation of women is possible unless and until the proletariat overthrows capitalism and lays the conditions for the achievement of a classless society” (2009). The dismantling of capitalism therefore is a sine-qua-non for the liberation of the oppressed women.

When women were oppressed in the past, there was no progressive humanistic theory for them to depend on understating the causes of their marginalisation and fighting against oppression. As a result they were destined to suffer until they developed feminist philosophies of all sorts during the mid 20th century. I sympathise with some of their grievances and accept conditionally some of their observations and arguments. But, unlike in the past, they have Marxism; a more advanced and progressive theory to understand women’s awful oppressive situation and overcome it. This article is concluded stressing the following. ‘’ It is the duty and obligation of all oppressed women to march out of the andocentric world with the Marxist slogan and work with commitment to build a just and free society for all, namely, and categorically, for all suffering and suppressed men and women live under the oppressive capitalist system’’.

Desmond Mallikarachchi is the former Professor and the Department Head of Philosophy and Psychology, University of Peradeniya

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