Philosophy Feminist Metaphysics
by
Mari Mikkola
  • LAST REVIEWED: 08 October 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 November 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0297

Introduction

Since the 1980s, feminist philosophy has become recognized as a philosophical subdiscipline in its own right. Feminist philosophy is typically distinctive in being framed around specific concepts and background beliefs, which are sensitive to concerns about gender justice. From this perspective, feminist philosophers have advanced influential arguments in ethics, aesthetics, epistemology, and political philosophy. Among the core areas of philosophy, metaphysics has remained dismissive of feminist insights, and some feminist philosophers have been suspicious of any value metaphysics may have for their endeavors. Metaphysics typically investigates the basic structure of reality (what really or fundamentally exists) and its nature (what kinds of entities exist). It examines reality’s putative building blocks or basic structure “carved in nature’s joints.” For the task of uncovering and elucidating such a structure, feminist insights appear simply irrelevant. Moreover, metaphysics seems to be a paradigm value-neutral endeavor, which is prima facie incompatible with feminism’s explicitly normative stance and its emphasis on how gender makes a difference to philosophical inquiry. Nonetheless, feminist philosophers have taken up explicitly metaphysical investigations on a number of topics and increasingly so in the early 21st century. The basic ideas behind feminist metaphysics can be summed up as follows: it is about negotiating the natural and going beyond the fundamental. Feminist metaphysics places prime importance on examining ways in which the central notions and categories of metaphysics might be value laden in particularly gendered ways. In so doing, feminist investigations have expanded the scope of metaphysics in holding that metaphysical tools can help advance debates on topics outside of traditional metaphysical inquiry (e.g., on the nature of gender, sex, and sexuality). Feminist philosophers have also discussed more common metaphysical topics (e.g., relations, the self, essence, identity) from a feminist perspective. Finally, as feminist philosophers typically bring new methodological insights to bear on traditional ways of practicing philosophy, feminist metaphysicians too have recently begun interrogating the methods of metaphysics. They have raised questions about what metaphysics as a discipline is in the business of doing and considered whether traditional “mainstream” metaphysics is antithetical or friendly to feminist metaphysical projects.

General Overviews

Although feminist philosophers have discussed many broadly metaphysical questions over the years (e.g., about the nature of putatively gendered moral agency or ways of knowing), distinctly feminist metaphysics is a relatively new philosophical area. Therefore, general overviews on the topic are sparse. The most comprehensive introduction to topics in feminist metaphysics is Haslanger and Sveinsdóttir 2011. Newcomers to the subject should start with this encyclopedia entry. To date, there is no single textbook that provides a comprehensive overview of the subject. Stone 2007 offers a good starting point for many topics that are central to feminist metaphysics, although the textbook was written as a general introduction to feminist philosophy. By way of background, those new to the area should also find Witt 2002 and Haslanger 2000 useful. These texts do some helpful groundwork for seeing the benefits of the connection between feminism and metaphysics. Furthermore, although much of contemporary feminist metaphysics is analytical in methodology, Battersby 1998 and Stone 2007 offer notable exceptions.

  • Battersby, Christine. The Phenomenal Woman: Feminist Metaphysics and the Patterns of Identity. New York: Routledge, 1998.

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    One of the first monographs explicitly on feminist metaphysics. The book focuses on the notion of identity and in particular on how identity is constructed through birthing. Although systematic in method, the book draws heavily on post-Kantian Continental philosophy. A more challenging work that is not particularly suitable for beginners.

  • Haslanger, Sally. “Feminism and Metaphysics: Negotiating the Natural.” In The Cambridge Companion to Feminism in Philosophy. Edited by Miranda Fricker and Jennifer Hornsby, 107–126. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

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    Discusses the alliance of feminism and metaphysics, which some take to be untenable. Suggests a way to develop a distinctly feminist metaphysics by engaging in a debunking project relative to gender (to demonstrate that it is distinctly social, not natural). Reprinted in Haslanger, Sally. Resisting Reality (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012).

  • Haslanger, Sally, and Ásta Sveinsdóttir. “Feminist Metaphysics.” In Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta. 2011.

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    Provides the most comprehensive extant introduction to topics in feminist metaphysics. Considers in detail what it is for something such as gender to be socially constructed; how feminist philosophers have challenged the putative naturalness of central metaphysical categories; and how feminist philosophers have leveled critiques against various dualisms.

  • Stone, Alison. An Introduction to Feminist Philosophy. Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2007.

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    Although written as a general textbook on feminist philosophy, Stone discusses some topics at the heart of feminist metaphysics: gender, sex, sexual difference, and essentialism. These topics are usually discussed more in an analytical manner, but Stone offers a nice methodological crossover by discussing them from both systematic and Continental perspectives.

  • Witt, Charlotte. “Feminist Metaphysics.” In A Mind of One’s Own. 2d ed. Edited by Charlotte Witt and Louise Antony, 302–318. Boulder, CO: Westview, 2002.

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    Originally published in 1993, an early text that makes a two-fold argument that (i) there are no reasons for feminists to be suspicious of metaphysics; (ii) feminism has much to contribute to metaphysics (specifically, to metaphysical conceptions of humanity). Argues that the relationship between feminism and metaphysics is not anachronistic, contra skeptics.

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