Sense and reason: reading about women

As much as we get a lot of unhelpful and bemused responses from it, we at the Noumenal Realm are reading about women. Life has been too hectic to write about Karl Popper less even still reading it. As part of a personal outreach for my own immortal soul, I often make an attempt to think beyond the typical intellectual history of Kant and Aristotle and with that intent I have this year followed a blog called “A Year of Feminist Classics”. Some of these works are interesting and caught my curiosity especially because I have been meaning to read some of the works on their list. Most notably, Wollstonecraft, Mill and Perkins Gilman’s ‘Herland’, the latter of which I discovered in a sociology class years ago. For this post I am going to consider Wollstonecraft’s ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Women’ in conjunction with J.S. Mill’s “On the Subjection of Women”. This post is going to be content-less and I will mainly consider the methodological roles they play.

Sensibility and Wollstonecraft

Wollstonecraft’s work was incredibly difficult to understand for me. It was not written with overly technical language, it was originally written in English (a language I know well) so there are no translation issues, and it doesn’t use any new words or introduce difficult concepts. If anything, for these aforementioned factors this is exactly a good kind of work to write as a publically distributed pamphlet  because of its easy to understand nature. For me, however, I found it difficult because I cannot say something that is overarching and overly general about the work because it touches on so many issues, and it seems to do so without a distinct direction, except of course, Vindicating the rights of Women.

Sinistre said to me half jokingly, that if this work were any less broad and sporadic in the topics it addressed and the way it jumps into other issues, it would be aphoristic. This is, I later discovered, a distinct and purposeful writing style used by Wollstonecraft to appeal to what was understood as sensibility. Perhaps in today’s critical eye, this would be seen as offending or aggrivating a feminine stereotype, but for this period, I understand this kind of writing in terms of being about women, by a woman, and written for the public, to be an effective writing strategy.

Do not get me wrong, I think this work raises a whole lot of important issues: women were unfairly socially immobile and subject to the whim of a senior male, be it their husband, fathers or brothers; women were unable to contribute to aspects of a nation’s social, economic and intellectual richness and by virtue of the female capacity of pregnancy, they were deemed essentially different to men in respects unrelated to gender. This kind of writing passes me by too quickly, and I find it difficult to have a systematic or argumentative understanding of a process. But then again maybe that is because I only read it once. Sensibility is the notion of appealing to the feelings of an agent, as a writing style to adopt it is to engender sympathy with the plight of the female by a (probably) predominantly male 18thC audience. This goes in line with the philosophical beliefs of the Scottish Enlightenment philosophers of the time, such as Thomas Reid, David Hume and even Adam Smith. I think that Wollstonecraft would have probably been a little familiar with Hume. Appealing to the passions in the way that she does has political and social force here in here writing. How successful is the appeal to sensibility as a writing style? I think there are good virtues to this writing style, even if I personally find it difficult to grasp.

  • Appealing to a commonsense language does not intimidate readers as much
  • Appealing to feeling and encouraging sympathy is a good way to deal with a general audience
  • Appealing to sensibility for a female author would establish a sophistical sense of sympathy, in essence, a woman writer is writing ‘in the way a woman would think’ (Hey, I’m trying to be historically considerate here, I know this kind of thing doesn’t wash today)
  • In our modern terminology, we can see this work as having a ‘consciousness raising’ agenda and implicitly suggesting action to be taken

To this end, I begrudingly accept the force of this method of writing. I think my only reservation about the work is that there are so many issues addressed it is overwhelming to comprehend them all quickly. I think that is both significant of the asystematic writing style of Wollstonecraft, and the plurality of all the challenges that women faced at the time. It should be said, unfortunately, that many of the challenges faced by women addressed in ‘Vindication’ are still pertinent today. Unfortunately, now there are even more issues.

“Reason”: Mill’s argument on capability

A lot can be said about Mill’s work ‘On the Subjection of Women’, but I will limit myself to one argument. If anything should be said about JS Mill pertinent to this post (other than the fact that his form of utiliarianism resembles Kantian sensibilities, he is the author of a much-ignored work called ‘A System of Logic’ where he thinks that mathematics is a posteriori, or that he was a child prodigy who crashed very hard in early adulthood as a result of a pushy parent, who was also a philosopher, I’ll leave that for my less feminist oriented posts) is that he was a member of Parliament and proposed that women should have the right to vote. Unfortunately his proposal was rejected widely by the Parliament of the time. In true feminist fashion, he was not just about ideas but action.

Mill as a philosopher seems to take more argumentative elements than Wollstoncraft, one particular argument he has is very interesting. Men disallow women from various activities, such as certain trades or politics, because of their perceived lack of ability. But if a person were incapable of doing something, their abilities would automatically disallow them from said activity. The action of legislative measures against women seems irrational if you believe women are incapable of entering a certain trade, because the act of disallowing entails that they are at least able to do it, or that men are threatened in some way by women’s potential ability.

This argument proposes a fork: either you assert that women are incapable and let that in itself disallow women from professions, or you stay honest with your prejudice against women and say that they are ‘not allowed’ to join because of some other reason. If you were to follow this latter route, a proponent of the disallowal of women would then have to be challenged on whatever reason they gave that they were not allowed. If you were then to follow the former route and say that women were by nature of their sex incapable, that is basically an empirical question. It is inconsistent to disallow women and also say that they are incapable. This is an interesting turn of the old ‘Ought implies Can’.  Reading ‘Subjection’ was highly entertaining because feminism is brought to my more familiar home of philosophy, and that is a very good argument that Mill brought up. This is a good example of a ‘reason’-focused or argumentative approach to understanding the plight of women.

Coda: Nora and Verstehen

Another of the classics that I read was ‘A Doll’s House’ by Henrik Ibsen. This is a story about the financial dealings of a woman who pretends to be many things to many people. Nora pretends to be a childlike innocent ‘Doll’ for her husband Torvald, while takes a more ‘professional’ approach when taking an illegal loan to support her husband when she was ill. Nora is many different people: to her husband she is a doll, to her friend Christine she is more herself, and perhaps most interestingly, Nora as a character is given a bit more depth in that she deals with other men who are not her husband, and acts in ways which are independent of her husband’s volition.

Christine’s character also gives a dimension to the roles women play when she addresses a past romantic sentiment for a man before she married another. Christine married for money, which was needed to support her sick father. The great success of A  Doll’s House is that Ibsen highlights the inner world of a woman. Women take many different social roles in relation to men. At the end of the play, Nora’s great revelation is that these roles that she has to play are suffocating to her wellbeing and despite all the faces she has, she does not recognise her own. Ibsen to his own admission did not intend to write this as an explicitly female-oriented story, but more a generic one, but in addressing the domesticity of women as well as their complexities, we are given a sympathy of these characters that we can wear their shoes and feel what they do in line with Weber’s notion of understanding value-intentional behaviour.

As a personal note, I was quite emotionally moved by Nora’s decision at the end of the play. I thought the ending of the relationship was distinctly painful for them both, but necessary. The one interesting thing that Nora said was that her husband would be a better person as a result of her leaving. In Ibsen’s play there are no distinct villains, just actors in the Goffman sense who play roles, their inner lives shed light on their intentions.



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