Last week, we examined Simone de Beauvoir's assertion that Woman is Other with respect to Man, and we noted that in order to truly understand this we would need to understand Hegel's Master/Slave dialectic in his Phenomenology of Spirit.
In this week's podcast, we examine Hegel's influential description of the production of Otherness in the bifurcation of consciousness into two, asymmetrical forms of self-consciousness, the Master consciousness that takes itself to be the One, and the Slave consciousness that sees itself through the Master's eyes and considers itself to be Other with respect to the One, the Master.
Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit (first published in 1807) is a work in German Idealism that purports to tell the story of the development of the human spirit through a history of consciousness. In the section on "Self-Consciousness" in which the Master/Slave dialectic is found, we find consciousness bifurcated and faced with another consciousness just like itself. Each face of consciousness wanting recognition of itself as the original and One consciousness, a battle onto death ensues, the result of which are two kinds of self-consciousnesses.
Masters and Slaves
The Master consciousness decides that the most important value is that of Freedom, and that without Freedom Life is not worth preserving. The Slave makes the opposite judgement, deciding Freedom is worthless if one's Life is lost. Therefore the conflict between the two consciousness is resolved as each takes up different kinds of consciousness, each embodying the recognition of the One as the Master and the Other as the Slave.
Initially, it looks like the Master has won the day and that the dialectic of spirit will continue from the perspective of the Master. But soon enough, a contradiction emerges: Once the other consciousness emerges as Slave, it can no longer provide the Master with the recognition it initially desired, and that was essential to his mastery. Also, the life of the Master rapidly devolves into one of dependence on the Slave, who provides the Master with all of life's necessities. In other words, the Mater's life becomes one of pure and unfettered consumption and enjoyment.
The Slave's life is also ruled by the Master's needs, which the Slave must learn to anticipate. But a funny thing starts to happen: in making all the things needed to maintain the Master's life and to satisfy the Master's insatiable desires, another reality opens up. In the course of their work, in working upon the materials of the world, the Slave opens up a reality that is independent from that of the Master, who could not care less about the conditions for the production of those goods. The slave gains knowledge about the world and reality that the Master does not have, and therefore becomes increasingly independent. The slave also sublimates his identity through work - that piece of furniture that is made by him, he conceived of it and made his idea concrete. Thus, through work, the Slave finds a meaningful existence, just as the Master's life is devolving into meaningless consumption.
Finally, the tables are turned. The Slave comes to realize that the Master is dependent on his labor for his very existence, and having to come to
consciousness as essential to the Master, comes to make a claim for recognition from the Master. In the end a bargain is struck, an economic solution to the contradiction that began with the production of two asymmetrical self-consciousnesses: two mutually dependent self-consciousnesses emerge as two parts of an original unity called (human) spirit.
Thesis, Anti-Thesis, and Synthesis
Hegel's Master/Slave dialectic is a great example of the overall work's logical structure of thesis, anti-thesis, synthesis - you may have heard this about Hegel's work, if nothing else. The original thesis is the existence of undifferentiated consciousness with which the section begins. This unity is bifurcated into two, creating the opposition between what will become the Master and Slave consciousnesses (the moment of negation when antithesis emerges). Finally, the contradiction contains the seeds of it's own destruction (which is actually a contradiction, topsy-turvy since we are working through negation) where a resolution emerges from which two are again unified as co-constituted and mutually dependent self-consciousnesses.
Beauvoir's "Woman as Other"
How can we understand Beauvoir's answer that Woman is Other in reference to Hegel's Master/Slave dialectic? According to this narrative, woman is a slave consciousness that has yet to come to consciousness as an independent consciousness that can make a claim on its Other, or Man. The relationship between Men and Women will remain a battle of the sexes, with the one pitted against the other, until Woman is able to make this claim and resolve the contradictions that plague this situation, bringing about the resolution and harmonizing of sexual difference.
According to one interpretation, the goal is not to create two equal self-consciousness, or to bring about the equality of woman and man, but the emergence of a true sexual difference, where that difference between the sexes does not devolve into her subjugation (or his, for that matter, where the dialectic to take another turn). This is the interpretation according to sexual difference feminism, which I will explain in an upcoming podcast on Luce Irigaray - so look out for it!
But other feminists have heard a call for gender equality (Liberal Feminists), for a class liberation model for feminism (Marxist and Socialist Feminists), and for women to understand their subjugation as grounded in their sexuality and reproductive capacities (Radical Feminists). As with any great text in philosophy, the text lends itself to various tendencies and interpretations.
Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex (1949) is a seminal text for both feminist philosophy and second wave feminism. In her "Introduction: What Is A Woman?," Beauvoir provides us with a philosophical framework for understanding women's political, economic, and social subjugation as a class. This is the subject of the latest thinkPhilosophy podcast session (take a listen here), which I elaborate upon below.
Everywhere Beauvoir turns, she notes that there is great controversy surrounding women in society: Women are disappearing; they aren't what they used to be; women have lost their way. Instead of engaging in these debates, Beauvoir attempts to get under the assumptions animating them by asking after theconcept of woman. There are two kinds of answers that are commonly given to the question and Beauvoir will show us why neither is sound.
The most common answer to the question, "What is a woman?," is that "woman is womb," a reduction of women to her biological capacity for reproduction. Beauvoir argues against this particular answer because, if true, then being a woman is a matter of kind, not of degree. If woman is womb, then you either have a womb/are a woman, or you are not. There would be no room for judgements over the quality or degree of women in society, and no controversy or need to investigate the matter.
The second kind of answer commonly given to our question identifies women with a feminine ideal - the "eternal feminine." But like a Platonic Form, femininity does not exist on earth except as embodied in imperfect women - it has no independent, real existence. If this is the case, if woman equals femininity, then logically speaking there are no real women, since no flesh and blood woman could ever achieve the ideal. Moreover, being a woman is not something that is finally achieved - as in waking up one morning realizing that one has accomplished the goal and if finished, moving on to other goals. As Beauvoir later writes, "one is not born, but becomes a woman," a quote we will examine in an upcoming podcast session and blog post.
[A note about language: Beauvoir here makes a distinction that is more easily made in English - that between sex and gender. Sex is identified with biology and gender with cultural norms, like the elusive feminine ideal. This sex/gender distinction will become the basis for most second wave feminist analyses and is key to understanding the modern feminist movement.]
Woman as Other
So if woman cannot be conceived of as womb and reduced to her reproductive function, nor as an essentialized femininity, then what is woman? Beauvoir asks her question anew, now that she has cleared the ground of common but mistaken approaches to the question. Her answer is that woman is Other with respect to man, but as to what kind of Other woman is, that is yet to be determined.
She is not like those subjugated economically by a rich and powerful minority, as is the case with the working class. Neither is she like a minority population subjugated by a majority, as is the case with racialized oppression. In fact, she is neither a clear minority nor majority, so her asymmetrical relation to man cannot be accounted for quantitatively. Unlike these others, women are not able to form a sense of themselves as a separate group with specific interests since they are not physically segregated, living in close quarters or in proximity to each other. They are spread out amongst men in society, and so are physically segregated from each other.
In fact, women are more likely to identify with the men of their class, race, or religion rather than identifying with other women of different classes, races, or religions. In what is a controversial moment of this introduction, Beauvoir says that women may even pleased with the role of the Other that is assigned to them from without, and that their dependence on men for everything means that it is difficult for women to imagine that their interests may lie elsewhere.
Woman's is Other in a more primordial, metaphysical sense than the examples above, where the origin of oppression can be traced back to a moment in history, to human events and actions - e.g., the rise of capitalism or the transatlantic slave trade. The origins of sexual difference fall outside of history, or are ahistorical, which point to this being difference in a metaphysical sense - a difference that structures reality and subjectivity itself.
According to Beauvoir's analysis, woman must be an Other in the sense described by Hegel in his master/slave dialectic: the concept of woman is constituted as the "slave" consciousness to man's "master" consciousness. I will explain this in more detail in the next podcast, which will be on Hegel's Master/Slave dialectic in his Phenomenology of Spirit (1807), but here is the skinny: woman must come to realize man's dependence on her (that man/woman are co-constituted, asymmetrical differences) and come to make a counter claim. That is, when women assert that men are Other with respect to them, then a woman's standpoint will emerge to make women's economic, political, and social projects possible.
The power of this analysis has been proven by time, and it has also generated numerous critiques of Beauvoir and of feminism itself. Can you think of what critiques could be made of these ideas, so far? We will return to this text in a couple weeks, so stay tuned for more!
Like any other powerful texts, Beauvoir's The Second Sex is a platform from which liberal feminism, marxist/socialist feminism, radical feminism, continental feminism, and feminist schools begin. Liberal feminists see individualism, choice, and equality at the heart of Beauvoir's existential analysis. Marxist and Socialist feminists see an argument about women needing to come to consciousness as a class; Radical feminists hear an argument about sexuality being the key to women's oppression. And continental feminists read her as making an argument about sexual difference as primordial difference. In short, the roots of nearly all second wave feminist tendencies can be traced back to Beauvoir's The Second Sex.
Below are ten of my favorite podcast discussions about philosophy by other women philosophers, in no particular order. I've tried to include a good variety of work in different areas of philosophy and a link to the books they are discussing at Amazon.com where available - Enjoy!
4. On Feminist Philosophy with Anja Steinbaeur, Ann Brisby, Vikki Bell, and Terry Murray, an interdisciplinary panel of two philosophers, a sociologist, and a film maker. Philosophy Now, Nov.1, 2011.
A great, general discussion of what is feminism, a feminist, feminist theory, and feminist philosophy. The interdisciplinary panel offers a good diversity of ideas and answers for our consideration.
A Note About Homogeneity: Looking at the photos of these philosophers, you might notice (as did I) that there is a certain homogeneity pictured here. This reflects the unfortunate situation that, as in "malestream" philosophy, those socially privileged by race/ethnicity, class, ability, and other factors, dominate the profession. There are relatively few women tenured in Philosophy, and of those, a predominant majority are from already over-represented groups within philosophy at large. Much has been said and some has been done about this, but I would be amiss not to point this out as blatantly as possible.
I am actively looking for interviews with a greater diversity of women in philosophy, so if you know of any such materials that are (or could be) available for public dissemination, please post information to the comments below or send me an email.