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.
"But Would That Still Be Me?" Anthony Appiah's Thought Experiment On the Metaphysics of Personal Identity
Would you still be you if you were born as a boy instead of a girl, or as a girl instead of a boy? That is, if your sex assignation were different that it was when you were born, would that change the essence of who you are today?
This is the question with which Anthony Appiah's thought experiment on the metaphysics of raced and gendered personal identity begins. His answer is that no, it would not be him but another child, a girl child, who would have emerged into the world. The reason he gives is because in this case another egg and sperm would have met (actually, it would have been the same egg) and, in his estimation, this would make the essential difference.
What if he was born as the boy that he is but were raised as a girl, as was the case with David Reimer who was assigned the male sex at birth but who, due to a botched circumcision, was raised as a girl and later underwent sex reassignment surguries? Would an "Antonia" Appiah be the same as the person currently known as Anthony Appiah? He says yes, and he references an underlying "sex" identity as that which is essential for him to remain as himself, regardless of his socialization.
The final example having to do with sex/gender identity is a transgender scenario: Appiah asks, if "he" were assigned the male sex at birth but identified as a girl and underwent a transition to become a woman, would that still be him? Although he recognizes that a transgender person would likely say that they were never "male" and become who they have been all along (so for a transgender person, that would always already be them), for Appiah who is not transgender and who identifies (strongly, me thinks) as a man, he says that he could not have become that transgender woman.
In other words, the only case for which Appiah would still be Anthony is that in which his idea of sex is preserved - and here, Appiah shows that his conception of sex/gender is pretty standard. For him, sex the the essential, natural, biological basis out of which gender, the social interpretation, is extrapolated. There is good reason to doubt this causal model for sex/gender (see, for example, Anne Fausto-Sterling's "The Five Sexes," Jennifer Terry's An American Obsession, and Judith Butler's Gender Trouble), but let's carry on with the thought experiment for now and see how his analysis of race/ethnicity compares.
He begins this part of the experiment by noting that where it comes to race, matters are more complicated because there is no biological basis for "race," and any such basis has long been eschewed by the sciences. (There is an excellent, three part PBS documentary on this topic called Race, The Power of An Illusion.) Also, at this point he takes some distance from the thought experiment, no longer taking himself as the subject for transformation but enlisting an African-American female avatar instead.
Say that this African-American woman were able to get rid of all the "morphological markers" of her racialized identity, would this person that emerges post skin-whitening, hair-straightening, blue-eye-contact-wearing, and surgically-altering her appearance, by any and all means possible and imagined, would she still be the same woman?
Appiah says yes, because her racialized identity (unlike her "sex" identity, for Appiah) is not a matter of body or morphology alone, but the essence of this identity lies with history, with the woman's ancestral past. For Appiah, it seems, racialized identity is more like ethinicity, to which he next runs: what if an African-American woman - say that she is the pre-transformation woman in the example above and let's call her "Antonia" - what if Antonia refuses to identify as African American? That is, she does not pass as "white" and yet eschews her past? Appiah believes that Antonia is still both African-American and Antonia, but is inauthentically taking up her identity, and being dishonest about her true self to others and herself. (This is how Appiah believes such a disavowal would be received; it is less clear that this is his own belief.) If Antonia originally passed as "white," then she would simply be charged with inauthenticity, and not with the additional charge of dishonesty.
Appiah concludes that we construct our ethical identities (our social selves) on the basis of false beliefs about the metaphysics of identity, especially where it comes to racialized identities.
Arguably, this experiment raises more questions than it answers regarding how our identities work. I want to raise just three questions/scenarios that emerge from my own reading: Lets start with the last part of the experiment (on race/ethnicity) and see if this could function as a counter example: Antonia has the morphological marks associated with African-Americans, but does not identify culturally or personally as such on the basis of her known past. Perhaps she was adopted by white parents and raised in a more or less homogeneously white environment. Perhaps Antonia is African (or Haitian-American, or Cuban, or French-Algerian) and although she "looks" African-American in the American context in which she lives, she knows nothing or very little about this ethnicity. There could be many reasons for which Antonia does not identify as African-American, and not all reasons are socially or metaphysically equal. Does her insistence that she is not African-American make a liar of her? I think not.
Now take the first case of our adopted-Antonia, she is not sure about her ancestry, but nothing in her experience prepares her for life as an African-American in the U.S. context, so she undergoes several procedures to look more like herself, the person that she knows herself to be. Maybe finally passing as white is a relief to her, and allows her to fit in, which is important for her. What should we say about racialized identites in this case? Is it now very similar to the transgender case above, or is it still different?
Appiah understands the historical embedded-ness of racialized identities at the social but not the individual level. And yet, he cannot see this same context is at play for sex/gender identities. Allow me to explain by flipping an example from above: imagine that you were raised as a girl named Antonia only to discover, as a young adult, that you were actually assigned the male sex at birth. Would you and could you immediately change your identity to that of a man? At the very least, this would take some time, some rearranging of one's personal narrative and memories; and I think it is fair to say that whatever identity you settle on, this will be a matter of a process of coming to identify as such. It may not be the same for everyone.
This is what I would want to say about identity: that it is a process that is never and finally done, but ongoing, and more or less stable at different times for different people and groups of people. The most stable and enduring of meanings are codified, and sometimes naturalized, as essential natures, but even essential natures inevitably change over time. I bet you that Antonia, the transgender woman Appiah may have become in another, parallel universe, would answer his question differently for him, and thus would his mind be changed. A truly intersexed Appiah would not consider his given identity as "male" to be very authentic; and adopted-Antonia may just as easily come to embrace an African-American ancestral past she never knew and that would be impossible for her to recover, except as an extremely important, creative, imaginative labor. Who is to the judge the authenticity of her identity as an African-American woman?
Finally, I want to make a broader claim about Appiah's assumptions, assumptions that allow him to see history and personal choice in the case of race/ethnicity but not in the case of sex/gender: Appiah seems to assume that sex identity is ahistorical because he imagines it to be biologically based, essential and fixed. And the converse is true: it is because he understands that race is not biologically based but is a concept with a history that he sees this identity as based in "ancestry." This assumes that these are mutually exclusive, but recent work in science studies shows that even if you take "sex" to be biologically based, you may still acknowledge that the concept itself has a history and that what counts as sex has changed over time (much as in the case of "race," and in fact along very similar lines). Sex-based identities are not ahistorical either at the social or individual levels. In other words, sex has a history, one that Appiah fails to acknowledge.
Top 3 Depictions of Plato's "Allegory of the Cave" - Can You Find the Common Significant Difference?
There are many depictions of Plato's "Allegory of the Cave" from the Republic, and some are better than others. I watched them all (well, almost all...) and chose these three as my favorites:
Okay, this is a super cute, animated depiction of Plato's "Allegory of the Cave." It uses an old school video game format and aesthetic to convey the story. Totally enjoyable!
(Pay close attention as there will be a test after you watch the next video....)
This still, graphic representation of Plato's "Allegory of the Cave" has the advantage that Plato's actual text is used as the narration for this video, and the image is very thorough. Can you see any elements included in this depiction that is absent in the one above? Any significant differences jump out at you?
No? Okay, then try it yourself! Not looking at the screen but listening to the narration, try making a sketch of exactly what Plato describes, then see if you can spot the difficulty. Then look at the final video, and it should become clearer. (That, by the way, is a hint...)
Want a sassy animation with lots of attitude? Well, this one begins with the age old question: "Why do people think Philosophy is bullshit?" Be warned that this and many other swear words have been added to this depiction of Plato's "Allegory of the Cave" (so if you are offended by such language, please refrain from watching). I laughed out loud in parts of this retelling of the story - it was fukc*^!?!* great!
Okay, now that you've watched all three, see if you can pick out dissimilarities between them, or between them and what the text actually says.
You can find written and audio versions of Plato's Republic by following the links below:
(Hint: Watch the placement of the fire/light source. Then check that against what Plato says....)
When you are done, leave your observations in the comments below.
This could be fun...
I will reveal the answer in a blog post in one week, so check back after 5/12!
Did you figure it out? It's the placement of the fire!
If you read (or listen to) Plato's text carefully, the passage detailing the placement of the fire (vis a vis the persons carrying cutouts whose shadows are cast on the walls the prisoners are facing) is radically unclear. This is why, across different accounts of the "Allegory of the Cave" this part will vary quite a bit.
The maker of the last video here actually caught themselves and made a note on the video about getting it wrong, but actually they got it right according to what Plato says in the text. It is only wrong according to a physical reality in which figures casting the shadows must be placed in front the fire. (You can read what they say at their original Youtube page HERE.) That is, the text is "mistaken."
There are several explanations possible for this "mistake" in the text. It could be that Plato just got it wrong when he wrote it down; but Plato was a pretty smart fellow, and there are no similar mistakes made in his texts. It could be a translation problem, in which case we'd need to go to the original Greek text; but this may not really help us since the Greek itself is rather ambiguous. We can also compare different translations of the text, to see if it is consistently rendered "right" or "wrong" (but which is which???), but this will only tell us how the translator decided to interpret an ambiguity in the Greek text.
There is one more possibility to consider, and it is a very interesting one! Maybe Plato (or Socrates, who is, after all, the person being portrayed in the text) purposefully put the order precisely backwards in order to make some sort of point. The question then becomes, if you think that Socrates was a bit of a prankster (and there is scholarship developed to support this view), what point could he possibly be making here by getting the light source backwards or "wrong"?
I know you want the answer, but I'm afraid that I shall leave you with this cliffhanger for another week. First, I want to hear what you are thinking out there. Write your interpretations in the comments below, or send me an email.
If you believe Socrates' reputation as a bit of a prankster, it makes perfect sense that he would get the light source exactly backwards in order to underscore his main point: the phenomenological world that we experience as real is a topsy-turvy world in which nothing is as or where it appears to be. We humans cannot trust our perceptions of reality and must dig deeper for truth, goodness, and beauty. The best indication that we have of this are those instances when things break down or don't otherwise work, so Socrates (and Plato) purposefully mangle the light source in the "Analogy of the Cave" as a way of saying: hey, don't take what you are experiencing or reading as absolute truth - examine your life.
This is a snippet of a lecture on Heidegger's "The Thing" that introduces Phenomenology. The motto of Phenomenology is "To the things themselves," meaning a return to the examination of what we know from the perspective of human experience. Taking it from here, I tell a short story about how Phenomenology makes it across to France and becomes Existential Phenomenology - or, as the French interpretation of Heidegger's works is more commonly known, Existentialism.
[Please Note, this is very short and does not go too much in depth, but I thought some of you might enjoy it anyways!]
Learn More Here:
First Introduction to Existential Phenomenology
Original Works In Existential Phenomenology: Heidegger, Sartre, Beuavoir, and Merleau-Ponty
Heidegger's Being and Time: A Revised Edition of the Stambaugh Translation (SUNY series in Contemporary Continental Philosophy)
Sartre's Being and Nothingness
Sartre's 'Being and Nothingness': A Reader's Guide
Sartre's Existentialism Is a Humanism
Simone de Beauvoir's The Ethics Of Ambiguity by de Beauvoir, Simone published by Citadel (2000)
Merleau-Ponty's Phenomenology of Perception
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.
In this video blog, I relate my experience going to a tapping of the popular Philosophy Talk podcast on the question of "Dance As A Kind of Knowledge." I comment on how the stage was set, the framework that was offered, and the host and guests contributions before turning to three of the audience's most interesting comments. I close with a question that I came away with, a meditation of my own on dance as an experience that is shaped by what the audience brings with them to a performance.