Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 1999.02.08

Cynthia A. Freeland (ed.), Feminist Interpretations of Aristotle.   University Park:  The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1998.  Pp. xiv, 369.  ISBN 0-271-01729-5.  $55.00 (hb).  ISBN 0-271-01730-9.  $19.95 (pb).  

Reviewed by Sophia M. Elliott, St. John's College, Cambridge (
Word count: 3603 words


Nancy Tuana, Marjorie Hass, Luce Irigaray, Cynthia A Freeland, Deborah K.W. Modrak, Charlotte Witt, Marguerite Deslauriers, Ruth Groenhout, Linda Redlick Hirshman, Martha C. Nussbaum, Barbara Koziak, Angela Curran and Carol Poster

Traditional feminism has often regarded Aristotle as the forebear of modern sexist ideas: the articles in this anthology, for the most part, represent a significant departure from such an outlook. It now seems too simple to use Aristotle as fodder for feminist critiques that should properly be directed at his successors. Indeed, because the traditional linkage of Aristotle to Western Patriarchy (as an ideology) tends to impute to him many modern attitudes and concerns that are not evident in the texts themselves, the contributors to this volume consider it important to understand Aristotle within his own context. This new feminist scholarship then circles back to its former arch-enemy in order to take what it can use from so subtle a thinker, suggesting that Aristotle, far from being a simple adversary, actually shares many of academic feminism's current concerns and attitudes. Some versions of the feminist enterprise, for instance, by questioning the universality of rules and reason, stress the multiplicity of valuable perspectives on the world. Aristotle himself appears to have had a similar view on the matter -- he offered multiple, often seemingly contradictory accounts of the world, and wrote: 'no one is able to attain the truth adequately, while, on the other hand, no one fails entirely, but every one says something true about the nature of things' (Metaphysics II, 993a27-993b2). But a rigorous and scholarly feminism should ultimately eschew relativism, as Aristotle did, and so retain the ability to claim that its own methods and insights can offer a more accurate view of the world than those that distort the nature and abilities of women. Feminist scholars may well wish to argue that their understanding of certain aspects of Aristotle's thought represents an improvement upon traditional interpretations in the field of ancient philosophy. Feminist analysis may therefore be viewed as important to the study of Aristotle in general.

The volume consists of two sections, which divide discussions of Aristotelian logic, metaphysics, science and epistemology from his ethics, aesthetics and political theory. There are overlaps in these two sections, however, as most of the essays attempt to resolve the question of how pervasive Aristotle's sexism is within his philosophy as a whole.

In the first essay, Marjorie Hass discusses Aristotle's logic and defends him from some of the charges previously laid against him in this area. She begins by discussing Andrea Nye's Words of Power: A Feminist Reading of the History of Logic (London: Routledge 1990) which claims that Aristotle's logic elevates clever argumentation (form) over truth (content) and, by emphasizing 'abstraction', does away with the particular experiences of women. Hass makes the obvious preliminary observation that feminists should not denigrate abstraction, since it is something that all people practice, whether oppressed or not, and which forms the basis of language. She challenges Nye more specifically on her claims about form and content by analyzing the relevant texts in detail and showing how Aristotelian logic is particularly concerned with content.

Another branch of feminist criticism Hass deflects comes from Luce Irigaray and others who are uneasy with the principle of non-contradiction and the resultant fundamental logical system of binary oppositions. It is sometimes argued that this system excludes the full expression of female difference. If women are different from men, which they assuredly are, and difference can only be expressed as negation, then women can only be viewed as non-men -- a negative class. Hass, again using Aristotle's own texts, shows that his logic offers alternatives to oppositions in terms of pure negation. He lists four types of oppositions, of which male and female are contraries. Although he does typically privilege the male in this type of opposition, from the perspective of logic either male or female could be taken as the central term. Thus, it is not logic per se in which Aristotle's sexism consists. Besides, Hass convincingly argues that Aristotle's logic is neither as abstract nor as rigid as it is normally supposed to be. Thus, by presenting a more accurate and nuanced account of Aristotle's logic, derived from close study of the texts in question, Hass is able to undermine more fundamental, but also much less accurate, feminist criticisms.

The most unusual essay in the collection is by Irigaray herself. As a scholar of Greek, among other things, Irigaray has taken a special interest in analyzing ancient Greek philosophy, which she does mainly in a negative fashion by attempting to reveal the 'masculine' manner in which ancient thought divided up phenomena. In her essay, entitled 'Place, Interval: A Reading of Aristotle, Physics IV' she accuses Aristotle of not considering the complex challenge that pregnancy and sexual intercourse pose to the account of place in his Physics. Irigaray believes that our ideas about place must come from our experience of being in our own bodies and thus, she thinks that it is wrong not to talk about differently sexed bodies. Aristotle excludes the bodily experience of women, and experiences which complicate the places existing inside and in-between male and female bodies. She concludes that not only does Aristotle conceal the human context of his thoughts on place, but also that his male bias results in woman being only a negative place occupied by the man and the child alternately. Irigaray's style is different from the other essays featured in this volume and, for someone not versed in it, it can be difficult to understand.

Cynthia A. Freeland's exposition and analysis of Irigaray's views on Aristotle in her 'On Irigaray on Aristotle' is thus very useful. It is important, she explains, to come to terms with Irigaray's claims against Aristotle, which have been and continue to be so influential. For Irigaray, Aristotle's entire science and logic is gendered and this 'abstract' framework, which he uses to view and explain the world, is dangerous to women. For her, Aristotelian and other Western philosophical metaphysics, are only able to represent woman as a negation of man, and not as something in her own right, which allows men to 'use' the places in women's bodies for their own advantage by controlling sex and reproduction. Irigaray believes that the basic conceptual framework within which we express ourselves must be changed before it will be possible to liberate women from oppression. Not only does Freeland elucidate these complex aspects of Irigaray's thought, she also attempts to place it in the context of traditional scholarship on Aristotle. Freeland emphasises that Irigaray's writings on Aristotle tells us more about Irigaray's concerns than Aristotle's, but it is worth considering whether this is not also a complaint that could be levelled at more orthodox scholarship. Perhaps, for example, we learn more about the analytical philosophy of Jonathan Barnes, when reading his edition of the Posterior Analytics (Oxford UP 1975), than about Aristotle. Irigaray's methods are emphatically and purposefully non-traditional; however, they serve to challenge the way things have always been done in the study of the history of ancient philosophy, opening up this notoriously closed field. Freeland does have one final objection to the Irigarayan method of reading creatively, which is that Irigaray should be more committed to finding one correct interpretation of the texts in question if she believes in the objective truth of her own theories.

The next essay, 'Aristotle's Theory of Knowledge and Feminist Epistemology' by Deborah Modrak, claims to make use of feminist epistemology in its analysis of Aristotle's views on the nature of knowledge. In fact, it does not merely do this, but also defends Aristotle from criticisms levelled against him as a representative of Western epistemology. Modrak shows a perspicuous understanding of many complex Aristotelian texts in this area, which is the particular strength of this article. Like Hass, Modrak employs a close study of the texts and so is able to show that many feminist criticisms of 'Western Philosophy' miss the mark when it comes to Aristotle. Most consider Aristotle to be part of a broader system which advocates objectivity, universality and detachment from particular circumstances. This system supposedly masks the fact that the purported 'universal' and 'autonomous' reasons and subjects are usually gendered and oriented to male concerns. Modrak points out that Aristotle did not view knowledge as a rigid edifice, but instead displayed remarkable flexibility in his biology and ethics, adapting different criteria to different situations. He also relies on 'endoxa', the reputable opinions of many different people, when trying to decide answers to difficult questions. In exploring this portion of his methodology, Modrak finds what she considers to be his epistemic flaw -- the people he cites as informative are all male. However, she argues that this has more to do with his society, a society in which women were not allowed the leisure or experiences necessary to acquire knowledge. In principle at least, women could be included by Aristotle as reputable informants.

The next two essays challenge the common misperception that Aristotle uses his scientific theory to support political inequalities. In 'Form, Normativity and Gender in Aristotle: A Feminist Perspective', Charlotte Witt points out that Aristotle's view of nature is not like modern science and so should not suffer the same criticisms. Because Aristotle regards nature as normative, he does not disguise this as 'objective' reality. For him, certain aspects of his world are better than others (e.g. form is better than matter) and this explains his susceptibility to identifying these with whatever his culture deems to be better and worse (i.e. male and female). Witt does not think that Aristotle devised his metaphysics in order to justify the oppression of women and thinks that such claims are misdirected. In fact, Aristotle's normative metaphysics presents a possible resource for 'eco-feminism' and, at the very least, presents a much needed challenge to modern science's valueless world.

In her 'Sex and Essence in Aristotle's Metaphysics and Biology' Marguerite Deslauriers presents a clear and cogent account of Aristotle on sex difference. For Aristotle, the difference between males and females is neither essential nor radical; instead, as he consistently maintains throughout his metaphysics, biology, and ethics, men and women are in all important respects the same. They differ only accidentally due to the material of their sex organs; a difference which represents an opposition only within their genus, 'animal'. Aristotle never attempts to justify social or political arrangements by appealing to sex difference. In fact, his theory of sex difference would not have allowed him to since it views the sexes as the same as regards their humanity. Deslauriers believes that the idea of women as deficient and naturally imperfect only emerges when Aristotle decides that the female role in reproduction is material, the male formal. He does not, however, justify such a decision. Thus, we are left with a conflict between Aristotle's commitment to the essential sameness of the sexes and his view that the female is deficient. Rather than being a systematic misogynist, Aristotle's texts actually show him to be a random one -- resulting in an uneasy tension between two separate strands of explanation with regards to sex difference. Deslauriers shows that the strand which takes female and male to be equivalent is more thoroughly reasoned and argued for by Aristotle.

In the first essay of Part Two -- 'The Virtue of Care: Aristotelian Ethics and Contemporary Ethics of Care'-- Ruth Groenhout attempts to combine Aristotle's ethics with feminist ethics of care, in order to construct a viable hybrid. The article provides a good introduction to both ethical systems, explaining how each needs modification by the other. Feminist ethics tends to reject universals and focus on particular emotions and relationships, often talking about the role of the housewife and mother, for example. It requires modification because it tends only to apply to small family groups, not offering any analysis of the larger community. Moreover, it does not give a clear account of what 'care' actually consists in. Aristotle can help because he regards ethics as enmeshed in particular situations and relationships, while also suggesting the idea of a larger community. He emphasizes the importance of personal fulfilment, which provides a way to limit the self-sacrifice undertaken by the carer. She must respect herself as well as others, including those outside her family group. Groenhout thinks that 'care' could be defined, with a little help from Aristotle, as 'that which allows ones to promote human excellence in others'. As for modifying Aristotle, this can be achieved by including feminine experiences in his list of virtues. Aristotle needs to recognize that caring for a lesser individual (such as a child) can make one a better person. Groenhout declares that her work benefits both Aristotle and care ethics, but it is questionable whether either would thank her for the favor.

In a long and at times confusingly structured article, Linda Redlick Hirshman frankly admits to probing Aristotle for aspects of his thought that may be of use to us today, concentrating on her own interest in feminist jurisprudence. The structure of liberal normative ethics results in the creation of laws, which necessarily exclude particulars. Hirshman explores Aristotle's ethics seeking an alternative to this view. Aristotelian theories, she thinks, 'break the liberal frame' within which legal debates now exist and allow a different perspective on various problems, such as the military draft for women. On the whole Hirshman thinks it is good that ancient tradition can serve as a point from which to criticise modern intellectual regimes and thinks that it is possible to link this critical stance with feminism. Feminism, then, can be seen to have roots in an older tradition, which can in turn be set against more modern liberal frameworks. In her conclusion, however, Hirshman owns herself dubious of Aristotle's ability to provide this type of support for feminism, since as 'the original bad actor' she finds that his misogyny is too all pervasive for us to allow a partial rehabilitation.

The next piece, 'Aristotle, Feminism and Needs for Functioning' is Martha C. Nussbaum's short reply to Hirshman, in which she defends the use of Aristotelian ethics in the modern world. Nussbaum lists various ways in which Aristotle can be used to construct a feminist's 'comprehensive ethical and political theory', which would be supplemented by a dash of liberalism in the form of 'basic rights for persons'. Aristotle's ethics -- 'particularist without being relativist' -- can be used today to support ethical claims that feminists press against other models.

Nussbaum also thinks that Aristotle's ethics can be used to support development economics. Since Aristotle claims that each person needs external resources in order to live a fulfilled life, he must have been aware that the physical needs of the poor debar them from that fulfilment, she argues. This argument appears to be unsupportable. Aristotle does not seem to care about the material disadvantages suffered by women or slaves, who would not have been able to lead what he considered to be a good life. Instead, he thinks that those in worse off situations should stay where they are, so that their labour can provide resources to enable male citizens to pursue fulfilled lives. Nussbaum is blind to such objections but she does attempt to rid Aristotle's thought of misogyny by arguing that his failure to discern female capacities was due to his failure to apply his usual empirical methods. For instance, he must have concluded that women had fewer teeth without looking, which is what he usually would have done. Thus, she believes that if we can separate the 'usual' Aristotle from the unthinking random misogynist, there is no danger of contamination. The worrying thing about this approach, however, is that it suggests that Nussbaum is attempting to use Aristotle in order to back her own agenda in ethics, in a manner very similar to masculine traditions.

Barbara Koziak in her 'Tragedy, Citizens, and Strangers: The Configuration of Aristotelian Political Emotion' argues that emotions are used in order to provoke political reactions -- we may feel either anger or pity when confronted with poverty-stricken single mothers; the former leading to exclusion, the latter to charity. Pity is important to feminism because of the role that women have traditionally played as carers and charity workers, being so often their only acceptable public roles. She argues that political theory overlooks the role that emotions play in political life but thinks that insight can be gained from Aristotle's Rhetoric and Poetics. By analyzing the concepts 'emotion', 'friendship' and 'stranger', Koziak concludes that Aristotle actually offers a critique of traditional Greek masculinity. Emotion represents for him not just fierceness and aggression, but also pity and love. She offers an extremely rewarding analysis of Aristotle's favorite play, Euripides' Iphigenia in Tauris, concentrating on the role of pity and recognition. By talking about the importance of pity in the interaction between citizen and stranger, Aristotle highlights how emotions produce political alliances. Pity and recognition, along with other emotions, form the root of political co-operation for all people. This article is an example of how feminist readings can enrich our understanding of Aristotle, by concerning themselves with issues and texts that are all too often absent from traditional scholarship.

In the next essay, 'Feminism and the Narrative Structures of the Poetics', Angela Curran experiments with a unique and highly effective methodology. Combining aspects of Aristotelian and Brechtian aesthetics, she creates a feminist methodology for analyzing many ancient Greek tragedies. Curran rejects Aristotle's method of analyzing tragedy in his Poetics, where he argues that it is due to the slight flaws of a basically good protagonist. Because tragedy for Aristotle is effective only if such a protagonist exists, he rejects all plays featuring female protagonists, who are never exactly like this. Curran incorporates the Brechtian idea that a play should tell us about the social context in which the events occur. For a feminist reading such as this, a woman's tragedy may not necessarily be caused by individual flaws, putatively separated from circumstances and oppressive social context. However, Curran rejects Brecht's insistence that any emotional response obscures reasoned analysis of a play, and opts instead for Aristotle's emphasis on the importance of emotions to aesthetics. Finally, she applies this new framework to Antigone, Medea and Alcestis -- three plays in which female protagonists challenge the social norms. This article offers a particularly successful re-reading of the Alcestis which renders the protagonist brave, forceful, influential and clearly victimized by her circumstances.

The final essay by Carol Poster deals with Aristotle's Rhetoric. Although the work has been marginalized in the canon of Western Philosophy, many scholars of rhetoric, especially feminist rhetoricians, have claimed that it is significant. Poster embarks on a thorough investigation of the text's history and concludes that it has been of little importance to the history of rhetoric, which most often consisted in practical teaching aided by the use of handbooks. Women rhetoricians who have tried to seek validation from Aristotle are criticised by Poster not only for historical inaccuracy but also for their need to seek justification from authority. Poster believes that such scholars should embrace the anonymous, variegated history of teaching and argue for its separate influence. The book ends on this note, leaving us to reflect on the important question of what feminism seeks to gain in the first place from a re-reading of Aristotle.

Cynthia Freeland remarks in her introduction that "it is no longer acceptable to read Aristotle's works while ignoring issues of gender..." (p.15). Although this looks inclusive, I cannot help but notice that all of the authors in this volume are female and many write for an exclusively female audience ("we" used to refer to groups of women). This reinforces the separation of the interests of men and women and also seems to imply that only feminist scholars will be interested in the arguments here presented. This is not the case: there is much to learn from these articles about Aristotle as well as feminism. This type of research is profitable to all, as Freeland implies, because it challenges assumed methodologies in the study of the history of philosophy and forces the reader to question what a particular scholar or interpretative tradition might want to get out of Aristotle. In challenging traditional ways of reading ancient philosophy, feminism has to be careful, however, to argue sensibly, seeking answers in ways that should also be compelling outside a feminism paradigm.

There is a certain tension between two methodologies in this volume. The main advance here seems to be the realisation that Aristotle has been implicated in traditions that he is not always a part of, such as the Post-Enlightenment tradition of using science to prove female inequality. The writers in this volume recognise that Aristotle has been used and abused by a masculine scholarly tradition which sets him up as an 'authority' and then allies him with their own views. Using a close analysis of his writings and their context, many of these authors attempt to reach an understanding of what Aristotle really thought about various issues. However, there is also another methodology at work in this volume, which concentrates on 'appropriating' Aristotle for use by modern day feminists, taking it for granted, to some degree, that this is an acceptable and unproblematic practice. It may seem odd that so many talented thinkers, who successfully challenge received methods and theories, do not address this crucial methodological issue. I believe that we (men and women) need urgently to identify how Aristotle has been used in ways that distort his texts, and strenuously and self-consciously resist doing the same ourselves. From this point of view, it may be that Aristotle is of less use to feminism than feminism is to the study of Aristotle.

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