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Is Philosophy Androcentric?

Iddo Landau


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192 pages
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Is Philosophy Androcentric?

Iddo Landau

“This fine book provides a carefully and closely argued critical examination of the argument that philosophy is androcentric. Treating both analytic and continental traditions, the book is written clearly enough to be useful in undergraduate and graduate courses, but it is also well worth reading by scholars in the field.”


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In Is Philosophy Androcentric?, Iddo Landau contends that none of the arguments for viewing philosophy as pervasively androcentric ultimately stand up to rational scrutiny, while the ones that show it to be nonpervasively androcentric do not undermine it in the way that many critics have supposed. “Philosophy emerges, in almost all of its parts,” he concludes, “as human rather than male, and most parts and aspects of it need not be rejected or rewritten."
“This fine book provides a carefully and closely argued critical examination of the argument that philosophy is androcentric. Treating both analytic and continental traditions, the book is written clearly enough to be useful in undergraduate and graduate courses, but it is also well worth reading by scholars in the field.”
“‘Feminist philosophers’ will buy this book in great volume and attack it with abandon because, in spite of principled objections to the adversarial method, most ‘feminist philosophers’ in the English-speaking world are real philosophers, trained in the adversarial method, who, in spite of pious claims to the contrary, really like beating up on people. This is red meat.”
“Iddo Landau has written a focused and clearly organized book in which he investigates the extent to which Western philosophy is androcentric.”

Iddo Landau is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Haifa.



1. Introduction

2. Explicit Androcentric Statements

3. Associations, Stereotypes, and Social Practices

4. Harmful Philosophical Notions

5. Metaphors

6. Values, Interests, and Domination

7. Philosophies and Mentalities

8. Androcentric Omissions

9. A Feminist Alternative?

10. Concluding Remarks



Chapter 1


Some might also consider it unwise to analyze contemporary feminists with the same seriousness and detail as I do in my explorationof the “greats.” There will be feminist readers, on the other hand, who will remain unconvinced that “patriarchal theorists” should be given sympathetic consideration at all. Should these two sorts of criticisms arise I would not be surprised: each of us prefers that someone other than ourselves, or those thinkers, or that tradition or movement to which we are committed, be the subject of critique.

—Jean Bethke Elshtain, Public Man, Private Woman


The claim has often been made that Western philosophy is androcentric, that is, that it should be reformed or rejected because it suits men’s experiences or minds more than women’s, or involves male discrimination against women, or leads to the domination of women by men. Thus, for example, Morwenna Griffiths and Margaret Whitford write: “The practice and content of Western philosophy are male-dominated and male-biased. This statement is not directed at any one set of philosophers. It is true in general, in spite of the fact that philosophers by no means speak with a single voice, and do not even agree among themselves about what they understand philosophy to be.” And Jane Flax asserts that “philosophy reflects the fundamental division of the world according to gender and a fear and devaluation of women characteristic of patriarchal attitudes.”

Such claims abound, since as Alison M. Jaggar and Iris Marion Young argue, feminist philosophy “has moved to investigating the overt and covert ways in which the devaluation of women may be inherent in the most enduring ideals, the central concepts, and the dominant theories of philosophy,” and as Genevieve Lloyd explains, feminist history of philosophy “has . . . been largely concerned with critique of the “male” assumptions of past philosophy.” Some theorists also believe that Western philosophy (like other fields of Western knowledge) is so androcentric that a thorough, pervasive philosophical or cognitive-scientific revolution is needed. Sandra Harding and Merrill Hintikka, for example, write that “we cannot understand women and their lives by adding facts about them to bodies of knowledge which take men, their lives, and their beliefs as the human norm.” Part of the reason for this is that “the attempts to add understandings of women to our knowledge of nature and social life have led to the realization that there is precious little reliable knowledge to which to add them.” Laura Lyn Inglis and Peter K. Steinfeld argue that “feminist philosophy must become self-conscious in the appropriation of patriarchal texts. To do so requires a way, a path, a hermeneutical method. We propose that this hermeneutical method be informed by and infused with subversion . . . that can transform the whole of the past.” And Phyllis Rooney asserts that “the . . . struggle to create a world that encourages women to their full expression in words and action must be supported by nothing short of the remythologizing of voice and agency and the remythologizing of reason, emotion, intuition, and nature.” This also seems to be what Sandra Harding has in mind when she writes that “I doubt that in our wildest dreams we ever imagined we would have to reinvent both science and theorizing itself in order to make sense of women’s social experience.” There are many further expressions of the view that takes philosophy, or even more generally, knowledge, theory, or culture as a whole, to be androcentric, and as such requiring reform or rejection, and sees “feminism’s philosophical task as finding a truly feminine counterpart to an irredeemably masculinist tradition.”

The feminist discussion of the androcentricity of philosophy is significant for our view and understanding of philosophy. The present study aims to add to this discussion; it supports a version of what now is still a minority position and argues that philosophy is androcentric but in many aspects less so than frequently claimed. The discussion suggests that philosophy is, in most respects and ways, not androcentric, and that the few ways in which it is androcentric are less consequential than is frequently believed.


Feminist philosophy, which appeared in the late 1960s as one of the many branches of women’s studies, has dealt with questions concerning the androcentricity of philosophy from its very start. But this was only one of a variety of issues that feminist philosophers, and feminists in general, took interest in. Feminist philosophy also dealt with, for instance, questions in political and moral philosophy that carry special importance to women (such as abortion, affirmative action, and sexual harassment), critiques of androcentric claims, and acknowledgment and analysis of important but unnoticed works of women philosophers. At first, discussions of the androcentricity of philosophy were quite limited in scope and mostly focused on explicit androcentric remarks found in philosophical texts (such as Aristotle’s claim that women are less rational than men, or Kant’s assertion that women should not be allowed to vote). With time, however, the arguments for the androcentricity of philosophy started dealing also with basic norms, structures, and methodologies and presented wider and more condemning conclusions concerning the extent and depth of the androcentricity of philosophy. (Thus, in some cases, mainstream philosophy has come to be referred to, tongue in cheek, as “malestream” philosophy.) Many of the important arguments for the androcentricity of philosophy appeared in the 1980s and early 1990s, dominating the feminist discussion of this topic to the present, drawing interest and gaining approval in many (although by no means all) feminist philosophical circles.

These changes did not occur, of course, in a vacuum; they were partly influenced by, and in turn influenced, tendencies in modern Continental philosophy such as postmodernism, the Frankfurt School, and philosophical critical theory. Some of the arguments for the androcentricity of philosophy may be seen as part of the ongoing criticism that these interrelated movements directed at traditional philosophy or at analytic philosophy. In spite of this mutual influence and relevance, however, it should be noted that even the feminist discussions with stronger links to modern Continental work have their own subject matter and perspective (having to do with women), and that many arguments and claims for the androcentricity of philosophy have been presented independently of the modern Continental tradition. Although some elements of the discussion of the androcentricity of philosophy can be seen as part of a larger dispute, others have a character of their own.

These observations relate to some possible misunderstandings about the purpose and scope of this book, which I am eager to dissolve from the very start. The book focuses on the question of the androcentricity of Western philosophy, and on this issue alone. Thus, it does not deal with general questions in modern Continental philosophy, although some of the critiques of arguments for the androcentricity of philosophy might also have some bearing on these questions. Similarly, it does not discuss the question of androcentricity in non-Western philosophy, or in disciplines outside philosophy, although, again, some of its comments might prove to be partly relevant for other fields and for non-Western philosophy. Likewise, some critiques of arguments for the androcentricity of philosophy are applicable—with suitable modifications—to some arguments for the Eurocentricity of philosophy and thought. These too are beyond the scope of this work.

Moreover, since it focuses only on the question of the androcentricity of philosophy, the book does not discuss other issues in feminist philosophy, a fortiori, issues in other parts of feminist studies.

It would also be incorrect to assume that all or almost all feminist theorists have taken philosophy to be androcentric, or pervasively androcentric. This impression may arise because, as mentioned above, since the 1980s, the contention that Western philosophy is androcentric has been widely accepted in many feminist philosophical circles, and the androcentricity of Western philosophy, or the need to create alternatives to it, has been commonly discussed. Moreover, many of the authors of these arguments are some of the most important and frequently cited figures in feminist theory, such as (in alphabetical order) Susan Bordo, Lorraine Code, Jane Flax, Carol Gilligan, Elizabeth Grosz, Sandra Harding, Nancy Hartsock, Luce Irigaray, Evelyn Fox Keller, Genevieve Lloyd, Aurdre Lorde, Catharine MacKinnon, Susan Mendus, Carole Pateman, Phyllis Rooney, and Naomi Scheman. However, feminist philosophy is a highly diverse intellectual movement and includes a wide spectrum of different and sometimes conflicting attitudes. While many feminist philosophers support the view that philosophy is androcentric, others criticize different aspects of this view. Others show their rejection of various claims for the androcentricity of philosophy in the way they philosophize, or in their uses of the philosophical tradition to strengthen and develop feminist positions. The majority of feminist philosophers seem to accept certain arguments for the androcentricity of philosophy, but not others, and only to a certain extent, but not further. Moreover, in recent years there seems to have grown in feminist philosophy a slow but persistent discomfort about many of the claims for the androcentricity of philosophy. This discomfort, however, has not yet expressed itself in a comprehensive discussion such as the one suggested here.

Yet another misconception that should be addressed from the start is that showing Western philosophy to be less androcentric than is sometimes claimed involves an attempt to show that feminism is misguided in general. This again would be mistaken, not only because of the variety of feminist philosophical views about the androcentricity of philosophy, but also because the central general objective of feminism—liberating women and bringing an end to the systematic injustice done to them—does not depend on the claim that philosophy is androcentric. Nor is the tenability of almost all specific feminist objectives and claims affected in any way by a discussion of the androcentricity of philosophy.

Yet another possible misconception that might arise here is that this book proposes to evaluate and critique feminist scholarship. Since I aim to show that Western philosophy is less androcentric than is frequently portrayed, I often focus on what I take to be problematic in arguments for the androcentricity of philosophy. However, such an emphasis—typical of a polemical work—should not be understood as making a point about the level of feminist scholarship, more than, say, the arguments presented in the liberalism/communitarianism debate, or scientific realism/anti-realism debate, or, within feminist theory, the disagreements between those supporting and those opposing the legalization of prostitution should be understood as making a point about the level of scholarship of the sides of these debates.

The last possible misunderstanding that I would like to refer to at this point is that the book aims to present an overview, or a survey, of the different feminist views on the androcentricity question. This would misconstrue the book, however, for it does not aim to map the domain, but rather to make a case for a certain position, and for that purpose it presents, and critiques, arguments supporting the other position.


The nature of the question asked in this study should be clearly set out. It is presupposed here that one of our main activities in dealing with philosophical views is determining which of them we agree with, agree with only after modifications, or reject. We may or may not decide to employ, say, Plato’s theory of universals, Proclus’ theory of the mystical union, Wittgenstein’s theory of language, or Rawls’s theory of justice as theories that explain to us how the world is or how we should act in it. To make such decisions we use a variety of considerations. Among these, we may decide to reject, or to accept only after some modifications, a philosophical theory because we believe that it suits men’s experiences or minds more than women’s, or involves male discrimination against women, or leads to the domination of women by men. In such a case, we may call this theory “androcentric.”

The term “androcentric,” then, is used here not only descriptively, as what “suits men’s experiences or minds more than women’s, or involves male discrimination against women, or leads to the domination of women by men,” but also normatively, as what “should be rejected, or reformed, because it suits men’s experiences or minds more than women’s, or involves male discrimination against women, or leads to the domination of women by men.” It does not merely describe notions or philosophies as suiting men’s minds more than women’s, or involving male discrimination against women, but also calls for rejecting or reforming such philosophies. The question asked in this study is operative: can we—arguments to the contrary notwithstanding—continue to employ philosophy as it is, or should we reject or reform it because of its putative androcentricity?

Philosophy, or a philosophy, may be taken to be pervasively androcentric (that is, requiring rejection or replacement by feminist alternatives of most of its theses and aspects), or nonpervasively androcentric (that is, allowing most of it to remain unchanged and requiring merely a renunciation of some androcentric themes and, if necessary, a few other connected themes). I suggest in this study that none of the arguments for the androcentricity of philosophy shows that it is pervasively androcentric, and that only a few arguments show philosophy to be nonpervasively androcentric.

The question discussed in this book—whether we can continue to employ philosophy as it is or have to reject or reform it because of its putative androcentricity—should be distinguished from other questions. The study does not inquire whether or not philosophy (or a certain philosophical theory) should be reformed or rejected, but whether or not it should be reformed or rejected because it is androcentric. There are many other reasons—for example, logical, factual, moral—for accepting, reforming, or rejecting philosophical theories. These, however, are outside the scope of the present work. For the same reason, when the discussion leads to the conclusion that a certain philosophical theory or view is not androcentric, this does not imply that that theory should be accepted, but only that it should not be rejected or modified because of considerations pertaining to androcentricity. The book is limited, then, to a discussion of philosophy and androcentricity and does not follow studies that combine their arguments for the androcentricity of philosophical views with arguments about other difficulties in the views they discuss.

The question discussed here should also be distinguished from that pertaining to the blameworthiness of those philosophers who express androcentric views. Some authors consider whether or not these philosophers could have known better, could have avoided being influenced by views predominant in their time, and so on. These questions, too, are distinct from the one examined here, which is whether or not, on the basis of arguments to that effect, we have reason to reject or reform philosophies on account of their androcentricity.

The discussion presupposes that theories and views written in the past can be relevant to us today, and that there is a point to discussing whether we, at present, should accept, accept in an amended form, or completely reject philosophies and views devised in the past by, say, Aristotle, Hume, or Kant. In this, the book follows the arguments for the androcentricity of philosophy that it examines: they too presuppose that there is a point in discussing whether such philosophies should be rejected or accepted, and they too apply recent, gender-related criteria to older theories. Note that the book does not ask whether the views or theories it discusses were androcentric in the past, but whether they are androcentric today, namely, whether we, today, can accept (as related to the androcentricity question) these philosophies and views, or need to reform or discard them.

This is perhaps also the place to refer to the way I employ “philosophy” in this book. I do not intend to define the field (doing so satisfactorily would require considerable digression), and assume that the reader is familiar with the way the notion is commonly used today, which is the way it is employed in this book and in the feminist argumentation that the book discusses. This point relates to a possible argument suggesting that philosophy is not androcentric. According to this argument (which, I believe, should be rejected), philosophy is not androcentric, since the androcentric claims in it are actually not philosophy. Not everything that a philosopher writes is, of course, philosophy; for example, when she or he writes a shopping list or a thank-you note, she or he is not writing anything philosophical. Similarly, it might be claimed, Kant’s suggestions that women should not be considered citizens, or Aristotle’s claims that women are less rational than men, are not in fact part of their philosophy, and thus do not make their philosophies androcentric. However, I do not think that this is a direction that should be followed. The androcentric statements that these philosophers present are very similar in all ways, except their theme, to their other statements that are commonly considered as part of their philosophy; and they appear in tracts that are commonly referred to as philosophy, read in philosophy classes, and discussed in what are considered philosophical publications. It seems that it would be too arbitrary, and inconsistent with our uses of “philosophy” and “philosophical” in other cases, to claim that these and similar androcentric statements are not really part of their authors’ philosophies.


The number of arguments for the androcentricity of philosophy is very large. I have organized them here in several general groups, according to the type of argumentation employed. Chapters 2 through 8 each deal with one general group or type of argument, present several examples of it, and evaluate its strength. The classification of the arguments into types was guided by the effort to emphasize significant characteristics, to include important arguments, to avoid repetition, and to facilitate discussion. Of course, the typology presented here is not the only possible one. An argument can be similar to a second argument in one respect, and to a third argument in another respect, and is thus amenable to being grouped in more than one way. Further, the typology presented here allows for some borderline cases that can be discussed under more than one rubric.

Organizing the discussion by types of arguments precludes other principles of organization. Since the primary division of chapters is according to types of arguments rather than of theories, readers will not find a discussion of the various arguments for the androcentricity of Descartes’s theory, and then another of the (largely similar) arguments for the androcentricity of Locke’s, and another concerning arguments relating to Kant, and so forth. The same is true of notions. There is no separate chapter dealing with the arguments for the androcentricity of objectivity, and then another on those for the androcentricity of universality, and so on. However, an effort has been made, where possible, to group together discussions of a certain philosopher or a certain notion within the different chapters.

Organizing the discussion around general types of arguments also precludes classification by authors of the arguments. Different aspects of, for example, Carol Gilligan’s theory are discussed in separate chapters. Nor are all aspects of each scholar’s argument always mentioned, since some of them repeat aspects of other arguments already described. Again, however, where possible, and within chapters, I have tried to follow the work of single authors.

Chapters 2 through 8 each present several examples of the arguments discussed and evaluated. Of course, only a few examples of each type could be examined in detail. However, what is said of them applies, mutatis mutandis, to other arguments of the same type. Several criteria guided the decision regarding which examples to include. An effort was made to present several subtypes of the arguments in question, and to offer, if possible, a fair number of instances of each type. Considerations of interest and theme were also taken into account. And well-cited, influential, and “classical” texts were preferred to lesser-known ones. No effort was made, however, to prefer recent examples to earlier ones. A fair proportion of the arguments presented are from the 1980s and early 1990s, when the case for the androcentricity of philosophy was most forcefully presented, thus establishing views still held today. Moreover, arguments have been included even if they appeared in works whose main topics are not the androcentricity of philosophy, but other themes in philosophy or in feminism, so that claims concerning the androcentricity of philosophy are only noted briefly or implied.

Readers will notice that discussions presented in the book frequently point out more than one difficulty in the arguments critiqued. Since the issues discussed are controversial and hotly debated, I preferred in cases of doubt to err on the side of presenting more rather than less comment than might be strictly necessary. Readers will also notice that many parts of the contentions for the androcentricity of philosophy critiqued here are quoted rather than paraphrased. This may help to elucidate the discussion, which frequently pivots around specific formulations and nuances.

Many authors do not specify whether their arguments purport to show that philosophy is pervasively or nonpervasively androcentric. The discussions ahead examine both possibilities. But it is possible that certain authors who did not specify whether they were discussing pervasive or nonpervasive androcentricity had only the weaker claim in mind. Showing that their arguments fail to sustain the stronger claim may thus be arguing against a straw man. Still, I preferred to consider both alternatives.

Chapter 2 deals with arguments based on the explicit androcentric statements that appear in many philosophical theories and proposes that these suffice to make philosophy androcentric. However, it argues that this androcentricity is nonpervasive, and does not call for complete rejection or extensive changes in the systems in which it appears. Chapter 3 deals with arguments that take philosophical theories to be androcentric not because they make any androcentric statements themselves, but because the philosophical notions they include have been associated with androcentric views, stereotypes, or social practices in other contexts. The arguments considered in Chapter 4 do not rely on any openly androcentric philosophical statements either, but contend that many of the notions employed in philosophical theories have harmed women. Chapter 5 discusses arguments for the androcentricity of philosophy based on the appearance of some androcentric metaphors in philosophical theories. It is argued that the arguments appearing in Chapter 5 show philosophy to be nonpervasively androcentric. The arguments appearing in Chapters 3 and 4, however, do not show philosophy to be androcentric in any way.

The same is true for the arguments discussed in Chapters 6 and 7. Chapter 6 examines arguments that stress the differences between women’s and men’s interests. Such arguments typically claim (or implicitly assume) that women’s and men’s interests differ, and then contend that philosophy is influenced by, or reflects, men’s interests rather than women’s. Chapter 7, somewhat similarly, discusses arguments for the androcentricity of philosophy that emphasize cognitive and psychological differences between women and men, and go on to contend that philosophy suits, or reflects, the mentalities of men rather than of women. It is argued that these types of arguments, too, do not suffice to show that philosophy is androcentric in any way.

Chapter 8 discusses a type of argument based on some theories’ failure to consider issues relating to women, or to condemn androcentricity. Notwithstanding the somewhat paradoxical nature of such arguments, it is argued that they hold good, and that they too show some philosophies to be androcentric. However, again, it is argued that they show these philosophies to be nonpervasively rather than pervasively androcentric.

The discussion suggests, then, that philosophy is not pervasively androcentric. Yet, based on the view that it is, many efforts have been made to suggest, anticipate, or point to radical alternatives to philosophy. Chapter 9 discusses these efforts and argues that so far they have not been successful. It is maintained that their failure to achieve their end corroborates the claim that philosophy is not pervasively androcentric. Chapter 10 discusses some possible objections to the criticisms and arguments suggested in this book. This consideration includes questions such as whether or not the critique of arguments for the androcentricity of philosophy is circular, since it relies on the very philosophy claimed to be androcentric, or whether arguments for the androcentricity of philosophy would not be stronger if considered together instead of separately, as they are here. The chapter also examines some of the general problems in various arguments for the androcentricity of philosophy, and the place of the discussion in the feminist endeavor at large.

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