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Hegel, Irigaray, Motherhood & Feminist Philosophy

Interview by Richard Marshall.


Alison Stone is a philosopher who broods to the wide depths on Schelling and nature, on Hegel on nature, on Bildung, on Hegel and environmental philosophy, on Luce Irigaray and the importance of reproduction, on Irigaray and Judith Butler’s ‘performative theory’, on maternal subjectivity and on feminist philosophy. This one is all about broadening philosophy’s scope…

3:AM: What made you become a philosopher?

Alison Stone: One of my A-levels was classical civilisation, which involved reading a lot of Plato, and my classics teacher used to run a lunch-time philosophy society. But the key point was when, browsing in the library, I picked up Camus’s The Outsider, never having heard of it or of Camus. It was a transformative experience for me to read it. That led me to start reading various other existentialist and proto-existentialist authors. And this tied in with the fact that I was increasingly concerned about the prospect of my death. Having previously intended to do a German degree, I changed to doing philosophy.

3:AM: One of the big ideas about nature that is no longer a currency is that nature is a self organizing holistic whole. Proponents of Gaia hold something like this but they are a marginalized group and natural science doesn’t currently go beyond a refined mechanism these days. You’ve looked at a time predominantly in German philosophy where philosophy of nature as done by Schelling and Hegel was about understanding nature as an organic whole. Can you say something about this time leading into the early nineteenth century and why nature was presented in such a way by some of the leading thinkers of the time?

AS: As you say, Schelling especially thought that nature couldn’t be understood in exclusively mechanical terms, but had to be seen as a self-organising whole. One of his key reasons was this: He took it that we, human beings, are autonomous agents, able to determine for ourselves what to do, how to live. But we aren’t separate from nature; we are part of nature and emerge out of it. How then can we explain our capacity for autonomy without supposing that it has a supernatural origin, unless there is something already going on within nature that prefigures it and out of which our autonomy develops? Schelling reasoned that there must be a level of self-organisation in nature as a whole of which human autonomy is a higher-level realisation, and different kinds of natural processes and objects also exhibit self-organisation to varying degrees, down to a vanishingly small degree in the most mechanical processes.

We might reject these views, perhaps because we don’t believe that we have autonomy in the quite strong sense that Schelling thinks. But I think there’s still merit in the broader form of the argument that he made, if we think in terms of experience rather than autonomy as such. That is, the meaningfulness of our lived experience, the way it unfolds in our bodily relations with the world around us, the constitutive role of our relations with others in making us who we are, how all this is continually being made, unmade, and re-made processually (all these kinds of aspects of experience about which phenomenologists have had a lot to say). It’s not at all clear that this realm can be understood adequately in mechanical terms, yet presumably we can agree that this realm arises out of nature – there’s nothing supernatural about it. So, adapting Schelling’s reasoning, it makes sense that there must already be ways that nature anticipates this realm of meaningful experience – so that nature can’t be satisfactorily understood in wholly mechanical terms either.


3:AM: Schelling’s one time partner Hegel developed a metaphysics of nature where a rational teleology was discerned. Why did Hegel think his approach to nature superior to empirical science?

AS: Ultimately, I think Hegel would locate the difference in the fact that he studies nature as part of constructing an encyclopedia in which he sets out a systematic account of everything. Like others of his time, he aimed for a total system, within which everything would be understood in its interconnections with everything else. Empirical science, though, in Hegel’s view, only tells us about natural processes in abstraction from the rest of the totality. What Hegel can do is take the explanatory accounts of phenomena provided by the sciences and reinterpret them in terms of his own metaphysics, in which everything is interconnected in intelligible ways, and thus is rational. It’s a better approach because knowledge has to be systematic, for Hegel.

We can see a residue of this approach in my answer to your previous question: i.e. that to understand nature adequately we have to be able to make sense of how nature relates to the realm of meaningful human experience. That doesn’t mean that philosophers can come in and reject accounts of natural things that scientists have produced. But philosophers might need to put these accounts into a different overarching perspective so as to understand how human experience and natural processes relate to one another.

3:AM: Can you sketch the key elements of Hegel’s phenomenological argument regarding Sensibility and Bildung and say if any of it is plausible?

AS: I’m not sure that I still believe myself here, but in my book on Hegel I argued that he tries to develop an account of nature that is continuous with the way we experience it. More specifically, within his Philosophy of Mind (or Spirit, depending on translation) he has a discussion of the four elements and the way they connect to the five senses. He’s already incorporated much of what was then known about the chemical elements in his Philosophy of Nature. But now Hegel seems to suggest that given the make-up of our senses we have to perceive the natural world in terms of the four elements to some extent (earth, water, etc.). I find this interesting partly because other phenomenologists have resuscitated the four elements, but (I take it) we now know that those elements aren’t ultimate constituents of the world but are compounds of more fundamental elements such as carbon, oxygen, etc. So how can talk of the elements be retrieved? Maybe on the grounds that that’s the way we experience things.

In terms of Bildung – cultivation or education – I was suggesting that from Hegel’s point of view theory ought to cultivate what we experience pre-theoretically rather than constituting a break from pre-theoretical experience. This is because of Hegel’s large-scale project of overcoming oppositions, including therefore the opposition between theory and experience. In a way, I’m still faithful to this aspect of Hegel’s thought. I’ve recently argued in the journal Hypatia that philosophers, specifically feminist philosophers, ought to try to be clear in order that theory doesn’t become set apart from everyday experience. I don’t see clarity as necessarily truncating the richness of experience, but potentially as a way to keep theory connected with experience, including the everyday language that permeates it.

3:AM: Hegel’s argument meant that nature was given ethical implications. How does this work?

AS: For Hegel, all of nature is rational, in the most minimal sense in that nature’s organised into a coherent whole, within which all its constituent things and processes are interconnected. But rationality is the source of value, Hegel also thinks: if we recognise another human being to be a rational agent, then we are according them a level of respect; we are saying that they deserve moral consideration and cannot just be used as if they were a mere object. Since natural things, though, are also rational, this conclusion seems to extend to nature as well: natural things too deserve moral consideration and presumably we would need to balance that against the consideration due to human agents. We could try to block this conclusion by saying that nature is rational in a different and weaker sense from human agents. But from the arguments I’ve mentioned earlier, for Hegel the rationality of nature can’t be different in kind from that of human agents otherwise the latter couldn’t emerge out of the former. Having said this, Hegel doesn’t consistently follow through the implications of his own thought with respect to nature deserving moral consideration. He actually says that human agents can pretty much treat nature how they want. But I think he is unfaithful to himself here.

3:AM: Again, empirical science seems to assume that there is no ethical dimension to nature. Is Hegelian argument redundant in our age?

AS: I was re-reading Hegel in light of contemporary environmental and ecological philosophy. A number of enviromental philosophers have claimed that nature or parts of nature have ‘intrinsic value’ – although there’s a lot of debate about what that means. I think that Hegel has a version of this belief in intrinsic value. So rather than being redundant, I see his philosophy of nature as gaining a new level of relevance insofar as it speaks to the environmental problems that we face.


3:AM: The claims of nature are important in your approach to the later philosophy of Luce Irigaray where you defend her idea that sexual difference is natural rather than constructed socially, culturally and symbolically. Isn’t this a politically conservative position to take and a view of nature that would have made sense to Schelling, Hegel and Holderin and Heidegger?

AS: Just to clarify what I believe, I think that there are physical, corporeal differences between women and men and that these have to do with reproduction above all. I also think that since we (human beings) are our bodies – we experience and think as bodily beings – those corporeal differences must have some ramifications for the ways that we experience. To this extent, I am in agreement with Irigaray. However, the worry expressed by many feminists is that regarding reproduction and the physical organs that support it as central in human life in this way, and as dividing humankind into two sexes, is a political choice. The worry is that we are deciding to give reproduction this degree of salience when we could view things differently – after all, there are intersexed people, there are transgendered people, and there are many women too young or too old to be able to reproduce. So surely, the reasoning goes, we don’t have to focus on reproduction and if we do that’s because we want everyone to fall into two neatly gender-divided categories, not because they really do fall into these two camps independent of our choices.

Quite simply, I’m not convinced that we can decide to minimise the salience of reproduction and all the ramifications that it has. It seems to me that reproduction is going to have to be made sense of in some way in any society, and that there are certain limits on the ways that we can make sense of it. However, I don’t think that from this necessity of sexual difference it follows that men and women have to occupy different social roles or that those roles must be hierarchical. By and large, women can carry, bear, and breast-feed babies and men can’t, but it doesn’t follow that women rather than men have to be the principal child-carers in every family. So I think that we can acknowledge the reality of sexual difference without having to take a conservative stance on gender roles.

3:AM: What’s the appeal of Irigaray’s controversial position for you?

AS: Its appeal ties in with my interest in nature and in the way that mind and culture emerge out of body and nature. In my view, feminist positions that maintain that reproduction needn’t be salient in human life or that sexed bodily differences needn’t have any consequences for our psyches at all don’t do justice to the natural and bodily side of our existence. I am concerned that at times some strands of feminist thought have effectively sided with the mind and culture side of the mind/body, culture/nature oppositions. Irigaray’s position offers a corrective to that. I should add, too, that I believe that there are feminist grounds for trying not to side with the mind and culture side of those oppositions, namely that historically that side has repeatedly been lined up together with the male sex and against the female sex. As in the idea that women are especially close to nature, or at the mercy of their bodies, in a way that men supposedly aren’t.

3:AM: Why is Irigaray’s idea that nature is processual important in differentiating her position from the traditional one of allotting men and women to predetermined roles – child rearing and cooking vs hunting and being promiscuous. She seems to be overturning her original feminism with something less liberating. Why is this not right?

AS: To clarify Irigaray’s position here, when she emphasises sexual difference she doesn’t identify that difference with the difference in gender roles between men and women as it exists within patriarchy, or more generally within any existing form of social life. She thinks that those systems of roles deny sexual difference. They do so by putting women and men in positions complementary to one another and where, on the whole, women’s roles are so shaped and understood as to be inferior to and subordinate to those assigned to men. Thus these roles give us inequality rather than genuine difference, Irigaray believes. So the kind of difference that she wants us to create, or wants to liberate, would be quite unlike conventional gender-divided roles. That’s her hope, at least. In my book on Irigaray I tried to bring this out partly by talking about how she sees nature in terms of unfolding processes rather than fixed substances, where the latter might readily be mapped onto conventional gender-divided roles as processes can’t, at least not so readily. But the central point, really, is just that Irigarayan sexual difference is intended to be quite unlike gender division as we know it.

3:AM: Someone like Jesse Prinz will surely just kick back and say that there’s just too much empirical evidence to support anything like Irigaray’s essentialist position. Sexual difference doesn’t seem to be fixed at all along the lines Irigaray says it is. Is she just an armchair philosopher doing her a priori thing without paying enough respect to empirical studies?

AS: Irigaray’s views are so far from the kinds of evolutionary-psychology-cum-sociobiology positions that Prinz criticises (as far as I know, anyway) that it’s hard to know how to discuss these different outlooks together and in comparison to one another. Irigaray’s position really comes out of the phenomenological tradition, and is indebted to Merleau-Ponty particularly, for whom, again, we are our bodies. The very same physical bodies that we perceive one another to have from the outside, and that we can in each case see ourselves to have as if from outside, are also given to each of us as the bodies that we are, as the vehicles of our agency and perception, and the central situation from which we navigate our ways through the world. Given this two-aspect character of our bodies, how could the physical properties of our bodies not affect the nature of our subjectivity? Of course it also follows from the two-aspects of the body that what goes on at the level of subjectivity, our making sense of our experience actively and in ways informed by our culture, and so on, is also going to bear on what unfolds physically within our bodies. But anyway, this point about the body’s bearing on subjectivity isn’t so much an a priori argument as an attempt to return to experience, bracketing out routine theoretical assumptions that might surreptitiously be shaping the way we interpret that experience. Amongst theoretical assumptions of that sort I suspect that Irigaray would include ones about evolution. So she would position herself somewhere very different to the authors whom Prinz criticises.

3:AM: Can Irigaray’s later philosophy line up with Judith Butler’s ‘performative theory’ of gender?

AS: Well, I tried in my book on Irigaray to put them together, but to do that I first had to reconstruct Butler’s theory out of all recognition. Sticking for now with what Butler actually thinks, for her, gender is something that only exists insofar as we continuously perform the actions that are normative for particular gender identities, and we engage in that performing just because of the power norms have over us. But we re-form and de-form gender identities all the time as well, in the process of re-creating them – the fact that those identities only exist qua performed means that they are always undergoing change and redefinition. I greatly appreciate that insight of Butler’s into the malleability of gender identity. There is a real question about how that insight can be combined with Irigaray’s view of sexual difference. In different essays of mine I’ve shifted uneasily between being more sympathetic sometimes to one and sometimes to the other. I still think that how their insights can be brought together, if they can at all, is an open question and one of the most important questions for feminist philosophers at the moment.


3:AM: Is your own feminist position consistent with Irigaray’s notion of nature as self-differentiating and manifesting itself in both duality and multiplicity? Does this feed into your work on maternal subjectivity?

AS: Well, I tried to read Irigaray together with Schelling so as to suggest a picture of our bodies as being not only sexed but also containing multiple forces in each case, ones that don’t just exist within the confines of a person’s sexed identity but always push against and beyond that identity as well. That was my way of trying to combining the best of both Irigaray and Butler. But that was admittedly highly speculative. It was just a way of re-imagining the issues, really.

What has above all fed into my work on maternal subjectivity – apart from the experience of becoming a mother – is the idea that thought and subjectivity emerge out of the body, but where the body has to be such that they can emerge from it – the body can’t just be a mechanical assemblage of bits but has to have a level of self-organisation that prefigures subjectivity. That’s an idea that I’ve taken from Schelling and Hegel. This bears on maternal subjectivity: I take it that the kind of subjectivity that someone has always reflects the body they have; and I take it that bearing a child, becoming a mother, relating to one’s young child, are all bodily experiences. So that suggests that there must be a specifically maternal form of subjectivity.

3:AM: What are the philosophically interesting issues that arise when discussing the relations between subjectivity and the maternal body? Is the aim of raising these issues to make maternal subjectivity problematic? Can you sketch some of the ways in which we ought to be reconceiving this subjectivity?

AS: As well as being bodily, mothering is also a profoundly relational experience, or so I believe. It’s a matter of being in intimate, intense relations with a small, dependent being who expresses their affects in a very raw way. Moreover, this tends to remind mothers of their own childhoods and their past relations with their own parents, especially their own mothers, assuming that – for most people at least – it was our mothers who chiefly cared for us when we were young. These memories needn’t be explicit or conscious – one can be prompted to remember something at the implicit, practical level of reproducing actions that one’s own mother used to perform, singing the same nursery songs that she sang for example. Here there is an interesting criss-crossing in which a new mother might repeat the things that her own mother used to do, rather than repeating the things that she herself used to do when she was a child. That testifies, I think, to the depth of the relationality at work here. In addition, I think that mothers can be called back to some of the feelings they had as children – some very raw emotions can be called up – and it’s partly in this way that mothering reminds us how much our experience is rooted in our bodies.

I don’t want to deny any role to fathers in the bringing of children, by the way – far from it, I’m in favour of the ideal of shared parenting put forward by Nancy Chodorow. But historically it has tended to be women – mothers, and other women standing in for mothers – who do the child-caring, and so these relational processes that interest me have gone on between children and their mothers first and foremost. It’s hard to know how those processes might unfold between fathers and children partly because fathers have often been relatively absent from their children’s lives, so that the relationality hasn’t been there to the same extent.


3:AM: You’ve written about feminist philosophy. Its been around since the early 1970s. You say its done three things: investigated gender biases in how philosophy has and is approached; drawn on philosophical concepts and theories to articulate and analyse feminist positions and introduced new concepts no other field has had, such as the distinction between sex and gender, sex and sexuality, sexual difference etc. Looking over the last forty odd years, has it been as successful as you’d have hoped and given the way that women still are a marginal presence in the academy and scandals keep happening in university departments is there anything that should be done?

AS: Feminist philosophy has had a level of success in that it’s now a recognised area of philosophy and, for instance, the main feminist philosophy journal Hypatia is now highly regarded. Feminist philosophy’s been accepted in much of the U.S. for some time, and now finally feminist philosophy has become more accepted in the U.K. too. But still, as you say, women remain a minority of the philosophy profession, and philosophy remains more dominated by men numerically than most other humanities and social sciences. My take on this is that, in addition to such factors as gender schemas, stereotype threats, aggressive cultures, and so on, the minority status of women philosophers is a concomitant of the way that the discipline of professional philosophy has become very narrow, from the second world war onwards. A very narrow range of issues, most of them couched at a high level of abstraction, is allowed to count as philosophy. For instance, there’s very little work done on philosophy and being a mother, and maternity is not even really seen as a philosophical question. This is despite the fact that it is a fundamental feature of human existence that there are mothers, and parents more generally – so that one would have expected maternity and mothering to qualify as subjects for philosophical inquiry. The way that this impacts on the gender make-up of philosophy, I suggest (and I’m informed here by a paper by Kristie Dotson, ‘Is this paper philosophy?’), is that in this culture becoming a philosopher involves imbibing a concern with boundaries and with staying on the right side of the philosophy/not-philosophy divide. But such concerns about ‘what’s proper philosophy? What isn’t? Who’s a real philosopher? Who isn’t?’ is going to cause disproportionate levels of anxiety to people who don’t readily feel that they fit the stereotype of a philosopher. That is, the defensive, boundary-drawing mentality is liable to increase the negative effects of gender schemas on which philosopher=man. So, in my view, broadening the scope of philosophy is one of the many things that need to happen for the subject to become more open to everyone.

3:AM: And are there five books that you could recommend to readers here at 3:AM to take us further into your philosophical worlds?

AS: F. W. J. Schelling, First Outline of a System of the Philosophy of Nature (SUNY Press, 2004).
G. W. F. Hegel, Philosophy of Nature (Oxford University Press, 2004).
Luce Irigaray, Sexes and Genealogies (Columbia University Press, 1993).
Judith Butler, Gender Trouble (Routledge, 1990).
Nancy Chodorow, The Reproduction of Mothering (University of California Press, 1978).

Richard Marshall is still biding his time.

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First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, March 22nd, 2015.