…I expect there will be deep and lasting tensions going forward among feminist philosophers. Most of the tensions have to do with perceptions of harm: harm to the author, the journal, communities of people who are marginalized and threatened, and to feminist philosophy. I hope feminist philosophers will explore and critically discuss questions about the harms caused by the recent events…
Feminist Philosophy and Its Controversies
by Laurie Shrage
In 1994, Martha Nussbaum reviewed a collection of essays on feminist epistemology for the New York Review of Books that divided the community of feminist philosophers. One point of contention was whether she misrepresented and unfairly criticized the work of a junior feminist scholar who contributed to the collection. Within a few years of this controversy, this young scholar left the field of academic philosophy.
Over the following decade, feminist philosophers continued to be divided about Nussbaum’s review, despite the fact that the review was overall highly favorable and brought wider attention to feminist philosophy. Because feminist philosophy was a relatively new subfield and one not well respected in mainstream philosophy, some felt Nussbaum’s critical comments about some authors would give ammunition to the opponents of feminist philosophy. Others argued that Nussbaum used her position of relative privilege in the profession in ways that harmed women who held views or utilized methodologies she opposed. The anger and division between Nussbaum’s defenders and detractors reached levels that we are now witnessing between the critics of Hypatia and Rebecca Tuvel, and their defenders.
In 1994, I was a recently tenured feminist philosopher, with considerable experience of the field’s hostility to and disparagement of feminist philosophy, and I shared many of the concerns of Nussbaum’s critics. Today, I’m a relatively senior feminist philosopher, and I find myself on the side of Hypatia’s and Tuvel’s defenders. In each case, these controversies create destructive and lasting tensions among scholars with deep intellectual sympathies and projects. During the past week, I’ve been thinking about the Nussbaum review controversy, and how it might apply to the current one.
In 1994, I wrote a critical reply to Nussbaum’s review which I sent to the NYRB and Nussbaum, and circulated among feminist philosophers on email (a new technology then). To my surprise, Nussbaum sent me a hand-written letter in which she replied in detail to every one of my criticisms. I felt humbled by her letter because she took the time to write to me personally, because she took everyone one of my criticisms seriously and responded to them, and because her replies showed me that I had been overly harsh and unfair in my criticisms of her review. Over the following decade, Nussbaum seemed to welcome opportunities to engage constructively (and forcefully) with her feminist critics, whether in print or informally at conferences. Moreover, her published works have engaged seriously with feminist philosophical scholarship, and many are themselves major contributions to feminist philosophy. Nussbaum set an example for me of how to act constructively and with integrity when a community divides (over legitimate disagreements) and loses sight of its larger common goals.
My perspective on the Hypatia/Tuvel controversy is shaped by my having served as an editor of the journal, and by my research and writing on questions of transgender and transracial identities. When I heard about the call for retraction, I opposed it because I thought the concerns raised did not warrant retracting a journal article, but rather more debate. Because the author in question is a young feminist scholar, I was concerned that the public bashing of her scholarship would not only be quite discouraging for her, but also for any untenured feminist scholar who writes on controversial issues. Moreover, as someone who is sympathetic to Tuvel’s views on transracialism, I found the harsh criticism of her article to be unfair. As a former journal editor, I know that Hypatia’s review process employs the best practices that scholarly journals have devised to obtain helpful and expert reader reports. Journals should all strive to improve their peer review process, but when an article they publish provokes an outcry, they need to treat all parties with due respect, including the author, editors, reviewers, and readers.
As with the Nussbaum review controversy, I now find myself on the other side of a divide from scholars whose work I find the most useful and exciting in our field. And as with the earlier controversy, I expect there will be deep and lasting tensions going forward among feminist philosophers. Most of the tensions have to do with perceptions of harm: harm to the author, the journal, communities of people who are marginalized and threatened, and to feminist philosophy. I hope feminist philosophers will explore and critically discuss questions about the harms caused by the recent events. Although I disagreed with the letter calling for retraction, and the subsequent apology from the journal’s associate editors, I have a lot of respect for those who took these actions, which is why these events are so disturbing to me. Moreover, for feminist philosophers of my generation, it’s difficult to imagine that feminist philosophy would have flourished without Hypatia.
In some of my own writing, I have strongly criticized the work of other feminist philosophers. In several cases, I later met these philosophers in person and read more of their work, and then wished I had been more charitable and constructive in my earlier criticisms. Harsh criticism can be polarizing, whether it’s justified or not, and I hope over the next few years feminist philosophers will work to depolarize rather than further divide the community of philosophers who are addressing difficult questions about gender, race, disability, religion, class, immigration status, sexuality, and so on. The Nussbaum review controversy, and Nussbaum’s response to it, did not in the end harm feminist philosophy but rather drew more interest in it. It’s quite possible that if we respond to the current controversy in ways that are constructive and sensitive, we’ll see the same result.