“It is often not a good idea to simplify the history of ideas in order to fit a modern agenda.”
That’s Sophia M. Connell, senior lecturer in philosophy at Birkbeck, University of London, in a recent interview at 3:16AM that focuses on her work on Aristotle’s conceptions of sex, reproduction, and biology.Interviewer Richard Marshall asks:
You’re an Aristotelian expert and have written about his theory of reproduction. Now this area has been taken by some feminist readings to endorse a systematic and proto-scientific sexism. There seems on the surface plenty of evidence for this. Can you first say what has led feminists to see Aristotle as laying down the foundations for the predominance of misogynist societies across the world. What’s the case they make?
Here’s part of Dr. Connell’s reply:
The feminist case against Aristotle is much more complicated and rests in part on the idea that it is his worldview that underlies significant parts of our inherited metaphysics—with dichotomies such as nature and culture, active and passive, form and matter mapping directly onto our own idea of what counts as a man and what counts as a woman. This makes Aristotle the very originator of Western patriarchy ideology. Added to this, some feminists quote sayings out of context such as ‘female is (as it were) deformed males’ (leaving out the ‘as it were’, On the Generation of Animals [GA] IV.6, 775a16) and women lack an authoritative deliberative faculty (Politics [Pol.] I, 1260a14) or women are lying, scheming, more prone to tears (Historia Animalium [HA] VIII(IX).1, 608b9-14). All of these mentions of women or the female in general are taken from different works and no context is given. Thus, many of these ideas are misunderstood in terms of Aristotle’s philosophy.
I would not deny that Aristotle is sexist and he is even at times misogynist, but what I challenge is the presence of any systemic theory of female inferiority in his writing. Indeed, when you scrutinize his work rather than picking out juicy quotes, there is very little evidence for this. Indeed, he seems to have different things to say in different places and some of these are in tension. On the more positive side, he says that female animals are in general cleverer and have better memories than male animals (HA VIII(IX).1, 608a25-28, 608b10), that females who care for young are practically wise (phronimos) (HA VIII(IX).5), that women can and should be virtuous and that women have significant medical knowledge (HA IX(VII)). I am working on trying to make sense of these ideas, see for example this recent talk: ‘Aristotle on Women’ which was given at the Joint Session of the Aristotelian Society and Mind Associations in July 2020.
Aristotle does not write a treatise on women; and it is impossible to construct one because he refers to women or female animals in different places for different purposes. His views are often informed by his culture, which was one of the most patriarchal the world has known, and as an empiricist, the facts around him could not help but influence him. But this effect has been much exaggerated. Aristotle seldom just went along with the status quo; his struggles in the Politics are testament to this. One can understand his more disparaging comments in that work as a need to appeal to an audience that considers a wife to be a type of slave (Pol. I.2, 1252a1); he must argue that she is actually a citizen and capable of virtue and happiness.
Later in the interview, she adds:
It is often not a good idea to simplify the history of ideas in order to fit a modern agenda. If it did some good to vilify Aristotle, then maybe this was a necessary moment in the feminist dialectic with an intellectual tradition that was certainly largely pernicious to women. But getting things wrong and fundamentally wrong about philosophers’ views does not serve anyone’s interest and seriously undermines the credibility of those who do this. It takes away the richness of our intellectual traditions.
By dismissing Aristotle on women as completely pernicious we lose sight of the ways he resisted the status quo, such as pushing for men to listen to their wives in the Politics. We also are in danger of losing sight of those early feminist who could see the positive aspects of his account—and used these tensions in his thought for powerful critiques of their own culture’s assumptions.
You can read the whole interview here.