Passing through the Needle's eye: Can a feminist teach logic?
Is it possible for one and the same person to be a feminist and a logician, or does this entail a psychic rift of such proportions that one is plunged into an endless cycle of self-contradiction? Andrea Nye's book, Words of Power (1990), is an eloquent affirmation of the psychic rift position. Although eloquent, I believe it is mistaken in certain serious ways, which I shall address in this paper.
Nye advances this position in her concluding essay to Words of Power (Ibid.). In brief, her position is that the logical enterprise is inherently self-contradictory for feminist thinkers. Feminists who attempt to use logic to demonstrate its shortcomings are doomed to failure; arguing against logical claims is self-defeating, for the critic will be sucked into the maelstrom of logical tradition. Hydra-headed, the logical monster will thrive rather than perish under the sharpened edge of argument; hence the critic succeeds only in strengthening the very endeavour whose shortcomings she attempts to expose. This is guaranteed to happen, according to Nye, because in entering the debate, one is thereby committed to the terms of the debate. The critic herself will be devoured in the process, for logic was constructed to eliminate the voices and concerns of women. ‘The feminist logician speaks from a script in which the master always wins' (Ibid., p. 180).
If feminists cannot use logic itself to attack the arrogant and unsupportable assumptions of logic, what are our alternatives? Nye sketches two alternatives - one is to simply turn our backs on logic, ignoring it in all of its masculine arrogance, and talk among ourselves in our own women's language about our own concerns. Nye does not recommend this alternative, for although it escapes the criticism of arrogance, it does so at the price of impotence. What she does recommend is the second alternative, that as feminists we direct our energy towards reading other people's work, including that of the logicians, and responding to it in ways ‘that can mortally wound’ (Ibid., p. 184) the authors; women, Nye believes, are particularly adept at reading. ‘It is a skill we have perfected’ (Ibid.) in the course of our oppression.
In what follows, I shall discuss Nye's proscription of logic as well as her perceived alternatives of a woman's language and reading. This will be followed by a discussion more sharply focused on Nye's feminist response to logic, namely, her claim that feminism and logic are incompatible. I will end by offering a sketch of a class in the life of a feminist teaching logic, a sketch which is both a response to Nye (in Nye's sense of the word) and a counter-example to her thesis that logic is necessarily destructive to any genuine feminist enterprise.
Key wordsfeminist logic arrogance reading racism sexism
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