KeywordsFeminist philosophy Critical theory Power
Amy Allen (born October 14, 1970) is an American feminist philosopher and social theorist who has written on feminist theories of power, with attention to domination, resistance, and solidarity; on the theories of autonomy, subjection, and selfhood; and rearticulated the meaning of emancipation in response to postcolonial challenges to the idea of historical progress. In 2015, Allen became Liberal Arts Research Professor of Philosophy and Women’s and Gender Studies at The Pennsylvania State University after teaching at Dartmouth College for almost two decades, where she was the Parents Distinguished Research Professor.
The Power of Feminist Theory
Allen’s first monograph, The Power of Feminist Theory (1999), challenges the inadequacies of existing feminist theories of power and – underscoring the need in feminism for a satisfactory account of the term – constructs a theory of power that draws upon Michel Foucault, Judith Butler, and Hannah Arendt. Arguing that feminists have articulated power primarily as “domination,” i.e., criticizing the ways in which men have power over women (MacKinnon 1987, Okin 1989, Pateman 1988), or as “empowerment,” i.e., revaluing capacities that have been historically denigrated as sources of resistance (Gilligan 1982, Held 1993, Ruddick 1989), Allen writes that neither side does justice to the complexity of power through the lived experience of norms, institutions, and practices, which may at the same time dominate and empower women in various ways.
Drawing on Foucault and Butler, Allen integrates theories of domination and empowerment by redescribing them as modalities of power, and she accounts for a third modality of collective action, informed by Arendt’s sense of power as acting in concert with others, which requires relations of “receptivity and reciprocity” to make possible the realization of shared ends (Allen 1998, 35). Allen names these three modalities “power-over” (forms of domination, but also teaching, parenting), “power-to” (forms of resistance, but also learning new skills and other forms of empowerment), and “power-with” (solidarity against domination, but also team sports or playing in an orchestra). Allen’s first book was significant (cf. Sawicki 2002) for its careful attention to the meaning(s) of “power” for feminist theory, as well as for bringing Frankfurt School critical theory into conversation with poststructuralist critiques of power.
The Politics of Ourselves
Allen’s second monograph, The Politics of Ourselves (2007), insists that critical theory can only be truly critical by working through the seeming paradox of being both constituted through power relations and capable of autonomous reflection. The text crosses an impasse in critical theory between Foucault and Jürgen Habermas, considering the interplay of subjugation and autonomy in the “politics of ourselves,” with attention to the implications for gender and feminist theorizing in the work of Butler (1997) and Seyla Benhabib (1986; Benhabib et al. 1994).
From Foucault and Butler, Allen (2006, 2007) takes a conception of the self as constituted by power relations – at once repressive and productive – and of “the politics of ourselves” as the project of self-transformation within these terms; yet, she challenges these theories for failing to offer a theory of autonomy from which self-transformation is possible. Here, Allen turns to Habermas’ more optimistic critical theory of communicative action for an account of autonomy, but she finds it lacking on the very points Foucault illuminates because relations of domination already mediate the lifeworld that structures our communicative systems; there is no position outside of power to evaluate the conditions of communication. Establishing a middle ground between Foucault and Habermas, Allen develops a “politics of ourselves” that registers the constraints of subjugation while staking out the space of autonomy.
The End of Progress (2016)
In her third book, The End of Progress: Decolonializing the Normative Foundations of Critical Theory, Allen aims to bridge the divide between Frankfurt School critical theory and postcolonial theory, calling for critical theory to “decolonize” itself by changing its strategy for grounding normativity. Allen argues that Frankfurt School critical theorists from Habermas onward have, both explicitly and implicitly, relied upon the idea of historical progress to justify their critiques. She characterizes this “backward-looking” idea of progress (distinguished from a “forward-looking” sense of progress, which is understood as a political and moral imperative) as one that takes the values, institutions, and forms of rationality produced by the European Enlightenment and European modernity to be “the result of a cumulative or developmental learning process” (Allen 2016, 13). Given that this idea of progress is inextricably bound up with Eurocentric imperialism, Allen argues that critical theory, if it is to be true to its emancipatory aims, must no longer rely upon ideas of historical progress for its normative foundation.
Towards the end of decolonializing critical theory, Allen draws upon the work of Foucault and Adorno. In both thinkers, she finds recognition of the complicity of reason with power. Reexamining this complicit relation, she offers a different emancipatory vision of “an open-ended conception of the future,” which includes an idea of “forward-looking” progress – distinct from the “backward-looking” model she criticizes (ibid., 188) – and a critical, genealogical approach with the tools to “get enough critical distance on that historical a priori that we can see it as a system of thought” (ibid., 193). Through her readings of Foucault and Adorno, Allen derives an alternative way of thinking about normativity in critical theory. This theory, which she calls “metanormative contextualism” (ibid., 215), holds that normative justification is always conducted within a particular social, historical, and cultural context, and that there are no transcendent principles for evaluating these specific and situated frameworks. Allen thus proposes metanormative contextualism as a way to think about normativity that both allows for substantive, first-order normative claims without committing to a universal, context-transcendent normative foundation. These would be the theoretical conditions, Allen argues, for an afterlife of critical theory beyond the limits of Western modernity and its colonial history.
Allen’s work in the field of social and political theory brings together elements of critical theory, feminist philosophy, and post- and de-colonial theory. From her writings on feminist accounts of domination to her reexamination of the normative foundations of critical theory, Allen’s philosophy is unified by a concern with the relationship between reason and power and a commitment to the project of emancipation.
- Arendt H (1969) On violence. Harcourt Brace, New York, p 44Google Scholar
- Benhabib S (1986) Critique, norm, and utopia: a study of the foundations of critical theory. Columbia University Press, New YorkGoogle Scholar
- Benhabib S, Butler J, Cornell D, Fraser N (1994) Feminist contentions: a philosophical exchange. Routledge, New YorkGoogle Scholar
- Butler J (1997) Excitable speech: toward a politics of the performative. Routledge, New YorkGoogle Scholar
- Gilligan C (1982) In a different voice: psychological theory and Women’s development. Harvard University Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
- Held V (1993) Feminist morality: transforming culture, society, and politics. University of Chicago Press, ChicagoGoogle Scholar
- MacKinnon C (1987) Feminism unmodified. Harvard University Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
- Okin SM (1989) Justice, gender, and the family. Basic Books, New YorkGoogle Scholar
- Pateman C (1988) The sexual contract. Stanford University Press, StanfordGoogle Scholar
- Ruddick S (1989) Maternal thinking: toward a politics of peace. Ballantine, New YorkGoogle Scholar
- Sawicki J (2002) Review: the power of feminist theory. Hypatia 17(1):222–226Google Scholar