Going Beyond Oppositional Thinking?: The Possibility of a Hegelian Feminist Philosophy

Review of Kimberly Hutchings, Hegel and Feminist Philosophy, Cambridge: Polity Press, 2003, £50.00 hb, 0-7456-1951-7, £14.99 pb, 0-7456-1952-5.



Hegel’s thought has exerted enormous influence, both direct and indirect, on the development of feminist philosophy. Simone de Beauvoir, for example, reworks Hegel’s account of the master/slave dialectic to generate her theory of woman as man’s ‘Other’, while Luce Irigaray draws heavily on Hegel’s political philosophy in formulating her proposals for ‘sexuate rights’ and a culture of sexual difference. Judith Butler, too, mobilises Hegel’s idea of internal critique to explain how regimes of gendered and heteronormative power undermine themselves from within.[1] Despite his huge influence, Hegel is regarded with suspicion – if not hostility – in much contemporary feminist thought. His philosophy is widely perceived to centre around a series of hierarchical oppositions – between spirit and nature, subject and object, state and family, universality and particularity – which converge, troublingly, with traditional hierarchical oppositions between masculine and feminine and between male and female. For this reason, feminist philosophers regularly present Hegel as a typically ‘masculinist’ thinker, who privileges concepts with a masculine or male connotation and denigrates those interpreted as feminine or female. Accordingly, Hegel’s influence on feminist philosophy is judged to be largely negative, and blamed for misleading figures such as Beauvoir into reproducing masculinist oppositions in their own work.

To Hegelians, this overwhelmingly negative view of Hegel is somewhat frustrating, as it appears to overlook his pronounced concern to overcome the conceptual oppositions he found entrenched in the philosophical tradition – to ‘synthesise’ these opposed terms into higher unities. Kimberly Hutchings’ central aim is to recover this aspect of Hegel’s philosophy in a way that illuminates its affinities with contemporary feminist efforts to go beyond masculinist conceptual oppositions. As she states:

At the heart of my argument is the claim that Hegel is battling with the same conceptual conundrum which is constitutive of feminist philosophy within the Western tradition. This is the conundrum of how to escape the conceptual binary oppositions … which have associated women with the denigrated term. (p. 2)

Hutchings interprets Hegel’s philosophy as reflecting a uniquely sustained resistance to dichotomous thinking, on this basis arguing that his philosophy constitutes a useful resource for feminist philosophers and, indeed, that one can elicit from his philosophy the contours of a distinctively ‘Hegelian’ position in feminism. As she progressively outlines this position, Hutchings contrasts her interpretations of Hegel with those of other feminist thinkers – including Beauvoir, Butler, and Irigaray, but also others including Rosalyn Diprose, Patricia Mills, and Carole Pateman.[2] In this way, Hutchings provides not only an impressively clear and succinct (though inevitably controversial) overview of Hegel’s entire philosophy, but also a reasonably comprehensive survey of its previous feminist receptions. Despite the clarity and originality of her conception of a ‘Hegelian feminism’, I do not always find it convincing, as will emerge below.

Hutchings begins with an account of the intellectual trajectory of feminist philosophy that foregrounds its concern to overcome hierarchical oppositions. She traces how successive approaches within feminist philosophy have attempted to inaugurate a non-dichotomous mode of thinking, but each approach in turn ‘fail[s] to emerge fully from the masculinist mode of thought which [it] claim[s] to be transcending’ (16). Explaining these failures, Hutchings makes the important point that any attempt to transcend oppositional thought altogether – to find an uncontaminated ‘beyond’ – is doomed to fail, already encapsulating an oppositional way of thinking. This implies that one can overcome conceptual oppositions only by remaining within them and complicating the relations between their terms to render them interdependent and imbricated in multiple ways. Here Hutchings sees the starting-point for productive feminist engagement with Hegel’s project of working through traditional dichotomies to the point where ‘the inadequacy of thinking in terms of binary oppositions is demonstrated and overcome’ (p. 30).[3]

Hutchings proceeds to outline readings of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit (1807), Philosophy of Right (1821), and – more briefly – his Logic (1812-16) and Philosophy of Nature (1817-30), focusing on three areas in which he articulates a non-oppositional approach. These are epistemology, in which she construes him as a ‘radical historicist’ (pp. 4, 43); ethics and politics, in which she reads him as engaged in a phenomenological project of comprehension; and ontology, in which she stresses his conception of the identity-in-difference between nature and spirit. Let me now explain how Hutchings reads Hegel under these three headings to extrapolate the elements of a Hegelian feminism.

Following recent scholarship, Hutchings treats Hegel’s Phenomenology as engaging with epistemological problems. On her reading, the text traces consciousness’ repeated failures to know objective reality, failures which occur because consciousness continually presupposes that objective reality is both separate from it and yet something to which its knowledge must correspond. Hutchings argues that (for Hegel) consciousness educates itself through these successive failures, eventually attaining an improved – and definitively modern – standpoint which recognises the fundamental importance of self-determination. From this modern standpoint, consciousness reconceives knowing as an activity undertaken by self-determining subjects. Hutchings maintains that Hegel applauds this modern standpoint, and that in this he ‘is very clearly following in the footsteps of Kant’s critical idealism’ (p. 39). That is, for Hutchings, Hegel shares Kant’s view that we actively construct the objects of our knowledge by imposing structure upon our experience. Hegel differs from Kant, according to Hutchings, in thinking that Kant’s interpretation of self-determination one-sidedly opposes autonomy to heteronomy and individual freedom to social context. Hegel reconceives individual self-determination as presupposing a social context – specifically, the context of an intersubjective world whose members recognise one another as free agents. Hence, both subjects and (subjectively constituted) objects of knowledge are ‘co-anchored’ in this shared context of spirit (Geist) – what Hutchings calls the ‘solid but self-moving medium within which claims are both made and judged’ (p. 110). Spirit is ‘self-moving’ in that it assumes different forms over time: spirit, or intersubjectivity, is therefore the ultimate locus of the self-determination that shapes forms of knowledge.

Hutchings’ reading of Hegel’s epistemology as a historicised Kantianism broadly concurs with recent ‘non-realist’ commentaries by Robert Pippin and Terry Pinkard.[4] Opposing these, realist interpretations of Hegel are offered by, inter alia, Thomas Wartenberg and Kenneth Westphal.[5] On these realist views, Hegel believes that reality has a determinate character independent of human practices, and that we can gain knowledge about this reality because it is, in itself, organised conceptually: the real is the Vernünftig – the ‘reasonable’.[6] Realists argue that it is precisely because Hegel sees reality as in itself conceptual – that is, as embodying the ‘idea’ – that he labels his philosophy ‘idealism’ (specifically, ‘absolute’ idealism). In this way Hegel’s professed commitment to idealism need not signal commitment to Kant’s non-realist critical philosophy.

Evidently, then, Hutchings’ non-realist reading of Hegel is contestable exegetically. She defends this reading because she believes that, on the realist reading, Hegel preserves the subject/object opposition, whereas on her non-realist reading he reconciles both terms within the unifying element of spirit. Yet spirit is, as Hutchings says, a world of intersubjectivity, and so we may wonder how genuinely this non-realist Hegel has “reconciled” subject and object. He seems, rather, to have repositioned objective reality as a function of the self-determining activity of an enlarged subject, thereby effectively absorbing the object into the subject. At this point, Hutchings’ account threatens to confirm the feminist suspicion that Hegel reproduces, rather than opposes, masculinist oppositions. For what feminists suspect is that Hegel’s much vaunted “reconciliations” of opposed terms simply expand the meaning of traditionally privileged concepts to incorporate their antitheses: for example, by expanding the subject (implicitly figured as masculine) subject to absorb the object (implicitly figured as feminine). To allay this suspicion, Hutchings needs to show that Hegelian spirit is genuinely irreducible to the subject pole of the subject/object opposition, an ontological question to which I return below.

Remaining for now with epistemology, Hutchings’ non-realist interpretation of Hegel is crucial for her further argument that he is a radical historicist, an argument which in turn underpins her appropriation of his epistemology for feminism. She argues for Hegel’s radical historicism through a reading of the infamous chapter on ‘absolute knowing’ that concludes his Phenomenology. Hutchings maintains that ‘absolute knowing’ consists in the explicit recognition that knowledge is always conditioned by social relations (forms of spirit) which are self-determining and, therefore, ever-changing. This ‘absolute knowing’ is relative to its time – it becomes articulable only in modernity – yet remains absolute in that it recognises the self-determination that has always characterised spirit, albeit only implicitly before modernity. Now, Hutchings continues, once one recognises that knowing is always grounded in changing forms of spirit, one also sees that spirit cannot ‘provid[e] a secure, transhistorical ground for [cognitive] judgement’ (p. 105). All knowledge-claims have determinate social conditions of possibility that render them necessarily partial, attached inescapably to these contingently existing conditions. Knowers should, however, acknowledge this partiality (thereby adopting the ‘absolute’ standpoint that explicitly recognises the inescapability of self-determination and partiality). Conversely, knowledge-claims can be criticised when they falsely portray themselves as absolutely true. Through this argument for Hegel’s radical historicism, Hutchings affiliates him with feminist epistemology: insofar as Hegel is read as prescribing attention to the social specificity and limitedness of all knowledge-claims, his approach converges with the feminist epistemological project of tracing the contingent power relations that animate all knowledge-claims.

I am unconvinced, however, that Hutchings’ own reading of Hegel on absolute knowing supports her attribution to him of a radical historicism. According to Hutchings, the absolute knowledge of self-determination presupposes specific social conditions – modernity – yet remains ‘absolute’ because its scope and validity are not limited to modernity, since self-determination is (implicitly) operative in all epochs. Inasmuch, then, as Hegel’s philosophical system enumerates categories that appropriately accompany the recognition of self-determination (as Hutchings states: p. 42), these categories, too, must carry absolute validity for all ages. The fact that only the moderns can access these categories does not imply that their knowledge is as partial as everyone else’s. It implies, rather, that modern conditions enable absolute knowledge whereas pre-modern conditions enable merely partially true claims, claims that have only relative validity. Hutchings’ own account of Hegel’s conception of absolute knowing thus suggests that he adheres to only a moderate historicism, according to which the extent of our access to the truth varies historically, while its content – the principle of self-determination – does not. Admittedly, this moderately historicist Hegel will be less congenial to those feminist epistemologists who seek to map ubiquitious power relations. But this suggests that Hutchings’ own reading of Hegel’s epistemology prohibits her from fitting him into contemporary feminist agendas as readily as she hopes.

Hutchings’ account of Hegel as a radical historicist also underpins her reading of his ethics and politics as predicated upon a phenomenological project of comprehension. On this reading, Hegel is not engaged in making moral judgements or outlining a universal theory of moral agency. Rather, he explores how ‘moral agency and judgement … [are] strictly and absolutely dependent on a highly complex legal, social and political order’ (p. 127). He aims, then, to show how the ‘moral point of view’ is embedded in ethical life (Sittlichkeit) and so, too, inextricably linked to determinate relations of power and inequality. Just as, for Hutchings, Hegel’s radical historicism aligned him with feminist epistemological attention to power relations, likewise his replacement of judgement with comprehension aligns him with those feminist thinkers who are critical of any belief in ‘individual authoritative access to criteria of moral truth’ (p. 129). Hutchings adduces, in particular, the ethics of Margaret Urban Walker, which seeks to map how contingent, socially constructed forms of social life underwrite the intelligibility and authority of all moral claims.[7] Hutchings stresses, though, that a Hegelian feminist ethics devoted to comprehension need not be quietist: it permits – indeed, recommends – criticism of those moral judgements which fail to acknowledge their partiality or which claim applicability beyond their authorising contexts.

In a similar vein, Hutchings argues that Hegel’s political philosophy primarily involves comprehending the social conditions of intelligibility for normative political principles – an approach, however, which retains a prescriptive dimension in that it ‘draws attention to the faultlines in human self-understanding which precipitate social and political change’ (p. 147). Here Hutchings draws on Pateman’s analysis of the apparent tension around women and contract in Hegel’s account of the family (in the Philosophy of Right).[8] On the one hand, Hegel believes that marriage arises from a contract, hence that women must be sovereign individuals entitled to make contracts; on the other hand, he sees marriage as a contract through which women abandon their sovereignty and become legally subordinate to their husbands. Hutchings resituates this apparent tension within her phenomenological reading of Hegel to argue that he is simply describing a really existing social tension. He ‘make[s] clear the dependence of sovereign individuality upon non-free relations [including, for example, market inequalities] and a sexual division of labour within the private sphere’ (p. 147). Rather than endorsing women’s confinement to the family, Hutchings maintains, Hegel describes the contradictory social preconditions for the principle of sovereign individuality, and by exposing these contradictions he makes possible their criticism and transformation. His phenomenological approach thus facilitates social criticism, insofar as it allows us to ‘understand the conditions of possibility for economic, social and political change and to identify appropriate strategies accordingly’ (p. 153).

Hutchings’ readings of Hegel’s ethics and politics are lucid, original, and highly suggestive as regards their potential utility for feminism. But their persuasiveness is proportional to that of her prior argument for Hegel’s radical historicism. If Hegel is – as her own reading of him implies – only a moderate historicist, then he must believe that some ethical claims are absolutely valid – those that explicate the necessary conditions of full individual and collective self-determination. It is arguably the goal of his Philosophy of Right to outline a succession of such claims, claims which establish the necessary shape that spirit must take, and the institutions and practices through which it must be structured, in order to make self-determination an actual reality. The fact that these institutions become possible only in modernity does not vitiate their absolute validity, but shows only that past institutions were doomed to merely ‘relative validity’, existing in ages during which, as Hegel paradoxically puts it, ‘a wrong is still right’.[9] This implies, though, that Hegel’s description of the modern, patriarchal, family simultaneously justifies it as absolutely valid, in virtue of its integral place within the social structure necessary to realise self-determination. Evidently, this pits Hegel against feminist theorists, who are critical of the patriarchal family. Here, again, Hutchings’ own reading of Hegel on absolute knowing cuts against the reconciliation of Hegel with feminism that she endeavours to derive from it.

I have raised two problems for Hutchings’ attempt to accommodate Hegel to feminism. Firstly, her own reading of his epistemology implies that he espouses only a moderate historicism, which separates him from those feminist philosophers who insist on a more radical historical partiality. This problem, as I have emphasised, arises internally to Hutchings’ interpretation of Hegel, and could therefore disappear given alternative readings of his view of absolute knowing. This leaves it an open question how far such alternative readings of absolute knowing might facilitate a positive convergence between Hegelian and feminist epistemologies. The second problem that I have raised concerns ontology. On Hutchings’ own account, Hegel may not overcome the subject/object opposition so much as amplify subjectivity into spirit to reinforce its traditional privilege. Hutchings would, I think, respond that Hegel conceives spirit as a medium genuinely distinct from both subject and object, a unifying ‘third term’ in which they can be reconciled. After all, she maintains that (for Hegel) spirit incorporates both objective components – culture, institutions, and habits – and subjective experience and existence (pp. 39-40). Spirit acquires this ‘objective’ side because intersubjectivity is always mediated through material, natural, and corporeal elements. Thus, for Hutchings, a central feature of Hegel’s ontology is that it

rejects radical distinctions between natural and social being and [therefore] takes sexual difference seriously. It does not, however, treat sexual difference as either ontologically uniform or as unchanging. As an aspect of spirit, sexual difference is an aspect of self-changing being … (p. 159)

In her view, Hegel conceives of nature and spirit as not opposed but intertwined, which enables us to identify sexual difference as both important (tenaciously entrenched in social life through its dependence on nature) and mutable (for spirit intertwines with nature in changing ways).

Hutchings’ understanding of Hegel on the nature/spirit relation emerges gradually through her engagements with previous receptions of Hegel by Beauvoir, Mills, Irigaray, and Butler. Beauvoir’s analysis of woman as man’s ‘Other’ relies on a sharp opposition between transcendent freedom and the mere ‘immanence’ to which women have historically been consigned. Yet Beauvoir repeatedly suggests that women are biologically (not just historically) inclined towards immanence – reflecting the masculinism implicit in the transcendence/immanence opposition on which she relies. Feminist critics often trace this masculinism infecting Beauvoir’s analysis to her influence by Hegel’s master/slave dialectic, with its allegedly sharp dichotomy between organic life and self-consciousness.[10] Against such critics, Hutchings rereads Hegel’s account of the transition from life to self-consciousness non-oppositionally, as providing a ‘richer, more promising’ ontological framework than that of Beauvoir. As Hutchings rereads Hegel, humanity differs from other species in that its members must work, not merely consume, to survive – which means that human infants must be educated to be self-conscious and so capable of work. ‘Spirit distinguishes itself as being dependent on the non-natural process of learning … ’ (p. 74). Yet, since humans remain equally dependent on the nature upon which they must work, ‘the sense in which spirit is understood as self-changing being in Hegel’s account includes an irreducible natural, collective and institutional dimension’ (p. 76).

Hutchings’ understanding of spirit’s ‘irreducible natural dimension’ becomes clearer from her ensuing discussion of Hegel’s well-known account of the conflict between city-state and families in ancient Greece (found, like his account of self-consciousness, in the Phenomenology). Most feminist readers – notably Mills, Irigaray, and Butler – interpret Hegel as contrasting the natural family with the spiritual polis, and supporting the male citizens in their work of suppressing women and nature. But, as Hutchings rightly emphasises, for Hegel both types of community are simultaneously natural and spiritual. The ‘divine law’, which prevails in the family, mandates respect for not just immediate kin but all individuals qua Greeks. Moreover, membership both in particular city-states and in the community of all Greeks is mediated by blood ties. Hence, Hutchings concludes, Hegel’s ‘discussion of nature and spirit in Greek ethical life … points to the always mutually self-determining relation of organic and spiritual existence’ (p. 98). Against critics who perceive in Hegel an adversary of nature (which is implicitly symbolised as female), Hutchings contends that for Hegel ‘spirit and nature are [not] mutually exclusive … Hegel’s notion of spirit entails the self-conscious recognition of its own inseparability from nature, an acknowledgement of dependence’ (p. 98).

But does Hutchings’ view that spirit depends upon and intertwines with nature sufficiently distinguish spirit from subjectivity? Hutchings has clarified that spirit depends on nature in having to work on nature, to transform natural givens into artefacts and habits which mediate intersubjectivity and compose ‘an environment produced through human labour’ (p. 40). It looks, then, as if spirit intertwines with nature to the extent that it incorporates nature as a subordinate element, which it incessantly moulds into a conduit for subjectivity. This suggests that, despite her efforts, Hutchings ultimately continues to construe spirit as an amplified form of subjectivity, amplifying itself precisely by incorporating a subordinated nature as an aspect of itself. Further confirmation comes from Hutchings’ comment that Hegel’s belief in ‘the identity and non-identity of natural and social, organic and spiritual being’ agrees with Judith Butler’s rejection of the distinction between biological sex and cultural gender (p. 158). The sex/gender distinction, feminist critics have argued, invokes an implicit gendered hierarchy: it aligns sex with femaleness, body, and nature, and gender with maleness, mind, and culture.[11] In Gender Trouble, Butler rejects the sex/gender distinction on the grounds that the ‘natural’ or ‘biological’ is itself a cultural construction: sex is therefore internal to gender, a construction through which culture defines its own limits.[12] In saying this, though, Butler has not really superseded the opposition between sex and gender, but has simply reinforced the entrenched privilege of gender, by enlarging it to incorporate sex. Likewise, Hutchings’ Hegel incorporates nature into subjectivity (which thereby expands to become spirit) – a move which reinforces, rather than overcomes, the symbolic hierarchy of male over female.

My disagreements with Hutchings might suggest that I endorse the feminist criticism that Hegel’s philosophy centres on hierarchical oppositions which it strengthens precisely through its supposed method of “reconciling” them. Actually, I join Hutchings in rejecting this criticism. I think that Hegel can plausibly be interpreted as espousing a conception of the nature/spirit relation different to that which Hutchings finds in him, and which more satisfactorily undoes the traditional opposition between these terms. This conception emerges once we construe Hegel as a realist who believes that reality is in itself conceptual or rational (and, therefore, cognitively accessible). On the realist Hegelian view, spirit and nature are not opposed, but each contain dimensions of both matter and conceptuality (although in nature this conceptual element is non-conscious). This conception of the nature/spirit relationship is, I believe, congenial to feminism because it locates materiality within spirit and conceptuality within nature. In this way, a realist Hegelianism conceives of spirit and nature as not opposed but simultaneously identical and different – both combining matter and conceptuality, yet in different ways.

My disagreement with Hutchings over realism has arisen within a broader area of agreement. She convincingly demonstrates that it is important to articulate and defend a distinctively Hegelian space within the feminist philosophical landscape, and, more specifically, she shows that Hegel’s primary significance for feminism lies in his project of overcoming oppositional thought. My central objection to Hutchings’ readings of Hegel has been that, despite her intentions, they reinstate oppositions between subject and object, spirit and nature, which are problematic from a feminist point of view. I have therefore suggested that the ‘Hegelian feminism’ which Hutchings has begun to explore should avoid this problem by assuming a different, realist, orientation. Here my criticisms of Hutchings remain guided by her own important and insightful account of the proper direction for a Hegelian feminist philosophy. 

[1] S. de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, trans. H. M. Parshley (London: Picador, 1988); L. Irigaray, Sexes and Genealogies, trans. G. C. Gill (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993); J. Butler, Gender Trouble (London: Routledge, 1990).

[2] R. Diprose, The Bodies of Women (London: Routledge, 1994), pp. 38-64; P. J. Mills, ‘Hegel’s Antigone’, in ed. P. J. Mills, Feminist Interpretations of G. W. F. Hegel (Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996), 59-88; C. Pateman, ‘Hegel, Marriage, and the Standpoint of Contract’ in ed. Mills, op. cit., 209-223.

[3] Hutchings’ argument here is informed by Gillian Rose’s idea that for Hegel identity always presupposes non-identity, since items only ever approach identity through an ongoing – never completed – process of superseding their prior non-identity. See G. Rose, Hegel Contra Sociology (London: Athlone, 1981), pp. 48-49.

[4] R. Pippin, Hegel’s Idealism: The Satisfactions of Self-Consciousness (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989); T. Pinkard, Hegel’s Phenomenology: The Sociality of Reason (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996).

[5] T. Wartenberg, ‘Hegel’s Idealism: The Logic of Conceptuality’, in Frederick C. Beiser (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Hegel (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 102-129; Kenneth R. Westphal, Hegel’s Epistemological Realism (Dordrecht: Kluwer, 1989).

[6] G. W. F. Hegel, Science of Logic, trans. A. V. Miller (London: Allen and Unwin, 1969), p. 64.

[7] M. Urban Walker, Moral Understandings (London: Routledge, 1998).

[8] Hegel, Elements of the Philosophy of Right, trans. H. B. Nisbet (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), pp. 199-219.

[9] Ibid., p. 88.

[10] For a classic statement, see G. Lloyd, The Man of Reason (London: Routledge, 1984).

[11] See M. Gatens, ‘A Critique of the Sex/Gender Distinction’, in Imaginary Bodies (London: Routledge, 1996), 3-20.

[12] Butler, op. cit., 7.