There is a measure of consensus within feminist theory that rationalist values are in crisis—that the very arrival of women on the scene of intellectual activity necessitates a reappraisal of those values.footnote1 Sometimes the claim is that conventional scientific research procedure reflects an objectifying, control-seeking attitude to its subject-matter which can be regarded on psychological grounds as characteristically masculine; the large-scale entry of women into natural science could then be expected to lead to the development of a different, more empathetic and conservationist style of enquiry.footnote2 Sometimes there is an attempt to introduce new moral categories informed by feminist reflection on the shortcomings of ‘normal science’, such as Lorraine Code’s ‘epistemic responsibility’.footnote3 Sometimes however, and more iconoclastically, it is argued that reason is an inherently gendered concept—an element in a discursive system organized by the assumption of male superiority.

Common to all the positions I have mentioned would be the idea that while seeking access to the role of subject (rather than object) of speculative thought, women should nevertheless refuse to take that role at face value—that is, to accept on trust the account that science and philosophy have given of themselves in the past. Beyond this, though, opinion is divided as to how much continuity there can be between pre-feminist and feminist intellectual expression. Is a ‘reform’ or ‘correction’ of reason possible, or does this view rest on a failure of nerve, a refusal to confront the structural connection between reason and male power? This debate might currently be seen as constituting a kind of ‘crisis of rationality’ internal to feminism.

I want to begin by asking why one might hold that a reform of reason was not possible. My main source for this view, as well as for the contrast between ‘radical’ and ‘reformist’ positions in terms of which this paper will be organized, is Rosi Braidotti’s ambitious and provocative book Patterns of Dissonance; additional material is provided by Elizabeth Grosz’s paper, ‘Bodies and Knowledges: Feminism and the Crisis of Reason’. I shall also be referring to Braidotti’s paper, ‘The Politics of Ontological Difference’, which is a valuable aid to the understanding of her ideas.footnote4 Then, when I have developed the case for a ‘radical’ feminist epistemology as best I can on the basis of these materials, I shall proceed to criticize the resulting position. My argument will be that ‘radical’ feminism fails on several counts to assume an identity that is distinct in principle from that of ‘reformist’ feminism, yet still recognizably feminist.

Braidotti sets the scene by stating that the topic of her book is ‘the intersection of philosophical modernity, defined as the discourse of the crisis of the rational subject, and the question of the feminine and of women in philosophy’ (pd, p. 1). Her frame of reference for the ‘discourse of the crisis’ is almost exclusively French, unless we think of it as embracing Freud, who is constantly in the background; for the ‘question of the feminine’ her sources include, in addition to the male theorists of the ‘crisis’, a wide range of French, Italian and American feminist writers. The assumption from which she begins is that we live in post-Cartesian times, i.e. that the equation posited by the dominant European tradition between the ‘real self’ and the ‘rational self’ has been discredited by psychoanalysis and by its legacy of philosophical subversion and ‘deconstruction’. ‘The most far-reaching critique Freud advances of philosophy is that it establishes a de facto and de iure identification between human subjectivity and rational consciousness’ (pd, p. 18)—i.e. it presumes i) that these two terms actually coincide, and ii) that they ought to coincide—and it is the prolonged struggle of twentieth-century thought to come to terms with the collapse of this identification that constitutes the ‘crisis’ which is Braidotti’s concern. She maintains further (pd, p. 8) that ‘the problematization of woman, women and the feminine in contemporary French philosophy is a major factor in the critique and deconstruction of the rational subject’. And her aim is to discover the significance of this convergence for feminism, which she defines (or, anyway, describes) at an early stage as ‘the critical and living experience of discovering new woman-based modalities of existence, creation and communication of knowledge’ (pd, p. 12).

The development which has thrown the ‘rational subject’ of modernity into crisis is the extension into the sphere of thought and cognition of the sense of history that germinated in the eighteenth century. Hegel is the first major figure in European philosophy to make this connection, but he remains an exponent of the ‘philosophy of the subject’ in that for him history is a unified, purposive process aiming at the achievement—if not by the individual, then by the ‘absolute’ subject—of full self-consciousness or self-transparency. So his thought is still regulated by the idea of a condition in which the subject is able to survey all that it is, to know itself completely, and thus to be in command of itself (as it would not be if factors unknown to it were liable to find expression in its actions). The decisive overthrow of this (Cartesian) ideal comes during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, with those thinkers—in particular Nietzsche and Freud—who (according to the discourse of the ‘crisis’) make it impossible any longer to entertain even as an ideal the vision of self-presence characteristic of the rationalist tradition. The subject now comes to be displayed as an effect of whatever contingent factors or forces may manifest themselves in the phenomena of speech and behaviour.footnote5 Any evaluative ordering that we may impose on these phenomena (for instance, in so far as we designate some psychic states as healthy and others as pathological) will thus be the outcome of mental processes of ours—that is, of processes which are themselves conditioned in ways that are never more than partly accessible to our awareness. This realization constitutes a ‘crisis’ from the special point of view of the subject who aspires to be ‘master in the house of knowledge’ (cf. pd, p. 84); it threatens irreparable damage to the ‘transcendental narcissism’ (pd, p. 51) of such a subject.

Feminism as Braidotti understands it is party to the same ‘problematic’, or context of enquiry, as the avant-garde of mainstream European philosophy. Both are engaged with the question of how to speak and think (above all, philosophically) in the aftermath of the ‘crisis’. (‘How do we establish the philosophical enterprise on foundations other than those of the coincidence of subjectivity with self-reflexive consciousness?’ [pd, p. 35]; ‘The problem of how to make philosophy co-exist with psychoanalysis is symptomatic of the modern discursive order’ [pd, p. 84].) And both take as their point of departure the ‘dispersal of the classical subject into a multiplicity of “discursive practices”’ (pd, p. 252)—a theme echoed by Elizabeth Grosz, for whom the crisis is one of ‘specificity. . .of the limits or the particularity of knowledges’ (bk, p. 194). These common concerns are naturally due in part to the responsiveness of feminist thought to contemporary philosophical conditions. But there is also a converse relationship of dependence which is of greater interest here. This further relationship is grounded in the fact that the ‘crisis of rationality’ can also be interpreted (or ‘read’) as a ‘crisis of masculinity’. For the main achievement of second-wave feminism within the history of philosophy has been to draw attention to the gendered nature of its self-image: to show how the ideal type of the thinking and deliberating subject, as constructed in the Western rationalist tradition from Plato onward, has coincided with that of ‘man’, a ‘man’ who recognizes himself as such in the measure that he succeeds in subduing what is feminine in himself.

In general terms, then, the ‘crisis of rationality’ consists in a confrontation between the thinking subject and the fact of his own materially conditioned status—a fact for which there is no obvious means of assimilation into a cognitive enterprise that aims to transcend historicity and local perspective. The present disarray of ‘Western knowledges’ results from an as yet inconclusive attempt to ‘conceive their own processes of material production, processes that simultaneously rely on and disavow the role of the body’ (bk, p. 187). Among these processes, however, are some that prompt a specifically feminist critique of the rationalist ideal—a critique that draws less on directly ethical argument against that ideal than on a reductive diagnosis of its origins. According to this diagnosis, the rationalist notion of ‘man’ is the vehicle of a neurotic denial of chaos, decomposition and death: ‘man’-discourse projects the ultimately intractable physicality shared by both sexes on to the female sex in particular, leaving masculinity as an imaginary zone of safety encircled by the feminine ‘other’ which it excludes (cf. pd, pp. 143, 213).