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On Gender and Reason: Does Rationality Have a Place Within Postmodernity?

On Gender and Reason: Does Rationality Have a Place Within Postmodernity?

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The faculty of reason has for so long, and so widely been attributed to narrow schools of thought and misaligned in its intent and usage, that the idea of reason and rationality itself have been left tainted. Historically, and as recently as the mid-20th century, reason has often been claimed by men, where as women have been solely made to be emotional creatures, often incapable of being included in intellectual thought, conversation, and the academy. With this disparity, it makes me curious of a few things: where and when did this exclusion begin, why has reason been so elevated over the emotions, and what place does reason have today, especially within the school of feminist philosophy?

Moving forward, it needs to be made clear, that I make distinctions between men and women, and males and females. The difference between gender and biological sex is subtle, but without referencing material research from the science of sex differences, especially from the field of evolutionary psychology, or referencing ideas presented from gender studies and critical theory, I will resist making wholly factual and causal claims and reserve judgment, instead relying upon intuitions and the historical context within philosophy. 1 With that being said, I think the argument could be made that prehistoric, biological human males, had good evolutionary incentives to use reason and rationality in their everyday lives, especially when it came to survival and contribution to their tribe; specifically related to their tribal governed gender roles. 2 Moreover, biological males are on average, physically stronger and larger than females (Miller, A.E.J., et al), with something like those possibly innate differences, one could intuit that males who found themselves in a position of power, certainly found it easier to hold onto that power.

When it comes to the place of reason in the history of philosophy, however, I think there are three main periods where men were able to make a strong grasp over the faculty of rationality: the Attic tradition and the emergence of Greek philosophíā, the rise of Roman Catholicism, and the Enlightenment period where there was a significant push back on the roles of women in intellectual life. In Athens, with the rise of the pre-Socratics, and then later on with the beginnings of the Lyceum, women were explicitly excluded for one reason or another. In fact, they were often likened to children, and infantilized by their husbands and peers. As a man in Ancient Greece, it would have been an insult to be compared to a woman. After Socrates was sentenced to death, while in his prison cell, on the verge of drinking the hemlock poison, he ordered his wife and child be kept away, as they would be too emotional for the affair. Apollodorus, one friend of Socrates, was weeping in the corner, ashamed and embarrassed for his friend (Phaedo 59a); and yet Socrates called him out, in front of his peers, as being like a woman. Aristotle wrote in his treatise, Politics, that men were superior to women, and be regarded as property. He viewed them as above slaves, but should have traditional roles. However, he did consider women to be of equal intellect and rationality, just not of having the same strength and political prowess that was attributed to men at the time. The problem here, is where the reach of Aristotle’s work eventually led, inspiring much of the Western world, especially that of Thomas Aquinas.

Aquinas, being canonized in 1323 C.E., closely examined the work of Aristotle’s philosophy, in turn helping him create his own Christian theology. While studying his work, on whether or not the world was eternal, as Aristotle viewed it, Aquinas “showed that even if it were, that would not do away with the need for a Creator (How Aristotle Won the West).” With the influence that Aquinas had on the rest of Roman Catholicism, and Christianity as a whole, it becomes more obvious as to why women were excluded from academic and religious endeavors. Women were not allowed to hold positions within the church, education was very limited for any girl or young woman, and access to sacred or scholarly texts I am sure was either a rarity, or simply did not happen. 3 It is interesting to note then, that Christian Aristotelianism came to be known as Scholasticism.

Now is when we come into the Age of Reason, or simply, the Enlightenment. The period that marked the time of modern philosophy was from the beginning of the 17th century to the end of the 18th century. This time is often known as the Enlightenment, because of the projects that were being underwent by some, now, very well known thinkers, for bringing the West into the light, and out of the Dark Ages. It is a time unique in the history of the West 4, specifically for the ideas that came out of the minds and dialogues of the philosophers involved. Some of the more well known thinkers were people like Descartes, Spinoza, Locke, and Rousseau. The problem here, however, is not the variety of ideas and influential discourse they provided to, but an often lack of the woman’s perspective. I think I should make a point to be clear, before proceeding: I do not think that having the experience necessarily as a man or woman, makes one’s perspective any better than the others; but I do think a balancing of the perspectives could always benefit the current discourse. What is important to note, is that often these thinkers and philosophers were put in an advantageous position, because of their gender. At the time, there was a continuation from the Middle Ages, where women simply did not hold a proper seat at the table, as it were; so the voice of someone like Descartes, could be heard much more loudly.

With the influence that those philosophers had, they were able to prop up an even older tradition, going back to ancient Greece. The Socratic method elevated reason above all other faculties, whether or not that it’s often recognized. Now, I do not think that it is a bad thing, after all, to place reason high up on a pedestal, but does it belong above everything else? I’m not so sure. To be purely rational, and not indulge in other faculties or emotion, comes off as somewhat denying our humanity. In fact, Friedrich Nietzsche, the 18th century German philosopher, touched upon this in one of his earliest writings, The Birth of Tragedy (BT from now on); in regards to the Apollonian and Dionysian ways of life. Inspired by the Greek gods who shared those names, Apollo and Dionysus, they each represented particular lifestyles, for Nietzsche. The Apollonian was someone who dedicated their lives to reason and rationality, order over chaos, and appeals to logic and purity. The Dionysian was someone that represented irrationality, and appealed the emotions and instincts. Of course, when writing this, Nietzsche was concerned with the rising tide of German idealism and nationalism, and saw any attempt at true artistic expression truncated by greed, pride, and pretension; so BT became a response to that. Worrying about this very notion, he wrote “the illusion of culture was wiped away by the primordial image of man. 5 (BT, Sec. 8, pg. 22)” Nietzsche witnessed the greatest life-denying culture of his age.

Unfortunately, this life-denialism has stuck with us for a long time, and philosophers have been just as guilty of it as anyone else. I think the Apollonian way of life was deliberately chosen, and not for mere malicious reasons, but simply because it is useful. Rationality is a strong tool, especially for helping those in power. So it isn’t a surprise to me that Dionysian qualities have historically been attributed to women; at least such qualities as irrationality, instinct, and the emotions. And it could be, that the male sex is inherently better at rationalizing, or the female sex is inherently better at following their instincts in a given situation. Frankly, I think the jury is still out on that case, but even if it were true, we are not all alike. Not all men are the same, and not all women are the same, so there is bound to be overlap, and that appears evident to my eye. So, this problem begs the question: what role does reason play in today’s culture? I would argue, not dissimilar to Nietzsche, that we must strike a balance between being rational beings and emotional beings; that appears to me to be the most human thing we could affirm about our lives. I am not alone in this either. The feminist philosopher Genevieve Lloyd argues a point very similar in her work The Man of Reason. (MR from now on) Lloyd critiques the aforementioned Enlightenment philosophers, by calling into question the ideal that rationality is inherently masculine. More importantly however, Lloyd directs her critique toward Christianity and its role as gatekeeper of higher forms of learning and the intellect. Lloyd says that “the contrast involved in the idea that man was made in God’s image and woman was made to be a companion for man thus takes on a new dimension in the seventeenth century. (MR pg. 117)” This sheds light on her perspective, that through power of religious institutions, men could be held above women. Later on, when she critiques the Cartesian method, Lloyd compares how “intuition” is the negation of reason, and says that “intuition, inevitably has come to be associated with specifically female thought styles. (MR pg. 124)” What is interesting with Lloyd’s essay, is that she doesn’t fully condemn the use of reason, nor finding the usefulness of intuition and emotion irrational. In fact, she also says that “critics of reason too easily fail into a sterile repudiation of the rational, a vacuous affirmation of the importance or superiority of feeling or imagination. (MR pg. 126)” This invariably brings me to my overarching question, on whether not reason has a place within the present culture, including all of its moral baggage.

We do live in a somewhat unique time now, in postmodernity, where the value of some absolute truth has lost its metaphysical weight; where facts are no longer such, but merely interpretations, as Nietzsche so poignantly assured us of. However, the usefulness of reason could not be more relevant to us, today, as philosophers, and as citizens of this earth. Reason’s specific place within feminist schools of thought, I’m sure has room for debate, considering that the entire realm of critical theory, is dedicated to the experiences of oppressed groups and populations, where personal truths hold much more water than traditional narratives, regardless of however true they may be. 6 Of course, we shouldn’t deny how the deconstruction of some of these narratives might very well help the overcoming of some oppressions, I just don’t think we should rely on that method.

This brings me to my larger point: one would be hard pressed to search for a strong argument against using reason, or the faculty of rationality itself. How does one remain logically consistent, insofar as one remains uncontradictory, and reasonably argue against reason; or at least deduce from some set of premises that reason is inherently masculine, oppressive, or not worth considering its use? Who would find it useful to be unreasonable, in a given situation or moment of learning? Reason is just a tool, for navigating this space, that we all share. It has no moral weight behind it, and is neither inherently masculine nor feminine. What matters, is the intent that we put behind its use.


  1. I do this because the topic of gender and oppression is such a toxic point of conversation in the public sphere as of late, that I would rather remain impartial.

  2. I should also be clear that biological females must’ve also had incentives to use the faculty of reason.

  3. Not entirely attempting to be speculative, just intuiting. Appears to be more tradition that I’m appealing to.

  4. I refer to only the West here in its uniqueness, not because I’m unaware of other histories, but because of the influence the West as had on global development.

  5. I only picked out this quote from BT, as there are almost too many points made about the balance of the Apollonian and Dionysian to choose from, and it fits in with the theme of the essay.

  6. I realize that this may come off as condescending, the affirmation of “traditional narratives.” I only point this out because I often notice the lack of rigor found in the realms of critical theory and gender studies.


"How Aristotle Won the West." Trinitarian Baptism | Catholic Answers.

Lloyd, Genevieve. The Man of Reason. 1984.

McKeon, Richard. The Basic Works of Aristotle. Random House, 1941.

Miller, A. E. J., J. D. Macdougall, M. A. Tarnopolsky, and D. G. Sale. "Gender Differences in Strength and Muscle Fiber Characteristics." European Journal of Applied Physiology and Occupational Physiology 66, no. 3 (03 1993): 254-62. doi:10.1007/bf00235103.

Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm, Shaun Whiteside, and Michael Tanner. The Birth of Tragedy: Out of the Spirit of Music. Penguin Books, 2003.

Plato, and G. M. A. Grube. Five Dialogues. Hackett Pub., 2002.

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