Tuesday, July 05, 2005
Relational Autonomy: Resources in Feminism and German Idealism
Doesn't that sound like a good title? I met with Michael Baur today about my ideas for my diss* and he said he thought it was a very good project. Yay!
I had been worried that he wouldn't accept my project as it was and would suggest a lot of changes to it -- I didn't want to change it too much, because it's really important to me that it's my project, not my professor's. All he wanted me to do, though, was to spend a little more time clarifying where things stood with Kantian autonomy, and to include Schelling as well as Fichte and Hegel in my treatment of freedom.
That's all well and good, you say, but what does this all mean? Well, here we go, I'll try to explain what's going on as best I can, since this project is going to be my life for the next two or three years.** Your comments are much appreciated. I have until the end of August to write up a 20-25 page (not including bibliography, which will be at least 6-7 pages on its own) proposal, describing what I plan to do in more detail. But for now, this is it.
There has been a debate in recent (say, the last 15 years or so) feminist philosophy about the role of autonomy. By autonomy, I mean roughly self-determination -- deciding one's own course through life, making one's own decisions, that sort of thing. Autonomy, of course, literally means 'giving oneself the law' -- deciding, for oneself, the rules that one will follow. Some feminist philosophers have argued that this is an excessively masculine ideal -- kind of a 'Cool Hand Luke' kind of thing: I'm going to do my own thing and damn the consequences! No one can tell me what to do! Fuck all y'all!*** They think that a more feminine/feminist
**** approach should involve more attention paid & more value given to the relationships between people, particularly relationships of care and dependency, and to the ways in which we are responsible to and for each other. So, for them, autonomy bad, relationality good.
Other feminist philosophers, on the other hand, have argued that this is kinda wimpy, and the last thing that one would want to suggest to, say, abused women, or oppressed women in certain cultures. Rise up, they want to say, claim autonomy and the freedom to chart your own course! Claim autonomy as a value for you, precisely because you have been held down for so long! They see autonomy as a liberating ideal for women, that should not be rejected for its masculinist overtones.
Of course, the project the last 15 years has been working out how to have our cake and eat it too. How can we articulate a view of autonomy (all the good aspects of self-determination) that also recognizes the way in which we are socially constituted, the way we enact our freedom in & through our relationships with others, and that values these important relationships of care & dependency? The union of these two seeming opposites has been called "relational autonomy."*****
Well, even though people say that there's a happy medium, the challenge is still in finding it. So some folks, like Marilyn Friedman, say that we're basically still free individuals making our free choices, but, hey, our social upbringing & relationships are important, and we should examine them in the process of becoming more mature individuals. But we're still super-separate. (This is the liberal view.) Others, like Nedelsky herself, emphasize the relationality aspect to a greater degree - the way in which, like it or not, we're formed by our relations with others, and the choices we make reflect back on those others. Nedelsky likens it to a field (like an electric field), in which we're all interconnected. (I could go on about this & the neat way she connects this to property rights & the difference between the US Bill of Rights & the Canadian Charter of Rights & Freedoms, but I won't. It's neat though.)
In other words, we still have the same problem. Excessive individualism on the one side, determinism (social determinism) on the other. Both poles are to be avoided. But how can the middle actually work?
This is where I go back to German idealism. They're all about freedom & necessity. [Stupid Oakland! Scoring 2 runs in the 11th inning, after Toronto tied the game in the 9th! Grr!]
You know what, though? I'm going to come back to this later. I could say it's to leave you in suspense, but really it's 'cause I don't yet feel as comfortable summing up what's going on for the Germans without resorting to a whole lot of jargon. But I'll say for now -- Kant & Fichte start setting up the autonomy stuff. Fichte moves into the territory of dealing with other people & the importance of socialization & upbringing & so forth. Schelling then clarifies the nature of freedom -- that we can't just ignore the things (e.g., nature, biology, social determinism) that we can't control, but have to build these things into our understanding of our selves as subjects. Then Hegel comes along (mighty Hegel) and explains everything. Self-determination, socialization, spirit, our relationship to each other, our relationship to the state, the whole package. He partly gets it wrong, but the ways he gets it right are great. And, I think, when you feed that back into the current feminist debate, you get a view of relational autonomy that's quite robust.
But all that for later.******
* Meaning, of course, not "disrespect," but "dissertation." Though the two are, of course, entwined, as demonstrated in the following exchange: "Are you dissing my diss?" "Yes, of course I am, it's about fucking autonomy." "Oh, Well, then, carry on."
** Scary, huh? It'll also determine the types of philosophy jobs I can apply for. With this dissertation, I can market myself as someone who does 19th century German philosophy, German idealism as such, Hegel, feminism, and social theory.
*** This is clearly not Official Academic Prose. But it works, no?
**** And, of course, working out the differences/connections between these two words is an entirely different can of worms. Oh, my, what a big can it is.
***** Pretty much everyone credits Jennifer Nedelsky with coming up with this term, particularly in her 1989 article on redefining autonomy. I took a great class with her at the faculty of law in spring 2002, that helped form, to a large extent, my views on this subject.
****** Are you still even reading this? congrats if you are!
jane 9:43 PM [+]