Mapping the epistemic terrain in Virginia Woolf's fiction

Josephine M Carubia, Fordham University


Much of Virginia Woolf's writing was motivated by her lifelong quest to depict the elusive processes of knowing other persons and by her vigorous resistance to many forms of patriarchal knowing, such as economic restrictions on access to knowledge, cultural restraints on what women may study and know, and the elimination of the experience and perspective of women in producing new knowledge. In her fiction and nonfiction, Woolf devised a sustained feminist theory of knowledge that challenged the prevailing epistemology of early twentieth-century England and formulated possibilities for feminist resistance and revision. Woolf anticipated contemporary feminist philosophers in connecting the treatment of women with international politics, in replacing the ideal of an isolated human knower with intersubjective knowing, and in revising the concept of objectivity. Many of the rigorous challenges, definitions, and alternatives being formulated today by thinkers like Sandra Harding, Helen Longino, and Lorraine Code reflect, illuminate, and expand upon Woolf's own antecedent campaigns to sketch the social and political territories of knowledge. In The Voyage Out, Woolf dramatizes a young woman's search for a mode of knowledge that allows for individual integrity and accomplishment along with fruitful connection to other knowers. Woolf's strategy, in Jacob's Room, for conveying the life of a young man through the consciousness of a female narrator reveals not only the elusive nature of human consciousness, but also the concrete specificity of innumerable cultural restrictions on women's knowing. In Mrs. Dalloway, Woolf explores intersubjective knowing through the characters who come in contact with Clarissa Dalloway on the day of her party. In To the Lighthouse, Lily Briscoe comes to reject both Mr. Ramsay's subject-object paradigm of knowledge and Mrs. Ramsay's model of dissolving intimacy, discovering instead the fluid interactions of subject-subject knowing through the model of her friendship with William Bankes. Virginia Woolf's commitment in the 1930s to expose the consequences of masculinist epistemic practices led her to recapitulate all the epistemological concerns of her career in The Years, where she also suggests epistemic community as the ideal condition for human knowing. Drawing upon the work of Harding, Code, Longino, and others, this dissertation will show that Virginia Woolf develops in her fiction a nuanced and sustained feminist epistemology that evolved in force and complexity throughout her life.

Subject Area

British and Irish literature|Literature|Womens studies|Philosophy

Recommended Citation

Carubia, Josephine M, "Mapping the epistemic terrain in Virginia Woolf's fiction" (1996). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI9628330.