Questioning what is: An Aristotelian alternative to the poststructuralist foundations of feminism

Denise Schaeffer, Fordham University


Given the many differences among women, can feminist theory even speak in terms of the category "woman?" This is the question that currently dominates feminist theory. Theorists who subscribe to traditional (liberal or radical) feminism argue that feminism must, for political and philosophic reasons, employ the category "woman." Those who take a poststructuralist approach, however, assert that invoking "woman" is an oppressive tactic that advances an essentialist ideal that is oppressive to women no matter what the content of that ideal. Even a "feminist" understanding of "woman" does violence to difference, they charge. Based on the many different ways in which any abstraction manifests itself concretely, they determine that the abstraction is a myth and reality is in fact radically contingent and discursively constructed; it is an ever-shifting field. We can never claim to "know" woman because to know her is only to know she is not knowable. Knowledge has no connection to any stable "being." This branch of feminist theory has gained increasing ascendance; currently, the charge of "essentialism" is almost enough to undermine the legitimacy of any feminist theory, no matter what other merits it may possess. But many feminists are uneasy with poststructuralism's depiction of reality and its implications: the impossibility of knowledge and the impossibility of political discourse which invokes an understanding of truth or the good. Yet neither do these traditional feminists wish to foreclose continued questioning. Some feminists try to combine the insights of poststructuralism, and the preservation of questions, with more traditional understandings of knowledge, the subject and reality. They assert that we must somehow combine both contingency and stability in our understanding of "woman." But they do not fully articulate of how both contingency and stability coexist, or how difference and unity coexist. These issues are addressed at length by Aristotle in his Metaphysics, from which feminists can learn a great deal about these tensions. Aristotle is not "traditional" in the simplistic way that he is often portrayed to be. His understanding of being combines many of the insights claimed by poststructuralism without severing the connection between knowledge and being.

Subject Area

Political science|Philosophy|Womens studies

Recommended Citation

Schaeffer, Denise, "Questioning what is: An Aristotelian alternative to the poststructuralist foundations of feminism" (1996). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI9721714.