A Mind of One’s Own

A Mind of One’s Own

The American marketplace of “wisdom” is booming again. A long tradition of feminist thought reveals how flawed it is—and what true wisdom might look like instead.

Mural of Simone de Beauvoir, St.-Romain-au-Mont-d'Or, France (thierry ehrmann / Flickr)

David Brooks is ever on the move—stepping, climbing, and ambling—towards wisdom. In a spring 2014 New York Times editorial, he maintained that the “stairway to wisdom” did not snake through big data, but rather through the precious singularity of the soul. He instructed that the “highest rung on the ladder of understanding” could be reached by the cultivated self, not grasped through crowd-sourced speculations. And now, in his best-selling The Road to Character, he is encouraging us to reboot our moral selves. He suggests that we become Adam II, the new and improved first man of history. We can do this by seeking a life of “eulogy virtues” (the moral traits that people will praise us for after we’re dead) rather than “résumé virtues” (the monetizable talents we bring to our work lives).

It is not clear why Brooks thinks readers should take counseling on depth and otherworldly merits from someone who, as he puts it himself, has “a natural disposition toward shallowness” and has achieved worldly success working as a “narcissistic blowhard.” But perhaps it is that predilection for superficiality and puffery that helped him see that epistemic humility is the foundation of wisdom.

Brooks’s search for wisdom and a better self to go with it enters a crowded American marketplace of others seeking the same. Shoppers eager to travel along Brooks’s Road to Character can also follow William Bennett’s wisdom ways of American patriots and children, Rod Dreher’s repurposed “masculine wisdom” of Dante Alighieri, and Matthew Crawford’s guidebook for “becoming an individual” in what he calls the “age of distraction” and Brooks calls “the age of the selfie.” Indeed Brooks’s Road To Character has good company alongside his 2000 book Bobos in Paradise, with very little daylight between the two: just a change from snarky to earnest, exposé to instructional, and “bourgeois bohemian” to “Big Me.” Like so many of the other goods on offer in the American marketplace of wisdom, Brooks’s book has sold widely. This type of wisdom-talk is big business in America, not because its wisdom about wisdom is new, but because it is conventional.

We might think that conventional wisdom becomes conventional because it is right. Perhaps blandly so, perhaps inoffensively so—but perfectly accurate insofar as it captures truths we deem acceptable by some general (if mysteriously agreed upon) consensus. But beginning in the late 1960s, a swelling chorus of feminist intellectuals took the kind of mainline wisdom that Brooks and this extended fraternity of popular wisdom writers champion today as their enemy. They viewed the knowing self, the self-reliant self, and even the ironic self-effacing self, as ideologies of female oppression, not ideals worthy of emulation.

A variety of American female commentators who came of age in the decades after the Second World War came to understand that there was no “woman problem” in America, only a culture that still had a problem with them. It was at this time that an array of observers of post-war American life struggled mightily in their quest for new intellectual terms to apprehend and articulate their own philosophical yearnings. They had come to see how distorting were the different lenses through which a woman could “know thyself!” These seekers of wisdom—trained theologians and lapsed Catholics, academic philosophers and self-taught psychologists, scholarly historians and consciousness-raisers eager to learn “herstory”—took exception with the persistent sexism, paternalism, and misogyny in American life. They were not oblivious to the larger social structures that continued to subjugate women. But in their view, the harder (and yet more urgent) battlefront was in the innermost reaches of American women’s minds. And one of the keywords they used in their battles was a curious one: “wisdom.”

Tough-minded American feminists did not always have a tough time with “wisdom.” In fact, it was often something they called “wisdom”—knowledge enriched by experience, the understanding necessary for living with depth and meaning—that drew them into the life of the mind. Ruth Benedict, for example, understood that the desire for wisdom guided her anthropological work. She confided in her journal that “detachment gives understanding,” and “this detachment is the life of the spirit, and its fruit is wisdom.” Benedict credited her colleague and lover Margaret Mead for teaching her that “wisdom, is . . . the hushed watching of experience till it takes on the form it will wear, the wings it will fly with.” For Benedict and Mead, as for innumerable twentieth-century American female thinkers, the desire for wisdom helped them explain their intellectual selves to themselves.

Yet what vexed the wisdom-seeking of many female “philosophers” were the subtle and not-so-subtle indications from their culture that they weren’t up to the task. Twentieth-century female seekers of wisdom might look to the writings of Mary Wollstonecraft, Margaret Fuller, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman and see formidable female minds at work. Yet those very female minds spent much of their time thinking about why women thinking proved so vexing to their male counterparts. Female wisdom-seekers thus had to contend with a longstanding and vibrant discourse that they, as Hegel put it, were “not made for activities which demand a universal faculty such as the more advanced sciences [and] philosophy.”

Animating many women’s quests for wisdom was a yearning to understand why their intellectual culture and moral traditions seemed to find their questing so problematic. True, for centuries, political and philosophical thinkers in the Northern transatlantic world had debated versions of the “woman question.” But it wasn’t until 1973 that philosopher Maryellen MacGuigan had the audacity to ask: “Is Woman a Question?,” and if so, why? Why, she wondered “does [woman] present a special problem to the philosopher, over and above the general questions that must be dealt with in the treatment of human reality as such?” Looking retrospectively over the field of philosophy, while also prospectively in order to set an agenda for aspiring female philosophers to come, MacGuigan concluded that a “masculinist bias persists even in the discussion of philosophers who are attempting to reevaluate woman and the ‘womanly’ in a positive way. . . . This bias is not just a peculiar shortcoming of these philosophers, but is woven into the fabric of Western philosophy.” For female philosophers, truly living the life of the mind meant figuring out how to take up residence in a mind of one’s own.

Already in 1949, Simone de Beauvoir showed them just how hard this would be. In The Second Sex, she explained how woman had been made the Other to man’s normativity, with disastrous consequences for her intellectual autonomy and moral authority. With a mixture of acidic disdain and mournful regret, de Beauvoir focused on the consequences of women’s marginality for the development of their intellectual temperament and capacities. And they were not good. Ever forced to use man as the measure of the thinking self, the thinking woman “stiffens, exaggerates, overdoes it.” “The greatest failure a lack of self-assurance brings about is that the subject cannot forget [herself],” and achieve the “disinterested curiosity” necessary for soaring philosophical insights. If not by nature, then by necessity (which, in turn, becomes the second sex’s second nature), de Beauvoir worried that “women never go beyond the pretext.” The best they can pull off in terms of analyzing their moral world is a dutiful detail-hugging transcription: women “take [the world’s] inventory without trying to discover its meaning.”

For American feminists, de Beauvoir hovered in the very kind of generalities and abstractions she critiqued, but they couldn’t help but find her characterizations of the intellectual forces working against the female mind troubling. She helped show how Western philosophy’s truth-claims tripped up, rather than facilitated, women on their way to wisdom. As if responding directly to a wisdom-claim attributed to Aristotle—”knowing yourself is the beginning of wisdom”—artist Barbara Kruger helped make unmistakable the implications of de Beauvoir’s existentialism. She fired back in 1982 with a shot that punctured the hidden “masculinist” conceit of this affirmation. Perhaps self-knowledge for a woman in a culture that doesn’t truly know women may not even be possible: “You are not yourself[.]”

If ancient Greek philosophy set difficult terms for which modern American women could seek wisdom, Cartesian dualism did not make them any easier. When in 1637, René Descartes, the “father of modern philosophy” reasoned “I think therefore I am,” he didn’t help his philosophically-minded daughters for the next 350 years to come. Descartes’s disciples would come to reserve the mind for men and apportion the body to women.

In her 1983 novel The Mind-Body Problem, Rebecca Goldstein tried to work within and around this problem. Goldstein’s protagonist, a philosophy doctoral student named Renee Feuer, tried unsuccessfully for a mind-body rapprochement that eluded her French namesake. Being drawn into professional philosophy by a deep existential longing was bad enough for an aspiring philosopher during the height of analytic philosophy, but having “unvoiced longing” made Feuer altogether unworthy of a department stocked with linguistic analysts. Add to that her failed efforts to appropriately sublimate her “libidinal lava,” Feuer wasn’t simply “obsessed” with what “Schopenhauer called, quite wonderfully, the Weltknoten, the world-knot”—she was hopelessly tangled up in it. Perhaps taking consolation that she wasn’t the only woman snared by the mind-body problem and its challenges for giving women a way to wisdom, Goldstein let poet Anne Sexton’s “The Poet of Ignorance” (1975) articulate her unrelenting, and yet unvoiced worry:

Perhaps I am no one.
True, I have a body
and I cannot escape from it.
I would like to fly out of my head,
but that is out of the question.
It is written on the tablet of destiny
that I am stuck here in this human form.
That being the case
I would like to call attention to my problem.

With this increasingly shared sentiment, feminist thinkers found common cause in rejecting ideas and beliefs classified in American culture as “wisdom.” Indeed for many women, “wisdom” was a dirty word, a cynical provocation, especially when paired with words like “received,” “inherited,” “popular,” or “conventional.” In 1982, the poet June Jordan provided an example of the unwholesomeness of “wisdom” in such a pairing when in 1982 she wrote: “[B]ack in the 60s, popular wisdom had it that the only American boys and girls who could neither read nor write were Black.” Likewise, Erica Jong’s 1973 Bildungsroman Fear of Flying showed the danger of “received wisdom” for women. One of them, for example, was the terrible “sexual [myth] of the fifties” that “there is no such thing as rape,” which girls passed on to each other “like robots.”

Sometimes, critics simply indicated their hostility to wisdom by offsetting it with scare quotes. As feminist theologian Mary Daly put it in her study of misogyny in Roman Catholicism, The Church and the Second Sex in 1985: “We refuse the ‘wisdom’ of wantwits and frauds, the academented hucksters of ‘higher’ learning.” Daly likewise focused on Catholic symbols for the ways in which they distract the believer “from the arduous work of wrestling with the problems presented by . . . reality itself,” and lull her into thinking she’s thinking her own thoughts, tapping into her wisdom, when she’s simply letting her mind do the dirty work of a sexist, misogynist religion. Sure, some old men might be wise, but letting “old man” serve “as a symbol for wisdom” gives that association unwarranted authority and blinds its user to the dynamism of reality.

One way to access that reality was to examine how conventional wisdom about intellectual liberation advocated a detachment from the self, while telling women they were incapable of such a move or that doing so was a perversion of their nature. Conventional wisdom about women suggested that they shouldn’t rattle their chains in Plato’s cave, and it would be a good idea if they didn’t rattle their tongues in their mouths too much either. Being shut in the cave was bad enough, but being shut up was worse.

As a result, the recognition of women’s “silence” so dominant in varieties of second-wave feminism was itself regarded by many as a modest—though important—kind of wisdom. Poet Adrienne Rich in 1975 insisted that “lying is done with words, and also with silence.” Writer and critic Tillie Olsen dedicated her book Silences (1978) to ruptures in the literary record and warned: “These are not natural silences, that necessary time for renewal, lying fallow, gestation, in the natural cycle of creation. The silences I speak of here are unnatural; the unnatural thwarting of what struggles to come into being, but cannot.” And in 1981, Barbara Kruger provided a visual to express the politics of inexpressibility: “Your comfort is my silence[.]”

Left: “Untitled (You Are Not Yourself),” 1982. Right: “Untitled (Your Comfort is My Silence),” 1982.
Copyright Barbara Kruger. Courtesy Mary Boone Gallery, New York.

Because women’s silence was so damaging both to the women themselves and to the culture in which they lived, recognizing it at work was, for many, an important way around the misguidedness of conventional paths to wisdom. Women’s historian Gerda Lerner argued that an entirely new subfield of history had to be carved out in order to listen to women’s historical muteness and to tap into their lost moral authority. The Creation of Patriarchy (1986), for example, focused intensely on the religious, political, and economic conditions that not only subjugated women intellectually, but also trained them to subjugate themselves. “What wisdom can there be in menses?,” Lerner asked with the sarcastic flippancy with which women had posed such questions to themselves.

Women’s history as a field needed to come to terms with women’s unwitting complicity in, what Lerner called, the “rape of our minds.” A crucial way to do that was not only to scout out women’s silences, but, and perhaps even more urgently, to notice that “the mode in which abstract thought is cast and the language in which it is expressed are so defined as to perpetuate women’s marginality. We women have had to express ourselves through patriarchal thought as reflected in the very language we have had to use.” The words women historians and their women subjects use, thus, are the results neither of nature nor necessity, they are “socially created cultural constructs.”

For the female critics, attention to “silences” yielded greater scrutiny of words, which in turn encouraged reckoning with wisdom-claims that were unwise. Rich insisted it was dangerous to speak others’ truths as if they were one’s own. Refuse to let “others do your thinking, talking, naming for you,” she insisted. She thus dreamed, in 1973, of a “women-centered university” in which women can “consciously and critically select” knowledge and modes for acquiring it that do not make women “amateur males,” but “can refine our goal of self-determination with discipline and wisdom.”

During the 1970s and ’80s, an increasing number of female intellectuals wanted to love wisdom, they just questioned whether academic philosophy was the best place to do it. It was not clear, after all, whether professional philosophy spoke for and to them. They could, however, try to make philosophy both available and responsive to women by writing about female thinkers. Philosopher Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, for example, wrote what remains the definitive intellectual biography of Hannah Arendt, her former mentor at the New School for Social Research.

But Young-Bruehl was convinced that women could do more than that. In a 1987 article “The Education of Women as Philosophers,” Young-Bruehl applauded the fact that the feminist movement had finally reached the academy. The achievement would be realized not by letting women be scholars in the model of men, but by enabling them to fundamentally remake what constitutes inquiry—its practices, terms, and modes of explanation.

It is unfortunate that, for reasons of personal and cultural habit, when we think about ourselves as askers of questions, thinkers, or using the generic title, as philosophers, lovers of wisdom, we think of ourselves as selves. That is, we think: I am thinking—first person singular, one personal solitary, an interiority, a mental machine.

Feminism, drawing its insights from psychoanalysis, helped show that “the mind or psyche has structures, but these are in constant interaction.” We have thoughts bouncing against thoughts, strongly-held notions mingling with new experiences. “We are not solitary when we think; we are full of voices.” What sense did it make, Young-Bruehl wondered, to envision inquiry as a solitary affair when it is clear—as women’s experience showed—that knowing is inexorably social? Speaking for a growing contingent of feminist philosophers, Young-Bruehl, hoped for the day when the life of the mind would be viewed as “conversational” and “constant[ly] interconnecting.”

For Young-Bruehl, when feminist inquiry entered the province of philosophy it promised not only a change in terms for understanding what genuine philosophy should look like, but also its entire metaphysics. Feminism sought more than to simply reverse old dualisms—female over male, body over mind. To do so would simply operate in the very schema that has for centuries blinkered philosophical inquiry. According to Young-Bruehl, it was the pressure of feminism that would ultimately transform modern philosophy from its very foundations. The presence of feminist thinkers hammering in this “philosophical bedrock,” she argued, was intensifying the “crisis known as ‘the end of metaphysics.'”

Young-Bruehl articulated this critique in the pages of Signs, one of the many new venues for an emergent “feminist epistemology” defining itself against the authority and knowledge-claims of what another feminist philosopher called the “Man of Professional Wisdom.” The effort to reassess “knowing” was fought on multiple fronts. In psychology, Carol Gilligan argued that women used “a different voice” in the ways they think about themselves and their worlds. Then, in 1986, psychologists Mary Field Belenky, Blythe McVicker Clinchy, Nancy Rule Goldberger, and Jill Mattuck Tarule published Women’s Ways of Knowing: The Development of Self, Voice, and Mind. Their study demonstrated the varieties of perspectives through which women viewed reality as well as the implications of those perspectives for the knower’s sense of self and how she negotiated her world. They identified five “ways” of knowing—silent, received, subjective, procedural, and constructed knowledge—with “received” as the most pernicious—for it makes the female knower little more than a vessel of hollow wisdom and a supplicant to “wordless authorities.”

This battle to transform epistemology—and with it, conceptions of morality—also took place along the crosscutting lines of race and gender, or, as sociologist Patricia Hill Collins called it, the dynamics of “intersecting oppressions.” In her 1990 landmark Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment, Collins sought to sketch out the collaborative as well as oppositional dimensions of black women’s ways of thinking. She argued that, for African Americans, books are repositories of only certain kinds of knowledge, but certainly not vital “wisdom.”

This distinction between knowledge and wisdom, and the use of experience as the cutting edge dividing them, has been key to black women’s survival. In the context of intersecting oppressions, the distinction is essential. Knowledge without wisdom is adequate for the powerful, but wisdom is essential to the survival of the subordinate.

Female epistemologists from psychology as well as philosophy revealed some of the important functions of “wisdom” at this time. It was used to parse truth-claims and to assess the methodologies for doing so. For feminist epistemologists, like so many other feminist commentators at the time, “wisdom” was also a fighting word.

But a funny thing happed on the way to a reconstituted conception of wisdom. Just as feminists in the 1970s and ’80s were cracking open space for a few Sophias, Minervas, and Eves, an army of kinder, gentler Iron Johns, Animuses, and Solomons rushed in to reclaim wisdom. The early 1990s witnessed a rally of male moralists, nostalgic for the very strong, stable, solitary, self-overcoming selves that female critics found so suspect.

Instead of listening for silences, this new fraternity of wisdom-seekers told stories. In 1990, Robert Bly reworked Grimm’s fairy tale “Der Eisenhans” to retrieve American culture’s lost “wild men”—nurturing but authoritative fathers and mentors to bring up (male) babies, and thus rear better men. That same year, Jungian psychologist Robert Moore and mythologist Douglas Gillette turned to narratives of male rituals to reclaim the lost promise of archetypal masculinities in their bestselling King, Warrior, Magician, Lover. And in 1993, William J. Bennett sought to redirect the modernist path to wisdom through his “treasury of great moral stories” in The Book of Virtues. For lessons on responsibility, self-discipline, and perseverance, Bennett recommended Robert Louis Stevenson, Aesop, and the Bible. His compendium of fairy tales and myths sought to counteract the emergent culture (as C.S. Lewis put it) of “Men Without Chests,” offering (as Thucydides’s Pericles put it) “wisdom without effeminacy.”

And here we are, in 2015, with David Brooks encouraging us to see that wisdom lies in recognizing the “crooked timber” of our humanity. He is probably correct. But he, and those eager to follow his wisdom, would do well to recognize that the path to his new sin-inflected wisdom is not crooked but leads straight back to the kind of latte-sipping, drum banging, sensitive New Age guy he parodied fifteen years earlier in his Bobos in Paradise. This path circumnavigates earlier feminists’ challenges to claims of wisdom predicated on problematic notions of human subjectivity, authority, and agency. They had shown that, when we speak in the first person, we speak with multiple voices, and sometimes the voice of a culture unable or unwilling to see us. In light of their criticisms, Brooks’s earnest advocacy of Adam II is an ideal type unbecoming of enlightened Americans in 2015. On the contrary, earlier feminists show the lost promise of the unreconstructed Eve. Perhaps it is now time to take (re)new(ed) interest in the wisdom of the second sex, and to dispense with the 2.0 version of the first.

Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen is the Merle Curti Associate Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the author of American Nietzsche: A History of an Icon and His Ideas (University of Chicago, 2012).

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